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The Craftsman

He was renowned for his facades - his soaring minarets, and demitasse scrolling - his gingerbread trim - so detailed and delicately colored, a delicacy of frosted-wood glory.

His attention to detail was flawless - each feature carefully researched and represented in its full glory - but with an artist’s flair for design - the most well-considered placement of flourishes - the creator’s subtle fingerprint. A Cape Cod’s hand-carved cedar shingles, for example - each smaller than the pinky nail of a tiny child named Violet, for whom it was crafted in honor of her mother’s favorite childhood vacation spot. He had weathered these on his own humble kitchen counter - using a mixture of sea salt and substances he would not reveal, though he insisted they were all as natural as time's progression.

Nothing creates the look of nature like nature herself, he would say - and he was the kind of man you were sure to believe, when he spoke like this - confident and firm, wholly dedicated to this craft. It was his passion - his life’s pursuit.

He won award after award, commission after commission, until he began to turn most away. His time was limited, though he filled the days. He did not raise his prices or form a factory to fulfill these new requests - simply continued to accept the ones he could; those concepts which struck his fancy. Those which pushed him to learn a new aspect of the trade, or hone a particular skill to perfection.

That is what he crafted - perfection. The most exacting, minuscule replica of some doting parent’s dream - a diminutive Edinburgh castle, a minute Edelweiss chalet, a petite pagoda, an infinitesimal ivy-covered brownstone, a Lilliputian island. Still, he merely maintained his own simple standard of living, despite spending his days crafting the microscopic mansions attainable only in other’s dreams.

The Craftsman grew old. His sight failed, his hair faded, and his lean, sturdy frame became stooped with age. He remained alone, always - and though his hands slowed, he continued to carve out a steady existence. He chose away from wealth, and fortune, and fame - and maintained his quiet existence. Eventually, he took on an apprentice, in preparation for the inevitable.

The young man, one day, grew bold, and asked his master why he continued to live such a meager existence. A bachelor, still, in his spare, tiny flat - he spent all of his waning days in the workshop, dawn to dark, crafting one impeccable, bijou masterpiece after the next - these immaculate models of the superb. The Craftsman said, simply, I design perfection, it’s true... but inside of this perfection, these flawless rooms, there is space only for the imagination - the semblance of family. The idea of life. The essence of happiness. The dream of love.

The Library of Little Hurts

It's is a strange place - layered with the thick smells of must and time - but what can you expect, really, from the greatest suppository of knowledge: the record of all past wrongs?

Whether real or pretend, intentional or accidental - all incidents are labeled carefully, filed neatly in their respective rows, card-catalogued, and cross-referenced by associated feeling (so they can be called up quickly, in future…).

Sometimes the system is so efficient, hurts which are not even directly associated with the moment can be called up to reference in the current situation, through weak relation... A sensory trigger, perhaps - the smell of sizzling quiche calls up the memory of grandmother’s kitchen one moment prior to receiving the news of your grandfather’s cancer - watching her tall frame topple to the floor when they told her - watching her crumple like the top of the quiche, thinking only “this is what happens when one opens the oven door too soon". Wondering if cancer really is hell, like you overheard someone saying the other day - wondering if hell would feel hotter than the gust escaping from the stove’s cracked maw as you leaned in too close, and smelled your eyelashes curling. The scent of burning hair taking you back to the moment your roommate - your best friend! - she was on fire, and you put her out. Wouldn’t let her run back into the burning building for the cat - tried to get through the door, but the smoke was too thick - you had to turn back, so you just kept repeating “the cat will be fine - he’s a cat. He’ll be fine -" like the words were a mantra. And, he was fine - but years later, the Library still holds that small, nagging fear that your friend - she might never quite have forgiven you.

See - that is how the Library works… All those worries and fears and little transgressions the Human does not know how to let go of - the Library holds them all. They are intricately intertwined, one could say - these stories and feelings which all overlap, forming endless and interwoven patterns - the threads of a tapestry, the bustling, overlapping lives of a town’s people, their stories spilling into the streets - all reminiscent of these overcrowded shelves, books tumbling to the floor. So many stories, all neatly typeset and indexed and alphabetized and plodding endlessly, endlessly across the pages.

