The sign outside Hello Design Coffin Works read, FOR SALE: FANTASY COFFINS. But the little girl imagined more ominous words floating just below the other letters, “Ababuo Need Not Apply.”
Many people in Accra bought these beautiful caskets on time, and often took many months and even years to pay off one of their expensive death homes. But no matter, her credit in that city was worthless and Ababuo knew she could never get one. The girl chided herself, but she stopped at the storefront and stared into the window. Without being able to suppress the urge growing inside of her, she entered the threshold of the tiny building. Fantasy surrounded her within, proudly displayed. Closest to her was a giant, man-sized statue of an eagle. The bird’s head was held high, its eyes large and knowing. The bird’s body was adorned with feathers, brown and beautiful, its beak and talons yellow and bright. This was a strong bird, proud. That meant that the (more than likely) man, who would be folded and stuffed into the narrow opening in the back of the carcass, was also strong and proud. Perhaps he was a bird lover or pilot. It didn’t matter. Although the coffins often represented people’s professions, they just as often represented the wants and desires of the people entombed within them. Across from the wide-eyed bird was a hammer, standing almost twice as tall as she, and more than half as wide around. Its owner would likely have been a carpenter or something. Only a person with a love of tools would want to spend eternity in that thing. Ababuo smirked. It wasn’t that the hammer was ugly, per se, but it was not what most people would choose out of admiration or simply a love of the craft—instead, this tool represented honor, skill, pride.
Then she saw it, sitting across the room in a corner as if forgotten. A beautiful, small, white elephant. Ababuo made her way over to the coffin, touching it carefully. It was striped like a tiger, with ears too big for its head. But it was lovely. White Elephant was barely large enough for the tiny body that would grace its shell for all eternity, but Ababuo wouldn’t mind leaving a limb or two behind to find peace within the belly of this gorgeous creature. She stood for a long moment, touching the tiny, white tusks, and then the thick sturdy legs. The girl patted the elephant’s side as if it were real, closing her eyes, imagining that this coffin actually belonged to her. How morbid it was, she knew, to long for nothing more than to choose her death bed. But the truth was that, in this room, nothing mattered to Ababuo because nothing was real, nothing was solid, tangible. She wasn’t cursed within this room of fantasy coffins—simply because she could never possess one. Perhaps knowing her life was so short caused her fixation with death, her eternity.
“What are you doing here?” Ababuo slowly opened her eyes. She didn’t have to turn around to know who had spoken. It was one of the owners of the coffin shop—the son. Too bad; the father was much nicer. “You can’t be here. You have to leave.” He walked up to her but didn’t touch her. That was the rule.
“I was just looking. No harm in that.”
“No point in that either, is there, girl?”
“I can look. I just want to see them. That’s all.”
“Not here. You’re a Nantew yiye child. You must go.” Then he whispered, “It’s dangerous.” As a “safe journey” child, Ababuo knew all too well her position. This man did not hate her. In fact, in his own way, he probably simply wanted to save her the effort of wanting something she could never have.
Behind her, someone spoke. “Dangerous? Pft!” Ababuo recognized the woman speaking as Accra’s first lady, the wife of the newly appointed mayor.
The son backed a respectable distance away. “I was just … trying …”
She walked up to him, closing the distance he had set between them. “I know what you were doing. You should be grateful to this child. You’re disgraceful.”
Most of the world will never know the sadness of an unfulfilled desire to have a fantasy coffin. Most of the world doesn’t even know what a fantasy coffin is. And most will not care. Thus was not the case for Ababuo. Her strongest desire in the entire world was to have her tiny body crammed into the frame of one of those monstrous, carved wooden boxes and get buried in the earth of her precious Ghana when she died. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Her foremost desire was to never need a fantasy or any other coffin.
But neither of these were the fate for Ababuo. Her soul was not pure enough for burial and the earth would reject her body and punish those who had offered her as a gift to it. The last time a Nantew yiye child had been buried in the Ghanaian soil, the clouds had opened up and flooded the land, killing crops and several people in the process. And not dying would leave the people of Ghana without her protection. That couldn’t happen. No whole group should suffer for the wants of one person. Ababuo understood this. Her job was to protect the people of Ghana, not harm them.
