Bendu Sudan was not in the woods but she was the first face that I looked for after we entered. She scared me when I saw her on our television one night, her black face covered with clods of powder, screaming out to us from the screen. Papa said it was a foolish movie and that Bendu Sudan was just acting. But when she screamed she cried, her dress hanging oﬀ one shoulder, and it made me cry. At school some of the children said that she hides in the woods and the forests, and if you walk too far inside, she will grab you. So when we entered the woods after Ol’ Ma and Papa pulled us out of the house, Bendu Sudan was the first person I looked for.
Bendu Sudan used to kiss a man who was married to another woman, a “big big” man, they say, with plenty money. And because she used to kiss him, and leave her lips pressed against his for a long time, and even sometimes use her tongue, even though he already had a wife, she was not a good woman. Her stomach started to get big because she was going to have his baby, and the big big man was afraid and angry because he did not want to tell his wife, so he killed Bendu Sudan. Bendu’s Ol’ Ma told her that when a person whose enemies have not been punished dies, that person could return to punish the enemies.
“Death is not the end of life for you” is what they said. Death is not the end. So after Bendu Sudan was gone, people would see her on the beach and around Monrovia, still a fine geh like when she was with the big big man. And if a married man ever tried to kiss her like the big big man did, she would haunt him. And she was so disappointed with the world that she would haunt others. So I searched the shadows of the trees around me for Bendu Sudan’s face. And since death was not the end, I looked for others who may have gone some time ago, who were waiting in those shadowy places to correct their enemies. I looked up at the sky, without sun, without moon or clouds or stars, but Bendu was not there. If I were not so close to Papa, I was sure the ghost would leap out from the leaves to wrap her snakelike fingers around my neck.
I had been at the edge of those woods many times before, but Torma or Korkor always stopped me from going farther. The woods were not for small small girls, they would say. There were some good things there, like almond trees and a looming plum tree Moneysweet picked from during the dry season, and we would wait at the edge of those mazes for what felt like an entire afternoon until he reemerged with a netted basket full of juicy red and orange plums, each as big as two fists. But we had heard stories of the badness of the woods too. Like Bendu Sudan. Like the dragons, smaller than Hawa Undu, scaly green creatures with sharklike teeth that even the bush-meat hunters were afraid to challenge. Like the boogeyman and devils. Like the Monkey Men who they say were made by scientists from America and Europe, to see if monkeys and people could fall in love, and were set free in the jungle to live in the mental wasteland of being half monkey and half people way too poor, too joyless to be rescued from surrendering their dignity. Like the children my aunty said work all day in the woods in Harbel tapping tapping tapping the Firestone trees until rubber snailed its way out to be packed in ships and sent to America—these children with no smiles, no stories of yesterday to tell, who had not eaten for so long that she once drove by Harbel and could not tell if they were still children or still people at all.
All these things I had heard of these woods, and now the woods were all around me—whispering to us at first, then laughing as the birds slapped the tree branches above our heads in hurried flight. There was a sound like a first raindrop hitting an empty bucket, the hardest rain, loud and too many drops to count. And a sound like thunder, in the kind of storm that the clouds send when they are jealous of those below.
“What is that?” I asked Papa, the popping still around us. We were walking so quickly and his skin was wet with sweat. He moved branches out of the way so that Ol’ Ma’s path would be clear. He moved branches that made the faces of grieving men.
“Drums,” Papa said. “That’s a drum.” And Torma and Ol’ Ma glanced at him, then looked away, and I felt like I had learned something I was not supposed to know, like that the drums were secret or magic.
“I hear another one,” K said and Papa was shaking as we ran. In the distance we heard yelling each time we heard the drum, and the air became smokey, as if something was burning on the stove, and cars were honking, and in the distance people were shouting and the sound of those drums came nearer.
“That’s Malawala Balawala?” K asked, sobered a bit by the thought of festival dancers celebrating not too far away.
“Yes,” Papa said, panting heavily. “Gbessie Kiazolu is dancing to the drums with the Malawala Balawala country dancers.”
“There’s another!” K shouted. I heard it too. It was so loud that I felt the sound behind my eyes. People were running on the road when we left our house, not just us, but it felt like we were alone. Papa and Ol’ Ma, Torma and my sisters and me. I missed Mam and if we did not go back to our house, we could not see her if she came back. So I cried.
“Sh, sh,” Papa said, tapping my leg.
“The people will hear us-oh,” Torma warned.
“What people?” Wi asked, turning to face Torma.
“The bad people,” she answered.
“Sh, sh,” Papa said. “You don’t want go see Malawala Balawala? Want to go dance?”
“Drums,” Papa said. “That’s a drum.” Torma and Ol’ Ma glanced at him, then looked away, and I felt like I had learned something I was not supposed to know.
