The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood I
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of
varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the g ames
that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball net s
were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran aroun d
the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faint ly like
an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with th e
sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls,
felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then p ants,
then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have
been held there; themusic lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sou nd,
style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands
made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving bal l of
mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, o f
something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, fo r
something that was always about to happen and was never the sa me
as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the bac k,
or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with th e
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
after-thought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had bee n set
up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had
flannelette sheets, like children's, and army-issue blanket
s, old ones
that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid the m on the
stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but no t
out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric c attle
prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
No guns though, even they could not be trustedwith guns. Guns w ere
for the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards were n't
allowed inside the building except when called, and we weren' t
allowed out, except for our walks, twice daily, two by two arou nd 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. I f only
they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something coul d be
exchanged,we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we stil l had
our bodies. That was our fantasy.
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkne ss
we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, an d
touch each other's hands across space. We learned to lip-read, ou r
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 orn ament
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 tak en
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 openit only op
partlythe 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. Sun light
comes in through the window too, ami 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 th e
kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in the ir
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 1 want?
On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a
print of flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowe d,
Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same whil e
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 whi te
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 ratio ned.
There's a lot that doesn't bear thinking about. Thinking can h urt your
chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass,
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