Margaret Atwood

The Circle Game

i The children on the lawn joined hand to hand go round and round each arm going into the next arm, around full circle until it comes back into each of the single bodies again They are singing, but not to each other: their feet move almost in time to the singing We can see the concentration on their faces, their eyes fixed on the empty moving spaces just in front of them. We might mistake this tranced moving for joy but there is no joy in it We can see (arm in arm) as we watch them go round and round intent, almost studious (the grass underfoot ignored, the trees circling the lawn ignored, the lake ignored) that the whole point for them of going round and round is (faster slower) going round and round ii Being with you here, in this room is like groping through a mirror whose glass has melted to the consistency of gelatin You refuse to be (and I) an exact reflection, yet will not walk from the glass, be separate. Anyway, it is right that they have put so many mirrors here (chipped, hung crooked) in this room with its high transom and empty wardrobe; even the back of the door has one. There are people in the next room arguing, opening and closing drawers (the walls are thin) You look past me, listening to them, perhaps, or watching your own reflection somewhere behind my head, over my shoulder You shift, and the bed sags under us, losing its focus there is someone in the next room there is always (your face remote, listening) someone in the next room. iii However, in all their games there seems to be some reason however abstract they at first appear When we read them legends in the evening of monstrous battles, and secret betrayals in the forest and brutal deaths, they scarcely listened; one yawned and fidgeted; another chewed the wooden handle of a hammer; the youngest one examined a slight cut on his toe, and we wondered how they could remain completely without fear or even interest as the final sword slid through the dying hero. The next night walking along the beach we found the trenches they had been making: fortified with pointed sticks driven into the sides of their sand moats and a lake-enclosed island with no bridges: a last attempt (however eroded by the water in an hour) to make maybe, a refuge human and secure from the reach of whatever walks along (sword hearted) these night beaches. iv Returning to the room: I notice how all your word- plays, calculated ploys of the body, the witticisms of touch, are now attempts to keep me at a certain distance and (at length) avoid admitting I am here I watch you watching my face indifferently yet with the same taut curiosity with which you might regard a suddenly discovered part of your own body: a wart perhaps, and I remember that you said in childhood you were a tracer of maps (not making but) moving a pen or a forefinger over the courses of the rivers, the different colours that mark the rise of mountains; a memorizer of names (to hold these places in their proper places) So now you trace me like a country’s boundary or a strange new wrinkle in your own wellknown skin and I am fixed, stuck down on the outspread map of this room, of your mind’s continent (here and yet not here, like the wardrobe and the mirrors the voices through the wall your body ignored on the bed), transfixed by your eyes’ cold blue thumbtacks v The children like the block of grey stone that was once a fort but now is a museum: especially they like the guns and the armour brought from other times and countries and when they go home their drawings will be full for some days, of swords archaic sunburst maces broken spears and vivid red explosions. While they explore the cannons (they aren’t our children) we walk outside along the earthworks, noting how they are crumbling under the unceasing attacks of feet and flower roots; The weapons that were once outside sharpening themselves on war are now indoors there, in the fortress, fragile in glass cases; Why is it (I’m thinking of the careful moulding round the stonework archways) that in this time, such elaborate defences keep things that are no longer (much) worth defending? vi And you play the safe game the orphan game the ragged winter game that says, I am alone (hungry: I know you want me to play it also) the game of the waif who stands at every picture window, shivering, pinched nose pressed against the glass, the snow collecting on his neck, watching the happy families (a game of envy) Yet he despises them: they are so Victorian Christmas-card: the cheap paper shows under the pigments of their cheerful fire- places and satin- ribboned suburban laughter and they have their own forms of parlour games: father and mother playing father and mother He’s glad to be left out by himself in the cold (hugging himself). When I tell you this, you say (with a smile fake as a tinsel icicle): You do it too. Which in some ways is a lie, but also I suppose is right, as usual: although I tend to pose in other seasons outside other windows. vii Summer again; in the mirrors of this room the children wheel, singing the same song; This casual bed scruffy as dry turf, the counterpane rumpled with small burrows, is their grassy lawn and these scuffed walls contain their circling trees, that low clogged sink their lake (a wasp comes, drawn by the piece of sandwich left on the nearby beach (how carefully you do such details); one of the children flinches but won’t let go) You make them turn and turn, according to the closed rules of your games, but there is no joy in it and as we lie arm in arm, neither joined nor separate (your observations change me to a spineless woman in a cage of bones, obsolete fort pulled inside out), our lips moving almost in time to their singing, listening to the opening and closing of the drawers in the next room (of course there is always danger but where would you locate it) (the children spin a round cage of glass from the warm air with their thread-thin insect voices) and as we lie here, caught in the monotony of wandering from room to room, shifting the place of our defences, I want to break these bones, your prisoning rhythms (winter, summer) all the glass cases, erase all maps, crack the protecting eggshell of your turning singing children: I want the circle broken.

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