Little Brown Boats

Brown coffins stacked up in Italy, full coffins, ready to go. I saw them in a picture, a news article online. They look so creepy, always, coffins, the last beds for our mortal selves, the final resting places, as they are called. Coffins. Caskets. Or that is the earth they are buried in, the final resting places, the graves, the tombs, the cemetery plots and crypts. Creepy. Spooky. Ghoulish. The death business. The trappings. I saw them stacked up, almost thrown together, at the height of Italy’s pandemic, the death peak so far.

Or you are burned in them, same thing, same ride to the furnace. The coffin. The casket. The gold-plated handles and the chintzy trimming and the brown varnished wood, so shiny, so polished, so Lemon Fresh Pledge. An American thing. A household product. Make the wood glow. The coffins glowed in the picture, stacked pell-mell as if tossed carelessly aside, as I remember. No disrespect intended. Times are brutal. Niceties are suspended. Get them out. In the coffins, the caskets.

It was hard to take. I’ve seen enough damn coffins in my life. I know the ghastly product. The hideous exterior. The soft, plushy interior, the pillowy comfort. The coffin, the casket. Who took this shot? It was at the back of a hospital, maybe, the coffins waiting to be transported. It was foul, morose, hopeless. It was not what I wanted to look at.

Two nurses dead in Spain. Suicide. Too much death. How much can you handle? What is your breaking point? Another coffin, another casket? Just one more?

And I told myself, as I wept, controlling myself with great effort: “Nah, man, nah. I don’t buy that. They are not scary at all. They’re just little brown boats carrying the occupants to the next habitable shore, the next place to get off and start all over again. You will be welcomed by Light. You will hear rejoicing from your loved ones you have missed. You will be at peace and not dead and more alive than ever. The damn coffins aren’t even carrying the souls. They’re empty vessels. They’re necessary ritualistic bearers of bodies to the next date on the mortal calendar, the next—final—resting spot. But the soul laughs at the body under it. The soul escorts it carelessly. The soul is long gone and on that new shore. You can be assured of this by the light at the top of the picture, faintly seen, but visible, a blob of light held aloft by disappearing streaks on either side, all seen, none imagined, the light.”

And I went about my day, muttering to myself, “Little brown boats, little brown boats. That’s all they are, little brown boats.” And I am ready to board one, not. Who is, ever? Few, really. The old, the tired, the sick. Not the pandemic-stricken, the paralyzed. I still despise them, loathe them, fear them, the coffins, the caskets. But it came to me unbidden, the fleet of little brown boats outfoxing the virus, staying ahead. Corona can’t outwit it. It is left behind. You are reaching a new shore.

“Here you are, my friend.” A hand helps you out. But you’re already out.

You’re looking at it from a few steps away, you the soul, the former inhabitant of the body. You’re kicking the coffin back. It’s empty. It was nothing but a dumb, tacky, box-of-glued-together wood with the wrong address on it. It didn’t need to come here to your new home, your new stopover. But death is ritualistic. It likes its steps. It lets you off, you are already off. You are long gone, you are way ahead of it, the coffin, the casket.

“Yeah, little brown boats with a good shine on top to make them look nice, less scary, less morbid, as if anything can help them. Little brown boats, that’s all they are, man. They’re taking you nowhere gloomy and bad. You’re already gone. The Light is shining brighter and brighter atop the stack of coffins at the back of the hospital. It can’t be contained. It can’t be dampened by dead wood.”

And I got through another day, another afternoon. I bowed my head for the nurses who committed suicide and everybody who died lonely and distraught and is still suffering so terribly, so terribly. I bowed for the medics and healthcare workers and the essential service providers, too many to name, but there are the truckers and grocery store personnel and restaurant people and mail carriers and delivery company drivers and stackers and packers, everywhere, everywhere, in warehouses big and small and in between, the sorters and packagers and let’s not forget the farmworkers, oh, no, let’s not forget them.

And the countless others I have neglected out of ignorance and hurry I bowed to you, too, deeply. The funeral service directors. The cops and firefighters on the streets every day, every night. The garbage collectors. The lonely bus drivers. The holy humble pizza deliverer with the shy smile through the picture window—all, all heroes and notorious coffin smashers with glowing intrepid spirits that the wood can’t hold. It bursts at the sight of your eyes, your life spirit.

“You are the light at the top of the picture. You are already there.”

I went to bed with a smile on my face. I was very scared. But I was okay, too. Brown boats floated across my vision, bright lights trailing them and dancing around them. And the germ, the damn germ, covid-what’s-its-name hung back like a punk knowing the human spirit, the magnanimous, unpredictable, outrageous, collective soul was much too large and slippery to attach itself to and ride.

“The coffins, the caskets,” I mumbled drifting off. “What a joke.”


Stephen D. Gutierrez is the author of three collections of fiction and nonfiction, and winner of an American Book Award. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, his nonfiction having appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, New South, The Los Angeles Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and Under the Gum Tree. He lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.





Submit a comment