By Anne of Lothlorien
I built my first coffin when I was thirteen years old.
Father said it wasn’t good enough.
I built another. And another. For five years, they were never satisfactory, but Father was too weak to work, so the deceased in our town were buried in not-quite-good-enough coffins.
One day, after laying down my tools and running my hand over a polished side, I knew my craftsmanship was finally acceptable.
I wished I’d never had to make that coffin.
It was my father’s.
No rain fell at his funeral. The sky was as clear as glass, and the birds sang, unaware that I was shoveling dirt over the one person I had in the world. Alone, I jabbed the crude, wooden cross into the sod. Nobody ever attends an undertaker’s funeral.
Did people think he’d bury himself?
I walked back to the house along empty streets, but I doubted it was from respect. To the people in this town, the dead were buried and forgotten on the same day.
My footsteps echoed sharply as I strode through the hall at the rear of the parlor and willed my shaking legs to carry me upstairs. I didn’t want to cry. Or think. I longed for rest, but neither the void of sleep nor the morning brought me peace.
I inherited the business and everything else my father had owned. I sold it and shoved my remaining possessions into a battered suitcase. Father’s name was scrawled on a tag that fluttered from the handle: Leonard M. Shaw.
I ripped the yellowed paper off and ground it into the dirt with my boot.
Thick clouds darkened the heavens, and the giants in the sky rumbled their complaints as I trudged to the train station.
“Where have you been?” I mumbled. “The funeral was yesterday.”
The sky flashed a response I couldn’t interpret. I decided to keep my mouth shut.
The stairs to the platform creaked under my heavy steps, and each stranger stared at me.
“Where ya goin’, sonny?” The ticket agent scratched his stubbled chin and eyed me wearily. He must have been tired of watching the world pass him by, seeing everyone move on except him.
I’d trade lives with him in a heartbeat.
Scanning the timetable, I shrugged. “Which is the farthest stop?”
The man squinted. “Eh… That’d be Gracetown, ’bout two hundred and fifty miles east.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
I didn’t bother to tell him he was pointing south.
I shoved the ticket deep into my pocket and sat on a rickety bench at the edge of the platform. The train to Gracetown wouldn’t arrive for another hour.
Though the station was small, it had enough business and bustle to distract me from painful thoughts. Mothers urged their children to stay close. Boxes and trunks thumped against each other as people jostled to get nearer to their train. Whistles and billows of steam issued from the great metal beast crouched on the tracks.
I thanked my luck that no one approached me before my train heaved to a stop, spewing steam from between the cars and under the wheels. Perhaps bystanders had noticed my altercation with the ticket agent. Perhaps they assumed my clenched fists and stormy eyes meant I was looking for a fight. Either way, I was grateful for the isolation.
I entered the last compartment of the last railcar. No one else appeared while I wedged my suitcase above the bunk. A screech cut through the heavy silence, and the floorboards shook as the wheels took their first grinding turn out of the station.
The room was empty. Like a coffin before tragedy struck. Like a grave before the ropes were lowered. Empty like…me.
My hand fumbled for the knob on the backdoor. It swung open, and I staggered onto a narrow platform at the end of the train.
I had a promise to make.
The tracks sped away from me in a blur, as if I were the one sitting still, and they were running off. To reassure myself that I was truly leaving, I focused on the spatter of buildings that dwindled away slowly. The funeral parlor’s little cupola jutted above the tree line.
I clenched the rail, my knuckles whitening and the veins standing out against my pale skin. It resembled a dead person’s hand.
I waited until the pines blocked all but the tip of that familiar tower. Then I whispered my vow to the fading town.
“I’ll never return. And I’ll never build another coffin. I swear.”
Gracetown’s train station was nothing but a roofless, wooden platform with sagging steps. No one was waiting to greet the train. No one strolled down the sidewalks. Not even one face peered through the curtained windows of the seven aged buildings. Maybe it was a ghost town.
I tightened my grip on the handle of my suitcase and descended the rattling steps onto the faint path that lead up to the main street. Even if the townspeople loathed strangers, this was my new home.
Soft, gentle notes drifted from…somewhere. Where?
I spun in circles. A hotel, blacksmith shop, and general store flashed by, then a small white building with a little tower and a bell.
