Previously published by:
The Rabbit Hole Press
2 Huntingwood Crescent
Note: I belong to a writers' group on the Internet. One of our members decided to publish a literary magazine and asked for contributions. I put together a selection of stories; some remain in "Ama" as published and some I cut from the original manuscript. Here is the result of my participation. MH
By Manu Herbstein
From the novel, Ama, A story of the Atlantic Slave Trade
Elephants Theelephants still occupied their minds.
WhenNandzi returned to the camp, the man who had been sitting behind her was tellingthe story of how the elephant came to forsake the forest for the country of thelong-grass. He had come to the part where the spider has defeated and killed hisgiant adversary in a head-butting contest. Two young men had illustrated theepisode with an impromptu performance. Now cheers and laughter echoed throughthe forest as Ananse preened himself over the prostrate body of the elephant.
“Thenthe family of Elephant came to Ananse and said, `Spider, you have defeated thehead of our family. We admit it. All we ask is that you do as our customdemands.'
“`Andwhat, may I ask, is that?' inquired Ananse.
“`Thevictor must provide the family with a coffin; and the coffin must be carved fromsolid stone, as befits a family head.'
“Anansethought for some time. He had a cutlass and an adze and a knife. He could make acoffin of wood; but a coffin of stone? He could not see how that could be done.Nevertheless he agreed and told the late elephant's family to come back`tomorrow next.'”
Nandzisquatted on the outside of the circle and watched the faces of the listeners,reddened, it seemed, by the fire, all their attention on the story teller.
“Thenext day Ananse cut down a tree with his cutlass. With his adze and his knife hecarved the tree trunk into the image of a man with a musket raised to hisshoulder, ready to fire. When the carving was finished, he dragged it to thefront gate of his compound. He dressed the carving in batakari andtrousers. Then he hid in the bush to watch what would happen.
“Thefamily of Elephant arrived at the appointed time to collect their stone coffin,but before they could enter Ananse's compound, they saw the man-image, standingready to fire at them. Then Ananse beat the great fontomfrom drum, making asound like the thunder of gunshot. Panicking, the elephants at once turned tailand fled; and they didn't stop running until they had left the forest and passedinto the savanna. Ananse just laughed and laughed and laughed. And then hecalled his wife and children and they cooked and ate the flesh of the deadelephant.
“Thatis my story of how the elephant came to forsake the forest for the country ofthe long-grass. I do not vouch for its truth. You may believe or not: that isfor you, the listener, to decide.”
Python Afellowship gradually developed amongst the paddlers and the passengers in eachcanoe. It transcended differences of language and culture and status.Conversations sprang up, often triggered by the sights and sounds of the river.A glimpse of an enormous python set the ornithologist telling the story of howAnanse had used flattery to persuade the king of serpents to allow himself to bemeasured.
“Ananse,”he told them, “Persuaded Python to let himself be lashed to a fallen treetrunk. `Just to make sure,' he told the snake, `That unstraightened sinuositieswill not result in an underestimation of your length.'”
Everyonelaughed at Ananse's cheek and at the ornithologist's verbal wizardry; but Nandziidentified with the victim and saw herself trussed up like Ananse's python.
Dwarfs Beyondthe border the tree cover became denser and denser. Almost before they wereaware of it, they found themselves enveloped in the rain forest. In that vastprimeval wilderness the great road to Kumase, hacked through by the labor ofcountless slaves, was the only evidence of the puny genius of mankind. Theslaves surveyed their surroundings with awe.
Greatmulticolored butterflies and moths flitted across the patches of bright dappledsunlight which reached the ground. On either side, beyond the undergrowth whichlined the road, there lay a domain whose gloom seemed to be made even moreintense by the rare beam of sunlight which penetrated the green canopy. Ropes,some as thick as a woman's wrist, hung from the highest branches, twisted intostrange contorted shapes as they descended. The scent of rotting vegetation wasall-pervasive. Tiny shrill-voiced birds, with bright red and yellow and bluebreasts and long curved beaks, swept out of the darkness to suck the nectar fromthe wild flowers which grew in the tangled roadside jungle.
The roadwas aligned to suit pedestrian traffic. It meandered this way and that, huggingthe slopes of the small, closely-spaced, steep-sided hills which filled thelandscape, skirting the great buttresses of a silk-cotton tree, sometimesplunging into damp, flat areas which would become impassable swamps during therains. It was just twelve paces wide. Left untended for only a single rainyseason, the roadside undergrowth would encroach upon it and the forest wouldrecover its lost territory. But this road had not been left untended. It was animportant artery of the Asante economy and the slaves in Adabo's maintenancegangs were forever slashing away with their cutlasses to keep it clear.
