Elegy for a Stillborn Story

May 12, 2010 | 9 7 min read

coverBy the time you read it, this story will have died.

Slippery and amorphous, it will have disappeared into a cold, slender groove in my brain.  Like a mountaineer tethered to friends, tiptoeing around a crevasse, my story has taken other stories, other ideas, with it, all of them connected by a thin cord, all sliding down the unreachable tongue of a glacier.

It began one way, a story about a boy, and then it became about something else: a death, a dog, a flying elephant, a street in Seoul.  One moment, I thought I had the story by its shoulders, but I was simply holding a shapeless protuberance of ice.  Other times I wrested it up with frostbitten fingers only to find it had changed.   It was born, or stillborn; I couldn’t tell the difference.  I mourned in the midst of celebration.  I buried it and dug it back out.  It was always ending and beginning.

How do you give such a thing a funeral?

In the time it has taken me to write this, someone my husband knew has died.  Not a family member or close friend, but rather a boy from his youth.  A kid whose face changed dramatically over time, like all faces change, years filling out the space around the eyes, the borders of the jaw morphing into intractability.  Life sinking into the flesh, just a little, like a month-old pumpkin.  Once, my husband and this boy sat in high school at a dinged-up wood table and drew together with colored pencils.  I don’t know if the boy was any good.  My husband is good, at drawing and many other things, but death has a way of making the things you’re good at seem quite ridiculous.

I found my husband in his study, his face in his hands.  “He was struck by a car,” he said.

The boy, who was now a man, and now, also, nothing, had argued with his girlfriend.  He was drunk.  He shouted.  He pushed her.  Then he walked out into the street in Seoul and was hit by a car.  He was doing some things, and then, just as suddenly, he wasn’t.

My husband and I stood together, looking at pictures on Facebook.  The man smiling, his girlfriend on his lap, one hand on her thigh, the other gripping a sweaty beer.  The man with his dog, a little white Pekinese, soft as the corner of a cloud.  The man making silly faces, mugging, kissing the dog.

“His girlfriend barely speaks English,” my husband said.  “She’s trying to find out what to do with the body.”  Like that, he had become a body.  Something that other people have to deal with.  Something without a choice.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.  “Did you know him well?”

“No,” my husband said.  “I hadn’t seen him for years.”  He wept.  It was death in the abstract that was bothering him.  The endness of it.  The boy would not draw again.  The man would not hold his girlfriend in his lap, squeezing her thigh.  Somewhere someone was already planning a funeral for him in which he would be exalted, all his best qualities enumerated, all his worst sins expunged.  No one would talk about how fucking happy he was with his girlfriend and a beer or how the last things he did were ugly and hung in the air over the bar after he was dead.  He had already become an idea.

I could not stop thinking about the dog.  Was it in an apartment in Korea, waiting to be walked?  Would the girlfriend take it in?  In all the confusion and chaos, the body taking precedence, who would purchase food for it?  Who would even think of it, with so much else to think of?  And what was possible in the realm of the dog’s understanding?  How could it grasp that one day the man was there, squeezing it, kissing its cloud-cheeks, taking pictures with it pressed into the bones of the man’s face, and another day he simply wasn’t?

By the time you read this, a story will have been born.  It will be saved to a hard drive and published.  It will appear and speak its truth.  It will squall so you can’t ignore it.

We call our books our children, our babies.  At a conference recently, a writer shocked everyone by saying that when she held her book in her hands, it felt like a dead thing.  The audience gasped because it was vivid and true.  Because it was like looking at a skeleton, stripped of the skin, and knowing for the first time the truth of what we are.

When we write books, we say we have created something, but this isn’t at all true.  We can’t create out of nothing.  We create by listening.  If you want to learn to write, you should learn to prick up your ears to the soft course of your blood.

The words become something, the author becomes something, and finally, this something becomes a story.  The story has to die, over and over, as its organs fail, as you find which parts are no longer useful.  Throw a kidney out here, a knot of arteries there.  Be ruthless about it, for if you aren’t, you will end up with the equivalent of an embalmed body.  An imitation of life.

I remember my first funeral, the husband of a woman who sometimes carpooled us to school with her children.  His car stalled on the train tracks.  “Don’t look at him unless you’re ready,” my mother warned me at the viewing.  I wasn’t sure how to ready myself, but I was a child, and curious, so I looked.  I memorized the details.  The thin thread that stitched together his lips.  His hands, clean and folded.  They had taken a blackened body smashed to bits by a train and made it look almost normal.  If you looked quick.  If you didn’t search.

If a writer is lazy, you can always tell.  You’ll see the seams in the story, the thread between the lips.  If she tells too much, the story will lose its shape in the lard of excess information.  Too little leaves a story limping along, a stray dog on the beach, its ribs in relief.  A cautious writer writes around the edges until there are only edges.  An overly bold writer won’t stop whispering in your ear over dinner.

We know this, but we forget it again and again.  We hone our voices, hold tuning forks toward ourselves, trying to catch our secret frequencies.  But we make the mistake of hoping for the living story and fearing the dead.  We never allow for something to become nothing.

To ride or to write this story, you must be this tall.

At seven, I almost died inside the guts of a pink, metal elephant.

