The Handmaid’s Tale
– The Really Veiled Version –
Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.
In 1986 Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale about a future America where the United States has dissolved and pollution have made most women infertile. In the Northeast a group of Christian conservative religious extremists has taken power calling their country Gilead. They are on warlike terms with the surrounding territories, and the border to the liberal, still existing, Canada is guarded heavily. Many groups of different political or religious views, unacceptable to the new rulers, who want to stay in the Northeast, have taken to guerrilla warfare. The Gilean society is founded on a “return to traditional values” and gender roles, and on the subjugation of women by men. Women are not allowed to vote, have jobs outside the home or even to read and write. The large majority of women are married and have to stay home. There are five groups of women:
- Spouses of well-off men are called Wives.
- Spouses of ordinary men are called Econowives.
- Women unqualified for marriage are called Marthas and do the domestic work in well-off homes.
- The few fertile women are called Handmaids and are forced to bear children for well-off couples. They change household after each birth to have their fertility benefit as many well-off couples as possible.
- Aunts are a sort of nun living unmarried in re-education centres with the main purpose of educating (indoctrinating) Handmaids with the beliefs of Gilean society.
A detailed summary and analysis of the book can be read at SparkNotes.
Both the original and this story describe a period in the life of a Handmaid told from her own point of view.
There is sex, but nothing very explicit; and in one chapter characters die described like in many prime time television crime series.
The word ‘veil’ appears quite a few times in the book, but although there are very detailed descriptions of many scenes and interiors the clothing isn’t detailed, which leaves a degree of freedom in an alternative version such as the 1990 movie directed by Volker Schlöndorff or this story, and has made me add the subtitle The Really Veiled Version.
Part 1 of this story is loosely based on a mix of the book and the movie; the rest of the story is my imagination going really veiled.
Part one – Handmaid
The only thing I can say about the location of my new home is that it is about a twenty minute drive from the Red Centre, including three checkpoint stops and that it’s in the heart of Gilead City, in the best and most secure part of the city. The back of the car where I sit is curtained, but even if there was free view I still would see nothing sitting as taught, which is facing my lap and only having a limited straight forward field of view out through the white long poke bonnet, called wings, thus now seeing only a circle of the red fabric of my cloak. The car stops and the door opened after less than a quarter of a mile of slow driving from the last checkpoint that indicates the house is inside a guarded compound.
The Guardian driving me takes my suitcase, leads me to the front door and rings the bell. A Martha in dull medical green with a white apron and a masked face opens the door. She motions me to enter, reaches for the suitcase and closes the door in front of the Guardian. Turning my head my eyes meet the blue dress of the Wife of the house, explaining why the Guardian accepted being sent away so tersely.
The Martha takes the key that is attached to the handle of my suitcase and removes the padlock that prevents the zipper at the neck of my heavy red woollen cloak from being opened. The cloak falls to the floor and I can pull my mid-calf flat red leather boots out of the circular leg openings of the closed bottom of the cloak and step from it. Next the Martha pulls the red leather gauntlets off of my hands. I then reach under my chin with my red cotton gloved hands for the intricate knot of the wide strong ties that holds the bonnet closed around my head. The ties are pulled through and knotted around a strap on the public veil which is what mainly shows inside the bonnet face opening. The bonnet removed I reach behind the back of my head to unbuckle the public veil, which is in fact a mask in red leather reaching from under the chin to behind the ears and up over the bridge of the nose with a pattern of tiny holes between the nose and the mouth to breathe and speak through.
Like the Martha next to me and the Wife in front of me and all women associated with the well-off families of Gilead, I am still fully covered as required when not in my private room.
And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her be shaven.
– Corinthians 11:5
In Gilead this is expounded as all women should be completely veiled and covered to everyone except their family, and as all well-off families have Martha’s and in some cases Handmaid’s, who are not part of the family, all women of the house have to veil almost all the time. I can only see that the Martha seems to be a little plump and is only about five foot five inches in height and that the Wife fortunately appears not to be especially religious wearing the standard clothing of Lilies of the Field, the state clothing store. Besides she smells of cigarettes, which are banned. Not a word has been uttered as the Wife hasn’t spoken and Marthas and Handmaids need permission to speak in her presence. The wife gestures me to follow her, revealing that she walks with a limp and is perhaps well beyond the age for child bearing, but as it’s my function to handle the physical aspects of producing a child, her age doesn’t really matter.
We enter the sitting room she seats herself in the most comfortable armchair with a cushioned footstool on which she reposes her left foot in a manner showing this is hers and hers only. To its right is a basket with knitting. I stand in front of her, head a little lowered and hands folded as I’ve been taught. In my youth her dress would have been called a female business suit, consisting of a jacket and a skirt, but it’s very conservative with the skirt reaching the ankles, and she wears gloves and opaque stockings. Found only in Gilead is the head covering consisting of a pillbox hat from where an opaque cloth hangs down all way round and reaching the chest and shoulders. Two circular mesh covered cut-outs permit vision and everything from shoes to hat is royal blue. Only Wives wear that colour. Handmaids like me wear scarlet, Marthas dull green with white aprons, Aunts burgundy and many male functions are associated with a uniquely coloured uniform as well. My observations are interrupted by the Wife starting to speak.
“So it didn’t work with old … I can’t remember his name,” she says with a standard muffling to attenuate female charm and personality.
“No Ma’am,” I say in a very similar voice.
“This is your second, isn’t it?” she asks, with a small cough at the pause.
“Third Ma’am,” I say.
“Not very promising for you or your stay here,” ending the brief communication by telling me “You may sit, but it’s a once only permission.”
My bottom finds the edge of a hard wooden chair while astonished I watch her start rolling her veil up to make it into a roll to hang just covering the tip of her nose. She fixes it in that position by taking a cloth pin from the knitting basket and pushing it through the roll from the inside. This action just avoids showing skin as her mouth and chin, as revealed by her speech, is covered by a voice modesty scarf. She immediately pulls the scarf down around her neck to fully reveal her face below the nose. With me being against the fundamentalist Christianity of Gilead and the strict dress-code it requires, I’m happy to have come to a house where the Wife, at least when she is in command, does as she pleases. It is still a bit of a shock anyway as the previous Wife, although not religious either, only showed me her face once the correct way, and apart from that I have only seen female skin in Gilead when at the Red Centre I did a number of illegal things with my friends in the restroom at night. From what is revealed I estimate the Wife to be in her late fifties. Next she reaches down into the basket to produce a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, the logical reason to reveal her mouth. She pulls a cigarette out, lights it and takes three deep drags while looking out the window, before facing me again. She restarts the communication, now revealing her own voice as well, a unique melodic soprano which rings something familiar from the past in my mind.
“You’ll see my entire face and I’ll see yours the authorised way at some point.”
She continues “I want to see as little of you as possible and I expect you feel the same about me.”
I don’t answer, as a yes would have been insulting, a no contradiction.
“The Commander has read your file for me. You’re not stupid.” She inhales and blows the smoke out. “Your stay here is like a business deal. If I have trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand?”
“Yes Ma’am,” I say.
“Don’t call me Ma’am,” she says irritated. “You’re not a Martha.”
She puts the only half smoked cigarette out in a small ashtray on the lamp table behind the basket, and then tightens the voice modesty scarf across her mouth and pulls out the pin that holds the veil up, to again appear as the blue clothed figure that designates a proper Gilead Wife.
“As for my husband, the Commander,” she says, speaking a little louder to compensate being muffled again, “he’s just that, MY husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part.”
“Yes Ma’am,” I say, forgetting.
“In some minor aspects I may disagree with the official interpretation of the Gospel, but marriage is sacred. Period. ‘He Deserves It All’ I used to sing for God, now I can say the same about my husband.”
She motions me to leave, and rather slowly I get up and head for the door, because her last words has brought back a memory from when I was about nine where I was regularly watching a television program on Sunday mornings called ‘The Growing Souls Gospel Hour’ where they would tell Bible stories for children and sing and I have just heard one of the lead singers voice again. Her name was Serena Joy. Some years later her religiosity, her beautiful voice and her television experience made her a regular participant in a show that advocated taking the Bible more seriously, observing modesty and piety, and in general promoting a society based on a strict interpretation of Christianity. The organisation behind that program shortly after contributed strongly to the foundation of Gilead and in making its constitution. The vivid gospel singer has a part in turning her own life into an oppressed hidden impersonal subject confined to a life of idleness within a few rooms and a garden, except for when she meets other identical blue existence’s for a muffled exchange of government slogans and commonplaces, or the system needs her to make its rallies plentiful or witness a birth or other event showing the ‘importance’ of Wives.
In the hall I learn there are two Martha’s. The other one has a normal build and height, her attire conceals everything else. They take me to the kitchen as they are in general not allowed to speak anywhere else. But still I’m superior to them and have to take the initiative, so I say “You know of course my official name here is Offred, but please just address me as Handmaid. I hope to have a pleasant and successful stay and will do my best to assist you as prescribed. You may talk in here between the three of us without my permission.”
In the low, strongly muffled, almost unintelligible voice that all Martha’s produce because of the thick padding of their mask a voice says “My name is Rita.”
“My name is Cora,” says a second identical sounding voice, the statements only being meaningful because their owners stand on either side of me and far enough apart to identify there are two different sources, and Rita as the plump one.
“We have lunch ready for you. Your room is upstairs. Please follow me,” says Rita, pointing out of the door towards the stairs.
The three of us walk up the staircase, Cora last carrying a tray. At the top I slow down to let Rita lead. We walk to the right along a corridor. Rita flicks the switch outside the last door on the right, which is half open, showing me the toilet and a sink. She switches the light off again and turns to the door opposite which she opens and then steps to the side gesturing me to enter. There is a table with a lamp, a chair, a small closet and a single bed covered with a flocked white spread. The ceiling is white with a circular ornament, the centre of it plastered over to cover the base of a removed chandelier. Opposite the door is a window with two white curtains and below it a window seat with a little cushion. This is my foreseeable future. My suitcase is placed in front of the closet. As I step away from the door towards the window Rita and Cora enter and Cora places the tray on the table. They stand waiting for my reaction.
“I’ll come down to the kitchen if I have any questions or need anything.”
Rita and Cora nod.
“Is there a bell for when I’m requested?”
Rita nods and points to a dome shaped box above the door.
“Then I’ll have my lunch. Thank you.”
Rita turns and walks out, but when Cora has her side to the doorway she points to the tray and then to the floor outside the door. I nod and she leaves closing the door.
I wait a minute looking around the room once more then I cross the corridor to the toilet. I remove my gloves and voice modesty scarf, flip my face veil up on top of my head and wash my hands and face in the cold water. Despite it’s only for seconds, and having seen Serena’s attitude to veiling, I don’t dare start my stay here doing wrong and cover as before just to cross the corridor to my room. The items are dropped on the bed as I again uncover my hands and now my entire head. I then sit down sideways on the chair and remove the boots. The dress would be nice to get out of as well, but then there would be too much to put on if the bell rings or the door is knocked, and besides I don’t like dining in my underwear.
Lunch is three sandwiches and a large glass of water, which is not very exciting but actually a little better than I’m used to.
I take the tray and put it on the floor outside the door then attend to my suitcase. It only contains three of each item to wear inside the house, one set of public clothing and two pairs of shoes, so arranging it in the closet doesn’t take long. I put the empty suitcase under the bed, and then there is nothing more to do today, except wait for dinner if the routine here is the same as my previous placements. I go to the window to find out it can only be opened a fraction to let a little fresh air in, and it is shatterproof. I overlook the walled back garden which is about sixty by hundred and twenty yards. Except for a porch up against the house it’s filled with neat colourful flower beds and small bushes and trees that all require a constant care. Most Wives have such a garden to pass the time and Serena seems no exception, but she doesn’t appear during the thirty minutes I look out the window. Then, as on most afternoons at my previous placements, I drop down on the bed and doze despite having slept a full night.
The sound of a car arriving brings me fully awake again. From the sun it’s between four and five p.m. It’s very likely the Commander coming home and there is a good chance he will want to meet me, so I put on my face veil. As there is no mirror either here or in the toilet I carefully feel to check it is overlapping the headscarf. The voice modesty scarf is next, tightened a little extra, a pair of shoes and the gloves, and I’m ready to show to the Commander as a copy of his previous Handmaid Offred.
I wait fully covered watching the light fade, indicating an hour has passed before the bell rings. When I come down the stairs he is waiting in a doorway that shows to be his office. He is a tall handsome man with only thin hair remaining at the crown of his head, and with an expression that he is not to be contradicted. He wears dark green military clothing consisting of a jumper and trousers showing a sharp crease. He gestures me to enter the office, closes the door and seats himself behind the large desk in dark wood which dominates the room. I stand fronting the desk hands folded and head a little down as with Serena.
“You probably know I am Commander, and sitting here I’m of course the head of this household. Some studies might indicate that women have increased fertility just before becoming infertile which has led me to taking you instead of a ten year younger women. Also your stay here is your last chance, making me assume you are going to do your best to make the stay successful. Although your function is sanctioned in the Bible it seems wrong in the mind of a married woman, and as my wife is dear to me I want her mind troubled as little as possible, which means you in general are to stay in your room except for the prescribed situations a Handmaid is supposed to participate in. You’ll go shopping every weekday and then there is a Ceremony and medical tests about once a month. Please show me your face.”
Is this the beginning of something more than being Handmaid, or is my file without a photo? There are only photos of women for identification and security and with in-operated subcutaneous id-tags, photos are rarely necessary as appearance has no significance for the functions of a Handmaid so it’s very likely he doesn’t know how I look. But flipping up my face veil and pulling the voice modesty scarf down around my neck he now does. He looks at me for about fifteen seconds and then speaks.
“Your face confirms the file characterising you as bright, self-secure, calm and composed, and in addition you’re still good looking to me. What would you like to do or where would you like to go if you succeed here?”