Either way, her thirteenth was coming and she had to make a decision.
The girl closed her eyes, hoping to clear her head of those thoughts. As if in answer, someone knocked on the door of the home she shared with her caretaker, paused, and then knocked again. Ababuo opened the curtain and looked down at the man from her bedroom on the second floor. The man glanced up at her and looked around as if he didn’t want anyone to see him there. Ababuo was sure that she saw shame displayed across his face.
After a moment, the man was let in and Ababuo’s caretaker tapped on her door, then opened it. “It’s for you, child.”
The girl sat very still. “This is ten, you know? Only three more.”
“We all have a burden, Ababuo. This is yours.” The woman sounded harsh, but she did not meet Ababuo’s eyes. They would lose each other soon.
Without further discussion, Ababuo sauntered down the stairs, taking one at a time. She was in no hurry to do what was needed of her. At eleven, Ababuo’s shoulders were broad and strong, as if hinting at the woman she would never become, but she was still just skin and bones.
While she followed him, Ababuo let her mind wonder about the girl she had seen just the day before. Ababuo had never met anyone else like her, but this child had been chosen to take over after Ababuo had fulfilled her duty. She was only seven years old, so tiny, so frail-looking. So much like Ababuo had been a few short years before. Ababuo hated the thought of what would happen to this little girl when she had fulfilled her own duty to Accra; she felt guilty and ashamed.
The man led her to a path through the woods. Without looking back, he entered the tree line and the dark swallowed him fully. Ababuo hated the woods at night; she always seemed to get bad feelings in there. The trees seemed to whisper to each other and though she felt she knew them, she never fully understood what they were saying, as if there was a big secret that they kept from her. She hesitated at the woods’ opening, which seemed to suck all light into a vacuum. The hole looked endless. Nothing but blackness greeted them, despite the moon that shone directly overhead.
This was not good. Ababuo had always gotten feelings about things. She just saw things more deeply than others. It was second sight, her caretaker told her. Ababuo was special. She had been born with a caul covering her face, so that she could always see the way, the old woman had said.
Ababuo knew from experience that this void that she saw now was a sign. One that she couldn’t ignore. She looked back, took a deep breath, and then followed the man into the darkness.
Half a mile later, the girl could see the light of the moon shining through an opening in the tree tops. Past the tree line at the woods’ end and across the railroad tracks, it followed the pair, silent as they were. Just as the man reached the railroad tracks, he stopped, looked at her. She never really knew how to react when people needed her services, never knew what to do or even what they wanted. She walked closer to him and he pointed to the tracks. She hesitated for only a moment and then reached out and touched the cold steel with the tip of her right, sandaled toe. Suddenly, she was transported into another time, not long before this night, but not completely on the same plane on which she had arrived, either.
In this parallel place, there were children. Ababuo counted them. Seven. Four girls and three boys. They had all snuck out of the house to go to the graveyard just across the tracks, through the trees. Ababuo watched the children, simultaneously wishing she could be one of them and fearing what was to come. She would not be there if something terribly tragic hadn’t already happened.
“Look,” one of the little girls yelled. She was a twin of another child there that night, a little girl. “There it is.” The kids loved the way the moon shone on the cold, marble tombstones. The way the beams bounced on the writing made the words look almost as if the names were dancing on the light. And that the dates were the amount of time that they’d been going. It was magical. They loved this place.
The forest was dense and they’d had to walk single file just to get through the trees. They all had played in these woods since they were able to walk, as had Ababuo, so they weren’t in fear of getting lost. But that didn’t stop their minds from running wild in this place every single time they ventured here. The night, the trees, the moonlight, the grave stones, the polished train tracks, the dead … It was spooky. But the kids seemed to relish this in a way that Ababuo never had; she could feel their anticipation growing while her own fear made her cower.
