For readers who are unfamiliar with the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood — to which the following allegorical pastiche by JLH pays non-hommage — here’s the Wikipedia entry for the book.
The Handyman’s Tale
Margaret Atwood meets Quentin Tarantino
Birth of a Nation
It happened in a place once called California. There was a surprising change of leadership in the national government, which had, until then, pursued a reasonable policy of social benefits for the poor to offset the incredible wealth amassed by the governing class and its consiglieri, and a sensible foreign policy of financial rewards for countries most likely to dislike and attack us. With the unexpected shift in leadership came a fanciful desire to improve an economy that successive bipartisan leaders had shown could not be improved; and a wrong-headed insistence that this country — like any other — should stand up for itself.
The final straws were perverted, “fundamentalist” interpretations of the 1st and 2nd Amendments. A brush-fire revolutionary movement formed, led by a retired power politician named Barbara Wrestler (known to friend and foe alike as “Barbie Bananas”). 10-term Governor Lunagleem was persuaded to declare the Feminist Nation of Westland, with the Golden Teddy Bear as its symbol. Its ready-made rallying cry was the title of the runaway bestseller, Cherchez la femme puissante. A widespread and visceral distaste for “flyover fundamentalism” among the elite of Westland was the impetus for a decree that the official philosophy of the new nation would be based upon principles outlined in the sociological milestone 50 Shades of Pink. The defining motto on the Teddy Bear seal of the new nation would be “allectio privus puellae” — To each her own.
Governor Lunagleem — in recognition of his long and faithful service in government, and his unflagging advocacy of women’s rights — was retired with great honors and offered, by way of exception, a passport that would not expire, should he ever decide to leave Westland and seek the presidency of that other country.
Our tale of life in the Feminist Democratic Republic of Westland is largely contained in the life of Offal. We first encounter him in the exclusively female- staffed public pre-school (there was no private schooling, except for the few daughters of highly placed officials), where he learned that a dispute between boys was decided on the basis of which boy was perceived to be the aggressor, who was then punished by being sent to an isolation corner for a while. A dispute between girls was resolved by a serious talk with an advisor, who would mediate an agreement between them. A dispute between a girl and a boy was regarded as Right versus Wrong or Good versus Evil. The girl was Right and the boy was Wrong. He was required to stand alone, as all the girls circled him and slapped his face — some angrily, some more kindly and softly. If he resisted — which became increasingly rare — he graduated to being Evil. He was made to lean his elbows on the teacher’s desk; and each girl was given a willow switch to strike his buttocks as she passed by. Offal and his classmates learned two lessons from this: 1)Never argue with a girl within view of any authority; 2) Never wear shorts to school — some girls will choose to whip the bare legs.
Bathroom facilities in schools, as in all public institutions, were of two kinds: Female and General. Offal’s introduction to this system was witnessing an outraged 7-year-old classmate complaining to their teacher that there was a girl standing at the urinals, observing and commenting. “Of course, dear,” the teacher told him kindly, “How else will she learn? She aspires to be a urologist.”
After the conditioning of pre-school, Life Entry School offered more substantive knowledge in arithmetic, reading, writing and the History of the Golden Teddy Bear Republic. All classes were issued waterproof helmets for their required, weekly depilatory shower. Boys were observed, to decide when they should be issued facial depilatory. The goal was no visible hair below the eyes. Everyone alike. There would be no returning to the era of “hairy-chested men.”
A companion program in the summer found every boy at “Summer Camp” — a more social than pedagogical training. Instead of a recorded version of Reveille, the day began with a loud call of “Soo-ee, Soo-ee, Pig! Pig! Pig!” Breakfast was sugarless oatmeal served in lengthy wooden trenchers referred to as “troughs” and a thick slice of bread. After eating, each boy carried his trencher past an open spigot, rinsing it off as he passed and stacking it upside down on the large drainboard. Lunch was beans with some salt pork in the same trencher, and bread. Supper was meatballs in tomato sauce, and bread, with a suety chocolate pudding for dessert. Each meal was presided over by watchful female counselors, who roamed between the long tables, noting when a boy seemed not to be eating, and rapping him across the back with a bamboo stick, saying, “Eat, Piggy, Eat!”
