Once there lived a girl in a small village close to the sea. She was a diligent girl, but not one people expected much of. Her family had all passed on when she was still quite young and so she had gone into service, passing from house to house as chance would have. But her fortune was made when the local carpenter offered her a job as his housekeeper.
This carpenter was a young man, strong-armed and quite handsome. He had not always lived in the village, but had arrived there from afar quite suddenly one day. The townspeople had talked amongst themselves, but soon he had started plying his trade. He did this always within doors, in his workshop. People first discovered he was a carpenter because at night he would sweep all the shavings and sawdust outside until it piled up by the back door.
Then one day soon after his arrival the sign went up over the door of the shop. The sign was by far the most elaborate in all the village - it far surpassed the rather shoddy and weatherworn cat dangling over the door of the inn. The sign was not so much a sign as a miniature coffin, lid disconcertingly ajar. And so people understood that this was a man who would build coffins.
At first they found it rather odd that he had chosen their humble village for his undertaking. But not long after a family lost their most elderly member, and they went to ask the coffin builder for a box. He provided them with a simple but exquisite one, each plank fitted so carefully to its neighbour that no human hand could detect the cracks. Soon after an order came from a nearby village, and so the work trickled in. The coffin builder stayed in business, and quite soon the village people became used to him.
It was at this point that the young girl was hired by the handsome carpenter. Some people in the village frowned and gossiped, but as they were of no relation to the poor girl, none felt it their responsibility to do more than wag their tongues. The girl knew as much but also felt secure because she knew herself much better than they did.
The girl was given her list of chores, and a settle bed in the kitchen to sleep in. "When customers come, you must invite them in and offer them tea," the carpenter explained. "And then you must knock on the door to my workshop. But you must never enter the room, not to clean it nor if you hear strange sounds." And the girl agreed to these terms.
Soon after, a strong and fresh-faced farmer came to hire the carpenter. The girl invited him in and made him tea, and she knocked on the door to the workshop. The carpenter came in and welcomed the farmer, but when the farmer asked him to make a dresser for his wife the carpenter refused. "But I will make your coffin," he promised, and the kind look in his eyes made the girl shudder with fear and the strong farmer make the sign to ward off evil.
It happened not long after that a terrible accident befell the strong and healthy farmer, and his young and grieving wife came to ask for a coffin. "I'll make one just for him," the coffin builder said. And he shut himself up in his workshop and worked all day and all night until he had finished the casket. It was the most exquisite coffin he had made yet, and all the people who came to partake in the funeral procession exclaimed over its beauty. "It is so light, so intricately carved, so precisely joined together!"
They put the farmer in the box, and they put the box in the ground, and they put his memory in their hearts.
But the next day the strong and fresh-faced farmer came home. The awful wound from his terrible accident was gone without a scar, and when his family asked him, quite terrified, how he was and how he came to be there, he merely said, "I don't remember. But I've never been better." His young wife, who had been so frightened, became glad, and all the town rejoiced.
The rumor of the farmer's miraculous return to life soon spread far and wide across the kingdom. People flocked to the coffin builder's workshop to ask him to prepare a box especially for them. Sometimes the coffin builder would say, "I will make a box," but sometimes he would say, "I'll make one just for you." And so he would continue to make both kinds of coffins, the beautiful but plain kind and the exquisite and magical kind from whence every person interred came back. And all would say, when questioned, that they remembered nothing of the coffin, but that they had never been better, and then they would resume their lives with a new and impressive vigor.
One day the old queen herself came to visit the coffin builder. The girl invited her in and offered her tea. Then she knocked on the door to the workshop while the queen sat in the lowly kitchen in her shining silks, nervous as a school girl. The coffin builder came, and when he saw the queen he smiled his handsome smile and bowed and said, "I will make a special coffin just for you, your majesty." And the queen clapped her hands and laughed in delight.
The old queen lived for several years more, but on the very day news came of her passing, the coffin builder went into his workshop, and he worked all day and all night until he had made the most impressive casket yet. The coffin was sent to the castle, and the queen was put in the coffin, and the coffin was put in the ground, but the next day the queen came back, and she declared, "We don't remember what happened. But we've never been better." And indeed people would say she looked several years younger. In fact, she looked the same as she had done the day she came to visit the coffin builder.
Outside the village lived a group of travellers in wagons and tents. The young girl saw them sometimes when they came to the shops for food or business. One day the butcher's dog got in a fight with a traveller's dog, and as soon as their masters had parted them, they took over the fight themselves. It drew quite a crowd, and even the coffin builder came out of his workshop to gawk. The traveller girl was teaching the butcher and the village people several new words they had not heard before when the coffin builder pointed at her and said, "You there. I will make a coffin just for you." But the girl spat on the ground and made the sign to ward off evil, and the villagers shuddered and went back to their work.
But fate appeared to be an intimate friend of the coffin builder, for the winter sickness took the traveller girl. Her people, who mourned her very much, came to collect the box. The coffin builder went into his workshop and worked all day and all night until he had finished a beautiful casket. And the travellers put their daughter in the box, and they put the box in the ground, and the next day the girl came back. But when they asked her what horrors she had seen she merely smiled and said, "I don't remember any horrors. And I have never been better."
