Short Story: The Laughing Coffin

I’ve noticed something: I’m not good at writing short stories. I struggle with them much more than I do with novellas and novels. When I reread them, something always seems to be missing. But The Laughing Coffin, that’s a short story I wrote that I actually like. Sure, it’s not my best work, and it got rejected by Fantasy magazines I submitted to a bunch of times, but it’s entertaining at the very least. It was my first real attempt at a humorous short story too! That’s why I’ve decided to share it on this blog.

Well crap. That was all I could think as I wiggled for some room to move around. Trapped between six planks made of sturdy oak, my arms crossed and placed on my chest like I was the butt of a sick joke about vampires, and about six feet worth of dirt on top. Well crap.

At least the ones who’d buried me alive had been decent enough to furnish my not so spacious coffin with a velvet lining, to make sure I was comfortable as I slowly but steadily asphyxiated. Seriously though, the coffin was way too small for one of my stature. There was no position that didn’t hurt me in some way, not even just lying on my back. I was sure I’d be getting cramps soon.

I wondered how long it would take me to die. They say the smaller you are, the more time you have because there’s more oxygen in the coffin. In that case I was truly screwed: I was not a small man.

In fact, I was the tallest man in our village, and had taken much pride in that throughout my life. Too much pride, according to some. Pah, what do they know? Being a tall man, I’d always towered over everyone else–and if you asked me, I’d tell you the other villagers were just jealous. Short people always are. Trust me on this.

#

Knowing that I didn’t have much time, a couple of hours perhaps, I thought about trying to break through the coffin. I was a strong man; that shouldn’t be a problem. But would I be able to get to the surface in time? I doubt it. I remembered suddenly a lesson our village wizard had given when I was still a boy.

One of the cheekier ones in my class had asked if he would survive being buried alive if he wasn’t a wizard. The old chap had answered that he wouldn’t even as a wizard. Something about the dirt on top of the coffin turning into an avalanche or something. My memories were a bit hazy on that account; I never paid much attention in class. What for? Brains would get me nowhere in life–my mother had told me so many times herself. In fact, my life had been nothing but trouble because of my brains. Or lack of them as my mother used to say.

     #

How did they get me in here? There was no lump on the back of my head that I could feel, and no horrible throbbing, so I knew they hadn’t gotten me with a blunt instrument to the back of the head. Or they had and my head was just so hard I didn’t feel anything. Might I have been poisoned? But only the village witch used poisons and none of the other villagers dared go near her. Their loss I’d say: she gave a hell of a rutting. Sure, her hair was falling out in lumps, her hands were gnarly and she didn’t have any teeth, but would a true man let that stop him from rutting with her? Not me!

But then, most of the village men were spineless weaklings. They must have gotten me with some kind of sleeping draught! They probably put it in my mead while I was tearing into the meat of the swine I’d brought in a few days before. I bet they didn’t believe I killed the beast myself!

Truth be told, I hadn’t. I stole it from a neighbouring village from an old maid and her two sickly-thin children, but would they really miss it? If it was their prized possession, what was it doing outside in the mud? It should’ve been locked up inside the barn. It was like they were just begging me to steal that delicious swine.

#

The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. How could they have drugged me? They couldn’t have done it without the village healer’s help; I knew that much. And she didn’t have anything against me, did she? Or did she?

Suddenly I recalled a particular incident three moons back. She’d told me to lay off the mead and made up some nonsense about it being bad for my health. As if! Mead is the drink of the Gods and every true man knows it. I had scoffed at her and her so-called advice about trying to drink more water and eat more vegetables, citing my ever expanding girth as a point of worry for her.

I had laughed in her face, trying to hide my anger at what she was implying, and swept some of her healing potions and draughts off her table for good measure. No one tells Torcer’banden Ener and Ulla-son Fiftieth of his Name what to do! My friends called me Tor. Well, they would have if I’d had any.

In fact, as I shifted in my coffin, I realised that not only was I friendless, I had allegedly wronged almost everyone–if not all–in the village. Any one of them could have put me in here. But which one would have the guts to do it? To actually bury me alive, even if it might have been my own fault?

#

I realised that all of the villagers would feel like they had legitimate reasons for wanting revenge. Now all I had to do–all I could do, buried alive as I was–was figure out who’d done me in. Who’d want to kill me. And not just kill me, but kill me slowly with the knowledge that I would suffer. Who in this sleepy little village of mine could be so cruel?

#

Was it foul lady Dara? Could it be she wanted me to suffer after what I’d done to her all those summers ago? If so, she sure knew how to hold a grudge. Seriously, that woman wouldn’t know humour if I took a war hammer, engraved it with the letters to spell out the word humour and whacked her over the head with it! How was swapping her newborn triplets with three little piglets for a day not funny? It was hilarious to see her and the other villagers stream into the forest to search for them, or for a babe snatcher. What they would have done if they’d caught a babe snatcher is something I’ve broken my head over a hundred times. Stare the snatcher down with their haughty and scornful glares?

