The Coffin Painter by Elizabeth Hoyle
CW: Character death, religious hypocrisy
Ambria loved entering the apothecary’s shop. The herbal smells of different compounds being mixed, the sight of all the tinctures and tonics in glazed glass bottles, and the pop and snap of the generous fire that was always blazing made it feel like an alchemist’s study in an old tale. Until one encountered Mr. Garett, the apothecary. One look at his sour face was enough to shatter the most elaborate daydream. But it was not Mr. Garett who greeted Ambria.
“Hello and good morning!” A young man called out from where he was stocking the higher shelves behind the counter. He climbed down the squeaky ladder, wiped his hands on his spotless apron, and bowed. “Forgive me, I was not expecting someone so close to opening. What can I help you with?”
Ambria gave a belated curtsey. “I need some pigment that will mix up a hue that will keep its color if I use it on dark wood.”
“Which hues do you want, ma’am?”
“A great quantity of blue and a lesser amount of red.”
He moved behind the counter to the set of shelves that contained Mr. Garett’s meager stock of painting supplies. “Would you like a sky blue or one that is closer to the sea?”
“Somewhere between the two, I think. I want to capture the depth of the sky while at the same time showing the tint of a tempestuous sea.” Ambria blushed at her candor and looked away from his fine-fingered hands as he combined different powders. “I hope you can make sense of my ramblings.”
“I wouldn’t mind hearing more of them sometime.” He offered two brown paper packets. “I hope these give you the color you’re looking for.”
Ambria reached for the packets but he snatched them back. Remembering payment, she fumbled in her dress pocket for coins.
“May I ask for a favor along with your payment, ma’am?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, wondering if this was a strange trick. “What would that be?”
“Favor me with your name, please.” His eyes grinned as much as his full-lipped mouth did. He winked.
“Ambria Boone,” she replied with a smile.
They exchanged the packets and coins, each privately swearing that the other was at fault for how their hands brushed and lingered. Ambria stepped back, slipping the packets in her pocket.
“I would love to see what work of art those hues create, Miss Boone.”
“Don’t call what that woman does art,” a gruff voice yelled from the back room. Mr. Garett shuffled forward, a frown etched in his craggy face. “What she does is sinful! You ain’t been here long enough to know, boy, but Old Man Boone is the undertaker and he lets his chit of a daughter paint the coffins!”
“Only with the family’s permission⸺”
“It is disrespectful to Our Lord to turn a person’s resting place into a scrap of paper for some child to muck up!”
“She’s no child⸺” Mr. Cheavers protested. Ambria interrupted both of them.
“As I’ve told you before, I only paint if I am asked. Death, though sorrowful, is only a parting until we might meet again in joy. Why not remind people of that?”
“Why not slap Our Lord across the face, girl? For that is what you do! Judgement Day will come and he will see what you did when he takes the righteous home with him. He will see how you led people to cling to this world instead of submitting to his will!”
“I have a commission for you, Miss Boone,” Mr. Cheavers interjected. “When Mr. Garett dies, will you paint coins all over his entire coffin? It’s fitting, don’t you think, since he disapproves of your comforting work but still wants your money⸺”
Mr. Garett punched his assistant in the ribs, knocking the wind out of him. Ambria helped Mr. Cheavers from behind the counter and took him to her father’s workshop. Mr. Cheavers claimed he was fine, despite how long it took him to get his breath back and how he kept a hand to his side as if he were trying to hold himself together.
“I did not like Mr. Garett, anyway. I had only been there for six days. You did me a favor, really,” he insisted. “May I see the coffin the paint is for?”
Mr. Talbot’s coffin was of a fine, dark cherry wood. He had loved fishing and his family wanted to honor that love with a scene of trout in the river. Mr. Cheavers pronounced her preliminary sketches beautiful and expressed his hope that Mr. Garett’s judgements would not keep her from painting.
“I wish more in our town shared your enthusiasm,” Ambria answered. “My commissions are already few and far between. They’ll grow even scanter when he tells everyone about today’s events.”
“Nevertheless, you need to continue. Always.”
Ambria could not persuade Mr. Cheavers to stay for supper. His chest was, indeed, bothering him. Nothing a night’s rest could not cure.
The next day it was all over town. Mr. Garett was in jail for causing the death of his assistant, Declan Cheavers. A physician examined the body. The very end of a rib had cracked, a piece turning to puncture a lung. Old Man Boone had another coffin to make. Mr. Talbot did not get his river scene, much to his family’s dismay.
When it came time for Declan Cheaver’s funeral, the town was shocked when they beheld his coffin. It was the first of many such oddly-decorated ones. On it was painted, in vivid red and tempest-tossed blue, an anatomically correct yet broken and bleeding heart.
Elizabeth Hoyle lives in southern West Virginia. Her fiction has been featured in Seaborne Magazine, Second Chance Lit, and other publications. Her poetry has been featured in Versification and Neuro Logical Literary Magazine, among other places. Find her on Twitter @ERHoyle or at elizabethhoyle.com.