Chapter no 22

The Handmaid's Tale

By the time the Birthmobile arrives in front of the house it’s late afternoon. The sun is coming weakly through the clouds, the smell of wet grass warming up is in the air. I’ve been at the Birth all day; you lose track of time. Cora will have done the shopping today, I’m excused from all duties. I go up the stairs, lifting my feet heavily from one step to the next, holding onto the banister. I feel as if I’ve been awake for days and running hard, my chest hurts; my muscles cramp as if they’re out of sugar. For once I welcome solitude.

I lie on the bed. I would like to rest, go to sleep, but I’m too tired, at the same time too excited, my eyes won’t close. I look up at the ceiling, tracing the foliage of the wreath. Today it makes me think of a hat, the large-brimmed hats women used to wear at some period during the old days: hats like enormous haloes, festooned with fruit and flowers, and the feathers of exotic birds; hats like an idea of paradise, floating just above the head, a thought solidified.

In a minute the wreath will start to colour and I will begin seeing things. That’s how tired I am: as when you’d driven all night, into the dawn, for some reason, I won’t think about that now, keeping each other awake with stories and taking turns at the wheel, and as the sun would begin to come up you’d see things at the sides of your eyes: purple animals, in the bushes beside the road, the vague outlines of men, which would disappear when you looked at them straight.

I’m too tired to go on with this story. I’m too tired to think about where I am. Here is a different story, a better one. This is the story of what happened to Moira.

Part of it I can fill in myself, part of it I heard from Alma, who heard it from Dolores, who heard it from Janine. Janine heard it from Aunt Lydia. There can be alliances even in such places, even under such circumstances. This is something you can depend upon: there will always be alliances, of one kind or another.

Aunt Lydia called Janine into her o ce.

Blessed be the fruit, Janine, Aunt Lydia would have said, without looking up from her desk, where she was writing something. For every rule there is always an exception: this too can be depended upon. The Aunts are allowed to read and write.

May the Lord open, Janine would have replied, tonelessly, in her transparent voice, her voice of raw egg white.

I feel I can rely on you, Janine, Aunt Lydia would have said, raising her eyes from the page at last and fixing Janine with that look of hers, through the spectacles, a look that managed to be both menacing and beseeching, all at once. Help me, that look said, we are all in this together. You are a reliable girl, she went on, not like some of the others.

She thought all Janine’s snivelling and repentance meant something, she thought Janine had been broken, she thought Janine was a true believer. But by that time Janine was like a puppy that’s been kicked too often, by too many people, at random: she’d roll over for anyone, she’d tell anything, just for a moment of approbation.

So Janine would have said: I hope so, Aunt Lydia. I hope I have become worthy of your trust. Or some such thing.

Janine, said Aunt Lydia, something terrible has happened.

Janine looked down at the floor. Whatever it was, she knew she would not be blamed for it, she was blameless. But what use had that been to her in the past, to be blameless? So at the same time she felt guilty, and as if she was about to be punished.

Do you know about it, Janine? said Aunt Lydia softly.

No, Aunt Lydia, said Janine. She knew at this moment it was necessary to look up, to look Aunt Lydia straight in the eyes. After a moment she managed it.

Because if you do I will be very disappointed in you, said Aunt Lydia.

As the Lord is my witness, said Janine with a show of fervour.

Aunt Lydia allowed herself one of her pauses. She fiddled with her pen. Moira is no longer with us, she said at last.

Oh, said Janine. She was neutral about this. Moira wasn’t a friend of hers. Is she dead? she asked after a moment.

Then Aunt Lydia told her the story. Moira had raised her hand to go to the washroom, during Exercises. She had gone. Aunt Elizabeth was on washroom duty. Aunt Elizabeth stayed outside the washroom door, as usual; Moira went in. After a moment Moira called to Aunt Elizabeth: the toilet was overflowing, could Aunt Elizabeth come and fix it? It was true that the toilets sometimes overflowed. Unknown persons stuffed wads of toilet paper down them to make them do this very thing. The Aunts had been working on some foolproof way of preventing this, but funds were short and right now they had to make do with what was at hand, and they hadn’t figured out a way of locking up the toilet paper. Possibly they should keep it outside the door on a table and hand each person a sheet or several sheets as she went in. But that was for the future. It takes a while to get the wrinkles out, of anything new.

Aunt Elizabeth, suspecting no harm, went into the washroom. Aunt Lydia had to admit it was a little foolish of her. On the other hand, she’d gone in to fix a toilet on several previous occasions without mishap.

Moira was not lying, water was running over the floor, and several pieces of disintegrating fecal matter. It was not pleasant and Aunt Elizabeth was annoyed. Moira stood politely aside, and Aunt Elizabeth hurried into the cubicle Moira had indicated, and bent over the back of the toilet. She intended to lift off the porcelain lid and fiddle with the arrangement of bulb and plug inside. She had

both hands on the lid when she felt something hard and sharp and possibly metallic jab into her ribs from behind. Don’t move, said Moira, or I’ll stick it all the way in, I know where, I’ll puncture your lung.

They found out afterwards that she’d dismantled the inside of one of the toilets and taken out the long thin pointed lever, the part that attaches to the handle at one end and the chain at the other. It isn’t too hard to do if you know how, and Moira had mechanical ability, she used to fix her own car, the minor things. Soon after this the toilets were fitted with chains to hold the tops on, and when they overflowed it took a long time to get them open. We had several floods that way.

Aunt Elizabeth couldn’t see what was poking into her back, Aunt Lydia said. She was a brave woman …

Oh yes, said Janine.

… but not foolhardy, said Aunt Lydia, frowning a little. Janine had been over-enthusiastic, which sometimes has the force of a denial. She did as Moira said, Aunt Lydia continued. Moira got hold of her cattle prod and her whistle, ordering Aunt Elizabeth to unclip them from her belt. Then she hurried Aunt Elizabeth down the stairs to the basement. They were on the second floor, not the third, so there were only two flights of stairs to be negotiated. Classes were in session so there was nobody in the halls. They did see another Aunt, but she was at the far end of the corridor and not looking their way. Aunt Elizabeth could have screamed at this point but she knew Moira meant what she said; Moira had a bad reputation.

Oh yes, said Janine.

Moira took Aunt Elizabeth along the corridor of empty lockers, past the door to the gymnasium, and into the furnace room. She told Aunt Elizabeth to take off all her clothes …

Oh, said Janine weakly, as if to protest this sacrilege.

… and Moira took off her own clothes and put on those of Aunt Elizabeth, which did not fit her exactly but well enough. She was not overly cruel to Aunt Elizabeth, she allowed her to put on her

own red dress. The veil she tore into strips, and tied Aunt Elizabeth up with them, in behind the furnace. She stuffed some of the cloth into her mouth and tied it in place with another strip. She tied a strip around Aunt Elizabeth’s neck and tied the other end to her feet, behind. She is a cunning and dangerous woman, said Aunt Lydia.

Janine said: May I sit down? As if it had all been too much for her. She had something to trade at last, for a token at least.

Yes, Janine, said Aunt Lydia, surprised, but knowing she could not refuse at this point. She was asking for Janine’s attention, her co-operation. She indicated the chair in the corner. Janine drew it forward.

I could kill you, you know, said Moira, when Aunt Elizabeth was safely stowed out of sight behind the furnace. I could injure you badly so you would never feel good in your body again. I could zap you with this, or stick this thing into your eye. Just remember I didn’t, if it ever comes to that.

Aunt Lydia didn’t repeat any of this part to Janine, but I expect Moira said something like it. In any case she didn’t kill or mutilate Aunt Elizabeth, who a few days later, after she’d recovered from her seven hours behind the furnace and presumably from the interrogation – for the possibility of collusion would not have been ruled out, by the Aunts or by anyone else – was back in operation at the Centre.

Moira stood up straight and looked firmly ahead. She drew her shoulders back, pulled up her spine, and compressed her lips. This was not our usual posture. Usually we walked with heads bent down, our eyes on our hands or the ground. Moira didn’t look much like Aunt Elizabeth, even with the brown wimple in place, but her stiff-backed posture was apparently enough to convince the Angels on guard, who never looked at any of us very closely, even and perhaps especially the Aunts; because Moira marched straight out the front door, with the bearing of a person who knew where she was going; was saluted, presented Aunt Elizabeth’s pass, which they

didn’t bother to check, because who would affront an Aunt in that way? And disappeared.

Oh, said Janine. Who can tell what she felt? Maybe she wanted to cheer. If so, she kept it well hidden.

So, Janine, said Aunt Lydia. Here is what I want you to do.

Janine opened her eyes wide and tried to look innocent and attentive.

I want you to keep your ears open. Maybe one of the others was involved.

Yes, Aunt Lydia, said Janine.

And come and tell me about it, won’t you, dear? If you hear anything.

Yes, Aunt Lydia, said Janine. She knew she would not have to kneel down any more, at the front of the classroom, and listen to all of us shouting at her that it was her fault. Now it would be someone else for a while. She was, temporarily, off the hook.

The fact that she told Dolores all about this encounter in Aunt Lydia’s o ce meant nothing. It didn’t mean she wouldn’t testify against us, any of us, if she had the occasion. We knew that. By this time we were treating her the way people used to treat those with no legs who sold pencils on street corners. We avoided her when we could, were charitable to her when it couldn’t be helped. She was a danger to us, we knew that.

Dolores probably patted her on the back and said she was a good sport to tell us. Where did this exchange take place? In the gymnasium, when we were getting ready for bed. Dolores had the bed next to Janine’s.

The story passed among us that night, in the semi-darkness, under our breath, from bed to bed.

Moira was out there somewhere. She was at large, or dead. What would she do? The thought of what she would do expanded till it filled the room. At any moment there might be a shattering explosion, the glass of the windows would fall inwards, the doors

would swing open.… Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.

I think we found this frightening.

Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you’d come apart, you’d vaporize, there would be no pressure holding you together.

Nevertheless Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. In the light of Moira, the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw to it. They could be shanghaied in toilets. The audacity was what we liked.

We expected her to be dragged in at any minute, as she had been before. We could not imagine what they might do to her this time. It would be very bad, whatever it was.

But nothing happened. Moira didn’t reappear. She hasn’t yet.

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