First Kings and Other Stories
  Fiction by Ted Morrissey
    First Kings
  The Widow’s Son (page 1) (page 2)
  About the Author  |  |  Winter 2020 Fiction Issue

The Widow’s Son


Eutychus Michaels undertook the dead with care and over the years he had become obsessed with their secrets, the closely held details their closed coffins would conceal forever. It was an isolated community and only occasionally did he have more than one body at a time in the workroom his mother called the salon. When he did, he hoped the dead would speak to one another in sympathy of their sad situations. At night he would steal into the dim quarter as quietly as a shade, not lighting a candle, his feet in wool socks. Around him, the scents of his trade—methanol, mineral spirits, camphor, cedar resin—lay leadenly in the cold air. He stood silently for an hour or more listening in the dark for the voices of the dead. And at times, as cold crept into his bones and sleep seeped into his brain, he would detect a murmuring voice—but it would be the rising wind, or a recollected cry in a dawning dream. Disappointed, he would depart the stone-quiet dead to return to his room, lonely and black, above the salon.

In winter, the dead would be prepared then stored in the shed, stacked if necessary, until spring thaw. Graves would be dug in the soupy ground. The diggers charged extra, and the family was obliged to pay. On frigid, bonechilling nights—the sky transparent and the stars as large as lighthouse lamps—Eutychus would put his heavy coat over his nightshirt and trudge in his snow-crunching boots to stand at the shed door. He wouldn’t bother with a lantern because the icy moon and stars would spread their white light as if daybreak were coming hours early.

Surely the skin-splitting cold would cause the dead to cry out. When he was a boy he fell through the ice and was saved by an older cousin. But he feared the cold would kill him before they could get him warm by a blazing fire. It was like he had shards of ice in his blood, and his limbs were freezing from the inside out, veins to muscle to skin.

The dead must experience a similar sensation on a night frigid enough to freeze starlight, he thought. It must make them murmur for warmth beneath the malevolent, indifferent moon.

Once he thought Walter Mesmore muttered something inside the shed, his words weak and clotted by the pneumonia that killed him, but it was only the wind echoing among the empty hills. Eutychus, crestfallen, returned to bed to thaw his tingling fingers and toes.


When he was a young man and just learning his trade, he loved a girl with golden hair, Margaret O’Brien. Her family was so new to the village her father’s baritone carried a brogue. Eutychus and she would walk by the Peach Creek where it emerged from the woods on Hewett’s farm. Chestnut trees littered the ground, and Old Man Hewett didn’t object to folks collecting their fill.

One day, maybe in the spring, he would muster the courage to ask Margaret’s father for her hand. He’d been learning his twin trades—undertaking and cabinetmaking—and would be able to support a young wife, and eventually a child or two. He rehearsed the speech in his head a hundred times but never got the opportunity to recite it because Margaret caught the influenza—it was the winter of ’77—and was gone in five days. In her final hours he wasn’t allowed to see her, a mere friend. No one knew his intentions toward her, except Margaret herself.

The worst was yet to come. She was sent to the Michaelses’ embalming table, and Eutychus’s mother, from whom he was learning the mortuary side of the business, tasked him with preparing Margaret’s body for burial. The influenza was keeping them busy, and it was an opportunity for Eutychus to step fully into his role, no longer apprentice.

He stood in the salon, alone, looking at Margaret’s canvas-draped body on the table. The only familiar feature which showed was her flaxen hair, fanned out like an elaborate crown, splendidly refulgent in the lamplight even in death.

He rolled back the canvas to her bird-bone clavicle, which appeared frail enough to snap between finger and thumb. Her beloved face was shrunken to an almost skeletal mask already. The blue cast of her lips recalled a picture-book princess of the sea, a girl with the body of a fish from the waist, but it was only a momentary image because the canvas showed the shape of human legs, slightly parted. The narrow opening of her lids revealed irises as green as summertime fields. He recalled Hewett’s field, in fact, where they’d gathered chestnuts only weeks before, and where he’d stolen his first kiss beneath one of the ancient trees.

