Published in Dissident Signals in 2018. Another example of a story improving with good editing.
A recurring theme in my work is how the underlying animal nature of a species would affect society once that species achieves intelligence. It's something that has occupied me for many years, so much that I devoted an entire series to it.
Knowing how lions behave in the wild, what kind of society would they have formed had they achieved intelligence? Would they be aware of their own origins, able to recognize the same pattern of behavior repeating? Does it mean this is the way society should be? Does intelligence mean overcoming such behavior, and if so, what else should a species strive for? We join a society that is just beginning to ask such questions.
In so many ways, Gloves is a concise presentation of everything that has occupied my idle thoughts for twenty years.
By James L. Steele
I stepped inside my husband’s house for the last time and closed the door. I set the blue lunch bag on the carpet, making sure it was still zipped, and unclasped my wrap. As I unwound the single piece of thin cloth from my body, my eyes wandered down to the lunch bag. It was identical to mine, but it was not mine. I hadn’t even looked in it since I met Ant today, but it had been on my mind as I worked on the factory line and during the bus ride home.
One of Ant’s questions came back to me now: “Eighteen. Why are you required to cover yourself in public, but he is not?”
I had always believed what I was taught in school: that my fur was too thin for this climate, so we wrapped ourselves in cloth to be more comfortable. I had never once thought about why my husband never wore one until I attended the meetings.
I hung the cloth on the hook by the door, picked up the lunch bag and strolled through the hallway, keeping an even composure and hopefully an even scent.
From the living room I heard gentle moaning. Mouse had come home earlier, and our husband was on top of her. Mouse glared at me as I walked past the couch and into the kitchen. I met Mouse’s eyes, flashing hate at her, making sure she knew she was not the only lioness in this house and I could challenge her whenever I wanted.
There had been a time when it would have occupied my thoughts all night, when jealousy would run through me and I would do everything I could to be the better wife so Rocke would be with me instead. It had consumed me for so long I felt embarrassed by how much time it had taken out of my life.
As I listened to them from the kitchen, several more of Ant’s questions came to mind.
“Four. Why does your husband have his own room, but you live and sleep in the living room with the other wives?”
“Twenty-two. Why do you spend your free time fighting with the other wives for your husband’s attention?”
I opened the refrigerator and slid the lunch bag onto the lowest shelf. Rocke might open it, looking for food, but that was a chance I was willing to take. If he discovered what I had brought home, I figured I could simply flee. I only had the gloves, but I did not have to use them. All day at work I did not imagine myself using them.
I walked back to the living room and sat on the couch opposite Mouse and Rocke. Mouse glared at me, growling and moaning extra loud, making sure I noticed she was under him, not me. I growled back, trying to sound full of fury and pushing it through my scent. I was acting the part now, but just a few months ago, I did not need to act. Back when the emotions were real and I desperately wanted to be where Mouse was now, all the time, and no other wife would take my place. I did not miss those years.
Minutes later, Meek walked through the door. I heard her unwrapping, and then Rocke’s third wife pranced into the living room. Mouse growled at her, moaning extra loud to show Meek her place. Meek growled back, sat beside them, slipped a piece of paper between two of the cushions and immediately began doting on Rocke. Our husband nuzzled Meek as he thrusted into Mouse.
I watched them. I had been watching them for months, keeping the questions in mind. The nuzzle had nothing to do with affection. It was a subliminal reminder that he would get her next if she were good. The sight disgusted me even more today than usual.
Rocke finished with Mouse. The large lion climbed off her and sat on the couch facing the television. Mouse continued licking Rocke’s muzzle, feeling his chest. Meek sat on the other side of him and began straightening his mane for him.
“It’s your payday,” Rocke said to Meek.
“It is!” she said, reaching behind her, pulling the piece of paper from between the cushions and presenting it to Rocke. “All the overtime paid off! I made one-eighty this week!”
“One-eighty. Nice.” Rocke tuned to Mouse. “You hear that, Mouse? Meek brought in one-eighty. What was yours last week, one-twenty?”
“I begged for overtime,” Mouse said, still cuddling up to him, feeling his fat body up and down. “But they told me they didn’t need anyone else.”
“Sounds like you just have to try a little harder next time,” Rocke said, nuzzling her. He then fixed his eyes on me.
I saw what was happening. Rocke kept his wives in constant competition. He told everyone who made what in a week, and for most of my life I had been driven by intense desire to have the biggest paycheck.
Mine had been inadequate compared to the other wives’ for a long time. Instead of begging for more hours, I went to the meetings. At first I had been terrified of losing favor with my husband, and it had given the other wives an advantage over me, but as time went by, I discovered falling out of favor with Rocke was not such a horrible thing. It had allowed me to step back and observe what was happening and ask questions.
