On the white beach, ground-up coral and broken bones, a group of the children
are walking. They must have been swimming, they're still wet and glistening.
They should be more careful: who knows what may infest the lagoon? But
they're unwary; unlike Snowman, who won't dip a toe in there even at night,
when the sun can't get at him. Revision: especially at night.
He watches them with envy, or is it nostalgia? It can't be that: he never
swam in the sea as a child, never ran around on a beach without any clothes
on. The children scan the terrain, stoop, pick up flotsam; then they deliberate
among themselves, keeping some items, discarding others; their treasures
go into a torn sack. Sooner or later - he can count on it - they'll seek
him out where he sits wrapped in his decaying sheet, hugging his shins
and sucking on his mango, in under the shade of the trees because of the
punishing sun. For the children - thick-skinned, resistant to ultraviolet
- he's a creature of dimness, of the dusk.
Here they come now. "Snowman, oh Snowman," they chant in their singsong
way. They never stand too close to him. Is that from respect, as he'd
like to think, or because he stinks?
(He does stink, he knows that well enough. He's rank, he's gamy, he reeks
like a walrus - oily, salty, fishy - not that he's ever smelled such a
beast. But he's seen pictures.)
Opening up their sack, the children chorus, "Oh Snowman, what have we
found?" They lift out the objects, hold them up as if offering them for
sale: a hubcap, a piano key, a chunk of pale-green pop bottle smoothed
by the ocean. A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket
O'Nubbins, ditto. A computer mouse, or the busted remains of one, with
a long wiry tail.
Snowman feels like weeping. What can he tell them? There's no way of explaining
to them what these curious items are, or were. But surely they've guessed
what he'll say, because it's always the same.
"These are things from before." He keeps his voice kindly but remote.
A cross between pedagogue, soothsayer, and benevolent uncle - that should
be his tone.
"Will they hurt us?" Sometimes they find tins of motor oil, caustic solvents,
plastic bottles of bleach. Booby traps from the past. He's considered
to be an expert on potential accidents: scalding liquids, sickening fumes,
poison dust. Pain of odd kinds.
"These, no," he says. "These are safe." At this they lose interest, let
the sack dangle. But they don't go away: they stand, they stare. Their
beachcombing is an excuse. Mostly they want to look at him, because he's
so unlike them. Every so often they ask him to take off his sunglasses
and put them on again: they want to see whether he has two eyes really,
"Snowman, oh Snowman," they're singing, less to him than to one another.
To them his name is just two syllables. They don't know what a snowman
is, they've never seen snow.
It was one of Crake's rules that no name could be chosen for which a physical
equivalent - even stuffed, even skeletal - could not be demonstrated.
No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks. But those rules
no longer apply, and it's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adopt this
dubious label. The Abominable Snowman - existing and not existing, flickering
at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive,
known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints.
Mountain tribes were said to have chased it down and killed it when they
had the chance. They were said to have boiled it, roasted it, held special
feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering on cannibalism.
For present purposes he's shortened the name. He's only Snowman. He's
kept the abominable to himself, his own secret hair shirt.
After a few moments of hesitation the children squat down in a half-circle,
boys and girls together. A couple of the younger ones are still munching
on their breakfasts, the green juice running down their chins. It's discouraging
how grubby everyone gets without mirrors. Still, they're amazingly attractive,
these children - each one naked, each one perfect, each one a different
skin colour - chocolate, rose, tea, butter, cream, honey - but each with
green eyes. Crake's aesthetic.
They're gazing at Snowman expectantly. They must be hoping he'll talk
to them, but he isn't in the mood for it today. At the very most he might
let them see his sunglasses, up close, or his shiny, dysfunctional watch,
or his baseball cap. They like the cap, but don't understand his need
for such a thing - removable hair that isn't hair - and he hasn't yet
invented a fiction for it.
They're quiet for a bit, staring, ruminating, but then the oldest one
starts up. "Oh Snowman, please tell us - what is that moss growing out
of your face?" The others chime in. "Please tell us, please tell us!"
No nudging, no giggling: the question is serious.
"Feathers," he says.
They ask this question at least once a week. He gives the same answer.
Even over such a short time - two months, three? He's lost count - they've
accumulated a stock of lore, of conjecture about him: Snowman was once
a bird but he's forgotten how to fly and the rest of his feathers fell
out, and so he is cold and he needs a second skin, and he has to wrap
himself up. No: he's cold because he eats fish, and fish are cold. No:
he wraps himself up because he's missing his man thing, and he doesn't
want us to see. That's why he won't go swimming. Snowman has wrinkles
because he once lived underwater and it wrinkled up his skin. Snowman
is sad because the others like him flew away over the sea, and now he
is all alone.
