If memory serves, in connection with his novel Pet Sematary, Stephen King used words to the effect that he could imagine nothing worse than having something bad happen to his children. Similar concerns seem a preoccupation of Simon Kurt Unsworth, at least as regards the stories he publishes in Black Static. The loss of a child and the grieving process that entails is at the heart of this story from #22, as with the two previous stories by the author I’ve discussed on this blog (if interested, you can find links in the Index).
It’s the shortest story in this issue, and at only 2500 words one of the shortest to appear in the magazine, though carrying an emotional impact that belies the length of its first person narration.
Initially it appears to be a ghost story (and indeed, it is a ghost story, albeit not in any conventional Jamesian sense), with a man woken in the night by a sound that ‘echoes in the chill night air’, a sound that ‘keens’, and leaving his marital bed to chase down the source. In the second paragraph we learn that this is a recurring event, one that ‘has woken me every night for the last few weeks’.
There is the long and slow walk to the door from beyond which this sound is emanating, a familiar feature of ghost stories, one that in less skilled hands would seem cliched. Unsworth is adept at capturing each and every detail of what is happening – the cold and its effect on his protagonist’s naked body, suggesting both that some spectral element is in play and also hinting at events that have caused this man to feel older than his years – infusing something that is quite ordinary with hidden dimensions.
Before entering the room the man confesses that ‘I am scared. I am terrified, and I am moving not despite this but because of it, because I can listen no more.’
Inside the room he stands and stares at familiar things, furniture he and his wife bought together. He opens a window and the sound stops. Closes the window and it starts again. Something white floats before him, not a sheeted ghost but a sheet of paper far more minatory than any spectre, an ultrasound scan, and finally we learn something of the truth – ‘Our child lived for almost eight weeks in my wife’s womb, warm and safe, and when it died, it was seven millimetres long.’
The ghost here is that of an unborn child, and at the heart of the story is the realisation of how terribly such a loss can change people’s lives – ‘The distances between then and now seem vast, almost boundless, and what lies on the other side visible only in oblique patterns that I can no longer make sense of.’
And yet while it touches on a sadness that can never be overcome, a loss that cannot be reconciled with our dearest hopes and dreams, the story also offers catharsis of a kind. The man’s wife comes to him at the end, and in the room that was meant to be their child’s nursery the couple make love, and this act brings them a solace that all the words spoken, all the attempts to wrestle a reason from blind providence, never could. It is a sign that finally they are preparing to move on and, as if in recognition of this, afterwards they hear ‘a final quiet noise in darkness’, ‘a sound of something sealing and mending and satisfied, a mewl of contentment’.
The story’s last words hint at another kind of truth – ‘We have taken our ghost inside ourselves, given it life, and delivered it on.’ – that the ghost here is not some wayward spirit, but an adjunct to the grieving process, a projection of the couple’s loss, and acceptance (though not forgetting or dismissal) of what has happened is the only way to exorcise it.
Unsworth gives us an upbeat ending, but one that doesn’t in any way undermine the story’s emotional weather, the prevailing mood of sadness engendered by loss.