THE SHRINE OF TEMPTATION
The name his own people called him was Lallayall. That was, of course, just his calling-name, and because it meant almost the same thing that he meant to us, we called him Lucky.
This was no transgression of courtesy, or culture-arrogance on our part. His true name, after the fashion of his people, was already long, and growing, a descriptive catalogue useful only for records and ritual occasions. A calling-name may be anything derived from the whole, so long as it suits, and the called one will answer it. Lucky was delighted to have a new nickname from us, in our language.
He was, when we came to the island, just eight years old as we reckon. His people count differently; to them, he was halfway through his Third Decade; in five more seasons, he would undergo the Apprenticeship Rites that would end his first age. Either way, he was just past the midpoint between babyhood and puberty. Like most of his race--and all others but us on the island--he was brown-skinned and dark-eyed, black-haired. Like most of his age, he was eager, questioning, rational, mystical, obedient, rebellious, clumsy and courteous, graceful and quick. Like too few of them, he was generally happy and always healthy, serenely certain of parental love, highly intelligent and well-informed.
Certain of these things, and all of them to a degree, were the product of island culture. Lucky lived in a world he accepted as having been designed primarily for his own benefit and, largely, it had. Among his people, there were no fears, hungers, troubles, or questions that could not be voiced, and none--within the limits of the island's capacity--that would not be answered to the best extent of the child's understanding. All children were swift and bright; but among them, Lucky was especially blessed. Thus, his name.
He was the first in his age group to find his apprenticeship. When we came, he already knew what he wanted. A short time before that, he had spent his days, like the others, wandering from hunters to planners to makers to teachers to planters to singers, spreading his wonders and askings impartially. The others still wandered, multiply curious, questioning the weavers and fishers and carpenters, healers and painters and crafters of food. It might be three or four seasons yet until, one by one, they singled out the preferred occupations to which they'd be bound in training at First Rites.
But Lucky already knew what he wanted. Before we came, he went, day after day, to the Shrine, or the House of Shrinemen, squatting patiently in the courtyard, waiting for the chance to carry sand (for stone scrubbing) or water or polishing cloths or firewood for a Shrineman, listening in silence to such talk as was carried on in his presence, storing up questions to ask them, hallall, when the time should be ripe. Part of each day he sat at the feet of the Figures, self-hypnotized by gleaming amber and blue, spinning out glorious fantasies of the Rebirth.
(His own fascination with the Shrine and Shrinemen, and the weight of mystery he gave to some words and phrases--which I have tried to translate with capitals and occasional sonorous phrases in this account--led us later to a misunderstanding of some proportion. But, hallall....)
His persistence was already recognized in the village. The other children first, then his mothers and fathers, had noticed his absence from forest, fields, and shops. Then the Shrinemen began teasing him with familiar fondness at evening gatherings and rest-day games, so that everyone started to realize what he had chosen. And if it was something of a shock to parents and teachers, the boy did not know it.
Perhaps because we settled as close to the Shrine as we dared do--perhaps out of the same fascination with the unknown that had drawn him to the Shrine--Lucky was our first and most frequent visitor, and became, either in his own person or as interpreter, our chief source of information about both the Shrine and the islanders. He did not, at first, realize that our preoccupation with the Shrine was as great as his own; we did not share his confident artlessness in question-asking. I do not know just how he explained us to himself at first, or whether he even tried to. Perhaps he just waited to learn what he wanted to know--hallall.
It was not passive waiting. The first day, after his first attempt to speak with us, he sat in what must have been stunned bemusement for several hours, pondering the incredible fact of a second language. (We saw the squatting inward-turned boy as "a stolid impassive indigene." I blush to admit that the phrase is from my own notebook.) Then, having fully accepted that the phenomenon was not--obviously--impossible, but only previously unknown, it was he who approached us with the second overture.
We were just setting up the hand bellows for blowing foam into the camp wallforms. Lucky walked over, watched, walked away, and came back with a round stone, flattened on one side, just right to prop up the foot that kept slipping.
He held it out. We all stopped and stared. George Lazslo was quickest. He reached out and took the stone, smiling. Lucky smiled back.
"Thank you," George said.
The boy touched the stone. "Sannacue?" His small brown face seemed to turn gold with joy of his smile. "Mertz," he said, tapping the stone. "Mertz--sannacue?"
Henry started to correct him, but Jenny and I both realized at the same time that it was better to let the error ride, and not confuse the issue. (Starting as a joke, we all got to where we found sannacue as natural a word as stone.)
The principle was established, and it was astonishing to us how rapidly he learned. Jenny was our linguist, and predictably proved quicker than the rest of us in learning the island language, but when they sat exchanging names and phrases, it was she, far more often than he, who had to be told twice. Once he heard it, and was sure he understood, he simply did not know how to forget. (For her fascinating account of the process, see pp. 324-359, in "Language in the Isolated Culture," Dr. Jennifer R. Boxill, S&S, 1985).
As soon as the bare minimum of mutual language was effective, Lucky (again) initiated the next step in cultural exchange. He had been showing up at the camp just after breakfast each morning; this day he came an hour earlier, with a basket of woven reeds on his arm. It was my day for KP, and I was opening a can of bacon when he came up and touched my arm, showing me the basket. "Try my food?" he said.
The basket was filled with fresh steamed fish, still hot, each on its own new-baked half-loaf of native meal bread. At the bottom, five small pots of blue clay--the same stuff the Guardian Figure was molded in--held a savory vegetable sauce to be poured over fish and bread.
It was very good, but that seemed, at the time, irrelevant. The greatest significance of the gift was learning that our self-appointed guide and mascot was, it seemed, fully accredited in his friendship by the--so far--invisible parents and elders of the village.
I should say, "parents or elders," because we were uncertain. When we asked if he'd prepared the food himself, he laughed uproariously and then said, with ostentatious patience, "Mothers cook food." Whether he meant mothers as a class (and in this case his mother), or several women of the class, mother, we did not know.
Both assumptions were wrong, as it happened. He meant his mothers.
It took us most of six months to reach a level of communication at which mistakes of this sort could be cleared up. And from that time on, it seemed as though most of our discussions consisted of substituting closer approximations for old misconceptions. The more we learned, the more complex was what we had to learn. As for Lucky's wrong assumptions about us, they took even longer for him to recognize, and more time yet for us to realize he'd had them. We had been on the island the best part of a year before we gained any comprehension of the extent to which our presence had affected the boy himself. And through all that time, we so carefully leaned over backwards to avoid showing special interest in the Shrine, that we had never learned of Lucky's particular infatuation with it!