Chapter no 15

The Handmaid's Tale

The Commander knocks at the door. The knock is prescribed: the sitting room is supposed to be Serena Joy’s territory, he’s supposed to ask permission to enter it. She likes to keep him waiting. It’s a little thing, but in this household little things mean a lot. Tonight, however, she doesn’t even get that, because before Serena Joy can speak he steps forward into the room anyway. Maybe he’s just forgotten the protocol, but maybe it’s deliberate. Who knows what she said to him, over the silver-encrusted dinner table? Or didn’t say.

The Commander has on his black uniform, in which he looks like a museum guard. A semi-retired man, genial but wary, killing time. But only at first glance. After that he looks like a midwestern bank president, with his straight neatly brushed silver hair, his sober posture, shoulders a little stooped. And after that there is his moustache, silver also, and after that his chin, which really you can’t miss. When you get down as far as the chin he looks like a vodka ad, in a glossy magazine, of times gone by.

His manner is mild, his hands large, with thick fingers and acquisitive thumbs, his blue eyes uncommunicative, falsely innocuous. He looks us over as if taking inventory. One kneeling woman in red, one seated woman in blue, two in green, standing, a solitary man, thin-faced, in the background. He manages to appear puzzled, as if he can’t quite remember how we all got in here. As if we are something he inherited, like a Victorian pump organ, and he hasn’t figured out what to do with us. What we are worth.

He nods, in the general direction of Serena Joy, who does not make a sound. He crosses to the large leather chair reserved for him, takes the key out of his pocket, fumbles with the ornate brass-bound

leather-covered box that stands on the table beside the chair. He inserts the key, opens the box, lifts out the Bible, 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 the servants wouldn’t steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read. Our heads turn towards him, we are expectant, here comes our bedtime story.

The Commander sits down and crosses his legs, watched by us. The bookmarks are in place. He opens the book. He clears his throat a little, as if embarrassed.

“Could I have a drink of water?” he says to the air. “Please,” he adds.

Behind me, one of them, Cora or Rita, leaves her space in the tableau and pads off towards the kitchen. The Commander sits, looking down. The Commander sighs, takes out a pair of reading glasses from his inside jacket pocket, gold rims, slips them on. Now he looks like a shoemaker in an old fairytale book. Is there no end to his disguises, of benevolence?

We watch him: every inch, every flicker.

To be a man, watched by women. It must be entirely strange. To have them watching him all the time. To have them wondering, What’s he going to do next? To have them flinch when he moves, even if it’s a harmless enough move, to reach for an ashtray perhaps. To have them sizing him up. To have them thinking, he can’t do it, he won’t do, he’ll have to do, this last as if he were a garment, out of style or shoddy, which must nevertheless be put on because there’s nothing else available.

To have them putting him on, trying him on, trying him out, while he himself puts them on, like a sock over a foot, onto the stub of himself, his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate stalked slug’s eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a

little at the tip, travelling forward as if along a leaf, into them, avid for vision. To achieve vision in this way, this journey into a darkness that is composed of women, a woman, who can see in darkness while he himself strains blindly forward.

She watches him from within. We’re all watching him. It’s one thing we can really do, and it’s not for nothing: if he were to falter, fail or die, what would become of us? No wonder he’s like a boot, hard on the outside, giving shape to a pulp of tenderfoot. That’s just a wish. I’ve been watching him for some time and he’s given no evidence, of softness.

But watch out, Commander, I tell him in my head. I’ve got my eye on you. One false move and I’m dead.

Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that. It must be just fine.

It must be hell.

It must be very silent.

The water appears, the Commander drinks it. “Thank you,” he says. Cora rustles back into place.

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page. He takes his time, as if unconscious of us. He’s like a man toying with a steak, behind a restaurant window, pretending not to see the eyes watching him from hungry darkness not three feet from his elbow. We lean towards him a little, iron filings to his magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it, once.

The Commander, as if reluctantly, begins to read. He isn’t very good at it. Maybe he’s merely bored.

It’s the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the mouldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Centre. Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She

shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And so on and so forth. We had it read to us every breakfast, as we sat in the high-school cafeteria, eating porridge with cream and brown sugar. You’re getting the best, you know, said Aunt Lydia. There’s a war on, things are rationed. You are spoiled girls, she twinkled, as if rebuking a kitten. Naughty puss.

For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a disc, the voice was a man’s. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Nobody said when.

I check the clock, during dessert, canned pears with cinnamon, standard for lunch, and look for Moira in her place, two tables over. She’s gone already. I put my hand up, I am excused. We don’t do this too often, and always at different times of day.

