When Mary Jane visited my village, she was astonished. It was not for our communal wooden huts where four or five families resided together, neither for the fact of living in the middle of the forest isolated from the rest of the world. It was our traditions that shocked her the most.
We met for the first time in the hardware store when I went to buy stuff we needed for repairing some of our huts after the huge storm of November 1971. She stared at me with an inquisitive face, probably wondering if my clothing was a costume. I wore my bison trousers and a simple skunk hat. We were used to being observed by the outsiders when we were out of the forest. Her face was so dazzling and delicate it captivated me. She caught my eyes and came to me.
“Nice outfit,” she said, “it looks so pretty.”
“Are you going to any kind of contest...or party?”
“No, not really...”
“I have never seen you around. Are you new in town?” she asked.
“Well, I’m not from here, but I live very close.”
“Ah, are you from Susanville?”
“No,” I said, “I’m from Izah.”
“Izah? Never heard of it. Anyway, my name is Mary Jane.”
“Nice to meet you, Mary Jane. I am Brody.”
She invited me to get a coffee in a cafe next to the store. We chatted for about two hours. I explained that I lived in a village in the forest called Izah. We didn’t follow the rules and the laws from the outsiders, and we would only leave our village for necessary matters. She looked fascinated by our community. I felt overwhelmed; it was the first time I had such a long conversation with an outsider. She gave me her address in case I wanted to send a letter to her or visit her.
It took three months until there was a need to go out of the village again. The winter was very cold, and we were running out of groceries. I volunteered to go to town in order to buy cereal. Nobody complained.
I bounced to Mary Jane’s house and stepped inside. It was a tiny house with very little furniture, and the smell of fresh baked cake whetted my appetite. Mary Jane was in the kitchen. She hadn’t notice me until I said hello, to which she leaped and emitted a loud yelp.
“Don’t you know how to knock before coming in?”
“I’m sorry... I thought that I was invited to enter when you gave me your address.”
She prepared two cups of tea and offered the sofa for me to sit on. It was so soft and comfortable; I was used to sitting on wooden chairs. She explained to me that she lived with her aunt in this house, and she worked in a bar. I had seen bars, but I had never been inside any.
“I want you to come to Izah,” I said.
“I would love to!” she said with a smile. “Is it far?”
“About five hours by walk.”
“When could I visit you?”
“You can come with me today.”
“Today? But it’s late...and I have work tomorrow.”
“You can stay in my hut.”
“You know what? Fuck it. I’m coming with you.”
We bought plenty of cereal from the grocery store. She insisted on helping me carry the food. The trek to Izah was hard for Mary Jane, she pleaded for a break five times, but she never lost her smile.
We reached Izah when it was already dark. The mist and dimness was broken by the glow of the small torches standing outside the huts. There were still some villagers outdoors, peering at Mary Jane suspiciously.
“Why are they all looking at me with those eyes?” she asked.
“We don’t have a lot of outsiders visiting us. Actually, the last one I can remember came here about nine years ago. I was a child. He left after two weeks.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. He vanished.”
I walked Mary Jane to my hut. The brief light from the central fireplace revealed all the inhabitants of the house. At the moment, in my hut resided four families, ten people in total. I introduced her to my mother.
“Mother, this is Mary Jane.”
She smiled. “Welcome, Mary Jane.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Tomorrow we will do the welcoming ceremony,” said my mother. “Now you can go to sleep and rest.”
We lay on the wool mattress with Mary Jane under the same blanket made from buffalo skin. She looked concerned.
“What is the welcoming ceremony? Why didn’t you mention it to me?” she asked.
“I forgot about it. But don’t worry, it’s just a simple symbolic act we do for newborns and outsiders. Let’s rest, Mary Jane.”
I opened my eyes in the night. Mary Jane was holding my hand firmly, moving it around, and she stared at me with huge eyes. A din of moans and gasps coming from inside our hut was clearly audible. She pointed at the center of the hut where next to the fireplace lay two silhouettes shivering together. Some of the inhabitants of the hut sat in their blankets observing them.
“Are they having sex?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s nighttime. They are aroused, and they will have a child. Do you want to watch them from closer?”