Attached to a rotating column, the elephant took me around in a quick approximation of flight, dipping and rising.  I don’t remember the name of this contraption.  It was but one ride in an amusement park of rides, built from a blueprint, constructed with polymers and plastic, held together by screws and bolts that threatened, always, to work their way out in flight.  Operated by a teenaged kid who took the tickets with loose, clammy fingers, watched his passengers board while a different movie played across his eyes, one with the promise of getting laid on a sticky summer night.

I climbed inside, the metal bar lowered across my thighs.

Once up in the air, I didn’t know anything about the world outside the pink elephant.  In front of me was the facsimile of a control panel, buttons and levers that suggested something real that didn’t exist.  While the ride was malfunctioning, I grabbed at those dials and joysticks, not so much thinking I could control the elephant – which by then had somehow managed to dangle precariously at ninety degrees, doing its best to spill me out – but instead using them to hold on.  A two inch piece of plastic in my fist.  That’s what I believed in.

The purpose of the ride was to disorient you, to discombobulate you, to create the illusion that you, a mere child, were free.  But then I was.

I held on, and though the machine failed me, the two inches of plastic did not.  The ride could not be stopped in mid-flight, so I clung to the elephant for what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably three minutes.  My mother screamed below, my grandmother’s pale, fleshy arms gesticulated wildly around the teenager’s head.  From above, it looked she was bludgeoning him with a cut of meat.  I couldn’t hear anything above the shaking of the elephant, the grinding of metal.  I held on.  I was part of something happening, the fullness of that.  And when it was over, the boy came over, infused with good will, with the intention of smiling his way into making me forget what had happened.  My family played along.  I would not be scarred.  They would not let this happen.  So I was given a free ride on one of the properly functioning elephants, made to ride against my will, so we could all re-write the scene with a better ending.

I’m not telling you this story because I learned something, though I did, even if I couldn’t articulate it.  I was at the mercy of a metal elephant.  Now I am at the mercy of a story, and so are you.  Hold on tight.  Just because I survived doesn’t mean you will.  All the time there are real stories of people walking beneath roller coasters who lose their heads, decapitated quite accidentally by someone’s tennis shoes.

RIP, story.  Hope you’re having an awesome birthday in heaven.

Writers don’t always write their way to the end.  We can start with the end and move backwards, retracing our steps.  We can do a foxtrot with the story and dance our way into something else entirely.  A novel, a prose-poem, a thing-in-stories. What is a beginning or an ending if we know the story before we write it?   When we dream, aren’t those our forgotten stories, a million versions of them? Something reminds us of what we already know, an old bear trap waiting to clamp down on the dark images lost in our woods.

If we’re doing it right, the story will change us.  It will die in our arms, and we will press our lips to it and breathe an idea back in.  We will stand among hundreds of our stories gathered in piles at our feet, and we won’t know if we’re in a cemetery or a nursery.

You don’t have to write to watch a story live and die, to catch it changing shape.  You just have to pay attention.

A few days after my husband’s friend died, Facebook sent us a reminder that it was his birthday.

Wish him a happy birthday, it said.  Send him a gift.

It was heartbreaking – the ignorance of technology, the possibility of a buried man’s birthday.  We thought about his family, his close friends, the people who were also getting such reminders.  And yet, when we went to his page, we found that his friends had turned it into the world’s most raucous funeral.  They were celebrating him, shouting cheerful encomiums into cyberspace.

Hey man, I hadn’t seen you in a while, but you were cool as shit.  Dude, it fucking sucks you’re not here. :-(  RIP.  Hope you’re having an awesome birthday in heaven.

“Can you believe this?” my husband asked.  He was right.  It was ridiculous.  It was irreverent. It was like he wasn’t dead.

But I also understood, in a way.  They had sent him a gift, a story.  He was dead, and then he wasn’t.  His story was beginning and ending all over again, both at the same time.  He was a boy with colored pencils, drawing with another boy at an old, dinged-up table.  He was gone, celebrating on a cloud with his girlfriend in his lap, one hand squeezing her thigh and the other gripping a sweaty beer.

The little dog, forever, was pressed to his face.

[Image credit: Bruce Fingerhood]

has published stories in over a dozen literary journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, and Crab Orchard Review. Her debut novel, Bone Worship, about the complex relationship between an Iranian father and his American daughter, has just been released by Pegasus Books.


  1. Imre Kertesz has a novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child–your title reminded me.

    I’m going to look for your book. That’s my feeling about your essay. I want to read more.

  2. Cindy,
    Thank you so much. I’m so happy you responded to it.

    What a wonderful thing to say! I hope you’ll enjoy it. And I will have to look for Kaddish for an Unborn Child.

    It’s a thrill to read your work, and an honor to have you read mine.

  3. Nice work, beautiful writing. I sometimes think all writing, story-telling is elegy, of things we’ve lost, and things we will lose. Anyway, it is awesome that a place like The Millions (gathers or commissions) this type of writing. Such things, how to write, what to write, what is its value are always on our minds. Even at…well. Yes.

  4. Bonnie,

    Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it.


    Couldn’t agree more that storytelling almost always functions as elegy in some form or another. Thanks to The Millions for offering this piece (and others like it) a home.

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