Rocke never said anything to me about my checks. He never had to. He let the other wives’ reactions move me. Knowing they would rise in rank as I slipped down—knowing he would favor them over me—it was more than enough to keep me in line back then.
“It’s your payday, too, Flora,” he said.
Meek paused feeling our husband up and glared at me. “Yeah, Flora, what did you bring home?”
Mouse also faced me. “Did you even work at all?”
I played my part and growled at both of them. “I work every day of my life to keep this house going. Not my fault they won’t let me work more.”
“So where is it?” Meek said.
“Let’s see it!” said the other lioness.
“I think I left it in my wrap.”
I had done it on purpose to give me a reason to leave the room for a few seconds so I wouldn’t have to watch the other wives destroy themselves over this lion.
I stood and walked back to the door, reached into the cloth that covered me during my workday and pretended to hunt for the paper. I took much longer to find my paycheck than I needed to. I expected Rocke to mount Meek while I was gone, and the jealousy still rose within me, but now I knew where it came from.
When I was ready to be in the same room with the lion and his wives, I pulled out my check. I hadn’t even read it. I knew it would be low, and I knew what Rocke’s reaction would be.
I returned to the living room, sat down and handed Rocke the paper. The male took it, letting his claws peek from his fingers just to remind me of what I lacked. He read it over.
“You only put in forty-eight hours this week.”
“And you only brought home ninety-two!” Mouse said.
Upon sight of my paycheck, the other two wives felt and cuddled up to Rocke even harder.
“How do you explain this, Flora?” Rocke said.
“Work is cutting back. They’re making us work off the clock for part of our shifts until things improve.”
“Sounds like you need to find a new job,” Rocke said.
“It’s difficult to look when I have to work.”
Rocke smiled at me, showing me the sharp teeth. It was not a smile of affection. It was a smile of being aroused by the two wives on either side of him. Wives who brought home more. Wives who had done so much more to earn his favor.
I remembered entire years when the mere sight of this would have made me scared to lose my place in the family. I would have doted upon Rocke even harder, begging him to be patient and promising to do better next time. I would have gone to work early, begged for more hours, begged for a promotion, begged to be moved to a different line where they had more hours, or even to do something hazardous so I could compete with Meek, Mouse, and Kept.
Earlier this year I pleaded with my boss. His name was Stalk. He ran the line, walking around naked among an entire factory of clothed lionesses. His signature was on my late-commuter’s passcard, alongside my husband’s. I begged him for favor the same way I begged my husband. That’s when I first met Ant.
As soon as Stalk was out of earshot, Ant leaned over and whispered. “Question number one. Why do you do all the work, but your husband stays home?” And then she walked away. Left me to ponder that for almost a week.
When I met Ant again, she gave me question number two. “Why are males always the bosses, and the females always on the assembly line?”
Another week went by. I began to notice it was true. The males were always in authority, and the females were the workers. No exceptions. I found Ant during lunch break, and this time she told me to meet her after my shift.
We met in an alley a few blocks from the factory. Several other lionesses had come, and Ant began to ask more questions. Some of the females had been there before and were called upon to recite specific numbers. The meetings consisted of repeating these to one another. Never answers. Never discussion. Just us standing in an alley, reciting questions. Back then I didn’t understand why the meetings were run this way.
Rocke watched television. Meek and Mouse sat on opposite sides of him, stroking and licking and doting on him. I didn’t feel the need to try to work my way to the preferred position anymore. It had once occupied my entire existence outside of work.
An hour after I came home, Kept walked in the door, removed her wrap, and knelt in front of our husband. Her last paycheck was only slightly higher than mine, and I shuddered watching her try to keep her rank in the family.
Three females feeling up one male at once, each begging to be the preferred lioness, to be the first to have his cubs. All four of us had been doing this for years.
We had been talking about raising children for quite some time, but Rocke was not ready for it yet. I remembered entire years going by yearning to have his children, hoping he would pick me over them. Now I asked for my pill every week.
As I watched them, I shuddered thinking about number sixteen: “Why do they compel us to take a pill that keeps us in heat year-round, but prevents eggs from being released?”
Kept continued trying to raise her rank in the family. I watched. Because my paycheck was the smallest, I was expected to be the distant one, not worthy of her husband’s attention. I accepted my place. I had no right even to ask for attention until my paycheck was third highest.
Kept rose from Rocke’s crotch and tried to lick his muzzle. Meek and Mouse both growled at her. Kept growled back. They both lunged for her, knocking her down and rolling around on the carpet. They mouthed necks, swiped barren paws at muzzles and eyes. Rocke sat on the couch and watched, flexing his hands, making his claws slide out and in.
I idly flexed my hands. No claws came out. That was number twenty-eight: “Why are females required to be declawed upon birth, but not males? Why must females have their teeth filed blunt, but not the males?”
