I remembered a mother and father, dimly, on the edge of memory. There was a cat, and a house, and a doll. There was a forest, and mother running with me, though I felt sleepy and confused, and then there was nothing. I woke up in a cool, white bed, remembering the story she had told me about the brother and sister who met the witch in the gingerbread house. Appearances were sometimes very wrong, and the pretty little room felt as wrong as anything ever. The doctors told me everything I had ever seen had been a dream, I had been sick, and wasn’t I so happy to see my mother and father again now that I was all well? They brought in two people I’d never seen before and told me they were my parents. Wouldn’t I be a good girl and try to remember them?
I bit the doctor. Hard. He must have nearly lost that finger, but the taste of blood in my mouth was real. I remember the woman’s look of horror. They’d given her a crazy daughter, and she had only this one chance. Her husband had laughed, though, thought it was hilarious. He was already underestimating me. But then they all do that to every girl.
The choice was simple, even for a five-year-old. Learn to pretend to be good, learn to pretend to forget, learn to pretend to submit. The other option was death. Of one kind or another. Now I realize they probably wouldn’t have killed me. A female with working ovaries and a potential lifetime of children? They would have been fools to choose that route so early. But they might have put me in for early training as a handmaid. I learned to hold my tongue. But I didn’t hold my mind. I always knew. I refused to forget.
I was called Sarah. I knew it was not my name, but it’s what I was called. I was told by the woman who said I was her daughter, but to whom I bear no resemblance at all, that I should feel gratitude for having a name. Many women do not. They are Ofs. They are put with someone else’s husband and take his name, the first part, not the last, as the wives have already taken that bit. So long as I behaved and did as I was told, I wouldn’t lose my name. That’s what they told me.
Of course, they had already taken it once, so I didn’t trust them.
I was no fool. I had working eyes and ears and brains. I still remembered my letters, though I couldn’t read properly. Most importantly, I remembered that they lie. All of them, even when they don’t know it. So I learned to lie beautifully, keep my face passive as stone, but I refused ever to lie to myself.
I was eleven when I stumbled on the resistance. One of the Marthas in my father’s house was a part of them, but why they chose her I’ll never know. She was a born fool who spoke too loud and never checked who might be listening, but then she did think I was a bit stupid. I had cultivated feigning that particular trait. It was something men seemed to find admirable and women unthreatening. It meant they thought they could safely talk over my head when I understood every syllable. That’s when I first learned about the existence of Mayday.
When I was thirteen and showed signs of fruitfulness (a pretty name for bleeding), my rather relieved mother explained to me I would soon be married to a fine man, and if all went well, I would have a child quickly. In spite of everything, I don’t think she ever quite forgot her first image of me, covered in that doctor’s blood. I doubted I would be missed much. Regardless, I had no desire to become the bride of one of the commanders or their sons, so I tried something rash, utterly foolish.
I ran away. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew who I was trying to find. I had picked up enough bits of information to suspect who might be part of the resistance, and I was nearly certain the chauffeur who had once worked for Commander Waterford was in it. Waterford was dead now, arrested in a purge, and if half I heard about him was true, I only regretted he couldn’t be killed more than once. Nick, the chauffeur, had been reassigned to another influential man. There were murmurs, less than words on wind, that he knew something. I found myself knocking quietly on his door just past midnight.
“Who...?” he said, then stopped mid-sentence when he saw me.
“Mayday,” I said, and in spite of myself, my voice cracked. “Please, Mayday.”
“Are you out of your mind?” he said.
“Not yet, but I will be soon,” I said. “I have to get out of here.”
“Who are you?”
“I have no idea.”
He got me out of Gilead. He was leaving himself the next day. Not only a thirteen-year-old was putting two and two together, and I went with him. Like most horrible times, it seemed to last forever, but when it was over and I was safely in Canada, where somehow mass lunacy had never gained a foothold, only three days had passed.
I was adopted by a sympathetic couple who helped smuggle women from Gilead, and I got an education. I survived. And I helped over five hundred handmaids, Marthas, and unwomen cross the border.
With my mother.
And it was from her that I learned the name I had forgotten.