فصل 05

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فصل 05

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CHAPTER 5

Doubled, I walk the street. Though we are no longer in the Commanders’ compound, there are large houses here also. In front of one of them a Guardian is mowing the lawn. The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.

This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.

Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore, and the university is closed.

Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the Children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seems almost weightless.

We turn the corner onto a main street, where there’s more traffic. Cars go by, black most of them, some gray and brown. There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can. Sometimes there is a woman all in black, a widow. There used to be more of them, but they seem to be diminishing. You don’t see the Commanders’ Wives on the sidewalks. Only in cars.

The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on the cracks. ‘m remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. Though I never ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.

Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

In front of us, to the right, is the store where we order dresses. Some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break. The store has a huge wooden sign outside it, in the shape of a golden lily; Lilies of the Field, it’s called. You can see the place, under the lily, where the lettering was painted out, when they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us. Now places are known by their signs alone.

Lilies used to be a movie theater, before. Students went there a lot; every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

I don’t know when they stopped having the festival. I must have been grown up. So I didn’t notice.

We don’t go into Lilies, but across the road and along a side street. Our first stop is at a store with another wooden sign: three eggs, a bee, a cow. Milk and Honey. There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two by two. I see they have oranges today. Ever since Central America was lost to the Libertheos, oranges have been hard to get: sometimes they are there, sometimes not. The war interferes with the oranges from California, and even Florida isn’t dependable, when there are roadblocks or when the train tracks have been blown up. I look at the oranges, longing for one. But I haven’t brought any coupons for oranges. I’ll go back and tell Rita about them, I think. She’ll be pleased. It will be something, a small achievement, to have made oranges happen.

Those who’ve reached the counter hand their tokens across it, to the two men in Guardian uniforms who stand on the other side. Nobody talks much, though there is a rustling, and the women’s heads move furtively from side to side: here, shopping, is where you might see someone you know, someone you’ve known in the time before, or at the Red Center. Just to catch sight of a face like that is an encouragement. If I could see Moira, just see her, know she still exists. It’s hard to imagine now, having a friend.

But Ofglen, beside me, isn’t looking, Maybe she doesn’t know anyone anymore. Maybe they have all vanished, the women she knew. Or maybe she doesn’t want to be seen. She stands in silence head down.

As we wait in our double line, the door opens and two more women come in, both in the red dresses and white wings of the Handmaids. One of them is vastly pregnant; her belly, under her loose garment, swells triumphantly. There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath; despite ourselves we turn our heads, blatantly, to see better; our fingers itch to touch her. She’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved.

The women in the room are whispering, almost talking, so great is their excitement.

“Who is it?” I hear behind me.

“Ofwayne. No. Ofwarren.”

“Show-off,” a voice hisses, and this is true. A woman that pregnant doesn’t have to go out, doesn’t have to go shopping. The daily walk is no longer prescribed, to keep her abdominal muscles in working order. She needs only the floor exercises, the breathing drill. She could stay at her house. And it’s dangerous for her to be out, there must be a Guardian standing outside the door, waiting for her. Now that she’s the carrier of life, she is closer to death, and needs special security. Jealousy could get her, it’s happened before. All children are wanted now, but not by everyone.

But the walk may be a whim of hers, and they humor whims, when something has gone this far and there’s been no miscarriage. Or perhaps she’s one of those, Pile it on, I can take it, a martyr. I catch a glimpse of her face, as she raises it to look around. The voice behind me was right. She’s come here to display herself. She’s glowing, rosy, she’s enjoying every minute of this.

“Quiet,” says one of the Guardians behind the counter, and we hush like schoolgirls.

Ofglen and I have reached the counter. We hand over our tokens, and one Guardian enters the numbers on them into the Compubite while the other gives us our purchases, the milk, the eggs. We put them into our baskets and go out again, past the pregnant woman and her partner, who beside her looks spindly, shrunken; as we all do. The pregnant woman’s belly is like a huge fruit. Humungous, word of my childhood. Her hands rest on it as if to defend it, or as if they’re gathering something from it, warmth and strength.

