The men sweated and groaned in the heat while the coffins on their shoulders ground into their skin, tore the collars from their shirts, shed more blood for Uncle Ashong into the long dusty street. Dede Nunu shuffled alongside the great train, his smile falling down his sparkling face as weariness from months of woodworking overtook him. But then a tall girl with peacock feathers twisted into her hair swept past, pulling him forward and laughing at the suddenly famous coffin maker stopping to catch his breath. Auntie would still be somewhere along the road, but maybe it would not be so bad to be known. He imagined the old woman dressed in her blistering red like the rest of the ancients, frowning at the Khpanlogo music and suddenly he laughed with the dancer and pressed his hand down the damp skin of her back. What was an old woman who could not see the new way?
Auntie watched the procession’s throbbing centipede creep closer, shifting from foot to foot to ease the pain in her back. Nunu had put Ashong inside a great black train engine that bobbed and whistled above the quaking legs of its bearers. A cherry-red Lamborghini followed, Ashong’s ridiculous folly on Ghana’s mud roads, then a coffin version of the enormous warehouse he’d built in Accra to house every scrap of wood that he stole from the villages and sold to the British for so much more.
Children rushed up and pulled at her hands to dance but she clamped her arms together and said “No children, no. This funeral is not for celebrating.”
“But Auntie Uncle Ashong built the first train in Ghana!”
“We’ve had trains before.”
“Where did they go?”
From beside her Paa Joe spit a kiwano seed into the rising dirt.
“Railroads are for taking,” he said and rustled back into the thick shade of their house.
“He’s a sore loser.”
“Sore loser! Sore loser!!”
“You hush up children. You shoo.”
They squirted off to dance between the kaleidoscope coffins, the bottoms of their feet lighting their backsides through the great cloud of dust that sheathed the parade. The procession drew even with her and she studied each glistening face but could not find the thief she boiled for.
“You don’t want to look?” Auntie called into the house after ten coffins had passed.
“I already know.”
Nunu stayed on the opposite side of the procession from Auntie’s blue-bricked house, hiding his face behind a giant coca-cola bottleneck that had taken him two days to shape and sand and paint. Had it been his fault that Ashong loved him more than his own son? What was a son worth, accused his father, that never wanted to see a village progress?
“He tells me I should be respectful of tradition!” Ashong had railed from a bench in Nunu’s workshop. The flesh at his throat quaked like a bullfrog when he slapped at the mosquitoes circling his ears. “Should I have stayed barefoot and poor as the British made us when they ran their railroad?”
Nunu worked at a piece of stiff pepiase wood with his awl. With great men, he’d learned long ago never to speak, only to listen and do.
“You offer me one coffin for each of my businesses. Twenty coffins, when Paa Joe tells me a man of my position should have only one!” Ashong bellowed. “One!” Then he’d leaned over his round stomach and whispered while akpeteshie dribbled from his mug. “If I give you all the wood you’ll win the contest. He’ll have none for my coffin or anyone else’s. Maybe with his pockets turned out my eldest will realize all that I’ve done for him and come down a peg or two.”
With that Ashong had rolled upright and stomped into the evening and that had been the last Nunu had seen of the big man alive. One of Ashong’s wives brought the payment when the Uncle had died and Nunu was richer than he’d been in his whole life but in the heat of the day’s march he felt bone weary and drained and missed that Auntie had seen him.
“Dede Nunu!” She clamped down on his arm, jerking him from his reverie. Gray had shot through her hair since he’d last seen her and she stood quivering in her faded red dress while the dancers spun faster and faster around them.
“Auntie Shora,” he answered and remembered to pull his smile up his face. “You look fine.”
“I don’t need courtesy from a thief Nunu.”
He licked his lips, watching his dancing girl skip farther ahead and curl around four men laboring under a green and white wingtip shoe that bore flowers and a portrait of Ashong on his first wedding day.
“Auntie will you come up the hill with me?” he asked.
“I’m old and I don’t walk. You stand here in the sun and explain yourself. ”
“Auntie I won the contest. Ashong chose my coffins.”
