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A Coffin Too Small
Being a carpenter wasn’t too bad a job. He got to use his best tools, which made him the best carpenter around. Yet, despite his first-rate tools, people would sometimes complain he did a poor job. (In this way, coffins were easier than anything else, because the people paying were too distraught to notice the quality of work, and the people actually using the coffins were too dead to care.)
Still, he knew he was the best carpenter in the area, and, with the help of his first-best tools, he soon proved it to a young lady, whom he soon married. His wife soon had a baby boy, but the baby was sickly.
The doctor declared that the baby was dying and the young couple had better put its affairs in order, for the baby would soon be with the Lord.
The carpenter’s wife exclaimed that the baby had no affairs, no money, nor possessions. The carpenter was smart enough to realize that the doctor just said this to everyone who had a dying relative, and the advice didn’t apply in this situation. The carpenter was proud of himself for figuring this out, and he said nothing about it as the doctor left.
The carpenter’s wife turned to him and asked whether he could think of anything to be done in the imminence of their baby’s death.
Knowing that the doctor hadn’t meant anything by his words, the carpenter realized his wife was too distraught to understand meaningless formalities. To take her mind off the baby, he told his wife he had to get back to work, cutting wood and stuff, and that he’d spent all night waiting while she was in labor. The carpenter didn’t actually have much to do, but he thought it would be a wasted day if he didn’t act busy.
She agreed that he’d spent enough time on the baby that wouldn’t live. She told him, as he was leaving the house to the workshop, that she expected a high quality coffin for the baby.
Because he cared greatly for his wife, he nodded consent and, thinking about a coffin and what it would look like, asked how they’d decided to spell the baby’s name.
The carpenter’s wife gasped and replied that it didn’t have a name yet.
Shrugging, he asked what her father’s name had been.
She reminded him that she had never known her father. She asked him what his father’s name had been.
He told her he could never pronounce it, let alone spell it, and a baby’s name had to be something he was able to pronounce.
Pausing to think, she asked if they could name the baby after its father, since its grandfathers were out of the question, and since baby boys couldn’t be named after mothers.
The carpenter said he never wanted to put his own name on a coffin, and it would be too confusing to have two people from the same family with the same name. What if, in the next few minutes before the baby was completely dead, the wife called his name, and then the carpenter wouldn’t be sure which one she wanted.
She told him that they’d of course just call him junior.
This sounded reasonable to the carpenter and suggested they just name him Junior and be done with it. With her approval, he got to work on the coffin immediately, figuring it wouldn’t hurt anything to put off procrastination, since he had about nothing else to do.
Thinking about his distraught wife, the carpenter wanted to please her, get her mind off the nearly dead baby. She’d asked him to make a very fine coffin, so he used his first-best saw and nails and hammer. The hammer was his favorite tool, and he knew she’d be just tickled to know the baby’s coffin had received the finest treatment. He would tell her as soon as it was finished.
After a little while, he called his wife to bring the baby into the workshop so he could measure it and make sure the coffin would fit. Three sides were up, and he’d calculated the infant body to be about as big as the carpenter’s two hands.
His wife brought in the baby, saying the baby hadn’t quite died yet, but she expected it any time, now. The baby was small and still. She set him in the half-finished coffin.
Nodding, the he told her she could leave the baby there for now to ensure the best fit. The carpenter thought his wife looked extremely distraught, so he told her that the coffin was receiving the finest treatment, and that he was using his very best tools.
She kissed his cheek and walked out.
He built the coffin around the baby. The second-to-last step was carving the name into the lid, “JUNYER,” in shaky letters across the top. Grand and made of the best wood, the coffin was almost finished. It was so small that it wouldn’t take many nails to secure the lid, which was the final step.
Inside, the baby stirred: yawning, stretching, and sucking on its pale fist. Still alive?
Holding the lid in his left hand, the carpenter stared at the baby, wondering what he was supposed to do now. He’d worked really hard on this coffin, and he was determined the baby would use it. No one else would want it; it already had the baby’s name carved into the top. If the baby lived, it would quickly grow out of the coffin, and what else could it be used for? It would make an oddly-shaped lunchbox.
The wife called to him that she wanted to see the baby one last time.
What could he do now? He and his wife expected the baby to die this afternoon, but what if it didn’t? Deciding babies were more of a nuisance than they were worth, the carpenter stared down at the “deathly ill” infant. He figured his wife wouldn’t want to be bothered with a baby that didn’t do as expected, and he guessed it would be better if she just didn’t know it wasn’t already dead.
The carpenter selected the straightest nails (his wife would be proud of the care he’d taken) and raised his first-best hammer in his right hand, about to secure the lid with his left, preparing to close it.
The cry startled the carpenter. It was a healthy cry, far too healthy for a dying baby. His first-best hammer fell to the interior of the coffin, the perfectly shaped head of his first-best hammer smashing the baby’s screaming face. The screaming immediately stopped.
His wife called that she was coming to investigate.
Hearing her footsteps, the carpenter snatched up his second-best hammer and, so furiously did he work, he had half the lid secured (over the baby and his first-best hammer) before his wife walked through the workshop door.
She told him she thought she could hear the baby’s delightful shrieks, though of course she must have been imagining things. Stepping closer, she asked if she could see the baby.
The carpenter gestured to the coffin and told her that the baby was already shut up. He was worried she would insist he take it apart, and he didn’t want to do that, which would ruin the perfect nails, and he didn’t want her to see the inside of the baby’s coffin, splashed with blood. It might cause her to be even more distraught to think it wasn’t the finest and cleanest.
Sighing, she told him it was no matter and they’d have more. She also told him it was a very fine coffin, and that made him beam at her.
They did have more, for this was the truth. Alas, they only had daughters: five of them.
The carpenter ever after thought of the coffin too small and he remember his lesson. Never again did he try making someone’s coffin before he or she was actually dead. Nor did he ever hold his hammer over a baby’s head. Nor did he ever again completely trust that doctor, the one who had said that first baby was dying.
His biggest regret lay inside the coffin too small. Thinking back to the first baby, the carpenter always wondered if his business would have profited better if he still had his first-best hammer.