The Rabbit Hole
By Manu Herbstein
From the novel, Ama, A
Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade
elephants still occupied their minds.
Nandzi returned to the camp, the man who had been sitting behind her was telling
the story of how the elephant came to forsake the forest for the country of the
long-grass. He had come to the part where the spider has defeated and killed his
giant adversary in a head-butting contest. Two young men had illustrated the
episode with an impromptu performance. Now cheers and laughter echoed through
the forest as Ananse preened himself over the prostrate body of the elephant.
the family of Elephant came to Ananse and said, `Spider, you have defeated the
head of our family. We admit it. All we ask is that you do as our custom
what, may I ask, is that?' inquired Ananse.
victor must provide the family with a coffin; and the coffin must be carved from
solid stone, as befits a family head.'
thought for some time. He had a cutlass and an adze and a knife. He could make a
coffin 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
squatted 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.
next day Ananse cut down a tree with his cutlass. With his adze and his knife he
carved the tree trunk into the image of a man with a musket raised to his
shoulder, ready to fire. When the carving was finished, he dragged it to the
front gate of his compound. He dressed the carving in batakari and
trousers. Then he hid in the bush to watch what would happen.
family 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, standing
ready to fire at them. Then Ananse beat the great fontomfrom drum, making a
sound like the thunder of gunshot. Panicking, the elephants at once turned tail
and fled; and they didn't stop running until they had left the forest and passed
into the savanna. Ananse just laughed and laughed and laughed. And then he
called his wife and children and they cooked and ate the flesh of the dead
is my story of how the elephant came to forsake the forest for the country of
the long-grass. I do not vouch for its truth. You may believe or not: that is
for you, the listener, to decide.”
fellowship gradually developed amongst the paddlers and the passengers in each
canoe. 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 how
Ananse had used flattery to persuade the king of serpents to allow himself to be
he told them, “Persuaded Python to let himself be lashed to a fallen tree
trunk. `Just to make sure,' he told the snake, `That unstraightened sinuosities
will not result in an underestimation of your length.'”
laughed at Ananse's cheek and at the ornithologist's verbal wizardry; but Nandzi
identified with the victim and saw herself trussed up like Ananse's python.
the border the tree cover became denser and denser. Almost before they were
aware of it, they found themselves enveloped in the rain forest. In that vast
primeval wilderness the great road to Kumase, hacked through by the labor of
countless slaves, was the only evidence of the puny genius of mankind. The
slaves surveyed their surroundings with awe.
multicolored butterflies and moths flitted across the patches of bright dappled
sunlight which reached the ground. On either side, beyond the undergrowth which
lined the road, there lay a domain whose gloom seemed to be made even more
intense 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 into
strange contorted shapes as they descended. The scent of rotting vegetation was
all-pervasive. Tiny shrill-voiced birds, with bright red and yellow and blue
breasts and long curved beaks, swept out of the darkness to suck the nectar from
the wild flowers which grew in the tangled roadside jungle.
was aligned to suit pedestrian traffic. It meandered this way and that, hugging
the slopes of the small, closely-spaced, steep-sided hills which filled the
landscape, skirting the great buttresses of a silk-cotton tree, sometimes
plunging into damp, flat areas which would become impassable swamps during the
rains. It was just twelve paces wide. Left untended for only a single rainy
season, the roadside undergrowth would encroach upon it and the forest would
recover its lost territory. But this road had not been left untended. It was an
important artery of the Asante economy and the slaves in Adabo's maintenance
gangs were forever slashing away with their cutlasses to keep it clear.
slaves from the northern savanna were unused to the humidity. Their bodies and
clothing were drenched in sweat and their wet black skin glistened in the
forest pressed in on them. From its depths came strange discordant sounds, a
strident chorus of screeching, howling, wailing shrieks.
gripped Nandzi's arm: “What's that?”
it must be some kind of animal,” replied Nandzi, feigning calm indifference.
“Jaji, leave go of me.”
kind of animal? I have never heard a noise like that before.”
maybe the animals that live in the forest are different from the ones we know.”
was not satisfied.
it is again,” she cried. “Nandzi, ask the guard. I am afraid.”
Mensa,” Nandzi asked the musketeer who was her suitor, “I beg you, what is
making that frightful noise.”
are the spirits of the forest. They are screaming abuse at us because they are
angry 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, on
any account, go into the forest alone and unarmed. If you do, they will surely
did he say?” asked Minjendo.
translated as best she could.
don't mind him,” she added. “He is just telling us that to make us scared.”
can you be sure?” asked Minjendo.
had no reply.
only, “Spirits or no spirits, one thing is clear: it would be madness to try
to run away and hide in this forest. You would get lost in no time. And if the
spirits did not kill you, there must surely be wild animals there which would.”
are always thinking of escape,” said Minjendo.
you know what dwarfs are,” interrupted the musketeer, warming to his subject.