These tomes of memory - they are painstakingly annotated. They are cross-referenced, foot-noted, and filed - some with penciled markings in the margins, accessed often - some simply gathering dust. The collection is always expanding…

And with it, the Library grows.

If I could tell you anything

If I could tell you anything, right now, it would be how far I've come. How I never anticipated the road might bring me here, where I am today - waking in the early morning to the sound of the train shuffling commuters into and out of the tunnel. Still, it is where I find myself.

If I could tell you anything, it is that I still miss you like a back tooth - there is a hole inside of me that others can't see, but I've never stopped tonguing it. I think of you every day. I wonder if I will ever find the ease of understanding with another that I once felt with you. I wonder if it happens, if I will stop feeling your presence when I wake in the morning, eyes still closed, listening to the soundtrack of a city you have never seen.

You would hate this place. It lacks wide vision, and the backdrop of mountains you grew up against... You would have struggled to find the music in this breakbeat, this tabla symphony, the slap slap of constant footfalls in the darkness would have plagued you with distraction. No one here sleeps with the windows closed, though - and you'd have liked this. It lets the heat out, and the dreams in - even if no one here ever realizes them - and I find poetry in this.

I am wasting the morning dreaming in bed - refusing to open my eyes and admit that reality is something different. Once the twilight is broken, the fog burns off, and I can no longer pretend that you have been anything but gone - for years, now - and, no matter how often I explain away the lack, it remains… this tender, aching space I can't stop probing the depths of.

I wonder if I will ever stop noticing your absence - if this hole you left behind you will ever scar over.

If I could tell you anything, right now...

I would insist that I saw you two times, on the morning you died - but no one else knows this.

When I arrive, belly growling, to pick you up for breakfast, the entrance to your apartment building is blocked by flashing lights. It is just past the gray dawn, in that space when things have lost the dim of twilight but are not yet reflective. The bright lights stand starkly against the dull background of everything else. The stucco is dingy with morning shade. The grass is a damp spring green, pretending its moisture won't disappear within the hour. The cycling lights scatter the normalcy of morning ritual, break the day into disarray.

The strip of green space between buildings is closed off, and there are police officers swarming everywhere, black-suited ants gathering around a bread crumb. I approach the thin line of flimsy yellow plastic - this mighty, uncrossable barrier that separates us from them, the fluttering tape which clearly divides the wrong side of the law from the right - and say, Excuse me.

Quietly.
Politely.
And then, again.
Excuse me.

The rookie guarding the tape turns and shifts, and I look beyond his dark uniform to the blue tarp, lying spreadeagled across the grass. It is a very ordinary blue tarp, like many others I have seen. Except, this one seems to have feet.

Excuse me - I’m trying to reach my friend’s apartment... I'm here to pick my friend up, for breakfast.

I say this, while staring over his shoulder at a small, brown foot. It has strong, well-defined toes and a soft arch. Kahlua-and-milk skin, with a slight pallor creeping in. Right now, this foot is holding very, very still. It is resting at an uncomfortable angle. It is rising to meet a shapely leg, gracefully curving to greet the edge of this very ordinary blue tarp, lying to cover a spreadeagled something. Something which formerly may have been someone - that someone's Kahlua-and-milk skin, now painted in pallor. Someone has mistakenly left this behind - slipped out of that foot like an ill-fitted or ill-fated shoe, and

You’ll have to come back later, he says, Miss.
As an afterthought, punctuation.
We can’t let anyone through until the detectives are done collecting evidence.

Collecting evidence. Of course. Because this, I realize, is not a movie set. This is not the beautifully filmed movie of my life - the prewritten scene in which I arrive to gather my dear friend, for casual breakfast. This is a crime scene, an accident. This is a different story, altogether - someone else's movie, which I have mistakenly stumbled into.

This scene is what they call the aftermath. Something valuable has been taken, discarded, destroyed - something dropped to the ground with its hands up, maybe, or maybe not - either way, it will not get up again. Whatever happened, the moment has broken. The ants are all swarming, now - bustling to pick up the pieces. The air is quietly smothering, buzzing with stories, everyone struggling to untangle themselves; to bare the lines of this heavy story, and somehow make it bearable. To banish the shadow which clings to the ground, with their explanations.

