The Coffin Maker by Oliver Fosten

The village was antiquated from the moment of its founding. By the time any technological advancement became obsolete in the major cities, villagers were grumbling about the trouble they’d have to go through for a supposed convenience. The old ways had always sufficed for a good reason, even if said reason had long since been forgotten. Such was usually how things went when the ambitious went elsewhere to seek their fortunes, leaving the stubbornly rooted behind to decide what was what. If the horse was hitched to the wagon, it was to take one’s goods to market. Everything else: the church, smith, square, was all within a healthy walking distance. One could be born and die in the same house without ever leaving the village in between those two events, and that suited many just fine.

With so many of their young blood rearing to leave, accepting newcomers was the only way the village survived. Nonetheless, strangers riding through the village were gawked at. If one of said strangers began to reassemble their previous life on an open plot of land or a house with no heir to claim it, eyes began to narrow, hushed gossip not bothered to be hidden was spoken behind upraised hands. Nobody settled somewhere entirely new unless their previous home was a bloodsoaked wasteland or a stake was being sharpened for them. Whatever poverty or crime dogged them wasn’t welcome around decent people. No matter how many years passed after such an intruder settled down among their numbers, whether they paid their tithes or made a ruckus when the innkeeper announced last call, there was never a true integration. By the time the villagers began to tolerate their new neighbors enough to allow their children to mingle, the eldest members of the fresh bloodline were buried at the edge of the cemetery.

The Coffin Maker fell into the general category of outsider, even if the specifics had never been agreed upon. Nobody could put an exact number to how many years he’d been in the village, except to say he hadn’t been born there or anywhere respectably close to it. Having seemingly come from nowhere with little more than a carpet bag full of tools and the clothes he was wearing, the initial verdict was that he was somebody’s bastard who came sniffing around for an inheritance and never left. It wasn’t a well-liked explanation, any evidence to its validity flimsy at best given how few former residents ever returned, let alone their descendants. He didn’t resemble any of the village families enough to betray shared ties, the cadence of his speech and mannerisms wholly unfamiliar. When asked why he’d come to such a place, he answered that he was hoping a quiet setting like the village’s would aid him in improving his craft. Why he felt like making such a fuss out of a container for the dead eluded the villagers, but since there was no preventing death, the Coffin Maker was begrudgingly allowed to set up his shop. The wooden coffins he produced were a rare example of an innovation the villagers readily took to. The previous tradition of burying bodies wrapped in gauzy shrouds often attracted scavengers if the rain washed away too much of the grave dirt.

The Coffin Maker’s shop came to nestle between the bakery and the inn. The street was bustling, at least by the village’s standards. It was one of the few places that boasted the luxury of wooden walkways along either side of the road, spitting on them punishable by a fine or night in jail. Nothing about the exterior of the shop was particularly remarkable, aside from the fresh paint on the hanging sign. As the Coffin Maker promised, he came to the village to work, not to make a spectacle of himself.

Despite all this, there was no ignoring the Coffin Maker. In contrast to the stiff, dour suits he wore for his profession, his hair gleamed like a raven’s wing, eyes too earnest to keep secrets. Even the most cantankerous elders he passed while attending to his errands almost found themselves tempted to return his shy smiles and whispered greetings. The younger villagers bent toward him like flowers to the sun, eager to ignore their parents’ warnings and drink in all the strange possibilities of the world he carried with him.

The coffins he created were composed of only the finest materials, no two ever alike. Silk from across the seas lined cushions filled with down feathers, all encased in ancient wood and coated in a varnish that left the coffins shining like a star in the night. Despite the unparalleled work, whenever a compliment was paid to one of his coffins, the Coffin Maker’s gracious acceptance of the praise never reached his eyes, the corners of his lips drawn taut. Nobody could grasp how he failed to find beauty in the coffins. The younger villagers labeled it as the Coffin Maker being a perfectionist to the point of neuroticism. The elders only shook their heads at putting so much love into something thrown into the ground. That was just his curse, he’d say to either analysis with a shrug and a grimace.

What the Coffin Maker charged varied upon who was requesting his services. Those who could pay a king’s ransom did so. The Coffin Maker was also known to gift a coffin to grieving kin. Three such coffins had recently gone to a farmer caught in a barn fire while trying to free his horses, a woman who hadn’t made it through her first birth, and a child taken by the winter fever. Sometimes he refused a potential customer a coffin altogether, other times he approached people he saw on the street, begging them to let him make them a coffin to someday use.

Ever the gentleman, consultations and measurements were taken with precise detachment. Hands and eyes never strayed as the length of the body and the width of the shoulders were carefully noted alongside the preferences for lumber and such details. Still, he wasn’t one to hurry his living customers in and out of the shop for the sake of efficiency. There was always a kettle ready to be put on, some coin set aside for a pint or a sweet roll if that was what his guest preferred. He was never one to say more than a few words at a time, but he’d listen for hours on end, inquiring about the finest details of the conversation the next time he spoke with the client.

Despite having resided in the village for as long as anyone could remember, the Coffin Maker appeared to change at the same rate the village did. While well beyond youthful gangliness, he never came to stoop or gray no matter how many seasons came and went. When he was out of earshot, the elders would hiss about him being a witch or a fae, even if he attended church just as the rest of them did and never once flinched at the scripture. The elders’ rebukes stung enough that serious counterarguments in the Coffin Maker’s defense were rarely waged, even by those who eagerly accepted his hospitality. One had to choose when to take up the sword and when to lay it at the feet of the elders, after all.

Regardless, the warnings to keep away from the Coffin Maker’s shop didn’t prevent a slough of loveletters from being slipped underneath his door. He penned a brief, yet polite decline to each of them, returning any gifts offered. It was rumored, though, that he’d keep any lillies given to him, even wearing one in his lapel.

As generations of children turned into grandparents, the Coffin Maker kept working away inside his shop, reviling every coffin he produced. No amount of acclamation was ever enough to make him offer more than a quirk of the lips over his work. Those curious enough to ask would inquire how long he intended to stay in business when it brought him no pleasure. He’d sigh, responding that he would do it until he made something flawless. For all his quiet misery, not a single line became etched into his face, while the people who once gossiped about or pined after him were buried inside his coffins.

Coffin, after coffin, after coffin he deemed to be a reject was sold or given to the villagers. For as little as the Coffin Maker was interested in lovers or maintaining friendships, there were a few acquaintances who would sometimes drop in for a chat. Through such visits, it became apparent that one coffin remained in the work room for weeks after he usually cleared his latest batch out. Then months. Coffins in various states of completion were crammed into the corners to gather dust or even act as work surfaces when the tables were full of swatches, sketches, and cups of tea long since gone cold.

The villagers had never seen the Coffin Maker so joyous, creases forming around his eyes and mouth from smiling so much. They begged him for permission to see what had him so enraptured, and he allowed them into the workroom with a flourish. Overnight, the Coffin Maker’s shop became the village’s greatest attraction, a reality that far exceeded the meager title.

It was a casket made of mahogany, sanded smooth as water, and even though the varnish had yet to be brushed onto the surface, it shone like a jewel. The handles and hinges were plated in the purest silver. Spotless ivory silk lined the interior and covered the plush pillow the coffin’s recipient would someday rest their head upon. To look upon it was to forget the grim purpose for which it had been built, death the farthest thing from the mind in front of such magnificence.

While anyone who asked to was allowed to view it, the Coffin Maker politely refused to say who the casket was for. He had no lovers, family, or friends to give it to. Selling it was also out of the question, the ever-repeated suggestion coming as close as possible to tunneling through his mountain of patience. Many conjectured that creating the perfect vessel was his own personal beast to slay. There’d be no rest until it was truly finished.

Years began to pass. Someone would ask the Coffin Maker if he finished his great creation and each time he told them it wasn’t quite done yet. The answer became more inscrutable with every passing day. There seemed to be nothing that could possibly be added to the casket without turning it into some garish monstrosity, yet the casket only continued to increase in radiance. Nobody who set their eyes upon it didn’t immediately fall into awe. Many of the villagers began to eat better and take exercise, determined not to succumb to ill health before they could witness the finished casket.

As he continued his work, the Coffin Maker began to show further signs that even he wasn’t immune to time, leaving the villagers scratching their heads and wondering if the air of black magic they ascribed to him was merely a local legend. One person would report they’d seen gray at his temples while someone else proclaimed creaks and stiffness were creeping into his limbs. And indeed, the Coffin Maker steadily grew haggard and white-haired as time passed. The villagers finally conceded that, at least in this regard, he was just like the rest of them. The grandparents who told them their own forebearers knew a youthful Coffin Maker must be senile. The intrigue was gone and without anything as exciting to replace it, the elders and their juniors alike frequently snapped at one another.

