Offred is aHandmaid in theRepublic ofGilead. Shemay leave thehome of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to foodmarkets whose signs are now pictures instead of words becausewomenarenolongerallowedtoread.ShemustlieonherbackonceamonthandpraythattheCommandermakesherpregnant,becauseinanageofdecliningbirths,OffredandtheotherHandmaidsarevaluedonlyiftheirovariesareviable.Offredcanremembertheyearsbefore,when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when sheplayedwithandprotectedherdaughter;whenshehadajob,moneyofherown,andaccesstoknowledge.Butallofthatisgonenow…
Wesleptinwhathadoncebeenthegymnasium.Thefloorwasofvarnishedwood,withstripesandcirclespaintedonit,forthegamesthatwereformerlyplayedthere;thehoopsforthebasketballnetswerestillinplace,thoughthenets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and IthoughtIcouldsmell,faintlylikeanafterimage,thepungentscentofsweat,shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from thewatchinggirls,felt-skirtedasIknewfrompictures, laterinmini-skirts, thenpants,theninoneearring,spikygreen-streakedhair.Danceswouldhavebeenheld there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style uponstyle,anundercurrentofdrums,aforlornwail,garlandsmadeoftissue-paperflowers,cardboarddevils,arevolvingballofmirrors,powderingthedancerswithasnowoflight.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, ofsomethingwithoutashapeorname.Irememberthatyearning,forsomethingthatwas always about to happen andwasnever the same as thehands thatwereonusthereandthen,inthesmalloftheback,oroutback,intheparkinglot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only thepicturesflickeringoverliftingflesh.
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent forinsatiability?Itwasintheair;anditwasstillintheair,anafterthought,aswetried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spacesbetweensowecouldnottalk.Wehadflannelettesheets,likechildren’s,andarmy-issueblankets,oldonesthatstillsaidu.s.Wefoldedourclothesneatlyand laid themon the stools at the ends of the beds.The lightswere turneddownbutnotout.AuntSaraandAuntElizabethpatrolled; theyhadelectriccattleprodsslungonthongsfromtheirleatherbelts.
the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren’t allowedinside thebuildingexceptwhencalled, andweweren’t allowedout, exceptfor ourwalks, twice daily, twoby two around the football fieldwhichwasenclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Angelsstoodoutsideitwiththeirbackstous.Theywereobjectsoffeartous,butofsomethingelseaswell.Ifonlytheywouldlook.Ifonlywecouldtalktothem.Somethingcouldbeexchanged,wethought,somedealmade,sometrade-off,westillhadourbodies.Thatwasourfantasy.
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkness wecouldstretchoutourarms,whentheAuntsweren’t looking,andtoucheachother’shandsacrossspace.Welearnedtolip-read,ourheadsflatonthebeds,turned sideways, watching each other’smouths. In this waywe exchangednames,frombedtobed:
Achair,a table,a lamp.Above,on thewhiteceiling,a reliefornament intheshapeofawreath,andinthecentreofitablankspace,plasteredover,liketheplaceinafacewheretheeyehasbeentakenout.Theremusthavebeenachandelier,once.They’veremovedanythingyoucouldtiearopeto.
Awindow,twowhitecurtains.Underthewindow,awindowseatwithalittlecushion.Whenthewindowispartlyopen–itonlyopenspartly–theaircan come in andmake the curtainsmove. I can sit in the chair, or on thewindow seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through thewindowtoo,andfallsonthefloor,whichismadeofwood,innarrowstrips,highly polished. I can smell the polish. There’s a rug on the floor, oval, ofbraided rags.This is thekindof touch they like: folk art, archaic,madebywomen,intheirsparetime,fromthingsthathavenofurtheruse.Areturntotraditionalvalues.Wastenotwantnot.Iamnotbeingwasted.WhydoIwant?
Onthewallabovethechair,apicture,framedbutwithnoglass:aprintofflowers,blue irises,watercolour.Flowers are still allowed.Does eachofushave the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder?Governmentissue?
A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked whitespread.Nothingtakesplaceinthebedbutsleep;ornosleep.Itrynottothinktoomuch.Likeotherthingsnow,thoughtmustberationed.There’salotthatdoesn’tbearthinkingabout.Thinkingcanhurtyourchances,andIintendtolast.Iknowwhythereisnoglass,infrontofthewatercolourpictureofblueirises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass in it isshatterproof.Itisn’trunningawaythey’reafraidof.Wewouldn’tgetfar.It’sthoseotherescapes,theonesyoucanopeninyourself,givenacuttingedge.
So.Apart fromthesedetails, thiscouldbeacollegeguest room, for the
Butachair,sunlight,flowers:thesearenottobedismissed.Iamalive,Ilive,Ibreathe,Iputmyhandout,unfolded,intothesunlight.WhereIamisnot a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love witheither/or.
The bell thatmeasures time is ringing. Time here ismeasured by bells, asonceinnunneries.Asinanunnerytoo,therearefewmirrors.
I get upoutof the chair, advancemy feet into the sunlight, in their redshoes, flat-heeled to save the spineandnot fordancing.The redglovesarelyingonthebed.Ipickthemup,pullthemontomyhands,fingerbyfinger.Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood,whichdefinesus.Theskirt isankle-length, full,gathered toa flatyoke thatextends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too areprescribedissue;theyaretokeepusfromseeing,butalsofrombeingseen.Inever lookedgoodinred, it’snotmycolour.Ipickuptheshoppingbasket,putitovermyarm.
Thedooroftheroom–notmyroom,Irefusetosaymy–isnotlocked.Infact itdoesn’tshutproperly.Igoout intothepolishedhallway,whichhasarunner down the centre, dusty pink. Like a path through the forest, like acarpetforroyalty,itshowsmetheway.
ThecarpetbendsandgoesdownthefrontstaircaseandIgowithit,onehandonthebanister,onceatree,turnedinanothercentury,rubbedtoawarmgloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house, built for a large richfamily.There’sagrandfatherclockinthehallway,whichdolesouttime,andthenthedoortothemotherlyfrontsittingroom,withitsfleshtonesandhints.AsittingroominwhichIneversit,butstandorkneelonly.Attheendofthehallway,abovethefrontdoor,isafanlightofcolouredglass:flowers,redandblue.
There remains amirror, on the hall wall. If I turnmy head so that thewhitewingsframingmyfacedirectmyvisiontowardsit,IcanseeitasIgodownthestairs,round,convex,apier-glass,liketheeyeofafish,andmyselfinitlikeadistortedshadow,aparodyofsomething,somefairytalefigureinaredcloak,descending towardsamomentofcarelessness that is thesameasdanger.ASister,dippedinblood.
Atthebottomofthestairsthere’sahat-and-umbrellastand,thebentwoodkind, longroundedrungsofwoodcurvinggentlyup intohooksshaped liketheopeningfrondsofafern.Thereareseveralumbrellasinit:black,fortheCommander, blue, for theCommander’sWife, and the one assigned tome,which is red. I leave the redumbrellawhere it is,because Iknowfrom thewindow that the day is sunny. I wonder whether or not the Commander’sWifeisinthesittingroom.Shedoesn’talwayssit.SometimesIcanhearherpacingbackandforth,aheavystepandthenalightone,andthesofttapofhercaneonthedusty-rosecarpet.
Iwalkalong thehallway,past thesitting-roomdoorand thedoor that leadsintothediningroom,andopenthedoorattheendofthehallandgothroughinto the kitchen. Here the smell is no longer of furniture polish. Rita is inhere,standingatthekitchentable,whichhasatopofchippedwhiteenamel.She’sinherusualMartha’sdress,whichisdullgreen,likeasurgeon’sgownofthetimebefore.Thedressismuchlikemineinshape,longandconcealing,butwithabibapronoveritandwithoutthewhitewingsandtheveil.Sheputsthe veil on to go outside, but nobody much cares who sees the face of aMartha.Hersleevesarerolledtotheelbow,showingherbrownarms.She’smakingbread, throwing the loaves for the finalbriefkneadingand then theshaping.
Ritaseesmeandnods,whetheringreetingorinsimpleacknowledgementofmypresenceit’shardtosay,andwipesherflouryhandsonherapronandrummagesinthekitchendrawerforthetokenbook.Frowning,shetearsoutthree tokens andhands them tome.Her facemight bekindly if shewouldsmile.Butthefrownisn’tpersonal:it’sthereddressshedisapprovesof,andwhatitstandsfor.ShethinksImaybecatching,likeadiseaseoranyformofbadluck.
With theUnwomen, and starve todeath andLordknowswhat all? saidCora.Catchyou.
the light clink of the hard peas falling into themetal bowl. I heardRita, agruntorasigh,ofprotestoragreement.
Betterherthanme,Ritasaid,andIopenedthedoor.Theirfacesweretheway women’s faces are when they’ve been talking about you behind yourbackandtheythinkyou’veheard:embarrassed,butalsoalittledefiant,asifitwere their right. That day, Cora wasmore pleasant tome than usual, Ritamoresurly.
Today, despite Rita’s closed face and pressed lips, I would like to stayhere,inthekitchen.Coramightcomein,fromsomewhereelseinthehouse,carryingherbottleoflemonoilandherduster,andRitawouldmakecoffee–inthehousesoftheCommandersthereisstillrealcoffee–andwewouldsitatRita’skitchen table,which isnotRita’sanymore thanmy table ismine,andwewould talk,aboutachesandpains, illnesses,our feet,ourbacks,allthedifferentkindsofmischiefthatourbodies,likeunrulychildren,cangetupto.Wewouldnodourheadsaspunctuationtoeachother’svoices,signallingthatyes,weknowallaboutit.Wewouldexchangeremediesandtrytooutdoeachotherintherecitalofourphysicalmiseries;gentlywewouldcomplain,ourvoicessoftandminor-keyandmournfulaspigeonsintheeavestroughs.Iknowwhatyoumean,we’dsay.Or,aquaintexpressionyousometimeshear,still,fromolderpeople:Ihearwhereyou’recomingfrom,asifthevoiceitselfwereatraveller,arrivingfromadistantplace.Whichitwouldbe,whichitis.
Or we would gossip. The Marthas know things, they talk amongthemselves,passing theunofficialnewsfromhouse tohouse.Likeme, theylisten at doors, no doubt, and see things evenwith their eyes averted. I’veheard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations.Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the belly.Jealousy, it must have been, eating her up. Or, tantalizingly, It was toiletcleanersheused.Workedlikeacharm,thoughyou’dthinkhe’doftastedit.Must’vebeenthatdrunk;buttheyfoundheroutallright.
OrIwouldhelpRita tomakethebread,sinkingmyhandsinto thatsoftresistantwarmthwhich is somuch like flesh. I hunger to touch something,
ButevenifIweretoask,evenifIweretoviolatedecorumtothatextent,Rita would not allow it. She would be too afraid. The Marthas are notsupposedtofraternizewithus.
Fraternizemeans to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He saidtherewasnocorrespondingwordthatmeanttobehavelikeasister.Sororize,itwouldhave tobe,he said.From theLatin.He likedknowingabout suchdetails.Thederivationsofwords, curioususages. Iused to teasehimaboutbeingpedantic.
I take the tokens from Rita’s outstretched hand. They have pictures onthem,ofthethingstheycanbeexchangedfor:twelveeggs,apieceofcheese,a brown thing that’s supposed to be a steak. I place them in the zipperedpocketinmysleeve,whereIkeepmypass.
“Tell them fresh, for the eggs,” she says. “Not like the last time.Andachicken,tellthem,notahen.Tellthemwhoit’sforandthentheywon’tmessaround.”
Igooutbythebackdoor,intothegarden,whichislargeandtidy:alawninthemiddle,awillow,weepingcatkins;aroundtheedges,theflowerborders,inwhich thedaffodilsarenowfadingand the tulipsareopening theircups,spillingoutcolour.Thetulipsarered,adarkercrimsontowardsthestem,asiftheyhadbeencutandarebeginningtohealthere.
ThisgardenisthedomainoftheCommander’sWife.LookingoutthroughmyshatterproofwindowI’veoftenseenher in it,herkneesonacushion,alightblueveilthrownoverherwidegardeninghat,abasketathersidewithshearsinitandpiecesofstringfortyingtheflowersintoplace.AGuardiandetailed to theCommanderdoes theheavydigging; theCommander’sWifedirects, pointingwith her stick.Many of theWives have such gardens, it’ssomethingforthemtoorderandmaintainandcarefor.
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, theplump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seedsthrough the fingers.Timecouldpassmore swiftly thatway.Sometimes theCommander’sWifehasachairbroughtout,andjustsitsinit,inhergarden.Fromadistanceitlookslikepeace.
Sheisn’therenow,andIstarttowonderwheresheis:Idon’tliketocomeupon the Commander’s Wife unexpectedly. Perhaps she’s sewing, in thesitting room,withher left footon the footstool,becauseofher arthritis.Orknitting scarves, for the Angels at the front lines. I can hardly believe theAngels have a need for such scarves; anyway, the ones made by theCommander’sWifearetooelaborate.Shedoesn’tbotherwiththecross-and-starpatternusedbymanyof theotherWives, it’snot a challenge.Fir treesmarchalongtheendsofherscarves,oreagles,orstiffhumanoidfigures,boyandgirl,boyandgirl.Theyaren’tscarvesforgrownmenbutforchildren.
Sometimes I think these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but
unravelledandturnedbackintoballsofyarn,tobeknittedagainintheirturn.Maybe it’s just something to keep theWives busy, to give thema sense ofpurpose. But I envy theCommander’sWife her knitting. It’s good to havesmallgoalsthatcanbeeasilyattained.
Westoodfacetofaceforthefirsttimefiveweeksago,whenIarrivedatthisposting.TheGuardianfromthepreviouspostingbroughtmetothefrontdoor.Onfirstdayswearepermitted frontdoors,butafter thatwe’re supposed touse theback.Thingshaven’tsettleddown, it’s toosoon,everyone isunsureabout our exact status. After awhile it will be either all front doors or allback.
Aunt Lydia said she was lobbying for the front. Yours is a position ofhonour,shesaid.
The Guardian rang the doorbell for me, but before there was time forsomeone tohearandwalkquickly toanswer, thedooropened inwards.Shemusthavebeenwaitingbehind it. IwasexpectingaMartha,but itwasherinstead,inherlongpowder-bluerobe,unmistakeable.
So,you’re thenewone,shesaid.Shedidn’tstepaside to letme in,shejuststoodthereinthedoorway,blockingtheentrance.Shewantedmetofeelthat I could not come into the house unless she said so. There is push andshove,thesedays,oversuchtoeholds.
Leaveitontheporch.ShesaidthistotheGuardian,whowascarryingmybag.Thebagwas redvinyl andnot large.Therewas anotherbag,with thewintercloakandheavierdresses,butthatwouldbecominglater.
TheGuardian set down the bag and saluted her. Then I could hear hisfootsteps behindme, going back down thewalk, and the click of the frontgate,andIfeltasifaprotectivearmwerebeingwithdrawn.Thethresholdofanewhouseisalonelyplace.
Shewaiteduntil thecar startedupandpulledaway. Iwasn’t lookingather face, but at thepart of her I could seewithmyhead lowered: her bluewaist, thickened, her left hand on the ivory head of her cane, the large
diamondson the ring finger,whichmust oncehavebeen fine andwas stillfinely kept, the fingernail at the end of the knuckly finger filed to a gentlecurving point. It was like an ironic smile, on that finger; like somethingmockingher.
You might as well come in, she said. She turned her back on me andlimpeddownthehall.Shutthedoorbehindyou.
I lifted the red bag inside, as she’d no doubt intended, then closed thedoor. I didn’t say anything toher.AuntLydia said itwasbest not to speakunlesstheyaskedyouadirectquestion.Trytothinkofitfromtheirpointofview, she said,herhandsclaspedandwrung together, hernervouspleadingsmile.Itisn’teasyforthem.
Inhere, said theCommander’sWife.When Iwent into thesitting roomshewasalreadyinherchair,herleftfootonthefootstool,withitspetit-pointcushion,rosesinabasket.Herknittingwasonthefloorbesidethechair,theneedlesstuckthroughit.
Istoodinfrontofher,handsfolded.So,shesaid.Shehadacigarette,andsheputitbetweenherlipsandgrippedittherewhileshelitit.Herlipswerethin,heldthatway,withthesmallverticallinesaroundthemyouusedtoseein advertisements for lip cosmetics. The lighter was ivory-coloured. Thecigarettesmusthavecomefromtheblackmarket,Ithought,andthisgavemehope. Even now that there is no realmoney anymore, there’s still a blackmarket.There’salwaysablackmarket,there’salwayssomethingthatcanbeexchanged.Shethenwasawomanwhomightbendtherules.ButwhatdidIhave,totrade?
I looked at the cigarette with longing. For me, like liquor and coffee,cigarettesareforbidden.
She gavewhatmight have been a laugh, then coughed. Tough luck onhim,shesaid.Thisisyoursecond,isn’tit?
I did sit, on the edge of one of the stiff-backed chairs. I didn’twant to
starearoundtheroom,Ididn’twanttoappearinattentivetoher;sothemarblemantelpiece tomy right and themirror over it and the bunches of flowerswere just shadows, then,at theedgesofmyeyes.Later Iwouldhavemorethanenoughtimetotakethemin.
Nowherfacewasonalevelwithmine.IthoughtIrecognizedher;oratleasttherewassomethingfamiliarabouther.Alittleofherhairwasshowing,from under her veil. It was still blonde. I thought then that maybe shebleachedit,thathairdyewassomethingelseshecouldgetthroughtheblackmarket,butIknownowthatitreallyisblonde.Hereyebrowswerepluckedinto thin arched lines, which gave her a permanent look of surprise, oroutrage, or inquisitiveness, such as you might see on a startled child, butbelowthemhereyelidsweretired-looking.Notsohereyes,whichweretheflathostileblueofamidsummerskyinbrightsunlight,abluethatshutsyouout.Her nosemust once have beenwhatwas called cute but nowwas toosmall for her face. Her face was not fat but it was large. Two lines leddownwards from the corners of her mouth; between them was her chin,clenchedlikeafist.
Iwant to seeas littleofyouaspossible, she said. I expectyou feel thesamewayaboutme.
Ididn’taskwhatIwassupposedtocallher,becauseIcouldseethatshehoped I would never have the occasion to call her anything at all. I wasdisappointed.Iwanted,then,toturnherintoanoldersister,amotherlyfigure,someone who would understand and protect me. The Wife in my postingbeforethishadspentmostofhertimeinherbedroom;theMarthassaidshedrank.Iwantedthisonetobedifferent.IwantedtothinkIwouldhavelikedher, in another time and place, another life. But I could see already that Iwouldn’thavelikedher,norsheme.
Sheputhercigaretteout,half-smoked, ina little scrolledashtrayon thelamptablebesideher.Shedidthisdecisively,onejabandonegrind,notthe
Yes,Ma’am, I said again, forgetting. They used to have dolls, for littlegirls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I wassoundinglikethat,voiceofamonotone,voiceofadoll.Sheprobablylongedto slapmy face.They canhit us, there’sScriptural precedent.But notwithanyimplement.Onlywiththeirhands.
It’s one of the things we fought for, said the Commander’s Wife, andsuddenly shewasn’t lookingatme, shewas lookingdownatherknuckled,diamond-studdedhands,andIknewwhereI’dseenherbefore.
Thefirsttimewasontelevision,whenIwaseightornine.Itwaswhenmymotherwassleepingin,onSundaymornings,andIwouldgetupearlyandgoto the television set in my mother’s study and flip through the channels,lookingforcartoons.SometimeswhenIcouldn’tfindanyIwouldwatchtheGrowingSoulsGospelHour,wheretheywouldtellBiblestoriesforchildrenandsinghymns.OneofthewomenwascalledSerenaJoy.Shewastheleadsoprano. Shewas ash-blonde, petite, with a snub nose and huge blue eyeswhichshe’dturnupwardsduringhymns.Shecouldsmileandcryatthesametime,onetearortwoslidinggracefullydownhercheek,asifoncue,ashervoice lifted through itshighestnotes, tremulous, effortless. Itwas after thatshewentontootherthings.
Iwalk along thegravel path that divides theback lawn, neatly, like a hairparting.Ithasrainedduringthenight;thegrasstoeithersideisdamp,theairhumid.Hereandthereareworms,evidenceofthefertilityofthesoil,caughtbythesun,halfdead;flexibleandpink,likelips.
Iopenthewhitepicketgateandcontinue,pastthefrontlawnandtowardsthe front gate. In the driveway, one of the Guardians assigned to ourhouseholdiswashingthecar.ThatmustmeantheCommanderisinthehouse,inhisownquarters,pastthediningroomandbeyond,whereheseemstostaymostofthetime.
The car is a very expensive one, aWhirlwind; better than the Chariot,much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth. It’s black, of course, thecolourofprestigeorahearse,andlongandsleek.Thedriverisgoingoveritwith a chamois, lovingly.This at least hasn’t changed, thewaymen caressgoodcars.
He’swearingtheuniformoftheGuardians,buthiscapistiltedatajauntyangle andhis sleeves are rolled to the elbow, showinghis forearms, tannedbutwithastippleofdarkhairs.Hehasacigarettestuckinthecornerofhismouth, which shows that he too has something he can trade on the blackmarket.
I know thisman’sname:Nick. I know thisbecause I’veheardRita andCora talkingabouthim,andonce Iheard theCommander speaking tohim:Nick,Iwon’tbeneedingthecar.
He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he hasn’tbeen issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some defect, lack ofconnections.Butheactsasifhedoesn’tknowthis,orcare.He’stoocasual,he’snotservileenough.Itmaybestupidity,butIdon’tthinkso.Smellsfishy,theyusedtosay;or,Ismellarat.Misfitasodour.Despitemyself,Ithinkof
howhemightsmell.Notfishordecayingrat: tannedskin,moist inthesun,filmedwithsmoke.Isigh,inhaling.
He looks at me, and sees me looking. He has a French face, lean,whimsical, all planes and angles, with creases around themouth where hesmiles.Hetakesafinalpuffofthecigarette,letsitdroptothedriveway,andstepsonit.Hebeginstowhistle.Thenhewinks.
Perhaps hewasmerely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look onmyface and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was thecigarette.
Iopenthefrontgateandcloseitbehindme,lookingdownbutnotback.Thesidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a field of oblongs,gently undulating where the earth beneath has buckled, from decade afterdecade ofwinter frost. The colour of the bricks is old, yet fresh and clear.Sidewalksarekeptmuchcleanerthantheyusedtobe.
Iwalktothecornerandwait.Iusedtobebadatwaiting.Theyalsoservewhoonlystandandwait,saidAuntLydia.Shemadeusmemorizeit.Shealsosaid,Notallofyouwillmakeitthrough.Someofyouwillfallondrygroundor thorns.Someofyouareshallow-rooted.Shehadamoleonherchinthatwentupanddownwhileshetalked.Shesaid,Thinkofyourselvesasseeds,and right then her voice was wheedling, conspiratorial, like the voices ofthosewomenwhousedtoteachballetclassestochildren,andwhowouldsay,Armsupintheairnow;let’spretendwe’retrees.
A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, anondescriptwomaninredcarryingabasket,comesalongthebricksidewalktowardsme.Shereachesmeandwepeerateachother’sfaceslookingdownthewhitetunnelsofcloththatencloseus.Sheistherightone.
“MaytheLordopen,”Ianswer,theacceptedresponse.Weturnandwalktogether past the large houses, towards the central part of town.We aren’t
allowedtogothereexceptintwos.Thisissupposedtobeforourprotection,though thenotion isabsurd:wearewellprotectedalready.The truth is thatshe ismyspy,as I amhers. If eitherofus slips through thenetbecauseofsomething that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will beaccountable.
This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don’t know whathappened to the one before. On a certain day she simplywasn’t there anymore, and this onewas there in her place. It isn’t the sort ofthing you askquestions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want toknow.Anywaytherewouldn’tbeananswer.
Thisone isa littleplumper thanIam.Hereyesarebrown.HernameisOfglen, and that’s about all I know about her. She walks demurely, headdown,red-glovedhandsclaspedinfront,withshortlittlestepslikeatrainedpig’sonitshindlegs.Duringthesewalksshehasneversaidanythingthatwasnotstrictlyorthodox,but then,neitherhave I.Shemaybea realbeliever,aHandmaidinmorethanname.Ican’ttaketherisk.
“Baptists. They had a stronghold in the BlueHills. They smoked themout.”
SometimesIwishshewould justshutupand letmewalk inpeace.ButI’mravenousfornews,anykindofnews;evenifit’sfalsenews,itmustmeansomething.
We reached the first barrier, which is like the barriers blocking offroadworks, or dug-up sewers: a wooden crisscross painted in yellow andblack stripes, a redhexagonwhichmeansStop.Near thegateway there aresome lanterns, not lit because it isn’t night. Above us, I know, there arefloodlights,attachedtothetelephonepoles,foruseinemergencies,andtherearemenwithmachinegunsinthepillboxesoneithersideoftheroad.Idon’t
Behind the barrier, waiting for us at the narrow gateway, there are twomen,inthegreenuniformsoftheGuardiansof theFaith,withthecrestsontheirshouldersandberets: twoswords,crossed,aboveawhite triangle.TheGuardians aren’t real soldiers. They’re used for routine policing and othermenial functions, digging up the Commander’sWife’s garden for instance,and they’reeither stupidorolderordisabledorveryyoung, apart from theonesthatareEyesincognito.
Thesetwoareveryyoung:onemoustacheisstillsparse,onefaceisstillblotchy.Their youth is touching, but I know I can’t be deceivedby it.Theyoung ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiestwiththeirguns.Theyhaven’tyet learnedaboutexistencethroughtime.Youhavetogoslowlywiththem.
Lastweek they shot awoman, right abouthere.ShewasaMartha.Shewasfumblinginherrobe,forherpass,andtheythoughtshewashuntingforabomb. They thought she was a man in disguise. There have been suchincidents.
Rita and Cora knew the woman. I heard them talking about it, in thekitchen.
Nothing safer than dead, said Rita, angrily. She was minding her ownbusiness.Nocalltoshoother.
berets.Such tokensareaccorded tous.Theyare supposed to showrespect,becauseofthenatureofourservice.
We produce our passes, from the zippered pockets in ourwide sleeves,and they are inspected and stamped. One man goes into the right-handpillbox,topunchournumbersintotheCompuchek.
In returningmypass, theonewith thepeach-colouredmoustachebendshisheadtotrytogetalookatmyface.Iraisemyheadalittle,tohelphim,and he sees my eyes and I see his, and he blushes. His face is long andmournful, like a sheep’s, butwith the large full eyes of a dog, spaniel notterrier.Hisskinispaleandlooksunwholesomelytender,liketheskinunderascab.Nevertheless,Ithinkofplacingmyhandonit,thisexposedface.Heistheonewhoturnsaway.
It’sanevent,asmalldefianceofrule,sosmallastobeundetectable,butsuchmomentsaretherewardsIholdoutformyself,likethecandyIhoarded,as a child, at the back of a drawer. Such moments are possibilities, tinypeepholes.
What if Iwere to come at night,when he’s on duty alone – though hewould never be allowed such solitude – and permit him beyondmywhitewings?WhatifIweretopeeloffmyredshroudandshowmyselftohim,tothem, by the uncertain light of the lanterns? This is what they must thinkabout sometimes, as they stand endlessly beside this barrier, past whichnobodyevercomesexcepttheCommandersoftheFaithfulintheirlongblackmurmurous cars, or their blue Wives and white-veiled daughters on theirdutifulwaytoSalvagingsorPrayvaganzas,ortheirdumpygreenMarthas,ortheoccasionalBirthmobile,ortheirredHandmaids,onfoot.Orsometimesablack-paintedvan,withthewingedeyeinwhiteontheside.Thewindowsofthevansaredark-tinted,and themenin thefrontseatsweardarkglasses:adoubleobscurity.
Thevansaresurelymoresilent thantheothercars.Whentheypass,weavert our eyes. If there are sounds coming from inside, we try not to hearthem.Nobody’sheartisperfect.
Whentheblackvansreachacheckpoint,they’rewavedthroughwithoutapause. The Guardians would not want to take the risk of looking inside,searching,doubtingtheirauthority.Whatevertheythink.
But more likely they don’t think in terms of clothing discarded on thelawn. If they think of a kiss, they must then think immediately of thefloodlights going on, the rifle shots.They think instead of doing their dutyandofpromotiontotheAngels,andofbeingallowedpossiblytomarry,andthen,iftheyareabletogainenoughpowerandlivetobeoldenough,ofbeingallottedaHandmaidoftheirown.
Theonewiththemoustacheopensthesmallpedestriangateforusandstandsback,well out of theway, andwepass through.Aswewalk away I knowthey’rewatching, these twomenwhoaren’tyetpermitted to touchwomen.TheytouchwiththeireyesinsteadandImovemyhipsalittle,feelingthefullredskirtswayaroundme.It’slikethumbingyournosefrombehindafenceorteasingadogwithaboneheldoutofreach,andI’mashamedofmyselffordoingit,becausenoneofthisisthefaultofthesemen,they’retooyoung.
ThenIfindI’mnotashamedafterall.Ienjoythepower;powerofadogbone,passivebutthere.Ihopetheygethardatthesightofusandhavetorubthemselvesagainstthepaintedbarriers,surreptitiously.Theywillsuffer,later,at night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now exceptthemselves, and that’s a sacrilege. There are no more magazines, no morefilms,nomoresubstitutes;onlymeandmyshadow,walkingawayfromthetwo men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching ourretreatingshapes.
Doubled, Iwalk thestreet.Thoughweareno longer in theCommanders’compound, there are large houses here also. In front of one of them aGuardianismowingthelawn.Thelawnsaretidy,thefaçadesaregracious,ingood repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in themagazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is thesameabsenceofpeople,thesameairofbeingasleep.Thestreetisalmostlikeamuseum,ora street inamodel townconstructed to show thewaypeopleusedto live.As in thosepictures, thosemuseums, thosemodel towns, therearenochildren.
This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except ontelevision.Where the edges arewe aren’t sure, they vary, according to theattacksandcounterattacks;but this is thecentre,wherenothingmoves.TheRepublicofGilead,saidAuntLydia,knowsnobounds.Gileadiswithinyou.
Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are nolawyersanymore,andtheuniversityisclosed.
LukeandIusedtowalktogether,sometimes,alongthesestreets.Weusedtotalkaboutbuyingahouselikeoneofthese,anoldbighouse,fixingitup.Wewouldhaveagarden, swings for thechildren.Wewouldhavechildren.Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it wassomething to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seemsalmostweightless.
Weturnthecornerontoamainstreet,wherethere’smoretraffic.Carsgoby,black most of them, some grey and brown. There are other women withbaskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in thestripeddresses,redandblueandgreenandcheapandskimpy,thatmarkthewomenofthepoorermen.Econowives,they’recalled.Thesewomenarenotdivided into functions.Theyhave todo everything; if they can.Sometimes
thereisawomanall inblack,awidow.Thereusedtobemoreof them,buttheyseemtobediminishing.
The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on thecracks.I’mrememberingmyfeetonthesesidewalks,inthetimebefore,andwhat I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, withcushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric thatreflected light in the darkness. Though I never ran at night; and in thedaytime,onlybesidewell-frequentedroads.
I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that everywomanknew:don’t openyourdoor to a stranger, even if he sayshe is thepolice.MakehimslidehisIDunderthedoor.Don’tstopontheroadtohelpamotorist pretending to be in trouble.Keep the locks on and keep going. Ifanyonewhistles,don’tturntolook.Don’tgointoalaundromat,byyourself,atnight.
I think about laundromats.What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, joggingpants.WhatIputintothem:myownclothes,myownsoap,myownmoney,moneyIhadearnedmyself.Ithinkabouthavingsuchcontrol.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shoutsobscenitiesatus,speakstous,touchesus.Noonewhistles.
Infrontofus,totheright,isthestorewhereweorderdresses.Somepeoplecall themhabits,agoodword for them.Habitsarehard tobreak.Thestorehasahugewoodensignoutsideit,intheshapeofagoldenlily;LiliesoftheField,it’scalled.Youcanseetheplace,underthelily,wheretheletteringwaspaintedout,whentheydecidedthateventhenamesofshopsweretoomuchtemptationforus.Nowplacesareknownbytheirsignsalone.
Liliesusedtobeamovietheatre,before.Studentswenttherealot;everyspringtheyhadaHumphreyBogartfestival,withLaurenBacallorKatherineHepburn,women on their own,making up theirminds.Theywore blouseswith buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the wordundone.Thesewomencouldbeundone; or not.They seemed tobe able to
I don’t knowwhen they stopped having the festival. I must have beengrownup.SoIdidn’tnotice.
Wedon’tgo intoLilies,butacross theroadandalongaside-street.Ourfirststopisatastorewithanotherwoodensign:threeeggs,abee,acow.MilkandHoney.There’saline,andwewaitourturn,twobytwo.Iseetheyhaveorangestoday.EversinceCentralAmericawaslosttotheLibertheos,orangeshave been hard to get: sometimes they are there, sometimes not. The warinterferes with the oranges from California, and even Florida isn’tdependable, when there are roadblocks or when the train tracks have beenblownup. I lookat theoranges, longingforone.But Ihaven’tbroughtanytokens for oranges. I’ll goback and tellRita about them, I think.She’ll bepleased. It will be something, a small achievement, to have made orangeshappen.
Thosewho’vereachedthecounterhandtheirtokensacrossit,tothetwomeninGuardianuniformswhostandontheotherside.Nobodytalksmuch,thoughthereisarustling,andthewomen’sheadsmovefurtivelyfromsidetoside: here, shopping, iswhere youmight see someone you know, someoneyou’veknowninthetimebefore,orattheRedCentre.Justtocatchsightofafacelikethatisanencouragement.IfIcouldseeMoira,justseeher,knowshestillexists.It’shardtoimaginenow,havingafriend.
But Ofglen, besideme, isn’t looking.Maybe she doesn’t know anyoneanymore.Maybetheyhaveallvanished,thewomensheknew.Ormaybeshedoesn’twanttobeseen.Shestandsinsilence,headdown.
Aswewaitinourdoubleline,thedooropensandtwomorewomencomein,bothinthereddressesandwhitewingsoftheHandmaids.Oneofthemisvastly pregnant; her belly, under her loose garment, swells triumphantly.There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath; despiteourselvesweturnourheads,blatantly,toseebetter;ourfingersitchtotouchher.She’samagicpresencetous,anobjectofenvyanddesire,wecovether.She’sa flagonahilltop, showinguswhatcan stillbedone:we toocanbesaved.
Thewomen in the roomarewhispering,almost talking, sogreat is theirexcitement.
“Show-off,” a voice hisses, and this is true. A woman that pregnantdoesn’t have to go out, doesn’t have to go shopping. The dailywalk is nolongerprescribed,tokeepherabdominalmusclesinworkingorder.Sheneedsonlythefloorexercises,thebreathingdrill.Shecouldstayatherhouse.Andit’sdangerousforhertobeout,theremustbeaGuardianstandingoutsidethedoor,waitingforher.Nowthatshe’sthecarrieroflife,sheisclosertodeath,andneeds special security. Jealousycouldgether, it’shappenedbefore.Allchildrenarewantednow,butnotbyeveryone.
But the walk may be a whim of hers, and they humour whims, whensomethinghasgonethisfarandthere’sbeennomiscarriage.Orperhapsshe’soneofthose,Pileiton,Icantakeit,amartyr.Icatchaglimpseofherface,asshe raises it to lookaround.Thevoicebehindmewas right.She’scome todisplayherself.She’sglowing,rosy,she’senjoyingeveryminuteofthis.
OfglenandIhavereachedthecounter.Wehandoverourtokens,andoneGuardian enters the numbers on them into the Compubite while the othergivesusourpurchases,themilk,theeggs.Weputthemintoourbasketsandgooutagain,pastthepregnantwomanandherpartner,whobesideherlooksspindly, shrunken; asweall do.Thepregnantwoman’sbelly is like ahugefruit.Humungous,wordofmychildhood.Herhandsrestonitasiftodefendit,orasifthey’regatheringsomethingfromit,warmthandstrength.
AsIpassshelooksfullatme,intomyeyes,andIknowwhosheis.Shewasat theRedCentrewithme,oneofAuntLydia’spets. Inever likedher.Hername,inthetimebefore,wasJanine.
Nextwe go intoAll Flesh,which ismarked by a largewooden pork chophanging from two chains. There isn’t so much of a line here: meat isexpensive, and even the Commanders don’t have it every day. Ofglen getssteak, though, and that’s the second time this week. I’ll tell that to theMarthas: it’s the kind of thing they enjoy hearing about. They are veryinterested in how other households are run; such bits of petty gossip give
Itakethechicken,wrappedinbutcher’spaperandtrussedwithstring.Notmany things are plastic, anymore. I remember those endless white plasticshoppingbags,fromthesupermarket;Ihatedtowastethemandwouldstuffthem inunder the sink,until thedaywouldcomewhen therewouldbe toomanyandIwouldopenthecupboarddoorandtheywouldbulgeout,slidingoverthefloor.Lukeusedtocomplainaboutit.Periodicallyhewouldtakeallthebagsandthrowthemout.
Shecouldgetoneof thoseoverherhead,he’dsay.Youknowhowkidslike to play. She neverwould, I’d say. She’s too old. (Or too smart, or toolucky.) But I would feel a chill of fear, and then guilt for having been socareless.Itwastrue,Itooktoomuchforgranted;Itrustedfate,backthen.I’llkeeptheminahighercupboard,I’dsay.Don’tkeepthematall,he’dsay.Weneverusethemforanything.Garbagebags,I’dsay.He’dsay…
Agroupofpeopleiscomingtowardsus.They’retourists,fromJapanitlookslike,atradedelegationperhaps,onatourofthehistoriclandmarksoroutforlocal colour. They’re diminutive and neatly turned out; each has his or hercamera,hisorhersmile.Theylookaround,bright-eyed,cockingtheirheadsto one side like robins, their very cheerfulness aggressive, and I can’t helpstaring.It’sbeenalongtimesinceI’veseenskirtsthatshortonwomen.Theskirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out frombeneath them,nearlynakedintheirthinstockings,blatant,thehigh-heeledshoeswiththeirstraps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The womenteeterontheirspikedfeetasifonstilts,butoffbalance;theirbacksarchatthewaist,thrustingthebuttocksout.Theirheadsareuncoveredandtheirhairtooisexposed,inallitsdarknessandsexuality.Theywearlipstick,red,outliningthedampcavities of theirmouths, like scrawlson awashroomwall, of thetimebefore.
I stopwalking.Ofglen stops besideme and I know that she too cannottake her eyes off these women.We are fascinated, but also repelled. Theyseemundressed.Ithastakensolittletimetochangeourminds,aboutthingslikethis.
There’saninterpreter,inthestandardbluesuitandred-patternedtie,withthewinged-eyetiepin.He’stheonewhostepsforward,outofthegroup,infront of us, blocking ourway.The tourists bunch behind him; one of themraisesacamera.
“Excuseme,”hesays tobothofus,politelyenough.“They’reasking iftheycantakeyourpicture.”
Ilookdownatthesidewalk,shakemyheadforNo.Whattheymustseeisthewhitewingsonly,ascrapofface,mychinandpartofmymouth.Nottheeyes. I know better than to look the interpreter in the face. Most of theinterpretersareEyes,orsoit’ssaid.
I also know better than to say Yes. Modesty is invisibility, said AuntLydia.Neverforgetit.Tobeseen–tobeseen–istobe–hervoicetrembled–penetrated.Whatyoumustbe,girls,isimpenetrable.Shecalledusgirls.
Besideme,Ofglen is also silent. She’s tucked her red-gloved hands upintohersleeves,tohidethem.
The interpreter turns back to the group, chatters at them in staccato. Iknowwhat he’ll be saying, I know the line. He’ll be telling them that thewomenherehavedifferentcustoms,thattostareatthemthroughthelensofacamerais,forthem,anexperienceofviolation.
“Excuseme,”says the interpreteragain, tocatchourattention. Inod, toshowI’veheardhim.
“He asks, are you happy,” says the interpreter. I can imagine it, theircuriosity:Are they happy?How can they be happy? I can feel their brightblackeyesonus,thewaytheyleanalittleforwardtocatchouranswers,thewomenespecially,butthementoo:wearesecret,forbidden,weexcitethem.
“All right,” I say, though I know aswell as she doeswhat she’s reallyafter.
Totheright,ifyoucouldwalkalong,there’sastreetthatwouldtakeyoudowntowardstheriver.There’saboathouse,wheretheykeptthescullsonce,and some bridges; trees, green banks, where you could sit and watch thewater, and the youngmenwith their naked arms, their oars lifting into thesunlight as they played at winning. On the way to the river are the olddormitories,usedforsomethingelsenow,withtheirfairytaleturrets,paintedwhiteandgoldandblue.Whenwethinkof thepast it’s thebeautiful thingswepickout.Wewanttobelieveitwasalllikethat.
The football stadium is down there too, where they hold the Men’sSalvagings.Aswellasthefootballgames.Theystillhavethose.
I don’t go to the river any more, or over bridges. Or on the subway,although there’s a station right there. We’re not allowed on, there areGuardiansnow,there’snoofficialreasonforustogodownthosesteps,rideon the trainsunder the river, into themaincity.Whywouldwewant togofromheretothere?Wewouldbeuptonogoodandtheywouldknowit.
Thechurchisasmallone,oneofthefirsterectedhere,hundredsofyearsago. It isn’t used any more, except as a museum. Inside it you can seepaintings,ofwomeninlongsombredresses,theirhaircoveredbywhitecaps,andofuprightmen,darklyclothedandunsmiling.Ourancestors.Admissionisfree.
Wedon’tgoin,though,butstandonthepath,lookingatthechurchyard.Theoldgravestonesarestill there,weathered,eroding,withtheirskullsandcrossed bones, memento mori, their dough-faced angels, their wingedhourglasses to remind us of the passing of mortal time, and, from a latercentury,theirurnsandwillowtrees,formourning.
Ofglen’s head is bowed, as if she’s praying. She does this every time.Maybe, I think, there’s someone, someone inparticulargone, forher too; aman, a child. But I can’t entirely believe it. I think of her as awoman forwhomeveryact isdone for show, is acting rather thana real act.Shedoessuchthingstolookgood,Ithink.She’souttomakethebestofit.
TheWallishundredsofyearsoldtoo;oroverahundred,atleast.Likethesidewalks,it’sredbrick,andmustoncehavebeenplainbuthandsome.Nowthegateshavesentriesandthereareuglynewfloodlightsmountedonmetalposts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set inconcretealongthetop.
Besidethemaingatewaytherearesixmorebodieshanging,bythenecks,theirhands tied in frontof them, theirheads inwhitebags tipped sidewaysonto their shoulders. There must have been a Men’s Salvaging early thismorning.Ididn’thearthebells.PerhapsI’vebecomeusedtothem.
We stop, together as if on signal, and stand and look at the bodies. Itdoesn’tmatterifwelook.We’resupposedtolook:thisiswhattheyaretherefor,hangingontheWall.Sometimesthey’llbetherefordays,untilthere’sa
What theyarehanging from ishooks.Thehookshavebeenset into thebrickwork of theWall, for this purpose.Not all of them are occupied. Thehooks look likeappliances for thearmless.Orsteelquestionmarks,upside-downandsideways.
It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the facesthemselveswouldbe. Itmakes themenlooklikedollsonwhichfaceshavenotyetbeenpainted;likescarecrows,whichinawayiswhattheyare,sincethey are meant to scare. Or as if their heads are sacks, stuffed with someundifferentiatedmaterial,likeflourordough.It’stheobviousheavinessoftheheads,theirvacancy,thewaygravitypullsthemdownandthere’snolifeanymoretoholdthemup.Theheadsarezeros.
Butononebagthere’sblood,whichhasseepedthroughthewhitecloth,where themouthmusthavebeen. Itmakesanothermouth,asmall redone,likethemouthspaintedwiththickbrushesbykindergartenchildren.Achild’sideaofasmile.Thissmileofbloodiswhatfixestheattention,finally.Thesearenotsnowmenafterall.
The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors or scientists.Doctors and scientists aren’t the only ones, there are others, but theymusthave had a run on them thismorning. Each has a placard hung around hisnecktoshowwhyhehasbeenexecuted:adrawingofahumanfoetus.Theywere doctors, then, in the time before,when such thingswere legal.Angelmakers, they used to call them: orwas that something else? They’ve beenturned up now by the searches through hospital records, or – more likely,sincemost hospitals destroyed such records once it became clearwhatwasgoingtohappen–byinformants:ex-nursesperhaps,orapairofthem,sinceevidence from a single woman is no longer admissible; or another doctor,hoping tosavehisownskin;orsomeonealreadyaccused, lashingoutatanenemy,oratrandom,insomedesperatebidforsafety.Thoughinformantsarenotalwayspardoned.
Thesemen,we’ve been told, are likewar criminals. It’s no excuse thatwhat theydidwas legalat the time: theircrimesare retroactive.Theyhave
committedatrocities,andmustbemade intoexamples, for therest.Thoughthisishardlyneeded.Nowomaninherrightmind,thesedays,wouldseektopreventabirth,shouldshebesoluckyastoconceive.
Whatweare supposed to feel towards thesebodies is hatred and scorn.This isn’twhatI feel.Thesebodiesbangingon theWallare timetravellers,anachronisms.They’vecomeherefromthepast.
Ilookattheoneredsmile.TheredofthesmileisthesameastheredofthetulipsinSerenaJoy’sgarden,towardsthebaseoftheflowerswheretheyarebeginningtoheal.Theredisthesamebutthereisnoconnection.Thetulipsarenottulipsofblood,theredsmilesarenotflowers,neitherthingmakesacomment on theother.The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in thehangedman,orviceversa.Eachthingisvalidandreallythere.ItisthroughafieldofsuchvalidobjectsthatImustpickmyway,everydayandineveryway.Iputalotofeffortintomakingsuchdistinctions.Ineedtomakethem.Ineedtobeveryclear,inmyownmind.
Ifeelatremorinthewomanbesideme.Isshecrying?Inwhatwaycoulditmakeher lookgood? Ican’tafford toknow.Myownhandsareclenched, Inote,tightaroundthehandleofmybasket.Iwon’tgiveanythingaway.
Ordinary, saidAuntLydia, iswhat you are used to.Thismaynot seemordinarytoyounow,butafteratimeitwill.Itwillbecomeordinary.
Thenightismine,myowntime,todowithasIwill,aslongasIamquiet.AslongasIdon’tmove.AslongasIliestill.Thedifferencebetweenlieandlay.Layisalwayspassive.Evenmenusedtosay,I’dliketogetlaid.Thoughsometimes theysaid, I’d like to layher.All this ispurespeculation. Idon’treallyknowwhatmenusedtosay.Ihadonlytheirwordsforit.
Ilie,then,insidetheroom,undertheplastereyeintheceiling,behindthewhite curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they, and step sidewaysoutofmyowntime.Outoftime.Thoughthisistime,noramIoutofit.
Moira,sittingontheedgeofmybed,legscrossed,ankleonknee,inherpurple overalls, one dangly earring, the gold fingernail she wore to beeccentric,acigarettebetweenherstubbyyellow-endedfingers.Let’sgoforabeer.
In half an hour, I said. I had a paper due the next day. What was it?Psychology, English, Economics.We studied things like that, then. On thefloor of the room there were books, open face down, this way and that,extravagantly.
Date rape, I said.You’re so trendy. It sounds like somekindofdessert.DateRapé.
Or inaparksomewhere,withmymother.Howoldwas I? Itwascold,ourbreathscameout infrontofus, therewereno leaveson the trees;greysky,twoducks in thepond, disconsolate.Breadcrumbsundermy fingers, inmypocket.That’sit:shesaidweweregoingtofeedtheducks.
But therewere somewomen burning books, that’swhat shewas reallytherefor.Toseeherfriends;she’dliedtome,Saturdaysweresupposedtobemyday.Iturnedawayfromher,sulking,towardstheducks,butthefiredrewmeback.
There were some men, too, among the women, and the books weremagazines.Theymust have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high,andthentheybegandumpingthemagazines,fromboxes,nottoomanyatatime.Someofthemwerechanting;onlookersgathered.
Their faces were happy, ecstatic almost. Fire can do that. Even mymother’s face, usually pale, thinnish, looked ruddy and cheerful, like aChristmascard;andtherewasanotherwoman,large,withasootsmeardownhercheekandanorangeknittedcap,Irememberher.
If shewants to,mymother said; she had away of talking aboutme toothersasifIcouldn’thear.
Thewomanhandedmeoneofthemagazines.Ithadaprettywomanonit,with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chainwound around herhands. I looked at itwith interest. It didn’t frightenme. I thought shewasswinging,likeTarzanfromavine,ontheTV.
I threw themagazine into the flames. It riffled open in thewind of itsburning;bigflakesofpapercameloose,sailedintotheair,stillonfire,partsofwomen’sbodies,turningtoblackash,intheair,beforemyeyes.
Iwouldcomeupthrougharoaringandconfusion,likesurfboiling.Icanremember feeling quite calm. I can remember screaming, it felt likescreamingthoughitmayhavebeenonlyawhisper,Whereisshe?Whathaveyoudonewithher?
Therewas no night or day; only a flickering. After awhile therewerechairsagain,andabed,andafterthatawindow.
You’ve killed her, I said. She looked like an angel, solemn, compact,madeofair.
IwouldliketobelievethisisastoryI’mtelling.Ineedtobelieveit.Imustbelieve it. Thosewho can believe that such stories are only stories have abetterchance.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name.Attaching a name attaches you to theworld of fact, which is riskier,morehazardous:whoknowswhat thechancesareout there,of survival,yours? Iwillsayyou,you,likeanoldlovesong.Youcanmeanmorethanone.
Thegoodweatherholds.It’salmost likeJune,whenwewouldgetoutoursundressesandoursandalsandgoforanice-creamcone.Therearethreenewbodies on theWall.One is a priest, stillwearing the black cassock. That’sbeenputonhim,forthetrial,eventhoughtheygaveupwearingthoseyearsago,when the sectwars first began; cassocksmade them too conspicuous.The two others have purple placards hung around their necks: GenderTreachery. Their bodies still wear the Guardian uniforms. Caught together,theymusthavebeen,butwhere?Abarracks,ashower?It’shardtosay.Thesnowmanwiththeredsmileisgone.
“We should go back,” I say toOfglen. I’m always the one to say this.SometimesIfeelthatifIdidn’tsayit,shewouldstayhereforever.Butisshemourningorgloating?Istillcan’ttell.
“Yes,” I say.“Praisebe,” Iaddasanafterthought.Maydayused tobeadistress signal, a long time ago, in one of those wars we studied in highschool. I kept getting themmixed up, but you could tell them apart by theairplanes if you paid attention. It was Luke who told me about Maydaythough.Mayday,Mayday, forpilotswhoseplaneshadbeenhit, andships–wasitshipstoo?–atsea.MaybeitwasSOSforships.IwishIcouldlookitup.AnditwassomethingfromBeethoven,forthebeginningofthevictory,inoneofthosewars.
Comingtowardsusthere’sasmallprocession,afuneral: threewomen,eachwithablack transparentveil thrownoverherheaddress.AnEconowifeandtwoothers,themournersalsoEconowives,herfriendsperhaps.Theirstripeddressesareworn-looking,asaretheirfaces.Someday,whentimesimprove,saysAuntLydia,noonewillhavetobeanEconowife.
The first one is the bereaved, themother; she carries a small black jar.Fromthesizeofthejaryoucantellhowolditwaswhenitfoundered,insideher,flowedtoitsdeath.Twoorthreemonths,tooyoungtotellwhetherornotitwasanUnbaby.Theolderonesandthosethatdieatbirthhaveboxes.
“UnderHisEye,”Ireply,andshegivesalittlenod.Shehesitates,asiftosay somethingmore, but then she turns away andwalks down the street. Iwatchher.She’slikemyownreflection,inamirrorfromwhichIammovingaway.
Inthedriveway,NickispolishingtheWhirlwindagain.He’sreachedthechromeat theback. Iputmyglovedhandon the latchof thegate,open it,push inward. The gate clicks behind me. The tulips along the border areredder than ever, opening, no longer winecups but chalices; thrustingthemselves up, towhat end? They are, after all, empty.When they are oldthey turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out
Inod,butdonotanswerwithmyvoice.Heisn’tsupposedtospeaktome.Ofcoursesomeofthemwilltry,saidAuntLydia.Allfleshisweak.Allfleshisgrass, Icorrectedher inmyhead.Theycan’thelp it,shesaid,GodmadethemthatwaybutHedidnotmakeyouthatway.Hemadeyoudifferent.It’suptoyoutosettheboundaries.Lateryouwillbethanked.
