Authors: Margaret Atwood
A few months after the wedding of Paula and my father, our household received a Handmaid. Her name was Ofkyle, since my father’s name was Commander Kyle. “Her name would have been something else earlier,” said Shunammite. “Some other man’s. They get passed around until they have a baby. They’re all sluts anyway, they don’t need real names.” Shunammite said a slut was a woman who’d gone with more men than her husband. Though we did not really know what “gone with” meant.
And Handmaids must be double sluts, said Shunammite, because they didn’t even have husbands. But you weren’t supposed to be rude to the Handmaids or call them sluts, said Aunt Vidala, wiping her nose, because they were performing a service to the community by way of atonement, and we should all be grateful to them for that.
“I don’t see why being a slut is performing a service,” Shunammite whispered.
“It’s because of the babies,” I whispered back. “The Handmaids can make babies.”
“So can some other women too,” said Shunammite, “and they aren’t sluts.” It was true, some of the Wives could, and some of the Econowives: we’d seen them with their bulging stomachs. But a lot of women couldn’t. Every woman wanted a baby, said Aunt Estée. Every woman who wasn’t an Aunt or a Martha. Because if you weren’t an Aunt or a Martha, said Aunt Vidala, what earthly use were you if you didn’t have a baby?
What the arrival of this Handmaid meant was that my new stepmother, Paula, wanted to have a baby because she did not count me as her child: Tabitha was my mother. But what about Commander Kyle? I didn’t seem to count as a child for him either. It was as if I had become invisible to both of them. They looked at me, and through me, and saw the wall.
When the Handmaid entered our household, I was almost of womanly age, as Gilead counted. I was taller, my face was longer in shape, and my nose had grown. I had darker eyebrows, not furry caterpillar ones like Shunammite’s or wispy ones like Becka’s, but curved into half-circles, and dark eyelashes. My hair had thickened and changed from a mousey brown to chestnut. All of that was pleasing to me, and I would look at my new face in the mirror, turning to take it in from all angles despite warnings against vanity.
More alarmingly, my breasts were swelling, and I had begun to sprout hair on areas of my body that we were not supposed to dwell on: legs, armpits, and the shameful part of many elusive names. Once that happened to a girl, she was no longer a precious flower but a much more dangerous creature.
We’d been prepared for such things at school—Aunt Vidala had presented a series of embarrassing illustrated lectures that were supposed to inform us about a woman’s role and duty in regard to her body—a married woman’s role—but they had not been very informative or reassuring. When Aunt Vidala asked if there were any questions, there weren’t any, because where would you begin? I wanted to ask why it had to be like this, but I already knew the answer: because it was God’s plan. That was how the Aunts got out of everything.
Soon I could expect blood to come out from between my legs: that had already happened to many of the girls at school. Why couldn’t God have arranged it otherwise? But he had a special interest in blood, which we knew about from Scripture verses that had been read out to us: blood, purification, more blood, more purification, blood shed to purify the impure, though you weren’t supposed to get it on your hands. Blood was polluting, especially when it came out of girls, but God once liked having it spilled on his altars. Though he had given that up—said Aunt Estée—in favour of fruits, vegetables, silent suffering, and good deeds.
The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it. I considered shrinking myself by not eating, and I did try that for a day, but I got so hungry I couldn’t stick to my resolution, and went to the kitchen in the middle of the night and ate chicken scraps out of the soup pot.
My effervescent body was not my only worry: my status at school had become noticeably lower. I was no longer deferred to by the others, I was no longer courted. Girls would break off their conversations as I approached and would eye me strangely. Some would even turn their backs. Becka did not do that—she still contrived to sit beside me—but she looked straight ahead and did not slip her hand under the desk to hold mine.
Shunammite was still claiming to be my friend, partly I am sure because she was not popular among the others, but now she was doing me the favour of friendship instead of the other way around. I was hurt by all of this, though I didn’t yet understand why the atmosphere had changed.
The others knew, however. Word must have been going around, from mouth to ear to mouth—from my stepmother, Paula, through our Marthas, who noticed everything, and then from them to the other Marthas they would encounter when doing errands, and then from those Marthas to their Wives, and from the Wives to their daughters, my schoolmates.
