My Boy Builds Coffins
by Gary McMahon
Susan found the first one when she was tidying his room.
Chris was at school, and she’d been sprucing up the house before popping off to collect him after the afternoon session. The ground floor was done; the lounge was spick-and-span (as her mother had loved to say) and the kitchen was so clean it belonged in a show home. The downstairs bathroom was clean enough for a royal inspection. The en-suite would do, she supposed, and her and Dan’s bedroom was the best it could be considering they both liked to dump their dirty clothes all over the floor and the furniture.
Now it was time to tackle Chris’s room, which was about as messy as any eight-year-old could hope to achieve.
She pushed open the door, holding her breath, and walked into the chaos. His blow-up punch bag had been moved into the centre of the room and left there. The floor was littered with books, magazines, Top Trumps playing cards, rogue counters from board games, art supplies, and – oddly – old cardboard toilet roll holders.
“Jesus, Chris…” She tiptoed across the room to the window, trying not to step on anything that might break. When she got there, she pushed open the window to let in some fresh air. The room smelled stale, as if it hadn’t been lived in for months.
“Okay,” she murmured. “Let’s get this shit sorted.”
First she tackled the floor. Patiently, she picked up everything and put it away where it belonged – or at least where she thought it belonged, or where it looked like it belonged. After twenty minutes the room was already looking much better. At least she could move around without fear of treading on something.
Next she tidied up the top of his desk – where she found old DVDs without cases, more playing cards, flakes of dried modelling clay, small stones from the garden, bits and pieces of magic tricks, and other sundry boy-items.
The desk was almost clear, and she was looking for a drawer into which she could squeeze yet more art supplies, when she found the coffin.
It was in the bottom drawer, where at one time Chris had kept his football shirts – one a year, from birth, because his dad supported Manchester United.
She stood silently and stared into the drawer. It was empty but for the coffin.
It was made out of what looked to be a fine grade timber – pale and with a neat wood grained pattern. The wood was unpainted and untreated; it was bare, nude, but smooth, as if it had been sanded. Attached to the lid of the coffin was a small brass plate with the word “Daddy” engraved across it in a neat, delicate script.
For a moment Susan felt as if someone else had entered the room behind her. She resisted the urge to turn and look, but she felt a presence there. She knew it was nonsense, there was no one there, but all the same she sensed it. Standing right behind her, perhaps even peering over her shoulder. At the coffin.
She moved to her knees and looked closer. The coffin was small. It was probably the right size to hold an Action Man doll (”It isn’t a doll,” Chris always protested “It’s an action figure!”) and she wondered if that was indeed what the casket contained.
Carefully, she reached into the drawer and placed her hands on the sides of the coffin. She lifted the coffin out of the drawer, stood, and carried it over to the bed. She put it down and thought about what she was going to do.
Then, on impulse that wasn’t really an impulse because she’d been planning it all along, she reached down and lifted the lid off the coffin.
Inside was a thin layer of dirt. She ran her fingers through the dirt, feeling its gritty reality. It felt soft and slightly damp, like soil from the garden.
“What the hell is this?”
Part of her tensed in anticipation of a reply from that unseen figure: the one that wasn’t there, oh no, not really there at all. Because she was all alone in her son’s room, wasn’t she?
She broached the subject over dinner that evening.
Chris was tucking into his chicken, gravy smeared across his lips and his cheeks: the boy couldn’t eat anything without wearing it. Dan was reading a computer printout at the table as he nibbled at his own meal, taking small, delicate bites. She was so sick of asking him not to read at the table that she’d stopped saying it over a month ago.
The boy looked up from his meal. He smiled. “Yes, Mummy.” His teeth were covered in gravy, too.
“I tidied your room today.”
“Sorry, Mummy. I meant to do it, but I forgot.”
She sighed. “Yes, I know…just like you forget everything, except sweets and comics and DVDs.”
He grinned. “Can I watch a DVD tonight?”
“No,” said Dan, putting down his printout. “It’s a school night. That’s a weekend treat.”
Chris began to pout. He picked at his chicken with his fork. The tines scraped against the plate, making Susan wince. He’d stopped having the tantrums over a month ago, but there was always the risk that he’d go off on one again.
