The Vastness of the Dark: A Short Story by Alistair MacLeod (1971)

It’s been a while since I read and wrote about one of Alistair MacLeod’s stories, even though my plan had been to go through them all. That’s why I was especially pleased to see that Marcie at Buried in Print has chosen Alistair MacLeod for her newest short story project.

Last week we read The Boat. (Marcie’s review / My review from a couple of years ago)

Whereas The Boat is about a fishing family in rural Cape Breton, The Vastness of the Dark is about a mining family.

A young man wakes up on the morning of his 18th birthday knowing it will be his last morning in this bed, in this house, in this town. He is planning to leave this morning, but he has not yet told anyone; not his parents, or his seven younger brothers and sisters.

He lies in bed thinking about his life here and, although it sounds cramped and poor and dismal, it also sounds as though he has been loved. Loved in the best way his parents knew how or could manage. So he is not leaving out of anger or despair, but simply for a better life. He has learned enough to know that a ‘better life’ cannot be found here anymore.

As I move down the stairs there is still no movement from the two larger rooms across the hall and for this I am most grateful. I do not really know how to say good-bye as I have never before said it to anyone and, because I am uncertain, I wish to say it now to as few as possible.

He gets no objection from his parents; no tears, no clinging to him in a “desperate fashion”. “Only a slight change in the rhythm of my mother’s poking at the stove indicates that she has heard me, and my father still stands looking through the window out to sea.” His mother only asks, “Where will you go?” and his father suggests, “perhaps you could wait a while.” It’s as though they know this day was coming… and that it had to come. Yet those small gestures mean something, if you are paying attention.

And the boy was good at paying attention.

Over the years he has paid close attention to his father and his habits…

As long as I can remember he has finished dressing while walking, but he does not handle buttons nor buckles so well since the dynamite stick at the little mine where he used to work ripped the first two fingers from his scarred right hand. Now the remaining fingers try to do what is expected of them: to hold, to button, to buckle, to adjust, but they do so with what seems a sort of groping uncertainty bordering on despair. As if they realized that there is now just too much for them to do, even though they try as best they can.

… I can hear him coughing and wheezing from the rock dust on his lungs. And perhaps that coughing and wheezing means that because he has worked in bad mines with bad air these past few years he will not live so very much longer. And perhaps my brothers and sisters across the hall will never hear him, when they are eighteen, rattling the stove-lids as I do now.

After a night of too much drinking, his father will wake up very thirsty in the boy’s bed and the boy will go down and bring him some milk to soothe the “parched and fevered dryness of his throat” and his father will thank him.

And he says that he is sorry that he has acted the way he has and that he is sorry that he has been able to give me so little but if he cannot give he will try very hard not to take. And that I am free and owe my parents nothing. That in itself is perhaps quite a lot to give, for many people like myself go to work very young here or did when there was work to go to, and not everyone gets into high school or out of it. And perhaps even the completion of high school is the gift that he has given me along with that of life.

The way MacLeod gets at the stuff of life–some of it many of us only fleetingly wonder about or which hadn’t occurred to us to think about at all–is remarkable.

As the boy lies in bed in the morning, listening to first his father getting up and passing him and going downstairs and then his mother, he ruminates on the past 18 years in that same bed, his parents passing by in the same way, his father always the first to get up, his mother knowing when he is really asleep and when he is only pretending. He thinks about how close his bedroom is to his parents and feels “a sort of sympathy for the problem that must be theirs and for the awful violation of privacy that all of us represent.”

It is a strange and lonely thing to lie awake at night and listen to your parents making love in the next room and to be able to even count the strokes. And to know that they really do not know how much you know, but to know that they do know that you know; and not to know when the knowledge of your knowing came to them any more than they know when it came to you.

Now, on his way across the country to who-knows-where, he thinks about the hold that land can have on a person.

