By Kaitlyn Emery
The carved scenes on the face of the casket looked alive, despite its intended purpose, and with it I would bury my nightmare.
The shop smelled of fresh-shaved cedar, delicate curls collecting in small drifts upon the dirt floor as I poured my pain into finishing this task.
The shop door scraped open, startling me from my creative trance. A fair-haired cherub entered, her rosy cheeks forming into a bright smile. The duke’s daughter spoke. To me. “Good afternoon.”
I quickly set aside my tools and bowed. “May I help you?”
“I- Oh,” she cried, noticing the casket behind me. “It’s beautiful!”
“Thank you, m’lady.” I moved my foot to discreetly sweep wood shavings over a stain on the floor as she stepped forward and traced her fingertips over my carvings.
“Is this for my father’s carpentry contest?”
“No, m’lady.” What was she doing here?
The duke’s daughter continued to run her fingers along the smooth surface, tracing the tangled vines attempting to choke out the delicate flowers carved into the wood. “Is it your master’s work?”
“No, it is by my own hand.” I had carpenter’s blood in my veins and the calluses on my hands to prove it.
“Your master must be proud to have such a fine apprentice.”
“Yes,” I lied.
She glanced at me and frowned. “You’re wondering why I am here. I have many virtues, according to my father, but patience is not one of them. I’ve been longing to see the masters’ preparations for the contest, so decided to go through the shops for a little peek.” She seemed amused by this. “You should enter this casket in the contest!”
“Thank you, m’lady.”
“If I were a boy and allowed to practice such a craft, I would have the finest craftsmen in the region teach me.” Stretching out her hand, the girl reached for the clasps on the casket.
Her green eyes glanced towards me, confused. “Why not?”
I cleared my throat. “M’lady, please, it’s bad luck.”
“Oh rubbish, I don’t believe in such things, and neither should you.” The duke’s daughter flipped up the clasps and lifted the lid while I held my breath. “Sand? Why is it full of sand?”
“To keep the wood dry,” I answered, perhaps too quickly. “If the wood gets damp before I oil it, the wood will swell and split apart the joints.”
“Ah, I see. Trade secret.” She winked. “I won’t say a word.”
“Thank you, m’lady.” I dabbed the sweat trickling down my face as she replaced the lid.
Something else caught her attention. “What is that on your cheek? Has someone hit you?”
My fingers fluttered over the bruise on my face. “My master has a temper, occasionally.”
“Well!” She puffed with outrage. “He ought not strike such a skilled apprentice. Shame on him for putting such an ugly mark on a fair-faced lad. Call him out so that I might speak with him!”
I shuffled my feet. “He is away presently.”
“When will he be back?”
“I can’t say.” I stared at the shavings on the floor, nervously smoothing them out with my shoe.
She scowled. “I must go before my father finds out I have left and sends a search party, but I will have him come by.”
She hastened to the door, then paused. “I could have my father buy that coffin, perhaps? Grandmother is quite ill, and the physicians say she hasn’t much time left. You could use the money to start your own shop.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t! This is one I made special… for my master.” I refastened the clasps and dusted the lid off with a horsehair brush.
Concern crossed her face. “Someone in his family died?”
“Yes, m’lady.” I nodded. “But I can make a better one, if it pleases you.”
She beamed and nodded. “I shall see that my father comes to you.” Sunlight shone around her silhouette, creating an angelic aura as she bounced out the door and down the street.
Once she was out of sight, I bolted the door. As the latch clicked into place, I breathed a sigh of relief and clutched my aching ribs.
Slowly, I sat down on a stool, my knees trembling. So close to ruin… I swore I’d felt Death’s icy breath, his great scythe suspended over my neck, waiting for the moment the girl noticed more than the bruises under the dirt and grime on my face. Things like my freshly-shorn hair, my delicate facial features, my figure.
That last night when my master came for me, I knew I would rather die than suffer at his hands again. His anger over my carpentry hadn’t kept him from selling my work as his own. He pretended his wrath was righteous—defending society against a female craftsman—but I knew what angered him more was that his housemaid could produce finer work than his own.
Now I had crafted my last piece for the tyrant, just to spite him. I pondered my sudden good fortune. If the duke ordered a casket from me, I would earn enough acclaim and money to build a future for myself.
I set to oiling the casket, protecting the wood and bringing out its reddish hues. As I buffed the front panels, I thanked God for sending me the duke’s daughter. I thanked Him that she hadn’t noticed me brushing shavings over the blood-stained floor. But mostly, I thanked God that she hadn’t smelled my master’s rotting corpse through all that sand and cedar.