We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished
wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were
formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in
place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the
spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the
pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum
and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from
pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky
green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music
lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an
undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper
flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the
dancers with a snow of light.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of
something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for
something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the
hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out
back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound
turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for
insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an
afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set
up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette
sheets, like children's, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still
said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at
the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara
and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on
thongs from their leather belts.
No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for
the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren't allowed
inside the building except when called, and we weren't allowed out,
except for our walks, twice daily, two by two around the football field,
which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of
fear to us, but of something else as well. If only they would look. If
only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought,
some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could
stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, and touch each
other's hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on
the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way we
exchanged names, from bed to bed:
Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament
in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space,
plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken
out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything
you could tie a rope to.
A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a
little cushion. When the window is partly open-it only opens partly-the
air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or
on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in
through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood,
in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. There's a rug
on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they
like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things
that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want
not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a
print of flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowed.
Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white
curtains, I wonder? Government issue?
Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.
A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white
spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not
to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed.
There's a lot that doesn't bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your
chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass, in front of
the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only
partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn't running away
they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the
ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.
So. Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for
the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former
times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we are now. The
circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have
But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am
alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the
sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia
said, who was in love with either/or.
The bell that measures time is ringing. Time here is measured by bells,
as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.
I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their
red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red
gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands,
finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the
color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full,
gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are
full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from
seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it's not
my color. I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm.
The door of the room-not my room, I refuse to say my-is not locked. In
fact it doesn't shut properly. I go out into the polished hallway, which
has a runner down the center, dusty pink. Like a path through the
forest, like a carpet for royalty, it shows me the way.
The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it, one
hand on the banister, once a tree, turned in another century, rubbed to
a warm gloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house, built for a
large rich family. There's a grandfather clock in the hallway, which
doles out time, and then the door to the motherly front sitting room,
with its flesh tones and hints. A sitting room in which I never sit, but
stand or kneel only. At the end of the hallway, above the front door, is
a fanlight of colored glass: flowers, red and blue.
There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turn my head so that the
white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as
I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a
fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something,
some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of
carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood.
At the bottom of the stairs there's a hat-and-umbrella stand, the
bentwood kind, long rounded rungs of wood curving gently up into hooks
shaped like the opening fronds of a fern. There are several umbrellas in
it: black, for the Commander, blue, for the Commander's Wife, and the
one assigned to me, which is red. I leave the red umbrella where it is,
because I know from the window that the day is sunny. I wonder whether
or not the Commander's Wife is in the sitting room. She doesn't always
sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and
then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.
I walk along the hallway, past the sitting room door and the door that
leads into the dining room, and open the door at the end of the hall and
go through into the kitchen. Here the smell is no longer of furniture
polish. Rita is in here, standing at the kitchen table, which has a top
of chipped white enamel. She's in her usual Martha's dress, which is
dull green, like a surgeon's gown of the time before. The dress is much
like mine in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib apron over it
and without the white wings and the veil. She puts on the veil to go
outside, but nobody much cares who sees the face of a Martha. Her
sleeves are rolled to the elbow, showing her brown arms. She's making
bread, throwing the loaves for the final brief kneading and then the
Rita sees me and nods, whether in greeting or in simple acknowledgment
of my presence it's hard to say, and wipes her floury hands on her apron
and rummages in the kitchen drawer for the token book. Frowning, she
tears out three tokens and hands them to me. Her face might be kindly if
she would smile. But the frown isn't personal: it's the red dress she
disapproves of, and what it stands for. She thinks I may be catching,
like a disease or any form of bad luck.
Sometimes I listen outside closed doors, a thing I never would have done
in the time before. I don't listen long, because I don't want to be
caught doing it. Once, though, I heard Rita say to Cora that she
wouldn't debase herself like that.
Nobody asking you, Cora said. Anyways, what could you do, supposing?
Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice.
With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows what all? said
Cora. Catch you.
They were shelling peas; even through the almost-closed door I could
hear the light clink of the hard peas falling into the metal bowl. I
heard Rita, a grunt or a sigh, of protest or agreement.
Anyways, they're doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I
hadn't of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years
younger. It's not that bad. It's not what you'd call hard work.
Better her than me, Rita said, and I opened the door. Their faces were
the way women's faces are when they've been talking about you behind
your back and they think you've heard: embarrassed, but also a little
defiant, as if it were their right. That day, Cora was more pleasant to
me than usual, Rita more surly.
Today, despite Rita's closed face and pressed lips, I would like to stay
here, in the kitchen. Cora might come in, from somewhere else in the
house, carrying her bottle of lemon oil and her duster, and Rita would
make coffee-in the houses of the Commanders there is still real
coffee-and we would sit at Rita's kitchen table, which is not Rita's any
more than my table is mine, and we would talk, about aches and pains,
illnesses, our feet, our backs, all the different kinds of mischief that
our bodies, like unruly children, can get into. We would nod our heads
as punctuation to each other's voices, signaling that yes, we know all
about it. We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each other in the
recital of our physical miseries; gently we would complain, our voices
soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in the eaves troughs. I know
what you mean, we'd say. Or, a quaint expression you sometimes hear,
still, from older people: I hear where you're coming from, as if the
voice itself were a traveler, arriving from a distant place. Which it
would be, which it is.
How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was
talk. An exchange, of sorts.
Or we would gossip. The Marthas know things, they talk among themselves,
passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they listen at
doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted. I've heard
them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations.
Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the
belly. Jealousy, it must have been, eating her up. Or, tantalizingly, It
was toilet cleaner she used. Worked like a charm, though you'd think
he'd of tasted it. Must've been that drunk; but they found her out all
Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft
resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch
something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of
But even if I were to ask, even if I were to violate decorum to that
extent, Rita would not allow it. She would be too afraid. The Marthas
are not supposed to fraternize with us.
Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He said
there was no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister.
Sororize, it would have to be, he said. From the Latin. He liked knowing
about such details. The derivations of words, curious usages. I used to
tease him about being pedantic.
I take the tokens from Rita's outstretched hand. They have pictures on
them, of the things they can be exchanged for: twelve eggs, a piece of
cheese, a brown thing that's supposed to be a steak. I place them in the
zippered pocket in my sleeve, where I keep my pass.
"Tell them fresh, for the eggs," she says. "Not like last
time. And a chicken, tell them, not a hen. Tell them who it's for and
then they won't mess around."
"All right," I say. I don't smile. Why tempt her to
I go out by the back door, into the garden, which is large and tidy: a
lawn in the middle, a willow, weeping catkins; around the edges, the
flower borders, in which the daffodils are now fading and the tulips are
opening their cups, spilling out color. The tulips are red, a darker
crimson towards the stem, as if they have been cut and are beginning to
This garden is the domain of the Commander's Wife. Looking out through
my shatterproof window I've often seen her in it, her knees on a
cushion, a light blue veil thrown over her wide gardening hat, a basket
at her side with shears in it and pieces of string for tying the flowers
into place. A Guardian detailed to the Commander does the heavy digging;
the Commander's Wife directs, pointing with her stick. Many of the Wives
have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the
plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of
seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way.
Sometimes the Commander's Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in
it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace.
She isn't here now, and I start to wonder where she is: I don't like to
come upon the Commander's Wife unexpectedly. Perhaps she's sewing, in
the sitting room, with her left foot on the footstool, because of her
arthritis. Or knitting scarves, for the Angels at the front lines. I can
hardly believe the Angels have a need for such scarves; anyway, the ones
made by the Commander's Wife are too elaborate.
Excerpted from "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1998 by Margaret Atwood. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.