Authors: Margaret Atwood
Finally our Handmaid managed to get pregnant. I knew this before I was told, because instead of treating her as if she were a stray dog they were putting up with out of pity, the Marthas began fussing over her and giving her bigger meals, and placing flowers in little vases on her breakfast trays. Because of my obsession with her, I kept track of details like that as much as I could.
I would listen to the Marthas talking excitedly in the kitchen when they thought I wasn’t there, though I couldn’t always hear what they said. When I was with them Zilla smiled to herself a lot, and Vera lowered her harsh voice as if she was in church. Even Rosa had a smug expression, as if she’d eaten a particularly delicious orange but was not telling anyone about it.
for Paula, my stepmother, she was glowing. She was nicer to me on those occasions when we were together in the same room, which were not frequent if I could help it. I snatched breakfast in the kitchen before being driven to school, and I left the dinner table as quickly as I could, pleading homework: some piece of petit point or knitting or sewing, a drawing I had to finish, a watercolour I needed to paint. Paula never objected: she didn’t want to see me any more than I wanted to see her.
“Ofkyle’s pregnant, isn’t she?” I asked Zilla one morning. I tried to be casual about it in case I was wrong. Zilla was caught off guard.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“I’m not blind,” I said in a superior voice that must have been irritating. I was at that age.
“We aren’t supposed to say anything about it,” said Zilla, “until after the third month. The first three months are the danger time.”
“Why?” I said. I didn’t really know much after all, despite Aunt Vidala’s runny-nosed slideshow about fetuses.
“Because if it’s an Unbaby, that’s when it might…that’s when it might get born too early,” said Zilla. “And it would die.” I knew about Unbabies: they were not taught, but they were whispered about. There were said to be a lot of them. Becka’s Handmaid had given birth to a baby girl: it didn’t have a brain. Poor Becka had been very upset because she’d wanted a sister. “We’re praying for it. For her,” Zilla had said then. I’d noticed the
Paula must have dropped a hint among the other Wives about Ofkyle being pregnant, though, because my status at school suddenly shot upwards again. Shunammite and Becka competed for my attention, as before, and the other girls deferred to me as if I had an invisible aura.
A coming baby shed lustre on everyone connected with it. It was as if a golden haze had enveloped our house, and the haze got brighter and more golden as time passed. When the three-month mark was reached, there was an unofficial party in the kitchen and Zilla made a cake.
for Ofkyle, her expression was not so much joyful as relieved, from what I could glimpse of her face.
In the midst of this repressed jubilation, I myself was a dark cloud. This unknown baby inside Ofkyle was taking up all the love: there seemed to be none left anywhere for me. I was all alone. And I was jealous: that baby would have a mother, and I would never have one. Even the Marthas were turning away from me towards the light shining out of Ofkyle’s belly. I am ashamed to admit it—jealous of a baby!—but that was the truth.
It was at this time that an event took place that I should pass over because it’s better forgotten, but it had a bearing on the choice I was soon to make. Now that I am older and have seen more of the outside world, I can see that it might not seem that significant to some, but I was a young girl from Gilead, and I had not been exposed to these kinds of situations, so this event was not trivial to me. Instead it was horrifying. It was also shameful: when a shameful thing is done to you, the shamefulness rubs off on you. You feel dirtied.
The prelude was minor: I needed to go to the dentist for my yearly checkup. The dentist was Becka’s father, and his name was Dr. Grove. He was the best dentist, said Vera: all the top Commanders and their families went to him. His office was in the Blessings of Health Building, which was for doctors and dentists. It had a picture of a smiling heart and a smiling tooth on the outside.
One of the Marthas always used to go with me to the doctor or the dentist and sit in the waiting room, as it was more proper that way, Tabitha used to say without explaining why, but Paula said the Guardian could just drive me there, since there was too much work to be done in the house considering the changes that had to be prepared for—by which she meant the baby—and it would be a waste of time to send a Martha.
I did not mind. In fact, going by myself made me feel very grown up. I sat up straight in the back seat of the car behind our Guardian. Then I went into the building and pressed the elevator button that had three teeth on it, and found the right floor and the right door, and sat in the waiting room looking at the pictures of transparent teeth on the wall. When it was my turn I went into the inner room, as the assistant, Mr. William, asked me to do, and sat down in the dentist chair. Dr. Grove came in and Mr. William brought my chart and then went out and closed the door, and Dr. Grove looked at my chart, and asked if I had any problems with my teeth, and I said no.
He poked around in my mouth with his picks and probes and his little mirror, as usual.
usual, I saw his eyes up close, magnified by his glasses—blue and bloodshot, with elephant-knee eyelids—and tried not to breathe in when he was breathing out because his breath smelled—as usual—of onions. He was a middle-aged man with no distinguishing features.
