A smell of sulfur was in the air on a morning when the men had gone, and the wives, in their beds, smiled in their sleep, breathed more easily, and burrowed deeper into their dreams.
Jack’s wife woke, her eyes open and her little nose flaring, smelling something beneath the sulfur smell. One of those smells she was used to not noticing when the men were around. But it was all right, now. Wives could do as they pleased, so long as they cleaned up and were back in their proper places when the men returned.
Jack’s wife–who was called Susie–got out of bed too quickly and grimaced as the skintight punished her muscles. She caught sight of herself in the mirror over the dressing table. Her sharp teeth were bared, and she looked like a wild animal, bound and struggling. She grinned at that, because she could easily free herself.
She cut the skintight apart with scissors, cutting and ripping carelessly. It matter that it was ruined–skintights were plentiful. She had a whole boxful, herself, in the hall closet behind the Christmas decorations. And she didn’t have the patience to try soaking it off slowly in a hot bath, as the older wives recommended. So her muscles would be sore and her skintight a tattered rag–she would be free sooner.
She looked down at her dead-white body, feeling distaste. She felt despair at the sight of small arms, hanging limp, thin and useless in the hollow below her ribs. She tried to flex them but could not make them move. She began to massage them with her primary fingers, and after several minutes the pain began, and she knew they weren’t dead yet.
She bathed and rubbed down her newly uncovered body with oil. She felt terribly free, naked and rather dangerous, with the skintight removed. She sniffed the air again and that familiar scent, musky and alluring aroused her.
She ran through the house–noticing in passing, that Jack’s spider was eating the living room sofa. It was the time for building nests and cocoons, she thought happily, time for laying eggs and planting seeds; the spider was driven by the same force that drove her.
Outside, the dusty ground was hard and cold beneath her feet. She felt the dust all over her body, raised by the wind and clinging to her momentary warmth. She was coated in the soft yellow dust by the time she reached the house next door–the house where the magical scent came from, the house which left a wife in heat, longing for someone to mate with.
Susie tossed her head, shaking the dust out in a little cloud around her. She stared up at the milky sky and around at all the houses, alien artifacts constructed by men. She saw movement in the window of the house across the street and waved–the figure watching her waved back.
Poor old Maggie, thought Susie. Old, bulging and ugly, unloved, and nobody’s wife. She was only housekeeper to two men who were, rather unfortunately Susie thought, in love with each other.
But she didn’t want to waste time by thinking of wives and men, or by feeling pity, now. Boldly, like a man, Susie pounded at the door.
It opened. “Ooooh, Susie!”
Susie grinned and looked the startled wife up and down. You’d never know from looking at her that the men were gone and she could relax–this wife, called Doris, was as dolled-up as some eager-to-please newlywed and looked, Susie thought, more like a real woman than any woman had ever looked.
Over her skintight (which was bound more tightly than Susie’s had been) Doris wore a low cut dress, her three breasts carefully bound and positioned to achieve the proper double-breasted effect. Gaily patterned and textured stockings covered her silicon-injected legs, and she tottered on three-inch heels. Her face was carefully painted, and she wore gold bands on neck, wrists, and fingers.
But Susie ignored what she looked like because her nose told her much more. The smell was so powerful now she could feel her pouch swelling in lonely response.
Doris must have noticed, for her eyes rolled, seeking some safe view.
“What’s the matter?” Susie asked, her voice bolder and louder than it ever was when the men were around. “Didn’t your man go off to war with the others? He stay home sick in bed?”
Doris giggled. “Ooooh, I wish he would sometime! No, he was out of here before it was light.”
Off to see his mistress before leaving, Susie thought. She knew that Doris was nervous about being displaced by one of the other wives that her man was always fooling around with–there were always more wives than men and her man had a roving eye.
“Calm down, Doris. Your man can’t see you now, you know.” she stroked one of Doris’s hands. “Why don’t you take off that silly dress, and your skintight? I know how constricted you must be feeling. Why not relax with me?”
She saw Doris’s face darken with emotion under the heavy make-up, and she grasped her hand more tightly when Doris pulled away.
“Please don’t,” Doris said.
“Come on,” Susie murmured, caressing Doris’s face and feeling the slick paint slide beneath her fingers.
