Joyce Godwing Grubbs
Taken during the time the author was writing the book.
Marriage By Threes
Leslie Braden looked at her reflection in the mirror. Mentally she began to give herself a lecture on self pity. The sight of her tearful face, swollen and blotchy, was too reminiscent of "the old Leslie Braden" she had left behind.
"Time to get these romantic notions out of your head girl", she lectured her image. "It's not like you've been asked to do something terrible. The marriage isn't real. And it isn't like there is someone in the wings waiting".
Leslie thought about her life choices. After the fiasco in the States, she had fled to Africa joining the medical team of a remote mission in the rain forest. Not exactly the kind of choice you make if you are husband shopping. She turned from the mirror still contemplating her dilemma.
A smile touched the delicate corners of Leslie's mouth as she pictured the "eligible men" in the compound. All were pygmy natives and by American standards, probably some would be considered down right ugly. Leslie thought that was harsh, but she recognized she was predudiced as she was drawn to their hearts, not their faces. Still she thought it was good she wasn't being aked to marry one of them in order to get a pilot into the country as a supply plane jockey.
She finished her packing in a thoughtful mood. Her romantic nature had gotten her into trouble back home. She sighed deeply remembering her hasty departure from the States to the safety of work here in the compound. Father Michael had been instrumental in getting her into the country, putting her nursing abilities to work. She didn't see how she could refuse him a favor now, in his time of need. Even such an odd one.
She did fully credit him with keeping her so busy she hadn't even thought of Tina Ramsey or her death ,until a week ago. That memory had catapulted her into the mental anguish of remembering, Duke Chisholm.
As though the physical act of jerking away would make the memory disappear, she jerked away from her suitcase and turned toward the doorway. Fr. Mike was standing there with a penetrating look on his face.
"Oh, I didn't hear you come in" she faltered.
"From the look of your face, I'd say I didn't come soon enough".
He walked to her and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Now tell old Mike the problems. If you want to make it official, I'll light a candle, and you can confess", he teased.
"Oh don't be silly. It's nothing. Doesn't every bride cry on her wedding day?"
"I don't want to shock you, but no. And this isn't your wedding day. Tomorrow is. And according to tribal custom, the bride should not cry. She should be happy because she's been chosen. At your age, no one in this tribe would want you. Twenty four is well over the marriageable age in these parts. By about eight or ten years.
"Thanks alot for reminding me that I'm an old maid. That's another thing, Mike. I know this whole thing is a matter of legal manuvers to get our pilot into the Congo area, but why haven't you told me any thing about my "proxy husband". I mean, you always hated being the bearer of bad tidings, but is he that bad?"
"Ah, the eternal inquisitive female. True to her gender she tries to find out everything in advance so she will have the upper hand in the relationship. Well, my dear, you will just have to be patient and wait. I have no intention of telling you anything about him. After all, you must admit that it lends to the situation to have a little mystery. And I am hard put at times for a diversion , so I take my entertainment where I can find it."
"Really. One would think you were an overgrown kid pulling a practical joke instead of a priest going about the Church's business. Aren't you even going to tell me his name?"
"Your name too, remember?"
"How can I forget? It's not often someone gets married to someone without knowing the name, never having spoken to him and whose own married name, she doesn't know."
To say nothing of the fact, you're going to marry him for the second time tomorrow.,"
"Oh, but this time I shall meet him and then I shall ask him his name. Our name, rather. Even if it is only temporary, I want to know what it is. It will be fun telling my grandchildren about it someday."
"Father Mike looked at Leslie and smiled a knowing smile, but he said nothing. Infuriated, Leslie grabbed for a pillow and began to beat him with it. Yelling at one another, they traded blows until they fell into spasms of laughter.
"It's a good thing that the Bishop can't see you now. He would think you terribly un-dignified."
"He'd be right too." panted Fr. Mike. "But we better get moving, or you're not going to have your love nest ready when the groom arrives".
Leslie was suddenly very sober,
"Mike, I know you will understand what I'm going to say. It's just that, even though this isn't really a marriage, it brings so much back to my mind. Things that could have been. It really hurts when I realize that I may never know a real marriage.
