Authors: Elinor Teele
For John & Katie
Seize the carp
And for my grandfather
A true and gentle man
ELL ME A
“A story? Not now!”
“My dear boy, if not now, when? Seize the carp, John. Seize the carp.”
John sighed and rolled over onto his back, just in time for a large, lukewarm glob of goo to go SPLAT in his left eye.
“I can't feel my legs,” he said.
“Pah!” the voice on the other side of the wall bellowed. “That's no way to begin a story!”
John reached up to wipe the muck from his eye, and a bolt of pain cracked through his right arm.
“Why don't you tell one?”
This time it was the voice that sighed. “Now, now, you know I have neither the facility norâlet's face itâthe faculties; nutty as a maggot-infested fruitcake. No, I am merely a player that frets
and struts his hour upon two arthritic limbs. You, on the other hand, are incurably optimistic and still breathing. The perfect job description for a storyteller.”
John looked through the bars of his window. The sun was setting, casting a steamy glow over the door of the cell. He could feel his sweat mixing with the dried blood on his shirt and returning it to liquid.
“I don't know how.”
“Balderdash,” the voice retorted. “It's very simple. You begin at the beginning and end at the end.”
“And what's the end?”
“My dear boy, I haven't a clue.”
John sighed again and closed his eyes. “Once upon a time there was a boy who made coffins. . . .”
The voice chuckled. “Now
is an excellent way to begin.”
NCE UPON A
time there was a boy who made coffins. His name was John Peregrine Coggin, and the Coggin family had been manufacturing wooden caskets in the city of Pludgett for over a hundred years.
“Depressing way to make a living.”
“Aren't you even going to let me start?”
“Supreme Craftsmen of Death” was how John's Great-Aunt Beauregard referred to the family business. She liked the phrase so much she had it inscribed on the workshop sign:
COGGIN FAMILY COFFINS
Supreme Craftsmen of Death
Great-Aunt Beauregard was John's only surviving relative. She had been granted this honor upon the death of John's parents, who were struck down by virulent consumption when John was five. Great-Aunt Beauregard was so angry at their lack of forethought that she almost refused to make their coffins.
“Waste of perfectly good lumber,” she told her great-nephew on his first day in the workshop.
Along with John, his newborn sister, Page, was also entrusted to this termagant's care. Though, truth to tell, over the next six years it was John who did most of the caring.
“What use do I have for girls? Give me two cords of pine over sugar and spice any day.”
“But Great-Aunt Beauregard, weren't
a girl?” John once asked as he was laboring away.
“Never!” Great-Aunt Beauregard roared. “I went straight from birth into the family business. And that's enough impertinence from you,” she added, whacking him soundly on the head with a T square. “Ask a question like that again and I'll clamp your eyebrows together.”
“The family business.” Those were the first words John heard when he woke up in the morning and the last words he thought of before falling asleep. Great-Aunt Beauregard was determined to make him the finest coffin maker in the history of the city. And if that meant John spent seventeen hours a day embedding splinters in his
palms, then so be it.
“One day, you will be known as Pludgett's pint-sized Grim Reaper. Stick that in your ear and dream on it.”
Pludgett was where the Coggins had always livedâa grim, grimy, respectable city on the edge of a grim, grimy, respectable bay. It had originally been a swamp, but that did not bother the settlers who decided to make it their home. They simply spent three years dismantling a neighboring hill and depositing the dirt in the mire.
And when that didn't workâand granaries and grannies took to mysteriously disappearing overnightâthe settlers began building hovels
of the ones that were sinking. The whole city was a layer cake of decay.
Of course, living in a city built on a swamp meant the air smelled like rotten eggs and mosquitoes were the size of pumpkins. But no one ever complained. Pludgett citizens were terribly proud of Pludgett:
“Did you know we have the most rat-poison factories per capita in the world?”
“Have you heard? Our clock tower has been voted the most egregious edifice in the country!”
“My sister-in-law said the town where she grew up had more personality than Pludgett, but then I told her about our sewer snakes and she took it back.”