“What? No! This should be an intimate act!”
She turned her head and closed her eyes. I didn’t understand her reaction until later on, when she explained to me that outsiders didn’t have sex in front of other people, and they didn’t believe that the attention of others during sexual intercourse would make them more fertile.
We woke up on a sunny and cold winter day. I took Mary Jane on a walk through the village before her welcoming ceremony. She was stupefied by how big Izah was, repeating several times the peaceful feeling she had while passing through the wooden huts, pacing on the paths ringed by colorful flowers and dense trees and hearing the chirp of the birds. She had fun observing the villagers, pointing out our clothes made from animal skins.
A blast resonated from the other side of the village. All the people left what they were doing and headed in the direction of the sound.
“The welcoming ceremony,” I said to Mary Jane.
“I hope it doesn’t consist of human sacrifice,” she said.
Mary Jane tittered. I guided her to the ceremony stone while she was holding my hand strongly. The ceremony stone was a huge, round, flat rock, a kind of altar placed on the edge of the village with no huts close to it, just trees. Everybody was already waiting in absolute silence. I helped her climb onto the stone. She looked jittery.
“Take off your clothes,” I said.
“You have to take off your clothes now.”
“In front of everybody? Are you crazy?”
“Don’t worry, we will provide you with a good bison dress after, so you won’t be cold. The ceremony will only last a few minutes.”
Mary Jane glanced at the villagers that waited. She undressed timidly and threw her clothes on the icy grass. She looked even more gorgeous without her outsider clothes.
The ceremony started. The oldest woman of the village went up on the stone. She examined Mary Jane from up close, smelling her from head to toe without touching her, and got off the stone in silence. One by one, all the villagers stepped on the stone and observed and smelled Mary Jane. Her face changed as the villagers passed. In the beginning, she looked tense, staring at me with frightened eyes and trying to cover her body with her arms. Later, she became more relaxed, she released her arms and adopted a more comfortable position. I was the last one in the ceremony. I went up and admired her body from up close. Her skin had goosebumps, but she didn’t look cold. Her smell was fresh and evoked a scent of pinecone and grass, inspiring the spirit of a good heart and a free soul. Our eyes made contact, and she gave me a sincere smile.
The ceremony finished, and the oldest woman from the village gave her a stunning bison dress and a raccoon hat. Mary Jane and I sat next to the ceremony stone where the sun warmed our skin.
“Thank you for the dress, it’s so warm.”
“Welcome to Izah!” I said.
“I didn’t expect this kind of action,” she said. “It was... How can I say it? Weird?”
“We celebrate this ceremony with every outsider and every newborn to check their soul.”
We rested in quiet for one minute or two until she broke the silence.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, go ahead,” I said.
“Why did you invite me to Izah?”
This question baffled me. Why did I invite her to Izah? I dug deep in my heart, and I found the answer.
“Well...” I said. “I guess I felt an intense curiosity about you. I wanted to know you, smell you, have sex with you next to the fireplace and have children with you. I liked you from the first moment we met.”
She kissed me.
“And why did you come?” I asked.
“For the same reason that you invited me, except for the weird voyeur fireplace sex.” She laughed.
“We don’t need to do it in front of others if it bothers you.”
“Don’t worry, I think I’ll be okay with that.”
Mary Jane established herself in our hut. Spring came, and warm weather brought a good season of fruits and groceries. She explained to me a lot of things about the outsiders. They had televisions where they could see other people recorded from another place in the world. She told me that some men traveled to the moon two years ago, and it was broadcasted live on TV. The more information about the outsiders she shared with me, the more interested I got. I started doubting our traditions and way of life, considering that there was such a huge amount of people living in a totally different, unknown world.
One year after Mary Jane settled in Izah, we had our first child, Jonas. Mary Jane held him on the ceremony stone, watching proudly as all the villagers climbed one by one on the stone to observe and smell the newborn. I recalled when Mary Jane stood there for the first time and how she had looked at that very moment. Now she seemed confident and proud of who she had become, and it was me who was scared and trembling about the future awaiting Jonas.