“Listen, Chris…about your room.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t look up – he was sulking.
“I found something. In a drawer.”
Dan glanced at her, raising his eyebrows in a question. She shook her head: she would deal with this.
“Mummy found something…a little bit strange.”
Chris looked up from his food. He was frowning. “What was it?”
“Let me show you.” She stood and pushed her chair away from the table. She crossed the room and took the coffin out of the cupboard where she’d put it for safekeeping. She carried it back to the table, cleared the condiments out of the way, and set it down in front of her family. It felt ritualistic, like the beginning of some obscure rite. She pushed the thought away. It wasn’t helpful.
“This is what I found.”
Dan stared at the coffin. His face wasn’t sure what expression to form. Chris smiled at her.
“Do you know what this is, Chris?”
Dan glanced at his son, remaining silent for now.
“Yes. It’s a box.” The boy reached out for the coffin, but she moved it across the table and out of his way, as if it might infect him or something.
“Where did you get it, darling?” She was trying to keep things light, but a strange mood had begun to descend upon the dining table. It felt as if a shadow had entered the room, dimming the lights, and the temperature had dropped by a few degrees. “Well, Chris. Where did you get this…box? Where did it come from?”
“I made it, Mummy. I made it for Daddy.” He turned to face Dan, his small face beaming, his eyes large and expectant, as if he’d done something miraculous and was due a large reward. Some sweets, perhaps. Or a new DVD.
“I…” Dan looked from her to the boy, and then back again. “Thank you,” he said, absurdly. Then he looked at Susan again, searching for help. “Did you make it at school?”
“No. Here. At home.” Chris’s smile dropped. His small face seemed to crumple inwards. He was clearly making a concerted effort not to lose his temper, despite the odd situation, and she loved him for it.
“Well who taught you how to make it? I mean, someone must have helped you?”
The boy shook his head. Refusing to say anything more.
He shook his head again.
Susan intervened before things became more fractious: “Okay, you pop off and get your jim-jams on, and after you’ve done your teeth I’ll read to you for a while before you go to sleep.”
Dan walked away, obviously troubled. Chris dragged his feet as he slowly left the room.
“So what the hell’s going on here?” Dan was pacing the floor and drinking whisky. He looked harried. His hair was a mess from where he’d been running his fingers through it – like he always did when he was stressed. His face was pale and his shirt was hanging out of the waistband of his trousers. “I mean, this isn’t…normal. It isn’t normal behaviour, is it?”
“Just calm down a minute. Let’s think this through.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he said, his shoulders slumping. “He didn’t build you a coffin.”
“He’s eight years old, Dan. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He probably saw it in a magazine, or something. Or on the telly. I bet he thought he was doing something nice for you.”
Dan laughed: a single barking sound. “Fucking hell, Susan.” He only ever called her that when he was anxious, usually it was Sue. “Maybe we should call someone. A doctor…or a psychiatrist. Get him seen to again. Maybe this is to do with the old trouble.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re overreacting. We don’t need anyone. He’s over all that anger business. This is…different. Something we can cope with ourselves.”
Dan did not seem convinced. “You saw the craftsmanship on that thing. Look at it.” He strode across the room and picked up the coffin. His mouth twisted into an unconscious grimace, as if he were touching something rotten. “Look at it. The perfectly mitred joints, the smooth finish…this is beautiful work.” The way he said that word, he gave it the opposite effect to what it really meant. “An eight-year-old kid can’t do this kind of work…” he sat down in the armchair, looking tired and defeated. He still held the coffin, but loosely. He didn’t seem to want to let it go.
“I don’t pretend to understand this, either, honey, but I think we need to tread carefully…just in case it triggers an episode, or something.”
He was rubbing the side of the coffin with his thumb. “It’s got dirt inside…grave dirt.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Grave dirt,” he said again, as if repetition might diminish the power of the words. “My grave…”
“It’s soil from the garden.” She got up and walked over to him, snatched away the coffin. She moved over to the fireplace and put the coffin down on the mantelpiece, next to last year’s school photo: Chris smiled at her from inside the frame, his hair neatly combed, his shirt collars sticking out from the neck of his grey school sweater, his cheeks shining from the heat of the photographer’s lights. He looked like a typical small boy, but underneath it all he’d been a mess of conflicting emotions, a child governed by an inexplicable rage.
