Authors: Margaret Atwood
All things come to she who waits. Time wounds all heels. Patience is a virtue. Vengeance is mine.
These hoary chestnuts are not always true, but they are sometimes true. Here’s one that is always true: everything’s in the timing. Like jokes.
Not that we have many jokes around here. We would not wish to be accused of bad taste or frivolity. In a hierarchy of the powerful, the only ones allowed to make jokes are those at the top, and they do so in private.
But to the point.
It has been so crucial for my own mental development to have had the privilege of being a fly on the wall; or, to be more exact, an ear inside the wall. So instructive, the confidences shared by young women when they believe no third party is listening. Over the years I increased the sensitivity of my microphones, I attuned them to whispers, I held my breath to see which of our newly recruited girls would provide me with the sort of shameful information I both craved and collected. Gradually my dossiers filled up, like a hot-air balloon getting ready for liftoff.
In the matter of Becka, it took years. She’d always been so reticent about the primary cause of her distress, even to her school friend Agnes. I had to wait for sufficient trust to develop.
It was Agnes who finally broached the question. I use their earlier names here—Agnes, Becka—since it was these names they used among themselves. Their transformation into perfect Aunts was far from complete, which pleased me. But then, no one’s is when push comes to shove.
“Becka, what really happened to you?” Agnes said one day when they were engaged in their Bible studies. “To make you so set against marriage.” Silence. “I know there was something. Please, wouldn’t you like to share it with me?”
“I can’t say.”
“You can trust me, I won’t tell.”
Then, in bits and pieces, it came out. The wretched Dr. Grove had not stopped at the fondling of his young patients in the dentist’s chair. I had known about this for some time. I had even collected photographic evidence, but I had passed over it, since the testimonies of young girls—if testimonies can be extracted from them, which in this case I doubted—would count for little or nothing. Even with grown women, four female witnesses are the equivalent of one male, here in Gilead.
Grove had depended on that. Also, the man had the confidence of the Commanders: he was an excellent dentist, and much latitude is given by those in power to professionals who can relieve them of pain. The doctors, the dentists, the lawyers, the accountants: in the new world of Gilead, as in the old, their sins are frequently forgiven them.
But what Grove had done to the young Becka—the very young Becka, and then the older but still young Becka—that, to my mind, demanded retribution.
Becka herself could not be relied upon to exact it. She would not testify against Grove, of that I was certain. Her conversation with Agnes confirmed this.
We have to tell someone.
No, there’s no one.
We could tell Aunt Lydia.
: She’d say he was my parent and we should obey our parents, it’s God’s plan. That’s what my father said himself.
But he isn’t your parent really. Not if he did that to you. You were stolen from your mother, you were handed over as a baby….
He said he was set in authority over me by God.
What about your so-called mother?
She wouldn’t believe me. Even if she did, she’d say I led him on. They’d all say that.
But you were four!
They’d say it anyway. You know they would. They can’t start taking the word of…of people like me. And suppose they did believe me, he’d be killed, he’d be ripped apart by the Handmaids at a Particicution, and it would be my fault. I couldn’t live with that. It would be like murder.
I haven’t added the tears, the comfortings by Agnes, the vows of eternal friendship, the prayers. But they were there. It was enough to melt the hardest heart. It almost melted mine.
The upshot was that Becka had decided to offer up this silent suffering of hers as a sacrifice to God. I am not sure what God thought of this, but it did not do the trick for me. Once a judge, always a judge. I judged, I pronounced the sentence. But how to carry it out?
After pondering for some time, I decided last week to make my move. I invited Aunt Elizabeth for a cup of mint tea at the Schlafly Café.
She was all smiles: she had been singled out for my favour. “Aunt Lydia,” she said. “This is an unexpected pleasure!” She had very good manners when she chose to use them. Once a Vassar girl, always a Vassar girl, as I sometimes said snidely to myself while watching her beating to a pulp the feet of some recalcitrant Handmaid prospect in the Rachel and Leah Centre.
“I thought we should have a confidential talk,” I said. She leaned forward, expecting gossip.
“I’m all ears,” she said. An untruth—her ears were a small part of her—but I let that pass.
“I’ve often wondered,” I said. “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”
She leaned back, puzzled. “I can’t say I’ve given it any thought,” she said. “Since God did not make me an animal.”
