The Handmaid’s Tale
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of
varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games
that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets
were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around
the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like
an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the
sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls,
felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants,
then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have
been held there; themusic lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound,
style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands
made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of
mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of
something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for
something that was always about to happen and was never the same
as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back,
or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the
sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for
insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an
after-thought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set
up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had
flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones
that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the
stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not
out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle
prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
No guns though, even they could not be trustedwith guns. Guns were
for the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren’t
allowed inside the building except when called, and we weren’t
allowed out, except for our walks, twice daily, two by two around the
football field, which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped
with barbed wire. The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us.
They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. If only
they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be
exchanged,we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had
our bodies. That was our fantasy.
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkness
we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and
touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our
heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s
mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma.
Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament
in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space,
plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken
out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed
anything you could tie a rope to.
A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat
with a little cushion. When the window is partly openit only opens
partlythe air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the
chair,or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight
comes in through the window too, ami falls on the floor, which is
made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the
polish. There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the
kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their
spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to
traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why
do 1 want?
On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a
print of flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowed,
Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same while
curtains, I wonder? Government issue?
Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.
A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white
spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not
to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed.
There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your
chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass, in front of
the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only
partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away
they’re afraid of. Wewouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the
ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.
So. Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for
the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of
former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we
are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who
still have circumstances.
But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am
alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight.
Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who
was in love with either/or.
The bell that measures time is ringing. Time here is measured by
bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few
I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their
red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red
gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands,
finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red:
the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full,
gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are
full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us
from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s
not my color. I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm.
The door of the roomnot my room, I refuse to say myis not locked. In
fact it doesn’t shut properly. I go out into the polished hallway,which
has a runner down the center, dusty pink. Like a path through the
forest, like a carpet for royalty, it shows me the way.
The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it,
one hand on the banister, once a tree, turned in another century,
rubbed to a warm gloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house,
built for a large rich family. There’s a grandfather clock in the
hallway, which doles out time, and then the door to the motherly
front sitting room, with its flesh tones and hints. A sitting room in
which I never sit, but stand or kneel only. At the end of the hallway,
above the front door, is a fanlight of colored glass: flowers, red and
There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turn my head so that the
white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it
as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a
fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something,
some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment
of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood.
At the bottom of the stairs there’s a hat-and-umbrella stand, the
bentwood kind, long rounded rungs of wood curving gently up into
hooks shaped like the opening fronds of a fern. There are several
umbrellas in it: black, for the Commander, blue, for the
Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to me, which is red. I leave
the red umbrella where it is, because I know from the window that
the day is sunny. I wonder whether or notthe Commander’s Wile-is
in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes 1 can hear her
pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, anil the soft
tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.
I walk along the hallway, past the sitting room door and the door that
leads into the dining room, and open the door at the end of the hall
and go through into the kitchen. Here the smell is no longer of
furniture polish. Rita is in here, standing at the kitchen table, which
has a top of chipped white enamel. She’s in her usual Martha’s dress,
which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. The
dress is much like mine in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib
apron over it and without the white wings and the veil. She puts on
the veilto go outside, but nobody much cares who sees the face of a
Martha. Her sleeves are rolled in the elbow, showing her brown arms.
She’s making bread, thowing the loaves for the final brief kneading
and then the shaping.
Rita sees me and nods, whether in greeting or in simple acknowl
edgment of my presence it’s hard to say, and wipes her floury hands
on her apron and rummages in the kitchen drawer for the token
book. Frowning, she tears out three tokens and hands them to me.
Her face might be kindly if she would smile. But the frown isn’t
personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for.
She thinks I may be catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck.
Sometimes I listen outside closed doors, a thing I never would have
done in the time before. I don’t listen long, because I don’t want to be
caught doing it. Once, though, I heard Rita say to Cora I hat she
wouldn’t debase herself like that.
Nobody asking you, Cora said. Anyways, what could you do,
Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice.
With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows what all?
said Cora. Catch you.
They were shelling peas; even through the almost-closed door I could
hear the light clink of the hard peas falling into the metal howl. I
heard Rita, a grunt or a sigh, of protest or agreement.
Anyways, they’re doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I
hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years
younger. It’s not that bad. It’s not what you’d call hard work.
Better her than me, Rita said, and I opened the door. Their faces were
the way women’s faces are when they’ve been talking about you
behind your back and they think you’ve heard: embarrassed, but also
a little defiant, as if it were their right. That day, Cora was more
pleasant to me than usual, Rita more surly.
Today, despite Rita’s closed face and pressed lips, I would like to stay
here, in the kitchen. Cora might come in, from somewhere else in the
house, carrying her bottle of lemon oil and her duster, and Rita
would make coffeein the houses of the Commanders there is still real
coffeeand we would sit at Rita’s kitchen table, which is not Rita’s any
more than my table is mine, and we would talk, about aches and
pains, illnesses, our feet, our backs, all the different kinds of mischief
that our bodies, like unruly children, can get into. We would nod our
heads as punctuation to each other’s voices, signaling that yes, we
know all about it. We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each
other in the recital of our physical miseries; gently we would
complain, our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in
the eaves troughs. / know what you mean, we’d say. Or, a quaint
expression you sometimes hear, still, from older people: / hear where
you’re coming from, as if the voice itself were a traveler, arriving from
a distant place. Which it would be, which it is.