In the end, the Coffin Maker was just a withdrawn man who had given his best years to his craft. Even as the few who still bothered with him urged him to retire and focus on taking care of himself, he refused, citing he could never rest until his grand casket was finished. Figuring there wasn’t anything they could do to keep the Coffin Maker from working himself to death, they left him in peace, making sure to check up on him and the casket regularly.

One day, white hair streaming behind him and rickety voice peaking above the porch conversations, the Coffin Maker hobbled out his door, waving his arms over his head and gleefully shouting. The casket was nearly complete. The uproar shifted from the Coffin Maker’s ridiculous display to the casket within the span of a breath, people elbowing past one another and into the shop.

The casket emanated divinity, a space for an old god to dream away the rest of eternity within. Even so, the Coffin Maker hadn’t spoken a word about putting a price on it. As hard as it was to believe the simple Coffin Maker wished to be buried inside such a grand casket, there seemed little other explanation for what the masterpiece was intended for.

And then the Mayor’s wife passed away. The Mayor went to the Coffin Maker, promising anything in exchange for the radiant casket. The Coffin Maker heard him out, offered his condolences, and then declined. Through the Mayor’s protests, the Coffin Maker explained he would make the wife her own coffin, but the special casket wasn’t finished. Red in the face and not bothering to moderate his volume, the Mayor demanded he be sold the coffin. He was then asked to leave the shop, which he did, stomping, huffing, and plotting.

The Mayor called a meeting of like-minded villagers. If the wondrous casket wasn’t claimed soon, the Coffin Maker would die and it would be left without an owner, set adrift as his estate was sorted out for who knew how long. It would be despicable for such art to go to waste—the only right thing was for someone to take the casket. If anybody deserved to rest in the coffin, wasn’t it the Mayor’s wife, a lovely woman through and through, and who the Coffin Maker so callously snubbed the memory of? Yes, the Coffin Maker was utterly in the wrong, foolish and self-absorbed. Perhaps the loss of the great casket would finally convince him to move beyond his obsession or at least practice it somewhere the villagers wouldn’t have to endure his eccentricities.

Night fell, chilling rain transformed the dirt roads into a mire, and the Mayor and his group converged on the Coffin Maker’s shop. The Coffin Maker answered the rapping at his door in his night clothes, blinking blearily and inquiring if there was something he could help them with. The Mayor wasted no words, asking for the final time if the Coffin Maker would sell his prize work. When his answer didn’t change, the Mayor ordered the Coffin Maker to be restrained as the villagers infiltrated the shop, smashing the lock off the workroom door and hauling out the casket.

The Coffin Maker sobbed, pleading for them to leave him and his work be. It took rolling up a rag and gagging him with it to deaden his cries into a muffled whimper, the group of villagers sharing a leaden silence as they listened for voices and footfalls of concerned citizens. When none arrived, legions of raindrops beating against the roofs and streets to overwhelm any other sound, the Mayor commanded the casket to be placed in the wagon waiting outside. As the villagers hurried to haul out the casket and fit it into the back of the wagon, as careful as the downpour allowed them to be as the mud sucked at their boots, the horse began to snort and paw at the eroding ground. The mayor grabbed the horse’s head by the reins, stroking its damp nose and murmuring to it to no avail.

Veins of lightning tore through the sky, arcing down into a rod on a nearby building. There was no reprieve before the thunderhead broke, the blinding light and titanic crash sending the horse into a screaming panic. Eyes rolling in its head, the horse reared back against its harness before lurching forward, the Mayor dropping the reins and flinching away from the flailing hooves. The unsecured casket was jerked from the wagon in one smooth motion, splintering onto the ground as if challenging the storm with its own show of roaring destruction.

The casket lay in pieces, the silver elements scattered and the silk muddied. The group circled around the casket, not even able to shake their heads or mutter. Having freed himself of his bonds, the Coffin Maker dashed to the remains of his creation, each sloshing stride carrying him farther, faster, until he fell to his knees among the wreckage. Unlike his attackers, he shuddered, his sobs ringing through the downpour like a death knell.

