The day little Saamar set out for Taivaros to become our Kiralus Reincarnate, the whole village turned out to sing him on his way, in awe of the Vadonus Taivuskira and his entourage with their caparisoned mounts and gilded carriages, envious of his family for the great honour, and the generous gifts, bestowed on them. I was good friends with his youngest father, Isenjar, who would accompany him. He embraced me in farewell and I could tell by the way he clung to me he did not want to go, while I… I would have given anything to leave the village and never return to my brothers, our wife, the never-ending fieldwork and the long, lonely nights.
I was very young when my brothers and I married Kalevi and the first time she invited me to her bed I was not up to much. She laughed and, hearing her, my brothers laughed too. The few times she invited me again were no better and by then the very thought of lying with her shrivelled my manhood. She stopped asking me and my brothers decided I did not like women. They were wrong and when I felt the need for one, I went up into the caves above the village to the Sanctuary of Avakama where the women were warm and welcoming.
When our only sister married, Kalevi declared she could not keep house for three husbands, two children, our aging mother and our two remaining fathers on her own and asked our mother’s permission to send for one of her sisters to come and help her. Her own mother had only two sons and three unmarried daughters, so could easily spare one. Our mother was reluctant, of course, for although she could see the justice of Kalevi’s case, she was wary of going against custom. It was not done for a wife to share her home with any other women apart from her husbands’ sisters and mother, and for good reason. In time, Kalevi was able to convince her that her older husbands adored her and would not desire any other woman, nor would she pose any temptation for her youngest. When our mother finally agreed, as long as the sister slept on her side of the house, I was dispatched to Kalevi’s village, three days’ walk away.
I put the request to Kalevi’s mother in her daughter’s own words. She agreed that her daughter needed help, but she, too, was loath to go against such a wise old custom. But even as she thought on it, we heard several female voices raised against each other and she conceded with a sigh. The only question remaining was which daughter to send. It was her sons’ wife who proposed the youngest and I could tell from the sharp looks exchanged around the dinner table that she was the one who gave her the most trouble. Her name was Taneli. She was small and slender, her hair a flaming red that was matched by the fire in her green eyes. The next morning, she was packed and ready to go before dawn, crying only when she embraced her youngest sister.
I liked her at once and was glad she would be living with us, but Taneli saw me as the instrument of her exile. Overcome, I think, with resentment and apprehension, she shook off any kindness I showed her and instead used me as an object to prove herself against. She refused to let me carry her bundle, never stopped to rest before me and taunted me to keep up with her. By noon on our third day, she was spent and I had to feign a sprained ankle to force her to rest, for I did not want her to greet my mother with her legs shaking beneath her. She derided me for my weakness but gently bound my foot and made camp for us. That evening by the fire, we exchanged songs and stories. I saw her laugh for the first time and my heart lifted.
Before then we had placed our bedrolls toe-to-toe about the campfire, but this night we set them head-to-head so we could keep talking.
‘You never did have a sprained ankle, did you?’ Taneli asked as we settled down.
‘I wanted you to rest.’
‘Oh, Naimar, you have shown me nothing but kindness and I have been such a snowbear. Though I don’t know why I was so angry. It’s all the same to me whether I play housemaid to my brothers or yours, and a change of scenery is no bad thing.’
I smiled at that, for the view of the high mountains that surrounded our valley was much the same from our house as hers.
‘What is your mother like? Is she kind like you?’
‘She can be if she takes to you.’
‘Then I’ll be on my best behaviour. No more sulking.’
‘Oh, by the way, you’ll be sleeping on her side of the house.’
‘Of course. Mustn’t tempt you.’ She chuckled. ‘I’m surprised, then, that they sent you to fetch me alone. A handsome young fellow like you.’
‘My family believes I don’t like women.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry…’
‘It isn’t true.’
‘Then why do you let them…? Oh, I see, so you don’t have to lie with Kalevi. Is she such a dragon?’
‘Not really, but things between us got off on the wrong foot and they’ve never been mended.’
‘So how do you…?’
‘The Sanctuary of Avakama.’
‘Of course.’ She was silent for a moment. ‘Perhaps I should go there.’
‘What choices do I have? Housemaid, whore or nun, and I don’t relish being locked up for the rest of my life.’
‘It can’t be all bad. A life of leisure with all one’s needs met in exchange for a few hours’ prayers and chanting. No wonder the nunneries and monasteries are full to the brim.’
