A note from the editor

I’ve been waiting on another batch of writings from the author of this blog. Once I get them, it may then take me another few weeks to work them into a series of posts, so it may be till June or July before anything new is added to this story. Sorry for the delay. [JB]

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Into the dead of winter

The rounds of feasting ran their course and we all settled down to the unending work of making sure we had enough food for ourselves and our families. My education continued, as they showed me what foods they ate in this valley, and where and how they gathered them. Some of the hunting methods were familiar to me, from the ways we hunted the same or similar animals in the village of my birth.

A few weeks after the rains began, flocks of birds descended on the valley from the north. Water brought worms and bugs out of the soil in the marshy areas, and these provided food for the birds. The birds’ flesh was fatty and succulent, and was a welcome addition to our diet.

It grew colder, and it rained harder for more of the time. The skies were grey and everything became sodden. Our huts provided cover, but we couldn’t stay in them all day long. When we returned towards evening, we brought the damp in with us. The skins that we wore were never really dry. The soil in this valley ran to mud when it became wet, and the trodden areas between the huts in our encampment became a disheartening mess.

In the village of my birth, we cut and spread straw onto the mud between the huts, and renewed it as needed. They could have done that here—there were rushes in the marshlands that would have served nicely—but for whatever reason they didn’t bother, and I didn’t think it was my place to suggest it. Maybe this was because they looked on the encampment just as a temporary stopping place, even though they returned to it every winter and stayed for several weeks.

So in the dead of winter we lived and worked under grey skies and suffered in the damp, bone-chilling cold, Our bodies soaked up fats from the succulent meats and oils from the marshland plants we ate. Without the warm drying rays of the sun our hair and skin became oily. Our clothes and our bodies became crusted with the mud that was everywhere and the damp that we could never fully escape. We were a sorry, bedraggled lot.

It was during our stay in the valley that I felt most strongly everything I had lost in being cast out of the village of my birth. Up in the hills, we had only what we could carry with us, but we were kept so busy in killing enough sheep to fill our bellies that I hardly noticed the simplicity of our lives. We ranged so widely across the hills that it seemed almost as though the entire range was our home. My spirits were buoyed by the drama of the hunt, and the intricate calculations in applying our methods in the ever-changing landscape across which we roamed. And all of this was made more splendid by the near-constant sun of late summer and early fall.

But now that we stayed in this one encampment, I became more forcibly aware of all of the ways that it didn’t measure up to what I had known in the village of my birth. Having a year-round home there, each household had accumulated a range of goods. We had skins for wearing, to sit on, and simply for decoration. We had baskets and other containers, racks to dry skins on and other frameworks for various specialized tasks, a wide variety of tools and instruments—some for work that only needed doing once in a great while. Because we had a settled place to live, it was easy to keep such things around for the infrequent occasions when they were needed. We had flutes and other simple musical instruments, toys for the children, masks and implements for our rituals, and the many other little luxuries of our prosperous life. Almost all of that was lost to me, as I now found myself leading a comparatively low, primitive life with these people who followed the sheep all year, up and down through the hills.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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New people bring new challenges

I had been able to hold my own through the summer, in spite of my limited grasp of their language. Our group was small and our life simple. Our daily round of activities was limited, and they involved me in only a few of them. Much of the time I worked alone making my bone tools, and the activities I did join in required only a small vocabulary of words and phrases.

But now I had many new things to learn if I was to do my share of work, and as our group swelled in size there were new people to meet. I had grown accustomed to the personalities of the few people I had known all summer, and I puzzled out some sense of the social dynamic between them. Some of that I had been able to do while I was still debilitated and not expected to interact in a meaningful way. Now the problem multiplied many times over with more people and more activities.

And I was myself a novelty, which put me more at the center of things than I would have liked. The newcomers to our group figured out quickly enough that I knew little of their speech. But that didn’t keep them from trying to speak with me, or becoming impatient when I didn’t get what they wanted of me. I was a novelty also to the guests from other villages that joined us in our feasts, and they looked on me as a simpleton when they realized how little I understood of their conversation. I felt stupid, and I was constantly nervous in this more complex and active social landscape.

