Chapter no 38

The Handmaid's Tale

find the entrance to the women’s washroom. It still says Ladies, in scrolly gold script. There’s a corridor leading in to the door, and a woman seated at a table beside it, supervising the entrances and exits. She’s an older woman, wearing a purple caftan and gold eyeshadow, but I can tell she is nevertheless an Aunt. The cattle prod’s on the table, its thong around her wrist. No nonsense here.

“Fifteen minutes,” she says to me. She gives me an oblong of purple cardboard from a stack of them on the table. It’s like a fitting room, in the department stores of the time before. To the woman behind me I hear her say, “You were just here.”

“I need to go again,” the woman says.

“Rest break once an hour,” says the Aunt. “You know the rules.”

The woman begins to protest, in a whiny desperate voice. I push open the door.

I remember this. There’s a rest area, gently lit in pinkish tones, with several easy chairs and a sofa, in lime-green bamboo-shoot print, with a wall clock above it in a gold filigree frame. Here they haven’t removed the mirror, there’s a long one opposite the sofa. You need to know, here, what you look like. Through an archway beyond there’s the row of toilet cubicles, also pink, and wash basins and more mirrors.

Several women are sitting in the chairs and on the sofa, with their shoes off, smoking. They stare at me as I come in. There’s perfume in the air and stale smoke, and the scent of working flesh.

“You new?” one of them says.

“Yes,” I say, looking around for Moira, who is nowhere in sight.

The women don’t smile. They return to their smoking as if it’s serious business. In the room beyond, a woman in a cat suit with a tail made of orange fake fur is re-doing her makeup. This is like backstage: greasepaint, smoke, the materials of illusion.

I stand hesitant, not knowing what to do. I don’t want to ask about Moira, I don’t know whether it’s safe. Then a toilet flushes and Moira comes out of a pink cubicle. She teeters towards me; I wait for a sign.

“It’s all right,” she says, to me and to the other women. “I know her.” The others smile now, and Moira hugs me. My arms go around her, the wires propping up her breasts dig into my chest. We kiss each other, on one cheek, then the other. Then we stand back.

“Godawful,” she says. She grins at me. “You look like the Whore of Babylon.”

“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to look like?” I say. “You look like something the cat dragged in.”

“Yes,” she says, pulling up her front, “not my style and this thing is about to fall to shreds. I wish they’d dredge up someone who still knows how to make them. Then I could get something halfway decent.”

“You pick that out?” I say. I wonder if maybe she’s chosen it, out of the others, because it was less garish. At least it’s only black and white.

“Hell no,” she says. “Government issue. I guess they thought it was me.”

I still can’t believe it’s her. I touch her arm again. Then I begin to cry.

“Don’t do that,” she says. “Your eyes’ll run. Anyway there isn’t time. Shove over.” This she says to the two women on the sofa, her usual peremptory rough-cut slapdash manner, and as usual she gets away with it.

“My break’s up anyway,” says one woman, who’s wearing a baby-blue laced-up Merry Widow and white stockings. She stands up,

shakes my hand. “Welcome,” she says.

The other woman obligingly moves over, and Moira and I sit down. The first thing we do is take off our shoes.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Moira says then. “Not that it isn’t great to see you. But it’s not so great for you. What’d you do wrong? Laugh at his dick?”

I look up at the ceiling. “Is it bugged?” I say. I wipe around my eyes, gingerly, with my fingertips. Black comes off.

“Probably,” says Moira. “You want a cig?” “I’d love one,” I say.

“Here,” she says to the woman next to her. “Lend me one, will you?”

The woman hands over, ungrudging. Moira is still a skilful borrower. I smile at that.

“On the other hand, it might not be,” says Moira. “I can’t imagine they’d care about anything we have to say. They’ve already heard most of it, and anyway nobody gets out of here except in a black van. But you must know that, if you’re here.”

I pull her head over so I can whisper in her ear. “I’m temporary,” I tell her. “It’s just tonight. I’m not supposed to be here at all. He smuggled me in.”