In the garden behind the house theCommander’sWife is sitting, in thechair she’s had brought out. Serena Joy, what a stupid name. It’s likesomething you’d put on your hair, in the other time, the time before, tostraightenit.SerenaJoy,itwouldsayonthebottle,withawoman’sheadincut-paper silhouette on a pink oval background with scalloped gold edges.Witheverythingtochoosefrominthewayofnames,whydidshepickthatone?SerenaJoywasneverherrealname,noteventhen.HerrealnamewasPam. I read that inaprofileonher, inanewsmagazine, longafter I’d firstwatchedhersingingwhilemymotherslept inonSundaymornings.Bythattimeshewasworthyofaprofile:TimeorNewsweekitwas,itmusthavebeen.She wasn’t singing anymore by then, she wasmaking speeches. She wasgood at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about howwomen should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she madespeechesinstead,butshepresentedthisfailureofhersasasacrificeshewasmakingforthegoodofall.
Around that time, someone tried to shoother andmissed;her secretary,whowasstandingrightbehindher,waskilledinstead.Someoneelseplantedabombinhercarbutitwentofftooearly.Thoughsomepeoplesaidshe’dputthebombinherowncar,forsympathy.That’showhotthingsweregetting.
LukeandIwouldwatchhersometimesonthelate-nightnews.Bathrobes,nightcaps.We’dwatch her sprayed hair and her hysteria, and the tears shecould still produce atwill, and themascara blackening her cheeks.By thattime she was wearing more makeup.We thought she was funny. Or Lukethought shewas funny. Ionlypretended to thinkso.Really shewasa littlefrightening.Shewasinearnest.
She doesn’tmake speeches anymore. She has become speechless. Shestaysinherhome,butitdoesn’tseemtoagreewithher.Howfuriousshemustbe,nowthatshe’sbeentakenatherword.
She’s looking at the tulips. Her cane is beside her, on the grass. Her
profileistowardsme,IcanseethatinthequicksidewayslookItakeatherasIgopast. Itwouldn’tdotostare.It’snolongeraflawlesscut-paperprofile,her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built onundergroundrivers,wherehousesandwholestreetsdisappearovernight,intosudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them.Somethinglikethismusthavehappenedtoher,onceshesawthetrueshapeofthingstocome.
It’snotthehusbandsyouhavetowatchoutfor,saidAuntLydia,it’stheWives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Ofcoursetheywillresentyou.Itisonlynatural.Trytofeelforthem.AuntLydiathought she was very good at feeling for other people. Try to pity them.Forgivethem,fortheyknownotwhattheydo.Againthetremuloussmile,ofabeggar,theweak-eyedblinking,thegazeupwards,throughtheroundsteel-rimmed glasses, towards the back of the classroom, as if the green-paintedplasterceilingwereopeningandGodonacloudofPinkPearl facepowderwere coming down through the wires and sprinkler plumbing. You mustrealizethattheyaredefeatedwomen.Theyhavebeenunable…
Here her voice broke off, and therewas a pause, duringwhich I couldhearasigh,acollectivesighfromthosearoundme.Itwasabadideatorustleorfidgetduringthesepauses:AuntLydiamightlookabstractedbutshewasawareofeverytwitch.Sotherewasonlythesigh.
Thefutureisinyourhands,sheresumed.Sheheldherownhandsouttous, the ancientgesture thatwasboth anoffering andan invitation, to comeforward, into an embrace, an acceptance. In your hands, she said, lookingdown at her own hands as if they had given her the idea. But there wasnothinginthem.Theywereempty.Itwasourhandsthatweresupposedtobefull,ofthefuture;whichcouldbeheldbutnotseen.
Iwalk around to the back door, open it, go in, setmy basket down on thekitchentable.Thetablehasbeenscrubbedoff,clearedofflour;today’sbread,freshlybaked,iscoolingonitsrack.Thekitchensmellsofyeast,anostalgicsmell.Itremindsmeofotherkitchens,kitchensthatweremine.Itsmellsofmothers; althoughmy ownmother did notmake bread. It smells ofme, informertimes,whenIwasamother.
Rita is there, sittingat the table,peelingandslicingcarrots.Oldcarrotstheyare, thickones,over-wintered,bearded from their time in storage.Thenewcarrots,tenderandpale,won’tbereadyforweeks.Theknifesheusesissharpandbright,andtempting.Iwouldliketohaveaknifelikethat.
Rita stops chopping the carrots, stands up, takes the parcels out of thebasket, almost eagerly. She looks forward to seeing what I’ve brought,althoughshealwaysfrownswhileopening theparcels;nothingIbringfullypleases her. She’s thinking she could have done better herself. She wouldratherdotheshopping,getexactlywhatshewants;sheenviesmethewalk.Inthishouseweallenvyeachothersomething.
“They’vegotoranges,” I say.“AtMilkandHoney.Thereare still someleft.”Iholdoutthisideatoherlikeanoffering.Iwishtoingratiatemyself.Isaw the oranges yesterday, but I didn’t tell Rita; yesterday she was toogrumpy.“Icouldgetsome,tomorrow,ifyou’dgivemethetokensforthem.”Iholdoutthechickentoher.Shewantedsteaktoday,buttherewasn’tany.
“Looksbigenoughtome,”saysCora.Isshestandingupforme?Ilookather,toseeifIshouldsmile;butno,it’sonlythefoodshe’sthinkingof.She’syoungerthanRita;thesunlight,comingslantnowthroughthewestwindow,catches her hair, parted and drawn back. She must have been pretty, quiterecently.There’s a littlemark, like adimple, in eachofher ears,where thepuncturesforearringshavegrownover.
“Tall,” says Rita, “but bony. You should speak up,” she says to me,looking directly atme for the first time. “Ain’t like you’re common.” She
Shegoestothesink,runsherhandsbrieflyunderthetap,driesthemonthe dishtowel. The dishtowel iswhitewith blue stripes.Dishtowels are thesameastheyalwayswere.Sometimestheseflashesofnormalitycomeatmefromtheside,likeambushes.Theordinary,theusual,areminder,likeakick.Iseethedishtowel,outofcontext,andIcatchmybreath.Forsome,insomeways,thingshaven’tchangedthatmuch.
I’ve been dismissed. I pick up the basket, go through the kitchen door andalongthehalltowardsthegrandfatherclock.Thesitting-roomdoorisclosed.Sun comes through the fanlight, falling in colours across the floor: red andblue,purple.Istepintoitbriefly,stretchoutmyhands;theyfillwithflowersoflight.Igoupthestairs,myface,distantandwhiteanddistorted,framedinthehallmirror,whichbulgesoutwardlikeaneyeunderpressure.Ifollowthedusty-pinkrunnerdownthelongupstairshallway,backtotheroom.
There’ssomeonestandinginthehall,nearthedoortotheroomwhereIstay.Thehall isdusky,thisisaman,hisbacktome;he’slookingintotheroom,darkagainstitslight.Icanseenow,it’stheCommander,heisn’tsupposedtobehere.Hehearsme coming, turns, hesitates,walks forward.Towardsme.Heisviolatingcustom,whatdoIdonow?
I stop,hepauses, I can’t seehis face,he’s lookingatme,whatdoeshewant?But thenhemovesforwardagain,steps to theside toavoid touchingme,inclineshishead,isgone.
Something has been shown to me, but what is it? Like the flag of anunknown country, seen for an instant above a curve of hill, it couldmeanattack,itcouldmeanparley,itcouldmeantheedgeofsomething,aterritory.The signals animals give one another: lowered blue eyelids, ears laid back,raisedhackles.Aflashofbaredteeth,whatinhelldoeshethinkhe’sdoing?Nobodyelsehasseenhim.Ihope.Washeinvading?Washeinmyroom?
Myroom, then.Therehas tobesomespace, finally, that Iclaimasmine,eveninthistime.
I’mwaiting,inmyroom,whichrightnowisawaitingroom.WhenIgotobed it’sabedroom.Thecurtainsarestillwavering in thesmallwind, thesunoutsideisstillshining,thoughnotinthroughthewindowdirectly.Ithasmovedwest.Iamtryingnottotellstories,oratanyratenotthisone.
Ihadalotoftimetopass.Idecidedtoexploretheroom.Nothastily,asonewouldexploreahotelroom,expectingnosurprise,openingandshuttingthe desk drawers, the cupboard doors, unwrapping the tiny individuallywrapped bar of soap, prodding the pillows.Will I ever be in a hotel roomagain?HowIwastedthem,thoserooms,thatfreedomfrombeingseen.
Intheafternoons,whenLukewasstillinflightfromhiswife,whenIwasstill imaginary for him. Before we were married and I solidified. I wouldalwaysgettherefirst,checkin.Itwasn’tthatmanytimes,butitseemsnowlikeadecade,anera;IcanrememberwhatIwore,eachblouse,eachscarf.Iwouldpace,waitingforhim,turnthetelevisiononandthenoff,dabbehindmy earswith perfume,Opium itwas. It came in aChinese bottle, red andgold.
Iwasnervous.HowwasItoknowhelovedme?Itmightbejustanaffair.Whydidweeversay just?Thoughat that timemenandwomen triedeachotheron,casually,likesuits,rejectingwhateverdidnotfit.
Theknockwouldcomeatthedoor;I’dopen,withrelief,desire.Hewassomomentary,socondensed.Andyetthereseemednoendtohim.Wewouldlie in thoseafternoonbeds, afterwards,handsoneachother, talking itover.Possible, impossible. What could be done? We thought we had suchproblems.Howwerewetoknowwewerehappy?
But now it’s the rooms themselves I miss as well, even the dreadfulpaintingsthathungonthewalls,landscapeswithfallfoliageorsnowmeltinginhardwoods,orwomeninperiodcostume,withchina-dollfacesandbustlesandparasols,orsad-eyedclowns,orbowlsoffruit,stiffandchalky-looking.Thefreshtowelsreadyforspoilage,thewastebasketsgapingtheirinvitations,beckoning in the careless junk. Careless. I was careless, in those rooms. Icouldliftthetelephoneandfoodwouldappearonatray,foodIhadchosen.Foodthatwasbadforme,nodoubt,anddrinktoo.TherewereBiblesinthedresserdrawers,puttherebysomecharitablesociety,thoughprobablynoonereadthemverymuch.Therewerepostcards,too,withpicturesofthehotelonthem, and you could write on the postcards and send them to anyone youwanted. It seems like such an impossible thing, now; like something you’dmakeup.
So.Iexploredthisroom,nothastily,then,likeahotelroom,wastingit.Ididn’twant todoitallatonce,Iwantedtomakeit last. Idividedtheroominto sections, in my head; I allowed myself one section a day. This onesectionIwouldexaminewiththegreatestminuteness:theunevennessoftheplasterunderthewallpaper,thescratchesinthepaintofthebaseboardandthewindowsill,underthetopcoatofpaint,thestainsonthemattress,forIwentsofarastolifttheblanketsandsheetsfromthebed,foldthemback,alittleatatime,sotheycouldbereplacedquicklyifanyonecame.
WhenIsawthat, thatevidenceleftbytwopeople,of loveorsomethinglikeit,desireatleast,atleasttouch,betweentwopeoplenowperhapsoldordead, I covered the bed again and lay downon it. I looked up at the blindplastereyeintheceiling.IwantedtofeelLukelyingbesideme.Ihavethem,these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head.Sometimesitcanhardlybeborne.Whatistobedone,whatistobedone,Ithought. There is nothing to be done. They also servewho only stand andwait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window isshatterproof,andwhy they tookdown thechandelier. Iwanted to feelLuke
Isavedthecupboarduntilthethirdday.Ilookedcarefullyoverthedoorfirst,insideandout, thenthewallswith theirbrasshooks–howcouldtheyhaveoverlookedthehooks?Whydidn’ttheyremovethem?Tooclosetothefloor?But still, a stocking, that’s all you’d need. And the rod with the plastichangers,mydresseshangingonthem,theredwoollencapeforcoldweather,theshawl.Iknelttoexaminethefloor,andthereitwas,intinywriting,quitefreshitseemed,scratchedwithapinormaybejustafingernail,inthecornerwherethedarkestshadowfell:Nolitetebastardescarborundorum.
Ididn’tknowwhatitmeant,orevenwhatlanguageitwasin.IthoughtitmightbeLatin,butIdidn’tknowanyLatin.Still,itwasamessage,anditwasin writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t yet been discovered.Exceptbyme,forwhomitwasintended.Itwasintendedforwhoevercamenext.
It pleases me to ponder this message. It pleases me to think I’mcommuningwithher,thisunknownwoman.Forsheisunknown;orifknown,she has never beenmentioned tome. It pleasesme to know that her taboomessagemadeitthrough,toatleastoneotherperson,washeditselfuponthewall ofmy cupboard,was opened and read byme. Sometimes I repeat thewordstomyself.Theygivemeasmalljoy.WhenIimaginethewomanwhowrotethem,Ithinkofherasaboutmyage,maybealittleyounger.IturnherintoMoira,Moiraas shewaswhenshewas incollege, in the roomnext tomine:quirky,jaunty,athletic,withabicycleonce,andaknapsackforhiking.Freckles,Ithink;irreverent,resourceful.
Which one? she said; she sounded grudging, suspicious, but then, shealmostalwayssoundslikethatwhenshespeakstome.
Sotherehavebeenmorethanone.Somehaven’tstayedtheirfulltermofposting, their full two years. Some have been sent away, for one reason oranother.Ormaybenotsent;gone?
Sometimes I sing tomyself, inmyhead; something lugubrious,mournful,presbyterian:
There isn’tmuchmusic in this house, exceptwhatwe hear on the TV.SometimesRitawillhum,whilekneadingorpeeling;awordlesshumming,tuneless,unfathomable.Andsometimesfromthefrontsittingroomtherewillbe the thin soundofSerena’svoice, fromadiscmade longagoandplayed
nowwith thevolumelow,soshewon’tbecaught listeningasshesits thereknitting,rememberingherownformerandnowamputatedglory:Hallelujah.
Thesummerdressesareunpackedandhanginginthecloset,twoofthem,purecotton,whichisbetterthansyntheticslikethecheaperones,thoughevenso,when it’smuggy, in July andAugust, you sweat inside them.Noworryaboutsunburnthough,saidAuntLydia.Thespectacleswomenusedtomakeofthemselves.Oilingthemselveslikeroastmeatonaspit,andbarebacksandshoulders,on thestreet, inpublic,and legs,notevenstockingson them,nowonder those things used to happen. Things, the word she used whenwhateveritstoodforwastoodistastefulorfilthyorhorribletopassherlips.Asuccessful lifeforherwasone thatavoided things,excludedthings.Suchthingsdonothappentonicewomen.Andnotgoodforthecomplexion,notatall,wrinkleyouuplikeadriedapple.Butweweren’tsupposedtocareaboutourcomplexionsanymore,she’dforgottenthat.
Inthepark,saidAuntLydia,lyingonblankets,menandwomentogethersometimes,andat that shebegan tocry, standingup there in frontofus, infullview.
I’mdoingmybest,shesaid. I’mtrying togiveyouthebestchanceyoucanhave.Sheblinked, thelightwastoostrongforher,hermouthtrembled,around her front teeth, teeth that stuck out a little and were long andyellowish,andIthoughtaboutthedeadmicewewouldfindonourdoorstep,whenwelivedinahouse,allthreeofus,fourcountingourcat,whowastheonemakingtheseofferings.
Aunt Lydia pressed her hand over hermouth of a dead rodent.After aminuteshetookherhandaway.Iwantedtocrytoobecausesheremindedme.Ifonlyhewouldn’teathalfofthemfirst,IsaidtoLuke.
Moira,breezing intomy room,droppingherdenim jacketon the floor.Gotanycigs,shesaid.
Moira rummages inmypurse.You should throwout someof this junk,
You know, like Tupperware, only with underwear. Tarts’ stuff. Lacecrotches,snapgarters.Brasthatpushyourtitsup.Shefindsmylighter,lightsthecigarette she’sextracted frommypurse.Wantone?Tosses thepackage,withgreatgenerosityconsideringthey’remine.
Thanks piles, I say sourly. You’re crazy.Where’d you get an idea likethat?
Working my way through college, says Moira. I’ve got connections.Friend of mymother’s. It’s big in the suburbs, once they start getting agespots they figure they’ve got to beat the competition. The Pornomarts andwhathaveyou.
Nothingchangesinstantaneously:inagraduallyheatingbathtubyou’dbeboiledtodeathbeforeyouknewit.Therewerestoriesinthenewspapers,ofcourse, corpses in ditches or thewoods, bludgeoned to death ormutilated,interferedwithastheyusedtosay,buttheywereaboutotherwomen,andthemenwhodid such thingswere othermen.Noneof themwere themenweknew.Thenewspaperstorieswere likedreams tous,baddreamsdreamtbyothers.Howawful,wewouldsay,andtheywere,buttheywereawfulwithoutbeingbelievable.Theyweretoomelodramatic,theyhadadimensionthatwasnotthedimensionofourlives.
Wewere the peoplewhowere not in the papers.We lived in the blankwhitespacesattheedgesofprint.Itgaveusmorefreedom.
Igo to thewindowandsiton thewindowseat,which is toonarrowforcomfort.There’sahardlittlecushiononit,withapetit-pointcover:FAITH,insquareprint,surroundedbyawreathoflilies.FAITHisafadedblue,theleavesof the liliesadingygreen.This isacushiononceusedelsewhere,wornbutnotenoughtothrowout.Somehowit’sbeenoverlooked.
I can spend minutes, tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print:FAITH.It’stheonlythingthey’vegivenmetoread.IfIwerecaughtdoingit,woulditcount?Ididn’tputthecushionheremyself.
Themotorturns,andIleanforward,pullingthewhitecurtainacrossmyface, likeaveil. It’ssemi-sheer, Icansee throughit. If Ipressmyforeheadagainst the glass and lookdown, I can see the backhalf of theWhirlwind.Nobodyisthere,butasIwatchIseeNickcomearoundtothebackdoorofthecar,openit,standstifflybesideit.Hiscapisstraightnowandhissleevesrolleddownandbuttoned.Ican’tseehisfacebecauseI’mlookingdownonhim.
Now theCommander is coming out. I glimpse him only for an instant,foreshortened,walking to the car.He doesn’t have his hat on, so it’s not aformal eventhe’sgoing to.Hishair isgrey.Silver,youmight call it if youwerebeingkind.Idon’tfeellikebeingkind.Theonebeforethiswasbald,soIsupposehe’sanimprovement.
If I could spit, out the window, or throw something, the cushion forinstance,Imightbeabletohithim.
Moira and I, with paper bags filled with water. Water bombs, they werecalled.Leaningoutmydormwindow,droppingthemontheheadsoftheboysbelow.ItwasMoira’sidea.Whatweretheytryingtodo?Climbaladder,forsomething.Forourunderwear.
Thatdormitoryhadoncebeenco-educational, therewere still urinals inoneof thewashroomsonourfloor.ButbythetimeI’dgot therethey’dputthemenandwomenbackthewaytheywere.
Iought to feelhatred for thisman. IknowIought to feel it,but it isn’twhatIdofeel.WhatIfeelismorecomplicatedthanthat.Idon’tknowwhattocallit.Itisn’tlove.
YesterdaymorningIwenttothedoctor.Wastaken,byaGuardian,oneofthosewiththeredarmbandswhoareinchargeofsuchthings.Werodeinared car, him in the front,me in the back.No twinwentwithme; on theseoccasionsI’msolitaire.
The doctor’s office is in a modern office building. We ride up in theelevator, silently, the Guardian facing me. In the black mirror wall of theelevatorIcanseethebackofhishead.Attheofficeitself,Igoin;hewaits,outsideinthehall,withtheotherGuardians,ononeofthechairsplacedthereforthatpurpose.
Insidethewaitingroomthereareotherwomen,threeofthem,inred:thisdoctor is a specialist.Covertlywe regardeachother, sizingupeachother’sbellies:isanyonelucky?Thenurserecordsournamesandthenumbersfromour passes on theCompudoc, to see ifwe arewhowe are supposed to be.He’ssixfeettall,aboutforty,adiagonalscaracrosshischeek;hesitstyping,his hands too big for the keyboard, still wearing his pistol in the shoulderholster.
WhenI’mcalledIgothroughthedoorwayintotheinnerroom.It’swhite,featureless,liketheouterone,exceptforafoldingscreen,redclothstretchedon a frame, a gold eye painted on it, with a snake-twined sword uprightbeneathit,likeasortofhandle.Thesnakesandtheswordarebitsofbrokensymbolismleftoverfromthetimebefore.
AfterI’vefilledthesmallbottleleftreadyformeinthelittlewashroom,Itakeoffmy clothes, behind the screen, and leave them foldedon the chair.When I’m naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chillycracklingdisposablepaper.Ipullthesecondsheet,theclothone,upovermy
body. At neck level there’s another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. Itintersectsmesothatthedoctorwillneverseemyface.Hedealswithatorsoonly.
“Howarewegettingalong?”hesays,someticofspeechfromtheothertime. The sheet is lifted frommy skin, a draft pimples me. A cold finger,rubber-cladand jellied, slides intome, I ampokedandprodded.The fingerretreats,entersotherwise,withdraws.
“Nothingwrongwithyou,” thedoctorsays,as if tohimself.“Anypain,honey?”Hecallsmehoney.
My breasts are fingered in their turn, a search for ripeness, rot. Thebreathingcomesnearer,Ismelloldsmoke,aftershave, tobaccodustonhair.Thenthevoice,verysoft,closetomyhead:that’shim,bulgingthesheet.
“Help me?” I say, my voice as low as his. “How?” Does he knowsomething,hasheseenLuke,hashefound,canhebringback?
“Howdoyou think?”he says, still barely breathing it. Is that his hand,slidingupmyleg?He’stakenofftheglove.“Thedoor’slocked.Noonewillcomein.They’llneverknowitisn’this.”
Ialmostgasp:he’ssaidaforbiddenword.Sterile.Thereisnosuchthingas a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who arefruitfulandwomenwhoarebarren,that’sthelaw.
“Yes,” I say. It’s true, and I don’t ask why, because I know.Give mechildren,orelseIdie.There’smorethanonemeaningtoit.
“You’re soft,” he says. “It’s time.Todayor tomorrowwoulddo it,whywaste it? It’d only take a minute, honey.” What he called his wife, once;maybestilldoes,butreallyit’sagenericterm.Weareallhoney.
I hesitate. He’s offering himself to me, his services, at some risk tohimself.
“I hate to see what they put you through,” he murmurs. It’s genuine,genuinesympathy;andyethe’senjoyingthis,sympathyandall.Hiseyesaremoist with compassion, his hand is moving on me, nervously and withimpatience.
“It’s toodangerous,”Isay.“No.Ican’t.”Thepenalty isdeath.But theyhave to catchyou in the act,with twowitnesses.What are the odds, is theroombugged,who’swaitingjustoutsidethedoor?
“Thankyou,”Isay.ImustleavetheimpressionthatI’mnotoffended,thatI’m open to suggestion.He takes his hand away, lazily almost, lingeringly,this is not the last word as far as he’s concerned. He could fake the tests,reportmeforcancer,forinfertility,havemeshippedofftotheColonies,withtheUnwomen.Noneof thishasbeen said,but theknowledgeofhispowerhangsnevertheless in theairashepatsmythigh,withdrawshimselfbehindthehangingsheet.
Iputonmyclothesagain,behindthescreen.Myhandsareshaking.Whyam I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, taken norisk,allissafe.It’sthechoicethatterrifiesme.Awayout,asalvation.
The bathroom is beside the bedroom. It’s papered in small blue flowers,forget-me-nots,withcurtainstomatch.There’sabluebath-mat,abluefake-furcoveronthetoiletseat;allthisbathroomlacksfromthetimebeforeisadollwhoseskirtconcealstheextrarolloftoiletpaper.Exceptthatthemirrorover the sinkhas been takenout and replacedby anoblongof tin, and thedoorhasnolock,andtherearenorazors,ofcourse.Therewereincidentsinbathrooms at first; there were cuttings, drownings. Before they got all thebugsironedout.Corasitsonachairoutsideinthehall,toseethatnooneelsegoesin.Inabathroom,inabathtub,youarevulnerable,saidAuntLydia.Shedidn’tsaytowhat.
The bath is a requirement, but it is also a luxury.Merely to lift off theheavywhitewingsand theveil,merely tofeelmyownhairagain,withmyhands, is a luxury.Myhair is longnow,untrimmed.Hairmust be longbutcovered.AuntLydiasaid:SaintPaulsaidit’seitherthatoracloseshave.Shelaughed,thatheld-backneighingofhers,asifshe’dtoldajoke.
Corahasrunthebath.Itsteamslikeabowlofsoup.Itakeofftherestofmyclothes,theoverdress,thewhiteshiftandpetticoat,theredstockings,theloosecottonpantaloons.Pantyhosegivesyoucrotch rot,Moiraused to say.AuntLydiawouldneverhaveusedanexpressionlikecrotchrot.Unhygienicwashers.Shewantedeverythingtobeveryhygienic.
Mynakedness is strange tomealready.Mybodyseemsoutdated.Did Ireallywearbathing suits, at thebeach? Idid,without thought, amongmen,withoutcaring thatmy legs,myarms,my thighsandbackwereondisplay,couldbeseen.Shameful,immodest.Iavoidlookingdownatmybody,notsomuchbecauseit’sshamefulorimmodestbutbecauseIdon’twanttoseeit.Idon’twanttolookatsomethingthatdeterminesmesocompletely.
I step into thewater, liedown, let it holdme.Thewater is soft ashands. I
closemyeyes,andshe’stherewithme,suddenly,withoutwarning,itmustbethe smellof the soap. Iputmy faceagainst the softhair at thebackofherneckandbreatheherin,babypowderandchild’swashedfleshandshampoo,withanundertone,thefaintscentofurine.ThisistheagesheiswhenI’minthebath.Shecomesbacktomeatdifferentages.ThisishowIknowshe’snotreallyaghost.Ifshewereaghostshewouldbethesameagealways.
Oneday,whenshewaselevenmonthsold,justbeforeshebegantowalk,awoman stoleherout of a supermarket cart. Itwas aSaturday,whichwaswhenLukeandIdidtheweek’sshopping,becausebothofushadjobs.Shewas sitting in the littlebaby seats theyhad then, in supermarket carts,withholes for the legs.Shewashappyenough,and I’d turnedmyback, thecat-foodsectionIthinkitwas;Lukewasoveratthesideofthestore,outofsight,atthemeatcounter.Helikedtochoosewhatkindofmeatweweregoingtoeatduringtheweek.Hesaidmenneededmoremeatthanwomendid,andthatit wasn’t a superstition and hewasn’t being a jerk, studies had been done.Therearesomedifferences,hesaid.Hewasfondofsayingthat,as ifIwastrying to prove there weren’t. But mostly he said it when mymother wasthere.Helikedtoteaseher.
Iheardherstarttocry.Iturnedaroundandshewasdisappearingdowntheaisle, in the arms of a woman I’d never seen before. I screamed, and thewomanwas stopped.Shemust havebeen about thirty-five.Shewas cryingandsayingitwasherbaby,theLordhadgivenittoher,he’dsentherasign.Ifelt sorry forher.The storemanagerapologizedand theyheldheruntil thepolicecame.
Shefades,Ican’tkeepherherewithme,she’sgonenow.MaybeIdothinkofherasaghost, theghostofadeadgirl,a littlegirlwhodiedwhenshewasfive.IrememberthepicturesofusIhadonce,meholdingher,standardposes,motherandbaby,lockedinaframe,forsafety.BehindmyclosedeyesIcanseemyselfasIamnow,sittingbesideanopendrawer,oratrunk,inthecellar,wherethebabyclothesarefoldedaway,alockofhair,cutwhenshewastwo,inanenvelope,whiteblonde.Itgotdarkerlater.
Idon’thave those thingsanymore, theclothesandhair. Iwonderwhathappenedtoallourthings.Looted,dumpedout,carriedaway.Confiscated.
AuntLydia,yougettooattachedtothismaterialworldandyouforgetaboutspiritual values.Youmust cultivatepovertyof spirit.Blessed are themeek.Shedidn’tgoontosayanythingaboutinheritingtheearth.
They must have told her I was dead. That’s what they would think ofdoing.Theywouldsayitwouldbeeasierforhertoadjust.
“Iain’tgotallday,”saysCora’svoiceoutsidethedoor.It’strue,shehasn’t.She hasn’t got all of anything. I must not deprive her of her time. I soapmyself,usethescrubbrushandthepieceofpumiceforsandingoffdeadskin.Suchpuritanaidsare supplied. Iwish tobe totallyclean,germless,withoutbacteria,likethesurfaceofthemoon.Iwillnotbeabletowashmyself,thisevening, not afterwards, not for a day. It interferes, they say, andwhy takechances?
Icannotavoidseeing,now,thesmalltattooonmyankle.Fourdigitsandaneye,apassport inreverse. It’ssupposed toguarantee that Iwillneverbeable to fade, finally, intoanother landscape. I am too important, too scarce,forthat.Iamanationalresource.
Ipulltheplug,drymyself,putonmyredterryclothrobe.Ileavetoday’sdresshere,whereCorawillpickituptobewashed.BackintheroomIdressagain.Thewhiteheaddressisn’tnecessaryfortheevening,becauseIwon’tbegoingout.Everyone in this houseknowswhatmy face looks like.The redveilgoeson, though,coveringmydamphair,myhead,whichhasnotbeenshaved.Where did I see that film, about thewomen, kneeling in the townsquare,handsholdingthem,theirhairfallinginclumps?Whathadtheydone?Itmusthavebeenalongtimeago,becauseIcan’tremember.
Cora brings my supper, covered, on a tray. She knocks at the door beforeentering.Ilikeherforthat.ItmeansshethinksIhavesomeofwhatweusedtocallprivacyleft.
“Thankyou,” I say, taking the tray fromher, and she actually smiles atme,butsheturnsawaywithoutanswering.Whenwe’realonetogethershe’sshyofme.
Iputthetrayonthesmallwhite-paintedtableanddrawthechairuptoit.Itakethecoveroffthetray.Thethighofachicken,overcooked.It’sbetterthanbloody, which is the other way she does it. Rita has ways of making herresentmentfelt.Abakedpotato,greenbeans,salad.Cannedpearsfordessert.It’s good enough food, though bland. Healthy food. You have to get yourvitaminsandminerals,saidAuntLydiacoyly.Youmustbeaworthyvessel.Nocoffeeorteathough,noalcohol.Studieshavebeendone.There’sapapernapkin,asincafeterias.
Ithinkoftheothers,thosewithout.Thisistheheartland,here,I’mleadingapamperedlife,maytheLordmakeustrulygrateful,saidAuntLydia,orwasitthankful,andIstarttoeatthefood.I’mnothungrytonight.Ifeelsicktomystomach.But there’snoplace toput the food,nopottedplants,and Iwon’tchance the toilet. I’m toonervous, that’swhat it is.Could I leave it on theplate, ask Cora not to reportme? I chew and swallow, chew and swallow,feeling the sweat come out. Inmy stomach the food balls itself together, ahandfulofdampcardboard,squeezed.
Downstairs, in the dining room, there will be candles on the largemahogany table, a white cloth, silver, flowers, wine glasses with wine inthem.Therewillbeaclickofknivesagainstchina,aclinkasshesetsdownher fork, with a barely audible sigh, leaving half the contents of her plateuntouched.Possiblyshewillsayshehasnoappetite.Possiblyshewon’tsayanything. If she says something, does he comment? If she doesn’t sayanything,doeshenotice?Iwonderhowshemanagestogetherselfnoticed.Ithinkitmustbehard.
There’sapatofbutteronthesideoftheplate.Itearoffacornerofthepapernapkin,wrapthebutterinit,takeittothecupboardandslipitintothetoeofmyrightshoe,fromtheextrapair,asIhavedonebefore.Icrumpleuptherestofthenapkin:noone,surely,willbothertosmoothitout,tocheckifanyismissing. Iwilluse thebutter later tonight. Itwouldnotdo, thisevening, tosmellofbutter.
I wait. I composemyself.My self is a thing Imust now compose, as onecomposesaspeech.WhatImustpresentisamadething,notsomethingborn.
There’stimetospare.ThisisoneofthethingsIwasn’tpreparedfor–theamount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as whitesound. If only I could embroider. Weave, knit, something to do with myhands. I want a cigarette. I remember walking in art galleries, through thenineteenth century: the obsession they had then with harems. Dozens ofpaintingsofharems, fatwomen lollingondivans, turbanson theirheadsorvelvet caps, being fanned with peacock tails, a eunuch in the backgroundstandingguard.Studiesofsedentaryflesh,paintedbymenwho’dneverbeenthere.Thesepicturesweresupposedtobeerotic,andIthoughttheywere,atthe time; but I see nowwhat they were really about. They were paintingsabout suspended animation; about waiting, about objects not in use. Theywerepaintingsaboutboredom.
Iwait,washed,brushed, fed, likeaprizepig.Sometimein theeighties theyinventedpigballs, forpigswhowerebeingfattened inpens.Pigballswerelarge colouredballs; thepigs rolled themaroundwith their snouts.Thepigmarketers said this improved theirmuscle tone; thepigswere curious, theylikedtohavesomethingtothinkabout.
I readabout that in Introduction toPsychology; that,and thechapteroncaged ratswho’dgive themselves electric shocks for something todo.Andtheoneonthepigeons,trainedtopeckabuttonwhichmadeagrainofcornappear.Threegroupsofthem:thefirstgotonegrainperpeck,thesecondonegraineveryotherpeck,thethirdwasrandom.Whenthemaninchargecutoffthegrain, the firstgroupgaveupquite soon, the secondgroupa little later.Thethirdgroupnevergaveup.They’dpeckthemselvestodeath,ratherthanquit.Whoknewwhatworked?
I lie down on the braided rug. You can always practise, said Aunt Lydia.Severalsessionsaday,fittedintoyourdailyroutine.Armsatthesides,kneesbent, lift thepelvis, roll thebackbonedown.Tuck.Again.Breathe in to thecount of five, hold, expel.We’d do that in what used to be the DomesticScienceroom,clearednowofsewingmachinesandwasher-dryers;inunison,lyingonlittleJapanesemats,atapeplaying,LesSylphides.That’swhatIhearnow, inmy head, as I lift, tilt, breathe. Behindmy closed eyes thin whitedancersflitgracefullyamongthetrees,theirlegsflutteringlikethewingsofheldbirds.
Thestrangethingisweneededarest.Manyofuswenttosleep.Weweretired there,a lotof the time.Wewereonsomekindofpillordrug I think,they put it in the food, to keep us calm.Butmaybe not.Maybe itwas theplaceitself.Afterthefirstshock,afteryou’dcometoterms,itwasbettertobelethargic.Youcouldtellyourselfyouweresavingupyourstrength.
Imusthavebeenthere threeweekswhenMoiracame.Shewasbroughtinto the gymnasiumby two of theAunts, in the usualway,whilewewerehavingournap.Shestillhadherclotheson,jeansandabluesweatshirt–herhairwas short, she’ddefied fashion asusual – so I recognizedher at once.Shesawmetoo,butsheturnedaway,shealreadyknewwhatwassafe.Therewasabruiseonherleftcheek,turningpurple.TheAuntstookhertoavacantbedwherethereddresswasalreadylaidout.Sheundressed,begantodressagain, in silence, the Aunts standing at the end of the bed, the rest of uswatchingfrominsideourslittedeyes.AsshebentoverIcouldseetheknobsonherspine.
Icouldn’ttalktoherforseveraldays;welookedonly,smallglances,likesips.Friendshipsweresuspicious,weknewit,weavoidedeachotherduringthemealtimelineupsinthecafeteriaandinthehallsbetweenclasses.Butonthe fourth day shewas besideme during thewalk, two by two around thefootballfield.Weweren’tgiventhewhitewingsuntilwegraduated,wehad
Itmakesmefeelsafer,thatMoiraishere.Wecangotothewashroomifweputourhandsup,thoughthere’salimittohowmanytimesaday,theymarkitdownonachart. Iwatch theclock,electricandround,at thefrontover thegreenblackboard.Two-thirtycomesduringTestifying.AuntHelena ishere,aswellasAuntLydia,becauseTestifyingisspecial.AuntHelenaisfat,sheonceheadedaWeightWatchers’ franchiseoperation in Iowa.She’sgoodatTestifying.
It’sJanine,tellingabouthowshewasgang-rapedatfourteenandhadanabortion.She told thesamestory lastweek.Sheseemedalmostproudof it,whileshewastelling.Itmaynotevenbetrue.AtTestifying,it’ssafertomakethings up than to say you have nothing to reveal.But since it’s Janine, it’sprobablymoreorlesstrue.
Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at thefrontoftheclassroom,handsbehindherback,wherewecouldallseeher,herredfaceanddrippingnose.Herhairdullblonde,hereyelashessolighttheyseemednotthere,thelosteyelashesofsomeonewho’sbeeninafire.Burnedeyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newbornmouse.Noneofuswantedtolooklikethat,ever.Foramoment,eventhough
Thatwaslastweek.ThisweekJaninedoesn’twaitforustojeerather.Itwasmy fault, she says. Itwasmyown fault. I led themon. I deserved thepain.
Ihave towaituntil this isoverbefore Iputupmyhand.Sometimes, ifyouaskatthewrongmoment,theysayNo.Ifyoureallyhavetogothatcanbe crucial.YesterdayDoloreswet the floor. TwoAunts hauled her away, ahandundereacharmpit.Shewasn’ttherefortheafternoonwalk,butatnightshewasbackinherusualbed.Allnightwecouldhearhermoaning,offandon.
Iraisemyhand,AuntLydianods.Istandupandwalkoutintothehall,asinconspicuously as possible. Outside the washroom Aunt Elizabeth isstandingguard.Shenods,signallingthatIcangoin.
Thiswashroomusedtobeforboys.Themirrorshavebeenreplacedheretoobyoblongsofdullgreymetal,buttheurinalsarestillthere,ononewall,white enamel with yellow stains. They look oddly like babies’ coffins. Imarvel again at the nakedness ofmens’ lives: the showers right out in theopen,thebodyexposedforinspectionandcomparison,thepublicdisplayofprivates.What is it for?What purposes of reassurance does it serve? Theflashingofabadge,look,everyone,allisinorder,Ibelonghere.Whydon’twomen have to prove to one another that they are women? Some form ofunbuttoning,somesplit-crotchroutine,justascasual.Adog-likesniffing.
Thehighschoolisold,thestallsarewooden,somekindofchipboard.Igointothesecondonefromtheend,swingthedoorto.Ofcoursetherearenolonger any locks. In thewood there’s a small hole, at the back, next to thewall,aboutwaistheight,souvenirofsomepreviousvandalismorlegacyofanancient voyeur. Everyone in the Centre knows about this hole in the
I’mafraidIamtoolate,heldupbyJanine’sTestifying:maybeMoirahasbeen here already,maybe she’s had to go back.They don’t give youmuchtime.Ilookcarefullydown,aslantunderthestallwall,andtherearetworedshoes.ButhowcanItellwhoitis?
Isinkdownintomybodyasintoaswamp,fenland,whereonlyIknowthefooting.Treacherousground,myown territory. Ibecome theearth I setmyear against, for rumours of the future. Each twinge, eachmurmur of slightpain,ripplesofsloughed-offmatter,swellingsanddiminishingsoftissue,thedroolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to knowabout.Eachmonth Iwatch forblood, fearfully, forwhen it comes itmeansfailure. I have failed once again to fulfil the expectations of others, whichhavebecomemyown.
Iused to thinkofmybodyasan instrument,ofpleasure,orameansoftransportation,or an implement for the accomplishmentofmywill. I coulduseittorun,pushbuttons,ofonesortoranother,makethingshappen.Therewerelimitsbutmybodywasneverthelesslithe,single,solid,onewithme.
Nowtheflesharrangesitselfdifferently.I’macloud,congealedaroundacentralobject,theshapeofapear,whichishardandmorerealthanIamandglowsredwithinitstranslucentwrapping.Insideitisaspace,hugeastheskyat night and dark and curved like that, though black-red rather than black.Pinpointsoflightswell,sparkle,burstandshrivelwithinit,countlessasstars.Everymonth there is amoon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits,pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair comingtowardsmelikefamine.Tofeelthatempty,again,again.Ilistentomyheart,waveuponwave,saltyandred,continuingonandon,markingtime.
I’m in our first apartment, in the bedroom. I’m standing in front of thecupboard, which has folding doorsmade of wood. Aroundme I know it’s
empty, all the furniture is gone, the floors are bare, no carpets even; butdespitethisthecupboardisfullofclothes.Ithinkthey’remyclothes,buttheydon’t look like mine, I’ve never seen them before. Maybe they’re clothesbelonging to Luke’s wife, whom I’ve also never seen; only pictures and avoiceonthephone,lateatnight,whenshewascallingus,crying,accusing,beforethedivorce.Butno,they’remyclothesallright.Ineedadress,Ineedsomethingtowear.Ipulloutdresses,black,blue,purple,jackets,skirts;noneofthemwilldo,noneofthemevenfits,they’retoobigortoosmall.
Lukeisthere,behindme,Iturntoseehim.Hewon’tlookatme,helooksdownatthefloor,wherethecatisrubbingitselfagainsthislegs,mewingandmewing plaintively. Itwants food, but how can there be any foodwith theapartmentsoempty?
I’m running, with her, holding her hand, pulling, dragging her through thebracken,she’sonlyhalfawakebecauseofthepillIgaveher,soshewouldn’tcryorsayanythingthatwouldgiveusaway,shedoesn’tknowwheresheis.The ground is uneven, rocks, dead branches, the smell of damp earth, oldleaves, she can’t run fast enough, bymyself I could run faster, I’m a goodrunner.Nowshe’scrying,she’sfrightened,Iwanttocarryherbutshewouldbetooheavy.IhavemyhikingbootsonandIthink,whenwereachthewaterI’llhavetokickthemoff,willitbetoocold,willshebeabletoswimthatfar,whataboutthecurrent,weweren’texpectingthis.Quiet,Isaytoherangrily.Ithink about her drowning and this thought slowsme. Then the shots comebehindus,notloud,notlikefirecrackers,butsharpandcrisplikeadrybranchsnapping.Itsoundswrong,nothingeversoundsthewayyouthinkitwill,andIhearthevoice,Down,isitarealvoiceoravoiceinsidemyheadormyownvoice,outloud?
I pull her to the ground and roll on top of her to cover her, shield her.Quiet,Isayagain,myfaceiswet,sweatortears,Ifeelcalmandfloating,asifI’mnolongerinmybody;closetomyeyesthere’saleaf,red,turnedearly,Icanseeeverybrightvein.It’sthemostbeautifulthingI’veeverseen.Ieaseoff,Idon’twanttosmotherher,insteadIcurlmyselfaroundher,keepingmyhand over her mouth. There’s breath and the knocking of my heart, likepounding,at thedoorofahouseatnight,whereyou thoughtyouwouldbesafe.It’sallright,I’mhere,Isay,whisper,Pleasebequiet,buthowcanshe?She’stooyoung,it’stoolate,wecomeapart,myarmsareheld,andtheedges
godarkandnothingisleftbutalittlewindow,averylittlewindow,likethewrongendofa telescope, likethewindowonaChristmascard,anoldone,nightandiceoutside,andwithinacandle,ashiningtree,afamily,Icanhearthebellseven,sleighbells,fromtheradio,oldmusic,butthroughthiswindowIcansee,smallbutveryclear,Icanseeher,goingawayfromme,throughthetreeswhicharealreadyturning,redandyellow,holdingoutherarmstome,beingcarriedaway.
When thebellhas finishedIdescend thestairs,abriefwaif in theeyeofglass thathangson thedownstairswall.Theclock tickswith itspendulum,keepingtime;myfeetintheirneatredshoescountthewaydown.
Thesittingroomwouldoncehavebeencalledadrawingroom,perhaps;thenalivingroom.Ormaybeit’saparlour,thekindwithaspiderandflies.But now it’s officially a sitting room, because that’swhat is done in it, bysome. For others there’s standing room only. The posture of the body isimportant,hereandnow:minordiscomfortsareinstructive.
The sitting room is subdued, symmetrical; it’s oneof the shapesmoneytakeswhen it freezes.Money has trickled through this room for years andyears, as if through an underground cavern, crusting and hardening likestalactitesintotheseforms.Mutelythevariedsurfacespresentthemselves:thedusk-rose velvet of the drawn drapes, the gloss of the matching chairs,eighteenth century, the cow’s-tongue hush of the tuftedChinese rug on thefloor, with its peach-pink peonies, the suave leather of the Commander’schair,theglintofbrassontheboxbesideit.
Therugisauthentic.Somethingsinthisroomareauthentic,somearenot.For instance, two paintings, both of women, one on either side of thefireplace.Bothweardarkdresses,liketheonesintheoldchurch,thoughofalater date. The paintings are possibly authentic. I suspect thatwhen SerenaJoyacquiredthem,afteritbecameobvioustoherthatshe’dhavetoredirectherenergies intosomethingconvincinglydomestic, shehad the intentionof
passing them off as ancestors. Ormaybe theywere in the housewhen theCommanderboughtit.There’snowayofknowingsuchthings.Inanycase,there theyhang, theirbacksandmouths stiff, theirbreasts constricted, theirfacespinched,theircapsstarched,theirskingreyish-white,guardingtheroomwiththeirnarrowedeyes.
Between them, over themantel, there’s an ovalmirror, flanked by twopairsofsilvercandlesticks,withawhitechinaCupidcentredbetweenthem,its arm around the neck of a lamb. The tastes of Serena Joy are a strangeblend:hardlustforquality,softsentimentalcravings.There’sadriedflowerarrangementoneitherendofthemantelpiece,andavaseofrealdaffodilsonthepolishedmarquetryendtablebesidethesofa.
Theroomsmellsoflemonoil,heavycloth,fadingdaffodils,theleftoversmells of cooking that havemade theirway from the kitchen or the diningroom,andofSerenaJoy’sperfume:Lilyof theValley.Perfume isa luxury,she must have some private source. I breathe it in, thinking I shouldappreciate it. It’s thescentofprepubescentgirls,of thegiftsyoungchildrenusedtogivetheirmothers,forMother’sDay;thesmellofwhitecottonsocksandwhite cotton petticoats, of dusting powder, of the innocence of femalefleshnotyetgivenovertohairinessandblood.Itmakesmefeelslightlyill,asifI’minaclosedcaronahotmuggydaywithanolderwomanwearingtoomuchfacepowder.Thisiswhatthesittingroomislike,despiteitselegance.
Iwouldliketostealsomethingfromthisroom.Iwouldliketotakesomesmall thing, the scrolled ashtray, the little silver pillbox from the mantelperhaps,oradriedflower:hideitinthefoldsofmydressorinmyzipperedsleeve,keepitthereuntilthiseveningisover,secreteitinmyroom,underthebed,orinashoe,orinaslitinthehardpetit-pointFAITHcushion.EveryonceinawhileIwouldtakeitoutandlookatit.ItwouldmakemefeelthatIhavepower.
But such a feeling would be an illusion, and too risky.My hands staywhere they are, folded inmy lap.Thighs together, heels tucked underneathme,pressingupagainstmybody.Headlowered.Inmymouththere’sthetasteoftoothpaste:fakemintandplaster.
Iwait,forthehouseholdtoassemble.Household:thatiswhatweare.TheCommander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. Tohaveandtohold,tilldeathdouspart.
Coracomes in first, thenRita,wipingherhandsonherapron.They toohavebeensummonedbythebell,theyresentit,theyhaveotherthingstodo,thedishesforinstance.Buttheyneedtobehere,theyallneedtobehere,theCeremony demands it. We are all obliged to sit through this, one way oranother.
Nickwalksin,nodstoallthreeofus,looksaroundtheroom.Hetootakeshisplacebehindme,standing.He’ssoclosethatthetipofhisbootistouchingmyfoot.Isthisonpurpose?Whetheritisornotwearetouching,twoshapesof leather. I feel my shoe soften, blood flows into it, it grows warm, itbecomesaskin.Imovemyfootslightly,away.
“Hurry up and wait,” says Nick. He laughs, moves his foot so it’stouchingmineagain.Noonecansee,beneaththefoldsofmyoutspreadskirt.Ishift,it’stoowarminhere,thesmellofstaleperfumemakesmefeelalittlesick.Imovemyfootaway.
WehearSerenacoming,downthestairs,alongthehall,themuffledtapofhercaneontherug,thudofthegoodfoot.Shehobblesthroughthedoorway,glancesatus, countingbutnot seeing.Shenods, atNick,but saysnothing.She’sinoneofherbestdresses,sky-bluewithembroideryinwhitealongtheedgesoftheveil:flowersandfretwork.Evenatherageshestillfeelstheurgeto wreathe herself in flowers. No use for you, I think at her, my faceunmoving,youcan’tusethemanymore,you’rewithered.They’rethegenitalorgansofplants.Ireadthatsomewhere,once.
Shemakesherwaytoherchairandfootstool,turns,lowersherself,landsungracefully. She hoists her left foot onto the stool, fumbles in her sleevepocket.Icanheartherustling,theclickofherlighter,Ismellthehotsingeofthesmoke,breatheitin.
A male choir, with greenish-yellow skin, the colour needs adjusting,they’resinging“CometotheChurchintheWildwood.”Come,come,come,
come, sing the basses. Serena clicks the channel changer.Waves, colouredzigzags,agarbleofsound: it’s theMontrealsatellitestation,beingblocked.Then there’sapreacher,earnest,withshiningdarkeyes, leaning towardsusacrossadesk.Thesedaystheylookalotlikebusinessmen.Serenagiveshimafewseconds,thenclicksonward.
Several blank channels, then the news. This iswhat she’s been lookingfor. She leans back, inhales deeply. I on the contrary lean forward, a childbeingallowedup latewith thegrown-ups.This is theonegood thingaboutthese evenings, the evenings of the Ceremony: I’m allowed to watch thenews.Itseemstobeanunspokenruleinthishousehold:wealwaysgethereontime,he’salwayslate,Serenaalwaysletsuswatchthenews.
Suchasitis:whoknowsifanyofitistrue?Itcouldbeoldclips,itcouldbe faked.But Iwatch it anyway, hoping tobe able to readbeneath it.Anynews,now,isbetterthannone.
Woodedhills,seenfromabove,thetreesasicklyyellow.Iwishshe’dfixthe colour. The Appalachian Highlands, says the voice-over, where theAngels of the Apocalypse, Fourth Division, are smoking out a pocket ofBaptist guerillas, with air support from the Twenty-first Battalion of theAngelsofLight.Weareshowntwohelicopters,blackoneswithsilverwingspaintedonthesides.Belowthem,aclumpoftreesexplodes.
Nowacloseshotofaprisoner,withastubbledanddirtyface,flankedbytwoAngelsintheirneatblackuniforms.Theprisoneracceptsacigarettefromone of theAngels, puts it awkwardly to his lipswith his bound hands.Hegives a lopsided little grin.The announcer is saying something, but I don’thear it: I look into thisman’s eyes, trying todecidewhathe’s thinking.Heknows the camera is on him: is the grin a show of defiance, or is itsubmission?Isheembarrassed,athavingbeencaught?
Theanchormancomesonnow.Hismanner iskindly, fatherly;hegazesoutatusfromthescreen,looking,withhistanandhiswhitehairandcandideyes, wise wrinkles around them, like everybody’s ideal grandfather.Whathe’stellingus,hislevelsmileimplies,isforourowngood.Everythingwillbe
Istruggleagainsthim.He’slikeanoldmoviestar,Itellmyself,withfalseteeth and a face job. At the same time I sway towards him, like onehypnotized.Ifonlyitweretrue.IfonlyIcouldbelieve.
Nowhe’stellingusthatanundergroundespionageringhasbeencracked,by a team of Eyes, working with an inside informant. The ring has beensmugglingpreciousnationalresourcesovertheborderintoCanada.
“Fivemembers of the heretical sect ofQuakers havebeen arrested,” hesays,smilingblandly,“andmorearrestsareanticipated.”
Two of the Quakers appear onscreen, a man and a woman. They lookterrified,but they’re trying topreserve somedignity in frontof thecamera.Themanhasa largedarkmarkonhis forehead; thewoman’sveilhasbeentornoff, andherhair falls in strandsoverher face.Bothof themare aboutfifty.
Nowwecanseeacity,againfromtheair.ThisusedtobeDetroit.Underthe voice of the announcer there’s the thunk of artillery. From the skylinecolumnsofsmokeascend.
“ResettlementoftheChildrenofHamiscontinuingonschedule,”saysthereassuringpink face,backon the screen. “Three thousandhavearrived thisweekinNationalHomelandOne,withanothertwothousandintransit.”Howare they transporting thatmany people at once? Trains, buses?We are notshownanypicturesofthis.NationalHomelandOneisinNorthDakota.Lordknowswhatthey’resupposedtodo,oncetheygetthere.Farm,isthetheory.
SerenaJoyhashadenoughofthenews.Impatientlysheclicksthebuttonfor a station change, comesupwith an agingbassbaritone, his cheeks likeemptied udders. “WhisperingHope” iswhat he’s singing. Serena turns himoff.
