Cunnie Rabbit, Mr. Spider and the Other Beef: West African Folk Tales | Annotated Tale

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Cunning Rabbit and His Well

"LONG tem, Cunnie Rabbit en all dem beef bin gadder. Den meet up to one place fo' talk palaver, because de country dry too much. Dey no get one grain (drop) wattah sotay (until) all man wan' fo' die. Dey all get word fo' talk, f'om de big beef to de small, but nobody no able fo' fine sense fo' pull dem f'om dis yeah big trouble. Cunnie Rabbit he no bin say notting, he jus' listen wey dem beef talk; he t'ink say: 'Wey ting I go do fo' get wattah?'

               "Bimeby he grap (get up), he go home, he begin fo' dig well. He dig, he dig, he dig. De wattah come plenty. He drink sotay (until) he done satisfy.

               "Now dem beef hearee dat Cunnie Rabbit get well. Spider he grap fo' go walker to Cunnie Rabbit. He say:

               "'Fren', we no get one grain wattah fo' drink, we go die. Make yo' gie we.

               "Cunnie Rabbit tell um, he say:

               "'De pusson wey wan' make me gie um wattah, make he come fet me.'

               "Spider say: 'All ret.'

               "Now Spider en Cunnie Rabbit dey fet. Cunnie Rabbit hase (raise) Spider up to dah sky. He come down, he lay down flat. He grap (get up), he hase Cunnie Rabbit up. Cunnie Rabbit go to de sky; he blow one horn wey (which) he hole nah (in) he han'. W'en he blow um dark come, w'en he blow um agin, do' clean. [1] He fa' down, he grip de wuld, VIP! He han' long, dey go inside de groun'. Cunnie Rabbit get up back, he hase Spider up. One rainy season, one dry season he stay 'pon top de sky. W'en he come down, w'en he too fa' down 'pon de groun', he say: 'Ee! Ee! Ee! Fren', I no able agin. Den he shake Cunnie Rabbit he han'; he say: 'Oonah (you) 'trong man.'"

               To the recital of this very extraordinary combat between two very unusual people, Konah had been listening so intently that her restless limbs forgot to move, and her breathing was partly suspended. A movement of relief at this point in the narrative, and a long sigh of satisfaction at the sensible outcome of the contest, showed that her sympathy with the characters of the story was warm and real. She shifted her position, stooped to pull a chigger from one of her little black toes, then curled her head down on the other side for the comfortable enjoyment of the tale, which was continued while the tiny braids took form under the mother's deft fingers. The resumption of the story was delayed just a little; for two children, Konah's playmates, catching the echo of a story through the open door of the hut, came to share the pleasure. Mamenah, finding more amusement in entertaining a larger audience, proceeded with greater energy.

               "Dem beef all come, dey try, dey no able. Elephan' come, he say:

               "'Wey de man wey say he de mos' 'trong? Make he come one tem, make we fet, so I go take wattah. I too t'irst.'

               "Cunnie Rabbit come, he boas', he say: 'Nar (it is) me dis.'

               "Elephan' take he long mout', he wrap Cunnie Rabbit, he wrap um 'trong. He fling um, turn, turn um, he hebe um up, so he jam to de sky. De sweat wey he bin sweat, dat nar de hair 'pon heen skin. Cunnie Rabbit come, he 'tan' up, he hase de Elephan' up."

               "Cunnie Rabbit wey leelee so," chuckled Konah, unable to restrain her satisfaction at the prowess of her hero, but the interruption was unnoted.

               "Elephan' heen long mout' come nah groun', he wrap den 'tick fo' hole hese'f, he broke um w'en he go up. He say: 'Cunnie Rabbit wey leelee so, nar he do me so?'

               "He hole Cunnie Rabbit wid heen long mout' agin, he drag um, he make big noise 'pon de groun' w'en he drag um. He pin Cunnie Rabbit down; den (they) fet, den fet, den fet. De place wey den fet he big pass (bigger than) dis town, he double um four tem fo' big. Dey fet tay (till) fiah ketch dah place. Dah one wey box he cumpin, fiah ketch; dah odder one wey box he cumpin, fiah ketch. De place he bu'n clean, so-so san'-san' (sand) lef' no mo'." [2]

               Here the narrator's voice, momentarily pitched to a higher key, exclaimed: "Make yo' dribe dem goat, dey do rascal trick;" and the child, only less nimble than the goats, drove with an 'Ah! hey!' an inquisitive one from dangerous proximity to the greens, made ready to be put into the stew. The animal retreated to a short distance, with an air that indicated contemplated return at the first opportunity, while Konah turned a calabash over the greens, pushed the log further into the fire, and sat down to pick into bits the dried fish, so that her mother might be left to do uninterrupted justice to the marvellous contest of "dem beef."

