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Vignette Sunday: Lessons from History

By Gary Oswald

On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).

The theme for the Sixteenth Challenge was Revolution


Jikada was a Mino and she was proud of that. Why would she not be? She had been chosen as a child, picked for greatness by the King himself, had survived the gruelling initiations and was now an elite soldier in the Greatest Army in Africa. Were the Mino not how Dahomey had defeated the old enemy of Oyo? Were the Mino not what kept the Europeans at bay? She had no doubt the pathetic Mahi rebels they were marching against would run away at the very sight of them.

Hannah awoke in a panic. She was alone in the bed and she felt the emptiness of the spot next to her where her girlfriend had been. She told herself Angie had been having trouble sleeping lately and so it was not uncommon for her to be up first, but all she could think of was that terrible day three months ago and she ran down the stairs, half expecting to see blood spilling from a slit wrist again.

She didn’t see it. She saw what she always saw. Her girlfriend sitting on the couch watching tv with suspiciously red and bloodshot eyes. And, as she felt that weird mixture of anger and relief that only Angie ever seemed to inspire in her, she kept her face deliberately blank, letting her emotions escape only in deep breaths, and leaned in to kiss her. Hannah was no pushover, she had strict rules about never staying in a relationship where she was lied to, and so she made it a point not to look for the empty vodka bottles she knew would now be hidden behind the couch so that wouldn’t happen.

“I love you,” she said, which was always a safe thing to say and had the advantage of being true but mostly she was listening for the response. She hadn’t gotten an ‘of course you do’ for a long time but she might get a ‘you better’ and that was almost as good. On the other hand, if it was an ‘I don’t know why’, she’d need to find someone to pop in, while she was at work, and for a ‘you shouldn’t’, she’d take a sick day.

“I love you more,” Angie replied and Hannah barely managed to hide the relief on her face. That was about a 3 on the scale and so better than she could have really expected. She could go to work guilt free, now, which was a relief. She hated her job but they needed the money and HR were already upset about the number of her absences.

Half an hour later, she was dressed and ready to leave. It was an hour journey to the facility by bus so she grabbed the book she was reading before she left. It was called ‘The Amazons in the Dahomian Revolution’.

Jikada kicked down the shrine and ignored the protestations of the angry Houngan Priests. Vodun wasn’t banned in Dahomey, it had been their religion for centuries, but human sacrifices were. And the dead woman in the room made it clear an example needed to be set. The Kings laws must be enforced. She raised her gun slowly and the other Mino followed her example.

There was only one other woman in the changing room when Hannah got there and slipped into her uniform. Her name was Susan, she was middle aged and Hannah knew her in that vague way she knew all her co-workers just so that small talk would be less awkward.

They weren’t due to start their shifts for a little while so they sat outside and talked about the usual things, their families, their journeys to work, the weather. Anything other than the job. Hannah always found herself wishing that she was more interesting whenever she was in a situation like this. She never went anywhere and hadn't done much. All she really had to talk about was the book she was reading, which few people were interested in. Even Angie didn’t much care about Hannah’s obsession with a long dead African Kingdom and it was Angie’s family that was from Dahomey originally. To be fair, that was three generations ago, it wasn’t like she was fresh off the boat, but still if she didn't, what was the chances Susan did?

Hannah had mentioned her obsession with the Mino when she first met Angie. The Mino, the feared all female units of the Dahomey Royal Army back before British colonisation, which Europeans called the Dahomey Amazons were something Hannah had discovered a year earlier while idly flicking through a newspaper and the idea had appealed to her. She wanted to be an Amazon, she always had really but this was even better than Wonder Woman. This was real. And so meeting a woman who looked much like the pictures she'd adored, it had been the first thing she'd thought of.

Angie had laughed in reply and told her that when she’d last visited Abomey, the children of her blood lineage there had played ‘Amazons and Rebels’ with her and made her be the Amazon so they didn’t have to be.

Jikada cursed the old palm oil trader to the depths of hell as her unit struggled up the rocky hill. It was a good job the slaves had killed him, because if they hadn’t she’d have been tempted to do it herself. To let his workers escape had been bad enough but he’d been storing weapons for himself, illegally, and they’d looted the armoury before they’d left. If the slaves had enough of a start to get away, she swore she’d have his remaining family assigned to the army as prostitutes.

When Hannah got home, Angie was writing. She was an excellent writer but Hannah preferred not to read the stories she wrote. They almost always made her cry so instead she went into the kitchen to make them a meal. The kitchen was tiny and largely empty and Hannah felt the usual jab of shame that she didn’t earn enough to afford something better. It didn’t help that she knew that Angie’s ex husband had lived in what was practically a mansion. Angie had made it clear that she had seen it as being as much of a prison as the social norms that led to the wedding in the first place but well a mansion was a mansion and this, very much wasn’t.

