“Torching the Dusties”
is the last story in Margaret Atwood’s book of
“nine wicked tales” called “Stone Mattress.”
This extract is reproduced by kind permission of the author and
With the permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of O. W. Toad Ltd
© O. W. Toad Ltd, 2014
The little people are climbing up the nightstand. Today they’re wearing green: the women in pannier overskirts, broad-brimmed velvet hats, and square-cut bodices shimmering with beads, the men in satin knickerbockers and buckled shoes, with bunches of ribbons fluttering from their shoulders and outsized bird plumes decorating the tri-corns. They have no respect for historical accuracy, these people. It’s as if some bored theatrical costume designer got drunk behind the scenes and raided the storage boxes: an early Tudor neckline here, a gondolier’s jacket there, a Harlequin outfit over there. Wilma has to admire the slapdash abandon.
Up they come, hand over hand. Once level with her eyes, they link arms and dance, gracefully enough considering the obstacles in their way: the night light, the jeweller’s loupe sent by her daughter Alyson – a kind gesture but not very helpful – the e-reader that magnifies type. Gone with the Wind is the book she’s struggling with at the moment. She’s luck if she can grope her way through a single page in fifteen minutes, though happily she can remember the main parts from the first time she read it. Maybe that’s where the green fabrics on the tiny folk have come from: those famous velvet curtains that headstrong Scarlett sewed into a gown to disguise herself as respectable.
The little people twirl about the skirts of the women billowing. They’re in a good mood today: they nod at one another, they smile, they open and close their mouths as if they’re speaking.
Wilma’s fully aware that these apparitions aren’t real. They’re only symptoms: Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, common enough at her age, especially in those with eye problems. She’s fortunate, because her manifestations – her Chuckies, as Dr. Prasad calls them – are mostly benign. Only rarely do these people scowl, or swell out of proportion, or dissolve into fragments. Even when they’re angry or sullen, their fits of ill temper surely can’t have anything to do with her, since the little folk never acknowledge her; which is also – says the doctor – par for the course.’