Asking about something outside the world of a Handmaid brings up hidden feelings and distant memories in me and I have to pull myself together using all the self-control I have just been told I have. I can’t tell him about this, and besides if my wishes came through it wouldn’t necessarily answer his questions. So I say what everybody tells each other when alone although it could make your life very unpleasant said in any official context, but the Commander is clearly able to separate propaganda from real life so he would just take one of the official options as empty words.
“I haven’t considered it very much, but as you said my age means I can’t continue as Handmaid, and Gilead not being a society that values older women, I guess I have to test my luck and see if I can manage to get a life in Canada,” I say.
“A very bold and honest answer which I won’t hold against you. In fact I only wanted to hear your voice and get an impression if you really think as the file and your face says, which you do. I think we can get along well. I have promised not to let your words go any further so would you promise not to let my wife know I’ve seen your face and heard your voice undistorted?” the Commander asks in an amiable but conspiracy sounding voice.
I nod twice.
“Then welcome, and please cover again. My position is higher than the guardians of your previous placements, implying among other things that food here is the best available. If there is anything special you think would improve your chances of success then ask the Martha’s who, when ordering in my name, get an extended stock list. But I can’t veto the items on the list of my wife which contains what she and other Wives feel should be exclusive to Wives to show their status. Have a good day.”
I stand again, as impersonal as when entering, to bow after his last words and leave the room.
His question about the future has opened the past my mind to some extent has suppressed to avoid sorrow and sadness. I rush up the stairs to my room to throw myself on the bed and let the tears run.
I once had a family, a husband and a daughter, Luke and Jill. We attempted to leave Gilead but were discovered by a border patrol. Luke tried to help us make it by diverting them. Jill and I became separated and when they found out I was fertile I was taken to the Rachel and Leah Centre, by us inmates called the Red Centre, being filled with red clothed figures of Handmaids and Aunts.
I’m still lying on the bed when the door is knocked. Still covered I could open it immediately but I mimic putting on veil, scarf and gloves to make it appear as I of course have spent the time unveiled. It’s Cora with dinner.
Weeks have passed by, the routine dull and monotonous. Women in Gilead are to live as in Biblical times although living conditions are not set back more than a hundred years. The purpose of women is solely to allow their husband to have sex and to take care of the house and children and, as few have children a great part of the traditional female work isn’t there. In a rich house like here with Martha’s to do the household chores and allowed to administer their own work the Wife has no meaningful work tasks. The worst thing is that all the idle time both for Wives and Handmaids like me can’t be filled out because even the lowest form of academic education is for men only. Girls in Gilead don’t go to school and learn to read and write. Because the country is so young that many women still have those skills the possession of books is strictly forbidden to us, and men’s literature has to be kept under lock and key. Anyone caught teaching women are punished by deportation to the Colonies.
Rita and Cora have confirmed that the Wife was once known as the gospel singer Serena Joy.
About an hour after breakfast the bell rings for my daily work. I go down to the wardrobe in the hall to put on my public dress, replacing my shoes with boots. Then I hold the public veil, the leather mask, to my face and buckle it. Next I fit the wings, the white poke bonnet, on top of my head and secure it by tying it under the chin and to the mask. I then unfold the woollen cloak and place it on the floor to step into the bottom leg openings and pull them up above the ankles. Their openings are matched to the top of the boots to prevent lifting of the cloak. Then I reach into the wardrobe for the leather gauntlets to hold them between my knees while I lift the cloak up around my body and pull it around the shoulders. I take my hands out through its slits to close the neck zipper, reach for the padlock and place it to lock the zipper. Finally inside the cloak I pull the gauntlets on. These have rigid endings that cannot be pulled through the slits and thus allows only the lower forearms out of the cloak.
I cross the hall to the kitchen where Rita and Cora are standing close having a muffled chat while sipping tea from mugs through a straw passing through a slit in their masks. They notice me almost immediately but keep chatting and sipping. It is not correct behaviour but they know both me and as my shopping companion have nothing else to do they politely raise their voices for me to listen in, even if they risk being scolded if Serena passes the door. After five minutes Rita puts her mug on the worktop and opens the drawer containing the tokens. These each have a symbol to indicate what can be bought, and while she takes them up one by one showing me each she says
“Tomatoes, bread, eggs and, most importantly, a chicken not a hen. I want the best they have. Make them scan your id to let them know you are the Commander’s Handmaid.”
Shopping every weekday not many items are bought on most days. I follow her to the back door where the basket is in its place in the corner. She puts the tokens in a purse attached to the handle and lifts the basket towards my right hand that I have just taken out through the slit in the cloak.
Serena is not in the garden when I come out. I open the gate in the wall that separates the front and back of the house and walk towards the driveway. The closed bottom of the cloak is not much of an additional hindrance for walking as nothing faster than slow steady advancement is possible with the long heavy cloak anyway, and besides walking fast would both be inappropriate and risky with the very limited view. I pass the garage. Here I should walk head lowered, but the Commander’s car is parked in front of the garage and his driver, Nick, is polishing its windows. He always immediately notices me, and despite I look no different from any other Handmaid in public, being just a red cloak and white wings, he clearly follows me with his eyes instead of looking where his hands are working. Perhaps I have started behaving wrongly and looking at him has made him look even more intensely, but even if getting a glimpse inside my bonnet there is just red leather and in the deepest shadows two red meshes. Maybe he is looking for a sign of some kind but except for turning my head I never deviate from the course I have to take, I keep my body steady, I never show my left hand and I never move the right hand with the basket. Or is it me subconsciously longing for a man, or just the sight of a male face at close range? Directly facing a man in public could have serious consequences. The bonnet is just as much to limit my view as it is to keep my face hidden. I see the Commander of course, but the Ceremony makes him repellent. I would at most be scolded by Serena or the Commander for lifting my head here and besides Nick is young and very good looking.
Reaching the sidewalk my companion is waiting. Her name is Ofglen. I like her better than the previous Ofglen. About a month ago it suddenly became clear to me after some ten minutes of walking that the pace was a little different and the phrases we exchanged were different as well. The new Ofglen doesn’t know why she has replaced the previous one but as the old one only lifted her head when no traffic or other people could be heard to only say an official phrase and always insisted on walking directly to and from the stores I’m glad I now have a less strict companion, although it may mean the old one is now worse off. With Ofglen standing facing down, I first make my shadow fall on her and then slowly move my basket into her field of vision so as to not frighten her. Then I put my bonnet opening to the side of her head and say the customary greeting
“Blessed be the fruit.”
She puts her bonnet to my ear and says the customary answer
“May the Lord open.”
Side by side and heads down we start walking. After a few minutes we reach the gate of the compound where two young Guardians are posted.
“Beautiful Handmaids stop and face down. I have to scan you to record who are leaving the compound,” a voice in his late teens says.
“How can you be sure they are beautiful?” a different voice of the same age says.
“They cover because they are tempting to us, and if they are tempting it means they are beautiful. I dream of being alone with a red cloak with white wings, who uncovers to me, as you then know you are with a woman with no husband to have trouble with, and in addition she is capable of having children,” the first voice says.
“I would regard any woman that would uncover to me as beautiful, I think. But it hasn’t happened to me yet,” says the second voice.
“I’ve seen my sister and my mother and it certainly makes me long to see more. I think you are right that all women are beautiful. Handmaids, you have been registered. Walk on.”
The scanner works at a distance of ten inches, but with young guards like these there is always a touch on the arm, and it probably isn’t the scanner tip. With such limited knowledge of women it’s no wonder so many are arrested for harassment and things far worse.
Of course men are not a proper subject so we don’t stop to comment on the conversation of the Guardians when out of their sight where we can hold our heads higher again. In fact we say almost nothing to each other except a few of the conversational phrases taught at the Red Centre, because it has to fit with a natural stop and further no men can be close. Today when we are about to cross a street we both lift and turn our head to look for traffic, and while a car slowly passes Ofglen leans to my ear and says
“We’ve been sent good weather.”
“Which I receive with joy,” I correctly answer.
In the shopping street there are mainly women. About half are Handmaids. A third are Econowives of middle and lower class families, so named because they have to do all household functions, being in a way a combination of a Wife, a Martha and a Handmaid, but of course they are infertile. Their prescribed dress shows their status by being dominated by an ankle long cotton skirt vertically striped in blue, green and red. In addition they wear dark grey stockings, shoes, shirt and a hood covering the lower face. Beneath the hood a piece of white lace placed loosely over the head veils the entire face. Almost all the rest are Marthas dressed in their public clothing with only gauntlets on top of their rubber gloves and a thick semi-transparent shawl fitted over the head and shoulders to be better veiled. Wives are rarely seen shopping and not seen in the street when they do, as they are always brought from door to door by car.
First we pass Lilies of the Field. All state run shops have such poetic names which can be shown by a symbol instead of in writing. This is the clothing store. With all my clothing being government authorised there is no fashion for Handmaids, and only small variations allowed for Wives and Econowives, except regarding additional covering and veiling where more freedom is allowed. Thus this is the type of shop that I enter most infrequently, but with the Commander being in a very high position perhaps I can get a second pair of boots.
Approaching Milk and Honey, the grocery store that almost everybody enters, we have to walk with our heads almost straight and constantly look from side to side not to bump into other people, but as nearly everybody else are women it is acceptable.
Inside Milk and Honey though are two Guardians to ensure there is no shoplifting and that everybody behaves patiently and properly and line up for their turn. This place really shows who are modest, pious and truly believing in the Gilead conventions. Those who enter head bowed to shortly lift their heads and look where to line up. They walk directly to line up behind the woman at the back of the chosen line, their gaze fixed on her waistline and staying there. The majority ignore that there are male Guardians as they are anonymous unless making trouble to be scanned, and curiously look around to see what is available today or to see if a quantity of something rarely available from other continents has turned up. Today there are oranges which would be nice, but only having tokens for what Rita has asked for I’ll have to ask her on my return if she has tokens for oranges and hope they still have some tomorrow. One may also look around to see if there is someone you know. We are not totally anonymous when shopping. Some carry homemade baskets and most have a homemade purse attached to the basket. You can’t chat in here, but show your own basket in front of the one you have recognised to perhaps leave together, including companions, and walk to where exchanging some words is possible. I don’t think my companion is especially pious but perhaps she is afraid of stepping outside the norms, because she always only looks around once and then lines up, to end up having to stand facing down at the door waiting for me. Then we use the purses to ensure we leave together.
I have reached the counter. Shop assistants everywhere are female and dressed like Martha’s at home, but in dull medical yellow instead of green. When ready for me the shop assistant leans sideways over the counter and I put my bonnet opening to her ear to say “I would like tomatoes, bread, eggs and a large chicken, not a hen, please. Scan me to be assured this has to be Commander quality, especially the chicken.”
As nothing of a shop assistant’s face shows I don’t know if they find me arrogant or rude, but probably not to get into trouble I always get scanned, and the items I haven’t seen any better. Mostly Rita and Cora are content as well.
A commotion makes me turn my head. A Wife is entering, very slowly as she can only waddle and see some five feet ahead of herself due to the long down facing hood of her cloak. But everything stops and people move to make a path for her to the counter where one of the shop assistants leaves a Martha to serve her. The shop assistant goes around the counter and bows down in front of the Wife to get the side of her head in under the Wife’s cloak opening to hear what she wants. It does not take long for the shop assistant to return to the Wife and hold something to her waist for her to see. It is apparently what she has asked for because the shop assistant puts it inside the cloak, which means the Wife has opened its single vertical front slit, through which the shop assistant is also able to reach a purse to get a token. Wives only show their hands in public when alone with other Wives despite like us Handmaids they wear leather gauntlets. The gauntlets of a Wife are elbow length so as not to show anything else outside the cloak as the front slit allows an opening where an arm can easily pass through. People haven’t moved and the Wife can take the same path back to the door. It is very likely she is on her way to visiting another Wife and has bought a present.
I have placed my basket on the counter and just after the Wife leaves the shop assistant puts the last item in the basket and then opens my purse to take the tokens required as the gauntlets are unsuitable for such delicate handling.
I go to the door and find the purse and basket of Ofglen, hold mine into her field of vision. She nods her acknowledgement and we start walking. She takes the lead as I have no more shopping to do, and after a short walk we enter All Flesh, the butcher.
Meat is not something even we get much more than once a week, it being very expensive, and only a small fraction of the customers at Milk and Honey enter here. The single Guardian sits in a back corner reading and there being two shop assistants means Ofglen is served immediately. Just following along in here where there is not much to look at I behave properly and position myself face down at the door waiting. In less than five minutes we are back in the street.
Ofglen again takes the lead but from the direction we head I can tell her shopping is completed as well. As many times before we are on a detour to the old church which has been turned into a museum to be entered for free at any time. Although the graves sometimes make me think of Luke, I also enjoy walking in the green and quiet surroundings with more old unused buildings. Ofglen always enter the church and although it doesn’t function as such anymore she kneels down in front of the altar to pray or contemplate for some minutes. As in other respects she doesn’t appear to be especially religious I think she comes here to recall olden times. I have learned that this green area and the old buildings were once a university campus and Ofglen may not be a meek young woman afraid of saying much beyond the official teachings, but a former university student and as such has to be close to my age. But she has never answered me in a way that has allowed me to approach the subject. Perhaps there are bad marks in her file and she is afraid that saying anything about her past may reach the Angels and be used against her.
As usual, from the church we walk the direct way home. Now I feel we’ve been sent sunny weather. It’s good for the farmers, children and others, but for totally covered women in a long warm dress and woollen cloak it’s too hot and I’m sweating all over. One reason we don’t talk is that holding the head bowed the sweat doesn’t run into the eyes which are totally unreachable and therefore unable to be wiped if sweat gets into them. As we are about to cross a street into the shadows the weather gives me an idea for another try in learning about Ofglen and I say
“The good weather we’ve been sent reminds me of studying in California in my youth.”
“I receive it with joy because it’s good for the crops, but I have to say I’m a bit too warm myself,” Ofglen disappointingly answers.
