A haunting and delicately written story about family, secrets, and how quickly life passes. Check it out here: “Hill of Hell” by Laura van den Berg published in 2019.
The story starts in a rather mundane way: two friends reunite after a three year absence. The one friend, a professor, invites the narrator to give a lecture at the college where he teaches. Afterward, they drink, they converse, they ride the train together. Nothing extraordinary, except at one point we learn of the narrator’s recent pregnancy resulting in a still born birth. That, and, “Our marriage is on borrowed time,” the narrator tells her friend. A moment later, in the same conversation, we learn of the narrator’s friend’s philosophy of “the big alone” which allows us a short cut into the friend’s world view: in the end, we have no one, nothing. All the while, thoughout the train ride, we glimpse specific moments and physical details: a sweaty brow, a memory of Ikea, a dream, the conductor brandishing a photo of his child, a bottle of wine, a newspaper.
The next section moves us forward in time: “Six months after my friend and I rode the train together, I left my husband. Some years later, I remarried. My friend was invited to the wedding, but he was too ill to attend. He sent me a note of congratulations and that was the last time I heard from him before he died. In my second marriage, I was the one who lobbied for a child and when I gave birth to a daughter…”
Say what? In five brief sentences, we witness divorce, remarriage, death, and birth. Perhaps the most ambitious set of lines in all of fiction?
What follows is a rendering of two parents and their daughter and the evolution of their relationship through tears and hardships. The narrator even acknowledges: “It pains me to say that our daughter was, from the moment of her birth, a difficult human being.”
I’ve often wondered what constitutes “a difficult human.” After all, aren’t we all in our own ways difficult? Even those who attempt pleasantries at all costs have their difficulties. Perhaps they’re the most difficult of all, at least on the surface.
In any case, we move from the scene on the train to an overview of the narrator’s daughter who has lived a life mostly away from her parents, in part due to her substance abuse. The daughter has kept a cool distance all these years until she is forced into a situation otherwise. And the parents will eventually learn more about their daughter through the interactions with their daughter’s friends and acquaintances. What they learn about her isn’t all terrible or painful.
Note here, I haven’t mentioned a word about how this piece ends. This is intentional.
Instead, let me say this: at its core, perhaps this is a story about the secrets we keep, and how those secrets inform decisions for which others might not understand, not least the people from whom we’ve shielded this precious information. Perhaps this is also a story about how the most essential or influential parts of our past lives, however tightly we might attempt to hold or suppress, will always find a way to surface.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the novels Find Me (FSG, 2016) and The Third Hotel (FSG, 2018). She is also the author of two story collections, The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (FSG, 2021).