Monthly Archives: January 2010

Orphan Stories by Margaret Atwood

i) how swiftly the orphans set sail! no sooner does the starting gun fire than they’re flying! their yachts are slimmer, their lines trimmer than ours – than our stodgy barges. they drag no anchors, they haul no ballast, they toss all baggage overboard, and the one flag they ever hoist is blank. no wonder they pull out of the bay ahead of the rest, no wonder they round the cape so briskly! but what now? they won’t stay on bourse, they won’t play by the well-wrought rules, they despise the prize. they’re headed for the open sea. they’re sailing into the sun. they’re gone.

ii) orphans have bad experiences: in barns, in cellars, in automobiles, in woodsheds, in vacant fields, in empty classrooms. it’s because they’re so tempting. it’s because they’re so damaged. it’s because they’re so scrawny. it’s because they’re so easily broken. it’s because they’re so available. it’s because they’re so erotic. it’s because no one will believe what they say.

iii) the orphans line up for their gruel. all kinds of orphans – car-crash orphans, boat-accident orphans, heart-attack orphans, unwed-mother orphans, war orphans – for all of these gruel is provided, out of the goodness of our hearts. they don’t get much, a dollop here, a dollop there, but such is the way, in orphanages. they wait for ther dollops, standing quietly in their cheap grey uniforms, provided by us as well. how kind we are, how virtuous we feel! one day the orphans start banging with their cheap tin spoons, on their cheap tin plates. they’ve been told to be thankful, to be grateful, not to be greedy, but they want more. they want more and more and more. they want what we have! how dare they? how dare they brandish their hunger at us like a sword?

iv) what are their names? names are arbitrary, but orphans’ names are more arbitrary than most. they make up their names as they go along. call me ishmael, they say. or else: call me ishmael, but call me often. or else: don’t call me ishmael, call me anonymous. call me no-name. call me in vain. orphans are such flirts, they’ll hook up with anyone, then they tear up their phone books, they discard at random. they show no mercy.

v) you’re not my real parents, every child has thought. i’m not your real child. but with orphans, it’s true. what freedom, to thumb your nose authentically! for orphans, all roads are open. for orphans, all roads are the one not chosen. for orphans, all roads are necessary. how can they be kicked out of home? they’re out of home already. they hitch through life, one casual ride after another. their rule is the rule of thumb.

vi) on the other hand how sad, to make your way like a snail, a very fast snail but a snail nonetheless, with no home but the one on your back and that home an empty shell. a home filled with nothing but yourself. it’s heavy, that lightness. it’s crushing, that emptiness.

vii) but what love they inspire, these orphans! little orphan babies left in shopping bags, on doorsteps, in the cold. little orphan babies left in baskets, under cabbage leaves, by birds, by cupids, by gnomes. folks line up for them, cross-eyed with pity, money in their pockets, damp handkerchiefs in their fists, rescue in their minds, blankets in their knapsacks, warm arms open, waiting to gather them in. where did you come from, baby dear? out of the darkness. out of the fear.

viii) nevertheless, we’re warned against them, these orphans. they’re sly, they’re shifty. how do you know anything about them? who were their people? bar the doors, hide the silver! if you find a baby in the bulrushes, leave it there! don’t invite the orphans over your threshold! they’ll cut your throat for a penny, they’ll run off with your daughter, they’ll seduce your son, they’ll wreck your home, because home is where the heart is and the orphans are heartless.

ix) no, you’ve got it wrong. its the other way around. the orphans are not the stealers but the stolen: they are not the killers but the killed. you can tell where the orphans have wandered by the trails they leave: breadcrumbs in the forest, drops of blood, tears that have turned into small white mushrooms, small piles of fragile bones among the roots and moss. read the statistics: their changes are not good. their stepmothers demand their tongues on a plate: their fathers have skipped town: their uncles send villains with pillows to smother them in their sleep. it’s only in books – and only some books – that a generous benefactor appears in the nick of time to save the orphans from the forces of malice ranged against them. what are these forces? look into the magic mirror, sweet reader. look into the deep still wishing well. ask yourself.

x) it’s a good excuse, though, orphanhood. it explains everything – every mistake and wrong turn. as sherlock holmes declared, she had no mother to advise her. how we long for it, that lack of advice! imprudence could have been ours. passionate affairs. reckless adventures. of course we’re grateful for our stable upbringings, our hordes of informative relatives, our fleece-lined advantages, our lack of dramatic plots. but there’s a corner of envy in all of us the same. why doesn’t anything of interest happen to us, coddled as we are? why do the orphans get all the good lines?

xi) now the letters will arrive, from orphans. how could you treat orphanhood so lightly! they will say. you don’t understand what it’s like to be an orphan. you are the sort of person who jeers at those with no legs. you are frivolous and cruel. you are harsh. ah, yes, dear orphans. i can see how you would feel that way. but to note is not to disparage. all obeservations of life are harsh, because life is. i lament the fact but i cannot change it.

(and consider: it is loss to which everything flows, absence in which everything flowers. it is you, not we, who have always been the children of the gods).