Thursday, August 25, 2011

Among Thousands and Thousands of Rejected Pages, Here is "The Coffin I'm About to Open"

Note to readers: In writing a novel, an author often discards hundreds, maybe even thousands of pages of material. In writing my book Sister Mysteries, I probably have discarded at least five thousand pages. Why I know this is that I've thrown out thousands of pages, and I STILL have a large crate overflowing with all kinds of rejected pages from the novel. What happens to these rejected pages? Well, some of them are gone forever, and some of them sit in the turquoise blue crate, and some of them are stored electronically in a file on my computer, a file I call "Short Fiction." Now and then I go into that file and reread the rejected pages. Tonight when I went into that file I discovered this section from the novel and I decided that even though it doesn't belong in the book anymore, I really like this chapter, a chapter called "The Coffin I Am About to Open." I hope you enjoy it. And maybe I will find a way to turn it into a free-standing story.

By Claudia Ricci

The coffin arrived on Monday, a very cold rainy day. It came by UPS. It came sometime in the afternoon. It came packed within a larger cardboard box.

When I first saw the coffin, when I could finally take in what I was staring at, I felt like I would choke. My hands flew up to my face and I had to sit down.

You see, it looked to me to be child-sized. But actually, I am staring at it right now, right here next to my desk, and now I realize that it is barely big enough for a child. It would be barely big enough for a….newborn baby.

Maybe I should start over.

OK, so what happened Monday afternoon is this: I came home from a long afternoon of teaching. I was exhausted. It was dark. The October afternoon had a jagged edge. As I walked up the back path, carrying a heavy bookbag full of my student’s composition journals, a raw wind cut into my face and infiltrated the crevice around my neck. The same wind whipped the dry maple leaves off the lawn. Scooped them up and scooted them into the house ahead of me when I opened the back door.

There, right inside the door, was that gigantic box. Thankfully, the UPS man had dragged the box in through the back door. He knows me, the UPS man, he knows me quite well, so he knows that I keep my doors unlocked. I always tell him to leave packages just inside the mudroom door. So he brought the box in and I saw it sitting there, and instantly, I smiled. I’ll never forget thinking oh my God; my mother-in-law finally sent me those dishes from Italy. You know the kind: those thick, hand made ceramic dishes painted in wild Italian colors. Full of flowers. I have been wild about those dishes for two decades or more. Ever since my husband and I got married I have wanted them. And haven’t been able to afford them.

Just a few weeks back, I mentioned them to Alice, Rick’s mother. My mother-in-law. It was September, the night before she and Ben, my father-in-law, were leaving on a cruise headed for Positano on the Amalfi Coast, near Naples.

“What can I send you honey?” My mother-in-law asked when she called to say good bye. I wanted to say, just send me and Rick two tickets to join you for a week. But I knew that was out of the question, and that she wouldn’t appreciate that request. So I decided to ask for the next best thing.

“Well, Al, if you see those dishes, you know the kind I want, send a few of those to me. Would you?”

After two decades of marriage, I felt comfortable asking. I figured, why not? And so naturally, when I saw the box, I thought, oh my God, here they are. “Dishes from Italy,” I whispered aloud.

As soon as I got into the house I dropped the bookbag and hurried into the kitchen for a steak knife. I came back to the giant box and slit the clear plastic mailing tape. I split the box top open. I clawed at the wood excelsior, my heart beating. A little smile was forming on my lips. I could see myself cooking up some Alfredo for dinner and serving it to my husband and kids on the new plates. I could see myself scooping the Alfredo --mushrooms and onions coated with cream and Parmesan-- into the bowls.

What I saw instead was a plain wooden surface. Perhaps the dishes were inside a wooden box. I kept digging. Soon I had exposed the cover of a plain wooden box. A box within the bigger box. Oh, but I was still so very certain that my wish had come true. That my dishes from Italy had finally arrived. I tore more wood excelsior away. I exposed more of the surface of the wooden box within.

At first, I couldn’t take in the next thing I saw. What was this crucifix? Why would dishes from Italy come in a box decorated in a crucifix?

I sat for a moment on the bench in the mudroom. The wind was so strong it was whipping under the door.

I decided that maybe Alice had bought the dishes at some religious company. Maybe she and Ben had wandered into the mountains. Maybe they had visited a mountain monastery in the rugged hills on the west coast of Italy. Or maybe they’d taken a side trip to Assisi. That must be it. Or…maybe the dish company was operated by a religious order. Maybe the dishes were painted by monks or by priests or perhaps, even by nuns.

I kept tearing the excelsior away. I kept pulling and clawing handfuls of the shredded wood out of the bigger box.

And then, I saw the shape. The slightly wider top end. The box. The wooden box. The coffin.

There was only one person who could send this box.

My sister. My crazy sister Lucy. Lucy who is insane. Lucy who thinks she is a nun. Not just any nun. But a nun named Renata who lived back in 1883. A nun who is in prison for murdering her cousin.

I covered my mouth with both hands. Then I opened my mouth and no sound came out.

Then I saw the note, taped to the narrow end of the coffin. I took a big breath before I read it.

“Dear Christina, You are hereby entrusted with. All of this. Bless you. Your loving sister, Lucy.”

That’s when I screeched. That’s when I shouted out her name as loud as my voice permitted.

“Luceeeeeeeeeeee.” I sat there and the tears started up and soon I was crying so hard I felt like I might choke.

I wiped my eyes. I closed the larger box back up and dragged it into a corner of the mudroom. I tried to ignore it. When my husband arrived home, he asked what had arrived and I said it was just a large order of flower bulbs. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about the coffin. About Lucy’s crazy note.

A few days went by and then one morning when the family wasn’t around, I dragged the box into my study. That night, I took my husband into the study, after the children were asleep.

“Will you help me lift this goddamn thing out of the box please, honey?”

“What goddamn thing Chris?”

“This…thing." I sighed. "Lucy sent me. This…coffin.” He studied me. He knows Lucy. He knows how disturbed she is. He knows how unpredictable she is. What a wild imagination she has.

He started to ask a follow-up question but I held up one hand. I told him that I didn’t want to go into it.

Together we lifted the coffin out of the wood excelsior and laid it next to my desk. Right beside my swiveling office chair. And there it has sat, covered in a blanket for many many weeks.

I tried emailing my sister. Nothing. I tried calling her. Nothing. All I get is a ringing phone and no one answering and no voice mail. All I know is that I have this goddamn coffin. And I haven’t opened it all these weeks.

I am incapable of opening this thing.

But I know I have to.

Two weeks ago, I read my husband the note Lucy enclosed, and he just shook his head.

“She is a worry.” That was all he said. “But then," he continued after a few moments, "you’ve known that for as long as I’ve known you.”

That night, I sat down and wrote Lucy a long letter. I mailed it right away the next morning. It came back to me about a week later. Someone had crossed out the address and written NO FORWARDING ADDRESS.

Now I sit here staring at the coffin. It is Saturday morning. It is Shabbat. I would normally go to services at my temple, but today, all of them – my three kids, my husband, all of them have disappeared to various soccer games and football practices. So I have decided to take this opportunity to look inside. I’m scared, of course. What if there are bones or…something rotting or…worse.

I inhale. I count to ten. And then I get up from my seat, and go look for a hammer.

1 comment:

Lynn Biederstadt said...

What a thing for a Salon: Pick a page at random and built a story around it!
xoxo lb