How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk.
An exchange, of sorts.
Or we would gossip. The Marthas know things, they talk among
themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like
me, they listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes
averted. I’ve heard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their
private conversations. Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a
knitting needle, right in the belly. Jealousy, it must have been, eating
her up. Or, tantalizingly, It was toilet cleaner she used. Worked like a
charm, though you’d think he’d of tasted it. Must’ve been that drunk;
but they found her out all right.
Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft
resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch
something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of
But even if I were to ask, even if I were to violate decorum to that
extent, Rita would not allow it. She would he too alr?d. T Marthas are
not supposed to fraternize with us.
Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He said
there was no corresponding word thathat meant to behave like a
sister. Sororize, it would have to be, he said. From the Latin. He liked
knowing about such details. The derivations of words, curious
usages. I used to tease him about being pedantic,
I take the tokens from Rita’s outstretched hand. They have pictures
on them, of the things they can be exchanged for tweleve eggs, a piece
of cheese, a brown thing that’s supposed to be a steak. I place them in
the zippered pocket in my sleeve, where 1 keep my pass.
“Tell them fresh, for the eggs,” she any. “Not like the last time. And a
chicken, tell them, not a hen. Tell them who It’s for and then they
won’t mess around.”
“All right,” I say. I don’t smile. Why tempt her to friendship?
I go out by the back door, into the garden, which is large and tidy: a
lawn in the middle, a willow, weeping catkins; around the edges, the
flower borders, in which the daffodils are now fading and the tulips
are opening their cups, spilling out color. The tulips are red, a darker
crimson towards the stem, as if they have been cut and are beginning
to heal there.
This garden is the domain of the Commander’s Wife. Looking out
through my shatterproof window I’ve often seen her in it, her knees
on a cushion, a light blue veil thrown over her wide gardening hat, a
basket at her side with shears in it and pieces of string for lying the
flowers into place. A Guardian detailed to the Commander does the
heavy digging; the Commander’s Wife directs, pointing with her
stick. Many of the Wives have such gardens, it’s something for them
to order and maintain and care for.
1 once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth,
the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle
of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly thai way.
Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just
sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace.
She isn’t here now, and I start to wonder where she is: I don’t like to
come upon the Commander’s Wife unexpectedly. Perhaps she’s
sewing, in the sitting room, with her left foot on the footstool,
because of her arthritis. Or knitting scarves, for the Angels at the
front lines. I can hardly believe the Angels have a need for such
scarves; anyway, the ones made by the Commander’s Wife are too
elaborate. She doesn’t bother with the cross-and-star pattern used by
many of the other Wives, it’s not a challenge. Fir trees march across
the ends of her scarves, or eagles, or stiff humanoid figures, boy and
girl, boy and girl. They aren’t scarves for grown men but for children.
Sometimes I think these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but
unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in
their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the Wives busy, to give
them a sense of purpose. But I envy the Commander’s Wife her
knitting. It’s good to have small goals that can be easily attained.
What does she envy me?
She doesn’t speak to me, unless she can’t avoid it. I am a reproach to
her; and a necessity.
We stood face to face for the first time five weeks ago, when I arrived
at this posting. The Guardian from the previous pos?g brought me to
the front door. On first days we are permitted front doors, but after
that we’re supposed to use the back. Things haven’t settled down, it’s
too soon, everyone is unsure about our exact status. After a while it
will be either all from doors or all back.
Aunt Lydia said she was lobbying for the front. Your in a position of
honor, she said.
The Guardianrang the doorbell for me, but before there was time for
someone to hear and walk quickly to answer, the door opened
inward. She must have been waiting behind it, I was expecting a
Martha, but it was her instead, in her long powder-blue robe,
So, you’re the new one, she said. She didn’t step aside to let me in,
she just stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. She
wanted me to feel that I could not come into the house unless she
said so. There is push and shove, these days, over suchtoeholds.
Yes, I said.
Leave it on the porch. She said this to the Guardian, who was
carrying my bag. The bag was red vinyl and not large. There was
another bag, with the winter cloak and heavier dresses, but that
would be coming later.
The Guardian set down the bag and saluted her. Then I could hear
his footsteps behind me, going back down the walk, and the click of
the front gate, and I felt as if a protective arm were being withdrawn.
The threshold of a new house is a lonely place.
She waited until the car started up and pulled away. I wasn’t looking
at her face, but at the part of her I could see with my head lowered:
her blue waist, thickened, her left hand on the ivory head of her cane,
the large diamonds on the ring finger, which must once have
beenfine and was still finely kept, the fingernail at the end of the
knuckly finger filed to a gentle curving point. It was like an ironic
smile, on that finger; like something mocking her.
You might as well come in, she said. She turned her back on me and
limped down the hall. Shut the door behind you.
I lifted my red bag inside, as she’d no doubt intended, then closed the
door. I didn’t say anything to her. Aunt Lydia said it was best not to
speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from
their point of view, she said, her hands clasped and wrung together,
her nervous pleading smile. It isn’t easy for them.
In here, said the Commander’s Wife. When I went into the sitting
room she was already in her chair, her left foot on the footstool, with
its petit point cushion, roses in a basket. Her knitting was on the floor
beside the chair, the needles stuck through it.