The attention was ripped away from the casket, all eyes unable to look away from the Coffin Maker. Through the flashes of lightning and stabbing lantern rays, a horrendous miracle revealed itself. Black spread through the white of the Coffin Maker’s hair like spilled ink, his skin regained its fullness, and the color of his eyes once again glistened through the clouds obscuring it. The villagers balked at the visage of the Coffin Maker as he appeared half a century earlier, hardly dressed and filthy, yet undeniably standing in front of them.

Voice and knees trembling, the Mayor ordered the Coffin Maker, the undying abomination, to be once again seized. The Coffin Maker offered no fight, even as the ax used to cleave his door open was again produced. A kick to the shoulder blades knocked him forward onto his hands, exposing his neck for the blow. There was a brief hesitation before the ax was hefted over a shoulder to then whistle down through the air.

Upon reaching the end of its grim arc, however, the blade bounced back as if thrown into solid rock. Perplexed, the executioner wound back again, only to have the ax shatter after the downstroke. Not a single scratch was left on the Coffin Maker as he shivered in the mud. Though the Mayor only stood and stammered, unable to comprehend the turn the night had taken, the villagers succumbed to their own racing ideas. Oil was fetched and poured over the resigned Coffin Maker, but when the match was brought to its kindling, the flame refused to catch. An entire book of matches was struck, but no amount of shielding the flame from the wind and rain made a difference. The matches burned, yet the fire refused to jump.

In a final, frantic effort, the villagers dragged the Coffin Maker back inside his shop. A noose was tied with fumbling hands and slung over one of the overhead beams. After tightening it around his neck, the stronger of the assembled villagers gripped the opposite end of the rope and heaved. With a whip-like crack, the rope snapped, not even lifting the Coffin Maker a single handbreadth off of the ground.

The proposal went out that, in light of his apparent immortality and invulnerability, they ought to chain the Coffin Maker inside of one of his coffins and bury him as deeply as the shovels could bite into the dirt. It was only when the villager nearest to the window noticed the pale hues of dawn chasing away the darkness, others following his gaze, that the panicked realization spread. The villagers who got an early start to the day would soon begin to trickle out of their homes. It was one thing to have left with the casket as planned, able to erase or speak over the truth, but to confront the entire village with this shame was unthinkable. After the first villager cleaved away and ran, others soon followed. It wasn’t long before the rest of the group shattered and fled into what was left of the darkness. The Coffin Maker was left crumpled on the floorboards, dripping with oil and rainwater, the noose still around his neck, his chin pressed into his breast.

When those wishing to check in on the casket’s progress visited the shop later that day, they were only met with drawn curtains and a firmly latched door. There was no sawing, hammering, or even a whistle from the kettle. Worry bloomed that the Coffin Maker had finally perished in his sleep or inside his workshop. After some rapid deliberation, the front door was forced open. The shop was in shambles, tools strewn about, furniture knocked over, and the workroom door clinging to a single hinge. Though the entire shop and the undisturbed residence above it were searched, neither the Coffin Maker nor his casket could be found.

A wail went out. Those searching the shop and apartment rushed outside, the breath knocked from their lungs by what they saw. Crudely kicked into the alleyway were long shards of mahogany and scraps of ruined silk, silver hinges and handles catching the growing sunlight where they jutted from shrinking puddles.

The Coffin Maker never returned to his shop or the village, the Mayor unable to offer any idea as to where he might have gone. All the same, he was quick to preach to the villagers how easily they could go on without him. The Coffin Maker had never been overly generous, and the casket he wasted decades upon hadn’t been all that impressive. While some paused, nearly voicing their rebuttals, most gave easy shrugs. The Coffin Maker was a shut-in. What did they really know about him, an outsider? Not long ago, they’d considered the notion he was some sort of demonic entity. He was merely an unpleasant man, content to force the village into returning to their use of flimsy burial shrouds. Such spite, and all because one of his precious coffins was accidentally broken. It was a smooth enough draft to nurse.

Oliver Fosten is a genderqueer, Pacific Northwest-born, NYU-educated lover of monsters. When they aren’t writing, they can be found making candles, playing video games, or with a cat on their lap. For more queered content both fresh and familiar, follow their Twitter.