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Heidi Shayla 

The Coffin Builder's Romance

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 coffin maker.

"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 coffee."

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 shirtfront.

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, "Oh my!"

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 builder."

"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 coffin liners."

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 name?"

I stared at her, silent, shocked at the question for so long that finally she said, "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked."

"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 Bible."

"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 before, Gabriel."

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, Gabriel."

"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 soon."

"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 sew."

"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 me?"

"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 fear?"

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.

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