So I kept working at learning their language. I played with the children whenever I could. I let them watch me at my work, and invited them to help me out whenever they wanted to. I encouraged them to teach me new words and new things to say, and to correct me when I spoke wrong. I asked them about the adults to get a better idea of who everyone was and how they interacted with each other.

Slowly I learned the ropes. These people became accustomed to me, and I settled into a workable place in their society. I knew what I had to do each day, and I contributed in ways that justified my place with them. My wife and I were at the bottom of the pecking order at first, but that was better than having no people at all to call our own.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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Our winter encampment

After several weeks of this, we came out into a broad lower valley ringed by other ranges of hills. There were patches of low, marshy land in this basin interspersed with dry, raised areas. Most of the marshy territory was thick mud at this time of year, but it would be under water again soon, after the winter rains came. It was thick with grasses and reeds and other vegetation, and ran with animals like I had known in the woodlands near the village of my birth. The sheep mostly kept to the margins of this valley, and the lower flanks of the slopes around it. They ate up what vegetation they could find still standing at this late season, before the re-greening that would follow the winter rains.

Our winter encampment was on the edge of one of the raised areas, near the marshy lowlands but not close enough to be inundated when the water was high. This was a more substantial settlement and the huts here had better framing than our high summer encampment. The people of my group had left these huts last Spring when they set off up into the hills. Returning to them now, we were joined by one or two other groups, made up mostly of close relations of the people in my group. We all worked together to renew the huts with thatch and add what we had carried with us the rest of the year to the inconsiderable few things that had been left behind last Spring. Like other such encampments across on other sides of the broad valley, this one had stood empty like a ghost town through the summer months when the groups were away in the hills. Now it filled again with voices and the sounds of work, so that within days one would not have known that it had ever been empty.

Soon after we arrived, two of the men in our group led me up a nearby valley to an outcropping of good, fine-grained stone for making tools. We stayed the night there, working that afternoon and much of the next day chipping off and collecting stone cores that we carried back with us. By the time we returned, the rest of the group had already been hard at it hunting animals in the marshy woodlands.

After subsisting on sheep all summer, we welcomed this variation in our diet. For me, it was good once more to eat meats I had known in the village of my birth. The women had been busy too, digging tubers and gathering plants available in this fertile valley but not up in the hills. Everyone’s spirits picked up, with the enjoyment of homecoming and a more interesting and varied diet.

One couple had walked across the valley as our emissaries to another of the lowland winter settlements, inviting them to join us in feasting. This was traditional when the groups returned to the valley at this time of year. Everyone in our group worked throughout the daylight hours, settling in, gathering food, and preparing to receive our guests. We shared with them the food we had brought in, and exchanged news, and all enjoyed ourselves together.

Then we in turn were invited by the people of another encampment across the valley, and after the close of our feast we gathered our traveling kits and journeyed across to join them as guests in their feast. And so it continued for weeks after we and the other groups arrived in the valley. Through the intermittent rains of early winter we renewed ties with our neighbors, each of us demonstrating our sufficiency as hosts and then in turn being hosted by the others.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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Working together and working alone

We had no leader as far as I could tell. We woke each morning, ate together when food was available, and then set to work singly or in groups, doing whatever needed doing. I still understood only bits of what was said, so to me the making of decisions was largely a mystery. After speaking together for a short while, two women would head off in one direction, alone or taking children with them. Only that evening would I see what they had been doing from the foods they brought back with them. Larger or smaller hunting parties would gather their tools and prepare to go, sometimes calling for me to join them and other times leaving me at camp and my bone-working.

When we camped near a spring I would work by the flowing water that washed the bony waste from off my grinding stone. Occasionally a child would join me, handing me tools as I had done with my father when I was that age. But most days I was alone at my work for hours, sitting away from the emptied-out campsite, lost in the sound of the gurgling water and the calculations of my work.