He snapped off his white stretchy sanitary gloves and washed his hands at the sink, which was behind my back.
He said, “Perfect teeth. Perfect.” Then he said, “You’re getting to be a big girl, Agnes.”
Then he put his hand on my small but growing breast. It was summer, so I was wearing the summer school uniform, which was pink and made of light cotton.
I froze, in shock. So it was all true then, about men and their rampaging, fiery urges, and merely by sitting in the dentist chair I was the cause. I was horribly embarrassed—what was I supposed to say? I didn’t know, so I simply pretended it wasn’t happening.
Dr. Grove was standing behind me, so it was his left hand on my left breast. I couldn’t see the rest of him, only his hand, which was large and had reddish hairs on the back. It was warm. It sat there on my breast like a large hot crab. I didn’t know what to do. Should I take hold of his hand and move it off my breast? Would that cause even more burning lust to break forth? Should I try to get away? Then the hand squeezed my breast. The fingers found my nipple and pinched. It was like having a thumbtack stuck into me. I moved the upper part of my body forward—I needed to get out of that dentist chair as fast as I could—but the hand was locking me in. Suddenly it lifted, and then some of the rest of Dr. Grove moved into sight.
“About time you saw one of these,” he said in the normal voice in which he said everything. “You’ll have one of them inside you soon enough.” He took hold of my right hand and positioned it on this part of himself.
I don’t think I need to tell you what happened next. He had a towel handy. He wiped himself off and tucked his appendage back into his trousers.
“There,” he said. “Good girl. I didn’t hurt you.” He gave me a fatherly pat on the shoulder. “Don’t forget to brush twice a day, and floss afterwards. Mr. William will give you a new toothbrush.”
I walked out of the room, feeling sick to my stomach. Mr. William was in the waiting room, his unobtrusive thirty-year-old face impassive. He held out a bowl with new pink and blue toothbrushes in it. I knew enough to take a pink one.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” said Mr. William. “Any cavities?”
“No,” I said. “Not this time.”
“Good,” said Mr. William. “Keep away from the sweet things and maybe you’ll never have any. Any decay. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said. Where was the door?
“You look pale. Some people have a fear of dentists.” Was that a smirk? Did he know what had just happened?
“I’m not pale,” I said stupidly—how could I tell I wasn’t pale? I found the door handle and blundered out, reached the elevator, pressed the down button.
Was this now going to happen every time I went to the dentist? I couldn’t say I didn’t want to go back to Dr. Grove without saying why, and if I said why I knew I would be in trouble. The Aunts at school taught us that you should tell someone in authority—meaning them—if any man touched you inappropriately, but we knew not to be so dumb as to make a fuss, especially if it was a well-respected man like Dr. Grove. Also, what would it do to Becka if I said that about her father? She would be humiliated, she would be devastated. It would be a terrible betrayal.
Some girls had reported such things. One had claimed their Guardian had run his hands over her legs. Another had said that an Econo trash collector had unzipped his trousers in front of her. The first girl had had the backs of her legs whipped for lying, the second had been told that nice girls did not notice the minor antics of men, they simply looked the other way.
But I could not have looked the other way. There had been no other way to look.
“I don’t want any dinner,” I said to Zilla in the kitchen. She gave me a sharp glance.
“Did your dentist appointment go all right, dear?” she said. “Any cavities?”
“No,” I said. I tried a wan smile. “I have perfect teeth.”
“Are you ill?”
“Maybe I’m catching a cold,” I said. “I just need to lie down.”
Zilla made me a hot drink with lemon and honey in it and brought it up to my room on a tray. “I should have gone with you,” she said. “But he’s the best dentist. Everyone agrees.”
She knew. Or she suspected. She was warning me not to say anything. That was the kind of coded language they used. Or I should say: that we all used. Did Paula know too? Did she foresee that such a thing would happen to me at Dr. Grove’s? Is that why she sent me by myself?
It must have been so, I decided. She’d done it on purpose so I would have my breast pinched and that polluting item thrust in front of me. She’d wanted me to be defiled. That was a word from the Bible:
. She was probably having a malicious laugh about it—about the nasty joke she’d played on me, for I could see that in her eyes it would be viewed as a joke.
After that I stopped praying for forgiveness about the hatred I felt towards her. I was right to hate her. I was prepared to think the very worst of her, and I did.
The months passed; my life of tiptoeing and eavesdropping continued. I worked hard at seeing without being seen and hearing without being heard. I discovered the cracks between doorframes and nearly closed doors, the listening posts in hallways and on stairs, the thin places in walls. Most of what I heard came in fragments and even silences, but I was becoming good at fitting these fragments together and filling in the unsaid parts of sentences.
