The Woman Who Changed Everything
A Brief History of Beans
Even as a child, things that grew had fascinated her. Of course, as gathering wild plants was within the female realm, this was fortunate. Other women in the tribe were good at the task, as she became, but she really enjoyed it, as well.
When the foraging parties had left each morning, she dashed ahead, eager, anticipating. If the gathering was good, the women’s baskets were soon full and the young girl was then free to roam on her own. She used that time to look at plants.
It didn’t matter if they weren’t edible. Often the most captivating ones she found were not. She just liked things that grew, for they were always interesting.
As a toddler too young to gather, her chores had included helping, as best she could, the older women as they engaged in cleaning in and about the family’s tent. This involved tagging along as the toothless ones dumped the garbage at one of the various pits the tribe used for the purpose. It was there that the young girl had first noticed the newborn growing things, struggling to live at the pit’s edge.
Why would plants live in such a smelly place, she wondered? Still, they did, pushing their spindly stalks to the sun. They even moved their new, tender leaves towards its direction, and how did the growing things know to do this?
Later, after turning old enough to forage, she discerned even more intriguing things, details the others didn’t notice or care about. They couldn’t be bothered for their only concern was filling their baskets, and looking at things that you couldn’t eat held no fascination for them. She, however, was always captivated.
Her primitive tribe of hunter-gathers had no permanent home but perpetually moved about, yet often as not, if the local game was plentiful and the men and their dogs successful in the hunt, it stayed put for more than a season at a time. And, when this did happen, through all the year the inquisitive girl had carefully noted each change occurring in the many growing things. Soon, no matter the season, she could predict what would happen to them next, and she was always proved correct.
A few times, while still very young, she tried to grow plants but this had never been successful. She’d dug holes and placed sprouts from the pit’s edge into them, but the plants had perished, drying up in days. Then she’d tried planting them closer to the river but these, having little sun, also died.
Undaunted, on the next occasion she once more planted in the sun, but this time she watered the sprouts.
A neighbor boy she knew, whose father was headman of her clan, thought this whole idea very foolish. Why work so hard to grow something that just grew elsewhere? What was the purpose, given you could simply go out and find it?
Still, she persisted and carried out her idea. Because the boy liked her, he feigned interest, and he even helped her tote the water. But the experiment proved inconclusive, for the tribe had traveled on before the outcome became apparent.
She resolved to try again once the proper conditions permitted, but thinking in this next effort of using a different kind of plant.
In the meantime, her life moved forward, as did her wandering tribe. Once the boy became a man, he took her, now a fine woman, as his mate. They were happy.
She quickly became a mother several times over, and for a while this halted her excursions. Yet she never forgot her plan. In fact, she thought of it often as her offspring aged, for each reminded her of how the plants also grew and changed.
When her children were toddlers she resumed her foraging, for they could now accompany her. However, as they demanded much attention, she had no free time to implement her long simmering idea. Yet, once adolescents they began to have chores about the camp, and this at last allowed her to consider it again.
The tribe’s currently claimed area turned out to be bountiful, and the tribal elders, who were the headmen from each clan, announced their decision to stay for as many seasons as the abundant game continued to thrive. So, the young woman judged the time to try once more might never be better. But what growing thing, she constantly wondered, would she endeavor to cultivate in this newest attempt?
Then, one day late in the afternoon, she discovered a peaceful meadow cut by a lazy stream encircled and hidden by the deep, surrounding forest. The open field was thickly covered with many vines that twisted and climbed amidst each other. From long experience she easily recognized these plants, now in full flower.
Soon, she knew, these vines would bear pods, and these pods would then grow the tasty beans so prized by her kind. She also knew that other gatherers would take them if they could, even before they were ripe, for everyone in the tribe enjoyed their hearty flavor. Therefore, the young woman told no one of her find.