Wewait, theclockinthehall ticks,Serenalightsanothercigarette,Igetinto the car. It’s a Saturdaymorning, it’s a September, we still have a car.Other people have had to sell theirs.Myname isn’tOffred, I have anothername,whichnobodyusesnowbecauseit’sforbidden.Itellmyselfitdoesn’tmatter,yourname is likeyour telephonenumber,usefulonly toothers;butwhatItellmyselfiswrong,itdoesmatter.Ikeeptheknowledgeofthisname
like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. Ithinkofthisnameasburied.Thisnamehasanauraaroundit,likeanamulet,some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie inmysinglebedatnight,withmyeyesclosed,andthenamefloatstherebehindmyeyes,notquitewithinreach,shininginthedark.
It’saSaturdaymorninginSeptember,I’mwearingmyshiningname.Thelittlegirlwhoisnowdeadsits in thebackseat,withher twobestdolls,herstuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love. I know all the details. They aresentimental details but I can’t help that. I can’t think about the rabbit toomuch though, I can’t start to cry, here on theChinese rug, breathing in thesmoke thathasbeen insideSerena’sbody.Nothere,notnow, I cando thatlater.
Shethoughtweweregoingonapicnic,andinfactthereisapicnicbasketon theback seat,besideher,with real food in it, hard-boiledeggs, thermosandall.Wedidn’twanther toknowwherewewerereallygoing,wedidn’twanther to tell,bymistake, revealanything, ifwewerestopped.Wedidn’twanttolayuponhertheburdenofourtruth.
I wore my hiking boots, she had on her sneakers. The laces of thesneakershadadesignofheartsonthem,red,purple,pink,andyellow.Itwaswarm for the time of year, the leaveswere turning already, some of them;Lukedrove,Isatbesidehim,thesunshone,theskywasblue,thehousesaswe passed them looked comforting and ordinary, each house as it was leftbehind vanishing into past time, crumbling in an instant as if it had neverbeen,becauseIwouldneverseeitagain,orsoIthoughtthen.
Wehavealmostnothingwithus,wedon’twanttolookasifwe’regoinganywherefarorpermanent.Wehavetheforgedpassports,guaranteed,worththeprice.Wecouldn’tpayinmoney,ofcourse,orputitontheCompucount:we used other things, some jewellery that wasmy grandmother’s, a stampcollectionLukeinheritedfromhisuncle.Suchthingscanbeexchanged,formoney,inothercountries.Whenwegettotheborderwe’llpretendwe’rejustgoingoveronadaytrip;thefakevisasareforaday.BeforethatI’llgiveherasleepingpillsoshe’llbeasleepwhenwecross.Thatwayshewon’tbetrayus.Youcan’texpectachildtolieconvincingly.
And I don’t want her to feel frightened, to feel the fear that is nowtighteningmymuscles,tensingmyspine,pullingmesotautthatI’mcertainIwouldbreakiftouched.Everystoplightisanordeal.We’llspendthenightat
a motel, or, better, sleeping in the car on a sideroad so there will be nosuspiciousquestions.We’llcrossinthemorning,driveoverthebridge,easily,justlikedrivingtothesupermarket.
ThatishowIfeel:white,flat,thin.Ifeeltransparent.Surelytheywillbeabletoseethroughme.Worse,howwillIbeabletoholdontoLuke,toher,whenI’msoflat,sowhite?Ifeelasifthere’snotmuchleftofme;theywillslip throughmy arms, as if I’mmadeof smoke, as if I’m amirage, fadingbeforetheireyes.Don’tthinkthatway,Moirawouldsay.Thinkthatwayandyou’llmakeithappen.
Cheer up, saysLuke.He’s driving a little too fast now.The adrenalin’sgonetohishead.Nowhe’ssinging.Ohwhatabeautifulmorning,hesings.
The Commander knocks at the door. The knock is prescribed: the sittingroomissupposedtobeSerenaJoy’sterritory,he’ssupposedtoaskpermissionto enter it. She likes to keep him waiting. It’s a little thing, but in thishousehold little things mean a lot. Tonight, however, she doesn’t even getthat, because before Serena Joy can speak he steps forward into the roomanyway. Maybe he’s just forgotten the protocol, but maybe it’s deliberate.Whoknowswhatshesaidtohim,overthesilver-encrusteddinnertable?Ordidn’tsay.
The Commander has on his black uniform, in which he looks like amuseumguard.Asemi-retiredman,genialbutwary,killingtime.Butonlyatfirst glance.After that he looks like amidwestern bank president,with hisstraightneatlybrushedsilverhair,hissoberposture,shouldersalittlestooped.Andafterthatthereishismoustache,silveralso,andafterthathischin,whichreallyyoucan’tmiss.Whenyougetdownasfarasthechinhelookslikeavodkaad,inaglossymagazine,oftimesgoneby.
His manner is mild, his hands large, with thick fingers and acquisitivethumbs,hisblueeyesuncommunicative,falselyinnocuous.Helooksusoverasiftakinginventory.Onekneelingwomaninred,oneseatedwomaninblue,two in green, standing, a solitary man, thin-faced, in the background. Hemanagestoappearpuzzled,asifhecan’tquiterememberhowweallgotinhere.Asifwearesomethingheinherited,likeaVictorianpumporgan,andhehasn’tfiguredoutwhattodowithus.Whatweareworth.
He nods, in the general direction of Serena Joy, who does not make asound.Hecrossestothelargeleatherchairreservedforhim,takesthekeyoutofhispocket, fumbleswith theornatebrass-bound leather-coveredbox thatstandsonthetablebesidethechair.Heinsertsthekey,opensthebox,liftsouttheBible, an ordinary copy,with a black cover and gold-edged pages.The
Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so theservantswouldn’tsteal it. It isan incendiarydevice:whoknowswhatwe’dmakeofit,ifweevergotourhandsonit?Wecanbereadtofromit,byhim,but we cannot read. Our heads turn towards him, we are expectant, herecomesourbedtimestory.
The Commander sits down and crosses his legs, watched by us. Thebookmarksareinplace.Heopensthebook.Heclearshisthroatalittle,asifembarrassed.
Behindme,oneofthem,CoraorRita,leavesherspaceinthetableauandpads off towards the kitchen. The Commander sits, looking down. TheCommandersighs, takesoutapairof readingglasses fromhis inside jacketpocket, gold rims, slips themon.Nowhe looks like a shoemaker in anoldfairytalebook.Istherenoendtohisdisguises,ofbenevolence?
Tobeaman,watchedbywomen.Itmustbeentirelystrange.Tohavethemwatchinghimall the time.Tohave themwondering,What’shegoing todonext? To have them flinchwhen hemoves, even if it’s a harmless enoughmove,toreachforanashtrayperhaps.Tohavethemsizinghimup.Tohavethemthinking,hecan’tdoit,hewon’tdo,he’llhavetodo,thislastasifhewere a garment, out of style or shoddy,whichmust nevertheless be put onbecausethere’snothingelseavailable.
To have them putting him on, trying him on, trying him out, while hehimself puts themon, like a sockover a foot, onto the stubof himself, hisextra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate stalked slug’s eye, whichextrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touchedwrongly,growsbigagain,bulginga littleat the tip, travelling forwardas ifalong a leaf, into them, avid for vision. To achieve vision in thisway, thisjourneyintoadarknessthatiscomposedofwomen,awoman,whocanseeindarknesswhilehehimselfstrainsblindlyforward.
Shewatcheshimfromwithin.We’reallwatchinghim.It’sonethingwecan reallydo, and it’snot fornothing: ifhewere to falter, failordie,whatwouldbecomeofus?Nowonderhe’slikeaboot,hardontheoutside,givingshapetoapulpoftenderfoot.That’sjustawish.I’vebeenwatchinghimforsometimeandhe’sgivennoevidence,ofsoftness.
Butwatch out,Commander, I tell him inmy head. I’ve gotmy eye onyou.OnefalsemoveandI’mdead.
The water appears, the Commander drinks it. “Thank you,” he says. Corarustlesbackintoplace.
TheCommanderpauses, lookingdown, scanning thepage.He takeshistime,as ifunconsciousofus.He’s likeamantoyingwithasteak,behindarestaurantwindow,pretendingnottoseetheeyeswatchinghimfromhungrydarkness not three feet from his elbow.We lean towards him a little, ironfilingstohismagnet.Hehassomethingwedon’thave,hehastheword.Howwesquanderedit,once.
It’s the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Befruitful, andmultiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes themouldy oldRachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Centre. Give mechildren,orelseIdie.AmIinGod’sstead,whohathwithheldfromtheethefruit of thewomb?BeholdmymaidBilhah. She shall bear uponmy knees,thatImayalsohavechildrenbyher.Andsoonandsoforth.Wehaditreadtouseverybreakfast,aswesat in thehigh-schoolcafeteria,eatingporridgewith cream and brown sugar.You’re getting the best, you know, saidAuntLydia. There’s a war on, things are rationed. You are spoiled girls, shetwinkled,asifrebukingakitten.Naughtypuss.
ForlunchitwastheBeatitudes.Blessedbethis,blessedbethat.Theyplayeditfromadisc,thevoicewasaman’s.Blessedbethepoorinspirit,fortheirsis the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek.Blessedare thesilent. Iknew theymade thatup, Iknew itwaswrong,andtheyleft thingsouttoo,buttherewasnowayofchecking.Blessedbe thosethatmourn,fortheyshallbecomforted.
Icheck theclock,duringdessert, cannedpearswithcinnamon, standard
for lunch, and look for Moira in her place, two tables over. She’s gonealready. I put my hand up, I am excused.We don’t do this too often, andalwaysatdifferenttimesofday.
Not toworry, I’mgoodat it.WhenIwasakid inhighschool IcutoutvitaminC,Igotscurvy.In theearlystages theycan’tdiagnoseit.Thenyoujuststartitagainandyou’refine.I’llhidemyvitaminpills.
They send two guys with you, in the ambulance. Think about it. Theymustbestarvedforit,shit,theyaren’tevenallowedtoputtheirhandsintheirpockets,thepossibilitiesare–
You in there. Time’s up, said the voice of Aunt Elizabeth, from thedoorway. I stood up, flushed the toilet. Two of Moira’s fingers appeared,through the hole in the wall. It was only large enough for two fingers. Itouchedmyownfingerstothem,quickly,heldon.Letgo.
“AndLeahsaid,Godhathgivenmemyhire,becauseIhavegivenmymaidentomyhusband,”saystheCommander.Heletsthebookfallclosed.Itmakesanexhaustedsound,likeapaddeddoorshutting,byitself,atadistance:apuffof air. The sound suggests the softness of the thin oniony pages, how theywould feel under the fingers. Soft and dry, like papier poudre, pink andpowdery,fromthetimebefore,you’dgetitinbookletsfortakingtheshineoffyournose,inthosestoresthatsoldcandlesandsoapintheshapesofthings:
TheCommander sitswith his eyes closed for amoment, as if tired.Heworkslonghours.Hehasalotofresponsibilities.
Serenahasbeguntocry.Icanhearher,behindmyback.Itisn’tthefirsttime. She always does this, the night of theCeremony. She’s trying not tomake a noise. She’s trying to preserve her dignity, in front of us. Theupholsteryand the rugsmuffleherbutwecanhearherclearlydespite that.The tension between her lack of control and her attempt to suppress it ishorrible.It’slikeafartinchurch.Ifeel,asalways,theurgetolaugh,butnotbecause I think it’s funny.The smell of her crying spreads over us andwepretendtoignoreit.
Ibowmyheadandclosemyeyes.Ilistentotheheldbreath,thealmostinaudible gasps, the shakinggoingonbehindmyback.How shemust hateme,Ithink.
I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don’t know what itmeans,butitsoundsright,anditwillhavetodo,becauseIdon’tknowwhatelseIcansaytoGod.Notrightnow.Not,astheyusedtosay,atthisjuncture.The scratched writing on my cupboard wall floats before me, left by anunknownwoman,withthefaceofMoira.Isawhergoout,totheambulance,onastretcher,carriedbytwoAngels.
What is it? Imouthed to thewomanbesideme;safeenough,aquestionlikethat,toallbutafanatic.
Iwas having dinner, that evening, hamburger balls and hashed browns.Mytablewasnearthewindow,Icouldseeout,asfarasthefrontgates.Isawtheambulancecomeback,nosirenthistime.OneoftheAngelsjumpedout,talkedwiththeguard.Theguardwentintothebuilding;theambulancestayedparked;theAngelstoodwithhisbacktowardsus,astheyhadbeentaughttodo.Twoof theAunts cameout of the building,with the guard.Theywentaroundto theback.TheyhauledMoiraout,draggedher in throughthegateandupthefrontsteps,holdingherunderthearmpits,oneoneachside.Shewashavingtroublewalking.Istoppedeating,Icouldn’teat;bythistimeall
ofusonmysideofthetablewerestaringoutthewindow.Thewindowwasgreenish, with that chicken-wire mesh they used to put inside glass. AuntLydiasaid,Eatyourdinner.Shewentoverandpulleddowntheblind.
TheytookherintoaroomthatusedtobetheScienceLab.Itwasaroomwhere noneof us everwentwillingly.Afterwards she couldnotwalk for aweek,herfeetwouldnotfitintohershoes,theyweretooswollen.Itwasthefeetthey’ddo,forafirstoffence.Theyusedsteelcables,frayedattheends.After that thehands.Theydidn’tcarewhat theydidtoyourfeetandhands,evenifitwaspermanent.Remember,saidAuntLydia.Forourpurposesyourfeetandyourhandsarenotessential.
Moiralayonherbed,anexample.Sheshouldn’thavetriedit,notwiththeAngels,Almasaid,fromthenextbedover.Wehadtocarryhertoclasses.Westole extra paper packets of sugar for her, from the cafeteria atmealtimes,smuggledthemtoher,atnight,handingthemfrombedtobed.Probablyshedidn’tneedthesugarbutitwastheonlythingwecouldfindtosteal.Togive.
I am still praying but what I am seeing is Moira’s feet, the way theylooked after they’d brought her back.Her feet did not look like feet at all.Theylookedlikedrownedfeet,swollenandboneless,exceptfor thecolour.Theylookedlikelungs.
I lie on my back, fully clothed except for the healthy white cottonunderdrawers.WhatIcouldsee,ifIweretoopenmyeyes,wouldbethelargewhite canopy of Serena Joy’s outsized colonial-style four-poster bed,suspendedlikeasaggingcloudaboveus,acloudspriggedwithtinydropsofsilver rain,which, ifyou lookedat themclosely,would turnout tobe four-petalledflowers. Iwouldnotsee thecarpet,which iswhite,or thespriggedcurtainsandskirteddressingtablewithitssilver-backedbrushandmirrorset;onlythecanopy,whichmanagestosuggestatoneandthesametime,bythegauziness of its fabric and its heavy downward curve, both ethereality andmatter.
Or the sail of a ship. Big-bellied sails, they used to say, in poems.Bellying.Propelledforwardbyaswollenbelly.
Amist of Lily of the Valley surrounds us, chilly, crisp almost. It’s notwarminthisroom.
Aboveme,towardstheheadofthebed,SerenaJoyisarranged,outspread.Her legs are apart, I lie between them,myheadon her stomach, her pubicboneunder thebaseofmyskull,her thighsoneithersideofme.Shetooisfullyclothed.
Myarms are raised; sheholdsmyhands, eachofmine in eachof hers.This is supposed to signify thatwe areone flesh, onebeing.What it reallymeansisthatsheisincontrol,oftheprocessandthusoftheproduct.Ifany.Theringsofherlefthandcutintomyfingers.Itmayormaynotberevenge.
My red skirt is hitched up tomywaist, though no higher.Below it theCommanderisfucking.Whatheisfuckingisthelowerpartofmybody.Idonot say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too
would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one isinvolved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’tsigned up for.Therewasn’t a lot of choice but therewas some, and this iswhatIchose.
Therefore I lie still and picture the unseen canopy over my head. IrememberQueenVictoria’sadvicetoherdaughter.CloseyoureyesandthinkofEngland.ButthisisnotEngland.Iwishhewouldhurryup.
SerenaJoygripsmyhandsasifitisshe,notI,who’sbeingfucked,asifshe finds it eitherpleasurableorpainful, and theCommander fucks,with aregular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He ispreoccupied,likeamanhummingtohimselfintheshowerwithoutknowinghe’shumming; like amanwhohasother thingsonhismind. It’s as if he’ssomewhere else,waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on thetablewhilehewaits.There’sanimpatienceinhisrhythmnow.Butisn’tthiseveryone’swetdream,twowomenatonce?Theyusedtosaythat.Exciting,theyusedtosay.
What’sgoingon in this room,underSerena Joy’s silverycanopy, isnotexciting.Ithasnothingtodowithpassionorloveorromanceoranyofthoseother notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do withsexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena. Arousal andorgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a symptom offrivolitymerely,likejazzgartersorbeautyspots:superfluousdistractionsforthe light-minded.Outdated. It seems odd thatwomenonce spent such timeand energy reading about such things, thinking about them,worrying aboutthem,writingaboutthem.Theyaresoobviouslyrecreational.
If I were to openmy eyes a slit, I would be able to see him, his not-unpleasant facehangingovermy torso,witha fewstrandsofhissilverhairfallingperhapsoverhisforehead,intentonhisinnerjourney,thatplaceheishurryingtowards,whichrecedesasinadreamatthesamespeedwithwhichheapproachesit.Iwouldseehisopeneyes.
At least he’s an improvement on the previous one, who smelled like achurchcloakroomintherain;likeyourmouthwhenthedentiststartspickingatyourteeth;likeanostril.TheCommander,instead,smellsofmothballs,oris this odour somepunitive formof aftershave?Whydoeshehave towearthatstupiduniform?ButwouldIlikehiswhite,tuftedrawbodyanybetter?
He comes at last,with a stifled groan as of relief. Serena Joy,who hasbeenholdingherbreath,expels it.TheCommander,whohasbeenproppinghimself on his elbows, away from our combined bodies, doesn’t permithimself to sink down into us. He rests a moment, withdraws, recedes,rezippers. He nods, then turns and leaves the room, closing the door withexaggeratedcarebehindhim,as ifbothofusarehisailingmother.There’ssomethinghilariousaboutthis,butIdon’tdarelaugh.
SerenaJoyletsgoofmyhands.“Youcangetupnow,”shesays.“Getupandgetout.”She’ssupposedtohavemerest,fortenminutes,withmyfeetona pillow to improve the chances. This is meant to be a time of silentmeditationforher,butshe’snotinthemoodforthat.Thereisloathinginhervoice, as if the touch ofmy flesh sickens and contaminates her. I untanglemyselffromherbody,standup; the juiceof theCommanderrunsdownmylegs.Before I turn away I see her straighten her blue skirt, clench her legstogether;shecontinueslyingonthebed,gazingupatthecanopyaboveher,stiffandstraightasaneffigy.
Ilookforthepatofbutter,inthetoeofmyrightshoe,whereIhiditafterdinner.Thecupboardwastoowarm,thebutterissemi-liquid.MuchofithassunkintothepapernapkinIwrappeditin.NowI’llhavebutterinmyshoe.Notthefirsttime,becausewheneverthereisbutterorevenmargarine,Isavesome in this way. I can get most of the butter off the shoe lining, with awashclothorsometoiletpaperfromthebathroom,tomorrow.
Irubthebutterovermyface,workitintotheskinofmyhands.There’sno longer any hand lotion or face cream, not for us. Such things areconsideredvanities.Wearecontainers,it’sonlytheinsidesofourbodiesthatare important.Theoutsidecanbecomehardandwrinkled, forall theycare,liketheshellofanut.ThiswasadecreeoftheWives,thisabsenceofhandlotion.Theydon’twantustolookattractive.Forthem,thingsarebadenoughasitis.
The butter is a trick I learned at theRachel andLeahCentre. TheRedCentre,wecalledit,becausetherewassomuchred.Mypredecessorinthisroom,my friendwith the freckles and thegood laugh,musthavedone thistoo,thisbuttering.Wealldoit.
The butter is greasy and it will go rancid and I will smell like an oldcheese;butatleastit’sorganic,astheyusedtosay.
Buttered,Ilieonmysinglebed,flat,likeapieceoftoast.Ican’tsleep.Inthesemi-darkIstareupattheblindplastereyeinthemiddleoftheceiling,whichstaresbackdownatme,eventhoughitcan’tsee.There’snobreeze,mywhitecurtainsare likegauzebandages,hanging limp,glimmering in theauracastbythesearchlightthatilluminatesthishouseatnight,oristhereamoon?
I fold back the sheet, get carefully up, on silent bare feet, in mynightgown,go to thewindow, like a child, Iwant to see.Themoonon thebreastofthenew-fallensnow.Theskyisclearbuthardtomakeout,becauseof the searchlight;butyes, in theobscuredskyamoondoes float,newly,awishingmoon, a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, awink. Themoon is astone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautifulanyway.
Down past the fisheye on the hall wall, I can see my white shape, oftentedbody,hairdownmybacklikeamane,myeyesgleaming.Ilikethis.Iamdoingsomething,onmyown.Theactivetense.Tensed.WhatIwouldliketostealisaknife,fromthekitchen,butI’mnotreadyforthat.
Ireachthesittingroom,door’sajar,slipin,leavethedooralittleopen.Asqueakofwood,butwho’snearenoughtohear?Istandintheroom,lettingthepupilsofmyeyesdilate,likeacat’sorowl’s.Oldperfume,clothdustfillmynostrils.There’saslightmistoflight,comingthroughthecracksaroundthe closed drapes, from the searchlight outside, where two men doubtlesspatrol, I’ve seen them, from above, from behindmy curtains, dark shapes,cutouts. Now I can see outlines, gleams: from themirror, the bases of thelamps,thevases,thesofaloominglikeacloudatdusk.
What should I take?Something thatwill not bemissed. In thewood atmidnight, a magic flower. A withered daffodil, not one from the driedarrangement. The daffodils will soon be thrown out, they’re beginning tosmell.AlongwithSerena’sstalefumes,thestenchofherknitting.
I grope, find an end table, feel. There’s a clink, I must have knockedsomething. I find thedaffodils,crispat theedgeswhere they’vedried, limptowards the stems, use my fingers to pinch. I will press this, somewhere.Under themattress.Leave it there, for thenextwoman, theonewhocomesafterme,tofind.
Ihear the step,quiet asmine, the creakingof the same floorboard.Thedoorclosesbehindme,withalittleclick,cuttingthelight.Ifreeze:whitewasamistake.I’msnowinmoonlight,eveninthedark.
Idon’t answer.He too is illegal, here,withme,he can’tgivemeaway.NorIhim;forthemomentwe’remirrors.Heputshishandonmyarm,pullsme against him, his mouth on mine, what else comes from such denial?Withoutaword.Bothofusshaking,howI’dliketo.InSerena’sparlour,withthe dried flowers, on the Chinese carpet, his thin body. A man entirelyunknown.Itwouldbelikeshouting,itwouldbelikeshootingsomeone.Myhand goes down, how about that, I could unbutton, and then. But it’s toodangerous,heknowsit,wepusheachotheraway,notfar.Toomuchtrust,toomuchrisk,toomuchalready.
“Iwascomingtofindyou,”hesays,breathes,almostintomyear.Iwanttoreachup,tastehisskin,hemakesmehungry.Hisfingersmove,feelingmyarmunderthenightgownsleeve,asifhishandwon’tlistentoreason.It’ssogood, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy.Luke,you’dknow,you’dunderstand.It’syouhere,inanotherbody.
“Why?”Isay.Isitsobad,forhim,thathe’dtaketheriskofcomingtomyroomatnight?I thinkof thehangedmen,hookedontheWall. Icanhardlystandup.Ihavetogetaway,backtothestairs,beforeIdissolveentirely.Hishand’sonmyshouldernow,heldstill,heavy,pressingdownonmelikewarmlead.IsthiswhatIwoulddiefor?I’macoward,Ihatethethoughtofpain.
“Tomorrow,” he says, just audible. In the dark parlour we move awayfromeachother, slowly,as ifpulled towardseachotherbya force,current,pulledapartalsobyhandsequallystrong.
I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run yourfingeraroundtherimanditwillmakeasound.ThisiswhatIfeellike:thissoundofglass.Ifeellikethewordshatter.Iwanttobewithsomeone.
Lying inbed,withLuke,hishandonmyroundedbelly.The threeofus, inbed,shekicking,turningoverwithinme.Thunderstormoutsidethewindow,that’swhyshe’sawake, theycanhear, theysleep, theycanbestartled,eventhere in the soothing of the heart, likewaves on the shore around them.Aflashoflightning,quiteclose,Luke’seyesgowhiteforaninstant.
Butthisiswrong,nobodydiesfromlackofsex.It’slackoflovewediefrom.There’snobodyhereIcanlove,allthepeopleIcouldlovearedeadorelsewhere.Whoknowswhere they are orwhat their names are now?Theymightaswellbenowhere,asIamforthem.Itooamamissingperson.
FromtimetotimeIcanseetheirfaces,againstthedark,flickeringliketheimagesofsaints, inoldforeigncathedrals, inthelightofthedraftycandles;candles you would light to pray by, kneeling, your forehead against thewoodenrailing,hopingforananswer.Icanconjurethembuttheyaremiragesonly,theydon’tlast.CanIbeblamedforwantingarealbody,toputmyarmsaround?Without it I too amdisembodied. I can listen tomyownheartbeatagainstthebedsprings,Icanstrokemyself,underthedrywhitesheets,inthedark, but I too amdry andwhite, hard, granular; it’s like runningmyhandoveraplatefulofdriedrice;it’slikesnow.There’ssomethingdeadaboutit,somethingdeserted. Iamlikea roomwhere thingsoncehappenedandnownothingdoes,exceptthepollenoftheweedsthatgrowupoutsidethewindow,blowinginasdustacrossthefloor.
I believeLuke is lying face down in a thicket, a tangle of bracken, thebrown fronds from last year under the green ones just unrolled, or groundhemlockperhaps, although it’s too early for the red berries.What is left ofhim:hishair,thebones,theplaidwoolshirt,greenandblack,theleatherbelt,theworkboots.Iknowexactlywhathewaswearing.Icanseehisclothesinmy mind, bright as a lithograph or a full-colour advertisement, from anancientmagazine, thoughnothis face,notsowell.His face isbeginning tofade, possibly because it wasn’t always the same: his face had differentexpressions,hisclothesdidnot.
Ipray that thehole,or twoor three, therewasmore thanoneshot, theywereclosetogether,Ipraythatatleastoneholeisneatly,quickly,andfinallythroughtheskull,throughtheplacewhereallthepictureswere,sothattherewouldhavebeenonlytheoneflash,ofdarknessorpain,dullIhope,likethewordthud,onlytheoneandthensilence.
I also believe that Luke is sitting up, in a rectangle somewhere, greycement,onaledgeortheedgeofsomething,abedorchair.Godknowswhathe’swearing.God knowswhat they’ve put him in.God isn’t the only onewho knows, somaybe there could be someway of finding out. He hasn’tshavedforayear,thoughtheycuthishairshort,whenevertheyfeellikeit,forlicetheysay.I’llhavetorevisethat:iftheycutthehairforlice,they’dcutthebeardtoo.You’dthink.
Anyway,theydon’tdoitwell,thehairisragged,thebackofhisneckisnicked,that’shardlytheworst,helookstenyearsolder,twenty,he’sbentlikeanoldman,hiseyesarepouched,smallpurpleveinshaveburstinhischeeks,there’sascar,no,awound, it isn’tyethealed, thecolourof tulips,near thestem end, down the left side of his facewhere the flesh split recently. Thebodyissoeasilydamaged,soeasilydisposedof,waterandchemicalsisallitis,hardlymoretoitthanajellyfish,dryingonsand.
Hefindsitpainfultomovehishands,painfultomove.Hedoesn’tknowwhathe’saccusedof.Aproblem.Theremustbesomething,someaccusation.Otherwisewhy are they keeping him,why isn’t he already dead?Hemustknowsomethingtheywanttoknow.Ican’timagine.Ican’timaginehehasn’talreadysaidwhateveritis.Iwould.
adirtycage.Iimaginehimresting,becauseIcan’tbeartoimaginehimatanyothertime,justasIcan’timagineanythingbelowhiscollar,abovehiscuffs.Idon’twanttothinkwhatthey’vedonetohisbody.Doeshehaveshoes?No,andtheflooriscoldandwet.DoesheknowI’mhere,alive,thatI’mthinkingabouthim?Ihavetobelieveso.Inreducedcircumstancesyouhavetobelieveall kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in theether,thatsortofjunk.Ineverusedto.
Ialsobelievethattheydidn’tcatchhimorcatchupwithhimafterall,thathemade it, reached the bank, swam the river, crossed the border, draggedhimself up on the far shore, an island, teeth chattering; found hisway to anearbyfarmhouse,wasallowedin,withsuspicionatfirst,butthenwhentheyunderstoodwhohewas,theywerefriendly,notthesortwhowouldturnhimin,perhapstheywereQuakers,theywillsmugglehiminland,fromhousetohouse, the woman made him some hot coffee and gave him a set of herhusband’sclothes.Ipicturetheclothes.Itcomfortsmetodresshimwarmly.
Hemadecontactwiththeothers,theremustbearesistance,agovernmentin exile. Someonemust be out there, taking care of things. I believe in theresistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, noshadowunlessthereisalsolight.Theremustbearesistance,orwheredoallthecriminalscomefrom,onthetelevision?
Anydaynowtheremaybeamessagefromhim.Itwillcomeinthemostunexpectedway, from the least likely person, someone I neverwould havesuspected. Under my plate, on the dinner tray? Slipped into my hand as IreachthetokensacrossthecounterinAllFlesh?
ThemessagewillsaythatImusthavepatience:soonerorlaterhewillgetmeout,wewill findher,wherever they’veputher.She’ll rememberusandwewillbeallthreeofustogether.MeanwhileImustendure,keepmyselfsafeforlater.Whathashappenedtome,what’shappeningtomenowwon’tmakeanydifference tohim,he lovesmeanyway,heknows it isn’tmyfault.Themessagewill say that also. It’s thismessage, whichmay never arrive, thatkeepsmealive.Ibelieveinthemessage.
ThethingsIbelievecan’tallbetrue,thoughoneofthemmustbe.ButIbelieve inallof them,all threeversionsofLuke,atoneand thesametime.Thiscontradictorywayofbelievingseemstome,rightnow, theonlywayIcanbelieveanything.Whateverthetruthis,Iwillbereadyforit.
One of the gravestones in the cemetery near the earliest church has ananchoronitandanhourglass,andthewords:InHope.
InHope.Whydid theyput thataboveadeadperson?Was it thecorpsehoping,orthosestillalive?
go out the door, not this door. I’m at home, one of my homes, and she’srunningtomeetme,inhersmallgreennightgownwiththesunfloweronthefront,herfeetbare,andIpickherupandfeelherarmsandlegsgoaroundmeandIbegintocry,becauseIknowthenthatI’mnotawake.I’mbackinthisbed,tryingtowakeup,andIwakeupandsitontheedgeofthebed,andmymothercomes inwitha trayandasksme if I’m feelingbetter.When Iwassick,asachild,shehadtostayhomefromwork.ButI’mnotawakethistimeeither.
After these dreams I do awake, and I know I’m really awake becausethere is the wreath, on the ceiling, and my curtains hanging like drownedwhitehair.Ifeeldrugged.Iconsiderthis:maybethey’redruggingme.MaybethelifeIthinkI’mlivingisaparanoiddelusion.
Greynesscomesthroughthecurtains,hazybright,notmuchsuntoday.Igetout of bed, go to the window, kneel on the window seat, the hard littlecushion,FAITH,andlookout.Thereisnothingtobeseen.
Iwonderwhat has becomeof the other two cushions.Theremust havebeen three,once.HOPE andCHARITY,where have they been stowed?SerenaJoyhas tidyhabits. Shewouldn’t throwaway anythingnot quitewornout.OneforRita,oneforCora?
ameeting. It can alsomean amode of execution. It is the first syllable incharity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has anyconnectionwiththeothers.
Infrontofmeisatray,andonthetrayareaglassofapplejuice,avitaminpill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dishcontaininghoney,andanotherplatewithanegg-cuponit,thekindthatlookslikeawoman’storso,inaskirt.Undertheskirtisthesecondegg,beingkeptwarm.Theegg-cupiswhitechinawithabluestripe.
Thefirsteggiswhite.Imovetheegg-cupalittle,soit’snowinthewaterysunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning,brighteningagain,onthetray.Theshelloftheeggissmoothbutalsograined;smallpebblesofcalciumaredefinedbythesunlight,likecratersonthemoon.It’sabarrenlandscape,yetperfect;it’sthesortofdesertthesaintswentinto,sotheirmindswouldnotbedistractedbyprofusion.IthinkthatthisiswhatGodmustlooklike:anegg.Thelifeofthemoonmaynotbeonthesurface,butinside.
I pick the egg out of the cup and finger it for a moment. It’s warm.Womenusedtocarrysucheggsbetweentheirbreasts,toincubatethem.Thatwouldhavefeltgood.
In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strangeobjects. Iwould like apet: a bird, say, or a cat.A familiar.Anything at allfamiliar.Aratwoulddo,inapinch,butthere’snochanceofthat.Thishouseistooclean.
WhileI’meatingthesecondegg,Ihearthesiren,atagreatdistanceatfirst,windingitswaytowardsmeamongthelargehousesandclippedlawns,athinsound like thehumofan insect; thennearing,openingout, likea flowerof
sound opening, into a trumpet. A proclamation, this siren. I put down myspoon,myheartspeedsup,Igotothewindowagain:willitbeblueandnotforme?ButIseeitturnthecorner,comealongthestreet,stopinfrontofthehouse, stillblaring,and it’s red. Joy to theworld, rareenough thesedays. Ileavethesecondegghalfeaten,hurrytotheclosetformycloak,andalreadyIcanhearfeetonthestairsandthevoicescalling.
“Hurry,” saysCora, “won’twait all day,” and shehelpsmeonwith thecloak,she’sactuallysmiling.
I almost run down the hall, the stairs are like skiing, the front door iswide, today I cango through it, and theGuardian stands there saluting. It’sstartedtorain,adrizzle,andthegravidsmellofearthandgrassfillstheair.
TheredBirthmobileisparkedinthedriveway.ItsbackdoorisopenandIclamber in. The carpet on the floor is red, red curtains are drawn over thewindows.Therearethreewomeninherealready,sittingonthebenchesthatrun the lengthof thevanoneither side.TheGuardiancloses and locks thedoubledoorsandclimbsintothefront,besidethedriver;throughtheglassed-overwire grill we can see the backs of their heads.We start with a lurch,whileoverheadthesirenscreams:Makeway,makeway!
“Whoisit?”Isaytothewomannexttome;intoherear,orwhereherearmust be under thewhite headdress. I almost have to shout, the noise is soloud.
“Ofwarren,”sheshoutsback.Impulsivelyshegrabsmyhand,squeezesit,aswe lurcharound thecorner; she turns tomeandIseeher face, therearetearsrunningdownhercheeks,buttearsofwhat?Envy,disappointment?Butno, she’s laughing, she throws her arms around me, I’ve never seen herbefore,shehugsme,shehaslargebreasts,undertheredhabit,shewipeshersleeveacrossherface.Onthisdaywecandoanythingwewant.
Across fromuson theotherbench,onewoman ispraying, eyesclosed,hands up to hermouth.Or shemay not be praying. Shemay be biting herthumbnails. Possibly she’s trying to keep calm. The third woman is calmalready.Shesitswithherarmsfolded,smilingalittle.Thesirengoesonandon.Thatused tobe the soundofdeath, for ambulancesor fires.Possibly itwill be the sound of death today also. We will soon know. What willOfwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, anUnbaby,withapinheadorasnoutlikeadog’s,ortwobodies,oraholeinits
Thechancesareoneinfour,welearnedthatattheCentre.Theairgottoofull, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxicmolecules,allofthattakesyearstocleanup,andmeanwhiletheycreepintoyourbody,campoutinyourfattycells.Whoknows,yourveryfleshmaybepolluted,dirtyasanoilybeach,suredeathtoshorebirdsandunbornbabies.Maybeavulturewoulddieofeatingyou.Maybeyoulightupinthedark,likeanold-fashionedwatch.Deathwatch.That’sakindofbeetle,itburiescarrion.
Ican’tthinkofmyself,mybody,sometimes,withoutseeingtheskeleton:howImustappeartoanelectron.Acradleoflife,madeofbones;andwithin,hazards, warped proteins, bad crystals jagged as glass. Women tookmedicines, pills,men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up pissflowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants,alongtheSanAndreasfault,nobody’sfault,duringtheearthquakes,andthemutantstrainofsyphilisnomouldcouldtouch.Somediditthemselves,hadthemselvestiedshutwithcatgutorscarredwithchemicals.Howcouldthey,said Aunt Lydia, oh how could they have done such a thing? Jezebels!ScorningGod’sgifts!Wringingherhands.
It’s a riskyou’re taking, saidAuntLydia, butyouare the shock troops,youwillmarchoutinadvance,intodangerousterritory.Thegreatertheriskthegreatertheglory.Sheclaspedherhands,radiantwithourphonycourage.Welookeddownatthetopsofourdesks.Togothroughallthatandgivebirthtoa shredder: itwasn’ta fine thought.Wedidn’tknowexactlywhatwouldhappentothebabiesthatdidn’tgetpassed,thatweredeclaredUnbabies.Butweknewtheywereputsomewhere,quickly,away.
Therewasnoonecause,saysAuntLydia.Shestandsatthefrontoftheroom,in her khaki dress, a pointer in her hand. Pulled down in front of theblackboard,whereoncetherewouldhavebeenamap,isagraph,showingthebirth rateper thousand, foryearsandyears:aslipperyslope,downpast thezerolineofreplacement,anddownanddown.
Ofcourse,somewomenbelievedtherewouldbenofuture,theythoughttheworldwould explode.Thatwas the excuse theyused, saysAuntLydia.Theysaidtherewasnosenseinbreeding.AuntLydia’snostrilsnarrow:such
Onthetopofmydeskthereareinitials,carvedintothewood,anddates.The initials are sometimes in twosets, joinedby theword loves. J.H. lovesB.P.1954.O.R. lovesL.T.These seem tome like the inscriptions I used toread about, carvedon the stonewalls of caves, or drawnwith amixture ofsootandanimalfat.Theyseemtomeincrediblyancient.Thedesktopisofblondewood;itslantsdown,andthereisanarmrestontherightside,toleanonwhenyouwerewriting,onpaper,withapen. Inside thedeskyoucouldkeep things: books, notebooks. These habits of former times appear tomenow lavish,decadent almost; immoral, like theorgiesofbarbarian regimes.M.lovesG.,1972.Thiscarving,donewithapencildugmanytimesintothewornvarnishofthedesk,hasthepathosofallvanishedcivilizations.It’slikeahandprintonstone.Whoevermadethatwasoncealive.
Theymademistakes, saysAuntLydia.We don’t intend to repeat them.Hervoiceispious,condescending,thevoiceofthosewhosedutyitistotellusunpleasant thingsforourowngood. Iwould like tostrangleher. IshovethisthoughtawayalmostassoonasIthinkit.
Athingisvalued,shesays,onlyifitisrareandhardtoget.Wewantyouto be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses,which she savours in hermouth.Thinkofyourselvesaspearls.We,sittinginourrows,eyesdown,wemakehersalivatemorally.Weareherstodefine,wemustsufferheradjectives.
I thinkaboutpearls.Pearlsarecongealedoysterspit.This iswhatIwilltellMoira,later;ifIcan.
All of us herewill lick you into shape, saysAunt Lydia,with satisfiedgoodcheer.
Thevanstops,thebackdoorsareopened,theGuardianherdsusout.AtthefrontdoorstandsanotherGuardian,withoneof thosesnubbymachinegunsslung over his shoulder.We file towards the front door, in the drizzle, theGuardianssaluting.ThebigEmergevan, theonewith themachinesandthemobile doctors, is parked farther along the circular drive. I see one of thedoctors lookingout thewindowof thevan. Iwonderwhat theydo in there,waiting.Playcards,mostlikely,orread;somemasculinepursuit.Mostofthetimetheyaren’tneededatall;they’reonlyallowedinifitcan’tbehelped.
It used to be different, they used to be in charge.A shame itwas, saidAunt Lydia. Shameful.What she’d just showed uswas a film,made in anolden-days hospital: a pregnant woman, wired up to a machine, electrodescomingoutofhereverywhichwaysothatshelookedlikeabrokenrobot,anintravenousdripfeedingintoherarm.Somemanwithasearchlight lookingupbetweenherlegs,whereshe’dbeenshaved,amerebeardlessgirl,atrayfulof bright sterilizedknives, everyonewithmaskson.A co-operativepatient.Once theydruggedwomen, induced labour,cut themopen, sewed themup.No more. No anaesthetics, even. Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for thebaby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; insorrowthoushaltbringforthchildren.Atlunchwegotthat,brownbreadandlettucesandwiches.
As I’m going up the steps, wide steps with a stone urn on either side,Ofwarren’sCommandermustbehigherstatusthanours,Ihearanothersiren.It’stheblueBirthmobile,forWives.ThatwillbeSerenaJoy,arrivinginstate.Nobenchesforthem,theygetrealseats,upholstery.Theyfacefrontandarenotcurtainedoff.Theyknowwherethey’regoing.
ProbablySerenaJoyhasbeenherebefore,tothishouse,fortea.ProbablyOfwarren,formerlythatwhinybitchJanine,wasparadedoutinfrontofher,her and the other Wives, so they could see her belly, feel it perhaps, andcongratulatetheWife.Astronggirl,goodmuscles.NoAgentOrangeinherfamily,we checked the records, you cannever be too careful.Andperhapsoneofthekinderones:Wouldyoulikeacookie,dear?
Such a, sowell behaved, not surly like some of them, do their job andthat’sthat.Morelikeadaughtertoyou,asyoumightsay.Oneofthefamily.Comfortable matronly chuckles. That’s all dear, you can go back to yourroom.
And after she’s gone: Littlewhores, all of them, but still, you can’t bechoosy. You take what they hand out, right, girls? That from theCommander’sWife.
The central staircase is wider than ours, with a curved banister on eitherside.FromaboveIcanhearthechantingofthewomenwhoarealreadythere.Wegoupthestairs,singlefile,beingcarefulnottosteponthetrailinghemsofeachother’sdresses.To the left, thedoubledoors to thediningroomarefoldedback,and inside Icansee the long table,coveredwithawhiteclothand spreadwith a buffet: ham, cheese, oranges – theyhaveoranges! – andfresh-bakedbreadsandcakes.Asforus,we’llgetmilkandsandwiches,onatray,later.Buttheyhaveacoffeeurn,andbottlesofwine,forwhyshouldn’ttheWivesgeta littledrunkonsucha triumphantday?First they’llwait forthe results, then they’llpigout.They’regathered in the sitting roomon theothersideofthestairwaynow,cheeringonthisCommander’sWife,theWifeof Warren. A small thin woman, she lies on the floor, in a white cottonnightgown,hergreyinghairspreadinglikemildewovertherug;theymassagehertinybelly,justasifshe’sreallyabouttogivebirthherself.
TheCommander,ofcourse,isnowhereinsight.He’sgonewherevermengo on such occasions, some hideout. Probably he’s figuring out when hispromotion is likely to be announced, if all goeswell.He’s sure to get one,now.
Ofwarren is in the master bedroom, a good name for it; where thisCommanderandhisWifenightlybeddown.She’ssittingontheirking-sizedbed,proppedwithpillows:Janine, inflatedbutreduced,shornofherformername.She’swearingawhitecottonshift,whichishikedupoverherthighs;herlongbroom-colouredhairispulledbackandtiedbehindherhead,tokeepitoutoftheway.Hereyesaresqueezedclosed,andthiswayIcanalmostlikeher.Afterall,she’soneofus;whatdidsheeverwantbuttoleadherlifeasagreeablyaspossible?Whatelsedidanyofuswant?It’s thepossible that’sthecatch.She’snotdoingbadly,underthecircumstances.
TwowomenIdon’tknowstandoneithersideofher,grippingherhands,orshe theirs.A third lifts thenightgown,poursbabyoilontohermoundofstomach, rubs downwards. At her feet stands Aunt Elizabeth, in her khakidresswith themilitarybreastpockets;shewas theonewho taughtGynEd.AllIcanseeofheristhesideofherhead,herprofile,butIknowit’sher,thatjuttingnoseandhandsomechin,severe.AthersidestandstheBirthingStool,withitsdoubleseat,thebackoneraisedlikeathronebehindtheother.Theywon’tputJanineonitbeforeit’stime.Theblanketsstandready,thesmalltubforbathing,thebowloficeforJaninetosuck.
The rest of the women sit cross-legged on the rug; there’s a crowd ofthem,everyoneinthisdistrictissupposedtobehere.Theremustbetwenty-five,thirty.NoteveryCommanderhasaHandmaid:someoftheirWiveshavechildren. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to eachaccordingtohisneeds.Werecitedthat,threetimes,afterdessert.ItwasfromtheBible,orsotheysaid.St.Paulagain,inActs.
You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest foryou.Weknowthesacrificesyouarebeingexpectedtomake.Itishardwhenmenrevileyou.Fortheoneswhocomeafteryou,itwillbeeasier.Theywillaccepttheirdutieswithwillinghearts.
Onceaweekwehadmovies,after lunchandbeforeournap.Wesaton theflooroftheDomesticScienceroom,onourlittlegreymats,andwaitedwhileAuntHelenaandAuntLydiastruggledwiththeprojectionequipment.Ifwewere lucky they wouldn’t get the film threaded upside-down. What itremindedmeofwasgeographyclasses,atmyownhighschoolthousandsofyearsbefore,wheretheyshowedmoviesof therestof theworld;womeninlong skirts or cheap printed cotton dresses, carrying bundles of sticks, orbaskets, or plastic buckets of water, from some river or other, with babiesslungontheminshawlsornetslings,lookingsquint-eyedorafraidoutofthescreenatus,knowingsomethingwasbeingdonetothembyamachinewithone glass eye but not knowing what. Those movies were comforting andfaintly boring. They made me feel sleepy, even when men came onto thescreen,withnakedmuscles,hackingawayatharddirtwithprimitivehoesandshovels, hauling rocks. I preferred movies with dancing in them, singing,ceremonialmasks,carvedartifactsformakingmusic:feathers,brassbuttons,
Sometimes themovie she showedwouldbe anoldporno film from theseventiesoreighties.Womenkneeling,suckingpenisesorguns,womentieduporchainedorwithdogcollarsaround theirnecks,womenhanging fromtrees,orupside-down,naked,withtheirlegsheldapart,womenbeingraped,beaten up, killed. Once we had to watch a woman being slowly cut intopieces, her fingers and breasts snipped offwith garden shears, her stomachslitopenandherintestinespulledout.
Considerthealternatives,saidAuntLydia.Youseewhatthingsusedtobelike?Thatwaswhat they thoughtofwomen, then.Hervoice trembledwithindignation.
Moira said later that itwasn’t real, itwasdonewithmodels;but itwashardtotell.
Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called anUnwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time likethat, when they should have been doing something useful. Back then, theUnwomenwere always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. Thegovernmentgavethemmoneytodothatverything.Mindyou,someoftheirideasweresoundenough,shewenton,withthesmugauthorityinhervoiceofonewhoisinapositiontojudge.Wewouldhavetocondonesomeoftheirideas, even today. Only some, mind you, she said coyly, raising her indexfinger,waggling it at us.But theywereGodless, and that canmake all thedifference,don’tyouagree?
Isitonmymat,handsfolded,andAuntLydiastepstotheside,awayfromthescreen,andthelightsgoout,andIwonderwhetherIcan,inthedark,leanfarover to the rightwithoutbeingseen,andwhisper, to thewomannext tome.WhatwillIwhisper?Iwillsay,HaveyouseenMoira.Becausenobodyhas,shewasn’tatbreakfast.Buttheroom,althoughdim,isn’tdarkenough,soIswitchmymind into theholdingpattern thatpasses forattention.Theydon’tplaythesoundtrack,onmovieslikethese,thoughtheydoonthepornofilms. Theywant us to hear the screams and grunts and shrieks ofwhat is
Firstcomethetitleandsomenames,blackedoutonthefilmwithacrayonsowecan’treadthem,andthenIseemymother.Myyoungmother,youngerthanIrememberher,asyoungasshemusthavebeenoncebeforeIwasborn.She’swearingthekindofoutfitAuntLydiatolduswastypicalofUnwomeninthosedays,overalljeanswithagreenandmauveplaidshirtunderneathandsneakersonherfeet;thesortofthingMoiraoncewore,thesortofthingIcanrememberwearing,longago,myself.Herhairistuckedintoamauvekerchieftiedbehindherhead.Herfaceisveryyoung,veryserious,evenpretty.I’veforgotten mymother was once as pretty and as earnest as that. She’s in agroupofotherwomen,dressedinthesamefashion;she’sholdingastick,no,it’spartofabanner,thehandle.Thecamerapansupandweseethewriting,inpaintonwhatmusthavebeenabedsheet:TAKEBACKTHENIGHT.Thishasn’tbeenblackedout,eventhoughwearen’tsupposedtobereading.Thewomenaroundmebreathein, there’sastirringintheroom,likewindovergrass.Isthis an oversight, havewe gotten awaywith something?Or is this a thingwe’reintendedtosee,toremindusoftheolddaysofnosafety?
Behind this sign there are other signs, and the camera notices thembriefly: FREEDOM TO CHOOSE. EVERY BABY A WANTED BABY. RECAPTURE OUR
BODIES.DOYOUBELIEVEAWOMAN’SPLACEISONTHEKITCHENTABLE?Underthelast sign there’s a line drawing of awoman’s body, lying on a table, blooddrippingoutofit.
Now my mother is moving forward, she’s smiling, laughing, they allmove forward, and now they’re raising their fists in the air. The cameramoves to thesky,wherehundredsofballoonsrise, trailing theirstrings: redballoons,withacirclepaintedonthem,acirclewithastemlikethestemofan apple, the stem is a cross. Back on the earth,mymother is part of thecrowdnow,andIcan’tseeheranymore.
IhadyouwhenIwasthirty-seven,mymothersaid.Itwasarisk,youcouldhavebeendeformedorsomething.Youwereawantedchild,allright,anddidIgetshitfromsomequarters!MyoldestbuddyTriciaForemanaccusedmeofbeingpro-natalist,thebitch.Jealousy,Iputthatdownto.Someoftheotherswereokaythough.ButwhenIwassixmonths’pregnant,alotofthemstartedsendingme these articles about how the birth defect ratewent zooming upafterthirty-five.JustwhatIneeded.Andstuffabouthowharditwastobeasingleparent.Fuck that shit, I told them, I’ve started this and I’mgoing to
finish it.At thehospital theywrotedown“AgedPrimipara”on the chart, Icaught them in the act.That’swhat they call youwhen it’s your first babyover thirty, over thirty for godsake. Garbage, I told them, biologically I’mtwenty-two, Icould run ringsaroundyouanyday. Icouldhave tripletsandwalkoutofherewhileyouwerestilltryingtogetupoffthebed.
Whenshe said that she’d jutoutherchin. I rememberher like that,herchin jutted out, a drink in front of her on the kitchen table; not young andearnestandprettythewayshewasinthemovie,butwiry,spunky,thekindofoldwomanwhowon’t letanyonebutt in frontofher inasupermarket line.ShelikedtocomeovertomyhouseandhaveadrinkwhileLukeandIwerefixingdinnerandtelluswhatwaswrongwithherlife,whichalwaysturnedintowhatwaswrongwithours.Herhairwasgreybythattime,ofcourse.Shewouldn’t dye it.Why pretend, she’d say. Anywaywhat do I need it for, Idon’twantamanaround,whatusearetheyexceptfortenseconds’worthofhalfbabies.Amanisjustawoman’sstrategyformakingotherwomen.Notthatyourfatherwasn’taniceguyandall,buthewasn’tuptofatherhood.Notthat I expected itofhim. Justdo the job, thenyoucanbuggeroff, I said, Imakeadecentsalary,Icanafforddaycare.SohewenttothecoastandsentChristmas cards.He had beautiful blue eyes though.But there’s somethingmissing in them, even the nice ones. It’s like they’re permanently absent-minded, like theycan’tquite rememberwho theyare.They lookat the skytoomuch.They lose touchwith their feet.Theyaren’tapatchonawomanexceptthey’rebetteratfixingcarsandplayingfootball,justwhatweneedfortheimprovementofthehumanrace,right?
Thatwas thewayshe talked,even in frontofLuke.Hedidn’tmind,heteasedherbypretendingtobemacho,he’dtellherwomenwereincapableofabstractthoughtandshe’dhaveanotherdrinkandgrinathim.
Isn’t shequaint,Lukewouldsay tome,andmymotherwould looksly,furtivealmost.
I’mentitled, she’d say. I’moldenough, I’vepaidmydues, it’s time formetobequaint.You’restillwetbehindtheears.Piglet,Ishouldhavesaid.