Neither of us says anything more until we part. At the checkpoint at the entrance to the compound there are two new Guardians who only say the necessary and my arm is touched.
“Under His Eye,” I say as we reach my house.
“Under His Eye,” Ofglen answers to complete the customary goodbye exchange, and we separate.
I’m aware that Nick is outside the garage before reaching it because he is whistling. On lifting my head to look at him he is simply standing in front of the car gazing at me, and when having the opening of my bonnet directly facing him he waves! This new move makes me instinctively reply and my right hand with the basket lifts a foot or so before the weight makes me aware of what I’m doing and the whistling has beeen replaced by a very wide smile and another wave of his hand clearly shows he has noticed it. My indoctrination at the Red Centre makes me directly face down and walk to the gate at the back like that, instead of as lately watching him for as long as possible.
Now Serena is in the garden with Cora to assist her. Twenty minutes later back in my room after refreshing at the sink I spend some time on the window seat watching them only wearing my white cotton underdrawers. Today Serena is in the garden without any changes to her indoor attire. It is not uncommon for Wives, and Serena does it often as well, to use the public gauntlets as garden gloves. But even though it’s permitted to stay in a closed walled garden like this wearing just the indoor clothing, most regard it as semi-public to cover further. My previous Wife had a large blue sheet she wrapped around her head and entire body to appear completely different, almost featureless, but also being a hindrance for much of the work, leaving most of it to a Martha and mainly point out to her what to do. My wife before that put on a waist long blue cape to hide the jacket and her arms without obstructing the use of her hands much but I’ve heard of Wives always putting on the public veil, a thick blue leather mask, only changing the face, but making it much more unpleasant to work, especially if sunny. Although I’ve never heard of an actual case, it’s rumoured that the most pious true believers only distinguish between indoors and outdoors and thus tend to the garden in full public attire without showing hands, which means they can only look and have a Martha listening at their cloak hood opening to receive orders. Wives see themselves as too posh to wear boots. Although wearing rubber boots would be practical in the garden it would degrade them to Martha’s, so all Martha’s are almost daily cleaning indoor shoes and many other items of the Wives clothing.
Once a month the bell rings about an hour after dinner. I knew the day was close but hearing the bell at this hour always gives me a feeling of humiliation and sickness. It’s time for another Ceremony. Slowly as if in a trance I dress correctly for leaving my room subconsciously doing a second check in sensing that everything is fitted correctly. There is no reason to hurry as the bell rings almost an hour before the Commander shows up to be absolutely sure everyone else is present when he arrives. We are all there within ten minutes because Serena passes the time watching television and this is the only time Rita, Cora and I are allowed to watch, giving me a contrast to the sad mood.
As I enter the sitting room Serena is already seated in her chair. The television isn’t on. She is just leaning back with her hands folded in her lap, possibly contemplating. The Ceremony is hard for her as well. I stop in the middle of the room, fold my hands as well, kneel down and face down. I have to kneel during the Ceremony but convention says I also have to do it now to show my position in relation to Serena while being with her in ‘her’ room. She doesn’t react to my arrival. Rita and Cora are soon standing right behind me. They have probably kept an eye on the staircase to await my arrival. A minute later Nick arrives, the last except for the Commander. Although I face the floor, being male he walks with loud self-confident steps, making it clear he has taken his usual position just inside the doorway. I’m not sure if he has a television in his small apartment on top of the garage or he arrives this early just because it’s better than being alone, or if he is here to watch me. Within this hour once a month he can see me as a red dress with head, arms, hands, feet and even only mesh covered eyes, although he mostly sees only my back, and the loose dress hides my bum very well.
Of course Serena has heard him as well and within a minute she grabs the remote from the lamp table and turns on the television. Until the news at half past eight she always zaps the few channels available. First we see some minutes of a religious program with men discussing some subject. Two of them display they are clerics, but the two others probably are as well, and very likely the ‘neutral’ moderator also. There is no real discussion with some being for and some being against the subject as it’s all just different aspects of the official position.
On the next channel is a family show. Two men even I recognise as front figures in other programs are being interviewed by the host about how they spend weekends fishing with their boys. One has a hut at a quiet scenic place and brings a Martha to take care of food and ensure the clothing is cleaned and dried at the end of the day. On Sunday morning of course they drive to the local church before taking up fishing again. The other says praying is just as important as selecting the right bait to get a good catch, and thanking God afterwards makes the next trip better. The fishing subject is closed by a priest reciting a prayer for successful fishing. Then the host says the men can take a break as the next ten minutes are for female viewers.
Today Officer Johnson’s Wife demonstrates how to add lining to a jacket for saving fuel in the winter. The scene changes to a table where a blue jacket is placed inside out. Blue gloved hands at the end of blue covered arms work on a piece of blue fabric that, after being measured and cut, is sewn inside the blue jacket on the table while a male voice explains what is happening and what to do between each clip. In the final scene the torso only of a blue jacket is shown next to a radiator and the blue gloved hand turns the heat down. Then the camera zooms out and down to show the Wife below the chest sitting in an easy chair and picking up her knitting to calmly start working with her hands just above her lap while the picture fades. Back at the studio the host says that for those who didn’t catch the entire program it is re-transmitted twice a day and this account is repeated all week.
He goes on to say that today’s recipe is a tasty variation of an omelette. The next three minutes show a white apron with green arms and green rubber gloved hands working in a kitchen at the usual unnatural speed of cooking on television. Again a male voice explains what is going on and in this case explains about the ingredients. In the final thirty seconds a blue hand and arm puts a slice of the omelette on the plate of a ten year old boy who then eats with an increasingly enjoyable expression and speed, all while the male voice repeats the recipe. I feel Rita and Cora move behind me after this.
Then Serena switches to a program where a priest, standing in a church, reads from the Bible like it was Sunday. Nothing else happens and we only see it for a couple of minutes because the alternative is switching to the news channel where the news is always preceded with a fifteen minute calming and relaxing video showing firewood burning, waves rolling onto a beach, grass moving in the wind or similar. To catch the start of the news today we see thirty seconds of a trickling stream.
There is only good news, or now and then bad news if the forces of nature have caused damage on enemy territory. Today new laws improving life have been proposed or passed, new infrastructure has been built faster and cheaper, the army has crushed an enemy raid into Gilead, the Angels have located and eradicated a group of Quaker terrorists, more cornflour tokens are circulated and the Vice Governor of the South Eastern Province has become father to a healthy boy.
Living in a high class household not even the corn availability concerns me directly, but it’s good just to see that there is a world out there where the normal, although sometimes brutal, life still take place when being a secluded Gilead female. The Commander is no doubt aware of this, which is why he allows us this and always deliberately turns up after the news to create a situation where watching television is possible. Combining it with the Ceremony has the further advantage that we are cheered up, despite the seriousness of the news, and our minds are taken away from what’s going to happen later while we wait. Today Serena switches off the television the moment the news comes to an end. Giving me time to think that it’s the Ceremony coming up is perhaps her way to let me know it hasn’t produced any result so far and I’d better concentrate, relax or whatever is necessary to make it happen tonight.
It is truly ten long minutes before footsteps in the hall, sounding loud in the almost complete silence, announces the Commander. He wears an army green display uniform and goes directly to an ornate box which he opens with a key and takes out the leather bound Bible. He seats himself in the large leather armchair standing up against the wall at right angles to Serena’s chair. He leafs through the pages for a little while before stopping at one of the many markers and beginning to read a number of passages that all emphasise childbearing. As before this makes Serena uneasy and her voice modesty scarf doesn’t conceal she is sobbing. The passages change a little from time to time but he always ends with the story of Rachel and Leah, which had been drilled into us at the Red Centre:
And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
– Genesis, 30:1-3
He locks the Bible away and turns to more or less face us all, folds his hands and says
“Now we’ll have a moment of silent prayer. We will ask for a blessing, and success in all our ventures.”
As always I pray that it’s going to be easy and painless. After about three minutes the Commander clears his throat to end the prayer and then he walks out. We all leave but Serena always remains seated.
Fifteen minutes later I have to enter the master bedroom. In the middle of the large colonial-style four-poster bed Serena is laying on her back with her head on a bulky pillow pressed up against the bed end. She is fully clothed including shoes which stick out from her skirt showing that her legs are spread as wide as the skirt permits. The clothed and veiled figure makes the sight completely unerotic, illustrating this part of the Ceremony. I place myself between her legs with her pubic bone under the base of my skull and with my legs spread as well. I am also fully clothed except for my cotton underdrawers and with the red dress hitched up exactly to my waist. I have to raise my arms above my head where Serena takes hold of my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control of the process and thus of the product. If any.
I close my eyes and almost immediately feel the Commander. He fucks me totally dispassionately. We are doing our duty. This is not love. It is serious business. With a stifled groan he at last ejaculates. Serena, who has been holding her breath, expels it. Without touching me anywhere he rests a moment and then leaves the bed. Serena lets go of my hands and says
“You can get up now. Get up and get out.”
She is supposed to have me rest for ten minutes with my feet on a pillow to improve the chances of my bearing a child. As I get up I see her straighten her blue skirt and clench her legs together to lie stiff and straight as an effigy. Was it worst for her or me?
It is not easy to fall asleep after a Ceremony. Tonight I have turned in the bed for more than an hour. I have to do something and decide to take a walk. I put on the full outfit in case of meeting someone to whom I would say I felt hungry. At this time of the year it’s not completely dark at this hour a little before midnight and despite my veil reducing the light I can see everything as contours and shadows. In the sitting room, which faces the garden, the curtains are only drawn to reduce cold in winter. The old portraits look even more sinister in the moonlight. I sense movement at the door. I turn with relief on seeing it is Nick because I don’t think he is really supposed to be here either.
He immediately steps forward and flips up my veil while embracing me and then puts his lips to my voice modesty scarf. I pull it down and two hungry set of lips meet. It feels wonderful. It’s the best thing that has happened since I was taken to be Handmaid. We kiss silently for several minutes and all I want is to have sex with him right away. But of course having sex on the sitting room floor is too dangerous. Nick whispers that the Commander has sent him. Perhaps he has realised that he may have a problem as many men are also infertile. Nick goes on to say that tonight was just to find out if me always looking at him was more than just a safe rebellion. If I want to go further I should go to his apartment as there can be lights on late and no speaking or other noises can be heard in the main house. I answer with a quick kiss and then he leaves.
Back in bed I think of the best lovemaking with Luke. It has been so long since we tried to cross the border that even if Luke just got sent to prison and maybe by some unexpected way is able to contact me someday he will understand. But it is a high risk going to Nick’s apartment, perhaps regularly if his personality matches his kissing. If Nick speaks the truth the Commander is safe. Rita and Cora are friendly with me, in any case it isn’t their business and if one of them goes to the Commander he will find an excuse to send her away. The risk is Serena. There is a small chance that she would accept the Commander having authorised brief meetings with Nick for transfer of sperm like the Ceremony, but only if I get pregnant. Her extreme jealousy and dislike of all Handmaids would perhaps even make that unacceptable to her, and my having a love affair and enjoying meeting Nick would probably make her report us, which the Commander could not do anything about. But I can’t help thinking about lovemaking again and happily fall asleep.
A few days after the Ceremony it’s time for my medical check-up. About an hour after breakfast a red Handmaid transporter is outside the house. The size of the usual Red Centre groups, twelve to sixteen Handmaids, is transported both ways collectively to spend six hours at the Red Centre while all have their check-up, and at the same time we have their teachings refreshed, although it’s hardly necessary. I have been waiting fully dressed for public for some time, ready to walk out when Cora opens the door after the driver has pushed the doorbell. Today I of course don’t lift my head to look at Nick, keeping it lifted just sufficiently to find my way. As I enter the side door the driver says “Third row, left,” and, holding my head just to see the edges of the seats, I find that I have to take the aisle position of a double seat. While seating myself I turn my lowered head to watch my seat companion. She of course appears like a copy of me and correctly sits with the long poke directly down facing her lap. My arrival doesn’t make her react although she can’t avoid sensing me as the seat is not that wide and I have to move close up against her to get inside the lifted seat edge. It doesn’t really matter as this is considered a part of the Red Centre where any personal communication between Handmaid’s is forbidden and punished, so I look at the red cloth of my cloak like her.
Inside the centre there are only women so I don’t have to look down in general, but as long as I’m wearing public clothing I have to behave accordingly, seeing only the waistline of the one in front of me as we walk in line to a locker room to change our dress to indoor clothing. After waiting a little while I feel a hand at my neck and lift my head to look directly into the burgundy and, until getting used to it, rather scary face of an Aunt. She unlocks the neck zipper of my cloak, unzips it and pulls it off my shoulders to let it fall to the floor. She then taps a metal surface and I turn my head to see her hand at the shelf of the locker I am to use, and she moves on to the next in line. The lockers are not visibly numbered as these are for use by females, but the Aunt has scanned me along with the locker code. The scanners used here, or by women anywhere, have no display or keypad as women are forbidden to read and write, but are adapted to the specific use to be operated with a few buttons and lights with symbols. Here a button may be set in two positions, a symbol with a box with an arrow into it for ‘enter’ and a symbol box with an arrow pointing out for ‘leave’. When used for entering a light turns on when a person and a locker has been scanned within a short time frame, and when used for leaving a light at the top of the locker turns on when a person is scanned. As part of the undressing I have to change my footwear, having brought my shoes carried in a cloth bag, to become indistinguishable from the Handmaids staying here.