Activities during the day were various kinds of manual labor: moving boulders, leveling paths and roadways, gathering firewood from the surrounding woods. The great advantage for both “campers” and “counselors” was that this regimen facilitated an exhausted sleep. Nonetheless, the older boys were pulled — one by one — out of their bunks during the night and taken to one of the counselors’ cabins for what the counselors laughingly called, “Sex 101,” where they learned all the ways in which a woman could be pleased.
Offal never did know what the girls’ Summer Camp was like, but he noticed that with each end-of-summer return to school, the girls seemed to become more distant and contemptuous of the boys.
The final levels of public education — before girls went to one of the plethora of Westland universities, and the boys went to either blue- or white-collar trade schools — were also the closing phases in the treatment of male toxicity. Boys were separated into algorithmically selected groups and pulled from class twice a week to attend “de-masculinizing” clinics, where they were electronically connected to monitoring devices. Conducted by therapists working in pairs, the clinics featured 50-minute videos of young people at various activities. Blood pressure, pulse and skin temperature often spiked with one of three things: dangerous activities like cliff diving or dirt bike racing; warlike confrontations between males; the sight of an unexpected expanse of female skin. Every boy who registered a spike received an instantaneous electric jolt high inside his thighs. By the end of the second year, the attraction of danger, physical conflict and sex had dwindled to such an extent that images that had once caused a spike now barely registered. Many of the boys just closed their eyes or looked away.
Boys’ credits for graduation — aside from the masculine detoxification sessions — included the ability to read a newspaper, math through plane geometry (algebra and beyond were considered too intricate), a comfortable acquaintance with a computer and keyboard, and at least six credits in gardening/farming, tool-handling and crafts.
Thus well-trained in the necessary rules and attitudes of the Feminist Republic of Westland, Offal matured into a shy, comely young fellow. He was appointed to be a Domestic Worker, and was given a multi-year assignment as a handyman for three of the leading Wives in his designated community, doing yard work, animal husbandry and carpentry.
Offal felt privileged by his assigned rank, which was one of few that offered comparatively autonomous action to complete his duties, and vigorous but not exhausting physical work in the outdoors. It also implied trust, because the estates lay in a direct line to the border, with the last one touching it in places.
“Wife” was, of course, not a sign of recognized biogamy, but an indicator of significant standing in the community. More than merely a woman, a Wife might or might not have a resident legal mate (male, female or other), but would certainly hold a local or national position of authority, and command considerable wealth or income. The estates of the three Wives to whom Offal was assigned comprised a “neighborhood” in which the mini-mansions were separated by a few miles of arable land, orchards and/or harvestable woodland, attended by the appropriate Workers.
Offal’s week was parceled into six equal days of activity — two consecutive days at the home of each of the three different Wives, with a private consultation at the end of the second day. He was allotted an overnight accommodation at each home. On the seventh day, he rested at “home” in the commons barracks. He faced his first week with both eagerness and dread. Would his work be up to standard? He had understood from the cryptic directions that the consultation could include discussing the quality of work already done, planning for future projects, and might also be of a more personal nature, depending on the Wife.
He also knew that his assignment was considered to be a fairly good one. His three assigned Wives were Wife Butterfield, Wife Laidlaw and Wife Major. Scuttlebutt informed him that they were known among Workers as “The Watcher,” “The Teacher” and “Sarge.” They were considered to be a good assignment, because — while each one had her eccentricities — none of them was considered criminally sadistic or outright crazy. It was a typical assignment for a beginner, who could gain the experience he would need later, when he graduated to some of the more “difficult” Wives. Standard life expectancy for Domestic Workers was four multi-year assignments. In the barracks, Offal had met only one Domestic Worker who had survived six assignments. He had blinding white dentures, white hair and a whip-like body with corded muscles. When asked how he had lasted so much longer than others, he grinned and said: “A perverse desire to live and a diabolical sexual creativity.”
On his first Monday, after grabbing a piece of cheese and a hunk of bread from the long, low kitchen building, Offal reported to the small office at the entrance to the Butterfield estate. Female staff members and male laborers were already active on the grounds as he knocked and entered, to find a young woman in cargo shorts and a T-shirt. She was almost al tall as he was, and athletically fit.
“You’re Offal,” she said, and before he could nod, “I’m Lorna. I’m the overseer here — that means I’m the alpha and you do what I say. OK, cowboy?”
“‘Ma’am’ is the lady in the big house. Call me Sir.”
“Very good, cowboy. Now here is your list of tasks for today. I’ll be looking in on you once in a while. If you don’t understand something, send any passing staffer to get me. OK?”
“Good,” and she walked off briskly.
Lorna looked in on him intermittently in the next two days, made a few helpful suggestions, nodded in approval a few times, and otherwise left him to himself. He was just finishing a post hole for a new corral at the end of the second day, when he felt a mighty clap on his back and turned to see Lorna smiling at him.
“Finish the post and come to the office, cowboy,” she said.
Ten minutes later, he knocked on the office door, and walked in. Lorna was perched on her desk. She hopped off, walked past him and waved him to follow. They passed a “sentry box” which seemed to be a visible sign of wealth rather than the need to guard anything, since the “sentry” was languidly polishing her fingernails as they walked by on the way to the back of the Great House. The back door was opened by yet another functionary, and they turned into a long hall, stopping at the first door.
Lorna turned to Offal and said:” “Strip, cowboy,”
“S-st…?” he stuttered.
“Take it all off. When you meet the Lady, you will be as naked as the day you were born. All male beasties have to do it.”
So he stripped, and Lorna reached past him to push the door open. Peering in, he saw a long room, all in yellow, with a large bed — covered in yellow sheets — at the back wall and to the left. It was raised at the head to allow the very large occupant to sit up, as she reached to her left to daintily pick up one of many small yellow cupcakes from a small yellow table, and pop it into her mouth.
As Offal hesitated in the doorway, Lorna gave him a resounding smack on the bottom, which made him jump forward and utter an inarticulate sound. A soft giggle came from the bed.
“Oh, Lorna, you’re still teasing the boys!’
“Of course, Ma’am. It’s one of the perks of being the alpha. Meet our newest Domestic Worker, Offal.”
“What a horrendous name! Where do these boy-homes get them? Well, have him turn around so I can see him.”
Lorna’s hand guided Offal in a slow, 360 degree turn.
“Very nice. One of our better ones. Well, you know what to do, dear.”
Lorna was peeling off her shirt and slipping off her shorts. Offal — mesmerized by the sight of Lorna’s finely toned body — was brought back to reality by the snap of Lorna’s fingers in his face.
“Snap out of it, cowboy! You went to boys’ Summer Camp, right?”
“Then you know all about how to please a woman. The Lady would like to see how well you learned your lessons.” She gestured to herself. “So get busy, Bud.”
And Offal found that he had indeed been thoroughly trained. An hour and a quarter later, he was thoroughly exhausted. Lorna, on the contrary, was fresh as a daisy and happy as a clam. She sprang to her feet, picked up her clothes, bowed to the Lady, and motioned Offal to follow her out of the room. As he followed her to the Workers’ showers, Offal found that — despite his intense electric shock training — it was very difficult to keep his gaze averted from Lorna’s swinging hips.
She left him at the showers. He washed thoroughly and luxuriously, changed into the dry clothes left for him, and went to his bunk for the night. Tomorrow was another day, and another lady.
Just before dawn on Wednesday, he was wakened by a staffer who gave him an apple and pointed him toward the Laidlaw estate. After a brisk walk, he arrived at the sentry box, which was seriously staffed by two tall young women with billy clubs. His Worker ID gained him entrance and directions to the overseer’s office.
He did not need to knock at the office door, because a large, muscular women was standing outside with her arms crossed.
“I’m Margo, the overseer,” she said. “You’re the new Meat.”
Not sure of how to respond to this greeting, Offal assumed a posture of polite attention.
Margo dropped her arms to her sides, pulled two pieces of paper from her pants pocket and stepped forward, until she was almost nose-to-nose with him. The best strategy seemed to be to hold his ground, but not to challenge her.
After a pregnant silence, Margo handed him the papers one at a time. “This,” she said, “is a rough map of the estate, with all the locations you will need in the next two days. And this is your list of tasks for the two days, and should be more than enough to keep you busy. If, not, come see me immediately. Idle hands are a reactionary disease.”
“Yessir,” said Offal.
And no slacking. I or one of my lieutenants will be watching you.”