In the washroom I go to the second-last stall, as usual. Are you there? I whisper.

Large as life and twice as ugly, Moira whispers back. What have you heard? I ask her.

Nothing much. I’ve got to get out of here, I’m going bats.

I feel panic. No, no, Moira, I say, don’t try it. Not on your own. I’ll fake sick. They send an ambulance, I’ve seen it.

You’ll only get as far as the hospital.

At least it’ll be a change. I won’t have to listen to that old bitch. They’ll find you out.

Not to worry, I’m good at it. When I was a kid in high school I cut out vitamin C, I got scurvy. In the early stages they can’t diagnose it.

Then you just start it again and you’re fine. I’ll hide my vitamin pills.

Moira, don’t.

I couldn’t stand the thought of her not being here, with me. For me.

They send two guys with you, in the ambulance. Think about it. They must be starved for it, shit, they aren’t even allowed to put their hands in their pockets, the possibilities are –

You in there. Time’s up, said the voice of Aunt Elizabeth, from the doorway. 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. I touched my own fingers to them, quickly, held on. Let go.

“And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband,” says the Commander. He lets the book fall closed. It makes an exhausted sound, like a padded door shutting, by itself, at a distance: a puff of air. The sound suggests the softness of the thin oniony pages, how they would feel under the fingers. Soft and dry, like papier poudre, pink and powdery, from the time before, you’d get it in booklets for taking the shine off your nose, in those stores that sold candles and soap in the shapes of things: seashells, mushrooms. Like cigarette paper. Like petals.

The Commander sits with his eyes closed for a moment, as if tired. He works long hours. He has a lot of responsibilities.

Serena has begun to cry. I can hear her, behind my back. It isn’t the first time. She always does this, the night of the Ceremony. She’s trying not to make a noise. She’s trying to preserve her dignity, in front of us. The upholstery and the rugs mume her but we can hear her clearly despite that. The tension between her lack of control and her attempt to suppress it is horrible. It’s like a fart in church. I feel, as always, the urge to laugh, but not because I think it’s funny. The smell of her crying spreads over us and we pretend to ignore it.

The Commander opens his eyes, notices, frowns, ceases to notice. “Now we will have a moment of silent prayer,” says the Commander. “We will ask for a blessing, and for success in all our ventures.”

I bow my head and close my eyes. I listen to the held breath, the almost inaudible gasps, the shaking going on behind my back. How she must hate me, I think.

I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t know what else I can say to God. Not right now. Not, as they used to say, at this juncture. The scratched writing on my cupboard wall floats before me, left by an unknown woman, with the face of Moira. I saw her go out, to the ambulance, on a stretcher, carried by two Angels.

What is it? I mouthed to the woman beside me; safe enough, a question like that, to all but a fanatic.

A fever, she formed with her lips. Appendicitis, they say.

I was having dinner, that evening, hamburger balls and hashed browns. My table was near the window, I could see out, as far as the front gates. I saw the ambulance come back, no siren this time. One of the Angels jumped out, talked with the guard. The guard went into the building; the ambulance stayed parked; the Angel stood with his back towards us, as they had been taught to do. Two of the Aunts came out of the building, with the guard. They went around to the back. They hauled Moira out, dragged her in through the gate and up the front steps, holding her under the armpits, one on each side. She was having trouble walking. I stopped eating, I couldn’t eat; by this time all of us on my side of the table were staring out the window. The window was greenish, with that chicken-wire mesh they used to put inside glass. Aunt Lydia said, Eat your dinner. She went over and pulled down the blind.

They took her into a room that used to be the Science Lab. It was a room where none of us ever went willingly. Afterwards she could

not walk for a week, her feet would not fit into her shoes, they were too swollen. It was the feet they’d do, for a first offence. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn’t care what they did to your feet and hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.

Moira lay on her bed, an example. She shouldn’t have tried it, not with the Angels, Alma said, from the next bed over. We had to carry her to classes. We stole extra paper packets of sugar for her, from the cafeteria at mealtimes, smuggled them to her, at night, handing them from bed to bed. Probably she didn’t need the sugar but it was the only thing we could find to steal. To give.

I am still praying but what I am seeing is Moira’s feet, the way they looked after they’d brought her back. Her feet did not look like feet at all. They looked like drowned feet, swollen and boneless, except for the colour. They looked like lungs.

Oh God, I pray. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Is this what you had in mind?

The Commander clears his throat. This is what he does to let us know that in his opinion it’s time we stopped praying. “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to know himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him,” he says.

It’s the sign-off. He stands up. We are dismissed.

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