Every few days she went back to assess the bean plants, knowing that once the pods ripened they would soon pop open. When they did, of course, the beans were released and fell to the ground, thus becoming harder to gather. So, each day she tried to pick the ripest pods just before they popped, correctly judging from both familiarity and long experience the most opportune moment to harvest them.
Indeed, they were very tasty.
As the pods ripened at various times, her harvest continued for several weeks, but soon almost all of them were gone. She noticed, however, a few of the plants had pods that although ripe had failed to open, as if to protect the beans inside. Finally, when the days turned cold, she picked these now hardened pods, as well.
Yet, she didn’t cook the now sleeping beans they held.
She put these pods, only a handful, in a hollowed-out gourd she used for storage. From time to time she’d crack one open, finding the beans in perfect condition. Once the weather warmed, her long considered plan was fully formed.
She picked a sunny hillside not far from her tent, and set her children to clearing an area sufficient to accommodate her beans, now seeds of the next generation, which numbered well over twice the amount of all her fingers. She then scattered them about, lightly covering them against the birds that also appreciated their delicious flavor. She carefully watered them, and waited.
Yet they did not grow. She resolved to find out why. She then dug up a few and examined them.
They still seemed perfect, and she was confused. Next she decided to visit the original meadow, to see if any beans were growing there this season. None were, but she found something else in the clearing, something quite unexpected.
A strange man, not of her tribe, was there. She abruptly stopped, leery once she finally saw him sitting in the meadow. Yet he only smiled sweetly, and nodded.
She thought of running away, but she didn’t. She sensed no danger, oddly none at all and, after a bit she stepped closer, now only wondering who he was. At her steady, determined approach, the strange man slowly stood.
He was thin and very tall. He was also dressed strangely, for he wore garments unlike any that she had ever seen. No clan she knew of had such an eccentric covering.
“Welcome,” he said to her, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
This statement she didn’t believe. Still, she laughed a bit, for he was a man and she thought him only flirting, as most men would do with any unattended female. Yet the stranger politely persisted, quickly dispelling her misplaced conclusion.
“The ground remains cold,” he informed her, “too cold for your still sleeping seeds. Just have patience. It won’t be long.”
Following this profound pronouncement, she did become wary. The feeling, however, was fleeting and soon passed. She looked him in the face, now highly curious.
“How do you know such?” she asked of him.
The man bid her to sit. He sat also, across from her. Then he smiled again, in reassurance.
“I know many things,” he answered her. “I know of your long interest, and of your newest intent. And,” he added for emphasis,
“I also know your vision is a true one.”
At this, she smiled at him, for under the bizarre circumstances she was compelled to accept this stranger at his word. It was an easy thing for her to do. The woman still didn’t know who he was or why he was helping her, but nevertheless she somehow understood that he had only her best interests in mind.
Indeed he did. He was most eager to assist her, it was his sole, singular goal. The tall stranger was from another Timeframe, and aiding her was his direct mission.
Soon the beans grew. Every evening, she checked on them after her daily chores had been seen to, and shortly others in her clan took notice, as well. Her mate was much amused by all this attention, seeing no real value in her self-imposed, added labors.
Nevertheless, the beans thrived in a perfect growing season. Nothing went amiss. The rain was always gentle and no pest, insect nor animal, attacked her plants.
Now more than her clan was engrossed. Word was spreading. The local men who came to gawk were well entertained by all the heavy interest, as her mate had been, but the hard-working women in the tribe saw and appreciated the inherent advantages.
They offered their help.
The young woman politely refused.
Their labor was currently unneeded, she knew. The strange man in the secret meadow had explained everything in detail.
“Maybe next year,” she said.
Her bean plants soon produced a bumper crop. When this happened, word really spread. Even the most hardened of the tribal men were impressed, for they all loved beans as much as meat, and now they saw the obvious advantage, too.
Beans, after all, while being quite an enjoyable meal were generally hard to come by.
The young woman shared her bounty with her clan, and her mate shared in the gratitude that followed. He was most proud of her. Undeniably, she was a good woman.
