Authors: Margaret Atwood
At the beginning of the next period I am about to describe, I must have been eight at first, or possibly nine. I can remember these events but not my exact age. It’s hard to remember calendar dates, especially since we did not have calendars. But I will continue on in the best way I can.
My name at that time was Agnes Jemima. Agnes meant “lamb,” said my mother, Tabitha. She would say a poem:
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
There was more of this, but I have forgotten it.
for Jemima, that name came from a story in the Bible. Jemima was a very special little girl because her father, Job, was sent bad luck by God as part of a test, and the worst part of it was that all Job’s children were killed. All his sons, all his daughters: killed! It sent shudders through me every time I heard about it. It must have been terrible, what Job felt when he was told that news.
But Job passed the test, and God gave him some other children—several sons, and also three daughters—so then he was happy again. And Jemima was one of those daughters. “God gave her to Job, just as God gave you to me,” said my mother.
“Did you have bad luck? Before you chose me?”
“Yes, I did,” she said, smiling.
“Did you pass the test?”
“I must have,” said my mother. “Or I wouldn’t have been able to choose a wonderful daughter like you.”
I was pleased with this story. It was only later that I pondered it: how could Job have allowed God to fob off a batch of new children on him and expect him to pretend that the dead ones no longer mattered?
When I wasn’t at school or with my mother—and I was with my mother less and less, because more and more she would be upstairs lying down on her bed, doing what the Marthas called “resting”—I liked to be in the kitchen, watching the Marthas make the bread and the cookies and pies and cakes and soups and stews. All the Marthas were known as Martha because that’s what they were, and they all wore the same kind of clothing, but each one of them had a first name too. Ours were Vera, Rosa, and Zilla; we had three Marthas because my father was so important. Zilla was my favourite because she spoke very softly, whereas Vera had a harsh voice and Rosa had a scowl. It wasn’t her fault though, it was just the way her face was made. She was older than the other two.
“Can I help?” I would ask our Marthas. Then they would give me scraps of bread dough to play with, and I would make a man out of dough, and they would bake it in the oven with whatever else they were baking. I always made dough men, I never made dough women, because after they were baked I would eat them, and that made me feel I had a secret power over men. It was becoming clear to me that, despite the urges Aunt Vidala said I aroused in them, I had no power over them otherwise.
“Can I make the bread from scratch?” I asked one day when Zilla was getting out the bowl to start mixing. I’d watched them do it so often that I was convinced I knew how.
“You don’t need to bother with that,” said Rosa, scowling more than usual.
“Why?” I said.
Vera laughed her harsh laugh. “You’ll have Marthas to do all of that for you,” she said. “Once they’ve picked out a nice fat husband for you.”
“He won’t be fat.” I didn’t want a fat husband.
“Of course not. It’s just an expression,” said Zilla.
“You won’t have to do the shopping either,” said Rosa. “Your Martha will do that. Or else a Handmaid, supposing you need one.”
“She may not need one,” said Vera. “Considering who her mother—”
“Don’t say that,” said Zilla.
“What?” I said. “What about my mother?” I knew there was a secret about my mother—it had to do with the way they said
—and it frightened me.
“Just that your mother could have her own baby,” said Zilla soothingly, “so I’m sure you can too. You’d like to have a baby, wouldn’t you, dear?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t want a husband. I think they’re disgusting.” The three of them laughed.
“Not all of them,” said Zilla. “Your father is a husband.” There was nothing I could say about that.
“They’ll make sure it’s a nice one,” said Rosa. “It won’t be just any old husband.”
“They have their pride to keep up,” said Vera. “They won’t marry you down, that’s for sure.”
I didn’t want to think about husbands any longer. “But what if I want to?” I said. “Make the bread?” My feelings were hurt: it was as if they were closing a circle around themselves, keeping me out. “What if I want to make the bread myself?”
“Well, of course, your Marthas would have to let you do that,” said Zilla. “You’d be the mistress of the household. But they’d look down on you for it. And they’d feel you were taking their rightful positions away from them. The things they know best how to do. You wouldn’t want them to feel that about you, would you, dear?”
