The Night Watchman

Transformation of an African Objet d’Art

Olympe Bhêly-Quénum (1928 — ) is a Beninese writer, journalist, literary critic, and researcher. Born in Ouidah, Benin, Bhêly-Quénum won the Grand prix littéraire de l’Afrique noire for Le Chant du lac in 1966. He moved to France in the late 1940’s and lives there today. In the 1960s he served as the editor-in-chief of the African magazine L’Afrique Actuelle and then served with UNESCO. His stories and novels originally written in French have been translated into English, German, Czech, and Japanese. “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1950), featured in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories,  is a ghost story, perhaps, but also a surreal vision; André Breton famously called the story “du rêve a l’état brut” (dream of the raw). We are delighted to feature another story of Bhêly-Quénum’s, “The Night Watchman.” The accompanying photos of Fon Bochio statues are provided courtesy of the author and his son, Jean-Gilles Quénum. — The Editors

Photo © Jean-Gilles Quénum

To Aimé Césaire, the incomparable black
African poet who at time speaks the tongue
of Ifa Aïdegun, the oracle of Yorubaland.

With its round head, cold but searching look and massive well-proportioned hody, Bochio represented a bisexual janus. The sculptor had carved it in an upright position on a stand more than a metre long and formed like an inverted cone, the arms being fixed to the sides at blunt angles, as if ready for riposte at any time.

It was considered the guardian of the sacred places. According to tradition, a man had been sacrificed and buried in a kneeling posture, with the point of Bochio’s stand thrust into the victim’s skull. The sacrificial rite had been strictly observed and Bochio had for centuries been keeping guard over the Alladahouin convent from the centre of the courtyard. His shadow had been profiled on the ground of the enclosure and was used as a sun-dial by the High Priest, his acolytes and his probationers.

But times had changed and minds as well. Many old things had been cast away, many traditions and usages abolished, and ritual objects nobody knew the use of thrown away. The young, who have no respect for tradition, are ignorant of the history and religions of their country. Indifferent to the roots whose existence they do not even suspect, they have desecrated the cults and their ritual instruments. Thus Bochio disappeared from the Alladahouin convent after the pedestal had been sawn off, and it was thrown into a dusty lumber-room among other sundry instruments that were committed to the unavailing care of an old man disgusted and fed up with everything.

What wood is it made of? Goodness, how heavy it is!” said Hunnukpo when he came across it in the rummage one day after returning from an errand in Xwimin.

It is made from one of the hardest woods known. The principal diviner of the Grand High Priest of the Vodun Alladahouin went and cut the tree in Abeokuta.”

And what was it used for, this Bochio?”

It stood in the court-yard of the convent; it is said that it kept watch over the high priest and his flock; it appears that even kings themselves came and prostrated themselves before it, for it incarnated the spirit of the great vodun. But we no longer have a king and the bokonons[1] are nothing but vulgar babalawo[2].”

I see. There is also perhaps the fact that our kings of today believe in nothing except money, bribes and the practice of brutal, evil repression.”

You know a lot about things!”

Oh, me… But grandfather, can I take it away?”

What are you going to do with it?”

I have no idea.”

Give me a hundred francs. Ha! I’m not selling it to you — I have no right to do so — but bad fate has to be exorcised and you have to avoid the reaction of evil spirits, for one never knows.”

Hunnukpo took the statue, which was about 50 centimetres high away. It was roughly sculpted and its stand was reduced to a disc of wood of about 10 centimetres. He was more astonished by its weight. His village was some 16 kilometres from the town. He was obliged to stop three times during the journey, to place the chunk of wood on the ground and consider it from both its feminine and masculine aspects. Each time he was astonished at having to do so, for he was used to carrying over 30 kilos on his head to the market at Zlonmin, which was about 25 kilometres away

While carrying the thing under his arm, he occasionally had the feeling that Bochio was cuddling up to him or tickling his ribs. He placed it at the foot of the Traveller’s Water-Jar to quench his thirst.

A little water!” He heard someone say.

Startled, Hunnukpo looked around and could see nobody. He then noticed the statue on the ground. “It can’t possibly be him who spoke,” he said in a low voice.

