Authors: Margaret Atwood
Readying myself for bed last night, I unpinned my hair, what is left of it. In one of my bracing homilies to our Aunts some years ago, I preached against vanity, which creeps in despite our strictures against it. “Life is not about hair,” I said then, only half jocularly. Which is true, but it is also true that hair is about life. It is the flame of the body’s candle, and as it dwindles the body shrinks and melts away. I once had enough hair for a topknot, in the days of topknots; for a bun, in the age of buns. But now my hair is like our meals here at Ardua Hall: sparse and short. The flame of my life is subsiding, more slowly than some of those around me might like, but faster than they may realize.
I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like. It could be worse, I told myself: my face betrays no signs of weakness. It retains its leathery texture, its character-bestowing mole on the chin, its etching of familiar lines. I was never frivolously pretty, but I was once handsome: that can no longer be said.
is the best that might be ventured.
How will I end? I wondered. Will I live to a gently neglected old age, ossifying by degrees? Will I become my own honoured statue? Or will the regime and I both topple and my stone replica along with me, to be dragged away and sold off as a curiosity, a lawn ornament, a chunk of gruesome kitsch?
Or will I be put on trial as a monster, then executed by firing squad and dangled from a lamppost for public viewing? Will I be torn apart by a mob and have my head stuck on a pole and paraded through the streets to merriment and jeers? I have inspired sufficient rage for that.
Right now I still have some choice in the matter. Not whether to die, but when and how. Isn’t that freedom of a sort?
Oh, and who to take down with me. I have made my list.
I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if, that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was.
In my own present day I am a legend, alive but more than alive, dead but more than dead. I’m a framed head that hangs at the backs of classrooms, of the girls exalted enough to have classrooms: grimly smiling, silently admonishing. I’m a bugaboo used by the Marthas to frighten small children—
If you don’t behave yourself, Aunt Lydia will come and get you!
I’m also a model of moral perfection to be emulated—
What would Aunt Lydia want you to do?
—and a judge and arbiter in the misty inquisition of the imagination—
What would Aunt Lydia have to say about that?
I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it—formless, shape-shifting. I am everywhere and nowhere: even in the minds of the Commanders I cast an unsettling shadow. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?
But perhaps it is too late for that. You take the first step, and to save yourself from the consequences, you take the next one. In times like ours, there are only two directions: up or plummet.
Today was the first full moon after March 21. Elsewhere in the world, lambs are being slaughtered and eaten; Easter eggs, too, are consumed, for reasons having to do with Neolithic fertility goddesses nobody chooses to remember.
Here at Ardua Hall we skip the lamb flesh but have kept the eggs.
a special treat I allow them to be dyed: baby pink and baby blue. You have no idea what delight this brings to the Aunts and Supplicants assembled in the Refectory for supper! Our diet is monotonous and a little variation is welcome, even if only a variation in colour.
After the bowls of pastel eggs had been brought in and admired but before our meagre feast began, I led the usual Prayer of Grace—
Bless this food to our service and keep us on the Path, May the Lord open
—and then the special Spring Equinox Grace:
As the year unfolds into spring, may our hearts unfold; bless our daughters, bless our Wives, bless our Aunts and Supplicants, bless our Pearl Girls in their mission work beyond our borders, and may Fatherly Grace be poured out upon our fallen Handmaid sisters and redeem them through the sacrifice of their bodies and their labour according to His will.
And bless Baby Nicole, stolen away by her treacherous Handmaid mother and hidden by the godless in Canada; and bless all the innocents she represents, doomed to be raised by the depraved. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. May our Baby Nicole be restored to us, we pray; may Grace return her.
Per Ardua Cum Estrus. Amen.
It pleases me to have concocted such a slippery motto. Is
“difficulty” or “female progenitive labour”? Does
have to do with hormones or with pagan rites of spring? The denizens of Ardua Hall neither know nor care. They are repeating the right words in the right order, and thus are safe.
Then there is Baby Nicole.
I prayed for her return, all eyes were focused on her picture hanging on the wall behind me. So useful, Baby Nicole: she whips up the faithful, she inspires hatred against our enemies, she bears witness to the possibility of betrayal within Gilead and to the deviousness and cunning of the Handmaids, who can never be trusted. Nor is her usefulness at an end, I reflected: in my hands—should she end up there—Baby Nicole would have a brilliant future.
Such were my thoughts during the closing hymn, sung in harmony by a trio of our young Supplicants. Their voices were pure and clear, and the rest of us listened with rapt attention. Despite what you may have thought, my reader, there was beauty to be had in Gilead. Why would we not have wished for it? We were human after all.
I see that I have spoken of us in the past tense.