Great-Aunt Beauregard was the worst patriot of all. Though she generally detested celebrations, she always made an exception for the annual observance of the city's
founding. In addition to subsidizing the fireworks finale, she insisted on opening the family workshop for Bring Your Own Parent morning.
Each year, residents were invited to tote along their ancient mother or father for a trial fitting. Customers could preorder a casket and still have time to get a front-row seat for the parade. BYOP was one of the most popular events of Pludgett Day.
Nobody thought this was strange except John, who sometimes wondered aloud why people in the city were so interested in death.
“Bleakness builds character! Now start priming six Maple Number Fours for the Gorfers.”
As much as Great-Aunt Beauregard loved Pludgett, John hated it. He hated their three-story workshop perched on pilings on the edge of the harbor. He hated the cramped room that he shared with his sister on the top floor. He hated the lumber wagons that rumbled down Main Street at dawn and the hearses that fetched their goods at night.
And he hated the family business.
Unfortunately, he was extremely good at it. Upon his arrival in Pludgett, Great-Aunt Beauregard had pulled him out of kindergarten and pushed him into handcrafting the Pine Economy line. By the time he was ten, John had perfected the entire process.
With sixty feet of one-inch-thick lumber, an aging
mallet, and a trusty handsaw, he could build a casket that was the envy of the neighborhood. He knew that the head panels should be ten degrees from vertical, the toes only six. That the holes for the handles must be drilled next to the ribs, and not through. That the floorboards were trapezoids and the head ends near squares. He was a lean, unkeen coffin machine.
That's not to say John was an expert from day one. During the first few years, his products were often sent back for refunds. On one memorable occasion, a casket was returned with the dead man still inside. Great-Aunt Beauregard pointed out that
didn't look too pleased with the workmanship either.
“But, sir, we don't have to make coffins,” John dared to suggest not long after this occasion. “What if we tried something that doesn't get buried? Like furniture, or boats?”
“Boats?” Great-Aunt Beauregard nearly choked on her tongue. “We are doing imperative work! Even if I did want to make furnitureâwhich I don't!âPludgett wouldn't stand for it. We are the only casket manufacturers in the city. As long as there is a Coggin living, coffins will be made in this workshop. Besides,” she added, “what does a stunted boy with ingrown toenails know about boats?”
“I know that they'd take me far from here,” John mumbled.
“Rank insubordination! Just for that I'm demoting you to sanding duties. I don't want to see any skin left on your knuckles when the day is through.”
And there wasn't any.
Of course, John was never paid for this work. As chief foreman of
COGGIN FAMILY COFFINS
Supreme Craftsmen of Death
John was expected to labor for the greater good of the family business. Any money that didn't go toward supplies went directly into Great-Aunt Beauregard's personal safe, a squat box of steel tucked in the corner of the ground-floor storeroom. She sometimes hinted that she had great plans for these funds in the future.
Life would have been a lot easier on John if he had been dumb. Unluckily for him, he was cursed with imagination. He was always coming up with incredible creationsâBicycle plows! Amphibious velocipedes! Spaceships that slingshotted around the sun!âanything that would free him from the deadening sight of plank after plank. When he wasn't poring over the engineering manuals that Page found for him in the city trash, he was dreaming of armies of mechanical monsters that ran on internal combustion.
He even went so far as to propose that he might build
a shredder to recycle their copious wood scraps into packing material, but Great-Aunt Beauregard was having none of it.
“Grand ideas end in failure,” she scolded. “You'll only end up looking like the wrong end of a donkey when you fail miserably at whatever fool thing it is you've tried to do. The trick in life is to stick to what you know. Then you'll never be disappointed.”
Answers like these brought John close to despair. And he would have despaired, if not for one thing: Page.
Page was the most understanding six-year-old in the world. She looked like their mother, laughed like their father, and never held a grudge. Great-Aunt Beauregard got one thing about family right. For his sister, John was willing to walk through fire with a bunch of flesh-eating monkeys strapped to his back.