“Okay,” said Dan, behind her. “So we tread softly.” He sounded more relaxed, less wound up.
She turned around. He was still seated and pouring another large shot of whisky into the glass. “Could I have one of those?” She held out her own glass, but made no move to approach him. “I could really use it.” She smiled.
She walked over, but instead of waiting for him to pour she knelt down before him and ran her hands across his thighs. “It’ll be okay. He’s just a kid. He had no idea of the effect something like this might have.”
“But the workmanship…” Dan’s face was pleading. It made him look years younger, almost like a child himself.
“I know…it’s weird, I’ll admit that. But that’s all it is – weird and unusual. There’s nothing to worry about. I promise. We’ll deal with it, as a family. No more pills and doctors.”
A few days later she found the second coffin.
This one had been left on her bed. It was a Saturday and Dan was out playing five-a-side football, making cross-field runs and dirty tackles just to relax. She was hanging up some clothes, and when she turned around from the wardrobe to face the room, the coffin was there, on her pillow. The brass plate on this one read “Mummy”.
It hadn’t been there when she entered the room. She was sure. She would have noticed.
There was no reply. The house was quiet. Outside, she could hear traffic on the nearby main road, some kids shouting on another street, and the sound of someone mowing their lawn. They were real noises, the sounds that connected you to reality. There was nothing to fear here, in this friendly little neighbourhood.
“Are you there, baby?”
She heard a shuffling sound in the hall. For a moment, she was afraid to cross the room and look through the doorway. Some unreasonable fear held her there, afraid of her own home. Her own son. The noises outside now seemed as if they were miles away, part of some other, safer world.
She recalled the worst of his rages, not that long ago. He’d left her battered and bruised, but the worst pain was in knowing that someone created from her own flesh and blood was capable of losing control to such a startling degree.
But that was over now. He was better. They’d worked things out, with the help of a good child psychologist and some medication. There was no need to go back, to return to any of that. This time was different.
“Chris!” She used the strength of her resolve to fuel her, and moved quickly to the door. When she looked outside, the landing was empty. Sunlight lanced through the landing window, capturing the dust motes in the air like flecks of epidermis suspended in fluid. She went back inside the room and sat down on the bed.
She stared at the coffin on the pillow.
Outside, the sound of the lawn mower cut out. The screaming kids moved away and their din began to fade. The traffic noises seemed to quieten.
Susan reached out and lifted up the lid of the coffin. As she’d expected, inside was a thin layer of soil. She picked up the coffin and shook it, disturbing the loose particles of earth. As she watched, something was uncovered. She reached inside with her forefinger and thumb, pushing aside the soil, and picked out an object. It was her wedding ring. She looked at her hand – at her wedding finger – and saw a pale band of flesh, a tan line where the ring should have been.
This was new. There had been nothing but dirt in Dan’s coffin.
Her stomach tightened; her head began to throb dully. She couldn’t remember taking off her wedding ring. In fact, she hardly ever did so, not even in the bath or the shower. She was superstitious; she liked to keep it on, so as not to tempt fate. She remembered an old friend who’d lost her wedding ring, and three months later her husband had dropped down dead from a sudden heart attack. Nonsense, she realised, but still…you just never could tell.
Things like this were symbolic. Things like wedding rings. And coffins.
She glanced up, looking at the doorway. There was no sound. No movement. Just dead air, empty space.
She put the lid back on the coffin and backed away from the bed, as if it were some kind of ferocious animal that had come into the room. She picked up her mobile phone from the bedside table, and then she wondered who the hell she was thinking of calling anyway. Dan? Her mother? The fucking police?
This was stupid. It was insane.
Her boy built coffins – that was all. There was nothing wrong with that, not really. It was just a bit strange, a little offbeat. No harm done; nobody was getting hurt. At least he was taking an interest in arts and crafts.
Susan stifled a mad giggle.
She put down the phone and left the room, leaving the coffin in there.
