The Carpenter and the Coffin
Fortunately, Mr Mortimer Darkwater was a carpenter and was able to build coffins for the tiny stillborn children to which his wife had given birth.
The first child had been a boy. Mr Darkwater made the coffin out of pine, and as he sawed the wood he wept, for himself as much as for the child, and although it was November, or because of this, and had been raining for three solid days, he painted the coffin like the sky on an afternoon in summer: light blue with wispy white clouds, so that it wasn’t a child he buried in the hilltop cemetery overlooking the town. It was a piece of sky.
The second child had been a girl. When the midwife informed Mr Darkwater of the child’s death the carpenter’s heart was like a cavern full of broken glass, and though it was the dead of winter and snow lay on the ground, he painted his daughter’s coffin pale green and covered it with red and white roses. So the carpenter comforted himself with the knowledge that it was not his daughter buried beneath the snow covering the cemetery. It was a bouquet of flowers in bloom.
Although Mrs Darkwater was still young and attractive the loss of her children had marked the end of her youth and filled her with terrible remorse and guilt. It was neither a piece of sky nor a bouquet of flowers that lay buried on the hill. She had felt life move in her womb, and there was nothing poetic about the death of an infant. Her children lay dead and buried in the cemetery, and the grief of Mrs Darkwater went unrelieved.
The years passed. The sun shone. The wind blew. From dawn to dusk the carpenter devoted himself to his hammer, his saw, his level, and his square until little by little those crystals of grief remaining from the deaths of his children were dissolved and replaced by the fluency of his tools who began to love him as a father.
Publicly, Mrs Darkwater prevented her sorrow from interfering with her social obligations and responsibilities. Neighbors visited and left impressed with Mrs Darkwater’s congenial manner. The house was always tidy. The yard was neatly landscaped and welcoming. A silver mirror ball sat on a cement base in the front yard and reflected the blue sky above, and along the fence by the walkway red and white roses grew and bloomed. Mrs Darkwater gained a reputation in town as a gracious hostess. She did volunteer work for the Ladies’ Auxiliary. In private, however, Mrs Darkwater’s grief was an open door on a November evening. The carpenter often awoke at dawn to find his wife standing at the bedroom window staring out over the pastureland and meadows to the distant hilltop where the cemetery lay. On more than one occasion Mr Darkwater sat up in bed and turned on the light.
“What are you looking at?” he’d ask.
“Oh..., I’m watching the sunrise,” she would say. Or she might point out a flight of birds moving silently along the horizon.
Mr Darkwater accepted these explanations at face value, and if he was neither aware of his wife’s remorse nor understood the nature of her grief and guilt he was often filled with something resembling love when he beheld his wife at the window.
Mrs Darkwater, too, felt this thing resembling love. It was by virtue of this thing that the carpenter’s wife allowed her husband to remain in her bed. It was this thing resembling love which made Mrs Darkwater’s loneliness less solitary. At times, the carpenter’s wife could almost enjoy her husband’s embraces, and it was in one of those moments of near enjoyment that Mrs Darkwater fell pregnant with her third child. Three months later, Mr Darkwater followed the midwife's confirmation of his wife’s pregnancy with the immediate construction of another pine coffin.
This one he painted to resemble the sea. It was all gray water and waves, and on the coffin lid the carpenter painted a sailboat with beautiful golden sails. Of all the coffins, this one was certainly his masterpiece. It was all dovetails and bevels, and the coffin lid fit so perfectly that the seam between lid and casket was virtually indistinguishable.
Despite the care and attention Mr Darkwater had devoted to the building of the coffin, his wife was horrified by it and often wished that her husband would burn the awful thing and scatter its ashes, but the thing resembling love presented itself and prevented Mrs Darkwater from disturbing the carpenter’s universe of measure, plane, and plumb line. So the months passed. The seasons changed. Leaves died and fell from the trees. Mr Darkwater finished lacquering the coffin and locked it in the basement. Mrs Darkwater tried to put away morbid thoughts and made new curtains for the nursery.
