Authors: Margaret Atwood
Who are you, my reader? And when are you? Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps fifty years from now, perhaps never.
Possibly you are one of our Aunts from Ardua Hall, stumbling across this account by chance. After a moment of horror at my sinfulness, will you burn these pages to preserve my pious image intact? Or will you succumb to the universal thirst for power and scuttle off to the Eyes to snitch on me?
Or will you be a snoop from outside our borders, rooting through the archives of Ardua Hall once this regime has fallen? In which case, the stash of incriminating documents I’ve been hoarding for so many years will have featured not only at my own trial—should fate prove malicious, and should I live to feature at such a trial—but at the trials of many others. I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.
By now you may be wondering how I’ve avoided being purged by those higher up—if not in the earlier days of Gilead, at least as it settled into its dog-eat-dog maturity. By then a number of erstwhile notables had been hung on the Wall, since those on the topmost pinnacle took care that no ambitious challengers would displace them. You might assume that, being a woman, I would be especially vulnerable to this kind of winnowing, but you would be wrong. Simply by being female I was excluded from the lists of potential usurpers, since no woman could ever sit on the Council of the Commanders; so on that front, ironically, I was safe.
But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders—too much dirt—and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.
Third, I’m discreet. Each one of the top men has always felt that his secrets are safe with me; but—as I’ve made obliquely clear—only so long as I myself am safe. I have long been a believer in checks and balances.
Despite these security measures, I do not allow myself to be lulled. Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?
Time, I plead to the air, just a little more time. That’s all I need.
Yesterday I received an unexpected invitation to a private meeting with Commander Judd. It’s not the first such invitation I’ve received. Some of the earlier encounters were unpleasant; others, of a more recent date, have been mutually profitable.
I set out across the swatch of feeble grass that covers the ground between Ardua Hall and the headquarters of the Eyes, and climbed—somewhat laboriously—the hillside of imposing white stairs that leads to the many-pillared main entrance, I was wondering which kind this meeting would prove to be. I must admit that my heart was beating faster than usual, and not only from the stairs: not everyone who has gone in through that particular doorway has come out again.
The Eyes hold sway in a former grand library. It now shelters no books but their own, the original contents having been either burned or, if valuable, added to the private collections of various sticky-fingered Commanders. Being now thoroughly instructed in Scripture, I can quote chapter and verse on the hazards of snatching loot forbidden by the Lord, but discretion is the better part of valour, so I do not.
I am pleased to relate that no one has erased the murals on either side of this building’s interior staircase: since they depict dead soldiers, angels, and wreaths of victory, they are pious enough to have been deemed acceptable, although the flag of the erstwhile United States of America in the right-hand one has been painted over with that of Gilead.
Commander Judd has risen in the world since I first knew him. Straightening out Gilead’s women offered little real scope for his ego and garnered insufficient respect. But as the Commander in charge of the Eyes, he is now universally feared. His office is at the back of the building, in a space once consecrated to book storage and research cubicles. A large Eye with a real crystal in the pupil is centred on the door. That way he can see who is about to knock.
“Come in,” he said as I was raising my hand. The two junior Eyes who’d been escorting me took this as their signal to depart.
“Dear Aunt Lydia,” he said, beaming from behind his enormous desk. “Thank you for gracing my humble office. You are well, I hope?”
He did not hope that, but I let it pass. “Praise be,” I said. “And you? And your Wife?” This Wife has lasted longer than usual. His Wives have a habit of dying: Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords. After each respectable period of mourning, he has let it be known that he is in the market for another child bride. To be clear: he has let it be known to me.
“I and my Wife are both well, thanks be,” he said. “I have wonderful news for you. Please sit down.” I did so, and prepared to listen attentively. “Our agents in Canada have succeeded in identifying and eliminating two of the most active Mayday operatives. Their cover was a used clothing store in a seedy area of Toronto. A preliminary search of the premises suggested that they’d been playing a key role in aiding and abetting the Underground Femaleroad.”
“Providence has blessed us,” I said.
“Our enthusiastic young Canadian agents carried out the operation, but your Pearl Girls pointed the way. So useful of you to share their intuitive female gleanings.”
“They are observant, well trained, and obedient,” I said. The Pearl Girls were originally my idea—other religions had missionaries, so why not ours? And other missionaries had produced converts, so why not ours? And other missionaries had gathered information used in espionage, so why not ours?—but, being no fool or at least not that kind of fool, I’d let Commander Judd take credit for the plan. Officially, the Pearl Girls report only to me, as it would be unseemly for the Commander to involve himself in the details of what is essentially women’s work; though of course I must pass along to him anything I deem either necessary or unavoidable. Too much and I’d lose control, too little and I’d fall under suspicion. Their attractive brochures are composed by us, and designed and printed by the small Ardua Hall press located in one of our cellars.
My Pearl Girls initiative came at a crucial moment for him, just as the folly of his National Homelands fiasco was becoming undeniable. The genocide charges levied by international human rights organizations had become an embarrassment, the flow of refugee Homelanders from North Dakota across the Canadian border was an unstoppable flood, and Judd’s ridiculous Certificate of Whiteness scheme had collapsed in a welter of forgeries and bribery. The launch of the Pearl Girls saved his bacon, though I have since wondered whether it was politic of me to have saved it. He owes me, but that could prove a liability. Some people do not enjoy being indebted.
