The Beautiful Coffin

On the day the woman I stayed with was supposed to go to the Nkwo market at Ibagwa-Aka, a man draped in dazzling white came to me before dawn. He was in white clothes and his face shone with much brightness. The white bulb in the veranda of the house where I slept shone on his face and made the brightness that came with him brighter.

I lay on some old cartons, covered with the tattered wrapper the woman had given to me, starring at the quiet dusty road when he came. He was a young man, but he had grey hair all over him. He was on white slippers and they made slap, slap sounds as he walked towards me. When he got closer, I knew he was not among them, he was different. He stopped just before the uplifted surface of the veranda.

“Well done,” he said.

“Go away!” I said. I looked at him, and although I knew he was different, he might still act like them. He’d have told me something and when I disagreed, he would conclude that I was mad. I wasn’t mad – they were, all of them.

“I’m not here to tell you what you’ve always heard,” the man said. I saw his eyes, his eyes had fear and pity, the ones I always saw on people’s faces when I walked around the town. His was fear and pity, but it wasn’t for me, it was for someone else.

“Eh? Then what?”

He looked up, and it made me wonder why he was looking up while he knew it was still dark. He looked up for a while before he stared fixedly at me, right into my eyes. His fixed eyes on me scared me, because his eyes were hollow, so hollow. There was such indefiniteness in his eyes. I looked away sharply. “I’m on my way to the land of the Dead,” he said. “I just came back here to tell you what will happen today, because you’ll be the one to defend me.”

I looked shortly at him and looked away. Then, I knew he was mad as people said I was. He dressed well, but he was mad. I didn’t want to tell him that he was mad, because everyone was mad anyway. “You might not believe me, but you can touch me to confirm,” he said. He stretched his hand to me and it made me flinch. “Don’t be afraid, touch me.”

I stared at him. I looked away and shook my head. People might believe I was mad, but I didn’t want to die – at least I was better than dead people. “Touch me,” he said. I turned and looked at his fair hand and the grey hair on it. I decided to try it. So, I stretched my hand to touch, but I touched nothing, because he was void.

“I can’t touch your hands,” I said.

“Yes, you can’t, because I am Dead.” He looked up again, shook his head pitifully and looked at me. “Today, my body will be cut into pieces and dumped in a bush like that of a dog.”

“Eh?”

“Yes.” He nodded. “But I’ve come to greet you, because you’ll be there to fight for me. I’ve come to say thank you before I continue on my journey to the land of the Dead. I must leave now, or my companions will leave me behind … it’s a long journey.” He bowed and began to leave.

“You didn’t tell me your name!” I shouted. My sudden shout surprised him, and me too. I’d not planned to shout that way.

“I thought you were mad?” he said. “My name doesn’t matter to you. You’ve to note that you will be at my funeral today, and you will fight for me. Goodbye.” He waved, and he vanished. He was no longer there in his dazzling white. I shrugged. It must’ve been the dry gin in the old bottle that I drank yesterday that was making me madder.

I turned on the cartons and hissed. All those stupid people, they thought their pranks work on me all the time, but this didn’t. The biggest prank was when they had come to me as people who would help me, they had come with food and clothes and said something about taking me to a better place. When I asked them why, they said I was mad and I needed help. I told them I wasn’t mad and I liked where I lived and how I lived my life. They continued to talk, and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I chased them away with my stick. When they left, all the money I had under the cartons was gone.

I lay on the cartons awake until I began to see people walk past the veranda. The woman who was on her way to Nkwo market that day stopped and greeted me before she left. She had said as she always did: “Stay careful, watch how you cross the road and what you eat from the dustbin.” I met her many days ago when I saw her leave her car parked at University Market Road. I liked the colour of her car and how big and how different it was. I made sure no one saw me as I sneaked to her car and entered it. I loved the coolness of the car and the thick leather of the seat, so I stayed there for long and I didn’t know when I slept off. I woke up to find myself in the woman’s veranda with her husband’s angry eyes on me. She was a good woman, but her husband had always been angry anytime he saw me.

I stood up, stretched and I wondered where I’d go searching for food. I saw some people walk past the house draped in good clothes. It wasn’t the day they went to the cathedral en masse, so I suspected it was another event. I kicked the cartons to one corner and began to walk towards the cathedral.

The cathedral was crowded and filled to its brim. They were a lot of people, a lot of cars and a lot of motorcycles. When I got to the gates, I thought the men in stiff clothes with long whips and stern faces would chase me away, but they didn’t. I walked in and walked all the way to the cathedral main bowl where there were a lot of people draped in black. I saw the bishop seated on his long seat. There was a big coffin with a shiny and beautiful colour placed on a glass table beside the bishop’s altar. Of all the coffins I had seen, this one was the most beautiful. All around me, people whispered words like “expensive”, “gold”, “waste of money”, and “wasted gold.”

I was there, standing beside the pillar that supported one of the long open halls of the cathedral main bowl throughout the event. The bishop talked and talked; he sprayed some water on the beautiful coffin; he walked over to a chubby man in black after the mass and shook hands with him, patting his shoulder. It was when I looked closely at the chubby man that I remembered the face of the man who had come to me before dawn. The chubby man looked so much like the man. I also looked at the picture of a man placed everywhere, it must have been the picture of the man in the beautiful coffin. The picture of the dead man was the older version of the face of the man I’d seen before dawn.

