Chapter no 42

The Handmaid's Tale

The bell is tolling; we can hear it from a long way off. It’s morning, and today we’ve had no breakfast. When we reach the main gate we file through it, two by two. There’s a heavy contingent of guards, special-detail Angels, with riot gear – the helmets with the bulging dark plexiglass visors that make them look like beetles, the long clubs, the gas-canister guns – in cordon around the outside of the Wall. That’s in case of hysteria. The hooks on the Wall are empty.

This is a district Salvaging, for women only. Salvagings are always segregated. It was announced yesterday. They tell you only the day before. It’s not enough time, to get used to it.

To the tolling of the bell we walk along the paths once used by students, past buildings that were once lecture halls and dormitories. It’s very strange to be in here again. From the outside you can’t tell that anything’s changed, except that the blinds on most of the windows are drawn down. These buildings belong to the Eyes now.

We file onto the wide lawn in front of what used to be the library. The white steps going up are still the same, the main entrance is unaltered. There’s a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for Commencement, in the time before. I think of hats, pastel hats worn by some of the mothers, and of the black gowns the students would put on, and the red ones. But this stage is not the same after all, because of the three wooden posts that stand on it, with the loops of rope.

At the front of the stage there is a microphone; the television camera is discreetly off to the side.

I’ve only been to one of these before, two years ago. Women’s Salvagings are not frequent. There is less need for them. These days we are so well behaved.

I don’t want to be telling this story.

We take our places in the standard order: Wives and daughters on the folding wooden chairs placed towards the back, Econowives and Marthas around the edges and on the library steps, and Handmaids at the front, where everyone can keep an eye on us. We don’t sit on chairs, but kneel, and this time we have cushions, small red velvet ones with nothing written on them, not even Faith.

Luckily the weather is all right: not too hot, cloudy-bright. It would be miserable kneeling here in the rain. Maybe that’s why they leave it so late to tell us: so they’ll know what the weather will be like. That’s as good as reason as any.

I kneel on my red velvet cushion. I try to think about tonight, about making love, in the dark, in the light reflected off the white walls. I remember being held.

There’s a long piece of rope which winds like a snake in front of the first row of cushions, along the second, and back through the lines of chairs, bending like a very old, very slow river viewed from the air, down to the back. The rope is thick and brown and smells of tar. The front end of the rope runs up onto the stage. It’s like a fuse, or the string of a balloon.

On stage, to the left, are those who are to be salvaged: two Handmaids, one Wife. Wives are unusual, and despite myself I look at this one with interest. I want to know what she has done.

They have been placed here before the gates were opened. All of them sit on folding wooden chairs, like graduating students who are about to be given prizes. Their hands rest in their laps, looking as if they are folded sedately. They sway a little, they’ve probably been given injections or pills, so they won’t make a fuss. It’s better if

things go smoothly. Are they attached to their chairs? Impossible to say, under all that drapery.

Now the o cial procession is approaching the stage, mounting the steps at the right: three women, one Aunt in front, two Salvagers in their black hoods and cloaks a pace behind her. Behind them are the other Aunts. The whisperings among us hush. The three arrange themselves, turn towards us, the Aunt flanked by the two black-robed Salvagers.

It’s Aunt Lydia. How many years since I’ve seen her? I’d begun to think she existed only in my head, but here she is, a little older. I have a good view, I can see the deepening furrows to either side of her nose, the engraved frown. Her eyes blink, she smiles nervously, peering to left and right, checking out the audience, and lifts a hand to fidget with her headdress. An odd strangling sound comes over the P.A. system: she is clearing her throat.

I’ve begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit.

The sun comes out, and the stage and its occupants light up like a Christmas crèche. I can see the wrinkles under Aunt Lydia’s eyes, the pallor of the seated women, the hairs on the rope in front of me on the grass, the blades of grass. There is a dandelion, right in front of me, the colour of egg yolk. I feel hungry. The bell stops tolling.