“Indulge me,” I said. “For instance: fox or cat?”
Here, my reader, I owe you an explanation.
a child I’d read a book called
. I’d got it from the school library: my family did not spend money on books. In this book was a story I have often meditated upon. Here it is.
Fox and Cat were discussing their respective ways of evading the hunters and their dogs. Fox said he had a whole bag of tricks, and if the hunters came with their dogs he would employ them one by one—doubling back on his own tracks, running through water to destroy his scent, diving into a den with several exits. The hunters would be worn out by Fox’s cleverness and would give up, leaving Fox to continue his career of theft and barnyard muggings. “And what about you, dear Cat?” he asked. “What are your tricks?”
“I have only one trick,” Cat replied. “When in extremis, I know how to climb a tree.”
Fox thanked Cat for the entertaining pre-prandial conversation and declared that it was now dinnertime and Cat was on the menu. Snapping of fox teeth, clumps of cat fur. A name tag was spat out. Posters of missing Cat were stapled to telephone poles, with heartfelt pleas from woebegone children.
Sorry. I get carried away. The fable continues as follows:
The hunters and their dogs arrive on the scene. Fox tries all his tricks, but he runs out of ruses and is killed. Cat, meanwhile, has climbed a tree and is watching the scene with equanimity. “Not so clever after all!” she jeers. Or some such mean-spirited remark.
In the early days of Gilead, I used to ask myself whether I was Fox or Cat. Should I twist and turn, using the secrets in my possession to manipulate others, or should I zip my lip and rejoice as others outsmarted themselves? Obviously I was both, since—unlike many—here I still am. I still have a bag of tricks. And I’m still high in the tree.
But Aunt Elizabeth knew nothing of my private musings. “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Maybe a cat.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d have pegged you as a cat. But now perhaps you must draw upon your inner fox.” I paused.
“Aunt Vidala is attempting to incriminate you,” I continued. “She claims that you are accusing me of heresy and idolatry by planting eggs and oranges on my own statue.”
Aunt Elizabeth was distraught. “That is untrue! Why would Vidala say that? I have never harmed her!”
“Who can fathom the secrets of the human soul?” I said. “None of us is exempt from sin. Aunt Vidala is ambitious. She may have detected that you are de facto second-in-command to me.” Here Elizabeth brightened, as this was news to her. “She will have deduced that you are thus next in the line of succession here at Ardua Hall. She must resent this, as she considers herself your senior, and indeed mine, having been an early believer in Gilead. I am not young, nor in the best of health; she must feel that, in order to claim her rightful position, it is necessary to eliminate you. Hence her desire for new rules outlawing the offerings at my statue. With punishments,” I added. “She must be angling for my expulsion from the Aunts and for yours as well.”
Elizabeth was weeping by now. “How could she be so vindictive?” she sobbed. “I thought we were friends.”
“Friendship, alas, can be skin deep. Don’t worry. I will protect you.”
“I’m immensely grateful, Aunt Lydia. You have such integrity!”
“Thank you,” I said. “But there is one little thing I want you to do for me in return.”
“Oh yes! Of course,” she said. “What is it?”
“I want you to bear false witness,” I said.
This was not a trivial request: Elizabeth would be risking much. Gilead takes a stern view of bearing false witness, though it is nonetheless done frequently.
My first day as the runaway Jade was a Thursday. Melanie used to say that I was born on a Thursday and that meant I had far to go—this was an old nursery rhyme that also says Wednesday’s child is full of woe, so when I was feeling grumpy I’d say she got the day wrong and it was really Wednesday, and she would say no, of course not, she knew exactly when I was born, how could she ever forget it?
Anyway, it was a Thursday. I was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk with Garth, wearing black tights with a rip in them—Ada had supplied them, but I had made the rip myself—and magenta shorts over them, and worn-out silver gel shoes that looked as if they’d been through the digestive system of a raccoon. I had a dingy pink top—it was sleeveless because Ada said I should display my new tattoo. I had a grey hoodie tied around my waist and a black baseball cap. None of the clothes fit: they had to look as if I’d grabbed them out of dump bins. I’d dirtied up my new green hair to give the impression that I’d been sleeping rough. The green was already fading.
“You look amazing,” said Garth once he saw me in the full costume and ready to go.
“Amazingly like shit,” I said.