She did ask her female kinfolk for help in shelling the beans. It was a big task taking much time, for there were many full baskets of pods. The women sat in a circle as they worked and talked of the future, laughing together at every opportunity.
The beans were carefully graded before being doled out. Many of them were an average size or smaller, and these were the ones equally divided and dispersed, a most succulent bonus. A substantial number, however, were bigger than the average, and the woman kept these back to plant in the next season.
The next season never came. The tribe, after two years, moved on. Sadly, its new territory was heavily wooded and held no area sufficiently suitable for her beans.
She and her mate then argued over them. He wanted to eat her tasty seeds, and he boldly stated they would go bad if they didn’t. She’d always check first, but after finding them still only sleeping, each time she stiffly refused to comply.
Then, in the warming time the tribe suddenly returned to its previous location. The cautious elders now judged moving a hasty mistake. The available game was still plentiful and there was abundant water to be had close by.
The woman staked her rawhide tent by her old, sunny hillside.
Now they came, scores of women from many clans in the tribe. Their mates all wanted tasty beans. Teach us, they pleaded, the secrets of how to grow them.
She did, but she demanded a price. The women would learn by tending her plot, under her instructions, some of every day for a season. She would initiate them, and also give them beans to plant, but only after her harvest was completed.
This was a stiff bargain. Men didn’t like waiting. More importantly, they wouldn’t understand such a strange and novel arrangement, and they’d only see their women working for someone else, an unheard of thing.
The now fully mature and resolute woman replied only, “If we start soon, and the early air is warm enough, we can have two harvests. Your men will have beans later, in the cooling times, but still this season. Or,” she casually added, “only my clan will assist me now, and next season you can ask them for help.”
The tribe’s women saw wisdom in this, for it was a good plan. Enlightening their mates would be a different matter. Still, after using her argument, they did.
This time, there were problems. First there was too much rain, and later the fat, green worms arrived. Luckily, many men, always impatient for beans, came by to check on things and ended up eating most of the juicy insects.
Some plants did die, but many more survived and again there was a bumper crop. As earlier stipulated, the growing season was only halfway done and the mentoring woman then held to her part of the bargain, dispersing seed to her now trained, former helpers. All of the women were excited, and they eagerly rushed home to quickly create their own, small garden plots.
After her second course of beans was planted, she returned to the hidden meadow in hopes that the strange man would still be there. He was. Again they sat.
“You’ve done much good,” he told her.”
“Yes,” the woman concurred, “this is a wonderful thing for the tribe, but I’m most concerned. There are times that I cannot grow tasty beans, for often the forest is too thick and the sun is blocked. Tell me how to raise my plants then.”
The time traveler answered quietly, saying, “You must grow your beans in a new and different way. Your people must have fine fields, always. Your tribe should not move but forever stay, and grow many beans in many fine fields.”
“But men hunt,” she answered him. “They follow the prey to do so. The tribe will move, it will always move, it must.”
“You can trade for meat,” was his rejoinder, “for other tribes will savor your tasty beans, too. Many tribes would gladly trade good meat for good beans. And your men will be busy with another thing, a vital thing they must do now.”
“What thing,” she asked, “helping grow beans?”
“Not yet,” he instructed. “That will come later, but for now the men must do something else of great importance. They must protect the ones that grow the beans.”
This scenario she understood. Why work for something when it can be taken by force? Many unfriendly tribes would want beans and, not yet knowing how to grow them, they would try to steal them instead, why wouldn’t they?
Still, she had reservations.
“The tribe will always stay,” she asked him, “for beans alone? No, this is too great of a change. This would change everything.”
The stranger slowly nodded, understanding her dilemma. Yet, he also knew that it was just a matter of time. Change always comes, and time will out, regardless.
“Your beans first came from wild beans here,” he said, with a sweep of his arm, indicating the meadow now full of fine grass.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Yet, if you didn’t take them,” he continued, “the pods would have just popped open, with the beans falling to the ground.”
“Yes,” she said again.