What was the word? In part, that I was out of favour with my powerful father. My mother, Tabitha, had been my protectress; but now she was gone, and my stepmother did not wish me well. At home she would ignore me, or she would bark at me—
Pick that up! Don’t
I tried to keep out of her sight as much as possible, but even my closed door must have been an affront to her. She would have known that I was concealed behind it thinking acid thoughts.
But my fall in value went beyond the loss of my father’s favour. There was a new piece of information circulating, one that was very harmful to me.
Whenever there was a secret to tell—especially a shocking one—Shunammite loved to be the messenger.
“Guess what I found out?” she said one day while we were eating our lunchtime sandwiches. It was a sunny noon: we were being allowed to have a picnic outside on the school lawn. The grounds were enclosed by a high fence topped with razor wire and there were two Angels at the gate, which was locked except when the Aunts’ cars went in and out, so we were perfectly safe.
“What?” I said. The sandwiches were an artificial cheese mixture that had replaced real cheese in our school sandwiches because the real cheese was needed by our soldiers. The sunlight was warm, the grass was soft, I had made it out of the house that day without Paula seeing me, and for the moment I was feeling marginally content with my life.
“Your mother wasn’t your real mother,” said Shunammite. “They took you away from your real mother because she was a slut. But don’t worry, it’s not your fault, because you were too young to know that.”
My stomach clenched. I spat a mouthful of sandwich onto the grass. “That’s not true!” I almost shouted.
“Calm down,” said Shunammite. “Like I said, it’s not your fault.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
Shunammite gave me a pitying, relishing smile. “It’s the truth. My Martha heard the whole story from your Martha, and
heard it from your new stepmother. The Wives know about things like that—some of them got their own kids that way. Not me, though, I was born properly.”
I really hated her at that moment. “Then where’s my real mother?” I demanded. “If you know everything!” You are really, really mean, I wanted to say. It was dawning on me that she must have betrayed me: before telling me, she’d already told the other girls. That’s why they’d become so cool: I was tainted.
“I don’t know, maybe she’s dead,” Shunammite said. “She was stealing you from Gilead, she was trying to run away through a forest, she was going to take you across the border. But they caught up with her and rescued you. Lucky for you!”
“Who did?” I asked faintly. While telling me this story, Shunammite was continuing to chew. I watched her mouth, out of which my doom was emerging. There was orange cheese substitute between her teeth.
“You know, them. The Angels and Eyes and them. They rescued you and gave you to Tabitha because she couldn’t have a baby. They were doing you a favour. You have a much better home now than with that slut.”
I felt belief creeping up through my body like a paralysis. The story Tabitha used to tell, about rescuing me and running away from the evil witches—it was partly true. But it hadn’t been Tabitha’s hand I’d been holding, it had been the hand of my real mother—my real mother, the slut. And it wasn’t witches chasing us, it was men. They would’ve had guns, because such men always did.
Tabitha did choose me though. She chose me from among all the other children pried loose from their mothers and fathers. She chose me, and she cherished me. She loved me. That part was real.
But now I was motherless, because where was my real mother? I was fatherless as well—Commander Kyle was no more related to me than the man in the moon. He’d only tolerated me because I was Tabitha’s project, her plaything, her pet.
No wonder Paula and Commander Kyle wanted a Handmaid: they wanted a real child instead of me. I was nobody’s child.
Shunammite continued to chew, watching with satisfaction as her message sank in. “I’ll stick up for you,” she said in her most pious and insincere voice. “It doesn’t make any difference to your soul. Aunt Estée says all souls are equal in heaven.”
Only in heaven, I thought. And this is not heaven. This is a place of snakes and ladders, and though I was once high up on a ladder propped against the Tree of Life, now I’ve slid down a snake. How gratifying for the others to witness my fall! No wonder Shunammite could not resist spreading such baleful and pleasing news. Already I could hear the snickering behind my back:
Slut, slut, daughter of a slut
Aunt Vidala and Aunt Estée must know as well. The two of them must always have known. It was the kind of secret the Aunts knew. That was how they got their power, according to the Marthas: from knowing secrets.
And Aunt Lydia—whose frown-smiling gold-framed picture with the ugly brown uniform hung at the backs of our schoolrooms—must know the most secrets of all because she had the most power. What would Aunt Lydia have to say about my plight? Would she help me? Would she understand my unhappiness, would she save me? But was Aunt Lydia even a real person? I had never seen her. Maybe she was like God—real but unreal at the same time. What if I were to pray to Aunt Lydia at night, instead of to God?
