My Susannah came to me because Old Man Whipert got downhill of
a log deck that rolled right over the top of him and smashed him,
muerto. Dead. His widow, Lorna, asked me to build his coffin and
she brought her cousin Susannah with her, like an angel hovering
over her shoulder. My mother used to say that angels follow in the
footsteps of dead men. We can feel them brushing past us if we are
still and quiet. But when my Susannah came to me with the Widow
Whipert, my heart began to beat so hard that I could hear nothing
but its drumming in my chest.
Old Man Whipert was Lorna's most recent husband. She was
forever marrying old men - men older than her father, men
sometimes older than her grandfather. Already she'd outlived five
husbands - Old Man Johnson, Old Man Shrewn, Old Man Torin, Old Man
Smith, and now Old Man Whipert. And for Old Man Whipert, she
wanted a coffin of solid maple. I thought she might want pine, him
being just a number five and all, but her eyes were swollen and
red from crying and she kept twisting wads of damp Kleenex round
and round between her fingers. She insisted that it must be maple,
no matter what. Also to remember that he mustn't be cramped at the
head or feet because he'd always hated a bed too short, him being
a tall man and an equally tall corpse - although now significantly
flatter, thanks to that log deck.
"Coffin Man," Lorna said to me. "I don’t want
him going into the hereafter with his legs bent; he had bad knees
as it was. Do you understand, Coffin Man?"
"I have a name," I wanted to say to her. Not that
you'd be likely to hear it, but I do have one and sometimes I say
it to myself just to remember that it is mine. I have to say it to
myself because, since my good mother died years ago, no one else
has called me by it, not even my brother the gravedigger. Everyone
else calls me Coffin Man, like the Widow Whipert when she came to
order the box for her husband, because I am the ataudero, the
"Hey, Coffin Man," they say to me at the market, for
instance. "Hey, Coffin Man, will it be your usual two pounds
of coffee today?" And I nod and say, "Sí. Just
It is that way when you are the coffin builder. I am not sure
why; it is not like I handle bodies. I wouldn’t touch a dead man
for love or money. Once you step into that line of work, you can't
ever wash your hands clean again. I did know a mortician once who
could make folks look better dead than they ever had alive; he was
a real artist, that one. But I'd look at his hands and think how
the scent of the dead and all the chemicals he used must linger on
his skin, no matter how much he scrubbed them. My hands, they just
smell of the wood and the linseed oil I rub into my coffins.
If it weren't for the fact that I'm a man who craves
companionship, coffin building would be the perfect work. There is
real skill in it. I’ve got to joint them together just so and I
only use true dovetails or mortise and tenons. I have to sand them
to a fine finish and the wood must be oiled or varnished, and
finally the coffins are padded with satin or velvet so the dead
look as comfortable as possible leaving this world. My brother,
he's happy just making his money digging a hole and going home;
there's no pride in it for him. But me, I'm an artisan. I wouldn't
want a person to head into the afterlife in a shoddy coffin. I
make them to last longer than the bones inside.
But it is solitary work. My brother's not much of a talker, so
it doesn't bother him. But me, I can't get enough of talking back
and forth, noticing the weather, gossiping, arguing – in Spanish
or in English, it makes no difference to me; I appreciate a little
human contact. I used to go to the bar for a beer, to surround
myself with human voices. There is only one bar but inside there
are three groups. The Mexican mill workers and choker setters sit
together behind the pool tables. The Anglos sit at the long wooden
bar on red stools. And the timber fallers, catskinners, and
toppers – Mexicans and whites - play pool together all night
long. The bartender goes back and forth between them. I used to
sit in the middle, by myself.
The men would all be over-polite and distant with me, but it
was enough to just sit amongst them and listen. Afterwards, on my
way home, I would say out loud what I would have said at the bar,
if I had been allowed into the conversations I overheard. In the
dark of my car, I argued, agreed, laughed, told jokes and riddles,
ordered a round for the house, and imagined friends slapping me on
the back in thanks. It wasn't perfect, but at least it was better
than the silence of my brother, the gravedigger.