The bell rang, and double doors flew open. A dozen children spilled onto the street, dressed in black suits with ties, ruffled dresses, and sunhats.
Had someone died? They seemed too cheerful for a funeral, but wouldn’t that be a painful irony to welcome me?
The children spared me hardly a glance as they raced down the sidewalks toward the train tracks. Less spirited people trickled out after them, shaking the hand of a man who stood at the top of the steps holding a black book. He smiled, spoke a few words to each person, and nodded his head like a tulip in the wind.
Sunday. It was Sunday. Of course, this must be a church. The man was a priest or a minister—whatever they called their leaders.
The wave of churchgoers ended, and the last young woman grasped the man’s hand with a smile. Married then, or courting at least.
I felt intrusive, piecing together these people’s lives just from observing them. My cheeks flamed, and I turned away when the man glanced my direction.
“Hello!” The cry rang out across the churchyard.
I flinched. Please. Not yet. Squeezing my eyes shut, I hoped with all my might that he wasn’t addressing me.
“Hello? Sir, can we help you?” The voice sounded right by my ear, and I jumped. Bits of dirt and gravel skittered under my boots as I whirled. Better to meet problems head-on.
“What? No. Yes, I just got here. Thank you.”
The woman with him pressed her fingertips to her mouth in shock or muffled laughter—I couldn’t figure out which. I was used to both reactions, so it didn’t matter.
“Well, young man, you just looked a little lost, that’s all.” The minister extended his hand.
I didn’t shake it.
It hung in the air for a second, as awkward as the silence. Finally, he withdrew it and raked it through his light hair instead. “We just…uh…” He glanced behind him. “Um, Ellie? What do we want to do?”
She graced him with a warm smile that stabbed my heart. Nobody smiled at me like that.
“We want to welcome him to our town,” she said gently. He grinned with relief and faced me again.
“We’d like to welcome you to Gracetown, young man. I’m Pastor Stephen Davis, and this is my wife, Ellie.” The sun itself seemed to shine out of their faces.
I tried to think of something to say, something to prove I wasn’t a dolt.
That will sure convince them.
“Yes.” Stephen gestured to the white building behind us. “I preach here every Sunday. Are you a man of faith, Mister…?”
“It’s, um…” My voice caught in my throat, coming out unnaturally thick and deep. I sounded like my father. “Shaw…just Shaw.” What on earth possessed me to give my last name as the first? Maybe I was afraid of these people getting too close to me.
If you don’t know someone, you can’t love them, or lose them.
“No, I am not a man of…faith.” That had never been hard to confess before.
“May I ask why not?”
“Why not?” I lowered my eyebrows. “My father always said that religion was for the weak, for people who need promises about what they’ll encounter in the next life. He was proud that he faced death on his own. He wanted me to do the same. I just…he…” My words trailed down to incoherent mumbles.
You don’t believe because your father didn’t? Start thinking for yourself.
The pastor’s voice softened like he was talking to a lost child. “I understand your reasons. And I’m sorry for your loss. Would you consider attending services next week? You might find something you’ve been looking for.”
The couple waited for an answer, but I couldn’t bring any more words to my lips.
“Well, the hotel has vacant rooms if you need a place to sleep. It was pleasant chatting with you.” Pastor Davis stepped away, his wife following.
“I don’t need it.” The declaration burst out with more force than I’d intended. Surprise shadowed the sunshine that had been beaming from the couple’s faces moments before. “I don’t need a church, or faith, or whatever you’re trying to sign me up for. I don’t need to go pray in a building just to feel good about myself.”
A smile slipped onto his face, a smile that implied he’d heard those objections before. “We don’t worship God to feel good, Shaw, but because we have hope. Maybe you need some of that.”
Hope? You’re encouraging me to hope? I told you my father died. Of course. The typical preacher. “God knows best.” Idiotic drivel!
I opened my mouth to voice my bitter thoughts.
A child screamed.
A blur of colorful Sunday dresses and flying pigtails ran past, pursued by a boy brandishing a green object. Probably a snake or a frog.
The last girl in the knot of children tripped and tumbled to the ground. The boy passed her without a glance, still shouting his threats to dump his pet in the other girls’ hair. What kind of children did they raise in this town?