“And don’t be impertinent.”
She marched off, and Offal could almost see the soldiers marching in cadence behind her.
In the next two days, he was conscious of being observed from time to time by Margo or one of her lieutenants, but no one spoke to him. As he finished hoeing vegetables on Thursday, Margo appeared and directed him to follow her.
As with Lorna, Margo led him to the back door of the Great House. A few turns led them to an ornate wooden door. Margot turned to Offal and said “Undress, Meat.”
As he complied, the depths of his lizard brain nourished a glimmer of hope that he would not be paired with Margo. When his clothes lay in a heap on the floor, Margo knocked, the door was opened from the inside, and she gave his back a hefty push. The door closed behind him. He was in a high-ceilinged room with tall, narrow windows on one side. He was facing a thin, straight-backed woman in a severe gray dress, holding a small willow whip and looking him up and down with a moue of distaste. He realized he was also surrounded by a ring of girls, ranging from upper teens to quite a bit younger — all holding small whips and staring at him. The two youngest were wide-eyed, so apparently new to this activity.
“Now girls,” said the woman in voice that explained for Offal why she was called The Teacher, “what is this creature?” pointing to Offal with the tip or her whip.
“A male,” shouted most of them, followed momentarily by the two youngest ones, “A male.”
“And what do we know about males?”
“Males are toxic, Males are toxic.”
“And what is toxic?”
“Toxic is poison, Toxic is poison.”
“And what,” she asked, pointing the tip of her whip below Offal’s belly, ‘is that?”
“Its the Worm, It’s the Worm.”
“And what do we say about that, my dears?”
At that, the girls began to skip around him, flicking him lightly with their whips, and singing the tune of a long-ago popular song, repeating it so often that the youngest ones had it by heart at the end:
What is it good for?
Finally, cued by the older girls, they all stopped and stood still, hands at their sides. The Teacher stared at him and said. “You may go.”
So he did. As he exited the door, Margo shoved his clothes into his arms, clamped a vice-like hand on his shoulder, steered him to the Workers’ showers, shoved him in and said “Be gone by dawn, Meat!”
Uninjured but itchy and irritated from the whipping, he took a long shower (until the automatic shut-off was activated). then went outside to find his dry clothes. On top of them lay an apple. He went to his bunk. Tomorrow was another day.
An apple and a brisk, pre-dawn walk later, Offal arrived at the Major estate. He found the office, and a woman in shorts and a button-down, short-sleeved shirt, lounging on a wooden bench outside of it. She was a little older than Lorna, but just as fit. She stood as he arrived.
“Good morning, sir,” he said.
“Call me Ma’am, she said. “I’m Major.”
“So tell me, first of all, how you got that ridiculous name.”
“I think it was the way I arrived at the boys’ home, Ma’am.”
“How was that?”
“I wasn’t delivered by my parents, as usual. Some passer-by had found me on a rubbish pile, and brought me in.”
She grimaced. “So they named you from a stupid act by your parents?”
“Yes Ma’am. But that isn’t all bad.”
“Being named for a rubbish pile isn’t bad?!”
“Well, the ancient Celts often named their heroes from some chance remark or happening, and it usually turned out that the name meant something in their life.”
She massaged her forehead, as if to avert a headache. “O.K., Awful. We’ll talk about that another time. For now, follow me and I’ll show you the layout and what your chores will be. There is the cooking shack. Meals at 600, 1200 and 1800.”
After his tour and instructions, Offal set to work, and found it just as pleasant and easy as at the other two estates. One of his duties was to keep the new stable clean for the cows quartered there, and to make sure they had enough feed.
He saw the Lady observing or directing both Workers and staff, but no one else visibly in charge.
After supper on the second day, he walked to the stable and was staring at it, when the back door of the Great House opened and the Lady shouted: “Awful, get your butt in here!”
She led him from the back entrance to a large room, with small tables, overstuffed chairs and a small refrigerator in one corner. There were several internal doors, closed. She turned as he was pulling off his shirt.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Uh, stripping, Ma’am.”
“Forget that. I’ve already seen your health certificate.” Pointing at the refrigerator: “Grab a Dos Equis, and take a seat.”
So he sat in one of the comfortable chairs, popped his can and took a slow, satisfying sip of beer.