I thank the officer calmly, still staring over his shoulder. I am unnerved. I am disjointed. I am equal parts shocked, and disturbed, and selfish. I am still hungry. I am wondering if you'll still be waiting, mad that I left without you - standing in your apartment, maybe, tapping your toe impatiently - but then I dismiss this. It’s not your style. You are probably lost in a book, or your own thoughts - doodling robots, or typing the poem you wrote last night. You were too shy to read it over the phone, but you said it was good, and promised to bring me a copy, today. I still want to hear it, but I am afraid you’ll chicken out. This is what I’m thinking about, as I pull back out onto the asphalt.

I drive to the place where we like to eat breakfast - this clinking, sizzling formica paradise, filled with halogen light and the smell of fresh pancakes. Hot coffee, with cream. I try to call, first - leave my bag in the booth and drop my last quarter into the pay phone, but your phone just rings and rings. I've missed you. I order from the plastic menu, thinking Maybe you just fell asleep. We were both up all night, before we made plans to meet. An hour of sleep and an hour to shower was always enough for me (but I was better at those things, in those days - we all thought we could run forever on empty). You were wine-drunk and sweetly poetic, feeling easy with the world. We spoke of hopeful things. You encouraged me to write more, excited about your own progress - told me to grab my notebook, and pick you up for breakfast. I needed to rest before driving again, so I begged two hours of runway, and said goodnight, then. You blurted I love you. It was the very last thing I expected to hear from your silly, sincere mouth. In the pause of my awkward shock, you laughed from the belly, and hung up the phone.

If I could tell you anything, I would tell you I fell asleep smiling. I would tell you, also - I might have slept longer, if not for the dream in which you stood above my bed. You stroked my forehead with cool fingers, smoothing the hair from my eyes as I slept. It was just a sweet gesture - your hands felt soothing, gentle and dewy as morning grass. When I opened my eyes, the look on your face was tender, and indescribable. I woke, then - and the moment dissolved too quickly.

If I could tell you anything, right now - I would describe that day from within myself. I am blissfully selfish and unaware. I eat breakfast quietly, savor my coffee, remain alone and immersed in my poems, for the moment. When I arrive home, the day passes, quickly. The phone rings, once, but I am too busy living my silly, bustling life to answer. When it rings, again, I answer - even though it is dark, and I've already climbed into bed, bones weary from the weekend. His words are the very last thing I expect to hear. He talks for what might be forever or merely ten minutes - but all I can think is

That foot -
that foot - it was your foot it used to be your foot and your foot was so pale I was so close and I didn’t know it - I didn’t know you - you were stains on the grass you were foot under tarp you were no longer human and I didn’t look closely enough to see you I didn't recognize you...

He says, Funeral.
He says, Investigation.
He says, Meg - when was the last time you talked?When was the last time you saw each other?

I tell him anything but the truth. I do not mention our poems, or our breakfast plans. I do not mention the morning dream, or the movie scene, or the ordinary blue tarp, or what it is covering up. I erase my own tenderness. I use my words like an ordinary blue tarp, pulling them over all of the most important things.

I say, We spoke late last night, and everything was fine... Everything was fine.

I think, Fine. Foot. You. You're fine. Your foot.
Your. Foot. Your. Foot. Your. Foot.

In my head, I repeat these words until they are no longer words - they turn into sounds, disconnected from all meaning.

If I could tell you anything, I would tell you that the last time I saw you, you were under a blue tarp which was anything but ordinary. But, just before that - I swear you were standing over my bed, my forehead under your cool hand. I imagine the indescribable look on your face in that moment matches my own, on nights when I push back the the sweaty boy-hair of my sleeping child, thinking of what is to come for him. Sometimes, I’m convinced you knew just what was coming for all of us.

Just so you know, friend - I learned some things from you. I write when the thought strikes me. I seize the moment, more. And I've never again missed the chance to say the three words you blurted to me - no matter how shocking or inappropriate it may be - winedrunk and with poetry on your breath.

I would tell you that this helps me make peace with death.


