Thursday, October 05, 2006

Johnny Lingo and the Ten-Cow Wife

"So tweasuwe youw wife--"
--The Impressive Clergyman
I read this story years ago in the Reader's Digest. It made a significant impact on me. One of the main keys of a happy marriage is to treat your spouse like the person you want them to be. I've never understood people who got married and then complained about the "ball and chain" for the rest of their lives. Statistics have shown that evangelical Christians have marriages no better than society as a whole. This is a tragic shame, and a horrible witness. God wants our marriages to represent His love for His people. I hope this little story reminds us of how we should be treating the person who should be the closest one in our lives.

"Get Johnny Lingo to help you find what you want and then let him do the bargaining," advised Shenkin as I sat on the veranda of his guest house and wondered whether to visit Nurabandi. "He'll earn his commission four times over. Johnny knows values and how to make a deal."

"Johnny Lingo." The chubby boy on the veranda steps hooted the name, then hugged his knees and rocked with shrill laughter.

"Be quiet," said his father and the laughter grew silent. "Johnny Lingo's the sharpest trader in this part of the Pacific."

The simple statement made the boy choke and almost roll off the steps. Smiles broadened on the faces of the villagers standing nearby.

"What goes on?" I demanded. "Everybody around here tells me to get in touch with Johnny Lingo and then breaks up. It is some kind of trick, a wild-goose chase, like sending someone for a left-handed wrench? I there no such person or is he the village idiot or what? Let me in on the joke."

"Not idiot," said Shenkin. "Only one thing. Five months ago, at festival time, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a wife. He paid her father ten cows!"
He spoke the last words with great solemnity and I knew enough about island customs to be thorougly impressed. Two or three cows would buy a fair-to-middling wife, four or five a highly satisfactory one.

"Ten cows!" I said. "She must have been a beauty that takes your breath away."
"That's why they laugh," my guest said. "It would be kindness to call her plain. She was little and skinny with no--ah--endowments. She walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked, as if she was trying to hide behind herself. Her cheeks had no color, her eyes never opened beyond a slit and her hair was a tangled mop half over her face. She was scared of her own shadow, frightened by her own voice. She was afraid to laugh in public. She never romped with the girls, so how could she attract the boys?"

"But she attracted Johnny?"

This is the story Shenkin told me:

"All the way to the council tent the cousins were urging Sam to try for a good settlement. Ask for three cows, they told him, and hold out for two until you're sure he'll pay one. But Sam was in such a stew and so afraid there'd be some slip in this marriage chance for Sarita that they knew he wouldn't hold out for anything. So while they waited they resigned themselves to accepting one cow, and thought, instead, of their luck in getting such a good husband for Sarita. Then Johnny came into the tent and, without waiting for a word from any of them, went straight up to Sam Karoo, grasped his hand and said, "Father of Sarita, I offer ten cows for your daughter." And he delivered the cows.

"As soon as it was over Johnny took Sarita to the island of Cho for the first week of marriage. Then they went home to Narabundi and we haven't seen them since. Except at festival time, there's not much travel between the islands."

This story interested me so I decided to investigate.

The next day I reached the island where Johnny lived. When I met the slim, serious man, he welcomed me to his home with a grace that made me feel like the owner. I was glad that from his own people he had respect unmingled with mockery.

I told him that his people had told me about him.

"They speak much of me on that island? What do they say?"

"They say you are a sharp trader," I said. "They also say the marriage settlement that you made for your wife was ten cows." I paused, then went on, coming as close to a direct question as I could. "They wonder why."

"They say that?" His eyes lighted with pleasure. He seemed not to have noticed the question. "Everyone in Kiniwata knows about the ten cows?"

I nodded.

"And in Narabundi everyone knows it, too." His chest expanded with satisfaction. "Always and forever, when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo paid ten cows for Sarita."

So that's the anwer, I thought with disappointment. All this mystery and wonder and the explanation's only vanity. It's not enough for his ego to be known as the smartest, the strongest, the quickest. He had to make himself famous for his way of buying a wife. I was tempted to deflate him by reporting that in Kiniwata he was laughed at for a fool.

And then I saw her. Through the glass-beaded portieres that simmered in the archway, I watched her enter the adjoining room to place a bowl of blossoms on the dining table. She stood still a moment to smile with sweet gravity at the young man beside me. Then she went swiftly out again. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Not with the beauty of the girl who carries fruit. That now seemed cheap, common, earthbound. This girl had an ethereal loveliness that was at the same time from the heart of nature. The dew-fresh flowers with which she'd pinned back her lustrous black hair accented the glow of her cheeks. The lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, the sparkle of her eyes all spelled a pride to which no one could deny her the right. And as she turned to leave she moved with the grace that made her look like a queen who might, with enchantment, turn into a kitten.

When she was out of sight I turned back to Jonny Lingo and found him looking at me with eyes that reflected the pride of the girl's.

"You admire her?" he murmured.

"She--she's glorious. Who is she?"

"My wife."