Displaced and disenfranchised as I was, it was a relief to be alone and unworried about making a social misstep, unconcerned about currying favor and fitting in. And it was rewarding to be engaged in the one activity that I really did well. This made me feel capable, and at home in this world of sensations and objects. When I struck a piece at just the right angle and it fractured exactly as I had planned, when the finish work on a piece yielded just the shape I had imagined for it, then I felt like I was in step with the inner workings of things.

Late in the afternoon of such a day, I would hear voices at the camp as people came back from their excursions and set to work processing whatever foods they had gathered that day. When I got to a good stopping point, I would gather up my things and join them, eager to offer the fruit of my own labors and thereby make a useful contribution to the group. We would talk and eat and the children would play. The sun would set and we would stay together by the fire for a bit in the dark, and then we would lie down to sleep.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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How we hunted sheep

The days grew shorter and autumn advanced towards winter as we made our unhurried way down the slopes towards the winter encampment. Or to be more precise, the sheep made their way down towards their winter pastures and we followed. Each morning, groups would spread out to hunt or gather grasses or dig for roots and tubers in the earth near streams that were now largely dry, this late in the season. Depending on the terrain, we would hunt in pairs or all the men together in one party. I went along most days, though I was still learning their techniques, so I was as much hindrance as help.

When the ground permitted, one or two men would lie in wait just over a rise or behind some rocks, and let the sheep wander close enough to them to get a good arrow shot. Years of close study of this one species of animal must have given them a sympathetic grasp of their ways, because the sheep came to where we lay in wait far more often than I would have expected if they were merely moving by chance. When valleys were broader and there was less cover, we would leave our best archers behind whatever blind was available, and the rest of us would circle far around to get some sheep between us and them. We would then try to guide the sheep towards the men that lay in wait.

This took patience, because we didn’t want the sheep to bolt and give our archers a difficult shot at a fast-moving target. We had to move gently and casually, keeping enough distance to make the sheep merely uneasy at our presence. We nudged them bit by bit, sometimes taking the whole morning setting up the best shot, and we placed our faith in our fellows to take full advantage of it. I had never tried hunting like this, so I took my cue from the others and gradually learned the right way.

It was tricky and sometimes frustrating work, especially compared to the gazelle hunt in the village of my birth. Then we had dozens of men, boys, and dogs to corral the gazelles—and the lines of stakes provided a barrier that made it simple work to funnel them towards the killing pits. It was a regimented, industrialized process. Planting the stakes and digging the pits took time and effort—too much for just one use, which is why we repaired and reused the same framework year after year. It was only possible with the combined efforts of many people, which is why several villages gathered together for it, and shared the proceeds. And it took leadership, coordination, and a many-part division of labor.

This sheep hunting, by comparison, was all finesse and subtlety. The group was much smaller and there was no preparation before the day of the hunt, but that meant there was no framework of stakes that we could drive the animals against. It was like working without a net, and so the slightest misstep by one man could undo hours of collaborative effort. Each day’s work was on different terrain with different strengths and weaknesses.

But the experience of hundreds of hunts showed these men how to work the terrain to their advantage, and how to move with their fellows so the combined efforts of the group would move the sheep where we wanted them. At first, the finer points of their method were a complete mystery to me, and some days my clumsiness caused us all to go hungry. It was that way all the first season and into the next. But in time, I too learned their way of hunting.

Some nights we were together around one fire, while other nights came upon us still scattered in separate parties along the slopes. We bellowed when far out of sight of the rest, and sooner or later their returning call would help us find them. Some of us had hollowed-out ram’s horns into which they blew, and whose sound carried far across the hills. We could distinguish the pitches of the two or three horns in our groups, just as you can recognize a friend’s voice. When the wind was right, we occasionally would catch the faintest sound of the note made by another such horn blown by someone in another group, farther along the ridge of hills.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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I take a wife again

Only after I had spent some weeks with these people did I come to realize what they had in mind for me. With this small group was a young mother who had been taken as a wife by a man of that group who had since died, probably not long before I happened upon them. He had been brother or nephew or cousin to other men in the group, and his widow stayed with them still as part of his family, caring for his now fatherless child.

