“A Man of Ice and Sorrow” by Simon Kurt Unsworth

I’ve been encountering a lot of snowmen in my fiction intake recently, as witness stories by Tom Fletcher, Mike O’Driscoll, Ralph Robert Moore, and now this offering from Black Static #18 by Simon Kurt Unsworth.

The story begins ‘Mains walked miles every day’, and then proceeds to fill in a picture of a man living in ‘splendid’ isolation and trudging through a snow clad landscape every day, the vision reinforced by Dave Senecal’s wonderfully evocative artwork.

The survivor of an accident in which his son Johnny was killed, Mains is still recovering and the long walks he undertakes are part of his exercise regime, but the real toll taken by the accident was psychological. In the aftermath, despite their best intentions and continued love for each other, Mains and his wife split up, due largely to his feelings of guilt, that he must reject any chance at happiness as a way to keep the memory of his son alive – ‘How could he tell her that he was terrified of losing the pain, terrified of losing his grief? Better to keep opening it up, to add more grief on top of it and keep it raw, so that he could keep the memories of his son fresh; better to lose Elise so that he could keep his son.’ Now he lives alone in an isolated house financed by the insurance payout from the accident. 

And then one day on his walk, Mains discovers a snowman standing in the woods – ‘It was near-perfect, a bulbous thing like a cartoonist’s version of an ideal snowman.’ The only thing ‘wrong’ with this snowman is that instead of the expected smile ‘the mouth below, made out of smaller stones, was turned down into a grimace.’

On the days that follow Mains finds more snowmen, couples and larger groups that have seemingly sprung into existence overnight. He has no explanation for how they come into being, can find no trace of any footprints, and they seem too artfully shaped to be the work of children, while the very isolation of the spot seems to deny the idea of a group effort.

As the story progresses he comes to identify more and more with the first snowman he found, the one who stands apart from all the others – ‘his snowman, lost and alone and out beyond their reach’ – and seems to be waiting for something or someone.

And then the secret of their birth is revealed to him – ‘The snowstorm was creating new shapes’. He bears witness to the formation of a woman and child, and these new figures in the winter landscape appear to be reaching out to the original snowman, the one who still stands apart and alone, only his features have begun to blur and he no longer has eyes to see them with.

For Mains it is a moment of epiphany, the realisation that he himself is in a similar predicament, blind to the ones who love him, and in a climactic ending he merges, becomes one with the snowman – ‘and then he was running down the slope and into an embrace, two embraces, as warm as any he had ever known and it felt like coming home.’

Mains is the man of ice and sorrow referenced in the story’s title. The sorrow came from outside of himself, but the ice is self-inflicted, a hardening of his heart until it has become frozen. We can conjecture that the winter landscape is a reflection of his psyche, with everything white and featureless and cold. Into this unremittingly bleak landscape he projects the snowman figures, populating his mindscape with these mundane images as a way of working through his emotional turmoil. They are the embodiment of the things he has lost, that essential connectivity with his own humanity.

The ending is ambiguous. Taken at face value, Mains appears to have gone mad, his dream life become real to him and prompting what appears to be an act of suicidal abandonment, even if it feels otherwise from the character’s own perspective. All through the story he has been running from life, and now he takes the final leap into the void, and if there is the exhiliration of flight, of freedom from gravity’s chains, it is only temporary, a pause before the moment of impact, the final vision of a dying man.

But the story holds another possibility – seen in Mains’ happiness, the joy with which he runs down that slope, towards that embrace – albeit one I consider unlikely. That finally Mains has worked through his issues, and is now as robust mentally as he has become physically, that he has found closure and is ready to move on, and this is symbolised in his union with the snowman, an acceptance that he has become an outsider and determination to change that state of affairs, to run towards something instead of hiding inside of his sorrow.

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