Aunt Lydia stands up, smooths down her skirt with both hands, and steps forward to the mike. “Good afternoon, ladies,” she says, and there is an instant and ear-splitting feedback whine from the P.A. system. From among us, incredibly, there is laughter. It’s hard not to laugh, it’s the tension, and the look of irritation on Aunt Lydia’s face

as she adjusts the sound. This is supposed to be dignified.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” she says again, her voice now tinny and flattened. It’s ladies instead of girls because of the Wives. “I’m sure we are all aware of the unfortunate circumstances that bring us all here together on this beautiful morning, when I am certain we would all rather be doing something else, at least I speak for myself, but duty is a hard taskmaster, or may I say on this occasion task-mistress, and it is in the name of duty that we are here today.”

She goes on like this for some minutes, but I don’t listen. I’ve heard this speech, or one like it, often enough before: the same platitudes, the same slogans, the same phrases: the torch of the future, the cradle of the race, the task before us. It’s hard to believe there will not be polite clapping after this speech, and tea and cookies served on the lawn.

That was the prologue, I think. Now she’ll get down to it.

Aunt Lydia rummages in her pocket, produces a crumpled piece of paper. This she takes an undue length of time to unfold and scan. She’s rubbing our noses in it, letting us know exactly who she is, making us watch her as she silently reads, flaunting her prerogative. Obscene, I think. Let’s get this over with.

“In the past,” says Aunt Lydia, “it has been the custom to precede the actual Salvagings with a detailed account of the crimes of which the prisoners stand convicted. However, we have found that such a public account, especially when televised, is invariably followed by a rash, if I may call it that, an outbreak I should say, of exactly similar crimes. So we have decided in the best interests of all to discontinue this practice. The Salvagings will proceed without further ado.”

A collective murmur goes up from us. The crimes of others are a secret language among us. Through them we show ourselves what we might be capable of, after all. This is not a popular announcement. But you would never know it from Aunt Lydia, who smiles and blinks as if washed in applause. Now we are left to our own devices, our own speculations. The first one, the one they’re now raising from her chair, black-gloved hands on her upper arms: reading? No, that’s only a hand cut off, on the third conviction. Unchastity, or an attempt on the life of her Commander? Or the Commander’s Wife, more likely. That’s what we’re thinking. As for the Wife, there’s mostly just one thing they get salvaged for. They can do almost anything to us, but they aren’t allowed to kill us, not legally. Not with knitting needles or garden shears, or knives purloined from the kitchen, and especially not when we are pregnant. It could be adultery, of course. It could always be that.

Or attempted escape.

“Ofcharles,” Aunt Lydia announces. No one I know. The woman is brought forward; she walks as if she’s really concentrating on it, one foot, the other foot, she’s definitely drugged. There’s a groggy off-centre smile on her mouth. One side of her face contracts, an uncoordinated wink, aimed at the camera. They’ll never show it, of course, this isn’t live. The two Salvagers tie her hands, behind her back.

From behind me there’s a sound of retching. That’s why we don’t get breakfast.

“Janine, most likely,” Ofglen whispers.

I’ve seen it before, the white bag placed over the head, the woman helped up onto the high stool as if she’s being helped up the steps of a bus, steadied there, the noose adjusted delicately around the neck, like a vestment, the stool kicked away. I’ve heard the long sigh go up, from around me, the sigh like air coming out of an air mattress, I’ve seen Aunt Lydia place her hand over the mike, to stifle the other sounds coming from behind her, I’ve leaned forward to touch the rope in front of me, in time with the others, both hands on it, the rope hairy, sticky with tar in the hot sun, then placed my hand on my heart to show my unity with the Salvagers and my consent, and my complicity in the death of this woman. I have seen the kicking feet and the two in black who now seize hold of them and drag downwards with all their weight. I don’t want to see it any more. I look at the grass instead. I describe the rope.

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