"Les, never second guess God".
Fr. Mike looked into her serious, upturned face. How could anyone so beautiful and gentle hide their life away in a jungle? Had he done the right thing in letting her come here to be with him? Maybe he should have made her stay in the States and face things . It might have made her stronger. By now, she might have been married and happy.
Lesie picked up a framed picture and turned to Fr. Mike.
"You know, I was packing this away so there won't be any questions. I don't want to have to talk about it with a stranger."
A pang of conscience hit Fr. Mike and he shifted uneasily.
"Les, you know I would never knowingly do anything that would hurt you. I've tried to be objective where you're concerned, and bringing you here may not have been the wisest thing I ever did. I care about what happens to you, and if I make a wrong decision on your behalf, remember that the largest part of me is human. I'm a priest, but I am fallible."
Leslie moved to him and put her arms around his neck.
"Mike, I love you and I know you would do only the things that are good for me. I couldn't have survived without you after Tina died. I was terrified and confused, not knowing real from fantasy. Coming here saved me. Don't ever doubt that. These last two years are behind me now. Whatever my future holds, I have you to thank."
"I hope thanks is what you'll want to give me."
Pulling away from her embrace, he pointedly snapped the suitcase shut . He put it under the bed.
"There, out of sight, out of mind,."
"Right", she declared determinedly.
"Now we better get moving before the Sisters come in and drag me out. They're all looking forward to the festivities, and they're so glad they won't be sacrificed to the marriage, so they were treating me like a heroine, Even Sister Evangeline has offered me her prized handkerchief of Belgium lace."
Fr. Mike laughed as he tried to picture Les in a native wedding ceremony, carrying the ornate handkerchief.
"You accepted of course?"
"Of course. I learned five minutes after arriving here that you're only a figure head. Sister Evangeline is really in control here. Even our local witch doctor crosses over to the other side of the compound area to avoid a confrontation with her."
They laughed as they left to meet the Sisters and tribesmen. As they approached the assembled group, Leslie forced herself to take on the carefree attitude she was known for. She smiled at the assembled group.
"Well, what's first on the agenda?"
Abe Chisholm looked down on the dense forest below with a cynical smile. To himself, but aloud he stated " Well, here I go again".
He checked the dials on the plane dash and looked again for the air strip Fr. Mike had said would be completed before his arrival.
"Fr. Mike". A grin spread across Abe's usually grim face as he thought of how that fiery little priest had convinced him to return to flying solo missions in the jungle. Then, the Padre had done the seemingly impossible by signing him up to go to Africa. Bitterly, he remembered after Viet Nam, his vow he would neither fly solo again, nor fly in the jungle. Now, here he was, doing both.
Suddenly, over the heavy concentration of trees on his left, he saw the crude runway. Luckily, he was a good pilot, he thought honestly. There were a lot of pilots he knew that could have busted up a plane on just that kind of strip. He'd have to take the natives back later and teach them the old "smooth down the runway trick".
Abe noticed a small group of natives clustered at the near end of the strip. He strained his eyes to pick out the little red haired priest who had gotten him into all of this. The object of his search came into focus. Fr. Mike , in his usual exuberant style, was waving wildly and jumping around as a kid at this first circus might do. The small group behind him began to wave.
"Ah, yes" he thought out loud. "And then there are the good Sisters. I wonder which one of those is my beloved wife?"
Abe found himself laughing out loud, and that was something he had rarely done in the last year or so. Maybe this was going to be good for him after all. Just like the little priest had predicted.. He buzzed the field and took a closer look at the little group of nuns.
"Oh, brother" he laughed ruefully. "It's just as a thought. One is a little porker, one could be my grandma, and the other one will tower over me by half a foot. "
He began to whistle a tune he had heard in his childhood, and the words of "Count Your Many Blessings" took on new meaning. He was counting his blessings that this marriage to the unknown, unseen' Sister' of Fr. Michael's, was in name only and temporary.
He began his second approach to the runway and said a quick, "Heaven help me" as he lowered the plane and realized that the strip which had looked rough at best, from higher in the air, had become a veritable straightaway of ruts when seen closer up.