I stood in front of her, hands folded. So, she said. She had a cigarette,
and she put it between her lips and gripped it there while she lit it.
Her lips were thin, held that way, with the small vertical lines around
them you used to see in advertisements for lip cosmetics. The lighter
was ivory-colored. The cigarettes must have come from the black
market, I thought, and this gave me hope. Even now that there is no
real money anymore, there’s still a black market. There’s always a
black market, there’s always something that can be exchanged. She
then was a woman who might bend the rules. But what did I have, to
I looked at the cigarette with longing. For me, like liquor and coffee,
they are forbidden.
So old what’s-his-face didn’t work out, she said.
No, ma’am, I said.
She gave what might have been a laugh, then coughed. Tough luck on
him, she said. This is your second, isn’t it?
Third, ma’am, I said.
Not so good for you either, she said. There was another coughing
laugh. You can sit down. I don’t make a practice of it, but just this
I did sit, on the edge of one of the stiff-backed chairs. I didn’t want to
stare around the room, I didn’t want to appear inattentive to her; so
the marble mantelpiece to my right and the mirror over it and the
bunches of flowers were just shadows, then, at the edges of my eyes.
Later I would have more than enough time to take them in.
Now her face was on a level with mine. I thought I recognized her; or
at least there was something familiar about her. A little of her hair
was showing, from under her veil. It was still blond. I thought then
that maybe she bleached it, that hair dye was something else she
could get through the black market, but I know now that it really is
blond. Her eyebrows were plucked into thin arched lines, which gave
her a permanent look of surprise, or outrage, or inquisitiveness, such
as you might see on a startled child, but below them her eyelids were
tired-looking. Not so her eyes, which were the flat hostile blue of a
midsummer sky in bright sunlight, a blue that shuts you out. Her
nose must once have been what was called cute but now was too
small for her face. Her face was not fat but it was large. Two lines led
downward from the corners of her mouth; between them was her
chin, clenched like a fist.
I want to see as little of you as possible, she said. 1 expect you feel the
same way about me.
I didn’t answer, as a yes would have been insulting, a no
I know you aren’t stupid, she went on. She inhaled, blew out the
smoke. I’ve read your file. As far as I’m concerned, this is like a
business transaction. But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You
Yes, ma’am, I said.
Don’t call me ma’am, she said irritably. You’re not a Martha.
I didn’t ask what I was supposed to cull her, because I could see that
she hoped I would never have the- occasion to call her anvthing at all.
I was disappointed. I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, a
motherly figure, someone who would understand and protect me.
The Wife in my posting before this had spent most of her time in her
bedroom; the Marthas said she drank. I wanted this one to
bedifferent. I wanted to think I would have liked her, in another time
and place, another life. But I could see already that I wouldn’t have
liked her, nor she me.
She put her cigarette out, half smoked, in a little scrolled ashtray on
the lamp table beside her. She did this decisively, one jab and one
grind, not the series of genteel taps favored by many of the Wives.
As for my husband, she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that
to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final.
Yes, ma’am, I said again, forgetting. They used to have dolls, for little
girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was
sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll. She probably
longed to slap my face. They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent.
But not with any implement. Only with their hands.
It’s one of the things we fought for, said the Commander’s Wife, and
suddenly she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking down at her
knuckled, diamond-studded hands, and I knew where I’d seen her
The first time was on television, when I was eight or nine. It was
when my mother was sleeping in, on Sunday mornings, and I would
get up early and go to the television set in my mother’s study and flip
through the channels, looking for cartoons. Sometimes when I
couldn’t find any I would watch the Growing Souls Gospel Hour,
where they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. One
of the women was called Serena Joy. She was the lead so-prano. She
was ash blond, petite, with a snub nose and huge blue eyes which
she’d turn upwards during hymns. She could smile and cry at the
same time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek, as if on
cue, as her voice lifted through its highest notes, tremulous,
effortless. It was after that she went on to other things.
The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or had been, once.
So it was worse than I thought.
I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a
hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is
damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the
fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink,
I open the white picket gate and continue, past the front lawn and
towards the front gate. In the driveway, one of the Guardians
assigned to our household is washing the car. That must mean the
Commander is in the house, in his own quarters, past the dining
room and beyond, where he seems to stay most of the time.
The car is a very expensive one, a Whirlwind; better than the Chariot,
much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth. It’s black, of
course, the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek. The
driver is going over it with a chamois, lovingly. This ;it least hasn’t
changed, the way men caress good cars.
He’s wearing the uniform of the Guardians, but his cap is tilted at a
jaunty angle and his sleeves are rolled to the dhow, showing his
forearms, tanned but with a stipple of dark hairs, He has a cigarette
stuck in the corner of his mouth, which shows that he too has
something he can trade on the black market.
I know this man’s name: Nick. I know this because I’ve heard
Rita and Cora talking about him, and once I heard the Commander
speaking to him: Nick, I won’t be needing the car.
