Storiesby Cate Kennedy
“If stories could be called watchful, that might begin to describe Cate Kennedy’s debut collection. . . . Kennedy’s tales are full of provocative messages, tantalizingly revealed.” —O Magazine
A collection of prize-winning stories by The New Yorker-debuted Australian that is “by turns funny, wise, and achingly sad” (Stephanie Bishop, Sydney Morning Herald).
Following her American debut in The New Yorker, Australian Cate Kennedy delivers a mesmerizing collection of award-winning stories that daringly travel to the deepest depths of the human psyche. In this sublimely sophisticated and compulsively readable collection, Kennedy opens up worlds of finely observed detail to explore the collision between simmering inner lives, the cold outside world, and the hidden motivations that propel us all to act.
In just a few pages, Kennedy captures entire lives, expertly documenting the risks and compromises made in both forging and escaping relationships. Her stories are populated by people on the brink: whether it’s a woman floundering with her own loss and emotional immobility as her lover lies in a coma; a neglected wife who cannot convince her husband of the truth about his two brutish, shamelessly libidinous friends; or a married woman who comes to realize that her too-tight wedding ring isn’t the only thing that’s stuck in her relationship. Each character must make a choice and none is without consequence—even the smallest decisions have the power to destroy or renew, to recover and relinquish.
Devastating, evocative, and richly comic, Dark Roots deftly unveils the traumas that incite us to desperate measures and the coincidences that drive our lives. This arresting collection introduces a new master of the short story.
“If there’s a common theme to these efficient, heartbreakingly detailed tales, it’s the truth that lies in what isn’t said . . . At its roots, Kennedy’s work shows how vibrant—and vital—the short story can be.” —Entertainment Weekly
“If stories could be called watchful, that might begin to describe Cate Kennedy’s debut collection. . . . Kennedy’s tales are full of provocative messages, tantalizingly revealed.” —O Magazine
“Aussie writer Cate Kennedy’s polished debut collection sports 17 standout stories.” —Elle
“Precisely rendered capsules of life” —The Lost Angeles Times
“Fabulous . . . [Kennedy] proves herself able to accomplish much in few words.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“The stories in Dark Roots, the Australian writer Cate Kennedy’s first collection, are melancholy but deliberate and coolly exact . . . Kennedy’s prose, line by line, is sharp, evocative and often poetic.” —New York Times Book Review
“Dark Roots is a remarkable achievement: with an effortless talent for the comic and the chilling, Cate Kennedy has crafted stories that are sly, seductive, and surprising. A standout debut.” —Alicia Erian, author of Towelhead
“Stories rendered with considerable craft and informed by a clear-eyed, unsentimental empathy . . . Kennedy has a keen eye for the weak spot, for the fault lines in a relationship and the fissures that comprise a character’s ego.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A revelatory collection . . . Kennedy’s prose walks the line between sparse and lush.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A collection of prize-winning stories by The New Yorker-debuted Australian that is . . . by turns funny, wise, and achingly sad.” —Stephanie Bishop, Sydney Morning Herald
“Stunning . . . Each story picks you up and takes you out of your life and smack bang into the middle of another place and time where the troubles and joys are laid bare and stripped back to their essence with incredibly spare and gifted writing.” —Grace Sanderson, The Sunday Age (Australia)
“A major talent . . . Kennedy has a near pitch-perfect voice and a feeling for the precise moment when stars move in the cosmos.” —Peter Temple, author of The Broken Shore
What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved
Every day I go to get off at the wrong floor. I keep forgetting. She’s in rehab now. They’ve given her six weeks in here, to assess progress, testing all the reflexes and how hard her hands can squeeze. After that, well, we’ll have to see, they say. They mean moving her to a permanent residential facility. Those are the actual words they use; they are good at jargon, of course; that is their job.
“I think your reaction is a little emotive and inappropriate,” they say; or, “We’re trying to find the most constructive way forward for patient recovery.”
I sit next to Beth’s bed and think up jargon for her, whispering.
“Would you care to listen to your mobile melody-generating headset device?” I say, holding her Walkman near her ear, watching her eyes.
“Can you indicate if you would like a drink from your cold-beverage receptacle?” I persist, although of course she cannot sip and swallow, liquids trickle into her body via a tube. Watching her mouth for some flicker of a smile, of recognition.
Some days her eyes are open, sometimes not. It is inappropriate, they tell me, to use the term “awake” on the occasions she opens her eyes. Some other brain activity is occurring. There is no fevered one-blink-for-yes-two-blinks-for-no or finger-jabbing at letters on a newspaper page. There is nothing but this.
I talk, talk, talk. On bad days I believe them, because if she were sentient those eyes would be flashing out messages like a lighthouse: SOS. Shipwreck. There would not be this slow breathing, but tears of frustration, the hand she can move would flail the air, grab for something. Instead she is like a body relieved of its burden of energy, suspended. All seven patients in this room lie like islands, and whatever is shifting is deep under the surface. I check her charts, see what they’ve been subjecting her to in rehab—needles in the feet and hands, maybe, flashlight in the eyes. I don’t know. “Nil by mouth” is what it says, which is the truth. Nothing going in. Nothing coming out.