---

How do you expect me to feel?
I’ve a lump in my throat
the words I can’t speak,
I mustn’t exorcise from deep inside
so I say,
"We are living on the cusp of the now"
and retreat to the quiet solace of my room.

Words are just words,
memories tainted with glory
marred feelings ruthlessly lurk below

How do you expect me to feel?
I can’t do it on my own
Reach down and lend me your hand,
I can go on from there
Maybe down a path less trod
perhaps the direction of the waning sun
Maybe I really will meet god
Maybe he isn’t so bad

(by A. Burgueno, 1998)




When you find out

that the pain is real, you will not tell anyone. You will be more happy that you are not crazy than you are scared that you are going to die - at least at first. Later, you will think it little consolation. You will move through the waiting room as if it were a bowl of clear jello - your head thick and empty of all thoughts. In the parking lot, the sun will still be shining. Everything is shining. Part of you will consider crying on a park bench, but instead you will climb into the borrowed car, drive home, walk to the grocery store, and continue living, as if nothing is different. You will wait, until hours later, when you are alone. 

You will not want to be rude - you will clear your schedule carefully, send others messages wishing them a lovely day, subvert their minor disappointment by making other arrangements.You will lie in bed, feverish, while pretending not to think about your tumor. You will give up trying not to think about it - and instead, you will face it directly. You will name your tumor Herman, because it sounds nice combined with the last name of your diagnosis -you, curled in the fetal position, Herman, curled in peaceful repose against your spinal column - little spoon of your vertebrae.

You will tiptoe carefully around his sleeping presence, wondering if he has family - wondering whether he wakes angrily. You'll wonder if Herman understands the word parent - if he has any concept of duty. You'll try not to think of the irony of paying your life insurance dutifully for years, only to let the policy lapse - just before diagnosis.

You will run through an endless list of names, seeking the one who might raise your child well in your memory, not resenting it, finally settling on a man you haven't spoken to in years.

A perfect stranger sends a message, asking if you are okay. You consider telling him, because you need to tell someone, but the thought of this will ruin your composure. Your mind will race gazelle-like, through scenarios. You will feel guilty for your own weakness. You will picture your spine as a zipper, dividing you bodily between not wanting to burden others, and not wanting to be burdened by their concern, their pity. You will have a desperate desire to call a man who loved you, once upon a time. You will want to undo every moment you dug your heels into the ground of things which do not really matter. You will pick up the phone - dial half of the number you still remember. You will imagine yourself saying the words "I have cancer. I am scared." But what if he resents it?  And why shouldn't he? Everyone dies. Why should anyone share your pain? It's an invitation to a room with too little oxygen.

Instead, you will take to bed for 24 hours. You will make a cup of echinacea tea, while wishing you still liked liquor. You will try not to think of the time you've devoted to yoga, to going to bed early, to elliptical machines, flossing, or standing in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, debating which was better - the organic eggs in the plastic container, or the local eggs in the recyclable carton - as wasted. You will remember that the doctor was less brisk today - that he went out of his way to remind you how healthy you are while he listened to your breath, instead of asking if you'd been using your inhaler. How he went out of his way to remind you that you were born in the year he graduated high school - that you are so young. You will try not to remember how he asked you if there is a man in your life, someone who might be there to set an example for your son, or how he averted his eyes and let the quiet fill the room when you answered him. You'll lay in bed, wondering if his kindness should be a direct barometer for the severity of your concern.  You will be as conscious as an unsheathed blade. You will recognize the immediate. You will go out into the yard, to touch the daffodils blooming at the edge of the lawn, but you will not clip them and place them in the kitchen vase - not yet. You will want to lay in the grass in the front yard, because it's the softest, but you will remember how the neighbors talk - you will be intimidated, still, by the thought of their gossip. You will start reading the book Jitterbug Perfume, because everyone you've ever met who reads has told you that you should, and you can no longer remember how long it's sat on your shelf, unacknowledged. You will pore over its pages as if it holds all the gems of the universe - every page precious, every word solid gold. You will wonder what Herman reads, but then decide he's more the physical type. You will laugh at your own wit. You will wonder at the compassion of the cosmic editor who wrote "stay out of martyrdom" in your horoscope - on today, of all days.