At that point, I still couldn’t understand much of their speech. The normal round of daily activities was easy enough to communicate with gestures and facial expressions. Objects could be pointed at and actions could be demonstrated, but ideas and possibilities were more of a puzzle. When I appeared, I imagine they must have looked on me as a natural solution to the problem of an extra woman with a child on her hands. She was many years my junior, but must have been not far from what they took to be my age.

So as I settled in, they began to hint as well as they could considering the language barrier, with embarrassed smiles and crude suggestions that at the time were mostly lost on me. She was more in the know, and I guess didn’t mind the idea. I, on the other hand, was still in a kind of emotional shock after having been cast out of my own village, and from the experience of exile and being thrown in with strangers with strange ways. I looked for nothing more than to pass each day, to be given food enough to stave off hunger, to fit in somehow with these new and different people, and make whatever contribution I could.

Above all, I wanted not to offend. This group felt to me like my only hope. They saved me when I was past looking after myself. They knew this place, its foods and materials, and had worked out a way to live there. Without them I would have been condemned again to starvation and exposure.

I meant to cling to them just as I would huddle close to a fire on a cold night. But knowing only a few of their words, and missing most of the implications of the casual banter that passed between them and with myself, I was constantly worried about doing or saying the wrong thing. I knew I could provoke a rift in the most offhand moment, for reasons that I might never even understand.

They had their ways that they had learned since childhood. Some were the ways of humans generally, that I might intuit from my own childhood and from having lived the life of my own village. But already in my first weeks there I had seen so many ways of theirs that were different from those I had known. I had stumbled clumsily against their conventions, and been forgiven only because I was new and so obviously weak and helpless. They treated me like a child in my vulnerability but they would only do that for so long. As my strength returned and I settled in as a member of the group, they would hold me to the same standards as they would any other man, and the potential for conflict would grow. So I subordinated myself. I asked for little and was grateful for what I got. I did what they wanted and looked always for ways I could do more. I aspired to nothing except survival.

I certainly hadn’t imagined taking a wife from among them. When their suggestions first got through to me, I didn’t know what to think. Were they joking, were they warning me off the idea in a backwards way, or were they really suggesting that I might take up with her? Here is where the rough, general meanings of words newly learned were of little help to me. Only in pressing the point again did they make me see they were serious. Her smiles and soft gestures showed me too that she was willing.

Here was something more that was expected of me, like helping in the hunt or contributing to work around the camp. At first it was for me like conceiving of the inconceivable. As a timid newcomer and a subordinate, I had instinctively considered any of the women of the group off-limits to me. I was also in my own mind an older man, already having wed, and already having raised a family. That part of my life was past, and the idea of sexual intimacy frankly didn’t occur to me until I realized what they were thinking. The whole situation confused me, because of all that and because I didn’t reckon myself as having any status in this group.

But the warmth of her touch and the gentle reassurance of her looks made me feel once again that I was not alone, that there was a place for me in this life and with these people. Her expectations for me eroded away my own view of myself. Like the others, she was sure that I was a young man, and my own mind could not stand against their consensus view of me. It came to feel like a more persuasive reality than my own memories. So I assumed the role that she wanted of me, and the trauma of being a freak and a castoff faded away into the background of my mind.

Both being outsiders to this group, we shared a bond of sympathy and we made a place for each other in our hearts. She became as important to me as my first wife had been—even more so in a way, since my first wife had merely added to the status that I already had as a member of the family of my birth, an established part of our village, our place validated by the presence of our ancestors. She and I had been partners in raising our children and in the daily life of our household, but I also had had my father and brothers, and the other relationships I had forged from childhood. But this woman was both my emotional center and my ticket to a place in the group. Through her I renewed myself. I became young again in my heart, I looked forward to a new life that we would share, a new adult career in this new unimagined world.

To a point, that is—I could not of course confide in her fully. I could never tell her all that I had been through, all that I had lived and truly how I had come to this place. I knew I had to keep that from all of the members of my new community. That was my shameful secret.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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