“Because you took Joe’s wood! A carpenter all his life and when the time came to carve he found only scraps? I’d like you to explain that to me, right now.”
A gleaming cigar lumbered behind Auntie, its bearers tired and shuffling. Nunu reached for her arm to pull her from the road but she flung his hand away.
“Please Auntie, step to the side. You’ll be hurt.”
“You don’t tell me to move! Two months now and Joe’s had no wood, while everyone who needs a coffin comes to you. You strike at your cousin’s livelihood like some whoring serpent!”
She’d never talked like this to him before. Never to anyone. Nunu’s head swam with the smell of hot lacquer while Auntie ’s torn eyes cut at him through the dust. The cigar passed, two months of hard work smeared by the palms of bearers who the Uncle’s wives had paid extra to celebrate the big man’s spirit because they knew no one would come of their own free will. It had been Joe’s choice to try and stand in the way of his father. And now Nunu marched miles in the heat because Joe had never understood the disappointment in the old bastard’s eye.
“It’s much harder to be a good man,” Nunu finally said.
“Joe needs no pity from swine! You’re just a bone picker, a liar and a thief and the whole village will know about it!”
“Then tell them the truth that Joe will not!” Nunu shot back. “Did he tell you I offered him wood after his own father loved Joe so little that he took every last board? Because Paa Joe knows the same truth that I do, but I wonder what his pride tells you while he sits in the heat and chokes on it.”
Drums beat the air and the dancers whirled higher and higher. Nunu swabbed at his neck and Auntie stood like a rock as the procession’s river broke against her. But then her face crumbled and she turned to shuffle through the sea of marchers. Nunu followed, but many in the parade recognized him from the contest day and they smiled and clapped his shoulders and slowed him until he could only call after her.
“Everything changes Auntie! Everyone and everything!”
Then he stalked forward and caught the dancer where her feet twirled in the grass. She smiled when he swept her up and they climbed the hill together while the sun grew hotter and the bearers groaned in time to the music.
From her threshold, Auntie shaded her face to watch the great man’s train struggle up the hill. Her arm shook with the strain and behind her she could hear Joe shifting in his chair. She hated the shack and the plastic sheet they used for a door and the peeling blue Joe had painted it the day he’d laughed and told her that the color of the sky would be good enough for them. She wiped the dust of the village from her face and had nearly gathered herself to go inside when a warning cry from the top of the hill caught her attention.
On the steepest part of the hill, the engine’s gleaming boiler tottered, wobbled. Brown hands scrabbled to control the weight but black paint simmering for hours in the sun burned their palms. The first coffin crashed to the ground, turning over once, twice. Train wheels flew from their wooden spokes and the smokestack cracked and splintered. Gathering speed, the coffin rolled downhill into the Lamborghini, spilling bearers and offerings and bloodied screams. Then other coffins began to fall in great thuds as men’s legs were swept from them.
“What’s happening?” Paa Joe called from inside their hut. He worked a piece of melon free from his gum with a toothpick he’d carved himself, an expert little tool.
“They’re falling,” she said, “they’re too heavy.”
“Are they breaking?”
“Yes. Oh yes Joe they’re breaking. It’s horrible.”
The heavy wood tossed men aside like dolls when it flew against them. Where coffins hit rock they shattered, scattering dancers and children like bowling pins. The dirt ran red while she watched men jerk and die in miniature, imagining Ashong’s body stabbed dozens of times with great splinters, already starting to bloat from the heat. None of it would be enough for the man that did this. None of it.
And then the hill fell silent.
Survivors staggered upright, holding hands over their wounds and wailing. And one among them ran from coffin to coffin, throwing his shoulder against the split logs and colorful paint. It was Dede Nunu, lifting one panel after another, searching for the dancing girl he’d always known but had talked to for the first time today. He lifted up board after board and then tossed them aside until finally he fell to his knees and let out a shriek that squeezed at Auntie’s roiling heart.
“Of course those things would break,” Joe explained from inside their dark house. “Nunu builds from bad wood.” Then he sucked on his toothpick and spat into the corner, waiting for Auntie to come back into the shadows.