He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he
hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some
defect, lack of connections. But he acts as if he doesn’t know this, or
care, He’s too casual, he’s not servile enough. It may be stupid-ity,
but I don’t think so. Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat
Misfit as odor. Despite myself, I think of how he might smell. Not fish
or decaying rat; tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke. I
He looks at me, and sees me looking. He has a French face, lean,
whimsical, all planes and angles, with creases around the mouth
where he smiles. He takes a final puff of the cigarette, lets it drop to
the driveway, and steps on it. He begins to whistle. Then he winks.
I drop my head and turn so that the white wings hide my face, and
keep walking. He’s just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to
Perhaps he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my
face and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the
I’erhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. i I’erhaps he is an Eye.
I open the front gate and close it behind me, looking down but not
back. The sidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a
held of oblongs, gently undulating where the earth beneath has
buckled, from decade after decade of winter frost. The color of the
bricks is old, yet fresh and clear. Sidewalks are kept much cleaner tan
they used to be.
I walk to the corner and wait. Iused to be bad at waiting. They also
serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us
memorize it. She also said, Not all of you will make it through. Some
of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are
shallow-rooted. She had a moleon her chin that went up and down
while she talked. She said, Think of yourselves as seeds, and right
then her voice was wheedling, conspiratorial, like the voices of those
women who used to teach ballet classes to children, and who would
say, Arms up inthe air now; let’s pretend we’re trees. I stand on the
corner, pretending I am a tree.
A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a
nondescript woman in red carrying a basket, comes along the brick
sidewalk towards me. She reaches meand we peer at each other’s
faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us. She is
the right one.
“Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me, the accepted greeting among
“May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted response. We turn and
walk together past the large houses, towards the central part of town.
We aren’t allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be
for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected
already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us
slips through the net because of something that happens on one of
our daily walks, the other will be accountable.
This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don’t know what
happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn’t there
anymore, and this one was there in her place. It isn’t the sort of thing
you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers
you want to know. Anyway there wouldn’t be an answer.
This one is a little plumper than I am. Her eyes are brown. Her name
is Ofglen, and that’s about all I know about her. She walks demurely,
head down, red-gloved hands clasped in from, with short little steps
like a trained pig’s, onits hind legs. During these walks she has never
said anything that was not strictly orthodox, but then, neither have I.
She may be a real believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can’t
take the risk.
“The war is going well, I hear,” she says.
“Praise be,” I reply.
“We’ve been sent good weather.”
“Which I receive with joy.”
“They’ve defeated more of the rebels, since yesterday.”
“Praise be,” I say. I don’t ask her how she knows, “What were they?”
“Baptists. They had a stronghold in the Blue Hills. They smoked
Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace.
But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it
must mean something.
We reach the first barrier, which is like the barriers blocking off
roadworks, or dug-up sewers: a wooden crisscross painted in yellow
and black stripes, a red hexagon which means Stop. Near the gateway
there are some lanterns, not lit because it isn’t night. Above us, I
know, there are floodlights, attached to the telephone poles, for use
in emergencies, and there are men with machine guns in the
pillboxes on either side of the road. I don’t see the floodlights and the
pillboxes, because of the wings around my face. I just know they are
Behind the barrier, waiting for us at the narrow gateway, there are
two men, in the green uniforms of the Guardians of the Faith, with
the crests on their shoulders and berets: two swords, crossed, above a
white triangle. The Guardians aren’t real soldiers. They’re used for
routine policing and other menial functions, digging up the
Commander’s Wife’s garden, for instance, and they’re either stupid or
older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes
These two are very young: one mustache is still sparse, one face is
still blotchy. Their youth is touching, but I know I can’t be deceived
by it. The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most
fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns. They haven’t yet learned
about existence through time. You have to go slowly with them.
Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha.
She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was
hunting for a bomb. They thought she was a man in disguise. There
have been such incidents.
Rita and Cora knew the woman. I heard them talking about it, in the
Doing their job, said Cora. Keeping us safe.
Nothing safer than dead, said Rita, angrily. She was minding her own
business. No call to shoot her. It was an accident, said Cora.
No such thing, said Rita. Everything is meant.
I could hear her thumping the pots around, in the sink.
Well, someone’ll think twice before blowing up this house, any ways,
All the same, said Rita. She worked hard. That was a bad death.
I can think of worse, said Cora. At least it was quick.
You can say that, said Rita. I’d choose to have some time, before, like.
To set things right.
The two young Guardians salute us, raising three fingers to the rims
of their berets. Such tokens are accorded to us. They are supposed to
show respect, because of the nature of our service.
We produce our passes, from the zippered pockets in our wide
sleeves, and they are inspected and stamped. One man goes into the
right-hand pillbox, to punch our numbers into the Compuchek.
In returning my pass, the one with the peach-colored mustache
bends his head to try to get a look at my face. I raise my head a little,
to help him, and he sees my eyes and I see his, and he blushes. His
face is long and mournful, like a sheep’s, but with the large full eyes
of a dog, spaniel not terrier. His skin is pale and looks
un-wholesomely tender, like the skin under a scab. Nevertheless, I
think of placing my hand on it, this exposed face. He is the one who
It’s an event, a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetect-able,
but such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself, like the
candy I hoarded, as a child, at the back of a drawer. Such moments
are possibilities, tiny peepholes.
