By Immanuel Lokwei
(“That forced marriages have values, even aesthetic value to them!”)
It took the sacrifice of a hen with six toes to calm down this woman’s heart. Otherwise the man who had wooed her, the father-in-law who unsuccessfully tried all mechanisms and was now frustrated for siring this unconventional daughter, and the expectant relatives, all their efforts and hopes would have amounted to zero. I am at the moment being informed, by the father-in-law himself, now narrating this memory with a visible sense of fondness and with a self-congratulatory tone – it is nineteen years since the incident occurred and the woman is safe, deeply settled in the intended marriage – that Mt. Napet is nothing compared to her then obstinacy.
Many times she would be dragged to her new home and many times she would find a way back. At the gates, while approaching, her father would yell, “Go back to your husband.” But soon, even the neighbors realized that no beating, dragging and threatening could coax her to assume her new and imposed role, and they were not surprised either when soft talk and all manners of entreatment bore nothing. A unique tactic was then called for. It is here that the hen with six toes came in handy.
But the contents of the sacrifice won’t be disclosed out of respect for the matrimony and since you would rather have the end of this story readily delivered. In short, the wooing man, got his price, in a non- objectifying sense of the word. The woman, you wonder, is now old or rather looks old for a 40 something year old woman. She’s wrinkled but strong, and besides her sits her son.
Times have been hard lately. I was in their village a number of days ago and I saw many orphans unaccounted for. First, maybe it’s important that I point out something you might be missing. The man eventually died just like many other men. Of course ethnic violence is the culprit. The man left the woman, I think, around six or eight children; roughly a moderate number of what other men in these parts leave their women with. But again, no one really counts children in these regions lest the devil and evil enemies be motivated by the numbers they can kill.
The contrast between the son and other orphans is striking. Other orphans are malnourished for sure, and the son is slightly so. But it’s not the differences of their health that stands out. It’s the strange liveliness and attitude, some say a tainted form of arrogance, that the son carries.
Just yesterday, the son and I were embroiled in a discussion about dowry. In a very self-affirming way he quoted a proverb: “Whoever didn’t see his mother young thinks his father threw away dowry.” Nodding, I egged him on because I was not yet acquainted with the full meaning of this proverb reword hoping that he will see to it without me having to ask and expose myself.
Then he started laughing at the orphans but more directly at their mothers. Some of the orphans had separated with their mothers shortly after their fathers fell. This is either because the burden was too much for a single parent to bear all by herself, or that the relatives and friends who the widowed mothers had entrusted the custody of some of their children to either betrayed the trust or in the long run acquired orphans of their own or became orphans themselves; and so the burden likewise became unbearable for all. The truth is somewhere among the debris if you’re interested. These orphans are not called “children of our homes” as it would have been had the people stuck with the customs despite their social circumstances, but are now called “the invisible children of the streets” for the reasons stated. And this distinction is the climax of the son’s merriment.
I couldn’t understand this heartless sense of humor. But he went on – the son. He mentioned the bravery and vigor of his mother. How at one point she crossed ethnic borders to work for the historically unfriendly communities as their manual laborer, dragging the son and his siblings along with her, and never caring the ridicule and risks she exposed herself and her family to and the rapacious and naïve nature of her younger family who did not understand that in special circumstances, one needs to tighten one’s belt and demand less. The kind of work she did was unforgiving to say the least. (There is no time to enumerate them here, maybe in our next encounter). Often she would sleep with hunger, and the mean sense of uncertain future was a regular bedfellow – such are the senses, such are the experiences that we are so blessed to experience vicariously through literature.
Despite this and every related thing, she journeyed on without her man-god rest his soul wherever he’s lying, interjects the son. On she journeyed with her calves, with virtually no aid or a pint of solace from her relatives. The son now paused and seemed to reflect on something.
The son then said that he now understands the wisdom of the choice his father made – he’s referring to the matrimony. Of course his mother was the beauty of her time, for that is the literal meaning of the proverb and the son makes sure I understand this fact. But then he adds that there is more to the proverb. That he sees deeper reasons as to why his deceased old man was so bent on marrying his mother.
I benefit daily from his sagacity, the son says. Compared to the lives of other orphans in the village, the son elaborates and seconds with a chuckle, his family’s can be called the beautiful life. He says this beautiful life he and his family lead is possible because of his unwavering mother’s struggle and care, who is also there because of the late old man and because his old man had what he calls perceptivity – the most perceptive wooer that ever lived. The son says that the hen with six toes was worthy the knife.
Anyways, he kept on with his analysis of the matrimony and their beautiful life. I don’t know how much of what he said was true or subjective but one thing for sure is that he kept on enchanting himself with his talk.
I listened, and later went to the father-in-law who, god knows why he is still alive and who also happens to be present at the writing of this story, to confirm the story. What does the son imply? I asked myself. Does he imply that forced marriages are sometimes enforced for other sakes and not necessarily to suit the wooing men’s demands? That forced marriages have values, even aesthetic value to them! Mmh! Could it be that the wooing man and the father-in-law had, all along in their scheming, the welfare of the yet to be born progenies in their minds (the son being one of these)? Did the wooing man see the future? I would like to ask this question especially the wooing man cause I heard he descended straight and not a branch removed from the prophets and mediums lineage. Perhaps he saw the future all mapped out, the tragedy that was soon to befall him and said aah, the future of my family-to-be, the future is the woman.
How unique it will be, if indeed all this is true, to the majority of foreigners who don’t think about these aspects when entering their relationships – or so I hear. Before I forget, does the son imply that the miseries of orphans (him excluded) I meet in the village are the making of their mothers, that their mothers are deliberately negligent and could care for them if they really wanted to? Or that these mothers have weakness of character that could partly be attributed to or was enhanced by their former dependency (economic, etc.) on their once living husbands? Or is the son implying that it is the foolery of their husbands’ choices that’s accountable here, which made the husbands, the orphans’ fathers, not spot deficiencies in the characters of the women they chose to marry? I’m terrified to ask more questions cause I can hear the son’s laugh.
These were the burning questions I had. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask them. For every time I wanted to, the old woman’s face, the son’s mother, would appear and I would wish my own mother was here so I could gaze at and be proud of her wizened face just like the son said he is of his mother’s; and perhaps ask her these questions. So I am telling you this story instead so you may judge, for yourself and on my behalf, the son’s attitude and all he said. I couldn’t face the son with these questions for he would ask of my mother. And what would I say?
I’m troubled by another fact. Why did it take the life of the hen with six toes to soothe the woman’s heart?