A drink! A little water!” he heard again, although he didn’t see the lips move on either of the two faces of his wooden guest.

Well, if it is you, here’s some, drink it! I’m used to pouring libations to the ancestors and divinities of my village,” said the farmer, drawing water from the jar with a calabash.

He poured half of it over the statue, drank some of it hinself and replaced the calabash upside down on the round piece of wood which served as a lid for the jar, itself a bulging vase placed on a mound where a giant cactus with many branches grew.

Hunnukpo adjusted his cloth over his shoulder, picked Bochio up and continued his journey. He walked with big hurried steps for the sun had passed its meridian; the heat fell heavily on the bush that extended in all directions and was so high that the traveller could not be seen.

Of average height, well-built and muscular, Hunnukpo was that day wearing his best pair of breeches, a kind of cotton Bermuda locally made, held up at the waist by a string of sisal. His peasant’s agbáda[3] was made from dark blue, yellow and bright red floral-patterned cloth which reached down to his calves. Tiny drops of sweat ran from his scalp down his cheeks, which were flat and slightly hollow, giving the impression that the man might have lost a few molars.

With his low forehead and his oval face, where the eyes appeared fixed, even sometimes motionless, the traveller walked on, his features contracted. His jaw was set in a grim line and his teeth were clenched, for the weight of the statue distressed him. He thought of getting rid of it, of throwing it away without the slightest shame. Since he was all alone in the bush, he was traversing like a hunted animal with death on his track; nobody would witness his cowardice. Besides, the little load gave him a strange cramp in the arm, the shoulder and the back. However, Gbojêtin was not far off. He could see its trees, its huts with their thatched roofs; he could hear the crowing of the cocks, the cackling of the hens, the bleating of goats and kids. Just a few more steps…

Ah, someone’s coming. But where has he gone? Am I dreaming in broad daylight while walking?” Hunnukpo said to himself.

Come on! Enough of your gossip!” he heard.

It was as if his load were talking to him and he obeyed like a well-trained dog. He quickened his steps and arrived at Gbojêtin, where he let Bochio drop against the plaster door of his conical hut. He felt relieved at having got rid of a truly distressing burden. At that moment a shrill, complaining groan from a little way off, seemingly from the depths of the earth, split his eardrums.

Hunnukpo scanned the statue wlth half-closed eyes. A curious structure, severe and of antique beauty suffused with a barbarous calm, which seemed to exude animal force. His father had heard him return and came out of his hut for the news.

An old man with white hair, thin but with legs still sturdy, Hunnukpo’s father, Akpoto, went about by affectation leaning on a knotty stick inherited from his grandfather. “How are people and things over there?” he asked, a distant look in his eyes, passing his bony hands through his hair and keeping an upright stance without tightening his grip on the knob of his stick.

Old Akpoto seldom left the village. In his younger days he would cross all Djê’n-Kêdjê on foot, searching for traces of the traditions and customs of the district, learning about the properties of the herbs, plants and roots, and the dark hidden forces that protected the men of yore from evil spirits. He now stayed at home because of his age and contented himself with making inquiries with the same eagerness as in earlier days any time a person came from the outside world.

You’ve nothing to say? You look worried. The town hasn’t by chance disappeared?” he said, as if to reiterate his question.

His son then informed him in great detail and ended by saying: “Everything is going wrong. Everything is crumbling to dust. Our country is just plain going to pieces.”

Oh, that’s nothing new. You are worried because you stay too much on the farm without hearing about the problems of the town. I have been hearing about these things for years, from visitors. A lot of people are now being educated; it appears they know all about foreign countries, talk about the white races and their ancestors, and are proud of the exploits and the glory of white civilization, but know nothing about their own people. Whose fault is it? Those overgrown youngsters accuse their elders of not having done this or that, of not having told them, but how can one inform people that don’t care to listen, don’t ask questions, take their parents and grandparents for drivellers, people that are worn-out, unpolished and absolutely of no account?”

That is indeed so, father,” Hunnukpo said, standing with his hands behind his back in a very attentive manner.