mmoatia, have you heard of them before?”
don't recall,” replied Nandzi.
also 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 have
ever 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 to
where they came from, not where they are going to. And, in the mean time, they
have turned round and are following you and laughing at the way they have
asked Nandzi with evident disbelief. “Have you ever seen one?”
replied the soldier, “But I know several people who have. And I have heard
them. They speak to each other by whistling.”
they dangerous? Like the spirits we heard?”
they only cause mischief.”
if you are weeding your farm and you put down your hoe or your cutlass for a
moment, to stretch your limbs; when you want to pick it up again to continue
with 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.”
the beginning,” said the storyteller, “Onyame, creator of all things, made
three black men and three whites. To each of these he gave a woman of the same
colour. The six blacks were our first ancestors and the others were the
ancestors of the whites.
set before them two things: a large clay pot and a piece of paper, folded and
sealed. Then he made them draw lots and, the black men winning, he gave them the
first choice. They discussed the matter amongst themselves.
first said, `Of what use is a piece of paper?'
second replied, `None, and the pot is large; in it we shall surely find
everything we need.'
third said, `Let us take the pot.'
they took the pot. But when they broke it open all they found was a piece of
gold and a piece of iron.”
story-teller paused to wet his throat.
it was the turn of the white men. When they opened the paper and examined it
they found it told them everything there was to know.
Onyame gave this country to the blacks. Leaving them in the bush, he took the
whites to the mouth of the great water and taught them to cut down trees and
build a ship. When the ship was ready they boarded it and sailed away to a far
country which Onyame had prepared for those who would select the paper.
years later the descendants of the first whites returned to this country with
goods to exchange for gold and slaves. It is from that paper that they had
learned to make the goods.
is the end of my story.”
was silence around the camp fire as the slaves and their guards reflected upon
the significance of the tale.
white men,” Ama asked a guard who had become her friend and who sat nearby,
“What are they like?”
are very tall, twice as tall as we are, and very ugly. They are so ugly that it
hurts ones eyes to look at them. Indeed, if you look at them for too long, you
are sure to become blind.”
do they eat?”
eat all the things that we eat. Like us, they like meat best. But their
favourite is human flesh.”
started. She had heard this once before.
don't believe it,” she said.
he replied, “When we reach Elmina you will see. And another thing: they like
woman flesh pass man.”
decided that he was having her on; but a small doubt remained in her mind.
will we reach Elmina?” she asked.
Saturdays there was no extra work after the completion of the tarefa.
Then the slaves gathered around their fires, the Minas around one, the Nagôs at
another, 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 Portuguese
bible for Ama and sometimes they read secretly together on a Sunday. Alexandre
came to sit by her.
story, a story,” the children demanded.
little girls were dressed in simple one piece frocks and the boys in shirts with
tails down to their knees.
crawled forward on hands and knees to turn the sweet potatoes which were
roasting in the coals. Everyone knew that he had stolen them from the Senhora's
vegetable garden, but who were they to complain?
story would you like?” asked the evening's storyteller.
was a clamor of excited demands.
wait. One at a time. Micaela, you choose.”
girl rose to her feet. A boy whispered in her ear.
uncle,” she whispered shyly, “tell us about the lobishomem.”
said the storyteller, “if I tell you about the lobishomem, you will
have a nightmare; and then your mother will be angry with me.”
no. The lobishomem,” demanded the children. “Tell us about the lobishomem.”
well, if you insist,” agreed the storyteller. “What do you want to know
about the lobishomem?”
does he look like?” asked Micaela, wide-eyed.
no,” resisted the storyteller. “If I tell you that, you will be afraid.”
demands were too insistent to resist.
Ah, the lobishomem,” said the storyteller, scratching the stubble
on his cheek. “He is an untidy fellow, dirty. And the smell of him! Phttt! He
never cuts his hair or combs it. Have you seen how the creepers grow in the
forest? That is how his hair is, knotted and twisted; and it grows right down to
what color is it?”
replied the storyteller with conviction, “like the creepers. Bright green. And
so are his fingernails, long and sharp and green. Those fingernails of his are
so long that when he walks they scrape the ground. That is how you can find his
tracks in the forest, from the marks left by his fingernails.”
ventured one bold boy.
time, you told us his fingernails were red.”
did? You are sure? Quite sure? Well, you see, it's like this. The last time I
told you about the lobishomem his fingernails were red. Do you
Uncle. Tell us.”
our senhor lobishomem had just then crept up behind a small boy who had
foolishly ventured out of his cabin after dark; he had bitten the boy's neck
with his sharp teeth and sucked out all his blood. And, since the lobishomem is
an untidy eater, some of the blood had spilled onto his fingernails, making them
look red, though underneath they were really green.”
the children whispered to one other, snuggling closer.
day the lobishomem is just an ordinary man. There is no way you could
recognize him. Even I could be one. But at night, especially on Saturdays when
the 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?”