I had been taught that lionesses were a danger to each other, and it was for their safety. Fights like this were common, and we couldn’t have lionesses hurting each other. I had been part of many scuffles over the years, and now I wondered how I never saw the underlying reason behind all of it before.
In moments, the fight was over, and Kept knew her place in the family. Mouse and Meek took their positions on the couch at either side of their husband, and Kept took hers on the floor, at the lowest position, nuzzling Rocke’s feet.
The late-night meetings in the alley had filled me with all kinds of questions. So many things to think about. Nothing but questions. So many questions for months that helped me see my life in entirely new ways.
Then Ant began taking me aside at random moments of the day and asking these same questions, but this time her scent told me that she did not expect me to repeat the questions. She wanted to know if I had answers.
The first time was during lunch break about a month ago. She had sat next to me and repeated number twenty-four. “Why do they give us diminutive names?”
I did not even have to think before I spoke. “Because it’s how they think of us.”
And we talked like nothing was different. I had plenty of questions I wanted to ask Ant, but the timing never seemed to be right.
The next day Ant asked me number eleven. “Why is it law that a lioness can’t go outside city limits without her husband?”
“Because males make the laws to keep us in our place.”
The next day Ant asked question number nine. “Why are you in competition with his other wives?”
“To keep me so busy I won’t have time to think.”
“Why is it illegal for a female to be without a job?”
“Working keeps us busy and thoughtless.”
“Why is a female forbidden from interacting with a male other than her husband or boss?”
“It’s a way for males to keep us from leaving the pride.”
“Why do females go to different schools than the males?”
“They teach lionesses how to work. They teach the males how to own us.”
The meetings had continued as usual, introducing the questions to many new lionesses. Some I never saw in the meetings more than once, but many others stayed and memorized the questions. I never gave any of them the answers I had come up with. The meetings were designed to produce the one thing the males did not want, and each lioness had to become that on her own.
A commercial came on. My husband rose from the couch, bent Meek over and mounted her over the armrest. Mouse and Kept sat on the floor and watched, growling at one another. Meek glared at both of them, moaning extra loud so the others could hear, subliminally reinforcing the feeling that they could be under him right now if only they had worked harder and brought home more money. Mouse and Kept would be driven to put in more hours, do more dangerous work, anything to earn Rocke’s favor. I watched for a few minutes, pretending to be jealous, but feeling only disgust.
The longer I watched the angrier I felt. Prior to the meetings, I had only aimed it at the other wives in the family. Anger for surpassing me, anger for bringing home money, anger for being under Rocke instead of me. Now for the first time I realized this was exactly what I was supposed to do with the emotion. Exactly how males wanted me to feel.
But this anger was new. It was not directed at Meek, Mouse or Kept. Somehow Ant had known it would be time, and she had given me what I needed to act on it.
I stood and walked to the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator and unzipped the lunch bag. A pair of gloves lay inside. I slipped them over my hands, one at a time, then fastened the buckles around my forearms. They became part of my body. A part that had been taken from me at birth, more than merely my body, but my ability to do anything myself.
On the tips of the gloves were metal claws. Seeing claws on my hands felt right. The anger within felt right, and it flowed into my hands. There was never a happier marriage between mind and body than what I felt that night, that moment.
At lunch today, Ant had asked me the final question. Number thirty. “Are things different?”
I whispered my answer to the cold interior of the refrigerator, emptied daily by my idle husband who took all the food my years at the factory had bought.
“Males tell us we’re living in modern times. Our factories make computer systems and automobiles. Medicine has saved countless lives. Technology eliminated the need to live in prides, where females did all the hunting and males merely guarded their territory from intruders. Now we herd the animals we used to hunt and we have leisure time to pursue our interests. But we still live in prides. The lionesses still do all the hunting, and the males do nothing but sit at home and collect wives. They keep us in this role because they benefit from it. We have not advanced beyond our primitive nature, and things are worse than ever because now they know what they are doing. Before, it was instinct. Now it is deliberate.”
Ant stood up. “A job is waiting for you on the other side. Fifth and Broad tonight if you’re ready.”
Ant switched lunch bags with me as she walked away. I knew what was in the bag without even opening it. These gloves were only a rumor, but I had a feeling they would be waiting for me when I could answer all the questions.
Many lionesses never reached this level, the moment their anger was finally aimed at the right person, and they were ready to have their power back. When I first started learning the questions, I never imagined I would.
As the sound of Meek moaning and the other two lionesses begging for our husband’s attention found me through the walls, trying to make me feel guilty for not working harder and earning my place under my husband, I looked at my new claws and relished my anger and the means to act on it.