One night Jonas Tico sat down on the barchair next to me. He
staggered around the pool tables with a glass of whisky in his
hand, pushing people out of his way, steering himself roughly in
my direction. When he managed to slide himself onto the stool, I
could see that he had somehow missed his mouth taking a drink and
whisky was running down his big black beard and dripping onto his
Jonas was a drunk, but only at night. During the day he was a
timber faller who was known to lay a Douglas Fir down in a line so
straight and precise two men could stand on either side of it and
the tree would just blow their hair as it fell between them. Jonas
had one other talent as well; he had a remarkable ability to defy
death, even though it tried to snare him constantly.
That year alone he had survived two near fatal incidents. First
he stumbled into the middle of somebody’s pot patch and was shot
in the stomach. He went to the hospital with his intestines looped
over his arm to keep them from falling out entirely onto the
floorboard of his brother's pickup. Then that summer he fell out
of a tree two hundred feet above the river and belly flopped onto
the water so hard it collapsed one of his lungs and broke his
collarbone. Some sunbathers down river at the nude swimming hole
saved him when he floated past. Jonas said he woke up surrounded
by breasts and asses. He thought for sure he'd died, but he
couldn't decide if he'd gone to heaven or hell, depending on which
piece of anatomy was facing him at any given moment.
Jonas was definitely drunk when he sat down next to me at the
bar. He leaned in close to my face, so I could see the droplets of
whisky dripping off his beard. "How many board feet will it
take for me, Coffin Man?" he asked. "How big a box will
it take to bury me in?"
I left without answering Jonas's question, knowing for a fact
that, as much as I pined for a human voice and a touch, there'd be
no going back to the bar. I was like a ghost whispering to people
when they least expected it. I made them look at dying. I got into
my car and drove toward home. I found myself crying as I drove and
I wondered if the tears were for the people at the bar or for
myself, but I couldn't decide the answer.
After that, I kept to my wood shop where I built my coffins and
had conversations now and then with the morticians who placed
their orders with me; we talked of wood and dimensions. Sometimes
widows, like Lorna, would come to my shop to order coffins for
husbands who had been killed in the woods or the mills, but then
there was sobbing and only more talk of wood and dimensions. It
was a solitary life for a man like me.
I was thinking about that as I wrote up the order for Old Man
Whipert's coffin. Lorna was sitting on my stool, crying and
twisting her Kleenex between her hands, demanding maple, and that
the coffin mustn’t be too small, and that it must be built to
last forever. It occurred to me that, since a goodly number of Old
Man Whipert's bones had been crushed by the logs that killed him,
there was no doubt that the wood would outlast him; when there was
nothing left of him but powder, my coffin would still be there,
cradling the dust of his broken bones.
So as the Widow Whipert went on, I concentrated instead on her
cousin, Susannah. Susannah split her time between holding Lorna's
hands, and looking over my arm at the order sheet. "It costs
a lot to bury a man," she said.
I nodded, "It does if you're doing it in maple. More yet
if you want walnut or oak."
"Oh, but it must be maple," wailed the Widow Whipert,
"No matter what the cost."
Susannah confessed secretly to me that she was worried that
Lorna was so shocked by the death of number five, she might never
get over it. I told Susannah I thought Lorna would find a way to
move on; I was thinking that there were two or three more old
widowers still available yet.
In fact Lorna brightened considerably when my brother appeared
from out back. Her wailing stopped and she suddenly began to dab
at her eyes with the mangled Kleenex. "Oh my, I must look
just a mess," she said.
My brother, who in the past had always tried to avoid speaking
English whenever possible, now took his hat off and said,
"Senora, I think you look very good, considering the
circumstances of your visit."
Lorna smiled and fanned herself with her hand, saying again,
She jumped right up and pulled him by the arm to her car to
talk about the proper length of her number five's grave, so his
coffin didn't fit too tight. Things being too small was something
the widow seemed overly worried about. My brother let himself be
drug away, smiling, while the Widow Whipert talked at him without
pause about grave digging and, oh my, what a set of chest and arm
muscles it gave him.
