The trip lasted three days, and I learned each rough plank, splinter, and dark knot of wood inside the box. I slept leaning against the side, and could stand—barely. The cloth of my wool coat snagged against the boards and left little tufts of felt hanging around me like small, soft creatures. The box smelled so strongly of new-sawn wood the stink of my body didn't rise above it until the second day.
I crouched while the rasp of a saw bit through wood. Air holes had been punched in the sides, but I felt as though I hadn't really breathed until the man lifted the top from around my head. I hoped he liked what he saw. I was on the stocky side, broad shoulders and hips, but still more muscle than fat. Brown hair with a slight wave, just long enough to pull out of the way and braid. My profile said I was strong, and a good worker. Surely my ability to work would be more important than beauty on this farm owned by two brothers.
I didn't like the idea of another trip in the box.
I stood upright and stretched my arms. The man shook his head. “Get back.” His voice grated. I retreated as far as the box allowed, and held my breath as he brought his palms down along the wood planks forming the sides, and cut them as well. He stepped back and let the front of the box fall on the floor between us. I ran my fingers over the rough-sawn edge, steeled myself, stepped out of the box.
“Gert” I said, offering my hand.
“Peter,” he replied, and kept his hands stiffly by his sides. He had brown hair, muddy eyes, and stood only an inch or two taller than me. Wrists, knees, and elbows jutted through tears in his clothing. His sandpaper palms made me think of the roughness of my brother’s cheek when I had kissed him good-bye.
We rode directly into town and stood in a small stone chapel to say our words. The priest looked at me closely for a few long minutes, long enough for me to think of the smell of wood, and the dark knots that mapped the planks. I plucked at the hem of my coat. Apparently satisfied, the priest led us through the rites. A few old women sat at the back, ready to bear witness to our vows.
After we had a meal. No one stopped to talk to us. Between gulps of food, Peter rubbed his hands back and forth on the seat beside his legs. Despite my days in the box, I had little appetite. When he stood to leave, I saw fresh grooves gouged into the wood of his bench, and what little I had eaten threatened to return.
Peter’s brother waited for us back at the farm. He leaned against the barn. Razor edges showed through the holes at his elbows and knees.
“This is my brother Rand.” Peter said. He pointed at me. “My wife, Gert.”
Rand clapped his hand on Peter’s shoulder with the ring of steel on whetstone. I vomited
into the dirt.
“Keep the box,” Rand said to Peter, and walked away.
Although I believe now that Peter did his best to be gentle, I crawled from bed the next morning sliced and slashed and never able to bear children. We worked the stony ground for what it would yield, grazed a few cows, and harvested wood. Peter and Rand went out each morning, and I worked in the garden and the house. Rand made himself a place in the barn, and I did what I could to make the house comfortable. I learned to cover chairs with tough hide and sand new gouges from the table each day. The box stayed in the barn.
Peter became gentle, or at least less rough, and I hardened. At my request he made me a dresser to hold our clothes, and did most things I asked, though I was careful not to ask for much. Rand seldom spoke to me, but would brush my arm as he passed, and leave a new string of red beads among my scars. When I complained to Peter he only said, “Rand is my brother.”
I found the gloves in the back of a kitchen cupboard when I was doing spring cleaning. I
was fairly certain they hadn’t been there before. Holding them, I couldn’t remember the last time I had touched anything so soft. I pulled a glove onto my left hand, and it snagged and split along the length of a finger. I tugged it on the rest of the way; it was already ruined with dirt and bloodstains.
I managed to get the other one on too, though they were little more than rags by time I was done. I walked through stone fields to our neighbor, a woman who lived alone and made her small living selling teas and ointments. I had gotten to know her well in the beginning, buying salves for my raw flesh.
The woman looked as squat and weathered as the granite mounds. I showed her my gloved hands. “There was another one before you,” the woman said, looking away from me to the stony fields. “A pretty one. Curls and skirts and wide blue eyes. Hands soft as butter. Always wearing gloves. A proper lady, or looked to be. Brought lavender soap with her. Every day that bar got smaller and smaller, but she wrapped what was left in tissue. She showed it to me near the end. Asked if I could make her some more. Not so bad I suppose for some things, but she wasn’t much good for this life.” She turned back at me. “She didn’t last too long.”
I found the other box in the barn loft. The wood was smoother, and it had four small openings on one side, with empty spaces I knew once held the glass panes now fitted into the window of the bedroom I shared with Peter. I examined each plank of wood, trying to read her history by the pattern of knots and the grain. My box, rough though it was, had been made from the best wood my brother could find. Almost no rain had fallen for three years, and our parents and younger brothers and sister had died, one by one, and anything better had been used for their coffins. Knowing there would not be enough food for both of us, I told my brother I wanted a chance to marry. Already I was harder than him. I leaned closer to the box and tried to smell any trace of lavender.
I served Peter and Rand dinner that night wearing the stained, torn gloves. “Where did you get those?” Rand asked, and Peter stood up from the table. They went at each other, using their limbs like hatchets and knives and saws. After a few minutes, Rand held Peter on the floor, kneeling on his legs. He blocked Peter’s blows, which fell with soft thuds along Rand’s arms and torso. I grabbed Rand’s head and pulled him away from Peter. Rand gripped my shoulders and drew his hands downs along my arms, squeezing hard. He ripped what was left of the gloves from my hands.
We both looked at the faint red marks he left on my skin. Peter’s face and arms and body were covered in bloody lines. I slapped Rand in the face, and was satisfied as much by the bloody wound I left as his surprise. As I took another step towards him I felt something sharp at my neck.
“My brother,” said Peter, forcing the tip of the knife into my skin.
I am one of those old women now who sit at the back of the church and whisper about the new girls, who continue to arrive in their boxes. Peter survived that night. I saw him in town a few times, though he kept his head turned and pretended not to see me. The neighbor woman sheltered me that first winter. I spent the cold days learning to work with wood, and make my living that way, though I make no boxes, not even for coffins. I learned which trees to tap for syrup, which herbs to grow for medicine, and that men harden women, and women soften men, and those who survive leave nothing in between.
Nancy Gold lives and works on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Quiet Circle, Toad Suck Review, A cappella Zoo, and The Moon City Review. She is currently working on a series of essays about traumatic brain injury.