I wasn’t just a female. I was a lion. Instead of a desire to please my husband, hunt for him more, bring home money, I now created questions and answers of my own. It was my money. I earned it. Why couldn’t I spend it? Why were males only allowed to deposit checks and make withdrawals? Because everything was set up to give me no way out of this. I wanted to make my own way out, and now I had the means.
I took the lunch bag from the refrigerator, turned and dropped it in the hall by the front door. Then I walked into the living room. Rocke was still on top of Meek. The other two wives looked on, growling, threatening one another, wordlessly reminding Meek that her position was not permanent. Our entire lives were wasted this way, and these females did not see it. I couldn’t take it anymore. I opened my mouth and roared.
Everyone paused and turned their heads. Before they could recognize the gloves, I leaped over the couch and landed on both Meek and Rocke. My first instinct was to wrap my teeth around Rocke’s neck, but I remembered my teeth were rounded and would not pierce his thick flesh. Instead, I shoved the claws into both sides of his neck.
My husband roared, thrashed, rolled over, taking all three of us down to the carpet with him. I held on and pushed the claws deeper, and then away, ripping them out of his neck. I had hit both the vein and the artery.
In just a couple swipes, it was done. I separated myself from Rocke and stood back, watching him panic. Watching him bleed. He was gazing up at me.
“Flora! What…? Wh…”
Meek, Kept, and Mouse cowered on the carpet, screaming and crying, keeping their distance from us.
“Flora…” The life was fading from his eyes already. “You were my… favorite. Why?”
I knelt down, held my bloody claws up to his eyes and screamed in his face. “We don’t need you!”
Then I turned to the other three. “We don’t need him! We don’t need any of them! We do the work! We hunt! We bring home the meat! We bear the young! It should be us in control of everything! Why do we let them control us?”
The other wives glared at me, shaking, crying.
“Remember the questions I asked you? Didn’t any of you think about them? If you stay, they’ll put you with another husband, and you’ll have to compete even harder for his attention! It won’t end! This will change nothing unless you come with me!”
But there was no comprehension in their eyes. Only grief that the center of their lives was dying, and all their work had been for nothing. There was no convincing them. They had never asked a question in their lives other than how to make their husband happy. Beyond this worry that consumed every waking thought, they did not know how to ask questions, let alone answer them. They were the victims of this order I had to fight for.
“If you change your minds, find me.”
I looked down at Rocke one last time. He was still breathing, but the carpet under his head was soaked and more blood still rushed out of his neck. I turned and walked to the door. I quickly unbuckled the gloves and shoved them in the bag, then I walked out and down the street.
It was illegal for a female to be out this late without her husband, or a work permit signed by her husband and her boss, so I was asking to be arrested. The officers would be female, but they, too, were unconscious of this system they were trapped in, and they would not listen to me. I walked down the dim alleys between the apartment complexes and row houses and abandoned factories, clutching the lunch bag close to my chest.
I stopped at the corner of Fifth street and Broad. I couldn’t stop thinking about what he had said. I was his favorite. The whole time he had been rooting for me. The thought made me shiver.
Moments later, I caught a familiar scent approaching behind me. I turned around and met Ant’s eyes. She was unclothed, and the sight of an unclothed female who was not my husband’s wife made me nervous. I averted my eyes from her.
Ant embraced me. That’s when I noticed she was wearing a pair of gloves of her own.
“Welcome to the revolution,” she said.
I cried. “Why did I do that? How am I going to eat? How am I going to live!”
“That’s what happens when you’re allowed to be what you are. I will lead you out of the city. There are places you can go.”
“Then what? I’ve been living to please him so long… What am I supposed to do now!”
She held me tighter. My husband had held me like that, always making sure to extend his claws, scratching me, reminding me who was in control without need to say a word. The gesture felt different now. Ant did not touch me with her claws. She had known the same gesture and treated me like a lioness, not merely a female.
“Anything you want. You can become a recruiter, an assassin, a saboteur, or anything else. Eventually we hope to start a nation of our own, where everyone works, and her work benefits herself. Not them.”
I cried again. “I loved him. I loved him so much. He said I was his favorite! He said it with his dying breath!”
“He didn’t love you. Even if he didn’t know it, he was only using you. It’s their nature. Before we go, you have to choose a new name.”
“A new name?”
“My name outside the city is Runner. It was my husband’s before I killed him. I gave it dignity. You are not Flora. You will not be trampled and subdued anymore. What is your name now?”
I thought about that for a long moment. I disliked standing here in this cold alley, naked and shameful in front of this other female. But these were old impulses. They would pass soon enough.
“My name is Rocke,” I said. “I will give it dignity.”
Runner released me and met my eyes. I did not turn my gaze from her now.
“Follow me.” Runner dashed down the alley. I chased her tail.
Going somewhere other than the factory without my husband was a new feeling for me. Even while running, I was not cold. I did not need the wrap. I would never wear one again.