That left Susannah the cousin alone to admire the coffins I had
in progress. She said she had a particular fondness for boxes, and
judging from the breathless way she said it, I had to trust that
what she said was so. She ran her hands over the wood and the
velvet with such emotion that I had to turn away to contain
myself. I went to work planing a long maple coffin that I had
begun several days earlier to fill an order for a mortuary in
town. Now the mortuary would have to wait because the long maple
coffin was going to become Old Man Whipert's final resting place.
The plane dropped curls of wood shavings behind it onto the floor
at my feet.
Susannah pulled up my tall stool and perched herself there to
watch me work. Whenever I turned my head, I could see her bare
legs swinging from beneath her sundress, stirring the wood dust
beneath the stool. Her legs were a distracting sight. And then she
began to talk to me. We talked of the weather and Lorna's deceased
husbands. We spoke of wood and oils and varnishes. She asked me
how I became a coffin builder and I found myself telling her, and
reveling in the wonder of sitting in my woodshop having a
conversation with a woman in a sundress and bare legs.
"I didn't exactly aspire to become a coffin builder,"
I told her. "But it is what I became because my father - rest
his soul - was a stone carver. He learned from his father in
Mexico when he was a boy. And his father had learned from his
father. In Mexico, my family were all stone carvers. My father
said our ancestors were enslaved and put to work in the silver
mines by the Conquistadores. The story says that so many of them
died in the Conquistadores’ mines, our blood began to run gray
and black, the color of stone. That is what my father said and why
all the men in my family for generations were stone carvers –
because it was in their blood.
"After my father came here, he carved gravestones on
weekends for extra cash. He had a delicate hand with the lettering
and could do a fine pair of angel's wings or a lovely cross for a
bit more money. He always did baby's headstones for less and he
would carve a sweet lamb into the stone for no extra charge.
Otherwise, it was so much a letter and a bit more for wings or
crosses. He always said that carving headstones was sure work;
everybody had to die sooner or later and you could count on making
a little cash off of those who went before you, if you were any
kind of a hand at carving stones."
Susannah kicked off her sandals and stretched her legs down to
run her feet through the pile of wood shavings I had made with the
planer. She pushed them against my boots and let her toes trail
across my pants leg. "Then why aren’t you a stone carver,
Coffin Man?" she asked softly.
"Well," I swallowed, "neither my brother or I
had the patience for it. We broke more good pieces of marble
trying to develop the knack than I care to remember. My father
always said we were the end of a proud line of carvers. But he
insisted that, since he had made it a tradition round about for
our family to be involved in the laying to rest of the dearly
departed, and because it was sure work, we had to find our place
in the business. He said everyone has to die sooner or later, and
they'll likely need a good box to be buried in."
I stopped planing and knit my eyebrows together to look like my
father. "’Since you can't carve a stone to save your soul,’
he’d say, ‘the next best thing is building coffins.’’"
I shrugged my shoulders at Susannah, "So I became a coffin
"It is good work," Susannah said. "My father
always told me that a man is as close to God as he can get when he
works with the harvest of the earth." And then she laughed,
"But he also said that a man was as close to God as he could
get when he was inside a woman, so it is hard to tell which thing
was the more holy."
I cleared my throat and began to sand the coffin, thinking that
her father must have been a smart man, although right then, with
Susannah's bare legs swinging in front of me, I didn't think there
was any question about which activity I would choose. I asked
about her fondness for boxes in order to change the subject.
She told me she had hundreds of boxes from all over the world -
all sizes and shapes and colors.
"What do you do with them all?" I asked her,
"Where do you keep them?"
She got that breathy voice again. "I keep them all over my
house," she said, "Everywhere." And then she
laughed and kicked her legs some more. "Boxes excite me,
Coffin Man. Every woman loves a good box."
That left me thinking about boxes, and being inside a woman,
and bare legs, and her breathy excited voice. I nearly sanded
right over the top of my fingers.