“Now, Awful, why were you standing there, staring at the cows?”
“Well, I guess I kind of identify with them.”
“Whoa! Yesterday, we got the ancient Celts and today we have i-den-ti-fy — a four-syllable word, with a psychological sub-text. Where do you get all this?”
“I, uh, I like to read.”
“You are only authorized — I suppose you know that $5.00 word — to read newspapers. Is that where this comes from?”
“No, Ma’am. I use libraries whenever I can.”
“But you are not cleared to use libraries!”
“Not the adult section — no, Ma’am. But we’re allowed the children’s section. You know, folklore, fables, myths and that. And there can be some really interesting children’s books there.”
“Well, like Gulliver’s Travels.”
“Omigod! Jonathan Swift! Somebody screwed up… All right, what do you find interesting in Gulliver’s Travels?”
“Well, my favorites are the Lilliputians. They are so tiny and they act like everything they do is important to the whole world. It just reminds me a lot of us — people.”
“Ooohkay…So how is it that you identify with my cows? I’ve had them less than a year, and I don’t ‘identify’ with them yet.”
“I guess because they’re like me. They live at someone else’s pleasure. And they’re okay, as long as they can do what they’re expected to do. And I notice I have one thing they don’t have.”
“What’s that — a higher consciousness?”
“No. I’m not even sure that’s a good thing. It can keep you from being happy even when things are pretty good. No, I was thinking that I can get out in the air when I work, and sometimes I can pick a little fruit when it’s just right. They stand in the barn and don’t do much but eat.”
“Well, I still don’t know much about keeping cows, but what else would they do?”
“Well, you have that great big meadow. If there was a fence, they could go out there and wander around and eat that sweet grass, socialize, lie down if they wanted to. The savings on feed would pay for the materials to build the fence. and you’d have happier cows.”
“I’ll think about that. Did you make any suggestions at my two neighbors’?”
“Maybe now you will.”
“I just don’t think they’re interested in what I think.”
“Hmmm. All right, Awful. I’ll see you on Friday. Take care.”
And that was the end of Offal’s first week.
During his rest-day, he made a point of seeking out the older Worker with the fund of sexual knowledge. The old man was happy to be recognized as a source of worthwhile knowledge, and began Offal’s instruction in the secrets of how to approach both the body and mind of a female. He proceeded slowly, over a number of rest-days, making sure that Offal understood and retained everything he was trying to teach him. And he reminded his disciple constantly that this was a lifetime of knowledge and should not be squandered all at once. One innovation at a time — no matter how small — will create excitement and pleasure as well as anticipation for the next time. Offal felt fortunate to have found such a resourceful mentor.
While he had expert advice for his sessions at the Butterfield estate, he had to do his own thinking about the other two. Wife Laidlaw’s feelings were obvious, and evidently shared by her second-in-command, Margo. He could see no way to counter that. Rebellion would be counter-productive, so he settled on a completely different approach. As for Wife Major, she treated him like a fellow human being, so he decided to take a wait-and-see approach.
In the following weeks, with Lorna and Wife Butterfield, he followed his mentor’s advice and deployed innovations sparingly. The result was barely noticeable at first, but burgeoned with each meeting. Gradually, Lorna’s reactions became more visceral, her breathing faster and harsher. After several weeks, Wife Butterfield’s cupcake consumption had increased exponentially. On their walk to the showers, Offal noticed that Lorna was walking next to him, instead of in front of him, and occasionally sneaking a glance at him. He experienced an unfamiliar feeling of power.
Wife Laidlaw’s contempt for his gender seemed unassailable, so he did not try to fight it, but played to it. When Margo delivered him unceremoniously to the high, narrow room, he bowed to the Lady and nodded seriously to the older girls. As they began that week’s version of humiliating the inferior male, he stood patiently with downcast eyes. When the Lady said, “You may go,” he bowed and said, “Thank you, Ma’am.” He used the walks to and from the room to comment admiringly on Margo’s obvious strength, and ask for any pointers she might have for improving his physique. With the passage of weeks, Margo’s manner softened, and the hand on his shoulder was more friendly than painful. At his latest session with Wife Laidlaw, he had been especially humble and earnest, and when the time came to dismiss him, she unexpectedly stepped toward him and laid her hand affectionately on his head. Glancing up in gratitude, he saw with a chill of horror that there was something more than grandmotherly affection in her eyes.