The birth took place one morning in late December after a long and difficult labor. There had been complications. The midwife had detected meconium in the amniotic fluid, and the child had presented itself with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around its neck. The midwife had used all her skill to unwind the cord, and when she informed Mr Darkwater that he was the father of a living son he laughed and clapped his hands. The carpenter immediately named the child “Morgan”, which means “a dweller on the sea”.
Mr Darkwater took the coffin that he had so lovingly crafted and turned it into a crib for the child. He added legs to it and fashioned rails around its sides so the child would be safe. At night, while putting his son to be, the carpenter would sing songs to his son, and read to him from his books on carpentry, the only books he owned. After six months, Morgan had outgrown his crib, so the coffin was locked away in the basement, and the carpenter built his son a bed that he’d fashioned to look like a boat.
Curiously, although Mrs Darkwater was relieved that this child had been born alive, her son’s presence evoked neither love nor the thing resembling love in her bosom. She looked at her infant and felt something hard and unnameable rise in her soul. Whatever maternal feelings lay locked inside of her were reserved for those children who rested in the cemetery on the hilltop overlooking the town.
Mr Darkwater, on the other hand, received the birth of his son like some miracle from the heavens. The carpenter laughed and wept, for himself as much as for the child, and in his son’s gray eyes he saw himself reflected, as though for the first time, in complete and perfect happiness.
Mrs Darkwater noticed this transformation in her husband and withdrew from it into her private world of guilt and suffering.The change in Mr Darkwater was a betrayal. She had wanted confirmation of her loneliness and remorse but the carpenter’s joy was a denial of her sorrow. The thing that was hard and unnameable flared in Mrs Darkwater’s heart. She began to envy the infants who died without ever seeing daylight. It was in this state of depression that the carpenter’s wife fell ill. Morgan was entrusted to a wet nurse, and Mrs Darkwater lay confined to her bed.
The world spun on its axis. Morgan grew. One day, while Mr Darkwater rummaged for tools in the basement he stumbled across the coffin that he had painted like the sea. He picked it up and carried it to his workshop. That evening the carpenter removed the coffin lid and outfitted the coffin with wheels and a long wooden handle so that it was transformed into a wagon. He presented this gift to Morgan, and for the next few years the child could be found dragging his coffin behind him wherever he went. Occasionally Mr Darkwater would place Morgan in the wagon and pull the child behind him through the meadows. This activity always filled the carpenter’s heart with some enormous and sublime sentimentality that was as beautiful as it was foolish. There were times that the sight of Morgan and his coffin made tears spring to the eyes of the aging carpenter.
For his wife, however, Mr Darkwater felt nothing. In the first days of her convalescence the carpenter had attended to his wife out of that thing resembling love, but in her presence he felt that hard and unnameable thing creep from her. It was a thing filled with cobwebs and shadows and the shed skin of serpents. The room was filled with echoes and when he looked in his wife’s mirror Mr Darkwater saw phosphorescent scorpions and the destruction of cities. The thing resembling love was powerless against his wife, and so the carpenter felt compelled to find someone to care for his wife. He hired an old nurse as his wife’s caretaker. There were rumors that the old nurse had poisoned her husband, but this was idle speculation given the nurse’s harsh and spiteful disposition. In any event, the thing that was hard and unnameable in the carpenter’s wife had absolutely no effect on the nurse.
Even though Morgan rarely visited his mother’s room, when he set foot in it the echoes and shadows immediately retreated. His mother was a beautiful woman made of glass or stone. Once she took the form of a snow flurry. Another time she was a river of ice through which Morgan could see trapped fish and frozen water lilies. Now she was made of porcelain. Now she was the moon. Each time Morgan visited his mother she was more beautiful than the time before. She was a window of delicate frost roses. She was a midnight in December full of bitter cold and stars. She never spoke to Morgan, and he never spoke to her. His visits were always cut short by the old nurse whose presence filled the bedroom with salamanders and bat wings.