While waiting for the last to finish undressing I observe the two Aunts to lead this group today standing on either side of the doorway. Like Wives and Handmaids, all that they wear is the same colour and theirs is burgundy. Their basic outer body covering consists of a jacket and skirt of the same design as Wives, but the skirt of an Aunt is floor length as opposed to only reaching the ankle for Wives. Shoes, stockings and gloves are identical to Wives except for the colour. The jacket is only seen when they lift their hands because their ‘veil’ reaches from the top of the head to just below the waist. It’s an ordinary hooded cape, but it’s worn backwards so as to have the hood completely covering the face and most of the rest of the head as well. To enable them to see, the back of the hood has mesh covered circular cut-outs that are smaller than both those of Wives and Handmaids. Further the hood opening is fitted with a drawstring to pull it smaller than the head so that it can’t slide off and the knot is placed below the collar of the cape which is closed with a short zipper that is padlocked, so it takes either quite some force to unveil an Aunt, or the key which is in their private quarters. With probably a shirt under the cape and jacket, and a coif to show only clothes inside the hood opening and hold the hair, the head is covered in two layers and the torso in at least three, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they wear a sort of baggy pants, that could have been worn by women in Biblical times under the skirt to cover the legs just as thoroughly. With the skirt, jacket and cape all being made of wool they have to be hot. Power is not wasted on air-conditioning, so houses are only cooled by design, and riding in cars during summer can be extremely hot. Their only possibility of cooling when out of their quarters is to drink, which is possible with a straw through a small slit at the chin. I would certainly not like having my head, and especially the face fully enclosed in wool. But the very pious Aunts advocate that they have correctly modernised and improved the female covering of the Bible in its spirit and would have liked that all women of Gilead looked like them. But the Wives, being the most obvious group to adopt the outfit of the Aunts, has had sufficient influence through their husbands to go with the thin cotton veil and without the cape, perhaps arguing that they don’t have separate quarters for eating and that eating is often a part of Wife gatherings, and their current veil allows them to eat in the company of others by lifting it sufficiently to get food to the mouth but not as much as to show skin. Their husbands may very likely have supported them not to have to look like the sinister dehumanising outfit of an Aunt, but something that has been normal female attire for decades if excluding the face. However there are Wives who, like the Aunts, truly believe in the values of Gilead and dress in a blue coloured version of the Aunts attire.
The two inhuman figures in here are watching us, very likely trying to spot if anyone shows signs that she may cause trouble, or perhaps they are watching individuals that have a record of troublemaking. They don’t discuss something like that between them, or chat. Aunts only communicate the absolute minimum between themselves when with other women.
When all are ready we are motioned to follow one of them two by two in a line, the other waiting until she can trail behind our group. We go to a Red Centre classroom. The room is totally barren, just large enough for up to sixteen women to stand with a little space separating them in four rows of four with an Aunt in front of the group with the same distance to the first row as between rows. Today we are fourteen leaving the two outer positions of the last row empty. The Aunt trailing the group closes and locks the door to position herself with her back to it. The Aunt in front of us starts speaking.
“Let us pray.”
“Oh, God, make us fruitful.” From now on until Amen we all repeat her lines just loud enough that the Aunts can hear from our muffled voices that we are participating and not thinking about other things, but on the other hand female voices should never be raised or clear, which is why we wear the voice modesty scarf. Of course Aunts have taken it a step further in this respect as well, being the reason for only tutoring groups of up to sixteen. They wear an oval cover strapped over their mouth with the front consisting of a perforated metal membrane that makes their voice totally impersonal and inhuman with the metallic sound as robots are depicted in movies, and if they raise their voice too much it saturates to make the voice totally unintelligible. That, combined with speaking through the woollen hood, their voice can only be perceived up to about ten feet away in silent surroundings. Standing in the third row I have to be attentive to catch each of her words, but I don’t need to right now having said this prayer a thousand times.
After some minutes of praying I’m positively sure it’s Aunt Lydia herself leading us today. Her stature, the way she walked and now the way she pauses between the words identifies her. Gilead women are good at remembering such characteristics to recognise someone they have met before, but where a little of the characteristics of the voice of Handmaids, Wives and even Martha’s always come through their scarf and veil Aunts sound totally anonymous. Further the other categories speak freely using certain words and phrases that are unique to them, where as the Aunts all repeat the same prayers, slogans and instructions, never saying anything spontaneous not to say personal.
Aunt Lydia is clearly the leader of the Red Centre, a sort of mother superior as the Aunts in some ways can be compared to nuns but when with the Handmaids she normally never behaves any differently from the other Aunts. Her position only shines through when someone behaves wrongly, when she is the one to scold her or in more severe cases decide and administer the punishment. All Handmaids know her and when Rita and Cora say something about the Red Centre, hers is the only name to come up. She has probably been at the Red Centre since it was founded and may very well have contributed to its establishment, its curriculum and the definition of the Aunts themselves. Small things, such as her stature and agility, indicate she isn’t old, most likely not even middle-aged making her one of the young highly dedicated strictly pious, if not fanatical, women that formed Gilead, believing that the best society is the traditional society described in the Bible where men and women have different tasks to do in life, and to keep a stable, clean, orderly and virtuous society they should live separately except when bound by holy marriage. Women’s sexuality and looks are a threat to the values of society and therefore they have to be covered to show as little of human females as possible. The Aunts are women that completely believe in these values and have dedicated their lives to teach these values to the most important women, the few women that are able to make their perfect society continue in new generations. To do this they have given up obtaining the true role of a woman as a Wife or, they are for various reasons, unable to become Wives but want to contribute to the Kingdom of God on earth by dedicating their lives to His cause in the second best way. Being a group of women living together in a complex where men are not allowed to serve a religious cause they could just as well be called nuns, but their participation in and direct or indirect command of most State appointed events involving women and their strong contribution to laws regarding women, not at least their dress-code, is outside what religious orders normally are involved in.
We pray out loud for around twenty minutes. We then change to government slogans and phrases, an exercise that make us proficient in communicating with other women, like our shopping companion, only expressing the state approved orthodox views, and in reality not saying anything. After fifteen minutes this boring and even less beneficial session is fortunately temporarily interrupted by a knocking on the door. The Aunt there unlocks and opens it for a third Aunt to enter and start scanning the group. Number seven is the right one and she leaves with the Aunt. The first of our group is about to have her medical check-up. The rest of us have to repeat mindless phrases for the next twenty minutes.
After this the door is opened and we walk in line until we come to a large hall with seven groups of Handmaids, including ours, but the hall is large enough for twice as many. Again we line up four in a row, now to leave one in the last row. This time the spacing between us is much larger to allow each to turn a full circle with outstretched arms, because this hall is used as a gym and we are about to exercise. Aunt Lydia leaves and the other Aunt positions herself to have two in the last row. Front centre in the hall a single Aunt is facing us all. We wait a few minutes for the clock to reach the hour. There is no bell stroke but suddenly the Aunt at the front starts stretching up her hands and everybody knows they are to copy her. We perform a long series of stretching exercises that covers all muscles from the neck down to the ankles. This is quite fun, very entertaining compared to the other sessions, healthy and useful, and I quite often do a bit of it in my chamber myself at least once a day. It is all done at a very moderate pace, first of all because some of us could be pregnant and as such shouldn’t be exposed to any wild movements, hard jumps or the risk of a hard fall, but of course also because although this hardly produces any sweat on us Handmaids in the cool hall it’s probably a much more exhausting experience for the heavily covered Aunts. Ten minutes into the session an Aunt and a Handmaid comes to our group. One after another we have to pause to be scanned, but already at number five the right one has been found to leave with the Aunt, while the one through with her medical check-up takes her place. Some ten minutes later an Aunt comes again but without a Handmaid. The pace of checking for our group has increased but unfortunately it’s not me chosen. Unfortunately because the exercising lasts only thirty minutes, its end simply announced by the Aunt in front walking away, and as it’s the same at each medical check-up I would rather have spent the coming time waiting at the examination rooms and having my check-up done than going through the session coming up.
Two groups leave the hall and a new one enters. The rest of us keep standing in the positions for the exercise, but standing facing straight forward with our hands folded and with heads bowed to have the gaze fixed at the hem of the dress in front of us. When apparently everybody has taken this position a crack sounds to indicate a tape recorder has been started. A male voice starts reading from the Old Testament and this goes on for an hour. The voice is quite melodic but very didactic and insistent. It’s all passages to support the official policy of course but it’s not really possible to let it go in one ear and out the other and daydream. The Aunt of each group slowly passes in front of each of us down the rows, and when her burgundy skirt fills our field of vision we are to lift our heads and look her directly into the eyes until she moves on. With her eye meshes being denser than ours, Martha’s or Wives, and her right in front of me for me to shadow her face there is no chance of seeing any human eye movements inside. All you see is the sinister sight of her small eye meshes in a burgundy cloth surface, and you do not really know what she is able to see. No matter how many times you have seen an Aunt and seen her right in front of you, this a sight that every time spoils any daydreaming or other thinking, and when she moves on you might as well listen to the voice reading. Having to hold the head low I don’t know how many times during this session someone has been taken for their medical check-up, but sometimes during the last half I am scanned, and now I’m glad it isn’t my turn because it’s getting close to lunch and those away for the check-up during the break simply have to go without lunch, and in addition have more of the boring sessions.
The canteen is nothing special, a large room filled with tables for sixteen, and at one side a long counter where food and drink is handed out. Behind the counter a number of Martha’s serve and handle the kitchen. But we line up as we enter: One Aunt, then the group and bringing up the rear the second Aunt, and we start being the third group in line. At the counter there are no choices. Our first Aunt doesn’t take anything, but other Aunts get a large glass of water with a long straw. We Handmaid’s each take a tray and cutlery and as we move along a smaller glass of water and a plate with two large sandwiches, one with sliced egg and one with cheese respectively, are placed on the tray. We then follow the Aunt to an empty table and when all Handmaids are seated the Aunt nods for lunch to begin. It is as much a break as a meal. There is more than half an hour and we are allowed to look around; but not to speak. The Aunt with the glass is standing at one end of the table holding the glass at chest height inside her cape with half an inch of the straw visible from where it passes out of the cloak at a slit just above the sternum to where it enters the matching slit in the hood at the chin. The other Aunt has left through the door to where the Aunt’s dine, although I have never found out how they do, perhaps in small cubicles; but one thing is for sure as they are not family they don’t unveil to each other at each meal. It’s really nice having company while eating, and seeing other people although most of them are copies of myself varying in height and build. During the days in between these visits to the Red Centre I only see Rita and Cora close up, and the Wife in the garden from my room. I don’t count the shopping trips where I only see other people in short glimpses with a very limited view and a majority of them are just shapeless red cloaks. This is also different from the sessions, here the identical appearance are not so intimidating because each individual does something different; looking right, looking left, staring at someone, bowing the head a little and lifting at the veil to eat or drink, and when you look at the same person a minute later her position has changed. Two of our group are taken for their checks during the break. Unfortunately for the first she didn’t get to eat her cheese sandwich. Another one returns and her accompanying Aunt has taken her past the counter so she manages to have her meal. There is always at least one Aunt standing at each occupied table. They hardly move, but watching them for a little while their heads slowly turn from side to side to constantly check that everything is as it should be at their table. Most of them have been holding a glass of water inside their cape and towards the end of the break one by one they lower their right hand to its rested position half out of the cape to show an empty glass. About two minutes after the Aunt at our table has lowered her glass a second Aunt arrives, who gestures for us to stand up with her two hands until all are standing holding their tray. We walk in line past the counter to put the tray down on an empty spot, which keeps coming up as the Martha’s take the trays away as fast as possible.
We go back to a new area of the floor in the gym but the group is again positioned in rows for exercise. The afternoon session is the morning schedule mirrored to start with an hour of reading from the Old Testament with all the passages read being different from the morning, but the voice is the same, and after having heard it all at least fifty times during my stay at the Red Centre I would be able to say nearly all passages from heart after hearing the first line or two. The third time an Aunt comes into my field of view it’s different; she has not stopped right in front of me. Just as I realise I have been scanned she gently takes hold of my hand. My turn for the medical test has come.
We walk some distance. The examination building is outside the actual Red Centre complex because the doctors are male. At the door into the sixty yard long corridor connecting the two the Aunt accompanying me stops, but without turning I know she keeps watching me until I’m received at the other end by a medical assistant because Handmaids are to be under supervision at all times at the Red Centre. There are no nurses or other females with medical qualifications to assist because education is only for men, and more males than the absolutely necessary doctors are unacceptable in dealing with women. The medical assistant’s work is partly as nursing aide and partly as receptionist, but of course they don’t read or write. They are dressed like Marthas but in medical blue and with the white apron being made of rubber. I enter directly into the waiting room when passing the door at the end of the corridor and bow my head, as I now am in an area where males are present. The assistant scans me and shows me to a marked space up against one wall. I have to remain standing while waiting although there are a number of wooden benches, but they are reserved for those who are known to be pregnant. Now and then the marker above a seat or standing position lights up and an assistant comes to take the marked woman to an examination room. My lowered head makes me gaze directly at the stomachs of two pregnant Handmaids on a bench up against the opposite wall. Our dresses are not looser than those close to giving birth but they have to wear dresses with a special maternity cut, but they are veiled the same, and thus it’s not possible to see if they are looking forward to giving birth or if the Handmaids in my situation are envious at those having made it, or afraid to go through a pregnancy and birth. I’m not afraid. I have been through it and was very happy then but now it is very different and having a child I won’t see grow up and giving it to a woman, a couple I’m not sure really want it, doesn’t make me feel good about it. Is it right of me giving birth to a child to grow up with parents not guaranteed to love and care for it, and set it into a harsh society, especially if it’s a girl, just to make my own life better for a while? Coming here makes the big questions and decisions of life come up in your mind, and typically waiting for half an hour there is a lot of time to think.
Suddenly an assistant is standing in front of me. I haven’t noticed my own light going on. The examination room is not that large and dominated by a couch. To the foot of the couch is a table with some instruments and two stands with strong lamps. No one is present when we enter. The assistant pulls a fresh paper sheet over the couch from the roll at the foot. I am scanned and then I am made to lie down on my back and hitch my dress up to the waist and the assistant helps me remove my underdrawers. Finally she covers the couch, and me, with a large cloth sheet reaching from my knees to the top of the couch for the doctor not to see more of his female patient than necessary, and for me not to see the doctor, or anything else. After waiting a few minutes like this I hear him enter.
