Winter 2012, #18


The Illustrious Coffins of Baba Nooey

     by Kari Pilgrim

At 97, Baba Nooey was easily the oldest man in the village, except for one, the most respected man, except for one, and the poorest-bar none. Too old for hunting, too inept to barter, Nooey spent his days wallowing in memories as varied as the angles of the sun. He often sat at the base of the old silk cotton tree, his small frame hunched into the folds of the sinuous and sharp ridged roots like an ancient snake. People passing by from the village would smile and wave, but visitors rarely noticed him, unless he was lapsed into one of his laughing fits. Then, they would clear a wide path around the old man, with his burning eyes and feverish leer.

Nooey ran his tongue over his gums, savoring the bitter flavor pooling in the stump holes that had once housed his teeth. Today, he would take his revenge-seventy-eight years later than he would have liked but still not too late; the competition to make the best coffin ever, the one that would be chosen by the township's richest, most prominent man, to carry him off to the underworld, was underway. Whichever coffin the dying man liked best, would encapsulate him forever in the land beyond death.

A boy from the village burst around the bend and dashed up to him, panting. "It's coming, Baba Nooey! The parade is coming!"
"Are you sure?" the old man asked skeptically. "Where is it?"
"Over the hill already, by the bus stand."
Nooey smiled. "Too soon, child. Come back and help me climb this tree when they pass by the schoolyard."

The little boy ran off, his fists bunched in exertion, oblivious to the cloud of red dust that his baby-soft feet stirred up behind him, and that the late afternoon light made ethereal as memories swaddled in mist. What would such a small child know about this?
Baba Nooey had been poor all his life, yet lived to see cycles of seasons, plantings and harvests, long after his friends shed their flesh and beetles polished their bones. He'd gotten this far without anything, and still had a seat at every feast, where he sat at the opposite end of the table from the other oldest, most respected man of the village, Mr. Ashong. This was for symmetry's sake, in the manner of the roots and the canopy of the forest for which, if one were missing the other could not exist.

Nooey was so poor that coins would not stick to his palm, but bounce off and away. The villagers would bring him food in a wooden bowl at evening's last flush and stay and talk, the men like fallen husks, the little children dashing past like moths seeking the still hidden moon. It was by all appearances a very good life for a very old man with a face like a warthog, the mind of the crafty hyena, the coiled patience of a cobra, and the wisdom of the silk tree itself.

But Nooey could not enjoy it. He sat wrapped within the tattered layers of himself, dawn in and dusk out, unable to sleep fully, to eat fully, to ponder the glittering teeth of his ancestors by night from their celestial perch; unable even to care for the sight of the village women who bathed by the river, careless to such an old man, only a tree's length away. It wasn't his health, which was excellent. It wasn't his lack of family, all of whom had crossed the river and into the sky more than two decades ago. He didn't miss them. No, it wasn't his lost youth, which he was grateful to leave behind.

It was his hate. It smoldered in his ribs, awaiting fuel, and each day that fuel was brought like a fresh paddy of elephant dung set on the grill of his soul. It ignited for none other than the illustrious Mr. Ashong. Every word in praise of Ashong spattered like hot oil on Nooey's brain.

They were the same age, he and Ashong, and went to the same village school for their youth. They drank wine from the same palm trees all their lives. They ate food grown from the same field and were weaned from their mother's milk onto water from the very same spring. Even so, they were nothing alike. Ashong was gleaned from the sun, a lean strand of bright matter. Nooey was short, squat, and bulged out of the earth like a wart. Wherever Ashong went in the village, praise sprung up like tender seedlings. Girls blushed and their mothers wound their words like vines around Ashong's strong arms, hoping to bind him to their daughters. Nooey carried their pots and herded their goats and generally dwindled in Ashong's shadow.
Nooey's memories, like charms, hung suspended from the branches around him, and these memories spun in and out of the light in painful fragments. Among them, from his twelfth year, when he and Ashong went down to the river with Nanani, the most beautiful of Ashong's uncle's wives. They watched her as she rinsed a delicate green and gold cloth that soaked up the yellow of the sun and the fertile black of the woods. Nooey admired the blue line that ran along the dark side of her neck, and thought maybe this was the fabric of love that she was unfurling. Then the cloth slipped from her hand and slithered downstream. Nooey dove into the water to bring it back.
"You look just like a rhino." Ashong had laughed from his perch against a tree set back from the river's edge, his arms resting over his chest as he watched Nooey sink. Nanani had cried out. That much Nooey had heard below the green weight of the water, burying his head. And Ashong, drawling, "If he's such a bad swimmer, he wouldn't have jumped."

