The Willows

This is the start of a longer piece that I have later plans for. This story began a few years ago, first inspired by the Florence and the Machine song titled "My Boy Builds Coffins," though it has grown far past that initial inspiration. This story is one I'm incredibly fond of, and I hope to publish the entire piece in a book one day. As with everything, though, we'll see what will happen with time. Until then, I do hope you enjoy this snippet.


It was always birch that he worked with. No one understood why, since it was so impractical, but he refused to work with any other lumber. “The soul of the birch cleanses those within it of their past and gives them a new beginning,” he had once said. “Birch trees are all knowing because they see everything. Their many eyes allow them to witness all that a person does in their lifetime, and the trees see the intentions and reasonings behind these actions. Because of this, the trees know the heart of those who are bonded with them in death and can take this person to the life they deserve to live next. They are wise and just, and they are the soul I wish to escort me to what lies next.”


Those who had heard him say this laughed. The reason he used birch was because it was the tree of abundance in the forest behind his small work shop. Everyone knew that. He did not refute them when challenged with this logic, but rather left them to laugh.


The Undertaker was not treasured by those in the community. “Tolerated” is the word he used himself when it came to this topic. His presence, one might deduct, brought with it the reminder of the finite cruelty of life, and most simply wished to not think of such things, if they could help it. So, he was ignored, to the best of everyone’s ability. When he walked into a shop, most others would just leave. When he took a rare stroll down main street, most would avoid gazing in his direction. When he sat on the edge of the lake nearby, they would leave him with his thoughts. It was something he didn’t seem to mind. He never made small talk, never made eye contact, never noticed when he was the only one in the room. He simply was, and that seemed to work for everyone.


His cup of chamomile tea was his one true companion, working to ease his nightmares away every morning that he awoke. He slept little, though just he and his tea leaves knew that. The small flame that burned in his lantern so early in the mornings lit all that lay behind his shuttered windows, so it was never a concern to anyone else. Not that anyone else cared, but still. He liked this happenstance, really, because it allowed him his secret. The one facet of himself he accepted so long ago. The facet that defined him.


His mornings followed a pattern. He would never let the kettle whistle. He had lost track of time once and forgot to pull it from the flame before it screeched, and the day thereon was nothing more than a waste. For him, routine was not only important, but necessary. Every step had a purpose. Without his steps, his days were unproductive, and he couldn’t run a business with that sort of work ethic.


The tea was always steeped for seven minutes exactly. Unlike everything else, there was no reason for this. Seven just seemed like a good number.


He would sip his tea and stare out his bedroom window, the moon still high in the sky, watching a world where the inhabitants would never gaze upon her beauty. They would never notice her freckled face, her dimples here and there, the pure white aura she emitted to the black world below. He wondered how many others would gaze upon her and see the things he did? Did she have many admirers, or was he her only constant disciple? These questions really didn’t matter to him. Many years ago, he had decided he would look upon her every night so that she had, at the least, one person who saw her. Who took notice. He and the moon were alike in many ways, he felt. Alone in a world who, despite needing them, didn’t think much to value them. Or perhaps just wished to remain ignorant of their necessity in the world around them. It was the status quo, though he was sure he and the moon wouldn’t mind for that to change.


He would pull a book out from his desk drawer when he had only a sip left of his drink. The book was filled with various notes and names and drawings, but there was one consistent marking within it. Every night he would pull the book from its wooden sepulcher and open it to the next fresh page. Then, very carefully, he would write a number on the top outer corner of the loose-leaf. The numbers varied, but they were always the first thing written on those new pages.


After an hour of working within his book, he would close its cover, allowing it time to rest, and he would leave his little room to walk down the stairs to his front door. There, he would don his tattered coat, blow out the candle illuminating his simplistic life, and take hold of his ax before opening his door to step into the darkened world just outside his door.