Right then, however, Commander Judd was all smiles. “Indeed, they are Pearls of Great Price. And with those two Mayday operatives out of commission, there will be less trouble for you, it is to be hoped—fewer Handmaids escaping.”
“Our feat of surgical demolition and cleansing won’t be announced by us publicly, of course.”
“We’ll be blamed for it anyway,” I said. “By the Canadian and international media. Naturally.”
“And we will deny it,” he said. “Naturally.”
There was a moment of silence as we regarded each other across his desk, like two chess players, possibly; or like two old comrades—for both of us had survived three waves of purges. That fact alone had created a bond of sorts.
“There is something that has been puzzling me, however,” he said. “Those two Mayday terrorists must have had a counterpart here in Gilead.”
“Really? Surely not!” I exclaimed.
“We’ve made an analysis of all known escapes: their high success rate cannot be explained without an element of leakage. Someone in Gilead—someone with access to our security personnel deployments—must have been informing the Underground Femaleroad. Which routes are watched, which are likely to be clear, that sort of thing.
you know, the war has meant that manpower, especially in Vermont and Maine, is thin on the ground. We’ve needed the bodies elsewhere.”
“Who in Gilead would be so treacherous?” I asked. “Betraying our future!”
“We’re working on it,” he said. “Meanwhile, if any ideas should occur to you…”
“Of course,” I said.
“There’s one other thing,” he said. “Aunt Adrianna. The Pearl Girl found dead in Toronto.”
“Yes. Devastating,” I said. “Is there any further information?”
“We’re expecting an update from the Consulate,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”
“Anything I can do,” I said. “You know you can count on me.”
“In so many ways, dear Aunt Lydia,” he said. “Your price is above rubies, praise be.”
I like a compliment as well as anyone. “Thank you,” I said.
My life might have been very different. If only I’d looked around me, taken in the wider view. If only I’d packed up early enough, as some did, and left the country—the country that I still foolishly thought was the same as the country to which I had for so many years belonged.
Such regrets are of no practical use. I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.
In that vanished country of mine, things had been on a downward spiral for years. The floods, the fires, the tornadoes, the hurricanes, the droughts, the water shortages, the earthquakes. Too much of this, too little of that. The decaying infrastructure—why hadn’t someone decommissioned those atomic reactors before it was too late? The tanking economy, the joblessness, the falling birth rate.
People became frightened. Then they became angry.
The absence of viable remedies. The search for someone to blame.
Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual? Because we’d been hearing these things for so long, I suppose. You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.
My arrest came shortly after the Sons of Jacob attack that liquidated Congress. Initially we were told it was Islamic terrorists: a National Emergency was declared, but we were told that we should carry on as usual, that the Constitution would shortly be reinstated, and that the state of emergency would soon be over. That was correct, but not in the way we’d assumed.
It was a viciously hot day. The courts had been closed—temporarily, until a valid line of command and the rule of law could be reinstituted, we were told. Despite that, some of us had gone into work—the freed-up time could always be used to tackle the document backlog, or that was my excuse. Really I wanted company.
Oddly, none of our male colleagues had felt the same need. Perhaps they were finding solace among their wives and children.
I was reading through some casework, one of my younger colleagues—Katie, recently appointed, thirty-six, and three months pregnant via sperm bank—came into my office. “We need to leave,” she said.
I stared at her. “What do you mean?” I said.
“We need to get out of the country. There’s something happening.”
“Well, of course—the state of emergency—”
“No, more than that. My bank card’s been cancelled. My credit cards—both of them. I was trying to get a plane ticket, that’s how I know. Is your car here?”
“What?” I said. “Why? They can’t simply cut off your money!”
“It seems they can,” said Katie. “If you’re a woman. That’s what the airline said. The provisional government has just passed new laws: women’s money now belongs to the male next of kin.”
“It’s worse than you think,” said Anita, a somewhat older colleague. She’d come into my office too. “Way worse.”
“I don’t have a male next of kin,” I said. I felt stunned. “This is completely unconstitutional!”
“Forget the Constitution,” said Anita. “They’ve just abolished it. I heard about that in the bank, when I tried to…” She began crying.
“Pull yourself together,” I said. “We need to think.”
“You’ll have a male relative somewhere,” said Katie. “They must have been planning this for years: they told me that my male next of kin is my twelve-year-old nephew.”
At that moment the main door was kicked in. Five men entered, two by two and then one on his own, submachine guns at the ready. Katie, Anita, and I came out of my office. The general receptionist, Tessa, screamed and ducked down behind her desk.
A couple of them were young—twenties, perhaps—but the other three were middle-aged. The younger ones were fit, the others had beer bellies. They were wearing camouflage gear direct from central casting, and if it hadn’t been for the guns I might have laughed, not yet realizing that female laughter would soon be in short supply.
“What’s this about?” I said. “You could have knocked! The door was open!”
The men ignored me. One of them—the leader, I suppose—said to his companion, “Got the list?”
I tried a more outraged tone. “Who is responsible for this damage?” Shock was beginning to hit me: I felt cold. Was this a robbery? A hostage-taking? “What do you want? We don’t keep any money here.”
Anita nudged me with her elbow to get me to keep quiet: she already had a better grasp of the situation than I did.
The second-in-command held up a sheet of paper. “Who’s the pregnant one?” he said. The three of us looked at one another. Katie stepped forward. “I am,” she said.
“No husband, right?”
“No, I…” Katie was holding her hands protectively in front of her stomach. She’d chosen single motherhood, as many women did in those days.