“Your husband wouldn’t like it either,” said Vera with another of her harsh laughs. “It’s bad for the hands. Look at mine!” She held them out: her fingers were knobby, the skin was rough, the nails short, with ragged cuticles—not at all like my mother’s slender and elegant hands, with their magic ring. “Rough work—it’s all bad for the hands. He won’t want you smelling of bread dough.”
“Or bleach,” said Rosa. “From scrubbing.”
“He’ll want you to stick to the embroidery and such,” said Vera.
“The petit point,” said Rosa. There was derision in her voice.
Embroidery was not my strong suit. I was always being criticized for loose and sloppy stitches. “I hate petit point. I want to make bread.”
“We can’t always do what we want,” said Zilla gently. “Even you.”
“And sometimes we have to do what we hate,” said Vera. “Even you.”
“Don’t let me, then!” I said. “You’re being mean!” And I ran out of the kitchen.
By this time I was crying. Although I’d been told not to disturb my mother, I crept upstairs and into her room. She was under her lovely white coverlet with blue flowers. Her eyes were closed but she must have heard me because she opened them. Every time I saw her, those eyes looked larger and more luminous.
“What is it, my pet?” she said.
I crawled under the coverlet and snuggled up against her. She was very warm.
“It’s not fair,” I sobbed. “I don’t want to get married! Why do I have to?”
She didn’t say
Because it’s your duty
, the way Aunt Vidala would have, or
You’ll want to when the time comes
, which was what Aunt Estée would say. She didn’t say anything at first. Instead she hugged me and stroked my hair.
“Remember how I chose you,” she said, “out of all the others.”
But I was old enough now to disbelieve the choosing story: the locked castle, the magic ring, the wicked witches, the running away. “That’s only a fairy tale,” I said. “I came out of your stomach, just like other babies.” She did not affirm this. She said nothing. For some reason this was frightening to me.
“I did! Didn’t I?” I asked. “Shunammite told me. At school. About stomachs.”
My mother hugged me tighter. “Whatever happens,” she said after a while, “I want you to always remember that I have loved you very much.”
You have probably guessed what I am going to tell you next, and it is not at all happy.
My mother was dying. Everyone knew, except me.
I found out from Shunammite, who said she was my best friend. We weren’t supposed to have best friends. It wasn’t nice to form closed circles, said Aunt Estée: it made other girls feel left out, and we should all be helping one another be the most perfect girls we could be.
Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.
Then Becka spoke up in her mouse voice and asked, What is an adulteress? We girls were all surprised because Becka so seldom asked any questions. Her father was not a Commander like our fathers. He was only a dentist: the very best dentist, and our families all went to him, which was why Becka was allowed into our school. But it did mean the other girls looked down on her and expected her to defer to them.
Becka was sitting beside me—she always tried to sit beside me if Shunammite did not shoulder her away—and I could feel her trembling. I was afraid that Aunt Vidala would punish her for being impertinent, but it would have been hard for anyone, even Aunt Vidala, to accuse her of impertinence.
Shunammite whispered across me at Becka:
Don’t be so stupid!
Aunt Vidala smiled, as much as she ever did, and said she hoped Becka would never find that out through personal experience, since those who did become adulteresses would end up being stoned or else hanged by their neck with a sack over their heads. Aunt Estée said there was no need to frighten the girls unduly; and then she smiled and said that we were precious flowers, and who ever heard of a rebellious flower?
We looked at her, making our eyes as round as possible as a sign of our innocence, and nodding to show we agreed with her. No rebellious flowers here!
Shunammite’s house had just one Martha and mine had three, so my father was more important than hers. I realize now that this was why she wanted me as her best friend. She was a stubby girl with two long thick braids that I envied, since my own braids were skinny and shorter, and black eyebrows that made her look more grown up than she was. She was belligerent, but only behind the Aunts’ backs. In the disputes between us, she always had to be right. If you contradicted her, she would only repeat her first opinion, except louder. She was rude to many other girls, especially Becka, and I am ashamed to tell you that I was too weak to overrule her. I had a weak character when dealing with girls my own age, though at home the Marthas would say I was headstrong.