“The beans do this to live,” he said, “so that other beans will come later. But some of the pods did not pop open. Their beans, being trapped, could not grow.”
“Yes,” she said for a third time.
“But now they do grow,” he pointed out. “They can live and thrive because of you. These beans will now feed your tribe, and other plants do much the same thing.”
Again he indicated the field around them. The tall grass there was full of tiny, green seed heads. Strange, she hadn’t noticed them before and she should have.
This particular type of grass was a most delicious plant, too.
“These seed heads must be taken early, before they’re ripe,” he explained. “If not, they will just fall from the stalk in order to grow the next grass. It’s hard to gather then.”
Here she only nodded, knowing from experience it was true.
“But, like your beans,” he said, “some of these stalks will keep their tasty seeds. They won’t fall like the others do. These seeds would never grow, for once the stalk finally fell, the ground itself would then be too cold to welcome them.”
“I see it,” she said, but then she made the larger connection.
The man, realizing this by the look on her face, smiled.
“This grass can also be grown?” she inquired.
“Easily,” he answered, “but plant only the ones with the largest seeds, like you did with your beans. Some of the new seed will be larger still, and you will then save this to plant. Much food can thus be grown and traded by your tribe.”
She traveled home, enthused, but still her mind was troubled. How could she, only a woman, convince the stiff elders to always stay and grow things? She knew not.
Yet, once at her tent she found that great change had already arrived. The clan’s headman, her mate’s father, had died suddenly in the night. The clan members, losing no time, had quickly elected the dead man’s son, her mate, to replace him.
Now her mate was the headman of her clan, and so by extension a member of the tribe’s elders as well, albeit the youngest and most inexperienced of the group.
“We must always stay,” she told him. She then explained the reasons why, the same rationalities the strange man had listed. But her mate was noncommittal.
Trying to sway him, she returned many times to the meadow to pick the ripest seed heads there, for he loved the sweet loafs they always made. The smell of them cooking alone was mesmerizing. Still, he didn’t agree to always stay.
Every time the determined woman returned to gather, she wished again to speak to the tall stranger, but she never did. She couldn’t. Unlike before, he was never there.
One day when the cooling times had arrived, she stood surveying her bean field. The dying plants were now bare of pods, for they had all been harvested. Because of her unwavering efforts, the plot was now just one of many in the tribe and this season they had all produced many tasty beans.
Her mate, returning from the day’s hunt, then approached her.
“When will you tell the elders to always stay?” she demanded.
He sighed, not wanting to argue further.
“To always stay may be a good idea,” he conceded, “but it’s a new idea. And I’m a new elder. They would not listen to me.”
“You are my man,” she said slowly, her eyes hard and her jaw set, “and you should see this my way, it makes good sense. Beans keep, meat does not. They will feed our clan when the cold comes, a good thing if the hunting is bad.”
This blunt statement shocked him at first for he took it as an affront, a commentary on his competence as a provider, but that reaction soon passed. She was a good woman. She spoke the truth and undeniably it was a noble point.
What’s more, he hadn’t even considered this view, a valid advantage. That rankled for as an elder, even a novice one, he always needed to contemplate every option. Yet now, the hard-pressed man only grunted, turned and walked away.
She turned also, back to her dead beans. What else could she possibly do? The woman didn’t know.
Much later he returned to the tent, holding a solemn face.
“I talked to the elders,” he announced. “They agree to always stay, at least for now. The tribe can still move later, if need be.”
Her eyes filled with tears and he took her in his arms. Then she cried outright. Next, her mate tightly hugged her.
“Good thing,” he whispered, “they all love beans.”
Before the cold time started in earnest, she returned to the meadow. The strange man was not there. Something else was though, a gift from him, perhaps.
She noticed dark brown, fully ripened seed heads on several of the grass stalks. These seeds had not been broadcast. She gathered them and then walked home.
To always stay.
HOWARD LORING creates EPIC FABLES on the ELASTIC LIMIT of TIME.
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