Chapter no 14

The Handmaid's Tale

When the bell has finished I descend the stairs, a brief waif in the eye of glass that hangs on the downstairs wall. The clock ticks with its pendulum, keeping time; my feet in their neat red shoes count the way down.

The sitting-room door is wide open. I go in: so far no one else is here. I don’t sit, but take my place, kneeling, near the chair with the footstool where Serena Joy will shortly enthrone herself, leaning on her cane while she lowers herself down. Possibly she’ll put a hand on my shoulder, to steady herself, as if I’m a piece of furniture. She’s done it before.

The sitting room would once have been called a drawing room, perhaps; then a living room. Or maybe it’s a parlour, the kind with a spider and flies. But now it’s o cially a sitting room, because that’s what is done in it, by some. For others there’s standing room only. The posture of the body is important, here and now: minor discomforts are instructive.

The sitting room is subdued, symmetrical; it’s one of the shapes money takes when it freezes. Money has trickled through this room for years and years, as if through an underground cavern, crusting and hardening like stalactites into these forms. Mutely the varied surfaces present themselves: the dusk-rose velvet of the drawn drapes, the gloss of the matching chairs, eighteenth century, the cow’s-tongue hush of the tufted Chinese rug on the floor, with its peach-pink peonies, the suave leather of the Commander’s chair, the glint of brass on the box beside it.

The rug is authentic. Some things in this room are authentic, some are not. For instance, two paintings, both of women, one on

either side of the fireplace. Both wear dark dresses, like the ones in the old church, though of a later date. The paintings are possibly authentic. I suspect that when Serena Joy acquired them, after it became obvious to her that she’d have to redirect her energies into something convincingly domestic, she had the intention of passing them off as ancestors. Or maybe they were in the house when the Commander bought it. There’s no way of knowing such things. In any case, there they hang, their backs and mouths stiff, their breasts constricted, their faces pinched, their caps starched, their skin greyish-white, guarding the room with their narrowed eyes.

Between them, over the mantel, there’s an oval mirror, flanked by two pairs of silver candlesticks, with a white china Cupid centred between them, its arm around the neck of a lamb. The tastes of Serena Joy are a strange blend: hard lust for quality, soft sentimental cravings. There’s a dried flower arrangement on either end of the mantelpiece, and a vase of real daffodils on the polished marquetry end table beside the sofa.

The room smells of lemon oil, heavy cloth, fading daffodils, the leftover smells of cooking that have made their way from the kitchen or the dining room, and of Serena Joy’s perfume: Lily of the Valley. Perfume is a luxury, she must have some private source. I breathe it in, thinking I should appreciate it. It’s the scent of prepubescent girls, of the gifts young children used to give their mothers, for Mother’s Day; the smell of white cotton socks and white cotton petticoats, of dusting powder, of the innocence of female flesh not yet given over to hairiness and blood. It makes me feel slightly ill, as if I’m in a closed car on a hot muggy day with an older woman wearing too much face powder. This is what the sitting room is like, despite its elegance.

I would like to steal something from this room. I would like to take some small thing, the scrolled ashtray, the little silver pillbox from the mantel perhaps, or a dried flower: hide it in the folds of my dress or in my zippered sleeve, keep it there until this evening is over, secrete it in my room, under the bed, or in a shoe, or in a slit

in the hard petit-point FAITH cushion. Every once in a while I would take it out and look at it. It would make me feel that I have power.

But such a feeling would be an illusion, and too risky. My hands stay where they are, folded in my lap. Thighs together, heels tucked underneath me, pressing up against my body. Head lowered. In my mouth there’s the taste of toothpaste: fake mint and plaster.

I wait, for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part.

The hold of a ship. Hollow.

Cora comes in first, then Rita, wiping her hands on her apron. They too have been summoned by the bell, they resent it, they have other things to do, the dishes for instance. But they need to be here, they all need to be here, the Ceremony demands it. We are all obliged to sit through this, one way or another.

Rita scowls at me before slipping in to stand behind me. It’s my fault, this waste of her time. Not mine, but my body’s, if there is a difference. Even the Commander is subject to its whims.

