enigma variations

The road is slick. Stubborn remnants of snow, dirt, and salt cling to the daytime shadows, defiant in the face of a weakened winter sun. A strong, cold breeze coerces these slush patches into swirling eddies and muddy little rivers, rivers that ride up the treads of my bicycle’s tires as though caught in the slats of a farmhouse water wheel.

In this weather, a bicyclist must be careful when braking; when the temperature is below freezing, as it is today, any of these bright, reflective brooks might hide patches of black ice, and whisper the promise of an unpleasant spill to come. I slow to a careful stop at the next light, reaching out with one foot to catch the curb. This particular light stays red for about forty seconds, so I know I’ll have time to rest a moment, breathe, adjust my messenger bag across my back, perhaps even check my phone for the time. I reach for my pocket, and as I look down, my eye is caught by something lying lonely in the gutter.

Picture this: a single, solitary puzzle piece, nestled upside-down in a pile of salt and snow, cardboard backing curling up slightly from the moisture, three tabs facing purposefully forward.

I find the puzzle piece fascinating. It presents a wonderful little mystery on my morning commute, and so I create a story for the piece, imagining the thousand histories it might have lived before ending up on the curb. Perhaps it completes a beautiful, complex van Gogh puzzle, perhaps a 3000-piece Starry Night; perhaps it is a bird from a children’s rainforest puzzle, caught in mid-flight amid the vines; perhaps it is a photomosaic puzzle of the world, in which it is probably large enough to be Peru; or perhaps it is part of something entirely weird and wonderful, a puzzle of abstractions and pinwheels of color and light.

Perhaps it was part of a well-loved whole, and perhaps that very puzzle sits unfinished on a table in someone’s elderly living room, mourning the loss of its brother. Perhaps an angry child threw it onto the street, or perhaps it slipped out of a pocket, and its absence is yet to be discovered. Perhaps it is all of these things; perhaps it is none of them.

Or perhaps it is little more than a plain blue puzzle piece, found and discarded with equal dispassion, nondescript and utterly unremarkable.

The light turns green. Do I pick it up? Do I consolidate my piece’s many past lives, collapse all its possibility into a single moment, eschew its magic? Or do I let it be, and wonder?

The puzzle piece watches me go from its winter bed, buried beneath the salt and slush that sprays from my tires, buried along with its mystery, perhaps till spring, but perhaps for always.

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