The music was an old psalm melody, but the words were ours:
Under His Eye our beams of truth shine out,
We see all sin;
We shall observe you at your goings-out,
From every heart we wrench the secret vice,
In prayers and tears decree the sacrifice.
Sworn to obey, obedience we command,
We shall not swerve!
To duties harsh, we lend a willing hand,
We pledge to serve.
All idle thoughts, all pleasures we must quell,
Self we renounce, in selflessness we dwell.
Banal and without charm, those words: I can say that, since I wrote them myself. But such hymns are not meant to be poetry. They are meant simply to remind those singing them of the high price they would pay for deviation from the set path. We are not forgiving towards one another’s lapses, here at Ardua Hall.
After the singing, the festal munching began. I noted that Aunt Elizabeth took one more egg than was her share and that Aunt Helena took one fewer, making sure that everyone noticed it.
for Aunt Vidala, snuffling into her serviette, I saw her red-rimmed eyes flicking from one of them to the other, and then to me. What is she planning? Which way will the cat jump?
After our little celebration, I made my nocturnal pilgrimage to the Hildegard Library at the far end of the Hall, along the silent moonlit walk and past my shadowy statue. I entered, I greeted the night librarian, I traversed the General section, where three of our Supplicants were grappling with their recently acquired literacy. I walked through the Reading Room, for which a higher authorization is required and where the Bibles brood in the darkness of their locked boxes, glowing with arcane energy.
Then I opened a locked door and threaded my way through the Bloodlines Genealogical Archives with their classified files. It’s essential to record who is related to whom, both officially and in fact: due to the Handmaid system, a couple’s child may not be biologically related to the elite mother or even to the official father, for a desperate Handmaid is likely to seek impregnation however she may. It is our business to inform ourselves, since incest must be prevented: there are enough Unbabies already. It is also the business of Ardua Hall to guard that knowledge jealously: the Archives are the beating heart of Ardua Hall.
Finally I reached my inner sanctum, deep in the Forbidden World Literature section. On my private shelves I’ve arranged my personal selection of proscribed books, off-limits to the lower ranks.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Lives of Girls and Women
—what a moral panic each one of them would cause if set loose among the Supplicants! Here I also keep another set of files, accessible only to a very few; I think of them as the secret histories of Gilead. All that festers is not gold, but it can be made profitable in non-monetary ways: knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognized this, or to have capitalized on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.
Once sequestered, I took my nascent manuscript out of its hiding place, a hollow rectangle cut inside one of our X-rated books: Cardinal Newman’s
Apologia Pro Vita Sua: A Defence of One’s Life.
No one reads that weighty tome anymore, Catholicism being considered heretical and next door to voodoo, so no one is likely to peer within. Though if someone does, it will be a bullet in the head for me; a premature bullet, for I am far from ready to depart. If and when I do, I plan to go out with a far bigger bang than that.
I have chosen my title advisedly, for what else am I doing here but defending my life? The life I have led. The life—I’ve told myself—I had no choice but to lead. Once, before the advent of the present regime, I gave no thought to a defence of my life. I didn’t think it was necessary. I was a family court judge, a position I’d gained through decades of hardscrabble work and arduous professional climbing, and I had been performing that function as equitably as I could. I’d acted for the betterment of the world as I saw that betterment, within the practical limits of my profession. I’d contributed to charities, I’d voted in elections both federal and municipal, I’d held worthy opinions. I’d assumed I was living virtuously; I’d assumed my virtue would be moderately applauded.
Though I realized how very wrong I had been about this, and about many other things, on the day I was arrested.
They say I will always have the scar, but I’m almost better; so yes, I think I’m strong enough to do this now. You’ve said that you’d like me to tell you how I got involved in this whole story, so I’ll try; though it’s hard to know where to begin.
I’ll start just before my birthday, or what I used to believe was my birthday. Neil and Melanie lied to me about that: they’d done it for the best of reasons and they’d meant really well, but when I first found out about it I was very angry at them. Keeping up my anger was difficult, though, because by that time they were dead. You can be angry at dead people, but you can never have a conversation about what they did; or you can only have one side of it. And I felt guilty as well as angry, because they’d been murdered, and I believed then that their murder was my fault.
I was supposed to be turning sixteen. What I was most looking forward to was getting my driver’s licence. I felt too old for a birthday party, though Melanie always got me a cake and ice cream and sang “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true,” an old song I’d loved as a child and was now finding embarrassing. I did get the cake, later—chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, my favourites—but by then I couldn’t eat it. By that time Melanie was no longer there.
That birthday was the day I discovered that I was a fraud. Or not a fraud, like a bad magician: a fake, like a fake antique. I was a forgery, done on purpose. I was so young at that moment—just a split second ago, it seems—but I’m not young anymore. How little time it takes to change a face: carve it like wood, harden it. No more of that wide-eyed daydream gazing I used to do. I’ve become sharper, more focused. I’ve become narrowed.
