Just as history ignores the masses of Uytainese peasants, it has little time for Beic ones. We’ll focus on one Lé woman named Múr [mur24]; this story could be set any time in a period of three thousand years. (But not so much in the last thousand, in which technological and social change intensified. Even within the allowed period, changes due to metallurgy, writing, and the spread of Hyemsur have had to be sidestepped.)
Birth and infancy
Múr was born in the house belonging to her jɔ (family): a large circular structure that was mostly thatched roof, supported by wooden beams. Hammocks were strung here and there for sleeping; dried meat and other stored food hung from the ceiling. She was washed and handed to her mother in a hammock for feeding.
The household seemed to ignore her for three days, not even speaking of her; then it exploded into a storm of activity, culminating in a huge celebration with many rituals, gifts, and blessings. The birth of a daughter was a big event, but only once it was clear she was healthy.
Her infancy was a sort modern developmental psychologists can only dream about: plenty of contact with everyone in the family, nursing on demand, attention as soon as she cried, almost no punishment. She started receiving masticated food early, at six months or so, and wasn’t fully weaned till four.
She wore no clothes; she was taken outside the house to relieve herself, and was able to do this on her own before the age of two.
When she was four her mother had another child; this was a huge and unwelcome change in Múr’s life, since she saw her mother much less and wasn’t allowed to nurse. She was hardly ignored, though; she was looked after by almost the whole family , though most often by her father, her older sister, and her grandfather.
Her family farmed in a plot (brɔ̀ŋ) cleared from the jungle, adjoining a little stream. It was a quarter hour’s walk to the nearest neighbors— though this and longer walks were routine; there were frequent visits for business and pleasure, enough that she soon had friends in other settlements. She learned how the farm worked and began to help out with cleaning, weeding, removing stripcorn and tengbean husks, gathering eggs from the gallenes, watching babies.
The whole family was about 20 people in all; all the females were descendants of Grandmother Lâ, who had died before Múr was born. Her older daughter Prɛ̀n, Múr’s grandmother, was the new matriarch (háɔ). Prɛ̀n’s younger sister Trâo and her descendants were still part of the jɔ as it wasn’t large enough to split.
The family had a number of amusements: music, dancing, storytellng, games played with a wooden board and a set of tokens. The children also had toys, often carved for them by the adults: wooden animals, or small representations of adult tools or weapons.
Múr still went about naked, except for various decorations— earrings, beaded necklaces or bracelets. She wore a braided leather band around her waist that was useful for hanging things from, such as her prized possession, a knife. When she was eight, the family dog had puppies, and for some time she carried a puppy around in a sling, the way women carried babies.
By this time she was trusted to go about in the jungle by herself or with other children. They explored quite a bit, sometimes finding a clearing to create their own miniature brɔ̀ŋ, complete with a flimsy but serviceable house; or they might walk to another settlement and spend the night with friends. They were safe so long as they didn’t stray too far from established trails. Large animals rarely came close to human settlements, and the minor dangers of the jungle (from poisonous slugs to stinging vines to army ants) they had long ago learned to recognize and avoid.
Múr’s life changed when she was eleven. First, Prɛ̀n and Trâo decided it was time to move. A brɔ̀ŋ could only be cultivated for ten years or so. This involved a lot of exciting novelties: hiring a geomancer (insùŋdlán) to consult on the right spot; asking the neighboring families for help; trips to the market town for supplies; building the new house; hiring a pair of nawr oxen— frighteningly large and fierce-looking animals— to clear the land.
Secondly, this year marked Múr’s transition from girl (rɛ̀) to maiden (dǎr). In part this meant that she had to work a lot more. Unlike her brothers and male cousins, she’d always be part of this jɔ, so she had to know how to do everything from midwifery to horticulture to trading to knowing a hundred or more local plants and what they were good for.
There were also family traditions to learn and genealogies and stories to memorize. There were religious practices, so diverse that it’s hard to consider them one thing:
- Various taboos, superstitions, cantrips, and rituals, passed on without much rationalization. Why was it forbidden to eat brains? No one really knew (though the practice prevented the spread of certain diseases, and preserved the supply of brains for tanning).
