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Dust and ashes

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The light slants into the room, catching the dust in the air and turning it gold, burnishing the dark wood of the table, solid and old, catching half of an apple, so that one side is in darkness, the other green. Everything in the room is chosen with care - either well-made and long-lasting, like the table, or fresh like the apple. Outside, some little way away, there is a copse of trees, and birdsong echoes through the open door, the passageway, the room. It is all a model of elegant simplicity, of refined taste and careful attention devoted to creating the best life, neither too austere nor too frivolous.


He had not slept well, even though he'd fallen into bed gratefully, the night before, too tired even to make himself dinner first. But the bed was hard and the room cold, and hunger doesn't make for restful sleep, even for those who have worked hard all day, so he woke still tired and irritated with life in general, displeased with his cheap, rented room, with the shabby furniture that was all he could afford, with the meagre breakfast of bread and fruit (the apple underripe and too sour, the bread too old, stale and dry).

He was irritated with himself, too: he should not be displeased with these things, which might not be perfect, but for which he had worked and saved. Why couldn't he see them as an achievement, even if they weren't perfect; what was the failure in his temperament, in his philosophy, that he could not appreciate the thing that was, without comparing ti to some imagined ideal?


It was an exquisite piece, the result of months of labour, of years of study and practice. Labour too by others, to mine the gold, to search out gems of such perfect colour and fire (who would think the dead earth could bear secretly such tiny points of congealed beauty, cold stone cracked open to reveal emerald or ruby). Then further labour by merchants to gather the gold and the gemstones, the finely made tools required for the jeweller's art, the precisely ground magnifying glass, and bring them all to the one city, the one shop, where they might create such art. At once perfectly crafted ornament and a perfectly rendered copy of life, the jewelled fruit glowed as though the fire within them was their own, not carefully refracted sunlight, the rich colours, the deep reds and greens, rivalling and surpassing those find in nature.

It was satisfying work, and the jeweller was pleased with his creations. He was no longer young: it had been many years of struggle, of taking any job offered and hoarding his meagre wages, to afford the training he wanted, and then to be able to set up his own shop. Nor was it a path to great riches, for all he worked every day with such valuable materials: Eusapia might be full of those who admired his work, who appreciate and praised his skill, but most preferred to save for their future life (or rather death), and not waste money on luxuries that would be theirs only in the most temporary sense, passing on their death to their heirs. Indeed it was an even chance whether this latest piece would be worn and admired, passed down as an heirloom, the target of praise and envy long after its creator was dead, or whether it would be bought only to buried again, returned to the earth from whence its constituent parts had been quarried with such labour.

Still, the creation itself was satisfying, and the man no longer begrudged his relative poverty, caring only for his work. Even the thought of death did not trouble him overmuch, the lack of money laid by to assure him the same job in eternity as he enjoyed in this brief life.


Once, many years ago, a young man helped the hooded fraternity - not in any great role, where he might be party to the secrets of the dead, but only to fetch and carry, to bear burdens, and generally to marry the strength of youth with the obedience of poverty. He did not look to one day gain a place among the order, nor was it offered. But he came often to the gates of that dead city, carrying its new-made citizens, and their interminable baggage train: there were so many artisans among the dead, it seemed impossible to him for it to be necessary that the living devoted so much time to supplying them what they might be supposed able to create for themselves, but it was not his place to ask such questions.

It was hard work, that paid little, the dead preferring to take every last coin with them, having no charity to spare for the living, and the hooded fraternity no charity for anyone, neither the living nor the dead, but he was young, and life could always get better.


The entrance to the catacombs is in a pleasant park, not so different from a graveyard: stately trees bow their aged branches; paths meander through carefully tended lawns, past sculpted reminders of the dead, some mossy-covered, the names illegible, some clean and well kept, where there was family or friends to keep the memory alive. The air below is stale, but up above the birds sing gaily.

Light strikes through the open tomb gate, catching on the dust kicked up by the hooded men as they carry in their latest burden. There is a room already prepared: well and neatly furnished with grave-goods already generations old, and suitable offerings sent in advance when it was known the man was dying. There is the bed, the table, the curtains and linen of heavy fabric, yellow with ages but long-lasting, a pretty bronze plate heaped with choice fruit. One of the apples catches the light, half in sun, half in shadow: it is already green with mould, but in the shaft of light it seems almost the green of fresh, not-quite-ripe fruit, all its sweetness and potential ahead of it.