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.