roared the children.
right. Chico-Bicho. Chico-Bicho roams around all night, in the bush and
outside the senzalas. Sometimes he walks on his head with his feet in the
air. His only friends are the dogs which follow him wherever he goes. Have you
heard the dogs howling when the moon is full? They are calling to him in their
language, `Chico-Bicho, Chico-Bicho, where are you?'”
have you ever seen him?”
only once, many years ago, when I was still a young man. There was this fellow
called João-João who worked in the kettle house. The only thing special about
João-João was that he never trimmed the nail on the little finger of his right
hand. 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 him
the 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 own
mother and father while they were asleep; and boiled them in an iron pot. Then
he ate their souls so that next morning they were found dead, both of them. From
then on, every Saturday night he changed into a monster and roamed about.
Saturday my master sent me to town with a message. I had to wait a long time for
the reply and by the time I returned it was already almost midnight. It was just
as the moon was coming up over the horizon that I saw him. He was all hairy and
horrible in the moonlight. He howled at me and the dogs who were with him howled
too; then he bared his terrible teeth and the dogs did the same. Shivers ran
down my spine and I could feel the hair stand up at the back of my neck. I was
sure that my time had come but I summoned up my courage. I took my knife in my
hand and raised it so that he could see the steel glint in the moonlight. But
Chico-Bicho just led his dogs in another chorus of howls and continued coming
towards me. I could see flames shooting out from his eyes, his nose, his mouth,
his ears; even from his, you know . . .”
children giggled nervously at his gesture.
mean even from his armpits. In the moonlight I could see the white fangs of the
dogs dripping with blood. I was rooted to the spot. I knew that if I turned and
ran Chico-Bicho and his dogs would catch me and suck me dry or tear me to
pieces. I decided that I would have to stand and fight. As they came closer and
closer, I shut my eyes and said a 'Hail Mary.' When I came to 'pray for us
sinners, now and at the hour of our death,' I made the sign of the cross. When I
opened my eyes I saw that the blessed Virgin had heard my prayer. Chico-Bicho
and his dogs had stopped in their tracks. I said the prayer again; and again I
made 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 a
dog. At the fourth 'Hail Mary' he scurried away with the real dogs after him,
their tails between their legs.”
story-teller paused, afraid that he had overdone it. The children were scared
out of their wits. In the firelight, Ama could see the whites of their eyes
do you see what we mean when we say, 'The sign of the cross delivers us from our
next 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 eyes
always on the ground, the nail on his little finger even longer than before. We
knew that he was Chico-Bicho, the lobishomem, but we could never prove
children it is time you all went to bed. You too, Alexandre. We grown-ups have
serious matters to discuss.”
please, Uncle, just one more story. Please,” the children begged.
two boys came to say goodnight and Wono led them away. Josef and Wono often
joined the Crioulos rather than the Akans or the Yorubas, because the
conversation here was in Portuguese, which both of them could understand.
is none other than the brother of our Sasabonsam,” Ama said to
Josef in Fanti.
course,” Josef agreed, “except that our Sasabonsam wouldn't pay any
attention to any Christian fetish like the sign of the cross.”
night they all sat around a fire, all except those who stood as sentinels in the
dark forest beyond and those who had been sent on an expedition to spy on their
former home and steal what food they could find.
the Bible which Alexandre had stolen for her all those years before. She offered
to read a story and the offer was accepted with acclamation. So she lay down on
her stomach, with the book close to the fire, and, with her one weak eye, read
to them from Exodus.
had read the passage in which Moses kills an Egyptian for beating one of his
Israelite brothers, and buries the body, she paused and asked for water to wet
Egyptian was called Vasconcellos,” came a comment from the dark perimeter.
was approving laughter.
who is our Moses then?” another responded.
of that,” Olukoya interrupted. “No one knows who killed Senhor Jesus. I
warned you not to speculate on that matter. It is dangerous talk which could be
our undoing. Ama please go on.”
to the episode where the Pharaoh punished the Israelites for Moses's insolent
demands by increasing their tarefa, the daily quota of bricks each slave
had to make. Again they saw the parallels between the story and their own
visited each of God's plagues upon the Egyptians there were cries of approbation
and when he led the Israelites out of bondage Ama had to stop until the cheering
read of Pharaoh's pursuit with his soldiers and horses and chariots the murmurs
were more muted. The Israelite fugitives displayed their lack of faith in their
leader and their god and there was a cry of “Shame;” but the echo was
half-hearted. Ama wondered whether she had selected the wrong story. Yet they
cheered again when the Lord parted the waters and Moses led his flock out of
Egypt and into the desert and freedom; and Ama's faith was restored.
time her eye was watering from the smoke of the fire and her throat was sore.
think that's enough for one night,” she told them. “If you like, I'll
continue some other time.”
demanded the children.
she agreed with a smile.
tomorrow never came.