Chapter no 21

The Handmaid's Tale

It’s hot in here, and too noisy. The women’s voices rise around me, a soft chant that is still too loud for me, after the days and days of silence. In the corner of the room there’s a bloodstained sheet, bundled and tossed there, from when the waters broke. I hadn’t noticed it before.

The room smells too, the air is close, they should open a window. The smell is of our own flesh, an organic smell, sweat and a tinge of iron, from the blood on the sheet, and another smell, more animal, that’s coming, it must be, from Janine: a smell of dens, of inhabited caves, the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed when the cat gave birth on it, once, before she was spayed. Smell of matrix.

“Breathe, breathe,” we chant, as we have been taught. “Hold, hold. Expel, expel, expel.” We chant to the count of five. Five in, hold for five, out for five. Janine, her eyes closed, tries to slow her breathing. Aunt Elizabeth feels for the contractions.

Now Janine is restless, she wants to walk. The two women help her off the bed, support her on either side while she paces. A contraction hits her, she doubles over. One of the women kneels and rubs her back. We are all good at this, we’ve had lessons. I recognize Ofglen, my shopping partner, sitting two away from me. The soft chanting envelops us like a membrane.

A Martha arrives, with a tray: a jug of fruit juice, the kind you make from powder, grape it looks like, and a stack of paper cups. She sets it on the rug in front of the chanting women. Ofglen, not missing a beat, pours, and the paper cups pass down the line.

I receive a cup, lean to the side to pass it, and the woman next to me says, low in my ear, “Are you looking for anyone?”

“Moira,” I say, just as low. “Dark hair, freckles.”

“No,” the woman says. I don’t know this woman, she wasn’t at the Centre with me, though I’ve seen her, shopping. “But I’ll watch for you.”

“Are you?” I say.

“Alma,” she says. “What’s your real name?”

I want to tell her there was an Alma with me at the Centre. I want to tell her my name, but Aunt Elizabeth raises her head, staring around the room, she must have heard a break in the chant, so there’s no more time. Sometimes you can find things out, on Birth Days. But there would be no point in asking about Luke. He wouldn’t be where any of these women would be likely to see him.

The chanting goes on, it begins to catch me. It’s hard work, you’re supposed to concentrate. Identify with your body, said Aunt Elizabeth. Already I can feel slight pains, in my belly, and my breasts are heavy. Janine screams, a weak scream, partway between a scream and a groan.

“She’s going into transition,” says Aunt Elizabeth.

One of the helpers wipes Janine’s forehead with a damp cloth. Janine is sweating now, her hair is escaping in wisps from the elastic band, bits of it stick to her forehead and neck. Her flesh is damp, saturated, lustrous.

“Pant! pant! pant!” we chant.

“I want to go outside,” says Janine. “I want to go for a walk. I feel fine. I have to go to the can.”

We all know that she’s in transition, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Which of these statements is true? Probably the last one. Aunt Elizabeth signals, two women stand beside the portable toilet, Janine is lowered gently onto it. There’s another smell, added to the others in the room. Janine groans again, her head bent over so all we can see is her hair. Crouching like that, she’s like a doll, an old one that’s been pillaged and discarded, in some corner, akimbo.

Janine is up again and walking. “I want to sit down,” she says. How long have we been here? Minutes or hours. I’m sweating now, my dress under my arms is drenched, I taste salt on my upper lip, the false pains clench at me, the others feel it too, I can tell by the way they sway. Janine is sucking on an ice cube. Then, after that, inches away or miles, “No,” she screams, “Oh no, oh no oh no.” It’s her second baby, she had another child, once, I know that from the Centre, when she used to cry about it at night, like the rest of us only more noisily. So she ought to be able to remember this, what it’s like, what’s coming. But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.

Someone has spiked the grape juice. Someone has pinched a bottle, from downstairs. It won’t be the first time at such a gathering; but they’ll turn a blind eye. We too need our orgies.

“Dim the lights,” says Aunt Elizabeth. “Tell her it’s time.”