‘Have you ever been tempted?’
‘Sometimes, when I visit my brother Gaspar, our eldest. He always looks so sleek and contented.’
‘I think my youngest sister might enter soon. My mother will be pleased to have her off her hands, I think.’ She sighed. ‘You never know, your mother might find me a brood of husbands. Are there any free in your village?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Then my only hope is if some poor woman dies in childbirth.’
‘I know, I know, but sometimes… Oh, Naimar, our ways are so unfair.’
‘I know.’ I had brooded on the same subject myself endlessly since our marriage. It was indeed unfair that a man should have to share his wife with all his brothers and that most women had to remain unmarried, but I could see no other way. The growing season was short, and our soils were poor and could not feed many mouths. If each son in a family were to marry a wife and have children, the land would have to be divided amongst them and there would be famine within a generation or two. And if all the land were passed to one son, his brothers would not marry at all with no land to feed a family. Our ways left many of us unsatisfied, but at least we all had enough to eat, scant as it may be.
Taneli’s thoughts must have followed the same path for I heard her sigh, ‘It is as it is.’
‘As it is, so it ever was and so it shall ever be.’
‘May the gods be praised. Goodnight, Naimar.’
‘Goodnight, Taneli.’ But I lay gazing up into the stars for some time before I slept.
Taneli bowed respectfully when I presented her to my mother the next day and I could see Mother was pleased even as she gave her a stern lecture as to her duties and conduct in her new home. Taneli listened obediently and, as soon as she had deposited her bundle by her bed, followed her sister down to the river to wash clothes while I joined my brothers in weeding our field of whitebeets, and so our lives fell back into the old rhythms.
Taneli and I saw little of each other during the day and were rarely alone, unless our paths crossed coming and going from the outhouses to the house, or backwards and forwards to the fields or the river, or perhaps working side by side at harvest time. They were the only times when I could talk and laugh freely. But then the long winter came and for the most part the family was confined to the house. Taneli and I saw more of each other, were more often close, but even more rarely alone. Yet even in those rare moments we barely exchanged a word and I suspected that she too had begun to feel her heart too full to speak.
One spring day, as I came across her by the river with her skirts hitched up and her blouse damp and clinging, carrying a basket of wet clothes on her head, I stretched out my hand to help her up the bank, but instead, of its own accord, it caressed her translucent cheek. She closed her eyes, leant into my hand and kissed it, and I, suddenly aware of what I had done, snatched it away. I could not meet her eye as she took a tree branch to steady herself and walked past me.
From that day, I could no longer deny the source of the desires that had sent me up to the Sanctuary of Avakama so often of late, but the next time I visited I was unable to lie with the woman and instead wept in her arms. Ever so kindly, she did not laugh at me, but instead led me deeper into the caves to the shrine of Avakama and bade me tell the Mother my troubles. I had never prayed at the shrine before, as worship of the goddess was as forbidden as my desires, but now I gazed on the clay statue, half as tall as a grown woman, painted white and red, a benign smile on her face, her plump body lined with two rows of round, long-nippled breasts, and threw myself at her feet. Thereafter, as I tossed and turned and sweated in my lonely bed, I offered my suffering up to the goddess and pleaded with her to either grant me my desire or rid me of it once and for all.
One day I found Taneli waiting for me by the barn. Without a word she beckoned me to follow her to the back of the building where a clump of bushes grew by its base. She parted the bushes and uncovered a wooden hatch. I crawled through it and found a small, low chamber in which were a few pieces of old lumber covered deep in dust and cobwebs. The ground fell away here and my forefathers had used the space under the floor to build a storage chamber that had since been forgotten.
‘Taneli, what are you thinking?’
‘What do you think I’m thinking?’
She pulled me towards her and kissed me hard. ‘I don’t care. I’m worn out with caring. I can’t go on like this. Can you?’
Too breathless to speak I shook my head and kissed her again.
She pushed me away as she heard her sister calling for her. ‘Give me a day or two to make it ready.’ And with that she ran off, leaving me trembling.
Four days later Taneli asked me to help her carry in a load of firewood and, looking over her shoulder, took me to our chamber. She had swept it out and smuggled in our bedrolls and a few candle stumps.
‘When and how?’ I asked.
