The Coffin Makers of Ghana
by Matt Rager
I’m standing in front of a giant Coca-Cola bottle; it’s apparently big enough to fit a corpse. But it’s just a replica. The real thing is in the dirt somewhere, lovingly wrapped around the dead bones of a Ghanian woman who loved Coke so much that she wished to be buried in it. I don’t know what I was expecting when I first saw the title of the exhibit: The Coffin Makers of Ghana. I assumed something folkloric—afterlife beliefs intricately etched into rich, dark wood. I jokingly imagined the exhibit title made literal, a series of demure portraits of somber-faced men and women.
I was not expecting this. So much levity. Photographs line the gallery walls, photos of these fantasy coffins elaborately crafted and designed to fulfill last requests, coffins constructed to reflect a person’s trade in life (a hammer for a carpenter, a shoe for a shoemaker, a giant uterus for a gynecologist) or wrought in the image of their most prized possessions (a Mercedes, a boat, a large rendition of the Holy Bible).
I’m still in front of the Coke bottle. I know I should shake my head at the imperialist implications of this multinational corporate thumbprint, but instead all I can do is think about what it would be like to crawl into that bottle. I imagine myself buried beneath dry African dirt, slowly turning to dust. I imagine my dead body ensconced, a barren landscape featured on a nature documentary. The voiceover, ripe with authority (British, of course), relates the sad state of my being (or lack thereof). Then the rains come and I melt, my dust-flesh coagulating into brown liquid, the high-speed camera capturing individual drops as they bounce and splatter in deceptively chaotic patterns. Time-lapse photography reveals the process as my desiccated flesh reanimates, I am now a river of brown liquid, I have become the “natural flavors” gossiped about on ingredient labels; now I only require a carefully rationed dose of high fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate and phosphoric acid. The camera follows my path—men in lab coats mixing me, sampling me, parts of me siphoned by factory machines, measured out twelve ounces at a time. I am bottled and sold, and quench the thirst of a multitude. A POV camera follows me down the throats of thousands.
An old New England graveyard, faded headstone-writing barely visible with dates that are old to our infant eyes: 1664, 1698, 1731. The stones have sunk into the mounded earth, angles slipping from ninety toward something more obtuse, more acute, forming the toothy grin of a giant, mouth agape, Iapetus yawning, Hyperion gnawing on the earth that forms him. A metal rowboat, rusted, algae-growth texturing the dull sheen with new shades of grey and green, sits chained to a stake in the corner of the graveyard. It is filled to the brim with rainwater, the wooden bench submerged and deteriorating. The oarlocks are empty. The ground around the metal rowboat is soft and mossy. There is no other water. I find myself wondering: is this someone’s alluvial preparation, a message passed on for generations, “For salvation, return to your ancestor’s grave when the floods come?” Was it some lost soul’s just-in-case, a hedging of bets, a means of escape should it rise from the dead, coins for Charon still jingling in its pocket? Or has the boat simply been forgotten? When the waters rise will this boat be not a boat, fated to remain staked to the bottom of the ocean floor? I find myself wondering.
The dying man took a deep breath, waiting patiently for his thoughts to do something interesting, waiting expectantly for the slickly edited biopic that he had always imagined would play across the cinematic screen of his consciousness. He could feel the blood leaving his body, each pulse sending it out through the hole somewhere he could not see and could only feel abstractly, the chasm between himself and the world, between inside and out, bridged. Something smelled like a band-aid that had been left on too long. He couldn’t focus, everything drifted lazily—his thoughts, the breeze that graced his eyelids, the individual cells of blood that steadily pushed their way into the open like huddled refugees slowly shuffling across the border into new territory, leaving behind a doomed, broken regime.
The late-summer grass scratched his face as he laid spread out flat on his belly, his ear pressed against the warm earth as if trying to hear its heartbeat. He briefly considered scratching his cheek, but the impulse was lost somewhere along the pathway between thought and act. A single dandelion loomed giant, foregrounded in his vision, inches from his searching eyes. It swayed in the wind, its head bobbing epileptically, the small gray-white tufts of seed tugging vainly, seeking the freedom to float untethered. He understood heavy-handed signals when he saw them. He had watched enough movies in his time. He understood that he was supposed to identify with the small weed. But he couldn’t. There was him, and then there was the rest of the world, and the reality of this cold division was irrefutable.
