by Jared Povanda.
(art pictured by Shawn Ferrari)
(CW: death, grief)
Cecilia Kennedy’s “Between the Scalloped Edges” is a story that revels in mystery. At first, the prose is intentionally vague and mired—as if plunging the reader into fog. In the first paragraph, the narrator says, “Something tells me to look up. I can’t quite place what that something is, but it’s one of those nagging feelings that grows into worry. Somehow, I’m forgetting something important. Sometimes, I think that if I reach up high enough, and in-between the curved edges, I’ll find a head or a face or something I’m not expecting.” Something, something, somehow, something, sometimes, something. The repetition is a purposeful device utilized to unsettle. To leave the reader off-kilter and unmoored. The main character doesn’t know what they’re looking for at the top of the kitchen cabinets or what they’re going to find, and the immediate tension for the reader is both wonderfully compelling and deliciously strange.
As the piece moves, Kennedy weaves between the past and present to both paint a picture of minimum wage malaise and a deeper, shrouded grief. Something hidden. In a story full of stunning turns of phrase, my favorite detail has to be this one: “Sometimes, I make the mistake of throwing away an empty plate from a table, only to find out that the plate was not empty.” At some point, she remembers the food. She remembers the fullness of the plate, the exact opposite of emptiness, and that idea of memories almost sprouting like mushrooms continues on as the story unspools. Remembering—what the characters remember (a grandmother’s water pie, for example), don’t remember, don’t want to remember, find painful or impossible to remember—is this running theme throughout, and as the main character remembers her sister, the reader is again swamped in unsettling repetitious imagery. This time, Kennedy uses glass to unnerve the reader. To create an almost kaleidoscopic environment to keep the reader guessing about the truth of what happened to this family. As glass reflects and refracts the light, Kennedy expertly plays with the reader’s expectations of plot and language. What is, at least initially, a piece that is focused on a very human tension seems to veer into the spookily vague. The preternatural.
“I find pieces in my hair,” the main character states, and then, “The manager at work has to pull me aside one day to talk to me about how guests have complained—how they’ve seen me picking pieces of glass from my scalp.” The past is merging with the present in unprecedented ways, or maybe what’s past has never finished haunting the main character. She says soon after, in a sort of dream or memory, “I work well into the night, gathering the pieces and finding where the edges meet…I look through them as if they were a complete window…I look through, and I’m seven and she’s five.” I almost want to ask whether or not the sister is a ghost—but I also know that’s how the family in the story has been treating this unnamed sister. Kennedy is exceedingly clever in how she doles out information, and in a bounding, reflective writing style—nearly ponging the reader back and forth—she has made me, in such a short space, want to theorize about What Really Happened Here. And is it better not to remember what actually happened? Is it better to forget? What about the glass? Is it some sort of haunted penance?
There’s also the lovely detail about the main character working in hospitality when so much of what is described here is the opposite of hospitable. And I have to point out how the final lines linger and echo back through the story. How sleeping and waking are intertwined with the theme of remembering. How pain can paradoxically cause one to come to awareness (“I heard my name in hushed whispers—and something hurt—my hand, I think.”) while also causing a sort of emotional recession. A plunging once more into the fog (“They cared for me; they took me by the hand, but they never looked at me again. Looking is remembering.”). The final line especially speaks to the main character acknowledging the need for sleeping after a long day of playing. It is also true, though, that the sisters’ playing is interrupted by shards of glass coming away—falling away—as something sharp and awful will always come between them in both life and death, memory and dream, past and present.
I so admire and respect what Cecilia Kennedy has accomplished here. “Between the Scalloped Edges” is a story of grief and murder, of multiple forms of loss, but it is also a story of sisterhood and what endures. There is pain and there is beauty, and it is the constant bouncing between these two poles that makes this story such a successful piece of art; readers won’t be able to help pondering over the fates of the characters long after they’ve finished reading.