Now the coffin builder had worked for many years in the small kingdom, and many people had gone into his coffins dead and lifeless and come out living and breathing and strong. The girl was no longer a girl but a young woman, and sometimes she would still shudder at the coffin builder's smile. But she continued to cook his food and clean his house, and she continued to make tea for the people who came to his door. He sat one day in his parlor when the young woman served him his dinner, and he said to her: "I'll be leaving here soon and going someplace new. But before I go, I will make a box just for you."
The young woman felt dread then, but she said quite calmly, "You really shouldn't trouble yourself. I feel quite fine."
But the coffin builder smiled and said, "Oh, but I want to. I think you deserve it."
Not long after, the coffin builder went into his workshop, and the young woman heard him work, and he stayed there all day and all night. When he came in for breakfast in the morning he told her, "I've finished your box. I think it is my best work yet. Do you want to see it?"
The young woman shook her head and said, "You've told me I should never come into your workshop."
The coffin builder nodded as looked at her. Then he agreed that she was right, and the young woman felt relieved but nonetheless worried, because she remembered the fate of all the people the coffin builder had offered to make a box for.
The next day when the young woman was baking, the coffin builder brought the box into the house. He called her to come see it, and even through her misgivings she could tell that it was indeed the best work he had ever done. The patterns were more pleasing than she had ever seen before.
"Aren't you glad you saw it?" the coffin builder asked.
The young woman was not glad at all, but she smiled and said, "Yes, it's so beautiful. Thank you."
"Don't you want to touch it?" the coffin builder asked.
But the young woman was quick and said, "Oh, but I couldn't. My hands are dirty."
The coffin builder looked at her hands and nodded, and she hurried back to her cooking, worrying all along about the coffin that was waiting for her.
The next day the coffin builder called her in again, and again he invited her to test the feel of the coffin. The young woman touched the carvings. They felt supple and almost soft under her fingers and she commended the fine work. Then the coffin builder took the lid away, and he asked, "Don't you want to try it?"
The young woman peered into the deep blackness of the coffin and she felt truly frightened by the shadowy interior. She stepped back calmly and explained, "It's too high up on this table for me to climb in." Then she hurried out of the room and busied herself with work.
But she kept thinking about the coffin builder with the eery smile. She thought about the strangely black coffin interior, and she knew that when the next day came she would have to get into the coffin.
She could not think of a single thing to do that would allow her to avoid the coffin. But she remembered the smooth grain of the wood, and the dark maw of the insides, and she felt a deep sense of worry for each person who had gone into such a coffin, although every single one had come out again and seemed happy.
The young woman thought and thought until it was night and the coffin builder had long since gone to bed. She herself could not go to sleep - the look of her settle bed reminded her too much of the casket so that she shuddered at the sight of it. She knew that she had to discover the truth about the coffin builder and his secret workshop.
She snuck out quietly, her heart pounding with a fear that he would wake up and discover her trespassing. She closed the door carefully behind her, and crept along the wall of the house towards the workshop. She tested the handle, but the coffin builder in his arrogance had not even bothered to lock it.
The room smelled like wood shavings, and the stove in the corner gave off a faint glow. But the work bench was empty, and the floor was free of dust and shavings.
Except: although the coffin builder had always refused to make anything but coffins, a large and intricately carved wardrobe stood against the back wall. It was undoubtedly the work of the coffin builder. "How strange," thought the young woman and she went to have a look. The woodwork depicted strange scenes that she could not quite understand; ships and oceans and many people. There was a farmer, strong-armed and tall, walking behind a plough. There was a stately queen, sitting on a throne. There was a traveller girl running with a dog beside her. And there, outside a little house with a broom in her hand was a young woman whose face was an uncarved blank...
The young woman stared at the relief and wondered at the many faces she recognized, and she felt sorry for all the people she had admitted into the coffin builder's house. She hesitated for a moment, but then she slipped the hasp off the latch, and as the wardrobe door slid open a thick silver fog escaped from within. For a moment it enveloped the young woman, and she thought she heard voices whispering, far-away shouts and cheering, but then the mist disappeared, and when she looked again the relief was empty of people.
The sun was rising, and the coffin builder would wake soon. The young woman knew that she could not run away, because although she had freed the souls in the wardrobe, the coffin builder would simply be able to carry on his terrible work. She had only one chance to surprise him before he discovered what she had done.
She closed the wardrobe. She slipped back out of the workshop, and she closed the door carefully behind her. Then she went quietly back into the house and began to prepare breakfast for the coffin builder.
When she entered the parlor to serve breakfast the coffin builder had moved her casket to the floor. As soon as she came in the door, he smiled and pointed to it. "Please try it, just for a moment. I want to make sure the size is right."
The young woman gazed at the coffin, and she gathered her courage. "I will try it. But please, lend me your hand so that I can climb in."
The coffin builder came close. He held out his hand to the young woman, and she felt that it was smooth and soft as polished wood. The coffin builder smiled. The young woman pulled with all her might.
The coffin builder had left the village, even more quietly than he had come. The village people were surprised and they talked busily of his mysterious departure, but no one lamented the loss. They watched the young woman closely at first, but she seemed happier than she had ever been since she went into service with the coffin builder. When they asked her whether the coffin builder had explained himself before he left she assured them he hadn't. And when they asked her whether she was sorry he had left, she replied: "No. I've never felt better."