This Week in Short Fiction


Autumn is the season of change and, some say, death, as the leaves turn, the air cools, and the nights lengthen. Likewise, Halloween is not just a holiday for costumes and candy but also, at its untouched roots, a day for remembering loved ones passed. So, fittingly, the quarterly online literary magazine Psychopomp, named for the mythological guides to the afterlife, released its fall issue on Monday, featuring a powerful story of grief and loss. In “Remains” by Morgan Fox, a woman’s husband unexpectedly comes back from the dead.

On a chill April night—it rained that day, as it rained most days then, more seasonal anomaly than storm pattern, dousing the world in plumes of watery corrosion—electric baseboard hotter than the sun that did not go supernova, fogging the glass panes until the mullions sweat in long splinters, and to the tune of the pigeons fucking in the rafters Rice flung open the window while Sebastian—who’d just come back from the moon—sat at the table with his head cradled in his fists and his spacesuit bunched around his waist, and despite the acidic wind Rice curled up in the only other chair to stare at the man she might have once called her husband had he not died and left her, here, alone—

Fox’s rhythmic and prose draws lush descriptions as Rice and her returned husband sit across the table from each other, eating boxed macaroni and cheese that Rice cooks up while apologizing that she doesn’t have any hotdogs, and making forced conversation. Understandably, neither knows what to say. Sebastian, to his credit, hasn’t talked to another human being in years, having been mysteriously stuck on the moon alone, so he’s out of practice.

Lull in conversation, she forked noodles and Cheez sauce into her mouth, human automaton, what was the point in chewing what was the point in tasting, while he savored the bites, the return of warmth and food and texture and sensation. Life was a sensory explosion and he meant to experience it all again, but he had missed something. Her silence. Once upon a time he knew how to mend her woes, but now despite sitting at the table, together, again, physically occupying the same room, a wall stronger than death between them and he had forgotten how to talk.

Rice tells him about what happened after he died, or left, or went to the moon. About the priest with the clammy hands, about Sebastian’s medication that she kept for some reason, about the acid rain and the poisoned crops and the famine, about her failed backyard garden and the soil she can’t trust, about the slow death of the known world. Sebastian does his best to listen and tries to make jokes.

Many of us who have survived loved ones have imagined this moment of reunion, fantasized about the things we would say and the ecstatic joy of being together again. But it’s a dream, a what-if made safe and pure by its impossibility. Reality seldom lives up to imagination, and loss never leaves the living unchanged. The story is dense with metaphor, with the food shortage and poisoned soil evoking the grief process and the barrenness of life after loss and Sebastian’s stay on the moon calling up an otherworldly limbo. “Remains” shows us Sebastian’s desperate desire to return to Rice while on the moon and Rice’s bottomless desolation at his death, but what makes it remarkable is that it also shows us the fault in the fantasy. After the pain, after the grieving, after you thought you couldn’t go on and then you went on anyway, can you ever, really, go back?

What am I supposed to do with you, she finally asked. How am I supposed to feel? You left. You were gone so long. How many times can the world end?

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →