Chapter no 20

The Handmaid's Tale

The central staircase is wider than ours, with a curved banister on either side. From above I can hear the chanting of the women who are already there. We go up the stairs, single file, being careful not to step on the trailing hems of each other’s dresses. To the left, the double doors to the dining room are folded back, and inside I can see the long table, covered with a white cloth and spread with a buffet: ham, cheese, oranges – they have oranges! – and fresh-baked breads and cakes. As for us, we’ll get milk and sandwiches, on a tray, later. But they have a coffee urn, and bottles of wine, for why shouldn’t the Wives get a little drunk on such a triumphant day? First they’ll wait for the results, then they’ll pig out. They’re gathered in the sitting room on the other side of the stairway now, cheering on this Commander’s Wife, the Wife of Warren. A small thin woman, she lies on the floor, in a white cotton nightgown, her greying hair spreading like mildew over the rug; they massage her tiny belly, just as if she’s really about to give birth herself.

The Commander, of course, is nowhere in sight. He’s gone wherever men go on such occasions, some hideout. Probably he’s figuring out when his promotion is likely to be announced, if all goes well. He’s sure to get one, now.

Ofwarren is in the master bedroom, a good name for it; where this Commander and his Wife nightly bed down. She’s sitting on their king-sized bed, propped with pillows: Janine, inflated but reduced, shorn of her former name. She’s wearing a white cotton shift, which is hiked up over her thighs; her long broom-coloured hair is pulled back and tied behind her head, to keep it out of the way. Her eyes are squeezed closed, and this way I can almost like her. After all, she’s one of us; what did she ever want but to lead her life as

agreeably as possible? What else did any of us want? It’s the possible

that’s the catch. She’s not doing badly, under the circumstances.

Two women I don’t know stand on either side of her, gripping her hands, or she theirs. A third lifts the nightgown, pours baby oil onto her mound of stomach, rubs downwards. At her feet stands Aunt Elizabeth, in her khaki dress with the military breast pockets; she was the one who taught Gyn Ed. All I can see of her is the side of her head, her profile, but I know it’s her, that jutting nose and handsome chin, severe. At her side stands the Birthing Stool, with its double seat, the back one raised like a throne behind the other. They won’t put Janine on it before it’s time. The blankets stand ready, the small tub for bathing, the bowl of ice for Janine to suck.

The rest of the women sit cross-legged on the rug; there’s a crowd of them, everyone in this district is supposed to be here. There must be twenty-five, thirty. Not every Commander has a Handmaid: some of their Wives have children. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts.

You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.

She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.

She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.

Once a week we had movies, after lunch and before our nap. We sat on the floor of the Domestic Science room, on our little grey mats, and waited while Aunt Helena and Aunt Lydia struggled with the projection equipment. If we were lucky they wouldn’t get the film threaded upside-down. What it reminded me of was geography classes, at my own high school thousands of years before, where

they showed movies of the rest of the world; women in long skirts or cheap printed cotton dresses, carrying bundles of sticks, or baskets, or plastic buckets of water, from some river or other, with babies slung on them in shawls or net slings, looking squint-eyed or afraid out of the screen at us, knowing something was being done to them by a machine with one glass eye but not knowing what. Those movies were comforting and faintly boring. They made me feel sleepy, even when men came onto the screen, with naked muscles, hacking away at hard dirt with primitive hoes and shovels, hauling rocks. I preferred movies with dancing in them, singing, ceremonial masks, carved artifacts for making music: feathers, brass buttons, conch shells, drums. I liked watching these people when they were happy, not when they were miserable, starving, emaciated, straining themselves to death over some simple thing, the digging of a well, the irrigation of land, problems the civilized nations had long ago solved. I thought someone should just give them the technology and let them get on with it.

Aunt Lydia didn’t show these kinds of movies.

Sometimes the movie she showed would be an old porno film from the seventies or eighties. Women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upside-down, naked, with their legs held apart, women being raped, beaten up, killed. Once we had to watch a woman being slowly cut into pieces, her fingers and breasts snipped off with garden shears, her stomach slit open and her intestines pulled out.

Consider the alternatives, said Aunt Lydia. You see what things used to be like? That was what they thought of women, then. Her voice trembled with indignation.

Moira said later that it wasn’t real, it was done with models; but it was hard to tell.

Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful.

Back then, the Unwomen were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The government gave them money to do that very thing. Mind you, some of their ideas were sound enough, she went on, with the smug authority in her voice of one who is in a position to judge. We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today. Only some, mind you, she said coyly, raising her index finger, waggling it at us. But they were Godless, and that can make all the difference, don’t you agree?

I sit on my mat, hands folded, and Aunt Lydia steps to the side, away from the screen, and the lights go out, and I wonder whether I can, in the dark, lean far over to the right without being seen, and whisper, to the woman next to me. What will I whisper? I will say, Have you seen Moira. Because nobody has, she wasn’t at breakfast. But the room, although dim, isn’t dark enough, so I switch my mind into the holding pattern that passes for attention. They don’t play the soundtrack, on movies like these, though they do on the porno films. They want us to hear the screams and grunts and shrieks of what is supposed to be either extreme pain or extreme pleasure or both at once, but they don’t want us to hear what the Unwomen are saying.

