Lulibo almost touched the glass wall, seeing tall, firm trees vaguely reflected, and dissolving into the figures on the other side of the glass. She then moved farther away. It was high noon, the time when most of the girls in the town came to gather outside the glass box mounted into the wall of rock above the town. Older women gathered as well, standing behind the teenage girls staring into the box. Occasionally, young women paused for a second to look at the box on their way to or back from work. The glass was indestructible.
There were other towns with boxes. Although a uniform standard of safety and security had been agreed upon, the towns had their diverse methodologies. While it should have been obvious, the legal ramifications of no two systems of women leadership being the same needed to be ratified in endless affidavits. The rollout of the boxes to all towns around the country was only in its early phase but the entire world was watching the towns with the looking glass boxes.
Lulibo had come out of the autumn shade, her white and grey tunic absorbing the electricity hanging in the air. She moved closer to the box again, whereas she ordinarily stood behind a far tree and observed the girls and women studying the box. The box inmates were spectacular creatures who were beginning to show the first signs of wear and deterioration.
Willie, for instance. Young Willie, with the blonde hair and blue eyes, who dressed like a cowboy from old movies, even down to a waistcoat and a hat. Willie with his pleading face, and little theatrical shows of entertainment aimed at generating laughs, confidence and pity. But they all knew Willie, and remembered what got him sent to the box. In any case, he had long ago been confirmed as a health risk, as were all the others in the box; they were also quarantine cases. The women had suffered very few transmittable diseases since the box was first implemented. The town mothers knew that the curiosity and yearnings of the younger women, not all of them, would be a factor but they did not cover the box, as some had requested and petitioned. Many things would be adjusted to, the town mothers had said, and they ensured the humane practices were held to a strong, acceptable standard.
Such conditions were, by now, typical in the town, which was located far outside any metropolitan area, high up in the mountains. The glass caught the sun but did not overheat those in the box, who had the benefit, provided by the engineers, of climate control. One of the inmates, Waanie, was married to the chief engineer. They also had the shade of the cavernous rock the box was fitted into. The inmates had cordoned zones, or blocks to operate in, with one communal area for those who could mingle in harmony. Educational content was broadcast to them in all the languages they understood, and mutual language learning was encouraged.
None of them could dislodge the braces around their right ankles. If they moved beyond their restricted zones in the box, a debilitating pulse was emitted from the braces. Any group disorder was met by a nerve agent filtered through the air vents. The Geneva Convention did not disavow this, the country’s revised Constitution made allowance for it and researchers from the continental Criminal Justice Reform did not object. The ankle braces also monitored vital signs and were programmed to signal any change in body functioning, thereby alerting the authorities of any illness or irregularity that was not a pre-existing condition. Toilet and shower facilities, with privacy, were provided at the back wall and under the roof of rock. There were no escape outlets and nothing detachable to use as weapons. Food was delivered to one inmate at a time. Thando, the boy closest to the receiving slot at the front right corner of the glass wall, was temporarily unbraced to serve the food trays to each inmate, and to collect the trays again after eating. Demure and polite, he was rewarded with a lighter sentence for his services.
Lulibo remembered that when the first ones were sent to the box, the mood in the town changed immediately. She had heard that this happened in the other towns, too. She was fascinated but never shirked her priorities and responsibilities, and the town mothers expected no less. However, like some of the girls, Lulibo could not help but gaze with a certain fascination and something that felt like desire. Perhaps this was kindled by the unusual sight of the male box, and the clear demarcation of power women now had. Some of the inmates offered forlorn, motherless appearances crying for help and nurture. Others exuded menace and upsetting glares, reminding their audiences of what they were sent in for. One or two seemed indifferent, depressed, self-absorbed and possibly even arrogant. Others, like Mzo, invited the eyes of the girls and the women by simply being himself, looming over the others and displaying the statue of his body, tall, strong and unavoidable. He grinned some days. Once, he stood naked and proud, knowing exactly that he would cause alarm, but that the alarm would take a while to sound.
Lulibo both laughed and grimaced at that memory. Her friend Brigid came up to her afterwards and asked, ‘Did you see how Mzo was looking at me?’ Brigid’s friend Catherine had been involved with Mzo once and Lulibo always thought this had rankled her. It seemed petty enough but it struck her that, before, there had not even been room for pettiness, such was the brutality of daily life for each woman in the town.
All women were safe. All women. Some of them, the town mothers said, were now also safe from themselves. The boxes earned universal admiration and outcry. One pandemic was rerouted to serve another with a hateful, sexist agenda, commentators from elsewhere shouted. Feminism had been set back, cried some, while others retorted by asking which feminisms. The battles between women, others warned, would be telling and disturbing, and would imbalance what had taken centuries to gain. Intersections would be erased. The eccentric fit and improbable success of the boxes invited frivolous questions centered on the government’s maternal slant, which, some complained, merely replaced the outmoded paternal line. Cynics offered that it helped the women to be entitled to all available alcohol as it passed the hours that were both celebratory and frustrating.
The decision for the boxes in some of the towns was hard-won. Many amendments were debated and mass mobilization ensued. But the protests, the promises from male leaders and all the stringent lockdown curfews were never going to deliver the results. It took more extreme steps, starting with the formula introduced to alcohol that incapacitated only the targeted men drinking it. The oral and written records of each man were brought to light, although most testimonies only emerged when the men had already been boxed. The men who were not boxed were themselves zoned off to an isolated part of the town and were not allowed near the box. Such men were not plentiful. There was outrage at their being separated, which was labeled as discriminatory.
Certain men pleaded that they did not belong in the box and that it was impossible for them to be charged with any crime. Some women did not want to lose their partners and resisted the findings. Among the younger women, there were those who argued against the town mothers and they drew on their degrees and qualifications. Many of the town mothers, however, also had degrees and qualifications, and had a better understanding of the areas between tradition and change. The town mothers were not exclusively elders. Many younger women among them had also made the sacrifice of their partners for the betterment the box provided. The filing system detailing the history of the males in the box was intricate, advanced and not easily compromised. It was an archive against silence, an archive unleashing powerful magic when it was opened. The box had been carefully occupied and arranged, as one would pack a box of delicate items and living memories.
Lulibo found the rock she always perched on, the one in a clearing that offered an oblique view of the box. She sat down, ready to sketch the scene. She grinned as she tore out the sketch of Mzo, pausing for a second to inspect how she depicted some of the faces transfixed on him. She also tore out the sketch of Waanie, his wife’s face tattooed on his arm. She wondered whether it was justifiable to have such ease and control when she sketched, and whether she had a right to capture others in their layered distresses so rapidly and effortlessly.
With suddenness, Willie lurched forward from his block. He reached the glass wall and banged his fist against it; there were tears in his eyes. Lulibo could not hear his words and tried reading his lips. He was mouthing a plea, perhaps for release, or because of pain and discomfort, or perhaps asking for forgiveness, true forgiveness and salvation. She moved her pencil over the paper as fast as she could. Within seconds, Willie was stunned and he fell over, his body convulsing until he lay still, disheveled, his legs spread and his cowboy hat covering his face. Mzo looked down at him, standing like a tower, and then looked out at Lulibo, who was capturing the moment with a frenetic excitement. She missed the sad eyes of Thando, cast over Willie, then on Mzo, then on the others who were all looking away, who only regarded him when he served their food. He then looked out at Lulibo, who was not sketching him.