Ashong had watched Nooey sputter along the border of liquid and light with a wide, empty smile that Nooey had never seen before. It was his eyes, gleaming like a jackal's, that Nooey had seen each time he battled his chin above the surface. Downstream, the river lost depth and he was able to gain a toehold on the bottom and steer himself ashore with his feet, snorting mud, air slicing new passages into his lungs.

He straggled back to the pair, dragging the sopping cloth behind him.
"Look what the river gods are throwing away." Ashong said to Nanani. She cast a glance at the dripping Nooey and laughed, like wind rustling through tall grass, its tail end evaporating into a green landscape overhung with blooming flame trees.

Years later, Ashong's sister told Nooey's mother the story of how Ashong had nearly drowned as a child, and had ever after been terrified of water. The six year old Ashong had been accompanying his father's new wife, Koyo with the lame foot, to the village of Owei across the river, to shop for cloth. They were crossing the rope bridge where the river is narrow and deep. Koyo's coin pouch unfastened from her waist and dropped, snagging on a splintered fragment of the board running beneath their feet. Ashong climbed onto his hands and knees to retrieve it when he lost balance and fell into the churning current, the coin pouch clutched in his fist.

Koyo, just before she returned to her village in disgrace, told Ashong's sister that Ashong had lost consciousness in the torrent, but still wouldn't let go of the coins. Even when a man who was crossing behind them dove into the river and dragged Ashong ashore, he still wouldn't let go of the pouch.

"He's so afraid of water," Ashong's sister had commented with a laugh, "he wouldn't draw it from the well, if he were dying of thirst."
"Old man warthog!" The little boy emerged from a dark spot on the horizon and swelled into view. "It's really coming now! The parade is coming! Hurry up and climb the tree!"

A rare smile bloomed on Nooey's face. The ground began to shake with the stampeding of hundreds, thousands of feet. Slowly, he resurrected himself, his heart thinly thrumming, and stretched out his arms to grab hold of a low hanging branch. But his arms were too stiff to straighten.
"Hurry, old man! I can see them!"
Nooey's stomach lurched. If he couldn't climb the tree, he couldn't see over the heads of the crowd. He'd miss the battle of his life, a battle that he'd commanded from the base of this tree, in the barrel of night.
"Push me up from beneath." he commanded the child, stretching out his arms as straight as they'd go. Still, his fingertips scratched air.
"We'll miss it." the child whined.
And why not? thought the old man. Hadn't he promised they would sit side by side on the branch and watch the parade, this boy's first coffin parade ever? Last year the child had been sick with the fever when old man Lumo died, and before that, his mother wouldn' t let him watch, for fear an evil spirit would lure him away.

But the little boy couldn't climb the tree without Baba Nooey, and neither could Nooey pull himself up. Try as he might, Baba Nooey couldn't extend his arms. I'm petrified, Nooey thought.
"I've got it, old man! Climb on my shoulders. Then grab the branch." The child dropped down to his knees and looked up at Nooey, his eyes fresh as acacias, the fragile branches of his ribcage jutting through his cocoa skin. Nooey leaned his palm against the tree trunk and then stepped gently onto the child's tiny back.
"Am I hurting you, boy?"
"I'm not a baby. Mother says I'm as strong as a rhinoceros. See?" The boy arched his spine and then, pushing himself up with his arms, staggered to his feet. Baba Nooey snaked his arms around the fat overhead branch until he was able to spread himself along its length and grasp hold of the tree trunk. Slowly, fearfully, Nooey drew himself into sitting position, knowing that should he slip, his old man bones would crack like egg shells and spill the last of his mortal juice. Through the cells of the tree, he could feel the pounding of youthful feet surrounding the coffin train, eager to celebrate this foreign tourist, death.
"Don't fall!" cried the child, fearful mostly for himself.
"I'm ready, boy. Grab hold of me."
Using the old man's leg for leverage, the boy hoisted himself into sitting position on the branch beside Nooey. The old man gazed at the child, sprouting like a leaf from ancient wood. A sudden urge to fuse with the tree, older than the village itself, overcame him. He studied the soft, moist cheek of the boy and thought of the buds on the withered old flame trees that encircled the well, smooth and green, how they'd flared up so quickly the previous week, but now were gone.
"Look!" commanded the child.
But Baba Nooey was swept up in a daydream, flooding the dark coils of his mind: of Ashong, slumped on his throne, his face hollowed out like a crudely carved bowl, eyes bulging with the juice of life-lust, clinging to the day like the line of the horizon, awaiting the grand vessel that would carry him to the underworld and cradle him forever, his bones in a bone womb, soul fused with the spirit of the vessel. Nooey conjured Ashong's face, upon seeing the symbol of his life's glory approaching, how it cracked open like a private earthquake were splitting him in two, his gaze fusing with his own worst nightmare, the kind that sends a man flailing from under his bed sheets, tongue knotted in his throat, unable to shout as a demon swallows him whole.