After the event, I was in the procession as we all followed the coffin in a long car on its way to another place. People weren’t crying, or they weren’t crying well enough, all they did was shake their heads and sniff into their white handkerchiefs. This was an event of a dead man, I knew, and I prayed it wouldn’t end up like the others where I was chased out after the burial and denied food.

The procession went on and stopped at a place with many uplifted stones. There were many trees all around the place and a lot of grasses that were neatly cut. This, I thought, was the resting place of the wealthy. I’d never been there, because the gates of the place had always been locked. A lot of loud guns were fired before the coffin was put into the ground. I was far away of course, because they wouldn’t let me come close. They shooed me away, saying, “Go away, madman, look at your dirty and torn clothes, you’re stinking.”

Later on, I followed them to another place with tall fine walls. The height of the walls was menacing. This time around there were muscled men in black suits at the gates who turned me back. “Go away, madman, go to the market, you don’t belong here,” they said. One pushed me aggressively, and it made me fall. I looked at them, and I chose not to give up. So, I kept trying to go into the place, but they became more aggressive. One of them had gone to get whips for me when the chubby man in black who I had seen at the cathedral walked to the place. His skin colour was different and his tone and language were different.

“What’s going on here?” he asked.

One of the muscled men bowed before he said, pointing at me, “It’s this madman here, he wants to come into the hotel.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. He looked at me, and as usual, I saw the pity in his eyes, but his pity was sincere and not like that of others. “Let him in. I’ve come back from the States to bury my father in peace, and no one shall be excluded.”

“Yes, sir,” the muscled men said. They watched the chubby man walk in. I smiled triumphantly as I walked past the gates to the place.

The people in the place were all so busy eating rice with spoons and large chicken pieces with their hands that they didn’t notice when I walked in. I walked to one of the canopies and sat on one of the white plastic chairs. I sat for a long time and no one noticed me until I saw the chubby man point at me, he was standing with a thin man in a white shirt and a pair of black trousers. When the thin man left, he came to me. “Hello, man, how are you?” he said. I stared at him. He was mad, I concluded; if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have spoken to a man who people called a madman. “You don’t want to speak? I’ve asked the waiter to get food and drink for you. You see, I loved my dead father, and he did everything for me. He made me the wealthy man that I am today. I planned a big funeral for him, and everyone must be part of it, including you, my friend.” The man was smiling. I stared. “Enjoy the food and drink when it comes,” he said, and left. The gentle evening breeze made his black clothes stick to his skin.

When the rice and two large pieces of chicken heaped on a large ceramic plate was brought to me, I forgot all about the mad chubby man in black. I ate and ate, I also drank the two canned soft drinks that were brought to me. The chubby man came back again when I was drinking the second canned soft drink and asked if I wanted more. I nodded quickly and he laughed and said, “Now, you’ve replied to me for once. Waiter, get more food and drink for our man here!”

People ate well and began to leave with their stomachs pushed out and their bags full with takeaway. Although I was lying on the ground, unable to move, I still heard them whisper words like “too much waste”, “all that gold for only a coffin”, “even a madman came and ate”, and “being in the States for long must have made him stupid”. They were who they were of course, they would never change, but I didn’t care, because I was satisfied.

I was the last to leave. I’d to stagger out of the place and walk home. I was tired and I knew that I couldn’t make it home to my veranda, so I stopped at the place where the beautiful coffin was put into the ground. The gates were opened, so I walked in and walked to a tree where I lay down, and with my head on a stone, I closed my eyes and slept.

At midnight, noises woke me up. It was dark, but I saw a faint light at the other end of the place, and I could hear the movement of men. I got up, I felt woozy as I walked towards the torchlight and the noises. When I got closer, I could see the men faintly, they were few. One of them held the torchlight, one was looking around, while two men were throwing the soil unto the ground. I closed and opened my eyes, closed them and opened them, closed them and opened them. It wasn’t a dream, I knew, and this wasn’t my madness. Those men were digging up the grave of the man who had been buried the previous day in the gold, wasted-money, expensive, beautiful coffin. The good chubby son of the man wouldn’t know of this, because he’d be in his house sleeping comfortably. I had to do something, for the good son, because he was so different.

“Hey! Don’t take my father’s coffin, don’t steal my father’s coffin, it belongs to me! I’m his Dead son and I will protect it as he makes his journey to the land of the Dead!” I cried, walking wobbly towards the light.

I heard their voices as they spoke fast, one after another. “Someone has seen us, what do we do?” one said. “Don’t panic, it’s like I know that voice,” another said. “Is he a ghost?” one said. “Fool, he isn’t a ghost, it is the voice of the madman that comes to Ogige Market every day in a pair of torn trousers, who people laugh at because he scratches his naked buttocks all the time,” the last one said. “Are you sure he is the one? Then let us do something before he attracts attention.”

I continued to walk towards them, but when I approached them, they didn’t run, instead they gathered around me and began to hit me. One hit me hard on the face, the other on my stomach, the other on my back, and the last used the spade on my legs. I collapsed, and as they continued to batter me I began to slip away and I saw the man I saw before dawn standing beside me with pity in his eyes, saying, “Thank you, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

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