The approach had been right, the landing under normal circumstances perfect. But, as the plane taxied to the far end of the strip, the wheels hit a rut which jerked the plane out of control . Despite the fact that Abe had been giving it all his physical control and experience, trying to keep it on the crude runway, it shot across the runway.
The last thing he saw before the darkness overtook him was Fr. Michael heading for cover, and the Sisters scattering to the four winds with very little decorum. The first thing he saw on his shakey return to conciousness, was a fuzzy group of individual shadows over him. He heard voices, women's voices speaking in low, calm, monotones. The words were't quite right, somehow. They had some sort of accent, and seemed to chant, rather than speak.
Fr. Micheal's voice began to penetrate through the void, and as it became more distinctive. The grey mist began to clear, and he saw Fr. Micheal's face anxiously peering into his. The very fact that such a look could appear on Fr.
Michael's face caused Abe to quip, "What's the matter Father,offering plates come back empty?"
Suddenly the air was filled with infectious laughter, tinged only slightly with relief.
"He's okay. I shouldn't have been worried in the first place, since the injury was to his head."
Abe chuckled and began to take note of his surroundings. He must have been out for a few minutes, considering he was no longer in the plane. He realized that the Sisters had quit praying and were looking at him with curious stares. Unless he missed his guess, there was more than just a little amusement in the looks that they were giving him;
"Well, we better get the bridegroom to his feet or he's going to be late to the wedding" Fr. Michael had made that pronouncement as calmly as he might announce Mass. For a minute Abe thought he might be slipping back into
"What did you say?" he quizzed.
The twinkle in Father Michael's eyes confirmed to Abe that he had deliberately used that statement as a little shock treatment.
"Nothing for you to worry about, old son. Just a little complication I hadn't counted on, but easily remedied,"
Abe remembered the "last little complication" spoken of so lightly that had been "easily remedied" by Fr. Michael. It had led to the arrangement for him to gain entrance into the African nation by virtue of marrying someone already in the country. In this case, his unknown wife by a proxy ceremony, while separated by thousands of miles
Again, he scanned the faces of the nuns, and wondered which one was his. As though they read his mind, they began to speak in rapid French to one another and giggle. Giggle. Abe thought only teen age girls did that. Certainly he had never expected it of nuns. He had always pictured nuns to be so reserved and withdrawn. But no, they were giggling like teenagers and he couldn't understand a word they were saying.
Father Michael seemed to sense Abe's surprise ,and in the midst of his own merriment, he spoke to the Sisters who immediately became contrite. Two of them only spoke French. That was Sister Marcel, the little porker and Sister Sophia who could have played basketball for the WBA. Only Sister Evangeline, the grandma of the group, spoke English.
Sister Evangeline chose that moment to interrupt his thoughts with the announcement that they must get under way. Someone she called Chief Yatola Me' , would be arriving for the ceremony and must not be kept waiting. Before Abe could voice his question about the ceremony, Fr. Michael spoke.
"Yes, we must get on to the compound, and I'm sure that Abe need's a little time to check the damage to his plane."
The plane. Good Lord, he had forgotten all about that plane and the accident. He didn't even know how much of an accident he had or the damage that night have been done.His first few steps toward the plane convinced him that he would have to move slowly. He wasn't sure how much of the dizziness was from the crack on his head, and how much was the heat and humidity. He'd forgotten what that was like in the tropics, and knew he'd have to take it slow and become acclimated again.
Examination of the plane showed there was little damage and that while the wheels had taken most of the blow, the left wing tip had sustained a bit of damage which he could repair with the tools in the kit. God must have been flying with him or gave him an angel and he reported that to the priest. Fr. Michael was relieved by the news, and expressed appreciation that Abe knew who to credit. Abe grinned and went about gathering his personal effects. But he hadn't forgotten his goal was to get Fr. Mike to clear up the insinuations about another ceremony,
Clarifying the insinuations was not exactly what Fr. Mike did, it was more of a confirmation.
"You see, Abe" he began using his most soothing voice, "the same principle that brought about the need to have you married by proxy in order to get you admitted to the country, bow dictates that you be married again, by tribal law. "
He let that sink in.
