The Handmaid's Tale(8)
Author:Margaret Atwood

    IV
    Waiting Room
    ^
    8
    The good weather holds. It's almost like June, when we would get out our sundresses and our sandals and go for an ice cream cone. There are three new bodies on the Wall. One is a priest, still wearing the black cassock. That's been put on him, for the trial, even though they gave up wearing those years ago, when the sect wars first began; cassocks made them too conspicuous. The two others have purple placards hung around their necks: Gender Treachery. Their bodies still wear the Guardian uniforms. Caught together, they must have been, but where? A barracks, a shower? It's hard to say. The snowman with the red smile is gone.
    "We should go back," I say to Ofglen. I'm always the one to say this.
    Sometimes I feel that if I didn't say it, she would slay here forever.
    But is she mourning or gloating? I still can't tell Without a word she swivels, as if she's voice-activated, as if she's on little oiled wheels, as if she's on top of a music box, I resent this grace of hers. I resent her meek head, bowed as if onto a heavy wind. But there is no wind.
    We leave the Wall, walk back the way wr came, in the warm sun.
    "It's a beautiful May day," Ofglen says. I feel rather than see her head turn towards me, waiting for a reply.
    "Yes," I say. "Praise be," I add as an afterthought. Mayday used to he a distress signal, a long time ago, in one of those wars we studied in high school. I kept getting them mixed up, but you could tell them apart by the airplanes if you paid attention. It was Luke who told me about mayday, though. Mayday, mayday, for pilots whose planes had been hit, and shipswas it ships too?at sea. Maybe it was SOS for ships. I wish I could look it up. And it was something from Beethoven, for the beginning of the victory, in one of those wars.
    Do you know what it came from? said Luke. Mayday?
    No, I said. It's a strange word to use for that, isn't it?
    Newspapers and coffee, on Sunday mornings, before she was born.
    There were still newspapers, then. We used to read them in bed.
    It's French, he said. From m'aidez.
    Help me.
    Coming towards us there's a small procession, a funeral: three women, each with a black transparent veil thrown over her headdress. An Econowife and two others, the mourners, also Econo-wives, her friends perhaps. Their striped dresses are worn-looking, as are their faces. Some day, when times improve, says Aunt Lydia, no one will have to be an Econowife.
    The first one is the bereaved, the mother; she carries asmall black jar.
    From the size of the jar you can tell how old it was when it foundered, inside her, flowed to its death. Two or three months, too young to tell whether or not it was an Unbaby. The older ones and those that die at birth have boxes.
    We pause, out of respect, while they go by. I wonder if Ofglen feels what I do, pain like a stab, in the belly. We put our hands over our hearts to show these stranger women that we feel with them in their loss. Beneath her veil the first one scowls at us. One of the others turns aside, spits on the sidewalk. The Econowives do not like us.
    We go past the shops and come to the barrier again, and are passed through. We continue on among the large empty-looking houses, the weedless lawns. At the corner near the house where I'm posted, Ofglen stops, turns to me.
    "Under His Eye," she says. The right farewell.
    "Under His Eye," I reply, and she gives a little nod. She hesitates, as if to say something more, but then she turns away and walks down the street. I watch her. She's like my own reflection, in a mirror from which I am moving away.
    In the driveway, Nick is polishing the Whirlwind again. He's reached the chrome at the back. I put my gloved hand on the latch of the gate, open it, push inward. The gate clicks behind me. The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.
    Nick looks up and begins to whistle. Then he says, "Nice walk?"
    I nod, but do not answer with my voice. He isn't supposed to speak to me. Of course some of them will try, said Aunt Lydia. All flesh is weak. All flesh is grass, I corrected herin my head. They can't help it, she said, God made them that way but He did not make you that way.
    He made you different. It's up to you to set the boundaries. Later you will be thanked.
    In the garden behind the house the Commander's Wife is sitting, in the chair she's had brought out. Serena Joy, what a stupid name. It's like something you'd put on your hair, in the other time, the time before, to straighten it. Serena Joy, it would say on the bottle, with a woman's head in cut-paper silhouette on a pink oval background with scalloped gold edges. With everything to choose from in the way of names, why did she pick that one? Serena Joy was never her real name, not even then. Her real name was Pain. I read that in a profile on her, in a news magazine, long after I'd first watched her singing while my mother slept in on Sunday mornings. By that time she was worthy of a profile: Time or Newsweekit was, it must have been. She wasn't singing anymore by I then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Het speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn't do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice shes was limiting lor the good of all.
    Around that time, someone tried to shoot her and missed; her secretary, who was standing right behind her, was killed instead.
    Someone else planted a bomb in her ear but it went off loo early.
    Though some people said she'd put the bomb in her own car, for sympathy. That's how hot things were getting.
    Luke and I would watch her sometimes on the late-night news.
    Bothrobes, nightcaps. We'd watch her sprayed hair and her hys-teria, and the tears she could still produce at will, and the mascara blackening her cheeks. By that time she was wearing more makeup.
    We thought she was funny. Or Luke thought she was funny. I only pretended to think so. Really she was a little frightening. She was in earnest.
    She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furios she must be, now that she's been taken at her word.
    She's looking at the tulips. Her cane is beside her, on the grass. Her profile is towards me, I can see that in the quick sideways look I take at her as I gopast. It wouldn't do to stare. It's no longer a flawlesss cut-paper profile, her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses iul whole streets disappear overnight, into sudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them. Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of tilings to come.
    She doesn't turn her head. She doesn't acknowledge my presence in any way, although she knows I'm there. I can tell she knows, it's like a smell, her knowledge; something gone sour, like old milk.
    It's not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it's the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must l팿
    feeling. Of course they will resent you. It is only natural. Try In feel for them. Aunt Lydia thought she was very good at feeling lor other people. Try to pity them. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Again the tremulous smile, of a beggar, the weak-eyed blinking, the gaze upwards, through the round steel-rimmed glasses, towards the back of the classroom, as if the green-painted plaster ceiling were opening and God on a cloud of Pink Pearl face powder were coming down through the wires and sprinkler plumbing. You must realize that theyare defeated women. They have been unable Here her voice broke off, and there was a pause, during which I could hear a sigh, a collective sigh from those around me. It was a bad idea to rustle or fidget during these pauses: Aunt Lydia might look abstracted but she was aware of every twitch. So there was only the sigh.
    The future is in your hands, she resumed. She held her own hands out to us, the ancient gesture that was both an offering and an invitation, to come forward, into an embrace, an acceptance. In your hands, she said, looking down at her own hands as if they had given her the idea. But there was nothing in them. They were empty. It was our hands that were supposed to be full, of the future; which could be held but not seen.
    I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table. The table has been scrubbed off, cleared of flour; today's bread, freshly baked, is cooling on its rack. The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine. It smells of mothers; although my own mother did not make bread. It smells of me, in former times, when I was a mother.
    This is a treacherous smell, and I know I must shut it out.
    Rita is there, sitting at the table, peeling and slicing carrots. Old carrots they are, thick ones, overwintered, bearded from their time in storage. The new carrots, tender and pale, won't be ready for weeks.
    The knife she uses is sharp and bright, and tempting. I would like to have a knife like that.
    Rita stops chopping the carrots, stands up, takes the parcels out of the basket, almost eagerly. She looks forward to seeing what I've brought, although she always frowns while opening the parcels.
    nothing I bring fully pleases her. She's thinking she could have done better herself. She would rather do the shopping, gel exactly what she wants; she envies me the walk. In this house we all envy each other something.
    "They've got oranges," I say. "At Milk and Honey. There are still some left." I hold out this idea to her like an ollering, I wish to ingratiate myself. I saw the oranges yesterday, bill I didn't tell Rita; yesterday she was too grumpy. "I could get some tomorrow, if you'd give me the tokens for them." I hold on the chicken to her. She wanted steak today, but there wasn't any.
    Rita grunts, not revealing pleasure or acceptance, She'll think it, the grunt says, in her own sweet time. She undoes the string on the chicken, and the glared paper. She prods the chicken, flexes a wing, pokes a finger into the cavity, fishes out the giblets. The- chicken lies there, headless and without feet, goose pimpled as though shivering.
    "Bath day," Rita says, without looking at me.
    Cora comes into the kitchen, from the pantry at the back, where they keep the mops and brooms. "A chicken," she says, almost with delight.
    "Scrawny," says Rita, "but it'll have to do."
    "'I'here wasn't much else," I say. Rita ignores me.
    "Looks big enough to me," says Cora. Is she standing up for me? 1
    look at her, to see if I shouldsmile; but no, it's only the food she's thinking of. She's younger than Rita; the sunlight, coming slant now through the west window, catches her hair, parted and drawn back.
    She must have been pretty, quite recently. There's a little mark, like a dimple, in each of her ears, where the punctures for earrings have grown over.
    "Tall," says Rita, "but bony. You should speak up," she says to me, looking directly at me for the first time. "Ain't like you're common."
    She means the Commander's rank. But in the other sense, her sense, she thinks I am common. She is over sixty, her mind's made up.
    She goes to the sink, runs her hands briefly under the tap, dries than on the dishtowel. The dishtowel is white with blue stripes. Dishtowels are the same as they always were. Sometimes these flashes of normality come at me from the side, like ambushes. The ordinary, the usual, a reminder, like a kick. I see the dishtowel, out of context, and I catch my breath. For some, in some ways, things haven't changed that much.
    "Who's doing the bath?" says Rita, to Cora, not to me. "I got to tenderize this bird."
    "I'll do it later," says Cora, "after the dusting."
    "Just so it gets done," says Rita.
    They're talking about me as though I can't hear. To them I'm a household chore, one among many.
    I've been dismissed. I pick up the basket, go through the kitchen door and along the hall towards the grandfather clock. The sitting room door is closed. Sun comes through the fanlight, falling in colors across the floor: red and blue, purple. I step into it briefly, stretch out my hands; they fill with flowers of light. I go up the stairs, my face, distant and white and distorted, framed in the hall mirror, which bulges outward like an eye under pressure. I follow the dusty-pink runner down the long upstairs hallway, back to the room.
    There's someone standing in the hall, near the door to the room where I stay. The hall is dusky, this is a man, his back to me; he's looking into the room, dark against its light. I can see now, it's the Commander, heisn't supposed to be here. He hears me coming, turns, hesitates, walks forward. Towards me. He is violating custom, what do I do now?
    I stop, he pauses, I can't see his face, he's looking at me, what does he want? But then he moves forward again, steps to the side to avoid touching me, inclines his head, is gone.
    Something has been shown to me, but what is it? Like the flag of an unknown country, seen for an instant above a curve of hill. It could mean attack, it could mean parley, it could mean the edge of something, a territory. The signals animals give one another: lowered blue eyelids, ears laid back, raised hackles. A flash of bared teeth, what in hell does he think he's doing? Nobody else has seen him. I hope. Was he invading? Was he in my room?
    I called it mine.

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