Yes, as you have noticed in town, many things are disappearing, and our countryside also has not been spared; our grand-children will acquire the science of the white races, but what do they know about their own country and its customs? Even those who stay here in the village have lost interest in everything and our heritage is taking the road to exile. Our divinities are turning their back on the country in anger; our descendants don’t care and are throwing everything into the dustbin among the refuse.”

Hunnukpo was listening to his father, falling in step with him while they crossed the courtyard and arrived near Hunnukpo’s hut. There he showed Akpoto Bochio. The old man stooped and stared suspiciously at the thing before he touched it.

But… this is the Watchman of the Royal convents! They have even got rid of that too?”

It is supposed to have stood in the courtyard of Alladahouin convent.”

That’s right, and you have taken it away. You have done well. I hope you gave a dash; it is not done to buy or sell a sacrificial bochio,” said the old man in a sad low voice.

The taboos have been observed.”

Well, the rites must be respected right away; a bochio can’t remain in a house like that.”

Old Akpoto went off into the bush with Anani, the fourth son of Hunnukpo’s first wife, a boy of ten with bright eyes, his head clean-shaven, clothed in a square metre of àdirẹ[4] cloth knotted by the neck. He gathered leaves, cut herbs with a sharp little wrought-iron dagger, and told his grandson where to dig to uncover a certain root of a bush.

The child did as he was told. He worked on his knees with a little hoe. His grandfather cut two rootlets of one bush, three of another, telling the child the names of the plants from which he gathered the leaves or cut the roots, and those of the herbs he cut the tops of, explaining what they were used for and what he was going to do with them and why. The little fellow listened carefully, hardly ever asking a question; what his grandfather said was imprinted on his brain.

On the way back, they saw a reddish-brown dog coming towards them on the path winding through the bush.

A dog, Daágbó[5],” said Anani.

Are you afraid of him, my little one?”

No, but where does he come from?”

He is there because he is needed. Run and tell your father that the dog has arrived.”

Anani went like an arrow, running around the animal, and arrived home quickly. His father left him there and came to meet old Akpoto, who was standing in front of the dog in the middle of the path, as if hypnotized. The animal wagged its smooth-haired tail and then put it between its legs, pressed against its belly. No bark came from its fairly thin mouth, but it stared at the old man, who looked at it fixedly with his small eyes under shaggy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. He held in his hand his crop of leaves, herbs and roots in the form of a little bouquet.

Hunnukpo looked at the dog, took the bouquet and the hoe from his father’s hand and turned around.

Come, the gods are waiting for you!” he said, and the dog followed him, looking straight ahead, walking between the two men he had never seen before.

*

The ceremony took place well before midnight; the whole compound was asleep. Hunnukpo’s three wives, observing the comings and goings of the men, had understood that they intended to remain among themselves, perhaps late into the night. They shut themselves up in their respective rooms after the evening meal. The moon passing through the sky shed a misty light over the surrounding countryside. The flickering light of an oil lamp, consisting of palm oil in an earthenware pot with a wick of cotton, threw a pallid light on the courtyard.

Hunnukpo’s compound was a large one enclosed by a long lattice-work palisade of flexible rods, and was situated among the tall trees in an old clearing. There was a big hut for the children and also huts for Daágbó, Akpoto, and Hunnukpo. At the further end of the yard, towards the east of the fence, almost touching the barrier of big trees, were the sheep-pen and the poultry yard.

Eighteen months before, armed robbers had made a breach in the fence and burgled the house during the night. Ten goats, four kids and a dozen chickens had disappeared. Next morning the village resounded with the shouts of the women and children of Hunnukpo invokingthe curse of the local divinities and of the whole country on the thieves.

But the gods remained deaf; the accused returned six months later. Hunnukpo was a good citizen and had not flinched from his civic duty when called upon to accomplish the obligatory military service imposed by the Whites. A patriot ready to fulfil his lawful obligations, he paid his taxes and responded to the regular appeals made in the interest of his country. Yes, what had happened to him was a crying injustice.

Hence, scandalised by the burglary and the uncouth conduct of the visitors, he complained to the legal and competent authorities about the unauthorised night visit and subsequent disappearance of personal property his compound had been subjected to.

