The Handmaid's Tale(4)
Author:Margaret Atwood

    4
    I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.
    I open the white picket gate and continue, past the front lawn and towards the front gate. In the driveway, one of the Guardians assigned to our household is washing the car. That must mean the Commander is in the house, in his own quarters, past the dining room and beyond, where he seems to stay most of the time.
    The car is a very expensive one, a Whirlwind; better than the Chariot, much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth. It's black, of course, the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek. The driver is going over it with a chamois, lovingly. This ;it least hasn't changed, the way men caress good cars.
    He's wearing the uniform of the Guardians, but his cap is tilted at a jaunty angle and his sleeves are rolled to the dhow, showing his forearms, tanned but with a stipple of dark hairs, He has a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, which shows that he too has something he can trade on the black market.
    I know this man's name: Nick. I know this because I've heard Rita and Cora talking about him, and once I heard the Commander speaking to him: Nick, I won't be needing the car.
    He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he hasn't been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn't rate: some defect, lack of connections. But he acts as if he doesn't know this, or care, He's too casual, he's not servile enough. It may be stupid-ity, but I don't think so. Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat Misfit as odor. Despite myself, I think of how he might smell. Not fish or decaying rat; tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh, inhaling.
    He looks at me, and sees me looking. He has a French face, lean, whimsical, all planes and angles, with creases around the mouth where he smiles. He takes a final puff of the cigarette, lets it drop to the driveway, and steps on it. He begins to whistle. Then he winks.
    I drop my head and turn so that the white wings hide my face, and keep walking. He's just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to report him?
    Perhaps he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my face and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the cigarette.
    I'erhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. i I'erhaps he is an Eye.
    I open the front gate and close it behind me, looking down but not back. The sidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a held of oblongs, gently undulating where the earth beneath has buckled, from decade after decade of winter frost. The color of the bricks is old, yet fresh and clear. Sidewalks are kept much cleaner tan they used to be.
    I walk to the corner and wait. Iused to be bad at waiting. They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us memorize it. She also said, Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted. She had a moleon her chin that went up and down while she talked. She said, Think of yourselves as seeds, and right then her voice was wheedling, conspiratorial, like the voices of those women who used to teach ballet classes to children, and who would say, Arms up inthe air now; let's pretend we're trees. I stand on the corner, pretending I am a tree.
    A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket, comes along the brick sidewalk towards me. She reaches meand we peer at each other's faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us. She is the right one.
    "Blessed be the fruit," she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
    "May the Lord open," I answer, the accepted response. We turn and walk together past the large houses, towards the central part of town.
    We aren't allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.
    This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don't know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn't there anymore, and this one was there in her place. It isn't the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn't be an answer.
    This one is a little plumper than I am. Her eyes are brown. Her name is Ofglen, and that's about all I know about her. She walks demurely, head down, red-gloved hands clasped in from, with short little steps like a trained pig's, onits hind legs. During these walks she has never said anything that was not strictly orthodox, but then, neither have I.
    She may be a real believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can't take the risk.
    "The war is going well, I hear," she says.
    "Praise be," I reply.
    "We've been sent good weather."
    "Which I receive with joy."
    "They've defeated more of the rebels, since yesterday."
    "Praise be," I say. I don't ask her how she knows, "What were they?"
    "Baptists. They had a stronghold in the Blue Hills. They smoked them out."
    "Praise be."
    Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace.
    But I'm ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it's false news, it must mean something.
    We reach the first barrier, which is like the barriers blocking off roadworks, or dug-up sewers: a wooden crisscross painted in yellow and black stripes, a red hexagon which means Stop. Near the gateway there are some lanterns, not lit because it isn't night. Above us, I know, there are floodlights, attached to the telephone poles, for use in emergencies, and there are men with machine guns in the pillboxes on either side of the road. I don't see the floodlights and the pillboxes, because of the wings around my face. I just know they are there.
    Behind the barrier, waiting for us at the narrow gateway, there are two men, in the green uniforms of the Guardians of the Faith, with the crests on their shoulders and berets: two swords, crossed, above a white triangle. The Guardians aren't real soldiers. They're used for routine policing and other menial functions, digging up the Commander's Wife's garden, for instance, and they're either stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito.
    These two are very young: one mustache is still sparse, one face is still blotchy. Their youth is touching, but I know I can't be deceived by it. The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns. They haven't yet learned about existence through time. You have to go slowly with them.
    Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha.
    She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb. They thought she was a man in disguise. There have been such incidents.
    Rita and Cora knew the woman. I heard them talking about it, in the kitchen.
    Doing their job, said Cora. Keeping us safe.
    Nothing safer than dead, said Rita, angrily. She was minding her own business. No call to shoot her. It was an accident, said Cora.
    No such thing, said Rita. Everything is meant.
    I could hear her thumping the pots around, in the sink.
    Well, someone'll think twice before blowing up this house, any ways, said Cora.
    All the same, said Rita. She worked hard. That was a bad death.
    I can think of worse, said Cora. At least it was quick.
    You can say that, said Rita. I'd choose to have some time, before, like.
    To set things right.
    The two young Guardians salute us, raising three fingers to the rims of their berets. Such tokens are accorded to us. They are supposed to show respect, because of the nature of our service.
    We produce our passes, from the zippered pockets in our wide sleeves, and they are inspected and stamped. One man goes into the right-hand pillbox, to punch our numbers into the Compuchek.
    In returning my pass, the one with the peach-colored mustache bends his head to try to get a look at my face. I raise my head a little, to help him, and he sees my eyes and I see his, and he blushes. His face is long and mournful, like a sheep's, but with the large full eyes of a dog, spaniel not terrier. His skin is pale and looks un-wholesomely tender, like the skin under a scab. Nevertheless, I think of placing my hand on it, this exposed face. He is the one who turns away.
    It's an event, a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetect-able, but such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself, like the candy I hoarded, as a child, at the back of a drawer. Such moments are possibilities, tiny peepholes.
    What if I were to come at night, when he's on duty alonethough he would never be allowed such solitudeand permit him beyond my white wings? What if I were to peel off my red shroud and show myself to him, to them, by the uncertain light of the lanterns? This is what they must think about sometimes, as they stand endlessly beside this barrier, past which nobody ever comes except the Commanders of the Faithful in their long black murmurous cars, or their blue Wives and white-veiled daughters on their dutiful way to Salvagings or Prayvaganzas, or their dumpy green Marthas, or the occasional Birthmobile', or their read Hand-maids, on foot. Or sometimes a black-painted van, with the winged Eye in white on the side. The windows of the vans are dark-tinted, and the men in the front seats wear dark glasses: a double obscurity.
    The vans are surely more silent than the other cars. When they pass, we avert our eyes. If there are sounds coming from inside, we try not to hear them. Nobody's heart is perfect.
    When the black vans reach a checkpoint, they're waved through without a pause. The Guardians would not want to take the risk of looking inside, searching, doubting their authority. Whatever they think.
    If they do think; you can't tell by looking at them.
    But more likely they don't think in terms of clothing discarded on the lawn. If they think of a kiss, they must then think immediately of the floodlights going on, the rifle shots. They think instead of doing their duty and of promotion to the Angels, and of being allowed possibly to marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own.
    The one with the mustache opens the small pedestrian gate for us and stands back, well out of the way, and we pass through. As wewalk away I know they're watching, these two men who aren't yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me. It's like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach, and I'm ashamed of myself for doing it, because none of this is the fault of these men, they're too young. Then I find I'm not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope theyget hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously.
    They will suffer, later, at night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now except themselves, and that's a sacrilege. There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes.

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