               "Well, dem beef dey all duh try, dey no know how fo' do. Dey all go make bargain. All dem beef dey pull (bring) plenty clo'es, so plenty dey done full dis town heah, dey full Freetown. En dis yeah clo'es dey gie um all to Cunnie Rabbit. Dey say: 'Do; [3] ef yo' no gie we wattah we go die.'

               "Cunnie Rabbit say: 'All ret. Make all man take one one cup wattah drink.'

               "But de bargain dis. Ef de pusson no done all, he fo' take one piece clot' en gie um to Cunnie Rabbit, en say: 'Dis nar fo' de wattah weh I wais.' De cup he cover dis whole town, he cover 'Merica, he cover Englan', he cover Freetown fo' big oh!" [4]

               The sparkling eyes and white teeth of the little listeners indicated their appreciation of this enormous conception, but they were too eager for the story to interrupt.

               "Now Elephan' say: 'Make me fus' drink.'

               "He take de cup, he full um nah well. He put heen long mout inside so, he draw de wattah; he draw um, he draw um, he draw um sotay he done um. Lepped say: 'Make me come try.' Dey full de cup, Lepped he drink, he drink, he drink sotay (until) he done de wattah. De beef all drink, dey all done um. Den leelee beef dey done de wattah inside de big cup. Dey all no able fo' go agin. Fo' walker go home dem no able, but den able fo' grap (get up to) cook. Dey cook big, big, big ress (rice). De pot fo' cook de ress--Lie man say de pot big lek dis whole town heah, Grimah all, Moshengo all. Well, me wey no duh lie, I no lie anyt'ing, I jus' put leelee salt fo' make he sweet, I say he big lek all Temne country, all white man country, double all two, I put half 'pon um agin en mo' town, so de pot big."

               This climax elicited from Konah an explosive little exclamation. She cracked together the tips of her fingers, rolled over on the ground, then righting herself, asked:

               "Mammy, how yo' t'ink say dey go able done dah big ress?"

               Very contemptuous, very subduing was the voice in reply:

               "Aintee yo' know say long tem (long time ago) dem beef able anyt'ing?" Then resuming the crooning tone: "Dey yeat dah ress, goat all, cow all, fowl, sheep, all dem elephan', dey yeat dah ress.

               "One big, big wattah spread 'pon dem all, dey all no know which side he come out. De ashes f'om de fiah he spread 'pon dem beef all. Well, dey all swim, dey all go to dem yown home. One tem beef all bin white, but since w'en de ashes bin deh 'pon dem long tem, some kin (can be) red, some kin brown, some black, some spot-spot."

               Mammy Mamenah's tale was told, and she turned now to her fish and greens, her pepper, palm-oil and pea-nuts, to prove herself as able to make a palatable stew for the rice now cooked, as she was to tell a story.

               As these articles were being placed in the pot, the children looked on with swelling anticipations of a feast sufficient to satisfy the most extravagant demands of their keen appetites, as of course the openhearted hospitality characteristic of the country, would keep the little visitors to share the rice and stew.

               "Make yo' put plenty peppy, Mammy," urged Konah, with an eagerness that betrayed her weakness for that fiery condiment.

               "Shut mout'", replied the woman, with much more gruffness than she felt, but nevertheless she put in a generous supply of the little red fire-balls.

               Soon the stew was over the fire, and once more they all sat down to wait. Konah, with her dreamy mind full of the story she had just heard, and her eyes full of the new light of dawning intelligence, sat watching the goats that were frisking and playing about the yard. It began to break in dimly upon her mind that all those antics might have meaning apart from the present, and might spring from some dim remembrance of experiences from the long ago, when the animals belonged to a higher order of beings.

               Just then one of the goats dropped to its knees and began to rub its neck along the grass.

               "Ah, Mammy!" exclaimed the little girl excitedly, "yo' see dah goat? W'ey t'ing dat he do?"

               "He 'member how he bin swim, long tem," answered the woman somewhat indifferently. "Not to kratch he duh kratch, [5] but to swim he duh swim long tem, w'en de ocean come 'pon de beef all."

               Another goat, some distance away, was chewing its cud with much energy and determination. The process attracted the children, one of whom raised a question as to its meaning.

               "Yo' no know dat?" replied Mamenah, this time with growing interest. "Dat nar de ress wey dey yeat long tem. He no done yet; goat, cow, dey duh yeat all tem, even net tem, day tem, dey yeat dah ress."

