The House of Loss was the most massive structure Renee had ever seen. She stumbled down the aisles of treasure, scarcely aware of herself, stunned silent by the splendor. “Where does it all come from?” she whispered as she browsed. Before her was a peach tree that stretched to the heavens. Its leaves were brilliant green, its branches strong and infinite. A beautifully polished wooden swing hung from perfectly smooth, indestructible ropes, describing lazy arcs from a low branch. Somehow, the tree’s entirety was contained in a tidy display located within a secret storehouse, known only to a few — and now to her.
She looked up to discover her new employers holding her in a doubtful gaze. They had been let down too many times. She would have to earn their respect.
“This storehouse is where lost items go,” Administrator Grell explained.
“Are you saying someone lost a tree?” she asked, uncertain what to make of Grell’s statement.
“These items lived in the past, and they persist in the memories of others,” Grell answered. “What is most dearly missed appears on our shelves.”
“But this tree can’t be real,” she said. “No tree looks like that.”
“Correct,” said Grell. “What you see is the tree as it is remembered by a grown man, from his boyhood. It has since fallen; but in his mind, he remembers it as massive, permanent, and invincible.”
Renee moved down the aisle. A wedding ring was next, with a diamond the size of a fingertip. It glittered and sparkled with brilliance that suggested sunlight in its core.
“Touch it,” Grell urged her. Renee did, then arched her back in startlement. When her finger made contact with the diamond, someone else’s memories flooded her mind. She saw a broken marriage, forgotten promises, and endless pain. She saw a wife stealing away into the night. She saw the pain of a husband.
“It wasn’t that big or that brilliant,” said Grell. “But it lives in his memory as a symbol of all he had given her and all that was lost. He was not as generous to her as he thinks. He may not have deserved her. But he clings to this memory and embellishes it, and with each passing year the diamond grows. He would give anything to have it back and put it on a more deserving hand.”
“Why don’t we give it back to him, then?” Renee asked. “Why don’t we give it all back? It could bring back so much happiness!”
“No,” said Grell. “We must never. What you see here is idealization, nothing more. Very little of it matches what really was. What we store here is usually in conflict with the truth. Such conflict must never be encouraged or rewarded. It would only bring greater suffering.”
Renee considered this. She touched the tree, and saw through the eyes of a child. She saw a world of grandeur and immensity, a world of looking upward in hope and wonder. She saw all things as fixed and ageless. She understood the adult man’s nostalgia for the tree; but she also saw that by taking refuge in this memory, he was turning his gaze away from the impermanence and fragility of the real things in his life, things he should be cherishing.
Grell spoke again. “Return him to this tree as he remembers it, and he will never again fight to preserve what he loves. He’ll let his real world slip away, and despise what is solid for being ephemeral. It must not be condoned. Cruel as it may seem, our job here is to prevent these items from returning to the real world.”
“So these things stay here forever?” she asked.
“Only as long as the memory lives,” Grell answered. “When the one who remembers the object dies, it vanishes from our stores.”
Renee continued to browse. The beauty of the items was heartbreaking. Touching them showed her tales of loss and grief that agonized her. But a great deal of it was imagined and embellished. Much of it was unreal.
A beautiful woman lay asleep in one display. Renee touched her hand. “She is here through the memory of one who has chronically failed in love,” said Grell. “She was his one success; but she died young, while they were still new to one another. He now remembers her as flawless in all ways. He clings to her as the love of his life, because they never had time to discover the difficulties in loving each other. Had she lived, their romance would have ended as his inevitably do, and she would not be imprisoned in false luster within these shelves.”
Renee’s eyes filled. “Do you see why these objects must never leave here?” Grell asked her.
She could not locate words, so she nodded. She continued to drift through the aisles. Grell saw her understanding, as she touched the different items. Grell’s attention gradually returned to his own daily tasks, and he left her at liberty to explore.
Renee’s heart became heavy as she went. Most of the things she found were burdened with the weight of inconsistency, exaggeration, and in some cases unmixed delusion.
But some objects appeared simpler and more honest. There were unadorned emblems of peace. There were lost items and people that still bore the idiosyncrasies of identity in real life. There were scenes of laughter with departed loved ones; they carried joy that could only have been genuine.
And there was the blue bowl.
It was the ugliest, cheapest item in the entire storehouse, neglected behind a pile of expensive stock certificates for a venture that should have paid off. It was a blue plastic cereal bowl. Renee picked it up and held it in her hands, and the memories in it surprised her. It was cherished, but she saw no hint of embellishment in it. It was ugly. It was nicked and scratched, faded, flimsy, cheap. It had belonged to a man who lived a very difficult life. He had owned the bowl since childhood. He had eaten from it every morning of his life for many years, and the solitude of his time with it each morning had steadied him. In this simple, ugly bowl, he had owned a piece of tranquility that helped him through a great deal. Pain, loss, and tragedy had come and gone, but this bowl was his one secure companion. Its routine familiarity had never left him.
Until it left him. It happened while moving, during the dissolution of his family, following the death of his only child. No one meant for it to vanish. No one had thrown it away deliberately. But one way or another, the blue bowl escaped him, and the loss of it ached in a way that combined the pain of every loss into one. In the vanished blue bowl, Renee saw a simple honesty and poignancy that none of the other objects held. She saw no hint of self-deception in it; only awareness of everything that had gone. Renee ached for its owner. And she made a decision.
She noted the bowl’s position in the massive storehouse. At the end of the day, she returned to the same aisle. She took the bowl in her hands and felt its warmth and beauty. Her purse was large enough to conceal it. She left the premises silently.
That night she found the owner. It wasn’t difficult; the memories held in the bowl gave her all the clues she needed. She knocked on the door of the simple blue uptown house. The man who answered looked just as she imagined, neat, open, and solitary. She thrust the bowl toward him without preamble and said, “This is yours. You should have it back.” It trembled at the end of her outstretched arms.
The man’s face changed. He recognized it. She wasn’t sure if the look on his face expressed joy, acceptance, or horror. He reached out and grasped it, and clutched it to himself. Then his face changed again, as all the memories contained in it flooded back over him, just as they had over Renee when she held the bowl.
He pushed the bowl back into her arms. With a voice that barely concealed the breakage within him, the man said, “I don’t want it.” He staggered away, not back into his home, but into the adjoining garage, and shut the door behind him. Then, as Renee stood there, paralyzed, she heard a sound that was loud, sharp, and final.
The bowl vanished from her hands.
The next day, the blue bowl returned to the House of Loss; but it wasn’t the same bowl. It was cured of its imperfections, nicks, and scratches. It shone brightly and flawlessly as the symbol of Renee’s perfect job, a job where she had held the power to heal the losses of others.