As I pass she looks full at me, into my eyes, and I know who she; is. She was at the Red Center with me, one of Aunt Lydia’s pets. I never liked her. Her name, in the time before, was Janine.

Janine looks at me, then, and around the corners of her mouth there is the trace of a smirk. She glances down to where my own belly lies flat under my red robe, and the wings cover her face. I can see only a little of her forehead, and the pinkish tip of her nose.

Next we go into All Flesh, which is marked by a large wooden pork chop hanging from two chains. There isn’t so much of a line here: meat is expensive, and even the Commanders don’t have it every day. Ofglen gets steak, though, and that’s the second time this week. I’ll tell that to the Marthas: it’s the kind of thing they enjoy hearing about. They are very interested in how other households are run; such bits of petty gossip give them an opportunity for pride or discontent.

I take the chicken, wrapped in butcher’s paper and trussed with string. Not many things are plastic, anymore. I remember those endless white plastic shopping bags, from the supermarket; I hated to waste them and would stuff them in under the sink, until the day would come when there would be too many and I would open the cupboard door and they would bulge out, sliding over the floor. Luke used to complain about it. Periodically he would take all the bags and throw them out.

She could get one of those over her head, he’d say. You know how kids like to play. She never would, I’d say. She’s too old. (Or too smart, or too lucky.) But I would feel a chill of fear, and then guilt for having been so careless. It was true, I took too much for granted; I trusted fate, back then. I’ll keep them in a higher cupboard, I’d say. Don’t keep them at all, he’d say. We never use them for anything. Garbage bags, I’d say. He’d say…

Not here and now. Not where people are looking. I turn, see my silhouette in the plate glass window. We have come outside, then, we are on the street.

A group of people is coming towards us. They’re tourists, from Japan it looks like, a trade delegation perhaps, on a tour of the historic landmarks or out for local color. They’re diminutive and neatly turned out; each has his or her camera, his or her smile. They look around, bright-eyed, cocking their heads to one side like robins, their very cheerfulness aggressive, and I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before.

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

Westernized, they used to call it.

The Japanese tourists come towards us, twittering, and we turn our heads away too late: our faces have been seen.

There’s an interpreter, in the standard blue suit and red-patterned tie, with the winged-eye tie pin. He’s the one who steps forward, out of the group, in front of us, blocking our way. The tourists bunch behind him; one of them raises a camera.

“Excuse me,” he says to both of us, politely enough. “They’re asking if they can take your picture.”

I look down at the sidewalk, shake my head for no. What they must see is the white wings only, a scrap of face, my chin and part of my mouth. Not the eyes. I know better than to look the interpreter in the face. Most of the interpreters are Eyes, or so it’s said.

I also know better than to say yes. Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen — to be seen — is to be — her voice trembled — penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.

Beside me, Ofglen is also silent. She’s tucked her red-gloved hands up into her sleeves, to hide them.

The interpreter turns back to the group, chatters at them in staccato. I know what he’ll be saying, I know the line. He’ll be telling them that the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.

I’m looking down, at the sidewalk, mesmerized by the women’s feet. One of them is wearing open-toed sandals, the toenails painted pink. I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the second coat on too soon, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose against the skin, the way the toes felt, pushed towards the opening in the shoe by the whole weight of the body. The woman with painted toes shifts from one foot to the other. I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry.

“Excuse me,” says the interpreter again, to catch our attention. I nod, to show I’ve heard him.

“He asks, are you happy,” says the interpreter. I can imagine it, their curiosity: Are they happy? How can they be happy? I can feel their bright black eyes on us, the way they lean a little forward to catch our answers, the women especially, but the men too: we are secret, forbidden, we excite them.

Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak.

“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?

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