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Chronicle of the Mender

Alex Shvartsman is the author of other 120 short stories, published in Analog, Nature, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. He won the WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction in 2014 and was a two-time finalist (2015 & 2017) for the Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction. His political fantasy novel Eridani's Crown was published in 2019. His translations from Russian have appeared in F&SF, Apex, and Samovar. Alex has edited over a dozen anthologies, including the long-running Unidentified Funny Objects series, and is the editor-in-chief of Future Science Fiction Digest. He resides in Brooklyn, NY. His website is alexshvartsman.com.
Each day, the mender enters his workshop at noon. He sits at the workbench by the window, in the spot where the bench's wooden surface is well illuminated, yet where the harsh morning glare will not interfere with the precise nature of his craft now that the sun has reached its zenith.
He spreads his collection of tiny shards in front of him: jagged misshapen slivers each no larger than the buttons of his shirt. He stares at them for a long moment like a crow eyeing its misbegotten treasures, like a dragon ogling its hoard. The shards are of every shape and color and material; some look as if they're made from iron, others gemstone, pearl, glass, or clay. Those are merely appearances. In reality, each sliver is made of magic and the essence of life itself.
The mender begins the day's labor. He uses the clockmaker's tools to manipulate the shards, to look for patterns in their shapes, to assemble a great number of them together into a three-dimensional form, in order to recreate a whole. His task is Sisyphean. Each shard is like a snowflake in that its shape is unique. To reconstitute them is more difficult than for a kintsugi craftsman to glue together a thousand smashed vases whose fragments have been intermingled; more difficult than solving a blank jigsaw puzzle consisting of myriad pieces.
It's slow, agonizing work. The tools are often insufficient to properly grasp the shards' peculiar contours, and when the mender uses his hands, the razor-sharp edges tend to nick at his fingertips. Tiny droplets of blood don't seem out of place where they land among the shards.
As hours pass, even the mender's considerable patience is sorely tested. In his mind's eye the perfect configuration is almost at hand. The solution is nearly within his grasp, like the perfect word that's on a tip of one's tongue, a memory of a dream that feels so real yet fleeting in one's first moments of wakefulness. If only he had a few shards more, a single perfect sliver that might allow the entire design to fall into place! The mender's hands become less steady, and his straining eyes water, blurring his vision. His chest feels hollow and his back aches. Exasperation sets in.
When his anger reaches crescendo, he lifts his weary gaze toward a framed picture that hangs on the workshop's wall. A young woman smiles at him from the drawing. It's a quick charcoal sketch by a street artist, barely a handful of lines on a sheet of cheap paper, but it perfectly captures her smile. When the mender looks at the portrait, frustration seeps from his pores. His hands steady and his mind calms. He wipes sweat from his brow and resumes his task.
When the sun begins to set, the mender puts away the shards and rises from his bench. His project remains unfinished, the perfect word never quite having rolled off the tongue, the dream still trapped on the wrong side of slumber.
The mender bathes in jasmine-scented water, shaves traces of stubble from his jawline, dresses in the finest linens and silks. At sundown he leaves the house and walks along the promenade to one of the city's best restaurants, where he waits for the young lady to arrive.
They make small talk as they sip ice wine and dine upon the fanciful culinary creations of a celebrated chef. Inevitably, she asks about his work. The mender is well-known, after all, his past restoration projects widely discussed in high society parlors and written about in the papers.
"It's going splendidly," he lies. He compounds the falsehood with, "I'm making steady progress." When he eventually boasts, "I feel there's nothing in this world I can't mend," his greatest fear is that this, too, may turn out to be a lie.
The mender's night is the antithesis of his day. After the meal they go to the opera, and then to a dancehall where they twirl and twist to the music of a quartet, their bodies drawing closer, and closer still. They return to his house afterward and in the throes of passion he manages to forget about the project, forget about mending, and feel some semblance of ecstasy, if not happiness.
At dawn, the mender wakes the lady. "Come with me," he tells her. "There's something I wish to give you."
He takes her to a special spot on the promenade, not far from his house. There, she looks to him, her pupils dilated, no doubt wondering whether the token of his affection is to be jewelry, a poem, or some other wondrous surprise altogether.
He says, "Thank you for last night," and offers her a small coin.
She stares at it in horror.
He has grown numb to this moment. After it has played itself out so many times, he's often able to predict how each woman will react to such grievous insult. He braces himself.
He had guessed correctly. She slaps him with an open palm, then turns away quickly in a futile attempt to hide her tears. And as she hurries away from him across the promenade her heart shatters into a thousand shards.
She holds both hands to her chest, to help keep most of her heart in place, but as she retreats, she leaves a trail of shards in her wake.
Once she is gone, the mender rushes to collect the shards. He scoops them up greedily from the ground, heedless of the cuts to his fingers and palms. He traces her path again and again, eager not to leave a single precious sliver behind.
Back home, he washes the dust and blood off the newly procured shards, and applies a healing salve to his hands.
Before long, it is noon again, and the mender returns to his workshop. He spreads the shards on his bench, fervently hoping that among the new pieces he will find the right ones to complete his project.
He looks to the portrait on the wall before he begins. Beyond the charcoal smile, he sees her eyes, hears her voice, smells her perfume. He remembers in minute detail that moment at their special spot on the promenade when he got on one knee and proffered the ring. The way the morning sun glinted off the ring's inlaid diamonds. The look on her face as she rejected him, and broke his heart into a thousand shards.
He is the finest mender in the city. In the past, he had repaired clockwork pixies and renovated ancient buildings, restored antique paintings and reforged enchanted swords. How difficult could mending a simple heart be? It's only a matter of replacing the missing slivers, of finding the proper way to piece the shards together again.
The mender begins the day's labor.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 2nd, 2020
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