Ofkyle, our Handmaid, got bigger and bigger—or her stomach did—and the bigger she got, the more ecstatic our household became. I mean the women became ecstatic.
for Commander Kyle, it was hard to tell what he felt. He’d always had a wooden face, and anyway men were not supposed to display emotions in such ways as crying or even laughing out loud; though a certain amount of laughing did go on behind the closed dining-room doors when he’d have his groups of Commanders over for dinner, with wine and one of the party desserts involving whipped cream, when obtainable, that Zilla made so well. But I suppose even he was at least moderately thrilled about the ballooning of Ofkyle.
Sometimes I wondered what my own father might have felt about me. I had some notions about my mother—she’d run away with me, she’d been turned into a Handmaid by the Aunts—but none at all about my father. I must have had one, everyone did. You’d think I’d have filled up the blank with idealized pictures of him, but I didn’t: the blank remained blank.
Ofkyle was now quite a celebrity. Wives would send their Handmaids over with some excuse—borrowing an egg, returning a bowl—but really to ask how she was doing. They would be allowed inside the house; then she would be called down so they could put their hands on her round belly and feel the baby kicking. It was amazing to see the expression on their faces while they were performing this ritual: Wonder, as if they were witnessing a miracle. Hope, because if Ofkyle could do it, so could they. Envy, because they weren’t doing it yet. Longing, because they really wanted to do it. Despair, because it might never happen for them. I did not yet know what might become of a Handmaid who, despite having been judged viable, came up barren through all her allotted postings, but I already guessed it would not be good.
Paula threw numerous tea parties for the other Wives. They would congratulate her and admire her and envy her, and she would smile graciously and accept their congratulations modestly, and say all blessings came from above, and then she would order Ofkyle to appear in the living room so the Wives could see for themselves and exclaim over her and make a fuss. They might even call Ofkyle “Dear,” which they never did for an ordinary Handmaid, one with a flat stomach. Then they would ask Paula what she was going to name her baby.
Her baby. Not Ofkyle’s baby. I wondered what Ofkyle thought about that. But none of them were interested in what was going on in her head, they were only interested in her belly. They would be patting her stomach and sometimes even listening to it, whereas I would be standing behind the open living-room door looking at her through the crack so I could watch her face. I saw her trying to keep that face as still as marble, but she didn’t always succeed. Her face was rounder than it had been when she’d first arrived—it was almost swollen—and it seemed to me that this was because of all the tears she was not allowing herself to cry. Did she cry them in secret? Although I would lurk outside her closed door with my ear to it, I never heard her.
At these moments of lurking I would become angry. I’d had a mother once, and I’d been snatched away from that mother and given to Tabitha, just as this baby was going to be snatched away from Ofkyle and given to Paula. It was the way things were done, it was how things were, it was how they had to be for the good of the future of Gilead: the few must make sacrifices for the sake of the many. The Aunts were agreed on that; they taught it; but still I knew this part of it wasn’t right.
But I couldn’t condemn Tabitha, even though she’d accepted a stolen child. She didn’t make the world the way it was, and she had been my mother, and I had loved her and she had loved me. I still loved her, and perhaps she still loved me. Who could tell? Perhaps her silvery spirit was with me, hovering over me, keeping watch. I liked to think so.
I needed to think so.
At last the Birth Day came. I was home from school because I’d finally got my first period and I was having bad cramps. Zilla had made a hot water bottle for me and had rubbed on some painkilling salve and had made me a cup of analgesic tea, and I was huddled in my bed feeling sorry for myself when I heard the Birthmobile siren coming along our street. I hauled myself out of bed and went to the window: yes, the red van was inside our gates now and the Handmaids were climbing down out of it, a dozen of them or more. I couldn’t see their faces, but just from the way they moved—faster than they usually did—I could tell they were excited.
Then the cars of the Wives began to arrive, and they too hurried into our house in their identical blue cloaks. Two Aunts’ cars also drove up, and the Aunts got out. They weren’t ones I recognized. Both were older, and one was carrying a black bag with the red wings and the knotted snake and the moon on it that meant it was a Medical Services First Responder bag, female division. A number of the Aunts were trained in first response and midwifery, though they could not be real doctors.
I was not supposed to witness a Birth. Girls and marriageable young women—such as I’d just become by having my period—were not allowed to see or know what went on, because such sights and sounds were not suitable for us and might be harmful to us—might disgust us or frighten us. That thick red knowledge was for married women and Handmaids, and for the Aunts, of course, so they could teach it to the midwife Aunts in training. But naturally I repressed my own cramping pain and put on my dressing gown and slippers, and crept halfway up the stairs that led to the third floor, where I would be out of sight.