I reached the girl before the pastor or his wife. Tapping her shoulder, I pushed her flaxen hair out of her dirt-streaked face. “Are you all right?” I tried to make my voice soft and comforting.
The deepest, clearest pair of blue eyes I’d ever seen stared back at me. Then she burst into tears, flung her arms around my neck, and sobbed. My arms tightened around her of their own accord as she released a muffled cry. “My brother!”
Did she want her brother to console her?
Mrs. Davis attempted to scoop the little girl into her arms.
“No, let him hold me!” The girl’s voice was weak, so her attempt at shouting was pathetic. Then she sniffed and declared, “I want to stay with my brother.”
“Did she say brother?” How could she think I was her brother? Maybe I resembled him somewhat, and in her traumatized state she hadn’t recognized the difference.
“Penny, darling, you don’t have a brother, remember?” Mrs. Davis’s soothing voice had no effect on the child’s sobs.
No brother? Then why on earth… This town was turning my mind upside down.
“I’m sorry, sir, excuse me.”
A well-dressed man knelt beside me, pried Penny’s arms from around my neck, and gathered her into a hug. Dust settled onto his suit and his hat tipped off his head, rolling into the street. He didn’t seem to mind as he gently spoke to the girl.
“I’m sorry, but please…” I rose, brushing off my shirt. “Please, could someone explain what’s going on?”
“Sir, I apologize.” The man stood, cradling Penny like an infant as her tears slowly subsided. “I’m Phillip Crofton. But, please, let me ask her a question first.” He stroked her cheek. “Penny-girl, is this the boy in your dream?”
She nodded, managing a faint smile. “Yes, Pa, and please, please don’t let him leave!”
Her father lowered her to the ground, and she clutched his leg. Wonder washed over his face. “This is an odd thing to explain, Mister…?”
“Mr. Shaw. See, Penny here has always dreamed about having a brother. And I do mean dreamed. Almost half the mornings in the week she wakes up telling us that a tall boy had come to be her brother, but her ma and I thought they were ordinary daydreams. She’s described what the boy looked like, and you, well, you…” He waved a hand at me, presumably to say that I was exactly, or very nearly, the person she’d imagined.
This was beginning to resemble a fairy tale. Little white churches and prophetic dreams. Was I sleeping? Still on the train in my bunk? I surreptitiously pinched myself.
No, this scene was real.
“Please.” Penny inched forward. “You’re my brother, right?” Her fathomless eyes widened, an expression I felt sure she had practiced. “I’ve always really, really wanted a brother forever.”
Suddenly I was transported back in time and heard my younger self wishing for a brother, asking when I would get a little sister. I hadn’t cared which. I just longed for someone to play with. Anyone.
Brother. Family. No…
Her eyes held unexplainable magic that captivated me.
Leave! You can’t stay here, you can’t say yes…
“I have to find a brother soon. Please?”
I was at war. Two parts of me struggled and tore at each other, begging me to leave, coaxing me to stay.
You don’t need people!
She needs you.
Penny’s voice was somehow stronger than the one in my head.
I brought myself eye to eye with her and attempted to muster whatever kindness and cheerfulness I had left. “Well, Penny, why do you need a brother so desperately?”
“Because I’m dying.”
I was not prepared for the three words that slipped so easily out of her mouth. Three words only an innocent child could state without fear. No. She must be pretending. Little girls love making up stories, don’t they?
But one glance at her father’s face confirmed the horrible words.
A soft-voiced, gentle-eyed, beautiful child. Dying.
It wasn’t right. Or fair.
Just leave. Close your heart up and leave.
“What… I…” I choked out.
She smiled. Smiled. “Pastor Davis says that Jesus is my big brother too, and I’ll see Him in heaven, but it would still be nice to have one here.”
Jesus. Of course, she listened to the pastor. Just lies to comfort a child.
“I’ve been waiting for a brother for a long, long time.”
Reflexively, I reached out and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. She’s dying, just like Father. If I don’t leave, I’ll be ripped open again, and…
What wouldn’t I have given for a brother? What wouldn’t I have done to have a sibling to love me?
I understood the emptiness in this little girl’s heart, and I couldn’t allow her to grow up lonely like me.