The distant moon seemed to do nothing for the darkness in these woods and only served to make the surrounding trees look more sinister. As the group entered a clearing, Ababuo looked up at the stars in the sky and closed her eyes. She had been getting increasingly nauseated since entering the woods and now she couldn’t ignore the feeling any longer.
Something was wrong. More importantly, something was going to happen. Something she felt down deep. Something bad. She swayed, lost her balance, falling to her knees, reaching out to touch the tracks with her free hand. The world around her swam as if she were trapped in a pool of water, drowning. She began sinking into its unknown depths. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. She was in the dark place, though her eyes were open. She had been here before. Exactly nine times before. She would experience it another two times before it was all over. She knew the pain, the fear, the sorrow. But she understood now that this pain was doubled. Two souls would be released tonight and she was one soul closer to death than she had been only a few moments ago. The total was going to be eleven, not ten as she had expected.
Knowing what to do, Ababuo spasmed and began falling deeper into the dark place, letting it consume her completely until she was there, that night. The world around her spun out of control. To the children, she appeared as if out of nowhere. As she appeared, she saw that the younger of the two twins’ legs had gotten stuck on the track and she couldn’t move. Her sister worked desperately to get it out, but it just would not budge.
The train approached.
Ababuo could hear it charging forward: a constant chug-chug-chugging coming closer, like the minute hand on a giant clock ticking down to destiny. The other children were screaming, but Ababuo did not focus on them. She could not. She was not here for them. They had survived that night.
With the train chugging nearer, the bright headlight getting brighter, Ababuo grabbed the twins and pulled them both close to her. A spark of energy went through the group, as if though a live electric wire. Just as the train reached them, she held out her hand to stay it, not letting it demolish these children again. She spoke with words that weren’t her own, but were honest and sincere.
“Your grandma,” Ababuo said to the girls, “misses you. She’s waitin’ to see you both again. Tonight. Finally.” To those around her, Ababuo’s voice sounded very much like her own, but to Ababuo her voice sounded like an old woman full of years she had yet to see.
“Who are you?” one of the twin girls asked, as her sister held onto her, not wanting to let go. Ababuo understood why: they had been born together, and they would leave the same way.
“Ababuo, a Nantew yiye child. I came to help you.”
“You can’t, we do this always. The train.” The girl looked on as Ababuo strained to still the locomotive destined to tear through the children. “It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt much anymore.”
Ababuo fell to her knees again, feeling the weight of the heavy train but not letting it go. Her eyes showed only the whites of time that passed as she spoke, “You must go.”
The older girl shook her head, “We don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Into me. Come into me. I need you as much as you need me.”
The train was so heavy now. So very heavy.
The older girl looked to her sister, ever the protector. “Will we breathe again?”
Ababuo smiled. “With your mind, your heart. Never again your lungs. They hurt too much.”
Without warning, the girl’s foot was released and the two took each other’s hands and merged into Ababuo’s body, swallowed by her essence. She consumed them fully. They no longer suffered, but they were not extinguished. Instead, they breathed without lungs or the need for air at all.
At that moment, Ababuo forgot about the train, letting it go as she relished the girls within her. The steel bullet slammed into her, knocking one of her shoes off, throwing her backward twenty feet. She opened her eyes to the girls’ father standing over her, holding back tears.
He seemed to want to help, but he was not allowed to touch her. She was considered too pure to touch, but really, she just thought that people were afraid of her, and that suited her just fine. She could stand on her own. That was why she had been chosen. She said simply, “They belong to me now. They’re free.”
The man nodded and walked away, his face downcast. Ababuo stood there a long time after the man left, not really thinking about anything. She didn’t really want to be thinking about anything, least of which those little girls who were now somewhere beyond their father’s reach, the father who would not see them again for many years. The father who had loved them.
The girl made her way home, alone. She could barely walk, as she had taken on the real injury of the memory train and it would take a long time to heal. She died a little more with each of these souls, as she helped to lessen their pain. That was the worst of it, she thought. She suffered for them, she suffered great pain for them, and yet they never even seemed to notice. They never seemed to care. But she didn’t want to think about it anymore. She was too tired. Too young, too worn.
Accra, Ghana was Ababuo’s first love. She loved it, and in its own way, it loved her, too. Accra was a part of Africa, like every other city on that continent, but Accra did not represent Africa, speak for it, or call it as one. Just as Ababuo didn’t represent the people of Accra, and she only helped and complemented them as any part does its sum.
But if Accra was her first love, then the waterway extending from Lake Volta held her heart within its waves and calm, still surface in a way the land could not. Lake Volta was said to be the largest manmade lake in the world, and if you followed it far enough, it emptied out into the Black, White, and Red Volta Rivers. Ababuo had never seen those rivers in person. In fact, she had never been outside of Accra, or even seen the whole of Lake Volta in all its glory. This waterway was the closest she had gotten. It was tiny and pathetic; most fish or marine life couldn’t survive its shallow depths. But she didn’t care; she liked the idea of this underestimated water source flowing silently into the biggest manmade river in the world. It was connected to both man and nature in a way that Ababuo herself understood. If no one else in the world did, Ababuo understood.
Behind her, rhythmic song disturbed the silence of the day. She turned to see a group of people leading a procession through the small, wooded area beside her precious waterway. Although she realized this was a funeral, she momentarily resented the interruption. Most people didn’t come here, as no good fishing could be done from its shallows. But besides the Gulf of Guinea on the other side of the city, this was the closest one could come to a water source. And that was the point, it seemed. The mourners were followed by a group of men, who carried a giant, blue-painted, wooden whale on their backs, its tail curved high toward the sky. Ababuo stared as the procession marched its way to the final burial site somewhere beyond her sight. The man stuffed into the whale-shaped box was probably a fisherman, and they had chosen the site near the water to honor him. Although death is a time for mourning in Accra, it is also a time for celebration. People celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead so as not to forget that they were loved and a valuable part of the community. This was what they did for this man now. This was what no one would do for her.
After a moment, Ababuo turned to face her water again. She closed her eyes and allowed the calm waves to release her frustrations. There was no point in being angry at anyone and jealousy was simply unacceptable. What sense did it make to envy a dead man? She, who lived every day hoping not to die.
Ababuo didn’t realize that someone had walked up behind her until they had been standing there a full minute or longer. She turned and saw the mayor’s wife in her colorful attire. The woman had a way of showing up unannounced. “I thought I saw you here, Nantew yiye.” The way most people spoke her title was scornful, but on this woman’s lips it was lovely, valuable.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’m sorry.”
“Why should you be sorry? You were here first. I’m Serwa. We weren’t properly introduced the other day.” The woman looked back toward the festivities. “My son. He was a fisherman.” Ababuo nodded. She figured the woman simply needed to talk and it didn’t matter who she spoke to. “All we have left of him is his wife and unborn son.” A tear fell from the woman’s face; she wiped it away quickly. “Why are you here alone?”
“I like the water.”
The woman stared at her. “I’m sorry for you, Nantew yiye. I saw you go into the coffin shop the other day … and I was curious. There are so many rumors … about you. The things you can do. But still, I pity you.” The woman wasn’t being rude. Ababuo had experience worse things than being pitied by her neighbors.
“Have you ever thought about escaping? Leaving all this behind?”
Ababuo didn’t answer for a moment. Perhaps Miss Serwa was testing her loyalty to the people of Accra. “Why would I do that?”
“Freedom, dear! Everyone deserves that.”
Miss Serwa came for her that evening. Something had gone wrong in the delivery of the mayor’s grandson. Perhaps the woman had known something was wrong, or perhaps it was simply a coincidence that the two had met prior to this. Ababuo supposed it didn’t matter.