“Who?” she whispers back. “That shit you’re with? I’ve had him, he’s the pits.”

“He’s my Commander,” I say.

She nods. “Some of them do that, they get a kick out of it. It’s like screwing on the altar or something: your gang are supposed to be such chaste vessels. They like to see you all painted up. Just another crummy power trip.”

This interpretation hasn’t occurred to me. I apply it to the Commander, but it seems too simple for him, too crude. Surely his motivations are more delicate than that. But it may only be vanity that prompts me to think so.

“We don’t have much time left,” I say. “Tell me everything.”

Moira shrugs. “What’s the point?” she says. But she knows there is a point, so she does.

This is what she says, whispers, more or less. I can’t remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down. I’ve filled it out for her as much as I can: we didn’t have much time so she just gave the outlines. Also she told me this in two sessions, we managed a second break together. I’ve tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. It’s a way of keeping her alive.

“I left that old hag Aunt Elizabeth tied up like a Christmas turkey behind the furnace. I wanted to kill her, I really felt like it, but now I’m just as glad I didn’t or things would be a lot worse for me. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get out of the Centre. In that brown outfit I just walked right through. I kept on going as if I knew where I was heading, till I was out of sight. I didn’t have any great plan; it wasn’t an organized thing, like they thought, though when they were trying to get it out of me I made up a lot of stuff. You do that, when they use the electrodes and the other things. You don’t care what you say.

“I kept my shoulders back and chin up and marched along, trying to think of what to do next. When they busted the press they’d picked up a lot of the women I knew, and I thought they’d most likely have the rest by now. I was sure they had a list. We were dumb to think we could keep it going the way we did, even underground, even when we’d moved everything out of the o ce and into people’s cellars and back rooms. So I knew better than to try any of those houses.

“I had some sort of an idea of where I was in relation to the city, though I was walking along a street I couldn’t remember having seen before. But I figured out from the sun where north was. Girl Scouts was some use after all. I thought I might as well head that

way, see if I could find the Yard or the Square or anything around it. Then I would know for sure where I was. Also I thought it would look better for me to be going in towards the centre of things, rather than away. It would look more plausible.

“They’d set up more checkpoints while we were inside the Centre, they were all over the place. The first one scared the shit out of me. I came on it suddenly around the corner. I knew it wouldn’t look right if I turned around in full view and went back, so I bluffed it through, the same as I had at the gate, putting on that frown and keeping myself stiff and pursing my lips and looking right through them, as if they were festering sores. You know the way the Aunts look when they say the word man. It worked like a charm, and it did at the other checkpoints, too.

“But the insides of my head were going around like crazy. I only had so much time, before they found the old bat and sent out the alarm. Soon enough they’d be looking for me: one fake Aunt, on foot. I tried to think of someone, I ran over and over the people I knew. At last I tried to remember what I could about our mailing list. We’d destroyed it, of course, early on; or we didn’t destroy it, we divided it up among us and each one of us memorized a section, and then we destroyed it. We were still using the mails then, but we didn’t put our logo on the envelopes any more. It was getting far too risky.

“So I tried to recall my section of the list. I won’t tell you the name I chose, because I don’t want them to get in trouble, if they haven’t already. It could be I’ve spilled all this stuff, it’s hard to remember what you say when they’re doing it. You’ll say anything.

“I chose them because they were a married couple, and those were safer than anyone single and especially anyone gay. Also I remembered the designation beside their name. Q, it said, which meant Quaker. We had the religious denominations marked where there were any, for marches. That way you could tell who might turn out to what. It was no good calling on the C’s to do abortion stuff, for instance; not that we’d done much of that lately. I remembered their address, too. We’d grilled each other on those

addresses, it was important to remember them exactly, zip code and all.

“By this time I’d hit Mass Ave. and I knew where I was. And I knew where they were too. Now I was worrying about something else: when these people saw an Aunt coming up the walk, wouldn’t they just lock the door and pretend not to be home? But I had to try it anyway, it was my only chance. I figured they weren’t likely to shoot me. It was about five o’clock by this time. I was tired of walking, especially that Aunt’s way like a goddamn soldier, poker up the ass, and I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast.

“What I didn’t know of course was that in those early days the Aunts and even the Centre were hardly common knowledge. It was all secret at first, behind barbed wire. There might have been objections to what they were doing, even then. So although people had seen the odd Aunt around, they weren’t really aware of what they were for. They must have thought they were some kind of army nurse. Already they’d stopped asking questions, unless they had to.

“So these people let me in right away. It was the woman who came to the door. I told her I was doing a questionnaire. I did that so she wouldn’t look surprised, in case anyone was watching. But as soon as I was inside the door, I took off the headgear and told them who I was. They could have phoned the police or whatever, I know I was taking a chance, but like I say there wasn’t any choice. Anyway they didn’t. They gave me some clothes, a dress of hers, and burned the Aunt’s outfit and the pass in their furnace; they knew that had to be done right away. They didn’t like having me there, that much was clear, it made them very nervous. They had two little kids, both under seven. I could see their point.

“I went to the can, what a relief that was. Bathtub full of plastic fish and so on. Then I sat upstairs in the kids’ room and played with them and their plastic blocks while their parents stayed downstairs and decided what to do about me. I didn’t feel scared by then, in fact I felt quite good. Fatalistic, you could say. Then the woman

made me a sandwich and a cup of coffee and the man said he’d take me to another house. They hadn’t risked phoning.

“The other house was Quakers too, and they were paydirt, because they were a station on the Underground Femaleroad. After the first couple left, they said they’d try to get me out of the country. I won’t tell you how, because some of the stations may still be operating. Each one of them was in contact with only one other one, always the next one along. There were advantages to that – it was better if you were caught – but disadvantages too, because if one station got busted the entire chain backed up until they could make contact with one of their couriers, who could set up an alternate route. They were better organized than you’d think, though. They’d infiltrated a couple of useful places; one of them was the post o ce. They had a driver there with one of those handy little trucks. I made it over the bridge and into the city proper in a mail sack. I can tell you that now because they got him, soon after that. He ended up on the Wall. You hear about these things; you hear a lot in here, you’d be surprised. The Commanders tell us themselves, I guess they figure why not, there’s no one we can pass it on to, except each other, and that doesn’t count.

“I’m making this sound easy but it wasn’t. I nearly shat bricks the whole time. One of the hardest things was knowing that these other people were risking their lives for you when they didn’t have to. But they said they were doing it for religious reasons and I shouldn’t take it personally. That helped some. They had silent prayers every evening. I found that hard to get used to at first, because it reminded me too much of that shit at the Centre. It made me feel sick to my stomach, to tell you the truth. I had to make an effort, tell myself that this was a whole other thing. I hated it at first. But I figure it was what kept them going. They knew more or less what would happen to them if they got caught. Not in detail, but they knew. By that time they’d started putting some of it on the TV, the trials and so forth.

“It was before the sectarian roundups began in earnest. As long as you said you were some sort of a Christian and you were married,

for the first time that is, they were still leaving you pretty much alone. They were concentrating first on the others. They got them more or less under control before they started in on everybody else.

“I was underground it must have been eight or nine months. I was taken from one safe house to another, there were more of those then. They weren’t all Quakers, some of them weren’t even religious. They were just people who didn’t like the way things were going.

“I almost made it out. They got me up as far as Salem, then in a truck full of chickens into Maine. I almost puked from the smell; you ever thought what it would be like to be shat on by a truckload of chickens, all of them carsick? They were planning to get me across the border there; not by car or truck, that was already too di cult, but by boat, up the coast. I didn’t know that until the actual night, they never told you the next step until right before it was happening. They were careful that way.

