Benri, the chief of the Ainu village Isabella is staying in, has many wives. I wish I could tell you how many but Our Lady Traveler has not yet revealed it to us. There are seven additional women in the household but it’s not clear what all of the relationships are.
Really, it seems like the only wife who matters is the first one.* She’s made the night’s meal over the fire in the fireplace. She “cut wild roots, green beans, seaweed, and shred dried fish and venison, adding millet, water, and some strong smelling fish oil, and set the whole on to stew for three hours, stirring the ‘mess’** now and then with a wooden spoon.”
After dinner and conversation, the men retired to drink a lot of sake, offering it up to the gods.***
Isabella crawled under her mosquito net for the night. Her cot is separated from the rest of the big main room by a tapestry, so she is separated but not really. Ito and one of the Ainu men talked for a bit as she drifted off — but did first ask if it would keep her awake.
Later, after the house was asleep, Noma, the principle wife, lit a fish-oil lamp, “and by the dim light of this rude lamp sewed until midnight a garment of bark cloth which she was ornamenting for her lord with strips of blue cloth, and when I opened my eyes the next morning she was at the window sewing by the earliest daylight. She is the most intelligent-looking of all the women, but looks sad and almost stern, and speaks seldom. Although she is the principle wife of the chief, she is not happy, for she is childless, and I thought that her sad look darkened into something evil as the other wife caressed a fine baby boy.”
She also might be sad because her mother-in-law lives with them and, clearly, doesn’t like pretty much anyone but her son.
According to Isabella, the mother-in-law “is a weird, witch-like woman of 80, with shocks of yellow-white hair, and a stern suspiciousness in her wrinkled face. I have come to feel as if she had the evil eye, as she sits there watching, watching always, and for every knotting the bark thread like one of the Fates, keeping a jealous watch on her son’s two**** wives, and on other young women who come in to weave — neither the dullness not the repose of old age about her; and her eyes gleam with a greedy light when she sees sake, or which she drains a bowl without taking breath. She alone is suspicious of strangers, and she thinks the my visit bodes no good to her tribe. I see her eyes fixed upon me now, and they make me shudder.”
There is something about these passages that make the place come alive for me, maybe because the writing makes the dynamic clear. Is Isabella projecting some of her own baggage onto these women? Maybe? Or is this tension between the mom and the wife more the rule than the exception? And is there a second wife because the first one was barren?
So many questions.
* Again, I’m not saying that as people all of the other wives don’t have value, just that the main one seems to have to most responsibilities.
** Pretty sure she’s not calling it a mess, just using it to describe a meal like you would in the military.
*** There’s a larger entry that I’ll put together about this ritual.
**** Oh. I just needed to read further.