Authors: Margaret Atwood
“The high school,” the leader said. The two younger men stepped forward.
“Come with us, ma’am,” said the first.
“Why?” said Katie. “You can’t just barge in here and—”
“Come with us,” said the second younger man. They grabbed her by her arms, hauled. She screamed, but out she went through the door nonetheless.
“Stop that!” I said. We could hear her voice outside in the hall, diminishing.
“I’m giving the orders,” said the leader. He had eyeglasses and a handlebar moustache, but these did not render him avuncular. I’ve had cause to notice over the course of what you might call my Gilead career that underlings given sudden power frequently become the worst abusers of it.
“Don’t worry, she won’t be hurt,” said the second-in-command. “She’s going to a place of safety.”
He read our names off the list. There was no point in denying who we were: they already knew. “Where’s the receptionist?” said the leader. “This Tessa.”
Poor Tessa emerged from behind her desk. She was shivering with terror.
“What d’you think?” said the man with the list. “Box store, high school, or stadium?”
“How old are you?” said the leader. “Never mind, it’s here. Twenty-seven.”
“Let’s give her a chance. Box store. Maybe some guy might marry her.”
“Stand over there,” said the leader to Tessa.
“Christ, she’s wet herself,” said the third older man.
“Don’t swear,” said the leader. “Good. A fearful one, maybe she’ll do as she’s told.”
“Fat chance any of them will,” said the third man. “They’re women.” I think he was making a joke.
The two young men who had disappeared with Katie now came back through the door. “She’s in the van,” said one.
“Where’s the other two so-called lady judges?” said the leader. “This Loretta? This Davida?”
“They’re on lunch,” said Anita.
“We’ll take these two. Wait here with her until they come back,” said the leader, indicating Tessa. “Then lock her in the box-store van. Then bring the two lunch ones.”
“Box store or stadium? For these two here?”
“Stadium,” said the leader. “One of them’s overage, they’ve both got law degrees, they’re lady judges. You heard the orders.”
“It’s a waste though, in some cases,” said the second one, nodding towards Anita.
“Providence will decide,” said the leader.
Anita and I were taken down the stairs, five flights. Was the elevator running? I don’t know. Then we were cuffed with our hands in front of us and inserted into a black van, with a solid panel between us and the driver and mesh inside the darkened glass windows.
The two of us had been mute all this time, because what was there to say? It was clear that cries for help would go unanswered. There was no point in shouting or flinging ourselves against the walls of the van: it would simply have been a futile expense of energy. And so we waited.
At least there was air conditioning. And seats to sit down on.
“What will they do?” Anita whispered. We couldn’t see out the windows. Nor could we see each other, except as dim shapes.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The van paused—at a checkpoint, I suppose—then moved, then halted. “Final stop,” said a voice. “Out!”
The back doors of the van were opened. Anita clambered out first. “Move it,” said a different voice. It was hard to get down from the van with my hands cuffed; someone took my arm and pulled, and I lurched onto the ground.
the van pulled away, I stood unsteadily and gazed around. I was in an open space in which there were many groups of other people—other women, I should say—and a large number of men with guns.
I was in a stadium. But it was no longer that. Now it was a prison.
It has been very difficult for me to tell you about the events surrounding my mother’s death. Tabitha had loved me without question, and now she was gone, and everything around me felt wavering and uncertain. Our house, the garden, even my own room—they seemed no longer real—as if they would dissolve into a mist and vanish. I kept thinking of a Bible verse Aunt Vidala had made us learn by heart:
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
It was like lisping—as if God did not know how to speak clearly. A lot of us had stumbled over that word while reciting it.
For my mother’s funeral I was given a black dress. Some of the other Commanders and their Wives were in attendance, and our Marthas. There was a closed coffin with the earthly husk of my mother inside it, and my father made a short speech about what a fine Wife she had been, forever thinking of others ahead of herself, an example for all the women of Gilead, and then he said a prayer, thanking God for freeing her from pain, and everyone said Amen. They didn’t make a big fuss over the funerals of women in Gilead, even high-ranking ones.
The important people came back to our house from the cemetery, and there was a small reception. Zilla had made cheese puffs for it, one of her specialties, and she’d let me help her. That was some comfort: to be allowed to put on an apron, and to grate the cheese, and to squeeze the dough out of the pastry tube onto the baking sheet, and then to watch through the glass window of the oven as it puffed up. We baked these at the last minute, once the people had come.