*

A farmer making a complaint? We will soon fix that.”

The “competent authorities concerned” in Uko, the capital of Djên’Kêdjê, had made all kinds of promises. “We will look after your village and especially your compound. We will catch the evil-doers and there will be no more burglaries,” they said.

Hunnukpo went away with renewed confidence, but he waited in vain, for the robbers came a second time, and then he complained once more.

If we don’t do something about it, this guy is capable of stirring up all the chiefs in his bloody bush-town. He and his rabble might even call upon the President himself,” said Mètafũto, the chief of police.

He came in person to conduct an enquiry in the complainant’s compound, admired what remained of the poultry and the herd of goats and made a report on the damage. On leaving his host, the worthy representative of the law quietly made it understood in the ambiguous language current in Djên’-Kêdjê that he would be needing a couple of goats and a few cocks for a ceremony.

Mètafũto, a fat man with round belly, large buttocks and heavily jowled face, gave a hypocritical look, adjusted his peaked cap and lowered his head. “Yes, it is not easy for a civil servant of my rank to rummage about in the market looking for such things.”

If only, he went on, he lived here in Gbojêtin far from the town and its indiscretions, he would buy the animals from Hunnukpo and the bokonon would proceed to perform the sacrifices in the bush.

The farmer promised to deliver the goats and cocks to his house and did so, thinking it was a regular sale. But the chief merely shook him by the hand warmly, renewing his promise to give personal attention to his complaint.

Hunnukpo came home disappointed and frustrated, realising that he had been hoaxed and swore that he would never again allow himself to be had by any bribe-taker, any thief in uniform protected by the organised powers of political life. He was still thinking about this when he dug the hole in the midd1e of the yard where the slaughtered dog had been buried in a standing position covered with propitiatory objects.

Old Akpoto had placed carefully selected herbs, leaves and roots at the bottom of the grave. There had been a libation and he had pronounced a long incantation followed by a short prayer before sacrificing the animal.

Hunnukpo had moulded clay into seven big balls, each the size of a football; the blood of the dog had been mixed into this clay together with cowries, kola ruts, malaguetta pepper, a whole bottle of sodabi[6] and an equal quantity of red palm oil. The ritual had been strictly observed; Hunnukpo had used the earthen balls to erect a clay sculpture on the spot where he and his father had buried the dog that came from goodness knows where to submit to the sacrifice. Old Akpoto thrust Bochio in above the clay figure up to the ankles.

From that moment a carnal brotherhood was established between the two symbols that had become one body by the strict observance of the ritual enacted by wise Àkpoto. And Bochio-Xwéli, the main root of the household, now loomed upright in the yard of the compound.

Some of the nanny goats had meanwhile yeaned and the herd had increased; the poultry had shown themselves worthy competitors and their proliferation was a source of satisfaction to Hunnukpo and his family. Helped by five of his nine children, he had to reinforce the fence near the domestic aniamals .Some of his fellow farmers located four to five kilometres away had been visited by the thieves, who even set fire to a hut and killed the watch-dogs. In one village a particularly well-trained dog bit one of them and a piece of his calf was found on the ground.

Hunnukpo would have hiked to have a dog like that, were it not for the prohibition of the divinities who had presided over his birth: Never the presence of a living dog in the house where this child lives. For the last forty years, nobody had dared to defy this prohibition.Even the dog used for the ceremony of reviving and consecrating Bochio had to be tied up outside, near the entrance to the compound where he was sacrificed under a large banana tree, before being brought into the yard to be buried.

*

The robbers came back again shortly after the installation of Bochio-Xwéli. An exceptional mildness impregnated the night. The bullfrogs were noisily snoring rather than croaking on the banks of the brook, whose pale water slowly flowed over the mossy stones. The bats squeaked while flying from one baobab to another, and in the distance the hoot of an owl could be heard as in a fatal swoop he traversed a sky lightly streaked with the clouds of the end of the little rainy season.

