|The Burial Train of Ashong
Around me, Ghanans shouted at its sighting, then grew hushed. The mass of bodies waved like savanna grass as they tilted their heads to get a better view, or bent to raise a child to their shoulders, or swayed slightly in an imagined breeze, waiting. I tugged at the edge of my straw hat and stole a glance at Mr. Ashong enthroned in his wheelchair at the end of the platform.
The night before, an eavesdropping bartender at the hotel had overheard our discussion of the burial train. He slowed the whirlpool of his dishtowel on the sticky counter and warned us that should we venture out to see the train, looking at Mr. Ashong would be considered very bad manners. The hooded cobra stare accompanying his admonition suggested that such an action might be closer to a capital offense than a breach of etiquette.
We each ordered another glass of the sweet liqueur that tasted vaguely of kerosene, smelled like figs, and warmed my chest with the weight of a tabby cat nestled there. My companion, a stringer for the London Times, who was freelancing on his vacation as I was, told me what he knew about the funeral train. We had both seen the elaborate and imaginative hand-carved coffins favored by wealthy Ghanans. Mr. Ashong, a most affluent landowner, had decided to outdo them all by asking Paa Joe and Dede Nunu, the country's most sought after coffin makers, to compete for the honor of creating his final resting place.
Bookmakers cheered the flood of bets, nearly equal on both men, as townspeople wagered on their favorite artisan. But the gambling money had dried up as quickly as water spilled on the sand-packed street when whispers went around that Dede Nunu had enlisted twenty of his fellow coffin carvers to create a train of coffins. He had hired all in the area, except for tiny Matsu, an orphan apprenticed to Paa Joe, who refused to desert his teacher.
Now, the engine, a glossy black roaring contraption, hissed and thundered, jolted and slowed as it neared the station. Mothers quieted frightened children. Women peddling fruit and sweet cakes rested trays on their shoulders and stopped their selling songs. The first car crept past me. A half-sphere of woven strips of wood squatted igloo-like on the bed of the train car. A dark painted arch suggested the hungry, open mouth of a cave from which two eyes of jewels glittered. Inside, I thought, must dwell a spirit guide to lead Ashong to his tribal ancestors. A sigh of admiration escaped from the crowd and I looked again at Mr. Ashong. The old man sat tall. He wore an impeccably tailored suit of ivory raw silk. Strands of silver hair curled up around the edges of a scarlet fez. He nodded regally, signaling approval, as though this first offering would certainly be his choice.
At his left shoulder, a slender man bounced on the balls of his feet with ill-concealed excitement. Beside me a vendor draped with paper fans and other souvenirs whispered, "Dede Nunu," in an awed voice. Dede Nunušs graceful hands hopped like nervous ravens on the curved handles of the wheel chair. His ebony fingers tapped each other, his palms kissed, he molded the hot dry air as if putting finishing touches on his creations.
On the second car, beaten metal, still bearing stamps of Cocoa Cola, Quaker State, and Burger King, formed a rifle barrel. The carved trigger was bent like a man kneeling. The butt of wood formed a casket large enough to hold a body. I imagined my body cramped inside this monument to a god of war. The car moved along and shards of glass surrounding the gun-coffin winked dangerously at me.
I rubbed dust from my eyes and stared at the car after that in the burial train. A dolphin, twelve feet long, swam in front of me. Its leather sides were sueded with dessert dust, the curve of its back arched from a flatbed wavy with vines and branches. Four young girls beside me balanced on tiptoe to better view the miracle coffin creature. The one closest to me confided that she and her sisters had gathered the greens for a living ocean.
On the platform of the train station, Mr. Ashong slumped a bit in the chair, overwhelmed, as though the effort of making a choice among these treasures required more energy than the old man possessed. But still he directed his attention to the last two coffins.
Next to last came a magnificent coffin on which two figures, one carved of darker wood, one of lighter, lay draped over a treasure chest, an ebony talisman representing a panther held between them. On the last car in line sat a huge basket woven of tree limbs and marked with a mystic name symbol. Its gold leaf glowed in the African sun. Everyone who gazed at it thought of something different it might be full of: the hungry remembered their favorite meal, wise men thought of the riches in books the basket could contain, barren women smiled at the dream of orphaned babies such a basket might hold, babies left in a doorway, babies they could claim as their own.
I looked at the crowd. Women held up their children to see the future. Old people celebrated and shared their past. I saw my own life there. Mr. Ashong seemed suddenly humbled.
The engine stopped with a shuddering exhale of steam like the exhausted sigh of earthšs last dragon. In the silence we heard a metronomic click from the direction that the train had come. Heads turned toward the east and we stared down the tracks that reached for each other until they met at the horizon. Growing larger as though in a magic trick, a far away blur became a hand truck on the rails. It pulled a large object and was powered by two people, pumping the handles up and down to scoot it along the tracks. Facing us was a huge man, glistening with sweat, singing a rhythmic song as he lifted the wooden bar high, then squatted on his heels. As the opposite bar rose, a tiny boy lifted in the air, bare toes pointed down with the grace of a trapeze artist. His cotton shirt ballooned around him and he laughed out loud as he descended to a crouch and the giant lifted to his full height.
Closer and closer they came as though the curiosity of the crowd reeled them in with an invisible chain. "Paa Joe," the people whispered. "Matsu," was breathed back like a refrain.
The coffin they brought was shaped like a throne resting on a golden disc. The body would be held in the physical position the leader had held in life. The throne faced the horizon and away from the crowd, and I could see the carved arms, but not the face of the statue. By its bearing, I knew the leader it represented could rule wisely on earth or in the stars.
It must have been the heat of the sun, or the evil brew I consumed the night before, but just as the coffin drew beside me, I grew faint and sat on the ground for a minute, my head between my knees to stop the dizzy spinning. When I stood up, the crowd was packed twenty deep around Paa Joe, Matsu and their work of art. A dazed and dejected Dede Nunu slowly pushed the wheelchair to a position so that Mr. Ashong could view the new coffin more closely. The old man, energized once more, raised both arms high in the air and the crowd shouted with pleasure at his choice.
I could have waited until the throng dispersed, or I could have grabbed the London Times the next Sunday to see how my fellow traveler described the coffin, but I went back to the hotel, packed my gear, checked out, and caught the next bus north. Men should always be free to imagine the face of their own gods.