Theslaves from the northern savanna were unused to the humidity. Their bodies andclothing were drenched in sweat and their wet black skin glistened in thespeckled light.
Theforest pressed in on them. From its depths came strange discordant sounds, astrident chorus of screeching, howling, wailing shrieks.
Minjendogripped Nandzi's arm: “What's that?”
“Oh,it must be some kind of animal,” replied Nandzi, feigning calm indifference.“Jaji, leave go of me.”
”Whatkind of animal? I have never heard a noise like that before.”
“Well,maybe the animals that live in the forest are different from the ones we know.”
Minjendowas not satisfied.
“Thereit is again,” she cried. “Nandzi, ask the guard. I am afraid.”
“PapaMensa,” Nandzi asked the musketeer who was her suitor, “I beg you, what ismaking that frightful noise.”
“Thoseare the spirits of the forest. They are screaming abuse at us because they areangry that we have cut a road through their kingdom. Do you understand? Spirits,cruel, vindictive spirits. Let me give you some good advice. Never, never, onany account, go into the forest alone and unarmed. If you do, they will surelykill you.”
“Whatdid he say?” asked Minjendo.
Nandzitranslated as best she could.
“Butdon't mind him,” she added. “He is just telling us that to make us scared.”
“Howcan you be sure?” asked Minjendo.
Nandzihad no reply.
She saidonly, “Spirits or no spirits, one thing is clear: it would be madness to tryto run away and hide in this forest. You would get lost in no time. And if thespirits did not kill you, there must surely be wild animals there which would.”
“Youare always thinking of escape,” said Minjendo.
“Doyou know what dwarfs are,” interrupted the musketeer, warming to his subject.
“Dwarfs,mmoatia, have you heard of them before?”
“No, Idon't recall,” replied Nandzi.
“Dwarfsalso live in the thick forest. They are like human beings but they are short:the tallest are only as high as your knee. They are very shy, so few people haveever seen them. What is peculiar about dwarfs is that their feet face backwards.So when you think you are following their tracks, you are really heading towhere they came from, not where they are going to. And, in the mean time, theyhave turned round and are following you and laughing at the way they havetricked you.”
“Really?”asked Nandzi with evident disbelief. “Have you ever seen one?”
“No,”replied the soldier, “But I know several people who have. And I have heardthem. They speak to each other by whistling.”
“Arethey dangerous? Like the spirits we heard?”
“No,they only cause mischief.”
“Likeif you are weeding your farm and you put down your hoe or your cutlass for amoment, to stretch your limbs; when you want to pick it up again to continuewith your work, you find that it has disappeared. You search and search for it.At last you find it at the other end of the farm. That is the work of dwarfs.”
Whites “Inthe beginning,” said the storyteller, “Onyame, creator of all things, madethree black men and three whites. To each of these he gave a woman of the samecolour. The six blacks were our first ancestors and the others were theancestors of the whites.
“Onyameset before them two things: a large clay pot and a piece of paper, folded andsealed. Then he made them draw lots and, the black men winning, he gave them thefirst choice. They discussed the matter amongst themselves.
“Thefirst said, `Of what use is a piece of paper?'
“Thesecond replied, `None, and the pot is large; in it we shall surely findeverything we need.'
“Thethird said, `Let us take the pot.'
“Sothey took the pot. But when they broke it open all they found was a piece ofgold and a piece of iron.”
Thestory-teller paused to wet his throat.
“Nowit was the turn of the white men. When they opened the paper and examined itthey found it told them everything there was to know.
“ThenOnyame gave this country to the blacks. Leaving them in the bush, he took thewhites to the mouth of the great water and taught them to cut down trees andbuild a ship. When the ship was ready they boarded it and sailed away to a farcountry which Onyame had prepared for those who would select the paper.
“Manyyears later the descendants of the first whites returned to this country withgoods to exchange for gold and slaves. It is from that paper that they hadlearned to make the goods.
“Thatis the end of my story.”
Therewas silence around the camp fire as the slaves and their guards reflected uponthe significance of the tale.
“Thesewhite men,” Ama asked a guard who had become her friend and who sat nearby,“What are they like?”
“Theyare very tall, twice as tall as we are, and very ugly. They are so ugly that ithurts ones eyes to look at them. Indeed, if you look at them for too long, youare sure to become blind.”
“Whatdo they eat?”
“Theyeat all the things that we eat. Like us, they like meat best. But theirfavourite is human flesh.”
Amastarted. She had heard this once before.
