by Patricia McGerr,
Adapted and edited from it's original appearance in
Readerís Digest, February 1988, pp138-141
"Get Johnny Lingo to help you find what you want and then let
him do the bargaining," advised Shenkin as I sat on the veranda
of his guest house and wondered whether to visit Nurabandi.
"He'll earn his commission four times over. Johnny knows values
and how to make a deal."
"Johnny Lingo." The chubby boy on the veranda steps hooted
the name, then hugged his knees and rocked with shrill laughter.
"Be quiet," said his father and the laughter grew silent.
"Johnny Lingo's the sharpest trader in this part of the
The simple statement made the boy choke and almost roll off
the steps. Smiles broadened on the faces of the villagers
"What goes on?" I demanded. "Everybody around here tells me
to get in touch with Johnny Lingo and then breaks up. It is some
kind of trick, a wild-goose chase, like sending someone for a
left-handed wrench? I there no such person or is he the village
idiot or what? Let me in on the joke."
"Not idiot," said Shenkin. "Only one thing. Five months ago,
at festival time, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a
wife. He paid her father eight cows!"
He spoke the last words with great solemnity and I knew
enough about island customs to be thorougly impressed. Two or
three cows would buy a fair-to-middling wife, four or five a
highly satisfactory one.
"Eight cows!" I said. "She must have been a beauty that takes
your breath away."
"That's why they laugh," my guest said. "It would be kindness
to call her plain. She was little and skinny with
no--ah--endowments. She walked with her shoulders hunched and
her head ducked, as if she was trying to hide behind herself.
Her cheeks had no color, her eyes never opened beyond a slit and
her hair was a tangled mop half over her face. She was scared of
her own shadow, frightened by her own voice. She was afraid to
laugh in public. She never romped with the girls, so how could
she attract the boys?"
"But she attracted Johnny?"
This is the story Shenkin told me:
"All the way to the council tent the cousins were urging Sam
to try for a good settlement. Ask for three cows, they told him,
and hold out for two until you're sure he'll pay one. But Sam
was in such a stew and so afraid there'd be some slip in this
marriage chance for Sarita that they knew he wouldn't hold out
for anything. So while they waited they resigned themselves to
accepting one cow, and thought, instead, of their luck in
getting such a good husband for Sarita. Then Johnny came into
the tent and, without waiting for a word from any of them, went
straight up to Sam Karoo, grasped his hand and said, "Father of
Sarita, I offer eight cows for your daughter." And he delivered
"As soon as it was over Johnny took Sarita to the island of
Cho for the first week of marriage. Then they went home to
Narabundi and we haven't seen them since. Except at festival
time, there's not much travel between the islands."
This story interested me so I decided to investigate.
The next day I reached the island where Johnny lived. When I
met the slim, serious man, he welcomed me to his home with a
grace that made me feel like the owner. I was glad that from his
own people he had respect unmingled with mockery.
I told him that his people had told me about him.
"They speak much of me on that island? What do they say?"
"They say you are a sharp trader," I said. "They also say the
marriage settlement that you made for your wife was eight cows."
I paused, then went on, coming as close to a direct question as
I could. "They wonder why."
"They say that?" His eyes lighted with pleasure. He seemed
not to have noticed the question. "Everyone in Kiniwata knows
about the eight cows?"
"And in Narabundi 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 anwer, I thought with disappointment. All this
mystery and wonder and the explanation's only vanity. It's not
enough for his ego to be known as the smartest, the strongest,
the quickest. He had to make himself famous for his way of
buying a wife. I was tempted to deflate him by reporting that in
Kiniwata he was laughed at for a fool.
As we spoke a woman entered the adjoining room and placed a
bowl of blossoms on the dining table. She stood still a moment
to smile with sweet gravity at the young man beside me. Then she
went swiftly out again. She was the most beautiful woman I have
ever seen. This girl had an ethereal loveliness. The dew-fresh
flowers with which she'd pinned back her lustrous black hair
accented the glow of her cheeks. The lift of her shoulders, the
tilt of her chin, the sparkle of her eyes all spelled a pride to
which no one could deny her the right. And as she turned to
leave she moved with grace that made her look like a queen.
When she was out of sight I turned back to Jonny Lingo and
found him looking at me with eyes that reflected the pride of
"You admire her?" he murmured.
"She--she's glorious. Who is she?" (I couldn't help, but
think -- if she was a servant, how difficult it must be for homely Sarita, having to daily be in the presence of such a beautiful
woman. And what a temptation for Mr. Lingo!)
"She is my wife."
I stared at him blankly. Was this some custom I had not heard
about? Do they practice polygamy here? He, for his eight cows,
bought both Sarita and this other? Before I could form a
question he spoke again.
"This is the only one -- Sarita." His way of saying the words
gave them a special significance. "Perhaps you wish to say she
does not look the way they say she looked in Kiniwata."
"She doesn't." The impact of the girl's appearance made me
forget tact. "I heard she was homely. They all make fun of you
because you let yourself be cheated by Sam Karoo."
"You think he cheated me? You think eight cows were too
many?" A slow smile slid over his lips as I shook my head. "She
can see her father and her friends again. And they can see her.
Do you think anyone will make fun of us then? Much has happened
to change her. Much in particular happened the day she went
"You mean she married you?"
"That, yes. But most of all, I mean the arrangements for the
"Do you ever think," he asked reflectively, "what it does to
a woman when she knows that the price her husband has paid is
the lowest price for which she can be bought? And then later,
when all the women talk, as women do, they boast of what their
husbands paid for them. One says four cows, another maybe six.
How does she feel--the woman who was sold for one or two? This
could not happen to my Sarita."
"Then you paid that unprecedented number of cows just to make
your wife happy?"
"Happy?" He seemed to turn the word over on his tongue, as if
to test its meaning. "I wanted Sarita to be happy, yes, but I
wanted more than that. You say she's different from the way they
remember her in Kiniwata. This is true. Many things can change a
woman. Things that happen inside, things that happen outside.
But the thing that matters most is what she thinks about
herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. Now
she knows that she is worth more than any other woman on the
"Then you wanted..."
"I wanted to marry Sarita. I loved her and no other woman."
"But--" I was close to understanding.
"But," he finished softly, "I wanted an eight-cow wife."