So there we were, in the bleak midwinter, walking by the Laurel River. Some men had their dogs out, whether for hunting or just in training, bright-eyed shorthaired pointers who found us again and again, tails wiggling shyly. “Don’t pet them!” Mary whispered. We both put our hands in our pockets, attempting stoic nonchalance. One stood miserably upon a rock in the middle of the river, snow crusted against the bank. Freezing water coiled and hissed around him, and a man in his green waders was shouting at him from the distant shore.
Icicles hung from rocks like dinosaur teeth or forgotten swords, residue from another epoch left among us. The world is larger than you think, the rocks whispered. Moss scoured the steep slopes beneath the ice. We were walking down towards Runion, but we never got there. The dogs darted beneath heavy rhododendrons, their snouts white with snow. A dagger of sunshine broke between the clouds, brightening the evergreens against the ridge on the other side of the river. “Look at that,” Mary points. “Think what that would look like in a puzzle,” she says. And I can see it.
Since Christmas, she and I have been putting together a puzzle on the dinner table. Putting together this puzzle, we’ve had more conversations, heard more music together, and been more measurably productive than we’ve been in a long time. And it’s fun, finding where the pieces go, seeing the picture being built one abstract detail at a time. It’s no surprise we should start with the outline, with the frame. Part of me wanted to leave it there, like that: perfect, complete, empty. Finished. But then I put two more pieces together, and the puzzle was unfinished again.
In doing this puzzle, I’ve been struck by two things: one, how easily one piece is mistaken for another, the fact of pieces looking interchangeable, while in fact they’re quite specific in where they need to go; and, two, that once a piece is fit into the right spot, I take it for granted, forgetting that it ever could have been any other way. Immediately, my anxious attention turns to the empty places, toward the clutter of pieces that aren’t fit yet.
There are so many times when I think that a piece should fit into a particular place. The color seems to match, the shape looks right, and yet when I try to put the piece where it should go, it jams. It bends, trying to fit, or there’s a strange distance between the one piece and its would-be neighbor, one that my first instinct is to ignore. Surely, it fits if I think it will. Surely, thinking is enough. But something that I read this afternoon sticks in my mind: Reynolds Price saying, “…the whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy.” I read that in his obituary.
Looking up at the treeline, lit and sharply articulate now against purplish clouds, I think of how easy it would be to mistake a piece of creek for that of sky, or one dark green tree for its shadow in the water. An icicle swells with sunlight at its tip, its white spark as easily a lighter’s flame, or another tuck of light between hoary hemlocks. I’ve tried to think my way inside the mind of the puzzlemaker, imaging the humor of finding mirrors in disparate objects everywhere. The magic of sealing one moment – like this one – and shaking it apart into fragments. Every splinter holds something essential to the whole, but without the whole, every puzzle pieces is nothing but a meaningless flash of color. It’s only when we’ve got the outline complete, only when we’ve pressed the pieces into place, only then do we begin to see something that might match what we’ve already got on the cover of the box.
Matching the picture on the cover is not the experience of doing the puzzle. You could have told me what my life would be like, shown me pictures even. I wouldn’t have believed you. And even if I did, I wouldn’t have known anything at all if I hadn’t had to live my way to them. We’re all living towards our own obits, as they say, never knowing what detail of our lives will be remembered, if any. Yet every decision feels monumental: a voice intones: “Everything that comes will depend upon this moment.” When in fact every moment dissolves into the whole, making what already came before that much richer, but without predicting anything about what may happen next.
The puzzle that I’m seeing everywhere now is an generous but faulty metaphor, and it fails me at the very moment I’d like to use it most. I turn around: ice melts, the dogs are gone. Water breaks apart. Sky falls like mercy become rain.