Chapter no 19

The Handmaid's Tale

I’m dreaming that I am awake.

I dream that I get out of bed and walk across the room, not this room, and go out the door, not this door. I’m at home, one of my homes, and she’s running to meet me, in her small green nightgown with the sunflower on the front, her feet bare, and I pick her up and feel her arms and legs go around me and I begin to cry, because I know then that I’m not awake. I’m back in this bed, trying to wake up, and I wake up and sit on the edge of the bed, and my mother comes in with a tray and asks me if I’m feeling better. When I was sick, as a child, she had to stay home from work. But I’m not awake this time either.

After these dreams I do awake, and I know I’m really awake because there is the wreath, on the ceiling, and my curtains hanging like drowned white hair. I feel drugged. I consider this: maybe they’re drugging me. Maybe the life I think I’m living is a paranoid delusion.

Not a hope. I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are the tests, and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.

Greyness comes through the curtains, hazy bright, not much sun today. I get out of bed, go to the window, kneel on the window seat, the hard little cushion, FAITH, and look out. There is nothing to be seen.

I wonder what has become of the other two cushions. There must have been three, once. HOPE and CHARITY, where have they been stowed? Serena Joy has tidy habits. She wouldn’t throw away anything not quite worn out. One for Rita, one for Cora?

The bell goes, I’m up before it, ahead of time. I dress, not looking down.

I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.

These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself.

In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an egg-cup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm. The egg-cup is white china with a blue stripe.

The first egg is white. I move the egg-cup a little, so it’s now in the watery sunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning, brightening again, on the tray. The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusion. I think that this is what God must look like: an egg. The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside.

The egg is glowing now, as if it had an energy of its own. To look at the egg gives me intense pleasure.

The sun goes and the egg fades.

I pick the egg out of the cup and finger it for a moment. It’s warm. Women used to carry such eggs between their breasts, to incubate them. That would have felt good.

The minimalist life. Pleasure is an egg. Blessings that can be counted, on the fingers of one hand. But possibly this is how I am expected to react. If I have an egg, what more can I want?

In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects. I would like a pet: a bird, say, or a cat. A familiar. Anything at all familiar. A rat would do, in a pinch, but there’s no chance of that. This house is too clean.

I slice the top off the egg with the spoon, and eat the contents.

While I’m eating the second egg, I hear the siren, at a great distance at first, winding its way towards me among the large houses and clipped lawns, a thin sound like the hum of an insect; then nearing, opening out, like a flower of sound opening, into a trumpet. A proclamation, this siren. I put down my spoon, my heart speeds up, I go to the window again: will it be blue and not for me? But I see it turn the corner, come along the street, stop in front of the house, still blaring, and it’s red. Joy to the world, rare enough these days. I leave the second egg half eaten, hurry to the closet for my cloak, and already I can hear feet on the stairs and the voices calling.

“Hurry,” says Cora, “won’t wait all day,” and she helps me on with the cloak, she’s actually smiling.

I almost run down the hall, the stairs are like skiing, the front door is wide, today I can go through it, and the Guardian stands there saluting. It’s started to rain, a drizzle, and the gravid smell of earth and grass fills the air.

The red Birthmobile is parked in the driveway. Its back door is open and I clamber in. The carpet on the floor is red, red curtains are drawn over the windows. There are three women in here already, sitting on the benches that run the length of the van on either side. The Guardian closes and locks the double doors and climbs into the front, beside the driver; through the glassed-over wire grill we can see the backs of their heads. We start with a lurch, while overhead the siren screams: Make way, make way!

“Who is it?” I say to the woman next to me; into her ear, or where her ear must be under the white headdress. I almost have to shout, the noise is so loud.

“Ofwarren,” she shouts back. Impulsively she grabs my hand, squeezes it, as we lurch around the corner; she turns to me and I see her face, there are tears running down her cheeks, but tears of what? Envy, disappointment? But no, she’s laughing, she throws her arms around me, I’ve never seen her before, she hugs me, she has large breasts, under the red habit, she wipes her sleeve across her face. On this day we can do anything we want.

I revise that: within limits.

Across from us on the other bench, one woman is praying, eyes closed, hands up to her mouth. Or she may not be praying. She may be biting her thumbnails. Possibly she’s trying to keep calm. The third woman is calm already. She sits with her arms folded, smiling a little. The siren goes on and on. That used to be the sound of death, for ambulances or fires. Possibly it will be the sound of death today also. We will soon know. What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet? There’s no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but that is now outlawed. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.

The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Centre. The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deathwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.

I can’t think of myself, my body, sometimes, without seeing the skeleton: how I must appear to an electron. A cradle of life, made of bones; and within, hazards, warped proteins, bad crystals jagged as glass. Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobody’s fault, during the earthquakes, and the mutant strain of syphilis no mould could touch. Some did it themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred with chemicals. How could they, said Aunt Lydia, oh how could they have done such a thing? Jezebels! Scorning God’s gifts! Wringing her hands.