By the time Lorna and my brother appeared, Susannah was on her
knees beside me with a piece of sandpaper helping to smooth the
corners of Old Man Whipert’s coffin. We were talking about the
lining that would go inside, about velvet and satin and what it
must feel like to lie down on such fabrics naked. When Lorna saw
her cousin sanding on the coffin, she began to dab at her eyes
again with the Kleenex and Susannah had to lead her away to the
car. I promised that the coffin would be done in two days, in time
for the funeral, although it would mean staying up half the night
to finish it.
My brother and I watched the women drive away, and I thought I
saw the same look of wonderment on his face as I felt on my own. I
wondered then how I would ever be the same, having sanded wood
with a woman like Susannah, who loved boxes.
Susannah came to pick up Old Man Whipert’s coffin because
Lorna was busy overseeing the digging of his grave. Already Lorna
and my brother had been at the graveyard for two days – him
digging and her offering comments on the size of the hole and of
his arms and chest. It seemed to me that my brother was taking an
inordinate amount of time to dig a grave that would normally have
taken him just a few hours.
Susannah helped me load the coffin in the back of Old Man
Whipert’s pickup and then she perched herself on my stool again
and began to swing her legs, which made me have to sit down also.
"Do you sew the satin and the velvet for the linings
yourself?" she asked me.
I nodded, trying not to stare at her legs, "My mother was
a seamstress; she taught me to sew. But it’s mostly glue with
Susannah smiled, "I would like you to come to my house,
Coffin Man. I want to show you my boxes and there are some people
I want you to meet."
I wondered what this had to do with coffin liners but my father
had always said to not ask questions if you’re not sure you want
to know the answers.
Instead I told her, "I am not sure, Susannah, that that
would be the best thing to do. I make other people nervous. Your
friends might not want to be with me."
But Susannah just smiled and slid off my stool, which made her
skirt hike up and showed her thigh. "Don’t worry, Coffin
Man. Just come to my house on Saturday and bring some of your
velvet and satin, all right?"
I could not have said no with the memory of her white thigh
clouding my thoughts and emotions. "All right then, I’ll
come," I told her.
"Good," she said, and gathered her things to go. But
at the door she turned back and asked, "What is your
I stared at her, silent, shocked at the question for so long
that finally she said, "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have
"No, no. I want to tell you. My name … My name is
Gabriel Miguel Raphael." It sounded strange in my own ears
hearing it out loud.
Susannah smiled again. "Gabriel, Michael, and
Raphael," she said. "The three angels from the
"It was my mother’s idea," I answered, "My
father said it was not manly enough."
"It is a good name, Gabriel. Man enough, I think,"
she said. And then she turned and left, leaving her voice echoing
my name through the woodshop.
My brother the gravedigger attended Old Man Whipert’s
funeral. When he returned, I asked him about it and he said,
"Lorna looks very good in black." I told him that I was
going to Susannah’s house on Saturday and he raised his
eyebrows, but that was all.
When Saturday came, I spent some time trying to decide what to
wear before I gave it up and decided all I had were jeans and work
shirts anyway. I bundled up rolls of velvet and satin in reds,
blues, purples, greens, and browns. I touched them and remembered
the way that Susannah had stroked the cloth and how she had knelt
beside me to sand the wood. It made me breathe faster to think of
it, of her hands coated in linseed oil and wood dust.
Her house was like a little box in itself, pressed on all sides
by trees. She stepped out onto the porch to welcome me and I
filled her arms with the bolts of cloth. The material draped off
the rolls and I swept the hanging folds up over her shoulders so
that she was covered in the velvet and satin. Susannah threw back
her head and laughed. "No one has ever wrapped me in velvet
Her house was cool and dark inside, shaded by the trees. And
everywhere I looked - on shelves, on the floor, on the counter,
behind chairs - were boxes. Outside the window, were window boxes
full of flowers. Beside the woodstove were boxes of matches,
kindling, newspaper, wood. In the kitchen were big plastic boxes
full of flour, rice, cornmeal. In corners and hidden places, she
kept small tin boxes full of special things.