Even Margaret’s mask in death touched off a torrent of memories, of that very face, apple-cheeked, tilted back in laughter, a carefree peal that echoed among Christmas pines. The recollection filled his heart with the heaviness of stones, one by one walling off the tender emotions so that he could perform his function and do what he must: slice though the delicate skin and stiff muscle to remove the organs and carefully fill the cavity with a mixture of moistened coal dust and ashes before sewing the body closed like an old quilt that has dropped its patterned stitches.

First, he snipped a short strand of Margaret’s hair and tied a knot in the middle. Then he placed it in a paper packet, which he secured in his shirt pocket beneath the leather apron. Once he began his work in earnest another keepsake came to mind. The idea was so distracting he nearly cut himself with the cartilage knife. The thought of how he could keep a whole heart without his mother knowing stopped him in his work. He held a lung, heavy with fluid, in his left hand, and there the heart lay exposed, drained of blood except for a few stubborn drops: the heart he felt sure he had won. He recalled the way Margaret glanced his way when they walked together, and how she laughed at his jokes no matter how clumsy, and he felt again her hand in his as they had sat that summer night beneath the ancient tree everyone called Papa Chestnut. How could he slice out that heart—his heart!—and drop it in the organ pail like so much slop for Old Man Stephenson’s hogs?

He held Margaret’s beautiful heart in his hand. No, he couldn’t keep it all, but . . .

He took up the number-two knife, used for fine work, and carefully sliced a sliver as long as his thumb. Then he set the strip of heart on top of the stove in the corner. He stoked the birch logs inside to raise the flames. The heat would drive out the last bit of moisture.

Before his mother came to inspect his handiwork, the strip of heart was dried and curled, and resembled parchment more than cardiac organ. He placed it in the packet with Margaret’s hair, which truly gleamed like gold in the stove-light. Much later, he pressed the circle of hair and snippet of heart into a locket he secretly wore beneath his shirt.


Eutychus never knew his father. From a young age he learned that asking his mother anything about him was futile. She literally acted as if no query had come from Eutychus’s lips, ignoring him so effectively that afterward he would begin to wonder if he had verbalized his question or merely rehearsed it. Eventually he didn’t bother asking at all.

There was no sign of Eutychus’s father in the house: no photograph, no rough portrait, no family heirloom on the parlor mantel, no well-worn volumes in the bookcases with a manly signature of ownership on the flyleaf. Growing up, Eutychus learned to undertake the dead from his mother, and cabinetmaking mainly by trial and error. Cabinetmaking was the fraternal twin of undertaking: convenient, complementary skills. In essence, coffins were specially shaped cabinets.

In a community where gossiping was practically a profession, Eutychus heard no stories of his father—nothing notorious or commonplace, salacious or sorrowful, exotic or humdrum. Simply nothing: an absence of history remarkable only in the total dearth of even absentminded remarks.

In response, Eutychus made up a host of stories to account for his missing father: more than missing: his never-formed father, his unborn father. According to Eutychus’s imagination, he was murdered and interred in an unnamed grave. He was a murderer who perished on the gallows and was unceremoniously cremated, noose still around his neck. He jilted Eutychus’s mother for another woman, not aware that Eutychus was already on his way. He had an irresistible wanderlust and had been traversing the world incessantly since abandoning wife and son, sailing the seven seas, even, like Sinbad of the Arabian Nights.

Eutychus sometimes envisioned his father’s return, his long overdue homecoming—and it wasn’t so much a flesh-and-blood man he saw but rather a story, a narrative that would come back to solve the mystery of his absence. He knew instinctively it may well be an unhappy tale, an unsatisfying tale, a tale best left untold.



The Michaelses’ shed was filled and five more victims of the influenza were in the salon, two on tables and three on the plank floor. It was wintertime, and the burials were still weeks away. Eutychus’s mother had found neighbors who would store the poor souls until they could be interred. In the morning, Eutychus was to begin transporting the canvas-wrapped bodies by horse and cart to their temporary places.

He’d only slept for a few hours when he began to hear the voices. At first he thought it was his mother and one of her bad dreams—her talking dreams, she called them, but usually there was more shouting than talking, and striking out too, at the phantoms in her room. This time, there was more than one voice, and they seemed to be coming from below, from the salon.

