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

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Burning of the Farm, The

THE day "fo' bu'n fa'm" had come. The thick underbrush of three or four years' growth had been laboriously chopped down by men and boys some weeks before and left in a tangled mass all over the little farm to become tinder for the flames under the burning sun of the long dry season now drawing to a close. Sobah had already postponed burning for several days longer than was necessary, for he had inherited the procrastinating tendency of his race, whose unwritten motto seems to be: "Do nothing to-morrow that can be put off until the day after to-morrow." This morning the sky was clear, and there was no excuse for further delay. Sobah, Mamenah and Konah started for the little piece of ground which had been allotted to them by the chief that year, going by the footpath which led from the village to the farm over the hill, a mile away. They had gone scarcely a third of the distance when Konah, who was running carelessly in advance, stumbled over an obstruction that happened to be lying in the road. This was a bad sign, and nothing would avert the evil consequences but a return to the village, and a roundabout journey by another road. So they plodded back, and started once more by the longer way. Here a new difficulty presented itself. Just beyond the brook the path led beneath a tree under which a man had been killed by lightning some months before, and superstition invested the spot with special terrors. Sobah, however, knew the counter-charm, and plucking a leaf from a near-by shrub, cast it upon the place and passed on with an easy mind. Mammy Mamenah and Konah followed with the same precaution. The farm was reached without any other unfavorable signs. Some of Sobah's neighbors, earlier arrived, were engaged in burning an adjoining farm, and the air was heavy with the smoke and flying cinders. Fagots from the fire furnished torches by which Sobah's five-acre tract of dry brush was soon transformed into a lake of fire. The flames writhed and tossed angrily, like some great monster rushing to devour its prey. Konah was sure some devil was the animating power, and the uncanny movements of the fiery arms filled even the older ones with a feeling of awe and dread. It did not take the flames long to do their work in that dry fuel, and hardly had they died away when flocks of birds began to circle around the place, waiting for the fire to cool sufficiently for them to descend and enjoy their feast of roasted snails. Satisfied with their morning's work, Sobah, Mamenah, Konah, and the neighbors who had joined them in completing their labor, went to their farm-house to rest during the heat of the day, then to return to the village in the cool of the evening.

               An hour's quiet repose made Konah's active nature eager for entertaining occupation. She climbed upon a large stone that lay at the shady side of the farm-house, and sat with one foot drawn up under her and the other dangling beside the stone, looking meditatively out over the blackness and smoke that told where the fire fiend had roared and revelled with resistless fury a little while before. The feeling still had possession of her that there was something more than natural in the way the fire had raged, and to her mind the supernatural was to be accounted for by multitudinous devil and witch influences. With her mind full of such thoughts, she was delighted to hear one of the men putting to Sobah the very questions that were crowding her own mind. "Oh, debble any place," he explained in reply. "He deh nah cotton-tree, he deh nah bush, he deh nah wattah, he deh nah groun'. He able fo' turn anyt'ing; he turn stone, he turn tree, he turn pigeon, he turn pusson. Pusson kin buil' debble-ho'se, put med'cin' inside wey dribe debble way f'om fa'm, en wey make he get good heart fo' um. Ef he get good heart, he no go do um bad. Notting no able fo' do um bad."

               This to Konah's mind, bound in the universal network of superstition, was undisputed fact. Had she not in each transit to and from the farm, passed a tiny devil-house, placed on the outskirts of her home village? This presented itself now to her mind's eye: Four sticks driven into the ground, supporting a frame three feet square, roofed with bamboo, and enclosed on three sides. The fourth, left open, revealing a devil in the form of a small stone, a little food near by, the skull of some small animal, a bottle, a little horn, and some mysterious medicine tied in a very dirty rag.

               The child had never questioned very deeply the significance of each article, taking the whole by faith as one accepts the religion of his ancestors, but her developing mind now longed to interrogate her father, who, she was sure, must be able to explain everything. This, however, she dared not do, for it was not a child's place to presume; neither did she care to incur a testy command to be silent, or to run away and do some work. The reproof she would not so much have minded, being used to it; but idleness was even sweeter than appeased curiosity. So she absent-mindedly picked little pieces from the stone on which she was sitting, and wondered, until presently Sobah, feeling that he had explained matters sufficiently for any reasonable purpose, had given himself over to the train of thoughts which his talk had set in motion, and was ready to tell a story in which Spider and "debble" were concerned. There was no announcement of the fact, yet by some occult means everyone knew that the proper time had arrived, and quite spontaneously turned to listen. A glance at the faces of his audience was all the encouragement the most exacting story-teller could require, and Sobah was really fond of being the mouthpiece for the yarns that Spider spun. The tale embodied some of the unseen powers that they had been discussing a few minutes before.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Burning of the Farm, The
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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