And I would’ve successfully swapped the babes back if those darn things hadn’t started mewling all of a sudden. That had brought the old lady sprinting right back, I’ll tell you. Never saw her run that fast in all the time that I’d known her–which was basically my entire life. And what a trying life she’d made it for me.

Always pushing my mother to teach me letters, even though both of my parents didn’t see the point. My dad didn’t because he was always drunk and he couldn’t care less about my education. (I suspected he suspected me of being another man’s get. Silly idea though, because my mother had always said my ugliness reminded her of him in his better years. Or was it the other way around?)

#

Old maid Cati was also a good candidate for my predicament, though how she’d been able to move the bulk of my body with her spidery build would be anyone’s guess. She truly had it in for me. Ever since I ate her dragonflies, she’d hiss at me whenever she saw me. As if it was my fault she left me alone with them while I was hungry!

Truly, what did she expect a grown man to do when he’s starving and in a room with those dragonflies just calling out to him to eat them? If she didn’t want me to eat them, she should’ve offered me something better than the meat pie she’d given me.

Trying to get one over on me by telling me the meat pie was for her dinner, but that she was willing to share it with me. Share? Pah! I ate the whole damn thing–which was actually pretty tiny–and it wasn’t even that good!

When she left to buy some more food, I just had to have those stupid dragonflies that she kept flying around. They were disgusting, but at least they kept my mouth and stomach busy for a while until she came back with more food. And then she had to audacity to run me out of her house, shouting about ungratefulness. Ungratefulness! What did I have to be grateful for? A small meat pie and a mouthful of dragonflies? Pah!

But that spidery woman couldn’t have moved my body without help. So who helped her, eh? Was it Tefor? That coward! Sure, thinking about it, he was one of the villagers who actually had a legitimate axe to grind with me. After all: I did steal his wife. In my defence though, she only let me steal her because she was trying to get back at him for something. I don’t remember exactly what he’d done to make her mad, but her anger had provided me with an opportunity.

Why shouldn’t I have taken it? She wanted it, I wanted it, nothing wrong with that, right? Obviously it became a problem when Tefor barged in during the act and in our haste to disengage, we ended up even more entangled. Man, speak of literally being stuck in a rut! That was one of the most embarrassing and hilarious moments of my life. Unfortunately Tefor and his wife didn’t feel the same and chased me out after I was finished getting my breath back from laughing so hard.

That day I would remember fondly for the rest of my undoubtedly short life. I might have even harboured silly thoughts about telling my future grandchildren that story, even though I detested the little buggers, and they weren’t even born yet. They probably never would.

#

That reminded me of a lecture the village wizard–I really should have found out what his name was and should’ve stopped calling him Lord wizard–once gave me. Something about children being made up of half their parents’ traits or something. Which made the idea of having children even more preposterous. My parents always said that I wasn’t much of a boy and even in my adult life they were disappointed with me, for no reason I could see.

No, it would be better if I didn’t have children after getting out of the coffin. But I was honest about my chances of that happening and those chances were slim. My air wouldn’t last that long anyway. Would whoever put me in here have thought ‘good riddance’? Would they have considered me less than an animal to put me in so small a coffin without having the decency to actually kill me? Or without having the balls to?

#

As my stomach growled, I was reminded of another person who might have put me into the ground. That darn baker! Accusing me of stealing three loaves of bread, while I’d made it perfectly clear that I’d eventually pay him back. Didn’t I give him my word as I ran from his bakery, my hands full of warm loaves of bread? Didn’t my word count for anything in this damn village? He’d dared gang up on me with Aern the butcher.

Coming after me with a butcher’s knife and a baker’s rolling-pin! They’d no idea how silly they looked; two burly men running after me, their shoulders nearly touching as they tried to bowl me over. I bet they didn’t see that thrashing coming. Thought they’d take me down and teach me a lesson. Ha!

I’d been chased by stronger and bigger boys all my life; I knew exactly how to handle those two buffoons. All right, so maybe I shouldn’t have knocked them on their arses and let their heads have it with the baker’s own rolling-pin. But that could be counted as self-defence, couldn’t it? After all, I only did to them what they were planning to do to me.

And okay, I might have been the better man if I hadn’t also accidentally hit the baker’s wife as she tried to get me to stop hitting her husband, but I never said I was a good man.

I wasn’t a bad man, but I wasn’t a saint either. She pulled my arm and the rolling-pin went flying. How was that my fault? It wasn’t the baker’s wife who had to suffer the angry glares and casual insults hurled at her whenever she walked by for so many moons. That was me!

#

It could’ve been the blacksmith Weldor too. He’d never taken kindly to me, but after the visit of the fancy lieutenant of some unheard of division of the Royal Army who had visited to enlist our village boys and men, he was even meaner to me. He never forgave me for not enlisting to keep his sons from going.

