Part one: The Ardua Hall Holograph
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
This statue was a small token of appreciation for my many contributions, said the citation, which was read out by Aunt Vidala. She’d been assigned the task by our superiors, and was far from appreciative. I thanked her with as much modesty as I could summon, then pulled the rope that released the cloth drape shrouding me; it billowed to the ground, and there I stood. We don’t do cheering here at Ardua Hall, but there was some discreet clapping. I inclined my head in a nod.
My statue is larger than life, as statues tend to be, and shows me as younger, slimmer, and in better shape than I’ve been for some time. I am standing straight, shoulders back, my lips curved into a firm but benevolent smile. My eyes are fixed on some cosmic point of reference understood to represent my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty, my determination to move forward despite all obstacles. Not that anything in the sky would be visible to my statue, placed as it is in a morose cluster of trees and shrubs beside the footpath running in front of Ardua Hall. We Aunts must not be too presumptuous, even in stone.
Clutching my left hand is a girl of seven or eight, gazing up at me with trusting eyes. My right hand rests on the head of a woman crouched at my side, her hair veiled, her eyes upturned in an expression that could be read as either craven or grateful – one of our Handmaids – and behind me is one of my Pearl Girls, ready to set out on her missionary work. Hanging from a belt around my waist is my Taser. This weapon reminds me of my failings: had I been more effective, I would not have needed such an implement. The persuasion in my voice would have been enough.
As a group of statuary it’s not a great success: too crowded. I would have preferred more emphasis on myself. But at least I look sane. It could well have been otherwise, as the elderly sculptress – a true believer since deceased – had a tendency to confer bulging eyes on her subjects as a sign of their pious fervour. Her bust of Aunt Helena looks rabid, that of Aunt Vidala is hyperthyroid, and that of Aunt Elizabeth appears ready to explode.
At the unveiling the sculptress was nervous. Was her rendition of me sufficiently flattering? Did I approve of it? Would I be seen to approve? I toyed with the idea of frowning as the sheet came off, but thought better of it: I am not without compassion. “Very lifelike,” I said.
That was nine years ago. Since then my statue has weathered: pigeons have decorated me, moss has sprouted in my damper crevices. Votaries have taken to leaving offerings at my feet: eggs for fertility, oranges to suggest the fullness of pregnancy, croissants to reference the moon. I ignore the breadstuffs – usually they have been rained on – but pocket the oranges. Oranges are so refreshing.
I write these words in my private sanctum within the library of Ardua Hall – one of the few libraries remaining after the enthusiastic book-burnings that have been going on across our land. The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.
But among these bloody fingerprints are those made by ourselves, and these can’t be wiped away so easily. Over the years I’ve buried a lot of bones; now I’m inclined to dig them up again – if only for your edification, my unknown reader. If you are reading, this manuscript at least will have survived. Though perhaps I’m fantasizing: perhaps I will never have a reader. Perhaps I’ll only be talking to the wall, in more ways than one.
That’s enough inscribing for today. My hand hurts, my back aches, and my nightly cup of hot milk awaits me. I’ll stash this screed in its hiding place, avoiding the surveillance cameras – I know where they are, having placed them myself. Despite such precautions, I’m aware of the risk I’m running: writing can be dangerous. What betrayals, and then what denunciations, might lie in store for me? There are several within Ardua Hall who would love to get their hands on these pages.
Wait, I counsel them silently: it will get worse.
Transcript of Witness Testimony 396A
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.
That was the kind of thing runny-nosed Aunt Vidala would tell us at school while we were doing petit-point embroidery for handkerchiefs and footstools and framed pictures: flowers in a vase, fruit in a bowl were the favoured patterns. But Aunt Estée, the teacher we liked the best, would say Aunt Vidala was overdoing it and there was no point in frightening us out of our wits, since to instil such an aversion might have a negative influence on the happiness of our future married lives.
“All men are not like that, girls,” she would say soothingly. “The better kind have superior characters. Some of them have decent self-restraint. And once you are married it will seem quite different to you, and not very fearsome at all.” 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 writing and books. “We and your fathers and mothers will choose your husbands wisely for you when the time comes,” Aunt Estée would say. “So you don’t need to be afraid. Just learn your lessons and trust your elders to do what is best, and everything will unfold as it should. I will pray for it.”
But despite Aunt Estée’s dimples and friendly smile, it was Aunt Vidala’s version that prevailed. It turned up in my nightmares: the shattering of the glass house, then the rending and tearing and the trampling of hooves, with pink and white and plum fragments of myself scattered over the ground. I dreaded the thought of growing older – older enough for a wedding. I had no faith in the wise choices of the Aunts: I feared that I would end up married to a goat on fire.