Neil and Melanie were my parents; they ran a store called The Clothes Hound. It was basically used clothing: Melanie called it “previously loved” because she said “used” meant “exploited.” The sign outside showed a smiling pink poodle in a fluffy skirt with a pink bow on its head, carrying a shopping bag. Underneath was a slogan in italics and quotation marks:
“You’d Never Know!”
That meant the used clothes were so good you’d never know they were used, but that wasn’t true at all because most of the clothes were crappy.
Melanie said she’d inherited The Clothes Hound from her grandmother. She also said she knew the sign was old-fashioned, but people were familiar with it and it would be disrespectful to change it now.
Our store was on Queen West, in a stretch of blocks that had once all been like that, said Melanie—textiles, buttons and trims, cheap linens, dollar stores. But now it was going upmarket: cafés with fair trade and organic were moving in, big-brand outlets, name boutiques. In response, Melanie hung a sign in the window:
. But inside, the store was crowded with all kinds of clothes you would never call wearable art. There was one corner that was kind of designer, though anything really pricey wouldn’t be in The Clothes Hound in the first place. The rest was just everything. And all sorts of people came and went: young, old, looking for bargains or finds, or just looking. Or selling: even street people would try to get a few dollars for T-shirts they’d picked up at garage sales.
Melanie worked on the main floor. She wore bright colours, like orange and hot pink, because she said they created a positive and energetic atmosphere, and anyway she was part gypsy at heart. She was always brisk and smiling, though on the lookout for shoplifting. After closing, she sorted and packed: this for charity, this for rags, this for Wearable Art. While doing the sorting she’d sing tunes from musicals—old ones from long ago. “Oh what a beautiful morning” was one of her favourites, and “When you walk through a storm.” I would get irritated by her singing; I’m sorry about that now.
Sometimes she’d get overwhelmed: there was too much fabric, it was like the ocean, waves of cloth coming in and threatening to drown her. Cashmere! Who was going to buy thirty-year-old cashmere? It didn’t improve with age, she would say—not like her.
Neil had a beard that was going grey and wasn’t always trimmed, and he didn’t have much hair. He didn’t look like a businessman, but he handled what they called “the money end”: the invoices, the accounting, the taxes. He had his office on the second floor, up a flight of rubber-treaded stairs. He had a computer and a filing cabinet and a safe, but otherwise that room wasn’t much like an office: it was just as crowded and cluttered as the store because Neil liked to collect things. Wind-up music boxes, he had a number of those. Clocks, a lot of different clocks. Old adding machines that worked with a handle. Plastic toys that walked or hopped across the floor, such as bears and frogs and sets of false teeth. A slide projector for the kind of coloured slides that nobody had anymore. Cameras—he liked ancient cameras. Some of them could take better pictures than anything nowadays, he’d say. He had one whole shelf with nothing on it but cameras.
One time he left the safe open and I looked inside. Instead of the wads of money I’d been expecting, there was nothing in it but a tiny metal-and-glass thing that I thought must be another toy, like the hopping false teeth. But I couldn’t see where to wind it up, and I was afraid to touch it because it was old.
“Can I play with it?” I asked Neil.
“Play with what?”
“That toy in the safe.”
“Not today,” he said, smiling. “Maybe when you’re older.” Then he shut the safe door, and I forgot about the strange little toy until it was time for me to remember it, and to understand what it was.
Neil would try to repair the various items, though often he failed because he couldn’t find the parts. Then the things would just sit there, “collecting dust,” said Melanie. Neil hated throwing anything out.
On the walls he had some old posters:
LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS
, from a long-ago war; a woman in overalls flexing her biceps to show that women could make bombs—that was from the same olden-days war; and a red-and-black one showing a man and a flag that Neil said was from Russia before it was Russia. Those had belonged to his great-grandfather, who’d lived in Winnipeg. I knew nothing about Winnipeg except that it was cold.
I loved The Clothes Hound when I was little: it was like a cave full of treasures. I wasn’t supposed to be in Neil’s office by myself because I might “touch things,” and then I might break them. But I could play with the wind-up toys and the music boxes and the adding machines, under supervision. Not the cameras though, because they were too valuable, said Neil, and anyway there was no film in them, so what would be the point?
We didn’t live over the store. Our house was a long distance away, in one of those residential neighbourhoods where there were some old bungalows and also some newer, bigger houses that had been built where the bungalows had been torn down. Our house was not a bungalow—it had a second floor, where the bedrooms were—but it was not a new house either. It was made of yellow brick, and it was very ordinary. There was nothing about it that would make you look at it twice. Thinking back, I’m guessing that was their idea.