3: Arc of Heaven

by Jane Carnall

Done and dusted. That's it. The coffin is of fine smooth wood, outside, all splintery and jaggy inside, where no one will see. Some people make coffins smooth inside as out, some with brass handles, some with glass windows. Why not with doorknobs and knockers shaped like a lion holding a ring in its mouth? Who lies inside cannot feel, cannot answer. I make coffins for one showing and then to burn, burn with the heat of the sun.

Sun and heat: even the coldest sun will burn, red, yellow, white, or blue: once you reach a distance from the sun, you burn. Wood burns: flesh burns: bone burns: each with their own flame. Brass melts into metallic gas, that's all, and the glass windows dissolve into liquid sand.

Sand and flame: and within the flaming coffin spins the body, turning with the speed lent to it by the ship from which it fell. The corpse-ship, the coffin-boat, the Dead Sun: they call it all these things, but the truth is that the battered little tug that takes the coffins, one by one or in grim battalions, is named Daisy Dear. And it's bad luck to change a ship's name, or I would, as sure as I buy wood cheap and sell it coffin. But a pilot who drives a ship into the sun's long orbit cannot afford to court bad luck, so my ship remains as it was when, in a previous life, it brought great passenger ships and greater cargo and greatest of all, the human transits, into dock at Station One.

On the old world the dead outnumbered the living by thirty to one, but it is not so here. Here the living outnumber the dead, and because of that, I think, they are glad to pay their dead these little courtesies: to give them a funeral pyre like no other, a great crematorium such as none of their ancestors can never have been granted. For only here do we use the sun to flame the dead.

The world is named Arc of Heaven, for the lethal rainbows that come after the killing rain. One may survive there, alone and naked, if you stay undercover: under the wide clean leaves of the hometrees, that beat off the rain, and through which you cannot see the rainbow. The arrows of the great seven-coloured bow will burn out your sight and then your brain. No one makes coffins of hometrees.

Coffins are made of the imported trees, that survive the death with twisted boughs and broken leaves. They have no eyes, but they look blind. Their wood is splintery and raw, and it takes a skill such as my own to carve this beaten wood into a box with semblance of grace even on the outside. Who lies inside cannot answer what they think of their last container.

But here the living are a greater army than the dead. Many, many people come to Arc of Heaven, to live in the vast hometrees - imagine a mountain built of bark, and a little bird to peck at it, and every thousand years the bird lays an egg and the egg hatches into another bird to join the first, and after ten thousand thousand years the army of birds has made only the smallest dent in the bark of the hometree: but through that fissure you could fly one of the human transits, and you wouldn't have to be an expert pilot who can park on a bird's wing. No. More people can live in one hometree than live in all the worlds we know, except the old world: and more come every day, so that no matter how many die, always the living outnumber the dead.

623 words

8th February 2000

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