Nick walks in, nods to all three of us, looks around the room. He too takes his place behind me, standing. He’s so close that the tip of his boot is touching my foot. Is this on purpose? Whether it is or not we are touching, two shapes of leather. I feel my shoe soften, blood flows into it, it grows warm, it becomes a skin. I move my foot slightly, away.

“Wish he’d hurry up,” says Cora.

“Hurry up and wait,” says Nick. He laughs, moves his foot so it’s touching mine again. No one can see, beneath the folds of my outspread skirt. I shift, it’s too warm in here, the smell of stale perfume makes me feel a little sick. I move my foot away.

We hear Serena coming, down the stairs, along the hall, the mumed tap of her cane on the rug, thud of the good foot. She hobbles through the doorway, glances at us, counting but not seeing. She nods, at Nick, but says nothing. She’s in one of her best

dresses, sky-blue with embroidery in white along the edges of the veil: flowers and fretwork. Even at her age she still feels the urge to wreathe herself in flowers. No use for you, I think at her, my face unmoving, you can’t use them any more, you’re withered. They’re the genital organs of plants. I read that somewhere, once.

She makes her way to her chair and footstool, turns, lowers herself, lands ungracefully. She hoists her left foot onto the stool, fumbles in her sleeve pocket. I can hear the rustling, the click of her lighter, I smell the hot singe of the smoke, breathe it in.

“Late as usual,” she says. We don’t answer. There’s a clatter as she gropes on the lamp table, then a click, and the television set runs through its warm-up.

A male choir, with greenish-yellow skin, the colour needs adjusting, they’re singing “Come to the Church in the Wildwood.” Come, come, come, come, sing the basses. Serena clicks the channel changer. Waves, coloured zigzags, a garble of sound: it’s the Montreal satellite station, being blocked. Then there’s a preacher, earnest, with shining dark eyes, leaning towards us across a desk. These days they look a lot like businessmen. Serena gives him a few seconds, then clicks onward.

Several blank channels, then the news. This is what she’s been looking for. She leans back, inhales deeply. I on the contrary lean forward, a child being allowed up late with the grown-ups. This is the one good thing about these evenings, the evenings of the Ceremony: I’m allowed to watch the news. It seems to be an unspoken rule in this household: we always get here on time, he’s always late, Serena always lets us watch the news.

Such as it is: who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none.

First, the front lines. They are not lines, really: the war seems to be going on in many places at once.

Wooded hills, seen from above, the trees a sickly yellow. I wish she’d fix the colour. The Appalachian Highlands, says the voice-

over, where the Angels of the Apocalypse, Fourth Division, are smoking out a pocket of Baptist guerillas, with air support from the Twenty-first Battalion of the Angels of Light. We are shown two helicopters, black ones with silver wings painted on the sides. Below them, a clump of trees explodes.

Now a close shot of a prisoner, with a stubbled and dirty face, flanked by two Angels in their neat black uniforms. The prisoner accepts a cigarette from one of the Angels, puts it awkwardly to his lips with his bound hands. He gives a lopsided little grin. The announcer is saying something, but I don’t hear it: I look into this man’s eyes, trying to decide what he’s thinking. He knows the camera is on him: is the grin a show of defiance, or is it submission? Is he embarrassed, at having been caught?

They show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news? Possibly he’s an actor.

The anchorman comes on now. His manner is kindly, fatherly; he gazes out at us from the screen, looking, with his tan and his white hair and candid eyes, wise wrinkles around them, like everybody’s ideal grandfather. What he’s telling us, his level smile implies, is for our own good. Everything will be all right soon. I promise. There will be peace. You must trust. You must go to sleep, like good children.

He tells us what we long to believe. He’s very convincing.

I struggle against him. He’s like an old movie star, I tell myself, with false teeth and a face job. At the same time I sway towards him, like one hypnotized. If only it were true. If only I could believe.

Now he’s telling us that an underground espionage ring has been cracked, by a team of Eyes, working with an inside informant. The ring has been smuggling precious national resources over the border into Canada.