I stared at him blankly. Was this some custom I had not heard about? Do they practice polygamy here? He, for his ten cows, bought both Sarita and this other? Before I could form a question he spoke again.

"This is only one Sarita." His way of saying the words gave them a special significance. "Perhaps you wish to say she does not look the way they say she looked in Kiniwata."

"She doesn't." The impact of the girl's appearance made me forget tact. "I heard she was homely, or at least nondescript. They all make fun of you because you let yourself by cheated by Sam Karoo."

"You think he cheated me? You think ten cows were too many?" A slow smile slid over his lips as I shook my head. "She can see her father and her friends again. And they can see her. Do you think anyone will make fun of us then? Much has happened to change her. Much in particular happened the day she went away."

"You mean she married you?"

"That, yes. But most of all, I mean the arrangements for the marriage."


"Do you ever think," he asked reflectively, "what it does to a woman when she knows that the price her husband has paid is the lowest price for which she can be bought? And then later, when all the women talk, as women do, they boast of what their husbands paid for them. One says four cows, another maybe six. How does she feel--the woman who was sold for one or two? This could not happen to my Sarita."

"Then you paid that unprecendented number of cows just to make your wife happy?"

"Happy?" He seemed to turn the word over on his tongue, as if to test its meaning. "I wanted Sarita to be happy, yes, but I wanted more than that. You say she's different from the way they remember her in Kiniwata. This is true. Many things can change a woman. Things that happen inside, things that happen outside. But the thing that matters most is what she thinks about herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. Now she knows that she is worth more than any other woman on the islands."

"Then you wanted..."

"I wanted to marry Sarita. I loved her and no other woman."

"But--" I was close to understanding.

"But," he finished softly, "I wanted an ten-cow wife."

For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God


  1. Hi,

    Thanks for reprinting this story. I read it many years ago in RD, and have attempted to retell it several times to others, including my spouse.

    I have long felt that he wanted, for reasons not clear to me, a one-cow wife, with predictable results.

    It was a pleasure to see this story again, even better than I remember it. I'll be sharing this with some newly-weds I know, in tribute to the genuine respect that I see in their marriage.

  2. Hi, Anonymous. I'm not sure why someone chooses to treat their spouse with disrespect. I think it's either insecurity ("If I don't keep her down, she'll leave me") or disappointment with marriage itself ("It's her fault my life is such a mess"). In either case, it's sad and wrong, and I'm sorry this has been your experience.

    I'm very blessed to have a wife who treats me as a "Ten Cow Husband." It works both ways.

  3. My husband and I are hosting a 6 week marriage course for young 20 year olds - married and unmarried...I wanted to share this story with them as it had impacted our relationship . We have been married 24 years. My husband has loved me unconditionally all these years and I am a changed woman. I have a confidence and a contentment that nothing else but his love could have created. I receive his love as from Jesus.
    Thanks for reprinting it. We will pass it along.
    We also heard the story of Dr. Tom Williams entitled "Loving my wife back to health". Another great testimony of doing it God's way.

  4. Hi Kathie! Welcome!

    Thanks for the testimonial to how this kind of love can transform a person. I will definitely check out the Tom Williams story you mentioned.

    God bless. Thanks for contributing!

  5. Thanks for posting this. I've read it many times and shared it with friends of mine because it made a huge impact on me too. I am so blessed to have a husband who treats me like a 10 cow wife! All young ladies (and men) should read this before they get married.
    God bless

  6. And to those whose husbands do not, I encourage you to believe and know that you are, anyway. My husband (still my husband) has actually told me that I wanted to be treated like a 10-cow woman without being one first. Almost thirty years (and many difficulties) later, I now know and own that I am a ten-cow woman, in spite of the fact that he still believes that I'm not. My value comes from God, not from my husband. Even if your husband treats you the same way mine does, please believe it for yourself. Remember, no human determines our value! You are beautiful, and no one can take that away from you!

  7. As my son has a girlfriend that he's courting now, and the topic has become more seriously addressed of late, I searched for this story wanting to have him read it. As I told him, the lesson of the story extends beyond merely the marriage relationship, too. Thanks for posting it.

  8. Thank you so much for this reprint. I read this story Many years ago in RD. The story has never left me and I have told it from time to time over the years and it never failed to create the desired impact. I intend to use it as part of a Valentines Day Lesson on Love to an adult class - I am delighted to be reminded of details long dulled in my mind. The most amazing observation since my first reading of this story is: 10 Cow Wives are ALWAYS identifiable! They are the happy, confident, giving, enthusiastic, smiling women one occasionally finds amongst the more numerous weary and long-suffering ladies. AND 10 Cow wives usually have 10 Cow Husbands. A 1 cow wife will usually have a husband who doesn't deserve a wife at all! - - Just observation of marriages over 50 + years...

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I never thought of it, but you're right - you can identify 10-cow wives (and husbands), just as you said. Great observation!

  9. Great story! It's directly applicable to marriages. But even more so when we see the price that Jesus paid for us on the cross. He thinks every one of us is a 10-cow-person! And if He values you so much that He would give His life for you, then how ought we value ourselves and others?