She put down the bolts of fabric and led me through the little
rooms of her house. We opened boxes and looked inside. We found a
long box full of wooden nesting dolls. They were carefully painted
with bright red dresses and little shoes. Each identical round
figure got smaller and smaller as we split them open to see the
brightly painted faces of the ones inside, until we came to the
smallest. It was no bigger than a thimble. In a wooden box in the
kitchen, I looked at jars of spices. We set them on the windowsill
where the sun glinted on the glass and the mix of colors was
wondrous – mustard yellow, chile red, nutmeg brown, basil green,
turmeric orange. When we came upon a box full of coins, I added a
peso I had been carrying in my pocket since my father died. And
when we found a round hatbox full of polished stones, Susannah
chose one that was as brown as wood and gave it to me to fill the
spot in my pocket where the peso had been.
Next to her bed was a beautiful carved box that was padlocked.
I asked her why and she smiled. "I keep my toys in that box,
"Toys?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered, "but not toys for
children." She looked at me meaningfully and in that breathy
way she had, she said, "It is a special box, Gabriel."
I swallowed several times and blushed, finally understanding
what she was saying, and not saying. "Sí," was all I
could muster myself to answer, which made her laugh.
"Come," she said. "The women will be arriving
"The women?" I asked. But she just led the way back
to the living room, where she began to lay out the velvet and
satin side by side, holding the colors against each other and
shifting them around.
When the other women came, they all brought fabric of their
own, and uncompleted quilt blocks, and needles, and thread. They
also brought beer and wine. They smiled at me when they came in,
all of them, as if I were just another of the women. "This is
Gabriel Miguel Raphael," Susannah told them. "He has
come to sew with us." They opened the beer and someone handed
me a bottle. "Come, Coffin Man," they said. "Come
"Please," I answered. "Please, call me Gabriel.
It is my name." I wondered how I was able to say it and knew,
even as I wondered, that in Susannah’s house, everything was in
its place, even me.
The women sat around Susannah’s living room and pulled out
their quilt blocks. They sewed, talked, laughed, and drank.
Susannah gave me yards of the velvet and satin. She sat next to me
and we cut diamond shapes until there were piles of them around
us. I held the beer bottle between my thighs and felt the warmth
of Susannah’s leg next to mine. "What are we making?"
I asked her.
The women laughed at me. One of them said, "We are making
quilts, Coffin Man." And then the others scolded her and
said, "His name is Gabriel." They told me about the
quilts they were sewing, how the cloth came from a mother’s
apron, or a child’s blanket, or a husband’s work shirt, how
they were cutting and piecing them into beautiful patterns for
their beds or the beds of their families. "Look,
Gabriel," they said. "This pattern is called the
Drunkard’s Path." Or the Lone Star. Or Tumbling Blocks. Or
Wedding Ring. Log Cabin. Texas Star. Double Chain. Bear Paw.
Turkey Track. Nine Square. "Look, Gabriel," they said.
Until my name was ringing in my own ears and Susannah was smiling
quietly beside me.
The quilters met at Susannah’s little house once a week. They
always brought beer, wine, and their material. In her living room,
I learned about their children and husbands. About who was born
and who was married. About these women who pieced their lives
together in quilts, making scraps into warm thick blankets.
Susannah and I stitched the velvet and satin pieces together into
larger blocks. We never stopped sewing as we talked.
"Why did you let me into the quilter’s group?" I
asked the women, "Why is it that you are not nervous with
"What is there to be afraid of you?" they shrugged.
"When something dies, there are always pieces of it left
behind that can be made into something else - memories, heirlooms,
remnants to sew together into something new. What is there to
They smiled and nodded, making me see that they had nothing to
fear from death because its only power was to re-create, an act
they understood in their bones. This was the logic of quilters.
I saw Susannah on Saturdays, to sew the quilt made of coffin
liner materials. It was like a medicine to go there and with time
I began to see it spilling over onto others. At the market one
day, just as the leaves on the maple trees were changing and the
green of the fir trees stood out brighter than ever, the man who
sold me my coffee said, "Will it be the usual two pounds
today, Gabriel?" His wife was a quilter. In gratitude I built
them new wooden bins for their coffee beans. Susannah came to my
woodshop and painted the bins bright colors while I worked on
coffins. Since summer was gone, she had traded her sundresses for
jeans and sweatshirts, which were now covered in splashes of
paint, the colors crisscrossing each other so that she looked like
one of the women's quilts, pieced and patched. Always we talked as
we worked, filling the woodshop with our voices. My brother looked
in sometimes and shook his head at our chatter. Later, on his way
out to see the Widow Whipert, he would ask me what Susannah and I
were doing. I said we were making boxes together.