His talk with Wife Major on his second week brought her decision to let him order the materials and begin building a fence. He chose wood posts and woven wire high enough to discourage bovine thoughts of escape. While building one corner where the fence reached a bit into the woods, he crafted it so that the wire could be unhooked easily with a casual upward bump, and re-hooked from outside.
After the building, which took a few weeks, he let the cows out, and smiled as they ambled out into the deep grass and munched and explored. Wife Major watched with him. In consultation, they continued to discuss his thoughts and accumulated learning. As it happened, he had recently found something new on his way back to the barracks.
“It is just an old paperback that somebody lost out of their pocket or sack.”
“Is it a mystery?” asked Wife Major.
“Oh no. It’s a-a kind of fable.”
“Like the Fox and the Grapes?”
“Yes, but longer than that. It’s about animals too, but it seems like there may be an interesting ending.
“So what is the title?”
“It’s called Animal Farm.”
Wife Major was quiet. Then she smiled, and said that she looked forward to seeing him next Friday.
On what was to be his last week on this assignment — because he intended this to be the Saturday when he would double back to the meadow that the cows had left for the night. He would quietly slip the section of fence near the woods off its post, step through, re-hook it and set out in a direction that he hoped would bring him across the border to the “other” country. His conscience informed him that he should not lie to Wife Major, who had been so decent to him, but his natural fear told him he would be a fool not to.
Wife Major was very pleased with his work — especially the fence, which had taken determination and initiative. And then she said, rather oddly:
“Of course, those are qualities that are not universally desired in dictatorships.”
“Yes, Ma’am, but they are good for getting things done.”
She smiled. “I also understand that you have found a way to make yourself highly valued by Wife Butterfield and Wife Laidlaw, as you are by me. I’m not sure anyone has ever hit that trifecta before.
“Thank you Ma’am”
“Well deserved. If you were to stay on a while, I have no doubt you would find promotion to better duties. But, of course, you have also been busy at other things.”
“Your wonderfully sturdy fence, which has a clever escape hatch at one corner.”
As he opened his mouth to say — he didn’t know what, she forestalled him.
“And knowing you as I do, I suspect you have been waging an inner battle about whether to tell me,” smiling warmly now, “hoping against hope that we have such a strong connection that I would even consider going with you.”
Offal felt the warmth rush up from his breast to his face, and stammered, “Oh, yes, yes!”
Wife Major touched a button on the arm of her chair, a door from the house’s interior sprang open and two tall, strong women holding tasers strode into the room.
Wife Major’s smile was cold, now. “If you move an inch, these women will restrain you forcibly.”
Offal’s face muscles froze and his heart felt like ice.
“You are not bad for a male,” she continued, “but like all your kind, you are gullible and over-confident. Those very qualities of enterprising initiative and steady determination are things we are trying to inculcate into our girls. But we don’ t need them in the lower gender, which is largely still necessary for heavy labor and a greater source of sperm than our labs can produce…
“Your efforts have had an unfortunate impact on several lives.”
Another door sprang open, and he could see a large X made of 2 x 4s. Fastened to them by nails through his hands and feet, and a spike through his torso, was the emasculated body of his old mentor, His toothless mouth pathetically agape. Offal curled into himself.
Wife Major continued: “He was your first victim. Lorna will be deployed for re-training to Strategic Taser/Arms Strike Intervention — STASI for short.
“Wife Butterfield will have a long visit from the Diet Intervention Program. Margo will repeat six weeks of basic training to remind her who she is. Wife Laidlaw has been sentenced to one year of mandatory daily attendance at Feminist Chapel.
“If you had read the other famous work by the author of Animal Farm, you would not be surprised by what is about to happen. For planning to escape, but even more, for showing a tendency to think too much, you are sentenced for life to the turf farms, where you will spend very long days cutting, rolling and loading, under close scrutiny. You will be happy to see your bed and sorry to leave it. Your life will be lived in mindless labor. Vaya con Diosa, Meat!”
And Offal, barely able to walk, was led away by the two STASI agents.
That night, before the fence was adjusted, the cows escaped.