It’s a risk you’re taking, said Aunt Lydia, but you are the shock troops, you will march out in advance, into dangerous territory. The greater the risk the greater the glory. She clasped her hands, radiant with our phony courage. We looked down at the tops of our desks. To go through all that and give birth to a shredder: it wasn’t a fine thought. We didn’t know exactly what would happen to the babies that didn’t get passed, that were declared Unbabies. But we knew they were put somewhere, quickly, away.

There was no one cause, says Aunt Lydia. She stands at the front of the room, in her khaki dress, a pointer in her hand. Pulled down in front of the blackboard, where once there would have been a map, is a graph, showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.

Of course, some women believed there would be no future, they thought the world would explode. That was the excuse they used, says Aunt Lydia. They said there was no sense in breeding. Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: such wickedness. They were lazy women, she says. They were sluts.

On the top of my desk there are initials, carved into the wood, and dates. The initials are sometimes in two sets, joined by the word loves. J.H. loves B.P. 1954. O.R. loves L.T. These seem to me like the

inscriptions I used to read about, carved on the stone walls of caves, or drawn with a mixture of soot and animal fat. They seem to me incredibly ancient. The desk top is of blonde wood; it slants down, and there is an armrest on the right side, to lean on when you were writing, on paper, with a pen. Inside the desk you could keep things: books, notebooks. These habits of former times appear to me now lavish, decadent almost; immoral, like the orgies of barbarian regimes. M. loves G., 1972. This carving, done with a pencil dug many times into the worn varnish of the desk, has the pathos of all vanished civilizations. It’s like a handprint on stone. Whoever made that was once alive.

There are no dates after the mid-eighties. This must have been one of the schools that was closed down then, for lack of children.

They made mistakes, says Aunt Lydia. We don’t intend to repeat them. Her voice is pious, condescending, the voice of those whose duty it is to tell us unpleasant things for our own good. I would like to strangle her. I shove this thought away almost as soon as I think it.

A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.

I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit. This is what I will tell Moira, later; if I can.

All of us here will lick you into shape, says Aunt Lydia, with satisfied good cheer.

The van stops, the back doors are opened, the Guardian herds us out. At the front door stands another Guardian, with one of those snubby machine guns slung over his shoulder. We file towards the front door, in the drizzle, the Guardians saluting. The big Emerge van, the one with the machines and the mobile doctors, is parked farther along the circular drive. I see one of the doctors looking out

the window of the van. I wonder what they do in there, waiting. Play cards, most likely, or read; some masculine pursuit. Most of the time they aren’t needed at all; they’re only allowed in if it can’t be helped.

It used to be different, they used to be in charge. A shame it was, said Aunt Lydia. Shameful. What she’d just showed us was a film, made in an olden-days hospital: a pregnant woman, wired up to a machine, electrodes coming out of her every which way so that she looked like a broken robot, an intravenous drip feeding into her arm. Some man with a searchlight looking up between her legs, where she’d been shaved, a mere beardless girl, a trayful of bright sterilized knives, everyone with masks on. A co-operative patient. Once they drugged women, induced labour, cut them open, sewed them up. No more. No anaesthetics, even. Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for the baby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. At lunch we got that, brown bread and lettuce sandwiches.

As I’m going up the steps, wide steps with a stone urn on either side, Ofwarren’s Commander must be higher status than ours, I hear another siren. It’s the blue Birthmobile, for Wives. That will be Serena Joy, arriving in state. No benches for them, they get real seats, upholstery. They face front and are not curtained off. They know where they’re going.

Probably Serena Joy has been here before, to this house, for tea. Probably Ofwarren, formerly that whiny bitch Janine, was paraded out in front of her, her and the other Wives, so they could see her belly, feel it perhaps, and congratulate the Wife. A strong girl, good muscles. No Agent Orange in her family, we checked the records, you can never be too careful. And perhaps one of the kinder ones: Would you like a cookie, dear?

Oh no, you’ll spoil her, too much sugar is bad for them. Surely one won’t hurt, just this once, Mildred.

And sucky Janine: Oh yes, can I Ma’am, please?

Such a, so well behaved, not surly like some of them, do their job and that’s that. More like a daughter to you, as you might say. One of the family. Comfortable matronly chuckles. That’s all dear, you can go back to your room.

And after she’s gone: Little whores, all of them, but still, you can’t be choosy. You take what they hand out, right, girls? That from the Commander’s Wife.

Oh, but you’ve been so lucky. Some of them, why, they aren’t even clean. And won’t give you a smile, mope in their rooms, don’t wash their hair, the smell. I have to get the Marthas to do it, almost have to hold her down in the bathtub, you practically have to bribe her to get her to take a bath even, you have to threaten her.

I had to take stern measures with mine, and now she doesn’t eat her dinner properly; and as for the other thing, not a nibble, and we’ve been so regular. But yours, she’s a credit to you. And any day now, oh, you must be so excited, she’s big as a house, I bet you can hardly wait.

More tea? Modestly changing the subject. I know the sort of thing that goes on.

And Janine, up in her room, what does she do? Sits with the taste of sugar still in her mouth, licking her lips. Stares out the window. Breathes in and out. Caresses her swollen breasts. Thinks of nothing.

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