“Offred it is? Let me see how you look today,” I hear his voice. I am not to answer unless he says a wrong name. It’s just as much to announce his coming in case I should have dozed off and prepare me for being touched. He doesn’t tell me his name but reassuringly I recognise the voice which has been the same since coming to the Commander. He starts the examination and while probing me says
“Three months and nothing in the wind, huh?”
After a little while he adds “You’re in good shape, though. Ripe.”
Some moments later he continues “I know your Commander. He has tried twice before. He’s probably sterile. Men are not tested, you know. You get the blame honey if it doesn’t work.”
After a short interval he says “I can help you. The door is locked, nobody can come in. They’ll never know it wasn’t him. I’ve helped others. Lots of Handmaids do it.”
I understand that this is my last chance. If nothing has happened by the next test my time as a Handmaid is over and my future grim. It’s very kind of him to take the great risk of defying the law to help me, although it only means that he belongs to the large group of desperate men without a wife and not rich enough to buy sex. He sounds kind and I’m probably going to see an attractive healthy man if I accept. It’s not nice doing it quickly with a stranger in an examination room when I have the possibility of real love making. With his words the room is clearly not bugged and I won’t get accused of speaking to him so I say loudly, so as to be clearly understood with my muffled voice
To make me reconsider he says “I would hate to see what they would do to you. You know what could happen if it doesn’t work. It’s the Wife you have to look out for. They don’t like you girls hanging around the house. Just imagine what they must feel. You see, they are defeated women, especially Serena Joy. She was quite a celebrity. What do you say?”
His gloved fingers have started touching me where it feels really good, but I have to be unkind to him and say “You stop right there, or I’ll scream.”
The touching stops and he says in a soothing voice “It’s your life.”
Then for some seconds I hear the clattering of instruments followed by his examination gloves being pulled off and him saying “See you next month.” He leaves.
A minute later an assistant removes the large sheet covering me and then she washes and towels between my legs. I am handed my underdrawers and get up from the couch, put them on and get my clothing in order. When she sees I’m ready to leave we walk to the corridor where we wait together for a couple of minutes until a burgundy figure is seen in the far doorway. I walk up to the Aunt to be scanned. We walk back to the gym where I take the lead knowing where my group is placed. Her scanner acknowledges we are at the right group and I take a free position.
I only get a little more than ten minutes of exercise, but it’s still a pleasure. Then it’s back to a classroom for forty minutes of phrases and slogans. It’s not Aunt Lydia at this session, but the only difference she made in the first session was to remind me of my stay here. Finally it’s twenty minutes of loud praying. Wishing peace, good health and results of one’s work are values almost anyone can agree with so the day ends in a positive atmosphere. While we go to the locker room I think of that once again I might have spend a day with some of the few friends I was able to make while staying here, but on these visits there is absolutely no chance to communicate with the other Handmaids. Those of us out to be fertilised are much more closely supervised than the ‘inmates’. The boots fitting indicate the electronics haven’t failed and I’ve been shown the right locker. When my dressing for public is completed except for closing the zipper of my cloak I am to stand straight with my back up against the locker facing straight forward. Soon a burgundy hood fills my small field of vision. The Aunt takes the open padlock hanging from the zipper slider and locks me up. A line is forming from the exit door and I become part of it, seeing only see the red fabric at waist level of the cloak in front. It comes to me, that not being the first in line, when turning away from the Aunt locking me up it was probably my last sight of their dreary outfit for today and very likely until my next medical check-up. I’m sure I won’t miss it. The line doesn’t start moving when the entire group is ready. Women have to be ready in good time not to be the reason to keep men waiting. It takes more than fifteen minutes before we go to the Handmaid transporter.
Although I think of nothing else it’s the third night after returning from the Red Centre before I have gathered courage and concluded no matter what the risk I have to go to Nick. In making this decision love is not important, but I have concluded it’s better to live a safe life here under a roof and with food and clothing, have a child and have time to find out how I can stay here with it or take it with me, than the alternative. About half past eleven, when the house has been quiet for about an hour, I put on my clothes including the veil in case I’m discovered inside the house where maybe I will able to get away with the excuse of being hungry.
Two days after kissing Nick he threw a key in my basket saying ‘front’ when I returned from shopping. I stopped before opening the gate to the back of the house where, with some difficulty I managed to get hold of it with my thick leather gloved left hand, which I then, as always, held inside the cloak. For removing the public clothing I have always plenty of time so the Martha taking the basket only unlocks and unzips the cloak leaving the rest to me alone in the wardrobe.
I listen carefully for any sounds when approaching the front door. The moment I start unlocking it there are no excuses. It’s completely silent, and I unlock, open the door, walk out and close the door in one sequence. Without a cloak I can nearly run the twenty five yards down the front path to the beginning of the driveway and turn right to the garage, the distance where I’m most in risk of being seen either from the windows or from the small road between the compound houses. I walk up the stairs to the apartment on top of the garage and lightly tap on the door. Nick opens, puts up a smile and says “Have you come to do your duty for the fatherland?” while I enter. As the door clicks closed I flip up my veil up while saying, my mouth still covered by the voice modesty scarf, “Yep.” Then I pull it down around my neck and pull off my gloves. He smiles even wider at seeing my entire face, I smile at him and then our lips meet for some seconds. He says “If it’s only for that then I could always squirt it into a bottle and you could just pour it in.” I kick off my shoes, open my dress and let it drop to the floor. He then takes me in his arms, we kiss more intensely and he lifts me up to put me down on my back on his bed. We kiss again and then separate to remove the necessary clothing before he comes on top of me. We are both so eager that it doesn’t last long, but it’s wonderful nevertheless. A minute later I get out of bed and while I start dressing I say “I have to go. My name is Kate.” “Kate,” he repeats with a shining face. Fully covered I go to the door and turn to send him a kissing gesture before I leave. I get back to my room without any problem. I quickly undress as normal for sleeping and drop on my back on the bed to now take in and enjoy the experience.
Two days later I go to Nick again. I say to myself it’s to be sure I get pregnant, but love and desire have filled my mind and body since our first intercourse. This time we hardly exchange a word but just enjoy each other’s bodies.
We continue meeting twice a week to simply satisfy our desires. I’m sure that I wouldn’t need to see Nick that often if I could hug or just touch someone skin to skin during the day. I haven’t seen an inch of flesh of either Rita or Cora yet, and of Serena only what I saw of her face the day she ‘welcomed’ me, implying there has been no skin contact. Before Nick my last sexual encounters were the illegal ones in the washrooms while staying at the Red Centre. Serena has the Commander, but how do Rita and Cora cope?
The time has come for my medical check-up at the Red Centre again. I am the second to go to the examination building. The doctor doesn’t say anything except announcing his presence. The examination takes longer than usual but much of it is him working by himself. Finally he says “I’m happy for you, this is not going to be your last visit here. In fact you’ll get an extra appointment in two weeks. Only very rarely does the next check contradict today’s result. I’ll have the final results of today’s tests tomorrow, and the Commander is going to have my conclusion later tomorrow. I’m almost certain you are going to stay with him for about nine months more. For my professional understanding not to be changed I would like to know, did you find another one?” I have confidence in him, and now I am probably going to see him many more times, so I say loud, but muffled of course “I did.” He thanks me and leaves. The rest of the day at the Red Centre I’m in a daze and go through the lessons like a robot.
Back at the house I am not permitted to tell anyone the result of today’s visit, so the rest of the day passes as usual, my veil for once an advantage that hides my strong feelings no doubt expressed on my face for the short encounters I have with Rita and Cora. My mind switches between joy and relief. Despite the harsh society my child is going to face I can’t help feeling joy once again at being able to bring a new human into the world. I’m also relieved that my plan of staying with an almost trouble free life by doing what I have been assigned by society to do has succeeded.
The next day passes as usual as well until the bell rings at about an hour after dinner. At this hour it has until now been the call to the Ceremony, but the last was just five days ago. While veiling myself I become aware that this Ceremony was to become the last, at least with the awful part, while staying with the Commander and get so relieved I’m about to cry with joy. As usual Serena is seated in her chair in the sitting room when I enter second to kneel down, Rita and Cora almost on my heels, and Nick is there within thirty seconds, everybody knowing this is extraordinary. Serena doesn’t reach for the remote to the television as usual, and there is no reason to because unlike at Ceremonies the Commander enters a minute after Nick.
He wears an army green display uniform like at the Ceremony and goes to unlock the ornate box and produce the Bible. He then seats himself in his armchair and opens the Bible to spend a rather long time apparently searching for passages which aren’t marked. Then he reads about birth, that getting children is the meaning of life, and children born into a Christian family brings the word of God on so that future generations can enjoy His grace.
He closes the book, but keeps it in his lap, and says facing everybody and no one
“I have today received a message from the medical facility in connection with the Rachel and Leah Centre that the testing of our Handmaid yesterday was positive. She has the fruit in her womb. We have taken a long step towards bringing my wife a child. To set our minds right in the important months to come and perhaps get His aide in reaching this goal we’ll have a Ceremony every two weeks, but only consisting of the part in here where the entire household is present. Lord, we thank you.”
He opens the Bible again and reads half a dozen of the usual passages, and as usual ends with the story of Rachel and Leah before locking the Bible away, faces all of us, folds his hands and says
“It is the time for our silent prayers. We will ask for a blessing, a successful pregnancy and a healthy child.”
When I hear the Commander clear his throat I don’t know how long has passed because I have prayed with all my heart. The Commander leaves. I go directly to my room and repeat my prayers twice, and then add some more.
I would like to go to Nick tonight but the Commander, having spent time at the Ceremony, might be working later than usual.
Going to Nick the following night I immediately uncover my face to say “We’re going to have a child, isn’t it wonderful?”
Nick smiles a little unsure to ask “Are you sure it’s mine?”
“The doctor says the Commander is infertile,” I tell him. He embraces me.
A minute later I pull a little away from him to say “Nick, our child has a sister. I lived with a man named Luke, and when Gilead got really settled so I wasn’t allowed to work and our daughter couldn’t go to school we tried to get to Canada. A border patrol spotted us, Luke tried to divert them to let us make it, he was shot at, he’s either in prison or … My daughter’s name is Jill. She turned eighteen in March.” Tears are running down my face and Nick pulls me close again. We stand like that for long until I have calmed down.
Then we slowly undress and lie down in bed to cuddle for many minutes before making love. As we lie relaxing afterwards I say “You know we’ll have to cut down on this. At a point it becomes a risk to our child and unpleasant for me. But there is also Serena. And the Commander only wanted me to become pregnant, he may not turn a blind eye to that we have continued if he finds out. I’ll come to you the day after the new Ceremony, that means every second week, for three months, and then it’s over. I have to find out how to stay with our child, or just stay in contact, and of course I would like the child to have contact with its father as well. If I can’t stay here, perhaps we can go on together somehow and not get too far from here. Oh, Gilean society is so cruel.”
Nick hugs me. When, after a minute or so, he lets go of me, he says “I would like to be with you every night but I accept what you have decided. Regarding Jill, perhaps Serena could find out something. With Jill being a strong healthy girl when you were separated she has no doubt been given to a well-off couple to be raised to become a Wife. Despite Wives only going out for private gatherings a couple of times a month, they also chat a little when going to public trials and births. If next time Serena meets other Wives she can ask as many as possible if someone knows of a young Wife just turned eighteen, they’ll all ask at their following outings, and so the word will spread rather quickly.”
A little shocked I stutter “Oh God, you’re right Nick. Girls are married at sixteen at latest so Jill may have been a Wife for several years. When I think of Wives I think of older women like Serena and the other Wives I have stayed with. Now she no longer has her own name and she has become an anonymous blue suit, confined for the rest of her life to needlework and pruning roses; and she isn’t even half my age. Asking Serena has to be tried. Now that it looks like I’m going to give her what she wants most she has to do this for me.”
Nick nods and I get up to dress. When ready to go out the door I say “Not being close to you for two weeks is going to be awful for me as well. But then you may do anything you like to me. You can fuck me hard for hours if that is what you need then. I might need it as well. Goodnight love.”
Thirteen days later at the end of the next Ceremony I stay kneeling, and as usual Serena remains in her chair to be the last to leave, I am soon alone with her. Being the first time I haven’t left with the others, it doesn’t take long before she asks
“It seems like you want to say something to me Offred. You’re allowed to speak.”
With me kneeling on the floor our heads are about level and I directly face her. To make her more open to my request I have decided to say it the way I hate to hear
“Your child may have a half-sister. At least she had when I was selected as a Handmaid. She may be a Wife now. She had her eighteenth birthday in March.”
“Take a seat Offred. Soon we can’t have you kneeling anyway. I wonder why the Commander hasn’t told me that, or maybe it isn’t in your file, or the version he has for some reason. But of course I’m very happy to learn that. A second pregnancy is much more likely to be successful and goes much easier. Yes, I am interested in knowing if I have this relative so to speak. And that is why you have told me of course. I do meet other Wives, and they again meet other Wives, and in the end someone may meet an eighteen year old Wife whose biological mother was christened Katherine. This name is in your file, and I remember it correctly, don’t I?”
“You do,” I say, “and yes I would very much like to know if you can find out what has happened to your child’s half-sister please. She was christened Gillian and her exact date of birth is March 22nd.”
Serena says “I think you were right confiding to me. I want a child no matter what its life expectancy may be. The environment or a bullet may kill it long before predicted anyway. But the Commander may not like to have a son likely to die in his teens, if that can be deduced from the fate of our half-sister, and then you are in serious trouble. Let’s part. It won’t be easy inventing a plausible reason to the Commander for why we are talking. Fortunately since the announcement he has taken to working right after the Ceremony to be ready for bed early. Now that the Ceremony has no bedroom part and has become a nice spiritual lift, we have made it into a real enjoyable evening by moving our weekly enjoyment of each other to these weekdays. Sexual desire isn’t stifled by a blue suit I can tell you, although some think female sexual feelings are wrong.”
