Late afternoon, the sky hazy, the sunlight diffuse but heavy and everywhere, like bronze dust. I glide with Ofglen along the sidewalk; the pair of us, and in front of us another pair, and across the street another. We must look good from a distance: picturesque, like Dutch milkmaids on a wallpaper frieze, like a shelf full of period-costume ceramic salt and pepper shakers, like a flotilla of swans or anything that repeats itself with at least minimum grace and without variation. Soothing to the eye, the eyes, the Eyes, for that’s who this show is for. We’re off to the Prayvaganza, to demonstrate how obedient and pious we are.
Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike. Rings, we would make from them, and crowns and necklaces, stains from the bitter milk on our fingers. Or I’d hold one under her chin: Do you like butter? Smelling them, she’d get pollen on her nose. (Or was that buttercups?) Or gone to seed: I can see her, running across the lawn, that lawn there just in front of me, at two, three years old, waving one like a sparkler, a small wand of white fire, the air filling with tiny parachutes. Blow, and you tell the time. All that time, blowing away in the summer breeze. It was daisies for love though, and we did that too.
We line up to get processed through the checkpoint, standing in our twos and twos and twos, like a private girls’ school that went for a walk and stayed out too long. Years and years too long, so that everything has become overgrown, legs, bodies, dresses all together. As if enchanted. A fairy tale, I’d like to believe. Instead we are checked through, in our twos, and continue walking.
After a while we turn right, heading past Lilies and down towards the river. I wish I could go that far, to where the wide banks are, where we used to lie in the sun, where the bridges arch over. If you went down the river long enough, along its sinewy windings, you’d reach the sea; but what could you do there? Gather shells, loll on the oily stones.
We aren’t going to the river though, we won’t see the little cupolas on the buildings down that way, white with blue and gold trim, such chaste gaiety. We turn in at a more modern building, a huge banner draped above its door – WOMEN’S PRAYVAGANZA TODAY. The banner covers the building’s former name, some dead President they shot. Below the red writing there’s a line of smaller print, in black, with the outline of a winged eye on either side of it: GOD IS A NATIONAL RESOURCE. On either side of the doorway stand the inevitable Guardians, two pairs, four in all, arms at their sides, eyes front. They’re like store mannequins almost, with their neat hair and pressed uniforms and plaster-hard young faces. No pimply ones today. Each has a submachine gun slung ready, for whatever dangerous or subversive acts they think we might commit inside.
The Prayvaganza is to be held in the covered courtyard, where there’s an oblong space, a skylight roof. It isn’t a citywide Prayvaganza, that would be on the football field; it’s only for this district. Ranks of folding wooden chairs have been placed along the right side, for the Wives and daughters of high- ranking officials or officers, there’s not that much difference. The galleries above, with their concrete railings, are for the lower-ranking women, the Marthas, the Econowives in their multicoloured stripes. Attendance at Prayvaganzas isn’t compulsory for them, especially if they’re on duty or have young children, but the galleries seem to be filling up anyway. I suppose it’s a form of entertainment, like a show or a circus.
A number of the Wives are already seated, in their best embroidered blue. We can feel their eyes on us as we walk in our red dresses two by two across to the side opposite them. We are being looked at, assessed, whispered about; we can feel it, like tiny ants running on our bare skins.
Here there are no chairs. Our area is cordoned off with a silky twisted scarlet rope, like the kind they used to have in movie theatres to restrain the customers. This rope segregates us, marks us off, keeps the others from contamination by us, makes for us a corral or pen; so into it we go, arranging ourselves in rows, which we know very well how to do, kneeling then on the cement floor.
“Head for the back,” Ofglen murmurs at: my side. “We can talk better.”
And when we are kneeling, heads bowed slightly, I can hear from all around us a susurration, like the rustling of insects in tall dry grass: a cloud of whispers. This is one of the places where we can exchange news more freely, pass it from one to the next. It’s hard for them to single out any one of us or hear what’s being said. And they wouldn’t want to interrupt the ceremony, not in front of the television cameras.
Ofglen digs me in the side with her elbow, to call my attention, and I look up, slowly and stealthily. From where we’re kneeling we have a good view of the entrance to the courtyard, where people are coming steadily in. It must be Janine she meant me to see, because there she is, paired with a new woman, not the former one; someone I don’t recognize. Janine must have been transferred then, to a new household, a new posting. It’s early for that, has something gone wrong with her breast milk? That would be the only reason they’d move her, unless there’s been a fight over the baby; which happens more than you’d think. Once she had it, she may have resisted giving it up. I can see that. Her body under the red dress looks very thin, skinny almost, and she’s lost that pregnant glow. Her face is white and peaked, as if the juice is being sucked out of her.
“It was no good, you know,” Ofglen says near the side of my head. “It was a shredder after all.”
She means Janine’s baby, the baby that passed through Janine on its way to somewhere else. The baby Angela. It was wrong, to name her too soon. I feel an illness, in the pit of my stomach. Not an illness, an emptiness. I don’t want to know what was wrong with it. “My God,” I say. To go through all that, for nothing. Worse than nothing.
“It’s her second,” Ofglen says. “Not counting her own, before. She had an eighth-month miscarriage, didn’t you know?”
We watch as Janine enters the roped-off enclosure, in her veil of untouchability, of bad luck. She sees me, she must see me, but she looks right through me. No smile of triumph this time. She turns, kneels, and all I can see now is her back and the thin bowed shoulders.
“She thinks it’s her fault,” Ofglen whispers. “Two in a row. For being sinful. She used a doctor, they say, it wasn’t her Commander’s at all.”
I can’t say I do know or Ofglen will wonder how. As far as she’s aware, she herself is my only source, for this kind of information; of which she has a surprising amount. How would she have found out about Janine? The Marthas? Janine’s shopping partner? Listening at closed doors, to the Wives over their tea and wine, spinning their webs. Will Serena Joy talk about me like that, if I do as she wants? Agreed to it right away, really she didn’t care, anything with two legs and a good you-know-what was fine with her. They aren’t squeamish, they don’t have the same feelings we do. And the rest of them leaning forward in their chairs, My dear, all horror and prurience. How could she? Where? When?
As they did no doubt with Janine. “That’s terrible,” I say. It’s like Janine though to take it upon herself, to decide the baby’s flaws were due to her alone. But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.
One morning while we were getting dressed, I noticed that Janine was still in her white cotton nightgown. She was just sitting there on the edge of her bed.
I looked over towards the double doors of the gymnasium, where the Aunt usually stood, to see if she’d noticed, but the Aunt wasn’t there. By that time they were more confident about us; sometimes they left us unsupervised in the classroom and even the cafeteria for minutes at a time. Probably she’d ducked out for a smoke or a cup of coffee.
Look, I said to Alma, who had the bed next to mine.
Alma looked at Janine. Then we both walked over to her. Get your clothes on, Janine, Alma said, to Janine’s white back. We don’t want extra prayers on account of you. But Janine didn’t move.
By that time Moira had come over too. It was before she’d broken free, the second time. She was still limping from what they’d done to her feet. She went around the bed so she could see Janine’s face.
Come here, she said to Alma and me. The others were beginning to gather too, there was a little crowd. Go on back, Moira said to them. Don’t make a thing of it, what if she walks in?
I was looking at Janine. Her eyes were open, but they didn’t see me at all. They were rounded, wide, and her teeth were bared in a fixed smile. Through the smile, through her teeth, she was whispering to herself. I had to lean down close to her.
Hello, she said, but not to me. My name’s Janine. I’m your wait-person for this morning. Can I get you some coffee to begin with?