The Soul Repairman
by Nicole Kroushl
Runestone, volume 2
“A town like this always needs a soul repairman,” he says, rising to his feet, wrench in hand.
He walks through the dusty streets of this half-ghost town, his body a bit translucent. Through his jacket and chest you can just barely see the window shutters of little houses lining the narrow streets. It is only through the veil of his torso that you can see what really goes on inside. Colors spill through the shutter-cracks when seen through the transparent melancholy of his face.
You could ask what the colors mean, but he would just shake his head and toss his screwdriver in the air, making it spin. The hotels, chock-full and reflecting all the different people inside, scatter rainbow shards on the shrubby grass and worn-out dirt. You ask why, and he says, “This is a town at the end of the world.”
It is not, though. It is a gloomy, sky-dark puzzle piece of the rusted Midwest, not five miles off the interstate. Always people passing through, hence the hotels and their colors.
“This is where people come when they are at the end of their worlds,” he amends when you point all this out.
Hence the soul repairman, you suppose. “But how can a soul repairman put a person back together?”
He explains that the screws hold hearts closed over gaping, ragged holes filled with the spackle of gray bittersweetness. The hammers beat sense or purpose or meaning into a world-weary mind. The screwdrivers and monkey wrenches twist and twist and twist things into a new perspective. A new lease on life is really just a successful renovation of the old one, you know.
“And sometimes it takes all of those and a little elbow grease,” he finishes.
Elbow grease. As if putting a soul back together is the same as messing around with the motor in an old Ford.
You do not know how you became the soul repairman’s apprentice. You do not know how one becomes a soul repairman—or whether the translucent skin and bones are a required uniform or just a perk. You do not know the soul repairman’s name. You do not know if he eats or sleeps, if he is alive or dead, if words like that even apply to him.
This is not the question you ask him, though. As he twists the ghost-pale blue cap around on his head, dust settles around your worn sneakers. You ask him if he’s the only one.
He says, “Yes.”
You think of all the hundreds of thousands of millions of people who could use a soul repairman. A few nails here, the sanding of a rough edge there. A mending of the imperfections.
“You can’t expect all of your clients to come here,” you say to him.
“Who says they do?”
Maybe he is transparent because not all of him is here. Maybe there are other ghost-pale, see-through clones of him, wandering through lonely towns with strange, forgotten names. In Russia. In India. In Australia, Iceland, Madagascar, Brazil, Japan, South Korea. Especially South Korea: 24.7 suicides per 100,000 people. You hope that there is another small, shuffling, insubstantial man walking through the outskirts of Seoul, dripping elbow grease down the necks of people who think they have nothing left.
If you are going to follow in the soul repairman’s footsteps, you need to believe that.
You ask him if there was ever anyone who came before him.
He says, “No.”
You ask him how long he’s been here.
“Since the beginning of the human race,” he answers offhandedly.
You think of all the thousands of years. All of his successes, all of his failures.
You ask him why stop now, and he says, “I am tired.”
“What was the last straw then? What was the final stone on the cairn?” After thousands of years of patching up the human race—all the broken hearts, shattered minds, guilty stomachs, exhausted livers—after all that, what now makes him want to pass the torch?
“There is no straw,” he says. “I saw millions of souls, but none of them could be reduced to something as little as that. There is no piling up. No tipping point. You just turn around one day and realize that you should’ve put in the two weeks a millennium ago.”
You have so many questions. How did you get this job in the first place? What kind of resume did it take? Who interviewed you—God? Is there a God? Are there souls you can’t fix? Are you ever happy doing this?
Instead you ask, “Why me?”
He stops his continuous strolling for the first time that you have ever seen—he is always moving, except for right this instant. He turns around to look at you, at the flecks in your eyes, the awkward shape of your knees, the stubborn cowlick at your neck, the T-shirt faded and stretched enough to look like something your dad might have worn in college. You can feel the soul repairman’s eyes (they are clear and glassy), raking over parts of you that the rest of the world does not see. The irregularities written on the inside of your ribcage. The faint tremor in your fingertips, the constant ache that has made a home in your shoulder blades.
“Why you?” he says. “Honestly? Because you are here. Because you are the only one who has ever followed me like this. The only one who is not fearful, but fascinated. The only one who has ever asked me the questions you have asked me, the ones that aren’t obvious.”
“You haven’t asked me if this is what I want.”
The soul repairman says, “I don’t need to,” and he is right.
So he teaches you how to hold his wrench and all the tools that pass through the hands of normal humans. He teaches you how to read stories in the colors pouring out of windows, how to read them more clearly through the cracks in people who shed the rainbows. He teaches you to see beauty in their pain, in the way a person can stand up again after you plunge a screwdriver into their chest. He teaches you how to step through walls, how to turn your flesh translucent without having a panic attack. How to walk through the world, silent, without a name. How and when to use the elbow grease, a substance both literal and figurative and ridiculous for the fact that such a silly, mundane expression has a place in saving the world.
He teaches you how to move on from the ones you cannot save.
And long after everything else you know is gone, long before you ever expected it, he hands you his red toolbox and fades away.
You put up your hair and get to work.
You lose count of the millennia before another you comes along, before someone who sees the colors starts tracing your footsteps. You pretend to ignore the child long enough for him to begin taking sure steps instead of shaking ones, long enough that he does not fear the way he can see through your chest.
One day, you hear a voice behind you.
“Who are you?” asks the child.
You turn. You smile, weary. You know what your old mentor meant now, about turning around one day and knowing your time is long past due.
“I am the soul repairwoman.”
The child tilts his head, and you smile.
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Nicole Kroushl attends the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she studies creative writing, English, and German. She writes fantastical fiction because she’s still secretly hoping to discover a portal to another (more magical, more impossible) world. Find out more about her and her work at nicolecrucial.com.