"Tribal law." exclaimed Abe. "What tribal law. Who's tribal law?"
Suddenly weakness overcame Abe and he sat down quickly.
"Better slow down here, Padre. I think this head of mine has gone off to do it's own thing. I mean, you don't mean a native tribe or some such?"
Much more hesitantly, he added, "Do you?"
"I'm sorry Abe, I know this has already been quite a day one way and another, and if I had any choice I would have saved this for later, when you were more oriented and settled. But, you know we've had to do some fast talking just to get you into the country. The government here is really on shaky grounds, and they're very suspicious of any strangers who come into the area. Especially, if they have ties to any country with big political muscle and military experience. We hurdled all the objections they put in front of us by getting you to marry someone who had been in residence for at least a year in this country,"
A knowing smile came across the Father's face
"And I know to a confirmed bachelor like you, that this is the ultimate sacrifice, but it was the only way. And we must have a pilot to survive. I think you know how unstable the continent is, and if anything happens, I would like to think I had a way to get the Sisters out. Just, in case there was a problem like a few years ago in the Congo."
"Father, you can skip the sales pitch. I already bought or I wouldn't be here. Just pass over all that trip trap and tell me why I have to be hitched, again."
He teasingly added "And will it be the same Sister, or do I get a harem?"
"Abe, Abe, what am I going to do with you? Taking the Holy State of Matrimony so lightly".\
Still laughing, he continued to explain.
"You see, I overlooked one thing. I got you into the country, and I got you into our area of mission work, but I forgot that these tribes are a law unto themselves and they would want a say in things."
"What do you mean? That some head honcho native doesn't want me here?"
"Im' not so sure that it's so much that they don't want you here, as they don't want you here as,.....uh, .....competition."
A look of sheer disbelief took over Abe's face.
"You mean those ugly little rascals I saw near the strip before I landed, think I'd be after their women?"
Fr. Michael was totally out of control with laughter.
"Oh I am sorry. He mopped at the tears on his face, "But you should see the look on you face. And remember, beauty, be it men or women, is in the eye of the beholder. There are some right handsome natives in these tribes, and you may not hold appeal to their women."
The humor in the situation finally reached Abe and he began to laugh.
"Okay Father, how do I go about reassuring this group of Romeo's that I have no wicked designs on their women?"
His composure somewhat restored, Fr. Mike explained.
" In their, defense, I should point out that the only people around, other than the tribe's people, are of the church, They are un-married. We are able to convince them that this was fit and proper to our calling. But, bringing in someone not connected with the church, was a little bit too hairy to try and explain away. These people put great store in your worth, as measured by the family life and marriage you make."
"I see where you're coming from, my friend. I guess it would have been beneath your spiritual dignity to try and pass me off as a celibate priest?"
"Frankly Abe, the fact that your demeanor is a little out of keeping with that image, and in recognition of the fact, that you wouldn't even know the first thing about a mass, not being of our faith, I felt the choice was obvious. You must marry by tribal custom and law the wife you already have by proxy."
"And that's another thing. Don't you think it was rude not to introduce me to the fortunate lady of my dreams. I mean, I'm not sure which one of those Sister's is my wife."
"Oh, good heavens. How negligent of me. You mean I never even sent you her picture?" he asked innocently.
"Padre, you never even told me her name. All you did was propose this crazy scheme to me, brainwash me into accepting it, and then send me umpteen million forms to fill out in triplicate."
"How absolutely remiss of me" teased the lttle priest.
But, Abe was sure he caught just a hint of a grin on his face and the voice lacked sincerity.Jumping to his feet, Fr. Michael became suddenly concerned about the cargo, the plane, the time and the whole gamut of concerns one can think of to fuss about when one is trying to change the subject.
"Okay, I get the drift. You don't want to give me another shock too soon. But, I assure you that while I am sure those Sisters of yours are all very nice and all kind to animals, I just want to know , which one is the real Mrs. Abe Chisholm?"
With the innocence of a new born babe, Fr. Michael said, "None of them"
He then walked toward an ancient old land rover inviting Abe to be transported to the next piece of the puzzle.