Chapter no 11

The Handmaid's Tale

Yesterday morning I went to the doctor. Was taken, by a Guardian, one of those with the red armbands who are in charge of such things. We rode in a red car, him in the front, me in the back. No twin went with me; on these occasions I’m solitaire.

I’m taken to the doctor’s once a month, for tests: urine, hormones, cancer smear, blood test; the same as before, except that now it’s obligatory.

The doctor’s o ce is in a modern o ce building. We ride up in the elevator, silently, the Guardian facing me. In the black mirror wall of the elevator I can see the back of his head. At the o ce itself, I go in; he waits, outside in the hall, with the other Guardians, on one of the chairs placed there for that purpose.

Inside the waiting room there are other women, three of them, in red: this doctor is a specialist. Covertly we regard each other, sizing up each other’s bellies: is anyone lucky? The nurse records our names and the numbers from our passes on the Compudoc, to see if we are who we are supposed to be. He’s six feet tall, about forty, a diagonal scar across his cheek; he sits typing, his hands too big for the keyboard, still wearing his pistol in the shoulder holster.

When I’m called I go through the doorway into the inner room. It’s white, featureless, like the outer one, except for a folding screen, red cloth stretched on a frame, a gold eye painted on it, with a snake-twined sword upright beneath it, like a sort of handle. The snakes and the sword are bits of broken symbolism left over from the time before.

After I’ve filled the small bottle left ready for me in the little washroom, I take off my clothes, behind the screen, and leave them

folded on the chair. When I’m naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chilly crackling disposable paper. I pull the second sheet, the cloth one, up over my body. At neck level there’s another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so that the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only.

When I’m arranged I reach my hand out, fumble for the small lever at the right side of the table, pull it back. Somewhere else a bell rings, unheard by me. After a minute the door opens, footsteps come in, there is breathing. He isn’t supposed to speak to me except when it’s absolutely necessary. But this doctor is talkative.

“How are we getting along?” he says, some tic of speech from the other time. The sheet is lifted from my skin, a draft pimples me. A cold finger, rubber-clad and jellied, slides into me, I am poked and prodded. The finger retreats, enters otherwise, withdraws.

“Nothing wrong with you,” the doctor says, as if to himself. “Any pain, honey?” He calls me honey.

“No,” I say.

My breasts are fingered in their turn, a search for ripeness, rot. The breathing comes nearer, I smell old smoke, aftershave, tobacco dust on hair. Then the voice, very soft, close to my head: that’s him, bulging the sheet.

“I could help you,” he says. Whispers. “What?” I say.

“Shh,” he says. “I could help you. I’ve helped others.”

“Help me?” I say, my voice as low as his. “How?” Does he know something, has he seen Luke, has he found, can he bring back?

“How do you think?” he says, still barely breathing it. Is that his hand, sliding up my leg? He’s taken off the glove. “The door’s locked. No one will come in. They’ll never know it isn’t his.”

He lifts the sheet. The lower part of his face is covered by the white gauze mask, regulation. Two brown eyes, a nose, a head with brown hair on it. His hand is between my legs. “Most of those old guys can’t make it any more,” he says. “Or they’re sterile.”

I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not o cially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.

“Lots of women do it,” he goes on. “You want a baby, don’t you?” “Yes,” I say. It’s true, and I don’t ask why, because I know. Give

me children, or else I die. There’s more than one meaning to it.

“You’re soft,” he says. “It’s time. Today or tomorrow would do it, why waste it? It’d only take a minute, honey.” What he called his wife, once; maybe still does, but really it’s a generic term. We are all honey.

I hesitate. He’s offering himself to me, his services, at some risk to himself.

“I hate to see what they put you through,” he murmurs. It’s genuine, genuine sympathy; and yet he’s enjoying this, sympathy and all. His eyes are moist with compassion, his hand is moving on me, nervously and with impatience.

“It’s too dangerous,” I say. “No. I can’t.” The penalty is death. But they have to catch you in the act, with two witnesses. What are the odds, is the room bugged, who’s waiting just outside the door?

His hand stops. “Think about it,” he says. “I’ve seen your chart.

You don’t have a lot of time left. But it’s your life.”

“Thank you,” I say. I must leave the impression that I’m not offended, that I’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, report me for cancer, for infertility, have me shipped off to the Colonies, with the Unwomen. None of this has been said, but the knowledge of his power hangs nevertheless in the air as he pats my thigh, withdraws himself behind the hanging sheet.

“Next month,” he says.

I put on my clothes again, behind the screen. My hands are shaking. Why am I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve

given no trust, taken no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, a salvation.

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