The pink, the white, and the plum dresses were the rule for special girls like us. Ordinary girls from Econofamilies wore the same thing all the time –those ugly multicoloured stripes and grey cloaks, like the clothes of their mothers. They did not even learn petit-point embroidery or crochet work, just plain sewing and the making of paper flowers and other such chores. They were not pre-chosen to be married to the very best men – to the Sons of Jacob and the other Commanders or their sons – not like us; although they might get to be chosen once they were older if they were pretty enough.
Nobody said that. You were not supposed to preen yourself on your good looks, it was not modest, or take any notice of the good looks of other people. Though we girls knew the truth: that it was better to be pretty than ugly. Even the Aunts paid more attention to the pretty ones. But if you were already pre-chosen, pretty didn’t matter so much.
I didn’t have a squint like Huldah or a pinchy built-in frown like Shunammite, and I didn’t have barely-there eyebrows like Becka, but I was unfinished. I had a dough face, like the cookies my favourite Martha, Zilla, made for me as a treat, with raisin eyes and pumpkin-seed teeth. But though I was not especially pretty, I was very, very chosen. Doubly chosen: not only pre-chosen to marry a Commander but chosen in the first place by Tabitha, who was my mother.
That is what Tabitha used to tell me: “I went for a walk in the forest,” she would say, “and then I came to an enchanted castle, and there were a lot of little girls locked inside, and none of them had any mothers, and they were under the spell of the wicked witches. I had a magic ring that unlocked the castle, but I could only rescue one little girl. So I looked at them all very carefully, and then, out of the whole crowd, I chose you!”
“What happened to the others?” I would ask. “The other little girls?”
“Different mothers rescued them,” she would say.
“Did they have magic rings too?”
“Of course, my darling. In order to be a mother, you need to have a magic ring.”
“Where’s the magic ring?” I would ask. “Where is it now?”
“It’s right here on my finger,” she would say, indicating the third finger of her left hand. The heart finger, she said it was. “But my ring had only one wish in it, and I used that one up on you. So now it’s an ordinary, everyday mother ring.”
At this point I was allowed to try on the ring, which was gold, with three diamonds in it: a big one, and a smaller one on either side. It did look as if it might have been magic once.
“Did you lift me up and carry me?” I would ask. “Out of the forest?” I knew the story off by heart, but I liked to hear it repeated.
“No, my dearest, you were already too big for that. If I had carried you I would have coughed, and then the witches would have heard us.” I could see this was true: she did cough quite a lot. “So I took you by the hand, and we crept out of the castle so the witches wouldn’t hear us. We both said Shh, shh” – here she would hold her finger up to her lips, and I would hold my finger up too and say Shh, shh delightedly – “and then we had to run very fast through the forest, to get away from the wicked witches, because one of them had seen us going out the door. We ran, and then we hid in a hollow tree. It was very dangerous!”
I did have a hazy memory of running through a forest with someone holding my hand. Had I hidden in a hollow tree? It seemed to me that I had hidden somewhere. So maybe it was true.
“And then what happened?” I would ask.
“And then I brought you to this beautiful house. 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.
They say I will always have the scar, but I’m almost better; so yes, I think I’m strong enough to do this now. You’ve said that you’d like me to tell you how I got involved in this whole story, so I’ll try; though it’s hard to know where to begin.
I’ll start just before my birthday, or what I used to believe was my birthday. Neil and Melanie lied to me about that: they’d done it for the best of reasons and they’d meant really well, but when I first found out about it I was very angry at them. Keeping up my anger was difficult, though, because by that time they were dead. You can be angry at dead people, but you can never have a conversation about what they did; or you can only have one side of it. And I felt guilty as well as angry, because they’d been murdered, and I believed then that their murder was my fault.
I was supposed to be turning sixteen. What I was most looking forward to was getting my driver’s licence. I felt too old for a birthday party, though Melanie always got me a cake and ice cream and sang “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true,” an old song I’d loved as a child and was now finding embarrassing. I did get the cake, later – chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, my favourites – but by then I couldn’t eat it. By that time Melanie was no longer there.
That birthday was the day I discovered that I was a fraud. Or not a fraud, like a bad magician: a fake, like a fake antique. I was a forgery, done on purpose. 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.
Neil and Melanie were my parents; they ran a store called The Clothes Hound. It was basically used clothing: Melanie called it “previously loved” because she said “used” meant “exploited.” The sign outside showed a smiling pink poodle in a fluffy skirt with a pink bow on its head, carrying a shopping bag. Underneath was a slogan in italics and quotation marks: “You’d Never Know!” That meant the used clothes were so good you’d never know they were used, but that wasn’t true at all because most of the clothes were crappy.