I did try, later in the week. But the idea was too unthinkable—praying to a woman—so I stopped.
I went through the rest of that terrible afternoon as if sleepwalking. We were embroidering sets of petit-point handkerchiefs for the Aunts, with flowers on them to go with their names—echinacea for Elizabeth, hyacinths for Helena, violets for Vidala. I was doing lilacs for Lydia, and I stuck a needle halfway into my finger without noticing it until Shunammite said, “There’s blood on your petit point.” Gabriela—a scrawny, smart-mouthed girl who was now as popular as I had once been because her father had been promoted to three Marthas—whispered, “Maybe she’s finally getting her period, out her finger,” and everyone laughed because most of them already had theirs, even Becka. Aunt Vidala heard the laughing and looked up from her book and said, “That’s enough of that.”
Aunt Estée took me to the washroom and we rinsed off the blood on my hand, and she put a bandage on my finger, but the petit-point handkerchief had to be soaked in cold water, which is the way we’d been taught that you got out blood, especially from white cloth. Getting out blood was something we would have to know as Wives, said Aunt Vidala, as it would be part of our duties: we would have to supervise our Marthas to make sure they did it right. Cleaning up things such as blood and other substances that came out of bodies was part of women’s duty of caring for other people, especially little children and the elderly, said Aunt Estée, who always put things in a positive light. That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? She didn’t finish the sentence.
Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.
“Is anything wrong, Agnes?” Aunt Estée asked after my finger had been cleaned up. I said no.
“Then why are you crying, my dear?” It seemed that I was: tears were coming out of my eyes, out of my damp and muddy head, despite my effort to control them.
“Because it hurts!” I said, sobbing now. She didn’t ask what hurt, though she must have known it wasn’t really my needled finger. She put her arm around me and gave me a little squeeze.
“So many things hurt,” she said. “But we must try to be cheerful. God likes cheerfulness. He likes us to appreciate the nice things in the world.” We heard a lot about the likes and dislikes of God from the Aunts who taught us, especially Aunt Vidala, who seemed to be on very close terms. Shunammite once said she was going to ask Aunt Vidala what God liked for breakfast, which scandalized the more timid girls, but she never actually did it.
I wondered what God thought about mothers, both real and unreal. But I knew there was no point in questioning Aunt Estée about my real mother and how Tabitha had chosen me, or even how old I’d been at the time. The Aunts at school avoided talking to us about our parents.
When I got home that day, I cornered Zilla in the kitchen, where she was making biscuits, and repeated everything that Shunammite had told me at lunchtime.
“Your friend has a big mouth,” was what she said. “She should keep it shut more often.” Unusually harsh words, coming from her.
“But is it true?” I said. I still half-hoped, then, that she would deny the whole story.
She sighed. “How’d you like to help me make the biscuits?”
But I was too old to be bribed with simple gifts like that. “Just tell me,” I said. “Please.”
“Well,” she said. “According to your new stepmother, yes. That story is true. Or something like it.”
“So Tabitha wasn’t my mother,” I said, holding back the fresh tears that were coming, keeping my voice steady.
“It depends what you mean by a mother,” said Zilla. “Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe the one who loves you the most?”
“Then Tabitha was your mother,” said Zilla, cutting out the biscuits. “And we Marthas are your mothers too, because we love you as well. Though it may not always seem so to you.” She lifted each round biscuit with the pancake flipper and placed it onto the baking sheet. “We all have your best interests at heart.”
This made me distrust her a little because Aunt Vidala said similar things about our best interests, usually before doling out a punishment. She liked to switch us on the legs where it wouldn’t show, and sometimes higher up, making us bend over and raise our skirts. Sometimes she would do that to a girl in front of the whole class. “What happened to her?” I asked. “My other mother? The one who was running through the forest? After they took me away?”
“I don’t truly know,” said Zilla, not looking at me, sliding the biscuits into the hot oven. I wanted to ask if I could have one when they came out—I craved warm biscuits—but this seemed like a childish request to make in the middle of such a serious conversation.
“Did they shoot her? Did they kill her?”
“Oh no,” said Zilla. “They wouldn’t have done that.”
“Because she could have babies. She had you, didn’t she? That was proof she could. They would never kill a valuable woman like that unless they really couldn’t help it.” She paused to let this sink in. “Most likely they would see if she could be…The Aunts at the Rachel and Leah Centre would pray with her; they would talk to her at first, to see if it was possible to change her mind about things.”