Eutychus struck a match and lit the candle next to his bed. The smell of phosphorous and flint was strong for a moment. He buttoned the top buttons of his nightshirt and began padding his way downstairs. He could feel the cold of the floor through his socks. His left large toe protruded from a sizable hole overdue for darning, but with the influenza outbreak there’d been time for little else but death.

He stopped on the stairway landing and thought perhaps the voices had ceased, or they’d been the after-echoes of a dream. Soon they continued their dialogue, indecipherable and oddly cadenced. He kept on, careful of his slick socks on the bare boards.

Downstairs, along the narrow hall to the door of the salon, which was shut. He put his ear against the door’s cold panel: several voices, including Margaret’s, though it was strange in death, affected, he guessed, by her organs having been replaced by ash and dust.

He trembled, more from the chilly air than his nerves. After all, he’d grown up among the dead, had played games like hide-and-seek beneath the table where covered cadavers lay. In sum, the dead did not disturb him. Their quiet repose suited his own inward-looking ways.

He gripped the icy doorknob then entered the salon, his candle held at head level. It took his eyes a moment to sort out what he saw: five cadavers standing upright, still wrapped, head to toe, in their canvas shrouds, in haphazard order like bashful strangers at a tea. Even with the weak yellow light he knew which was Margaret. Her size gave her away as she was the only teenage girl among the salon’s guests. Next to the other dead she seemed a child, which suggested their love had been silly, melodramatic, she and Eutychus mere children. What did they know of love?

The dead were speaking at once, their odd voices an unintelligible muddle. But he felt that what they had to say was quite urgent. He strained to make it out, as the cold crept from his feet up his ankles and legs, like a rising flood.

He stepped past a pair of cadavers to stand before Margaret’s fully shrouded form. In the candlelight he could see the subtle movements of the canvas with the workings of her mouth beneath. The other cadavers’ voices orchestrated in a way meant to drown Margaret’s and to drain it of meaning, embalm it with gibberish. There was something about mother and child

            maybe the Madonna

            and virgin births

Eutychus cupped an ear toward Margaret’s covered lips but it didn’t help the words to be any clearer. The words plague

            and house

were decipherable amid the din but their meaning ran through his fingers like sand, a fine grit he grasped more loosely the harder he squeezed.

He thought he heard the name Elizabeth before turning to the corpse nearest Margaret, Mr. Carter, to try to silence his incessant and nonsensical chatter. He placed his hand upon Mr. Carter’s bony shoulder and shook him. Stop, quiet, Eutychus implored to no effect: the words continued to fall from his cold, covered lips like so many enigmas from a lacquered Oriental box.

Eutycus tried to quiet the next corpse and the next but their incomprehensible banter ran unabated.

Desperate, for he felt Margaret wanted to communicate something important, perhaps even critical, Eutychus set his candle on a table and forcefully took hold of the next figure:

Shush, quiet! He shook the shoulders hard, almost violently.

At last a word became clear: Eutychus! A hand took hold of one arm, and the other was clubbed away—

In the salon’s dim, midnight light Eutychus’s mother materialized, in her nightgown and cap. What’re you doin, boy? Starlight from a window glinted off the metal in her hand, the Navy revolver she kept beneath her bed. She’d used its long barrel to knock away his too-tight grip. What’s the matter? she tried again.

He glanced around the deeply shadowed room, and the corpses lay here and there, precisely as they should. The shrouded and silent dead.

I, I don’t know. . . .

Was you sleepwalkin? His mother held the heavy Colt in both hands. It likely wasn’t loaded, used mainly for show, and for clubbing. Gray locks hung down loosely from her cap, somewhat askew from Eutychus’s shaking.

I suppose, maybe, sorry, Mama. His voice rang strange to his ears, sounding like the deads’, like his chest was stuffed with soot. He imagined coughing out a puff of dust. As he spoke to his mother, there in the ice-cold salon, he struggled to recall Margaret’s fractured message, already evaporating, the way the stuff of dreams do to the newly awoken.

He followed his mother from the room but stole a final look and listen at dear Margaret before shutting the door.

She, nor any of the dead, ever spoke again.


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  © Ted Morrissey, 2020


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