“Idon't believe it,” she said.
“Well,”he replied, “When we reach Elmina you will see. And another thing: they likewoman flesh pass man.”
Amadecided that he was having her on; but a small doubt remained in her mind.
“Whenwill we reach Elmina?” she asked.
Monster OnSaturdays there was no extra work after the completion of the tarefa.Then the slaves gathered around their fires, the Minas around one, the Nagôs atanother, the Kongos and Cabindas at a third. Ama preferred to join the Crioulos,because their talk was in Portuguese, which she was determined to master.Alexandre, the Senhor's bastard son, was there too. He had stolen a Portuguesebible for Ama and sometimes they read secretly together on a Sunday. Alexandrecame to sit by her.
“Astory, a story,” the children demanded.
Thelittle girls were dressed in simple one piece frocks and the boys in shirts withtails down to their knees.
Alexandrecrawled forward on hands and knees to turn the sweet potatoes which wereroasting in the coals. Everyone knew that he had stolen them from the Senhora'svegetable garden, but who were they to complain?
“Whichstory would you like?” asked the evening's storyteller.
Therewas a clamor of excited demands.
“Wait,wait. One at a time. Micaela, you choose.”
A littlegirl rose to her feet. A boy whispered in her ear.
“Please,uncle,” she whispered shyly, “tell us about the lobishomem.”
“No,”said the storyteller, “if I tell you about the lobishomem, you willhave a nightmare; and then your mother will be angry with me.”
“No,no. The lobishomem,” demanded the children. “Tell us about the lobishomem.”
“Oh,well, if you insist,” agreed the storyteller. “What do you want to knowabout the lobishomem?”
“Whatdoes he look like?” asked Micaela, wide-eyed.
“No,no,” resisted the storyteller. “If I tell you that, you will be afraid.”
But thedemands were too insistent to resist.
“The lobishomem.Ah, the lobishomem,” said the storyteller, scratching the stubbleon his cheek. “He is an untidy fellow, dirty. And the smell of him! Phttt! Henever cuts his hair or combs it. Have you seen how the creepers grow in theforest? That is how his hair is, knotted and twisted; and it grows right down tohis waist.”
“Uncle,what color is it?”
“Green,”replied the storyteller with conviction, “like the creepers. Bright green. Andso are his fingernails, long and sharp and green. Those fingernails of his areso long that when he walks they scrape the ground. That is how you can find histracks in the forest, from the marks left by his fingernails.”
“Uncle,”ventured one bold boy.
“Lasttime, you told us his fingernails were red.”
“Idid? You are sure? Quite sure? Well, you see, it's like this. The last time Itold you about the lobishomem his fingernails were red. Do youknow why?”
“No,Uncle. Tell us.”
“Wellour senhor lobishomem had just then crept up behind a small boy who hadfoolishly ventured out of his cabin after dark; he had bitten the boy's neckwith his sharp teeth and sucked out all his blood. And, since the lobishomem isan untidy eater, some of the blood had spilled onto his fingernails, making themlook red, though underneath they were really green.”
“Shhhh,”the children whispered to one other, snuggling closer.
“Byday the lobishomem is just an ordinary man. There is no way you couldrecognize him. Even I could be one. But at night, especially on Saturdays whenthe moon is full, that ordinary man sheds his skin like a snake and out comes a lobishomem.He even takes a new name. Do you know what his name is?”
“Chico-Bicho!”roared the children.
“That'sright. Chico-Bicho. Chico-Bicho roams around all night, in the bush andoutside the senzalas. Sometimes he walks on his head with his feet in theair. His only friends are the dogs which follow him wherever he goes. Have youheard the dogs howling when the moon is full? They are calling to him in theirlanguage, `Chico-Bicho, Chico-Bicho, where are you?'”
“Uncle,have you ever seen him?”
“Once,only once, many years ago, when I was still a young man. There was this fellowcalled João-João who worked in the kettle house. The only thing special aboutJoão-João was that he never trimmed the nail on the little finger of his righthand. His mother had seven sons but no daughters. João-João was the eldest.When the seventh son was born, João-João demanded that his parents make himthe baby's godfather, but they refused. So that very Saturday night at midnight,João-João turned into a lobishomem. He caught the souls of his ownmother and father while they were asleep; and boiled them in an iron pot. Thenhe ate their souls so that next morning they were found dead, both of them. Fromthen on, every Saturday night he changed into a monster and roamed about.