“Your mother’s dying, isn’t she?” Shunammite whispered to me one lunchtime.
“No she’s not,” I whispered back. “She just has a condition!” That was what the Marthas called it:
your mother’s condition
. Her condition was what caused her to rest so much, and to cough. Lately our Marthas had been taking trays up to her room; the trays would come back down with hardly anything eaten from the plates.
I wasn’t allowed to visit her much anymore. When I did, her room would be in semi-darkness. It no longer smelled like her, a light, sweet smell like the lily-flowered hostas in our garden, but as if some stale and dirtied stranger had crept in and was hiding under the bed.
I would sit beside my mother where she lay huddled under her blue-flower-embroidered bedspread and hold her thin left hand with the magic ring on it and ask when her condition would be gone, and she would say she was praying for her pain to be over soon. That would reassure me: it meant she would get better. Then she would ask me if I was being good, and if I was happy, and I would always say yes, and she would squeeze my hand and ask me to pray with her, and we would sing the song about the angels standing around her bed. And she would say thank you, and that was enough for today.
“She really is dying,” Shunammite whispered. “That’s what her condition is. It’s dying!”
“That’s not true,” I whispered too loudly. “She’s getting better. Her pain will be over soon. She prayed for it.”
“Girls,” said Aunt Estée. “At lunchtime our mouths are for eating, and we can’t talk and chew at the same time. Aren’t we lucky to have such lovely food?” It was egg sandwiches, which ordinarily I liked. But right then the smell of them was making me feel sick.
“I heard it from my Martha,” Shunammite whispered when Aunt Estée’s attention was elsewhere. “And your Martha told her. So it’s true.”
“Which one?” I said. I couldn’t believe any of our Marthas would be so disloyal as to pretend that my mother was dying—not even scowling Rosa.
“How should I know which one? They’re all just Marthas,” said Shunammite, tossing her long thick braids.
That afternoon when our Guardian had driven me home from school, I went into the kitchen. Zilla was rolling pie dough; Vera was cutting up a chicken. There was a soup pot simmering on the back of the stove: the extra chicken parts would go into it, and any vegetable scraps and bones. Our Marthas were very efficient with food, and did not waste supplies.
Rosa was over at the large double sink rinsing off dishes. We had a dishwasher, but the Marthas didn’t use it except after Commanders’ dinners at our house because it took too much electricity, said Vera, and there were shortages because of the war. Sometimes the Marthas called it the watched-pot war because it never boiled, or else the Ezekiel’s Wheel war because it rolled around without getting anywhere; but they only said such things among themselves.
“Shunammite said one of you told her Martha that my mother is dying,” I blurted out. “Who said that? It’s a lie!”
All three of them stopped doing what they were doing. It was as if I’d waved a wand and frozen them: Zilla with the lifted rolling pin, Vera with a cleaver in one hand and a long pale chicken neck in the other, Rosa with a platter and a dishcloth. Then they looked at one another.
“We thought you knew,” Zilla said gently. “We thought your mother would have told you.”
“Or your father,” said Vera. That was silly, because when could he have done that? He was hardly ever at our house nowadays, and when he was, he was either eating dinner by himself in the dining room or shut inside his study doing important things.
“We’re very sorry,” said Rosa. “Your mother is a good woman.”
“A model Wife,” said Vera. “She has endured her suffering without complaint.” By this time I was slumped over at the kitchen table, crying into my hands.
“We must all bear the afflictions that are sent to test us,” said Zilla. “We must continue to hope.”
Hope for what? I thought. What was there left to hope for? All I could see in front of me was loss and darkness.
My mother died two nights later, though I didn’t find out until the morning. I was angry with her for being mortally ill and not telling me—though she had told me, in a way: she had prayed for her pain to be over soon, and her prayer was answered.
Once I’d finished being angry, I felt as if a piece of me had been cut off—a piece of my heart, which was surely now dead as well. I hoped that the four angels round her bed were real after all, and that they had watched over her, and that they had carried her soul away, just as in the song. I tried to picture them lifting her up and up, into a golden cloud. But I could not really believe it.