“No, don’t . . . please . . . I’ve tried to control myself, truly I have. But the exercises don’t work, and the perfume doesn’t cover the smell well enough–he won’t even sleep with me when I’m like this. He thinks it’s disgusting, and it is. I’m so afraid he’ll leave.”
But he’s gone now, Doris. You can let yourself go. You don’t have to worry about him when he’s not around. It’s safe, it’s all right, you can do as you please now–we can do anything we like and no one will know.” She could feel Doris trembling.
“Doris,” she whispered and rubbed her face demandingly against hers.
At that, the other gave in, and collapsed in her arms. Susie helped Doris out of her clothes, tearing at them with hands and teeth, throwing shoes and jewelry high into the air and festooning the yard and picket fence with rags of dress, stockings, and undergarments.
But when Doris, too, was naked, Susie suddenly felt shy and a little frightened. It would be wrong to mate here in the settlement built by men, wrong and dangerous. They must go somewhere else, somewhere they could be something other than wives for a little while, and follow their own natures without reproach.
They went to a place of stone on the far northern edge of the human settlement. It was a very old place, although whether it had been built by the wives in the distant time before they were wives or whether it was natural, neither Susie nor Doris could say. They both felt that it was a holy place, and it seemed right to mate there, in the shadow of one of the huge, black, standing stones.
It was a feast, an orgy of life after a season of death. They found pleasure in exploring the bodies which seemed so similar to men’s, but which they knew to be ,miraculously different, each from the other, in scent, texture, and taste. They forgot that they had ever been creatures known as wives. They lost their names and forget the language of men as they lay entwined.
There were no skintights imprisoning their bodies now, barring them from sensation, freedom, and pleasure, and they were partners, not strangers, as they explored and exulted in their flesh. This was no mockery of the sexual act–brutish and painful as it was with men–but the true act in all its meaning.
They were still joined at sundown, and it wasn’t until long after the three moons began their nightly waltz through the clouds that the two lovers fell asleep at last.
“In three months,” Susie said dreamily, “we can . . .”
“In three months we won’t do anything.”
“Why not? If the men are away . . . “
“I’m hungry,” Doris said. She wrapped her primary arms around herself. “And I’m cold, and I ache all over. Let’s go back.”
“Stay here with me, Doris. Let’s plan.”
“There’s nothing to plan.”
“But in three months we must get together and fertilize it.”
“Are you crazy? Who would carry it then? One of us would have to go without a skintight, and do you think either of our husbands would let us slop around for months without one? And when it’s born how could we hide it? Men don’t have babies, and they don’t want anyone else to. Men kill babies, just as they kill all their enemies.”
Susie knew what Doris was saying was true, but she was reluctant to give up her dream. “Still, we might be able to hide it,” she said. It’s not so hard to keep things hidden from a man . . .”
“Don’t be so stupid,” Doris said scornfully. Susie noticed that she still had smears of make-up on her face. Some of it had transferred itself to Susie in the night. The blotches looked like bruises or bloody wounds. “Come back with me now,” Doris said, her voice gentle again. “Forget this about the baby. The old ways are gone–we’re wives now, and we don’t have a place in our lives for babies.”
“But someday the war may end,” Susie said. “And then the men will go back to Earth and leave us here.”
“If that happens,” Doris said, “then we would make new lives for ourselves. Perhaps we would have babies again.”
“If it’s not too late then,” Susie said. “If it ever happens.” she stared past Doris at the horizon.
“Come back with me.”
Susie shook her head. “I have to think. You go. I’ll be all right.”
She realized when Doris was gone that she, too, was tired, hungry, and sore, but she was not sorry that she had remained in the place of stone. She needed to stay awhile longer in one of the old places, away from the distractions of the settlement. She felt she was on the verge of remembering something very important.
A huge dust-colored lizard crawled out of a hole in the side of a fallen rock, and Susie rolled over and clapped her hands on it. But it wriggled out of her clutches like air or water or the wind-blown dust and disappeared somewhere. Susie felt a sharp pang of disappointment along with her hunger–she had a sudden memory of how that lizard would have tasted, how the skin of its throat would have felt, tearing between her teeth. She licked her dry lips and sat up. In the old days I caught many such lizards, she thought. But the old days were gone, and with them the old knowledge and the old abilities.
