We stood face to face for the first time five weeks ago, when she dutifully arrived at this posting. On that day the handmaid was permitted to come to the front door. I decided to wait behind it, to see what little I could of her before she was presented to me. One of the precious freedoms left even for those like myself. She appeared as a red shadow, her image warped by the stained glass. A shadow, an object, a vessel - the handmaid’s duty. It is a bitter and gloomy thought.
I wish I could be different, but time and experience has ruined me. I gazed at the door, its varnished wooden frame peeling away, revealing the rings hidden for centuries, showing the age concealed beneath. The smell of stale perfume, the old furniture, having been used by many lords and ladies at grand balls and parties, the images of butlers in black suits and white gloves remain encrusted in time. The old grandeur died years ago but lingers still in the air.
My thoughts were interrupted by a figure, one of the Aunts. I had heard the expression on the Black-market. They use it as a means of making vitriolic and vindictive cows appear as benign and gentle beings. Of course, it never works, they rarely succeed. This doesn’t shock me really, with their electric cattle prods slung around their wastes. Perception is something difficult to master – one must be perceived in the right light. ‘Aunts’ are not. The bell had tolled for me. I opened the door, the beam of sunlight, shining like a spotlight. It mocked me, wanted me to sing, a merriment forbidden to anyone within our walls.
I glanced at the handmaid. So you’re the new one, I said. She nodded. I took a moment to breathe the fresh air and take in that all too familiar view of those ridiculous uniforms meant to keep them safe. A prison of blood, a shroud covering the body, staining and numbing the mind. Straightjackets can perform the same task just as easily. The old one wore hers, something she couldn’t escape from. Not until darkness fell. After she left we had to clean up the mess, remove furniture. I told the new one to come in and shut the door behind her. I knew she would do as I asked and naturally follow me into the sitting room.
The chair, the foot stool, the crystal lamp. The window plain and austere relieved only by a vibrant red rose stained on the middle pane. Two curtains, red and gold. They were heavy and musty with age and neglect, their tassels moth eaten. A pillow rested on the chair. It belonged to my Grandmother, a piece of heritage that clings on to life but not the living. The chair itself stood in the centre, its colour faded by the Sun. My way to be seen while remaining out of sight.
Sitting on my chair, I gazed at the new Handmaid. Though her face was hidden, I could see her. Knowledge is power here, it signifies control. I knew what she was thinking, assessing if I would be a kind or miserable mistress. They all do at first. She should have known better, it’s healthier and safer for them to accept what is and not dwell on other things. One is only destined for disappointment and punishment if one thinks of freedom.
An array of light shone through the room, the light of the sun shooting rainbows off the diamond on my finger. A thousand spotlights glittered around us, it brought back the music. That was how we met, my husband and I as once again, my eyes were drawn to my studded finger. He makes me do them. Interview each new one just in case they are ‘one of them’ he says. I once asked why. A mistake I shall never make again, the cane a reminder.
I lit the cigarette and detected a sigh of pure longing from the Handmaid. She, of course, like the rest of them, was not allowed anything that could damage her health, or the chances. The Black-market has many things available for the desperate and longing few. There would have been nothing for her there though, she had nothing to exchange. Not without sacrifice. I slowly exhaled, mentioning that old what’s his face didn’t work out. I couldn’t say I was surprised, he never did accomplish anything.
She told me it was her third posting. Unlucky for her. I coughed at the melancholy tone; she gave too much away poor thing. I told her to sit down. Usually I’d make them suffer, Handmaids only cause pain, dredging memories and the loss of femininity from the dark tunnels of my mind. But she reminded me of a blood clot. Something that works its way around the body, until it finds the heart, destroying the beauty of creation.
Don’t call me Ma’am, I said. She is not a maid. Not of that kind anyway. The old one called me Ma’am. I will miss her. She did her job, was quiet, unobtrusive – invisible. Despite the bloody straightjacket.
The new one didn’t know, would never know. She would be here for the duration – an indefinite prison sentence in a penitentiary of hell. He, after all, my husband, is not a man. Not an Adam. He can hunt but not produce. There will be no paradise for her.