“Y-you don’t have to wait anymore.” Why couldn’t my voice be steady like hers? “I’ll be your big brother.”
Her embrace felt strange, but it was worth every emotion I was feeling again.
I lingered in Gracetown for months, but it never became home.
Each day after school, Penny brought me flowers and feathers clutched in her tiny hand. I tried to play the part of big brother, but the experience was so new that I felt like I was constantly failing.
Only Penny’s eyes kept me in my role.
I learned her story from Pastor Davis when I tiptoed into the church one Saturday. I was curious what entranced so many people. I hadn’t expected Pastor Davis to be inside, but he was arranging flowers in a glass vase at the front. When he called my name, I raised my head guiltily.
“Can I help you with anything?”
“No. No, no, I just…wanted to look…” I mumbled like an idiot, backing toward the door. At the threshold, I hesitated. “Actually, there may be.” I sank into a back pew.
“Yes?” He wiped his hands with a cloth and strode down the aisle to sit next to me, waiting patiently as I collected the thoughts that had scattered like dandelion seeds. Finally, the question I’d been gathering the courage to ask since that first Sunday burst out.
“What is Penny dying from?”
Grief filled his eyes, and he was silent for several moments. “We aren’t sure. Her parents have guessed consumption. She’s been battling for her life since birth.” His gaze drifted upward and over my shoulder, looking into the past. “She was a tiny thing. So weak. But she fought hard, and by the grace of God, she’ll have more years yet.”
“Grace of God,” I muttered.
“The grace of God is powerful, Shaw. Much more than you think or believe.”
I didn’t want to care. Some twisted thief was stealing the one precious thing in my life.
The word that haunted my dreams rang in my mind again.
For one instant of heart-twisting confusion, I yearned to know more.
But I extinguished it like a candle. I conjured up a smile and stood to leave.
“Wonderful talking to you, Pastor Davis. I’ll be—”
Penny slipped into the church, holding a daisy in her hand. My lips stretched into a smile, and this time I nearly fell over from surprise, because the joy was real.
“Shaw, I found this…in the…field behind the…school. It’s for you.” She swayed as she approached.
I wrapped my arms around her, plucked the flower from her fingers, and gently tucked the stem behind her ear. “Thank you, but it’ll look prettier on you.”
She giggled, and I smiled again. How could one little child melt me like this?
“Good day, Shaw. Good day, Miss Penny. I must return home.” Pastor Davis tipped his hat and winked, drawing a laugh from her. The thump of the swinging door echoed softly.
Penny scanned her surroundings, the brightness of her smile mimicking the sunbeams that refracted off the stained-glass window. As she thought of strange and far-off things, I let my own mind wander.
“Shaw, are you unhappy?”
Why did she have a talent for asking the questions others avoided?
“Penny…” I couldn’t tell her no, that I hated this town more every day and that she was the only tie binding me here. “Sometimes people can be happy and unhappy at the same time. I’m unhappy because…well, this isn’t my home. But you”—I poked her nose—“make me very happy. So, I’m both, I guess.”
She wagged her head up and down, and for a moment her eyes exuded wisdom, as if she were my elder and had been learning life’s lessons far longer. “Where is your home?”
“I…haven’t found it yet,” I whispered. I didn’t want to admit, least of all to myself, that I had no home.
“Then you should search for it.” I almost laughed, but her determined expression stopped me. “You need a home. I’ll leave so you can start looking. I have to help Mama anyways.” Then she rose onto her toes and planted a kiss on my cheek.
I was still kneeling in the middle of the aisle when the doors shut behind her. My fingers wandered up to the spot where her kiss had landed.
How could she have so much affection for me, a lost, empty-hearted stranger? Was it because she was a child? Did they all love so innocently, so unaware of how broken hearts could be?
Maybe…maybe her behavior had been influenced by this little building, this church—
Penny screamed. A clatter ended in a sickening thud. Then hollow, fear-filled silence.
“Penny!” I wrenched open the door and saw her crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.
My heart stumbled once and broke. Just like that, it broke. Again.
I swept her into my arms and begged her to open her eyes. Her skin paled and her lips trembled, but she remained unconscious. As I staggered toward town, my vision swam.
