The sitting space in the courtyard is filled now; we rustle and wait. At last the Commander in charge of this service comes in. He’s balding and squarely built and looks like an aging football coach. He’s dressed in his uniform, sober black with the rows of insignia and decorations. It’s hard not to be impressed, but I make an effort: I try to imagine him in bed with his Wife and his Handmaid, fertilizing away like mad, like a rutting salmon, pretending to take no pleasure in it. When the Lord said be fruitful and multiply, did he mean this man?
This Commander ascends the steps to the podium, which is draped with a red cloth embroidered with a large white-winged eye. He gazes over the room, and our soft voices die. He doesn’t even have to raise his hands. Then his voice goes into the microphone and out through the speakers, robbed of its lower tones so that it’s sharply metallic, as if it’s being made not by his mouth, his body, but by the speakers themselves. His voice is metal-coloured, horn-shaped.
“Today is a day of thanksgiving,” he begins, “a day of praise.”
I tune out through the speech about victory and sacrifice. Then there’s a long prayer, about unworthy vessels, then a hymn: “There is a Balm in Gilead.”
“There is a Bomb in Gilead,” was what Moira used to call it.
Now comes the main item. The twenty Angels enter, newly returned from the fronts, newly decorated, accompanied by their honour guard, marching one-two one-two into the central open space. Attention, at ease. And now the twenty veiled daughters, in white, come shyly forward, their mothers holding their elbows. It’s
mothers, not fathers, who give away daughters these days and help with the arrangement of the marriages. The marriages are of course arranged. These girls haven’t been allowed to be alone with a man for years; for however many years we’ve all been doing this.
Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before, playing baseball, in jeans and sneakers, riding their bicycles? Reading books, all by themselves? Even though some of them are no more than fourteen – Start them soon is the policy, there’s not a moment to be lost – still they’ll remember. And the ones after them will, for three or four or five years; but after that they won’t. They’ll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they’ll always have been silent.
We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.
He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five.… This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paycheques. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement.
Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?
Love, I said.
Love? said the Commander. What kind of love? Falling in love, I said.
The Commander looked at me with his candid boy’s eyes. Oh yes, he said. I’ve read the magazines, that’s what they were pushing, wasn’t it? But look at the stats, my dear. Was it really worth it, falling in love? Arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better.
Love, said Aunt Lydia with distaste. Don’t let me catch you at it. No mooning and June-ing around here, girls. Wagging her finger at us. Love is not the point.
Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.
Women’s Prayvaganzas are for group weddings like this, usually. The men’s are for military victories. These are the things we are supposed to rejoice in the most, respectively. Sometimes though, for the women, they’re for a nun who recants. Most of that happened earlier, when they were rounding them up, but they still unearth a few these days, dredge them up from underground, where they’ve been hiding, like moles. They have that look about them too: weak-eyed, stunned by too much light. The old ones they send off to the Colonies right away, but the young fertile ones they try to convert, and when they succeed we all come here to watch them go through the ceremony, renounce their celibacy, sacrifice it to the common good. They kneel and the Commander prays and then they take the red veil, as the rest of us have done. They aren’t allowed to become Wives though; they’re considered, still, too dangerous for positions
of such power. There’s an odour of witch about them, something mysterious and exotic; it remains despite the scrubbing and the welts on their feet and the time they’ve spent in Solitary. They always have those welts, they’ve always done that time, so rumour goes: they don’t let go easily. Many of them choose the Colonies instead. None of us likes to draw one for a shopping partner. They are more broken than the rest of us; it’s hard to feel comfortable with them.
The mothers have stood the white-veiled girls in place and have returned to their chairs. There’s a little crying going on among them, some mutual patting and hand-holding, the ostentatious use of handkerchiefs. The Commander continues with the service:
“I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel,” he says, “with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
“But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Here he looks us over. “All,” he repeats.
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
“For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
“And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
“Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”
Saved by childbearing, I think. What did we suppose would save us, in the time before?
“He should tell that to the Wives,” Ofglen murmurs, “when they’re into the sherry.” She means the part about sobriety. It’s safe to talk again, the Commander has finished the main ritual and they’re doing the rings, lifting the veils. Boo, I think in my head.
Take a good look, because it’s too late now. The Angels will qualify for Handmaids, later, especially if their new Wives can’t produce. But you girls are stuck. What you see is what you get, zits and all. But you aren’t expected to love him. You’ll find that out soon enough. Just do your duty in silence. When in doubt, when flat on your back, you can look at the ceiling. Who knows what you may see, up there? Funeral wreaths and angels, constellations of dust, stellar or otherwise, the puzzles left by spiders. There’s always something to occupy the inquiring mind.
Is anything wrong, dear? the old joke went.
Just don’t move.
What we’re aiming for, says Aunt Lydia, is a spirit of camaraderie among women. We must all pull together.
Camaraderie, shit, says Moira through the hole in the toilet cubicle. Right fucking on, Aunt Lydia, as they used to say. How much you want to bet she’s got Janine down on her knees? What you think they get up to in that o ce of hers? I bet she’s got her working away on that dried-up hairy old withered –
Moira! I say.
Moira what? she whispers. You know you’ve thought it.
It doesn’t do any good to talk like that, I say, feeling nevertheless the impulse to giggle. But I still pretended to myself, then, that we should try to preserve something resembling dignity.
You were always such a wimp, Moira says, but with affection. It does so do good. It does.
And she’s right, I know that now as I kneel on this undeniably hard floor, listening to the ceremony drone on. There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive,
forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. In the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks. It was like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion. The mere idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itself heartening.
So now I imagine, among these Angels and their drained white brides, momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters; or, better, ignominious failures, cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished rumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish.
When it’s over at last and we are walking out, Ofglen says to me in her light, penetrating whisper: “We know you’re seeing him alone.”
“Who?” I say, resisting the urge to look at her. I know who. “Your Commander,” she says. “We know you have been.”
I ask her how.
“We just know,” she says. “What does he want? Kinky sex?”
It would be hard to explain to her what he does want, because I still have no name for it. How can I describe what really goes on between us? She would laugh, for one thing. It’s easier for me to say, “In a way.” That at least has the dignity of coercion.
She thinks about this. “You’d be surprised,” she says, “how many of them do.”
“I can’t help it,” I say. “I can’t say I won’t go.” She ought to know that.
We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone. We walk in silence, lagging behind, until finally she judges she can say, “Of course you can’t. But find out and tell us.”
“Find out what?” I say.
I feel rather than see the slight turning of her head. “Anything you can.”