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Johnny Lingo's Eight-Cow Wife
November 20, 2004
9:51 pm
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Worried_Dad
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Johnny Lingo's Eight-Cow Wife

Reader's Digest
February 1988

Condensed from Woman's Day
Patricia McGerr

When I sailed to Kiniwata, an island in the Pacific, I took along a
notebook. After I got back it was filled with descriptions of flora and
fauna,
native customs and costumes. But the only note that still interests me
is the
one that says: "Johnny Lingo gave eight cows to Sarita's father." And I
don't
need to have it in writing. I'm reminded of it every time I see a woman
belittling her husband or a wife withering under her husband's scorn. I
want to
say to them, "You should know why Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for his
wife."

Johnny Lingo wasn't exactly his name. But that's what Shenkin, the
manager
of the guest house on Kiniwata, called him. Shenkin was from Chicago
and had a
habit of Americanizing the names of the islanders. But Johnny was
mentioned by
many people in many connections. If I wanted to spend a few days on the
neighboring island of Nurabandi, Johnny Lingo could put me up. If I
wanted to
fish, he could show me where the biting was best. If it was pearls I
sought, he
would bring me the best buys. The people of Kiniwata all spoke highly
of Johnny
Lingo. Yet when they spoke they smiled, and the smiles were slightly
mocking.

"Get Johnny Lingo to help you find what you want and let him do the
bargaining,: advised Shenkin. "Johnny knows how to make a deal."

"Johnny Lingo!" A boy seated nearby hooted the name and rocked with
laughter.

"What goes on?" I demanded. "Everybody tells me to get in touch
with Johnny
Lingo and then breaks up. Let me in on the joke."

"Oh, the people like to laugh," Shenkin said, shrugging. "Johnny's
brightest, the strongest young man in the islands. And for his age, the
richest.

"Only one thing. Five months ago, at fall festival, Johnny came to
Kiniwata
and found himself a wife. He paid her father eight cows!"

I knew enough about island customs to be impressed. Two or three
cows would
buy a fair-to-middling wife, four or five a highly satisfactory one.

"Good Lord!" I said. "Eight cows! She must have beauty that takes
your
breath away."

"She's not ugly," he conceded, and smiled a little. "But the
kindest could
only call Sarita plain. Sam Karoo, her father, was afraid she'd be left
on his
hands."

"But then he got eight cows for her? Isn't that extraordinary?"

"Never been paid before."

"Yet you call Johnny's wife plain?"

"I said it would be kindness to call her plain. She was skinny. 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. "And that's why the villagers grin
when they
talk about Johnny. They get special satisfaction from the fact that the
sharpest
trader in the islands was bested by dull old Sam Karoo."

"But how?"

"No one knows and everyone wonders. All the cousins were urging Sam
to ask
for three cows and hold out for two until he was sure Johnny'd pay only
one.
Then 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. I wanted pearls. So the next afternoon I beached my
boat at
Nurabandi. And I noticed as I asked directions to Johnny's house that
his name
brought no sly smile to the lips of his fellow Nurabandians. And when I
met the
slim, serious young man, when he welcomed me with grace to his home, I
was glad
that from his own people he had respect unmingled with mockery. We sat
in his
house and talked. Then he asked, "You come here from Kiniwata?"

"Yes."

"They speak of me on that island?"

"They say there's nothing I might want that you can't help me get."

He smiled gently, "My wife is from Kiniwata."

"Yes, I know."

"They speak of her?"

"A little."

"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
wondered why."

"They ask that?" His eyes lighted with pleasure. "Everyone in
Kiniwata knows
about the eight cows?"

I nodded.

"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.

And then I saw her. I watched her enter the room to place flowers
on the
table. She stood still a moment to smile at the young man beside me.
Then she
went swiftly out again. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever
seen. 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.

I turned back to Johnny Lingo and found him looking at me.

"You admire her?" he murmured.

"She ... she's glorious. But she's not Sarita from Kiniwata," I
said.

"There's only one Sarita. Perhaps she does not look the way they
say she
looked in Kiniwata."

"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 were too many?" A smile slid over his lips.

"No. But how can she be so different?"

"Do you ever think," he asked, "what it must mean to a woman to
know that
her husband has settled on the lowest price for which she can be
bought? And
then later, when the women talk, 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 only one or two? This could not happen to my Sarita."

"Then you did this just to make your wife happy?"

"I wanted Sarita to be happy, yes. But I wanted more than that. You
say she
is different. 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 she is worth more than any other woman in the islands."

"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."

November 20, 2004
9:57 pm
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Worried_Dad
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I found this on a Chinese bulletin board. Apparently it is not unusual, even in these modern times, for a prospective groom to give money to the woman's parents as an honorarium, a token of good intention and gratitude. Maybe that's why this old Reader's digest short story is currently posted on a Chinese web site.

After I got over my Western Feminist outrage at the idea of "buying" a wife, I decided that I like the story--it has heart.

November 20, 2004
10:18 pm
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sewunique
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Forget about customs, forget about women's lib.....send me a Johnny Lingo to meet!

November 20, 2004
10:24 pm
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Worried_Dad
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This story kind of chokes me up. I like it when something touches me that way.

November 20, 2004
10:53 pm
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sewunique
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When you find a poem or song that touches the heart, it never grows old.

November 21, 2004
7:10 pm
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SweetAmanda
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That is what I have prayed for. What I have thought impossible.

November 21, 2004
8:39 pm
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workinonit
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I have tears WD....jeez, thanks

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