Chris’s room was just along the hall. She could see from where she was standing that his door was shut. She walked along the landing and stood outside, listening. She couldn’t hear a thing from inside his room, not even his television or his music playing.
She reached out and grabbed the door handle, turned it, pushed open the door.
Chris was sitting on his bed reading a book. He glanced up as she stepped inside. He smiled. He looked entirely normal; he was the same as always, her beautiful little boy. He wasn’t a monster. He hadn’t been taken over by some alien force. He was her boy. He built coffins.
“Everything okay, son?”
He nodded. “I’m reading.” He held up his book, cover facing outwards, for her to see. “Moshi Monsters,” he said. “I love them.” He turned his attention back to the book; his face became serious as he continued to read.
“Yeah.” He was distracted. He didn’t want to talk. He wanted to read. He’d always loved books, even when he was being a brat. He was a good little reader – top of the class in English. Maths, too. A clever boy. A good kid. A reader. A builder of coffins.
“Did you put something in Mummy’s room earlier? When I was hanging up the clothes. Did you bring me a present?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “I built you a box. Just like Daddy’s.”
She swallowed. Her throat was dry. “Why, baby? Why did you build Mummy a box?” It was the first time the question had been asked. She and Dan had agreed to approach the situation with caution, in case they said the wrong thing or pushed too hard. They’d been monitoring Chris – his moods, his speech, everything they could think of. He’d been just the same as always…their bright young son, mended now. Nothing was different. He was acting the same as always.
Apart from this, she thought. Apart from the coffins. And the thought made her admit that they were lying to each other. Chris was acting different, and they were both too confused and afraid to confront these changes in their boy. His rages might be over, but something else had replaced them. These days he was…secretive. He kept things from them. Things like this: the origins of his coffin-making.
“I thought you’d like one.” Still, he didn’t look up from his book.
“Why’s that, baby?” She took another step inside the room, letting the door shut to behind her.
“Dunno. Just thought you would.” He looked up, smiling.
“Where did you get the soil, baby? The soil you put in the…boxes.”
“Out of the hole.”
The world seemed to compress around her, threatening to crush her. “What hole?”
“The one outside, in the garden. The magic hole, down beside the back wall.”
As if in a dream, she moved across the room and stood at the window. She looked down at the garden to the rear of the house, taking in the expansive lawn, the trees that grew alongside the dividing fence, and the small water feature Dan had put in three summers ago. There was a dry stone wall at the bottom boundary, separating their garden from the field beyond. The grass and bushes there were overgrown; Dan had neglected the area because he said he liked it to look wild, like the countryside.
“Where’s this hole, baby? Tell Mummy where the magic hole is.”
He was still on the bed. Still reading. He seemed utterly unconcerned. “Down there…at the bottom of the garden. Right next to where we buried Mr Jump last year.”
Mr Jump was Chris’s pet rabbit. He’d frozen to death the previous winter, and they’d conducted a small family funeral involving an old shoe box, a children’s bible, and two flimsy wooden lolly sticks glued together in a cruciform pattern to make a grave marker.
“Okay, baby. Thank you. Thanks for making me the box.”
She turned away and left the room, walking back along the landing and down the stairs. She counted the stairs as she descended, just to help herself remain calm. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be frightened of, but she was terrified. It was like being a child again, fearful of the dark but not knowing why: scared of the unknown.
She sat down in the kitchen and waited for the kettle to boil, then she made a pot of tea and waited for Dan to come home, rubbing at her bare wedding finger with the ball of her thumb.
They waited until Chris was asleep. They didn’t want to disturb him, and if he saw them digging around out there he might start to feed off their fear. They were sure of nothing, but they knew that they didn’t want to give their son any cause for further confusion.
It crossed Susan’s mind that this is what they did in every horror film she’s ever seen: they waited for darkness before making their move. It always ended badly.
“What the hell do you think we’re going to find out there?” Dan was standing by the back door, bathed in the light from the kitchen. He was holding a shovel and wearing his gardening clothes – torn jeans, a baggy sweater, and thick leather gloves. Susan held the torch.