“So I don’t know what happened. Maybe somebody got cold feet about it, or somebody outside got suspicious. Or maybe it was the boat, maybe they thought the guy was out in his boat at night too much. By that time it must have been crawling with Eyes up there, and everywhere else close to the border. Whatever it was, they picked us up just as we were coming out the back door to go down to the dock. Me and the guy, and his wife too. They were an older couple, in their fifties. He’d been in the lobster business, back before all that happened to the shore fishing there. I don’t know what became of them after that, because they took me in a separate van.

“I thought it might be the end, for me. Or back to the Centre and the attentions of Aunt Lydia and her steel cable. She enjoyed that, you know. She pretended to do all that love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin stuff, but she enjoyed it. I did consider o ng myself, and maybe I would have if there’d been any way. But they had two of them in the back of the van with me, watching me like a hawk; didn’t say a hell of a lot, just sat and watched me in that wall-eyed way they have. So it was no go.

“We didn’t end up at the Centre though, we went somewhere else. I won’t go into what happened after that. I’d rather not talk about it. All I can say is they didn’t leave any marks.

“When that was over they showed me a movie. Know what it was about? It was about life in the Colonies. In the Colonies, they spend their time cleaning up. They’re very clean-minded these days. Sometimes it’s just bodies, after a battle. The ones in city ghettoes are the worst, they’re left around longer, they get rottener. This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying around, they’re afraid of a plague or something. So the women in the Colonies there do the burning. The other Colonies are worse, though, the toxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three years maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway they’re mostly people they want to get rid of. They say there’s other Colonies, not so bad, where they do agriculture: cotton and tomatoes and all that. But those weren’t the ones they showed me the movie about.

“It’s old women, I bet you’ve been wondering why you haven’t seen too many of those around any more, and Handmaids who’ve screwed up their three chances, and incorrigibles like me. Discards, all of us. They’re sterile, of course. If they aren’t that way to begin with, they are after they’ve been there for a while. When they’re unsure, they do a little operation on you, so there won’t be any mistakes. I’d say it’s about a quarter men in the Colonies, too. Not all of those Gender Traitors end up on the Wall.

“All of them wear long dresses, like the ones at the Centre, only grey. Women and the men too, judging from the group shots. I guess it’s supposed to demoralize the men, having to wear a dress. Shit, it would demoralize me enough. How do you stand it? Everything considered, I like this outfit better.

“So after that, they said I was too dangerous to be allowed the privilege of returning to the Red Centre. They said I would be a corrupting influence. I had my choice, they said, this or the Colonies. Well, shit, nobody but a nun would pick the Colonies. I

mean, I’m not a martyr. I’d already had my tubes tied, years ago, so I didn’t even need the operation. Nobody in here with viable ovaries either, you can see what kind of problems it would cause.

“So here I am. They even give you face cream. You should figure out some way of getting in here. You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the boneyard. The food’s not bad and there’s drink and drugs, if you want it, and we only work nights.”

“Moira,” I say. “You don’t mean that.” She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something – what? – that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?

I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.

“Don’t worry about me,” she says. She must know some of what I’m thinking. “I’m still here, you can see it’s me. Anyway, look at it this way: it’s not so bad, there’s lots of women around. Butch paradise, you might call it.”

Now she’s teasing, showing some energy, and I feel better. “Do they let you?” I say.

“Let, hell, they encourage it. Know what they call this place, among themselves? Jezebel’s. The Aunts figure we’re all damned anyway, they’ve given up on us, so it doesn’t matter what sort of vice we get up to, and the Commanders don’t give a piss what we do in our off time. Anyway, women on women sort of turns them on.”

“What about the others?” I say.

“Put it this way,” she says, “they’re not too fond of men.” She shrugs again. It might be resignation.

Here is what I’d like to tell. I’d like to tell a story about how Moira escaped, for good this time. Or if I couldn’t tell that, I’d like to say she blew up Jezebel’s, with fifty Commanders inside it. I’d like her to end with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know that didn’t happen. I don’t know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again.

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