This is one of my top favorite five books of all time, which is saying something. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is more than a book; it’s like living another life.
It is winter.
The heat goes off, comes on again, goes off, at random. Sarah has a cold. She coughs at night and I get up for her, feeding her spoonfuls of cough syrup, bringing her drinks of water. In the daytime we are both exhausted.
I am sick a lot myself this winter. I get her colds. I lie in bed on weekend mornings, looking up at the ceiling, my head clogged and cottony. I want glasses of ginger ale, squeezed orange juice, the sound of distant radios. But these things are gone forever, nothing arrives on a tray. If I want ginger ale I’ll have to go to the store or the kitchen, buy it or pour it myself. In the main room Sarah watches cartoons.
I don’t paint at all any more. I can’t think about painting. Although I’ve received a junior grant from a government arts program, I can’t organize myself enough to lift a brush. I push myself through time, to work, to the bank to get money, to the supermarket to buy food. Sometimes I watch daytime soaps on television, where there are more crises and better clothes than in real life. I tend to Sarah.
I don’t do anything else. I no longer go to the meetings of women, because they make me feel worse. Jody phones and says we should get together, but I put her off. She would jolly me along, make bracing and positive suggestions I know I can’t live up to. Then I would only feel more like a failure.
I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.
One night Jon does not come back. This is not usual, it isn’t our silent agreement: even when he stays out late he is always in by midnight. We haven’t had a fight this day; we’ve hardly spoken. He hasn’t phoned to say where he is. His intention is clear: he has left me behind, in the cold.
I crouch in the bedroom, in the dark, wrapped in Jon’s old sleeping bag, listening to the wheezing sound of Sarah breathing and the whisper of sleet against the window. Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It’s like the tide going out, revealing whatever’s been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future. The ruin you’ve made.
My body is inert, without will. I think I should keep moving, to circulate my blood, as you are supposed to do in a snowstorm so you won’t feeze to death. I force myself to stand up. I will go to the kitchen and make tea.
Outside the house a car slides by, through the mushy snow, a muffled rushing. The main room is dark, except for the light coming in from the lampposts on the street, through the window. The things on Jon’s work table glint in this half-light: the flat blade of a chisel, the head of a hammer. I can feel the pull of the earth on me, the dragging of its dark curve of gravity, the spaces between the atoms you could fall so easily through.
This is when I hear the voice, not inside my head at all but in the room, clearly: Do it. Come on. Do it. This voice doesn’t offer a choice; it has the force of an order. It’s the difference between jumping and being pushed.
The Exacto knife is what I use, to make a slash. It doesn’t even hurt, because right after that there’s a whispering sound and space closes in and I’m on the floor. This is how Jon finds me. Blood is black in the darkness, it does not reflect, so he doesn’t see until he turns on the light.
I tell the people at Emergency that it was an accident. I am a painter, I say. I was cutting canvas and my hand slipped. It’s my left wrist, so this is plausible. I’m frightened, I want to hide the truth: I have no intention of being stuffed into 999 Queen Street, now or ever.
“In the middle of the night?” the doctor says.
“I often work at night,” I say.
Jon backs me up. He’s just as scared as I am. He tied my wrist up in a tea towel and drove me to the hospital. I leaked through the towel, onto the front seat.
“Sarah,” I said, remembering her.
“She’s downstairs,” Jon said. Downstairs is the landlady, a middle-aged Italian widow.
“What did you tell her?” I asked.
“I said it was your appendix,” Jon said. I laughed, a little. “What the hell got into you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You’ll have to get this car cleaned.” I felt white, drained of blood, cared for, purified. Peaceful.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to someone?” the doctor in Emergency says.
“I’m fine now,” I say. The last thing I want to do is talking. I know what he means by someone: a shrink. Someone who will tell me I’m nuts. I know what kind of people hear voices: people who drink too much, who fry their brains with drugs, who slip off the rails. I feel entirely steady, I’m not even anxious anymore. I’ve already decided what I will do, afterward, tomorrow. I’ll wear my arm in a sling and say I broke my wrist. So I don’t have to tell him, or Jon, or anyone else, about the voice.
I know it wasn’t really there. Also I know I heard it.
It wasn’t a frightening voice, in itself. Not menacing but excited, as if proposing an escapade, a prank, a treat. Something treasured, and secret. The voice of a nine-year-old child.