The box arrived during the period we would come to call Early Pandemic. We would speak of this time as though it were a distant geological era, a deep stratum, dense with meaning, in which something of ourselves had been fossilized. The box belonged to this and to the people we were then, Yoon and I, people who had already come to know what it means to be dismantled.
It was not the usual thing, this box. Not cardboard, not emblazoned with that smirk that knows us and our habits, the secrets we keep from one another. This was different: a small wooden crate, hand-assembled from slats that seemed to have once been part of other things. But this itself was not surprising. Everyone we knew was trying to remember how to make such things themselves: crates and bread and mead and shortwave radios and so on. Fear had made us yearn for the tangible, for making things with our own hands despite or because of the porousness of our bodies. Our socials were bountiful with preindustrial craft and desperate whimsy. We posed in imitation of the Old Masters. We learned the recipes and songs of our ancestors. We grew anemic scallions and doomed avocados on our windowsills and tried not to think of death.
The crate was a stage, not a performance. It mattered only because of what it contained, which was broken things. Nothing but fragmented pieces of plain, unglazed terra cotta, 1,528 shards in all. Yoon did the counting out loud as a way of avoiding conversation. There was no note.
The shards, and whatever they had once been, were sent by an uncle on my mother’s side, a chiropractor from Utica with whom we’d long ago lost touch and who now, we learned, had died. He had posted an image of himself on Facebook: propped up in his bed in the ICU, bloodlessly pale and laboring to smile, thumbs up unconvincingly. The comments praised his courage and his strength, told him he looked great, promised the many things that would be done when he got out. But no one had been able to go see him before he would never be seen again. The day after the photo was taken, he was gone. His hospital bed already occupied by yet another body that was struggling to remember how to breathe.
When we summoned the courage to phone my mother, we were told that he had succumbed with a terrible swiftness. She chose to name this as a blessing, which we affirmed. Our words were soon exhausted because it had already become so difficult to recall the rhythms of conversation. She did not weep on the phone, and neither did we. We did not mention the shards, and neither did she. We hung up and listened for the city sounds that were no longer there.
In the confines of our separate bedrooms, far above the concrete of the newly motionless city, Yoon and I tried to picture what the shards’ original form might have been. An heirloom? A vessel he had shaped with his own thickly fleshed hands? We had not known him as an artisan. Who had he been? A doctor, a restorer of antique cars, a self-taught expert on the sinking of the Titanic, an enthusiast of cheap novelties and corny jokes, a Mason or maybe a Rotarian or maybe both. A fervent believer in the End Times. We knew this much about him, but these things weren’t a person.
Because the world had stopped and because there was nowhere to go outside our narrow orbit, we converged in the living room, put on a silent movie marathon, and spread the shards out on the floor. In the high-contrast flicker, Joan Crawford tap-dancing for her very life, we felt a sense of loss pass through us, a sounding depth we hadn’t felt before. Even Yoon, who had never known my uncle, wondered aloud why we had not called to tell him something, anything at all. Why had we not done what little it would have taken? Now it was too late for him to be anything more than a stranger whose name we knew.
We sifted through the shards and debated the meaning of wholeness. What had they once belonged to? And had this thing arrived intact, what were the ways in which it would have expressed his feelings for us, and then embodied ours for him?
Some of the fragments were jagged as though recently fractured, while others were timeworn, like wave-polished pebbles. We wondered how one thing could be composed of both. We acknowledged that many things could be true, all at the same time, like that duck-rabbit drawing. I could never really see the rabbit, though, even if I always claimed that I could.
I tried to imagine what would have been said about my uncle, had there been a funeral:
He always organized the church charity drives. He was a good man.
He helped me with my sciatica. He was a good man.
He told the funniest stories. He was a good man.
He was a good father to those kids. What a good man he was.
The people he had known would undoubtedly have said these things about his goodness, hands clasped around each other’s hands, expressions earnest. My mother didn’t find him quite as good. Theirs was a vexed relationship, shot through with tangled resentments and long years of silence. Maybe this was why he was a cipher to me. I tried to imagine him being a father or a husband or any of the ordinary things someone could be. I tried to imagine him wheeling a shopping cart through the grocery store, humming to himself. Or putting gas into his car or talking about the weather or folding his golf shirts or dining with his second wife, whom I had never met, although I thought her name was Helene. I tried to picture his face, but I had been a child when I had seen him last and couldn’t retrieve anything. How much looking at a face does it take for it to become a part of who you are?
“We make copies of the people we know,” said Yoon from the other room. “The brain transcribes them into information. The resolution of the copy depends on how much of their information you’ve stored. If the resolution is high enough, then a part of them is literally stored inside of you.”
She had been a lecturer in neuroscience at the university until they’d let all of their part-time faculty go. Now she wasn’t sure what she would be when this was all over.
“This is not a metaphor,” she continued. “This is life. We store one another as information.”
“So this is what people mean by memory,” I said, staring at the shards.
There bloomed a thick hush, as though the apartment had grown carpeted with moss, and I assumed she’d fallen asleep until she said, “I think this is what people mean by ghosts.”
We made the shards into things that were not things, then unmade them. We used tape, putty, soluble glues that bound us to nothing but our most fragile intuitions. We would let our hands graze the surface of the fragments as if our skin had eyes, and begin again, fail again, begin again.