Then I took off the apron and went in to the reception in my black dress, as my father had requested, and was silent, as he had also requested. Most of the guests ignored me, except for one of the Wives, whose name was Paula. She was a widow, and somewhat famous because her husband, Commander Saunders, had been killed in his study by their Handmaid, using a kitchen skewer—a scandal that had been much whispered about at school the year before. What was the Handmaid doing in the study? How had she got in?
Paula’s version was that the girl was insane, and had crept downstairs at night and stolen the skewer from the kitchen, and when poor Commander Saunders had opened his study door she had taken him by surprise—killed a man who had always been respectful to her and to her position. The Handmaid had run away, but they’d caught her and hanged her, and displayed her on the Wall.
The other version was Shunammite’s, via her Martha, via the main Martha at the Saunders house. It involved violent urges and a sinful connection. The Handmaid must have enticed Commander Saunders in some way, and then he’d ordered her to creep downstairs during the nights when everyone was supposed to be asleep. Then she would slither into the study, where the Commander would be waiting for her, and his eyes would light up like flashlights. Who knows what lustful demands he must have made? Demands that had been unnatural, and had driven the Handmaid mad, not that it would take that much with some of them, because they were borderline as it was, but this one must have been worse than most. It did not bear thinking about, said the Marthas, who could think of little else.
When her husband hadn’t turned up for breakfast, Paula had gone looking for him and had discovered him lying on the floor without his trousers. Paula had put the trousers back on him before calling the Angels. She’d had to order one of her own Marthas to help her: dead people were either stiff or floppy, and Commander Saunders was a large and clumsily shaped man. Shunammite said the Martha said that Paula had got a lot of blood on herself while wrestling the clothes onto the dead body, and must have nerves of steel because she’d done what was right to save appearances.
I preferred Shunammite’s version to Paula’s. I thought about it at the funeral reception when my father was introducing me to Paula. She was eating a cheese puff; she gave me a measuring look. I’d seen a look like that on Vera when she was poking a straw into a cake to see if it was done.
Then she smiled and said, “Agnes Jemima. How lovely,” and patted me on the head as if I was five, and said it must be nice to have a new dress. I felt like biting her: was the new dress supposed to make up for my mother being dead? But it was better to hold my tongue than to show my true thoughts. I did not always succeed in that, but I succeeded on this occasion.
“Thank you,” I said. I pictured her kneeling on the floor in a pool of blood, trying to put a pair of trousers on a dead man. This put her in an awkward position in my mind, and made me feel better.
Several months after my mother’s death, my father married the widow Paula. On her finger appeared my mother’s magic ring. I suppose my father didn’t want to waste it, and why buy another ring when such a beautiful and expensive one was already available?
The Marthas grumbled about it. “Your mother wanted that ring to go to you,” Rosa said. But of course there was nothing they could do. I was enraged, but there was nothing I could do either. I brooded and sulked, but neither my father nor Paula paid any attention to that. They had taken to doing something they called “humouring me,” which in practice meant ignoring any displays of mood so I would learn that I could not influence them by stubborn silences. They would even discuss this pedagogical technique in front of me while speaking about me in the third person.
I see Agnes is in one of her moods. Yes, it is like the weather, it will soon pass.
Young girls are like that.
Shortly after my father’s wedding to Paula, something very disturbing occurred at school. I am recounting it here not because I wish to be gruesome, but because it made a deep impression on me, and may help to explain why some of us from that time and place acted as we did.
This event took place in the Religion class, which, as I have mentioned, was taught to us by Aunt Vidala. She was in charge of our school, and indeed of the other schools like ours—the Vidala Schools, they were called—but the picture of her that hung at the back of every classroom was smaller than the picture of Aunt Lydia. There were five of these pictures: Baby Nicole at the top, because we had to pray for her safe return every day. Then Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Helena, then Aunt Lydia, then Aunt Vidala. Baby Nicole and Aunt Lydia had gold frames, whereas the other three only had silver frames.
Of course we all knew who the four women were: they were the Founders. But the founders of what we were not sure, nor did we dare to ask: we did not want to offend Aunt Vidala by calling attention to her smaller picture. Shunammite said that the eyes of the Aunt Lydia picture could follow you around the room and that it could hear what you said, but she exaggerated and made things up.