As for you, she’d say to me, you’re just a backlash. Flash in the pan.Historywillabsolveme.
You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t knowwhatwehadtogothrough,justtogetyouwhereyouare.Lookathim,slicingup the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how manywomen’sbodies,thetankshadtorolloverjusttogetthatfar?
Hobby,schmobby,mymotherwouldsay.Youdon’thavetomakeexcusestome. Once upon a time you wouldn’t have been allowed to have such ahobby,they’dhavecalledyouqueer.
Sometimes shewouldcry. Iwas so lonely, she’d say.Youhaveno ideahow lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonelyanyway.
I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us werenever easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me tovindicateherlifeforher,andthechoicesshe’dmade.Ididn’twanttolivemylifeonherterms.Ididn’twanttobethemodeloffspring,theincarnationofher ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification forexistence,Isaidtoheronce.
Iwantherback.Iwanteverythingback, thewayitwas.But thereisnopointtoit,thiswanting.
It’s hot in here, and toonoisy.Thewomen’s voices rise aroundme, a softchant that is still too loud forme,after thedaysanddaysof silence. In thecorner of the room there’s a bloodstained sheet, bundled and tossed there,fromwhenthewatersbroke.Ihadn’tnoticeditbefore.
The room smells too, the air is close, they should open awindow. Thesmellisofourownflesh,anorganicsmell,sweatandatingeofiron,fromthebloodonthesheet,andanothersmell,moreanimal,that’scoming,itmustbe,fromJanine:asmellofdens,ofinhabitedcaves,thesmelloftheplaidblanketonthebedwhenthecatgavebirthonit,once,beforeshewasspayed.Smellofmatrix.
“Breathe,breathe,”wechant,aswehavebeentaught.“Hold,hold.Expel,expel, expel.”We chant to the count of five. Five in, hold for five, out forfive.Janine,hereyesclosed,triestoslowherbreathing.AuntElizabethfeelsforthecontractions.
NowJanine is restless, shewants towalk.The twowomenhelpheroffthebed,supportheroneithersidewhileshepaces.Acontractionhitsher,shedoublesover.Oneofthewomenkneelsandrubsherback.Weareallgoodatthis,we’vehadlessons.IrecognizeOfglen,myshoppingpartner,sittingtwoawayfromme.Thesoftchantingenvelopsuslikeamembrane.
IwanttotellhertherewasanAlmawithmeattheCentre.Iwanttotellhermyname, butAuntElizabeth raises her head, staring around the room,shemusthaveheardabreakinthechant,sothere’snomoretime.Sometimesyoucanfindthingsout,onBirthDays.ButtherewouldbenopointinaskingaboutLuke.Hewouldn’tbewhereanyofthesewomenwouldbelikelytoseehim.
The chanting goes on, it begins to catch me. It’s hard work, you’resupposed to concentrate. Identify with your body, said Aunt Elizabeth.AlreadyIcanfeelslightpains,inmybelly,andmybreastsareheavy.Janinescreams,aweakscream,partwaybetweenascreamandagroan.
Oneof thehelperswipesJanine’s foreheadwithadampcloth. Janine issweatingnow,herhair is escaping inwisps from theelasticband,bitsof itsticktoherforeheadandneck.Herfleshisdamp,saturated,lustrous.
Weallknowthatshe’sintransition,shedoesn’tknowwhatshe’sdoing.Which of these statements is true? Probably the last one. Aunt Elizabethsignals,twowomenstandbesidetheportabletoilet,Janineisloweredgentlyontoit.There’sanothersmell,addedtotheothersintheroom.Janinegroansagain,herheadbentoversoallwecansee isherhair.Crouching like that,she’s like a doll, an old one that’s been pillaged and discarded, in somecorner,akimbo.
theCentre,whensheusedtocryaboutitatnight,liketherestofusonlymorenoisily. So she ought to be able to remember this, what it’s like, what’scoming.Butwhocanrememberpain,onceit’sover?Allthatremainsofitisashadow,not in themindeven, in theflesh.Painmarksyou,but toodeep tosee.Outofsight,outofmind.
Someonehasspikedthegrapejuice.Someonehaspinchedabottle,fromdownstairs. Itwon’t be the first time at such a gathering; but they’ll turn ablindeye.Wetooneedourorgies.
Someonestands,movestothewall,thelightintheroomfadestotwilight,our voices dwindle to a chorus of creaks, of husky whispers, likegrasshoppersinafieldatnight.Twoleavetheroom,twoothersleadJaninetotheBirthingStool,whereshesitsonthelowerofthetwoseats.She’scalmernow,airsucksevenlyintoherlungs,weleanforward,tensed,themusclesinour backs and bellies hurt from the strain. It’s coming, it’s coming, like abugle, a call to arms, like awall falling,we can feel it like a heavy stonemovingdown,pulleddown insideus,we thinkwewillburst.Wegripeachother’shands,wearenolongersingle.
The Commander’s Wife hurries in, in her ridiculous white cottonnightgown,herspindlylegsstickingoutbeneathit.TwooftheWivesintheirbluedressesandveilsholdherbythearms,asifsheneedsit;shehasatightlittlesmileonherface,likeahostessatapartyshe’drathernotbegiving.Shemustknowwhatwethinkofher.ShescramblesontotheBirthingStool,sitson the seat behind and above Janine, so that Janine is framed by her: herskinny legs come down on either side, like the arms of an eccentric chair.Oddlyenough,she’swearingwhitecottonsocks,andbedroomslippers,blueonesmadeoffuzzymaterial,liketoilet-seatcovers.ButwepaynoattentiontotheWife,wehardlyevenseeher,oureyesareonJanine.Inthedimlight,inherwhitegown,sheglowslikeamoonincloud.
She’s grunting now, with the effort. “Push, push, push,” we whisper.“Relax.Pant.Push,push,push.”We’rewithher,we’rethesameasher,we’redrunk. Aunt Elizabeth kneels, with an outspread towel to catch the baby,here’s the crowning, the glory, the head, purple and smearedwith yoghurt,anotherpushanditslithersout,slickwithfluidandblood,intoourwaiting.Ohpraise.
far sogood, at least there’s nothingwrongwith it, that canbe seen, hands,feet,eyes,wesilentlycount,everything is inplace.AuntElizabeth,holdingthebaby,looksupatusandsmiles.Wesmiletoo,weareonesmile,tearsrundownourcheeks,wearesohappy.
Ourhappinessispartmemory.WhatIrememberisLuke,withmeinthehospital,standingbesidemyhead,holdingmyhand, in thegreengownandwhite mask they gave him. Oh, he said, Oh Jesus, breath coming out inwonder.Thatnighthecouldn’tgotosleepatall,hesaid,hewassohigh.
Aunt Elizabeth is gently washing the baby off, it isn’t crying much, itstops.As quietly as possible, so as not to startle it, we rise, crowd aroundJanine, squeezingher, pattingher.She’s crying too.The twoWives in bluehelpthethirdWife,theWifeofthehousehold,downfromtheBirthingStooland over to the bed, where they lay her down and tuck her in. The baby,washednowandquiet,isplacedceremoniouslyinherarms.TheWivesfromdownstairsarecrowding innow,pushingamongus,pushingusaside.Theytalk too loud, someof themare still carrying theirplates, their coffeecups,theirwine glasses, some of them are still chewing, they cluster around thebed, the mother and child, cooing and congratulating. Envy radiates fromthem, I can smell it, faint wisps of acid, mingled with their perfume. TheCommander’sWife looks down at the baby as if it’s a bouquet of flowers:somethingshe’swon,atribute.
We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this.Someonegivesheradrinkofgrapejuice,Ihopethere’swineinit,she’sstillhaving the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-outmiserable tears. Nevertheless we are jubilant, it’s a victory, for all of us.We’vedoneit.
She’ll be allowed to nurse the baby, for a fewmonths, they believe inmother’smilk.After that she’llbe transferred, to see if shecando it again,withsomeoneelsewhoneedsaturn.Butshe’llneverbesenttotheColonies,she’llneverbedeclaredUnwoman.Thatisherreward.
The Birthmobile is waiting outside, to deliver us back to our ownhouseholds. The doctors are still in their van; their faces appear at thewindow,white blobs, like the faces of sick children confined to the house.Oneofthemopensthedoorandcomestowardsus.
“Yes,” I say.BynowI’mwrungout,exhausted.Mybreastsarepainful,they’releakingalittle.Fakemilk,ithappensthiswaywithsomeofus.Wesiton our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re withoutemotionnow,almostwithout feeling,wemightbebundlesof redcloth.Weache.Eachofusholdsinherlapaphantom,aghostbaby.Whatconfrontsus,nowtheexcitement’sover,isourownfailure.Mother,Ithink.Whereveryoumaybe.Canyouhearme?Youwantedawomen’sculture.Well,nowthereisone.Itisn’twhatyoumeant,butitexists.Bethankfulforsmallmercies.
BythetimetheBirthmobilearrivesinfrontofthehouseit’slateafternoon.Thesuniscomingweaklythroughtheclouds,thesmellofwetgrasswarmingupisintheair.I’vebeenattheBirthallday;youlosetrackoftime.Corawillhavedonetheshoppingtoday,I’mexcusedfromallduties.Igoupthestairs,liftingmyfeetheavilyfromonesteptothenext,holdingontothebanister.Ifeel as if I’ve been awake for days and running hard, my chest hurts; mymusclescrampasifthey’reoutofsugar.ForonceIwelcomesolitude.
Ilieonthebed.Iwouldliketorest,gotosleep,butI’mtootired,atthesametimetooexcited,myeyeswon’tclose.Ilookupattheceiling,tracingthefoliageofthewreath.Todayitmakesmethinkofahat,thelarge-brimmedhats women used to wear at some period during the old days: hats likeenormoushaloes,festoonedwithfruitandflowers,andthefeathersofexoticbirds; hats like an idea of paradise, floating just above the head, a thoughtsolidified.
InaminutethewreathwillstarttocolourandIwillbeginseeingthings.That’showtiredIam:aswhenyou’ddrivenallnight,intothedawn,forsomereason,Iwon’t thinkabout thatnow,keepingeachotherawakewithstoriesandtakingturnsatthewheel,andasthesunwouldbegintocomeupyou’dseethingsatthesidesofyoureyes:purpleanimals,inthebushesbesidetheroad,thevagueoutlinesofmen,whichwoulddisappearwhenyoulookedatthemstraight.
I’mtootiredtogoonwiththisstory.I’mtootiredtothinkaboutwhereIam.Here isadifferentstory,abetterone.This is thestoryofwhathappenedtoMoira.
Partof it Icanfill inmyself,partof it IheardfromAlma,whohearditfromDolores, who heard it from Janine. Janine heard it fromAunt Lydia.Therecanbeallianceseven in suchplaces, evenunder suchcircumstances.
Blessedbethefruit,Janine,AuntLydiawouldhavesaid,withoutlookingupfromherdesk,whereshewaswritingsomething.Foreveryrule there isalwaysanexception:thistoocanbedependedupon.TheAuntsareallowedtoreadandwrite.
May the Lord open, Janine would have replied, tonelessly, in hertransparentvoice,hervoiceofraweggwhite.
IfeelIcanrelyonyou,Janine,AuntLydiawouldhavesaid,raisinghereyesfromthepageatlastandfixingJaninewiththatlookofhers,throughthespectacles, a look thatmanaged tobebothmenacingandbeseeching, all atonce.Helpme, that looksaid,weareall in this together.Youarea reliablegirl,shewenton,notlikesomeoftheothers.
She thoughtall Janine’ssnivellingandrepentancemeantsomething,shethoughtJaninehadbeenbroken,shethoughtJaninewasatruebeliever.Butby that time Janine was like a puppy that’s been kicked too often, by toomanypeople,atrandom:she’drolloverforanyone,she’dtellanything,justforamomentofapprobation.
Janinelookeddownatthefloor.Whateveritwas,sheknewshewouldnotbeblamedforit,shewasblameless.Butwhatusehadthatbeentoherinthepast, tobeblameless?Soat thesame timeshefeltguilty,andas ifshewasabouttobepunished.
ThenAuntLydiatoldherthestory.Moirahadraisedherhandtogotothewashroom,duringExercises.Shehadgone.AuntElizabethwasonwashroomduty.AuntElizabethstayedoutsidethewashroomdoor,asusual;Moirawentin. After a moment Moira called to Aunt Elizabeth: the toilet wasoverflowing,couldAuntElizabethcomeandfixit?Itwastruethatthetoiletssometimesoverflowed.Unknownpersonsstuffedwadsof toiletpaperdownthemtomakethemdothisverything.TheAuntshadbeenworkingonsomefoolproofwayofpreventingthis,butfundswereshortandrightnowtheyhadto make do with what was at hand, and they hadn’t figured out a way oflockingupthetoiletpaper.Possiblytheyshouldkeepitoutsidethedooronatableandhandeachpersonasheetorseveralsheetsasshewentin.Butthatwasforthefuture.Ittakesawhiletogetthewrinklesout,ofanythingnew.
Moirawasnotlying,waterwasrunningoverthefloor,andseveralpiecesof disintegrating fecal matter. It was not pleasant and Aunt Elizabeth wasannoyed. Moira stood politely aside, and Aunt Elizabeth hurried into thecubicleMoirahadindicated,andbentoverthebackofthetoilet.Sheintendedtoliftofftheporcelainlidandfiddlewiththearrangementofbulbandpluginside.Shehadbothhandsonthelidwhenshefeltsomethinghardandsharpandpossiblymetallicjabintoherribsfrombehind.Don’tmove,saidMoira,orI’llstickitallthewayin,Iknowwhere,I’llpunctureyourlung.
Theyfoundoutafterwardsthatshe’ddismantledtheinsideofoneofthetoiletsandtakenout thelongthinpointedlever, thepart thatattachestothehandleatoneendandthechainattheother.Itisn’ttoohardtodoifyouknowhow,andMoirahadmechanicalability,sheusedtofixherowncar,theminorthings.Soonafterthisthetoiletswerefittedwithchainstoholdthetopson,and when they overflowed it took a long time to get them open. We hadseveralfloodsthatway.
AuntElizabethcouldn’t seewhatwaspoking intoherback,AuntLydiasaid.Shewasabravewoman…
…butnotfoolhardy,saidAuntLydia,frowningalittle.Janinehadbeenover-enthusiastic, which sometimes has the force of a denial. She did asMoirasaid,AuntLydiacontinued.Moiragotholdofhercattleprodandherwhistle, ordering Aunt Elizabeth to unclip them from her belt. Then shehurriedAunt Elizabeth down the stairs to the basement. Theywere on thesecond floor, not the third, so there were only two flights of stairs to benegotiated.Classeswereinsessionsotherewasnobodyinthehalls.TheydidseeanotherAunt,butshewasat thefarendof thecorridorandnot lookingtheir way. Aunt Elizabeth could have screamed at this point but she knewMoirameantwhatshesaid;Moirahadabadreputation.
Moira tookAuntElizabethalong thecorridorofempty lockers,past thedoortothegymnasium,andintothefurnaceroom.ShetoldAuntElizabethtotakeoffallherclothes…
…andMoiratookoffherownclothesandputonthoseofAuntElizabeth,which did not fit her exactly butwell enough. Shewas not overly cruel toAuntElizabeth,sheallowedhertoputonherownreddress.Theveilshetoreintostrips,andtiedAuntElizabethupwiththem,inbehindthefurnace.Shestuffedsomeoftheclothintohermouthandtieditinplacewithanotherstrip.She tied a strip aroundAuntElizabeth’s neck and tied the other end to herfeet,behind.Sheisacunninganddangerouswoman,saidAuntLydia.
Yes,Janine,saidAuntLydia,surprised,butknowingshecouldnotrefuseat this point. She was asking for Janine’s attention, her co-operation. Sheindicatedthechairinthecorner.Janinedrewitforward.
Icouldkillyou,youknow,saidMoira,whenAuntElizabethwassafelystowedoutofsightbehindthefurnace.Icouldinjureyoubadlysoyouwouldnever feelgood inyourbodyagain. I couldzapyouwith this,or stick thisthingintoyoureye.JustrememberIdidn’t,ifitevercomestothat.
not have been ruled out, by the Aunts or by anyone else – was back inoperationattheCentre.
Moirastoodupstraightandlookedfirmlyahead.Shedrewhershouldersback, pulledupher spine, and compressedher lips.Thiswasnot our usualposture.Usuallywewalkedwithheadsbentdown,oureyesonourhandsortheground.Moiradidn’tlookmuchlikeAuntElizabeth,evenwiththebrownwimple in place, but her stiff-backed posture was apparently enough toconvince theAngelsonguard,whonever lookedat anyofusvery closely,evenandperhaps especially theAunts; becauseMoiramarched straightoutthefrontdoor,withthebearingofapersonwhoknewwhereshewasgoing;was saluted, presented Aunt Elizabeth’s pass, which they didn’t bother tocheck,becausewhowouldaffrontanAuntinthatway?Anddisappeared.
Yes,AuntLydia,saidJanine.Sheknewshewouldnothavetokneeldownanymore,atthefrontoftheclassroom,andlistentoallofusshoutingatherthat itwas her fault.Now itwould be someone else for awhile. Shewas,temporarily,offthehook.
The fact that she toldDolores all about this encounter in Aunt Lydia’sofficemeantnothing.Itdidn’tmeanshewouldn’ttestifyagainstus,anyofus,ifshehadtheoccasion.Weknewthat.Bythistimeweweretreatingherthewaypeopleusedtotreatthosewithnolegswhosoldpencilsonstreetcorners.Weavoidedherwhenwe could,were charitable toherwhen it couldn’t behelped.Shewasadangertous,weknewthat.
The story passed among us that night, in the semi-darkness, under ourbreath,frombedtobed.
Moirawasout theresomewhere.Shewasat large,ordead.Whatwouldshedo?Thethoughtofwhatshewoulddoexpandedtillitfilledtheroom.Atanymomenttheremightbeashatteringexplosion,theglassofthewindowswould fall inwards, the doorswould swing open.…Moira had power now,she’dbeensetloose,she’dsetherselfloose.Shewasnowaloosewoman.
Moirawaslikeanelevatorwithopensides.Shemadeusdizzy.Alreadywewere losing the taste for freedom, alreadywewere finding thesewallssecure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you’d come apart, you’dvaporize,therewouldbenopressureholdingyoutogether.
NeverthelessMoirawasourfantasy.Wehuggedhertous,shewaswithusinsecret,agiggle;shewaslavabeneaththecrustofdailylife.InthelightofMoira, the Aunts were less fearsome andmore absurd. Their power had aflaw to it. They could be shanghaied in toilets. The audacitywaswhatweliked.
This is a reconstruction.All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstructionnow, inmyhead,as I lie flatonmysinglebed rehearsingwhat I shouldorshouldn’thavesaid,whatIshouldorshouldn’thavedone,howIshouldhaveplayedit.IfIevergetoutofhere–
Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever.Othershave thought such things, in bad times before this, and they were alwaysright,theydidgetoutonewayoranother,anditdidn’tlastforever.Althoughforthemitmayhavelastedalltheforevertheyhad.
WhenIgetoutofhere,ifI’meverabletosetthisdown,inanyform,evenintheformofonevoicetoanother,itwillbeareconstructionthentoo,atyetanotherremove.It’simpossibletosayathingexactlythewayitwas,becausewhat you say cannever be exact, you always have to leave somethingout,there are toomany parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; toomany gestures,which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fullydescribed, toomany flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, toomany. But if you happen to be aman, sometime in the future, and you’vemade it this far, please remember: you will never be subjected to thetemptationof feelingyoumust forgive, aman, as awoman. It’sdifficult toresist,believeme.Butrememberthatforgivenesstooisapower.Tobegforitisapower,andtowithholdorbestowitisapower,perhapsthegreatest.
Maybenoneofthisisaboutcontrol.Maybeitisn’treallyaboutwhocanownwhom,whocandowhat towhomandgetawaywith it,evenasfarasdeath.Maybeit isn’taboutwhocansitandwhohastokneelorstandorliedown,legsspreadopen.Maybeit’saboutwhocandowhattowhomandbeforgivenforit.Nevertellmeitamountstothesamething.
Well, of course something came before that. Such requests never come
Iwenttosleepafterall,anddreamedIwaswearingearrings,andoneofthemwasbroken;nothingbeyondthat, just thebraingoingthroughitsbackfiles,andIwaswakenedbyCorawiththedinnertray,andtimewasbackontrack.
“Itagoodbaby?”saysCoraasshe’ssettingdownthetray.Shemustknowalready, they have a kind of word-of-mouth telegraph, from household tohousehold,newsgetsaround;but itgivesherpleasuretohearaboutit,as ifmywordswillmakeitmorereal.
Cora smiles atme, a smilewhich includes.These are themoments thatmustmakewhatsheisdoingseemworthwhiletoher.
“That’s good,” she says. Her voice is almost wistful, and I think: ofcourse.Shewouldhavelikedtohavebeenthere.It’slikeapartyshecouldn’tgoto.
“Maybewehaveone,soon,”shesays,shyly.Byweshemeansme.It’suptometorepaytheteam,justifymyfoodandkeep,likeaqueenantwitheggs.Ritamaydisapproveofme,butCoradoesnot. Instead shedependsonme.Shehopes,andIamthevehicleforherhope.
Thedinnerisbeefstew.Ihavesometroublefinishingit,becausehalfwaythroughitIrememberwhatthedayhaserasedrightoutofmyhead.It’struewhattheysay,it’satrancestate,givingbirthorbeingthere,youlosetrackofthe rest of your life, you focus only on that one instant.But now it comesbacktome,andIknowI’mnotprepared.
The clock in the hall downstairs strikes nine. I pressmy hands against thesidesofmythighs,breathin,setoutalongthehallandsoftlydownthestairs.SerenaJoymaystillbeatthehousewheretheBirthtookplace;that’slucky,hecouldn’thaveforeseenit.OnthesedaystheWiveshangaroundforhours,helping toopen thepresents, gossiping,gettingdrunk.Somethinghas tobedonetodispeltheirenvy.Ifollowthedownstairscorridorback,pastthedoorthat leads into the kitchen, along to the next door, his. I stand outside it,feelinglikeachildwho’sbeensummoned,atschool,totheprincipal’soffice.
My presence here is illegal. It’s forbidden for us to be alone with theCommanders. We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geishagirls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done toremoveus from that category.There is supposed tobenothing entertainingabout us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; nospecialfavoursaretobewheedled,bythemorus,therearetobenotoeholdsfor love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatorychalices.
If I’m caught, it’s to Serena’s tendermercies I’ll be delivered.He isn’tsupposed tomeddle in such household discipline, that’swomen’s business.Afterthat,reclassification.IcouldbecomeanUnwoman.
But to refuse to see him could be worse. There’s no doubt about whoholdstherealpower.
But theremust be something hewants, fromme. Towant is to have aweakness.It’sthisweakness,whateveritis,thatenticesme.It’slikeasmallcrack in a wall, before now impenetrable. If I press my eye to it, thisweaknessofhis,Imaybeabletoseemywayclear.
Whatisontheothersideisnormallife.Ishouldsay:whatisontheothersidelookslikenormallife.Thereisadesk,ofcourse,withaComputalkonit,anda black leather chair behind it. There’s a potted plant on the desk, a pen-holderset,papers.There’sanorientalrugonthefloor,andafireplacewithoutafireinit.There’sasmallsofa,coveredinbrownplush,atelevisionset,anendtable,acoupleofchairs.
Butall around thewalls therearebookcases.They’re filledwithbooks.Booksandbooksandbooks,rightoutinplainview,nolocks,noboxes.Nowonderwecan’tcomeinhere.It’sanoasisoftheforbidden.Itrynottostare.
TheCommander is standing in frontof the fireless fireplace,back to it,one elbowon the carvedwoodenovermantel, other hand in his pocket. It’ssuchastudiedpose,somethingofthecountrysquire,someoldcome-onfromaglossymen’smag.Heprobablydecidedaheadoftimethathe’dbestandinglike that when I came in.When I knocked he probably rushed over to thefireplaceandproppedhimselfup.Heshouldhaveablackpatch,overoneeye,acravatwithhorseshoesonit.
Hemusthavenoticedthis,becausehelooksatme,puzzled,givesalittlefrown I choose to interpret as concern, though itmaymerely be irritation.“Here,”hesays.“Youcansitdown.”Hepullsachairout forme, sets it infrontofhisdesk.Thenhegoesaroundbehindthedeskandsitsdown,slowlyanditseemstomeelaborately.Whatthisacttellsmeisthathehasn’tbroughtmeheretotouchmeinanyway,againstmywill.Hesmiles.Thesmileisnotsinisterorpredatory.It’smerelyasmile,aformalkindofsmile,friendlybutalittledistant,as ifI’makitteninawindow.Onehe’s lookingatbutdoesn’tintendtobuy.
I simply look at him.The understatement of the year,was a phrasemymotheruses.Used.
I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeezeme and I’d turn into asmallsicklydampwadofweepingpinky-red.
Itrynottoleanforward.Yes?Yesyes?What,then?Whatdoeshewant?But Iwon’t give it away, this eagerness ofmine. It’s a bargaining session,thingsareabouttobeexchanged.Shewhodoesnothesitate is lost.I’mnotgivinganythingaway:sellingonly.
“I would like -” he says. “This will sound silly.” And he does lookembarrassed,sheepishwastheword,thewaymenusedtolookonce.He’soldenough to remember how to look that way, and to remember also howappealing women once found it. The young ones don’t know those tricks.They’veneverhadtousethem.
Iholdmyselfabsolutelyrigid.Ikeepmyfaceunmoving.Sothat’swhat’sintheforbiddenroom!Scrabble!Iwanttolaugh,shriekwithlaughter,falloffmychair.Thiswasoncethegameofoldwomen,oldmen,inthesummersorinretirementvillas,tobeplayedwhentherewasnothinggoodontelevision.Orofadolescents,once,longlongago.Mymotherhadaset,keptatthebackof thehall cupboard,with theChristmas-treedecorations in their cardboardboxes.Onceshetriedtointerestmeinit,whenIwasthirteenandmiserableandatlooseends.
Nowofcourse it’ssomethingdifferent.Nowit’s forbidden, forus.Nowit’s dangerous.Now it’s indecent.Now it’s something he can’t dowith hisWife. Now it’s desirable. Now he’s compromised himself. It’s as if he’sofferedmedrugs.
Weplaytwogames.Larynx,Ispell.Valance.Quince.Zygote. Ihold theglossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling isvoluptuous.Thisisfreedom,aneyeblinkofit.Limp, I spell.Gorge.Whataluxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that.Humbugs, thosewerecalled.Iwouldliketoput themintomymouth.Theywould taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue,delicious.
Iwin the firstgame, I lethimwin thesecond: I stillhaven’tdiscoveredwhatthetermsare,whatIwillbeabletoaskfor,inexchange.
Finallyhe tellsme it’s timeforme togohome.Thoseare thewordsheuses:gohome.Hemeanstomyroom.HeasksmeifIwillbeallright,asifthestairwayisadarkstreet.Isayyes.Weopenhisstudydoor,justacrack,andlistenfornoisesinthehall.
This is like being on a date. This is like sneaking into the dorm afterhours.
IthinkabouthowIcouldtakethebackofthetoiletapart,thetoiletinmyownbathroom,onabathnight,quicklyandquietly, soCoraoutsideon thechairwould not hearme. I could get the sharp lever out and hide it inmysleeve, and smuggle it into theCommander’s study, the next time, becauseafterarequestlikethatthere’salwaysanexttime,whetheryousayyesorno.IthinkabouthowIcouldapproachtheCommander,tokisshim,herealone,and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, someapproachtotruelove,andputmyarmsaroundhimandsliptheleveroutfromthesleeveanddrivethesharpendintohimsuddenly,betweenhisribs.Ithinkaboutthebloodcomingoutofhim,hotassoup,sexual,overmyhands.
InfactIdon’tthinkaboutanythingofthekind.Iputitinonlyafterwards.MaybeIshouldhavethoughtabout that,at the time,butIdidn’t.AsIsaid,thisisareconstruction.
“All right,” I say. I go to him and placemy lips, closed, against his. Ismelltheshavinglotion,theusualkind,thehintofmothballs,familiarenoughtome.Buthe’slikesomeoneI’veonlyjustmet.
WhatIneedisperspective.Theillusionofdepth,createdbyaframe,thearrangementofshapesonaflatsurface.Perspective isnecessary.Otherwisethereareonly twodimensions.Otherwiseyou livewithyour face squashedagainstawall,everythingahugeforeground,ofdetails,close-ups,hairs,theweaveofthebedsheet,themoleculesoftheface.Yourownskinlikeamap,adiagramoffutility,crisscrossedwithtinyroadsthatleadnowhere.Otherwiseyouliveinthemoment.WhichisnotwhereIwanttobe.
Iamthirty-threeyearsold.Ihavebrownhair,Istandfivesevenwithoutshoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viableovaries.Ihaveonemorechance.
Menaresexmachines,saidAuntLydia,andnotmuchmore.Theyonlywantonething.Youmustlearntomanipulatethem,foryourowngood.Leadthem around by the nose; that is a metaphor. It’s nature’s way. It’s God’sdevice.It’sthewaythingsare.
IknowIneedtotakeitseriously,thisdesireofhis.Itcouldbeimportant,itcouldbeapassport,itcouldbemydownfall.Ineedtobeearnestaboutit,Ineedtoponderit.ButnomatterwhatIdo,sittinghereinthedark,withthesearchlightsilluminatingtheoblongofmywindow,fromoutside,throughthecurtainsgauzyasabridaldress,asectoplasm,oneofmyhandsholding theother, rockingbackandfortha little,nomatterwhat Ido there’ssomethinghilariousaboutit.
I remember a television program I sawonce; a rerun,made years before. Imusthavebeensevenoreight,tooyoungtounderstandit.Itwasthesortofthingmymotherlikedtowatch:historical,educational.Shetriedtoexplainittomeafterwards,totellmethatthethingsinithadreallyhappened,buttomeitwasonlyastory.Ithoughtsomeonehadmadeitup.Isupposeallchildrenthinkthat,aboutanyhistorybeforetheirown.Ifit’sonlyastory,itbecomeslessfrightening.
The program was a documentary, about one of those wars. Theyinterviewedpeopleandshowedclipsfromfilmsofthetime,blackandwhite,andstillphotos.Idon’tremembermuchaboutit,butIrememberthequalityof the pictures, the way everything in them seemed to be coated with amixtureofsunlightanddust,andhowdarktheshadowswereunderpeople’seyebrowsandalongtheircheekbones.
The interviews with people still alive then were in colour. The one IrememberbestwaswithawomanwhohadbeenthemistressofamanwhohadsupervisedoneofthecampswheretheyputtheJews,beforetheykilledthem.Inovens,mymothersaid;butthereweren’tanypicturesoftheovens,soIgotsomeconfusednotionthatthesedeathshadtakenplaceinkitchens.There is somethingespecially terrifying toachild in that idea.Ovensmeancooking,andcookingcomesbeforeeating. I thought thesepeoplehadbeen
Fromwhat theysaid, themanhadbeencruelandbrutal.Themistress–mymother explainedmistress, she did not believe inmystification, I had apop-upbookofsexualorgansbythetimeIwasfour–themistresshadoncebeen very beautiful. There was a black-and-white shot of her and anotherwoman,inthetwo-piecebathingsuitsandplatformshoesandpicturehatsofthetime;theywerewearingcat’s-eyesunglassesandsittingindeckchairsbya swimming pool. The swimming pool was beside their house, which wasnear thecampwith theovens.Thewomansaidshedidn’tnoticemuch thatshefoundunusual.Shedeniedknowingabouttheovens.
At the timeof the interview, forty or fifty years later, shewasdyingofemphysema.Shecoughedalot,andshewasverythin,almostemaciated;butshe still took pride in her appearance. (Look at that, said mymother, halfgrudgingly,halfadmiringly.Shestilltakesprideinherappearance.)Shewascarefullymadeup,heavymascaraonhereyelashes,rougeonthebonesofhercheeks,overwhichtheskinwasstretchedlikearubberglovepulledtight.Shewaswearingpearls.
Whatcould shehavebeen thinkingabout?Notmuch, Iguess;notbackthen,notatthetime.Shewasthinkingabouthownottothink.Thetimeswereabnormal. She took pride in her appearance. She did not believe hewas amonster.Hewasnotamonster,toher.Probablyhehadsomeendearingtrait:hewhistled,offkey,intheshower,hehadayenfortruffles,hecalledhisdogLiebchenandmade it situp for littlepiecesof rawsteak.Howeasy it is toinvent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation. A bigchild, she would have said to herself. Her heart would havemelted, she’dhavesmoothedthehairbackfromhisforehead,kissedhimontheear,andnotjust to get something out of him either. The instinct to soothe, to make itbetter. There there, she’d say, as hewoke from a nightmare. Things are sohardforyou.Allthisshewouldhavebelieved,becauseotherwisehowcouldshe have kept on living? She was very ordinary, under that beauty. Shebelieved indecency,shewasnice to theJewishmaid,orniceenough,nicerthansheneededtobe.
I standup, in thedark, start tounbutton.Then Ihear something, insidemybody. I’vebroken, somethinghas cracked, thatmustbe it.Noise is comingup,comingout,of thebrokenplace, inmyface.Withoutwarning: Iwasn’tthinkingabouthereorthereoranything.IfIletthenoisegetoutintotheairitwillbelaughter,tooloud,toomuchofit,someoneisboundtohear,andthentherewillbehurryingfootstepsandcommandsandwhoknows?Judgement:emotion inappropriate to the occasion. Thewanderingwomb, they used tothink.Hysteria.Andthenaneedle,apill.Itcouldbefatal.
I stifle it in the foldsof thehangingcloak,clenchmyeyes, fromwhichtearsaresqueezing.Trytocomposemyself.
Afterawhileitpasses,likeanepilepticfit.HereIaminthecloset.Nolitete bastardes carborundorum. I can’t see it in the dark but I trace the tinyscratchedwritingwith theendsofmyfingers,as if it’sacode inBraille. Itsounds inmyheadnow less likeaprayer,more likeacommand;but todowhat?Useless tome in any case, an ancient hieroglyph towhich the key’sbeen lost.Whydidshewrite it,whydidshebother?There’snowayoutofhere.
I lie on the floor, breathing too fast, then slower, evening out mybreathing,asintheexercises,forgivingbirth.AllIcanhearnowisthesoundofmyownheart,openingandclosing,openingandclosing,opening.
What I heard first the next morning was a scream and a crash. Cora,dropping thebreakfast tray. Itwokemeup. Iwasstillhalf in thecupboard,headonthebundledcloak.Imusthavepulleditoffthehanger,andgonetosleep there; for a moment I couldn’t remember where I was. Cora waskneelingbesideme,Ifeltherhandtouchmyback.ShescreamedagainwhenImoved.
The eggs had broken on the floor, therewas orange juice and shatteredglass.
Ididn’twant to tellher I’dneverbeen tobedatall.Therewouldbenowayofexplainingthat.ItoldherImusthavefainted.Thatwasalmostasbad,becausesheseizedonit.
No, it’snot that, Isaid. Iwassitting in thechair. I’msure it isn’t that. Iwasjustdizzy.Iwasjuststandinghereandthingswentdark.
Shemeant theBirth, and I said it did.By this time Iwas sitting in thechair,andshewaskneelingonthefloor,pickingupthepiecesofbrokenglassandegg,gathering themonto the tray.Sheblottedsomeof theorange juicewiththepapernapkin.
I’llhave tobringacloth, she said.They’llwant toknowwhy theextraeggs.Unlessyoucoulddowithout.Shelookedupatmesideways,slyly,andIsaw that itwouldbebetter ifwecouldbothpretend I’deatenmybreakfastafter all. If she said she’d foundme lying on the floor, therewould be toomanyquestions.She’dhavetoaccountforthebrokenglassinanycase;butRitawouldgetsurlyifshehadtocookasecondbreakfast.
I’lldowithout,Isaid.I’mnotthathungry.Thiswasgood,itfitinwiththedizziness.But I couldmanage the toast, I said. I didn’twant to gowithoutbreakfastaltogether.
Idon’tmind,Isaid.Isatthereeatingthepieceofbrowntoastwhileshewent into thebathroomand flushed thehandfulofegg,whichcouldnotbesalvaged,downthetoilet.Thenshecameback.
It pleasedme that she was willing to lie for me, even in such a smallthing,evenforherownadvantage.Itwasalinkbetweenus.
Anditwas,andshewentoutwiththetrayandcamebackwithaclothforthe restof theorange juice, andRita thatafternoonmadeagrumpy remarkabout some folks being all thumbs. Too much on their minds, don’t lookwherethey’regoing,shesaid,andwecontinuedonfromthereasifnothinghadhappened.
momentandaredone,sheddingtheirpetalsonebyone,liketeeth.OnedayIcameuponSerenaJoy,kneelingonacushioninthegarden,hercanebesideheronthegrass.Shewassnippingofftheseedpodswithapairofshears.Iwatched her sideways as Iwent past,withmy basket of oranges and lambchops.Shewasaiming,positioningthebladesoftheshears,thencuttingwitha convulsive jerk of the hands.Was it the arthritis, creeping up? Or someblitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of theflowers?Thefruitingbody.Tocutofftheseedpodsissupposedtomakethebulbstoreenergy.
I often amused myself this way, with small mean-minded bitter jokesabouther;butnotforlong.Itdoesn’tdotolinger,watchingSerenaJoy,frombehind.
Well.Thenwehadtheirises,risingbeautifulandcoolontheirtallstalks,likeblownglass,likepastelwatermomentarilyfrozeninasplash,lightblue,lightmauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun,indigoshadow,andthebleedinghearts,sofemaleinshapeitwasasurprisethey’dnot long sincebeen rootedout.There is something subversive aboutthisgardenofSerena’s,asenseofburiedthingsburstingupwards,wordlessly,into the light,as if topoint, tosay:Whatever issilencedwillclamour tobeheard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; thereturnof thewordswoon.Lightpoursdownupon it from the sun, true,butalsoheatrises,fromtheflowersthemselves,youcanfeelit:likeholdingyourhandaninchaboveanarm,ashoulder.Itbreathes,inthewarmth,breathingitselfin.Towalkthroughitinthesedays,ofpeonies,ofpinksandcarnations,makesmyheadswim.
The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuatingwhispers.Rendezvous,itsays,terraces;thesibilantsrunupmyspine,ashiveras if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh ofmy thighs, thegrassgrowsunderfoot,at theedgesofmyeyes therearemovements, in thebranches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis runwild.Goddessesarepossiblenowandtheairsuffuseswithdesire.Eventhebricksof thehousearesoftening,becoming tactile; if I leanedagainst themthey’dbewarmandyielding.It’samazingwhatdenialcando.Didthesightofmyanklemakehimlighthearted,faint,atthecheckpointyesterday,whenI
Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not thisheaviness,asifI’mamelononastem,thisliquidripeness.
The Commander and I have an arrangement. It’s not the first sucharrangementinhistory,thoughtheshapeit’stakenisnottheusualone.
The difficulty is the Wife, as always. After dinner she goes to theirbedroom, fromwhere she could conceivably hearme as I sneak along thehall, although I takecare tobeveryquiet.Or she stays in the sitting room,knittingawayatherendlessAngelscarves,turningoutmoreandmoreyardsofintricateanduselesswoolpeople:herformofprocreation,itmustbe.Thesitting-roomdoorisusuallyleftajarwhenshe’sinthere,andIdon’tdaretogopastit.WhenI’vehadthesignalbutcan’tmakeit,downthestairsoralongthe hall past the sitting room, the Commander understands. He knows mysituation,nonebetter.Heknowsalltherules.
Sometimes, however, Serena Joy is out, visiting another Commander’sWife,asickone;that’stheonlyplaceshecouldconceivablygo,byherself,intheevenings.Shetakesfood,acakeorpieorloafofbreadbakedbyRita,orajarofjelly,madefromthemintleavesthatgrowinhergarden.Theygetsickalot,theseWivesoftheCommanders.Itaddsinteresttotheirlives.Asforus,theHandmaids and even theMarthas,we avoid illness. TheMarthas don’twanttobeforcedtoretire,becausewhoknowswheretheygo?Youdon’tseethat many old women around any more. And as for us, any real illness,anything lingering, weakening, a loss of flesh or appetite, a fall of hair, afailure of the glands, would be terminal. I remember Cora, earlier in thespring, staggering around even though she had the flu, holding onto thedoorframeswhenshethoughtnoonewaslooking,beingcarefulnottocough.Aslightcold,shesaidwhenSerenaaskedher.
Serena herself sometimes takes a few days off, tucked up in bed. Thenshe’s theone toget the company, theWives rustlingup the stairs, clucking
andcheerful; shegets the cakes andpies, the jelly, thebouquetsof flowersfromtheirgardens.
They take turns.There is some sort of list, invisible, unspoken.Each iscarefulnottohogmorethanhershareoftheattention.
The first time, I was confused. His needswere obscure tome, andwhat Icouldperceiveof themseemed tomeridiculous, laughable, likea fetishforlace-upshoes.
Also, there had been a letdown of sorts. What had I been expecting,behindthatcloseddoor, thefirst time?Somethingunspeakable,downonallfoursperhaps,perversions,whips,mutilations?Attheveryleastsomeminorsexualmanipulation,somebygonepeccadillonowdeniedhim,prohibitedbylawandpunishablebyamputation.TobeaskedtoplayScrabble,instead,asifwewereanoldmarriedcouple,ortwochildren,seemedkinkyintheextreme,aviolationtooinitsownway.Asarequestitwasopaque.
Sowhen I left the room, it stillwasn’t clear tomewhat hewanted, orwhy,orwhetherIcouldfulfilanyofitforhim.Ifthere’stobeabargain,thetermsofexchangemustbesetforth.Thiswassomethinghecertainlyhadnotdone.Ithoughthemightbetoying,somecat-and-a-mouseroutine,butnowIthinkthathismotivesanddesiresweren’tobviouseventohim.Theyhadnotyetreachedthelevelofwords.
The secondeveningbegan in the samewayas the first. Iwent to thedoor,which was closed, knocked on it, was told to come in. Then followed thesame twogames,with the smoothbeige counters.Prolix, quartz, quandary,sylph, rhythm, all the old tricks with consonants I could dream up orremember.Mytonguefeltthickwiththeeffortofspelling.Itwaslikeusingalanguage I’donceknownbuthadnearly forgotten,a languagehaving todowithcustomsthathadlongbeforepassedoutoftheworld:caféaulaitatanoutdoor table, with a brioche, absinthe in a tall glass, or shrimp in acornucopia of newspaper; things I’donce read about but hadnever seen. Itwaslike tryingtowalkwithoutcrutches, like thosephonyscenes inoldTVmovies.Youcando it. Iknowyoucan.Thatwas thewaymymind lurchedandstumbled,amongthesharpr’sandt’s,slidingovertheovoidvowelsasifonpebbles.
He smiled a little. Then he pulled open the top drawer of his desk andtook somethingout.Heheld it amoment, casually enough, between thumband finger, as if decidingwhether or not to give it tome.Although itwasupside-down from where I was sitting, I recognized it. They were oncecommonenough.Itwasamagazine,awomen’smagazineitlookedlikefromthe picture, a model on glossy paper, hair blown, neck scarfed, mouthlipsticked;thefallfashions.Ithoughtsuchmagazineshadallbeendestroyed,but here was one, left over, in a Commander’s private study, where you’dleast expect to find such a thing. He looked down at the model, who wasright-side-up tohim;hewasstill smiling, thatwistful smileofhis. Itwasalookyou’dgivetoanalmostextinctanimal,atthezoo.
Staringatthemagazine,ashedangleditbeforemelikefishbait,Iwantedit.Iwanteditwithaforcethatmadetheendsofmyfingersache.AtthesametimeIsawthislongingofmineastrivialandabsurd,becauseI’dtakensuchmagazines lightly enough once. I’d read them in dentists’ offices, andsometimesonplanes;I’dboughtthemtotaketohotelrooms,adevicetofillinemptytimewhileIwaswaitingforLuke.AfterI’dleafedthroughthemIwouldthrowthemaway,fortheywereinfinitelydiscardable,andadayortwolaterIwouldn’tbeabletorememberwhathadbeeninthem.
ThoughIrememberednow.Whatwasinthemwaspromise.Theydealtintransformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extendinglikethereflectionsintwomirrorssetfacingoneanother,stretchingon,replicaafter replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure afteranother,onewardrobeafteranother,oneimprovementafteranother,onemanafter another.They suggested rejuvenation,painovercomeand transcended,endlesslove.Therealpromiseinthemwasimmortality.
It’s an old one, he said, a curio of sorts. From the seventies, I think.AVogue.This like awine connoisseur dropping a name. I thought youmight
In here, it is, he said quietly. I saw the point. Having broken themaintaboo,whyshouldIhesitateoveranotherone,somethingminor?Oranother,oranother;whocould tellwhere itmight stop?Behind thisparticulardoor,taboodissolved.
I took themagazine fromhim and turned it the rightway round.Theretheywereagain,theimagesofmychildhood:bold,striding,confident,theirarmsflungoutasiftoclaimspace,theirlegsapart,feetplantedsquarelyontheearth.TherewassomethingRenaissanceaboutthepose,butitwasprincesIthoughtof,notcoiffedandringletedmaidens.Thosecandideyes,shadowedwithmakeup,yes,butliketheeyesofcats,fixedforthepounce.Noquailing,noclingingthere,notinthosecapesandroughtweeds,thosebootsthatcameto theknee.Pirates, thesewomen,with their ladylikebriefcases for the lootandtheirhorsy,acquisitiveteeth.
I felt theCommanderwatchingme as I turned thepages. I knew IwasdoingsomethingIshouldn’thavebeendoing,and thathefoundpleasure inseeingmedoit.Ishouldhavefeltevil;byAuntLydia’slights,Iwasevil.ButI didn’t feel evil. Instead I felt like an old Edwardian seaside postcard:naughty.Whatwashegoingtogivemenext?Agirdle?
But why show it to me? I said, and then felt stupid. What could hepossiblysay?Thathewasamusinghimself,atmyexpense?Forhemusthaveknownhowpainfulitwastome,toberemindedoftheformertime.
ShouldIgofurther?Ithought.Ididn’twanttopushhim,toofar,toofast.I knew I was dispensable. Nevertheless I said, too softly, How about yourWife?
He seemed to think about that. No, he said. She wouldn’t understand.Anyway,shewon’ttalktomemuchanymore.Wedon’tseemtohavemuchincommon,thesedays.
Onthe thirdnightIaskedhimforsomehandlotion.Ididn’twant tosoundbegging,butIwantedwhatIcouldget.
Hand lotion, I said. Or face lotion. Our skin gets very dry. For somereasonIsaidourinsteadofmy.Iwouldhavelikedtoaskalsoforsomebathoil, in thoselittlecolouredglobulesyouusedtobeabletoget, thatweresomuch like magic to me when they existed in the round glass bowl in mymother’sbathroomathome.ButIthoughthewouldn’tknowwhattheywere.Anyway,theyprobablyweren’tmadeanymore.
Dry? the Commander said, as if he’d never thought about that before.Whatdoyoudoaboutit?
I wondered if this fear of his came from past experience. Long past:lipstick on the collar, perfume on the cuffs, a scene, late at night, in somekitchenorbedroom.Amandevoidofsuchexperiencewouldn’tthinkofthat.Unlesshe’scraftierthanhelooks.
I looked down. I’d forgotten about that. I could feelmyself blushing. Iwon’tuseitonthosenights,Isaid.
Onthefourtheveninghegavemethehandlotion,inanunlabelledplasticbottle.Itwasn’tverygoodquality;itsmelledfaintlyofvegetableoil.NoLilyof theValley forme. Itmayhavebeen something theymadeup for use inhospitals,onbedsores.ButIthankedhimanyway.
I think I lost control then, a little.Razor blades, I said.Books,writing,black-market stuff.All the thingswe aren’t supposed to have. JesusChrist,you ought to know.My voicewas angrier than I’d intended, but he didn’tevenwince.
Hewatchedmesmoothing itovermyhandsand thenmyfacewith thatsameairoflookinginthroughthebars.Iwantedtoturnmybackonhim–itwasasifhewereinthebathroomwithme–butIdidn’tdare.
When thenight for theCeremony came round again, twoor threeweekslater,Ifoundthatthingswerechanged.Therewasanawkwardnessnowthattherehadn’tbeenbefore.Before,I’dtreateditasajob,anunpleasantjobtobegonethroughasfastaspossiblesoitcouldbeoverwith.Steelyourself,mymotherusedtosay,beforeexaminationsIdidn’twanttotakeorswimsincoldwater. Inever thoughtmuchat the timeaboutwhat thephrasemeant,but ithadsomething todowithmetal,witharmour,and that’swhatIwoulddo, Iwouldsteelmyself.Iwouldpretendnottobepresent,notintheflesh.
Thisstateofabsence,ofexistingapartfromthebody,hadbeentrueoftheCommander too, I knew now. Probably he thought about other things thewhole timehewaswithme;withus,forofcourseSerenaJoywasthereonthoseeveningsalso.Hemighthavebeen thinkingaboutwhathedidduringtheday,oraboutplayinggolf,oraboutwhathe’dhadfordinner.Thesexualact, althoughhe performed it in a perfunctoryway,must have been largelyunconscious,forhim,likescratchinghimself.
But that night, the first since the beginning of whatever this newarrangementwasbetweenus–Ihadnonameforit–Ifeltshyofhim.Ifelt,for one thing, that hewas actually looking atme, and I didn’t like it. Thelightswereon,asusual,sinceSerenaJoyalwaysavoidedanythingthatwouldhavecreatedanauraofromanceoreroticism,howeverslight:overheadlights,harshdespite thecanopy.Itwas likebeingonanoperating table, in thefullglare; likebeingonastage. Iwasconscious thatmylegswerehairy, in thestragglywayoflegsthathaveoncebeenshavedbuthavegrownback;Iwasconsciousofmyarmpitstoo,althoughofcoursehecouldn’tseethem.Ifeltuncouth.Thisactofcopulation,fertilizationperhaps,whichshouldhavebeennomore tomethanabee is toaflower,hadbecomeformeindecorous,anembarrassingbreachofpropriety,whichithadn’tbeenbefore.
SerenaJoyhadchanged forme, too.Once I’dmerelyhatedher, forherpart in what was being done to me; and because she hated me too andresentedmypresence, andbecause shewouldbe theone to raisemychild,shouldIbeabletohaveoneafterall.Butnow,althoughIstillhatedher,nomoresothanwhenshewasgrippingmyhandssohardthatherringsbitmyflesh,pullingmyhandsbackaswell,whichshemusthavedoneonpurposetomakemeasuncomfortableasshecould, thehatredwasno longerpureandsimple.PartlyIwasjealousofher;buthowcouldIbejealousofawomansoobviouslydried-upandunhappy?Youcanonlybe jealousof someonewhohas something you think you ought to have yourself. Nevertheless I wasjealous.
ButIalsofeltguiltyabouther.IfeltIwasanintruder,inaterritorythatoughttohavebeenhers.NowthatIwasseeingtheCommanderonthesly,ifonlytoplayhisgamesandlistentohimtalk,ourfunctionswerenolongerasseparate as they should have been in theory. I was taking something awayfromher,althoughshedidn’tknowit.Iwasfilching.Nevermindthatitwassomething she apparently didn’twant or had no use for, had rejected even;still, itwashers, and if I took it away, thismysterious “it” I couldn’t quitedefine–fortheCommanderwasn’t inlovewithme,Irefusedtobelievehefeltanythingformeasextremeasthat–whatwouldbeleftforher?
Whyshould Icare? I toldmyself.She’snothing tome,shedislikesme,she’dhavemeoutof thehouseinaminute,orworse, ifshecouldthinkupanyexcuseatall.Ifsheweretofindout,forinstance.Hewouldn’tbeabletointervene,tosaveme;thetransgressionsofwomeninthehousehold,whetherMarthaorHandmaid,aresupposedtobeunderthejurisdictionoftheWivesalone.Shewasamaliciousandvengefulwoman,Iknewthat.NeverthelessIcouldn’tshakeit,thatsmallcompunctiontowardsher.
ButtheCommandercouldgivemeawaysoeasily,byalook,byagesture,sometinyslipthatwouldrevealtoanyonewatchingthattherewassomethingbetweenusnow.HealmostdiditthenightoftheCeremony.Hereachedhishandupas if to touchmy face; Imovedmyhead to the side, towarnhimaway, hoping Serena Joy hadn’t noticed, and he withdrew his hand again,
How longdid it takeyou to find thatout? I said.Youcan see from thewayIwasspeakingtohimthatwewerealreadyondifferentterms.