The Wives were downstairs having a tea party in the living room and waiting for the important moment. I did not know what moment exactly, but I could hear them laughing and chattering. They were drinking champagne along with their tea, as I knew from the bottles and empty glasses I saw in the kitchen later.
The Handmaids and the designated Aunts were with Ofkyle. She wasn’t in her own room—that room wouldn’t have been big enough for everyone—but in the master bedroom on the second floor. I could hear a groaning sound that was like an animal, and the Handmaids chanting—
Push, push, push, breathe, breathe, breathe
—and at intervals an anguished voice I didn’t recognize—but it must have been Ofkyle’s—saying
Oh God, Oh God
, deep and dark as if it was coming out of a well. It was terrifying. Sitting on the stairs hugging myself, I began to shiver. What was happening? What torturing, what inflicting? What was being done?
These sounds went on for what seemed a long time. I heard footsteps hurrying along the hallway—the Marthas, bringing whatever had been requested, carrying things away. From snooping in the laundry later in the evening I saw that some of these things were bloody sheets and towels. Then one of the Aunts came out into the hall and started barking into her Computalk. “Right now!
fast as you can! Her pressure’s way down! She’s losing too much blood!”
There was a scream, and another. One of the Aunts called down the stairs to the Wives: “Get in here now!” The Aunts didn’t usually yell like that. A crowd of footsteps, hurrying up the stairs, and a voice saying, “Oh, Paula!”
Then there was another siren, a different kind. I checked the hallway—nobody—and scuttled to my own room to peer out the window. A black car, the red wings and the snake, but a tall gold triangle: a real doctor. He almost leapt out of the car, slamming the door, and ran up the steps.
I heard what he was saying:
Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit of a God!
This in itself was electrifying: I had never heard a man say anything like that before.
It was a boy, a healthy son for Paula and Commander Kyle. He was named Mark. But Ofkyle died.
I sat with the Marthas in the kitchen after the Wives and the Handmaids and everyone had gone away. The Marthas were eating the leftover party food: sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cake, real coffee. They offered me some of the treats, but I said I wasn’t hungry. They asked about my cramps; I would feel better tomorrow, they said, and after a while it wouldn’t be so bad, and anyway you got used to it. But that wasn’t why I had no appetite.
There would have to be a wet nurse, they said: it would be one of the Handmaids who’d lost a baby. That, or formula, though everyone knew formula wasn’t as good. Still, it would keep life in the little mite.
“The poor girl,” Zilla said. “To go through all of that for nothing.”
“At least the baby was saved,” said Vera.
“It was one or the other,” said Rosa. “They had to cut her open.”
“I’m going to bed now,” I said.
Ofkyle hadn’t yet been taken out of our house. She was in her own room, wrapped in a sheet, as I discovered when I went softly up the back stairs.
I uncovered her face. It was flat white: she must have had no blood left in her. Her eyebrows were blond, soft and fine, upcurved as if surprised. Her eyes were open, looking at me. Maybe that was the first time she had ever seen me. I kissed her on the forehead.
“I won’t ever forget you,” I said to her. “The others will, but I promise I won’t.”
Melodramatic, I know: I was still a child really. But as you can see, I have kept my word: I never have forgotten her. Her, Ofkyle, the nameless one, buried under a little square stone that might as well have been blank. I found it in the Handmaid graveyard, some years later.
And when I had the power to do so, I searched for her in the Bloodlines Genealogical Archives, and I found her. I found her original name. Meaningless, I know, except for those who must have loved her and then been torn apart from her. But for me it was like finding a handprint in a cave: it was a sign, it was a message.
I was here. I existed. I was real.
What was her name? Of course you will want to know.
It was Crystal. And that is how I remember her now. I remember her as Crystal.
They had a small funeral for Crystal. I was allowed to come to it: having had my first period, I was now officially a woman. The Handmaids who’d been present at the Birth were allowed to come too, and our entire household went as well. Even Commander Kyle was there, as a token of respect.
We sang two hymns—“Uplift the Lowly” and “Blessed Be the Fruit”—and the legendary Aunt Lydia gave a speech. I looked at her with wonder, as if she was her own picture come to life: she existed after all. She looked older than her picture, though, and not quite as scary.
She said that our sister in service, Handmaid Ofkyle, had made the ultimate sacrifice, and had died with noble womanly honour, and had redeemed herself from her previous life of sin, and she was a shining example to the other Handmaids.
Aunt Lydia’s voice trembled a little as she was saying this. Paula and Commander Kyle looked solemn and devout, nodding from time to time, and some of the Handmaids cried.
I did not cry. I’d already done my crying. The truth was that they’d cut Crystal open to get the baby out, and they’d killed her by doing that. It wasn’t something she chose. She hadn’t volunteered to die with noble womanly honour or be a shining example, but nobody mentioned that.