The best part of his day was the end, when Page would sit at the foot of his bed and ask John to tell her about his latest ideas. He'd regale her with visions of mermaid houses run on volcanic steam and metallic dragons that belched blue fire.
“And do they go boom?” she invariably asked.
“Yes,” he would say, tickling her feet, “right before they launch rainbows into the sky.”
“Good.” Page would nod very gravely at this. “You can't have a boom without rainbows.”
When John ran out of rainbows, they talked about
their parents. Having only been a baby when they died, Page was eager for details. What did their mother smell like? Lilies of the valley. What did their father say? Pull up a pew. Where did they live? In an old yellow house on the edge of the sky-blue sea.
At the end, Page always had the same request:
“Tell me one of Dad's stories.”
This wasn't tough. Their father had been a poor businessman but a great storyteller. When John was young, there had been new tales every night. Tales about journeys, about danger and daring, about sisters and brothers and love.
“Building a story is like any other invention, John, my lad,” he would say. “Guts and gung-ho at the beginning, struggles and surprises in the middle, and the glorious moment when everything comes right.”
For John, that moment was his mother's bedtime kiss. After his father had finished his tale, she would tuck her son in, rub his nose, and whisper the same good-night prayer: “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be loved.”
John's heart always ached peculiarly when he recalled these moments. He realized it was important for his sister to know that not all mornings started with a snarl and not all mistakes ended with a slap, but it still hurt to remember. Even if it did help Page to snore.
More often than not, John would then lie awake and
worry. Page was growing up. Next year she would be seven. Old enough to be sent to boarding school. Or farmed out for work. Or, worst of worsts, expected to play her part in the family business.
He had thought about running away, sure. But, deep down in his bones, John was chicken. Six years with Great-Aunt Beauregard had taken its toll. As much as he loved his improbable ideas, he was convinced he had only one practical skill: crafting the best wooden coffin in Pludgett. With his father and mother dead, and no other means of support, John was in charge of his family. And Page needed a home.
He could see no viable way out of their situation . . . until one morning, just before Pludgett Day, when Great-Aunt Beauregard stomped into the workshop.
“John, put down the hammer. After we wrap up the BYOP, I am taking you and your sister to the beach for the weekend.”
John didn't put down the hammer, he dropped it on the floor in shock.
“You will close up, Master Butterfingers, while I fetch your sister from kindergarten. Then you will pack your bags in preparation for tomorrow afternoon.”
“Have people stopped dying?” he asked without thinking. Great-Aunt Beauregard rewarded him with a swinging clip to the ear.
“No, but I can think of someone who will if he doesn't
get a move on. Now HOP TO IT!”
John hopped. And less than twenty-four hours later, he was standing on the beach behind Peddington's Practical Hotel, looking out at the ocean.
Yes, it was an ocean crammed with rusty barges honking like geese and steamships burping smoke rings, but it beat the heck out of the workshop.
And sure, it might be five o'clock in the morning and the water might be freezing and Great-Aunt Beauregard might have dressed him up in a wool sack to go swimming, but he was here, wasn't he? They were actually on vacation!
“Johnny, look at me!” Page yelled as she dove into an underwater somersault. John laughed and splashed his way toward her. When he turned back, he saw Great-Aunt Beauregard perched on a piece of driftwood, her stone slab of a face shaded by a hat crowned with a stuffed raven. She was comparing stain samples for children's caskets.
“Johnny.” Page surfaced next to him, spitting water. “I love the sea.”
John smiled. “So do I.”
“Do you think we're moving out of the city? Is that why Great-Aunt Beauregard took us here?”
John stopped smiling. He wasn't at all sure that was what Great-Aunt Beauregard had in mind, but he answered encouragingly enough. “Maybe. You never can tell with
the old trout. She might have gone whackadoodle when we weren't looking.”
“I hope so,” Page said, hurling a huge splash of water over him. “'Cause I want to beat you back to the beach every day!”
Off she went, dog-paddling like mad. John gave Page a head start and followed with a little more hesitation. Whatever Great-Aunt Beauregard had in mind, he was extremely doubtful she would ever go whackadoodle.