What if I were to come at night, when he’s on duty alonethough he
would never be allowed such solitudeand permit him beyond my
white wings? What if I were to peel off my red shroud and show
myself to him, to them, by the uncertain light of the lanterns? This is
what they must think about sometimes, as they stand endlessly
beside this barrier, past which nobody ever comes except the
Commanders of the Faithful in their long black murmurous cars, or
their blue Wives and white-veiled daughters on their dutiful way to
Salvagings or Prayvaganzas, or their dumpy green Marthas, or the
occasional Birthmobile’, or their read Hand-maids, on foot. Or
sometimes a black-painted van, with the winged
Eye in white on the side. The windows of the vans are dark-tinted,
and the men in the front seats wear dark glasses: a double obscurity.
The vans are surely more silent than the other cars. When they pass,
we avert our eyes. If there are sounds coming from inside, we try not
to hear them. Nobody’s heart is perfect.
When the black vans reach a checkpoint, they’re waved through
without a pause. The Guardians would not want to take the risk of
looking inside, searching, doubting their authority. Whatever they
If they do think; you can’t tell by looking at them.
But more likely they don’t think in terms of clothing discarded on the
lawn. If they think of a kiss, they must then think immediately of the
floodlights going on, the rifle shots. They think instead of doing their
duty and of promotion to the Angels, and of being allowed possibly to
marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be
old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own.
The one with the mustache opens the small pedestrian gate for us
and stands back, well out of the way, and we pass through. As wewalk
away I know they’re watching, these two men who aren’t yet
permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I
move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me. It’s
like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a
bone held out of reach, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it,
because none of this is the fault of these men, they’re too young. Then
I find I’m not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog
bone, passive but there. I hope theyget hard at the sight of us and
have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously.
They will suffer, later, at night, in their regimented beds. They have
no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege. There are no
more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and
my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention,
stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes.
Doubled, I walk the street. Though we are no longer in the
Commanders’ compound, there are large houses here also. In front of
one of them a Guardian is mowing the lawn. The lawns are tidy, the
facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures
they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and
interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air
of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a
model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in
those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no
This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on
television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to
the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing
moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds.
Gilead is within you.
Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no
lawyers anymore, and the university is closed.
Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We
used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house,
fixing it up. We would have a garden, .swings forthe Children. We
would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could
ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game forSundays.
Such freedom now seems almost weightless.
We turn the corner onto a main street, where there’s more traffic.
Cars go by, black most of them, some gray and brown. There are
other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the
Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and
cheap and skimpy, that mark the women of the poorer men.
Econowives, they’re called. These women are not divided into
functions. They have to do everything; if they can. Sometimes there is
a womanall in black, a widow. There used to be more of them, but
they seem to be diminishing. You don’t see the Commanders’ Wives
on the sidewalks. Only in cars.
The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on the
cracks. I’m remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time
before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for
running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of
fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. Though I never
ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.
Women were not protected then.
I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every
woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he
is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the
road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on
and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a
laundromat, by yourself, at night.
I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans,
jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap,
my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts
obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to
and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now
you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
In front of us, to the right, is the store where we order dresses. Sonic
people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to
break. The store has a huge wooden sign outside it, in the shape of a
golden lily; Lilies of the Field, it’s called. You can see the place, under
the lily, where the lettering was painted out, when they decided that
even the names of shops were too much temptation for us. Now
places are known by their signs alone.
Lilies used to be a movie theater, before. Students went there a lot;
every spring they had aHumphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall
or Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds.
They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the
possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or
not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to
choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much
I don’t know when they stopped having the festival. I must have been
grown up. So I didn’t notice.
We don’t go into Lilies, but across the road and along a side street.
Our first stop is at a store with another wooden sign: three eggs, a
bee, a cow. Milk and Honey. There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two
by two. I see they have oranges today. Ever since Central America
was lost to the Libertheos, oranges have been hard to get: sometimes
they are there, sometimes not. The war interferes with the oranges
from California, and even Florida isn’t dependable, when there are
roadblocks or when the train tracks have been blown up. I look atthe
oranges, longing for one. But I haven’t brought any coupons for
oranges. I’ll go back and tell Rita about them, I think. She’ll be
pleased. It will be something, a small achievement, to have made
Those who’ve reached the counter hand their tokens across it, to the
two men in Guardian uniforms who stand on the other side. Nobody
talks much, though there is a rustling,and the women’s heads move
furtively from side to side: here, shopping, is where you might see
someone you know, someone you’ve known in the time before, or at
the Red Center. Just to catch sight of a face like that is an
encouragement. If I could see Moira, just see her, know she still
exists. It’s hard to imagine now,having a friend
But Ofglen, beside me, isn’t looking, Maybe she doesnt know anyone
anymore. Maybe they have all vanish, the women she knew. Or
maybe she doesn’t want to be see. She stands in silence head down.
As we wait in our double line, the door opens and two more women
come in, both in the red dresses and white wings of the Handmaids.
One of them is vastly pregnant; her belly, under her loose garment,
swells triumphantly. There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an
escape of breath; despite ourselves we turn our heads, blatantly, to
see better; our fingersitch to touch her. She’s a magic presence to us,
an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop,
showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved.
The women in the room are whispering, almost talking, so great is
“Who is it?” I hear behind me.
“Ofwayne. No. Ofwarren.”
