by Derek Ivan Webster
The puzzle was complete. Everything brought back to its proper place, just like the picture on the face of the box. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the package told her, but that didn’t matter so much. Considered by itself the place looked lonely and remote. The magic was in conjuring this unnamable beauty in its jig-saw increment: sewing the sky one azure stitch at a time; stone upon massive stone joined by the mortar-less strength of cardboard tongue and groove. There could be no secret, no disappointment, in a world that fit together so well.
And yet, something wasn’t right. She ran her fingers over the smooth spider-web of interlocking cracks and creases. From one corner to the next it was all there; a patchwork quilt of effort held together in this single flow of fragile creation. No hole remained to beg patient question; no opening presented itself; no chance to reach further down the table for the next challenge. It was done. It was over. It was complete. But still, something was missing.
She looked again at the face of the puzzle-box. Her eyes returned to the finished work spread out in front of her. It was perfect, was it not? An exact replica. A poem, transcribed one image at a time, and set, trembling with the resonance of reproduced life, at the center of her coffee table. No mere photograph, no string of words printed on a page. There was nothing else that could so fully capture and rarify a distant beauty than its pieces sent, boxed, across the world, and reassembled with patient care. A thousand puzzles had come before this one, all of them flawless, each a potent distillation of her affection for sites and sacreds she would never otherwise have experienced. She had already traveled the world, gone beyond its limited map, and all of it without ever leaving the confines of her living room couch.
Why, then, did this one refuse to share its breath with her? What had she done wrong? The place, the truth of it, remained uncaptured. The couch beneath her backside remained no more than a lumpy seat. The coffee table bore no greater strain than the weight of cardboard on glass. The Dome of the Rock stood out there, somewhere, real and unrealized. This puzzle had proven little more than a distraction. The destination was not yet achieved.
She closed her eyes and touched the surface of the puzzle one last time. Delicately her fingers traced a month’s worth of lonely, painstaking effort. 35,316 pieces in all, cut and shipped on special order; none of them larger than her pinky nail.
“Wait for me,” she whispered to the unopened doorway, before seizing the edge of the frame and sweeping it wholly off the table. The portrait had come apart before it even reached the deep tangle of carpet. No booming concussion, no unearthly tear, nothing to signify the consequence of a stillborn world undone.
She got down on her hands and knees and began to gather the pieces back into the box. She could not bring herself to start the process again tonight. That would have to wait for the morning. Neither did she consider the possibility that, a month or more from now, the puzzle would remain closed to her. That was a thought she could not bear, not under any circumstance imaginable.
It was true, she had traveled a thousand times before, slipped through a thousand different cardboard windows, and brought back enough wonder to fill her small house to the brimming with life and laughter. But her house was silent now. It had been ever since she’d lost her husband. He’d left in the middle of this last puzzle. Left her to piece the distant reality together by herself. Two hands, instead of four, sorting with care through the pile of tiny promises. One heart, instead of two, racing with anticipation as the last of the pieces was pressed firmly into place. But the door hadn’t opened this time.
Left all alone, left behind, she shoved the pieces back into the box. She would try again tomorrow. She had to, despite knowing the missing part was not to be found in any box. The missing part was on the other side of a closed doorway, waiting for her to find a way through. She would have to find a way to make all the pieces fit together again, not as a mere reproduction, but as a thing more real than its many, delicate parts. Until that distant day, until she made a new sense of it all, her world would not be complete.
Raised in a tiny Alaskan fishing village, educated at Yale University, Derek Ivan Webster is a writer that appreciates a good contrast. He’s also quite sure the freelance lifestyle would have driven him mad by now, if not for the sane balm of his sage wife and two precious/precocious little girls. Read more at www.ivanhope.com/blog. My previous work has been (or is soon to be) published in The Absent Willow Review, CoolStuff4Writers.com, Screentalk Magazine and The Yale Banner -- as well as being distinguished by the Nicholl Fellowship (Quarterfinalist) and Slamdance Writing Contest (Semi-finalist). Most recently, my graphic novel, "The Merlin Prophecies", was lucky enough to receive an exclusive 2009 New York Comicon premiere through Ardden Entertainment. Contact Derek.