Authors: Margaret Atwood
I was in The Clothes Hound quite a lot on Saturdays and Sundays because Melanie didn’t want me to be in our house by myself. Why not? I began to ask when I was twelve. Because what if there was a fire, said Melanie. Anyway, leaving a child in a house alone was against the law. Then I would argue that I was not a child, and she would sigh and say I didn’t really know what was and was not a child, and children were a big responsibility, and I would understand later. Then she’d say I was giving her a headache, and we would get into her car and go to the store.
I was allowed to help in the store—sorting T-shirts by size, sticking the prices on them, setting aside those that needed to be either cleaned or discarded. I liked doing that: I sat at a table in the back corner, surrounded by the faint smell of mothballs, watching the people who came in.
They weren’t all customers. Some of them were street people who wanted to use our staff washroom. Melanie let them do it as long as she knew them, especially in winter. There was one older man who came in quite frequently. He wore tweed overcoats that he got from Melanie and knitted vests. By the time I was thirteen, I was finding him creepy, since we’d done a module on pedophiles at school. His name was George.
“You shouldn’t let George use the washroom,” I said to Melanie. “He’s a perv.”
“Daisy, that’s unkind,” said Melanie. “What makes you think so?” We were at our house, in the kitchen.
“He just is. He’s always hanging around. He’s bothering people for money right outside the store. Plus, he’s stalking you.” I might have said he was stalking me, which would have caused serious alarm, but that wasn’t true. George never paid any attention to me.
Melanie laughed and said, “No he isn’t.” I decided she was naive. I was the age at which parents suddenly transform from people who know everything into people who know nothing.
There was another person who was in and out of the store quite a lot, but she wasn’t a street person. I guessed she was forty, or maybe closer to fifty: I couldn’t tell with older people. She usually had on a black leather jacket, black jeans, and heavy boots; she kept her long dark hair pulled back, and she didn’t wear makeup. She looked like a biker, but not a real biker—more like an ad of a biker. She wasn’t a customer—she came in through the back door to pick up clothes for charity. Melanie said the two of them were old friends so when Ada asked, it was difficult to say no. Anyway, Melanie claimed that she only gave Ada items that would be hard to sell, and it was good that people would get some use out of them.
Ada didn’t look to me like the charitable type. She wasn’t soft and smiling, she was angular, and when she walked she strode. She never stayed long, and she never left without a couple of cardboard boxes of castoffs, which she stowed in whatever car she’d parked in the alleyway behind the store. I could see these cars from where I sat. They were never the same.
There was a third kind of person who came into The Clothes Hound without buying anything. These were the young women in long silvery dresses and white hats who called themselves Pearl Girls and said they were missionaries doing God’s work for Gilead. They were a lot creepier than George. They worked the downtown, talking to street people and going into shops and making pests of themselves. Some people were rude to them, but Melanie never was because she said it served no purpose.
They always appeared in twos. They had white pearl necklaces and smiled a lot, but not real smiling. They would offer Melanie their printed brochures with pictures of tidy streets, happy children, and sunrises, and titles that were supposed to lure you to Gilead: “Fallen? God Can Still Forgive You!” “Homeless? There Is a Home for You in Gilead.”
There was always at least one brochure about Baby Nicole. “Give Back Baby Nicole!” “Baby Nicole Belongs in Gilead!” We’d been shown a documentary about Baby Nicole at school: her mother was a Handmaid, and she’d smuggled Baby Nicole out of Gilead. Baby Nicole’s father was a top-brass super-nasty Gilead Commander, so there had been a huge uproar, and Gilead had demanded her return, so she could be reunited with her legal parents. Canada had dragged its feet and then caved in and said they would make every effort, but by that time Baby Nicole had disappeared and had never been found.
Now Baby Nicole was the poster child for Gilead. On every Pearl Girls brochure there was the same picture of her. She looked like a baby, nothing special, but she was practically a saint in Gilead, said our teacher. She was an icon for us too: every time there was an anti-Gilead protest in Canada, there would be the picture, and slogans like
BABY NICOLE! SYMBOL OF FREEDOM!