Forthegenerationsthatcomeafter,AuntLydiasaid,itwillbesomuchbetter.Thewomenwillliveinharmonytogether,allinonefamily;youwillbelikedaughterstothem,andwhenthepopulationlevelisuptoscratchagainwe’llnolongerhavetotransferyoufromonehousetoanotherbecausetherewillbe enough to go round. There can be bonds of real affection, she said,blinking at us ingratiatingly, under such conditions. Women united for acommonend!Helpingoneanotherintheirdailychoresastheywalkthepathoflifetogether,eachperformingherappointedtask.Whyexpectonewomantocarryoutallthefunctionsnecessarytotheserenerunningofahousehold?Itisn’treasonableorhumane.Yourdaughterswillhavegreaterfreedom.Weareworkingtowardsthegoalofalittlegardenforeachone,eachoneofyou–theclaspedhandsagain,thebreathyvoice–andthat’sjustonefor instance.Theraisedfinger,waggingatus.Butwecan’tbegreedypigsanddemandtoomuchbeforeit’sready,nowcanwe?
ThefactisthatI’mhismistress.Menatthetophavealwayshadmistresses,why should thingsbe anydifferentnow?Thearrangements aren’tquite thesame,granted.Themistressusedtobekeptinaminorhouseorapartmentofherown,andnowthey’veamalgamatedthings.Butunderneathit’sthesame.Moreorless.Outsidewoman,theyusedtobecalled,insomecountries.Iamtheoutsidewoman.It’smyjobtoprovidewhatisotherwiselacking.EventheScrabble.It’sanabsurdaswellasanignominiousposition.
Sometimes I think she knows. Sometimes I think they’re in collusion.SometimesIthinksheputhimuptoit,andislaughingatme;asIlaugh,fromtimetotimeandwithirony,atmyself.Lethertaketheweight,shecansaytoherself.Maybe she’swithdrawn fromhim, almost completely;maybe that’sherversionoffreedom.
But even so, and stupidly enough, I’m happier than I was before. It’ssomethingtodo,foronething.Somethingtofillthetime,atnight,insteadofsittingaloneinmyroom.It’ssomethingelsetothinkabout.Idon’tlovetheCommanderoranythinglikeit,buthe’sofinteresttome,heoccupiesspace,heismorethanashadow.
AndI forhim.TohimI’mnolongermerelyausablebody.TohimI’mnot just aboatwithnocargo, a chalicewithnowine in it, anoven– tobecrude–minusthebun.TohimIamnotmerelyempty.
IwalkwithOfglen along the summer street. It’swarm,humid; thiswouldhave been sundress-and-sandals weather, once. In each of our baskets arestrawberries– thestrawberriesare inseasonnow,sowe’lleat themandeatthemuntilwe’re sickof them–and somewrapped fish.Wegot the fishatLoavesandFishes,withitswoodensign,afishwithasmileandeyelashes.Itdoesn’tsellloavesthough.Mosthouseholdsbaketheirown,thoughyoucanget dried-up rolls andwizened doughnuts atDailyBread, if you run short.Loaves and Fishes is hardly ever open.Why bother opening when there’snothingtosell?Theseafisheriesweredefunctseveralyearsago;thefewfishthey have now are from fish farms, and taste muddy. The news says thecoastal areasarebeing“rested.”Sole, I remember, andhaddock, swordfish,scallops, tuna; lobsters, stuffed and baked, salmon, pink and fat, grilled insteaks. Could they all be extinct, like the whales? I’ve heard that rumour,passedon tomeinsoundlesswords, the lipshardlymoving,aswestood inlineoutside,waiting for the store toopen, luredby thepictureof succulentwhite fillets in thewindow.They put the picture in thewindowwhen theyhavesomething,takeitawaywhentheydon’t.Signlanguage.
OfglenandIwalkslowlytoday;wearehotinourlongdresses,wetunderthearms,tired.Atleastinthisheatwedon’tweargloves.Thereusedtobeanice-creamstore,somewhereinthisblock.Ican’trememberthename.Thingscanchangesoquickly,buildingscanbetorndownorturnedintosomethingelse,it’shardtokeepthemstraightinyourmindthewaytheyusedtobe.Youcould get double scoops, and if you wanted they would put chocolatesprinklesonthetop.Thesehadthenameofaman.Johnnies?Jackies?Ican’tremember.
the names to her so she could choose. She wouldn’t choose by the name,though,butbythecolour.Herdressesandoverallswerethosecolourstoo.Icecreampastels.
OfglenandIaremorecomfortablewithoneanothernow,we’reusedtoeachother. Siamese twins.We don’t bothermuchwith the formalities anymorewhen we greet each other; we smile and move off, in tandem, travellingsmoothly along our daily track. Now and again we vary the route; there’snothingagainst it,as longaswestaywithin thebarriers.Arat inamaze isfreetogoanywhere,aslongasitstaysinsidethemaze.
We’vebeentothestoresalready,andthechurch;nowwe’reattheWall.Nothingonittoday,theydon’tleavethebodieshangingaslonginsummerastheydoinwinter,becauseofthefliesandthesmell.Thiswasoncethelandofair sprays, Pine and Floral, and people retain the taste; especially theCommanders,whopreachpurityinallthings.
“Youhaveeverythingonyour list?”Ofglensays tomenow, thoughsheknows I do.Our lists are never long. She’s given up someof her passivitylately,someofhermelancholy.Oftenshespeakstomefirst.
“Let’s go around,” she says. She means down, towards the river. Wehaven’tbeenthatwayforawhile.
“Fine,” I say. I don’t turn at once, though, but remain standingwhere Iam, taking a last look at theWall. There are the red bricks, there are thesearchlights,there’sthebarbedwire,therearethehooks.SomehowtheWallis even more foreboding when it’s empty like this.When there’s someonehangingonitatleastyouknowtheworst.Butvacant,itisalsopotential,likeastormapproaching.WhenIcanseethebodies,theactualbodies,whenIcanguessfromthesizesandshapesthatnoneofthemisLuke,Icanbelievealsothatheisstillalive.
I try to imagine which building he’s in. I can remember where thebuildingsare,insidetheWall;weusedtobeabletowalkfreelythere,whenitwas a university. We still go in there once in a while, for Women’s
Salvagings. Most of the buildings are red brick too; some have archeddoorways, a Romanesque effect, from the nineteenth century. We aren’tallowedinsidethebuildingsanymore;butwhowouldwanttogoin?ThosebuildingsbelongtotheEyes.
TheLibraryislikeatemple.There’salongflightofwhitesteps,leadingtotherankofdoors.Then,inside,anotherwhitestaircasegoingup.Toeithersideofit,onthewall,thereareangels.Alsotherearemenfighting,orabouttofight,lookingcleanandnoble,notdirtyandblood-stainedandsmellytheway they must have looked. Victory is on one side of the inner doorway,leadingthemon,andDeathisontheother.It’samuralinhonourofsomewaror other. The men on the side of Death are still alive. They’re going toHeaven.Deathisabeautifulwoman,withwingsandonebreastalmostbare;oristhatVictory?Ican’tremember.
We turn our backs to the Wall, head left. Here there are several emptystorefronts, theirglasswindowsscrawledwithsoap.I try torememberwhatwas sold in them, once.Cosmetics? Jewellery?Most of the stores carryingthings for men are still open; it’s just the ones dealing in what they callvanitiesthathavebeenshutdown.
The window of Soul Scrolls is shatterproof. Behind it are printoutmachines, rowon rowof them; thesemachinesareknownasHolyRollers,butonlyamongus,it’sadisrespectfulnickname.Whatthemachinesprintisprayers, roll upon roll, prayers going out endlessly. They’re ordered byCompuphone, I’ve overheard the Commander’s Wife doing it. OrderingprayersfromSoulScrollsissupposedtobeasignofpietyandfaithfulnesstothe regime, so of course theCommanders’Wives do it a lot. It helps theirhusbands’careers.
Therearefivedifferentprayers:forhealth,wealth,adeath,abirth,asin.You pick the one youwant, punch in the number, then punch in your ownnumber soyour accountwill bedebited, andpunch in thenumberof timesyouwanttheprayerrepeated.
Themachines talkas theyprintout theprayers; ifyou like,youcangoinsideandlistentothem,thetonelessmetallicvoicesrepeatingthesamethingover and over. Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paperrollsbackthroughanotherslotandisrecycledintofreshpaperagain.Therearenopeopleinsidethebuilding:themachinesrunbythemselves.Youcan’thearthevoicesfromoutside;onlyamurmur,ahum,likeadevoutcrowd,onitsknees.Eachmachinehasaneyepaintedingoldontheside,flankedbytwosmallgoldenwings.
Itrytorememberwhatthisplacesoldwhenitwasastore,beforeitwasturned into Soul Scrolls. I think it was lingerie. Pink and silver boxes,colouredpantyhose,brassiereswithlace,silkscarves?Somethinglost.
OfglenandIstandoutsideSoulScrolls,lookingthroughtheshatterproofwindows, watching the prayers well out from the machines and disappearagainthroughtheslot,backtotherealmoftheunsaid.NowIshiftmygaze.What I see is not the machines, but Ofglen, reflected in the glass of thewindow.She’slookingstraightatme.
We can see into each other’s eyes. This is the first time I’ve ever seenOfglen’seyes,directly,steadily,notaslant.Herfaceisovalpink,plumpbutnotfat,hereyesroundish.
At last Ofglen speaks. “Do you think God listens,” she says, “to thesemachines?”Sheiswhispering:ourhabitattheCentre.
In the past this would have been a trivial enough remark, a kind ofscholarlyspeculation.Rightnowit’streason.
Icouldscream.Icouldrunaway.Icouldturnfromhersilently,toshowher I won’t tolerate this kind of talk inmy presence. Subversion, sedition,blasphemy,heresy,allrolledintoone.
She lets out her breath, in a long sigh of relief. We have crossed theinvisiblelinetogether.“NeitherdoI,”shesays.
“Though I suppose it’s faith, of a kind,” I say. “Like Tibetan prayer
“I figure it’s thesafestplace,”shesays.“Welook likewe’repraying, isall.”
Wewalk,headsbentasusual. I’msoexcitedIcanhardlybreathe,but Ikeep a steadypace.Nowmore than ever Imust avoiddrawing attention tomyself.
Ididn’t think that. Itoccurs tome thatshemaybeaspy,aplant, set totrapme; such is the soil inwhichwe grow. But I can’t believe it; hope isrisinginme,likesapinatree.Bloodinawound.Wehavemadeanopening.
I want to ask her if she’s seen Moira, if anyone can find out what’shappened,toLuke,tomychild,mymothereven,butthere’snotmuchtime;toosoonwe’reapproachingthecornerofthemainstreet,theonebeforethefirstbarrier.Therewillbetoomanypeople.
“Don’t say aword,”Ofglenwarnsme, though she doesn’t need to. “Inanyway.”
Wewalkthemainstreetinsilence,pastLilies,pastAllFlesh.Therearemorepeople on the sidewalks this afternoon than usual: the warmweathermusthavebroughtthemout.Women,ingreen,blue,red,stripes;mentoo,someinuniform, some only in civilian suits. The sun is free, it is still there to beenjoyed.Thoughnoonebathesinitanymore,notinpublic.
There are more cars too, Whirlwinds with their chauffeurs and theircushionedoccupants,lessercarsdrivenbylessermen.
Something ishappening: there’sa commotion, a flurryamong the shoalsofcars.Somearepullingovertotheside,asiftogetoutoftheway.Ilookupquickly: it’s a black van,with thewhite-winged eye on the side. It doesn’thavethesirenon,buttheothercarsavoiditanyway.Itcruisesslowlyalongthestreet,asiflookingforsomething:sharkontheprowl.
ButIcan’thelpseeing.Rightinfrontofusthevanpullsup.TwoEyes,ingreysuits,leapfromtheopeningdoubledoorsattheback.Theygrabamanwhoiswalkingalong,amanwithabriefcase,anordinary-lookingman,slamhimbackagainsttheblacksideofthevan.He’sthereamoment,splayedoutagainstthemetalasifstucktoit;thenoneoftheEyesmovesinonhim,doessomethingsharpandbrutal thatdoubleshimover, intoa limpclothbundle.Theypickhimupandheavehimintothebackofthevanlikeasackofmail.Thentheyareinsidealsoandthedoorsareclosedandthevanmoveson.
Idon’tfeellikeanapthisafternoon,there’sstilltoomuchadrenalin.Isitonthewindow seat, looking out through the semi-sheer of the curtains.Whitenightgown. The window is as open as it goes, there’s a breeze, hot in thesunlight,andthewhiteclothblowsacrossmyface.FromtheoutsideImustlook like a cocoon, a spook, face enshrouded like this, only the outlinesvisible,ofnose,bandagedmouth,blindeyes.ButIlikethesensation,thesoftclothbrushingmyskin.It’slikebeinginacloud.
They’ve givenme a small electric fan,which helps in this humidity. Itwhirs on the floor, in the corner, its blades encased in grill-work. If IwereMoira,I’dknowhowtotakeitapart,reduceittoitscuttingedges.Ihavenoscrewdriver,butifIwereMoiraIcoulddoitwithoutascrewdriver.I’mnotMoira.
What would she tell me, about the Commander, if she were here?Probablyshe’ddisapprove.ShedisapprovedofLuke,backthen.NotofLukebut of the fact that he was married. She said I was poaching, on anotherwoman’sground.IsaidLukewasn’tafishorapieceofdirteither,hewasahumanbeingandcouldmakehisowndecisions.ShesaidIwasrationalizing.I said Iwas in love. She said thatwas no excuse.Moirawas alwaysmorelogicalthanIam.
Isaidshedidn’thavethatproblemherselfanymore,sinceshe’ddecidedtopreferwomen,andasfarasIcouldseeshehadnoscruplesaboutstealingthem or borrowing them when she felt like it. She said it was different,becausethebalanceofpowerwasequalbetweenwomensosexwasaneven-steventransaction.Isaid“even-steven”wasasexistphrase,ifshewasgoingto be like that, and anyway that argument was outdated. She said I hadtrivializedtheissueandifIthoughtitwasoutdatedIwaslivingwithmyheadinthesand.
Wesaidallthisinmykitchen,drinkingcoffee,sittingatmykitchentable,inthoselow,intensevoicesweusedforsuchargumentswhenwewereinourearly twenties; a carry-over from college. The kitchen was in a run-downapartmentinaclapboardhouseneartheriver,thekindwiththreestoreysanda rickety outside back staircase. I had the second floor,whichmeant I gotnoisefrombothaboveandbelow,twounwantedstereodiscplayersthumpinglateintothenight.Students,Iknew.Iwasstillonmyfirstjob,whichdidn’tpaymuch:Iworkedacomputerinaninsurancecompany.Sothehotels,withLuke,didn’tmeanonlyloveorevenonlysextome.Theyalsomeanttimeofffromthecockroaches,thedrippingsink,thelinoleumthatwaspeelingoffthefloorinpatches,evenfrommyownattemptstobrightenthingsupbystickingposters on the wall and hanging prisms in the windows. I had plants, too;though theyalwaysgotspidermitesordiedfrombeingunwatered. IwouldgooffwithLuke,andneglectthem.
Webothlaughedthen,andwhensheleftwehuggedeachotherasusual.Therewasa timewhenwedidn’thug,aftershe’d toldmeaboutbeinggay;butthenshesaidIdidn’tturnheron,reassuringme,andwe’dgonebacktoit.We could fight and wrangle and name-call, but it didn’t change anythingunderneath.Shewasstillmyoldestfriend.
I worked transferring books to computer discs, to cut down on storagespace and replacement costs, they said. Discers, we called ourselves. Wecalled the library a discotheque,whichwas a joke of ours.After the bookswere transferred theywere supposed togo to the shredder,but sometimes I
It’sstrange,now,tothinkabouthavingajob.Job.It’safunnyword.It’sajob for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were beingtoilet-trained.Orofdogs:hedidajobonthecarpet.Youweresupposedtohitthemwithrolled-upnewspapers,mymothersaid.Icanrememberwhentherewerenewspapers,thoughIneverhadadog,onlycats.
All those women having jobs: hard to imagine, now, but thousands ofthem had jobs, millions. It was considered the normal thing. Now it’s likerememberingthepapermoney,whentheystillhadthat.Mymotherkeptsomeofit,pastedintoherscrapbookalongwiththeearlyphotos.Itwasobsoletebythen,youcouldn’tbuyanythingwith it.Piecesofpaper, thickish,greasy tothetouch,green-coloured,withpicturesoneachside,someoldmaninawigandontheothersideapyramidwithaneyeaboveit.ItsaidInGodWeTrust.Mymother saidpeopleused tohave signsbeside their cash registers, for ajoke:InGodWeTrust,AllOthersPayCash.Thatwouldbeblasphemynow.
Youhadtotakethosepiecesofpaperwithyouwhenyouwentshopping,thoughbythetimeIwasnineortenmostpeopleusedplasticcards.Notforthegroceries though, thatcame later. It seemssoprimitive, totemisticeven,likecowrieshells.Imusthaveusedthatkindofmoneymyself,alittle,beforeeverythingwentontheCompubank.
Itwas after the catastrophe,when they shot thePresident andmachine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. TheyblameditontheIslamicfanatics,atthetime.
I was stunned. Everyonewas, I know that. It was hard to believe. Theentiregovernment,gonelikethat.Howdidtheygetin,howdidithappen?
Thatwaswhen they suspended theConstitution. They said itwould betemporary.Therewasn’tevenanyriotinginthestreets.Peoplestayedhomeatnight,watchingtelevision,lookingforsomedirection.Therewasn’tevenanenemyyoucouldputyourfingeron.
Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, althoughsome things did happen.Newspaperswere censored and somewere closeddown, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, andIdentipasses.Everyoneapprovedofthat,sinceitwasobviousyoucouldn’tbetoocareful.Theysaidthatnewelectionswouldbeheld,butthatitwouldtakesometimetoprepareforthem.Thethingtodo,theysaid,wastocontinueonasusual.
ThePornomartswereshut,though,andtherewerenolongeranyFeelsonWheels vans andBun-DleBuggies circling theSquare.But Iwasn’t sad toseethemgo.Weallknewwhatanuisancethey’dbeen.
It’s high time somebody did something, said the woman behind thecounter, at the store where I usually bought my cigarettes. It was on thecorner, anewsstandchain:papers, candy, cigarettes.Thewomanwasolder,withgreyhair;mymother’sgeneration.
Sheshrugged.Whoknows,whocares,shesaid.Maybetheyjustmovedthemoff somewhere else.Trying to get rid of it altogether is like trying tostamp out mice, you know? She punched my Compunumber into the till,barely lookingat it: Iwasa regular,by then.Peoplewerecomplaining, shesaid.
Thenextmorning,onmywaytothelibraryfortheday,Istoppedbythesamestoreforanotherpack,becauseI’drunout.Iwassmokingmorethosedays,itwasthetension,youcouldfeelit,likeasubterraneanhum,althoughthings seemed soquiet. Iwasdrinkingmorecoffee too, andhaving troublesleeping. Everyonewas a little jumpy. Therewas a lotmoremusic on theradiothanusual,andfewerwords.
andLukehaddrivenherofftoschool,inthelittleoutfitI’dboughtherjustacoupleofweeksbefore,stripedoverallsandablueT-shirt.Whatmonthwasthis? It must have been September. There was a School Pool that wassupposedtopickthemup,butforsomereasonI’dwantedLuketodoit,IwasgettingworriedevenabouttheSchoolPool.Nochildrenwalkedtoschoolanymore,therehadbeentoomanydisappearances.
When I got to the corner store, the usual woman wasn’t there. Insteadtherewasaman,ayoungman,hecouldn’thavebeenmorethantwenty.
Howwould I know, he said.Hewas punchingmynumber in, studyingeachnumber,punchingwithonefinger.Heobviouslyhadn’tdoneitbefore.Idrummedmy fingerson the counter, impatient for a cigarette,wondering ifanyonehadevertoldhimsomethingcouldbedoneaboutthosepimplesonhisneck.Irememberquiteclearlywhathelookedlike:tall,slightlystooped,darkhaircutshort,browneyesthatseemedtofocustwoinchesbehindthebridgeofmynose,and thatacne. I suppose I rememberhimsoclearlybecauseofwhathesaidnext.
That’sridiculous, Isaid. Itmustbe, I’vegot thousands inmyaccount. Ijustgotthestatementtwodaysago.Tryitagain.
It’snot valid, he repeatedobstinately.See that red light?Means it’s notvalid.
Heshruggedandgavemeafed-upsmile,buthedidtrythenumberagain.This time Iwatchedhis fingers, on eachnumber, and checked thenumbersthatcameupinthewindow.Itwasmynumberallright,buttherewastheredlightagain.
I’llphonethemfromtheoffice,Isaid.Thesystemhadfouledupbefore,butafewphonecallsusuallystraighteneditout.Still, Iwasangry,as ifI’dbeenunjustlyaccusedofsomethingIdidn’tevenknowabout.AsifI’dmade
The linesstayedoverloadedallmorning,as faras Icould tell. Iphonedbackseveraltimes,butnoluck.Eventhatwasn’ttoounusual.
I have something to tell you, he said. He looked terrible; his hair wasuntidy,hiseyeswerepinkandwobbling,asthoughhe’dbeendrinking.
Itisn’tme,hesaid.Youdon’tunderstand.Pleasego,now.Hisvoicewasrising. I don’twant any trouble. If there’s trouble the booksmight be lost,things will get broken…He looked over his shoulder. They’re outside, hesaid,inmyoffice.Ifyoudon’tgonowthey’llcomeinthemselves.Theygavemetenminutes.Bynowhesoundedcrazierthanever.
But I could see out into the corridor, and therewere twomen standingthere,inuniforms,withmachineguns.Thiswastootheatricaltobetrue,yetthere they were: sudden apparitions, likeMartians. There was a dreamlike
We stood in a cluster, on the steps outside the library.We didn’t knowwhattosaytooneanother.Sincenoneofusunderstoodwhathadhappened,therewasnothingmuchwecouldsay.Welookedatoneanother’sfacesandsawdismay,andacertainshame,asifwe’dbeencaughtdoingsomethingweshouldn’t.
It’s outrageous, onewoman said, butwithout belief.Whatwas it aboutthisthatmadeusfeelwedeservedit?
WhenIgotbacktothehousenobodywasthere.Lukewasstillatwork,mydaughterwasatschool.Ifelttired,bone-tired,butwhenIsatdownIgotupagain,Icouldn’tseemtositstill.Iwanderedthroughthehouse,fromroomtoroom.Iremembertouchingthings,noteventhatconsciously,justplacingmyfingers on them; things like the toaster, the sugar bowl, the ashtray in thelivingroom.AfterawhileIpickedupthecatandcarriedheraroundwithme.IwantedLuketocomehome.IthoughtIshoulddosomething,takesteps;butIdidn’tknowwhatstepsIcouldtake.
Itriedphoningthebankagain,butIonlygotthesamerecording.Ipouredmyselfaglassofmilk–ItoldmyselfIwastoojitteryforanothercoffee–andwentintothelivingroomandsatdownonthesofaandputtheglassofmilkon the coffee table, carefully, without drinking any of it. I held the cat upagainstmychestsoIcouldfeelherpurringagainstmythroat.
After a while I phoned my mother at her apartment, but there was noanswer.She’d settleddownmoreby then, she’d stoppedmovingevery fewyears; she lived across the river, in Boston. I waited a while and phonedMoira.Shewasn’tthereeither,butwhenItriedhalfanhourlatershewasin.InbetweenthosephonecallsIjustsatonthesofa.WhatIthoughtaboutwasmydaughter’sschoollunches.IthoughtmaybeI’dbeengivinghertoomanypeanut-buttersandwiches.
I’vebeen fired, I toldMoirawhen Igotheron thephone.She said shewouldcomeover.Bythattimeshewasworkingforawomen’scollective,thepublishingdivision.Theyputoutbooksonbirthcontrolandrapeandthingslikethat,thoughtherewasn’tasmuchdemandforthosethingsasthereusedtobe.
I’llcomeover, shesaid.Shemusthavebeenable to tell frommyvoicethatthiswaswhatIwanted.
She got there after some time. So, she said. She threw off her jacket,sprawledintotheoversizedchair.Tellme.Firstwe’llhaveadrink.
Shegotupandwent to thekitchenandpouredusacoupleofScotches,andcamebackandsatdownandItriedtotellherwhathadhappenedtome.When I’d finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucardtoday?
They’ve frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective’s too. AnyaccountwithanFonitinsteadofanM.Alltheyneededtodoispushafewbuttons.We’recutoff.
It’sonthere,shesaid.Allovertheplace.Shewasnotstunned,thewayIwas. In some strangeway shewas gleeful, as if this waswhat she’d beenexpectingforsometimeandnowshe’dbeenprovenright.Sheeven lookedmore energetic,more determined. Luke can use yourCompucount for you,she said. They’ll transfer your number to him, or that’s what they say.Husbandormalenextofkin.
Ours is not to reasonwhy, saidMoira. They had to do it thatway, theCompucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports,otherwise?Theydon’twantusgoinganywhere,youcanbetonthat.
Iwenttopickmydaughterupfromschool.Idrovewithexaggeratedcare.Bythe timeLukegothomeIwassittingat thekitchen table.Shewasdrawingwithfeltpensatherownlittle table in thecorner,whereherpaintingswere
Hush,he said.Hewas still kneelingon the floor.Youknow I’ll alwaystakecareofyou.
I thought, alreadyhe’s starting topatronizeme.Then I thought, alreadyyou’restartingtogetparanoid.
Later, after she was in bed and we were having supper, and I wasn’tfeeling so shaky, I told him about the afternoon. I described the directorcoming in, blurting out his announcement. It would have been funny if itwasn’tsoawful,Isaid.Ithoughthewasdrunk.Maybehewas.Thearmywasthere,andeverything.
Thereweremarches,ofcourse,alotofwomenandsomemen.Buttheyweresmallerthanyoumighthavethought.Iguesspeoplewerescared.Andwhenitwasknown that thepolice,or thearmy,orwhoever theywere,wouldopenfirealmostassoonasanyofthemarchesevenstarted,themarchesstopped.Afew thingswere blown up, post offices, subway stations. But you couldn’teven be surewhowas doing it. It could have been the army, to justify thecomputersearchesandtheotherones,thedoor-to-doors.
Ididn’tgoonanyofthemarches.LukesaiditwouldbefutileandIhadtothink about them, my family, him and her. I did think about my family. Istarteddoingmorehousework,morebaking.I triednot tocryatmealtimes.BythistimeI’dstartedtocry,withoutwarning,andtositbesidethebedroom
window,staringout.Ididn’tknowmanyoftheneighbours,andwhenwemet,outside on the street, we were careful to exchange nothing more than theordinarygreetings.Nobodywantedtobereported,fordisloyalty.
Remembering this, I remember also mymother, years before. I must havebeenfourteen,fifteen,thatagewhendaughtersaremostembarrassedbytheirmothers.Irememberhercomingbacktooneofourmanyapartments,withagroup of other women, part of her ever-changing circle of friends. They’dbeeninamarchthatday;itwasduringthetimeofthepornriots,orwasittheabortion riots, theywereclose together.Therewerea lotofbombings then:clinics,videostores;itwashardtokeeptrack.
Mymother had a bruise on her face, and a little blood.You can’t stickyourhandthroughaglasswindowwithoutgettingcut,iswhatshesaidaboutit.Fuckingpigs.
Fucking bleeders, one of her friends said. They called the other sidebleeders,afterthesignstheycarried:Letthembleed.Soitmusthavebeentheabortionriots.
Iwent intomybedroom, to be out of theirway.Theywere talking toomuch,andtooloudly.Theyignoredme,andIresentedthem.Mymotherandherrowdyfriends.Ididn’tseewhyshehadtodressthatway,inoveralls,asifshewereyoung;ortoswearsomuch.
You’resuchaprude,shewouldsaytome,inatoneofvoicethatwasonthe whole pleased. She liked being more outrageous than I was, morerebellious.Adolescentsarealwayssuchprudes.
Partofmydisapprovalwasthat,I’msure:perfunctory,routine.ButalsoIwanted from her a life more ceremonious, less subject to makeshift anddecampment.
Youwereawantedchild,Godknows,shewouldsayatothermoments,lingeringover thephotoalbums inwhichshehadme framed; thesealbumswerethickwithbabies,butmyreplicasthinnedoutasIgrewolder,asifthepopulationofmyduplicateshadbeenhitbysomeplague.Shewouldsaythisalittleregretfully,asthoughIhadn’tturnedoutentirelyasshe’dexpected.Nomother isever,completely,achild’s ideaofwhatamothershouldbe,andIsuppose itworks the otherway around aswell.But despite everything,wedidn’tdobadlybyoneanother,wedidaswellasmost.
Someone has come out of the house. I hear the distant closing of a door,aroundat theside,footstepsonthewalk.It’sNick,Icanseehimnow;he’ssteppedoffthepath,ontothelawn,tobreatheinthehumidairwhichstinksofflowers, of pulpy growth, of pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, likeoysterspawnintothesea.Allthisprodigalbreeding.Hestretchesinthesun,Ifeeltherippleofmusclesgoalonghim,likeacat’sbackarching.He’sinhisshirtsleeves,barearmsstickingshamelesslyoutfromtherolledcloth.Wheredoesthetanend?Ihaven’tspokentohimsincethatonenight,dreamscapeinthe moon-filled sitting room. He’s only my flag, my semaphore. Bodylanguage.
Whatdoeshegetforit,hisroleaspageboy?Howdoeshefeel,pimpinginthisambiguouswayfortheCommander?Doesitfillhimwithdisgust,ormake himwantmore ofme,wantmemore?Because he has no ideawhatreallygoesoninthere,amongthebooks.Actsofperversion,forallheknows.The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, ormakingloveonstacksofforbiddennewsprint.Well,hewouldn’tbefaroffatthat.
Butdependonit,there’ssomethinginitforhim.Everyone’sonthetake,one way or another. Extra cigarettes? Extra freedoms, not allowed to thegeneral run? Anyway, what can he prove? It’s his word against theCommander’s,unlesshewants toheadaposse.Kick in thedoor, andwhatdidItellyou?Caughtintheact,sinfullyScrabbling.Quick,eatthosewords.
Maybe he just likes the satisfaction of knowing something secret. Ofhavingsomethingonme,astheyusedtosay.It’sthekindofpoweryoucanuseonlyonce.
Westillhave…hesaid.Buthedidn’tgoon tosaywhatwestillhad. Itoccurredtomethatheshouldn’tbesayingwe, sincenothing that Iknewofhadbeentakenawayfromhim.
He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back tonormal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so thatwhenheputhisarmsaroundme,gatheringmeup,Iwassmallasadoll.Ifeltlovegoingforwardwithoutme.
I’m sitting in theCommander’s office, across fromhimat his desk, in theclientposition,asifI’mabankcustomernegotiatingaheftyloan.Butapartfrommyplacementintheroom,littleofthatformalityremainsbetweenus.Inolongersitstiff-necked,straight-backed,feetregimentedsidebysideonthefloor,eyesatthesalute.Insteadmybody’slax,cosyeven.Myredshoesareoff,mylegstuckedupunderneathmeonthechair,surroundedbyabuttressofredskirt,true,buttuckednonetheless,asatacampfire,ofearlierandmorepicnicdays.Iftherewereafireinthefireplace,itslightwouldbetwinklingonthepolishedsurfaces,glimmeringwarmlyonflesh.Iaddthefirelightin.
Asfor theCommander,he’scasual toa fault tonight.Jacketoff,elbowsonthetable.Allheneedsisatoothpickinthecornerofhismouthtobeanadforruraldemocracy,asinanetching.Flyspecked,someoldburnedbook.
The squares on the board in front ofme are filling up: I’mmakingmypenultimate play of the night. Zilch, I spell, a convenient one-vowel wordwithanexpensivez.
“I’llgiveittoyou,”hesays.Hesmiles.TheCommanderlikesitwhenIdistinguish myself, show precocity, like an attentive pet, prick-eared andeager toperform.Hisapprobation lapsme likeawarmbath. Isense inhimnoneoftheanimosityIusedtosenseinmen,eveninLukesometimes.He’snotsayingbitchinhishead.Infactheispositivelydaddyish.HelikestothinkIambeingentertained;andIam,Iam.
Heleansback,fingertipstogether,agesturefamiliartomenow.Wehavebuilt up a repertoire of such gestures, such familiarities, between us. He’slookingatme,notunbenevolently,butwithcuriosity,asifIamapuzzletobesolved.
“What would you like to read tonight?” he says. This too has becomeroutine.So far I’vebeen throughaMademoisellemagazine, anoldEsquirefromtheeighties,aMs.,amagazineIcanremembervaguelyashavingbeenaround my mother’s various apartments while I was growing up, and aReader’sDigest. He even has novels. I’ve read a Raymond Chandler, andright now I’m halfway throughHard Times, by Charles Dickens. On theseoccasionsIreadquickly,voraciously,almostskimming,tryingtogetasmuchintomyheadaspossiblebefore thenext longstarvation. If itwereeating itwould be the gluttony of the famished, if it were sex it would be a swiftfurtivestand-upinanalleysomewhere.
While I read, the Commander sits and watches me doing it, withoutspeakingbutalsowithouttakinghiseyesoffme.Thiswatchingisacuriouslysexual act, and I feel undressedwhile he does it. Iwish hewould turn hisback, stroll around the room, readsomethinghimself.Thenperhaps Icouldrelaxmore,takemytime.Asitis,thisillicitreadingofmineseemsakindofperformance.
He smiles again. He doesn’t appear surprised. Possibly he’s beenexpectingthis,orsomethinglikeit.“Oh?”hesays.“Whatwouldyouliketotalkabout?”
Thefalsityofthis,andeventhefalsityofthediction–“guy”?–pullsmeupshort.OrdinaryguysdonotbecomeCommanders.“Youmustbegoodatsomething,”Isay.IknowI’mpromptinghim,playinguptohim,drawinghimout, and I dislikemyself for it, it’s nauseating, in fact.Butwe are fencing.EitherhetalksorIwill.Iknowit,Icanfeelspeechbackingupinsideme,it’sso long since I’ve really talkedwith anyone.The tersewhisperedexchangewith Ofglen, on our walk today, hardly counts; but it was a tease, a
“You might say I’m a sort of scientist,” he says. “Within limits, ofcourse.”
After thathedoesn’t sayanything for awhile, andneitherdo I.Weareoutwaitingeachother.
I’mheadingintodanger,butIcan’tstopmyself.“It’saphraseIrememberfromsomewhere.”Bestnottosaywhere.“Ithinkit’sinLatin,andIthoughtmaybe…” I know he has a Latin dictionary.He has dictionaries of severalkinds,onthetopshelftotheleftofthefireplace.
Ihaven’tpronounced itproperly. Idon’tknowhow.“Icouldspell it,” Isay.“Writeitdown.”
Hehesitatesat thisnovelidea.Possiblyhedoesn’trememberIcan.I’venever held a pen or a pencil, in this room, not even to add up the scores.Womencan’tadd,hesaidonce,jokingly.WhenIaskedhimwhathemeant,hesaid,Forthem,oneandoneandoneandonedon’tmakefour.
atme almost defiantly, as if taking a dare. I look around for something towrite on and he hands me the score pad, a desk-top notepad with a littlesmile-buttonfaceprintedatthetopofthepage.Theystillmakethosethings.
Iprint thephrasecarefully, copying itdown from insidemyhead, frominsidemy closet.Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Here, in this context,it’sneitherprayernorcommand,butasadgraffiti,scrawledonce,abandoned.Thepenbetweenmy fingers is sensuous, alivealmost, I can feel itspower,the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say,quotinganotherCentremotto,warningusawayfromsuchobjects.Andtheywereright,itisenvy.Justholdingitisenvy.IenvytheCommanderhispen.It’sonemorethingIwouldliketosteal.
The Commander takes the smile-button page from me and looks at it.Thenhebeginstolaugh,andisheblushing?“That’snotrealLatin,”hesays.“That’sjustajoke.”
“A joke?” I say, bewildered now. It can’t be only a joke.Have I riskedthis,madeagrabatknowledge,foramerejoke?“Whatsortofajoke?”
“Youknowhowschoolboysare,”hesays.Hislaughterisnostalgic,Iseenow,thelaughterofindulgencetowardshisformerself.Hegetsup,crossestothebookshelves,takesdownabookfromhistrove;notthedictionarythough.It’sanoldbook,atextbookitlookslike,dog-earedandinky.Beforeshowingit tomehe thumbs through it, contemplative, reminiscent; then, “Here,” hesays,layingitopenonthedeskinfrontofme.
What I see first is a picture: the Venus de Milo, in a black-and-whitephoto,withamoustacheandablackbrassiereandarmpithairdrawnclumsilyonher.On theoppositepage is theColiseum inRome, labelled inEnglish,and below a conjugation: sum es est, sumus estis sunt. “There,” he says,pointing,andinthemarginIseeit,writteninthesameinkasthehairontheVenus.Nolitetebastardescarborundorum.
“It’s sort of hard to explainwhy it’s funny unless you knowLatin,” hesays.“Weusedtowriteallkindsofthingslikethat.Idon’tknowwherewegot them, from older boys perhaps.” Forgetful of me and of himself, he’sturning thepages. “Lookat this,”he says.Thepicture is calledTheSabineWomen,andinthemarginisscrawled:pimpispit,pimuspistispants.“Therewasanotherone,”hesays.“Cim,cis,cit…”Hestops,returningtothepresent,embarrassed.Again he smiles; this time you could call it a grin. I imaginefrecklesonhim,acowlick.RightnowIalmostlikehim.
Iforceasmile,butit’sallbeforemenow.Icanseewhyshewrotethat,onthewallofthecupboard,butIalsoseethatshemusthavelearnedit,here,inthis room.Whereelse?Shewasnevera schoolboy.Withhim,during somepreviousperiodofboyhoodreminiscence,ofconfidencesexchanged.Ihavenotbeenthefirstthen.Toenterhissilence,playchildren’swordgameswithhim.
“She hanged herself,” he says; thoughtfully, not sadly. “That’s whywehadthelightfixtureremoved.Inyourroom.”Hepauses.“Serenafoundout,”hesays,asifthisexplainsit.Anditdoes.
He doesn’twant to giveme any ideas. “Does itmatter?” he says. Tornbedsheet,Ifigure.I’veconsideredthepossibilities.
“Ithoughtyouwereenjoyingit,”hesayslightly,watchingme,however,with intentbright eyes. If Ididn’tknowbetter Iwould think itwas fear. “Iwishyouwould.”
“Youwantmy life to be bearable tome,” I say. It comes out not as aquestion but as a flat statement; flat and without dimension. If my life isbearable,maybewhatthey’redoingisallrightafterall.
“I would like…” I say. “I would like to know.” It sounds indecisive,stupideven,Isayitwithoutthinking.
Nightfalls.Orhasfallen.Whyisitthatnightfalls,insteadofrising,likethedawn?Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling;darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behindcloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below thehorizon,brushfireor aburningcity.Maybenight fallsbecause it’sheavy, athickcurtainpulledupovertheeyes.Woolblanket.IwishIcouldseeinthedark,betterthanIdo.
Night has fallen, then. I feel it pressing down on me like a stone. Nobreeze.Isitbythepartlyopenwindow,curtainstuckedbackbecausethere’snooneoutthere,noneedformodesty,inmynightgown,long-sleevedeveninsummer, tokeepus fromthe temptationsofourownflesh, tokeepus fromhuggingourselves,bare-armed.Nothingmovesinthesearchlightmoonlight.Thescent from thegarden rises likeheat fromabody, theremustbenight-bloomingflowers, it’ssostrong.Icanalmostsee it, redradiation,waveringupwardsliketheshimmerabovehighwaytarmacatnoon.
Down there on the lawn, someone emerges from the spill of darknessunderthewillow,stepsacrossthelight,hislongshadowattachedsharplytohis heels. Is itNick, or is it someone else, someone of no importance?Hestops, looks up at thiswindow, and I can see thewhite oblong of his face.Nick.Welookateachother.Ihavenorosetotoss,hehasnolute.Butit’sthesamekindofhunger.
WhichIcan’tindulge.Ipulltheleft-handcurtainsothatitfallsbetweenus, across my face, and after a moment he walks on, into the invisibilityaroundthecorner.
Thenightbeforeweleftthehouse,thatlasttime,Iwaswalkingthroughtherooms.Nothingwaspackedup,becauseweweren’ttakingmuchwithusandwecouldn’taffordeventhentogivetheleastappearanceofleaving.SoIwasjustwalkingthrough,hereandthere,lookingatthings,atthearrangementwehad made together, for our life. I had some idea that I would be able toremember,afterwards,whatithadlookedlike.
Ihadn’t thoughtaboutthecat.Neitherofushad.Ourdecisionhadbeensudden,andthentherehadbeentheplanningtodo.Imusthavethoughtshewas coming with us. But she couldn’t, you don’t take a cat on a day tripacrosstheborder.
I’lltakecareofit,Lukesaid.Andbecausehesaiditinsteadofher,Iknewhemeantkill.Thatiswhatyouhavetodobeforeyoukill,Ithought.Youhavetocreate an it,wherenonewasbefore.Youdo that first, inyourhead, andthenyoumakeitreal.Sothat’showtheydoit,Ithought.Iseemednevertohaveknownthatbefore.
Lukefoundthecat,whowashidingunderourbed.Theyalwaysknow.Hewent into thegaragewithher. I don’t knowwhat hedid and I never asked
him.Isatinthelivingroom,handsfoldedinmylap.Ishouldhavegoneoutwith him, taken that small responsibility. I should at least have asked himabout it afterwards, so he didn’t have to carry it alone; because that littlesacrifice,thatsnuffingoutoflove,wasdoneformysakeaswell.
Useless, as it turnedout. Iwonderwho told them. It couldhavebeenaneighbour,watchingourcarpulloutfromthedrivewayinthemorning,actingonahunch,tippingthemoffforagoldstaronsomeone’slist.Itcouldevenhavebeen themanwhogotus thepassports;whynotgetpaid twice?Likethem,even,toplantthepassportforgersthemselves,anetfortheunwary.TheEyesofGodrunoveralltheearth.
Becausetheywerereadyforus,andwaiting.Themomentofbetrayalistheworst, themomentwhenyouknowbeyondanydoubt thatyou’vebeenbetrayed:thatsomeotherhumanbeinghaswishedyouthatmuchevil.
Itwas likebeinginanelevatorcut looseat the top.Falling,falling,andnotknowingwhenyouwillhit.
I try to conjure, to raisemyown spirits, fromwherever they are. I need torememberwhat theylooklike.I trytoholdthemstillbehindmyeyes, theirfaces,likepicturesinanalbum.Buttheywon’tstaystillforme,theymove,there’s a smile and it’s gone, their features curl and bend as if the paper’sburning,blacknesseats them.Aglimpse,apaleshimmerontheair;aglow,aurora,danceofelectrons, thena faceagain, faces.But they fade, though Istretch out my arms towards them, they slip away from me, ghosts atdaybreak.Back towherever theyare.Staywithme, Iwant tosay.But theywon’t.
Nolongerkneelingatthefootofthebed,kneesonthehardwoodofthegymfloor,AuntElizabethstandingby thedoubledoors,arms folded,cattleprodhungonherbelt,whileAuntLydia stridesalong the rowsofkneelingnightgownedwomen,hittingourbacksorfeetorbumsorarmslightly,justaflick,atap,withherwoodenpointerifweslouchorslacken.Shewantedourheads bowed just right, our toes together and pointed, our elbows at theproperangle.Partofher interest in thiswasaesthetic: she liked the lookofthe thing. Shewanted us to look like somethingAnglo-Saxon, carved on a
tomb; orChristmas-card angels, regimented in our robes of purity.But sheknewtoo thespiritualvalueofbodily rigidity,ofmusclestrain:a littlepaincleansoutthemind,she’dsay.
Some of them would get carried away with this. The ecstasy ofabasement.Someofthemwouldmoanandcry.
There is no point in making a spectacle of yourself, Janine, said AuntLydia.
IpraywhereIam,sittingbythewindow,lookingoutthroughthecurtainattheemptygarden. Idon’tevenclosemyeyes.Out thereor insidemyhead,it’sanequaldarkness.Orlight.
Iwish I knewwhatYouwere up to.Butwhatever it is, helpme to getthroughit,please.Thoughmaybeit’snotYourdoing;Idon’tbelieveforaninstantthatwhat’sgoingonoutthereiswhatYoumeant.
Nowwecometoforgiveness.Don’tworryaboutforgivingmerightnow.Therearemoreimportantthings.Forinstance:keeptheotherssafe,iftheyaresafe.Don’t let themsuffer toomuch. If theyhave todie, let itbe fast.Youmight evenprovideaHeaven for them.WeneedYou for that.Hellwecanmakeforourselves.
I suppose I should say I forgivewhoeverdid this, andwhatever they’redoingnow.I’lltry,butitisn’teasy.
Temptation comes next. At the Centre, temptation was anything muchmore than eating and sleeping.Knowingwas a temptation.Whatyoudon’tknowwon’ttemptyou,AuntLydiausedtosay.
I think about the chandelier too much, though it’s gone now. But youcould use a hook, in the closet. I’ve considered the possibilities.All you’dhavetodo,afterattachingyourself,wouldbetoleanyourweightforwardandnotfight.
If I were You I’d be fed up. I’d really be sick of it. I guess that’s thedifferencebetweenus.
All alone by the telephone. Except I can’t use the telephone. And if Icould,whocouldIcall?
I put on my clothes, summer clothes, it’s still summer; it seems to havestoppedatsummer.July,itsbreathlessdaysandsaunanights,hardtosleep.Imake a point of keeping track. I should scratchmarks on thewall, one foreachdayof theweek, and runa line through themwhen Ihave seven.Butwhatwouldbetheuse,thisisn’tajailsentence;there’snotimeherethatcanbedoneandfinishedwith.Anyway,allIhavetodoisask,tofindoutwhatdayitis.YesterdaywasJulytheFourth,whichusedtobeIndependenceDay,beforetheyabolishedit.SeptemberFirstwillbeLabourDay,theystillhavethat.Thoughitdidn’tusedtohaveanythingtodowithmothers.
Ibendover todoupmy red shoes; lighterweight thesedays,withdiscreetslitscutinthem,thoughnothingsodaringassandals.It’sanefforttostoop;despitetheexercises,Icanfeelmybodygraduallyseizingup,refusing.BeingawomanthiswayishowIusedtoimagineitwouldbetobeveryold.IfeelIevenwalklikethat:crouchedover,myspineconstrictingtoaquestionmark,mybonesleachedofcalciumandporousaslimestone.WhenIwasyounger,imaginingage, Iwould think,Maybeyouappreciate thingsmorewhenyoudon’thavemuchtimeleft.Iforgottoincludethelossofenergy.SomedaysIdoappreciatethingsmore,eggs,flowers,butthenIdecideI’monlyhavinganattackofsentimentality,mybraingoingpastelTechnicolor,likethebeautiful-sunsetgreetingcardstheyusedtomakesomanyofinCalifornia.High-glosshearts.
I’d like to haveLukehere, in this bedroomwhile I’mgetting dressed, so Icould have a fightwith him.Absurd, but that’swhat Iwant.An argument,aboutwhoshouldputthedishesinthedishwasher,whoseturnitistosortthelaundry,cleanthetoilet;somethingdailyandunimportantinthebigschemeof things. We could even have a fight about that, about unimportant,important.Whataluxuryitwouldbe.Notthatwediditmuch.ThesedaysIscriptwholefights,inmyhead,andthereconciliationsafterwardstoo.
I sit inmy chair, thewreath on the ceiling floating abovemy head, like afrozenhalo,azero.Aholeinspacewhereastarexploded.Aring,onwater,whereastone’sbeenthrown.Allthingswhiteandcircular.Iwaitforthedaytounroll,fortheearthtoturn,accordingtotheroundfaceoftheimplacableclock. The geometrical days, which go around and around, smoothly andoiled.Sweatalreadyonmyupperlip,Iwait,forthearrivaloftheinevitableegg,whichwillbelukewarmliketheroomandwillhaveagreenfilmontheyolkandwilltastefaintlyofsulphur.
Wegoto thechurch,asusual,andlookat thegraves.Thento theWall.Only two hanging on it today: oneCatholic, not a priest though, placardedwithanupside-downcross,andsomeothersectIdon’trecognize.ThebodyismarkedonlywithaJ,inred.Itdoesn’tmeanJewish,thosewouldbeyellowstars.Anywaytherehaven’tbeenmanyofthem.BecausetheyweredeclaredSons of Jacob and therefore special, theywere given a choice. They couldconvert,oremigratetoIsrael.Alotofthememigrated,ifyoucanbelievethenews.Isawaboatloadofthem,ontheTV,leaningovertherailingsintheirblack coats and hats and their long beards, trying to look as Jewish aspossible, in costumes fishedup from thepast, thewomenwith shawlsovertheirheads,smilingandwaving,alittlestifflyit’strue,asiftheywereposing;and another shot, of the richer ones, lining up for the planes. Ofglen sayssomeotherpeoplegotoutthatway,bypretendingtobeJewish,butitwasn’teasybecauseoftheteststheygaveyouandthey’vetighteneduponthatnow.
Youdon’t get hangedonly for being a Jew though.Youget hanged forbeinganoisyJewwhowon’tmakethechoice.Orforpretendingtoconvert.That’s been on the TV too: raids at night, secret hoards of Jewish thingsdraggedoutfromunderbeds,Torahs,talliths,MogenDavids.Andtheownersof them, sullen-faced, unrepentant, pushedby theEyes against thewalls oftheirbedrooms,whilethesorrowfulvoiceoftheannouncertellsusvoice-overabouttheirperfidyandungratefulness.
So the J isn’t for Jew. What could it be? Jehovah’s Witness? Jesuit?Whateveritmeant,he’sjustasdead.
Afterthisritualviewingwecontinueonourway,headingasusualforsomeopen space we can cross, so we can talk. If you can call it talking, theseclippedwhispers,projectedthroughthefunnelsofourwhitewings.It’smorelikeatelegram,averbalsemaphore.Amputatedspeech.
Today we turn in the opposite direction from Soul Scrolls, to wherethere’s an open park of sorts, with a large old building on it; ornate lateVictorian, with stained glass. It used to be calledMemorial Hall, though Ineverknewwhatitwasamemorialfor.Deadpeopleofsomekind.
Why? I said.Moirabecame,over theyears, increasinglyversed in suchanecdotes.Ididn’tmuchlikeit,thisgrudge-holdingagainstthepast.
We stand looking at this building, which is in shape more or less like achurch, a cathedral. Ofglen says, “I hear that’s where the Eyes hold theirbanquets.”
Although I can’t see what use it is for me to know, I ask, “What is itthen?”
“Don’t use it unless you have to,” say Ofglen. “It isn’t good for us toknowabouttoomanyoftheothers,inthenetwork.Incaseyougetcaught.”
I find ithard tobelieve in thesewhisperings, theserevelations, thoughIalways do at the time. Afterwards though they seem improbable, childisheven,likesomethingyou’ddoforfun;likeagirls’club,likesecretsatschool.OrlikethespynovelsIusedtoread,onweekends,whenIshouldhavebeenfinishingmyhomework,or like late-night television.Passwords, things thatcannotbetold,peoplewithsecretidentities,darklinkages:thisdoesnotseemasifitoughttobethetrueshapeoftheworld.Butthatismyownillusion,ahangoverfromaversionofrealityIlearnedintheformertime.
Andnetworks.Networking,oneofmymother’soldphrases,mustyslangof yesteryear. Even in her sixties she still did something she called that,thoughas far as I could see all itmeantwashaving lunchwith someotherwoman.
I leaveOfglen at the corner. “I’ll see you later,” she says.Sheglides awayalongthesidewalkandIgoupthewalktowardsthehouse.There’sNick,hataskew;todayhedoesn’tevenlookatme.Hemusthavebeenwaitingaroundformethough,todeliverhissilentmessage,becauseassoonasheknowsI’veseenhimhegivestheWhirlwindonelastswipewiththechamoisandwalksbrisklyofftowardsthegaragedoor.
Iwalkalongthegravel,betweentheslabsofevergreenlawn.SerenaJoyissittingunderthewillowtree,inherchair,caneproppedatherelbow.Herdressiscrispcoolcotton.Forherit’sblue,watercolour,notthisredofminethatsucks inheatandblazeswith itat thesametime.Herprofile’s towardsme, she’s knitting. How can she bear to touch the wool, in this heat? Butpossiblyherskin’sgonenumb;possiblyshefeelsnothing,likeoneformerlyscalded.
“Youcansit,”shesays.“Here, take thecushion. Ineedyou tohold thiswool.”She’sgotacigarette,theashtray’sonthelawnbesideher,andacupofsomething,teaorcoffee.“It’stoodamncloseinthere.Youneedalittleair,”shesays.Isit,puttingdownmybasket,strawberriesagain,chickenagain,andInotetheswearword:somethingnew.Shefitstheskeinofwoolovermytwooutstretchedhands,startswinding.Iamleashed,itlookslike,manacled;cob-webbed, that’scloser.Thewool isgreyandhasabsorbedmoisture fromtheair,it’slikeawettedbabyblanketandsmellsfaintlyofdampsheep.Atleastmyhandswillgetlanolined.