- Stories about goddesses and gods, as well as rituals of appeasement or supplication. People mostly gravitated toward a deity whose personality matched their own; Múr chose the cheerful and helpful Ŋisú.
- Several times Múr was awakened in the middle of the night, dressed in a robe (an uncomfortable sensation), blindfolded, and taken into the jungle, where she was given secret instruction (sârpáɔ) that she was not allowed to repeat to males or children. Sometimes this was cosmological tales, or information about sex or the afterlife; sometimes she was given drugs and experienced strange visions.
- Shamans had access to the nɔŋǎ, the spirit realm. They were consulted on grave occasions, such as when someone was sick and ordinary herblore and rituals failed, or when it was necessary to speak to the late Grandmother Lâ.
Múr and her friends indulged in some amount of sexual play— generally when they were alone, as adults discouraged it if they saw it. It wasn’t considered very serious before menstruation; once this began, when Múr was about fifteen, she was strongly discouraged from actually having sex. This was the subject of one of the more frightening sârpáɔ, and Múr was careful to follow the prescription. (The boys she played with were younger and followed her lead.)
When she was eighteen, the family began to seriously look around for a potential husband. Everyone older than Múr had advice or had a candidate to propose. There were a number of rather awkward visits to neighboring families or to the market town. Múr knew many of the boys already, but it was one thing to play or talk with them, quite another to be evaluating them as husbands. Nonetheless she made her opinions clear to her family afterwards, especially negative ones.
The final choice, after nearly a year of looking, was a boy named Nàŋ— an old playmate and a cheerful fellow who got along well enough with the family. He was about three years younger than Múr. The marriage started started with a big meal in Nàŋ’s brɔ̀ŋ. A priestess offered rituals and blessings, and Múr’s family gave generous gifts to Nàŋ’s. Then the whole party walked to Múr’s brɔ̀ŋ for another meal, lubricated with plenty of heady bǎɔsa wine and milky ŋássa. There were many embarrassing jokes, till finally, at sunset— with the whole family watching and laughing— the two newlyweds removed their loincloths and got into a hammock together.
Fortunately, they weren’t expected to perform for the onlookers. Without lights, people didn’t stay up long after dark; soon most everyone was asleep except for Múr and Nàŋ. Lying naked together in the darkness, the couple found it not so difficult to have sex for the first time.
The first few weeks were fun; it was like an extended sleepover with the added novelty of sex. Then it sank in that Nàŋ was here for good; for a time he missed his family and she missed her freedom. After a quarrel, Nàŋ set up his own hammock.
She was upset to learn, a few months later, that Nàŋ was sleeping with her cousin. Her mother and her sister were sympathetic, but pointed out that that was just how men were. This alerted Múr to observe more carefully what happened after dark, or who disappeared into the bush during the day, and she realized that almost no one stuck to their spouse, though they did keep to their age group. She looked at her own father with new eyes, wondering if he was really her biological father. She decided she’d rather not know.
She was embarrassed now when the newer men in the family— her sister’s and cousins’ husbands— looked at her frankly and even flirted with her. But finally she realized that nothing would happen unless she showed interest back. Perhaps inevitably, she ended up sleeping with her cousin’s husband— the partner of the cousin Nàŋ had slept with. He was older and stronger than Nàŋ and had a beard, which fascinated her for some reason.
Just a week after this she found she was pregnant. When she confessed her worries to her mother, she asked for some details, then laughed; the baby could only be Nàŋ’s. Even if that weren’t the case, social custom dictated that he was the father.
The pregnancy and birth repaired her relationship with Nàŋ. He was a comfortable presence and helpful with the baby. while her cousin’s husband was clearly just a fling.
Múr was now a lɔ, a married woman, a full member of the family. It wasn’t appropriate to wear flowers and feathers any more— those were for unmarried girls. Instead she wore jewelry, made of metals, gems, or shells— all things that couldn’t be found locally and had to be acquired in trade, thus emblems of wealth.
She nursed her baby, often carried it around in a sling, and slept with it, but in a short time the baby spent more than half its time with other people: Nàŋ, Múr’s sister and younger brother, older relatives. Múr welcomed this, as there was plenty to do. Tending the plot wasn’t that laborious, but preparing food was an endless chore, and there were other things to make: pots, baskets, rope, mats, hammocks, loincloths, sandals, musical instruments, toys for the children. The heaviest work, such as cutting trees and erecting the pillars and beams for houses, was done by the men.