               A frisky kid was playfully kicking up its heels, and anon leaping into the air.

               "Wey t'ing make he do dat?" asked Konah, laughing gleefully at the antics of the kid.

               The woman, now thoroughly in sympathy with the children's questions, launched into a series of explanations without waiting for further inquiries.

               "W'en de goat bin come out de wattah wid swim, so he bin dry hese'f, he bin wipe de wattah f'om he skin, he bin kick en kick. Lookee! Yo' see dah goat wey duh 'tan' up yandah, duh shake heen yase (ears) so? Dat de cole wey bin 'pon um long tem, duh make he yase trimble tay now."

               "Eh! hey! Yo' see how dah goat duh lay down so, heen head 'pon 'tick? So he bin do fo' blow (breathe) w'en he done tire fo' swim."

               "Ah! I duh watch dem. Hey! Yo' see dem turn dem tail so?"

               The goat was wriggling its tail so that it looked not unlike a paddle in rapid motion. "Dat nar paddle wey duh he'p um fo' pull; he bin turn um fas' fas' w'en he inside de wattah."

               Two goats were standing on their hind legs, playing, and two others were engaged in a mock fight. These manœuvres needed explanation, and Mammy Manenah went on after a momentary pause. "W'en de goat wan' tell Cunnie Rabbit 'How do,' dah tem w'en he go beg wattah, so he bin 'tan' up fus' tem. W'en dey fet dey 'member say how dey fet long tem wid Cunnie Rabbit. Dat make dem try agin."

               By this time two of the animals were solemnly touching noses, and seemed to be discussing some grave matter. To an inquiry of the children as to the meaning of this behavior, the reply came: "Oh dat? Nar bargain dem make long tem fo' get wattah."

               A plaintive little bleat brought out the explanation: "Long tem, w'en one leelee goat bin go beg de wattah, Cunnie Rabbit say: 'Make yo' call yo' Mammy, make he come;' den de pickin say: 'Mah! mah!' Dat make de leelee goat say 'Mah mah,' tay (till) to-day."

               Then reminded of another characteristic goat trait, she continued earnestly:

               "Aintee yo' see w'en one goat kin run, all start wid run fo' follow um? Cunnie Rabbit bin sen' one say: 'Make dem call all, make dem come drink wattah f'om dah big cup.' Now 'member dey duh 'member.

               "Dey gladee w'en pusson call um fo' yeat, dey run. Dey 'member w'en Cunnie Rabbit say: 'Who no come fo' yeat dah ress, he go meet um done."

               A goat that had been making a tour of inspection around the yard, was just now peering inquisitively over the edge of a large barrel, an unusual acquisition from Sobah's last trading trip to Freetown.

               "Oh dah goat deh?" This in reply to a look of inquiry from the children. "Long tem he go peep inside well, w'en he no get one grain wattah. He duh peep inside Cunnie Rabbit heen well."

               "Goat no 'fraid pusson?"--this after an interval of silence--"Oh! Yo know fo' wey t'ing dey no go 'fraid pusson? I tell yo' 'bout um. Spider make dem lek pusson," and with that she drifted off naturally into an account of Mr. Spider and the goats, and incidentally showed why some goats are tame, and others wild.



[1] When into the darkness of a mud hut the first rays of dawn penetrate sufficiently to afford from within a clear-cut outline of the door-way, the time is designated by "do' clean."

[2] "So-so san'-san' lef' no mo'," i.e. merely sand was left, nothing more. The fire kindled by the terrible combat had consumed everything combustible. This is a characteristic African hyperbole. See also the much exaggerated statement of the space covered by the combat, and of the size of the cup that each animal was required to empty at one draught.

[3] "Do," often accompanied by a low cringing inclination of the body and clasped hands, is a very strong form of entreaty.

[4] The use of America and England, in the comparison, comes from the vaguest possible conception of those countries, derived in this instance, it may be supposed, from information picked up by Sobah during his visits to Freetown. The series, America, England and Freetown, is intended to form a climax.

[5] This is a characteristic circumlocution. It means that the goat is not scratching, but is swimming, as he did a long time ago.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Cunning Rabbit and His Well
Tale Author/Editor: Cronise, Florence M. & Ward, Henry W.
Book Title: Cunnie Rabbit, Mr. Spider and the Other Beef: West African Folk Tales
Book Author/Editor: Cronise, Florence M. & Ward, Henry W.
Publisher: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1903
Country of Origin: Sierra Leone
Classification: unclassified

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