Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
I am inside U Break It We Fix It holding my sons’ shattered iPad. “Hello,” I call out. No one answers. The counter glows white, and the walls are empty. “Hello? Hello?” I wait a few minutes before calling out again. “One minute,” says a raspy voice from the back of the store. Hope swells in my chest. Here We comes. We will fix it.
A man in rumpled clothes emerges. I put the shattered iPad on the counter. “Don’t put it there,” We says. I quickly lift it off the counter. We sprays sanitizer on the spot I touched and wipes it dry with a paper towel. I hold up the broken screen so We can see It, and a little shard of glass drops to the floor with a plink. “Yeah, no,” We says. “Yeah no, what?” I ask. We says the soldering work required would cost more than a new iPad. We says it would take weeks. “Possibly months.” To be sure We asks me to read the serial number off the back of the iPad. I read the numbers, and We silently types them into a computer. “Yeah,” We says. “It isn’t worth it.” I just stand there. “But if I break It, it says We fix It.” I point to the sign that is the name of the store. Even if We has to send it far, far away. Even if it takes the handiwork of one hundred mothers with long white beards and God inside their fingertips, We should fix it. We promised. Even if all We ever do is just try to fix It, We should try. But the man is gone. He has already disappeared into the back of the store.
The next week, I return to U Break It We Fix It with a whole entire country. It’s heavy, but I manage to carry it through the parking lot leaving behind a trail of seeds and the crisp scent of democracy and something that smells like blood or dirt. Across it is a growing crack. A child, too young to be alone, is out in front holding a broken country, too. “Store’s gone out of business,” says the child. I shift the country to one arm and try to peer in, but it’s shuttered and dark. “Told you,” says the child. “Out of business.” I text my husband: “U Break It We Fix It is closed. I’ve come here for nothing … again.” When I look up the whole parking lot is full of children holding countries. “Is this U Break It We Fix It?” they ask. “It once was,” says the first child, “but now it’s closed.” The children hold their countries closer, like a doll or an animal. I want to drive them all home but they’re all holding countries and there are far too many of them. “I’m sorry,” I say too quietly for any of the children to hear. I don’t ask them where their mothers are or how they got here or how they will get home. Instead I walk quickly back to my car. A little shard of glass falls out of my country with a plink. I pick the shard up and hold it to the sunlight. A rainbow, just for a second, falls over the children. Plink! Plink! Plink! Shards of glass are falling out of the children’s countries, too. It sounds like an ice storm, but the sky is blue and the children are dry as bones. I don’t want to stay to see what happens next. I drive away. I leave the children cradling their broken countries. I have no idea where any of them live, or how to fix anything, or what to do with this shard of glass. At a red light, I put the shard in the glove compartment and forget about it for days.
In Exodus, the first set of ten commandments (broken by Moses) is not buried but placed in the Aron Hakodesh (the holy ark) beside the new, unbroken tablets, which the Jews carry through the wilderness for forty years. I imagine the broken tablets leaning against the unbroken ones telling them secrets only broken things know. I imagine the weight of the broken tablets, and the heat, and the thirst, and the frustration. Why didn’t we just leave the broken tablets behind? What good is all this carrying?
To know your history is to carry all your pieces, whole and shattered, through the wilderness. And feel their weight.
“Mama,” say my sons one thousand times a day, “can you fix this?” Hulk’s head has fallen off, or the knees of a favorite pair of pants are torn, or the bike chain has snapped, or there is slime on Eli’s favorite polar bear, or the switch is stuck, or the spring broke off, or Superman’s cape is hanging by a thread, or … “What even is this?” “Oh, that?” says Noah, my nine-year-old. “It’s where the batteries are supposed to go.” “But for what?” I ask. Noah and I study it for a whole entire minute. “I have zero idea,” he says.
What breaks most often in fairy tales are spells, and when a spell is broken the world is restored. The beast turns back into a prince, the kingdom wakes up, and a girl’s tears dissolve the shards of glass in a boy’s cold heart. I look up the word “spell.” It means the letters that form a word in correct sequence, and it means a period of time, and it means a state of enchantment. All of these things bind. But there is one last definition I catch, at the bottom. Spell also means a splinter of wood. What binds is also what cracks off. A spell is also what strays from the whole. This splinter of wood feels like a clue to a mystery I hope to never solve. I add the splinter (that is, a spell) to the shard of glass in my glove compartment. I leave them there together in the dark.
We are knee-deep in broken things. I wade through the kitchen, and the news, and our yard. The dryer is making a sound. The country is divided. Tree limbs are everywhere. “How did the switch break off the lamp?” I ask Eli, my seven-year-old. He shrugs. “It’s like a miracle,” he says.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a demon makes a mirror in which the image of whatever is good or beautiful dwindles to almost nothing, while the image of anything horrible appears even more horrible: “In the mirror the loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the kindest people looked hideous or seemed to be standing on their heads with their stomachs missing.” The demon’s disciples travel all over the world with the mirror until there is not “a single country or person left to disfigure in it.” Then they fly to heaven to distort God and the angels, but the mirror shakes hard with laughter and shatters into a “hundred million billion pieces.” The air fills with mirror dust, and the glass blows into the eyes and the hearts of people everywhere. Each shard has the exact same power as the whole entire mirror. Whoever gets mirror in them is cursed with a hardened heart, and with seeing the ugliness of everything.
In Jewish mysticism there is a phase of Genesis called Tsim Tsum that is like the inside-out version of this fairy tale. The glass is not from a demon, but from God. According to the cabalists, in order to give the world life, in order to effect creation, God must depart from the world God created. The creator must always exile himself from the creation for the creation to breathe. God contracts to make space so that the world can exist. But right before the departure, God (like a mother) stuffs divine light into vessels that will be left behind. The vessels cannot contain God’s light, and burst, and shards of light are scattered everywhere. Gershom Scholem explains that we spend our lives collecting the offspring of this light. We spend our lives trying to make what once was broken whole again. This, according to the cabalists, begins the history of trauma.
In “The Snow Queen,” the good widow crow wraps a bit of black woolen yarn around her leg to grieve her dead sweetheart. I feel I should wrap something around my leg, too. It is almost the middle of November. I grieve for the past four years. They were such sick and tired years and so much fell to pieces. There is so much mirror dust in our eyes. “Move on,” texts my mother. “Up and out,” texts my mother. I get up and go to my car. I open the glove compartment. The shard is in the shape of a country that seems vaguely familiar, and the splinter is long and sharp like a tongue. I should’ve stayed with the children and helped them pick up the pieces. Maybe if we had put all our pieces together the pieces would’ve spelled something. Maybe it would have been a word we need, and now we’ll never know. I drive back to U Break It We Fix It. Someone has painted over the sign but the words are still legible like a body under a thin sheet. The store is still dark and shuttered and the parking lot is empty except for a crow who has a bit of black woolen yarn around her leg. The crow stares at me. “Hi crow,” I say. I notice something shiny in her beak. She drops it at my feet. It’s a shard of glass that fits with my shard of glass perfectly. When I put the two pieces together it looks like a transparent hand reaching out to help someone up. I want to jump for joy. We have only one hundred million billion pieces to go.
In exchange, I give the crow the splinter. She picks it up in her beak where a tongue begins to grow. “Sit down,” says the crow. And I sit down in the middle of the parking lot. Just me and the crow on a soft autumn night. “Listen,” says the crow. And I listen. And she tells me a fairy tale I’ve never heard before about a whole entire country that almost disappeared.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.