Excerpt From Bessem’s Song

Excerpt From Bessem’s Song

Chapter OneBessem's Song by Sherri L. Lewis

“Achale, you sleep like a dead person!” Her mother used to say when she woke up in the morning. Everyone in the house would be chatting loud and fast about what happened the night before.

There was the one night when a snake had entered the house. Achale and her sisters were already asleep when Papa saw it. Mama said she screamed so loud that everybody from the whole quartier came running. Mama took Bessem and Baby Arrah outside since they woke up right away. She came back in to get Achale, but the snake was too close to the bed and Papa had to hold Mama back to keep her from running past the viper to grab her child.

They said the snake was huge and it took many men hitting it from many directions with their cutlasses to finally kill it. Everyone was screaming and yelling and running in every direction, but Achale was peacefully sleeping on her thin quara quara mat, snuggled under her frayed loincloth that kept the mosquitoes off her at night.

As everyone was talking about it that morning, Achale could see the marks on the floor where the cutlasses had hit the concrete. Mama made her help wash up the bloody spot where the snake had died, but she didn’t remember any of it. All Achale knew was that the snake tasted good in the pepper soup that afternoon.

Big Mami had spent the whole morning muttering to herself, “Nah which kind strange ting dat? Snake on concrete?”

Mama hushed her. Whenever bad things happened, Big Mami talked of witchcraft and people cursing her family.

There was another time when Achale woke up with her mother standing there clucking over her. “You mean you didn’t hear that storm last night? I thought the zinc roof would crash in. Really Achale. I’m afraid for you. What of when you’re older? Some man could enter your house, rape and rob you, and you’d sleep through the whole thing.”

When Achale tied her loin around her flat chest and ran outside, she realized how bad the storm must have been. The leaves of the palm and coconut trees were all leaned toward to the east side of the house and looked like they had spent the night fighting to stay attached. It took a strong wind to bend a coconut tree. Papa said he had looked out the window during the storm and when the lightning lit up the sky, the young pear trees were almost bent to the ground, like they were praying for the storm to stop.

The ground was littered with guava and oranges from the trees that lined the compound. Achale ran through the yard, picking a few of the small fruits. They were all green and strong. She peeled open the few oranges that looked like they might be ripe, but they were too bitter to eat.

Everything smelled fresh and washed and clean. The rich, red dirt of the compound lay smooth like a carpet after the hot morning sun dried it.

Mama used to laugh and say Achale had a sleeping sickness. But Big Mami used to say it was a blessing. That it meant Achale was a person full of peace. People that woke up easy didn’t really know how to rest. Achale knew the power of getting lost in her dreams.

Today it wasn’t a blessing. It was a curse.

Achale had tried so hard to stay awake but the minute her head hit the pillow, she was gone. To that faraway place. Lately she had been visiting the village in her dreams. And she didn’t want to wake up. She didn’t want anything to pull her back from the life she had loved.

When Achale turned over in the bed that morning, she felt the wetness. She hoped and prayed that her junior sister, her direct follower, had only peed in the bed. She reached down to touch the slick wetness. It was too thick. Tears filled her eyes.

It was her fault. Her sleeping sickness’ fault. She had meant to sit up the whole night and make herself stay awake so it would be her and not her sister. But she was too tired. All the work her aunty made her do was too much. She wasn’t used to. It was a different from the work they had done at home on the farm, all working together, singing, talking, and telling stories. Home was filled with fun happy work. Here, the work drained her soul and made her heart tired.

She nudged her sister awake. “Bessem? You di sleep?”

Bessem squeezed her eyes tight and nodded.

You no di sleep. Wake up, nah.”

Bessem sat up straight in the bed. “You know Mama doesn’t let us talk pidgin!” She crossed her arms and frowned like she was planning to tell Mama.

Achale pressed her lips together. She pulled back the covers and pointed to the bloody spot on the bed. “Bessem…what happened?”

Bessem’s eyes flew open. She pulled the blanket over the spot and said, “Nothing. I cut my leg. A mosquito bit me and my leg bled a lot. I pierced my leg on the cutlass and thought I had stopped the bleeding. I…”

Bessem always got beat for lying because she wasn’t good at it. She would tell several lies all strung together that didn’t make any sense, instead of sticking with one that might have been believable.

Her lips were trembling. Achale recognized the fear in her eyes. It was the same fear she felt every time it happened to her. When Uncle Mister slipped his long fingers around her throat and said, “If you tell anybody, I’ll kill you,” and her heart caught in her chest.


