This story was based partially on an article found in Reader’s Digest (February, 1988). The original work was copyrighted by Patricia McGerr in 1965.
My trip to the Kiniwata Island in the Pacific was a memorable one. Although the island was beautiful and I had an enjoyable time, the thing I remember most about my trip was the fact “Johnny Lingo gave eight cows for his wife.” I’m reminded of it every time I see a woman belittle her husband or a wife wither under her husband’s scorn. I want to say to them, “You should know why Johnny Lingo gave eight cows for his wife.”
Johnny Lingo is known throughout the islands for his skills, intelligence, and savvy. If you hire him as a guide, he will show you the best fishing spots and the best places to get pearls. Johnny is also one of the sharpest traders in the islands. He can get you the best possible deals. The people of Kiniwata all speak highly of Johnny Lingo. Yet,
when they speak of him, they always smile just a little mockingly.
A couple days after my arrival to Kiniwata, I went to the manager of the guesthouse to see who he thought would be a good fishing guide. “Johnny Lingo,” said the manager. “He’s the best around. When you go shopping, let him do the bargaining. Johnny knows how to make a deal.”
“Johnny Lingo!” hooted a nearby boy. The boy rocked with laughter as he said, “Yea, Johnny can make a deal alright!”
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“Everybody tells me to get in touch with Johnny Lingo and then they start laughing. Please, let me in on the joke.”
“Oh, the people like to laugh,” the manager said, shrugging. “Johnny’s the brightest and strongest young man in the islands. He’s also the richest for his age.”
“But …” I protested. “… if he’s all you say he is, why does everyone laugh at him behind his back?”
“Well, there is one thing. Five months ago, at fall festival, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a wife. He gave her father eight cows!”
I knew enough about island customs to be impressed. A dowry of two or three cows would net a fair wife and four or five cows would net a very nice wife.
“Wow!” I said. “Eight cows! She must have beauty that takes your breath away.”
“She’s not ugly, …” he conceded with a little smile, “… but calling her ‘plain’ would definitely be a compliment. Sam Karoo, her father, was afraid he wouldn’t be able to marry her off. Instead of being stuck with her, he got eight cows for her. Isn’t that extraordinary? This price has never been paid before.”
“Yet, you called Johnny’s wife ‘plain?’ ”
“I said it would be a compliment to call her plain. She was skinny and she walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked. She was scared of her own shadow.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess there’s just no accounting for love.”
“True enough.” agreed the man. “That’s why the villagers grin when they talk about Johnny. They get special satisfaction from the fact the sharpest trader in the islands was bested by dull old Sam Karoo.”
“No one knows and everyone wonders. All of the cousins urged Sam to ask for three cows and hold out for two until he was sure Johnny would pay only one. To their surprise Johnny came to Sam Karoo and said, ‘Father of Sarita, I offer eight cows for your daughter.’ ”
“Eight cows.” I murmured. “I’d like to meet this Johnny Lingo.”
I wanted fish and pearls, so the next afternoon I went to the island of Nurabandi. As I asked directions to Johnny’s house, I noticed Johnny’s neighbors were also amused at the mention of his name. When I met the slim, serious young man I could see immediately why everyone respected his skills. However, this only reinforced my confusion over him.
As we sat in his house, he asked me, “You come here from Kiniwata?”
“They speak of me on that island?”
“Yes. They say you can provide me anything I need. They say you’re intelligent, resourceful, and the sharpest trader in the islands.”
He smiled gently. “My wife is from Kiniwata.”
“Yes, I know.”
“They speak of her?”
“What do they say?”
“Why, just … .” The question caught me off balance. “They told me you were married at festival time.”
“Nothing more?” The curve of his eyebrows told me he knew there had to be more.
“They also say the marriage settlement was eight cows.” I paused. “They wonder why.”
“They ask that?” His eyes lighted with pleasure. “Everyone in Kiniwata knows about the eight cows?”
“And in Nurabandi, everyone knows it too?” His chest expanded with satisfaction. “Always and forever, when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for Sarita.”
So that’s the answer, I thought: Vanity.
Just then Sarita entered the room to place flowers on the table. She stood still for a moment to smile at her husband and then left. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. The lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the sparkle in her eyes all spelled self-confidence and pride. Not an arrogant and haughty pride, but a confident inner beauty that radiated in her every movement.
I turned back to Johnny and found him looking at me.
“You admire her?” he murmured.
“She … she’s gorgeous.” I said. “Obviously, this is not the one everyone is talking about. She can’t be the Sarita you married on Kiniwata.”
“There’s only one Sarita. Perhaps, she doesn’t look the way you expected.”
“She doesn’t. I heard she was homely. They all make fun of you because you let yourself be cheated by Sam Karoo.”
“You think eight cows was too many?” A smile slid over his lips.
“No, but how can she be so different from the way they described her?”
Johnny said, “Think about how it must make a girl feel to know her husband paid a very low dowry for her? It must be insulting to her to know he places such little value on her. Think about how she must feel when the other women boast about the high prices their husbands paid for them. It must be embarrassing for her. I would not let this happen to my Sarita.”
“So, you paid eight cows just to make your wife happy?”
“Well, of course I wanted Sarita to be happy, but there’s more to it than that. You say she is different from what you expected. This is true. Many things can change a woman. There are things that happen on the inside and things that happen on the outside. However, the thing that matters most is how she views herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. As a result, that’s the value she projected. Now, she knows she is worth more than any other woman in the islands. It shows, doesn’t it?”
“Then you wanted …”
“I wanted to marry Sarita. She is the only woman I love.”
“But …” I was close to understanding.
“But,” he finished softly, “I wanted an eight-cow wife.”
This story was written by Patricia McGerr.
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