Wrote another “short story”, probably not very interesting but at least it’s short:

 

A Coffin

 It is a reasonably ornate thing, of varnished wood and brass. There were once, it seems, illustrated panels but time and the salt sea have had their way. Inevitably, over the many ages, it has been dropped, on cobbles, stone stairs, on jetties, on tile and wood and marble; it has banged against unexpectedly swinging doors, against many a doorjamb, against iron rails, against pikes, swords, staves, rifles, even at times against monoliths, statues, gargoyles and carved atrocities. Not to speak of its sea-going vessels: not for this coffin an especial boat, a dedicated craft; no no, it has come to shore on decaying barge, navy launch, cruise liner, on gunboat, fishing trawler, sloop, it has been hauled off aircraft carrier and u-boot, it has been precariously tied to rafts and lifeboats and dinghies. And the attendants – of varying number, chosen seemingly at random by whatever will, some feeble, ill, old, deranged, some barely able to stand, mostly grumbling and drunk. Naturally, they have been subject of close inquisition and speculation; they have been feted and questioned by theologians and sorcerors and scientists, all manner subtle men, and are themselves either marvelous subtle in the keeping of secrets, or there are none to be kept. An ordinary base crew for the most part, but loyal: for all they will spit, leer, and disappear into the worst slums as a rat into its chosen sewer, they are always back at the coffin when needed; they do not desert.

The coffin’s visitations are too infrequent and irregular to constitute a tradition; yet it is never wholly unexpected. A vessel arrives from ocean or sea or river. The usual hailing and announcements, ropes cast and secured, the customs men swagger over, grab the manifest, or a seaman murmurs in an ear, and then the ritual begins – word comes to the innermost places of power, and orders are given, to bring the long-awaited guest into the city.

In some, the whole area is emptied; and then filled with spy, informant, agent, so even the vile beggars hobbling and screeching for coppers are, in fact, employees and watchers of the state.

In some, the general stand close, becoming aware of a novelty – gawping and pointing and spitting, hurling their clods of dung and rotten turnip, as is their fashion.

In some, the faithful cluster about the boat or ship, offering whatever adorations they favour – bowing, kneeling, wailing, singing, or silent.

– Barbarossa! they cry, or any of a thousand other names. Sometimes they fear an old evil lies within, and clutch relics and talismans, mutter invocations to their gods; or avert their eyes and hurry hence; or stand staring, licking their cracked lips as the coffin is lifted from the boat. It holds a god or a devil, a hero, a sacrifice, an alien; it holds the enormous weight of all the dead, of every ancestor; it holds the race’s earliest mother, she who walked the shore and learnt speech in imitation of the sea; it holds a vagrant nemesis or fool, wandering the world for demonic purpose, or none at all; he or she comes to judge the city; to bless and forgive; to annihilate the wicked, or everyone; to appoint a new lord; to announce some forgotten secret; to remove the entire population to another continent, or planet.

It is all one to the attendants, as they bear the coffin away into a large official residence or place of obscure business. They are often well-received and clad in fine garments, fed and powdered and called Milord and Your Honour; but just as often they are cuffed about the head and given servants’ quarters and warned not to steal so much as an orange pip; or occasionally detained in very clean white rooms and questioned by special constables.

It is of no importance. When the coffin is ready, they return to bear it to whichever vessel has been chosen, and so depart the city.

Attempts have naturally been made to retain or examine the coffin, but it is no more possible to impede its course than it would be to destroy the attendants. Those who interrogate the coffin’s men see not so much craft and cunning as insolence and indifference; threatened with torture, an attendant merely grins: a coarse, unpleasant grin, as to say, – Do so.

The coffin has a long history. Its appearance and safe departure – amidst wars, revolution, vast conflagration and plague; amidst totalitarian military states, socialist utopias of mass human sacrifice, cannibal theocracies – suggest it is not subject to ordinary interdiction.