The parade burst through Baba Nooey's fantasy, an explosion of faces, hyenas grinning in the bright noon sun. The parade goers chanted, their flesh jiggled, heads jostled like shimmering waves, celebrating the coffin that would carry Captain Ashong to his fate.
Before Nooey laid eyes on the coffin train, he knew what it contained. Four weeks earlier, the township's two best coffin makers had crept to the wise man, each individually under the rug of night, wanting to know what the best possible coffin for illustrious Mr. Ashong could be. Old man Nooey had told the first coffin maker, Ede Ana, a young upstart with a reputation to prove:
"Make it the finest of seagoing vessels ever made. A cruise ship, if you will-like the kind in that movie from America we saw last year. In fact, make it three!"
"Three cruise ships?" Ede Ana's eyes had swarmed with honey.
"At least!" cried Nooey. "For a great man is followed by a crowd of admirers throughout life, and so should be after death."
Ede Ana had been thrilled to build such a worthy train of coffins for a man as big in the village as Mr. Ashong was.
Dede Nunu had stopped by in the cover of that same night, and muttered, "You know why I'm here, old man."
"You're an old man yourself." Noeey had replied. "You'll understand what that Ede Ana probably never will. A man as great as Ashong has seen everything good in this world, twice. But I know Mr. Ashong well, like the back of my hand, and he wants to leave this life in a most spiritual way, humbly. How many times has he told me, Brother Nooey, if only I lived as freely as you? I tell you, Dede Nunu, make that coffin as if you were making it for me: nothing but a few rough planks and warped nails."
Dede Nunu had scratched his chin in his wise man's gesture, nodded once at Nooey, and slipped away.
Nooey looked down from the tree at the scene unfolding. There they were: three of the most useless vessels the ocean would never see. Ede Ana had really outdone himself! The first coffin was shaped like a cruise ship, fifty feet long and carved out of wood, with two foghorns and two steam shafts and little lifeboats all the way along both decks. The front of the ship bore the face of an orca whale, its mouth open, baring its sharp white teeth. The whole of the ship was painted in blues, an intricate design of interlocking waves that would make a land loving man like Ashong quickly into a corpse.

The second boat was a sailing vessel, the kind that used to prowl the coastline centuries ago, with its crew of white-faced devils, coming to steal away the continent's soul in small human pieces. This ship was covered in sails as bright as women's cloth on laundry day: blood red, mango orange, early morning blue. It had a long prow shaped like a river dolphin, and a grinning jaw with what might have been hundreds of teeth in a row, each tooth a color of the rainbow: violet, banana palm green, acacia red, and yolk yellow.

The third boat was smaller than the second and first, a motorboat pieced together with glass so that the sun's rays were refracted from all of its edges, shooting prisms of light that mimicked the colors of the second boat. This boat bore a lion's head mounted on a stick that represented the house of Ashong; the lion's mane was a wreath of yellow flames and its gums were pulled back from its fangs, its eyes wild with heat from the underworld.

Old man Baba Nooey laughed and laughed, his laughter shivering off the undulating river's back, making its way to the mountain, skipping up stone stairways and glimmering with the peaks. His ancestors in the sky, veiled by blue daylight, laughed along with Nooey at Ashong the great. They were proud at last to claim their small kin.

Word came round to Baba Nooey by evening, of Mr. Ashong's stunning decision not to choose the most fabulous of the coffin ships, more grandiose than the villagers had ever seen. Instead, he opted for a pitiful wreck of rough sawn boards with gaps between. As he'd rasped out his last breath, he'd whispered these words: "Give those coffin ships to the next man who exits this life."
Baba Nooey died that night.