At the very moment when he was making a hole in the fence with his hatchet, the leader of the brigands felt a violent blow dealt on his face by a club. He stifled a cry of pain, fell on his knees, and tried to get up again but sank down on his side. However, he almost immediately regained his self-control and got up with a broken nose, a few broken teeth and a blood-stained face. Three of his companions came to his assistance, first supporting him in an upright position, then, seeing the state he was in, carrying him away and laying him down a little way off.

With daggers drawn, they looked here and there for the attacker but could see nobody. Determined to carry out their plan, six of them started to make openings in the fence at various points, but blows from bludgeons sharply rained on their backs, their heads, and on the face of one, the neck of another and the knees of a third. The blows were of an unimaginable brutality. Distressed at not being able to see whom they had to deal with and convinced that they were outnumbered, the robbers broke away and fled in confusion. If any of them fell, he was ruthlessly trampled on by the others. Some on all fours like beasts hindered the escape of their companions, who in their flight dealt them strokes of their daggers.

When things had become quiet again, the clannish spirit of solidarity that bound the thieves together compelled them to return to the scene to succour their wounded comrades. They even found a dead body, which they bore away together with those who were too badly wounded to walk.

*

The very next day they decided to send a scout back to the scene. The midday sun shone sultrily on the village. A track ended up at the back of the fence of Hunnukpo’s compound and had been used by the thieves as best they could. The grass trampled down on both sides of it was evidence of the defeat of the gang and its disordered flight. The scout methodically explored the place, discovered the brook winding through the grass, followed it and arrived at the entrance of the property. He decided to go inside.

Is there anyone here?” he shouted from the other side of the fence.

Amoussou, one of Hunnukpo’s sons, ran and opened the gate. “Welcome, who are you looking for ?” he asked.

Where is your father? I was thinking of buying a goat, but… I’m thirsty and would like a drink of water first,” said the scout, a thin but brawny man neatly clothed in a pair of shorts and a shirt. He had an abnormally large head and piercing eyes that seemed to look in all directions simultaneously.

I will call my father,” said Amoussou, going back to the bouse.

At that moment, the visitor felt a violent kick in the kidneys and fell on his belly. He gave a gasp, clenched his fists, searched all around him with a startled look and accused Amoussou, who was at a loss to understand what had happened.

Blast! I no longer want to buy a goat!” shouted the man, who left in a fury.

Hunnukpo was told of the incident and searched his surroundings in vain. But, when night came, he heard steps in the yard. He went out and saw the outline of a man of average height walking about aimlessly.

Who is there?” he asked.

The person disappeared like a ghost.

Surely I wasn’t dreaming,” he said to himself, going back to his hut.

Shortly after the first crow of the cock, he again heard the steps of a man walking about, then going to the penfold and coming back. He listened for some time; there was nothing hurried about the steps and the person acted as if he was living in the compound. The farmer nevertheless was sure that it was neither his father nor his elder son, nor any of his wives, and he got up without lighting his lamp. He took hold of his hatchet in the corner of the hut, where he usually kept his tools and his arms, opened the door by turning the key with infinite precaution, and scrutinized the yard through a crack in the badly-planed wooden door.

Yes, someone was actually walking about: a man of average height, naked and sometimes walking backwards, sometimes straight ahead. The farmer changed place and took up a stance from where he could see anothér part of the yard. He was now able to see the clay golem but not the wooden statue in its right place, watching from the mound of dried earth. Was he dreaming with eyes wide open on this moonless night when only a misty glimmer filtering from the firmament gave light to the house? No extravagant fancy from the world of dreams had invaded his imagination; on the contrary, he made a great effort to remain vigilant, his mind razor-sharp, but perhaps there was a marginal intrusion within this long glance that slowly covered the yard, an illusion where this disquieting person appeared.

Armed with his hatchet, Hunnukpo rushed into the yard and charged at the shadowy figure, which disappeared as in a dream. He saw himself face to face with Bochio, the bisexual effigy with its Janus head, as upright as ever, its feet solidly embedded in the head of Xwéli, the deity of the soil which held the roots of the wooden image, imparting to it the dark hidden forces drawn from the earthly opacity of this country where nobody should dare shed the blood of a son of Djên’-Kêdjê.

Hunnukpo felt ridiculous and humiliated, with there being no witness of his pursuit of an illusion. He came back to his hut and immediately went to sleep again.