Someone stands, moves to the wall, the light in the room fades to twilight, our voices dwindle to a chorus of creaks, of husky whispers, like grasshoppers in a field at night. Two leave the room, two others lead Janine to the Birthing Stool, where she sits on the lower of the two seats. She’s calmer now, air sucks evenly into her lungs, we lean forward, tensed, the muscles in our backs and bellies hurt from the strain. It’s coming, it’s coming, like a bugle, a call to arms, like a wall falling, we can feel it like a heavy stone moving down, pulled down inside us, we think we will burst. We grip each other’s hands, we are no longer single.

The Commander’s Wife hurries in, in her ridiculous white cotton nightgown, her spindly legs sticking out beneath it. Two of the Wives in their blue dresses and veils hold her by the arms, as if she needs it; she has a tight little smile on her face, like a hostess at a party she’d rather not be giving. She must know what we think of her. She scrambles onto the Birthing Stool, sits on the seat behind and above Janine, so that Janine is framed by her: her skinny legs come down on either side, like the arms of an eccentric chair. Oddly enough, she’s wearing white cotton socks, and bedroom slippers,

blue ones made of fuzzy material, like toilet-seat covers. But we pay no attention to the Wife, we hardly even see her, our eyes are on Janine. In the dim light, in her white gown, she glows like a moon in cloud.

She’s grunting now, with the effort. “Push, push, push,” we whisper. “Relax. Pant. Push, push, push.” We’re with her, we’re the same as her, we’re drunk. Aunt Elizabeth kneels, with an outspread towel to catch the baby, here’s the crowning, the glory, the head, purple and smeared with yoghurt, another push and it slithers out, slick with fluid and blood, into our waiting. Oh praise.

We hold our breath as Aunt Elizabeth inspects it: a girl, poor thing, but so far so good, at least there’s nothing wrong with it, that can be seen, hands, feet, eyes, we silently count, everything is in place. Aunt Elizabeth, holding the baby, looks up at us and smiles. We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy.

Our happiness is part memory. What I remember is Luke, with me in the hospital, standing beside my head, holding my hand, in the green gown and white mask they gave him. Oh, he said, Oh Jesus, breath coming out in wonder. That night he couldn’t go to sleep at all, he said, he was so high.

Aunt Elizabeth is gently washing the baby off, it isn’t crying much, it stops. As quietly as possible, so as not to startle it, we rise, crowd around Janine, squeezing her, patting her. She’s crying too. The two Wives in blue help the third Wife, the Wife of the household, down from the Birthing Stool and over to the bed, where they lay her down and tuck her in. The baby, washed now and quiet, is placed ceremoniously in her arms. The Wives from downstairs are crowding in now, pushing among us, pushing us aside. They talk too loud, some of them are still carrying their plates, their coffee cups, their wine glasses, some of them are still chewing, they cluster around the bed, the mother and child, cooing and congratulating. Envy radiates from them, I can smell it, faint wisps of acid, mingled with their perfume. The Commander’s Wife

looks down at the baby as if it’s a bouquet of flowers: something she’s won, a tribute.

The Wives are here to bear witness to the naming. It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here.

“Angela,” says the Commander’s Wife.

“Angela, Angela,” the Wives repeat, twittering. “What a sweet name! Oh, she’s perfect! Oh, she’s wonderful!”

We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice, I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears. Nevertheless we are jubilant, it’s a victory, for all of us. We’ve done it.

She’ll be allowed to nurse the baby, for a few months, they believe in mother’s milk. After that she’ll be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn. But she’ll never be sent to the Colonies, she’ll never be declared Unwoman. That is her reward.

The Birthmobile is waiting outside, to deliver us back to our own households. The doctors are still in their van; their faces appear at the window, white blobs, like the faces of sick children confined to the house. One of them opens the door and comes towards us.

“Was it all right?” he asks, anxious.

“Yes,” I say. By now I’m wrung out, exhausted. My breasts are painful, they’re leaking a little. Fake milk, it happens this way with some of us. We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth. We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

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