I’m not what I used to be, she thought, I’m something else, now–a wife, created by man in the image of something I have never seen, something called woman.
She thought about going back to her house in the settlement and of wrapping herself in a new skintight and then selecting the proper dress and shoes to make a good impression on the returning Jack; she thought about painting her face and putting rings on her fingers. She thought about burning and boiling good food to turn it into the unappetizing messes Jack favored and about killing the wide-eyed “coffee-fish” to get the oil to make the mildly addictive drink the men called “coffee.” she thought about watching Jack, and listening to him, always alert for what he might want, what he might ask, what he might do. Trying to anticipate him, to earn his praise, and avoid his blows and harsh words. She thought about letting him “screw” her and about the ugly jewelry and noisome perfumes he bought her.
Susie began to cry, and the dust drank her tears as they fell. She didn’t understand how this had all began, how and why she had to become a wife, but she could bear it no longer.
She wanted to be what she was born to be–but she could not remember what that was. She only knew that she could be Susie no longer. She would be no man’s wife.
“I remembered my name this morning,” Susie said with quiet triumph. She looked around the room. Doris was staring down at her hands, twisting in her lap. Maggie looked half-asleep, and the other two wives–Susie didn’t remember their names; she had simply gathered them up when she found them on the street–looked both bored and nervous.
“Don’t you see,” Susie persisted. “If I could remember that, I’m sure I can remember other things in time. All of us can.”
Maggie opened her eyes all the way. “And what would that do,” she asked, “except make us discontented and restless, as you are?”
“What good . . . why, if we all began to remember, we could live our lives again–our own lives. We wouldn’t have to be wives; we could be . . . ourselves.”
“Could we?” said Maggie sourly. “And you think the men would watch us go? Do you think they’d let us walk out of their houses and out of their lives without stopping us? Don’t you–you who talk about remembering–don’t you remember the slaughter? Don’t you remember who became wives, and why? We, the survivors, became wives because the men wouldn’t kill their wives, not if we kept them happy and believing we weren’t the enemy. If we try to leave or change, they’d kill us like they’ve killed almost everything else in the world.”
The others were silent, but Susie suspected they were letting Maggie speak for them.
“But we’ll die,” she said. “We’ll die like this, as wives. We’ve lost our identities, but we can have them back. We can have our world back, and our lives, if we only take them. We’re dying as a race and as a world, now. Being a wife is a living death, just a postponement of the end, that’s all.”
“Yes,” said Maggie, irony hanging from the word. “So?”
“So why do we have to let them do this to us? We can hide–we can run far away from the settlement and hide. Or, if we have to, we can fight back.”
“That’s not our way.”
“Then what is our way?” Susie demanded. “Is it our way to let ourselves be destroyed? They’ve already killed our culture and our past–we have no way anymore–we can’t claim we do. All we are now is imitations, creatures molded by the men. And when the men leave–if the men leave–it will be the end for us. We’ll have nothing left, and it will be too late to try to remember who we were.”
”It’s already too late,” Maggie responded. Susie was suddenly impressed by the way she spoke and held herself, and wondered if Maggie, this elderly and unloved wife she once pitied, had once been a leader of her people.
“Can you remember why we did not hide or fight before?” Maggie asked. “Can you remember why we decided that the best thing for us was to change our ways, to do what you are now asking us to undo?”
Susie shook her head.
“Then go and try to remember. Remember that we made a choice when the men came, and now we must live with that choice. Remember there was a good reason for what we did, a reason of survival. It is too late to change again. The old way is not waiting for our return, it is dead. Our world has been changed, and we couldn’t stop it. The past is dead, but that is as it should be, we have new lives now. Forget your restlessness and go home. Be a good wife to Jack–he loves you in his way. Go home and be thankful for that.”
“I can’t,” she said. She looked around the room, noticing how the eyes of the others fell before her. So few of them had wanted to listen to her, so few had dared venture out of their homes. Susie looked at Maggie as she spoke, meaning her words for all the wives. “They’re killing us slowly,” she said. “But we’ll be just as dead in the end. I would rather die fighting, and take some of them with me.”