“Great shit,” said Garth. I thought he was only trying to be nice to me, and I resented that. I wanted him to actually mean it. “But once you’re in Gilead, you’ll really have to cut the swearing. Maybe even let them convert you out of it.”
There were a lot of instructions to remember. I was feeling nervous—I was sure I would mess up—but Garth said just act stupid, and I’d said thanks for saying
I wasn’t very good at flirting. I’d never done it before.
The two of us were set up outside a bank, which Garth said was a prime location if you were angling for free cash: people coming out of banks are more likely to give you some. Another person—a woman in a wheelchair—usually had this space, but Mayday had paid her to relocate for as long as we needed it: the Pearl Girls had a route they followed, and our spot was on it.
The sun was blazing so we were backed against the wall, in a little slice of shade. I had an old straw hat in front of me with a cardboard sign in crayon:
HOMELESS PLEASE HELP
. There were a few coins in the hat: Garth said that if people saw someone else had put money in they’d be more likely to do it themselves. I was supposed to be acting lost and disoriented, which wasn’t hard to do, since I really felt that way.
A block to the east, George was set up on another corner. He’d call Ada and Elijah if there was any trouble, either with the Pearl Girls or the police. They were in a van, cruising the area.
Garth didn’t talk much. I decided he was a cross between a babysitter and a bodyguard, so he wasn’t there to make conversation and there was no rule that said he had to be nice to me. He was wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt that showed his own tattoos—a squid on one biceps, a bat on the other, both of them in black. He had one of those knitted caps, also in black.
“Smile at the people if they toss in,” he said after I’d failed to do this for a white-haired old lady. “Say something.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Some people say ‘God bless you.’ ”
Neil would’ve been shocked if I’d ever said such a thing. “That would be a lie. If I don’t believe in God.”
“Okay then. ‘Thanks’ will do,” he said patiently. “Or ‘Have a nice day.’ ”
“I can’t say those,” I said. “It’s hypocritical. I don’t feel thankful, and I don’t care what kind of an asshole day they have.”
He laughed. “Now you’re worried about lying? Then why not change your name back to Nicole?”
“It’s not my name of choice. It’s bottom of the freaking list, you know that.” I crossed my arms on my knees and turned away from him. I was getting more childish by the minute: he brought it out in me.
“Don’t waste your anger on me,” said Garth. “I’m just furniture. Save it for Gilead.”
“You all said I had to have attitude. So, this is my attitude.”
“Here come the Pearl Girls,” he said. “Don’t stare at them. Don’t even see them. Act like you’re stoned.”
I don’t know how he’d spotted them without seeming to look, they were way down the street. But soon they were level with us: two of them, in their silvery grey dresses with long skirts, their white collars, their white hats. A redhead, from the wisps of her hair that were showing, and a brunette, judging from the eyebrows. They smiled down on me where I sat against the wall.
“Good morning, dear,” the redhead said. “What’s your name?”
“We can help you,” said the brunette. “No homeless in Gilead.” I gazed up at her, hoping I looked as woeful as I felt. They both were so prim and groomed; they made me feel triple grubby.
Garth put his hand on my right arm, gripped it possessively. “She’s not talking to you,” he said.
“Isn’t that up to her?” said the redhead. I looked sideways at Garth as if asking for permission.
“What’s that on your arm?” said the taller one, the brunette. She peered down.
“Is he abusing you, dear?” the redhead asked.
The other one smiled. “Is he
you? We can make things so much better for you.”
“Fuck off, Gilead bitches,” Garth said with impressive savagery. I looked up at the two of them, neat and clean in their pearly dresses and their white necklaces, and, believe it or not, a tear rolled down my cheek. I knew they had an agenda and didn’t give a shit about me—they just wanted to collect me and add me to their quota—but their kindness made me go a little wobbly. I wanted to have someone lift me up, then tuck me in.
“Oh my,” said the redhead. “A real hero. At least let her take this.” She thrust a brochure at me. It said “There Is a Home in Gilead for
!” “God bless.” The two of them left, glancing back once.
“Wasn’t I supposed to let them pick me up?” I said. “Shouldn’t I go with them?”
“Not the first time. We can’t make it too easy for them,” said Garth. “If anyone’s watching from Gilead—it would be too suspicious. Don’t worry, they’ll be back.”