Over successive lamplit evenings, we separated the shards into categories and then subcategories. We measured and documented and numbered, sketched and scoured the Internet, making wild and unruly connections. Our imaginations grew incandescent. We saw possibilities everywhere. Explorers again, as we had been as children, dreaming of histories awaiting unearthing by our tireless hands. But our attempts to understand the shards, to reassemble them into their origin, came to nothing. On the occasions when we felt we had made a perfect match, a fit, the possibility of completion shone like daybreak, but by nightfall there would be nothing more than impossible geometries.
We consoled ourselves by making a list of beautiful unfinished things:
da Vinci’s St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness
Titian’s The Death of Actaeon
Orson Welles’s Don Quixote
Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia
Rodin’s La Pensée
Schubert’s Symphony No. 8
Every one of Kafka’s novels
The list grew long. Some of the beautiful things were unfinished because their makers had died, some because they had been abandoned, some were unfinished by design. It was not always clear which was which. There were too many unfinished things to list, and I joked that our list would have to be one of these unfinished things, which is when she told me that she despised my sense of humor. Not because it was dumb, which was forgivable, but because I always evade difficult feelings with painfully unfunny jokes. Jokes, she said, that make the other person bear the burden of the unfunniness. I didn’t say anything then. I didn’t want a fight and neither did she. We just wanted to pass the time, however much of it there was going to be.
The shards were not unfinished things. They were things that had been finished in the past.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” I said one morning while Yoon was constructing what looked like an urn.
“Stop it,” Yoon said.
“Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!” I said some time later, when she was making a heroic statue.
“No. That’s not it at all.”
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
It had been this way for so long that neither of us could really remember when it was something else. We had intended to make our separateness permanent before this all happened. Now we were yoked together and to this space in which there was no way to lose sight of one another. We were grateful for the shards.
Time moved through us, just as we moved across the eroded contours of our days. We were dissolving in the blur, the perpetual middle, awaiting the end of a thing that perhaps had no end. We built the fragments into labyrinths, mesas, skyscrapers, cities, pyramids both Egyptian and Mayan, monuments ancient and modern. But there was always either something missing or something extra and once again the design would elude us. The shards were nothing in sum and were also all we had to go on, because surely a fragment has to have belonged to something, once.
“Maybe when this is all over we can see someone, someone who knows about these things and can tell us what they were, where they came from. Then we can travel to that place.”
“You said we,” she said. Her back was to me; her voice sounded as though it had come from deep inside a well.
“You did. You said we. You said we can travel.”
“I suppose I did.”
“And what if they come from different things, different places?”
“Then we’d have to travel the world.”
Inevitably, the shards exhausted us. Uncountable months after the crate arrived, we ceased working on them together and returned to our separate spaces. After that, one of us would build and then rest or eat while the other emerged to unbuild, rebuild. In this way, tiny worlds rose and fell as we moved in and out of sleep and days congealed around us.
Near the midpoint of that first winter, after the blizzard that plunged us into darkness, I found Yoon asleep on the floor, next to a model of a room she had constructed. It was crude, abstracted, but clear enough: it was the same room in which she now whistled and wheezed through her deviated septum. Everything that we had put in this room—the couch, the coffee table, the books and TV and stereo and magazines, everything—was all there, represented to scale by reddish-brown shards. This included the remaining collection of shards themselves, which she had made from the smallest fragments, heaped in the center of the miniature room. As she slept her tormented sleep, I counted. It was a perfect equilibrium: 764 fragments to make the living room and all of its belongings, with 764 remaining to make the leftover shards themselves. A revelation. Awed, I let out a sound that woke her and she focused her eyes on mine from across the model.
“You’ve done it,” I said, at the verge of either laughter or tears. “You’ve solved it. We’re free of it now.”
“No. Not exactly,” she said, her voice sleep-burred. “Not quite.” She opened her hand, which held one remaining shard.
“It must be one of us,” I said. “You haven’t put us in here.”
“Then one of us would have to leave,” she said.
The wedge of sky that I could see from our living room windows was Uranian blue, and I couldn’t tell if the night had already ended or was just beginning. A single seagull, stark and luminously white in the available light, crossed this one slice of the world that I could see. It hung there, suspended for a moment in the frame and did not emit a sound. Yoon rolled onto her back and held the hexagonal fragment close to her eye as though she might see into its insides: “It isn’t anything, you know.”
She was right, of course. We had to admit defeat. These fugitive pieces had never belonged to any one thing. What he’d sent us, my vanished uncle, was exactly and only this: just shards, after all.
I thought about saying something about how parts relate to wholes. I thought about saying something about closure. It seemed as though the shards had attached themselves to every one of my thoughts and turned my thoughts into shards. I thought about saying this, too, but didn’t, because it would’ve sounded like I was trying to tell one of those jokes I tell when my emotions get too complicated. Instead, I put Mozart’s Requiem on the turntable and took the fragment from Yoon’s slender hand. The body-warmed terra cotta was smooth in my palm and had a pleasant weight. Holding it out the window, I let it drop to the street below. One year before, it could have killed someone, but now that everyone was inside, always, it would either be pulverized on the concrete or land softly in the newly fallen snow, a part of someone else’s story when spring came.
is an author, literary critic, and professor of English literature at Stonehill College. His fiction, poetry, and critical writing have appeared in numerous journals, including Gulf Coast, Subnivean, The Missouri Review Aud-Cast, Quiddity, The Write Launch, New Limestone Review, Waccamaw, and Cagibi. He has been nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize in fiction, and his work has been recognized by the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing with a 2019 MVICW Fellowship and by the state of Rhode Island with a Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Concord, MA.