That first day in intensive care when I’d arrived, one of the staff had asked if I was next-of-kin and I’d taken a shuddering breath and craned over her shoulder where I could see Beth’s bag and shoes next to the bed and her head inconceivably, impossibly, angled into that brace. They had her shopping bag there, everything in it intact. And jammed in the top, a bunch of flowers she’d been holding when the taxi hit her. They’d been six hours out of water and looking at them I glimpsed things as they would be from now on. The diodes pinching, monitoring, and the new glittery, chromium, machine-fed rules of helplessness. And my mouth waited to set this horror in motion, and I opened it and said: sister, yes, her sister. I would have said anything.
I get here around 8.30 a.m. Link fingers in Beth’s, tell her about my trip down, the news I’d heard on the radio, anything. Such luxuriant amounts of time in this room; it stretches and balloons like molten glass.
Each day, stepping blindly out of chaos. I have left my catering business in an uproar, gathered up the mail and dumped it in the top drawer, ignored the calls waiting on the answering machine.
Usually at this time of the morning I am selecting asparagus or stuffing capsicums, faxing the client to check how many vegetarians I should expect. We stack the random CD player and the industrial kitchen starts pumping. Nowadays it pumps in an entirely different way, like an artery losing blood, with my friend David the chef trying to instruct the two trainees from the employment service to hold things together, the three of them hapless as failing tourniquets. My business has fading vital signs; it is anaemic with lost clientele and drastically slipped standards. I, the chief surgeon, am standing gravely by, stripping off my rubber gloves.
When I press the stored number in the mobile phone the auto-dial sounds like the manic music before a cartoon. David and the trainees never answer. My own voice on the voicemail greets me, cheery as a head waiter covering up the bedlam behind the swinging doors. I try again, holding the handset against my sweater so I don’t have to hear that inane little loony tunes series of chirps. On with the show, this is it.
It was how I met Beth, actually, through catering. A university function, in the days when you couldn’t move in the food business without falling over a tray of sushi. Moroccan lamb was what I served that day, rice with preserved lemons, semolina cake. Big, satisfying carbohydrates. I’d left the faculty conference and wandered past a lecture theatre. She was up on the podium, reading poetry. To a roomful of restless undergraduates, who were doodling on their handouts and eyeing the clock. I stood there leaning against the door, thinking that the Dean could serve his own cake.
“Look over here,” says the physio, and she snaps her fingers, watching Beth’s eyes, which are gazing up at the ceiling. A ponderous, slow-motion blink. I will the eyes to turn to meet the physio’s snapping, to have them snap back angrily, absolutely alert. I imagine Beth saying, Yes, what? in that impatient way she has when she is focused on something else, imagine the physio staggering backwards in shock.
Another blink, a kind of sigh. I bend my head near. Sometimes Beth’s mouth forms a meandering string of vowels, slippery as water in a creek, the consonants that would make them words buried in that sleeping tongue.
The first time it had happened was after a big mob of friends came in, back in the other room, and we’d all stood joking around her bed, behaving as if we were all standing round at a party but that Beth was engaged in some obscure performance piece of her own secret devising. We needed to out-act her.
We brushed her hair and burned aromatherapy oils and turned her hands over in our own, and when visiting hours were finished and they had left, Beth spoke, very softly, and from far away, the clotted remnants of two words: no more.
Now the physio goes back to folding her arms as I bend to Beth’s cheek and hear the breathy vowel, deadened, exhaled. Is it no? Or is it go?
“She’s not talking,” says the physio. “Please don’t get your hopes up.”
Tell that bitch to go, maybe. That’s what I hope.
“They’re not romantic poets,” Beth said to me as we sat at my place on that first night and demolished the remains of the cake. “They’re the metaphysical poets. It was the golden age of the English Renaissance.” She laced those long fingers together, those hands that looked like they could pluck birds out of the air. “Donne’s the one. Body and spirit.”
She had cake crumbs on her lower lip, and as she spoke it struck me that I’d been married to my ex for seven years and would never have waited like this, perfectly content, to see whether he would lick them off.
“Headfirst into the riddle of intellect and love,” she was saying, and then she paused, and grinned at me. “Great cake,” she added.
I reached over and brushed off the crumbs. I’d known her seven hours. And the ghostly, amazed remnant apparition of me who had been standing in the corner of the kitchen monitoring all this, aghast, turned around and walked out and I never heard from her again.
It was as easy as that.
I’m looking at those lips now, a thin line like a curve you would cut into pastry.
I wonder, by my troth, she had recited in that lecture, what thou and I Did, till we loved? Were we not wean’d till then? But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly? Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
I watch her face, talking. