Title: The Testaments.
Author: Margaret Atwood.
Genre: Literature, fiction, dystopian fiction, alternative history, totalitarian regimes, feminism, sexuality, religion.
Publication Date: 2019.
Summary: More than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results. Two are from the very depths of the new order - Offred's daughter, raised in Gilead as a daughter of a Commander and living the only life she has ever remembered, and Aunt Lydia, a powerful Head Aunt recruited at the very beginning of the regime. The testimonies of these two women are joined by a third voice: a girl living in Canada who has inextricable ties to Gilead, and who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.
My rating: 6/10.
♥ You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.
I hope you will remember, too, that we all have some nostalgia for whatever kindness we have known as children, however bizarre the conditions of that childhood may seem to others. I agree with you that Gilead ought to fade away—there is too much of wrong in it, too much that is false, and too much that is surely contrary to what God intended—but you must permit me some space to mourn the good that will be lost.
♥ At our school, pink was for spring and summer, plum was for fall and winter, white was for special days: Sundays and celebrations. Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us—of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust, so that they'd stagger and lurch and topple over the verge—The verge of what? we wondered. Was it like a cliff?—and go plunging down in flames, like snowballs made of burning sulphur hurled by the angry hand of God. We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.
♥ Not that she would know anything about it, since the Aunts were not married; they were not allowed to be. That was why they could have reading and books.
♥ "..Aren't you happy here? You are so cherished, by all of us! Aren't we both lucky that I chose you?"
I would be nestled close to her, with her arm around me and my head against her thin body, through which I could feel her bumpy ribs. My ear would be pressed to her chest, and I could hear her heart hammering away inside her—faster and faster, it seemed to me, as she waited for me to say something. I knew my answer had power: I could make her smile, or not.
What could I say but yes and yes? Yes, I was happy. Yes. I was lucky. Anyway it was true.
♥ There were swings in one of the parks, but because of our skirts, which might be blown up by the wind and then looked into, we were not to think of taking such a liberty as a swing. Only boys could taste that freedom; only they could sweep and soar; only they could be airborne.
♥ I don't feel pleased with myself while recording this cruelty, even though it was only a cruelty to a doll. It's a vengeful side of my nature that I am sorry to say I have failed to subdue entirely. But in an account such as this, it is better to be scrupulous about your faults, as about all your other actions. Otherwise no one will understand why you made the decisions that you made.
♥ As for Jemima, that name came from a story in the Bible. Jemima was a very special little girl because her father, Job, was sent bad luck by God as part of a test, and the worst part of it was that all Job's children were killed. All his sons, all his daughters: killed! It sent shudders through me every time I heard about it. It must have been terrible, what Job felt when he was told that news.
But Job passed the test, and God gave him some other children—several sons, and also three daughters—so then he was happy again. And Jemima was one of those daughters. "God gave her to Job, just as God gave you to me," said my mother.
"Did you have bad luck? Before you chose me?"
"Yes, I did," she said, smiling.
"Did you pass the test?"
"I must have," said my mother. "Or I wouldn't have been able to choose a wonderful daughter like you."
I was pleased with this story. It was only later that I pondered it: how could Job have allowed God to fob off a batch of new children on him and expect him to pretend that the dead ones no longer mattered?
♥ I always made dough men, I never made dough women, because after they were baked I would eat them, and that made me feel I had a secret power over men. It was becoming clear to me that despite the urges of Aunt Vidala said I aroused in them, I had no power over them otherwise.
♥ I preached against vanity, which creeps in despite our strictures against it. "Life is not about hair," I said then, only half jocularly. Which is true, but it is also true that hair is about life. It is the flame of the body's candle, and as it dwindles the body shrinks and melts away. I once had enough hair for a topknot, in the days of topknots; for a bun, in the age of buns. But now my hair is like our meals here at Ardua Hall: sparse and short. The flame of my life is subsiding, more slowly than some of those around me might like, but faster than they may realize.
I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like.
♥ Right now I still have some choice in the matter. Not whether to die, but when and how,. Isn't tht freedom of a sort?
Oh, and who to take down with me. I have made my list.
♥ How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?
But perhaps it is too late for that. You take the first step, and to save yourself from the consequence, you take the next one. In times like ours, there are only two directions: up or plummet.
♥ Despite what you may have thought, my reader, there was beauty to be had in Gilead. Why would we not have wished for it? We were human after all.
♥ The music was an old psalm melody, but the words were ours:
Under His Eye our beams of truth shine out,
We see all sin;
We shall observe you at your goings-out,
From every heart we wrench the secretvice,
In prayers and tears decree the sacrifice.
Sworn to obey, obedience we command.
We shall not swerve!
To duties harsh, we lend a willing hand,
We pledge to serve.
All idle thoughts, all pleasure we must quell,
Self we renounce, in selflessness we dwell.
Banal and without charm, those words: I can say that, since I wrote them myself. But such hymns are not meant to be poetry. They are meant simply to remind those singing them of the high price they would pay for deviation from the set path. We are not forgiving towards one another's lapses, here at Ardua Hall.
♥ All that festers is not gold, but it can be made profitable in non-monetary ways: knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognized this, or to have capitalized on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.
♥ I was so young at that moment—just a split second ago, it seems—but I'm not young anymore. How little time it takes to change a face: carve it like wood, harden it. No more of that wide-eyed daydream gazing I used to do. I've become sharper, more focused. I've become narrowed.
♥ Despite all that she did for me, Melanie had a distant smell. She smelled like a floral guest soap of a strange house I was visiting. What I mean is, she didn't smell to me like my mother.
♥ When I saw the footage I thought, Now I know what it feels like to be in a riot: it feels like drowning.
♥ I don't remember that school day much, because why would I? It was normal. Normal is like looking out a car window. Things pass by, this and that and this and that, without much significance. You don't register such hours; they're habitual, like brushing your teeth.
♥ "Praise Be," I said. "And you? And your Wife?" This Wife had lasted longer than usual. His Wives have a habit of dying: Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords. After each respectable period of mourning, he has let it be known that he is in the market for another child bride. To be clear: he has let it be known to me.
♥ The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it. I considered shrinking myself by not eating, and I did try that for a day, but I got so hungry I couldn't stick to my resolution, and went to the kitchen in the middle of the night and ate chicken scraps out of the soup pot.
♥ Shunammite continued to chew, watching with satisfaction as her message sank in. "I'll stick up for you," she said in her most pious and insincere voice. "It doesn't make any difference to your soul. Aunt Estée says all souls are equal in heaven."
Only in heaven, I thought. And this is not heaven. This is a place of snakes and ladders, and though I was once high up on a ladder propped against the Tree of Life, now I've slid down a snake. How gratifying for the others to witness my fall!
♥ ..but the petit-point handkerchief had to be soaked in cold water, which is the way we'd been taught that you got out blood, especially from white cloth. Getting out blood was something we would have to know as Wives, said Aunt Vidala, as it would be part of our duties: we would have to supervise our Marthas to make sure they did it right. Cleaning up things such as blood and other substances that came out of bodies was part of women's duty of caring for other people, especially little children and the elderly, said Aunt Estée, who always put things in a positive light. That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard an focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like... like what? She didn't finish the sentence.
Like mud in the sun, I thought. That's what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.
♥ "And what if they couldn't change her mind?" I asked. "Would they kill her then? Is she dead?"
"Oh, I'm sure they changed her mind," said Zilla. "They're good at that. Hearts and minds—they change them."
♥ The months passed; my life of tiptoeing and eavesdropping continued. I worked hard at seeing without being seen and hearing without being heard. I discovered the cracks between doorframes and early closed doors, the listening posts in hallways and on stairs, the this places in walls. Most of what I heard came in fragments and seven silences, but I was becoming good at getting these fragments together and filling in the unsaid parts of sentences."
♥ Ofkyle was now quite a celebrity. Wives wold send their Handmaids over with some excuse—borrowing an egg, returning a bowl—but really to ask how she was doing. They would be allowed inside the house then she would be called down so they could put their hands on her round belly and feel the baby kicking. It was amazing to see the expression on their faces while they were performing this ritual: Wonder, as if they were witnessing a miracle. Hope, because if Ofkyle could do it, so could they. Envy, because they weren't doing it yet. Longing, because they really wanted to do it. Despair, because it might never happen for them. I did not yet know what might become of a Handmaid who, despite having been judged viable, came up barren through all her allotted postings, but I already guessed it would not be good.
♥ She said that our sister in service, Handmaid Ofkyle, had made the ultimate sacrifice, and had died with noble womanly honour, and had redeemed herself from her previous life of sin, and she was a shining example to the other Handmaids.
Aunt Lydia's voice trembled a little as she was saying this. Paula and Commander Kyle looked solemn and devout, nodding from time to time, and some of the Handmaids cried.
I did not cry. I'd already done my crying. The truth was at they'd cut Crystal open to get the baby out, and they'd killed her by doing that. It wasn't something she chose. She hadn't volunteered to die with noble womanly honour or be a shining example, but nobody mentioned that.
♥ The most popular singing game among the younger girls was called "Hanging." It went like this:
Who's that hanging on the Wall? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!
It's a Handmaid, what's she called? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!
She was (here we would put in the name of one of us), now she's not. Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!
She had a baby in the pot (here we would slap out little flat stomachs). Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!
The girls would file under the uplifted hands of two other girls while everyone chanted: One for murder, Two for kissing, Three for a baby, Four gone missing, Five for alive and Six for dead, And Seven we caught you, Red Red Red!
And the seventh girl would be caught by the two counters, and paraded around in a circle before being given a slap on the head. Now she was "dead," and was allowed to choose the next two executioners. I realize this sounds both sinister and frivolous, but children will make games out of whatever is available to them.
♥ I meant well too, I sometimes mumble silently. I meant it for the best, or for the best available, which is not the same thing. Still, think how much worse it could have been if not for me.
Bullshit, I reply on some days. Though on other days I pat myself on the back. Whoever said consistency is a virtue?
♥ "Ardua Hall is spotless," said Aunt Elizabeth.
"But the human heart is devious," said Aunt Vidala.
♥ I'd believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the rights of the individual I'd soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I'd depended on that, as if on a magic charm.
You pride yourself on being a realist, I told myself. So face the facts. There's been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated. You're a judge, so you are the educated, like it or not. They won't want you around.
I'd spend my earlier years doing things I'd been told would be impossible for me. No one in my family had ever been to college, they'd despised me for going, I'd done it with scholarships and working nights at crappy jobs. It toughens you. You get stubborn. I did not intend to be eliminated if I could help it. But none of my college-acquired polish was of any use to me here. I needed to revert to the mulish underclass child, the determined drudge, the brainy overachiever, the strategic ladder-climber who'd got me to the social perch from which I'd just been deposed. I needed to work the angles, once I could find out what the angles were.
I'd been in tight corners before. I had prevailed. That was my story to myself.
♥ This treatment was supposed to humiliate us, break down our resistance, I thought; but resistance to what? We weren't spies, we had no secret information we were holding back, we weren't the soldiers of an enemy army. Or were we? If I looked deep into the eyes of one of these men, would there be a human being looking back out at me? And if not, then what?
♥ The lights were left on, which was a mercy.
No, it was not a mercy. It was a convenience for those in charge. Mercy was a quality that did not operate in that place.
♥ Several women came in, one of them with a baby. They looked really wrecked, and also scared. The SanctuCare women went over and welcomed them and said, "You're here now, it's all right," and the Gilead women started to cry. At the time I thought, Why cry, you should be happy, you got out. But after all that's happened to me since that day, I understand why. You hold it in, whatever it is, until you can make it through the worst pat. Then, once you're safe, you can cry all the tears you couldn't waste time crying before.
♥ They were trying to make things better. Bu it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong. That's another thing I've learned.
♥ There was another void opening in reality: Neil and Melanie were fading, changing shape. I realized I didn't know much about them really, or about their past. They hadn't talked about it, and I hadn't asked. Nobody ever asks their parents much about themselves, do they?
♥ "Let's keep this to ourselves, shall we?" I'd said. "There need not be a trial. Now, I think you need some rest and recuperation. I'll arrange a stay for you at our lovely Margery Kempe Retreat House in Walden. You'll be a different woman soon. The car will take you there in half an hour. And if Canada agitates about the unfortunate condo occurrence—if they wish to interview you or even charge you with some crime—we'll simply say you have disappeared." I did not wish Aunt Sally dead: I simply wished her incoherent; and so it has been. The Margery Kempe Retreat House has a discreet staff.
♥ I had nightmares myself. Shall I describe one for you? No, I will not. I'm fully aware of how easily one can become fatigued by other people's nightmares, having heard a number of recitals of these by now. When push comes to shove, only one's own nightmares are of any interest or significance.
♥ Hour by hour we watched vans arrive. Discharge their quota of women, depart empty. The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards. How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It's always the same plot.
♥ On the sixth night Anita was spirited away. It happened very quietly. Sometimes the targeted ones would shout and resist, but Anita did not, and I am ashamed to say that I was asleep when she was deleted. I woke up when the morning siren went off and she was simply not there.
"I'm sorry about your friend," one kind soul whispered to me as we stood in line for the pullulating toilets.
"I'm sorry too," I whispered back. But I was already hardening myself for what was almost surely to come. Sorry solves nothing, I told myself. Over the years—the many years—how true I have found that to be.
♥ We went along the corridor. Baritone rumblings came from behind doors; men in outfits like the ones beside me hurried past, their eyes gleaming with purpose, their voices staccato. There's something spine-stiffening about uniforms, about insignia, about shiny lapel pins. No slouches here!
♥ I can do this, I thought. I can get through.
I was right, but only just. You'd be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.
♥ Every once in a while there would be a scream or a series of shrieks from nearby: brutalization on parade. Sometimes there would be a prolonged moaning; sometimes a series of grunts and breathy gasps that sounded sexual, and probably were. The powerless are so tempting.
♥ Were there insects? Yes, there were insects. They did not bite me, so I expect they were cockroaches. I could feel their tiny feet tiptoeing across my face, tenderly, tentatively, as if my skin were thin ice. I did not slap them. After a while you welcome any kind of touch.
♥ This kicking and tasting procedure was repeated two more times. Three is a magic number.
Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of two visible eyes, no moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feet it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don't care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.
♥ I was still in a state of mental disarray. I was a jigsaw puzzle thrown onto the floor. But on the third morning, or was it an afternoon, I woke in an improved state of coherence. It seemed I could think again; it seemed I could think the word I.
In addition to that, and as if in acknowledgement of it, there was a fresh garment laid out for me. It was not quite a cowl and it was not quite made of brown sackcloth, but close. I had seen it before, in the stadium, worn by the female shooters. I felt a chill.
I put it on. What else should I have done?
♥ You understand that I was not anybody in my own right—although of the privileged class. I was just a young girl about to be confined to wedlock. Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut.
♥ Naturally there were not any letters on the Ace, King, Queen, or Jack cards, nor were there any numbers on the number cards. The Aces were a large Eye looking out of a cloud. Kings wore Commander uniforms, Queens were Wives, and Jacks were Aunts. The face cards were the most powerful cards. Of the suits, Spades were Angels, Clubs were Guardians, Diamonds were Marthas, and Hearts were Handmaids. Each face card had a border of smaller figures: a Wife of Angels would have a blue Wife with a border of small black-clad Angels, and a Commander of Handmaids would have a border of tiny Handmaids.
Later, once I had access to the Ardua Hall library, I researched these cards. Far back in history, Hearts were once Chalices. Perhaps that is why the Handmaids were Hearts: they were precious containers.
♥ "But I don't want to!" she would wail to us when Aunt Lise was out the room. "To have some man crawling all over you, like, like worms! I hate it!"
It occurred to me that she didn't say she would hate it, she said she already hated it. What had happened to her? Something disgraceful that she couldn't talk about? I remember how upset she'd been by the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces. But I didn't want to ask her: another girl's disgrace could rub off on you if you got too close to it.
♥ Our husbands would recite the prayers when they were present, as heads of the household. But when they were absent—as they would be often, since they would have to work late hours, nor should we ever criticize their lateness—then it would be our duty to say these prayers on behalf of what Aunt Lise hoped would be our numerous children. Here she gave a tight little smile.
Through my head was running the pretend prayer that Shunammite and I used to amuse ourselves with when we were best friends at the Vidala School:
Bless my overflowing cup,
It flowed upon the floor:
That's because I threw it up,
Now Lord I'm back for more.
The sound of our giggling receded into the distance. How badly we'd thought we were behaving then! How innocent and ineffectual these tiny rebellions seemed to me now that I was preparing for marriage.
♥ Had I ever been in love? I didn't think so. My experience with the men in my family had not encouraged trust. But the body has its twitches, which it can be humiliating as well as rewarding to obey. No lasting harm was done to me, some pleasure was both given and received, and none of these individuals took their swift dismissal from my life as a personal affront. Why expect more?
♥ There was an ordeal. You have most likely suspected what it was. It was like my nightmare, except that the women were blindfolded and when I shot I did not fall. This was Commander Judd's test: fail it, and your commitment to the one true way would be voided. Pass it, and blood was on your hands. As someone once said, We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.
♥ This morning I got up an hour early to steal a few moments before breakfast with you, my reader. You've become somewhat of an obsession—my sole confidant, my only friend—for to whom can I tell the truth besides you? Who else can I trust?
Not that I can trust you either. Who is more likely to betray me in the end? I will lie neglected in some spidery corner or under a bed while you go off to picnics and dances—yes, dancing will return, it's hard to suppress it forever—or to trysts with a warm nod, so much more attractive than the wad of crumbling paper I will have become. But I forgive you in advance. I, too, was once like you: fatally hooked on life.
♥ I took care not to react. It's a skill, not reacting.
♥ I could smell her fear from across the table; I wondered if she could smell mine. It has an acid smell, fear. It's corrosive.
She, too, has been alone in the dark, I thought. She has been tested in the stadium. She, took has gazed into herself, and has seen the void.
♥ In Vidala I had already made an enemy. She had seen herself as the natural leader, but that view had been challenged. She would oppose me in every way she could—but I had an advantage: I was not blinded by ideology. This would give me a flexibility she lacked, in the long game ahead of us.
♥ Helena would follow the prevailing wind, I decided; and that would work for me as long as I was that wind.
♥ Keep steady, I told myself. Don't share too much about yourself, it will be used against you. Listen carefully. Don't show fear.
♥ For a time I almost believed what I understood I was supposed to believe. I numbered myself among the faithful for the same reason that many in Gilead did: because it was less dangerous. What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its boot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive.
They knew that so well, the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.
♥ Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Having no friends, I must make do with enemies.
♥ "What if they come?" I asked. "What do they even look like?"
"They look like anybody," Ada said
♥ I know because I looked. Melanie used to say that 90 percent of people looked in other people's bathroom cabinets, so you should never keep your secrets in there.
♥ "..Canada at Three Rivers. Trois-Rivières. That was a prime people-smuggling route back in the day."
"Back in what day?"
"Oh, around 1740," she said. "They used to catch girls from New England, hold them hostage trade them for money or else marry them off. Once the girls had kids, they wouldn't want to go back. That's how I got my mixed heritage."
"Mixed like what?"
"Part stealer, part stolen," she said. "I'm ambidextrous."
♥ The other part of the training plan was the praying. Ada tried to teach me that. She was quite good at it, I thought. But I was hopeless.
"How do you ow this?" I asked her.
"Where I grew up, everyone knew this," she said.
"In Gilead. Before it wad Gilead," she said. "I saw it coming and got out in time. A lot of people I knew didn't."
"Do that's why you work with Mayday?" I said. "It's personal?"
"Everything's personal, when you come right down to it," she said.
♥ I should choose another name, he said. People might be looking for a Daisy, and I certainly couldn't be Nicole. So I said I'd be Jade. I wanted something harder than a flower.
♥ ..the three tearful young Wives, granted access to the grounds because they were married to prominent Eyes, who offered in toto a muffin, a small loaf of cornmeal bread, and two lemons—like gold these days, lemons, considering the disasters in Florida and our inability to gain ground in California. ..I shall also determine how these lemons were come by. It is ineffectual to try to clam down on all grey market activities—the Commanders must have their little perks—but I naturally wish to know who is selling what, and how it is smuggled in. Women are only one of the commodities—I hesitate to call them commodities, but when money is in the picture, such they are—that are being relocated under cover. Is it leoms in and women out? I shall consult my grey market sources: they don't like competition.
These tearful Wives wished to enlist my arcane powers in their quest for fertility, poor things. Per Ardua Cum Estrus, they intoned, as if Latin could have more effect than English. I will see what can be done for them, or rather who can be done—their husbands having proven so singularly feeble in that respect.
♥ My esteemed Founder colleage Elizabeth must son be told that Vidala was accusing her of treachery. Should I add Helena as well? Who was the more dispensable if a sacrifice must be made? Who might be the most easily co-opted if the need arose? How might I best set the members of the triumvirate eager to overthrow me against one another, all the better to pick them off one by one? And where did Helena actually stand vis-à-vis myself? She'd go with the zeitgeist, whatever that might prove to be. She was always the weakest of the three.
I approach a turning point. The Wheel of Fortune rotates, fickle as the moon. Soon those who were down will move upwards. And vice versa, of course.
♥ "Soon the prize will be yours," I will warble.
"Aunt Lydia, you are too good," he will beam.
Too good to be true, I will think. Too good for this earth. Good, be thou my evil.
♥ There is a standard repertoire of problems: Wives at war with one another, daughters in rebellion, Commanders dissatisfied with the Wife selection proposed, Handmaids on the run, Births gone wrong. The occasional rape, which we punish severely if we choose to make it public. Or murder: he kills her, she kills him, she kills her, and, once in a while, he kills him. Among the Econoclasses, jealous rage can take over and knives can be wielded, but among the elect, male-on-male murders are metaphorical: a stab in the back.
♥ Be careful what you wish for. I have wished for various things in the past and have received them. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, as used to be said; though in the present day the idea of God laughing is next door to blasphemy. An ultra-serious fellow, God is now.
♥ "Well. It's the penises. It's like a phobia."
"Penises," I said thoughtfully. "Them again." In attempted suicides of young girls, this is often the case. Perhaps we need to change or educational curriculum, I thought: less fear-mongering, fewer centaur-like ravishers and male genitalia bursting into flame. But if we were to put too much emphasis on the theoretical delights of sex, the result would almost certainly be curiosity and experimentation, followed by moral degeneracy and public stonings. "No chance she might be brought to see the item in question as a means to an end? As a prelude to babies?"
"None whatever," said Aunt Lise firmly. "That has been tried."
"Submission of women as ordained from the moment of Creation?"
"Everything we could think of."
"You tried sleep deprivation and twenty-hour prayer sessions, with relays of supervisors?"
"She is adamant."
♥ She has a soft heart; that is why she is assigned to the flower-arranging and so forth. In her past life she was a professor of French literature of the eighteenth century, pre-Revolution. Teaching the Rubies Premarital Preparatory students is the closest she will ever come to having a salon.
I try to suit the occupations to the qualifications. It's better that way, and I am a great proponent of better. On the absence of best.
Which is how we live now.
♥ "The mills of the gods grind slowly," I said, "but they grind exceeding small."
♥ "I'm so grateful!"
I smiled my wintry smile. "I'm pleased to hear that," I said, and I was indeed pleased. Gratitude is valuable to me: I like to bank it for a rainy day. You never know when it may come in handy.
♥ I pictured each one of them on top of me—for that is where they would be—trying to shove his loathsome appendage into my stone-cold body.
Why was I thinking of my body as stone cold? I wondered. Then I saw: it would be stone cold because I would be dead. I would be as wan and bloodless as poor Ofkyle had been—cut open to get her baby out, then lying still, wrapped on a sheet, staring at me with her silent eyes. There was a certain power in it, silence and stillness.
♥ Did Paula have the names of the guests she would like invited? Aunt Sara Lee asked. The two of them went downstairs to compile: Paula to recite the names, Aunt Sara Lee to write them down. The Aunts would prepare and personally deliver the oral invitations: it was one of their roles, to be the bearer of poisoned messages.
♥ These scenarios were fantasies, of course. Underneath this web-spinning, I knew I could never kill myself or murder anyone. I remembered Becka's fierce expression when she'd slashed her wrists: she'd been serious about it, she'd really been prepared to die. She was strong in a way that I was not. I would never have her resolve.
♥ She took my hand and squeezed it. "All will be well," she said. "All manner of things will be well." Then she let go of my hand and patted it lightly.
This was comforting to me as far as it went, but I was on the verge of crying again. Kindness sometimes has that effect. "How?" I said. "How can it ever be well?"
"I don't know," said Aunt Estée. "But wit will be. I have faith." She sighed. "Having faith is hard work sometimes."
♥ The sun as setting. Th springtime air was filled with the golden haze that can often appear at that time of year: dust, or pollen. The leaves of the trees had that glossy sheen, so fresh and newly unfolded; as if they were gifts, each on, unwrapping itself, shaken out for the first time. As if God had just made them, Aunt Estée used to tell us during Nature Appreciation, conjuring up a picture of God waving his hand over the dead-looking winter trees, causing them to srout and unfurl. Every leaf unique, Aunt Estée would add, just like you! It was a beautiful thought.
♥ Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity.
♥ "This is Ardua Hall," said Aunt Estée. I was disappointed: I'd been expecting something much grander. "Come in. You will be safe here."
"Safe?" I said.
"For the moment," she said. "And, I hope, for some time." She smiled gently. "No man is allowed inside without the permission of the Aunts. It's a law. You can rest here until I come back." I might be safe from men, I thought, but what about women? Paula could barge in and drag me out, back into a place where there were husbands.
♥ On the desk there was a book.
I'd thought and done so many forbidden things that day that I was ready to do one more. I went over to the desk and stared down at the book. What was inside it that made it so dangerous to girls like me? So flammable? So ruinous?
♥ She whispered, "She is truly the scariest one, of all the Aunts!"
"Scarier than Aunt Vidala?" I whispered back.
"Aunt Vidala wants you to make mistakes," said Becka. "But Aunt Lydia... it's hard to describe. You get the feeling she wants you to be better than you are."
"That sounds inspirational," I said. Inspirational was a favourite word of Aunt Lise's: she used it for flower arrangement.
"She looks at you as if she really sees you."
So many people had looked past me. "I think I'd like that," I said.
"No," said Becka. "That's why she's so scary."
♥ All things come to she who waits. Time wounds all heels. Patience is a virtue. Vengeance is mine.
These hoary chestnuts are not always true, but they are sometimes true. Here's one that is always true: everything is in the timing. Like jokes.
♥ The wretched Dr. Grove had not stopped at the fondling of his young patients in the dentist's chair. I had known about this for some time. I had even collected photographic evidence, but I had passed over it, since the testimonies of young girls—if testimonies can be extracted from them, which in this case I doubted—would count for little or nothing. Even with grown women, four female witnesses are the equivalent of one male, here in Gilead.
Grove had depended on that. Also, the man had the confidence of the Commanders: he was an excellent dentist, and much latitude is given by those in power to professionals who can relieve them of pain. The doctors, the dentists, the lawyers, the accountants: in the new world of Gilead, as in the old, their sins are frequently forgiven them.
♥ She was all smiles: she had been singled out for my favour. "Aunt Lydia," she said. "This is an unexpected pleasure!" She had very good manners when she chose to use them. Once a Vassar girl, always a Vassar girl, as I sometimes said snidely to myself while watching her beating to a pulp the feet of some recalcitrant Handmaid prospect in the Rachel and Leah Centre.
♥ In the early days of Gilead, I used to ask myself whether I was Fox or Cat. Should I twist and turn, using the secrets in my possession to manipulate others, or should I zip my lip and rejoice as others outsmarted themselves? Obviously I was both, since—like many—here I still am. I still have a bag of tricks. And I'm still high in the tree.
♥ I should mention here that Garth didn't take advantage even though he must have realized that I had a puppy-love crush on him. He was there to protect me, and he did, including protecting me from himself. I like to think he found that hard.
♥ I didn't feel ready for this at all.
I remembered SanctuCare, and the women refugees. I'd looked at them but I hadn't really seen them I hadn't considered what it was like to leave a place you knew, and lose everything, and travel into the unknown. How hollow and dark that must feel, except for maybe the little glimmer of hope that had allowed you to take such a chance.
Very soon I, too, was going to feel like that. I would be in the dark place, carrying a tiny spark of light, trying to find my way.
♥ Then the plane landed. We went down a set of steps they lowered from the door. It was hot and dry, with a wind blowing; our long silvery skirts were pushed against our legs. Standing on the tarmac there was a double line of men in black uniforms, and we walked between the lines, arm in arm. "Don't look at their faces," she whispered.
So I focused on their uniforms, but I could sense eyes, eyes, eyes, all over me like hands. I'd never felt so much at risk in that way—not even under the bridge with Garth, and with strangers all around.
Then all these men saluted. "What is this?" I murmured to Aunt Beatrice. "Why are they saluting?"
"Because my mission was successful," said Aunt Beatrice. "I brought back a precious Pearl. That's you."
♥ My larger fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years. Most of the time, that is what it feels like here, far away from the war, in the still heart of the tornado. So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high-voltage power line. We're stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we're always on the alert. Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.