“It’s nothing, Achale. Leave me, oh!” She flipped over and pulled the covers over her head. She started singing one of their favorite songs from church.

He keeps on doing great things

He keeps on doing great things

Jehovah Shalom, the Lord is my peace

He keeps on doing great things


Bessem had this thing of trying to disappear. Whenever she was scared or hurt or angry or confused, she would fall into this little world all her own. She sang songs, told John and Mary stories, and danced to the music in her head.

Achale started singing with her. She had since learned that sometimes she had to go into Bessem’s world and stay there with her for a while to be able to bring her back out again.

She slipped her arms around her thin little sister and scooted as close as she possibly could get to her. Her leg felt the wetness of the bloody spot. She didn’t shift from it. She needed the cold dampness to soak her. To chill her. To disturb her peaceful, rested dreamland so she’d never sleep that deep again.

Bessem switched songs.

There’s no one, there’s no one like Jesus

There’s no one, there’s no one like Jesus

There’s no one, there’s no one like Jesus

Nobody, nobody like Him


Achale sang along with her, in harmony. The song sounded hollow and melancholy rather than filled with joy and praise like it was supposed to. Achale was sure Bessem was thinking of their mother singing that song in church.

Achale wondered whether Uncle Mister had tried to touch her first. Had he slithered in the room after drinking too many beers while watching his football match and tried to wake her up? Had she been sleeping so hard that he got tired of trying to stir her and went for Bessem instead?

But she remembered that last night Uncle Mister had come to her. When he finished, he had grabbed her loincloth and wiped himself off with this disgusted look on his face. Like she was nasty and her nasty had rubbed off on him. She felt nasty. She was nasty. But it was only because he made her so. Why did he wipe himself and his hands like it was her that made him dirty instead of the other way around?

When he finished, he wrapped those long spindly fingers around her neck, put his face so close to hers that she could smell the sour beer on his breath and hissed, “If you tell anybody, I’ll kill you.

Achale could only nod, her eyes wide open. She refused to gasp for air. Maybe if he held on long enough, she would just die. And go be with Mama. They could sing songs in heaven together.

Uncle Mister had walked to the door. But instead of leaving right away, he came back. He lifted the covers off Bessem and stared at her for a little while. Achale pretended not to see him. But she had. And she had sworn never to sleep again.

The next night when Uncle Mister came to their room, Achale was sitting on the floor against the wall. She knew if she got in the bed, she wouldn’t be able to resist the heaviness of sleep. Instead, she sat on the cold concrete floor. Twice, a rat had crawled over her leg. She didn’t know if it was the same rat two times or two different rats. Every night, the rats started running when the lights went out and it sounded like a family of rats rather than just one.

When her uncle tipped into the room, he went straight to the bed and lifted the covers off of Bessem. Achale snapped to attention. She stood and removed her worn loincloth that she slept in every night.

“Uncle?” She walked over to the bed completely naked and lay down. She did that two nights in a row and saved her sister.

After a few days of sitting up all night, she was so sleepy that she burned herself cooking. She was lucky it was only her leg. She had fallen asleep while turning fufu over the three-stone fire in the firewood kitchen behind the house. As hard as she slept, she could have fallen into the large pot. Maybe she could have boiled with the fufu and died and gone to heaven to be with Mama. But then who would save Bessem at night?

Bessem switched to a praise song that Big Mami used to sing.

You alone are worthy, Lord

To be praised and adored.

You alone are worthy, Lord

To be praised and adored


Achale realized she was trying to transport herself back to their village. To their happy world before bad things happened. To the days filled with songs, love, and laughter.

She wished Bessem’s escape trick would work. She wished that if they sang enough songs – their mother’s songs, Big Mami’s songs, their Presbyterian church songs – if they could sing long enough, they’d wake up in their village in Mamfe – Besongabang.

Achale knew she had to bring Bessem out of her little world soon. The birds were gathered thick in the trees, beginning their morning song – all different bird sounds making one beautiful chorus. The sky had lost its stark blackness and colors were forming at the horizon as dawn was approaching. That meant it was about 5:30 a.m. Uncle Mister was probably out fetching water and would be back soon. They’d need to be up, dressed, and ready to work by the time he got back.

“Bessem…I di ningy ningy you.” She tickled her sister in the side. She used to love to be tickled and her giggles could fill the whole room.

When Bessem didn’t even respond to being tickled, Achale’s voice became sober. “Bessem, I know what happened. The same thing has happened to me. I know what Uncle Mister did.”

Bessem sang louder.

Chai! What could Achale do to bring her back?