"I want feathers too," says the youngest. A vain hope: no beards on the
men, among the Children of Crake. Crake himself had found beards irrational;
also he'd been irritated by the task of shaving, so he'd abolished the
need for it. Though not of course for Snowman: too late for him.
Now they all begin at once. "Oh Snowman, oh Snowman, can we have feathers
"No," he says.
"Why not, why not?" sing the two smallest ones.
"Just a minute, I'll ask Crake." He holds his watch up to the sky, turns
it around on his wrist, then puts it to his ear as if listening to it.
They follow each motion, enthralled. "No," he says. "Crake says you can't.
No feathers for you. Now piss off."
"Piss off? Piss off?" They look at one another, then at him. He's made
a mistake, he's said a new thing, one that's impossible to explain. Piss
isn't something they'd find insulting. "What is piss off?"
"Go away!" He flaps his sheet at them and they scatter, running along
the beach. They're still not sure whether to be afraid of him, or how
afraid. He hasn't been known to harm a child, but his nature is not fully
understood. There's no telling what he might do.
"Now I'm alone," he says out loud. "All, all alone. Alone on a wide, wide
sea." One more scrap from the burning scrapbook in his head.
He feels the need to hear a human voice - a fully human voice, like his
own. Sometimes he laughs like a hyena or roars like a lion - his idea
of a hyena, his idea of a lion. He used to watch old dvds of such creatures
when he was a child: those animal-behaviour programs featuring copulation
and growling and innards, and mothers licking their young. Why had he
found them so reassuring?
Or he grunts and squeals like a pigoon, or howls like a wolvog: Aroo!
Aroo! Sometimes in the dusk he runs up and down on the sand, flinging
stones at the ocean and screaming, Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! He feels
He stands up and raises his arms to stretch, and his sheet falls off.
He looks down at his body with dismay: the grimy, bug-bitten skin, the
salt-and-pepper tufts of hair, the thickening yellow toenails. Naked as
the day he was born, not that he can remember a thing about that. So many
crucial events take place behind people's backs, when they aren't in a
position to watch: birth and death, for instance. And the temporary oblivion
"Don't even think about it," he tells himself. Sex is like drink, it's
bad to start brooding about it too early in the day.
He used to take good care of himself; he used to run, work out at the
gym. Now he can see his own ribs: he's wasting away. Not enough animal
protein. A woman's voice says caressingly in his ear, Nice buns! It isn't
Oryx, it's some other woman. Oryx is no longer very talkative.
"Say anything," he implores her. She can hear him, he needs to believe
that, but she's giving him the silent treatment. "What can I do?" he asks
her. "You know I . . ."
Oh, nice abs! comes the whisper, interrupting him. Honey, just lie back.
Who is it? Some tart he once bought. Revision, professional sex-skills
expert. A trapeze artist, rubber spine, spangles glued onto her like the
scales of a fish. He hates these echoes. Saints used to hear them, crazed
lice-infested hermits in their caves and deserts. Pretty soon he'll be
seeing beautiful demons, beckoning to him, licking their lips, with red-hot
nipples and flickering pink tongues. Mermaids will rise from the waves,
out there beyond the crumbling towers, and he'll hear their lovely singing
and swim out to them and be eaten by sharks. Creatures with the heads
and breasts of women and the talons of eagles will swoop down on him,
and he'll open his arms to them, and that will be the end. Brainfrizz.
Or worse, some girl he knows, or knew, will come walking towards him through
the trees, and she'll be happy to see him but she'll be made of air. He'd
welcome even that, for the company.
He scans the horizon, using his one sunglassed eye: nothing. The sea is
hot metal, the sky a bleached blue, except for the hole burnt in it by
the sun. Everything is so empty. Water, sand, sky, trees, fragments of
past time. Nobody to hear him.
"Crake!" he yells. "Asshole! Shit-for-brains!"
He listens. The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows
when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in
gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest - clench, release,
clench. Senseless panic.
"You did this!" he screams at the ocean.
No answer, which isn't surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash.
He wipes his fist across his face, across the grime and tears and snot
and the derelict's whiskers and sticky mango juice. "Snowman, Snowman,"
he says. "Get a life."
Excerpted from Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Copyrightę 2003 by Margaret Atwood. Excerpted by permission of Nan A.
Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part
of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.