Summary of the short story "What the Tapster Saw” by Ben Okri.


By: Naeem Sulehri, M.Aslam Warriach

The story revolves around the character of a tapster who is an expert in tapping the trunks of palm trees to get the wine. One day he dreams that during his work he falls from a pine tree and dies. The next morning he gets up and goes to his friend Tabasco who is a herbalist-cum-fortune teller. His friend remains busy chewing bundles of alligator pepper seeds and dousing his mouth with palm wine. The herbalist takes the tapster easy because he is much too harassed by the demands of his many wives.

When the tapster is about to leave, the herbalist draws him aside and tells him a story of a hunter who sees a strange antelope that turns into a woman. The herbalist asks the tapster to bring him three turtles and a big lobe of kola nut the following day and he then would think of his dream. Disappointed with his friend’s behavior the tapster comes home.

The next morning he collects his paraphernalia and goes to his work on his bicycle. When he rides out into the forest, he sees a signboard that reads: “Delta Oil Company: Tliix area is being drilled. Trespassers in danger.” He stares at the board but cannot comprehend anything. Further, he notices a grove of palm trees. He reaches there and climbs one of the trees. The shining rays of the sun strike his eyes, he falls down. He falls first time in thirty years of his career as a tapster.

He wakes in a dream and is surprised that he feels no pain. He finds himself light and airy. In his dream he walks for a long time then he sees another signboard that goes as: “Delta Oil Company: Trespassers will be persecuted.” He passes through many strange experiences. He sees earth mounds, gravestones, and a single palm tree. He makes a mark on the trunk of the tree that becomes a chafed wound.

He goes on walking and reaches a river. There is a borehole near the river. On the edge of the borehole, he sees three turtles one of them has Tabasco’s face. He also sees a multicolored snake there which glides into the river. When the snake enters the river, the color of the water turns transparent and luminous. Here he hears a voice that says,” Don’t turn round.”

The three turtles present there looked at the tapster and the turtle with Tabasco’s face urinates in his direction. It seems as if the turtle were enjoying this act. The tapster laughs and a heavy object hits him from behind. He turns around abruptly but finds nothing. The tapster laughs again and this time receives even a harder blow. The snake comes out of the river and while passing by the tapster spits at him. After spitting at the tapster the snake enters into the borehole. He tries to sleep but could not do it. He hears various voices talking about him as if he was not present there.

He cannot shut his eyes. He sees women going to the distant marketplaces followed by the voices which they don’t hear. Very strange things happen. Whenever he feels hungry or thirsty he is given a mess of pulped chameleons and millipedes to eat and leaking calabash of liquid green to drink. The worst of it is that a creature smelling of agapanthus comes and creeps above him, copulated with him, and leaves him the grotesque eggs.

One day he hears a voice that says:

 “Everything in your world has endless counterparts in other worlds. There is no shape, no madness, no ecstasy or revolution which does not have its shadow somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you stories that would drive you mad. You, humans, are so slow- you walk two thousand years behind yourselves.”

Just after a while, another voice says to him. “You have been dead for two days. Wake up.”  Another creature comes and stuffs his eyes with cobwebs. He sees that wars are not over yet. The hidden bombs explode and the people who thought that the war was over got killed in their self-deception. He sees the collapse of bridges that are being repaired. He sees that the mouths of the roads are lined up with human skeletons. He sees people busy in futile efforts to level the forests and drill for oil. There are witch doctors who called for driving away from the spirits from the forest. The people are also trying to prevent the rain from falling and the sun from rising. When all these efforts end in smoke, the company hires an expatriate who flies in with explosives left from the last war. The dynamite is planted around the forest area and after the explosion, the tapster sees thick green smoke everywhere. He also notices a large-scale massacre there. People are being killed and those who die have their names on the bullets.

One day the tapster goes into the borehole. He sees there the multi-colored snake sitting twisted round the capstone image. There he also sees a man who has died in a sitting position while reading a bible upside-down. Everything in the borehole is on fire but there is no smoke. He hears a noise behind him and sees the creature with a plate containing a messy substance of food. The creature indicates that he should eat. When he eats, the snake starts telling him bad jokes. The snake laughs and the tapster laughs as well but the latter is thrashed so heavily with whacks that he swoons.

After recovering he comes out of the borehole. He starts counting everything that he sees. Whenever he counts, he is awarded a severe knock. Once again he hears another voice that says: “You have been dead for three days”. The voice tells him if he wants to leave, he will be beaten out of the place. When he asks the reason, “why”? He is answered, “Because you humans only understand pain.” Ultimately after having a dialogue with the tapster the voice leaves and he sleeps.

When he wakes up, he sees the three turtles lazing against the edge of the borehole. The snake too comes out of the borehole. There happens a quarrel between the snake and the turtles over the issue of the number of moons. While fighting the snake and the turtle with Tabasco’s face roll over and fall into the borehole. After a while, the turtle with Tabasco’s face emerges but without his glasses and stethoscope. He takes his place. They break a kola nut. Tabasco the turtle lights his pipe. He motions to the tapster to come closer. He blows black ticklish smoke into the tapster’s face and says: “You have been dead for six days.” After it, the tapster starts resuming his senses and comes to the real world. In the last paragraph of the story, Tabasco tells the tapster that he has been dead for seven days. He says, “You fell from a palm tree and you have been dead for seven days. We were going to bury you in the morning. I have been trying to reach you all this time……”

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