It was winter before the coffee bins were done. The rain beat
steadily on the roof of my woodshop. The drivers who came to load
coffins onto their trucks for the mortuaries in town bent their
heads against it and swore at the cold water running inside the
collars of their coats. But Susannah and I lit the woodstove in my
shop while we worked and looked out the windows at the endless
green of the mountains. The soft pounding of the rain stirred with
the snapping of the fire and the scrape of my planing and sanding.
In the tiny moments between our words, we could hear it all mixing
together around the two of us.
We loaded the coffee bins into the bed of my pickup, to deliver
to the market. After we had secured them with ropes and covered
them with a tarp, Susannah slipped her hand into mine and said,
"They are beautiful, Gabriel." I looked at her hand and
could find no words, as if her touch had so filled me with wonder
that it had pushed out my voice. I could only nod in agreement,
but I did not let go of her hand. I pulled her close to me in the
pickup seat as I drove and she told me that when we worked
together side by side - making boxes, sewing the quilt - it was
like foreplay. I asked her if that meant she would unlock the box
by her bed for me someday. She said there was time that day, if we
hurried at the market.
I have never driven so fast.
We talk even when we make love. Always we are talking. Susannah
says her house is too small to contain all our chatter, but I do
not think this is possible. In Susannah’s house, everything is
in its place.
Our lives have become attached to the seasons. After the winter
coffee bins, we finished our quilt in the spring, when it was
already too hot to use it. The design is called Tumbling Blocks,
but of course Susannah sees it as Tumbling boxes. In the summer we
built a box at the end of her bed to keep the quilt until winter.
We put the quilt on the bed and made love on top of it because it
was too hot to be beneath its warmth. Then we put it in the box
and closed the lid on it, and somehow in the process I became
installed in Susannah’s house as well, as if I too had been
folded up and put away. We took the quilt back out when the rains
came harder and got cold enough to chill all the way to the bone.
In Susannah’s bed – now it is our bed – beneath our quilt,
we make love and talk, and afterwards we listen to the rain
against the roof.
Next summer I will build a woodshop in the trees behind our
house. I will put a sign out front that says El ATAUDERO, the
coffin maker. Susannah says that the sign should say El CAJERO,
the box maker. We will see. In the meantime, I go to my brother’s
house, to my old woodshop. He sits there with me sometimes and
says nothing, but that is enough. In his silence, I think he is
still saying a lot. I asked him one time about the Widow Whipert.
He said perhaps he is too young for her.
After next summer is done, Susannah will have our baby. She
says that she is a box and when the door opens and the baby comes
out, she will be empty. I talk to the baby in her womb and it
kicks and moves in answer; I think it is fighting for palabras,
for words. I am building it a cradle and we are sewing a new
quilt. If the child is a boy, we will name him Gabriel. But when I
talk to it through the walls of Susannah’s womb, I think I hear
it whispering that she is a girl. Then we will name her Madera
Susannah Raphael. Madera means wood. And I will say it out loud to
her every day, so that it will echo throughout her life - because
a name is sometimes all that is left, the only scrap to sew
together, when the body has died.
Heidi Shayla was born and raised in rural Oregon, in the
subtropical rainforests of the Coast Range. She left the Pacific
Northwest long enough to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from
Vermont College, but has always been drawn home again by the green
mountains and the big timber. She continues to live in western
Oregon with her husband and three children. Her fiction has been
published in Denali Literary Journal and Writers’ Forum, and
will appear in the upcoming issues of South Dakota Review and the
Georgetown Review. Her creative nonfiction has also been published
in an anthology of working-class writing: Writing Work, published
by Bottom Dog Press in 1999. She was recently awarded an
Individual Artists Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission,
sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.