He did not mention a word about his nocturnal adventure. He thought about the man who had wanted to come buy a goat, and whom he had not been able to see because of an incident that nobody had been able to explain.

The man left suddenly without waiting for the bowl of water he had asked for, or choosing the goat he claimed he wanted to buy,” said Hunnukpo to himself, passing in front of Bochio-Xwéli, whom he observed attentively. He was not unaware of the fact that like all the names and words of this country, the word Xwéli was not a mere convention, but on the contrary an active reality with intrinsic powers. He slowly walked around it, watching Bochio’s very pronounced archaic face that emerged from remote ages, with its four tranquil eyes, within which were concentrated a cold consciousness of nature’s potential and the tactics of pitiless, repressive and terrifying acts.

The farmer went away and made a sort of inspection of the penfold and the poultry yard. There was no clue whatsoever. A splendid calm hovered over the whole of Gbojêtin, broken only from time to time by the sound of pestles pounding on mortars in rhythmic cadence, or by the fall of hammers on the anvil of Xhêvi, the blacksmith with the head of a vulture and twisted legs, or by the laughs of women and children and the singing of numerous multicoloured birds. Even the brook nearby seemed gayer than usual as it sparkled among the aquatic plants in its bed guarded by the trees.

The robbers must have been sorely affected by the death of one of their comrades, for they spent the following six weeks licking their wounds and drawing up a new strategy while not venturing near the Botossê farm. Finally two scouts came to reconnoitre the place again. They marked the parts of the fence where it would be easiest to attack the penfold and the poultry yard, to operate and get away quickly.

The gang was used to carrying arms, but this time they added to their precautions, being resolved to shoot on the spot anyone who attacked them or tried to interfere with their operation. Times were hard in Djên’-Kêdjê. The peasants had great difficulty in selling the produce of their farms; to their frustration, the rural cooperatives set up in the wake of independence paid them ridiculous prices. These men and their womenfolk were on the point of revolt, but their anger never seethed over beyond the countryside. They had become resigned.

The cattle-breeders avoided the city, where the government and the politicians sought to swindle them. Moreover, the city had become a breeding-ground of unemployment and abuses of every kind. The police and the constabulary complained of the « muscular and idle men. » Well, the robbers did not belong to this category of desperate young unemployed people; they were rather methodical, organised gangs. In the farms they would say: “Why do they choose to steal from poor peasants like us, instead of looting from the big fat rnoney-bags in towns?”

Clothed in trousers and sleeveless jute jackets, equipped with pig-holders and fowl-baskets, they looked in daylight more 1ike old unemployed cobblers who had taken on the role of porters looking for jobs than professional robbers.

They had come before nightfall and camped in the bush near the tall trees, not far from Hunnukpo’s farm. The moon would be rising late and the stars, twinkling in a fairly dark sky, would hardly throw any light over the area. One after the other, the lights went out in the Botossê farm, even those of old Akpoto when he had finished telling his grandchildren stories of long ago.

In accordance with the ritual he had observed since Bochio had come to the house, the old man came out of his hut, walked a few paces around the yard with his inseparable cane, and arrived in front of Bochio-Xwéli where he knelt down, kissed the ground and prayed:

Bochio-Xwéli,
Guardian of the place,
Night-watcher of the world
Since the world has been world,
Open your eyes,
Gather your forces
Taken from the heart
Of the earth
And watch over us all
And everything
In this compound
Entrusted to your care
As far as its utmost limits.

May the night be hard,
Painful and pitiless
The darkness be thick,
Hostile and confounding
For any evil-doer prowling
Round this house.
Hail, Bochio-Xwéli!
Do your work
Keep away the evil spirits
Keep them in check
by ensnaring them
In their own combat
And with the assistance
Of the ancestral spirits
Render the night quiet for us
And our sleep peaceful.

So may it be.

He kissed the ground once more and arose. With the gesture of a man that nothing more in life could hurry, he brushed off the dust sticking to his bony leg. With a mixture of respect, affection and even tenderness, he caressed the double face of Bochio and then went back to his hut.