Serenawinds,thecigaretteheldinthecornerofhermouthsmouldering,sendingouttemptingsmoke.Shewindsslowlyandwithdifficultybecauseofher gradually crippling hands, butwith determination. Perhaps the knitting,forher, involvesakindofwillpower;maybe it evenhurts.Maybe it’sbeenmedicallyprescribed:tenrowsadayofplain,tenofpurl.Thoughshemustdomorethanthat.Iseethoseevergreentreesandgeometricboysandgirlsinadifferentlight:evidenceofherstubbornness,andnotaltogetherdespicable.
Mymotherdidnotknitoranythinglikethat.Butwhenevershewouldbringthingsbackfromthecleaner’s,hergoodblouses,wintercoats,she’dsaveupthe safety pins and make them into a chain. Then she’d pin the chainsomewhere–herbed,thepillow,achair-back,theovenmittinthekitchen–soshewouldn’tlosethem.Thenshe’dforgetaboutthem.Iwouldcomeuponthem, here and there in the house, the houses; tracks of her presence,remnants of some lost intention, like signs on a road that turns out to leadnowhere.Throwbackstodomesticity.
I knowwhat she’s talking about. There are not thatmany subjects thatcouldbespokenabout,betweenus;there’snotmuchcommonground,exceptthisonemysteriousandchancything.
“Toobad,”shesays.It’shardtoimagineherwithababy.ButtheMarthaswouldtakecareof itmostly.She’dlikemepregnant though,overanddone
withandoutof theway,nomorehumiliatingsweatytangles,nomorefleshtriangles under her starry canopyof silver flowers. Peace andquiet. I can’timagineshe’dwantsuchgoodluck,forme,foranyotherreason.
She’slightinganothercigarette,fumblingwiththelighter.Definitelyherhandsaregettingworse.But itwouldbeamistake tooffer todo it forher,she’dbeoffended.Amistaketonoticeweaknessinher.
Idon’tknowwhoshemeans.DoesshemeantheCommander,orGod?Ifit’sGod,sheshouldsaywon’t.Eitherway it’sheresy. It’sonlywomenwhocan’t,whoremainstubbornlyclosed,damaged,defective.
“Maybe,” she says, holding the cigarette,which she has failed to light.“Maybeyoushouldtryitanotherway.”
Does she mean on all fours? “What other way?” I say. I must keepserious.
“You know I can’t,” I say, careful not to let my irritation show. “It’sagainstthelaw.Youknowthepenalty.”
“Yes,” she says. She’s ready for this, she’s thought it through. “I knowyoucan’tofficially.Butit’sdone.Womendoitfrequently.Allthetime.”
“With doctors, you mean?” I say, remembering the sympathetic browneyes,theglovelesshand.ThelasttimeIwentitwasadifferentdoctor.Maybesomeonecaughttheotheroneout,orawomanreportedhim.Notthatthey’dtakeherword,withoutevidence.
“Somedothat,”shesays,hertonealmostaffablenow,thoughdistanced;it’sasifwe’reconsideringachoiceofnailpolish.“That’showOfwarrendidit.Thewife knew, of course.”Shepauses to let this sink in. “Iwouldhelpyou.Iwouldmakesurenothingwentwrong.”
“Iwas thinking ofNick,” she says, and her voice is almost soft. “He’sbeenwithusalongtime.He’sloyal.Icouldfixitwithhim.”
This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: heavy,formless,dark;collusionofasort,betrayalofasort.Shedoeswantthatbaby.
“It’s a risk,” I say. “More than that.” It’smy life on the line; but that’swhereitwillbesoonerorlater,onewayoranother,whetherIdoordon’t.Webothknowthis.
She leans forward. “Maybe I could get something for you,” she says.Because I have been good. “Something you want,” she adds, wheedlingalmost.
“What’s that?”Isay. Ican’t thinkofanythingI trulywant thatshe’dbelikelyorabletogiveme.
Sheknowswherethey’veputherthen,wherethey’rekeepingher.She’sknownall along.Somethingchokes inmy throat.Thebitch,not to tellme,bringmenews,anynewsatall.Noteventoleton.She’smadeofwood,oriron,shecan’timagine.ButIcan’tsaythis,Ican’tlosesight,evenofsosmall
She’s actually smiling, coquettishly even; there’s a hint of her formersmall-screen mannequin’s allure, flickering over her face like momentarystatic. “It’s too damn hot for this, don’t you think?” she says. She lifts thewoolfrommytwohands,whereIhavebeenholdingitallthistime.Thenshetakesthecigaretteshe’sbeenfiddlingwithand,alittleawkwardly,pressesitintomyhand,closingmyfingersaroundit.“Findyourselfamatch,”shesays.“They’reinthekitchen,youcanaskRitaforone.YoucantellherIsaidso.Only the one though,” she adds roguishly. “We don’t want to ruin yourhealth!”
Rita’s sitting at the kitchen table. There’s a glass bowl with ice cubesfloatinginitonthetableinfrontofher.Radishesmadeintoflowers,rosesortulips, bob in it.On the chopping board in front of her she’s cuttingmore,with a paring knife, her large hands deft, indifferent. The rest of her bodydoes notmove, nor does her face. It’s as if she’s doing it in her sleep, thisknife trick. On the white enamel surface is a pile of radishes, washed butuncut.LittleAztechearts.
“Could I have amatch?” I ask her. Surprising howmuch like a small,begging child she makes me feel, simply by her scowl, her stolidity; howimportunateandwhiny.
Ritarollshereyestotheceiling,asifconsultingsilentlysomedeitythere.Then she sighs, rises heavily, andwipes her handswith ostentation on herapron,toshowmehowmuchtroubleIam.Shegoestothecupboardoverthesink, taking her time, locates her key-bunch in her pocket, unlocks thecupboarddoor.“Keep’eminhere,summer,”shesaysasiftoherself.“Nocallforafireinthisweather.”IrememberfromAprilthatit’sCorawholightsthefires,inthesittingroomandthediningroom,incoolerweather.
usedtocovetinordertomakedolls’drawersoutofthem.Sheopensthebox,peersintoit,asifdecidingwhichoneshe’llletmehave.“Herownbusiness,”shemutters. “Noway you can tell her a thing.” She plunges her big handdown,selectsamatch,handsitovertome.“Nowdon’tyougosettingfiretonothing,”shesays.“Notthemcurtainsinyourroom.Toohotthewayitis.”
Shedoesnotdeigntoaskmewhat it isfor.“Don’tcare ifyoueat it,orwhat,”shesays.“Shesaidyoucouldhaveone,soIgiveyouone,isall.”
Sheturnsawayfrommeandsitsagainatthetable.Thenshepicksanicecubeoutofthebowlandpopsitintohermouth.Thisisanunusualthingforher todo. I’venever seenhernibblewhileworking. “Youcanhaveoneofthem too,” she says. “A shame, making you wear all them pillowcases onyourhead,inthisweather.”
I am surprised: she doesn’t usually offerme anything.Maybe she feelsthatifI’veriseninstatusenoughtobegivenamatch,shecanaffordherownsmallgesture.HaveIbecome,suddenly,oneofthosewhomustbeappeased?
“Thankyou,” Isay. I transfer thematchcarefully tomyzipperedsleevewhere the cigarette is, so it won’t get wet, and take an ice cube. “Thoseradishesarepretty,”Isay,inreturnforthegiftshe’smademe,ofherownfreewill.
“I like to do things right, is all,” she says, grumpy again. “No senseotherwise.”
Igoalongthepassage,upthestairs,hurrying.InthecurvedhallwaymirrorIflitpast, a red shapeat theedgeofmyown fieldofvision, awraithof redsmoke.Ihavesmokeonmymindallright,alreadyIcanfeelitinmymouth,drawndownintothelungs,fillingmeinalongrichdirtycinnamonsigh,andthentherushasthenicotinehitsthebloodstream.
After all this time it couldmakeme sick. I wouldn’t be surprised. Buteventhatthoughtiswelcome.
Along thecorridor Igo,whereshould Ido it? In thebathroom, runningthewatertocleartheair,inthebedroom,wheezypuffsouttheopenwindow?Who’stocatchmeatit?Whoknows?
Evenas I luxuriate in the future thisway, rolling anticipation around inmymouth,Ithinkofsomethingelse.
That way I could keep the match. I could make a small hole, in themattress,slideitcarefullyin.Suchathinthingwouldneverbenoticed.Thereitwouldbe,atnight,undermewhileI’minbed.Sleepingonit.
TheCommander, lastnight, fingers together, lookingatmeas I sat rubbingoilylotionintomyhands.Odd,Ithoughtaboutaskinghimforacigarette,butdecided against it. I know enough not to ask for toomuch at once. I don’twanthimtothinkI’musinghim.AlsoIdon’twanttointerrupthim.
Sometimesafterafewdrinkshebecomessilly,andcheatsatScrabble.Heencouragesme todo it too, andwe take extra letters andmakewordswiththem that don’t exist, words like smurt and crup, giggling over them.Sometimesheturnsonhisshort-waveradio,displayingbeforemeaminuteortwoofRadioFreeAmerica, to showmehecan.Thenhe turns itoffagain.DamnCubans,hesays.Allthatfilthaboutuniversaldaycare.
Occasionally I try to putmyself in his position. I do this as a tactic, toguessinadvancehowhemaybemovedtobehavetowardsme.It’sdifficultformetobelieveIhavepoweroverhim,ofanysort,butIdo;althoughit’sofanequivocalkind.OnceinawhileIthinkIcanseemyself,thoughblurrily,ashemayseeme.Thereare thingshewants toprovetome,giftshewants to
Sometimes he becomes querulous, at other times, philosophical; or hewishestoexplainthings,justifyhimself.Aslastnight.
The problemwasn’t only with the women, he says. Themain problemwaswiththemen.Therewasnothingforthemanymore.
It’s not enough, he says. It’s too abstract. Imean therewas nothing forthemtodowithwomen.
I’mnot talking about sex, he says.Thatwas part of it, the sexwas tooeasy.Anyone could just buy it. Therewas nothing towork for, nothing tofight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what they werecomplainingabout themost? Inability to feel.Menwere turningoffonsex,even.Theywereturningoffonmarriage.
Yes, he says, looking atme. They do.He stands up, comes around thedesktothechairwhereI’msitting.Heputshishandsonmyshoulders,frombehind.Ican’tseehim.
There’s hardly any point in my thinking, is there? I say.What I thinkdoesn’tmatter.
I lie flat, thedampairabovemelikea lid.Likeearth. Iwish itwouldrain.Better still, a thunderstorm,blackclouds, lightning,ear-splitting sound.Theelectricitymightgooff.Icouldgodowntothekitchenthen,sayI’mafraid,sitwithRita andCoraaround thekitchen table, theywouldpermitmy fearbecauseit’sonetheyshare,they’dletmein.Therewouldbecandlesburning,wewouldwatcheachother’sfacescomeandgointheflickering,inthewhiteflashesofjaggedlightfromoutsidethewindows.OhLord,Corawouldsay.OhLordsaveus.
Ilookupattheceiling,theroundcircleofplasterflowers.Drawacircle,stepintoit,itwillprotectyou.Fromthecentrewasthechandelier,andfromthe chandelier a twisted stripof sheetwashangingdown.That’swhere shewas swinging, just lightly, like a pendulum; theway you could swing as achild,hangingbyyourhandsfromatreebranch.Shewassafethen,protectedaltogether,bythetimeCoraopenedthedoor.SometimesIthinkshe’sstillinhere,withme.
Lateafternoon,theskyhazy,thesunlightdiffusebutheavyandeverywhere,likebronzedust.IglidewithOfglenalongthesidewalk;thepairofus,andinfront of us another pair, and across the street another.Wemust look goodfromadistance:picturesque,likeDutchmilkmaidsonawallpaperfrieze,likeashelffullofperiod-costumeceramicsaltandpeppershakers,likeaflotillaof swans or anything that repeats itself with at least minimum grace andwithoutvariation.Soothingtotheeye,theeyes,theEyes,forthat’swhothisshowisfor.We’reofftothePrayvaganza,todemonstratehowobedientandpiousweare.
Notadandelioninsighthere,thelawnsarepickedclean.Ilongforone,just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of andperennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike.Rings,wewouldmakefromthem,andcrownsandnecklaces,stainsfromthebittermilkonourfingers.OrI’dholdoneunderherchin:Doyoulikebutter?Smelling them, she’d get pollen on her nose. (Orwas that buttercups?)Orgone to seed: I canseeher, runningacross the lawn, that lawn there just infrontofme,attwo,threeyearsold,wavingonelikeasparkler,asmallwandofwhitefire,theairfillingwithtinyparachutes.Blow,andyoutellthetime.All that time, blowing away in the summer breeze. It was daisies for lovethough,andwedidthattoo.
Welineuptogetprocessedthroughthecheckpoint,standinginourtwosandtwosandtwos,likeaprivategirls’schoolthatwentforawalkandstayedouttoolong.Yearsandyearstoolong,sothateverythinghasbecomeovergrown,legs, bodies, dresses all together. As if enchanted. A fairy tale, I’d like tobelieve.Insteadwearecheckedthrough,inourtwos,andcontinuewalking.
After a while we turn right, heading past Lilies and down towards theriver.IwishIcouldgothatfar,towherethewidebanksare,whereweusedto
lie in thesun,where thebridgesarchover. Ifyouwentdowntheriver longenough,alongitssinewywindings,you’dreachthesea;butwhatcouldyoudothere?Gathershells,lollontheoilystones.
Wearen’tgoingtotheriverthough,wewon’tseethelittlecupolasonthebuildingsdownthatway,whitewithblueandgold trim,suchchastegaiety.Weturninatamoremodernbuilding,ahugebannerdrapedaboveitsdoor–WOMEN’SPRAYVAGANZATODAY.Thebannercoversthebuilding’sformername,somedeadPresidenttheyshot.Belowtheredwritingthere’salineofsmallerprint,inblack,withtheoutlineofawingedeyeoneithersideofit:GODISANATIONAL RESOURCE. On either side of the doorway stand the inevitableGuardians,twopairs,fourinall,armsattheirsides,eyesfront.They’relikestore mannequins almost, with their neat hair and pressed uniforms andplaster-hardyoungfaces.Nopimplyonestoday.Eachhasasubmachinegunslungready, forwhateverdangerousorsubversiveacts they thinkwemightcommitinside.
ThePrayvaganzaistobeheldinthecoveredcourtyard,wherethere’sanoblongspace,askylightroof.Itisn’tacitywidePrayvaganza,thatwouldbeonthefootballfield;it’sonlyforthisdistrict.Ranksoffoldingwoodenchairshavebeenplacedalong the rightside, for theWivesanddaughtersofhigh-ranking officials or officers, there’s not thatmuch difference. The galleriesabove, with their concrete railings, are for the lower-ranking women, theMarthas, the Econowives in their multicoloured stripes. Attendance atPrayvaganzasisn’tcompulsoryforthem,especiallyifthey’reondutyorhaveyoungchildren,butthegalleriesseemtobefillingupanyway.Isupposeit’saformofentertainment,likeashoworacircus.
Here there are no chairs.Our area is cordoned offwith a silky twistedscarletrope,likethekindtheyusedtohaveinmovietheatrestorestrainthecustomers. This rope segregates us, marks us off, keeps the others fromcontaminationbyus,makesforusacorralorpen;sointoitwego,arrangingourselvesinrows,whichweknowverywellhowtodo,kneelingthenonthecementfloor.
“Headfor theback,”Ofglenmurmursat:myside.“Wecan talkbetter.”
Andwhenwearekneeling,headsbowedslightly,Icanhearfromallaroundus a susurration, like the rustling of insects in tall dry grass: a cloud ofwhispers.Thisisoneoftheplaceswherewecanexchangenewsmorefreely,passitfromonetothenext.It’shardforthemtosingleoutanyoneofusorhearwhat’sbeingsaid.Andtheywouldn’twanttointerrupttheceremony,notinfrontofthetelevisioncameras.
Ofglendigsmeinthesidewithherelbow,tocallmyattention,andIlookup,slowlyandstealthily.Fromwherewe’rekneelingwehaveagoodviewoftheentrancetothecourtyard,wherepeoplearecomingsteadilyin.ItmustbeJanineshemeantmetosee,becausetheresheis,pairedwithanewwoman,not the former one; someone I don’t recognize. Janine must have beentransferred then, to a newhousehold, a newposting. It’s early for that, hassomethinggonewrongwithherbreastmilk?Thatwouldbetheonlyreasonthey’dmove her, unless there’s been a fight over the baby;which happensmorethanyou’dthink.Onceshehadit,shemayhaveresistedgivingitup.Icanseethat.Herbodyunderthereddresslooksverythin,skinnyalmost,andshe’slostthatpregnantglow.Herfaceiswhiteandpeaked,asifthejuiceisbeingsuckedoutofher.
“Itwasnogood, youknow,”Ofglen saysnear the sideofmyhead. “Itwasashredderafterall.”
ShemeansJanine’sbaby,thebabythatpassedthroughJanineonitswaytosomewhereelse.ThebabyAngela.Itwaswrong,tonamehertoosoon.Ifeelanillness,inthepitofmystomach.Notanillness,anemptiness.Idon’twant toknowwhatwaswrongwith it. “MyGod,” I say.Togo throughallthat,fornothing.Worsethannothing.
We watch as Janine enters the roped-off enclosure, in her veil ofuntouchability,ofbadluck.Sheseesme,shemustseeme,butshelooksrightthroughme.Nosmileoftriumphthistime.Sheturns,kneels,andallIcanseenowisherbackandthethinbowedshoulders.
“She thinks it’s her fault,” Ofglen whispers. “Two in a row. For beingsinful.Sheusedadoctor,theysay,itwasn’therCommander’satall.”
Ican’tsayIdoknoworOfglenwillwonderhow.Asfarasshe’saware,sheherselfismyonlysource,forthiskindofinformation;ofwhichshehasasurprising amount. How would she have found out about Janine? The
Marthas?Janine’sshoppingpartner?Listeningatcloseddoors, to theWivesover their teaandwine,spinning theirwebs.WillSerenaJoy talkaboutmelikethat,ifIdoasshewants?Agreedtoitrightaway,reallyshedidn’tcare,anythingwith two legs and a good you-know-whatwas finewith her. Theyaren’t squeamish, they don’t have the same feelingswe do.And the rest ofthemleaningforwardintheirchairs,Mydear,allhorrorandprurience.Howcouldshe?Where?When?
AstheydidnodoubtwithJanine.“That’sterrible,”Isay.It’slikeJaninethough to take it upon herself, to decide the baby’s flawswere due to heralone.Butpeoplewilldoanythingratherthanadmitthattheirliveshavenomeaning.Nouse,thatis.Noplot.
Ilookedovertowardsthedoubledoorsofthegymnasium,wheretheAuntusuallystood,toseeifshe’dnoticed,buttheAuntwasn’tthere.Bythattimetheyweremore confident about us; sometimes they left us unsupervised inthe classroom and even the cafeteria forminutes at a time. Probably she’dduckedoutforasmokeoracupofcoffee.
By that timeMoirahadcomeover too. Itwasbeforeshe’dbrokenfree,thesecondtime.Shewasstilllimpingfromwhatthey’ddonetoherfeet.ShewentaroundthebedsoshecouldseeJanine’sface.
Hello, she said,butnot tome.Myname’s Janine. I’myourwait-personforthismorning.CanIgetyousomecoffeetobeginwith?
Moiraslappedheracross theface, twice,backandforth.Getbackhere,shesaid.Getrightbackhere!Youcan’tstaythere,youaren’tthereanymore.That’sallgone.
Theywon’tsendyoutotheInfirmary,sodon’teventhinkaboutit,Moirasaid. They won’t mess around with trying to cure you. They won’t evenbothertoshipyoutotheColonies.Yougotoofarawayandtheyjusttakeyouup to the Chemistry Lab and shoot you. Then they burn you up with thegarbage,likeanUnwoman.Soforgetit.
Jesus God,Moira said. That’s enough. She’ll be here in one minute, Ipromiseyou.Soputyourgoddamnclothesonandshutup.
ShedoesthatagainandI’mnothere,Moirasaidtome,youjusthavetoslapher like that.You can’t let her go slippingover the edge.That stuff iscatching.
Thesittingspaceinthecourtyardisfillednow;werustleandwait.AtlasttheCommanderinchargeofthisservicecomesin.He’sbaldingandsquarelybuilt and looks like an aging football coach. He’s dressed in his uniform,sober black with the rows of insignia and decorations. It’s hard not to beimpressed,butImakeaneffort:ItrytoimaginehiminbedwithhisWifeandhisHandmaid,fertilizingawaylikemad,likearuttingsalmon,pretendingtotake no pleasure in it.When the Lord said be fruitful andmultiply, did hemeanthisman?
ThisCommanderascendsthestepstothepodium,whichisdrapedwithared cloth embroidered with a large white-winged eye. He gazes over theroom,andoursoftvoicesdie.Hedoesn’tevenhavetoraisehishands.Thenhisvoicegoesintothemicrophoneandoutthroughthespeakers,robbedofitslower tones so that it’s sharply metallic, as if it’s being made not by hismouth,hisbody,butbythespeakersthemselves.Hisvoiceismetal-coloured,horn-shaped.
I tuneout throughthespeechaboutvictoryandsacrifice.Thenthere’salong prayer, about unworthy vessels, then a hymn: “There is a Balm inGilead.”
Nowcomesthemainitem.ThetwentyAngelsenter,newlyreturnedfromthe fronts, newly decorated, accompanied by their honour guard, marchingone-twoone-twointothecentralopenspace.Attention,atease.Andnowthetwentyveileddaughters,inwhite,comeshylyforward,theirmothersholdingtheir elbows. It’smothers, not fathers,whogive awaydaughters thesedaysandhelpwiththearrangementofthemarriages.Themarriagesareofcoursearranged.Thesegirlshaven’tbeenallowedtobealonewithamanforyears;
Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before, playingbaseball, in jeansandsneakers, riding theirbicycles?Readingbooks,allbythemselves? Even though some of them are nomore than fourteen – Startthem soon is the policy, there’s not a moment to be lost – still they’llremember.And theonesafter themwill, for threeor fouror fiveyears;butafter that theywon’t.They’llalwayshavebeen inwhite, ingroupsofgirls;they’llalwayshavebeensilent.
We’vegiventhemmorethanwe’vetakenaway,saidtheCommander.Thinkof the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles bars, theindignityofhigh-schoolblinddates?Themeatmarket.Don’tyourememberthe terrible gapbetween theoneswho couldget aman easily and theoneswhocouldn’t?Someofthemweredesperate,theystarvedthemselvesthinorpumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of thehumanmisery.
He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were alwayscomplaining.Problemsthis,problemsthat.RemembertheadsinthePersonalcolumns,Brightattractivewoman,thirty-five.…Thiswaytheyallgetaman,nobody’s leftout.Andthen if theydidmarry, theycouldbe leftwithakid,two kids, the husbandmight just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’dhavetogoonwelfare.Orelsehe’dstayaroundandbeatthemup.Oriftheyhada job, thechildren indaycareor leftwithsomebrutal ignorantwoman,and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched littlepaycheques.Moneywastheonlymeasureofworth,foreveryone,theygotnorespect asmothers.Nowonder theyweregivingupon thewholebusiness.Thiswaythey’reprotected,theycanfulfiltheirbiologicaldestiniesinpeace.With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligentperson,Iliketohearwhatyouthink.Whatdidweoverlook?
Love,saidAuntLydiawithdistaste.Don’tletmecatchyouatit.Nomooningand June-ing around here, girls.Wagging her finger at us. Love is not thepoint.
Women’sPrayvaganzasareforgroupweddingslikethis,usually.Themen’sareformilitaryvictories.Theseare the thingswearesupposedtorejoice inthemost, respectively.Sometimes though, for thewomen, they’re foranunwho recants.Most of that happened earlier,when theywere rounding themup,buttheystillunearthafewthesedays,dredgethemupfromunderground,wherethey’vebeenhiding, likemoles.Theyhavethat lookaboutthemtoo:weak-eyed, stunned by too much light. The old ones they send off to theColoniesrightaway,buttheyoungfertileonestheytrytoconvert,andwhenthey succeed we all come here to watch them go through the ceremony,renouncetheircelibacy,sacrificeittothecommongood.TheykneelandtheCommanderpraysandthentheytaketheredveil,astherestofushavedone.They aren’t allowed to becomeWives though; they’re considered, still, toodangerousforpositionsofsuchpower.There’sanodourofwitchaboutthem,something mysterious and exotic; it remains despite the scrubbing and theweltson their feetand the timethey’vespent inSolitary.Theyalwayshavethosewelts,they’vealwaysdonethattime,sorumourgoes:theydon’tletgoeasily.Manyof themchoosetheColonies instead.Noneofus likes todrawoneforashoppingpartner.Theyaremorebrokenthantherestofus;it’shardtofeelcomfortablewiththem.
Themothershavestood thewhite-veiledgirls inplaceandhavereturned totheirchairs.There’salittlecryinggoingonamongthem,somemutualpattingand hand-holding, the ostentatious use of handkerchiefs. The Commandercontinueswiththeservice:
“Iwill thatwomenadorn themselves inmodestapparel,”hesays,“withshamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, orcostlyarray;
“Let thewoman learn in silencewithall subjection.”Here he looks usover.“All,”herepeats.
“Notwithstandingsheshallbesavedbychildbearing, if theycontinue infaithandcharityandholinesswithsobriety.”
“Heshould tell that to theWives,”Ofglenmurmurs,“when they’re intothe sherry.” She means the part about sobriety. It’s safe to talk again, theCommanderhas finished themain ritual and they’redoing the rings, liftingtheveils.Boo,Ithinkinmyhead.Takeagoodlook,becauseit’stoolatenow.TheAngelswillqualify forHandmaids, later, especially if theirnewWivescan’tproduce.Butyougirlsarestuck.Whatyouseeiswhatyouget,zitsandall.But you aren’t expected to love him.You’ll find that out soon enough.Justdoyourdutyinsilence.Whenindoubt,whenflatonyourback,youcanlookattheceiling.Whoknowswhatyoumaysee,upthere?Funeralwreathsand angels, constellations of dust, stellar or otherwise, the puzzles left byspiders.There’salwayssomethingtooccupytheinquiringmind.
What we’re aiming for, says Aunt Lydia, is a spirit of camaraderie amongwomen.Wemustallpulltogether.
It doesn’t do any good to talk like that, I say, feeling nevertheless theimpulsetogiggle.ButIstillpretendedtomyself,then,thatweshouldtrytopreservesomethingresemblingdignity.
Andshe’sright,IknowthatnowasIkneelonthisundeniablyhardfloor,listening to the ceremony drone on. There is something powerful in thewhisperingofobscenities,aboutthoseinpower.There’ssomethingdelightfulaboutit,somethingnaughty,secretive,forbidden,thrilling.It’slikeaspell,ofsorts.Itdeflatesthem,reducesthemtothecommondenominatorwheretheycan be dealtwith. In the paint of thewashroom cubicle someone unknownhad scratched:AuntLydia sucks. Itwas like a flagwaved fromahilltop inrebellion. The mere idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itselfheartening.
So now I imagine, among theseAngels and their drainedwhite brides,momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters; or, better,ignominiousfailures,cockslikethree-week-oldcarrots,anguishedrumblingsuponfleshcoldandunrespondingasuncookedfish.
Itwouldbehardtoexplaintoherwhathedoeswant,becauseIstillhaveno name for it. How can I describe what really goes on between us? Shewouldlaugh,foronething.It’seasierformetosay,“Inaway.”Thatatleasthasthedignityofcoercion.
Nowthere’saspacetobefilled,inthetoo-warmairofmyroom,andatimealso;aspace-time,betweenhereandnowandthereandthen,punctuatedbydinner.The arrival of the tray, carried up the stairs as if for an invalid.Aninvalid,onewhohasbeeninvalidated.Novalidpassport.Noexit.
Thatwaswhat happened, the daywe tried to cross at the border,with ourfreshpassports thatsaidwewerenotwhowewere: thatLuke, for instance,hadneverbeendivorced,thatwewerethereforelawful,underthenewlaw.
Themanwent insidewithourpassports, afterwe’dexplainedabout thepicnicandhe’dglancedintothecarandseenourdaughterasleep,inherzooofmangyanimals.Lukepattedmyarmandgotoutofthecarasiftostretchhis legs and watched the man through the window of the immigrationbuilding. Istayed in thecar. I litacigarette, tosteadymyself,anddrewthesmokein,alongbreathofcounterfeitrelaxation.Iwaswatchingtwosoldiersintheunfamiliaruniformsthatwerebeginning,bythen,tobefamiliar;theywere standing idly beside the yellow-and-black-striped lift-up barrier. Theyweren’tdoingmuch.Oneofthemwaswatchingaflockofbirds,gulls,liftingand eddying and landing on the bridge railing beyond. Watching him, Iwatchedthemtoo.Everythingwasthecolouritusuallyis,onlybrighter.
ThenLukegotbackintothecar,toofast,andturnedthekeyandreversed.He was picking up the phone, he said. And then he began to drive veryquickly,andafterthattherewasthedirtroadandthewoodsandwejumpedoutof thecar andbegan to run.Acottage, tohide in, aboat, Idon’tknowwhatwethought.Hesaid thepassportswerefoolproof,andwehadsolittle
Fallinginlove,Isaid.Fallingintoit,wealldidthen,onewayoranother.Howcouldhehavemadesuchlightof it?Sneeredeven.Asif itwastrivialforus,afrill,awhim.Itwas,onthecontrary,heavygoing.Itwasthecentralthing;itwasthewayyouunderstoodyourself;ifitneverhappenedtoyou,notever,youwouldbelikeamutant,acreaturefromouterspace.Everyoneknewthat.
Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. Webelieved in it, this downwardmotion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at thesametimesodire,soextreme,sounlikely.Godislove,theysaidonce,butwereversedthat,andlove,likeHeaven,wasalwaysjustaroundthecorner.Themore difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more webelieved in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for theincarnation.Thatword,madeflesh.
Orsometimes,evenwhenyouwerestill loving,stillfalling,you’dwakeup in themiddleof thenight,when themoonlightwas coming through thewindowontohissleepingface,makingtheshadowsinthesocketsofhiseyes
darker andmore cavernous than in daytime, and you’d think,Who knowswhattheydo,ontheirownorwithothermen?Whoknowswhattheysayorwhere theyare likely togo?Whocan tellwhat theyreallyare?Under theirdaily-ness.
Oryou’drememberstoriesyou’dread, inthenewspapers,aboutwomenwhohadbeen found– oftenwomenbut sometimes theywould bemen, orchildren, that was the worst – in ditches or forests or refrigerators inabandonedrentedrooms,withtheirclothesonoroff,sexuallyabusedornot;atanyratekilled.Therewereplacesyoudidn’twanttowalk,precautionsyoutookthathad todowith locksonwindowsanddoors,drawingthecurtains,leavingonlights.Thesethingsyoudidwerelikeprayers;youdidthemandyouhopedtheywouldsaveyou.Andforthemostparttheydid.Orsomethingdid;youcouldtellbythefactthatyouwerestillalive.
Butallofthatwaspertinentonlyinthenight,andhadnothingtodowiththemanyouloved,atleastindaylight.Withthatmanyouwantedittowork,toworkout.Workingoutwasalsosomethingyoudid tokeepyourbodyinshape, for theman. If youworked out enough,maybe themanwould too.Maybeyouwouldbeabletoworkitouttogether,asifthetwoofyouwereapuzzle that could be solved; otherwise, one of you, most likely the man,wouldgowanderingoffonatrajectoryofhisown,takinghisaddictivebodywithhimandleavingyouwithbadwithdrawal,whichyoucouldcounteractbyexercise.Ifyoudidn’tworkitoutitwasbecauseoneofyouhadthewrongattitude.Everythingthatwentoninyourlifewasthoughttobeduetosomepositiveornegativepoweremanatingfrominsideyourhead.
It’s strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything wereavailable to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if wewerefreetoshapeandreshapeforevertheever-expandingperimetersofourlives.Iwaslikethattoo,Ididthattoo.Lukewasnotthefirstmanforme,andhemightnothavebeen the last. Ifhehadn’tbeen frozen thatway.Stoppeddeadintime,inmid-air,amongthetreesbackthere,intheactoffalling.
mymother said.How longwereyousupposed tomournandwhatdid theysay?Makeyourlifeatributetothelovedone.Andhewas,theloved.One.
Is, I say. Is, is, only two letters, you stupid shit, can’t you manage torememberit,evenashortwordlikethat?
Iwipemysleeveacrossmyface.OnceIwouldn’thavedonethat,forfearofsmearing,butnownothingcomesoff.Whateverexpression is there,unseenbyme,isreal.
You’ll have to forgiveme. I’m a refugee from the past, and like otherrefugeesIgooverthecustomsandhabitsofbeingI’veleftorbeenforcedtoleavebehindme,anditallseemsjustasquaint,fromhere,andIamjustasobsessiveabout it.LikeaWhiteRussiandrinking tea inParis,marooned inthe twentiethcentury, Iwanderback, try to regain thosedistantpathways; Ibecometoomaudlin,losemyself.Weep.Weepingiswhatitis,notcrying.Isitinthischairandoozelikeasponge.
So.More waiting. Lady in waiting: that’s what they used to call thosestoreswhereyoucouldbuymaternityclothes.Womaninwaitingsoundsmorelike someone in a train station.Waiting is also a place: it iswherever youwait.Formeit’sthisroom.Iamablank,here,betweenparentheses.Betweenotherpeople.
AndthenIlookupandaround,andgetoutofmychairandcometowardsher.She’sholding it, aPolaroidprint, squareandglossy.So theystillmakethem, cameras like that.And therewill be family albums, too,with all thechildren in them; no Handmaids though. From the point of view of futurehistory,thiskind,we’llbeinvisible.Butthechildrenwillbeinthemallright,something for theWives to look at, downstairs, nibbling at the buffet andwaitingforthebirth.
ItmusthavebeenaMarthawhogot it forher.There’sanetworkof theMarthas,then,withsomethinginitforthem.That’snicetoknow.
Timehasnot stood still. Ithaswashedoverme,washedmeaway, as ifI’mnothingmorethanawomanofsand,leftbyacarelesschildtoonearthewater. I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far backbehind theglib shinysurfaceof thisphotograph.Ashadowofa shadow,asdeadmothersbecome.Youcanseeitinhereyes:Iamnotthere.
I sit at the little table, eatingcreamedcornwitha fork. Ihavea forkandaspoon,butneveraknife.When there’smeat theycut itup formeaheadoftime, as if I’m lackingmanual skills or teeth. I have both, however. That’swhyI’mnotallowedaknife.
Iknockonhisdoor,hearhisvoice,adjustmyface,goin.He’sstandingbythefireplace;inhishandhe’sgotanalmost-emptydrink.HeusuallywaitstillI get here to start on the hard liquor, though I know they have wine withdinner.Hisfaceisalittleflushed.Itrytoestimatehowmanyhe’shad.
“Pardon?” I say. Behind this act of his I sense embarrassment, anuncertaintyabouthowfarhecangowithme,andinwhatdirection.
“What’s that?” I say. “Chinese chequers?” I can take these liberties; heappears to enjoy them, especially after a couple of drinks. He prefers mefrivolous.
“Good,” he says.He goes to his desk, fumbleswith a drawer. Then hecomestowardsme,onehandbehindhisback.
Iwonderwherehefoundit.Allsuchclothingwassupposedtohavebeendestroyed.Irememberseeingthatontelevision, innewsclipsfilmedinonecityafteranother. InNewYork itwascalled theManhattanCleanup.Therewere bonfires in Times Square, crowds chanting around them, womenthrowingtheirarmsupthankfullyintotheairwhentheyfeltthecamerasonthem, clean-cut stony-faced young men tossing things onto the flames,armfuls of silk and nylon and fake fur, lime-green, red, violet; black satin,gold lamé, glittering silver; bikini underpants, see-through brassieres withpink satin hearts sewn on to cover the nipples.And themanufacturers andimporters and salesmen down on their knees, repenting in public, conicalpaperhatslikeduncehatsontheirheads,SHAMEprintedontheminred.
But some itemsmust have survived the burning, they couldn’t possiblyhavegot itall.Hemusthavecomebythis inthesamewayhecamebythemagazines,nothonestly:itreeksofblackmarket.Andit’snotnew,it’sbeenwornbefore, theclothunderthearmsiscrumpledandslightlystained,withsomeotherwoman’ssweat.
“Youexpectmetoputthaton?”Isay.Iknowmyvoicesoundsprudish,disapproving.Still there issomethingattractive in the idea. I’veneverwornanythingremotelylikethis,soglitteringandtheatrical,andthat’swhatitmustbe,anold theatrecostume,orsomething fromavanishednightclubact; theclosest I ever camewere bathing suits, and a camisole set, peach lace, thatLukebought formeonce.Yet there’s an enticement in this thing, it carrieswithitthechildishallureofdressingup.Anditwouldbesoflaunting,suchasneerattheAunts,sosinful,sofree.Freedom,likeeverythingelse,isrelative.
“Well,”Isay,notwishingtoseemtooeager.IwanthimtofeelI’mdoinghima favour.Nowwemaycome to it, his deep-down real desire.Doeshehave a pony whip, hidden behind the door? Will he produce boots, bendhimselformeoverthedesk?
Iknowwithoutbeing told thatwhathe’sproposing is risky, forhimbutespecially forme;but Iwant togoanyway. Iwantanything thatbreaks themonotony,subvertstheperceivedrespectableorderofthings.
Allhehasisalipstick,oldandrunnyandsmellingofartificialgrapes,andsomeeyelinerandmascara.Noeyeshadow,noblusher.ForamomentIthinkIwon’t rememberhow todoanyof this, andmy first trywith the eyelinerleavesmewithasmudgedblacklid,asifI’vebeeninafight;butIwipeitoffwith the vegetable-oil hand lotion and try again. I rub some of the lipstickalongmy cheekbones, blending it in.While I do all this, he holds a largesilver-backed hand-mirror for me. I recognize it as Serena Joy’s. He musthaveborroweditfromherroom.
“Terrific,” he says. By this time he is quite excited; it’s as if we’redressingforaparty.
“Pull the hood down over your face,” he says. “Try not to smear the
Weglidetogetherthroughthedarkeningstreets.TheCommanderhasholdofmyrighthand,asifwe’reteenagersatthemovies.Iclutchthesky-bluecapetightly aboutme, as a goodWife should. Through the tunnelmade by thehoodIcanseethebackofNick’shead.Hishatisonstraight,he’ssittingupstraight,hisneckisstraight,heisallverystraight.Hisposturedisapprovesofme,oramI imagining it?Doesheknowwhat I’vegotonunder thiscloak,didheprocureit?Andifso,doesthismakehimangryorlustfulorenviousoranythingatall?Wedohavesomethingincommon:bothofusaresupposedtobeinvisible,bothofusarefunctionaries.Iwonderifheknowsthis.Whenheopenedthedoorof thecarfor theCommander,and,byextension, forme, Itriedtocatchhiseye,makehimlookatme,butheactedasifhedidn’tseeme. Why not? It’s a soft job for him, running little errands, doing littlefavours,andthere’snowayhe’dwanttojeopardizeit.
The checkpoints are no problem, everything goes as smoothly as theCommandersaiditwould,despitetheheavypounding,thepressureofbloodinmyhead.Chickenshit,Moirawouldsay.
“Wehavetogothroughthegateway,”hesays,asifthismeanssomethingto me. I tried to ask him where we were going, but he said he wanted tosurpriseme.“Wivesaren’tallowed.”
SoIflattenmyselfandthecarstartsagain,andforthenextfewminutesIseenothing.Underthecloakit’sstiflinghot.It’sawintercloak,notacottonsummer one, and it smells of mothballs. He must have borrowed it fromstorage,knowingshewouldn’tnotice.Hehasconsideratelymovedhisfeettogiveme room.Neverthelessmy forehead is against his shoes. I haveneverbeenthisclosetohisshoesbefore.Theyfeelhard,unwinking,liketheshells
We pass through another checkpoint. I hear the voices, impersonal,deferential,andthewindowrollingelectricallydownandupforthepassestobeshown.Thistimehewon’tshowmine,theonethat’ssupposedtobemine,asI’mnolongerinofficialexistence,fornow.
“We’ll have to be fast,” he says. “This is a back entrance. You shouldleavethecloakwithNick.Onthehour,asusual,”hesaystoNick.Sothistooissomethinghe’sdonebefore.
He helpsme out of the cloak; the car door is opened. I feel air onmyalmostbareskin,andrealizeI’vebeensweating.AsIturntoshutthecardoorbehindmeIcanseeNicklookingatmethroughtheglass.Heseesmenow.IsitcontemptIread,orindifference,isthismerelywhatheexpectedofme?
We’re inanalleywaybehindabuilding, redbrickand fairlymodern.Abank of trash cans is set out beside the door, and there’s a smell of friedchicken,goingbad.TheCommanderhasakeytothedoor,whichisplainandgrey and flushwith thewall and, I think,made of steel. Inside it there’s aconcrete-block corridor lit with fluorescent overhead lights; some kind offunctionaltunnel.
“Here,”theCommandersays.Heslipsaroundmywristatag,purple,onan elastic band, like the tags for airport luggage. “If anyone asks you, sayyou’reanevening rental,”he says.He takesmeby thebareupperarmandsteersmeforward.WhatIwantisamirror, toseeifmylipstickisallright,whether thefeathersare tooridiculous, toofrowzy.In this light Imust looklurid.Thoughit’stoolatenow.
We go along the corridor and through another flat grey door and alonganother corridor, softly lit and carpeted this time, in a mushroom colour,browny-pink.Doorsopenoffit,withnumbersonthem:ahundredandone,ahundredandtwo,thewayyoucountduringathunderstorm,toseehowcloseyouaretobeingstruck.It’sahotelthen.Frombehindoneofthedoorscomeslaughter,aman’sandalsoawoman’s.It’salongtimesinceI’veheardthat.
We emerge into a central courtyard. It’swide and also high: it goes upseveralstoreystoaskylightatthetop.There’safountaininthemiddleofit,around fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed.Potted plants and trees sprout here and there, vines hang down from thebalconies.Oval-sidedglasselevators slideupanddown thewalls likegiantmolluscs.
Thewomen are sitting, lounging, strolling, leaning against one another.Therearemenmingledwiththem,alotofmen,butintheirdarkuniformsorsuits, so similar to one another, they form only a kind of background. Thewomenontheotherhandaretropical,theyaredressedinallkindsofbrightfestivegear.Someofthemhaveonoutfitslikemine,feathersandglister,cuthigh up the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie,shortienightgowns,baby-dollpyjamas, theoccasional see-throughnegligee.Some are in bathing suits, one-piece or bikini; one, I see, is wearing acrochetedaffair,withbigscallopshellscoveringthetits.Someareinjoggingshortsandsunhalters,someinexercisecostumesliketheonestheyusedto
show on television, body-tight, with knitted pastel leg warmers. There areevenafewincheerleaders’outfits,littlepleatedskirts,outsizedlettersacrossthechest.Iguessthey’vehadtofallbackonamélange,whatevertheycouldscroungeorsalvage.Allwearmakeup,andIrealizehowunaccustomedI’vebecome to seeing it, onwomen, because their eyes look toobig tome, toodark and shimmering, their mouths too red, too wet, blood-dipped andglistening;or,ontheotherhand,tooclownish.
There are a great many buttocks in this room. I am no longer used tothem.
“It’s likewalking into thepast,”says theCommander.Hisvoicesoundspleased,delightedeven.“Don’tyouthink?”
I try to remember if thepastwas exactly like this. I’mnot sure, now. Iknow it contained these things, but somehow themix is different.Amovieaboutthepastisnotthesameasthepast.
“Yes,” I say. What I feel is not one simple thing. Certainly I am notdismayedbythesewomen,notshockedbythem.Irecognizethemastruants.Theofficialcreeddeniesthem,deniestheirveryexistence,yetheretheyare.Thatisatleastsomething.
“Don’tgawk,”saystheCommander.“You’llgiveyourselfaway.Justactnatural.” Again he leads me forward. Another man has spotted him, hasgreeted him and set himself inmotion towards us. The Commander’s griptightensonmyupperarm.“Steady,”hewhispers.“Don’tloseyournerve.”
TheCommanderdoes the talkingforme, to thismanandto theotherswhofollowhim.Hedoesn’tsaymuchaboutme,hedoesn’tneedto.HesaysI’mnew, and they look at me and dismiss me and confer together about otherthings.Mydisguiseperformsitsfunction.
He retains hold of my arm, and as he talks his spine straightensimperceptibly, his chest expands, his voice assumes more and more thesprightlinessandjocularityofyouth.Itoccurstomeheisshowingoff.Heis
showingmeoff,tothem,andtheyunderstandthat,theyaredecorousenough,theykeeptheirhandstothemselves,buttheyreviewmybreasts,mylegs,asifthere’snoreasonwhytheyshouldn’t.Butalsoheisshowingofftome.Heisdemonstrating,tome,hismasteryoftheworld.He’sbreakingtherules,undertheir noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it. Perhaps he’sreachedthatstateof intoxicationwhichpower issaid to inspire, thestate inwhich you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything,absolutelyanythingyoufeel like,anythingatall.Twice,whenhe thinksnooneislooking,hewinksatme.
It’s a juvenile display, thewhole act, and pathetic; but it’s something Iunderstand.
When he’s done enough of this he leads me away again, to a puffyfloweredsofaofthekindtheyoncehadinhotellobbies;inthislobby,infact,it’s a floral design I remember, dark blue background, pink art nouveauflowers. “I thought your feet might be getting tired,” he says, “in thoseshoes.” He’s right about that, and I’m grateful. He sits me down, and sitshimselfdownbesideme.Heputsanarmaroundmyshoulders.Thefabricofhissleeveisraspyagainstmyskin,sounaccustomedlatelytobeingtouched.
Ilookaroundmeagain.Themenarenothomogeneous,asIfirstthought.Overbythefountainthere’sagroupofJapanese,inlightish-greysuits,andinthe farcorner there’sasplashofwhite:Arabs, in those longbathrobes theywear,theheadgear,thestripedsweatbands.
Iwait forhim toelaborateon this,buthedoesn’t, so I say,“Whatdoesthatmean?”
“Itmeansyoucan’tcheatNature,”hesays.“Naturedemandsvariety,formen. It stands to reason, it’s part of theprocreational strategy. It’sNature’splan.”Idon’tsayanything,sohegoeson.“Womenknowthat instinctively.Whydidtheybuysomanydifferentclothes,intheolddays?Totrickthemenintothinkingtheywereseveraldifferentwomen.Anewoneeachday.”
Hesaysthisasifhebelievesit,buthesaysmanythingsthatway.Maybehe believes it,maybe he doesn’t, ormaybe he does both at the same time.Impossibletotellwhathebelieves.
“Sonow thatwedon’t have different clothes,” I say, “youmerely havedifferentwomen.”Thisisirony,buthedoesn’tacknowledgeit.
“It’sonlyforofficers,”hesays.“Fromallbranches;andseniorofficials.Andtradedelegations,ofcourse.Itstimulatestrade.It’sagoodplacetomeetpeople.Youcanhardlydobusinesswithout it.We try toprovideat leastasgoodastheycangetelsewhere.Youcanoverhearthingstoo;information.Amanwillsometimestellawomanthingshewouldn’ttellanotherman.”
“Oh,” he says. “Well, some of them are real pros.Working girls” – helaughs–“fromthetimebefore.Theycouldn’tbeassimilated;anyway,mostofthempreferithere.”
“Tothealternatives,”hesays.“Youmightevenpreferityourself,towhatyou’vegot.”Hesays thiscoyly,he’s fishing,hewants tobecomplimented,andIknowthattheseriouspartoftheconversationhascometoanend.
“You’d have to watch your weight, that’s for sure,” he says. “They’re
“Aginand tonic,”Isay.“Butweak,please. Iwouldn’twant todisgraceyou.”
“Youwon’tdo that,”hesays,grinning.Hestandsup; then,surprisingly,takesmyhandandkissesit,onthepalm.Thenhemovesoff,headingforthebar.Hecouldhavecalledoverawaitress,therearesomeofthese,inidenticalblackminiskirtswithpomponsontheirbreasts,buttheyseembusyandhardtoflagdown.
Then I seeher.Moira.She’s standingwith twootherwomen,overnear thefountain.Ihavetolookhard,again,tomakesureit’sher;Idothisinpulses,quickflickersoftheeyes,sonoonewillnotice.
She’sdressedabsurdly,inablackoutfitofonce-shinysatinthatlookstheworseforwear. It’sstrapless,wiredfromthe inside,pushingup thebreasts,butitdoesn’tquitefitMoira,it’stoolarge,sothatonebreastisplumpedoutand theotherone isn’t.She’s tuggingabsent-mindedlyat the top,pulling itup.There’sawadofcottonattachedtotheback,Icanseeitasshehalf-turns;it looks like a sanitary pad that’s been popped like a piece of popcorn. Irealizethatit’ssupposedtobeatail.Attachedtoherheadaretwoears,ofarabbitordeer,it’snoteasytotell;oneoftheearshaslostitsstarchorwiringandisfloppinghalfwaydown.Shehasablackbowtiearoundherneckandiswearing black net stockings and black high heels. She always hated highheels.
Moiraissmokingacigarette.Shetakesadrag,passesittothewomanonher left,who’s in red spangleswith a long pointed tail attached, and silverhorns;adeviloutfit.Nowshehasherarmsfoldedacrossherfront,underherwired-upbreasts.Shestandsonone foot, then theother,her feetmusthurt;her spinesagsslightly.Shegazeswithout interestor speculationaround theroom.Thismustbefamiliarscenery.
Iwillhertolookatme,toseeme,buthereyesslideovermeasifI’mjustanotherpalm tree, another chair.Surely shemust turn, I’mwilling sohard,shemust look atme, before one of themen comes over to her, before shedisappears.Already theotherwomanwithher, theblonde in the short pinkbedjacketwiththetattyfurtrim,hasbeenappropriated,hasenteredtheglasselevator, has ascended out of sight. Moira swivels her head around again,checkingperhapsforprospects.Itmustbehardtostandthereunclaimed,asifshe’satahigh-schooldance,being lookedover.This timehereyessnagonme.Sheseesme.Sheknowsenoughnottoreact.
We stare at one another, keeping our faces blank, apathetic. Then shemakes a smallmotion of her head, a slight jerk to the right. She takes thecigarettebackfromthewomaninred,holdsittohermouth,letsherhandrestintheairamoment,allfivefingersoutspread.Thensheturnsherbackonme.
Our old signal. I have five minutes to get to the women’s washroom,whichmustbesomewheretoherright.Ilookaround:nosignofit.NorcanIriskgettingupandwalkinganywhere,withouttheCommander.Idon’tknowenough,Idon’tknowtheropes,Imightbechallenged.
The Commander comes back, with two drinks. He smiles down atme,places the drinks on the long black coffee table in front of the sofa, sits.“Enjoyingyourself?”hesays.Hewantsmeto.Thisafterallisatreat.
“Of course,” he says. He sips at his drink. He does not volunteerdirections.
Igetup,wobbleacrosstheroom.Ilurchalittle,nearthefountain,almostfall. It’s the heels. Without the Commander’s arm to steady me I’m offbalance.Severalofthemenlookatme,withsurpriseIthinkratherthanlust.Ifeellikeafool.Iholdmyleftarmconspicuouslyinfrontofme,bentattheelbow,withthetagturnedoutwards.Nobodysaysanything.
Ifindtheentrancetothewomen’swashroom.ItstillsaysLadies,inscrollygoldscript.There’sacorridorleadingintothedoor,andawomanseatedatatable beside it, supervising the entrances and exits. She’s an older woman,wearingapurplecaftanandgoldeye-shadow,butIcantellsheisneverthelessan Aunt. The cattle prod’s on the table, its thong around her wrist. Nononsensehere.
“Fifteen minutes,” she says to me. She gives me an oblong of purplecardboard froma stackof themon the table. It’s like a fitting room, in thedepartmentstoresofthetimebefore.TothewomanbehindmeIhearhersay,“Youwerejusthere.”
I remember this. There’s a rest area, gently lit in pinkish tones, withseveraleasychairsandasofa,inlime-greenbamboo-shootprint,withawallclockaboveitinagoldfiligreeframe.Heretheyhaven’tremovedthemirror,there’salongoneoppositethesofa.Youneedtoknow,here,whatyoulooklike.Throughanarchwaybeyondthere’stherowoftoiletcubicles,alsopink,andwashbasinsandmoremirrors.
Thewomen don’t smile. They return to their smoking as if it’s seriousbusiness. In the room beyond, a woman in a cat suit with a tail made oforange fake fur is re-doinghermakeup.This is likebackstage:greasepaint,smoke,thematerialsofillusion.