I looked behind his shoulder. The color of the house was first to disappear through the leaves, then the shape, then the hammock that swung between two posts on the back porch. Sun-dried leaves and sticks cracked beneath Papa’s shoes.
“Where is Mam?” Wi asked.
“We are going to her. We will see her soon, yeh?” Papa said, and he smiled as we worked our way through the branches, the drumming all around us. This made me more happy than I expected to feel. We would see Mam soon.
“But how will she know we left the house? She will wait there?” I asked.
“Just walk quick quick,” he said, at first too fast. “She will know,” he said, slower this time, and smiled. I clenched his shirt between my palms as the drums escalated. I wondered who was dancing on the other side, and if we would be allowed to sit with Papa and Ol’ Ma or if we would have to dance with other children. Who would I see there? If this was all for Hawa Undu, then he certainly was a mighty dragon— one who needed thunder and drums to announce his battles.
“Gus, the people will enter the woods? They saw us?” my Ol’ Ma asked. Her voice shook as she lifted Wi up so that her legs dangled over a large tree stump.
“No. I don’t think so. Just keep going,” Papa answered, moving even quicker.
“I tired, Mr. Moore,” Torma gasped behind us.
“No, no. We can’t stop,” he said. “Pastor house will be right there on the other side.”
“We going to Pastor house to dance?’ I asked.
“Yes, that’s where we going.”
A willowy stream of sunlight bled through the high branches and rested on the side of his face.
“Papa,” I whispered into the light.
“The man now come make his trouble everybody trouble,” Ol’ Ma murmured, louder than me so Papa did not hear me.
“Ma, we will be fine. Pastor house coming. Just pray,” Papa assured her. “No, that Charles Taylor trouble here,” Torma said between heavy breaths behind us. “He want be president, that’s not the way to do it. Go find boys and give them guns to fight your war? Now look.”
The man she spoke of was the prince. He was the prince who had come to kill Hawa Undu. In their stories, the prince was born in Liberia but he moved to America after stealing from Hawa Undu. He came back with boys from Burkina Faso and Guinea, the rebels, and now he would force the dragon out of the forest.
“The monsters came for the dragon?” I asked, and Papa and Ol’ Ma glanced at each other again in that language that only the old ones spoke, and they agreed.
“Torma, come!” Papa said, turning around as he noticed she had stopped to lean against a tree and catch her breath. She continued behind Papa, scratching her exposed legs as bristly weeds rubbed against them.
“We have to find phone to call Ol’ Pa in Logan Town,” Ol’ Ma continued, pulling her lappa over her knees as she stepped over a large branch, the colors paled and ruined. I thought the woods would come alive with every mystical creature that had ever scared me as I walked behind Papa, the breaking leaves underneath his shoes, the heavy breathing and the splitting of the afternoon light.
“Papa, I’m scared,” I said and he finally heard me. “Nah-mah. We will be out here soon, yeh?” he said. “Then we will go to Mam?”
He sounded as though he was about to say something else, but before the words could leave his mouth a loud crack made us stop.
“Down!” Papa said, kneeling. Torma ducked to the ground and covered her head. Ol’ Ma leaned against a large tree with Wi’s head pressed against her stomach. She was shaking as she looked back at the path that led us away from the house.
“Gus! Look!” she shouted, pointing to the trunk of the tree that she thought would protect her. Up from the buttress, a slowly rising vapor of smoke ascended from a dark hole where Wi, just a few moments before, was standing, and Ma once again broke with tears.
“They shooting in the woods,” she said.
“Shooting what?” I asked. “What is shooting?”
“No, not in the woods,” Papa said, standing up from where he knelt. “No shooting. I told you, drums—”
And before he could finish what he was saying, those drums came crashing loudly around us. “Let’s go!” he shouted and ran between the trees as K and my head bobbed over his shoulders and by his side. Torma’s arms swung beside her as she followed, and the cracks fell onto us and the surrounding woods.
“Run!” Papa said, and Ol’ Ma led Wi across the uprooted stems as the trees around me came alive. Up from the darkest greens and roaring howls, square faces and sharp teeth appeared in the crevasses of the branches. The boogeyman and Bendu Sudan, Monkey Men and Firestone’s children with scowls so convincing that I shouted. The whisper and echoes of the trees changed to laughter and mourning, and the eyes of the forest stretched open, and its limbs reached out to grab me from Papa’s tight grasp. I closed my eyes tightly and my head bounced against his chest and shoulder.
“Run!” he said again, encouraging Torma and Ol’ Ma not to stop, no matter how painful, no matter how far the earth stretched its hands from the tree stumps to pull their legs and lappas back.
“I coming,” my Ol’ Ma said with the hardness of a rainy season storm, past Papa, with eyes too focused on the end to cry, and a story that meant too much to her to risk ending now.
Excerpt from The Dragons, The Giant, The Women. Copyright © 2020 by Wayétu Moore. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,