“Showoff,” a voice hisses, and this is true. A woman that pregnant
doesn’t have to go out, doesn’t have to go shopping. The daily walk is
no longer prescribed, to keep her abdominal muscles in working
order. She needs only the floor exercises, the breathing drill. She
could stay at her house. And it’s dangerous for her to be out, there
must be a Guardian standing outside the door, waiting for her. Now
that she’s the carrier of life, she is closer to death, and needs special
security. Jealousy could get her, it’s happened before. All children are
wanted now, but not by everyone.
But the walk may be a whim of hers, and they humor whims, when
something has gone this far and there’s been no miscarriage. Or
perhaps she’s one of those, Pile it on, I can take it, a martyr. I catch a
glimpse of her face, as she raises it to look around. The voice behind
me was right. She’s come here to display herself. She’s glowing, rosy,
she’s enjoying every minute of this.
“Quiet,” says one of the Guardians behind the counter, and we hush
Ofglen and I have reached the counter. We hand over our tokens, and
one Guardian enters the numbers on them into the Compubite while
the other gives us our purchases, the milk, the eggs. We put them
into our baskets and go out again, past the pregnant woman and her
partner, who beside her looks spindly, shrunken; as we all do. The
pregnant woman’s belly is like a huge fruit. Humungous,
word of my childhood. Her hands rest on it as if to defend it, or as if
they’re gathering something from it, warmth and strength.
As I pass she looks full at me, into my eyes, and I know who she; is.
She was at the Red Center with me, one of Aunt Lydia’s pets. I never
liked her. Her name, in the time before, was Janine.
Janine looks at me, then, and around the corners of her mouth there
is the trace of a smirk. She glances down to where my own belly lies
flat under my red robe, and the wings cover her face. I can see only a
little of her forehead, and the pinkish tip of her nose.
Next we go into All Flesh, which is marked by a large wooden pork
chop hanging from two chains. There isn’t so much of a line here:
meat is expensive, and even the Commanders don’t have it every day.
Ofglen gets steak, though, and that’s the second time this week. I’ll
tell that to the Marthas: it’s the kind of thing they enjoy hearing
about. They are very interested in how other households are run;
such bits of petty gossip give them an opportunity for pride or
I take the chicken, wrapped in butcher’s paper and trussed with
string. Not many things are plastic, anymore. I remember those
endless white plastic shopping bags, from the supermarket; I hated
to wastethem and would stuff them in under the sink, until the day
would come when there would be too many and I would open the
cupboard door and they would bulge out, sliding over the floor. Luke
used to complain about it. Periodically he would take all the bags and
throw them out.
She could get one of those over her head, he’d say. You know how
kids like to play. She never would, I’d say. She’s too old. (Or too
smart, or too lucky.) But I would feel a chill of fear, and then guilt for
having been so careless. Itwas true, I took too much for granted; I
trusted fate, back then. I’ll keep them in a higher cupboard, I’d say.
Don’t keep them at all, he’d say. We never use them for anything.
Garbage bags, I’d say. He’d say
Not here and now. Not where people are looking. I turn, see my
silhouette in the plate glass window. We have come outside, then, we
are on the street.
A group of people is coming towards us. They’re tourists, from Japan
it looks like, a trade delegation perhaps, on a tour of the historic
landmarks or out for local color. They’re diminutive and neatly
turned out; each has his or her camera, his or her smile. They look
around, bright-eyed, cocking their heads to one side like robins, their
very cheerfulness aggressive, and I can’t help staring. It’s been a long
time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just
below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly
naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with
their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture.
The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance;
their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads
are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and
sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their
mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before.
I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too
cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also
repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change
our minds, about things like this.
Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.
Westernized, they used to call it.
The Japanese tourists come towards us, twittering, and we turn our
heads away too late: our faces have been seen.
There’s an interpreter, in the standard blue suit and red-patterned
tie, with the winged-eye tie pin. He’s the one who steps forward, out
of the group, in front of us, blocking our way. The tourists bunch
behind him; one of them raises a camera.
“Excuse me,” he says to both of us, politely enough. “They’re asking if
they can take your picture.”
I look down at the sidewalk, shake my head for no. What they must
see is the white wings only, a scrap of face, my chinand part of my
mouth. Not the eyes. I know better than to look the interpreter in the
face. Most of the interpreters are Eyes, or so it’s said.
I also know better than to say yes. Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt
Lydia. Never forget it. To be seento be seenis to beher voice
trembledpenetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She
called us girls.
Beside me, Ofglen is also silent. She’s tucked her red-gloved hands up
into her sleeves, to hide them.
The interpreter turns back to the group, chatters at them in stac cato.
I know what he’ll be saying, I know the line. He’ll be telling them that
the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through
the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.
I’m looking down, at the sidewalk, mesmerized by the women’s feet.
One of them is wearing open-toed sandals, the toenails painted pink.
I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the
second coat on too soon, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose
against the skin, the way the toes felt, pushed towards the opening in
the shoe by the whole weight of the body. The woman with painted
toes shifts from one foot to the other. I can feel her shoes, on my own
feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry.
“Excuse me,” says the interpreter again, to catch our attention. I nod,
to show I’ve heard him.