First of all: it was their choice to go, as it was my choice to just laugh and walk away when the lieutenant asked me if I wanted to be a soldier. Like I wanted to be someone who’d risk his life for a meagre wage in some foreign land? Sure I’d like to travel, but not to war! What would I have done out there? I wasn’t an able swordsman, or bowman, or axe man, or even a hammer man.

The thought of having to put on a breastplate already made me sweat. War was for those young fools who thought they were invincible. Who thought they were immortal.

I knew I was mortal all right: I’d had plenty of brushes with death by the hands of village bullies. Weldor’s sons were idiots who thought they could outsmart Death just because they happened to know how to work metal. That had absolutely nothing to do with me. I wasn’t going to sacrifice my easy life to save those two from fates they’d chosen for themselves. Not even if the whole village had agreed to enlist instead of the children. I hadn’t agreed to anything like that. That taught them never to exclude me from village meetings again, if anything!

#

The villagers had given me the same dirty looks and had whispered the same abuse when my parents died. Well, not because they died–they were so old no one remembered a time they weren’t all wrinkly and shuffling instead of walking–but because I hadn’t done anything special for the funeral. They’d insisted I’d provide mourners and shiny headstones with a special (and very expensive) spell provided by the wizard to keep them from eroding, that I give them the respect they deserved.

And that’s what I did. I dumped their smelly old corpses in two shallow graves somewhere in the forest–I’d already forgotten where as I left–and burned down their house. What respect?

They’d never done anything for me to show them respect for. They hadn’t been very loving parents, hell, most of the times they hadn’t even been decent parents. So all those people who told me I had to forgive them and honour their memories had no idea what they were talking about. What memories?

I had plenty of memories, none of them good. They shouldn’t have looked down on me for doing what I did. Burning down my parents’ house was the best thing I’d ever done–and would ever do. So what if the herbal store and the inn burned down too? They were rebuilt in the end, right? Sheesh, accidents happen, don’t they? No need to blame them on me. After all, I wasn’t in my right mind at the time. Like they all said: I was mourning. Can’t blame mourners for their actions, can we?

#

I felt myself getting sluggish and sleepy in the coffin, and knew that the time of my suffocation was nearer than I’d hoped. Curse them! What had I ever done to them that was so bad they had to bury me alive? Was it because of the bull wrestling games that had gone terribly wrong? How was it my fault that those enormous bulls got angry when they got a whiff of my smoked beef as I made my way through the crowd to get a better look?

So they went bulling through the crowds and injured a few people trying to get to me–or so the villagers accused. It’s not like I slaughtered their cousin or mother or whatever myself and then put a big slab of cow on the fire with my own two hands. I just bought it from one of those games’ stalls, to savour it while watching people wrestle bulls. If you ask me, those bulls were just angry having to wrestle mud-covered, sweaty men with awfully callused hands. I wouldn’t want those all over me either.

#

Was it because I played that prank on the wizard that one time? I was helping him get rid of those darn hiccups: I should’ve been thanked for that, not scolded. He was having the hiccups, and kind person that I was, I told him I had seen some beautiful flowers in the forest. He always liked flowers, so he joined me. When I showed him the colourful flowers, I could see his interest peaking and knew then that it had been a good idea to bring him here to cure him of his hiccups. Because if this didn’t work, nothing else would.

He bent over to smell their cloying scent, his nose almost touching a bright purple one. What a surprise it must have been when the flower suddenly snapped at his nose. He jumped eight feet in the air, he did!

The flesh eating flower took a piece right out of the poor wizard’s nose. But his hiccups were completely gone, and I call that a job well done. Imagine my surprise when he tried to turn me into a worm and stomp me. I had to stomp him right back!

#

Honestly I had no idea why anyone would put me in here. All they had on me were accidents and pranks–oh, and maybe one legitimate claim by Tefor, but that was mostly his wife’s doing. There was no reason for the village people to be so cruel to me. I had never been malicious towards them. I’d never even thought about them for more than a few seconds before doing anything.

The villagers just hated me for no good reason! And that’s why it must have been all of them who put me here. All of them. Cowards! Too afraid to face me with words or fists, so let’s just dump poor old Tor deep in the ground and seal him up. Pah! I’d show them! I’d make them pay for what they did to me. But how? What could I possibly do to get revenge while I was slowly dying in this coffin?

Then it came to me. That story about haunts and ghosts from when I was a child. Folks used to say that if someone died angry, they’d come back as a ghost to haunt those who angered them.

But anger was not my style. It wouldn’t really make it clear I was haunting them if I was just angry. No, I had a better idea. What is more annoying and scary than an angry ghost? Why, a ghost that laughs in your face until you die!

And so I took a deep breath–probably my last–and laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. I gurgled, I giggled, I howled, I chuckled and I roared. They wanted to get rid of me silently, but I defied them with my very last breath. Knowing that after I died, my ghost would continue on laughing. Right here in this coffin. Let them fear me. Let them fear the laughing coffin. Ha!

###

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