Whenever Morgan left his mother’s room his father would be waiting for him in the doorway. Mr Darkwater would stare at his son as though trying to fathom what the child had witnessed at his sick wife’s bedside, but it was impossible for the child to tell the carpenter of Mrs Darkwater’s cold pure beauty. The carpenter was forced to accept the narrative of Morgan’s silence. Although Morgan had learned the language of silence at his mother’s bedside, he used it as a shield only. To use it as a weapon, as his mother had used it, would be to betray his father. To give it up entirely would be to betray his mother. Mr Darkwater looked at his silent gray-eyed son and it occurred to him that Morgan had outgrown his clothing.
This observation led Mr Darkwater to the conclusion that the boy was too old for toys such as the wagon. The carpenter confiscated it, and after removing the wheels and the handle he put the lid back on the coffin with some hinges and clasps. Then Mr Darkwater filled the coffin full of tools and hid it beneath his bed until Christmas Eve. When Morgan awoke on Christmas Day he found the coffin beneath the Christmas tree. Morgan opened the lid and saw that the coffin was filled with hammers, dowels, screwdrivers, and wood clamps. The carpenter came into the room and watched his son pull a nail from the coffin. He put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Someday, Morgan, this coffin will be your life,” he said. Then he went out to his workshop and began building a bookcase in order to hold all his books dedicated to the craft of building bookcases.
Thus was Morgan apprenticed as a carpenter. From his father Morgan learned the rudimentary language of his tools. From dawn to dusk Mr Darkwater instructed his son on the poetics of hammer and nail. Initially, Morgan’s forays into the grammar of carpentry took the form of simple declarative statements: I frame. I saw. I augered. The voice of the hammer was perfectly suited to this task, and when Morgan finally succeeded in transforming the hammer’s prosaic clatter into sustained verse he moved on to the voices of the plane, the rasp, and the rule.
Although Morgan learned quickly, his apprenticeship took nearly 7 years to complete. He became fluent in the dialects of all his tools and in their slang uses. By the end of his apprenticeship there was nothing left for his father to teach him. It was at this point that his father lay down his tools and put his hand to his chest.
“I’m an old man,” said Mr Darkwater. “I’m a foolish old man and tired, Morgan. For the past three days I’ve had a pain in my chest that squeezes like a clenched fist….”
Morgan caught his father before he hit the floor. He carried the old man into the house and stretched him out on the livingroom floor, but it was already too late to save him. At the moment of his father’s death a pair of spectral coffins appeared in the doorway. One of them was covered with clouds that moved swiftly across a background of blue sky, and the other was covered with red and white roses that bloomed then withered and died. Morgan watched as the coffins slowly vanished and another form took shape in the doorway. For the first time in Morgan’s life his mother had appeared to him in human form. She was an old woman. Her face was ravaged by years of suffering and neglect, and her eyes were covered by a gray film like that found on the eyes of birds. She opened her mouth to speak and a raven-like croak issued from the back of her throat.
“Forgive me, Morgan. Forgive…, forgive….”
“I forgive you…,” Morgan said, “and I love you, Mother. I always have.”
Morgan went to his mother and embraced her. At his touch the old woman became translucent so that Morgan was able to watch the full moon rise through her, and as the twilight deepened the stars and planets became visible through his mother’s face and form as she slowly slowly vanished from the open doorway with these words “Forgive…. Forgive…. Forgive….” until Morgan stood by himself in the empty doorway.
Morgan built his father’s coffin out of cypress wood and cedar, and on the lid he painted his father as he looked in his coffin, ancient and worn, his arms folded above his carpenter’s apron, a claw hammer in one hand and in his other hand a circular saw with its array of jagged teeth radiating out from its sun-like disk, so that he looked almost to be a pharaoh at rest, holding his royal emblems of power and might for all eternity.