She had to awaken, to wriggle free from my arms and scamper down the street, giggling, and…
I turned sharply.
Mrs. Crofton stood under the blacksmith sign, a hand to her mouth. Her expression of horror burned itself into my mind. One more face I’d never forget.
“She—she fell down the church stairs.”
“Oh, Heavenly Father, please.” Mrs. Crofton quavered. “Phillip!” she screamed.
Metal clanged, and her husband appeared around the corner, stopping short at the sight of the ashen child I held.
“She fell. She fell.” Over and over the accident circled through my mind like a carousel. “She fell…”
“Shaw, fetch the doctor. I’ll carry her to her room.” Mr. Crofton opened his arms for his daughter.
Though Penny would be safe with her father, I didn’t want to relinquish her. I hadn’t watched over her as I should have…but the doctor needed to be called.
I slowly released my grip, and Mr. Crofton clasped the little girl against him as if he could protect her from the disease threatening her life. His wife stroked Penny’s hair and blinked back tears. I knew I should be running for the doctor, but an invisible force anchored my feet to the ground.
“Penny? Penny, please, darling,” Mrs. Crofton murmured.
Penny’s eyelids fluttered, then opened, and a shallow breath passed through her lips. For one moment we waited, hoping as she stared blankly at the sky. Hoping…
But her eyelids drooped again. Before they closed, she shifted her gaze to me and whispered words that pierced the pieces of my heart.
“I love you, Shaw.”
I suppose life has been cruel to many people. But when it snatched Penny away from us, I couldn’t imagine a deeper pain.
After the accident, she grew paler and weaker for a week. She was enshrined in her room, and the townspeople, including me, sat by her side all through the days, smiling for her, watching, and waiting for some miracle we thought would come.
People are stupidly hopeful.
One night, long before the sun began to rise, we all sensed that Penny would soon be gone. Her breath was hardly a whisper, and her white hand no longer stretched out for her mother but lay motionless on the coverlet.
The hours before sunrise overflowed with quiet tears.
Dawn broke sooner than we wished. The birds sang a concert in the sky, and the flowers uncurled. I’m not sure exactly when Penny left. But I think she waited until the sun peeked through the window so she could bid farewell to the morning.
No one cried anymore. Unshed tears pooled in her mother’s eyes. She whispered to no one in particular, or perhaps to everyone, that she refused to mourn her daughter moving on to a better place.
I hurried down the stairs and pushed out into the chilly air. It cut through my clothes like they were shreds. That must be how death felt. Cold, biting, piercing to the bone.
Did she really believe that Penny was in a better place?
I drew a shuddering breath and choked on my tears. I was a fool to have willingly watched as death crept over another pale face. I’d sworn…
“Shaw?” Pastor Davis’s voice was thick with grief. I ignored it and kept my back to him.
Go ahead. Offer your empty platitudes. Isn’t that what preachers do? Pretend that this is part of some great plan orchestrated by a wise, compassionate God.
“Shaw, believe me, I understand the pain you’re feeling and how torn you are inside.”
I readied a string of accusations in response to his banalities.
“But I want you to do something,” he continued, “for Penny.”
The words died on my lips. This was not what I’d expected.
“W-what?” My voice shook, even with that one small word. I hated my broken, stupid, betraying heart.
“I want you to hope.”
He walked away, leaving those words to settle into me as heavy as lead.
Hope. For Penny.
“Excuse me, Shaw?” Mrs. Crofton touched my arm, her voice laced with anguish that time hadn’t had a chance to heal yet.
My attempt at a smile felt like a grimace. “Ma’am.”
“Shaw, I…” She inhaled a ragged breath, dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief. “This isn’t a time to be asking this, but…you’re aware that we have no funeral parlor, or undertaker.”
The memories of building death-boxes came rushing back, of staring at the waxen faces inside and watching Father become weaker until his hands could no longer hold the tools.
“Families generally tend to their deceased, but…” She pressed the handkerchief to her lips. “She loved you so, and… I—we…”
“Shaw, we were wondering if you would make her coffin.”
Images I’d tried to forget flashed through my mind. Dark wood in a dirt hole. A roughly hewn cross. The old town fading into the distance. My vow, uttered firmly in anger and sorrow, echoed in my mind.
I’ll never build another coffin. I swear.
