This short story seems wholly about endings. It’s set during the embers of August and at the edge of a continent. It’s in the voice of an old miner who, with his longtime crew, is awaiting his next and possibly last journey into the depths of the earth. When I first read Alistair MacLeod’s story a couple of decades ago, I wasn’t prepared for the effect it would have upon me. I was young and earnestly reading the essays of James Baldwin and the poetry of Derek Walcott. I was reading Michael Ondaatje, too—which was why I decided to pick up the anthology he edited, From Ink Lake, to discover, at the very end of this book, “The Closing Down of Summer.” Somehow, it was MacLeod’s story that gave me the last push to write seriously. His story of endings sparked my beginning.
I can see why. “The Closing Down of Summer” is about matters that have always moved me. About lives and labour that can easily be ignored. About cultural knowledge that appears, at first, to be fading, but then proves itself both quietly and powerfully enduring. I think the story is also, in some ways, about the challenge of being a writer. The miner wants to convey what it’s like to perform his difficult, relatively solitary, and sometimes outright dangerous work. He says that he simply wants to “tell it like it is,” but we know that the story itself could only have been achieved through painstaking and acutely literary effort. Most of all, the miner wonders continuously and without reassurance if he really possesses the skill to “tell it like it is,” and if he really has a story that matters in the first place. What writer wouldn’t recognize similar yearning and doubts? And what writer wouldn’t recognize MacLeod’s unique success?
But what a strange ending. Eventually, the old miner is forced to cut short his belated hope to “express himself.” And, as he sets off with his aged crew upon their next perilous journey into the earth, he involuntarily remembers these lines from an old school textbook, lines that conclude the story:
I wend to death, a king iwis;
What helpes honour or worlde’s bliss?
Death is to man the final way—
I wende to be clad in clay.
I now know that these lines are from an anonymous fourteenth-century lyric that has survived against great odds. And however gloomy and foreign they sounded to at least one youth decades ago, I nevertheless “got” them. I got the hope, implied in their very existence, that voice may beat death. Not the voice of empires or of nations, but the human voice in its vulnerability, in its particularity, and in its fated intimacy with the earth. I got the reason why MacLeod’s story had to end here, with these salvaged lines. Not only with the fragile promise of speaking and writing, but also with the hope and open magic of reading.
David Chariandy lives and teaches in Vancouver. His first novel, Soucouyant, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2007. His second novel, Brother, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2014.