Hannah liked Angie’s parents but the wedding was something she found hard to forgive them for. She knew Angie hadn’t been forced but they’d painted her a picture of what life was for a woman and Angie hadn’t realised what they’d missed out. She’d broken herself to fit into a square hole she was never meant for and the results were that she drank a bottle of vodka a day because it was the only way she could sleep without waking up screaming.

Before the revolution, Dahomey was kinder to the queer. The Amazons had been gifted female prostitutes by the King if they wanted them and the King had married husbands as well as wives to bind his family to the local villages. She’d told that to her girlfriend once and the way the conservatism of the modern country were primarily a legacy of colonialism and the congo fever crisis.

Angie had replied “I should have guessed, all my problems are caused by whites and monkeys” in such a deadpan voice that Hannah didn’t stop laughing for more than five minutes.

Jikada had not been back to the village where she had grown up since she was eight. And now she was here to destroy it. It had been harbouring rebels, most of the villages were these days, and the King understandably wanted to discourage that practice but the order bothered her. She’d burned villages before, of course, and she’d thought little of what sort of people had lived there. Her training had ended with killing another trainee and it was a lesson she’d learned well. You kill or you die, you don’t ask any questions. But this, this was different. She sighed slowly and then turned to her subordinate. ‘Send a message to the headman of the next village. Tell him that because of his treason this time tomorrow the village will burn along with anyone still there. Give him a chance to die with dignity’. Orders were orders but sometimes there was room for interpretation. With luck they’d have the brains to flee rather than fight.

“You need to get that rid of that photo,” Hannah said.

She did. Hannah knew Angie carried enough demons of her own, that she didn’t need to be burdened with her girlfriend’s too. She’d learned that lesson a long time ago and so didn’t talk about how much she hated her job or her insecurity about being poor and poorly educated. But the wedding photo wasn’t just something Hannah hated for her own sake, it was a dagger Angie kept using to stab herself, to force open old wounds whenever they looked like healing. Angie was smart, properly smart with an actual education, not just Hannah’s habit of grabbing random facts sans context and using them to decorate a drab brain and so everything Hannah had thought, she must have thought too. She must know that she only kept it to remind herself of the ways in which she failed to be the woman she thought her parents wanted. But the photo remained.

“I can’t,” she’d sniffed back but she was crying too hard for her to be understood so Hannah mostly concentrated on holding her.

‘I wish you loved me half as much as you hated yourself,’ she thought, in that bit in the back of her head where she allowed herself to think such thoughts, ‘I’d be a lucky woman indeed’.

Jikada hated the English man. He had the lazy arrogance of someone who knew in his bones that he was the superior of everyone else in the room and so didn’t feel any need to prove it and he viewed the Mino as, at best, a mildly amusing joke. But without his support the war was lost. “Now that your King has so wisely agreed to accept our protection,’ he told the war minister smugly, “it’ll be the rebels who’ll be scared. Even the most fearsome cannibals are nothing compared to a Maxim Gun.”

The thing about the Dahomian revolution, Hannah thought, was everyone came out worse. The last independent state in West Africa joined the British Empire, the rebels were mowed down by their hundreds and the country was left a devastated mess.

She wondered what the surviving peasants had thought afterwards. She knew why the revolution had happened, it was the same list in every book. High taxes, new immigrants, the use of forced labour as punishment, the attempt to enforce Christianity, resentment over the taking of children to become Amazons and the loss in status of royal spouses weakening family ties to the crown. But were they enough to justify upending the old system? Could reform have been possible which avoided the tragedies of British rule?

It was pointless to speculate, she knew, but she hated being on guard and her mind wandered whenever she was posted to it. Across the road she could see the crowds of protesters edge forward as the new vans carrying detainees arrived at the camp and she signalled for the gates to be opened.

When it happened, it happened too quickly for her to follow what exactly was happening. Someone in the crowd had got onto the road, the van had hit them and then stopped and then the crowd had charged forward and the van was surrounded by angry shouting people. Then one of the migrants that were being taken to be processed broke out of the van and made a run for it. The situation was rapidly becoming chaotic and Hannah signalled quickly for help.

All the guards would be coming soon. But until they did there was just Hannah and Susan there at the gates, their guns feeling heavy in their hands. Hannah raised her own, caught between dropping it and firing.

She couldn’t decide which one to do and then a rock hit her and it didn’t matter anymore. Her last thought as she dropped to the ground was she understood now why Angie had laughed about her wish to be an Amazon. After all, she already was one.


If readers would like to learn more about Dahomey and alternate history possibilities, Gary Oswald wrote an excellent series here:


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