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Dearest Tabitha

by Susan Messer

Pieces of a ceramic pot

Three pieces of a ceramic pot lay in wet snow. They rested among the bushes on a concrete embankment near the high school. Two of the pieces, split along an almost-perfect diagonal, made up the round, flat bottom of the pot. Because the split was so clean, I could read the message that was inscribed there.

Dearest Emily:
I don't see how you can like this, but it's yours now! I love you.

Anyone who passed, who cared to stop, could read the inscription. I touched the unglazed surface. "Do you think Emily loves Tabitha back?" I asked Etta, who was with me.

"Probably not," she said. Most people would agree. It's the broken, discarded pot that makes Tabitha appear unlovable. But why wouldn't Emily love Tabitha? The obsequiousness of her message, for starters. She was asking for trouble.


In ceramics class, perhaps, Emily admired the unusual shape of the pot. She didn't seem to care that it was horribly off center. She liked the twist in the middle. "It's cool," Emily said, "like a spiral. How did you think of that?"

Tabitha, slouched over the mess, looked up:  Emily. Her tight shirt with the broad horizontal stripes and the baggy pants that rested just so on her hips, the slip of abdomen-flesh when she moved. Emily, with her pretty tangle of dark hair. Emily was the best potter in class.

"Thanks," Tabitha said. Did Emily really like it? How could she? So Tabitha decided. She'd give the finished piece to Emily. She'd take a chance. She stayed after class. "Dearest Emily," she wrote in the still-wet clay.

A few days later, perhaps, Tabitha took her glazed and fired pot and placed it in a brown paper bag. She waited, huddled by the north door of the school, gift in hand. Students in down jackets poured out, clung together in clots, flowed around Tabitha, bumped against her. Among them finally — Emily. Tabitha stepped forward. But. A boy with long shiny hair slipped his arm around Emily's waist, and reeled her in.


Perhaps, then, Tabitha let a few days pass. She waited by the door again, held the pot close, like a warming stone. When Emily finally came, Tabitha stepped forward, blocked her way. She held the pot out, wrapped in its now-crumpled bag. But something was wrong. Emily didn't reach out to receive the package.

"What is it?" asked Emily. Her hands were in her jacket pockets.

"That pot. You know. It's for you."

"Oh." Emily reached out, took the package, opened the sack, just enough to see the olive green glaze. "Thanks."

Emily turned the package as she walked away. When did she toss it? Did she ever see the message?

Dearest Emily:
I don't see how you can like this, but it's yours now!


"Do you think they're lesbians?" I asked Etta.

"Well, I was wondering," she answered.

"Maybe Tabitha misinterpreted something Emily did or said."

"Maybe so," Etta said. "It wouldn't be the first time someone did."


It was late afternoon, the same day I found the pot. I was driving the carpool to Hebrew school. My daughter, S, 12 years old at the time, and her classmate Clarissa were in the car. We approached the high school.

"The most amazing thing happened today," I said to the girls.

"What?" they asked. "Tell us."

"I was walking by the high school with Etta," I began.

They seemed dubious, that anything amazing could occur under those circumstances. "I'll show you," I said. "You'll see for yourselves."

I grabbed a parking space across from the high school. Then we ran across, skirting puddles and ice patches and dirty snow mounds. And there was the pot, lying exactly where it had been before. I fit the pieces together so the girls could see. They read it, out loud.

Dearest Emily:
I don't see how you can like this, but it's yours now! I love you.

My daughter reached to pick it up.

"Don't touch it," I warned. She pulled her hand back, quick. I looked around, to see if anyone was watching. "Let's go," I said. "You'll be late for Hebrew school." And we dashed across the street and into the car.

"I think it fell out of Tabitha's backpack," Clarissa said. "She didn't leave it there on purpose."

"You mean Emily's backpack?" S asked.

"I mean Tabitha," Clarissa said. "She was busy; she was talking to someone. It could happen."

"Why did you say I shouldn't touch it?" S asked.

I didn't know the answer.

"It needs to stay there, exactly as it is," Clarissa said. "It's an artifact."

When I dropped the girls off at Hebrew school, they were still discussing. And instead of their usual foot-dragging dirge to the entrance, the girls looked alive. Imagination, I thought, what a wonderful thing.


I felt it first in my chest:  the deep tingle of obsession. I needed that pot. So I raced back to the high school, parked, and sauntered over to the site. A few students stood on the steps, but I pretended to be invisible as I picked up the pieces and cradled them. I placed them on the passenger seat and drove home with my hostage treasure.


When my daughter got home from Hebrew school and we were eating supper, I told her the news. "I brought the pieces home."

She was shocked. "Where are they?"

I brought them to the table and set them on a purple cloth napkin.

"You shouldn't have taken them," she said.

"It's not like I went into someone's home and stole them. The pieces were lying by the sidewalk. Anyone could have taken them."

Still, I did feel nervous. I was toying with someone else's drama. I'd moved pieces around, changed the flow. I traced the letters with my fingernail.

"I think she meant, 'I don't see how you can like me,'" I said.

My daughter got it right away:  "I don't see how you can like me, but I'm yours now."

We deconstructed further. "Tabitha," I said. "It's so old-fashioned. Do you think it's her real name? Or just something they call her?"