There were rumours about the Rachel and Leah Centre at school, but they were vague: none of us knew what went on inside it. Still, just being prayed over by a bunch of Aunts would be scary. Not all of them were as gentle as Aunt Estée. “And what if they couldn’t change her mind?” I asked. “Would they kill her then? Is she dead?”
“Oh, I’m sure they changed her mind,” said Zilla. “They’re good at that. Hearts and minds—they change them.”
“Where is she now, then?” I asked. “My mother—the real—the other one?” I wondered if that mother remembered me. She must remember me. She must have loved me or she wouldn’t have tried to take me with her when she was running away.
“None of us know that, dear,” said Zilla. “Once they become Handmaids they don’t have their old names anymore, and in those outfits they wear you can hardly see their faces. They all look the same.”
“She’s a Handmaid?” I asked. It was true, then, what Shunammite had said. “My mother?”
“That’s what they do, over at the Centre,” said Zilla. “They make them into Handmaids, one way or another. The ones they catch. Now, how about a nice hot biscuit? I don’t have any butter right now, but I can put a little honey on it for you.”
I thanked her. I ate the biscuit. My mother was a Handmaid. That’s why Shunammite insisted she was a slut. It was common knowledge that all the Handmaids had been sluts, once upon a time. And they still were, although in a different way.
From then on, our new Handmaid fascinated me. I’d ignored her when she’d first come, as instructed—it was the kindest thing for them, said Rosa, because either she would have a baby and then be moved somewhere else, or she wouldn’t have a baby and would be moved somewhere else anyway, but in any case she wouldn’t be in our house for long. So it was bad for them to form attachments, especially with any young people in the household, because they would only have to give those attachments up, and think how upsetting that would be for them.
So I’d turned away from Ofkyle and had pretended not to notice her when she’d glide into the kitchen in her red dress to pick up the shopping basket and then go for her walk. The Handmaids all went for a walk every day two by two; you could see them on the sidewalks. Nobody bothered them or spoke to them or touched them, because they were—in a sense—untouchable.
But now I gazed at Ofkyle from the sides of my eyes at every chance I got. She had a pale oval face, blank, like a gloved thumbprint. I knew how to make a blank face myself, so I didn’t believe she was really blank underneath. She’d had a whole other life. What had she looked like when she’d been a slut? Sluts went with more than one man. How many men had she gone with? What did that mean exactly, going with men, and what sort of men? Had she allowed parts of her body to stick out of her clothing? Had she worn trousers, like a man? That was so unholy it was almost unimaginable! But if she’d done that, how daring! She must have been very different from the way she was now. She must have had a lot more energy.
I would go to the window to watch her from behind as she went out for her walk, through our garden and down the path to our front gate. Then I would take off my shoes, tiptoe along the hall, and creep into her room, which was at the back of the house, on the third floor. It was a medium-sized room with its own bathroom attached. It had a braided rug; on the wall there was a picture of blue flowers in a vase that used to belong to Tabitha.
My stepmother had put the picture in there to get it out of sight, I suppose, because she was purging the visible parts of the house of anything that might remind her new husband of his first Wife. Paula wasn’t doing it openly, she was more subtle than that—she was moving or discarding one thing at a time—but I knew what she was up to. It was one more reason for me to dislike her.
Why mince words? I don’t need to do that anymore. I didn’t just dislike her, I hated her. Hatred is a very bad emotion because it curdles the soul—Aunt Estée taught us that—but, although I’m not proud to admit it and I used to pray to be forgiven for it, hatred is indeed what I felt.
Once I was inside our Handmaid’s room and had closed the door softly, I would poke around in there. Who was she really? And what if
was my missing mother? I knew this was make-believe, but I was so lonely; I liked to think of how things would be if it were true. We would fling ourselves into each other’s arms, we would hug each other, we would be so happy to have found each other again….But then what? I had no version of what might happen after that, though I had a dim idea that it would be trouble.
There was nothing in Ofkyle’s room that provided any clue about her. Her red dresses were hanging in the closet in an orderly row, her plain white underthings and her sack-like nightgowns were folded neatly on the shelves. She had a second pair of walking shoes and an extra cloak and a spare white bonnet. She had a toothbrush with a red handle. There was a suitcase she’d brought these things in, but it was empty.