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Dreamscapes: African Stories

The Bed
Larry Thompson on the singing bed of the Sahara

The town was in the hot red land on the southern edge of the Sahara. It was the capital of a region but its pomp and circumstance was only a few baked-brick buildings surrounded by a scattering of thatched dwellings ringed by thorny fences.

The sunburned earth was bare, eaten to the quick by goats. Acacia, bananas, and a few large round mangos cast pools of welcome shade. We were travelers, three young French women and myself, an American dı un certain age, and our driver, a swarthy rogue whose heritage, so he claimed, included an Italian soldier and a Tuareg princess.

It was nearly dark when we arrived at the town and by good chance we encountered the governor of the province who invited us to dinner and to sleep at his house, there being nothing in the town that served as a hostel. The governor was a short, jolly black man from the south. His wife was café-colored and tall and elegant in her flowing robe of many colors. The governorıs palace was an adobe hut of three rooms and dinner was set on a low table outside on a small terrace. The menu was roast goat – more bones than meat – and millet mixed with left-over goat parts and cooked in a large roasting pan.

It was an African night such as rarely seen elsewhere. The sky was clear and dark as it can be only where the nearest electric light is a hundred miles away. The stars were of undiminished grandeur. It was in the middle of dinner when the governor rose abruptly and announced, "Excusez-moi. I promised my second wife that I would spend the night with her and I must go." With that he climbed into his battered land cruiser and sped away.

While we watched him depart we heard the sound of a familiar tune played on chimes. "Hickery, dickery, dock, the mouse ran up the clock!" The tune was followed by six tolls: "ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!" "What is that?" we asked all together. "That is my bed," said the governo'ıs first wife ­ or perhaps she was his third, or fourth, wife. "Pardon?" "My bed. It is a custom here to receive a bed as a wedding present," she explained. "And my bed has a clock which plays a song every hour," she added proudly. "Unfortunately, the clock is two hours slow and I do not know how to reset it."

I counted. Yes, I had heard six tolls of the clock and my watch said that it was eight oıclock. We finished dinner and prepared for bed. The governorıs wife retired within the house and closed the door behind her. We would sleep on the ground. One of the French girls had taken upon herself the task of preventing us from getting malaria and meticulously hung our mosquito nettings from thorn trees. As we nestled into our bedding, we heard the clock chime again. "Dum, de, dum, dum! Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding." Eight chimes. It was ten oıclock. I checked my watch to be sure. Yes, ten oıclock. And the tune the bed had played, I recalled after a moment, was the theme of the television show, Dragnet.

Our night was not to be pleasant. A sandstorm came up of sufficient force to blow away the mosquito netting that covered our beds on the sand. We pulled our blankets ­ for it is always chilly on the bare ground at night ­ over our heads and endured the blowing sand.

"Frere Jacques, frere Jacques, dormez-vous, dormez-vous," chimed the bed. "Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. It was eleven oıclock. It began to rain, at first mixed with the driving sand, and then the wind ceased, and it was just rain. It was insupportable! Rain at the very edge of the Sahara! The only shelter was under the narrow eaves of the governorıs house. We moved our blankets to the terrace and we crowded beneath the eaves, sitting up, as there was no room for the five of us to lie down. The rain continued. The driver uttered vile curses under his breath, which in the close quarters was vile indeed. The French girls tittered. The American attempted to sleep ­ but it was impossible. The governorıs wife was not to be seen or heard. Presumably, she slept peacefully in her marital bed while her husband, the governor, sported with wife number two.

It was still raining when the bed gave us a stirring rendition of "This Land is your Land," at midnight. I told the French girls about Woody Guthrie. I was dozing when the bed played "God Save the Queen" and chimed an interminable eleven times. The rain had stopped, but the terrace was still wet. At two oıclock, the thunderous opening of Beethovenıs Fifth Symphony roused me. No chimes. I puzzled on this for a while. Yes, of course, at two oıclock in the morning there would be no chime, because the bed believed it was midnight or and therefore the zero hour. It seemed dry enough to venture out from the eaves and remake our beds on the terrace. There was barely room for the five of us to lie down and the driver was soon snoring in my ear. I was dozing at three oıclock when the bed woke me with "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry." A single chime followed. I rolled over and finally found peace at last.

The bed woke me with "you gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get up in the mornings. Ding, ding, ding, ding." Six o'clock. I recoiled from the suppurating nostrils of the driver, carefully lifted the blanket to avoid waking a lovely Venus coiled at my side, rose slowly and picked my way over the three girls. It was a cool, beautiful morning. The toilette was in a far corner of the compound. It was a hole in the ground surrounded by a wattled wall about four feet tall. One could survey the compound while squatting. Essentials accomplished, I find a pipe nearby sticking out of the ground and I opened a valve for water to perform my ablutions. Soon, the sun got hot and the French girls, the driver, and the governorıs wife got up. We thanked her and asked her to thank her absent husband and we piled into our land cruiser and went on our way, churning down a sandy track cut through the dunes. Then, a question hit me like a stitch in the side. I had been asleep when the bed chimed twice and thrice at four a.m. and five a.m. What songs did the bed play at those hours? It is a mystery that will plague me till the end of my days.

© Larry Thompson 2003
smallchief at

also by Larry Thompson Hotel Tajiskistan

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