"That's what she called herself," my daughter answered. "Who knows what other people call her?"

"And the word dearest. That's old-fashioned too."

"And she used a colon after Dearest Emily," my daughter said. "That's very strange."

I agreed. "You use a colon in a business letter."

"But then she's got that exclamation mark:  'it's yours now!'"

"Yeah," I said. "That's perky. It doesn't fit with the downbeat message."

"Did she get the it's right?" my daughter asked. She meant the apostrophe — whether it should be there.

"Yup. Tabitha's got her grammatical thing together."

"Why does she say, 'I don't see how you can like this'?" I asked. "What a thing to say. It's almost an insult to Emily's taste."

"Nobody likes their own art," my daughter answered. She turned the three pieces, to see how they fit together. The seams matched perfectly. "It looks like a beautiful pot," my daughter said. "Tabitha made that design along the bottom." It was a wave pattern, etched into the clay.

"And it's got two textures," I said. "Smooth and glassy at the bottom and top. But there, in the midsection, you can feel the roughness."

"A big piece is missing," said my daughter. She traced the empty v-like space.

I watched her. "That's as it should be."

She looked at me. "I've got to call Clarissa and tell her you brought the pieces home."

As I washed the dishes, I heard my daughter on the phone in the other room. "She said she had to have them," S said. A few minutes later she came into the kitchen. "Can Clarissa come over tomorrow after school? To see the pot?"


My husband came in late that night, after teaching a class. When he was settled in, reading in bed, I told him. "I have to show you what I found today."

"What?" He seemed interested.

"Close your eyes," I said. And I arrayed the pieces on the bed cover, in just the way I had found them in the snow.

When he opened his eyes, he was not impressed.

"But look." I prodded. "Look what it says." I told him how I found it.

"Why did you take it? It's not yours."

"It was lying broken in the snow, for anyone to take."

"But Emily's so ambivalent. She's probably looking right now for that pot."

"Ambivalent?" I said. "How do you know?"

"Well, first she says she likes the pot. Then she just leaves it."

"You think Emily left it? Not Tabitha?"


"You think Emily ever really liked it?"


"But what kind of message is that, 'I don't see how you can like this'? What a thing to say when you give a gift." When I touched the ceramic fragments, chips flaked off. The pot was fragile. How fortunate that when it landed in its bed of damp snow, it cracked cleanly into these three large shards.


"Maybe it's like one of those heart necklaces that say 'best friends,' and they're divided down the center in a zigzag." I was talking to S and Clarissa, as we sat on the floor, the pot pieces resting in several layers of leaf-patterned tissue paper and the bubble wrap that I had found to protect them.

"You mean Tabitha divided it up this way on purpose?" S asked.

Although yesterday Clarissa was all in favor of leaving the "artifact" where it was, she now approved that I had picked it up:  "That's what media people do," she said, "They look deeply into others' lives." She ran her finger along a broken edge. "You should go back and see if you can find the rest," Clarissa said.

"No," I answered. "I like that a piece is missing."

The girls soon abandoned the pot, while I sat with my find.

"It's yours now!" I hated that line; if you repeat it enough, it sounds like a taunt or a curse.


I have a confession to make. There was another piece of the pot, and I knew where to find it. It lay in the bushes, near the high school. I saw it when I went by, practically every day. I'd been tempted to pick it up, take it home, and check the fit, see if that would complete the pot. But I resisted. After all, this old, broken story can never be complete. No missing piece could tell us why we risk setting down words to express feelings that we could just as easily pretend don't exist — why I risk giving you something that you may not like, when even I can't tell for certain if it's worth liking.

But it was Tabitha who made that pot; not me. She wrote the message, hoped the gift would be accepted, valued. And because she revealed something in the giving, she hoped Emily would read the strange, risky inscription with an open heart. Be moved, not scared, not offended, not irritated, nor pestered nor pressured. But then. As Tabitha probably also knew, Emily could reject it:  take, break, discard, abandon, in the snow, in a crumpled paper bag, in a moment, without thinking.

But still. Sometimes a stranger passes. Takes possession, cradles the broken pieces, swaddles them in green leaf paper and bubble wrap, makes them precious, asks and wonders. What if Tabitha knew? Would she then see how someone could like it?

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Articles in this Issue

You Can't Pick Up Raindrops, by John Charles Miller
TXTS, by Russell Smith
La Petite Mort, by Kate Stence
Dearest Tabitha, by Susan Messer
Medicine, by Howard Dully
Literature, by Steve McNutt
Child Psychology, by Kelan O'Connell
October 2008


Susan Messer has fiction and nonfiction published in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Another Chicago Magazine, killingthebuddha.com, and others. Awards include an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in prose, an Illinois Arts Council literary award for creative nonfiction, and prizes in Moment magazine's short fiction competition, Chicago Public Radio's Stories on Stage competition, and the Jewish Cultural Writing Competition of the Center for Yiddish Culture. "Dearest Tabitha" was runner up in the Guild Complex nonfiction competition, judged by Alex Kotlowitz. Her novel, Grand River and Joy, will be published by University of Michigan Press in Fall 2009.

Where loss is found.

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