Both sexes could go fishing, or hunting for small game, using bow and arrow. Occasionally there was a large predator around— mostly boars or jaguars— and the men gleefully took the lead in hunting these (their right from primeval times). This could take a few days, and often more jugs of ŋássa than animals were disposed of.
Periodically there were trips to the market town, a welcome change of pace. There was always something to sell— extra petay cloth, yams, keng oil, ŋássa, dried fish, herbs and spices, gallene eggs— and there were things to buy as well, from leather to cheese to salt to medicine to metal tools. There were people to see, novelties to watch, sometimes specialists to consult.
The major crops— sorghum, stripcorn, and tengbeans— were sold here too, but this was more complex, not only because they were harder to transport (often a wagon had to be hired), but because they were taxed. The family’s land wasn’t their own; it belonged to a jinlɔ or noblewoman, and she was entitled to a tenth of the produce. She had a representative at the grain merchant’s who accepted this share and gave out tokens indicating compliance. A jɔ could be required to show the tokens from the last few years— it was a major crisis if they were lost or stolen.
In Múr’s region, the usual currencies were salt, seashells, or glass beads— easily transported and hoarded items not produced locally. But many transactions were more easily handled with barter.
Life wasn’t always calm; one year the lè or monsoon didn’t come and most of the crops failed; the family subsisted mostly on dried food and hardroot; half a dozen children and two adults died.
Sometimes family life flared up as well. While she was bearing children Múr mostly stayed with Nàŋ, but in later years they drifted apart; he bonded most closely with the cousin he had slept with years ago. Múr didn’t really replace him, but when she wanted sex she often ended up with her sister’s husband. But this was minor compared to the problems of one of Trâo’s daughters: her husband couldn’t get along with her or with anyone and he ended up leaving the family. That was traumatic enough, but it also offended his birth family, and that was a problem because it was their nawr ox that Múr’s family usually hired.
Grandmother Prɛ̀n finally died, in her late sixties. She was buried quickly— bodies don’t last long in the jungle—and a few days later there was a funeral service attended by a large crowd.
After a decent interval, it was decided that the jɔ should split. Prɛ̀n’s and Trâo’s lineages felt a little more distant now that Prɛ̀n was gone; and the acrimony over the departed husband didn’t help. But the main reason was the size of the family. There were five women in Múr’s generation (Múr and her sister, and Trâo’s three granddaughters), and all had children— there were more than thirty people in the family, more than the house and plot could easily support.
The split was a major undertaking, as two new brɔ̀ŋs had to be established; it was also necessary to get approval from the goddesses, deceased Grandmother Lâ, and the landlady. The family had to go into debt to cover its expenses, though this was partly offset by a gift from the jinlɔ, a practice that encouraged new settlement.
It was difficult for Múr to move away from people she had known all her life. Nàŋ faced an even harder decision, whether to live with Múr (and his children), or the cousin he had bonded to. He ended up choosing the cousin; fortunately, another cousin-in-law made the opposite switch as he preferred Múr’s sister to his original wife. The two new families could easily visit— they were just a half-hour’s walk away— but further sexual mixing was discouraged. (Existing liaisions were tolerated if discreet, but new ones were not.)
Múr’s mother was now the háɔ of the new jɔ. In some ways this was the most enjoyable phase of Múr’s life. She and her sister were respected elders and religious authorities; the hard work could be left to younger people; she could relax as much as she wanted, and spend more time with the young children.
There was no retirement in Lé life: Múr remained active, and grew only more important with age, especially after her mother died and she was the second-ranking family member after her sister. She grew arthritic, and hard of hearing, which simply meant that she could give up tedious tasks like husking tengbeans, and could continually insist that the youngsters repeat themselves.
She started to complain about pains in the abdomen; some medicinal herbs helped with the pain, but the blood in her stool showed that she wasn’t cured. She died a few months later, nearly sixty.
She was buried just outside the house, and while the family lived there they would greet her or leave small offerings for her; but after the brɔ̀ŋ was next moved she existed only in memories.