Puzzles by Vince Cogley

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One day, a child wandered into the toy store on his way to school. Inside, the world was alive on a smaller scale. A remote-controlled helicopter whirred by the child’s head on patrol around the shop. An electric train’s whistle cut through the air when the train emerged from a tunnel and trundled along on its miniature track through a miniature village. In a different corner, scale models of knights, footmen, and archers were frozen in time, pitched in battle over a nondescript swathe of countryside.

But what caught the child’s eye was a wizened little man hunched over his workbench, his hands moving deliberately. Most times, the old tinkerer blended into the background. The child normally focused his attention on the assorted gadgets that beeped or squawked or honked. This morning, something drew the child to the workbench. Maybe it was the man’s determined eyes, his unfaltering concentration. Maybe it was the soft, warm tenor of his voice. There was just enough rasp to give it character.

“Good morning,” the tinkerer said. “I have something for you.”

“Me?” the child asked, surprised.

“Of course. I made it especially for you.”

The man rummaged around beneath his desk. “Here it is,” he declared.

He brought a frame to the counter and set it in front of the child. Within the frame, the old man had assembled a puzzle of a beautiful landscape – lush trees, a mountain dusted with snow, colorful wildflowers. The pieces were impossibly small. The child had no idea how the toymaker managed to put them together.

“I want you to have it,” the old man said. “I hope you like it.”

“I love it,” the child affirmed, “but it’s just . . . mine? You don’t want me to pay you for it?”

The man shook his head.

The child frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to. It is a gift. Please, enjoy it.”

The child took the puzzle home and hung it across from his bed, so it would be the first thing he saw after waking up and the last thing he saw before falling asleep. A few weeks later, though, after admiring the puzzle each day, the child noticed a few imperfections. Some of the pieces were set in the wrong places, yet they all fit together within the frame. The child kept the painting up, but he decided to ask the toymaker about the jumbled pieces.

“I really like the puzzle you put together,” the child said, “but you made some mistakes. A few of the pieces are out of place.”

The man didn’t look up from his work. “I made no mistake.”

Frustrated, the child left and didn’t return to the toy store for several years. When he did, the man greeted him as though no time had passed between the child’s visits.

“I made you another puzzle,” he said.

The child was overjoyed. He had kept the first puzzle in its original place, and somehow, even after so many years, the child remained amazed at its beauty.

“Thank you!” the child exclaimed, barely able to contain his excitement. “I can’t wait to hang it next to the other one.”

“I’m sorry,” the old man said, “this puzzle is going to stay with me.”

“Well, can I at least see it?” the child asked.

The old man smiled but again shook his head. “This puzzle is very small – only two pieces. I needed to make it, but I will keep it.”

The child crossed his arms. He scowled. “That doesn’t sound like a puzzle at all,” he protested. “And why would you make a puzzle with two pieces and then tell me about it, but I don’t get to see it? That doesn’t make ANY sense!”

The child stormed out, and he didn’t return for some time. When he did, a new puzzle was hanging in the shop’s window. It had the child’s name on it, and it was almost exactly like his first puzzle, except all the pieces were in the right place. The child took the puzzle, thanked the tinkerer, and skipped back home. He forgot about the rest of the day and did nothing but admire the two puzzles hanging on his wall. Beautiful. Intricate. Unique. Perfect.

After that day, every day, the child made a point of poking his head in the old man’s toy shop and thanking him for the puzzles. One day, the man surprised the child, inviting him in and presenting him with a small present wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with a plain cord.

The child tore the wrapping paper from the frame and admired the puzzle. Before long, though, he saw that the puzzle was far from finished. The old man had only set a handful of pieces within the frame. But before the child could study the puzzle, admire what there was, the old man placed his hands on the frame and pulled it back.

The child lip quivered, but sorrow quickly gave way to anger. “This isn’t fair!” he screamed at the old man. “It’s even worse than the puzzle you wouldn’t let me see. Why wouldn’t you finish it?”

“It is finished,” the old man replied.

“Finished? It isn’t closed to finished! What on earth makes you think I’d want you to give me this if you were only going to take it away?”

The child didn’t wait for an answer. He slammed the door behind him and ran home. He went to sleep thanking the toymaker for the two puzzles hanging on his wall, while also cursing the toymaker for taking the other two he had promised the child.

Eventually, the child returned to the toy store. The old man was still there, fussing over another project while the toys and knickknacks clattered about. Like usual, he greeted the child without looking up.

“I’m glad to see you,” he told the child.

“I want to thank you for the puzzles,” the child said, “all of them.”

“Oh?”

“I wanted to thank you for sharing them with me, because they’re not really mine. They’re yours. I don’t know why you only wanted to share two of them, but all of them made you happy. I think . . . that’s what I’m supposed to understand.”

The old man smiled. He nodded and went back to work.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Bio: Vince Cogley is a writer residing in the Midwest with his wife, Andria and their two children. He wrote this story after the devastating loss of their fourth child in his wife’s sixteenth week of pregnancy in April 2013. In this story, he tries to understand why God created his four precious children, while only allowing he and his wife to keep two (they also suffered an ectopic pregnancy in 2009). He also touches on the unique beauty of their two living children – the oldest, living with a rare chromosome disorder.

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