My father is building his coffin.
Piles of wood shavings and sawdust pillow the workshop floor. I stand at the door, one mitten on my hand and the other in my pocket. He bends a piece of wood around the head shape of his coffin. The wood is fragrant, cedar.
When I was young, it was the wood my father taught me to recognize by smell, others by touch. “Feel the grain,” he said. He would rap his knuckle against the board. “This is a softwood.” Again, another piece. “Now this,” he’d say. “Hardwood. This?”
I would knock, softly, as if in response, and whisper, “Soft?” It was a guess lofted into the cold, something waiting for an open hand to catch.
Sometimes, I would be right, and he would rub calluses along the grain. “That’s right,” he’d say, only half approving.
I’d pull my weight up the stairs to my bedroom where I held my breath waiting for night, waiting for his calloused hands to slip into my room. Everything reeked of varnish, and every night I forgave him.
Watching him work now, he smooths sandpaper along the grain of wood. He has bled from every crack in his palm, just like the crucifix that hangs above the shelf full of unstirred paint.
He does not speak to me.
This is his penance.
* * *
When I was young, I was washed in a desire for church. It was not from the fear induced by Sunday school nuns. It was a memory of safety I longed for. Not confession, not mass. Just the solitude of a church at night lit by red candles, prayers waiting to burn out.
The smell of shared Bibles and catechisms, paper as thin as moth wings telling the stories of saints. The pages rustled and whispered, you could be one of us.
It was night, a church at night, that I wanted, the stained-glass windows dormant. Mary would be woken first, the east-most window, her pale hands outstretched. Each finger counted a time I had to forgive my father.
Instead, I taught myself to pray.
The garden was my cathedral. Dew jeweled the grass and rubbed off on my clothes. I clutched a rock, this thing I pried from the pond bottom, and pressed my lips to the cold, mottled surface.
I prayed for Joan of Arc to dust ashes off her pant leg and brace her sword against my door. Her lips were pink and her hair unevenly cut. She was burned for wearing men’s clothes and not canonized until 1920. This, I decided, was the saint who could protect me. This young girl with hands a hair bigger than mine.
I breathed these wishes into the stone and buried it beneath the bench behind the workshop.
* * *
I leave my father, for a moment. His hands catch splinters, and I hear his curse as I pull away from the door and wander into the garden. Damp grass clippings plaster my boots. I can see my breath, then I stop.
Saint Joan is sitting on the bench behind the workshop. She cradles a cigarette, and a birdcage veil obscures her face. Gold beads on her flapper dress shimmer when she moves.
No sword, no armor.
“I came too late?” she asks, her French accent light as butter across bread.
She really is nineteen. I can see it in the way she tucks her chin into her chest when she know she’s being watched.
My wish clicks in my head, and even now I can taste the algae on that rock. “Heaven couldn’t spare you for a twelve-year-old?”
“I am too late.” She bows her head, exhales smoke. She is just nineteen. I can see that this was the confused cast to her eyes when she signed a page she could not read, when, like a child being taught to write, a large hand guided her pen across a line, a confession, and she realized that Charles would not come, that she died for voices clamoring in her head.
I hold my hands in my pockets. “Not too late,” I say, softer.
Her T-strap heel grinds her cigarette into the ground. “Liar.”
I stare at her. Her hair is black and cropped to her jaw the way I had mine at fourteen.
She smells like cinders.
I want to collect her narrow shoulders in a close hug and rub aloe across her skin in case she remembers the sensation of blisters breaking across her flesh in the heat of a fire. I want to sit beside her and tell her what I wished I’d known at twelve, fourteen, nineteen. Don’t trust a man, not even gods. Too often, they test us; too often, we are the ones who must ask for forgiveness.
She gestures towards the garage where another tool whirrs and something is screwed in place. “But he’s getting what he deserves now, non? Your wish.”
* * *
I go back to the workshop and stand in the doorway. “Do you need help?”
He doesn’t answer. I can see the shape of it now, boxy and simple. The edges of it echo the downward slope of his shoulders, the hunch in his back. This coffin will fit him just right.
He hands me a can of dark varnish and a brush. I slop the brush around, stirring and marinating in the fumes. Like a heavy syrup, a string of varnish drips from the bristles.
Meghan E. O’Toole is a queer writer with a B.A. from Elmhurst College. She received LitMag’s Virginia Woolf Award for short fiction in 2018.