“Mrs. Crofton, I…” I looked away, the haze clouding my eyes spilling over into tears.
Never build another…
But who else would?
I want you to hope.
“Yes. I… I will. For Penny.”
A child’s coffin is a sorrowful thing to build. Never should there be a reason for it, but death has no concern for age.
I had never cared so much before. I had realized, of course, that a young person’s death was a tragedy, but I never paid attention to the children of my town until life had already fled from their bodies. Much to my shame, they had never been real to me.
Her coffin was polished with tears, and I was not ashamed of them. What I had refused to allow at my father’s death was now freely done. Not just for Penny’s sake, but for others. For the Croftons. For Father.
Penny’s funeral service was held in the church, the last place I’d heard her laugh and seen her smile. My foot paused on the bottom step as the memories of her scream, her white face, and her crumpled body overwhelmed me.
I didn’t want to go inside…but I’d promised. For Penny. So I kept mounting those steps and found myself in one of the front pews.
Pastor Davis commemorated Penny’s short, beautiful life, and as I listened, I learned about love and why Penny had given me hers. I had expected the town to be crushed like my heart after Father’s death. Though the people mourned, something shone through the darkness, lifting them past the grief, and I believed it was hope.
Pastor Davis and I carried the coffin to the graveyard and set it down beside the small hole that had been dug. Then I whispered words I thought I would never have the power to say.
“I think… I think I can reconcile with Father’s death now. It’s like an old wound is finally healing.”
Pastor Davis clasped his Bible over his heart. “That’s what hope is, Shaw. A helper, a healer, and a way to focus on blessings yet to be given, not the heartache we have.” He lifted his gaze upward.
How wrong I’d been about graveyards. They weren’t places of death but memories of life and reminders of the future. The Croftons believed their daughter was in heaven, happy and relieved of her suffering.
Could I have the same hope?
I stepped away from the small wooden box and picked up one of the ropes. The lyrics to a hymn, strange, sad, and beautiful, rose to the sky.
“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Home. That word had seemed unreachable before.
We lowered the casket and tossed flowers onto the glossy lid. Dirt was shoveled in and a stone cross erected at the head. Then the mourners drifted back to town to cope with the loss in private. Even Penny’s parents, after one last glance at their daughter’s grave, trudged away.
I knelt, touching the warm soil of the raised mound. I loved this town, and Penny was here, but…it was time for another new beginning.
“Penny? I think… I think I’m going back home.” I tried to laugh. “I broke one half of my promise, so why not the other?”
A breeze rustled the tall grass and shifted the flowers scattered over her grave.
“I want to start over.”
Then the realization that I was leaving Penny struck me. The grass blurred, and I wiped my eyes determinedly. But maybe…maybe I should cry. Maybe some things were easier to let go when wet with tears.
“Goodbye, little sister.” Penny had touched my heart in a way nothing else had. And I doubted anything ever would again.
The last words she’d spoken to me echoed like the final line of a beautiful song.
“I love you, Shaw.”
“It’s Edward, actually,” I whispered, resting my hand on the rough stone. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
The clouds parted, and the sun streamed down, brushing fingers of light over the cross. Even the dirt sparkled under its smile. It looked like a heavenly blessing.
It looked like hope.
The summer she turned eight, Anne made two very important decisions. The first was to become a Christian, and the second was to become a writer. She has never regretted either decision and highly doubts she ever will.
Working around the pocket knives, skyscraper stacks of books, and quilling strips (Google it) that cover her desk, Anne has managed to finish one novella, nearly finish a novel, and is currently working on two others.
Her friends have described her as adventurous, stubborn, and spunky. She is a self-proclaimed connoisseur of desserts who will only eat Tootsie Rolls if no real chocolate is readily available. When she isn’t writing or reading, she enjoys quilling, board games, and graphic design. She loves roller coasters and the color forest green. And ice cream. And old books. And music. And summer. And short bios, which she failed to write.
Oh. My. Goodness. This is just…beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it.
I cried when I read this. It’s so heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Thank you.
SO SAD! SO GREAT! SO WONDERFULLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I LUFF IT!
This is a well-written, beautiful, bittersweet story. Now I have those same unshed tears as Mrs. Crofton.