BABY NICOLE! LEADING THE WAY!
As if a baby could lead the way on anything, I would think to myself.
I’d basically disliked Baby Nicole since I’d had to do a paper on her. I’d got a C because I’d said she was being used as a football by both sides, and it would be the greatest happiness of the greatest number just to give her back. The teacher had said I was callous and should learn to respect other people’s rights and feelings, and I’d said people in Gilead were people, and shouldn’t their rights and feelings be respected too? She’d lost her temper and said I needed to grow up, which was maybe true: I’d been aggravating on purpose. But I was angry about the C.
Every time the Pearl Girls came, Melanie would accept the brochures and promise to keep a pile of them at point of sale. Sometimes she would even give some of the old brochures back to them: they collected the leftover ones for use in other countries.
“Why do you do that?” I asked her when I was fourteen and taking a greater interest in politics. “Neil says we’re atheists. You’re just encouraging them.” We’d had three modules in school on Gilead: it was a terrible, terrible place, where women couldn’t have jobs or drive cars, and where the Handmaids were forced to get pregnant like cows, except that cows had a better deal. What sort of people could be on the side of Gilead and not be some kind of monsters? Especially female people. “Why don’t you tell them they’re evil?”
“There’s no point arguing with them,” said Melanie. “They’re fanatics.”
“Then I’ll tell them.” I thought I knew what was wrong with people then, especially adult people. I thought I could set them straight. The Pearl Girls were older than me, it isn’t as if they were children: how could they believe all that crap?
“No,” said Melanie quite sharply. “Stay in the back. I don’t want you talking to them.”
“Why not? I can deal—”
“They try to con girls your age into going to Gilead with them. They’ll say the Pearl Girls are helping women and girls. They’ll appeal to your idealism.”
“I would never fall for that!” I said indignantly. “I’m not fucking brain-dead.” I didn’t usually swear around Melanie and Neil, but sometimes those words just slipped out.
“Watch the potty mouth,” said Melanie. “It makes a bad impression.”
“Sorry. But I’m not.”
“Of course not,” said Melanie. “But just leave them alone. If I take the brochures, they go away.”
“Are their pearls real?”
“Fake,” said Melanie. “Everything about them is fake.”
Despite all that she did for me, Melanie had a distant smell. She smelled like a floral guest soap in a strange house I was visiting. What I mean is, she didn’t smell to me like my mother.
One of my favourite books at the school library when I was younger was about a man who got himself into a wolf pack. This man could never take a bath because the wolf pack scent would wash off and then the wolves would reject him. With Melanie and me, it was more like we needed to add on that layer of pack-scent, the thing that would tag us as us—us-together. But that never happened. We were never very snuggly.
Also, Neil and Melanie weren’t like the parents of the kids I knew. They were too careful around me, as if I was breakable. It was like I was a prize cat they were cat-sitting: you’d take your own cat for granted, you’d be casual about it, but someone else’s cat would be another story because if you lost that cat you would feel guilty about it in a completely different way.
Another thing: the kids from school had pictures of themselves—a lot of pictures. Their parents documented every minute of their lives. Some of the kids even had photos of themselves being born, which they’d brought to Show and Tell. I used to think that was gross—blood and great big legs, with a little head coming out from between them. And they had baby pictures of themselves, hundreds of them. These kids could hardly burp without some adult pointing a camera at them and telling them to do it again—as if they lived their lives twice, once in reality and the second time for the photo.
That didn’t happen to me. Neil’s collection of antique cameras was cool, but cameras that actually worked were non-existent in our house. Melanie told me that all the early pictures of me had been burnt up in a fire. Only an idiot would have believed this, so I did.
Now I’m going to tell you about the stupid thing I did, and the consequences of it. I’m not proud of how I behaved: looking back, I realize how dumb it was. But I couldn’t see that at the time.
A week before my birthday, there was going to be a protest march about Gilead. Footage of a new batch of executions had been smuggled out of Gilead and broadcast on the news: women being hanged for heresy and apostasy and also for trying to take babies out of Gilead, which was treason under their laws. The two oldest grades in our school had been given time off so we could go to the protest as part of World Social Awareness.
