I read a lot of short fiction. I like most of it just fine. Someone’s marriage is in peril. Someone’s job is in peril. Something is said at dinner that sends all of the protagonist’s regrets and mistakes and losses bubbling up to the surface. The story ends and I’m more or less satisfied; I’ve been taken on a short trip into the lives of others by a competent and caring writer, someone acutely aware of life’s precious intricacies, someone with an eye for the things worth seeing, but that are so often overlooked.
But then I close the book or the journal and the story becomes nothing more than that generic three sentence summary I gave in the previous paragraph. The story is gone.
Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” originally published in Ecotone 6.2, is no such piece of short fiction. It lingers. It demands your attention from the first line—“He had been warned that there would be blood”—and continues to demand it long after the final period.
The story concerns a young family living in relative isolation, having chosen to “make a world apart from the world,” as they prepare for the birth of a second child. The mother explains the process to her young son, Caleb, showing him pictures of a baby connected to a placenta, teaching him the terms “ovaries” and “sperm.” He never fully understands, just as he never understands how his mother can power a clock with a potato, or how, after being sliced in two, one half of a worm grows into a new worm. But he for the most part accepts his lack of understanding, partly because his mother herself “seemed bored in fact by the particulars, and was intent only on showing Caleb the strangeness of the world.”
Wilson, too, is comfortable letting his story reside in the realm of the unexplainable, simply showing the strangeness and trusting that readers will find meaning in “the cold and quiet and darkness” that Caleb is drawn to as the birth of his baby brother begins to show signs of trouble. It’s this willingness, not to retreat into darkness like Caleb, but to charge headlong into it that gives the story its power. While Caleb’s parents try to teach him about the world, we see again and again how the quest for comfort through knowledge is often a difficult and dangerous one. And unlike Caleb, who has his mother “to tell him the things he would know,” the reader has no such luxury. Wilson leads us out to this cabin in the woods but then leaves us alone in the best way an author can. The story lingers because it says what it means without saying anything out loud.
After a longer-than-expected—and let’s just say surprising—birth, Caleb finds that he doesn’t much care for his new sibling. The baby is a disruptive force. It creates a future more uncertain than Caleb had ever been capable of imagining. It represents everything strange and unknowable about the world. Yet Caleb holds his baby brother, feeds him, watches over him through the night. He is finally comforted by embracing uncertainty, something even the wisest of us have a hard time doing.
I have a feeling some might disagree with my hopeful reading of the story’s ending, but that’s the beauty of fiction’s illusion. When we’re in the hands of a writer like Kevin Wilson, who is not just caring and competent, but daring and honest and bold, stories can both enlighten and confound us, so of course we won’t all see the same things.
Caleb’s mother puts it better than I can: “In some ways … it’s a mystery, and mysteries can be just as wonderful as knowing.”
Read “A Birth in the Woods” in its entirety in the forthcoming anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon, due out in March 2014.