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art by Void lon iXaarii

Coffin

Mari Ness has published several works in Daily Science Fiction. For a longer list of other places where you can find her work, check out her blog at marikness.wordpress.com, and to keep up with upcoming work, feel free to follow her on Twitter @mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.
The village is not in any guidebook or on any map. Even satellite photos somehow miss it, always by some unexplained chance looking at the area only when it is covered with clouds or fog, or during some blip in the satellite's programming. You will also not find it named on any website, or on any news site, despite the excellence of its single restaurant and the comfort of the small hotel next door. When asked, the residents only shrug, and point out that it is not a very interesting village, after all, however lovely the surrounding mountains, and the world has many excellent restaurants, does it not? And with that, the conversation always shifts to food, or music, or wine, or sports, or tales of long ago. Nothing about the village, which is, after all, not very interesting.
Despite this, one or two strangers make their way to the village every year. Some have come, they say, for the restaurant, or for the hiking trail, or to truly and literally get off the map at a relatively reasonable price. They talk to the villagers, sample the food, wander in the mountains.
And always, eventually, they enter the tiny church.
Very tiny; so small that most of the villagers go to another church altogether if they go to a church at all; so small that it has not attracted a priest or pastor in, the village thinks, two hundred years or so. Perhaps more, perhaps less. Long enough that no one can even remember what church it is: perhaps Catholic, perhaps Lutheran. It doesn't matter. People from the village take turns sweeping it out once every two weeks or so, and the weathered stone does not need paint.
Though no one is coming to the church to inspect the weathered stone, or to speculate on what sect the church belonged to. Instead, as they enter, their eyes shift to the right.
To the glass coffin.
Yes, that glass coffin.
The church has only three tiny windows, and no electricity, so without a flashlight or plenty of candles, the glass coffin is not always that easy to see. With a flashlight or candles, however, it is an extraordinary sight: a two piece coffin of heavy glass--or is it, can it be, quartz? It could be, carved from an enormous rock crystal, or perhaps two. Glass or rock crystal, the two halves fit together seamlessly, each half further faceted to reflect every morsel of light and send it spinning into different colors. So brilliantly, it is difficult to see what, or rather who, is inside.
Which perhaps explains the different stories: the elderly man, fists clenched, a red apple--still fresh--upon his chest. No, a middle aged woman, holding long strands of pink pearls. A young boy in a fetal position, face pale and drawn with pain. An old woman, face filled with confidence, even in sleep.
Sleep.
Never, the stories hasten to add, a young girl as white as snow, red as blood, with hair as black as ebony. And never--not that anyone has noticed--anyone of, shall we say, shorter stature, except perhaps for the children.
After visiting the chapel, most of the strangers find themselves wandering on the mountain paths for some time. The views are spectacular. And then, as the sun sets, remember that the village has a very fine restaurant.
Where questions can be asked.
If not necessarily answered. Oh, all of the villagers have seen the coffin, of course. Some of them have even dusted and cleaned it--the latest cleaning products have done wonders, and they want to know if the strangers have ever tried the stuff on their crystal and glass at home? Usually this involves quite a little digression on the environmental effects of some contemporary cleaners before the strangers manage to turn the conversation back to the subject at hand. The person inside the coffin? Alive, well, perhaps, though that would be quite remarkable, wouldn't it? Still breathing? Well, perhaps a better term would be not, well, alive exactly, but asleep. Just asleep. For some time. Unchanged. Didn't want to deal with the world anymore. You understand.
The strangers most definitely understand. The conversation gets more pointed.
Change places?
They do understand that this is a coffin? A very hard coffin, and that the winters get very cold here in the mountains? And what of the person inside? Presumably hoping that a cure had been found for some illness, or that their crimes had been forgotten, or--any number of things. The same things, the villagers suspect, that brought the strangers here.
This generally engenders a short silence.
Oh, the villagers know the story, of course. A kiss, an awakening, a bite of an apple--from the local orchards, of course, of course, oh, the apples are delicious, if you are nowhere near an empty crystal coffin, and what was everyone saying? Oh, yes. The story.
After this, the strangers generally go for another walk in the mountains. They spend a few sleepless nights at the small inn, eat a few more of the marvelous meals at the restaurant without tasting any of the food. They visit the orchards and touch the tree limbs, and the apples, if the apples are ripe, or almost ripe. They listen to the villagers, who speculate, who note that the inn does not get that many visitors anymore, who cannot say for certain that the restaurant will outlast the career of its current chef ("Marvelous cooking, but as far as being able to teach anyone to cook, no"), who cannot say if the village itself will remain, or be abandoned. They are in the mountains, they note: at any moment, the village could be buried under an avalanche, or the villagers could simply decide to leave for a place with better internet coverage, cable service, and more than one restaurant. Or the church might burn down, or fall down--they do not think the roof has been repaired since the Napoleonic period.
And, after all, no one knows when the next person might come along, to open the coffin, kiss the sleeper, and climb inside. What if it is only a year, or six months? A few months lost from the world, and for what? Twenty years? The longest they have heard of is fifty: the woman awoke to find that the money she had so carefully hidden was gone, along with everyone she had ever known, and still no cure for the illness that haunted her. She died two months later in the village, at an age that would have been young, younger, at least, than the time she had slept.
And--and this they heard from a great-grandfather's great-grandfather--the sleepers are not always woken by a kiss.
They advise the strangers to watch the stars.
The stargazing is, it must be admitted, very impressive up here, so high into the mountains, high enough that the stars almost seem within reach. Almost.
And after a week or so of food, of stories, of star gazing, of apples, most of the strangers leave, promising not to put the village on the map, if not promising to stay silent about the restaurant.
But a few, a very few, stay for one final night of stargazing. They watch, and they shiver, and in the morning, they steal a few apples from the orchard. And then, they creep into the church, licking their lips, ready, they think, for a kiss.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 15th, 2014


This was originally supposed to be a short little piece about what happened to Snow White's coffin. As often happens to my short little pieces, it got a little bit out of hand--but only a little bit this time.

The village in the story is loosely based on a real village in the Alps with a single restaurant and a very tiny church and no gas station. I tried to focus more on the positive parts of the village and not on the "What do you mean there's no gas station!" part, although the second is the part that stands out in my memory.

- Mari Ness

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