“It’sallright,”shesays,tomeandtotheotherwomen.“Iknowher.”Theothers smile now, andMoira hugs me. My arms go around her, the wiresproppingupherbreastsdigintomychest.Wekisseachother,ononecheek,thentheother.Thenwestandback.
“Godawful,” she says. She grins at me. “You look like the Whore ofBabylon.”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to look like?” I say. “You look likesomethingthecatdraggedin.”
“Yes,”shesays,pullingupherfront,“notmystyleandthisthingisaboutto fall to shreds. Iwish they’ddredgeup someonewho still knowshow tomakethem.ThenIcouldgetsomethinghalfwaydecent.”
“Don’t do that,” she says. “Your eyes’ll run. Anyway there isn’t time.Shove over.” This she says to the two women on the sofa, her usualperemptoryrough-cutslapdashmanner,andasusualshegetsawaywithit.
“My break’s up anyway,” says onewoman,who’swearing a baby-bluelaced-upMerryWidowandwhitestockings.Shestandsup,shakesmyhand.“Welcome,”shesays.
“What the hell are you doing here?”Moira says then. “Not that it isn’tgreattoseeyou.Butit’snotsogreatforyou.What’dyoudowrong?Laughathisdick?”
I look up at the ceiling. “Is it bugged?” I say. I wipe aroundmy eyes,gingerly,withmyfingertips.Blackcomesoff.
Thewoman hands over, ungrudging.Moira is still a skilful borrower. Ismileatthat.
“Ontheotherhand,itmightnotbe,”saysMoira.“Ican’timaginethey’dcare about anythingwe have to say. They’ve already heardmost of it, andanywaynobodygetsoutofhereexcept inablackvan.Butyoumustknowthat,ifyou’rehere.”
She nods. “Some of them do that, they get a kick out of it. It’s likescrewingonthealtarorsomething:yourgangaresupposedtobesuchchastevessels.Theyliketoseeyouallpaintedup.Justanothercrummypowertrip.”
This interpretation hasn’t occurred tome. I apply it to theCommander,but it seems toosimple forhim, toocrude.Surelyhismotivationsaremoredelicatethanthat.Butitmayonlybevanitythatpromptsmetothinkso.
Moira shrugs. “What’s the point?” she says. But she knows there is apoint,soshedoes.
This is what she says, whispers, more or less. I can’t remember exactly,becauseIhadnowayofwritingitdown.I’vefilleditoutforherasmuchasIcan:wedidn’thavemuchtimesoshejustgavetheoutlines.Alsoshetoldmethisintwosessions,wemanagedasecondbreaktogether.I’vetriedtomakeitsoundasmuchlikeherasIcan.It’sawayofkeepingheralive.
“IleftthatoldhagAuntElizabethtieduplikeaChristmasturkeybehindthefurnace. Iwanted tokill her, I really felt like it, butnow I’m just asglad Ididn’tor thingswouldbea lotworseforme.Icouldn’tbelievehoweasyit
wastogetoutoftheCentre.InthatbrownoutfitIjustwalkedrightthrough.IkeptongoingasifIknewwhereIwasheading,tillIwasoutofsight.Ididn’thaveanygreatplan; itwasn’tanorganized thing, like they thought, thoughwhentheyweretryingtogetitoutofmeImadeupalotofstuff.Youdothat,when theyuse theelectrodesand theother things.Youdon’tcarewhatyousay.
“Ikeptmyshouldersbackandchinupandmarchedalong,tryingtothinkofwhattodonext.Whentheybustedthepressthey’dpickedupalotofthewomenIknew,andIthoughtthey’dmostlikelyhavetherestbynow.Iwassuretheyhadalist.Weweredumbtothinkwecouldkeepitgoingthewaywe did, even underground, even when we’d moved everything out of theofficeandintopeople’scellarsandbackrooms.SoIknewbetterthantotryanyofthosehouses.
“IhadsomesortofanideaofwhereIwasinrelationtothecity,thoughIwas walking along a street I couldn’t remember having seen before. But Ifiguredoutfromthesunwherenorthwas.GirlScoutswassomeuseafterall.I thought Imight aswellhead thatway, see if I could find theYardor theSquareoranythingaroundit.ThenIwouldknowforsurewhereIwas.AlsoIthought it would look better for me to be going in towards the centre ofthings,ratherthanaway.Itwouldlookmoreplausible.
“They’d setupmorecheckpointswhilewewere inside theCentre, theywereallovertheplace.Thefirstonescaredtheshitoutofme.Icameonitsuddenlyaroundthecorner.Iknewitwouldn’tlookrightifIturnedaroundinfullviewandwentback,soIbluffeditthrough,thesameasIhadatthegate,putting on that frown and keeping myself stiff and pursing my lips andlookingrightthroughthem,asiftheywerefesteringsores.YouknowthewaytheAunts lookwhentheysaythewordman. Itworkedlikeacharm,anditdidattheothercheckpoints,too.
“Buttheinsidesofmyheadweregoingaroundlikecrazy.Ionlyhadsomuchtime,beforetheyfoundtheoldbatandsentoutthealarm.Soonenoughthey’dbelookingforme:onefakeAunt,onfoot.Itriedtothinkofsomeone,IranoverandoverthepeopleIknew.AtlastItriedtorememberwhatIcouldabout ourmailing list.We’d destroyed it, of course, early on; orwe didn’tdestroyit,wedivideditupamongusandeachoneofusmemorizedasection,andthenwedestroyedit.Wewerestillusingthemailsthen,butwedidn’tputourlogoontheenvelopesanymore.Itwasgettingfartoorisky.
“So I tried to recallmy section of the list. I won’t tell you the name Ichose,becauseIdon’twantthemtogetintrouble,iftheyhaven’talready.ItcouldbeI’vespilledallthisstuff,it’shardtorememberwhatyousaywhenthey’redoingit.You’llsayanything.
“Ichosethembecausetheywereamarriedcouple,andthoseweresaferthan anyone single and especially anyone gay. Also I remembered thedesignation beside their name.Q, it said,whichmeantQuaker.Wehad thereligiousdenominationsmarkedwheretherewereany,formarches.Thatwayyoucouldtellwhomightturnouttowhat.ItwasnogoodcallingontheC’sto do abortion stuff, for instance; not thatwe’d donemuch of that lately. Irememberedtheiraddress,too.We’dgrilledeachotheronthoseaddresses,itwasimportanttorememberthemexactly,zipcodeandall.
“By this time I’d hitMassAve. and I knewwhere I was. And I knewwheretheyweretoo.NowIwasworryingaboutsomethingelse:whenthesepeoplesawanAuntcomingupthewalk,wouldn’ttheyjustlockthedoorandpretendnottobehome?ButIhadtotryitanyway,itwasmyonlychance.Ifiguredtheyweren’tlikelytoshootme.Itwasaboutfiveo’clockbythistime.I was tired of walking, especially that Aunt’s way like a goddamn soldier,pokeruptheass,andIhadn’thadanythingtoeatsincebreakfast.
“WhatIdidn’tknowofcoursewasthatinthoseearlydaystheAuntsandeven the Centrewere hardly common knowledge. It was all secret at first,behind barbed wire. There might have been objections to what they weredoing, even then. So although people had seen the odd Aunt around, theyweren’treallyawareofwhattheywerefor.Theymusthavethoughttheyweresome kind of army nurse. Already they’d stopped asking questions, unlesstheyhadto.
“Sothesepeopleletmeinrightaway.Itwasthewomanwhocametothedoor. I toldherIwasdoingaquestionnaire. Idid thatsoshewouldn’t looksurprised,incaseanyonewaswatching.ButassoonasIwasinsidethedoor,ItookofftheheadgearandtoldthemwhoIwas.Theycouldhavephonedthepoliceorwhatever,IknowIwastakingachance,butlikeIsaytherewasn’tanychoice.Anywaytheydidn’t.Theygavemesomeclothes,adressofhers,andburnedtheAunt’soutfitandthepassintheirfurnace;theyknewthathadtobedonerightaway.Theydidn’tlikehavingmethere,thatmuchwasclear,itmadethemverynervous.Theyhadtwolittlekids,bothunderseven.Icouldseetheirpoint.
“Iwenttothecan,whatareliefthatwas.Bathtubfullofplasticfishandsoon.Then I satupstairs in thekids’ roomandplayedwith themand theirplasticblockswhile theirparents stayeddownstairs anddecidedwhat todoaboutme.Ididn’tfeelscaredbythen,infactIfeltquitegood.Fatalistic,youcouldsay.Thenthewomanmademeasandwichandacupofcoffeeandthemansaidhe’dtakemetoanotherhouse.Theyhadn’triskedphoning.
“TheotherhousewasQuakers too,and theywerepaydirt,because theywere a station on the Underground Femaleroad. After the first couple left,theysaidthey’dtrytogetmeoutofthecountry.Iwon’ttellyouhow,becausesomeofthestationsmaystillbeoperating.Eachoneofthemwasincontactwithonlyoneotherone,alwaysthenextonealong.Therewereadvantagestothat–itwasbetterifyouwerecaught–butdisadvantagestoo,becauseifonestationgotbusted the entire chainbackedupuntil they couldmake contactwith one of their couriers, who could set up an alternate route. Theywerebetter organized than you’d think, though. They’d infiltrated a couple ofusefulplaces;oneof themwasthepostoffice.Theyhadadriver therewithoneof those handy little trucks. Imade it over the bridge and into the cityproperinamailsack.Icantellyouthatnowbecausetheygothim,soonafterthat.HeendedupontheWall.Youhearaboutthesethings;youhearalotinhere, you’dbe surprised.TheCommanders tell us themselves, I guess theyfigurewhynot,there’snoonewecanpassitonto,excepteachother,andthatdoesn’tcount.
“I’mmakingthissoundeasybutitwasn’t.Inearlyshatbricksthewholetime. One of the hardest things was knowing that these other people wereriskingtheirlivesforyouwhentheydidn’thaveto.Buttheysaidtheyweredoing it for religious reasonsand I shouldn’t take itpersonally.Thathelpedsome.Theyhadsilentprayerseveryevening.Ifoundthathardtogetusedtoatfirst,because it remindedmetoomuchof thatshitat theCentre.Itmademefeelsicktomystomach,totellyouthetruth.Ihadtomakeaneffort,tellmyselfthatthiswasawholeotherthing.Ihateditatfirst.ButIfigureitwaswhatkeptthemgoing.Theyknewmoreorlesswhatwouldhappentothemifthey got caught. Not in detail, but they knew. By that time they’d startedputtingsomeofitontheTV,thetrialsandsoforth.
“Itwas before the sectarian roundups began in earnest.As long as yousaid youwere some sort of aChristian and youweremarried, for the firsttime that is, they were still leaving you pretty much alone. They wereconcentrating first on the others.Theygot themmore or less under control
“Ialmostmadeitout.TheygotmeupasfarasSalem,theninatruckfullofchickensintoMaine.Ialmostpukedfromthesmell;youeverthoughtwhatitwouldbeliketobeshatonbyatruckloadofchickens,allofthemcarsick?Theywereplanningtogetmeacrosstheborderthere;notbycarortruck,thatwasalreadytoodifficult,butbyboat,upthecoast.Ididn’tknowthatuntiltheactual night, they never told you the next step until right before it washappening.Theywerecarefulthatway.
“SoIdon’tknowwhathappened.Maybesomebodygotcoldfeetaboutit,or somebodyoutsidegot suspicious.Ormaybe itwas theboat,maybe theythought theguywasout inhisboatatnight toomuch.By that time itmusthave been crawling with Eyes up there, and everywhere else close to theborder.Whatever itwas, theypickedusup just aswewerecomingout thebackdoor togodown to thedock.Meand theguy,andhiswife too.Theywereanoldercouple,intheirfifties.He’dbeeninthelobsterbusiness,backbeforeallthathappenedtotheshorefishingthere.Idon’tknowwhatbecameofthemafterthat,becausetheytookmeinaseparatevan.
“I thought it might be the end, for me. Or back to the Centre and theattentionsofAuntLydiaandhersteelcable.Sheenjoyedthat,youknow.Shepretendedtodoallthatlove-the-sinner,hate-the-sinstuff,butsheenjoyedit.Ididconsideroffingmyself,andmaybeIwouldhaveifthere’dbeenanyway.Buttheyhadtwooftheminthebackofthevanwithme,watchingmelikeahawk;didn’tsayahellofalot,justsatandwatchedmeinthatwall-eyedwaytheyhave.Soitwasnogo.
“Whenthatwasovertheyshowedmeamovie.Knowwhatitwasabout?It was about life in the Colonies. In the Colonies, they spend their timecleaning up. They’re very clean-minded these days. Sometimes it’s justbodies, after a battle. The ones in city ghettoes are the worst, they’re leftaround longer, they get rottener. This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying
around, they’re afraid of a plague or something. So the women in theColonies there do the burning. The other Colonies are worse, though, thetoxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three yearsmaximum,atthose,beforeyournosefallsoffandyourskinpullsawaylikerubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed youmuch, or give you protectiveclothingoranything,it’scheapernotto.Anywaythey’remostlypeopletheywanttogetridof.Theysaythere’sotherColonies,notsobad,wheretheydoagriculture:cottonandtomatoesandallthat.Butthoseweren’ttheonestheyshowedmethemovieabout.
“It’soldwomen,Ibetyou’vebeenwonderingwhyyouhaven’tseentoomany of those around anymore, and Handmaids who’ve screwed up theirthreechances,andincorrigibleslikeme.Discards,allofus.They’resterile,ofcourse.Iftheyaren’tthatwaytobeginwith,theyareafterthey’vebeenthereforawhile.Whenthey’reunsure, theydoalittleoperationonyou,sotherewon’tbeanymistakes.I’dsayit’saboutaquartermenintheColonies,too.NotallofthoseGenderTraitorsendupontheWall.
“All of themwear long dresses, like the ones at the Centre, only grey.Womenandthementoo,judgingfromthegroupshots.Iguessit’ssupposedtodemoralizethemen,havingtowearadress.Shit,itwoulddemoralizemeenough.Howdoyoustandit?Everythingconsidered,Ilikethisoutfitbetter.
“Soafterthat,theysaidIwastoodangeroustobeallowedtheprivilegeofreturning to theRedCentre.They said Iwouldbe a corrupting influence. Ihadmychoice, theysaid, thisor theColonies.Well,shit,nobodybutanunwouldpicktheColonies.Imean,I’mnotamartyr.I’dalreadyhadmytubestied, years ago, so I didn’t even need the operation. Nobody in here withviableovarieseither,youcanseewhatkindofproblemsitwouldcause.
“So here I am. They even give you face cream. You should figure outsomewayofgettinginhere.You’dhavethreeorfourgoodyearsbeforeyoursnatchwearsoutandtheysendyoutotheboneyard.Thefood’snotbadandthere’sdrinkanddrugs,ifyouwantit,andweonlyworknights.”
“Moira,”Isay.“Youdon’tmeanthat.”Sheisfrighteningmenow,becausewhat Ihear inhervoice is indifference,a lackofvolition.Have they reallydoneittoherthen,takenawaysomething–what?–thatusedtobesocentraltoher?ButhowcanIexpecthertogoon,withmyideaofhercourage,liveitthrough,actitout,whenImyselfdonot?
Idon’twanther tobe likeme.Give in,goalong,saveherskin.That is
what it comesdown to. Iwant gallantry fromher, swashbuckling, heroism,single-handedcombat.SomethingIlack.
“Don’t worry about me,” she says. She must know some of what I’mthinking.“I’mstillhere,youcanseeit’sme.Anyway,lookatitthisway:it’snotsobad,there’slotsofwomenaround.Butchparadise,youmightcallit.”
Nowshe’s teasing, showingsomeenergy,and I feelbetter. “Do they letyou?”Isay.
“Let, hell, they encourage it. Know what they call this place, amongthemselves? Jezebel’s. TheAunts figurewe’re all damned anyway, they’vegivenuponus, so itdoesn’tmatterwhat sortofvicewegetup to,and theCommandersdon’tgiveapisswhatwedoinourofftime.Anyway,womenonwomensortofturnsthemon.”
“Put it this way,” she says, “they’re not too fond of men.” She shrugsagain.Itmightberesignation.
HereiswhatI’dliketotell.I’dliketotellastoryabouthowMoiraescaped,for good this time. Or if I couldn’t tell that, I’d like to say she blew upJezebel’s,withfiftyCommandersinsideit.I’dlikehertoendwithsomethingdaringandspectacular,someoutrage,somethingthatwouldbefither.ButasfarasIknowthatdidn’thappen.Idon’tknowhowsheended,orevenifshedid,becauseIneversawheragain.
The Commander has a room key. He got it from the front desk, while Iwaitedonthefloweredsofa.Heshowsittome,slyly.Iamtounderstand.
We ascend in the glass half-egg of the elevator, past the vine-drapedbalconies.IamtounderstandalsothatIamondisplay.
Heunlocksthedooroftheroom.Everythingisthesame,theverysameasitwas,onceuponatime.Thedrapesarethesame,theheavyfloweredonesthatmatch the bedspread, orange poppies on royal blue, and the thinwhiteonestodrawagainstthesun;thebureauandbedsidetables,square-cornered,impersonal; the lamps; the pictures on the walls: fruit in a bowl, stylizedapples, flowers in a vase, buttercups andDevil’s paintbrushes keyed to thedrapes.Allisthesame.
ItelltheCommanderjustaminute,andgointothebathroom.Myearsareringing from the smoke, the gin has filled me with lassitude. I wet awashclothandpressittomyforehead.AfterawhileIlooktoseeifthereareany little bars of soap in individualwrappers.There are.Thekindwith thegypsyonthem,fromSpain.
Ibreatheinthesoapsmell,thedisinfectantsmell,andstandinthewhitebathroom, listening to the distant sounds of water running, toilets beingflushed. In a strange way I feel comforted, at home. There is somethingreassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic.Everybodyshits,asMoirawouldsay.
I sit on the edge of the bathtub, gazing at the blank towels.Once theywouldhaveexcitedme.Theywouldhavemeanttheaftermath,oflove.
Not in person, it was in that film they showed us, about the Colonies.Therewasaclose-up,itwasherallright.ShewaswrappedupinoneofthosegreythingsbutIknowitwasher.
Ican’trememberthelasttimeIsawher.Itblendsinwithalltheothers;itwassometrivialoccasion.Shemusthavedroppedby;shedidthat,shebreezedinandoutofmyhouseasifIwerethemotherandshewerethechild.Shestillhad that jauntiness. Sometimes, when she was between apartments, justmoving in to one or just moving out, she’d use my washer-dryer for herlaundry.Maybeshe’dcomeovertoborrowsomething,fromme:apot,ahair-dryer.Thattoowasahabitofhers.
Aweeklater,twoweeks,threeweeks,whenthingshadbecomesuddenlysomuchworse, I tried tocallher.But therewasnoanswer,andnoanswerwhenItriedagain.
Iwasworried. I thoughtmaybe she’d had a heart attack or a stroke, itwasn’toutof thequestion, thoughshehadn’tbeensick that Iknewof.Shewasalwayssohealthy.ShestillworkedoutatNautilusandwentswimmingeverytwoweeks.Iusedto tellmyfriendsshewashealthier thanIwasandmaybeitwastrue.
LukeandIdroveacrossintothecityandLukebulliedthesuperintendentinto opening up the apartment. She could be dead, on the floor,Luke said.The longer you leave it the worse it’ll be. You thought of the smell? Thesuperintendent said something about needing a permit, but Luke could bepersuasive.Hemadeitclearweweren’tgoingtowaitorgoaway.Istartedtocry.Maybethatwaswhatfinallydidit.
When themangot thedooropenwhatwe foundwas chaos.Therewasfurniture overturned, themattresswas ripped open, bureau drawers upside-downonthefloor,theircontentsstrewnandmounded.Butmymotherwasn’tthere.
I’mgoing to call the police, I said. I’d stopped crying; I felt cold fromheadtofoot,myteethwerechattering.
Whynot?Isaid.Iwasglaringathim,Iwasangrynow.Hestoodthereinthewreckof the living room, just lookingatme.Heputhishands intohispockets, one of those aimless gestures peoplemakewhen they don’t knowwhatelsetodo.
Ithinkofmymother,sweepingupdeadlytoxins;thewaytheyusedtouseupoldwomen, inRussia, sweepingdirt.Only this dirtwill kill her. I can’tquitebelieveit.Surelyhercockiness,heroptimismandenergy,herpizzazz,willgetheroutofthis.Shewillthinkofsomething.
But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing thebuck, as childrendo, tomothers.
It’sagoodlook,slowandlevel.I’mawreck.Themascarahassmudgedagain, despite Moira’s repairs, the purplish lipstick has bled, hair trailsaimlessly.Themoultingpinkfeathersaretawdryascarnivaldollsandsomeofthestarrysequinshavecomeoff.ProbablytheywereofftobeginwithandI didn’t notice. I ama travesty, in badmakeup and someone else’s clothes,usedglitz.
Imust be back at the house beforemidnight; otherwise I’ll turn into apumpkin,orwasthatthecoach?Tomorrow’stheCeremony,accordingtothecalendar,sotonightSerenawantsmeserviced,andifI’mnotthereshe’llfindoutwhy,andthenwhat?
And theCommander, forachange, iswaiting; Icanhearhimpacing inthemainroom.Nowhepausesoutsidethebathroomdoor,clearshisthroat,astagyahem. I turn on the hot water tap, to signify readiness or somethingapproachingit.Ishouldgetthisoverwith.Iwashmyhands.Imustbewareofinertia.
He’s strokingmy body now, from stem as they say to stern, cat-strokealong the left flank, down the left leg. He stops at the foot, his fingersencircling theankle,briefly, likeabracelet,where the tattoo is,aBraillehecanread,acattle-brand.Itmeansownership.
I remind myself that he is not an unkind man; that, under othercircumstances,Ievenlikehim.
Hishandpauses.“Ithoughtyoumightenjoyitforachange.”Heknowsthat isn’t enough. “I guess it was a sort of experiment.” That isn’t enougheither.“Yousaidyouwantedtoknow.”
Hesitsup,beginstounbutton.Willthisbeworse,tohavehimdenuded,of all his cloth power?He’s down to the shirt; then, under it, sadly, a littlebelly.Wispsofhair.
He pulls down one of my straps, slides his other hand in among thefeathers,but it’snogood,I lie there likeadeadbird.Heisnotamonster, Ithink.Ican’taffordprideoraversion,thereareallkindsofthingsthathavetobediscarded,underthecircumstances.
Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head. You must remember how.Let’sgetthisoverwithoryou’llbehereallnight.Bestiryourself.Moveyourflesharound,breatheaudibly.It’stheleastyoucando.
Theheatatnight isworse than theheat indaytime.Evenwith thefanon,nothingmoves,and thewallsstoreupwarmth,give itout likeausedoven.Surelyitwillrainsoon.WhydoIwantit?Itwillonlymeanmoredampness.There’slightningfarawaybutnothunder.LookingoutthewindowIcanseeit,aglimmer,likethephosphorescenceyougetinstirredseawater,behindthesky,whichisovercastandtoolowandadullgreyinfra-red.Thesearchlightsareoff,whichisnotusual.Apowerfailure.OrelseSerenaJoyhasarrangedit.
Isitinthedarkness;nopointinhavingthelighton,toadvertisethefactthatI’mstillawake.I’mfullydressedinmyredhabitagain,havingshedthespangles, scraped off the lipstickwith toilet paper. I hope nothing shows, IhopeIdon’tsmellofit,orofhimeither.
She’shereatmidnight,asshesaidshe’dbe.Icanhearher,afainttapping,a faint shufflingon themuffling rugof the corridor, beforeher light knockcomes.Idon’tsayanything,butfollowherbackalongthehallanddownthestairs.Shecanwalkfaster,she’sstrongerthanIthought.Herlefthandclampsthebanister,inpainmaybebutholdingon,steadyingher.Ithink:she’sbitingherlip,she’ssuffering.Shewantsitallright,thatbaby.Iseethetwoofus,ablue shape, a red shape, in thebriefglass eyeof themirror aswedescend.Myself,myobverse.
Wegooutthroughthekitchen.It’sempty,adimnightlight’slefton;ithasthecalmofemptykitchensatnight.Thebowlsonthecounter, thecanistersand stoneware jars loom round and heavy through the shadowy light. Theknivesareputawayintotheirwoodenrack.
“Iwon’tgooutsidewithyou,”shewhispers.Odd,tohearherwhispering,asifsheisoneofus.UsuallyWivesdonotlowertheirvoices.“Yougooutthrough the door and turn right. There’s another door, it’s open.Go up the
stairsandknock,he’sexpectingyou.Noonewillseeyou.I’llsithere.”She’llwaitformethen,incasethere’strouble; incaseCoraandRitawakeup,nooneknowswhy,comeinfromtheirroomatthebackofthekitchen.Whatwillshe say to them?That she couldn’t sleep. That shewanted some hotmilk.She’llbeadroitenoughtoliewell,Icanseethat.
Iopen thekitchendoor, stepout,waitamoment forvision. It’s so longsince I’ve been outside, alone, at night. Now there’s thunder, the storm’smovingcloser.WhathasshedoneabouttheGuardians?Icouldbeshotforaprowler.Paidthemoffsomehow,Ihope:cigarettes,whiskey,ormaybetheyknowallabout it,herstud farm,maybe if thisdoesn’tworkshe’ll try themnext.
Thedoor to thegarage isonly stepsaway. I cross, feetnoiselesson thegrass,andopenitquickly,slipinside.Thestairwayisdark,darkerthanIcansee.Ifeelmywayup,stairbystair:carpethere,I thinkof itasmushroom-coloured. This must have been an apartment once, for a student, a youngsingle personwith a job.A lot of the big houses around here had them.Abachelor,astudio,thosewerethenamesforthatkindofapartment.Itpleasesme tobeable to remember this.Separateentrance, itwouldsay in theads,andthatmeantyoucouldhavesex,unobserved.
Ireachthetopofthestairs,knockonthedoorthere.Heopensithimself,whoelsewasIexpecting?There’salampon,onlyonebutenoughlighttomakemeblink. I lookpasthim,notwanting tomeethiseyes. It’sa single room,with a fold-out bed,madeup, and a kitchenette counter at the far end, andanother door that must lead to the bathroom. This room is stripped down,military,minimal.Nopicturesonthewalls,noplants.He’scampingout.TheblanketonthebedisgreyandsaysU.S.
He stepsback and aside to letmepast.He’s inhis shirt sleeves, and isholdingacigarette,lit.Ismellthesmokeonhim,inthewarmairoftheroom,allover.I’dliketotakeoffmyclothes,batheinit,rubitovermyskin.
Nopreliminaries;heknowswhyI’mhere.Hedoesn’tevensayanything,whyfoolaround, it’sanassignment.Hemovesawayfromme,turnsoff thelamp.Outside,likepunctuation,there’saflashoflightning;almostnopauseandthenthethunder.He’sundoingmydress,amanmadeofdarkness,Ican’tseehisface,andIcanhardlybreathe,hardlystand,andI’mnotstanding.His
mouth isonme,hishands, I can’twait andhe’smoving, already, love, it’sbeensolong,I’maliveinmyskin,again,armsaroundhim,fallingandwatersoftlyeverywhere,never-ending.Iknewitmightonlybeonce.
I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door. He opens it himself.There’salampon;Iblink.Ilookpasthiseyes,it’sasingleroom,thebed’smadeup,strippeddown,military.NopicturesbuttheblanketsaysU.S.He’sinhisshirtsleeves,he’sholdingacigarette.
“Here,” he says tome, “have a drag.”Nopreliminaries, he knowswhyI’m here. To get knocked up, to get in trouble, up the pole, thosewere allnamesforitonce.Itakethecigarettefromhim,drawdeeplyin,handitback.Ourfingershardlytouch.Eventhatmuchsmokemakesmedizzy.
He says nothing, just looks at me, unsmiling. It would be better, morefriendly,ifhewouldtouchme.Ifeelstupidandugly,althoughIknowIamnoteither.Still,whatdoeshethink,whydoesn’thesaysomething?MaybehethinksI’vebeensluttingaround,atJezebel’s,withtheCommanderormore.ItannoysmethatI’mevenworryingaboutwhathethinks.Let’sbepractical.
“Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.” We’re quoting from latemovies,fromthetimebefore.Andthemoviesthenwerefromatimebefore
I’msadnow, thewaywe’re talking is infinitelysad: fadedmusic, fadedpaper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo. All gone away, no longerpossible.WithoutwarningIbegintocry.
At last he moves forward, puts his arms around me, strokes my back,holdsmethatway,forcomfort.
“Comeon,”hesays.“Wehaven’tgotmuch time.”Withhisarmaroundmyshouldershe leadsmeover to the fold-outbed, liesmedown.Heeventurns down the blanket first. He begins to unbutton, then to stroke, kissesbesidemyear.“Noromance,”hesays.“Okay?”
I knew it might only be once. Goodbye, I thought, even at the time,goodbye.
Itdidn’thappen thatwayeither. I’mnot surehow ithappened;notexactly.All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always onlyapproximate.
Partway through, I thought about Serena Joy, sitting down there in thekitchen.Thinking:cheap.They’llspreadtheirlegsforanyone.Allyouneedtogivethemisacigarette.
And I thought afterwards: this is a betrayal.Not the thing itself butmyown response. If I knew for certain he was dead, would that make adifference?
I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish itshowedme in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, lesshesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it hadmore shape. I wish it wereaboutlove,oraboutsuddenrealizationsimportanttoone’slife,orevenaboutsunsets,birds,rainstorms,orsnow.
Maybeitisaboutthosethings,inasense;butinthemeantimethereissomuchelsegettingintheway,somuchwhispering,somuchspeculationaboutothers, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, somuchcreepingaboutandsecrecy.Andthereissomuchtimetobeendured,timeheavyas friedfoodor thickfog;and thenallatonce theseredevents,like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly andsomnambulant.
Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough:wasn’tonceenoughformeatthetime?ButIkeepongoingwiththissadandhungryandsordid, this limpingandmutilatedstory,becauseafterall Iwantyoutohearit,asIwillhearyourstooifIevergetthechance,ifImeetyouorifyouescape, in thefutureor inHeavenor inprisonorunderground,someother place.What theyhave in common is that they’re not here.By tellingyou anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, Ibelieve you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will yourexistence.Itell,thereforeyouare.
I went back to Nick. Time after time, on my own, without Serenaknowing.Itwasn’tcalledfor,therewasnoexcuse.Ididnotdoitforhim,butformyselfentirely.Ididn’teventhinkofitasgivingmyselftohim,becausewhatdidIhavetogive?Ididnotfeelmunificent,butthankful,eachtimehewouldletmein.Hedidn’thaveto.
Inorder todo thisIbecamereckless, I tookstupidchances.AfterbeingwiththeCommanderIwouldgoupstairsintheusualway,butthenIwouldgo along thehall anddown theMarthas’ stairs at theback and through thekitchen.EachtimeIwouldhearthekitchendoorclickshutbehindmeandIwouldalmostturnback,itsoundedsometallic,likeamousetraporaweapon,but Iwouldnot turnback. Iwouldhurryacross the few feetof illuminatedlawn, thesearchlightswerebackonagain,expectingatanymoment to feelthebulletsripthroughmeeveninadvanceoftheirsound.Iwouldmakemywaybytouchupthedarkstaircaseandcometorestagainstthedoor,thethudofbloodinmyears.Fearisapowerfulstimulant.ThenIwouldknocksoftly,abeggar’sknock.EachtimeIwouldexpecthimtobegone;orworse,IwouldexpecthimtosayIcouldnotcomein.Hemightsayhewasn’tgoingtobreakanymorerules,puthisneckinthenoose,formysake.Orevenworse,tellmehe was no longer interested. His failure to do any of these things Iexperiencedasthemostincrediblebenevolenceandluck.
Heopens thedoor.He’s inhis shirt sleeves,his shirtuntucked,hangingloose;he’sholdingatoothbrush,oracigaretteoraglasswithsomethinginit.Hehashisownlittlestashuphere,black-marketstuffIsuppose.He’salwaysgot something inhishand,as ifhe’sbeengoingabouthis lifeasusual,notexpectingme,notwaiting.Maybehedoesn’texpectme,orwait.Maybehehasnonotionofthefuture,ordoesnotbotherordaretoimagineit.
Heshakeshisheadforno.It isunderstoodbetweenusbynowthat it isnever too late,but Igo through the ritualpolitenessofasking. Itmakesme
feelmoreincontrol,asifthereisachoice,adecisionthatcouldbemadeonewayortheother.HestepsasideandImovepasthimandheclosesthedoor.Thenhecrossestheroomandclosesthewindow.Afterthatheturnsoutthelight. There is not much talking between us any more, not at this stage.AlreadyIamhalfoutofmyclothes.Wesavethetalkingforlater.
WiththeCommanderIclosemyeyes,evenwhenIamonlykissinghimgoodnight.Idonotwanttoseehimupclose.Butnow,here,eachtime,Ikeepmyeyesopen.Iwouldlikealightonsomewhere,acandleperhaps,stuckintoa bottle, some echo of college, but anything like thatwould be too great arisk; so I have to make do with the searchlight, the glow of it from thegrounds below, filtered through his white curtains which are the same asmine.Iwanttoseewhatcanbeseen,ofhim,takehimin,memorizehim,savehimupsoIcanliveontheimage,later:thelinesofhisbody,thetextureofhisflesh,theglistenofsweatonhispelt,hislongsardonicunrevealingface.Iought to have done that with Luke, paidmore attention, to the details, themoles and scars, the singular creases; I didn’t andhe’s fading.Daybyday,nightbynightherecedes,andIbecomemorefaithless.
For this one I’d wear pink feathers, purple stars, if that were what hewanted; or anything else, even the tail of a rabbit.But he does not requiresuchtrimmings.Wemakeloveeachtimeasifweknowbeyondashadowofadoubt that therewillneverbeanymore, foreitherofus,withanyone,ever.Andthenwhenthereis,thattooisalwaysasurprise,extra,agift.
Beingherewithhimissafety;it’sacave,wherewehuddletogetherwhilethestormgoesonoutside.Thisisadelusion,ofcourse.Thisroomisoneofthemost dangerous places I could be. If I were caught there would be noquarter,butI’mbeyondcaring.AndhowhaveIcometotrusthimlikethis,whichisfoolhardyinitself?HowcanIassumeIknowhim,ortheleastthingabouthimandwhathereallydoes?
I dismiss these uneasy whispers. I talk too much. I tell him things Ishouldn’t. I tell him aboutMoira, about Ofglen; not about Luke though. Iwanttotellhimaboutthewomaninmyroom,theonewhowastherebeforeme,but Idon’t. I’mjealousofher. Ifshe’sbeenherebeforemetoo, in thisbed,Idon’twanttohearaboutit.
I tellhimmyrealname,andfeel that thereforeIamknown.Iact likeadunce.Ishouldknowbetter.Imakeofhimanidol,acardboardcutout.
questions.HeseemsindifferenttomostofwhatIhavetosay,aliveonlytothepossibilities of my body, though he watches me while I’m speaking. Hewatchesmyface.
Impossible to think that anyone for whom I feel such gratitude couldbetrayme.
Neitherofussaystheword love,notonce. Itwouldbe temptingfate; itwouldberomance,badluck.
Today there are different flowers, drier, more defined, the flowers of highsummer:daisies,black-eyedSusans,startingusonthelongdownwardslopetofall.Iseetheminthegardens,asIwalkwithOfglen,toandfro.Ihardlylisten to her, I no longer credit her. The things she whispers seem to meunreal.Whatusearethey,forme,now?
You could go into his room at night, she says. Look through his desk.Theremustbepapers,notations.
We could get you a key, she says.Don’t youwant to knowwho he is,whathedoes?
But theCommander isno longerof immediate interest tome. Ihave tomakeanefforttokeepmyindifferencetowardshimfromshowing.
Keep on doing everything exactly theway youwere before,Nick says.Don’tchangeanything.Otherwisethey’llknow.Hekissesme,watchingmeallthetime.Promise?Don’tslipup.
The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border tofreedom.Iwanttobehere,withNick,whereIcangetathim.
Tellingthis,I’mashamedofmyself.Butthere’smoretoitthanthat.Evennow,Icanrecognizethisadmissionasakindofboasting.There’sprideinit,because it demonstrateshowextremeand therefore justified itwas, forme.Howwellworthit.It’slikestoriesofillnessandnear-death,fromwhichyouhaverecovered;likestoriesofwar.Theydemonstrateseriousness.
Such seriousness, about a man, then, had not seemed possible to mebefore.
Some days Iwasmore rational. I did not put it, tomyself, in terms oflove.Isaid,Ihavemadealifeformyself,here,ofasort.Thatmusthavebeenwhatthesettlers’wivesthought,andwomenwhosurvivedwars,iftheystillhadaman.Humanityissoadaptable,mymotherwouldsay.Trulyamazing,whatpeoplecangetusedto,aslongasthereareafewcompensations.
Itwon’tbelongnow,saysCora,dolingoutmymonthlystackofsanitarynapkins. Not long now, smiling at me shyly but also knowingly. Does sheknow?DosheandRitaknowwhat I’mup to, creepingdown their stairsatnight?DoIgivemyselfaway,daydreaming,smilingatnothing,touchingmyfacelightlywhenIthinktheyaren’twatching?
Ofglen is giving up on me. She whispers less, talks more about theweather.Idonotfeelregretaboutthis.Ifeelrelief.
The bell is tolling;we can hear it froma longwayoff. It’smorning, andtodaywe’vehadnobreakfast.Whenwereachthemaingatewefilethroughit, twoby two.There’s aheavycontingentofguards, special-detailAngels,withriotgear–thehelmetswiththebulgingdarkplexiglassvisorsthatmakethem look like beetles, the long clubs, the gas-canister guns – in cordonaroundtheoutsideof theWall.That’s incaseofhysteria.Thehookson theWallareempty.
This is a district Salvaging, for women only. Salvagings are alwayssegregated. Itwas announced yesterday.They tell you only the day before.It’snotenoughtime,togetusedtoit.
Tothetollingofthebellwewalkalongthepathsonceusedbystudents,pastbuildingsthatwereoncelecturehallsanddormitories.It’sverystrangetobe in here again. From the outside you can’t tell that anything’s changed,except that the blinds on most of the windows are drawn down. ThesebuildingsbelongtotheEyesnow.
We file onto thewide lawn in front ofwhat used to be the library.Thewhitestepsgoinguparestillthesame,themainentranceisunaltered.There’sawoodenstageerectedonthelawn,somethingliketheonetheyusedeveryspring, for Commencement, in the time before. I think of hats, pastel hatswornbysomeofthemothers,andoftheblackgownsthestudentswouldputon,and theredones.But thisstage isnot thesameafterall,becauseof thethreewoodenpoststhatstandonit,withtheloopsofrope.
At the frontof the stage there is amicrophone; the televisioncamera isdiscreetlyofftotheside.
I’veonlybeentooneofthesebefore,twoyearsago.Women’sSalvagingsare not frequent. There is less need for them. These days we are so wellbehaved.
Wetakeourplacesinthestandardorder:Wivesanddaughtersonthefoldingwoodenchairsplacedtowardstheback,EconowivesandMarthasaroundtheedgesandon the librarysteps,andHandmaidsat the front,whereeveryonecan keep an eye on us.Wedon’t sit on chairs, but kneel, and this timewehavecushions,smallredvelvetoneswithnothingwrittenonthem,notevenFaith.
Luckily theweather is all right: not too hot, cloudy-bright. Itwould bemiserablekneelinghereintherain.Maybethat’swhytheyleaveitsolatetotellus:sothey’llknowwhattheweatherwillbelike.That’sasgoodasreasonasany.
I kneel on my red velvet cushion. I try to think about tonight, aboutmakinglove,inthedark,inthelightreflectedoffthewhitewalls.Irememberbeingheld.
There’salongpieceofropewhichwindslikeasnakeinfrontofthefirstrow of cushions, along the second, and back through the lines of chairs,bending like a very old, very slow river viewed from the air, down to theback.Theropeisthickandbrownandsmellsoftar.Thefrontendoftheroperunsupontothestage.It’slikeafuse,orthestringofaballoon.
Onstage, to the left, are thosewhoare tobesalvaged: twoHandmaids,one Wife. Wives are unusual, and despite myself I look at this one withinterest.Iwanttoknowwhatshehasdone.
Theyhavebeenplacedherebeforethegateswereopened.Allofthemsitonfoldingwoodenchairs,likegraduatingstudentswhoareabouttobegivenprizes.Their hands rest in their laps, looking as if they are folded sedately.They sway a little, they’ve probably been given injections or pills, so theywon’tmakeafuss.It’sbetterifthingsgosmoothly.Aretheyattachedtotheirchairs?Impossibletosay,underallthatdrapery.
Nowtheofficialprocessionisapproachingthestage,mountingthestepsat the right: three women, one Aunt in front, two Salvagers in their blackhoods and cloaks a pace behindher.Behind themare the otherAunts.Thewhisperingsamongushush.The threearrange themselves, turn towardsus,theAuntflankedbythetwoblack-robedSalvagers.
Icanseethedeepeningfurrowstoeithersideofhernose,theengravedfrown.Hereyesblink,shesmilesnervously,peering to leftandright,checkingouttheaudience,andliftsahandtofidgetwithherheaddress.AnoddstranglingsoundcomesovertheP.A.system:sheisclearingherthroat.
The sun comes out, and the stage and its occupants light up like aChristmascrèche.IcanseethewrinklesunderAuntLydia’seyes,thepallorof the seatedwomen, thehairson the rope in frontofmeon thegrass, thebladesofgrass.Thereisadandelion,rightinfrontofme,thecolourofeggyolk.Ifeelhungry.Thebellstopstolling.
AuntLydiastandsup,smoothsdownherskirtwithbothhands,andstepsforward to the mike. “Good afternoon, ladies,” she says, and there is aninstantandear-splittingfeedbackwhinefromtheP.A.system.Fromamongus,incredibly, there is laughter. It’s hard not to laugh, it’s the tension, and thelook of irritation on Aunt Lydia’s face as she adjusts the sound. This issupposedtobedignified.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” she says again, her voice now tinny andflattened.It’sladiesinsteadofgirlsbecauseoftheWives.“I’msureweareallawareoftheunfortunatecircumstancesthatbringusallheretogetheronthisbeautifulmorning,whenIamcertainwewouldallratherbedoingsomethingelse,atleastIspeakformyself,butdutyisahardtaskmaster,ormayIsayonthis occasion task-mistress, and it is in the name of duty that we are heretoday.”
Shegoesonlikethisforsomeminutes,butIdon’tlisten.I’veheardthisspeech, or one like it, often enough before: the same platitudes, the sameslogans,thesamephrases:thetorchofthefuture, thecradleoftherace,thetaskbeforeus.It’shardtobelievetherewillnotbepoliteclappingafterthisspeech,andteaandcookiesservedonthelawn.
AuntLydiarummagesinherpocket,producesacrumpledpieceofpaper.Thisshetakesanunduelengthoftimetounfoldandscan.She’srubbingournoses in it, lettingusknowexactlywhoshe is,makinguswatchherasshesilentlyreads,flauntingherprerogative.Obscene,Ithink.Let’sgetthisoverwith.
“In the past,” says Aunt Lydia, “it has been the custom to precede the
actualSalvagingswithadetailedaccountofthecrimesofwhichtheprisonersstand convicted. However, we have found that such a public account,especiallywhen televised, is invariably followed by a rash, if Imay call itthat,anoutbreakIshouldsay,ofexactlysimilarcrimes.Sowehavedecidedin the best interests of all to discontinue this practice. The Salvagingswillproceedwithoutfurtherado.”
Acollectivemurmurgoesup fromus.Thecrimesofothersarea secretlanguage among us. Through them we show ourselves what we might becapable of, after all. This is not a popular announcement. But you wouldnever know it from Aunt Lydia, who smiles and blinks as if washed inapplause.Nowwearelefttoourowndevices,ourownspeculations.Thefirstone, theone they’renow raising fromher chair, black-glovedhandsonherupperarms:reading?No,that’sonlyahandcutoff,onthethirdconviction.Unchastity,oranattemptonthelifeofherCommander?OrtheCommander’sWife,morelikely.That’swhatwe’rethinking.AsfortheWife,there’smostlyjustonethingtheygetsalvagedfor.Theycandoalmostanythingtous,buttheyaren’tallowedtokillus,notlegally.Notwithknittingneedlesorgardenshears,orknivespurloinedfromthekitchen,andespeciallynotwhenwearepregnant.Itcouldbeadultery,ofcourse.Itcouldalwaysbethat.
“Ofcharles,” Aunt Lydia announces. No one I know. The woman isbroughtforward;shewalksasifshe’sreallyconcentratingonit,onefoot,theotherfoot,she’sdefinitelydrugged.There’sagroggyoff-centresmileonhermouth.Onesideofher facecontracts,anuncoordinatedwink,aimedat thecamera.They’llnevershowit,ofcourse,thisisn’tlive.ThetwoSalvagerstieherhands,behindherback.
ropehairy,stickywithtarinthehotsun,thenplacedmyhandonmyhearttoshowmyunitywiththeSalvagersandmyconsent,andmycomplicityinthedeathof thiswoman.Ihaveseenthekickingfeetandthe twoinblackwhonow seize hold of them and drag downwardswith all theirweight. I don’twanttoseeitanymore.Ilookatthegrassinstead.Idescribetherope.
The three bodies hang there, even with the white sacks over their headslooking curiously stretched, like chickens strung up by the necks in ameatshopwindow; like birdswith theirwings clipped, like flightless birds,wreckedangels.It’shardtotakeyoureyesoffthem.Beneaththehemsofthedressesthefeetdangle,twopairsofredshoes,onepairofblue.Ifitweren’tfor the ropes and the sacks it couldbe a kindof dance, a ballet, caught byflash-camera:mid-air.They lookarranged.They look like showbiz. ItmusthavebeenAuntLydiawhoputtheblueoneinthemiddle.
“Today’s Salvaging is now concluded,” Aunt Lydia announces into themike.“But…”
We turn to her, listen to her,watch her. She has always known how tospace her pauses.A ripple runs over us, a stir. Something else, perhaps, isgoingtohappen.
“But youmay stand up, and form a circle.” She smiles down upon us,generous,munificent. She is about to give us something.Bestow.“Orderly,now.”
She is talking to us, to theHandmaids. Some of theWives are leavingnow,someofthedaughters.Mostof themstay,but theystaybehind,outoftheway,theywatchmerely.Theyarenotpartofthecircle.
TwoGuardians havemoved forward and are coiling up the thick rope,getting itoutof theway.Othersmove thecushions.Wearemillingaroundnow,onthegrassspaceinfrontofthestage,somejockeyingforpositionatthefront,nexttothecentre,manypushingjustashardtoworktheirwaytothe middle where they will be shielded. It’s a mistake to hang back tooobviouslyinanygrouplikethis;itstampsyouaslukewarm,lackinginzeal.There’sanenergybuildinghere,amurmur,atremorofreadinessandanger.Thebodiestense,theeyesarebrighter,asifaiming.
Idon’twant tobeat thefront,orat thebackeither.I’mnotsurewhat’scoming, though I sense it won’t be anything I want to see up close. ButOfglen has hold of my arm, she tugs me with her, and now we’re in thesecond line,withonlya thinhedgeofbodies in frontofus. Idon’twant tosee, yet I don’t pull back either. I’ve heard rumours, which I only halfbelieved.Despiteeverything Ialreadyknow, I say tomyself: theywouldn’tgothatfar.
“Well then,” says Aunt Lydia. She nods. TwoGuardians, not the sameonesthathavetakenawaytherope,comeforwardnowfrombehindthestage.Betweenthemtheyhalf-carry,half-dragathirdman.HetooisinaGuardian’suniform,buthehasnohatonandtheuniformisdirtyandtorn.Hisfaceiscutand bruised, deep reddish-brown bruises; the flesh is swollen and knobby,stubbled with unshaven beard. This doesn’t look like a face but like anunknownvegetable,amangledbulbortuber,somethingthat’sgrownwrong.EvenfromwhereI’mstandingIcansmellhim:hesmellsofshitandvomit.Hishairisblondandfallsoverhisface,spikywithwhat?Driedsweat?
“Thisman,” says Aunt Lydia, “has been convicted of rape.” Her voicetrembleswithrage,andakindoftriumph.“HewasonceaGuardian.Hehasdisgraced his uniform. He has abused his position of trust. His partner inviciousness has already been shot. The penalty for rape, as you know, isdeath.Deuteronomy 22:23-29. Imight add that this crime involved two ofyouandtookplaceatgunpoint.Itwasalsobrutal.Iwillnotoffendyourearswith any details, except to say that onewomanwas pregnant and the babydied.”
Asighgoesupfromus;despitemyselfI feelmyhandsclench.It is toomuch,thisviolation.Thebabytoo,afterwhatwegothrough.It’strue,thereisabloodlust;Iwanttotear,gouge,rend.
We jostle forward, our heads turn from side to side, our nostrils flare,sniffing death,we look at one another, seeing the hatred. Shootingwas toogood.Theman’sheadswivelsgroggilyaround:hasheevenheardher?
AuntLydiawaits amoment; then shegives a little smile and raisesherwhistle to her lips.We hear it, shrill and silver, an echo from a volleyballgameoflongago.
The two Guardians let go of the third man’s arms and step back. Hestaggers–ishedrugged?–andfallstohisknees.Hiseyesareshrivelledupinsidethepuffyfleshofhisface,asifthelightistoobrightforhim.They’vekepthimindarkness.Heraisesonehandtohischeek,asthoughtofeelifheisstillthere.Allofthishappensquickly,butitseemstobeslowly.
Nobodymovesforward.Thewomenarelookingathimwithhorror;asifhe’s a half-dead rat dragging itself across a kitchen floor. He’s squintingaround at us, the circle of redwomen.One corner of hismouthmoves up,incredible–asmile?
I try to lookinsidehim, inside the trashedface,seewhathemustreallylooklike.Ithinkhe’saboutthirty.Itisn’tLuke.
But it could have been, I know that. It could be Nick. I know thatwhateverhe’sdoneIcan’ttouchhim.
He says something. It comes out thick, as if his throat is bruised, histonguehugeinhismouth,butIhearitanyway.Hesays,“Ididn’t…”
There’sasurgeforward,likeacrowdatarockconcertintheformertime,whenthedoorsopened,thaturgencycominglikeawavethroughus.Theairisbrightwithadrenalin,wearepermittedanythingandthisisfreedom,inmybodyalso, I’mreeling, redspreadseverywhere,butbefore that tideofclothand bodies hits him Ofglen is shoving through the women in front of us,propellingherselfwithherelbows,left,right,andrunningtowardshim.Shepushes him down, sideways, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, threetimes, sharp painful jabs with the foot, well-aimed. Now there are sounds,gasps,alownoiselikegrowling,yells,andtheredbodiestumbleforwardandIcannolongersee,he’sobscuredbyarms,fists,feet.Ahighscreamcomesfromsomewhere,likeahorseinterror.
I keep back, try to stay onmy feet. Something hitsme from behind. Istagger.When I regain my balance and look around, I see theWives anddaughters leaning forward in their chairs, theAunts on the platformgazingdownwithinterest.Theymusthaveabetterviewfromupthere.
“I saw what you did,” I say to her. Now I’m beginning to feel again:shock, outrage, nausea. Barbarism. “Why did you do that? You! I thoughtyou…”
AuntLydiablowsherwhistleagain,buttheydon’tstopatonce.ThetwoGuardiansmovein,pullingthemoff,fromwhat’sleft.Somelieonthegrasswhere they’ve been hit or kicked by accident. Some have fainted. Theystraggleaway,intwosandthreesorbythemselves.Theyseemdazed.
“Youwillfindyourpartnersandre-formyourline,”AuntLydiasaysintothemike.Fewpayattentiontoher.Awomancomestowardsus,walkingasifshe’s feeling herwaywith her feet, in the dark: Janine.There’s a smear ofbloodacrosshercheek,andmoreof iton thewhiteofherheaddress.She’ssmiling,abrightdiminutivesmile.Hereyeshavecomeloose.
“Hi there,” she says. “How are you doing?” She’s holding something,tightly,inherrighthand.It’saclumpofblondhair.Shegivesasmallgiggle.
“Janine,” I say.But she’s let go, totally now, she’s in free fall, she’s inwithdrawal.
Myhands smell ofwarm tar. Iwant to goback to thehouse andup to thebathroom and scrub and scrub,with the harsh soap and the pumice, to geteverytraceofthissmelloffmyskin.Thesmellmakesmefeelsick.
ButalsoI’mhungry.This ismonstrous,butnevertheless it’s true.Deathmakesmehungry.Maybe it’s because I’vebeen emptied; ormaybe it’s thebody’swayofseeingtoitthatIremainalive,continuetorepeatitsbedrockprayer:Iam,Iam.Iam,still.