Melanie said she’d inherited The Clothes Hound from her grandmother. She also said she knew the sign was old-fashioned, but people were familiar with it and it would be disrespectful to change it now.
Our store was on Queen West, in a stretch of blocks that had once all been like that, said Melanie – textiles, buttons and trims, cheap linens, dollar stores. But now it was going upmarket: cafés with fair trade and organic were moving in, big-brand outlets, name boutiques. In response, Melanie hung a sign in the window: Wearable Art. But inside, the store was crowded with all kinds of clothes you would never call wearable art. There was one corner that was kind of designer, though anything really pricey wouldn’t be in The Clothes Hound in the first place. The rest was just everything. And all sorts of people came and went: young, old, looking for bargains or finds, or just looking. Or selling: even street people would try to get a few dollars for T-shirts they’d picked up at garage sales.
Melanie worked on the main floor. She wore bright colours, like orange and hot pink, because she said they created a positive and energetic atmosphere, and anyway she was part gypsy at heart. She was always brisk and smiling, though on the lookout for shoplifting. After closing, she sorted and packed: this for charity, this for rags, this for Wearable Art. While doing the sorting she’d sing tunes from musicals – old ones from long ago. “Oh what a beautiful morning” was one of her favourites, and “When you walk through a storm.” I would get irritated by her singing; I’m sorry about that now.
Sometimes she’d get overwhelmed: there was too much fabric, it was like the ocean, waves of cloth coming in and threatening to drown her. Cashmere! Who was going to buy thirty-year-old cashmere? It didn’t improve with age, she would say – not like her.
Neil had a beard that was going grey and wasn’t always trimmed, and he didn’t have much hair. He didn’t look like a businessman, but he handled what they called “the money end”: the invoices, the accounting, the taxes. He had his office on the second floor, up a flight of rubber-treaded stairs. He had a computer and a filing cabinet and a safe, but otherwise that room wasn’t much like an office: it was just as crowded and cluttered as the store because Neil liked to collect things. Wind-up music boxes, he had a number of those. Clocks, a lot of different clocks. Old adding machines that worked with a handle. Plastic toys that walked or hopped across the floor, such as bears and frogs and sets of false teeth. A slide projector for the kind of coloured slides that nobody had anymore. Cameras – he liked ancient cameras. Some of them could take better pictures than anything nowadays, he’d say. He had one whole shelf with nothing on it but cameras.
One time he left the safe open and I looked inside. Instead of the wads of money I’d been expecting, there was nothing in it but a tiny metal-and-glass thing that I thought must be another toy, like the hopping false teeth. But I couldn’t see where to wind it up, and I was afraid to touch it because it was old.
“Can I play with it?” I asked Neil.
“Play with what?”
“That toy in the safe.”
“Not today,” he said, smiling. “Maybe when you’re older.” Then he shut the safe door, and I forgot about the strange little toy until it was time for me to remember it, and to understand what it was.
Neil would try to repair the various items, though often he failed because he couldn’t find the parts. Then the things would just sit there, “collecting dust,” said Melanie. Neil hated throwing anything out.
On the walls he had some old posters: LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS, from a long-ago war; a woman in overalls flexing her biceps to show that women could make bombs – that was from the same olden-days war; and a red-and-black one showing a man and a flag that Neil said was from Russia before it was Russia. Those had belonged to his great-grandfather, who’d lived in Winnipeg. I knew nothing about Winnipeg except that it was cold.
I loved The Clothes Hound when I was little: it was like a cave full of treasures. I wasn’t supposed to be in Neil’s office by myself because I might “touch things,” and then I might break them. But I could play with the wind-up toys and the music boxes and the adding machines, under supervision. Not the cameras though, because they were too valuable, said Neil, and anyway there was no film in them, so what would be the point?
We didn’t live over the store. Our house was a long distance away, in one of those residential neighbourhoods where there were some old bungalows and also some newer, bigger houses that had been built where the bungalows had been torn down. Our house was not a bungalow – it had a second floor, where the bedrooms were – but it was not a new house either. It was made of yellow brick, and it was very ordinary. There was nothing about it that would make you look at it twice. Thinking back, I’m guessing that was their idea.
• © Margaret Atwood 2019. Extracted from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, published on 10 September by Chatto and Windus. To buy a copy for £9 (RRP £20) find your WHSmith voucher in Saturday’s Guardian. Also available at the Guardian Bookshop.