From now on I try to find out if Serena leaves the house. Everyday when dressing in public clothing to go shopping, and when coming back, I look at Serena’s blue cloak, gauntlets and public veil to see if they have been moved. I find all sorts of ways to ask Rita and Cora, such as ‘I think there was more activity than usual in the shopping area today. Has there been an event? As I haven’t been summoned perhaps it was only for Wives?’
The next night Nick and I fuck like rabbits without a word until exhaustion.
Serena goes out three times in the coming two weeks. One was for a birth, the other two Rita and Cora didn’t know about.
I was at the birth myself, but Handmaids and Wives are collected by different transporters and most of the time they are separated at the site of the birth as well. In any case Handmaids and Wives of course don’t mingle. We are anonymous red dresses to them, they are anonymous blue suits to us, and I only recognise Serena at such an event if I see a Wife walking with a limp.
At this particular birth the weather was nice and sunny and the house was much larger than normal, having a large covered porch and a large lawn behind the house where the Wives had a wonderful gathering with plenty to eat and drink, the outdoors party allowed because the walled garden was at the centre of a much larger private grounds. One large room was used as delivery room and the adjoining room was for us Handmaids to gather in. In Gilead, for women at least, a birth is the most joyous event, far surpassing weddings. Wives meet and chat. Handmaids meet and are allowed to speak when not in the same room as Wives, but the talk among Handmaid’s doesn’t go far beyond slogans and formality. Firstly, because except for possibly our shopping companion, the other Handmaids are as good as strangers as this is the only occasion where we are allowed to speak individually, and no one can tell if you are talking to a true believer that would report any speech against the State and also because several Aunts attend the event as well and one or two are always present in the room of the Handmaids. The Wives know each other better because they are allowed to talk at other occasions, meet over many more years, have fixed names and the Aunts won’t interfere with their affairs unless they hear about conspiracy against the State. Despite the limited substance in our conversation it’s wonderful just to be among other people and act like it was a pre-Gilead party.
We take turns in, two to four at a time, to go into the delivery room and both with movements and verbally encourage the Handmaid in labour. In this situation our voices are to be heard loud, but still muffled, even though the Wife to have the baby is present at the Handmaid’s side most of the time to hold her comfortingly and to symbolise they share the event. Often an Aunt is present as well and then she directs our encouragement with her hands. The Handmaid having the baby is veiled and almost normally fully dressed like at the medical check-ups just her underdrawers have been removed and her dress is rolled up to the waist, but in this case she wears no footwear. From time to time, especially if the birth seems to stall, all the Handmaids enter the delivery room for a powerful encouragement, perhaps sometimes frightening the suffering woman more than encouraging. Also from time to time one or two Wives, most likely the ones the Wife of the house knows best, spend some minutes at the bed to find out how the birth progresses. If they find it’s progressing too slowly they might scold the poor Handmaid. As births are, these events may last anywhere from an hour to a full day. The birth is monitored and assisted by what has to be called midwives. The women of course have no formal education, within the Gilead system at least, but have practical training and experience, and might be old enough to have received education before Gilead. Like the medical assistants connected to the Red Centre they look at lot like Martha’s in blue.
The closer it comes to the actual moment the more the midwife, or in this case midwives, take over. In these minutes also all we Handmaids are in the delivery room shouting, and the wives are just inside the room, in the doorway, and in this case most of them looking in through the windows. The Wife to have the baby breathes and groans like the Handmaid in labour. Birth in Gilead is a show, women-only, with spectator participation. Of course it peaks when a midwife is able to pull the baby out and it cries.
Within a minute it gets wrapped in a large towel and the Wife carries it out to be shown around close up to the other Wives who clap and cheer as loud as their gloved hands and muffled voices permit, and then one by one congratulate the new ‘mother.’ The Aunts take part in this like they were Wives. Now it is the turn of us Handmaids to stand in the perimeter of the Wives and applaud, but our voices are not to be heard any more. The poor Handmaid who has just given birth is almost forgotten about and left on her own, even without the midwives, who are following the baby, as normal development in its first minutes is all important, whereas the biological mother has outplayed her role, perhaps never knowingly ever seeing the child again.
The baby is a girl, the birth mother at the most getting only a momentary glimpse of the child she has carried for so long and today suffered for to get into this world, but she may never see more than this pain hazed glimpse. It has to be a tremendous shock and trauma, hardly relieved by the fact that she knew about this from participating in many birth events before her own. Now that I have become pregnant myself it feels much worse than attending previous births. For moments I regret having chosen nine more month of secure life when experiencing how the bad times may start. With all the Wives and Aunts having congratulated the Wife with the child the event is over. Soon an Aunt signals us Handmaids to put on public clothing, and they and the Wives get masked and cloaked as well. There wouldn’t be any talking in the Handmaid transporter even if it was allowed.
The day after the Ceremony I go to Nick again as agreed. It appears that he has waited for hours just inside the door exciting himself more and more, because I’m directly grabbed and lifted up, the door being closed with his foot, carried to the bed and put down on my back. Moments later he is on top of me, rolling up my dress up and pulling down my underdrawers just far enough to have access. Then he starts working, me still in my shoes, veiled and fully covered. I need it as well, but it’s much better for me when our naked bodies touch and our hands caress skin as well. We are both so exhausted after this first lovemaking and yet so eager to go on that neither of us comment on this opening, but just hug and snuggle while undressing to continue normally the way I prefer.
Rita and Cora have understood I want to know about Serena’s outings, but have not questioned me about it. Either the one assisting Serena with her cloak comes to my room and gestures she has left the house, the sign for Serena is a finger at the mouth like a cigarette hanging out, or the one serving my dinner, after putting the tray down, gives the same sign and shakes her head. Serena goes out three times every two weeks although there is nothing regular about it.
On Tuesday of the seventh week about two o’clock in the afternoon, while I’m resting as usual, suddenly the door is knocked hard. I immediately get up and clear my head while putting on shoes, gloves, veil and voice modesty scarf understanding something unusual is happening. Opening the door Cora immediately turns gesturing me to follow. She takes me to the sitting room where an unknown Martha that I would have taken for Cora if she wasn’t beside me, is present along with Serena, both of them standing facing the door awaiting me. It is unprecedented. Serena even closes the door to exclude Cora before saying “This Martha comes with good news I believe, but she won’t even say who her master is before you have confirmed you are connected. Please Martha.”
We form a triangle to stand close so Serena and I can both perceive the low, highly muffled voice of the Martha, who says “My Mistress would like you to tell about her favourite doll when she was around six years old.”
A clear image starts forming in my head along with tears in my eyes and I say “It was given to her by her grandparents, my parents, when they came for a visit. It was made of plastic, about this high and with hair coloured to resemble her own. Grandmother had made its clothes herself to look like her own aqua blue prom gown. Jill played with it consistently until just before her seventh birthday when one of the legs fell off, worn-out from the intensive use. Repairing it was not possible and she cried and wouldn’t eat for two days. She got a new larger and much more expensive one for her birthday but it never was the same.”
The Martha says “Your daughter is my Mistress. You are the biological mother of Wifeethan. Ethan Burns is a young business leader continuing his father’s dominating position within food distribution in the Northeast. He is rich and more powerful than most Commanders but only uses his power behind the scenes and is not actively involved in politics. He chose your daughter for two reasons. First she is a Leah, which shows him to be among the richest in Gilead. Second her parents, adoptive parents to you, are known as devout believers in the official interpretation of the Bible and the according lifestyle, which makes him better accepted in the ruling party and benefit his business. Now they know all about what has happened to you since you separated.”
After a period of silence to take this in I say “It’s the most wonderful news. I’m so relieved to learn that she is alive and well. But what is a Leah? I know of course that Leah in the Bible was the sister and co-wife of Rachel, the latter the barren wife of Jacob that suggested to him to use their maid to get a child with her.”
Serena says “And Leah was fertile and gave Jacob many children. A Leah in Gilead is a fertile wife. In the rare event that the girl of a well-off couple shows to be fertile she is not forced to become a Handmaid, but becomes an extremely attractive marriage object, because there are good chances the man, or the new couple, can have children the natural way without a Handmaid. My child’s half-sister being fertile just like you Offred is very good news to me, because it suggests the two of you may carry an inheritable immunity to the pollution that makes infertility so prevalent, and thus if I have a girl she has a much better chance of being fertile to become a Leah as well. You haven’t heard of Leah’s because there are so few. From what I’ve heard I guess there are less than ten in all of Gilead. The Aunts don’t talk about them because they, no matter their insignificance in relation to Handmaids in renewing the Gilean population, degrade the value of their work by showing the right way still exists. Shouldn’t we have some tea?”
The Martha lowers her head to say “No thank you. Despite now being a messenger for my Mistress I’m still a Martha unworthy of socialising with Wives or Handmaids. I just have two more items on the agenda my Mistress has made for me and then I’ll leave, perhaps spending a minute in the kitchen for a glass of water before the almost hour long transport back. You see, our house is about as far as you can get from here within Gilead City, I’ve been told, which is one reason none of you have ever met my Mistress, because as you know all female gatherings, public or private, are kept as local as possible. Another reason is that my Mistress ventures out only when directly required by the State, and in addition only to meet her adoptive mother, explaining why it took this many weeks for her to be reached. This leads me to the first remaining item on my agenda, a meeting between my Mistress and her biological mother – you.”
The Martha faces me and I nod enthusiastically so she will continue
“It is impossible for a Handmaid to go to her. A way for the Wife of the Commander to visit her could be found where she could bring Marthas but never a Handmaid. So the plan is for my Mistress to visit the Wife of the Commander here to improve contacts and business relations her husband has asked her to, at least temporarily, perhaps only this one time, to relax her strict admirable behaviour of always staying at home to go to private Wife gatherings. He would like her to visit the Wives of the top ten Commanders, and the first Wife, and most likely only, is the Wife of the Commander here, you Ma’am. The meeting here with her biological mother has to be improvised, but my Mistress thinks of going to the bathroom to have some minutes with her alone there. Coming before all other guests or leaving later would be suspicious being against her known extreme modesty and reluctance of being out, and while here her special status and being a new visitor from the other side of the city is going to make her the constant centre of attention. But mother and daughter can at least see each other some more if in addition one of your Martha’s is called sick, only in words of course, and the Handmaid of the house, Offred, replaces her to serve the guests instead. It’s not that unusual. Would you approve of this plan Ma’am?”
Serena waits a few moments as if considering before saying “Your Mistress knows it’s extremely prestigious for me to have a Leah and the Wife of CEO Burns visiting me, and it becomes even more unique if the other top ten meetings are cancelled. I’m going to be the talk of the town, at least among the Wives of this area for months to come, no right to the birth I think. I have to request this Wife gathering, although what I’ve learned from you today about your Mistress’s fertility is all that interests me; the meeting of mother and daughter is none of my business.”
The Martha says “It is Ma’am. The well-being of Offred, both physically and mentally, is most important to you, and meeting her daughter soothes her mind, so permitting further meetings should be considered favourably.”
Serena says with a hint of admiration shining through her muffling, “A Martha correcting me is unprecedented, but you are right. Are you sure you are really a Martha and not Wifeethan in disguise? No, I believe you are a Martha. The pious and strict Wifeethan would never show in such a revealing outfit with large eye meshes and the straps of the apron making the chest protrude visibly. When does she want the gathering to take place?”
The Martha says “It’s completely up to you. She is at home most of the time and her husband can arrange for a driver and a car any day. When the doctor prescribes something to get Ma’am back to her usual self and a Wife gathering to cheer her up to the Commander, then the invitations of the Commander is going to reach us, because my Master’s staff have been instructed to find out when a top ten Commander is hosting a Wife gathering, so his Leah can attend and contribute to improve his contacts and business relations. The sooner the better I’m sure Offred would say.”
Serena says “It is long time since I felt so sad and lonely that I asked the Commander to call for a doctor. Perhaps even the other Wives think I’m not taking my turns. I’ll speak to the Commander about it tonight. I look forward to meeting your special and prestigious Mistress.”
The Martha says “I’ll give her your regards, from both of you. I am about to leave as you suggest Ma’am, but first a minute for the last item of my agenda.”
To my surprise, and that of Serena as well I assume, she unties her apron to take it off. She puts it upside down on the seat of Serena’s chair and reaches down in the knitting basket to produce a pair of scissors. At the top of the apron, where no one would touch her at the top of the chest and beneath the headscarf, a rectangle of cloth has been attached to the inside of the apron. She cuts one side open and pulls a small sealed envelope out which she hands to me saying “Wait to open it until I’m gone. I have not seen the contents, but I’ve been told it’s from the secret file about my Mistress that my Master got access to when your inquiry reached my Mistress.”
She puts the apron on again and then bows to both of us like a Martha acknowledging new instructions and her dismissal. I turn to follow her as Serena says in a low voice “I know it’s very private, but I’m very curious. I take on the Wife gathering for you, would you please open the envelope in here and then you can leave immediately after.” I nod, acknowledging we have the secret of Jill together, and if I don’t she will most likely search my room tomorrow while I’m shopping and thus invade my privacy even more.
I follow our visiting Martha to the kitchen and stay in the doorway while she greets Rita and Cora and has a glass of water while exchanging a few words with them I can’t hear. In five minutes they all approach me, and I let them pass then follow them to the wardrobe in the hall. Our visitor puts on the shawl to cover her head and the leather gauntlets and then walks out the door that Cora has just opened. Serena has joined us and we all look out the open door watching the Martha walk down the front path. As she reaches the driveway a large black car approaches. The front door has been watched. She enters the back door of the car on her own without the driver getting out and the car immediately drives slowly away. Serena and I go back to the sitting room.