First come the title and some names, blacked out on the film with a crayon so we can’t read them, and then I see my mother. My young mother, younger than I remember her, as young as she must have been once before I was born. She’s wearing the kind of outfit Aunt Lydia told us was typical of Unwomen in those days, overall jeans with a green and mauve plaid shirt underneath and sneakers on her feet; the sort of thing Moira once wore, the sort of thing I can remember wearing, long ago, myself. Her hair is tucked into a mauve kerchief tied behind her head. Her face is very young, very serious, even pretty. I’ve forgotten my mother was once as pretty and as earnest as that. She’s in a group of other women, dressed in the same fashion; she’s holding a stick, no, it’s part of a banner, the handle. The camera pans up and we see the writing, in paint on what must have been a bedsheet: TAKE BACK THE NIGHT. This hasn’t been

blacked out, even though we aren’t supposed to be reading. The

women around me breathe in, there’s a stirring in the room, like wind over grass. Is this an oversight, have we gotten away with something? Or is this a thing we’re intended to see, to remind us of the old days of no safety?

Behind this sign there are other signs, and the camera notices them briefly: FREEDOM TO CHOOSE. EVERY BABY A WANTED BABY. RECAPTURE OUR BODIES. DO YOU

BELIEVE A WOMAN’S PLACE IS ON THE KITCHEN TABLE? Under the last sign there’s a line drawing of a woman’s body, lying on a table, blood dripping out of it.

Now my mother is moving forward, she’s smiling, laughing, they all move forward, and now they’re raising their fists in the air. The camera moves to the sky, where hundreds of balloons rise, trailing their strings: red balloons, with a circle painted on them, a circle with a stem like the stem of an apple, the stem is a cross. Back on the earth, my mother is part of the crowd now, and I can’t see her any more.

I had you when I was thirty-seven, my mother said. It was a risk, you could have been deformed or something. You were a wanted child, all right, and did I get shit from some quarters! My oldest buddy Tricia Foreman accused me of being pro-natalist, the bitch. Jealousy, I put that down to. Some of the others were okay though. But when I was six months’ pregnant, a lot of them started sending me these articles about how the birth defect rate went zooming up after thirty-five. Just what I needed. And stuff about how hard it was to be a single parent. Fuck that shit, I told them, I’ve started this and I’m going to finish it. At the hospital they wrote down “Aged Primipara” on the chart, I caught them in the act. That’s what they call you when it’s your first baby over thirty, over thirty for godsake. Garbage, I told them, biologically I’m twenty-two, I could run rings around you any day. I could have triplets and walk out of here while you were still trying to get up off the bed.

When she said that she’d jut out her chin. I remember her like that, her chin jutted out, a drink in front of her on the kitchen table;

not young and earnest and pretty the way she was in the movie, but wiry, spunky, the kind of old woman who won’t let anyone butt in front of her in a supermarket line. She liked to come over to my house and have a drink while Luke and I were fixing dinner and tell us what was wrong with her life, which always turned into what was wrong with ours. Her hair was grey by that time, of course. She wouldn’t dye it. Why pretend, she’d say. Anyway what do I need it for, I don’t want a man around, what use are they except for ten seconds’ worth of half babies. A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women. Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood. Not that I expected it of him. Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said, I make a decent salary, I can afford daycare. So he went to the coast and sent Christmas cards. He had beautiful blue eyes though. But there’s something missing in them, even the nice ones. It’s like they’re permanently absent-minded, like they can’t quite remember who they are. They look at the sky too much. They lose touch with their feet. They aren’t a patch on a woman except they’re better at fixing cars and playing football, just what we need for the improvement of the human race, right?

That was the way she talked, even in front of Luke. He didn’t mind, he teased her by pretending to be macho, he’d tell her women were incapable of abstract thought and she’d have another drink and grin at him.

Chauvinist pig, she’d say.

Isn’t she quaint, Luke would say to me, and my mother would look sly, furtive almost.

I’m entitled, she’d say. I’m old enough, I’ve paid my dues, it’s time for me to be quaint. You’re still wet behind the ears. Piglet, I should have said.

As for you, she’d say to me, you’re just a backlash. Flash in the pan. History will absolve me.

But she wouldn’t say things like that until after the third drink.

You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?

Cooking’s my hobby, Luke would say. I enjoy it.

Hobby, schmobby, my mother would say. You don’t have to make excuses to me. Once upon a time you wouldn’t have been allowed to have such a hobby, they’d have called you queer.

Now, Mother, I would say. Let’s not get into an argument about nothing.

Nothing, she’d say bitterly. You call it nothing. You don’t understand, do you. You don’t understand at all what I’m talking about.

Sometimes she would cry. I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonely anyway.

I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.

I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.

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