The Coffin Maker’s Son
by Andrew Wilson
His mother had gone away by train to the West taking with her only a cracked leather valise and the odor of her French perfume.
He, the coffin-maker’s boy, got the blue eyes from her, and the black hair and olive skin from his daddy, who was half-bred.
Every day the graveyard on the hill grew by a few fresh graves. Many without even a headstone, just two sticks twined together.
The boy was named Mark, and his father was Luke, and I guess if the boy’d had a brother he would’ve been called Matthew or John.
I don’t seem to recall the woman’s name, but it wasn’t Mary. Perhaps it was Esther.
Whenever he finished a simple, sturdy coffin with those clean lines like the hull of a boat, Luke’d call on Mark to chisel the cross on it.
So the boy would straddle the lid and pick up his chisel and squint down with intense concentration as he worked, puffing away the shavings.
Luke’d watch the boy with narrowed eyes and maybe it was just the furrows in his sunblack face but he seemed to be smiling.
People thought the cross was a kind of charm. If your coffin had that, you might go to Heaven, though you’d done all sorts of mayhem.
Then one day Esther — I’ll just call her that for convenience’s sake — came back into town carrying that same cracked valise.
She still smelled of that cathouse perfume but she smelled of strong liquor too, and her make up was smudged and her smile a little crazy.
It kind of seemed she’d gone through hell, of one type or another, since leaving her husband and son.
And she sat down at the gate in front of the yard where he made the coffins and just wept there. In the dust.
Luke wouldn’t even glance at her and he told Mark not to go to his mother, just stay put. They went on making coffins.
There had been some killings down at the saloon the last Saturday, and the dead men were swelling up and needed to be put in the ground.
Well, that was his excuse. Luke’s excuse. Mark looked like he’d been struck down by the hand of God. All the child-delight had left him.
His hands trembled as he chiseled a cross and he ended up botching it, and the lid had to be re-planed, and Luke gave him a hard slap.
That’s for remembering to watch what you do, Luke said. Grim, furious, working like a devil, and Esther sitting there like stone.
Esther sat there all day, all night.
By moonlight, Mark peered out the window to see his mother still by the gate.
It went on three days like that.
Then, on the fourth morning, a man showed up in town.
He wore a derby hat, a racoonskin coat, and boots of shiniest leather.
And some green velvet trousers, such as no one in that place had ever seen.
He walked from the coach stop over to the coffin maker’s, real slow like, with the gentle and threatening mien of a true murdering bastard.
Esther recoiled at the sight of him, crying out: No.
But the man in the derby took Esther by the hair, spoke to her soft, and told her to come away. Come away with me, girl, or else, he said.
Luke came to the gate stripped to the waist, sweat-slick, and glowering.
Mark watching, utterly still.
Luke spoke to the man in the derby and the racoonskin coat. Low and hard he spoke. Don’t know what words.
Upon which the derby fellow pulled a pistol out of his belt and shot Luke in the head.
Luke fell, half his head gone, blood raining.
Esther crawled to her man and held him as he died, weeping forgiveness and love in his last breath.
And she kissed him then, on the mouth, cradling what was left of his head on her lap.
That vicious murdering rogue in the derby now trying to pick Esther up by her arm and pry her away from her dying or dead husband.
Esther screeching No! No! No!
And the man slapping her face and calling her a Whore, a Bitch, a Slattern, and much else.
Telling her this ignorant coffin-making half-breed wasn’t ever worth a moment of her time or a single one of her kisses nor love-sighs.
And so on.
But this fervent, undeniably eloquent discourse was cut short by the blast of a double-barreled shotgun loaded with coffin nails.
Mark stood at the gate. He held the smoking shotgun. He broke it open, tossed out two handmade shells, loaded two more.
But the derby man weren’t getting up no more again, ever. He was blasted all to hell, half of him in one place, half in another. His soul screaming on its way down to that dark pit, Hades.
Esther, soaked in the derby man’s blood, crawled to Mark and took away the shotgun. Cradled her son, singing a sweet lullabye.
The sun sank. Coyotes sang. Esther and the boy slept by Luke’s corpse.
In the morning, the boy made a coffin for his dad.
He carved such a cross on the lid that the townsfolk were all amazed. No one hereabout had ever seen such raw artistry.
The derby man they buried in an unmarked hole, where he would lie unsung and unmourned.
But Luke was buried to the lamentations of all the local people, and at the grave stood Esther and Mark, holding on tight to each other.
And two days later they left by coach.
It’s been said they went to Mexico, and there Mark started a workshop carving holy images of saints. That the Bishop blessed him, and the Monsiegnor himself said a Mass in the great cathedral for Esther upon her passing.
And that Mark’s holy images of the Saints and the Virgin Mother all — every midnight on the anniversary of his father’s death — wept.