We’d made signs:
NO TRADE WITH GILEAD! JUSTICE FOR GILIBAD WOMEN! BABY NICOLE, GUIDING STAR!
Some kids had added green signs:
GILEAD, CLIMATE SCIENCE DE-LIAR! GILEAD WANTS US TO FRY!
, with pictures of forest fires and dead birds and fish and people. Several teachers and some volunteer parents were going to come with us to make sure nothing violent happened to us. I was excited because it would be my first-ever protest march. But then Neil and Melanie said I couldn’t go.
“Why not?” I said. “Everyone else is going!”
“Absolutely not,” said Neil.
“You’re always saying how we should defend our principles,” I said.
“This is different. It’s not safe, Daisy,” said Neil.
“Life isn’t safe, you say that yourself. Anyway lots of teachers are coming. And it’s part of school—if I don’t go, I’ll lose marks!” This last part wasn’t exactly true, but Neil and Melanie liked me to have good grades.
“Maybe she could go,” said Melanie. “If we ask Ada to go with her?”
“I’m not a baby, I don’t need a babysitter,” I said.
“Are you hallucinating?” Neil said to Melanie. “That thing will be crawling with press! It’ll be on the news!” He was tugging at his hair, what was left of it—a sign that he was worried.
“That is the
,” I said. I’d made one of the posters we’d be carrying—big red letters and a black skull.
GILEAD=DEATH OF THE MIND
. “The whole idea is to be on the news!”
Melanie put her hands over her ears. “I’m getting a headache. Neil is right. No. I’m saying no. You will spend the afternoon at the store helping me out, period.”
“Fine, lock me up,” I said. I stomped off to my room and slammed the door. They couldn’t make me.
The school I went to was called the Wyle School. It was named after Florence Wyle, a sculptor of olden times whose picture was in the main entrance hall. The school was supposed to encourage creativity, said Melanie, and understanding democratic freedom and thinking for yourself, said Neil. They said that was why they’d sent me there, though they didn’t agree with private schools in general; but the standards of the public schools were so low, and of course we should all work to improve the system, but meanwhile they did not want me getting knifed by some junior drug pusher. I think now they chose the Wyle School for another reason. Wyle took strict attendance: it was impossible to skip school. So Melanie and Neil could always know where I was.
I didn’t love the Wyle School, but I didn’t hate it either. It was something to get through on my way to real life, the shape of which would become clear to me soon. Not long before, I’d wanted to be a small-animal vet, but that dream came to seem childish to me. After that I’d decided to be a surgeon, but then I saw a video of a surgery at school and it made me nauseous. Some of the other Wyle School students wanted to be singers or designers or other creative things, but I was too tone-deaf and clunky for that.
I had some friends at school: gossiping friends, girls; homework-trading friends, some of each. I made sure that my marks were stupider than I was—I didn’t want to stand out—so my own homework didn’t have a high trading value. Gym and sports, though—it was all right to be good at those, and I was, especially any sports favouring height and speed, such as basketball. That made me popular when it came to teams. But outside of school I led a constricted life, since Neil and Melanie were so jumpy. I wasn’t allowed to stroll around in shopping malls because they were infested by crack addicts, said Melanie, or hang out in parks, said Neil, because of the strange men lurking there. So my social life was pretty much a zero: it consisted entirely of things I would be allowed to do when I was older. Neil’s magic word in our house was
This time, though, I wasn’t going to back down: I was going to that protest march no matter what. The school had hired a couple of buses to take us. Melanie and Neil had tried to head me off by phoning the principal and denying permission, and the principal had asked me to stay behind, and I’d assured her that of course I understood, no problem, and I would wait for Melanie to come and pick me up in her car. But it was only the bus driver checking off the kids’ names and he didn’t know who was who, and everyone was milling around, and the parents and teachers weren’t paying attention and didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to come, so I switched identity cards with a member of my basketball team who didn’t want to go and made it onto the bus, feeling very pleased with myself.