He cast his gaze outward over the valley and toward the distant ocean. He understood then that the point of convergence where the ocean stretched to meet the horizon equaled the sum possibility of the human imagination. The vast expanse, this wavering dandelion, each occupied the opposite end of a closed circuit. He knew these things, even as he didn’t know what they meant, the half-thoughts and unfocused realizations tumbling unbidden.
He thought of his sister as a little girl plucking dandelions just like this one, bright eyes intent with the promise of an unspoken wish. He imagined growing roots, snaking himself into the earth, pushing through soil and rock, bleeding into the earth and pulling the world back into himself. He imagined melting into the sun, becoming complete and signifying nothing.
He tried to think back to a time before now, when he had walked up this hill, when he was not dying. How long had passed? An hour? A lifetime? Did it matter? He tried to remember important memories. He wanted them to fill his thoughts, he wanted them to matter, he wanted his life’s memories to wear the gravity he felt they deserved. But he felt them sliding away; he imagined synapses fading along with his pulse, a ghostly glow resonating for just a moment. A small gasp escaped his spittle-moistened lips as the dandelion suddenly released its charge, the white fluff drifting idly upwards. He tried to reach up toward it, to snatch it as he had from his sister so many times before, to keep it from leaving, to keep it for himself, but his arm could not or would not respond. All he could do was watch the dandelion dance on the invisible steps of the sky until it too disappeared into the so-much blue.
People will watch the grave procession silently, lining either side of the sunken street, perched atop raised porches, heads poking out of open windows, as the coffins drift down the flooded avenue. The flood will overflow the old cemetery in the center of town and the coffins will pop to the surface and float their way down Main Street. People will stop their preparation and prevention, will put down their food stuffs and sandbags, and will stand at attention, solemn. Some coffins will bob playfully; others will slip straight and sober. As they reach the central node that city planners carefully envisioned many years ago, each coffin will disperse like a child’s symmetrical vision of sunburst rays down differing streets, searching, snaking their ways down alleys, making right turns into neighborhoods, pushing toward the end of cul-de-sacs, finding those they need to find, some bumping up against doorsteps, others seemingly searching for something long since gone.
This is the memory that slides into view: I’m driving in my car when I come to a bridge that spans a river, a drawbridge, the type powered by elephantine hydraulic girders so the middle section rises and sits parallel to and above the two now-disconnected sides. It’s a nice day: sunny, but nothing special. I’m behind the wheel, sitting at the stoplight, waiting for the bridge to lift so the boat below can pass, when I realize that I’m on the wrong side of the lowered red-striped arm, and then the ground shudders with a deep, nearly pre-audible groan, followed by an exhalation of massive amounts of air. Suddenly I’m lifted up, smoothly and swiftly, until the steamship that passes beneath me looks small and insignificant, like a reminder forgotten. The road stretches before me, same as ever, but now it leads out into the interminable sky; I sit, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing but bluest sky. I don’t even have to shade my eyes. I close them for a moment, feeling the warmth of the sun focused through the prism of my car’s windshield. I am surprisingly calm – the fact that I’m suspended fifty feet above the rest of the road, even further above the ocean below, does not worry me.
Minutes pass. A single cloud, white and soft, drifts lazily across the sky. I smile. It feels like an old friend. I want to call out to it, to say hello. But I don’t. As I watch, it passes in front of the sun, and for just the slightest of moments, a sliver of a moment within a moment is all, when the wispy collection of water vapor slides between the linked light path of the sun and I, my world turns slightly colder. Not even enough to produce a chill. Barely enough to warrant noticing. The cloud passes, the warmth returns, and I can hear the intestinal grumbling as the bridge begins its descent.
As I’m lowered to the ground, back to where I was before, a feeling of interminable sadness seeps into me. It slipped in through that one infinitesimal moment when my connection with the sun was severed. I know this. I shiver. The warmth pours from me, like from a bucket that has suddenly sprung a thousand leaks. The cold spreads. I cannot feel my hands, my arms, my legs. With a lurch the bridge settles back into place, the road once more a road, connected on both sides. I sit in my car, unable to press the gas, unable to move forward. The world will continue on, unchanged in the eyes of everyone else, and I will be the only one that knows that something is gone, forever.
Matt Rager is twenty-seven years old, employed as an English-composition instructor at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington. He received his BA from Pomona College and his MA from Western Washington University. He is currently working on a novel manuscript entitled “The Lever of Transcendence.” “The Coffin Makers of Ghana” is his first published work. (5/2008)