“He asks, are you happy,” says the interpreter. I can imagine it, their
curiosity: Are they happy? How can they be happy? I can feel their
bright black eyes on us, the way they lean a little forward to catch our
answers, the women especially, but the men too: we are secret,
forbidden, we excite them.
Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as
dangerous not to speak.
“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What
else can I say?
A block past All Flesh, Ofglen pauses, as if hesitant about which way
to go. We have a choice. We could go straight back, or we could walk
the long way around. We already know which way we will take,
because we always take it.
“I’d like to pass by the church,” says Ofglen, as if piously.
“All right,” I say, though I know as well as she does what she’s really
We walk, sedately. The sun is out, in the sky there are white fluffy
clouds, the kind that look like headless sheep. Given our wings, our
blinkers, it’s hard to look up, hard to get the full view, of the sky, of
anything. But we can do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head,
up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to see the world
To the right, if you could walk along, there’s a street that would take
you down towards the river. There’s a boathouse, where they kept the
sculls once, and some bridges; trees, green banks, where you could sit
and watch the water, and the young men with their naked arms, their
oars lifting into the sunlight as they played at winning. On the way to
the river are the old dormitories, used for something else now, with
their fairy-tale turrets, painted white and gold and blue. When we
think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to
believe it was all like that.
The football stadium is that way too, where they hold the Men’s
Salvagings. As well as the football games. They still have those.
I don’t go to the river anymore, or over bridges. Or on the subway,
although there’s a station right there. We’re not allowed on, there are
Guardians now, there’s no official reason for us to go down those
steps, ride on the trains under the river, into the main city. Why
would we want to go from here to there? We would be up to no good
and they would know it.
The church is a small one, one of the first erected here, hundreds of
years ago. It isn’t used anymore, except as a museum. Inside ityou
can see paintings, of women in long somber dresses, their hair
covered by white caps, and of upright men, darkly clothed and
unsmiling. Our ancestors. Admission is free.
We don’t go in, though, but stand on the path, looking at the
churchyard. The old gravestones are still there, weathered, eroding,
with their skulls and crossed bones, memento mori, their
dough-faced angels, their winged hourglasses to remind us of the
passing of mortal time, and, from a later century, their urns and
willow trees, for mourning.
They haven’t fiddled with the gravestones, or the church either. It’s
only the more recent history that offends them.
Ofglen’s head is bowed, as if she’s praying. She does this every time.
Maybe, I think, there’s someone, someone in particular gone, for her
too; a man, a child. But I can’t entirely believe it. I think of her as a
woman for whom every act is done for show, is acting rather than a
real act. She does such things to look good, I think. She’s out to make
the best of it.
But that is what I must look like to her, as well. How can it be
Now we turn our backs on the church and there is the thing we’ve in
truth come to see: the Wall.
The Wall is hundreds of years old too; or over n hundred, at least.
Like the sidewalks, it’s red brick, and must once have been plain but
handsome. Now the gates have sentries and there are ugly new
floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along
the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the lop,
No one goes through those gates willingly. the precautions are for
those trying to get out, though to make it even as far as the Wall,
from the inside, past the electronic alarm system, would be next to
Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the
necks, their hands tied in front of them, their heads in white bags
tipped sideways onto their shoulders. There must have been a Men’s
Salvaging early this morning. I didn’t hear the bells. Perhaps I’ve
become used to them.
We stop, together as if on signal, and stand and look at the bodies. It
doesn’t matter if we look. We’re supposed to look: this is what they
are there for, hanging on the Wall. Sometimes they’ll be there for
days, until there’s a new batch, so as many people as possible will
have the chanceto see them.
What they are hanging from is hooks. The hooks have been set into
the brickwork of the Wall, for this purpose. Not all of them are
occupied. The hooks look like appliances for the armless. Or steel
question marks, upside-down and sideways.
It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces
themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces
have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what
they are, since they are meant to scare. Or as if their heads are sacks,
stuffed with some undifferentiated material, like flour or dough. It’s
the obvious heaviness of the heads, their vacancy, the way gravity
pulls them down and there’s no life anymore to hold them up. The
heads are zeros.
Though if you look and look, as we are doing, you can see the outlines
of the features under the white cloth, like gray shadows. The heads
are the heads of snowmen, with the coal eyes and the carrot noses
fallen out. The heads are melting.
But on one bag there’s blood, which has seeped through the white
cloth, where the mouth must have been. It makes another mouth, a
small red one, like the mouths painted with thick brushes by
kindergarten children. A child’s idea of a smile. This smile of blood is
what fixes the attention, finally. These are not snowmen after all.
The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors or scientists.
Doctors and scientists aren’t the only ones, there are others, but they
must have had a run on them this morning. Each has a placard hung
around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a
human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such
things were legal. Angel makers, they used to call them; or was that
something else? They’ve been turned up now by searchs through
hospital records, or, ormore likely, since most hospitals destroyed
such records once it became clear what was going to happenby
informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence
from a single woman is no longer admissible; or another doctor,
hoping to save his own skin; or someone already accused, lashing out
at an enemy, or at random, in some desperate bid for safety. Though
informants are not always pardoned.
These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that
what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They
have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the
rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind,
these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be solucky as to
What we are supposed to feel towards these bodies is hatred and
scorn. This isn’t what I feel. These bodies hanging on the Wall are
time travelers, anachronisms. They’ve come here from the past.