The woman walked into her room without the benefit of a knock, then closed the door before her caretaker could enter. Ababuo stood to her feet and let the woman speak: “I will not take from you without giving.” She paused for a moment, was silent as Ababuo had been earlier, lost in thought. “Most people can’t offer anything in return, so they suffer without coming to you. But I offer you freedom, if you help me tonight. I will take you away, help you escape, if you save my son’s son.”
The city passed by her automobile window in quick, bright flashes that were almost unrecognizable. When Ababuo reached the house, Miss Serwa took her hand and led her to the room where the doctor stood over the mother, his hands between her bloody legs.
“What is she doing here? I told you, none of that witchcraft while I’m here.”
“And I told you, Doctor, that you do not make decisions for me or my grandson.”
“Send her away, I warn you.” The man was angry. He stared at Ababuo, as if he had never hated anyone more in his lifetime than this girl.
But before he could speak again, the pregnant woman screamed and pushed, her face bloating with air, her eyes bulging in pain and fear. After a moment, the baby slid into the doctor’s hands, its breathing rushed and rapid. Without a word to inquire about her child, the mother closed her eyes, unable to hold them open any longer. She and her son were in distress; neither would survive. Ababuo could sense it from where she stood in the doorway.
“Send her away,” the doctor demanded again.
Ababuo looked up at the mayor’s wife, untwined her fingers from within the woman’s grip, and walked over to the mother and child. All she had to do was save the kid and get whisked away to freedom. That word sounded so sweet, so peaceful.
As she reached the other side of the room, the doctor stood and moved out of her way, as if she carried the plague. Ababuo touched the mother’s stomach, feeling the blood and energy flow too rapidly from within her. The baby was just as bad. His head was warm, and his mind was unfocused, cloudy. Ababuo could sense the life slowly draining out of his body. Ababuo could not save them both.
Thirteen. That was it. That was how many souls she was allowed to save, both dead and alive. She had only two left within her to save. But she had to save one for herself. She had sacrificed enough. She hesitated for a moment. Without giving it another thought, she grabbed the child, placed her mouth over his, and sucked all of the illness and cloudy residue in his mind away. She held the child to her, her entire mouth covering his nose and lips. She breathed in, feeling all of the sickness within the child enter her body, fog her soul, and overwhelm her senses. He was so tiny in her hands, so cold and scared. Newborns, she had learned, understood little and feared nothing but light diminishing from their too-new souls. When she released him, he began to cry, loud and strong. Miss Serwa, smiled and lifted the child from her arms, hugging him. Crying, she laid the baby in his mother’s arms and caressed the woman’s face. The dying woman did not move, or hear her son screaming within her arms.
“You must go.” Miss Serwa kissed Ababuo. “My men will take you to a secluded farm. You can stay there as long as you want. Thank you.” She looked back at the screaming child. “I’ll take good care of him.”
Ababuo walked to the door, stopped, and looked back at the mother, still unable to hold her child. Then her eyes fell on the soon-to-be-motherless child. She had lived thirteen years without a mother. A caretaker was no substitute. Before she could regret her decision, she ran to the bed and took both the mother and child into her arms. She placed her mouth over the woman’s nose and gave her life away. Death slowly left the woman and entered Ababuo, her body becoming weak. When her knees gave out, her body slumped to the floor. She drifted away before knowing whether to regret her decision.
This was her thirteenth. The same number of years she had been allowed to live, only to die and not be buried in Ghanaian soil, but burned, as if a witch in punishment.
The mayor’s wife carried Ababuo’s body downstairs and laid her on the sofa. The following day, she commissioned a fantasy coffin for Ababuo. A sarcophagus: such a lovely, tiny thing, reminiscent of those of ancient Ghana’s kings and queens. Miss Serwa had only one requirement: that the coffin remain buoyant in shallow waters for no less than thirteen days, keeping her promise not to bury Ababuo in the soil of Ghana. The mayor, his wife, and their family celebrated in a private ceremony by setting Ababuo’s body to sail on the waters of the small waterway, which led into the Volta River, so that when the earth quaked, only the depths of the sea life felt it and mourned for this beloved and simultaneously unloved child.