‘We’ll have to watch and learn to make time. When my sister thinks I’m at the river, or your brothers think you’re in another field. Or even at night, for your mother and fathers sleep sound.’
At last, in our small chamber, I could expend my desires where they truly belonged. I poured my love into Taneli as I had never been able to before, and for several moons we served the goddess ardently, but she is not only the goddess of love, but also of fertility, and by harvest time Taneli was with child.
For more than a phase after she told me we tossed back and forth what could be done. Should we tell my mother and so the family? But harvest time was not a good time to make such an announcement when we all had to work so hard together day and night to prepare for the long winter. Why not wait until the winter? But we could imagine the daily arguments and bitterness with us all cooped up in the house for all those moons. Perhaps we could conceal Taneli’s condition until the end of winter for the child would be due in the spring. Surely the birth of a child would soften hearts. But could we keep such a secret for so long? Could we bear to stay apart all winter, for our little chamber would be buried in snow drifts and so lost to us? But why tell them at all? Why not run away now before anyone need know? But where could we go, especially now with winter snows so soon upon us?
But the decision was taken from our hands. One evening I came in from milking our karvel to hear shouting. Kalevi was berating Taneli. ‘How dare you? I gave you a home and this is how you repay me. They are my husbands. Mine!’
‘It was only Naimar and you have no time for him at all. Don’t you know he hates you? But he loves me. He loves me.’
I heard a loud slap and rushed in the door, only to be set upon by my brothers who had to be dragged from me by my fathers, while my mother tried to come between Taneli and her sister.
‘What is all this?’ my mother demanded.
Kalevi was trembling with fury. ‘That little whore is with child. She’s been throwing herself at my husbands and I will not have her in this house.’
Alvar pulled himself from his father’s grasp. ‘Don’t put this on me, Kalevi. I never touched the little floosy.’
‘And it wasn’t me, either,’ Jormar added. ‘I can’t stand the skinny little bitch. It must’ve been Naimar. Damned filthy liar, telling us all this time he preferred men, just so he could get under her skirts.’
‘I said nothing of the sort, you idiot, but you were too busy rutting to see the truth.’
My mother raised her hand. ‘Stop this! Taneli, is this true? Are you with child?’ Taneli nodded. ‘By Naimar?’ Taneli nodded again. ‘Naimar?’
‘Yes, it’s true. I’m not ashamed of it. I love her.’
‘Love? What has love to do with it?’
I went to Taneli and raised her from the floor as she clung to me, weeping. ‘I’m so sorry, Naimar. She found me retching and she guessed.’
Kalevi faced my mother, pointing at us. ‘I want her out of this house now. She is not to spend another night under this roof.’
‘Would you have me throw her into the streets in her condition? Think of the child.’
‘I don’t give a damn about her little bastard, and that runt can go with her.’
‘Gladly. We’ve suffered enough under this roof. We can leave tonight if you like.’
‘Enough, Naimar. Neither of you is going anywhere tonight.’
I breathed in relief and held Taneli closer, but my mother had not finished.
‘I warned you, Kalevi, but you would not listen. Now others have to suffer for your arrogance, while I do what must be done to preserve this family. Tomorrow, Taneli will be taken to the nunnery and, you, Naimar, you must go. Leave this house and this village for the shame you have brought on us.’
‘Please, no,’ Taneli moaned.
‘Mother, you cannot do this.’
‘You were always a fanciful, headstrong boy, Naimar, and this is where it has led you.’
‘And our child?’
‘If it is a girl, it can stay with Taneli in the nunnery. If it is a boy, we shall take him in.’ She held a hand up to stop Kalevi interjecting. ‘I will raise him myself if you will not have him.’
My mother allowed us one concession and let us spend our first, and last, night together. Not that either of us was in any state for love, but instead we clung together all night, wakeful and weeping. I would have had us run away together in the night, but the stronger of my fathers slept across our door.
The next morning, my fathers held me back as my brothers took Taneli away, now too worn out to resist or even shed tears. My mother would not even kiss me as I took up my bundle and headed for the village square and the road north.
Not two years earlier I had been there to see little Saamar off, but on this day, no one turned out to see me off, no one would envy my shame or my agony. But at last I had my wish. I had indeed given everything I had to leave the village, never to return to my brothers, our wife and the never-ending fieldwork. As for the long, lonely nights… I was taking them with me.
© Pauline Montagna 2022