Aunt Vidala sat on top of her big desk. She liked to have a good view of us. She told us to move our desks forward and closer together. Then she said we were now old enough to hear one of the most important stories in the Bible—important because it was a message from God especially for girls and women, so we must listen carefully. This was the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces.
Shunammite, sitting beside me, whispered, “I already know this.” Becka, on the other side, inched her hand over to mine beneath the desktop.
“Shunammite, be silent,” said Aunt Vidala. After blowing her nose, she told us the following story.
A man’s concubine—which was a sort of Handmaid—ran away from her owner, back to her father’s abode. That was very disobedient of her. The man went to collect her, and being a kind and forgiving man, all he asked was to have her back. The father, knowing the rules, said yes—he was disappointed in his daughter for being so disobedient—and the two men had a dinner to celebrate their accord. But this meant that the man and his concubine were late setting out, and when it got dark they took refuge in a town where the man didn’t know anyone. But a generous citizen said they could stay overnight in his house.
But some other citizens, being filled with sinful urges, came to the house and demanded that the traveller be handed over to them. They wanted to do shameful things to him. Lustful and sinful things. But that would have been especially wicked between men, so the generous man and the traveller put the concubine outside the door instead.
“Well, she deserved it, don’t you think?” said Aunt Vidala. “She shouldn’t have run away. Think of all the suffering she caused to other people!” But when it was morning, said Aunt Vidala, the traveller opened the door, and the concubine was lying on the threshold. “Get up,” the man said to her. But she did not get up because she was dead. The sinful men had killed her.
“How?” Becka asked. Her voice was barely above a whisper; she was squeezing my hand hard. “How did they kill her?” Two tears were running down her cheeks.
“Many men doing lustful things all at once will kill a girl,” said Aunt Vidala. “This story is God’s way of telling us that we should be content with our lot and not rebel against it.” The man in charge should be honoured by the woman, she said. If not, this was the result. God always made the punishment fit the crime.
I learned the rest of the story later—how the traveller cut the concubine’s body into twelve pieces and sent one to each of the Tribes of Israel, calling on them to avenge the misuse of his concubine by executing the murderers, and how the Tribe of Benjamin refused because the killers were Benjaminites. In the war of vengeance that followed, the Tribe of Benjamin was almost obliterated and their wives and children were all killed. Then the other eleven tribes reasoned that to obliterate the twelfth would be bad, so they stopped killing. The remaining Benjaminites couldn’t marry any other women officially to make more children, since the rest of the tribes had taken an oath against that, but they were told they could steal some girls and marry them unofficially, which is what they did.
But we didn’t hear the rest of the story at the time because Becka had burst into tears. “That is horrible, that is horrible!” she said. The rest of us sat very still.
“Control yourself, Becka,” said Aunt Vidala. But Becka couldn’t. She was crying so hard I thought she would stop breathing.
“May I give her a hug, Aunt Vidala?” I asked at last. We were encouraged to pray for other girls but not to touch one another.
“I suppose so,” said Aunt Vidala grudgingly. I put my arms around Becka, and she wept against my shoulder.
Aunt Vidala was annoyed by the state Becka was in, but she was also concerned. Becka’s father was not a Commander, only a dentist, but he was an important dentist, and Aunt Vidala had bad teeth. She got up and left the room.
After several minutes, Aunt Estée arrived. She was the one called in when we needed calming down. “It’s all right, Becka,” she said. “Aunt Vidala didn’t mean to frighten you.” This was not exactly true, but Becka stopped crying and began to hiccup. “There’s another way of looking at the story. The concubine was sorry for what she had done, and she wanted to make amends, so she sacrificed herself to keep the kind traveller from being killed by those wicked men.” Becka turned her head slightly to the side: she was listening.
“That was brave and noble of the concubine, don’t you think?” A small nod from Becka. Aunt Estée sighed. “We must all make sacrifices in order to help other people,” she said in a soothing tone. “Men must make sacrifices in war, and women must make sacrifices in other ways. That is how things are divided. Now we may all have a little treat to cheer us up. I have brought us some oatmeal cookies. Girls, you may socialize.”
We sat there eating the oatmeal cookies. “Don’t be such a baby,” Shunammite whispered across at Becka. “It’s only a story.”
Becka did not seem to hear her. “I will never, ever get married,” she murmured, almost to herself.
“Yes you will,” said Shunammite. “Everyone does.”
“No they don’t,” said Becka, but only to me.