“You may be ready to die now, but the rest of us are not,” Maggie said. “But if you fought them, you would not only get your death, but the death of us all. If they see you snarling and violent, they will wake up and turn new eyes on all of us and see us not as their loving wives but as beasts, strangers, dangerous animals to be destroyed. They forget that we are different from them now; they are willing to forget and let us live as long as we keep them comfortable and act as wives should.”
“I can’t fight them alone, I know that,” Susie whispered. “But if you’ll all join with me, we have a chance. We could take them by surprise; we could use their weapons against them. Why not? They don’t expect a fight from us–we could win. Some of us would die, of course, but many of us would survive. More than that–we’d have our own lives, our own world, back again.”
“You think your arguments are new,” said Maggie. There was a trace of impatience in her usually calm voice. “But I can remember what happened when the men first came, and I know what would happen if we angered them. Even if we managed somehow to kill all the men here, more men would come in their ships from the sky. And they would come to kill us for daring to fight them. Perhaps they’d simply drop fire on us, being sure this time to burn out all of us and all life on our world. Do you seriously ask us to bring about this certain destruction?”
Susie stared at her, feeling dim memories stir in response to her words. Fire from the sky, the burning, the killing . . . but she couldn’t be sure she remembered, and she would rather risk destruction than go back to playing wife again.
“We could hide,” she pleaded. “We could run away and hide in the wilderness. The men might think we had died–they’d forget about us soon, I’m certain. Even if they looked for us at first, we could hide. It’s our world, and we know it as they don’t. soon we could begin to live as we used to, and forget the men.”
“Stop this dreaming,” Maggie said. “We can never live the way we used to–the old ways are gone, the old world is gone, and even your memories are gone, that’s obvious. The only way we know to live now is with the men, as their wives. Everything else is gone. We’d die of hunger and exposure if the men didn’t hunt us down and kill us first.”
“I may have forgotten the old ways, but you haven’t. You could teach us.”
“I remember enough to know what is gone, to know we can’t go back. Believe me. Think about it, Susie. Try.”
“Don’t call me that!”
Her shout echoed in the room. No one spoke. Susie felt the last of her hope drain out of her as she looked at them. They did not feel what she felt, and she would not be able to convince them. In silence, still, she left them, and went back to her own house.
She waited for them there, for them to come and kill her.
She knew they would come, she knew that she had to die. It was as Maggie said; one renegade endangered them all. If one wife turned on her man, all the wives would be made to suffer. The look of love on their faces would turn to a look of hatred, and the slaughter would begin again.
Susie felt no desire to escape, to hide from the other wives as she suggested they all hide from the men. She had no wish to live alone; for good or ill, she was a part of her people, and she had no wish to endanger them or break away from them.
When they came, they came together, all the wives of the settlement, coming to act in concert so none should bear the guilt alone. They did not hate Susie, nor did she hate them, but the deadly work had to be done.
Susie walked outside, into their midst. To make it easier for them–to act with them in a sense–Susie offered not the slightest resistance. She presented the weakest parts of her body to their hands and teeth, that her death should come more quickly. And as she died, feeling her body pressed, pounded, and torn by the other wives, Susie did not mind. She felt herself a part of them all, and she died content.
After her death, one of the extra wives took on Susie’s name and moved into her house. She got rid of the spider’s gigantic egg-case first thing–Jack might like his football-sized pet, but he wouldn’t be pleased by the hundreds of pebble-sized babies that would come spilling out of the egg-case in a few months. Then she began to clean the house in earnest, a man deserved a clean house to come home to.
When, a few days later, the men returned from their fighting, Susie’s man, Jack, found a spotless house, filled with the smells of his favorite foods cooking, and a smiling sexily dressed wife.
“Would you like some dinner, dear?’ she asked.
“Put it on hold,” he said, grinning wolfishly. “Right now, I’ll take a cup of hot coffee–in bed–with you on the side.”
She fluttered her false eyelashes and moved a little closer, so he could put his arm around her if he liked.
“All this and the best coffee in the universe,” he said with satisfaction, squeezing one of the mounds of flesh on her chest. “With this to come home to, it kind of makes the whole war-thing worthwhile.”