Forlunchtherewasacheesesandwich,onbrownbread,aglassofmilk,celery sticks, canned pears. A schoolchild’s lunch. I ate everything up, notquickly,butrevellinginthetaste,theflavourslushonmytongue.NowIamgoingshopping,thesameasusual.Ievenlookforwardtoit.There’sacertainconsolationtobetakenfromroutine.
Igooutthebackdoor,alongthepath.Nickiswashingthecar,hishatonsideways.Hedoesn’tlookatme.Weavoidlookingateachother,thesedays.Surelywe’dgive somethingawayby it, evenouthere in theopen,withnoonetosee.
IwaitatthecornerforOfglen.She’slate.AtlastIseehercoming,aredandwhite shape of cloth, like a kite,walking at the steady pacewe’ve alllearned to keep. I see her and notice nothing at first. Then, as she comesnearer,Ithinkthattheremustbesomethingwrongwithher.Shelookswrong.Sheisalteredinsomeindefinableway;she’snot injured,she’snot limping.It’sasifshehasshrunk.
Thenwhenshe’snearerstill I seewhat it is.She isn’tOfglen.She’s thesameheight,butthinner,andherfaceisbeige,notpink.Shecomesuptome,stops.
Nowwhat,Ithink.Myheadischurning,thisisnotgoodnews,whathasbecome of her, how do I find outwithout showing toomuch concern?We
aren’t supposed to form friendships, loyalties, among one another. I try torememberhowmuchtimeOfglenhastogoatherpresentposting.
We pass the first checkpoint without saying anything further. She’staciturn,butsoamI.Isshewaitingformetostartsomething,revealmyself,orissheabeliever,engrossedininnermeditation?
“HasOfglenbeen transferred, so soon?” I ask, but I know shehasn’t. Isawheronlythismorning.Shewouldhavesaid.
WegotoMilkandHoney,andtoAllFlesh,whereIbuychickenandthenewOfglengetsthreepoundsofhamburger.Therearetheusuallineups.Iseeseveralwomen I recognize,exchangewith them the infinitesimalnodswithwhichweshoweachotherweareknown,atleasttosomeone,westillexist.OutsideAllFleshIsaytothenewOfglen,“WeshouldgototheWall.”Idon’tknowwhat I expect from this; somewayof testingher reaction, perhaps. Ineedtoknowwhetherornotsheisoneofus.Ifsheis,ifIcanestablishthat,perhapsshe’llbeabletotellmewhathasreallyhappenedtoOfglen.
On theWallhang the threewomenfrom thismorning, still in theirdresses,stillintheirshoes,stillwiththewhitebagsovertheirheads.Theirarmshavebeen untied and are stiff and proper at their sides. The blue one is in themiddle, the tworedonesoneitherside, thoughthecoloursarenolongerasbright;theyseemtohavefaded,growndingy,likedeadbutterfliesortropicalfish drying on land. The gloss is off them.We stand and look at them insilence.
I saynothingat first,because I am trying tomakeoutwhat shemeans.Shecouldmeanthatthisisaremindertousoftheunjustnessandbrutalityoftheregime.In thatcaseIought tosayyes.Orshecouldmeantheopposite,that we should remember to dowhat we are told and not get into trouble,
To this she does not respond, although I sense a flicker ofwhite at theedgeofmyvision,asifshe’slookedquicklyatme.
I thinkmaybe I shouldwait before attempting anything further. It’s toosoon to push, to probe. I should give it aweek, twoweeks,maybe longer,watchhercarefully, listenfor tones inhervoice,unguardedwords, thewayOfglen listened to me. Now that Ofglen is gone I am alert again, mysluggishness has fallen away, my body is no longer for pleasure only butsensesitsjeopardy.Ishouldnotberash,Ishouldnottakeunnecessaryrisks.ButIneedtoknow.Iholdbackuntilwe’repastthefinalcheckpointandthereareonlyblockstogo,butthenIcannolongercontrolmyself.
“Oh?” she says. The fact that she’s said anything, however guarded,encouragesme.
“I’veonlyknowhersinceMay,”Isay.Icanfeelmyskingrowinghot,myheartspeedingup.This is tricky.Foronething, it’sa lie.AndhowdoIgetfrom there to the next vitalword? “Around the first ofMay I think itwas.WhattheyusedtocallMayDay.”
“Did they?” she says, light, indifferent, menacing. “That isn’t a term Iremember.I’msurprisedyoudo.Yououghttomakeaneffort…”Shepauses.“Toclearyourmindofsuch…”Shepausesagain.“Echoes.”
Now I feel cold, seepingovermy skin likewater.What she is doing iswarningme.
Theyknowwheremychildis.Whatiftheybringher,threatensomethingtoher,infrontofme?Ordoit.Ican’tbeartothinkwhattheymightdo.OrLuke,whatiftheyhaveLuke.OrmymotherorMoiraoralmostanyone.DearGod, don’tmakeme choose. I would not be able to stand it, I know that;Moirawasrightaboutme.I’llsayanythingtheylike,I’llincriminateanyone.It’strue,thefirstscream,whimpereven,andI’llturntojelly,I’llconfesstoany crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on theWall. Keep your headdown,Iusedtotellmyself,andseeitthrough.It’snouse.
“Under His Eye,” I say, trying to sound fervent. As if such playactingcouldhelp,nowthatwe’vecomethisfar.
Then she does an odd thing. She leans forward, so that the stiff whiteblinkers on our heads are almost touching, so that I can see her pale beigeeyesupclose,thedelicateweboflinesacrosshercheeks,andwhispers,veryquickly,hervoicefaintasdryleaves.“Shehangedherself,”shesays.“AftertheSalvaging.Shesawthevancomingforher.Itwasbetter.”
DearGod,Ithink,Iwilldoanythingyoulike.Nowthatyou’veletmeoff,I’llobliteratemyself,ifthat’swhatyoureallywant;I’llemptymyself,truly,become a chalice. I’ll give up Nick, I’ll forget about the others, I’ll stopcomplaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’llrenounce.
Igoalongpast theflowerbeds, thewillowtree,aimingfor thebackdoor.Iwill go in, I will be safe. I will fall on my knees, in my room, gratefullybreatheinlungfulsofthestaleair,smellingoffurniturepolish.
SerenaJoyhascomeoutofthefrontdoor;she’sstandingonthesteps.Shecalls tome.What is it shewants?Does shewantme togo in to the sittingroomandhelpherwindgreywool?Iwon’tbeabletoholdmyhandssteady,she’ll notice something. But I walk over to her anyway, since I have nochoice.
StillIdon’tlookupather.Guiltpervadesme,I’vebeenfoundout,butforwhat?ForwhichofmymanysinsamIaccused?Theonlywaytofindoutisto keep silent. To start excusing myself now, for this or that, would be ablunder.Icouldgiveawaysomethingshehasn’tevenguessed.
“Look,”shesays.Shebringsherfreehandfrombehindherback.It’shercloak she’s holding, the winter one. “There was lipstick on it,” she says.“How could you be so vulgar? I told him…” She drops the cloak, she’sholdingsomethingelse,herhandallbone.Shethrowsthatdownaswell.Thepurplesequinsfall,slitheringdownoverthesteplikesnakeskin,glitteringinthe sunlight. “Behind my back,” she says. “You could have left mesomething.”Doesshelovehim,afterall?Sheraiseshercane.I thinksheisgoingtohitme,butshedoesn’t.“Pickupthatdisgustingthingandgettoyourroom.Justliketheotherone.Aslut.You’llendupthesame.”
I want to turn, run to him, throwmy arms around him. Thiswould befoolish.Thereisnothinghecandotohelp.Hetoowoulddrown.
This could be the last time I have towait. But I don’t knowwhat I’mwaitingfor.Whatareyouwaitingfor?theyusedtosay.ThatmeantHurryup.Noanswerwasexpected.Forwhatareyouwaitingisadifferentquestion,andIhavenoanswerforthatoneeither.
I am in disgrace, which is the opposite of grace. I ought to feel worseaboutit.
But I feel serene, at peace, pervaded with indifference. Don’t let thebastardsgrindyoudown.Irepeatthistomyselfbutitconveysnothing.Youmightaswellsay,Don’tlettherebeair;or,Don’tbe.
Outside, the light is fading. It’s reddishalready.Soon itwillbedark.Rightnowit’sdarker.Thatdidn’ttakelong.
There are a number of things I could do. I could set fire to the house, forinstance.Icouldbundleupsomeofmyclothes,andthesheets,andstrikemyone hiddenmatch. If it didn’t catch, thatwould be that.But if it did, therewould at least be an event, a signal of some kind tomarkmy exit. A fewflames,easilyputout.InthemeantimeIcouldletloosecloudsofsmokeanddiebysuffocation.
one end to the leg of my bed and try to break the window. Which isshatterproof.
I could go to theCommander, fall on the floor,myhair dishevelled, asthey say, grab him around the knees, confess, weep, implore. Nolite tebastardes carborundorum, I could say. Not a prayer. I visualize his shoes,black,wellshined,impenetrable,keepingtheirowncounsel.
Icouldhidebehindthedoor,waituntilshecomes,hobblesalongthehall,bearingwhateversentence,penance,punishment,jumpoutather,knockherdown, kick her sharply and accurately in the head. To put her out of hermisery,andmyselfaswell.Toputheroutofourmisery.
I could go toNick’s room, over the garage, aswe have done before. Icouldwonderwhetherornothewould letmein,givemeshelter.Nowthattheneedisreal.
I look out at the dusk and think about its being winter. The snow falling,gently,effortlessly,coveringeverythinginsoftcrystal,themistofmoonlightbefore a rain, blurring the outlines, obliterating colour. Freezing to death ispainless,theysay,afterthefirstchill.Youliebackinthesnowlikeanangelmadebychildrenandgotosleep.
BehindmeIfeelherpresence,myancestress,mydouble,turninginmid-airunderthechandelier,inhercostumeofstarsandfeathers,abirdstoppedinflight, awomanmade into an angel,waiting to be found.Byme this time.HowcouldIhavebelievedIwasaloneinhere?Therewerealwaystwoofus.Getitover,shesays.I’mtiredofthismelodrama,I’mtiredofkeepingsilent.There’s no one you can protect, your life has value to no one. I want itfinished.
AsI’mstandingupIheartheblackvan.IhearitbeforeIseeit;blendedwiththetwilight,itappearsoutofitsownsoundlikeasolidification,aclottingofthenight.Itturnsintothedriveway,stops.Icanjustmakeoutthewhiteeye,the two wings. The paint must be phosphorescent. Two men detachthemselvesfromtheshapeofit,comeupthefrontsteps,ringthebell.Ihearthe bell toll, ding-dong, like the ghost of a cosmeticswoman, down in thehall.
Butit’stoolatetothinkaboutthatnow,alreadytheirfeetareonthedusty-rosecarpetingof the stairs; aheavymuted tread,pulse in the forehead.Myback’stothewindow.
Iexpectastranger,butit’sNickwhopushesopenthedoor,flicksonthelight. I can’t place that, unless he’s one of them. There was always thatpossibility.Nick,theprivateEye.Dirtyworkisdonebydirtypeople.
“Them?”Isay.Iseethetwomenstandingbehindhim,theoverheadlightin the hallway making skulls of their heads. “You must be crazy.” Mysuspicionhoversintheairabovehim,adarkangelwarningmeaway.Icanalmost see it. Why shouldn’t he know about Mayday? All the Eyes mustknowabout it; they’llhavesqueezed it, crushed it, twisted itoutofenoughbodies,enoughmouthsbynow.
One in front, one behind, they escort me down the stairs. The pace isleisurely, the lightsareon.Despite the fear,howordinary it is.Fromhere Icanseetheclock.It’snotimeinparticular.
Nick isno longerwithus.Hemayhavegonedown thebackstairs,notwishingtobeseen.
Serena Joy stands in the hallway, under the mirror, looking up,incredulous.TheCommanderisbehindher,thesitting-roomdoorisopen.Hishair is very grey. He looks worried and helpless, but already withdrawingfromme, distancing himself.Whatever else I am to him, I am also at thispoint a disaster.Nodoubt they’vebeenhaving a fight, aboutme; nodoubtshe’sbeengivinghimhell.Istillhaveitinmetofeelsorryforhim.Moiraisright,Iamawimp.
“What has she done?” says Serena Joy. Shewasn’t the onewho calledthem,then.Whatevershehadinstoreforme,itwasmoreprivate.
“I need to see your authorization,” says the Commander. “You have awarrant?”
“Not thatweneedone,Sir,butall is inorder,” says the firstoneagain.“Violationofstatesecrets.”
Cora andRita press through from the kitchen.Cora has begun to cry. Iwasherhope,I’vefailedher.Nowshewillalwaysbechildless.
Thevanwaits in thedriveway, itsdoubledoors standopen.The twoofthem,oneoneithersidenow,takemebytheelbowstohelpmein.Whetherthis ismyendoranewbeginningIhavenowayofknowing: Ihavegivenmyselfoverintothehandsofstrangers,becauseitcan’tbehelped.
Being a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium onGileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical AssociationConvention,which tookplace at theUniversity ofDenay,Nunavit, on June25,2195.
Chair: Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, Department of CaucasianAnthropology,UniversityofDenay,Nunavit.
KeynoteSpeaker:Professor JamesDarcy Pieixoto,Director, Twentieth andTwenty-FirstCenturyArchives,CambridgeUniversity,England.
Iamdelightedtowelcomeyouallherethismorning,andI’mpleasedtoseethat so many of you have turned out for Professor Pieixoto’s, I am sure,fascinating andworthwhile talk.Weof theGileadeanResearchAssociationbelievethatthisperiodwellrepaysfurtherstudy,responsibleasitultimatelywasforredrawingthemapoftheworld,especiallyinthishemisphere.
Butbeforeweproceed,afewannouncements.Thefishingexpeditionwillgoforwardtomorrowasplanned,andforthoseofyouwhohavenotbroughtsuitableraingearandinsectrepellent,theseareavailableforanominalchargeat the Registration Desk. The Nature Walk and Outdoor Period-CostumeSing-Song have been rescheduled for the day after tomorrow, as we areassuredbyourowninfallibleProfessorJohnnyRunningDogofabreakintheweatheratthattime.
Let me remind you of the other events sponsored by the GileadeanResearchAssociation thatareavailable toyouat thisconvention,aspartofourTwelfthSymposium.Tomorrowafternoon,ProfessorGopalChatterjee,of
the Department of Western Philosophy, University of Baroda, India, willspeakon“KrishnaandKaliElementsintheStateReligionoftheEarlyGileadPeriod,” and there is a morning presentation on Thursday by ProfessorSieglinda Van Buren from the Department of Military History at theUniversityofSanAntonio,RepublicofTexas.ProfessorVanBurenwillgivewhat I am sure will be a fascinating illustrated lecture on “The WarsawTactic:PoliciesofUrbanCoreEncirclement in theGileadeanCivilWars.”Iamsureallofuswillwishtoattendthese.
I must also remind our keynote speaker – although I am sure it is notnecessary – to keep within his time period, as we wish to leave space forquestions, and I expect none of us wants to miss lunch, as happenedyesterday.(Laughter.)
ProfessorPieixotoscarcelyneedsanyintroduction,asheiswellknowntoall of us, if not personally, then through his extensive publications. Theseinclude “Sumptuary Laws Through theAges:AnAnalysis ofDocuments,”and the well-known study, “Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-CenturyMonotheocracies,asSeenThroughDiaries.”Asyouallknow,he is theco-editor, with Professor KnotlyWade, also of Cambridge, of the manuscriptunder consideration today, and was instrumental in its transcription,annotation, and publication. The title of his talk is “Problems ofAuthenticationinReferencetoTheHandmaid’sTale”.
But let me be serious. I wish, as the title of my little chat implies, toconsider some of the problems associated with the soi-disant manuscriptwhichiswellknowntoallofyoubynow,andwhichgoesbythetitleofTheHandmaid’sTale.Isaysoi-disantbecausewhatwehavebeforeusisnottheiteminitsoriginalform.Strictlyspeaking,itwasnotamanuscriptatallwhenfirstdiscovered,andborenotitle.Thesuperscription“TheHandmaid’sTale”wasappendedtoitbyProfessorWade,partlyinhomagetothegreatGeoffrey
Chaucer;butthoseofyouwhoknowProfessorWadeinformally,asIdo,willunderstandwhen I say that I am sure all punswere intentional, particularlythathaving todowith thearchaicvulgar significationof theword tail; thatbeing, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase ofGileadeansocietyofwhichoursagatreats.(Laughter,applause.)
This item–Ihesitate touse theworddocument–wasunearthedon thesite ofwhatwas once the city of Bangor, inwhat, at the time prior to theinceptionoftheGileadeanregime,wouldhavebeentheStateofMaine.Weknowthatthiscitywasaprominentway-stationonwhatourauthorreferstoas “TheUndergroundFemaleroad,” since dubbedby someof our historicalwags“TheUndergroundFrailroad.”(Laughter,groans.)For this reason,ourAssociationhastakenaparticularinterestinit.
Theiteminitspristinestateconsistedofametalfoot-locker,U.S.Armyissue,circaperhaps1955.Thisfactofitselfneedhavenosignificance,asitisknown that such foot-lockers were frequently sold as “army surplus” andmust therefore have been widespread. Within this foot-locker, which wassealedwithtapeofthekindonceusedonpackagestobesentbypost,wereapproximately thirty tape cassettes, of the type that became obsoletesometimeintheeightiesorninetieswiththeadventofthecompactdisc.
Iremindyouthatthiswasnotthefirstsuchdiscovery.Youaredoubtlessfamiliar,forinstance,withtheitemknownas“TheA.B.Memoirs,”locatedina garage in a suburb of Seattle, andwith “TheDiary of P.,” excavated byaccidentduring theerectionofanewmeetinghouse in thevicinityofwhatwasonceSyracuse,NewYork.
ProfessorWade and Iwere very excited by this newdiscovery.Luckilywehad,severalyearsbefore,withtheaidofourexcellentresidentantiquariantechnician, reconstructed amachine capable of playing such tapes, andweimmediatelysetaboutthepainstakingworkoftranscription.
There were some thirty tapes in the collection altogether, with varyingproportionsofmusictospokenword.Ingeneral,eachtapebeginswithtwoorthree songs, as camouflage no doubt: then themusic is broken off and thespeaking voice takes over. The voice is a woman’s and, according to ourvoice-printexperts,thesameonethroughout.Thelabelsonthecassetteswereauthenticperiodlabels,dating,ofcourse,fromsometimebeforetheinceptionof the Early Gilead era, as all such secular music was banned under theregime.Therewere,forinstance,fourtapesentitled“ElvisPresley’sGolden
Years,” three of “Folk Songs of Lithuania,” three of “BoyGeorgeTakes ItOff,” and twoof “Mantovani’sMellowStrings,” aswell as some titles thatsportedameresingle tapeeach:“TwistedSisteratCarnegieHall” isoneofwhichIamparticularlyfond.
Althoughthelabelswereauthentic,theywerenotalwaysappendedtothetapewiththecorrespondingsongs.Inaddition,thetapeswerearrangedinnoparticular order, being loose at the bottom of the box; nor were theynumbered.ThusitwasuptoProfessorWadeandmyselftoarrangetheblocksof speech in the order in which they appeared to go; but, as I have saidelsewhere,allsucharrangementsarebasedonsomeguessworkandaretoberegardedasapproximate,pendingfurtherresearch.
Oncewehadthetranscriptioninhand–andwehadtogooveritseveraltimes, owing to the difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents, andarchaisms–wehadtomakesomedecisionastothenatureofthematerialwehadthussolaboriouslyacquired.Severalpossibilitiesconfrontedus.First,thetapesmightbeaforgery.Asyouknow,therehavebeenseveralinstancesofsuchforgeries,forwhichpublishershavepaidlargesums,wishingtotradenodoubtonthesensationalismofsuchstories.Itappearsthatcertainperiodsofhistory quickly become, both for other societies and for those that followthem,thestuffofnotespeciallyedifyinglegendandtheoccasionforagooddeal of hypocritical self-congratulation. If I may be permitted an editorialaside,allowmetosaythatinmyopinionwemustbecautiousaboutpassingmoral judgementupon theGileadeans.Surelywehave learnedbynow thatsuch judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean societywas under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and wassubjecttofactorsfromwhichweourselvesarehappilymorefree.Ourjobisnottocensurebuttounderstand.(Applause.)
Toreturnfrommydigression:tapelikethis,however,isverydifficulttofakeconvincingly,andwewereassuredby theexpertswhoexamined themthat the physical objects themselves are genuine. Certainly the recordingitself, that is, thesuperimpositionofvoiceuponmusic tape,couldnothavebeendonewithinthepasthundredandfiftyyears.
Supposing,then,thetapestobegenuine,whatofthenatureoftheaccountitself?Obviously,itcouldnothavebeenrecordedduringtheperiodoftimeitrecounts, since, if theauthor is telling the truth,nomachineor tapeswouldhavebeenavailabletoher,norwouldshehavehadaplaceofconcealmentforthem.Also,thereisacertainreflectivequalityaboutthenarrativethatwould
Ifwecouldestablishanidentityforthenarrator,wefelt,wemightbewellonthewaytoanexplanationofhowthisdocument–letmecallitthatforthesake of brevity – came into being. To do this, we tried two lines ofinvestigation.
First, we attempted, through old town plans of Bangor and otherremainingdocumentation, to identify the inhabitants of thehouse thatmusthave occupied the site of the discovery at about that time. Possibly, wereasoned, this house may have been a “safe house” on the UndergroundFemaleroadduringourperiod,andourauthormayhavebeenkepthiddenin,forinstance,theatticorcellarthereforsomeweeksormonths,duringwhichshewouldhavehadtheopportunitytomaketherecordings.Ofcourse,therewasnothing to ruleout thepossibility that the tapeshadbeenmoved to thesite inquestionafter theyhadbeenmade.Wehoped tobeable to traceandlocatethedescendantsofthehypotheticaloccupants,whomwehopedmightlead us to othermaterial: diaries, perhaps, or even family anecdotes passeddownthroughthegenerations.
Unfortunately, this trail led nowhere. Possibly these people, if they hadindeed been a link in the underground chain, had been discovered andarrested,inwhichcaseanydocumentationreferringtothemwouldhavebeendestroyed.Sowepursuedasecondlineofattack.Wesearchedrecordsoftheperiod, trying to correlate known historical personageswith the individualswho appear in our author’s account. The surviving records of the time arespotty,astheGileadeanregimewasinthehabitofwipingitsowncomputersanddestroyingprintoutsaftervariouspurgesandinternalupheavals,butsomeprintouts remain. Some indeed were smuggled to England, for propagandauseby thevariousSave-the-Womensocieties,ofwhich thereweremany intheBritishIslesatthattime.
Weheldoutnohopeof tracing thenarratorherselfdirectly. Itwasclearfrominternalevidencethatshewasamongthefirstwaveofwomenrecruitedfor reproductive purposes and allotted to those who both required suchservicesandcould layclaimto themthrough theirposition in theelite.Theregime created an instant pool of such women by the simple tactic ofdeclaringallsecondmarriagesandnon-marital liaisonsadulterous,arrestingthe female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit,confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted by childless
couplesoftheupperechelonswhowereeagerforprogenybyanymeans.(Inthe middle period, this policy was extended to cover all marriages notcontracted within the state church.)Men highly placed in the regimewerethus able to pick and choose among women who had demonstrated theirreproductive fitness by having produced one or more healthy children, adesirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birth rates, aphenomenon observable not only inGilead but inmost northernCaucasiansocietiesofthetime.
The reasons for this decline are not altogether clear to us. Some of thefailuretoreproducecanundoubtedlybetracedtothewidespreadavailabilityof birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gileadperiod.Someinfertility, then,waswilled,whichmayaccountforthediffering statistics amongCaucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest wasnot.NeedIremindyouthatthiswastheageoftheR-strainsyphilisandalsothe infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population atlarge, eliminatedmany young sexually active people from the reproductivepool?Stillbirths,miscarriages,andgeneticdeformitieswerewidespreadandon the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plantaccidents,shutdowns,andincidentsofsabotagethatcharacterizedtheperiod,aswell as to leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles andtoxic-waste disposal sites, ofwhich thereweremany thousands, both legalandillegal–insomeinstancesthesematerialsweresimplydumpedintothesewage system – and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides,herbicides,andothersprays.
But whatever the causes, the effects were noticeable, and the Gileadregime was not the only one to react to them at the time. Romania, forinstance,hadanticipatedGileadintheeightiesbybanningallformsofbirthcontrol,imposingcompulsorypregnancytestsonthefemalepopulation,andlinkingpromotionandwageincreasestofertility.
TheneedforwhatImaycallbirthserviceswasalreadyrecognizedinthepre-Gilead period, where it was being inadequately met by “artificialinsemination,” “fertility clinics,” and the use of “surrogate mothers,” whowerehired for thepurpose.Gileadoutlawed the first twoas irreligious,butlegitimized and enforced the third, which was considered to have biblicalprecedents;theythusreplacedtheserialpolygamycommoninthepre-GileadperiodwiththeolderformofsimultaneouspolygamypractisedbothinearlyOldTestamenttimesandintheformerStateofUtahinthenineteenthcentury.
Asweknowfromthestudyofhistory,nonewsystemcanimposeitselfuponapreviousonewithoutincorporatingmanyoftheelementstobefoundinthelatter, as witness the pagan elements in mediaeval Christianity and theevolutionoftheRussian“K.G.B.”fromtheCzaristsecretservicethatprecededit; andGileadwasnoexception to this rule. Its racistpolicies, for instance,werefirmlyrootedinthepre-Gileadperiod,andracistfearsprovidedsomeoftheemotional fuel that allowed theGilead takeover to succeedaswell as itdid.
Our author, then,was one ofmany, andmust be seenwithin the broadoutlinesofthemomentinhistoryofwhichshewasapart.Butwhatelsedowe know about her, apart from her age, some physical characteristics thatcouldbeanyone’s,andherplaceofresidence?Notverymuch.Sheappearstohavebeenaneducatedwoman,insofarasagraduateofanyNorthAmericancollege of the time may be said to have been educated. (Laughter, somegroans.)Butthewoods,asyousay,werefullofthese,sothatisnohelp.Shedoesnot see fit to supplyuswithheroriginalname, and indeedall officialrecordsof itwouldhavebeendestroyeduponherentry into theRachelandLeahRe-educationCentre. “Offred”givesnoclue, since, like“Ofglen”and“Ofwarren,”itwasapatronymic,composedofthepossessiveprepositionandthefirstnameofthegentlemaninquestion.Suchnamesweretakenbythesewomenupon their entry into a connectionwith the household of a specificCommander,andrelinquishedbythemuponleavingit.
Theothernamesinthedocumentareequallyuselessforthepurposesofidentification and authentication. “Luke” and “Nick” drew blanks, as did“Moira”and“Janine.”Thereisahighprobabilitythatthesewere,inanycase,pseudonyms, adopted to protect these individuals should the tapes bediscovered.Ifso, thiswouldsubstantiateourviewthat thetapesweremadeinsidethebordersofGilead,ratherthanoutside,tobesmuggledbackforusebytheMaydayunderground.
Elimination of the above possibilities left uswith one remaining. Ifwecould identify the elusive “Commander,” we felt, at least some progresswouldhavebeenmade.Weargued thatsuchahighlyplaced individualhadprobablybeenaparticipantinthefirstofthetop-secretSonsofJacobThinkTanks,atwhichthephilosophyandsocialstructureofGileadwerehammeredout. These were organized shortly after the recognition of the superpowerarmsstalemateandthesigningoftheclassifiedSpheresofInfluenceAccord,whichleftthesuperpowersfreetodeal,unhamperedbyinterference,withthe
growingnumberofrebellionswithintheirownempires.Theofficialrecordsof theSonsofJacobmeetingsweredestroyedafter themiddle-periodGreatPurge,whichdiscreditedandliquidatedanumberoftheoriginalarchitectsofGilead; but we have access to some information through the diary kept incipherbyWilfredLimpkin,oneofthesociobiologistspresent.(Asweknow,the socio-biological theory of natural polygamy was used as a scientificjustificationforsomeoftheodderpracticesoftheregime,justasDarwinismwasusedbyearlierideologies.)
From the Limpkin material we know that there are two possiblecandidates, that is, two whose names incorporate the element “Fred”:Frederick R.Waterford and B. Frederick Judd. No photographs survive ofeither, althoughLimpkindescribes the latter asa stuffed shirt, and, Iquote,“somebodyforwhomforeplayiswhatyoudoonagolfcourse.”(Laughter.)LimpkinhimselfdidnotlongsurvivetheinceptionofGilead,andwehavehisdiaryonlybecauseheforesawhisownendandplaceditwithhissister-in-lawinCalgary.
WaterfordandJuddbothhavecharacteristicsthatrecommendthemtous.Waterfordpossessedabackgroundinmarketresearch,andwas,accordingtoLimpkin, responsible for the design of the female costumes and for thesuggestion that theHandmaidswear red,whichhe seems tohaveborrowedfromtheuniformsofGermanprisonersofwarinCanadian“P.O.W.”campsoftheSecondWorldWarera.Heseemstohavebeentheoriginatoroftheterm“Particicution,”whichhe liftedfromanexerciseprogrampopularsometimein the last thirdof the century; the collective rope ceremony, however,wassuggested by an English village custom of the seventeenth century.“Salvaging” may have been his too, although by the time of Gilead’sinceptionithadspreadfromitsorigininthePhilippinestobecomeageneraltermfortheeliminationofone’spoliticalenemies.AsIhavesaidelsewhere,therewaslittlethatwastrulyoriginalwithorindigenoustoGilead:itsgeniuswassynthesis.
Judd,ontheotherhand,seemstohavebeenlessinterestedinpackagingand more concerned with tactics. It was he who suggested the use of anobscure“C.I.A.”pamphletonthedestabilizationofforeigngovernmentsasastrategichandbookfortheSonsofJacob,andhe,too,whodrewuptheearlyhit-listsofprominent“Americans”ofthetime.Healsoissuspectedofhavingorchestrated the President’s Day Massacre, which must have requiredmaximum infiltration of the security system surrounding Congress, and
without which the Constitution could never have been suspended. TheNationalHomelandsand the Jewishboat-personplanwerebothhis, aswasthe idea of privatizing the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result thatmore than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlantic, tomaximizeprofits.FromwhatweknowofJudd,thiswouldnothavebotheredhimmuch.Hewasahard-liner,andiscreditedbyLimpkinwiththeremark,“Ourbigmistakewasteachingthemtoread.Wewon’tdothatagain.”
ItisJuddwhoiscreditedwithdevisingtheform,asopposedtothename,of the Particicution ceremony, arguing that it was not only a particularlyhorrifyingandeffectivewayof riddingyourselfofsubversiveelements,butthat it would also act as a steam valve for the female elements in Gilead.Scapegoatshavebeennotoriouslyusefulthroughouthistory,anditmusthavebeenmostgratifyingfortheseHandmaids,sorigidlycontrolledatothertimes,tobeabletotearamanapartwiththeirbarehandseveryonceinawhile.Sopopularandeffectivedid thispracticebecome that itwas regularized in themiddle period, when it took place four times a year, on solstices andequinoxes.ThereareechoeshereofthefertilityritesofearlyEarth-goddesscults.Asweheard at thepaneldiscussionyesterdayafternoon,Gileadwas,althoughundoubtedlypatriarchalinform,occasionallymatriarchalincontent,likesomesectorsofthesocialfabricthatgaverisetoit.AsthearchitectsofGileadknew,toinstituteaneffectivetotalitariansystemorindeedanysystematallyoumustoffersomebenefitsandfreedoms,atleasttoaprivilegedfew,inreturnforthoseyouremove.
Inthisconnectionafewcommentsuponthecrackfemalecontrolagencyknownas the“Aunts” isperhaps inorder. Judd–according to theLimpkinmaterial – was of the opinion from the outset that the best andmost cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes wasthroughwomenthemselves.Forthisthereweremanyhistoricalprecedents;infact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without thisfeature:controloftheindigenousbymembersoftheirowngroup.InthecaseofGilead,thereweremanywomenwillingtoserveasAunts,eitherbecauseofagenuinebeliefinwhattheycalled“traditionalvalues,”orforthebenefitstheymight therebyacquire.Whenpower is scarce,a littleof it is tempting.Therewas,too,anegativeinducement:childlessorinfertileorolderwomenwho were not married could take service in the Aunts and thereby escaperedundancy,andconsequentshipmenttotheinfamousColonies,whichwerecomposedof portable populations usedmainly as expendable toxic cleanupsquads,thoughifluckyyoucouldbeassignedtolesshazardoustasks,suchas
The idea, then, was Judd’s, but the implementation has the mark ofWaterforduponit.WhoelseamongtheSonsofJacobThink-TankerswouldhavecomeupwiththenotionthattheAuntsshouldtakenamesderivedfromcommercialproductsavailabletowomenintheimmediatepre-Gileadperiod,andthusfamiliarandreassuringtothem–thenamesofcosmeticlines,cakemixes,frozendesserts,andevenmedicinalremedies?Itwasabrilliantstroke,and confirms us in our opinion thatWaterfordwas, in his prime, aman ofconsiderableingenuity.So,inhisownway,wasJudd.
Both of these gentlemen were known to have been childless, and thuseligibleforasuccessionofHandmaids.ProfessorWadeandIhavespeculatedinour joint paper, “TheNotionof ‘Seed’ inEarlyGilead,” that both– likemanyoftheCommanders–hadcomeincontactwithasterility-causingvirusthat was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experiments withmumps,andwhichwasintendedforinsertionintothesupplyofcaviarusedbytopofficialsinMoscow.(TheexperimentwasabandonedaftertheSpheresofInfluenceAccord,becausetheviruswasconsideredtoouncontrollableandtherefore toodangerous bymany, although somewished to sprinkle it overIndia.)
However,neitherJuddnorWaterfordwasmarriedtoawomanwhowasoreverhadbeenknowneitheras“Pam”oras“SerenaJoy.”Thislatterappearsto have been a somewhatmalicious invention by our author. Judd’s wife’snamewasBambiMae,andWaterford’swasThelma.Thelatterhad,however,onceworkedasatelevisionpersonalityofthetypedescribed.WeknowthisfromLimpkin,whomakesseveral snide remarksabout it.The regime itselftookpainstocoverupsuchformerlapsesfromorthodoxybythespousesofitselite.
TheevidenceonthewholefavoursWaterford.Weknow,forinstance,thathemethisend,probablysoonaftertheeventsourauthordescribes,inoneofthe earliest purges; he was accused of liberal tendencies, of being inpossessionof a substantial andunauthorizedcollectionofhereticalpictorialand literarymaterials, and of harbouring a subversive. Thiswas before theregimebeganholdingitstrialsinsecretandwasstilltelevisingthem,sotheeventswererecordedinEnglandviasatelliteandareonvideotapedepositinourArchives.TheshotsofWaterfordarenotgood,buttheyareclearenoughtoestablishthathishairwasindeedgrey.
As for the subversiveWaterford was accused of harbouring, this couldhave been “Offred” herself, as her flight would have placed her in thiscategory. More likely it was “Nick,” who, by the evidence of the veryexistence of the tapes, must have helped “Offred” to escape. The way inwhichhewasabletodothismarkshimasamemberoftheshadowyMaydayunderground,whichwasnotidenticalwiththeUndergroundFemaleroadbuthadconnectionswithit.Thelatterwaspurelyarescueoperation,theformerquasi-military.AnumberofMaydayoperativesareknowntohaveinfiltratedtheGileadeanpowerstructureatthehighestlevels,andtheplacementofoneoftheirmembersaschauffeurtoWaterfordwouldcertainlyhavebeenacoup;adoublecoup,as“Nick”musthavebeenat thesametimeamemberoftheEyes,assuchchauffeursandpersonalservantsoftenwere.Waterfordwould,of course, havebeen awareof this, but as all high-levelCommanderswereautomaticallydirectors of theEyes, hewouldnot havepaid agreat deal ofattentiontoitandwouldnothaveletitinterferewithhisinfractionofwhatheconsideredtobeminorrules.LikemostearlyGileadCommanderswhowerelater purged, he considered his position to be above attack. The style ofMiddleGileadwasmorecautious.
Thisisourguesswork.Supposingittobecorrect–supposing,thatis,thatWaterfordwasindeedthe“Commander”–manygapsremain.Someofthemcouldhavebeenfilledbyouranonymousauthor,hadshehadadifferentturnofmind.Shecouldhave toldusmuchabout theworkingsof theGileadeanempire,hadshehadthe instinctsofareporteroraspy.Whatwouldwenotgive,now, foreven twentypagesorsoofprintout fromWaterford’sprivatecomputer! However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess ofHistoryhasdesignedtovouchsafeus.
As for the ultimate fate of our narrator, it remains obscure. Was shesmuggledovertheborderofGilead,intowhatwasthenCanada,anddidshemakeherwaythencetoEngland?Thiswouldhavebeenwise,astheCanadaofthattimedidnotwishtoantagonizeitspowerfulneighbour,andtherewereroundups andextraditionsof such refugees. If so,whydid shenot takehertapednarrativewithher?Perhapsherjourneywassudden;perhapsshefearedinterception. On the other hand, she may have been recaptured. If she didindeedreachEngland,whydidshenotmakeherstorypublic,assomanydidupon reaching the outside world? She may have feared retaliation against“Luke,”supposinghimtohavebeenstillalive(whichisanimprobability),oreven against her daughter; for the Gileadean regime was not above suchmeasures,andusedthemtodiscourageadversepublicityinforeigncountries.
Morethanoneincautiousrefugeewasknowntoreceiveahand,ear,orfoot,vacuum-packed express, hidden in, for instance, a tinof coffee.OrperhapsshewasamongthoseescapedHandmaidswhohaddifficultyadjustingtolifein theoutsideworld, once theygot there, after theprotected existence theyhadled.Shemayhavebecome,likethem,arecluse.Wedonotknow.
Wecanonlydeduce,also,themotivationsfor“Nick’s”engineeringofherescape.We can assume that once her companionOfglen’s associationwithMaydayhadbeendiscovered,hehimselfwasinsomejeopardy,forashewellknew,asamemberoftheEyes,Offredherselfwascertaintobeinterrogated.ThepenaltiesforunauthorizedsexualactivitywithaHandmaidweresevere,norwould his status as anEye necessarily protect him.Gilead societywasByzantineintheextreme,andanytransgressionmightbeusedagainstonebyone’s undeclared enemies within the regime. He could, of course, haveassassinated her himself, whichmight have been the wiser course, but thehuman heart remains a factor, and, as we know, both of them thought shemightbepregnantbyhim.Whatmaleof theGileadperiodcould resist thepossibilityoffatherhood,soredolentofstatus,sohighlyprized?Instead,hecalledinarescueteamofEyes,whomayormaynothavebeenauthenticbutin any case were under his orders. In doing so he may well have broughtabouthisowndownfall.Thistooweshallneverknow.
Didournarrator reach theoutsideworld safelyandbuildanew life forherself?Orwasshediscoveredinherattichidingplace,arrested,senttotheColoniesortoJezebel’s,orevenexecuted?Ourdocument,thoughinitsownwayeloquent,isonthesesubjectsmute.WemaycallEurydiceforthfromtheworldofthedead,butwecannotmakeheranswer;andwhenweturntolookatherweglimpseheronlyforamoment,beforesheslipsfromourgraspandflees. As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled withechoes.Voicesmayreachusfromit;butwhattheysaytousisimbuedwiththeobscurityof thematrixoutofwhichtheycome;and, tryaswemay,wecannotalwaysdecipherthempreciselyintheclearerlightofourownday.
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- I - Night
- Chapter One
- II - Shopping
- Chapter Two
- Chapter Three
- Chapter Four
- Chapter Five
- Chapter Six
- III - Night
- Chapter Seven
- IV - Waiting Room
- Chapter Eight
- Chapter Nine
- Chapter Ten
- Chapter Eleven
- Chapter Twelve
- V - Nap
- Chapter Thirteen
- VI - Household
- Chapter Fourteen
- Chapter Fifteen
- Chapter Sixteen
- Chapter Seventeen
- VII - Night
- Chapter Eighteen
- VIII - Birth Day
- Chapter Nineteen
- Chapter Twenty
- Chapter Twenty-One
- Chapter Twenty-Two
- Chapter Twenty-Three
- IX - Night
- Chapter Twenty-Four
- X - Soul Scrolls
- Chapter Twenty-Five
- Chapter Twenty-Six
- Chapter Twenty-Seven
- Chapter Twenty-Eight
- Chapter Twenty-Nine
- XI - Night
- Chapter Thirty
- XII - Jezebel’s
- Chapter Thirty-One
- Chapter Thirty-Two
- Chapter Thirty-Three
- Chapter Thirty-Four
- Chapter Thirty-Five
- Chapter Thirty-Six
- Chapter Thirty-Seven
- Chapter Thirty-Eight
- Chapter Thirty-Nine
- XIII - Night
- Chapter Forty
- XIV - Salvaging
- Chapter Forty-One
- Chapter Forty-Two
- Chapter Forty-Three
- Chapter Forty-Four
- Chapter Forty-Five
- XV - Night
- Chapter Forty-Six
- Historical Notes
Socratic by Google on the App Store.At what age do you stop helping with homework? ›
When the child turns 12, parents should take a step back and let the kid be on their own unless they seek their assistance. This helps build the child's confidence and gives them a taste of adulthood as they learn how to work independently and face the consequences of their actions.Who invented homework 😡? ›
Roberto Nevelis of Venice, Italy, is often credited with having invented homework in 1095—or 1905, depending on your sources.Is there a website that helps with homework? ›
Another highly recommended site for the best homework help online is Quizlet. It's so popular that every two in three students in the US use it to help them learn better outside classes. Quizlet hosts solutions in over 60 subjects ranging from philosophy, sociology, algebra, computer science and languages.How can I get free answers? ›
- Answers.com. User-powered question and answer platform. ...
- Ask a Librarian. Online reference desk service from the Library of Congress. ...
- Brainly. Post questions to a community of millions of students and teachers. ...
- Chegg Study. ...
- Dummies. ...
- eHow. ...
- PolitiFact. ...
Overview. Best Homework Helpers has a rating of 4.88 stars from 89 reviews, indicating that most customers are generally satisfied with their purchases. Best Homework Helpers ranks 57th among Homework sites.What percent of kids hate homework? ›
They also interviewed students about their views on homework. When it came to stress, more than 70 percent of students said they were “often or always stressed over schoolwork,” with 56 percent listing homework as a primary stressor. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.How long is too much homework? ›
According to research on the effects of homework, over two hours of homework a night can have detrimental effects on students' stress levels and create a lack of balance in their lives. But educators will find no perfect answer to this question, so the best approach is to find a happy medium.Should kids watch TV while doing homework? ›
What might at first glance seem harmelss, doing homework or studying while watching TV, texting or checking social media can actually impair learning the material as well as lower test scores. Research has shown that it's one of the worst study habits a student can develop.
As the story goes, Nevilis invented homework in 1905 (or 1095) to punish students who didn't demonstrate a good understanding of the lessons taught during class. This teaching technique supposedly spread to the rest of Europe before reaching North America.Why is homework still a thing? ›
Without homework, a lot of classroom time would be wasted with repetition that could more easily be done outside the classroom. In these ways, homework expands upon what is done during the day in the classroom.Why kids should have less homework? ›
First and foremost, excessive amounts of homework can be detrimental to students' mental and physical health. It can lead to increased stress and anxiety, as well as sleep deprivation and other health problems. When students are overwhelmed by too much homework, they may become burnt out and lose motivation to learn.Can I get paid to do homework? ›
Upwork: A popular freelance marketplace where people sometimes post paid homework gigs. Wyzant: This tutoring platform pays private tutors around $25 per hour. Teach Me 2: Another private online tutoring platform that offers a range of subjects.Can I pay someone to do my homework? ›
You can pay someone to do your homework as there are many online services that allow you to hire a personal assistant. Your assistant will answer your questions and deliver the perfect paper sample on the specific topic of your interest.Is do my homework legit? ›
Do My Homework 123 has a rating of 4.77 stars from 105 reviews, indicating that most customers are generally satisfied with their purchases. Reviewers satisfied with Do My Homework 123 most frequently mention high school, research paper, and support team. Do My Homework 123 ranks 77th among Essay Writing sites.How can I get answers fast? ›
- Read the whole answer only to understand.
- Don't think of memorizing in one go.
- Break the question in parts( as many u wish.. ...
- Now go through one part and learn it loudly.
- Now check whether u have learned by hiding the answer.
- If yes: repeat processes 4 and 5 till u complete the answer.
Answerbag was a website where people submit questions and give answers to user-submitted questions. It was started in 2003, and cancelled on 15 December 2015. Question submissions varied widely; from the mundane and everyday to questions about rare things a few people may be curious about. Registration was free.Which sites pay for answering questions? ›
- JustAnswer. JustAnswer.com is a website that pays highly qualified experts to respond to questions. ...
- Swagbucks. ...
- Survey Junkie. ...
- InboxDollars. ...
- Opinion Outpost. ...
- HelpOwl. ...
- PrestoExperts. ...
- Khan Academy. Grades & Subjects: All. ...
- Study Geek. Grades & Subjects: All grades, math. ...
- Fact Monster. Grades & Subjects: K-8, all subjects. ...
- BJ Pinchbeck's Homework Helper. Grades & Subjects: All. ...
- Parent Toolkit. ...
- Common Core Works. ...
- Hippo Campus. ...
- Scholastic Parent & Child.
We continuously map the web and other sources to connect you to the most relevant, helpful information. We present results in a variety of ways, based on what's most helpful for the type of information you're looking for. All while keeping your personal information private and secure.What is the Chrome extension that gives homework answers? ›
Quizzard. Quick and easy tool to rapidly search for homework questions, definitions and quiz answers. Quizzard is a browser extension that allows you to rapidly search for questions and answers from thousands of different study sets using the widely popular online study website application, Quizlet.How do I open chegg answers for free? ›
- Go to Chegg.com to create an account.
- Enter your email and password, or select the account you'd like to use.
- Choose “I am a Student.”
- Select whether you're at “High School” or “College.”
- Start typing the name of your school/college, then select it from the drop-down menu.
- CourseHero. The best alternative to Chegg is Coursehero, where you may get access to huge library related to any subject or field of life. ...
- Humbot. Humbot is the online source which facilitates its users with the text-based tutoring. ...
- Bookfinder. ...
- Skooli. ...
- StudyBlue. ...
- Creative Savants.
Finding Similar Websites
If you've found something you really like online and want to find similar websites, type in related: and then the address of the site, again without a space between them.
Buying college assignments is not illegal, but like anything else, there are a few things you should keep in mind before making any purchases. You should know: The company should be legal and reliable. They offer plagiarism-free work on time.Is copying homework illegal? ›
Yes, it can be a crime to do someone else's homework. In some educational institutions it may be considered a form of plagiarism or cheating, and depending on the severity of the infraction, consequences can range from a failing grade to suspension or even expulsion.Is homework still illegal in California? ›
In 1901, the state of California voted to abolish homework for children under the age of 15. The ban wasn't repealed until 1929.What are 3 reasons homework should be banned? ›
- 1 School is already a full-time job.
- 2 Homework negatively affects students' health.
- 3 Homework interferes with student's opportunity to socialize.
- 4 Homework hinders students' chances to learn new things.
- 5 Homework lowers students' enthusiasm for school.
The proponents of homework have remained consistent in their reasons for why homework is a beneficial practice, says Gill. “One, it extends the work in the classroom with additional time on task. Second, it develops habits of independent study. Third, it's a form of communication between the school and the parents.
Teachers assign homework for students to get more practice. This is a good thing for students if they are getting the right amount of it.How much homework is ok? ›
Many districts follow the guideline of 10 minutes per grade level. This is a good rule of thumb and can be modified for specific students or subjects that need more or less time for assignments. This can also be helpful to gauge if you are providing too much (or too little) homework.At what age is homework appropriate? ›
So aside from questionable busy work such as that sent home with kindergarteners and first-graders, it should not be till about 4th grade (or later) that significant (and hopefully, well-designed) homework should enter the scene. Take the stress out of reading with Reading Kingdom.Is screen time bad for ADHD kids? ›
Negative Impact on Childhood ADHD
The screen overload, which 90% of families reported, had severe effects: It made ADHD symptoms worse. It ramped up other mental health issues, such as anxiety. It made general behavior worse, according to the vast majority – almost 85% – of caregivers.
Yousuf said pediatricians generally recommend the following guidelines: Under 2 years old: Zero screen time, except for video chatting with family or friends. 2-5 years old: No more than one hour per day co-viewing with a parent or sibling. 5-17 years old: Generally no more than two hours per day, except for homework.What would happen if homework was banned? ›
Banning homework would increase the amount of family time available to students. Homework creates a significant disruption to family relationships. Over half of all parents in North America say that they have had a significant argument with their children over homework in the past month.Why shouldn't homework be banned? ›
By completing homework assignments, students learn to manage their time, develop self-discipline, and prioritize tasks. These skills are critical for success in college and beyond, where students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning and manage competing demands on their time.Who punished the boys who didn't do their homework? ›
The boys who had not done their homework were punished by the teacher. Hence , option C will be correct answer .What is the 10 minute rule for homework? ›
He recommends following a "10 minute rule": students should receive 10 minutes of homework per day in first grade, and 10 additional minutes each subsequent year, so that by twelfth grade they are completing 120 minutes of homework daily.Should kids have homework on weekends? ›
Students operate best when they are well-rested and ready to go. A weekend with no homework would help them to be fresh and ready on Monday morning. Weekend assignments tend to be longer and more difficult. The students have a difficult day with classes, practices, and going to school.
Homework should be made optional because it teaches students to be held accountable for their actions. The daily, mandatory assignment of homework is something that should be enforced and practiced throughout elementary and middle school, but should slowly be phased out once a student graduates to high school.Why teachers shouldn't give homework? ›
They found that time spent on homework had a significant negative impact on grades and standardized test scores. The researchers concluded that this may be because participants had to spend their time completing worksheets rather than spend time practicing skills on their own time. Some studies are more positive.Do teachers assign too much homework pros and cons? ›
Key arguments for homework include the fact it gives students structure, improves their learning, and improves parent-teacher relationships. Arguments for the cons of homework include the fact it interferes with playtime and causes stress to children, leading to arguments that homework should be banned.Does less homework improve grades? ›
Across five studies, the average student who did homework had a higher unit test score than the students not doing homework.What happened to Slader app? ›
The thing is that last year, Slader was acquired by Quizlet. So now it's Slader Quizlet or Quizlet Slader, and here is the official note for the Slader Quizlet acquisition that resulted in Quizlet Explanations: “Quizlet is joining forces with Slader to become the one-stop destination for all of your studying needs.”Is there an app to help with homework? ›
Mathway is one of the best homework help app that is aimed at helping students and their parents with complicated homework tasks.How does Quizizz homework work? ›
Quizziz is an online assessment tool that allows to teachers and students to create and use one another's quizzes. After providing students with a unique access code, a quiz can be presented live as a timed competition or used for homework with a specific deadline.Is Slader no longer free? ›
I just found out that Slader is offering a subscription service for higher-level textbooks, which basically means college textbooks.Is using Slader cheating? ›
Because teachers have no way to regulate whether students are using an app to find answers for entire assignments, some teachers may consider using homework apps academic dishonesty. “If you use Slader for entire assignments, it's essentially just copying,” math department chair Shelley Godett said.What is the website that gives you answers to textbooks? ›
Chegg Study offers more than 21 million textbook solutions covering more than 9,000 books. To use it, search for your book by title or ISBN, then browse by chapter and problem number to find detailed, step-by-step solutions for subjects like science, math and engineering.
With the Big Ideas Math Homework app, students can see if assignments are past due or if they need to be downloaded before completing. The embedded assignment player and Desmos® Graphing Calculator can be accessed to enhance the assignment experience.Does Google have a homework app? ›
This AI tool can help you (or your kid) with homework. Need help double-checking your geometry homework or figuring out the symbolism in your latest book assignment? Google's Socratic app could be the study buddy you never knew you needed.How to detect cheating on Quizizz? ›
If students quit the full screen to switch to or open another tab, they are warned and are dissuading them from cheating. You will be notified if students continue to switch tabs while attempting the quiz. Focus Mode is designed to prevent students from cheating by looking up answers from other tabs on their devices.What is Quizalize? ›
Quizalize is a web-based game that lets you engage your class and deliver instant assessments for personalized learning. It helps you quickly identify the strengths, weaknesses, and learning gaps of individual students and intervene in real-time to give one-on-one help in the classroom.How do I get my Quizizz answer key? ›
You can do so on the Quiz Details page! Go into your library and select the quiz you want to see. On the Quiz Details page, press the show answers button to see answers. Options with a green dot imply the correct answer.How do I see student answers on Google quiz? ›
- Open your Drive and locate the Google Form.
- Open it. Navigate to the "responses" tab.
- From there, you can view student responses as a summary or individually.