“I have no idea, but we have to take a look. Don’t we?” She realised that she wanted him to say no. She was desperate for him to put the brakes on the situation and make them both return indoors. She didn’t want to make the decisions; she wanted him to step up and take control.
“I suppose you’re right.”
She waited for a moment, looking up at the sky, searching for inspiration. It was black, the stars were tiny, and the moon was nothing but a pale, undistinguished saucer amid the wispy clouds. “I’m scared,” she said.
Dan took a few steps towards her, paused, and then came the rest of the way. He rested the shovel against the wall and put his arms around her, drawing her close. “I know…but this is our son we’re talking about. We have to find out what’s going on. What choice do we have?”
She nodded against his shoulder, saying nothing. This wasn’t a horror film; it was real life. Even if things got messy, she and Dan would sort it all out. It’s what people did, in real life.
“Who the hell are we meant to turn to for help? We don’t even know what’s going on.” Her voice was strained.
Dan pressed against her. “We’ll think about that when we have some facts.”
She nodded again, closed her eyes and sniffed at him. She’d always loved how he smelled; his aroma was a comfort. Whenever he was away on business, she slept with his football shirt on her pillow, just so she could smell him in the night.
“Let’s go,” she whispered.
He pulled away and grabbed the shovel. She followed him across the grass, along the fence line, to the bottom of the garden, pointing the jittery torch beam ahead of them. They kicked at the weeds, looking for anything that might be called a hole. At first they didn’t see a thing, but after a short while Susan stumbled, almost twisting her ankle as she stepped on the edge of the hole.
“Here,” she whispered. “I’ve found it.” She reached down and rubbed at her ankle.
“Why are you whispering?
“I have no fucking idea.” It was a funny moment, she supposed, but neither of them laughed.
Dan started pulling at the weeds, tearing them out and throwing them against the dry stone wall. She put down the torch and bent down to help him, peering into the hole. It was small – about the same diameter as her soup pan at home – but it looked deep. It was too dark to tell exactly how deep, but she couldn’t see the bottom, even when she shone the torch’s beam directly into the hole.
Before long they’d cleared away the weeds and the overgrown grass from around the hole. It was remarkably neat and round, as if it had been bored into the ground by a machine. Susan knelt down at the side of the hole and bent over it, trying again to judge its depth.
“Here,” said Dan. “Drop this down.” He handed her a small, smooth stone.
She dropped the stone down the hole. Waited. Didn’t hear it hit bottom. Picking up the torch again, she shone the light down the hole, but it was swallowed by the darkness down there.
“What the fuck?” said Dan.
She turned and looked at him. He was nothing but a dark silhouette standing against the sky; he had no face. He was form without substance.
“Let’s just cover it over,” she said. “Fill it in and forget about it.”
“No,” said Dan. “I have to know.”
“Have to know what?”
He leaned down towards her. For once, she failed to detect his comforting smell. “I don’t know.”
Dan started digging. She moved out of the way, staying well back to give him some room. He dug the hole wider, creating a circular pit roughly two feet in diameter. The pit tapered inwards, down towards the original hole, which sat at its centre, black and threatening.
“You can’t just keep digging,” she said. “What if you never reach the end?”
Dan paused in his labour, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “What else can I do?”
He resumed digging, hunched over the shovel like an old man.
Susan glanced up at Chris’s bedroom window. The curtains were closed and the lights were off, but she was certain that she could make out the shape of someone standing there, perhaps watching them. She closed her eyes, wishing it away, but when she opened them again the shape was still there. She stared at it for a long time, and eventually it blended into the background, becoming less clear, a stain on the fabric of night. Perhaps there had been nothing there all along.
“Shit,” said Dan.
She looked over at him. He stopped digging, and glanced up at her, looking into her eyes.
Slowly, Dan bent down and moved something around with his fingers in the ditch. He straightened up, holding whatever it was in his hands. He leaned forward, into the light, and held out his hands to show her what he’d found.
Dan was holding what Susan supposed must be some of Mr Jump’s bones. But there was something wrong with them: they were twisted, distorted, as if proximity to the hole had warped them, pulled them out of shape. The skull was elongated, weasel-like; the ribs were fused together, like white armour, and the forelegs were crooked, ending in grasping, claw-like bony paws.