I still hold the envelope in my hand and she remains standing to look over my shoulder as I carefully open it. It contains nothing but a photograph, but it’s a photograph of Jill just as I remember her, it probably being taken just after we were parted. I just look at it for some time with tears in my eyes blurring the sight, but it doesn’t matter as I’m going to look at it for the rest of the day. It’s tears of a time with her, and Luke, lost, but it’s also tears of joy by knowing she is alive and wel, and I’m going to meet her soon. Just to be sure there’s nothing else I turn the photo, and there is. It’s filled with writing. I have to take my gloved hand up under my veil to dry my eyes before being able to read the small text through my meshes:
I was surprised and extremely happy to learn that you are alive. This has made Ethan get my file from the central Angel’s archive to retrieve this photo that I did not know existed, and discover that the file delivered with me to my adoptive parents lied, saying you were dead. Unfortunately both versions say dad, Luke, is dead in case you don’t know. I’m looking forward to meeting you, but a close relationship between a Handmaid and a Wife is impossible, even if I am a Leah. Ethan is looking into how this can be solved.
P.S. Ethan has written this. It’s kept down to what fits the photo for you only to commit a small sin by reading this.’
Not a long text but very much to take in. Serena acts as a mother, gently guiding me out of the sitting room and towards the stairs. Here she motions both Rita and Cora to help me to my room and leave me with a jug of water and a glass.
I stare at the photo for a long time and then turn it to read the message again. I do this over and over for hours. Except for confirming Luke is dead it’s so wonderful to see Jill, although as a girl about ten years ago, and to read a brand new message from her. But as time passes I also realise the message shows she has become a woman different from me, with very different views. With nothing from our common past it could even not be her words that are written down. But the Martha’s doll question proves I’m in contact with her. Or does it? She just said yes to my account and then put out the name of a man I’ve never heard of. But why would someone send the Martha if I wasn’t her mother. I have found Jill – no matter she only uses her married name. I have to realise she has been brought up according to the values of Gilead, and in addition it seems by a couple going further than the minimum requirements because of truly believing in a society based on the Old Testament brought up to present and emphasising a male dominated gender view. But she could have stopped today with the Martha’s information about her and waited with what the written message contains until we meet. She has accepted the law is being broken, although it’s me who is doing it, by making me read a written message. She is willing to break her own strict interpretation of when a Wife should go out to meet me here. These are signs I may be able to convince her that there are far better alternatives to the society that we now experience if we get to meet regularly.
A knock on the door makes me put down the photo for the first time, placing it on the bed as I realise its dinner time. I also become aware that I have only flipped up my veil, and thus am dressed correctly to open the door just by flipping it down again. Dinner marks night is on its way and makes me think of Nick. Should I make an extra visit to him because my own plan says our next meeting is not until next week? On the other hand he has probably seen the unusual visit of the Martha and deduced why. If not at the Wife gathering in a couple of days he is smart enough to see through that an out of the area wife is not here only to promote her husband’s business. I decide to stay with my plan so as not to risk anything that will prevent me from meeting Jill.
The basket is completely filled when I come home from shopping the next morning. Rita and Cora have been told to prepare for a Wife gathering and ingredients to cook and bake much more than normally is to be brought home starting today. Handing over the basket Rita informs me that a doctor has been here. I go to the wardrobe and get out of my public clothing and then go back to the kitchen to learn more.
I tell Rita “I never found out what happened at such visits at my previous placements”.
She replies “Everybody knows it’s a show. Formally Wives gatherings as just to chat, eat and drink is not considered an acceptable reason for a Wife to leave her home, but going out to comfort, soothe and cheer up a sick wife is permitted. So Wives more or less take turns in becoming sick to be able to gather privately. So as not to have Wives rebel at their conditions, the religious authorities have unofficially accepted this way of doing it, with doctors and husbands playing along. Serena of course stayed in bed this morning, and when the doctor rang the doorbell Cora saw him in while I covered Serena and the entire bed under two large sheets. If she was really ill she was to put her hand outside the sheet for him to examine and test pulse and temperature. If needing to go further I think he is permitted to lift any part of the sheet, if just one piece at a time, and ask her what is wrong though my guess is that he starts by just asking if it’s a Wife gathering and when Serena acknowledges he writes a prescription for something harmless along with a message for the Commander recommending Serena to drink, eat and rest more and invite some other Wives to cheer her up. At least he handed Cora a sealed envelope with a medical logo to place on the Commander’s desk, and then he left again. Of course Serena has got up and dressed to spend the day as usual.”
The following Monday at one o’clock in the afternoon there is a knock on my door. I open it almost immediately as I’m fully dressed with only my veil flipped up and my voice modesty scarf pulled down because the Wife gathering is set for two o’clock so there’ll be no doze this afternoon. On the contrary I’m excited to meet Jill. The reason I am called down this early turns out to be that Serena wants to have a word with me. She is not in the sitting room. Hearing noise the previous afternoon made me walk down the stairs to look. Nick, with the help of Rita and Cora, but also supervised by Serena, was about to rearrange the furniture. The dining room was emptied except for the table being placed in a corner, and Serena’s chair from the sitting room was moved into the dining room. Nick saw me but with the three other around we couldn’t even approach each other. Now Serena is seated in her chair placed in the centre of the now largely empty floor of the dining room. At her feet are placed some folded blue items of clothing.
“The Commander told me he was at first surprised and uncomprehending that the Wife of CEO Burns would like to take part in my Wife gathering, but then laughed loudly at seeing the message was accompanied by a marketing announcement that his company could now provide a series of new surrogate products that was almost the same and just as tasty as hard to obtain products from other continents. He had of course put Wifeethan on the guest list, and ended lecturing me that her being a Leah and extremely pious and modest does not mean that her husband’s products are anything special. This is just to let you know that the Commander doesn’t link Wifeethan to you. I have chosen Rita to be the ‘sick’ Martha, implying she is to stay in the kitchen where no guests go. You know it’s nothing personal that I like to see as little of you as possible. It’s to not be reminded of my disability as a woman, and all Wives feel the same, which is to say that you should keep as much distance from us while serving as possible. From the doorway you can keep an eye on the buffet on the dining table to keep it filled and you observe the guests to see if they want you to bring them something instead of going to the table themselves. With Wifeethan I guess everybody is going to be closely gathered around her and me here in the centre of the room and so everybody will want their refreshments brought to them. On the other hand I think she is going to attract so much attention that they might hardly notice it’s a Handmaid doing the serving. You are only going to hand over food and drink. When it comes to close contact with the guests, such as undressing and dressing again, you leave that entirely to Cora, understand?”
I nod clearly making Serena go on
“You may stay downstairs from now on until the last guest has left. In return I would like you to lend your hands to Rita and Cora until the first guest arrives. The transport of Wives being dependent on men that prioritise women lowly means guests are going to arrive over a wide period of time so I want to be ready to receive them right away. Please get Cora.”
I go to the kitchen. I have told Rita and Cora the truth about why the wife of CEO Burns comes. I trust them, and when knowing the truth they won’t make up and spread stories to explain why I am to wait and Rita called ‘sick,’ that could make the Angels take special interest in this household. Besides it’s exclusively Serena that communicates with them to make it unlikely that they say too much in the presence of the Commander.
When told that Serena wants her Cora fills a tray with plates, and when I stretch my hands forward to carry it she fills another with glasses and we both go to the dining room. I slowly go to stand in the doorway to follow Cora. She bows down in front of Serena to take the top clothes item at Serena’s feet and unfolds it to show it’s a woollen cape which she then fits over Serena’s upper body. The next item she unfolds is a large blanket which is used to cover Serena’s feet and legs, reaching out over the armrests and up to the waist overlapping the cape. Finally she unfolds a semi-transparent shawl, like Martha’s wear in public but of course blue, and covers Serena’s head and shoulders with it. As if the chair in the centre of the room wasn’t enough it’s now completely clear who is the ‘patient,’ and she is not going to get cold. As Cora and I get back in the kitchen she says
“Although all of the guests know she isn’t really sick, the hostess is always wrapped up and is not supposed to leave the chair, show a hand or even have someone lifting at the shawl, which means she isn’t going to get anything to eat or drink herself. She isn’t supposed to speak either. The guests are going to say soothing and cheerful words without feedback. The hostess is wrapped up for the guests not to lie when they tell other Wives and husbands that the hostess really looked like she needed their presence. Actually I’ve heard it has become sort of fashionable that instead of the blanket, cape and shawl, to simply put on the public cloak, but backwards, pressing the hood opening flat against the seat back. In addition to being even hotter and unpleasant to breathe through the back of the hood, which is something Serena doesn’t like at all, it of course also makes you blind. That doesn’t matter much at normal gatherings where there is nothing to see but blue veiled suits like herself, but this Leah coming today Serena probably expects to look different and wants to see exactly how.”
Over the next minutes Cora and I carry dishes and jugs into the dining room. About ten minutes before two o’clock the doorbell rings as the first guest arrives. I retract to the sitting room doorway from where, at a distance, I can watch Cora receive the Wife and help her out of her cloak and gauntlets, to herself remove her mask. Wives don’t change to boots in public. The bottom of their cloak is completely closed, and with their shoes pushed into straps at the inside of the cloak bottom they move by twisting its soft leather. With me in the sitting room doorway it permits the guest Wife to enter the dining room without passing me, and then I move to the dining room doorway to peek in to see what is going on. I guess finding out she is the first she isn’t going to miss any talk, so she goes directly to the buffet, puts a sandwich slice on a plate and fills a glass with juice before going to the centre of the room to Serena to start a one-way conversation. The guests continue to arrive at two to three minute intervals, sometimes two at a time. They all go to the buffet before gathering around Serena, who sits completely still. She could have been a dummy, or she could have been sleeping, but it is for sure she isn’t.
The clock has passed ten past two, and with twelve Wives present that is about all that can be expected without me knowing exactly how many are on the list. Having all been to the buffet, and the first still with something in their glasses, I again go to the sitting room doorway when the doorbell sounds. On the door being opened I know immediately it’s Jill, because it’s a driver at the door, saying with both words and body language, that he wants Cora to go to the car. I move until I’m able to look straight out through the door and down the front path. The driver opens the back door of a car, perhaps the same as the Martha came in, and Cora bends to help a passenger out. She guides a cloak constantly facing directly down up the path. The cloak is magenta! I understand a Leah is a Wife who wears blue with the fertility of a red Handmaid to give the combined colour of magenta. It’s impossible to determine if the guidance is needed because Jill won’t lift her head, can’t lift her head, the cloak opening is covered by opaque clothes or she is blind under the cloak. Cora unlocks the cloak, pulls the hood back and pulls the cloak off the shoulder to make it fall folding to the floor. From what appears it’s not the differences of the magenta outfit from normal Wives that first catch the eye, but that Jill has been holding a large brown paper shopping bag in each hand, which, after stepping out of the cloak, she now places on the floor in front of her. As with the other guests Cora pulls her gauntlets off and she removes her mask herself. Then, as Jill has probably expected without indicating it, Cora picks up the bags and leads her towards the dining room.
She is walking almost directly towards me and first of all I notice that she wears a cape reaching the thighs to cover the arms and only leave half of the hands to be seen when they hang directly down. Her skirt touches the floor for only the tips of the shoes to be seen and finally the eye openings in the opaque veiling cloth that hangs from her pillbox hat are smaller than even those of Aunts, just a little larger than pupils, and covered with a heavy mesh. Despite until turning into the dining room she walks almost directly towards me there is not a sign or movement to indicate that she is looking at her mother.
I go to the dining room doorway as soon as Jill and Cora have entered. Jill indicates that Cora should put the bags up against the end wall right next to the dining table, already on her way to the other women surrounding Serena in the chair. They have been standing close a little bowed, except when to take a bite or sip, to hear the others speaking and all let Serena hear them, but when those facing the door see the magenta outfit they straighten and nod in the direction of Jill for them all to turn and front her. Jill goes to the side of the chair where those standing there move to either side to let her stand right up against it where she leans forward to get closer to Serena’s ear. I can’t hear her of course but can only see that she speaks lower than Wives do normally because all other heads move close to those of Jill and Serena apparently to hear her. For more than five minutes this scene doesn’t change. I am interrupted by Cora almost pushing me away because another Wife has arrived. She is about to address me, probably rightly scolding me, when she spots the magenta head and simply walk away. From my point of view for the next almost twenty minutes nothing happens, except at one point when everybody straightens to face the bags. I have to ask Serena to find out if Jill is doing all the talking, is taking questions from the others or it’s a free conversation with only Serena not contributing. Then they all straighten and, again except Serena, walk towards the buffet to start serving themselves.
Jill moves a little slower and when all the other guests have their backs to her she walks towards the door, towards me. I’m quite excited when she puts her mouth to my ear, but I just hear a low strongly muffled voice say “The bathroom please.” I gesture Cora to wait on the buffet and walk towards the bathroom with Jill right behind me. I open the door to her, she enters grabbing my hand to take me with her and I close and lock the door behind us.
She pulls me close and her voice now we are alone sounds not much louder, although through the muffling it sounds if it’s strained, as she says
“Mom, I’m so happy you found me, but I know it means much more to you as you are alone while I have both the parents that adopted me, a husband and a son. We own a small house close to our own within the same compound, just large enough to be suitable for a married couple with Martha’s. I would like you to move in there, with a husband of course, for us to be able to meet like normal family for the rest of our lives. Is that what you want as well mom?”
I say, probably a little too loudly “A son! Then I am grandmother. How wonderful!”
We no longer embrace, but Jill stands up against my right arm for her mouth to be right in front of my ear for me to better hear her almost unintelligible speech “Not so loud please. Yes, his name is Enoch. He is eleven months old.”
I turn my head a little to speak more into her ear as I continue in a quiet voice
“Jill, you know that I could only ask the Commander’s Wife to ask about you because I’m about to give her what she want most, a child. I’m pregnant, and what I really want is to have a life where I can both keep my child and see you regularly. But if I have to choose I have been indoctrinated to accept that I’m a Handmaid and my child is for my Mistress, so I’ll choose you. This house sounds wonderful Jill.”
