Now they went into the denser parts of the forest and away from human habitation, and Korto built a hut for his wife Bendu and himself. But Korto, a brave and strong man, was unafraid and even found solace that his wife wouldn’t be able to see another human being and that ultimately her loyalty to him would be undivided.
But Bendu was often lonely and craving for company, especially when Korto was away hunting for days. She missed her friends in the village, the laughter, the sense of being loved and appreciated by her neighbors. Each day in the forest was filled with longing for her friends and the sound of their laughter. She grew thin and worried. And it was only by some miracle she was able to retain her beauty, in spite of Korto’s assuring her over and over that some day she would be happy.
One day, when Korto had been away hunting for about a week, a handsome young man stumbled upon the hut. He said he was a traveler who had come from a distant village to purchase goods in the villages and towns round about; that he had lost his way and no longer knew how to get out of the forest.
“Don’t worry,” said Bendu. “I know nearly every footpath in this forest. I’ll take you to the villages and towns as soon as you’re ready. But come and keep my company. I’m a very lonely woman.”
The young man’s face filled with concern, and he raised an eyebrow. “You’re beautiful and yet you are lonely?” he said as he sat down on a stool in front of Bendu. “And of course why would you come to live in the forest at all?”
“My husband is a very jealous man,” said Bendu. “Once, we lived in one of the villages. But my husband nearly killed a young man, though the young man had only been a friend, and not my lover. The villagers began to hate my husband until finally they drove us away. So here we are, living in the forest.”
“Where is your husband now?” the young man asked.
“He’s gone hunting,” said Bendu. “For about a week I haven’t seen him. But sometimes he’s away for longer than that.”
“Why don’t you come and be my wife? You’d be happy. I’m a hardworking trader. I’ve built my own hut and am not married. Come with me and be my wife. I love you dearly.”
But Bendu just shook her head. “Even though my husband’s jealous,” she said, “I love him with all my heart. I’ve wanted nothing but to always be faithful to him. You can see how faithful and obedient a wife I am, living here alone and while he’s away for days.”
The young man nodded. “But you’re so unhappy. So why should you continue living here, even if you love your husband with all your heart? And from what you’ve said of your husband, he must be a very selfish man who cares for no one but himself. Why, he’s left you here unprotected and in danger of wild animals.”
Bendu nodded. Her eyes flooded and tears streamed down her cheeks. ‘The young man is right,’ she thought. ‘Korto do not love me at all. He is selfish, mean, and seeks only his own good. And he has brought me into this forest to be lonely and unhappy because he is also lonely and unhappy, hated and scorned by others.’
A sudden anger surged into Bendu’s heart. With it came hatred and loathing for Korto.
Having dried her face with the hem of her lappa, she said to the young man, “But how can I get away? Where will I go? Surely my husband will persuade me and eventually kill me.”
“Leave that to me,” the young man said. “I’ll take your place and live here with your husband.”
Bendu laughed. “How can you take my place? You’re not a woman.”
“Just leave that to me,” the young man repeated, and smiled. His smile was full of assurance and confidence. “What about the goods you were going to buy?” Bendu asked.
This time the young man scowled at Bendu. When he spoke, his voice made her shudder. “Don’t meddle into my business,” he said.
What Bendu did not know, however, was that this stranger, who called himself a traveler, was actually a genie. He could change into anything — a lizard, a human being, a tiger, if he so wished. Bendu shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t know how he would take her place and live in the forest with her husband. But she didn’t care anyway. She
hated Korto already. Quickly, she packed a few of her belongings and left.
Nearly two weeks later, Korto appeared on the footpath he often took whenever was returning home from hunting. In his right hand dangling by its tail was a dead opossum. His raffia hunting bag slung over his shoulder rattled with coins. He had killed an elephant and had sold it to a group of white men who had come in a big canoe. Now he would
make his wife even happier than she could have dreamed of.
Bendu, for the genie had now taken on the form of Korto’s wife, came running to meet him. Korto saw her from a distance and broke into a smile. He stood up then, and waited to embrace her, his arms stretched wide apart. When she ran into his arms he hugged her tightly, lifted her bodily into the air, and spun her around. Their laughter
reverberated through the forest.
“I missed you so much, my dear husband,” said Bendu, as Korto put her down from his arms and they stood smiling at each other.
“I had an extraordinary good fortune, my dear wife,” said Korto.
“What was it?” asked Bendu.
“I killed an elephant,” said Korto.
“Oh, my god,” exclaimed Bendu, “Where is it now?”
“I sold it to some white men who came to the river,” said Korto. “Here’s the money.” He opened his hunting bag, and Bendu looked into it and gawked at the shiny coins.
They smile at each other once more, and Korto put his arms round Bendu’s shoulder. Together they walked back to the hut.
Once they got there, Korto retired to his room, telling Bendu to wake him up as soon as she had finished cooking pepper soup with the opossum and a foot of yam that he had also brought in his hunting bag. He was very tired. For days he and some people had kept returning to the forest again and over again, toting the elephant meat to the big
canoe on the river.
In less time than it takes to bat one’s eyes, Bendu, or the genie, had finished cooking. The genie, using his uncanny power, hadn’t even gone to the trouble of lighting a fire. He had just snapped his fingers, and everything had been cooked and ready and in his hands, steam rising out of the bowls. Smiling impishly, the genie took the food to Korto.
Having set the food on a wooden table in the room, Bendu woke Korto. Korto was surprised. The food had been cooked in no time at all. But he didn’t say anything because he was famished, and needed it just as quickly. He washed his hands and fell to. The food was so delicious it tasted like the ambrosial of the gods.
“You’re the best cook in the world, my dear wife,” said Korto, smiling wildly as he munched a piece of yam with relish. “As a matter of fact,” he added, “this meal is fit for the gods.”
“You’re one of the gods,” said Bendu, and smiled back at her husband.
Korto laughed. He dropped his head then, and busy himself with his meal.
But as he ate and looked up from his food now and then, Korto was surprised to see his wife glaring at him, her eyes as red and beady like the heads of two matches. She looked uglier than a beast. Korto became afraid, in spite of himself. He thought his wife must have been bewitched. He had heard the forest was filled with genies and dwarves.
Worst yet, the food had begun to taste bitter. There was an ominous rumble in his stomach.
“My dear wife, “he said nervously, “I think something terrible is happening to me.”
“What is it, my dear husband?’ asked Bendu, her face full of concern.
“The food taste bitter,” said Korto, his face deathly pale.
Bendu laughed, then. And Korto was terrified.
Suddenly Korto began to vomit. Out of his mouth drew forth hundreds of small black snakes. They bit his lips. They ate his tongue until his mouth bled profusely while he trembled and cried out in terror. Then the genie became himself, and Korto, staring at his terrible appearance, fell to the floor. His head rolled over.
As for Bendu, she had returned to the village and married the young man whom Korto had hurt. The young man was a model husband. He was neither short-tempered, nor suspicious, nor jealous. And he never quarreled with the people but lived at peace with everyone. The villagers were all happy. No one cared whether Korto was alive or dead in
the forest. Even at the mention of his name the people would call down evil upon him.