I suppose the last straw was when I asked Ophelia to lay on the floor so I could trace her body to make sure the coffin would cradle her perfectly.
My father was a carpenter, and his father before him, and Jesus before that. From the time I could hold a saw and heft a hammer, I had been able to make anything out of wood. I thought of myself as a kind of alchemist who could turn a piece of knotty pine into cash with nothing more than a few simple tools and some linseed oil.
My mother was my first customer. When I was 8-years old, she gave me a two-dollar bill to make her a box that could hold her most precious possessions: the wedding ring her mother bequeathed to her; her father’s battered Zippo engraved with mysterious Masonic symbols; a brittle and yellowed love letter my father had written her in high school; a curl of baby-blonde hair saved from my first haircut.
After that, I was making trinket boxes for all our neighbors for $5 a pop. By the time I reached high school, I had graduated to multi-drawered jewelry boxes and spice cupboards.
When I asked Ophelia to the prom our senior year by giving her a small plaque with the question hand-carved in fancy script lettering on my best piece of cherrywood, she loved the effort I had made and the “magic” she said that must live in my fingers. She kept that plaque wrapped in a silk handkerchief and locked away for more than forty years in the box I carved from a single piece of tiger maple as a gift for her on our wedding day.
I suppose Ophelia didn’t realize that those “magic” fingers came with all manner of callouses and splinters that would catch on her soft skin from time to time during our most intimate moments. And I also suppose she didn’t realize that there would be times when I would seemingly abandon her and she would live like a grass widow to husband who spent more time in his woodshop than at the dinner table.
A few years into our marriage, Ophelia took a job at the shoe factory where her mother worked. Our financial success never did hinge on the paycheck she brought home every week. Wood was our goose that laid golden eggs. If ever we wanted a little extra cash, all I had to do was build a dresser or bed or dining room table for one of our neighbors, and our prayers were answered. I think she took the job for the regular company of her mother and coworkers to make up for those days when I would lose myself in my craft.
Most days when Ophelia would leave in the morning for her shift, the rough block of wood I held as she kissed me goodbye would be a smooth and beautifully carved cutting board or serving tray by the time she would get back home. On those days when she worked a double, I could build a whole chifferobe. I bet there isn’t a person within a fifty-mile radius of my home woodshop who doesn’t have at least one thing built or carved by me. Lord knows anything made of wood in our house has been created solely by my hands.
I didn’t always see the lights of Ophelia’s car fan across the walls of my shop when she would pull in the driveway after a long day. Sometimes I would be completely lost in the grain of whatever piece of wood I was working, like a man carried along on the currents of a quiet river toward a secret pocket of solitude known only to him.
For a long time, Ophelia always made sure to let me know she was home by gently touching my shoulder as if to guide me back to her world. At first, I would stop what I was working on to eat dinner with her. After a few years, though, I would accept her kiss on my cheek then turn back to my work. Eventually there came a time when she didn’t even ask about dinner. Instead, she would ask, “Will you be in bed tonight?” And then there came another time when she stopped bothering to let me know she was home at all. I suppose there were many nights when she ate alone or didn’t eat anything. I do know there came to be many nights when I didn’t make it to bed, followed by many mornings when she left for work without saying goodbye. And as the years passed, Ophelia grew thinner and thinner.
When she turned sixty-five, Ophelia announced that she was ready to retire after forty years of making leather loafers. I knew instantly that I wanted to reward her for her years of devotion to her job. And to me.
So I took all the money I had secretly squirreled away over the years and bought the best Brazilian Rosewood I could find to make matching coffins for both of us so we could lie next to each other throughout eternity and so Ophelia would never be alone again. I spent every waking moment designing the symbol of our love that I would carve into both our coffin lids, the symbol we had adopted as our own when we designed our wedding rings all those years ago, the symbol of the Tree of Life.
When the plans were complete, I knew that our coffins would be my greatest achievement as a carpenter, my final love letter to Ophelia. “Measure twice and cut once,” my father and my father’s father used to say. For this project, though, I would measure a hundred times before a saw’s teeth ever touched wood. I knew that I had to get everything exactly right down to the smallest detail.
So I decided to show Ophelia all of my plans just to make sure everything would be as she wanted it to be. But when I asked her to lie on the floor so I could make sure I got her measurements exactly right, she began to cry and said, “I’m retiring so I can live a life before I die. I don’t want to end up like my mother, dead a month after I’ve earned the freedom to live how I want to live. I love you,” she told me through her tears, “but I’m not ready to plan for the afterlife.”
Ophelia packed her things and left that night. When she came into the woodshop for the first time in years on her way out the door, she touched my shoulder gently to draw my attention away from the lathe.
“I’m going,” she said. “I still love you. You will always be the love of my life. I’m not sure, though, I’ve always been yours.”
It’s been a little more than a month now since Ophelia left. Her coffin remains empty next to mine. Like hers, my coffin is padded with goose down and lined with white silk. And just as my coffin fits perfectly around the burliness of my body, her coffin would fit perfectly around her slight body, should she ever choose to lie in it. To size her coffin, I used one of her dresses that she had overlooked when she left. That, and the memory of her body next to mine when we used to hold each other after making love those first few years together. For a moment, I think I can feel the lightness of her body lying on top of me. I think I can feel her breath on my chest as she drifts off to sleep. I think I can smell her perfume—subtle white roses and jasmine—as I close my eyes, take a slow, deep breath, and gently pull the lid closed.
Kip Knott’s most recent full-length collection of poetry, Clean Coal Burn, is available from Kelsay Books. His work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Barren, Drunk Monkeys, Eunoia Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, HAD, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @kip_knott and read more of his work at kipknott.com.