I have to put my full attention into what she says next as it comes rather fast as if she has decided on what to say in advance and memorised it
“Mom, Offred, I have grown up to be a married woman, please call me Wifeethan. Chloe, one of my Marthas, has told you how important and powerful Ethan is. He has put down a team to look into how you can come to live as a Wife in this house. It’s unfortunately legally impossible. As a Wife I can only associate regularly with other Wives and Aunts. I can only meet close female family of other types for a few minutes a couple of times a year, like now. Conversely Handmaids on reaching the age of infertility can only have one of three fates: If their hosting couple dislike them they are accused of something to face a public trial. The overwhelming majority are simply sent to the Colonies but a few stay as citizens of Gilead by becoming Martha’s, either because they have been valued by their hosting couple to get a recommendation or because they have skills from their past that Martha’s now perform. Unfortunately Martha’s can never become Wives. But if you stay on good terms with the Commander and his Wife, because a public accusation is something not even Ethan can do anything about, then he has means to persuade the Commander to give you a recommendation as a Martha. We still have to do something illegal, but there are so many Martha’s that irregularities are common and with their low status they are rarely looked into. Unfortunately it’s not likely that you’ll be able to get a position as Martha in the vicinity of our compound to be able to meet with our Martha’s and thus have contact with me. Until a solution to make you Wife has been found, contact can only be very rare through the only type of man a woman can meet, a doctor. Go to Dr. James and say your stomach hurts after eating a can of Grandmother Burns’ Mashed Potatoes. You can see the symbol on one of the samples I brought. He has already been informed of what this means so you can go there if you get into trouble while staying here as well. Did you get all that? I always speak through two voice modesty scarves sewn together and I’m not used to speaking so much and so fast.”
I say “Dr. James and Grandmother Burns. Your voice, your cape and your small eye openings, are all Leah’s like that?”
Jill says “I don’t really know. I’ve never met another Leah. Just before my marriage the Aunts told me to wear magenta to signify I’m a Leah. The stricter clothes style compared to the normal Wife suit is to show my deep belief in the Bible as Gilead expounds it by showing less of my female attributes.”
I say “I have to let go of my coming child then?”
Jill says “As I said, a number of clever men are still working to solve the problem, and Ethan and I would very much like for you to keep your child as well. In that case if you have a boy they can play together in a couple of years, and if you have a girl they can marry. We pray God lets you keep your child.”
I turn to hug Jill and say “I look forward to seeing Enoch. I pray to keep my child as well, and the prospect of our children playing together, or in the future continuing our family, is certainly going to intensify my prayers.”
Jill, Wifeethan, says “We .an. al. mu..” I interrupt saying “Please repeat Wifeethan, it has to be directly mouth to ear.” I turn again and hear
“We can’t talk much longer, although the other guests are probably preoccupied discussing the cans. Ethan says it’s very unlikely the Commander is the father of your child, then who is?”
I say “It’s Nick, our driver. I know we have sinned but otherwise I might have been at the Colonies by now and I wouldn’t have found you. We have met more often than required to have the child, and in fact I would like him to be my husband, but I haven’t asked him.”
Wifeethan says “Indeed you have sinned, but first of all it’s good you have a man to stand by you, think what to do, make the decisions and bring you around – I pray in the end bring you to us. Second we don’t need to find a husband for you, and you’ll get one you know and like. Third if we manage to get the three of you to live in the house the sin is reduced by the two of you being married and the child growing up with his father. When I tell Ethan he and his team are going to work even harder for a solution because clearly every day continuing the current conditions increases the sin. Let’s hug and then you leave, so I’m not committing another sin by saying I’m going for a pee without doing it.”
Wifeethan turns lifting her arms but I stop her saying “Shouldn’t we see each other’s faces Wifeethan?”
Wifeethan leans to my ear and the seriousness shines through her scarf layers as she says “To unveil improperly is too me a much greater sin than all the other sins I had to commit to meet with you. I just told you that a Wife and a Handmaid of close family can only have rare short encounters. Unveiling is going far beyond what that implies. I promise you that when we meet in our compound Wife to Wife, the first thing I’ll do is to ask Ethan for permission to unveil to you. For both of us it’s going to be a long time until we meet again, even if it would be tomorrow. Goodbye.”
We hug for about a minute, but it feels like only seconds. Wifeethan then unlocks the door and when, after opening it seeing there is no one outside, she motions me to go out. With tears in my eyes I go to the dining room doorway to see the other Wives still standing around the buffet table eating and drinking, but now cans of Burns’ products are scattered all over the table. Cora is just inside the door and on seeing me she turns to go out pointing towards the kitchen. Serena is sitting all alone in her chair in the centre of the room. I feel like going to thank her, give her company, but as I can’t bring her food or drink I can’t do that now. It would just have been for a minute anyway, because Wifeethan passes me and goes directly to her previous place at Serena’s side. I wonder if she uses the some ten seconds they are alone to thank her for getting us together. As soon as the first of the other guest Wives sees that the Leah has returned they all leave the buffet to lean over the chair of Serena like before. After observing them for a minute, to realise again that nothing reveals who is talking and what is said, I become aware of my role as waitress and inspect the buffet thoroughly. It’s a mess but it has been well supplied from the start, so there is no need for any refilling considering all the guests have had time to be satisfied and the gathering is soon to come to a close.
I replay the meeting in my mind. I received much information that seemed just as much to cover that despite CEO Burns’ large resources he has been unable to find a way to unite me with Wifeethan – and my grandson Enoch. But at least I can go to Dr. James if he hasn’t found a solution when my own child is born. But apart from Enoch – it’s wonderful though – what did I learn about my daughter? It was confirmed to me that she firmly believes in the Gilead version of ‘traditional values’ to want to live confined in her home, to be controlled by and leaving all decisions to her husband and that she goes further than most Wives in hiding her personal looks and voice. She hasn’t really chosen this life as she has never heard of other faiths, political systems or lifestyles to have alternatives to choose from. I have to realise that women, who were not yet teenagers when the current regime took full control, only have their parents and those they associate with as models for how to live and dress, so if their parents have embraced the system, like Wifeethan’s adoptive parents, then she is going to be like her adoptive mother, only varying from her in ways she has seen other Wives do. I don’t know how Wifeethan looks, what interests she has, how she spends her days, how she gets on with Ethan and so much more. Her final remark was true: After fifteen minutes I already long to meet her again to get some of the many questions answered, and so even tomorrow feels far away.
But she is still here. I can see her, but if either of us give in to our yearning and as much as hint we know each other then we might never meet in private again and even risk the worst. So when she has spent around a further twenty minutes with the women gathered I take a couple of steps back when the closely packed heads break up and the magenta figure moves away from the blue ones. After a few steps she stops to turn towards them and bow several times. She walks to the buffet and turns again to front the other Wives, now holding up a can in each hand. Then she turns towards the doorway and I retreat to the sitting room doorway for her to be met by Cora. At the wardrobe Cora hands her the mask. Now I’m able to see that it doesn’t have the normal mesh covered eye openings. There are two black spots at the eye positions but I’m unable to see if it’s pinholes or just marks. Wifeethan puts on her right gauntlet herself and then stretches out her left hand for Cora to fit that one. Wifeethan then makes some gestures I can’t see as Cora blocks most of my view. The gestures cause Cora to stand in front of Wifeethan and help her with something that makes her cape lift. Right after Cora has placed the cloak on the floor for her to step into I realise that Wifeethan’s hands have been fixed up under her cape, because she neither bows down to help her shoes into the straps, nor does she lift the cloak up over the shoulders herself. She simply stands straight while Cora does this, pulls the hood over her head and zips and locks the cloak opening. As at her arrival Cora then guides her out. Even if there are pinholes in her mask and she lifted her head I guess her sight has to be so limited that guidance would be needed. Her driver seems to have been waiting, perhaps he has told Nick about the Burns family.
In the dining room it now looks like I’ve been told a Wife gathering normally is. Some are at the buffet eating or drinking, some talking while doing so. Around the room are groups of two or three talking, some holding a drink. Two women chat, leaning over Serena’s chair to entertain her at the same time. I don’t know if it’s just me, because I can’t hear any of what is said of course, but I have the feeling that the mood is now somewhat wearied. The show is over, the star has left and everybody just wants to get home. But it’s probably only Wifeethan who has had her driver waiting. For the others the time of pick up has been set by their husbands or the driver and they have to keep an eye on the clock. In ten minutes the first goes to Serena and bow to deeply and sincerely, say thank you for a completely unique gathering. Then on her way out of the room she passes the buffet to take a can in each hand. In the minutes to follow Cora goes directly from dressing one Wife to the next. It looks like some are only staying in the dining room because they know they can’t all be dressed at the same time. Soon several cloaked Wives are standing around the wardrobe awaiting their transport. When the doorbell rings for the first time I count seven. The first has waited at least ten minutes. Women have to be ready in good time so it’s not the men that have to wait, and in most other situations it’s only the cloak that shows they are waiting for a man and not just passing the time of day. When the door is opened the driver says the name of a husband and then it’s expected that his Wife is waiting ready to walk out the door. Seeing the last guest leaving the dining room I think of going to Serena, but instead, for the first time, she shows her hand between the cape and the blanket waving me to come.
When I’m ten feet away it sounds loud, although still muffled “Bring my cigarettes and lighter Offred.”
Having fetched them she says clearly impatient to pull her face veiling off
“Leave and close the door and tell Rita and Cora not to enter before I tell them.”
I go to the kitchen, which Rita has had plenty of time to keep clear, and we wait for Cora. I tell them that Serena is not to be disturbed and then ask “Is Wifeethan blind in public, and what did you do to her hands Cora?”
Cora says “No, there are holes that could have been made with a fine knitting needle, so she should be able to see a little, but she makes herself effectively blind by, from the moment her cloak is locked, bowing her head fully for the chin to touch the sternum and constantly keep her head in that position. Regarding her hands there are a pair of strings attached at the rim of her gauntlets. She folds her arms across her chest and then the strings are tied around the opposite wrist to lock the arms in this position. I find it exaggerated that an adult married woman does this when in public. For a teenage girl it would prevent her from pulling at the hood to see or breathe easier or from communicating by tapping through the cloak if there are more girls present. And if doing it indoors it would ensure the Wife doesn’t lift her own cape or show her hands.”
Rita says “You are right that a well-behaved woman such as Wifeethan should be able to hold her arms folded freely while being transported. I think it’s to symbolise that women ideally should be totally passive and helpless in public, and she sends this signal to other women on a visit like this.”
The word ‘well-behaved’ makes me think that if Serena was to wear the home outfit of Wifeethan with a cape she would have to wear gauntlets with strings indoors as well and have her arms folded and tied to keep her from constantly lifting the cape and regularly partly lifting her veil as well. Such a measure would of course prevent her from knitting, but also teach her to stop smoking the hard way. Thinking of Serena makes me aware that she told me to go to my room when the last guest had left. I nod to Rita and Cora and go up.
I’ve had good time, in fact almost a week to think of every little detail I was told during my meeting with Wifeethan. I have of course thought about what kind of daughter I have got and how I’m going to tell her of my own life before this region became Gilead. Starting from my own life I can then explain to her that there are other ways to believe in God, other lifestyles and other political systems. Hopefully that can make her relax somewhat on her strict behaviour and way of dressing, or at least accept that I would like to go to the liberal limit of what is accepted by the authorities. But lately I have focussed on how to come to live with her – to become a Wife – to discuss this with Nick as it’s time for our biweekly meeting. The first question to him is of course if he wants to become my husband. If he doesn’t he can perhaps still help me to reach Wifeethan, but if I manage to have a life with my daughter and son without a time frame, then I won’t risk all this to meet secretly with him anymore. But I feel sure that he loves me, and to become the husband of a Wife means CEO Burns has to offer him a job with a status far above driver that he could never be able to achieve on his own.
After some kissing and hugging I start telling Nick about my meeting while we undress. But I quickly realise that Nick is unable to take in such a long account until we’ve had sex. So I let him take control and we both enjoy it very much, two weeks being far longer than any of us like, but on the other hand it feels fresh and doesn’t become routine. I wait until we start dressing again and then start from the beginning again. Unfortunately he just agrees that going from Handmaid to Wife is impossible. I then ask him if the impossible could happen, perhaps by taking a shortcut outside the law, would he like to become the husband I need as a Wife. Despite expecting what his answer would be I’m filled with joy as he puts up a big smile and then takes hold of my head to press his lips against mine. Being with Nick puts love and pleasure at the front of my mind but a reunion with Wifeethan is so important that I remember to ask Nick about Wifeethan’s driver.
“Yes, he was with me in the garage during his Mistress’ visit.” Nick says and continues “He was a nice guy a year or two older than me. We mostly talked about cars and how to keep them mechanically sound and tuned. If you want to know if he said anything about the Burns household, he did say that driving for Wifeethan did not take up much of his time. Something like between once or twice per month, and nine out of ten times it was to visit her mother. It would be strange if a driver had the key to reunite you with Jill when CEO Burns’s team of experts can’t find it. But I would probably learn more if we meet again. No matter how sympathetic, in Gilead you don’t say anything out of the ordinary when meeting someone for the first time – or the first dozen times.”
I hug him for a minute and he understands it’s a goodbye hug. Back in my own bed I realise there is nothing I can do at the moment, and I might as well just try to pass the time as best I can, perhaps all through my pregnancy, as my current situation as Handmaid apparently makes reuniting impossible. Handmaid’s are relatively rare and closely followed by the Angels and other State departments, whereas Marthas are plenty and not worth watching closely as they can be easily replaced. Becoming a Martha is now attractive to me, and those I have met, like Rita and Cora, all have a good life if you only look at the basic needs of a human such as food, clothing and a roof over one’s head. I’ll have to follow their daily routines more closely. But first I have to recall what Nick did to me in bed so as to fall asleep pleasantly aroused.
The story is continued with part two on a new page.