*

The brigands swung into action just after midnight. The ones who had previously come as scouts went first to the places they had marked out, but they immediately ran into the heaviest and most unexpected resistance. The others rushed to their aid and tried desperately to open breaches in the fence but, rendering blow for blow, the mysterious invisible forces obliged them to retreat and the bandits had the feeling that their adversaries were particularly brawny men. When one of the brigands plunged his dagger into the fence, as if to rip up an enerny’s belly, one of his own comrades doubled up and collapsed, his body covered in blood.

Then blows from clubs, bludgeons and cudgels rained upon them : on their heads, their sides, between the legs, on their kidneys. No part of the body was spared. Some of them even were sure that women were scratching their faces, bitting them in the neck or trying to tear their clothes off. There was no way of breaking through. All their efforts were systematically neutralised and violently turned against them on the very battle-ground they had chosen.

Come along! We haven’t raised Cain in town to give in to these crummy clod-hoppers! Kill them!” barked the leader of the gang, a hefty, muscular round-headed man with a resolute appearance.

But we can’t see anyone!” someone replied.

Never mind! Kill’em all the same!”

They all drew their daggers and mounted the assault, but as the enemy remained invisible, each blow dealt at random inevitably turned against a member of the gang, who fell stifling a gasp, retreated with a weapon planted in his stomach, or managed to stab his neighbour before collapsing.

We must resist! We shall get the better of them! Kill them! Kill the lot!” The leader continued gingering up his men.

Suddenly, he himself was seized by the waist. He tried to resist but was quickly gagged with a tuft of grass in his mouth. Someone came to his rescue but a blow from a truncheon straight away broke the rescuer’s shoulder bone. He retreated into the bush while his leader, feet and hands tied, struggled on the ground.

As his companions endeavoured to take hold of him, blows from clubs smashed jaws, arms or shin-bones of more than one of them. Powerless, beaten and routed, the few who had enough courage to cast a backward glance saw their leader mastered, bundled together and firmly tied up in a pig-holder. They tried to retrace their steps, for such a sorely tried leader absolutely had to be saved, but a cock crowed and invisible hands lifted him and threw him over the fence into the compound, where the long-suffering chief stifled a cry of distress.

Confronted with such a spectacle, the comrades who would have liked to show humanity and fraternal solidarity towards him took to their heels and headed for the bush.

*

The pathetic leader spent the rest of the night in this condition. In the morning one of Hunnukpo’s wives discovered the package when taking chicken-feed to the poultry-yard. She uttered a shout of terror and, dropping her calahash of maize to the ground, ran away. Soon the whole compound gathered around the man reduced to such deplorable helplessness. Exposed to the glare of the sun, he was gasping for breath, ready to faint.

He is perhaps going to die,” said one of the children, taking out his gag.

Who are you?”

Who dumped you here?”

Where do you come from?”

Where are you from?”

What have you done to receive such treatment?”

And there were scores of other questions to which the chief did not reply.

He must be taken to the cudgel-bearers,” Hunnuukpo finally said.

No,” said the old grandfather, “you had better send a boy asking them to come and make a report.”

But they’ll be furious and maybe suspect me, accusing us of committing a crime,” objected Hunnukpo.

Oh, let them jabber. All I know is that without any bribe or useless palaver, Bochio-Xwéli,the night watchman come back from the distant past, has done what the representatives of law and order, who are all in cahoots with brigands anyway, were unable to do,” said old Akpoto.

He then spit on the ground and walked away towards the main yard where the effigy was only just starting to cast its shadow on the ground.

Photo © Jean-Gilles Quénum


[1] Ethnic group word for seer (cf. Fon ethnic group, in Benin : West Africa)

[2] Ethnic group word for seer (cf. Yoruba ethnic group, in Nigeria : West Africa)

[3] Agbáda  (a yoruba word ) is a garment.

[4] Àdirẹ : cloth dyed in patterns by the Yorubas (Nigeria, West Africa)

[5] Daágbó. (Fon word, Benin. West Africa) for grandfather.

[6] Traditional local spirit, extract from oil palm.

 

 

2 replies to “The Night Watchman

  1. Pingback: The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: April 24, 2012

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