♥ Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.
♥ Our time was filled, but in a strange way it did not seem to pass. I'd been fourteen when I'd been admitted as a Supplicant, and although I was now grown up, I did not appear to myself to have grown much older. It was the same with Becka: we seemed to be frozen in some way; preserved, as if in ice.
The Founders and the older Aunts had edges to them. They'd been moulded in an age before Gilead, they'd had struggles we had been spared, and these struggles had ground off the softness that might once have been there. But we hadn't been forced to undergo such ordeals. We'd been protected, we hadn't needed to deal with the harshness of the world at large. We were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by our forebears. We were constantly reminded of this, and ordered to be grateful. But it's difficult to be grateful for the absence of an unknown quantity. I'm afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia's generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.
♥ ..and Ardua Hall motto: Per Ardua Cum Estrus.
"It means, Through childbirth labour with the female reproductive cycle," Becka said.
♥ There was an approved list of names, put together by Aunt Lydia and the other senior Aunts. Becka said the names were made from the names of products women had liked once and would be reassured by, but she herself did not know what those products were. Nobody our age knew, she said.
She read the list of names out to me, since I could not yet read. "What about Maybelline?" she said. "That sounds pretty. Aunt Maybelline.
♥ The books I was given to learn from were about a boy and a girl called Dick and Jane. The books were very old, and the pictures had been altered at Ardua Gall. Jane wore long skirts and sleeves, but you could tell from the places where the paint had been applied that her skirt had once been above her knees and her sleeves had ended above her elbows. Her hair had once been uncovered.
The most astonishing thing about these books was that Dick and Jane and Baby Sally lived in a house with nothing around it but a white wooden fence, so flimsy and low that anyone at all could climb over it. There were no Angels, there were no Guardians. Dick and Jane and Baby Sally played outside in full view of everyone. Baby Sally could have been abducted by terrorists at any moment and smuggled to Canada, like Baby Nicole and the other stolen innocents. Jane's bare knees could have aroused evil urges in any man passing by, despite the fact that everything but her face had been covered over with paint. Becka said that painting the pictures in such books was a task that I'd be asked to perform, as it was assigned to the Supplicants. She herself had painted a lot of books.
♥ "But why did she do it?" I asked. "Did she want to die?"
"No one wants to die," said Becka. "But some people don't want to live in any of the ways that are allowed."
"But drowning yourself!"
"It's supposed to be calm," said Becka. "You hear bells and singing. Like angels. That's what Aunt Helena told us, to make us feel better."
♥ Laboriously I spelled out the words. They seemed different when they were on the page: not flowing and sonorous, as I had recited them in my head, but flatter, drier.
Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song.
♥ We'd learned to embroider and paint at the Vidala School, and Becka said that writing was almost the same as that—each letter was like a picture or a row of stitching, and it was also like a musical note; you just had to learn how to form the letters, and then how to attach them together, like pearls on a string.
She herself had beautiful handwriting. She showed me how, often and with patience; then, once I would write, however awkwardly, she selected a series of Biblical mottoes for me to copy.
And now abideth Faith, Hope, Charity, these three; but the greatest of thee is Charity.
Love is as strong as Death.
A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wing shall tell the matter.
♥ Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others.
♥ "We must try not to be uncharitable," said Becka. "You should pray for your hatred to go away. Just think of it as flowing out of your nose, like breath."
Becka had a lot of these control-yourself techniques. I tried to practise them. They worked some of the time.
♥ The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, "I need to warn you."
"Warn me?" I said. "But it's holy."
"It doesn't say what they say it says."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I don't want you to be too disappointed." She paused. "I'm sure Aunt Estée meant well." Then she said, "Judges 19 to 21."
..It came as a painful shock: kind, helpful Aunt Estée had lied to us. The truth was not noble, it was horrible. This was what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women's minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.
Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead's theology. If I'd failed at perfection, I'd concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lost my faith.
If you've never had faith, you will not understand what that means. You feel as if your best friend is dying; that everything that defined you is being burned away; that you'll be left all alone. You feel exiled, as if you are lost in a dark wood. It was like the feeling I'd had when Tabitha died: the world was emptying itself of meaning. Everything was hollow. Everything was withering.
I told Becka some of what was taking place within me.
"I know," she said. "That happened to me. Everyone at the top of Gilead has lied to us."
"How do you mean?"
"God isn't what they say," she said. She said you could believe in Gilead or you could believe in God, but not both. That was how she had managed her own crisis.
I said that I wasn't sure I would be able to choose. Secretly I feared that I would be unable to believe in either. Still, I wanted to believe; indeed I longed to; and, in the end, how much of belief comes from longing?
♥ Once a story you've regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories.
♥ Handmaids had been forced into illegal acts, then blamed for them; Sons of Jacob had plotted against one another; bribes and favours have been exchanged at the highest levels; Wives had schemed against other Wives; Marthas had eavesdropped and collected information, and then sold it; mysterious food poisonings had occurred, babies had changed hands from Wife to Wife on the basis of scandalous rumours that were, however, unfounded. Wives had been hanged for adulteries that had never occurred because a Commander wanted a different, young Wife. Public trials—meant to purge traitors and purify the leadership—had turned on false confessions extracted by torture.