I have been somehow apprehensive about even getting off Cape Breton Island, as if at the last moment it might extend giant tentacles, or huge monstrous hands like my grandfather’s to seize and hold me back. Now as I finally set foot I look across at the heightened mount that is Cape Breton now, rising mistily out of the greenness and the white-capped blueness of the sea.

The Vastness of the Dark is not a terribly sad story, but it does have a melancholy tone (as does many of his stories). The setting is grim – a rural mining town with most of its mines now shut down and many miners out of work. One gets the feeling that there is coal dust in the air and the sky is always grey. The sorrowful feeling also comes from the idea of the boy leaving everything he’s ever known with the possibility of never seeing it again. Through the entire story I can feel that feeling, as though I am there. People now can travel around and keep in touch so easily, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to leave home not knowing if or when you’ll ever be back, not knowing if or when you’ll be in touch, and often not even knowing what’s ahead of you or how you’re going to get there. Even worse, being the parents of these children; watching them go, wondering if you’ll ever see them again.

13 thoughts on “The Vastness of the Dark: A Short Story by Alistair MacLeod (1971)

  1. A Life in Books says:

    There’s a sad, almost yearning quality to those quotes, as if it’s an older man looking back on his life rather than a young man about to enter a wider world. It captures that possibility that this may be the last he sees of his old life well.

  2. Andrew Blackman says:

    Hi Naomi, nice review! I like how you point out the love in the family, which is something I didn’t talk about in my post, but I think it’s important—you’re right, he’s desperate to leave, but not out of anger or despair. There’s just nothing here for him. And I also loved those subtle words and gestures of the parents, not wanting him to go but also not wanting to hold him back or make him feel trapped. I thought it was very poignant.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I thought you might enjoy Marcie’s new reading project! This sounds like a nice read, I need to read more Macleod. That being said, hearing parents have sex it just…ugh so cringey. I know it happens regularly in other cultures when people live in small houses/apartments, but I really get so uncomfortable thinking about it LOL

    • Naomi says:

      That’s the very reason it struck me that he wrote about it. For some reason he chose to put it in his story. The nitty gritty of real life? And, in a way, the boy’s understanding of it made him seem older than he really is.
      My son is the same age exactly as the boy in the story… it’s such a different world now for some of us.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    You’re right…it’s not a terribly sad story (and there are some of those in here, for sure) but it’s steeped in an air of melancholy. Maybe for the idea of a way of life that’s lost, with the mines, even though that was a horrendous life (and no life at all for the horses born and bred down there). Maybe the idea of lost innocence (what with that Ontario driver introducing James abruptly to quite another way of looking at the world). One of the reasons that I fall so hard into this story, and maybe it’s true for other people too but I’m sure everyone has their own set of reasons for connecting to certain stories, is that most of us have laid in bed and listened to the sounds of the household waking up around us, have felt that sense of being on the margins of that life for just a moment (and then we get up and, mostly, don’t leave home that day LOL). Lovely photo at the end there, too. It reminds me how dark the skies can look (but never as dark as underground) and how watery those scenes can seem (but no seaweed *pauses to leave room for The Boat flashbacks*). We marked many of the same quotations (and both quoted the goodbye bit); another that I thought you might like was his commentary on how he felt differently about the way that his father have looked upon him lying there in bed, with his eyes closed as if asleep, and that he knew when she passed that his mother knew he was actually awake and only pretending.

    • Naomi says:

      I loved that part. Because it’s so true – at least for us. There are so many little things about the kids that I know but my husband is clueless about. I don’t know what it is… just that I’ve spent more time with them over the years, or something else? Those are the details I love, too. I would have been content just with the beginning of the story, up until he left, even though I know the traveling added a whole other dimension.
      Do you know what else I love? That the father goes down first every morning to get the stove going. Like Pa in Little House on the Prairies. There’s just something thoughtful and loving about it.

    • Naomi says:

      He is! But you do have to be careful if you don’t enjoy very sad stories, because there are some of those. And they’re so well-written it’s hard to shake them off.

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