Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood: Lusus Naturae

Stone Mattress

Lusus Naturae is narrated by a girl who turns grotesque at the age of seven. Little girl’s family – members of almost high society who are terrified and chagrined of what her appearance would mean to their status – brings in a doctor from a far away land to restore her looks, only to have her decreed a freak of nature.

Fed with bread, potatoes, and a cup of blood everyday, poor ‘monster’ keeps herself confined to her room in day light and roams around only at night with the company of her cat. But that’s not enough to keep the prying neighbours away, so the family is left with a difficult decision to make.

It was decided that I should die. That way I would not stand in the way of my sister, I would not loom over her like a fate. “Better one happy than both miserable,” said my grandmother, who had taken to sticking garlic cloves around my door frame. I agreed to this plan, I wanted to be helpful.

The family fakes her death, and not long after that her sister marries off well climbing up the social ladder, while she is spends her days withdrawn in her ‘former room’ reading Pushkin, Lord Byron and John Keats.

Time passes by, and now with both her father and grandmother dead, her mother is left to take care of her. That is when a stranger makes an offer to buy the farm.

“Do it,” I told her. By now my voice was sort of growl. “I’ll vacate my room. There’s a place I can stay.” She was grateful, poor soul. She had an attachment to me, as if to a hangnail, a wart: I was hers. But she was glad to be rid of me. She’d done enough duty for a lifetime.

I wonder if it is the frenzy over vampires that drove Margaret Atwood to write this story. Even so, her story has depth. She talks of human imperfection through the characters of the family members and explores the circumstances under which they made resolutions that affect the family’s ‘misfit’. Finally, she questions the perceptions of beauty, quite eloquently so with these lines.

Perhaps in Heaven I’ll look like an angel. Or the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be, for everyone else! It’s something to look forward to.

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