“OneSaturday my master sent me to town with a message. I had to wait a long time forthe reply and by the time I returned it was already almost midnight. It was justas the moon was coming up over the horizon that I saw him. He was all hairy andhorrible in the moonlight. He howled at me and the dogs who were with him howledtoo; then he bared his terrible teeth and the dogs did the same. Shivers randown my spine and I could feel the hair stand up at the back of my neck. I wassure that my time had come but I summoned up my courage. I took my knife in myhand and raised it so that he could see the steel glint in the moonlight. ButChico-Bicho just led his dogs in another chorus of howls and continued comingtowards me. I could see flames shooting out from his eyes, his nose, his mouth,his ears; even from his, you know . . .”
Thechildren giggled nervously at his gesture.
“Imean even from his armpits. In the moonlight I could see the white fangs of thedogs dripping with blood. I was rooted to the spot. I knew that if I turned andran Chico-Bicho and his dogs would catch me and suck me dry or tear me topieces. I decided that I would have to stand and fight. As they came closer andcloser, I shut my eyes and said a 'Hail Mary.' When I came to 'pray for ussinners, now and at the hour of our death,' I made the sign of the cross. When Iopened my eyes I saw that the blessed Virgin had heard my prayer. Chico-Bichoand his dogs had stopped in their tracks. I said the prayer again; and again Imade the threefold sign of the cross. Then Chico-Bicho got down to his knees.When I opened my eyes after the third 'Hail Mary' Chico-Bicho had turned into adog. At the fourth 'Hail Mary' he scurried away with the real dogs after him,their tails between their legs.”
Thestory-teller paused, afraid that he had overdone it. The children were scaredout of their wits. In the firelight, Ama could see the whites of their eyesrolling.
“Nowdo you see what we mean when we say, 'The sign of the cross delivers us from ourenemies.'?”
“Thenext morning, Sunday, we found the bodies of three dead cats and a dead sheep.All the blood had been sucked from the bodies. João-João was there as usual,his clothes even more dusty and bedraggled than ever, his face pale, his eyesalways on the ground, the nail on his little finger even longer than before. Weknew that he was Chico-Bicho, the lobishomem, but we could never proveit.”
“Nowchildren it is time you all went to bed. You too, Alexandre. We grown-ups haveserious matters to discuss.”
“Oh,please, Uncle, just one more story. Please,” the children begged.
Josef'stwo boys came to say goodnight and Wono led them away. Josef and Wono oftenjoined the Crioulos rather than the Akans or the Yorubas, because theconversation here was in Portuguese, which both of them could understand.
“That lobishomemis none other than the brother of our Sasabonsam,” Ama said toJosef in Fanti.
“Ofcourse,” Josef agreed, “except that our Sasabonsam wouldn't pay anyattention to any Christian fetish like the sign of the cross.”
Exodus Thatnight they all sat around a fire, all except those who stood as sentinels in thedark forest beyond and those who had been sent on an expedition to spy on theirformer home and steal what food they could find.
Ama hadthe Bible which Alexandre had stolen for her all those years before. She offeredto read a story and the offer was accepted with acclamation. So she lay down onher stomach, with the book close to the fire, and, with her one weak eye, readto them from Exodus.
When shehad read the passage in which Moses kills an Egyptian for beating one of hisIsraelite brothers, and buries the body, she paused and asked for water to wether throat.
“ThatEgyptian was called Vasconcellos,” came a comment from the dark perimeter.
Therewas approving laughter.
“Andwho is our Moses then?” another responded.
“Enoughof that,” Olukoya interrupted. “No one knows who killed Senhor Jesus. Iwarned you not to speculate on that matter. It is dangerous talk which could beour undoing. Ama please go on.”
She cameto the episode where the Pharaoh punished the Israelites for Moses's insolentdemands by increasing their tarefa, the daily quota of bricks each slavehad to make. Again they saw the parallels between the story and their ownhistory.
As Mosesvisited each of God's plagues upon the Egyptians there were cries of approbationand when he led the Israelites out of bondage Ama had to stop until the cheeringsubsided.
When sheread of Pharaoh's pursuit with his soldiers and horses and chariots the murmurswere more muted. The Israelite fugitives displayed their lack of faith in theirleader and their god and there was a cry of “Shame;” but the echo washalf-hearted. Ama wondered whether she had selected the wrong story. Yet theycheered again when the Lord parted the waters and Moses led his flock out ofEgypt and into the desert and freedom; and Ama's faith was restored.
By thistime her eye was watering from the smoke of the fire and her throat was sore.
“Ithink that's enough for one night,” she told them. “If you like, I'llcontinue some other time.”
“Tomorrow,”demanded the children.
“Tomorrow,”she agreed with a smile.
But that tomorrow never came.