Bearing false witness was not the exception, it was common. Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting.
♥ "I depend on your discretion. I am in your hands, dear Aunt Lydia," he said, rising from his desk. How true, I thought. And how easily a hand becomes a fist.
♥ "What is a bucket list?" Becka asked.
"Stuff I want to do before I die."
"Why is it called that?"
"It's from 'kick the bucket,'" said Jade. "It's just a saying." Then, seeing our puzzled looks, she continued. "I think it's from when they used to hang people from trees. They'd make them stand on a bucket and then hang them, and their feet would kick, and naturally they would kick the bucket. Just my guess."
"That's not how we hang people here," said Becka.
♥ Did I remember her? I tried to. I knew I should be able to, but the past was too dark.
Such a cruel thing, memory. We can't remember what it is that we've forgotten. That we have been made to fprget. That we've had to forget, in order to pretend to live here in any normal way.
I'm sorry, I whispered. I can't bring you back. Not yet.
♥ "No shit!" Jade exclaimed. "I don't believe this!"
"Jade, I did not hear that," said Aunt Lydia. "Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control."
♥ "I'll think of you as birds, flying away," she said. "A bird of the air will carry the voice."
♥ They did teach you a few useful things at Ardua Hall, and self-control was one of them. She who cannot control herself cannot control the path to duty. Do not fight the waves of anger, use the anger as your fuel. Inhale. Exhale. Sidestep. Circumvent. Deflect.
I would never have made it as a real Aunt..
♥ Before leaving the Intensive Care Unit, I pocketed a small vial of morphine, foresight being a cardinal virtue.
♥ "Do you thin we'll ever see our mother?"
"I have faith that we will."
"Do you think she'll like us?"
"She will love us," I said to soothe her. "And we will love her."
"Just because people are related to you doesn't mean you love them," I murmured.
"Love is a discipline, like prayer," I said.
♥ I am proud of Nicole's ingenuity, and trust it will stand her in good stead in the immediate future. The ability to concoct plausible lies is a talent not to be underestimated.
♥ I was buying time. One was always buying something.
♥ "..Alive, she could pull both of us down. Don't you understand how vulnerable we would be if anyone else go hold of her and she were made to talk? I would lose all credibility. The long knives will come out, and not just for me: your reign at Ardua Hall will be over, and so—quite frankly—will you."
He loves me, he loves me not: I am assuming the status of a mere tool to be used and discarded. But that's a two-handed game.
"Very true," I said. "Some in our country are unfortunately obsessed with vengeful payback. They do not believe that you have always acted for the best, especially in your winnowing operations. But in this matter you have chosen the wisest option, as ever."
That got a smile out of him, albeit a tense one. I had a flashback not for the first time. In my brown sackcloth robe I raised a gun, aimed, shot. A bullet, or no bullet?
♥ The clock ticks. The minutes pass. I wait. I wait.
Fly well, my messengers, my silver doves, my destroying angels. Land safely.
♥ She only used the one arm because she had the other arm around Agnes, and she said, "My darling girls."
She smelled right. It was like an echo, of a voice you can't quite hear.
♥ Our time together is drawing short, my reader. Possibly you will view these pages of mine as a fragile treasure box, to be opened with the utmost care. Possibly you will tear them apart, or burn them: that often happens to words
Perhaps you'll be a student of history, in which case I hope you'll make something useful of me: a warts-and-all portrait, a definitive account of my life and times suitably footnoted; though if you don't accuse me of bad faith I will be astonished. Or, in fact, not astonished: I will be dead, and the dead are hard to astonish.
I picture you as a young woman, bright, ambitious. You'll be looking to make a niche for yourself in whatever dim, echoing caverns of academia may still exist by your time. I situate you at your desk, your hair tucked back behind your ears, your nail polish chipped—for nail polish will have returned, it always does. You're frowning slightly, a habit that will increase as you age. I hover behind you, peering over your shoulder: your muse, your unseen inspiration, urging you on.
You'll labour over this manuscript of mine, reading and rereading, picking nits as you go, developing the fascinated but also bored hatred biographers so often come to feel for their subjects. How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.
♥ In my end is my beginning, as someone once said. Who was that? Mary, Queen of Scots, if history does not lie. Her motto, with a phoenix rising from its ashes, embroidered on a wall hanging. Such excellent embroiderers, women are.
The footsteps approach one boot after another. Between one breath and the next the knock will come.
♥ "Nicole" might seem too young, in years but also in experience, to have been assigned to the hazardous mission the two of them appear to have carried out so successfully, but she was no younger than many involved in resistance operation and spywork over the course of the centuries. Some historians have even argued that persons of that age are especially suitable for such escapades, as the young are idealistic, have an underdeveloped sense of their own mortality, and are afflicted with an exaggerated thirst for justice.