The Coffin Parade

I found this story while I was looking through some old notes from a workshop I took. I like  the words and the cadence. It strikes me that we don’t really know whether Mr. Ashong is alive or dead.

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Mama Lou was the last person to turn out for the parade of Mr. Ashong’s burial train. She heard its approach—the grinding of gears, the rumbling of wheels, the shrieks of children, the cheering—but it did not become the oldest woman in the village to rush out into the street for every noisy occurrence. When the Land Rover that pulled the train drew abreast of her kitchen door it was time enough for Mama Lou to dry her hands on her apron and go outside. The crowd parted for her with proper respect, revealing the train, one astonishing coffin after the other.

The first of the coffins, beautifully carved and lacquered a gleaming brown, was a representation of Ilowë, the tribal fertility goddess. Many strings of cowrie shells were draped about her neck. She was hugely pregnant; her breasts hung down like funnels; bright red hair flowed from her armpits. Her body was hinged to accept the remains of Mr. Ashong.

“See, grandmother,” one of the children said. “Dede Nunu used real monkey fur to make it, they say.”

“Ah,” said Mama Lou. Perhaps if Mr. Ashong were buried in the belly of Ilowë, the goddess would birth him again into new life. White people believed such things, or something like them. The train rumbled on; the goddess of fertility was followed by Took Took, the pale blue bird of Life, curled on her nest with her sharp yellow beak tucked under her black-barred wing and her single eye shrewdly regarding Mama Lou.

“They say every coffin has seven coats of lacquer,” Mwalla the baker remarked. “The finest lacquer.”

“Ah,” said Mama Lou.

“They say every coffin is carved from a single piece of the wood of the sacred Boonarat tree.”

“Truly these are coffins of power,” said Mama Lou. The gaping jaws of Nkeme the crocodile came after the gentle Took Took bird. Nkeme, antic spirit of trickery, patron of witch doctors and medicine generally, the rough texture of whose hide was represented by raised round bosses, painted shiny green all over except for his yellow teeth and eyes and the long purple claws of his dainty forefeet. Here was a coffin for Mama Lou’s taste, big enough to stretch out in. If only her grandsons had the money, she could sleep her long sleep with the trickster god. But no, these coffins were all for Mr. Ashong. Rich as he was, perhaps he would want them all, to bury his head with Nkeme, his heart with Took Took, his loins with Ilowë. Rich people got everything. Mama Lou would be lucky to get a plain wooden box.

Tortoise came next, patron god of contentment, bug-eyed and smiling. The wheels under his platform rolled unevenly, as though their axles were eccentric, making a rhythmic sound, badoopi-badoo, badoopi-badoo. Some of the young people were stepping in time to the beat, clapping their hands, chanting. In spite of the stiffness in her bones Mama Lou wanted to join them. She caught a sudden glimpse of Reverend Holloway on the steps of the Christian chapel, frowning and sweating in his stiff white collar.

The last coffin passed in front of him. Mokomoko the death god squatted obscenely on the las wheeled platform, gleaming black, his gorilla face leering, his shoulders a forest of square rusty nails, his back hinged to admit the body of Mr. Ashong, who would have to be buried sitting up.

As the broad hairy bum of the death gorilla disappeared up the path to Mr. Ashong’s house, followed by the dancing, singing villagers and their laughing children, Reverend Holloway crossed the road and spoke to Mama Lou.

“Terrible, terrible,” he said.

“Ah,” said Mama Lou.

Reverend Holloway shuddered. “First the miniskirts on the schoolgirls, and now this.”

“Now this,” said Mama Lou. “It’s good.” She did a little dance.

 

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