Chapter no 30

The Handmaid's Tale

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Night has fallen, then. I feel it pressing down on me like a stone. No breeze. I sit by the partly open window, curtains tucked back because there’s no one out there, no need for modesty, in my nightgown, long-sleeved even in summer, to keep us from the temptations of our own flesh, to keep us from hugging ourselves, bare-armed. Nothing moves in the searchlight moonlight. The scent from the garden rises like heat from a body, there must be night-blooming flowers, it’s so strong. I can almost see it, red radiation, wavering upwards like the shimmer above highway tarmac at noon.

Down there on the lawn, someone emerges from the spill of darkness under the willow, steps across the light, his long shadow attached sharply to his heels. Is it Nick, or is it someone else, someone of no importance? He stops, looks up at this window, and I can see the white oblong of his face. Nick. We look at each other. I have no rose to toss, he has no lute. But it’s the same kind of hunger.

Which I can’t indulge. I pull the left-hand curtain so that it falls between us, across my face, and after a moment he walks on, into the invisibility around the corner.

What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke or Luke for Nick. Should does not apply.

You can’t help what you feel, Moira said once, but you can help how you behave.

Which is all very well.

Context is all; or is it ripeness? One or the other.

The night before we left the house, that last time, I was walking through the rooms. Nothing was packed up, because we weren’t taking much with us and we couldn’t afford even then to give the least appearance of leaving. So I was just walking through, here and there, looking at things, at the arrangement we had made together, for our life. I had some idea that I would be able to remember, afterwards, what it had looked like.

Luke was in the living room. He put his arms around me. We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then? Because we at least had that: arms, around.

The cat, is what he said.

Cat? I said, against the wool of his sweater. We can’t just leave her here.

I hadn’t thought about the cat. Neither of us had. Our decision had been sudden, and then there had been the planning to do. I must have thought she was coming with us. But she couldn’t, you don’t take a cat on a day trip across the border.

Why not outside? I said. We could just leave her.

She’d hang around and mew at the door. Someone would notice we were gone.

We could give her away, I said. One of the neighbours. Even as I said this, I saw how foolish that would be.

I’ll take care of it, Luke said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real. So that’s how they do it, I thought. I seemed never to have known that before.

Luke found the cat, who was hiding under our bed. They always know. He went into the garage with her. I don’t know what he did and I never asked him. I sat in the living room, hands folded in my lap. I should have gone out with him, taken that small responsibility. I should at least have asked him about it afterwards, so he didn’t have to carry it alone; because that little sacrifice, that snu ng out of love, was done for my sake as well.

That’s one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself.

Useless, as it turned out. I wonder who told them. It could have been a neighbour, watching our car pull out from the driveway in the morning, acting on a hunch, tipping them off for a gold star on someone’s list. It could even have been the man who got us the passports; why not get paid twice? Like them, even, to plant the passport forgers themselves, a net for the unwary. The Eyes of God run over all the earth.

Because they were ready for us, and waiting. The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.

It was like being in an elevator cut loose at the top. Falling, falling, and not knowing when you will hit.

I try to conjure, to raise my own spirits, from wherever they are. I need to remember what they look like. I try to hold them still behind my eyes, their faces, like pictures in an album. But they won’t stay still for me, they move, there’s a smile and it’s gone, their features curl and bend as if the paper’s burning, blackness eats them. A glimpse, a pale shimmer on the air; a glow, aurora, dance of

electrons, then a face again, faces. But they fade, though I stretch out my arms towards them, they slip away from me, ghosts at daybreak. Back to wherever they are. Stay with me, I want to say. But they won’t.

It’s my fault. I am forgetting too much.

Tonight I will say my prayers.

No longer kneeling at the foot of the bed, knees on the hard wood of the gym floor, Aunt Elizabeth standing by the double doors, arms folded, cattle prod hung on her belt, while Aunt Lydia strides along the rows of kneeling nightgowned women, hitting our backs or feet or bums or arms lightly, just a flick, a tap, with her wooden pointer if we slouch or slacken. She wanted our heads bowed just right, our toes together and pointed, our elbows at the proper angle. Part of her interest in this was aesthetic: she liked the look of the thing. She wanted us to look like something Anglo-Saxon, carved on a tomb; or Christmas-card angels, regimented in our robes of purity. But she knew too the spiritual value of bodily rigidity, of muscle strain: a little pain cleans out the mind, she’d say.

What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.

Oh God, King of the universe, thank you for not creating me a man.

Oh God, obliterate me. Make me fruitful. Mortify my flesh, that I may be multiplied. Let me be fulfilled …

Some of them would get carried away with this. The ecstasy of abasement. Some of them would moan and cry.

There is no point in making a spectacle of yourself, Janine, said Aunt Lydia.

I pray where I am, sitting by the window, looking out through the curtain at the empty garden. I don’t even close my eyes. Out there

or inside my head, it’s an equal darkness. Or light.

My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.

I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But

You will do as well as anything.

I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.

I have enough daily bread, so I won’t waste time on that. It isn’t the main problem. The problem is getting it down without choking on it.

Now we come to forgiveness. Don’t worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.

I suppose I should say I forgive whoever did this, and whatever they’re doing now. I’ll try, but it isn’t easy.

Temptation comes next. At the Centre, temptation was anything much more than eating and sleeping. Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say.

Maybe I don’t really want to know what’s going on. Maybe I’d rather not know. Maybe I couldn’t bear to know. The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.

I think about the chandelier too much, though it’s gone now. But you could use a hook, in the closet. I’ve considered the possibilities. All you’d have to do, after attaching yourself, would be to lean your weight forward and not fight.

Deliver us from evil.

Then there’s Kingdom, power, and glory. It takes a lot to believe in those right now. But I’ll try it anyway. In Hope, as they say on the gravestones.

You must feel pretty ripped off. I guess it’s not the first time.

If I were You I’d be fed up. I’d really be sick of it. I guess that’s the difference between us.

I feel very unreal, talking to You like this. I feel as if I’m talking to a wall. I wish You’d answer. I feel so alone.

All alone by the telephone. Except I can’t use the telephone. And if I could, who could I call?

Oh God. It’s no joke. Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living?

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