Dan threw away the bones, scattering them into the darkness. A look of intense distaste crossed his face, and then he picked up the shovel and continued with his task.
It wasn’t long before the shovel scraped against something solid.
“What is it?”
“I think…I think it’s a coffin.”
He shook his head. “This one’s bigger.”
She stood and helped him clear away the earth from the coffin. It looked exactly the same as the others, except it was much larger. It was made from the same fine timber, possessed a similar hand-rubbed finish, and had a brass plate attached to the lid. When Susan shone the torch onto the coffin lid, the word she saw etched onto the plate made her go cold.
It said “Son”.
By the time they’d unearthed the coffin in its entirety, the sun was starting to rise. The sky in the east was smeared with red; the clouds there looked painted on. It took both of them to man-handle the coffin out of the hole, but still it wasn’t too heavy.
Susan nodded. She knew there would be nothing in there, except perhaps some more dirt. It wasn’t heavy enough to have anything more substantial inside. But they had to be sure. They could leave nothing to chance.
Dan used the shovel to wedge open the lid. He slid the sharp end of the shovel’s blade into the joint and stepped on the handle. The lid popped open with the sound of splintering wood; it jerked to one side, revealing a glimpse of the interior. Dan bent down and heaved the lid across the coffin, shoving it onto the ground at the side of the hole. The coffin was filled almost to the top with torn scraps of paper, like the cheap packaging that came with items sent through the post.
“I don’t want to see.” She took a step backwards, away from the coffin.
Dan ignored her. He reached down and began to push the paper out of the way, scattering some of the scraps across the ground.
Susan held her breath. She saw a flash of colour: pale pink, like the petals of the roses in her garden. It was skin. Human skin. Dan kept clearing away the paper, and she knew what she was going to see even before it was uncovered. She tried to deny the sight, but she couldn’t. She wished herself blind, but it didn’t work.
Lying in repose, with his hands crossed neatly over his chest, was Chris. He was naked. His shallow chest had sunken slightly; his forearms were unbearably thin. His face was narrow, like that of an old man. He looked like he’d been dead for a long time, but not long enough for his body to rot. It was as if something were keeping him that way, cold and lifeless, yet pristine: like the sanctified remains of a saint.
“Dan… Oh, Dan. What the hell is it?”
Dan fell down onto his knees and lifted the corpse partially out of the coffin. The body was obviously light; Dan lifted it with ease and stumbled slightly. The arms slid away from the chest, the head tilted to one side, the dark hair falling wispily across the thin white face, the bony legs bent and the knees came up, as if it were trying to stand.
“No,” said Dan, as if he couldn’t quite accept what he was seeing, what he was holding. “Oh, no…fuck no. Not this.”
Susan looked up at Chris’s bedroom window. The figure was still there, but now the curtains were open. The figure was small – much smaller and thinner than their son. The figure’s hands looked unnaturally long and seemed to wriggle too many fingers as they reached up to twitch the curtains further apart. As it flapped limply forward, pressing its dark, smooth face up against the glass, she was reminded of a crudely fashioned doll or a puppet – something animated, but clumsily; a thing that should never have been given life, a hastily assembled imitation of the human form.
She turned back to her husband and sank to the ground. He was sitting on the ground, rocking and wailing as he clasped their pale son to his breast. “He’s too light…there’s nothing left inside him…”
Dan looked up and turned their boy’s face towards her. It was oddly blank, as if waiting for an expression to be carved there. His body looked light, empty, just as much of a puppet as the thing now capering inside his room. “…nothing left inside…”
Dazed, afraid, confused to the point of idiocy, Susan rose slowly and awkwardly to her feet and started walking stiffly towards the house. Whatever was in there – whatever had taken the essence of her son; her wonderful son who’d built such fine, fine coffins – she would find it and she would kill it. Before she lost her sanity completely, she would make it pay.
Susan dropped the torch. She would not need light where she was going. It might, in fact, be better to work in darkness.
As she became more surefooted and began to run, she made herself a promise: before this day was done, she would force whatever had replaced Chris into a tiny coffin of its own, and dance upon its grave.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Danielle Imara is a London-based live artist, author and music maker.