The three bodies hang there, even with the white sacks over their heads looking curiously stretched, like chickens strung up by the necks in a meatshop window; like birds with their wings clipped, like flightless birds, wrecked angels. It’s hard to take your eyes off them. Beneath the hems of the dresses the feet dangle, two pairs of red shoes, one pair of blue. If it weren’t for the ropes and the sacks it could be a kind of dance, a ballet, caught by flash-camera: mid-air. They look arranged. They look like showbiz. It must have been Aunt Lydia who put the blue one in the middle.
“Today’s Salvaging is now concluded,” Aunt Lydia announces into the mike. “But…”
We turn to her, listen to her, watch her. She has always known how to space her pauses. A ripple runs over us, a stir. Something else, perhaps, is going to happen.
“But you may stand up, and form a circle.” She smiles down upon us, generous, munificent. She is about to give us something. Bestow. “Orderly, now.”
She is talking to us, to the Handmaids. Some of the Wives are leaving now, some of the daughters. Most of them stay, but they stay behind, out of the way, they watch merely. They are not part of the circle.
Two Guardians have moved forward and are coiling up the thick rope, getting it out of the way. Others move the cushions. We are milling around now, on the grass space in front of the stage, some jockeying for position at the front, next to the centre, many pushing just as hard to work their way to the middle where they will be shielded. It’s a mistake to hang back too obviously in any group like this; it stamps you as lukewarm, lacking in zeal. There’s an energy building here, a murmur, a tremor of readiness and anger. The bodies tense, the eyes are brighter, as if aiming.
I don’t want to be at the front, or at the back either. I’m not sure what’s coming, though I sense it won’t be anything I want to see up close. But Ofglen has hold of my arm, she tugs me with her, and now we’re in the second line, with only a thin hedge of bodies in front of us. I don’t want to see, yet I don’t pull back either. I’ve heard rumours, which I only half believed. Despite everything I already know, I say to myself: they wouldn’t go that far.
“You know the rules for a Particicution,” Aunt Lydia says. “You will wait until I blow the whistle. After that, what you do is up to you, until I blow the whistle again. Understood?”
A noise comes from among us, a formless assent.
“Well then,” says Aunt Lydia. She nods. Two Guardians, not the same ones that have taken away the rope, come forward now from behind the stage. Between them they half-carry, half-drag a third man. He too is in a Guardian’s uniform, but he has no hat on and the uniform is dirty and torn. His face is cut and bruised, deep reddish-brown bruises; the flesh is swollen and knobby, stubbled with unshaven beard. This doesn’t look like a face but like an unknown vegetable, a mangled bulb or tuber, something that’s grown wrong. Even from where I’m standing I can smell him: he smells of shit and vomit. His hair is blond and falls over his face, spiky with what? Dried sweat?
I stare at him with revulsion. He looks drunk. He looks like a drunk that’s been in a fight. Why have they brought a drunk in here?
“This man,” says Aunt Lydia, “has been convicted of rape.” Her voice trembles with rage, and a kind of triumph. “He was once a Guardian. He has disgraced his uniform. He has abused his position of trust. His partner in viciousness has already been shot. The penalty for rape, as you know, is death. Deuteronomy 22:23-29. I might add that this crime involved two of you and took place at gunpoint. It was also brutal. I will not offend your ears with any details, except to say that one woman was pregnant and the baby died.”
A sigh goes up from us; despite myself I feel my hands clench. It is too much, this violation. The baby too, after what we go through. It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend.
We jostle forward, our heads turn from side to side, our nostrils flare, sniffing death, we look at one another, seeing the hatred. Shooting was too good. The man’s head swivels groggily around: has he even heard her?
Aunt Lydia waits a moment; then she gives a little smile and raises her whistle to her lips. We hear it, shrill and silver, an echo from a volleyball game of long ago.
The two Guardians let go of the third man’s arms and step back. He staggers – is he drugged? – and falls to his knees. His eyes are shrivelled up inside the puffy flesh of his face, as if the light is too bright for him. They’ve kept him in darkness. He raises one hand to his cheek, as though to feel if he is still there. All of this happens quickly, but it seems to be slowly.
Nobody moves forward. The women are looking at him with horror; as if he’s a half-dead rat dragging itself across a kitchen floor. He’s squinting around at us, the circle of red women. One corner of his mouth moves up, incredible – a smile?
I try to look inside him, inside the trashed face, see what he must really look like. I think he’s about thirty. It isn’t Luke.
But it could have been, I know that. It could be Nick. I know that whatever he’s done I can’t touch him.
He says something. It comes out thick, as if his throat is bruised, his tongue huge in his mouth, but I hear it anyway. He says, “I didn’t…”
There’s a surge forward, like a crowd at a rock concert in the former time, when the doors opened, that urgency coming like a wave through us. The air is bright with adrenalin, we are permitted anything and this is freedom, in my body also, I’m reeling, red spreads everywhere, but before that tide of cloth and bodies hits him Ofglen is shoving through the women in front of us, propelling herself with her elbows, left, right, and running towards him. She pushes him down, sideways, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, three times, sharp painful jabs with the foot, well-aimed. Now there are sounds, gasps, a low noise like growling, yells, and the red bodies tumble forward and I can no longer see, he’s obscured by arms, fists, feet. A high scream comes from somewhere, like a horse in terror.
I keep back, try to stay on my feet. Something hits me from behind. I stagger. When I regain my balance and look around, I see the Wives and daughters leaning forward in their chairs, the Aunts on the platform gazing down with interest. They must have a better view from up there.
He has become an it.