He buried his father on the hill between his brother and sister. Then he walked back down to the house. He found his coffin full of tools in the shed and threw it over his shoulder. It was lighter than he thought it would be. He would be able to carry it for many miles this way.
Vesta look out across the dark sparkling waters of the bay. She put her hand upon her belly and felt her child move in her womb. She had been a fool. Nine months earlier she had been moved by the fisherman’s declarations of love. He had brought her gifts of salted cod and oysters. He’d even engraved a whale bone with images of mermaids and sirens and set the bone in a necklace of sand dollars, pearls, and shark’s teeth. Then, when Vesta fell pregnant, the fisherman had sailed away in his boat with crimson canvas sails and not returned. Perhaps he lay upon the bottom of the sea, his flesh stripped away by the claws of crabs, with a starfish for a tongue and moray eels or scallops lurking in the eye sockets of his skull. Perhaps.
Her parents had turned her out, and Vesta had wandered from town to town along the coast. She had been given food and sanctuary at several churches, but her welcome at each had extended to a few weeks only, two months at best, and now she had reached the end of her rope. She scanned the twilit water and her eyes caught the sail of a boat out beyond the jagged point of land stretching past the lighthouse into the bay, but the sail was white, and the boat disappeared around the point to be forever lost from view.
The tide lapped at Vesta’s feet. It was better this way, she thought. She moved into the water as though in a dream. The cold gray waves swept over her, and the current carried her into deep water.
Morgan could see the whitewashed city walls as he walked along the stony beach. He had money in his pocket from the odd jobs he taken on his journey. He’d stayed at a farmhouse for the past month and repaired the porch and the fences around the pasture enclosing the horses and cattle. He had built a gazebo in the garden for the farmer’s wife and they had treated him as a son. When he had completed his repairs and shouldered his coffin once more the farmer’s wife gave him a blanket to sleep on and a satchel of food for his journey and the farmer shook his hand.
“There’s plenty of work for you in the city,” he said.
So Morgan walked along the coast. He’d slept upon the beach for the last two nights, and now the city was in view. He was about to camp for the night when he happened to glance out at across the bay’s dark water. Thus he saw a woman dressed in white move into the water. He watched a wave take her under and the current carry her away from the shore. The young carpenter threw down his coffin full of tools, stripped, and ran to the water. He dove into the waves and swam to where the current had carried her. He reached the spot and dove several times until he found her floating peacefully beneath the waves. He grabbed her in his arms and carried her to the surface then to the shore. She choked up sea water and gasped for air. Morgan put his blanket around the pregnant woman and at the base of a sandy dune he built a fire of driftwood and planks from some shipwreck that the sea had disgorged.
For the next few hours Morgan and Vesta dried and warmed themselves around the fire. The young carpenter shared the remainder of his food with the woman. Then he scoured the beach for more wooden planks. He threw these on the fire which blazed up and kept them warm while they fell asleep.
Morgan was awakened by the young woman’s cries and moans several hours later. Vesta had gone into labor and her contractions were hard and close together. The fire had died down, and to keep Vesta warm Morgan had little choice but to empty his coffin of its tools. He smashed it to pieces with his hammer then threw the wood onto the fire. As the flames blazed up he saw Vesta’s face, pale and beautiful, and when he looked into her eyes he saw his own reflection which vanished when Vesta moaned and pushed and screamed and pushed until little by little the head of an infant appeared at the opening to Vesta’s birth canal. Then Morgan helped turn the infant so that his shoulders could be born, and suddenly, as though by magic, a child lay purple and crying on the blanket attached to Vesta by a pulsating cord which Morgan cut with a clamshell and tied with some fishing twine as the sun rose from the bay and illuminated the white walls of the city and the bright morning water and the ashes of the fire which had burned out leaving nothing, nothing but a piece of blackened board with a picture of a sailboat with beautiful golden sails that Morgan threw out into the peaceful water that lay slumbering in the bay.
Bill Wetmore has published one novel, The Autobiography of Charlie Lord. He lives in Northern California where he is working on a collection of short stories.