What I feel towards them is blankness. What I feel is that I must not
feel. What I feel is partly relief, because none of these men is Luke.
Luke wasn’t a doctor. Isn’t.
I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red
of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers
where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no
connection. The tulips are not tulips of blond, the red smiles are not
flowers, neither thing makes a comment or the other. The tulip is not
a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is
valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I
must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort
into making such distinctions I need to make them. I need to be very
clear, in my own mind,
I feel a tremor in the woman beside me. Is she crying? In what way
could it make her look good? I can’t afford to know, My own hands
are clenched, I note, tight around the handle of my basket, I won’t
give anything away.
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to.This may not seem
ordinary to you now, but alter a time it will, It will he-come ordinary.
The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am
quiet. As long as I don’t move. As long as I lie still. The difference
between lie and lay. Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d
like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All
this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I
had only their words for it.
I lie, then, inside the room, under the plaster eye in the ceiling,
behind the white curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they, and
step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time,
nor am I out of it.
But the night is my time out. Where should 1 go?
Moira, sitting on the edge of my bed, legs crossed, tinkle on kt in her
purple overalls, one dangly earring, the- gold fingernail she wore to
be eccentric, a cigarette between her stubby yellow-ended fingers.
Let’s go for a beer.
You’re getting ashes in my bed, I said.
If you’d make it you wouldn’t have this problem, Mid Moira.
In half an hour, I said. I had a paper due the next day it? Psychology,
English, economics. We studied things like that, then. On the floor of
the room there were books, open face down, this way and that,
Now, said Moira. You don’t need to paint your face, it’s only me.
What’s your paper on? I just did one on date rape.
Date rape, I said. You’re so trendy. It sounds like some kind of
dessert. Date rape.
Ha-ha, said Moira. Get your coat.
She got it herself and tossed it at me. I’m borrowing five bucks off
Or in a park somewhere, with my mother. How old was I? It was cold,
our breaths came out in front of us, there were no leaves on the trees;
gray sky, two ducks in the pond, disconsolate. Bread crumbs under
my fingers, in my pocket. That’s it: she said we were going to feed the
But there were some women burning books, that’s what she was
really there for. To see her friends; she’d lied to me, Saturdays were
supposed to be my day. I turned away from her, sulking, towards the
ducks, but the fire drew me back.
There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were
magazines. They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot
high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not
too many ata time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered.
Their faces were happy, ecstatic almost. Fire can do that. Even my
mother’s face, usually pale, thinnish, looked ruddy and cheer-ful, like
a Christmas card; and there was another woman, large, with asoot
smear down her cheek and an orange knitted cap, I remember her.
You want to throw one on, honey? she said. How old was I?
Good riddance to bad rubbish, she said, chuckling. It okay? she aml
to my mother.
It she wants to, my mother said; she had a way of talking about me to
others as if I couldn’t hear.
The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman
on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chainwound
around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me.I
thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.
Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in,
I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its
burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on
fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before
But then what happens, but then what happens?
I know I lost time.
There must have been needles, pills, something like that. I couldn’t
have lost that much time without help. You have had a shock, they
I would come up through a roaring and confusion, like surf boiling. I
can remember feeling quite calm. I can remember screaming, it felt
like screaming though it may have been only a whisper, Where is
she? What have you done with her?
There was no night or day; only a flickering. After a while there were
chairs again, and a bed, and after that a window.
She’s in good hands, they said. With people who are fit. You are unfit,
but you want the best for her. Don’t you?
They showed me a picture of her, standing outside on a lawn, her face
a closed oval. Her light hair was pulled back tight behind her head.
Holding her hand was a woman I didn’t know. Sin- was only as tall as
the woman’s elbow.
You’ve killed her, I said. She looked like an angel, solemn, compact,
made of air.
She was wearing a dress I’d never seen, white and down lothe
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I
must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only
stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then
there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I
can pick up where I left off.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head; as I go along,
Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and
writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head.
I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself.
There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name.
Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier,
more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of
survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can
mean more than one.
You can mean thousands. I’m not in any immediate danger, I’ll say to
I’ll pretend you can hear me.
But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.
The good weather holds. It’s almost like June, when we would get out
our sundresses and our sandals and go for an ice cream cone. There
are three new bodies on the Wall. One is a priest, still wearing the
black cassock. That’s been put on him, for the trial, even though they
gave up wearing those years ago, when the sect wars first began;
cassocks made them too conspicuous. The two others have purple
placards hung around their necks: Gender Treachery. Their bodies
still wear the Guardian uniforms. Caught together, they must have
been, but where? A barracks, a shower? It’s hard to say. The
snowman with the red smile is gone.
“We should go back,” I say to Ofglen. I’m always the one to say this.
Sometimes I feel that if I didn’t say it, she would slay here forever.
But is she mourning or gloating? I still can’t tell
Without a word she swivels, as if she’s voice-activated, as if she’s on
little oiled wheels, as if she’s on top of a music box, I resent this grace
of hers. I resent her meek head, bowed as if onto a heavy wind. But
there is no wind.
We leave the Wall, walk back the way wr came, in the warm sun.
“It’s a beautiful May day,” Ofglen says. I feel rather than see her head
turn towards me, waiting for a reply.