The Coffin Maker: Part 5

The End

The huntsman did not know how his son would transfigure the doe back into his lady, nor how the knight would wed a queen, but it was not his place to interfere further in the son’s story. With a musing smile, he allowed contentment to flood him. Juliet and he had raised brave children, though he had never thought himself to be much of a brave man. Juliet had certainly had a warrior’s spirit. An image of his wife dancing with a golden sword in the light of the sunset, her small son watching with wide eyes, entered his mind. His smile grew wider, a private kind of joy growing within him.

Alone, he traversed the forest to find the solitary cottage that stood unchanged for all that took place around it. He paused only briefly at the grave of his wife. He did not like to linger as he knew her spirit did not.This was one of the many things that he would have like to attribute to the wisdom of age, though he suspected it was the wisdom of his children that had caused his newfound acceptance.

The huntsman went back to his quiet days, wondering how long his existence would stretch on, though without the bitterness he had once known. Beard gone white with time’s passing, the chilled nights irritated his bones more greatly now than ever. He felt as if there should be creaking sounds made when he walked, observing it all with the good humor that Juliet had taught him long ago.

The roses she had planted outside the cottage had wilted in her absence and the absence of their daughter, but the house was still beautiful and he felt no desire to leave it. Travelers were scarcer now, but a few had come to coax him back to the city. With the same words he had given his daughter, he refused them all.

Autumn painted the woods in a raucous masterpiece that the artist hidden within the old man envied. Blowing like jewels through the sky, leaves left their sturdy homes on journeys far and wide, though all the while they were dying.

And as the nights lengthened, one in particular presented the huntsman with a surprising gift. A knock on the cottage door roused him from an oddly contented sleep where he had dreamed of Juliet as he had done every night since he was a youth with splinters in his hands.

With long, aching steps, the huntsman crossed the room to open the wooden door. Its hinges creaked just as surely as his joints, but he ignored the sound. In the darkness outside, he could barely make out seven weary-looking wanderers. He ignored them as well, leaving the door open as he turned to start a flame in the hearth.

When spark caught, he stood, turning on his heel to face the guests. They were all men with thick beards and all were at least a head shorter than he. Eyebrows rising, he surveyed the group.

“How may I be of service to you tonight?” he inquired, finding his mood strangely improved over the usual.

“You are the coffin maker,” the eldest spoke up. A quiver in his voice told the huntsman of freshly shed tears.

“I was...once. I am no longer.”

“And you could be again. We heard tale of design you once made.” This was spoken gruffly from some shadowed figure in the back.

“A--A coffin...of--of sorts,” a small figure shivered. The huntsman bowed him closer to the fire along with his companion who seemed afflicted with some early winter sickness.

“You have come far?” the huntsman inquired, dodging the statement as he observed the chilled group.

“Not too far,” the first man spoke again. “We are here to implore you to build us the coffin of legend.”

“I am sorry but I must refuse you. No--” He held up a large hand to ward off the quickly offered bag of gold. “I can’t take your money. You see, even if I wished it, my hands are no longer young enough to craft such a thing.”

“But, sir, it is for a good cause.” The huntsman sat, allowing his head to fall tiredly into his palms. A part of him was aching to accept the task, to allow himself to build the masterpiece that he had so long ago set aside.

“Tell me your story,” he said. Settling around him, the men began to speak.

They wove a tale of a lost princess, the fairest of them all, of treachery and poison.

“She is still beautiful in death, sir. I don’t know if you can understand this--”

“I know.” He closed his eyes on the pristine memory that floated now before them.

“Of course he knows, dolt,” the angry man spoke gruffly to the youngest man who had been telling that part of the tale. “Do you think he would draw such a creation if he had not known beauty such as we have?” The younger man shrugged and shut his mouth, staring dedicatedly into the fire. Another man spoke up then.

“Just tell us, please, if you truly made such a thing. We do not even know if the rumor is real.” The huntsman rose then, from his well-worn chair. Stepping carefully through the men sitting all around on the floor, he withdrew from a trunk (which he himself had carved with roses and vines and all the things Juliet had loved) a box. Feeling sickeningly like the sorceress who had caused so much destruction, he pulled from the box, not a dagger, but at scroll.

Two of the men dragged the kitchen table, which had taken part in so many stories, into the light of the flames. Tenderly, with careful fingers, the coffin maker smoothed the parchment flat for all to see. He heard their gasps as if from far away. The sight of his creation made him young again, in that moment, and fervor began to set his blood boiling.

“You have the drawing. You are the only one who could make such a thing, even now.”

“Even if I could, which I don’t think I can, I--” He did not want to explain his story, did not wish to talk to these strangers about his wife. But he knew that the girl these men cried for was the girl he had been sent to kill and he felt a strange mixture of guilt and rage when he thought of it.

“We know that the favor we ask is not a small one.”

“We w-would not ha-have come if--We are quite distraught, sir.”

“You owe us nothing, it is true. But, sir, how could such beauty be laid in the ground?”

He thought of the beautiful child, of the fear written on her innocent face. He thought of the sorceress who had finally destroyed her, and he realized that laying such beauty in the ground would be exactly what the woman wished. Finally, he thought of Juliet, of looking on her sleeping face and watching it come to life.

His shoulders lumped, his fingers working intricate patterns over the design. FInally, sage eyes rose to meet the nearest gazes.

“I will try,” he promised. And so it was done.

Though his hands were slower now, and his back far weaker, the coffin maker found that his body remembered the rhythm of the work. Perhaps the years had taken many things from him, but they had not been entirely cruel, and he remained an artist still.

It took much time. Winter frost began to cling to the trees and ground and the coffin maker’s eyelashes, but he finished the coffin before the first great snow. And then he brought it to the young woman.

He met them in the blossoming glade, though it was naked and empty in winter’s wake. They surveyed his work with awe, and he was not too modest to admit that he had missed the glow of such praise.

Then, from behind, the men bore forth the body. She lay limply in their arms, like water or mist. He helped them lie her in the bed, helped them close the many glass parts that formed petal-like shapes which encased her. He gazed through the glass and thought that, though she was not the fairest woman he had ever known, she deserved the gift he had given her.

“I have known many corpses in my lifetime,” the coffin maker said. “But I have only known one other as vivacious as she.” The men were crying, heads bowed and backs taught with grief. The coffin maker knew enough to see the purity in their despair; they loved her truly. “That woman woke, due to the love I bore her, for I can see no other cause. And perhaps your princess will be granted the same chance.” The eldest and youngest men smiled at him through dewey masks.

“You are kind, coffin maker, but we all know here that your relationship with death is far kinder than ours. We will not hope for such a gift.” Inclining his head, he granted them their solitude, for the last time exiting the glade where the trees bloomed with pink flowers.

For the last time, the coffin maker crossed the threshold of the ivy-covered cottage. For the last time, he sharpened his axe and stoked the fire. Quietly, he finished the last toy soldier, put the finishing flourishes on the crib he had built. And then, for the last time, he exited the cottage to kneel in front of Juliet’s grave.

The winter swept the forest which was no longer emerald. Somewhere in its midst, a princess slept with her own story’s end on pause, but in the clearing where the sturdy cottage stood, a legend was laid to rest. The coffin maker embraced death, his old friend, finally forgiving him his follies.

The children knew, of course, they felt it in their well-trained hearts, and they came to bury him in his crystalline coffin where he could sleep beside his Juliet underneath a blanket of snow. When the knight married, his wife revived the roses which had struggled through the snow, and they bloomed a blanket over the sleeping couple so that they would remain untouched by both love and war, forgotten finally by short memories, in the forest where stories were born.


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