Outside, he would stand still for a moment, taking in the precious seconds that flitted by. The air was crisp with the midnight beginnings of a new day, the light was ethereal and haunting, and in this moment, he held infinite possibilities by simply standing at his doorstep. He closed his eyes, feeling his only companion at this hour shine upon him her brilliance and glory. Then, with great conviction, he walked into the collection of birch trees, disappearing completely.


As he traveled, he rubbed his thumb across the wooden handle of his most valuable tool. The handle was splintering, its age seemingly as old as he. The blade was slowly being worn away with the number of times it needed to be sharpened, and the butt of the handle would crumble a little more with each stroke the wielder made, but he loved it none the less. It was with him in the beginning, and it would be with him until the end. This he knew well.


As he walked the forest, the moon lying lazily on the horizon, he would listen to the old souls as they murmured in the wind, their skeleton fingers brushing his shoulders, their eyes unblinking, their skin peeling away. He would walk as far as he had to, some days not returning until the moon rose again to the sky above, but he always would come back with the tree he needed. The one that told him it was ready. It was only that tree that would return with him. The others would stand until it was their time.


 

His clientele varied to the eyes of the onlookers, but to him they were all the same. The Blacksmith one day, a pauper the next, an Accountant after that, a King from a far distance the following day. They would all enter the leaning shack of the Undertaker with an arrogant confidence, as if they were a noble gladiator about to take battle with a fearsome beast, and emerge a few minutes later looking aged. Withered, almost. Like the life that was soon to leave them escaped too early. They would only enter the shop alive once. Only he ever escaped death, it seemed.


Each piece was finished randomly, it seemed. The pauper’s was finished four days after he left the shack, the King’s was not done until three months later, the Accountant’s came soon after the king, and the Blacksmith’s a good six months after that. Random, though it appeared, calculated it all was. He seemed to know, and he would work at the pace necessary to complete his work on time. Each piece was unique, much like those who purchased them. Some were very plain, others quite ornate, with most falling somewhere in between. There was never a compliant because his work was always perfect in regards to whom he was building for. As if he had known the client personally, which was impossible since it was common knowledge that he befriended none, and none befriended him.

His newest client was no different from the rest. He was the best Huntsman for the Butcher in town. A man of no more than forty, he had the stature of a moose and the anger of a bear. He was respected in this community, and he was the face of vigor and strength. The Undertaker was taken aback when his door was thrust open, hitting the wall adjacent to it, knocking a picture frame to the floor. Why he threw the leaning door open with such force was beyond the Undertaker, but that was a question that had no purpose of being answered.

“Undertaker!” From the doorway, the Huntsman proudly stood, trying to intimidate the thin man across the room with his size. Behind the Huntsman, almost completely obscured, was a young man who stared into the shop with a look of horror and disgust. He followed the Huntsman inside and closed the door behind him, his face still showing utter displeasure.


The older men stood a yard apart, only a small work table separating them. The Huntsman towered over the Undertaker, but that didn’t bother the old man as he went back to carving his filigree, taking no notice of the man before him. The Huntsman cleared his throat, expecting the old man to cower before him like all weak men did. The old man continued his work, however, his only acknowledgement of the Huntsman being a quiet, but annoyed, “Yes?”


“I’m here to purchase a coffin for myself, though I won’t be needing it any time soon. My wife requested I pay in advance for it, which is why I’m here.” The tone of his voice was superior, almost humorous. The notion that a man such as himself needing to purchase a coffin while he was in the prime of his life was simply hysterical, but his wife was one he did not cross, so here he was.


The Undertaker glanced up for a moment, blinked, and then returned to his work. “Twenty pieces should suffice. Pay and it will be ready.” His voice was annoyed. He hated being interrupted.


“Ready when?” The Huntsman narrowed his eyes. Twenty pieces was a large sum to just throw away without knowing when his purchase would be ready. He would be receiving an answer.


The Undertaker’s hands ceased their carving, his eyes rose to meet the Huntsman’s, and with an icy glare he gave the man his answer: “When you die.”


A chill ran through the tiny shop, and the Huntsman and the young man both flinched at the unknown force. There was a ghost of a smile on the Undertaker’s face, but it was gone before it was noticed. The burly man was quiet for a moment, and then grabbed the boy behind him and roughly thrust him forward. “My son Galahad will be watching your work. I’ll be gone on a trip for some time. He’s going to make sure I get what I paid for when I get back.” Galahad looked to his father with pleading eyes. He did not want to do this.


“I don’t think I’ve ever met a man so eager to die,” the Undertaker said, his tone flat. “You will get what you paid for, but it will not come on your schedule. It will come on mine.” With that, the elder man began his work once more. The large man stood stiffly, aghast at his treatment by this rude outcast of the village. He took his coin purse and emptied it onto the table between them, twenty gold pieces clanging together as they fell.


“Remember,” the large man said, his tone threatening, “Galahad will be sure you complete what you are paid to do.” He then turned and left the shop, his son close behind. After the door was slammed shut once more, the Undertaker shook his head.


“Cretin.”


 

He walked slowly through the forest that night. He had the privilege of writing a zero in his book, so he was enjoying his evening with just his thoughts. He thought of his day, how the Huntsman had been so rude, so ignorant. Even the King knew not to demand his purchase from the Undertaker be finished early. How was this man so unaware? The Undertaker suddenly stopped, turning his wrist back and forth so that the moonlight shone off the ax’s cracked blade.


“Pure, noble, selfless.” He thought at the words that hung in the air for a moment before nodding his head. “How can your father not know that? He named you after all, didn’t he?” From behind, something shuffled along the tall grass until it stood next to the Undertaker, its height a few inches taller than he.


“My father’s knowledge of my name is none of your concern.” Galahad stood facing forward, unwilling to look at his walking companion.


“Names mean something, you know. They are more powerful than you think. We embody the names given to us, giving them life and purpose, and yet they affect us as well. We become their definition, we do them justice.” The Undertaker paused for a moment, listening to his forest. “I know who you are, boy. You saved that young gypsy girl from that mob of soldiers. You helped a lost kit grow strong and live a good life. You protect the leper from the village’s cruelty. You are what your name says. Don’t deny it, either. They know it is true.”


“They?” Galahad shook his head. He was secretive about his life. No one knew these things but him, and, apparently, this old man.


“They know everything. They see everything. Their eyes never blinking.” Galahad tensed up, déjà vu hitting him unexpectedly. The Undertaker began to walk again, and Galahad, after coming to his senses, followed behind.


“What are you doing away from your home at this time? Your mother must be worried.” The old man caressed his trees as he walked, letting their smooth bark flow beneath his fingers.


“She knows where I am. She knows I am in no danger.” Galahad looked at the tall trees, feeling uneasy around them. He felt watched; intruded on. He had never felt alone in these woods, but this heightened feeling of anxiety he blamed on the man walking ahead of him rather than their surroundings. Surely it was his presence that caused this unease. Still, he quickened his pace, wanting to be with the old man and not alone amongst the grass and trees.


For some time, they walked together in silence. Galahad did not know what to say and the old man did not wish to puncture the blissful silence with meaningless words, so they walked slowly, being sure to avoid the small creatures who ran to and fro in the tall grass. Their path was lit by the full moon, which brought an iridescence that Galahad did not know existed in the world around him. He stopped to admire a flower which was slowly collecting dew on its petals, then turned to see the Undertaker staring at the light in the sky, his eyes filled with something akin to admiration.


“You know, I was worried I was the only one who knew of her beauty. Of how she takes the world and makes it her own. I think she would be happy to know you see her too. To know that someone sees what good she does, even though she shines her light into ignorance.”

Galahad looked back to the flower at his feet, unsure of what to say. The old man then walked away, leaving Galahad to his thoughts in the moonlight.




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Cover photo credit: Alfred Kenneally

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