“Five members of the heretical sect of Quakers have been arrested,” he says, smiling blandly, “and more arrests are anticipated.”

Two of the Quakers appear onscreen, a man and a woman. They look terrified, but they’re trying to preserve some dignity in front of the camera. The man has a large dark mark on his forehead; the woman’s veil has been torn off, and her hair falls in strands over her face. Both of them are about fifty.

Now we can see a city, again from the air. This used to be Detroit. Under the voice of the announcer there’s the thunk of artillery. From the skyline columns of smoke ascend.

“Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,” says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. “Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.” How are they transporting that many people at once? Trains, buses? We are not shown any pictures of this. National Homeland One is in North Dakota. Lord knows what they’re supposed to do, once they get there. Farm, is the theory.

Serena Joy has had enough of the news. Impatiently she clicks the button for a station change, comes up with an aging bass baritone, his cheeks like emptied udders. “Whispering Hope” is what he’s singing. Serena turns him off.

We wait, the clock in the hall ticks, Serena lights another cigarette, I get into the car. It’s a Saturday morning, it’s a September, we still have a car. Other people have had to sell theirs. My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.

It’s a Saturday morning in September, I’m wearing my shining name. The little girl who is now dead sits in the back seat, with her

two best dolls, her stuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love. I know all the details. They are sentimental details but I can’t help that. I can’t think about the rabbit too much though, I can’t start to cry, here on the Chinese rug, breathing in the smoke that has been inside Serena’s body. Not here, not now, I can do that later.

She thought we were going on a picnic, and in fact there is a picnic basket on the back seat, beside her, with real food in it, hard-boiled eggs, thermos and all. We didn’t want her to know where we were really going, we didn’t want her to tell, by mistake, reveal anything, if we were stopped. We didn’t want to lay upon her the burden of our truth.

I wore my hiking boots, she had on her sneakers. The laces of the sneakers had a design of hearts on them, red, purple, pink, and yellow. It was warm for the time of year, the leaves were turning already, some of them; Luke drove, I sat beside him, the sun shone, the sky was blue, the houses as we passed them looked comforting and ordinary, each house as it was left behind vanishing into past time, crumbling in an instant as if it had never been, because I would never see it again, or so I thought then.

We have almost nothing with us, we don’t want to look as if we’re going anywhere far or permanent. We have the forged passports, guaranteed, worth the price. We couldn’t pay in money, of course, or put it on the Compucount: we used other things, some jewellery that was my grandmother’s, a stamp collection Luke inherited from his uncle. Such things can be exchanged, for money, in other countries. When we get to the border we’ll pretend we’re just going over on a day trip; the fake visas are for a day. Before that I’ll give her a sleeping pill so she’ll be asleep when we cross. That way she won’t betray us. You can’t expect a child to lie convincingly.

And I don’t want her to feel frightened, to feel the fear that is now tightening my muscles, tensing my spine, pulling me so taut that I’m certain I would break if touched. Every stoplight is an ordeal. We’ll spend the night at a motel, or, better, sleeping in the car on a sideroad so there will be no suspicious questions. We’ll cross in the

morning, drive over the bridge, easily, just like driving to the supermarket.

We turn onto the freeway, head north, flowing with not much tra c. Since the war started, gas is expensive and in short supply. Outside the city we pass the first checkpoint. All they want is a look at the licence, Luke does it well. The licence matches the passport: we thought of that.

Back on the road, he squeezes my hand, glances over at me.

You’re white as a sheet, he says.

That is how I feel: white, flat, thin. I feel transparent. Surely they will be able to see through me. Worse, how will I be able to hold on to Luke, to her, when I’m so flat, so white? I feel as if there’s not much left of me; they will slip through my arms, as if I’m made of smoke, as if I’m a mirage, fading before their eyes. Don’t think that way, Moira would say. Think that way and you’ll make it happen.

Cheer up, says Luke. He’s driving a little too fast now. The adrenalin’s gone to his head. Now he’s singing. Oh what a beautiful morning, he sings.

Even his singing worries me. We’ve been warned not to look too happy.

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