The authorities are naturally unsure of themselves. If the coffin contains some new energy source, or famous embalmed corpse, or alien lifeform, well that is very interesting and could be of use, for the economy, for war, for propaganda, but could also cause immense difficulties for the Ministry. If the coffin contains some long-dead hero, returned to life to save a rotten civilisation, well again, that could be rather problematic, it must be delicately handled. If the coffin contains the ancestors, going back not merely to the dawn of human history but indeed back to the first creature one could call human, all compressed into one ordinary-sized wooden box, presumably non-corporeal, or very thinly so, and all presumably co-existing in these confines, the question then is, What do they want? What could they demand? Would they judge us? And if so, how? Would they merely look over the rim of the coffin, nod approvingly, and then sink back into their dark little box? And if not, could they be persuaded to do so?

In some cities, the coffin is borne into the palace, and the robed and crowned monarch greets this rather shabby-looking artefact (reeking of the sea from whence it came), and there is much talk of honour and esteem and mutual hopes, some nervous glances, and then the lid is carefully removed by the freshly-shaved attendants. In some cities, the coffin is surrounded by elected politicians, in suits, usually wearing glasses, smiling horribly, clutching hastily-written speeches, and they clear their throats, and talk of international cooperation, of initiatives, or core values, of humanitarian projects, of repressive measures, of zero tolerance, of re-education centres, of special detention, of a just and equal society, and then the lid is removed by the freshly-shaved attendants. In some cities, the priests and sorcerors receive the coffin in a grand temple; mysteriously-hatted figures wiggle their heavily-ringed fingers and cast incantations and incense and fire and light about the coffin, and then the lid is removed by the freshly-shaved attendants. In some cities, the coffin is received by carefully unremarkable men with names like Mr Johnson and titles like Third Undersecretary for Commerce, and they say very little, merely nod and purse their lips as the lid is removed by the freshly-shaved attendants.

The coffin often departs as it came, in pomp or quiet unfuss; sometimes the city is burning, the rivers red with what is probably human blood, sometimes there are thousands of impromptu gibbets as if the people conceived a sudden desire for hanging, but just as often a once bloody city is now still, and the survivors look wonderingly about.

Calendars could be set at the moment the coffin is opened and the earthly powers see what lies within.

Sometimes, a king peers into the coffin, and then quietly abdicates and is gone from human sight; sometimes a priest or politician, before that open coffin, proclaims himself to be god. New cults and pantheons have been born; and some have faded away, suddenly incredible and ridiculous; and some old religions have risen once more (as from the coffin itself), become once more a solace and hope for a folk long given to fury and despair. In some cities, the coffin is opened and from that moment the women choose to be barren, and all despise their ancestry and home, and in a generation they are gone from the land, replaced by a fecund, savage people. And sometimes, the opposite: a rebirth, a new sight and will.

There have been many religions and philosophies of the coffin, thousands of books on its likely contents, its provenance and purpose: why does it reek so of the sea? of what wood is it? who made it? how is the vessel chosen? who were the attendants before this work, and can they retire? is there a pattern to the visitations? is it a judgement? is it instruction? is it merely a meaningless phenomenon? who lies within? why do no monarchs, politicians, priests, policemen, report of the contents? why is there no intelligence of the actual opening and viewing of the coffin’s interior, no matter where or when? how old is this coffin? can it be destroyed? has anyone tried? what would happen, if it were destroyed? what exactly transpires, when the lid is opened?

The truth is that the coffin is empty. The attendants remove the lid and inside there is varnished wood, cracked here and there, and a worn velvet lining, and none within. It is unclear if the coffin ever held a body, nor are the attendants much help. There is nothing remarkable about the interior, save the smell (which after all is what one might expect from an artefact kept mostly at sea). There is no awful glow, no aura. And so there are many who merely sniff, – Well then, shut the thing up again.

Sometimes the landsmen babble at the attendants, – But it is empty! Nothing within! We had long waited and it is but an empty box!

And the indifferent attendants shrug, – We did not say otherwise. Nor do we take responsibility for the matter, or what you may think or not think. We have only the duty to carry and set down, open and close, to be here when we must, and go likewise. Make what judgements you will. For us, we thank God this thing be empty, for thus it is lightly borne and no great burden to us.

 

January 25 2017

Walter Aske

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