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NEGOTIATING BRIDE PRICE/ Rachel Hillier Pratt ONE NIGHT, a year and a hatf Ulto our Solomon Island Peace Corps service, James, the school's vice principal, came to visit us. He announced himself near the front porch of our leaf-and-stick house. "Who-ee-oh," he cooed. My husband, Larry, and I emerged from behind our single wall to greet him on the porch. The weather was clear that night, the sky velvety black against the rim of the moon. Occasional clouds cast shadows as they passed between the bright moon and the earth. The air thumped out the rambunctious night tunes, the hooting and twittering squawk! of the jungle. James had entered from the side of our porch—a bark floor supported by bamboo-like studs and rafters. The walls behind us were large, overlapping palm fronds stitched with vine. James stood on the scraped betel-nut-bark floor a proper Melanesian distance from us, respecting an even larger personal space than Americans occupied. Women in the Solomon Islands shouldn't address men directly when another man is around, so Larry talked to James whUe I admired his wide, weUcaUused feet, the way his toes spread out. They'd obviously never been restrained by patent leather. "I have good news," James said. I looked up to see a wide, overly enthusiastic smile. He seemed excited or nervous. His dark eyes didn't match the strained joy of his face. James was from another island, Guadalcanal, and had a darker complexion than the MakUans of this island. He came from an entirely different culture and on his native island had spoken a different language than he did now, making him a sort of expatriate In his own country. Smiling whUe he talked, he told us that he and Kamarie were going to have a custom wedding. He thrust out his jaw, pointing his sharp chin, graced by a goatee, up and out toward the jungle. "Brother George and I wUl travel to the 'n'other side,'" he said with another chin point, "to buy custom bride price for Kamarie." Laughing suddenly, he slapped Larry hard on the back—a rather painful and annoying habit he'd picked up from Brother George. "Everything will be just fine," he said. Then he hopped off the porch and "heh heh heh'd" Into the darkness. "What the heU was that?" Larry asked me. The Missouri Review · 79 "Who knows," I said, shrugging. I meant, how were we to know why James had acted so strangely about the whole thing. After two years, we knew not to jump to conclusions; we regularly contended with unconscious cultural misunderstandings. And also, Solomon Islanders Ued for kicks. It was theU primary form of entertainment . During the first week of Melanesian language/culture classes, the Solomon Islander instructors spent a lot of time teaching us to say "tiar" in three different languages (asuge, alolei, hagaparu). Itwas Important that we practice the intonations: a-SUE-gay, a-LOW-lay, ha-ga-PA-ru, rising, peaking and then falling. No good to have us out m the world without knowing how to caU everybody a Uar. After a year and a half, we'd learned to think it, If not to say it. Whenever we heard any news, we Ustened with skepticism and waited until we saw proof that it was true. We went back inside our bush house to read books. We had a recently instaUed solar-powered Ught that we used for a few hours a night. We could read, though we had to contend with sparrow-sized dive-bomber moths that thought it was the moon. I picked up Midnight's Children but couldn't concentrate on Salman Rushdie's diction. Instead, I spaced off on the woven-leaf waU and imagined Kamarie, elegantly taU, dressed Ui a white, flowing wedding gown that undulated Ui the wind on the black, sandy ocean shore, with her kinky blond hair combed proudly. If Kamarie could have peered mto my mind, she would have laughed to see the bushgele I'd conjured up Ui a "doUy dress" on the toilet beach. It made me laugh out loud, too; some...


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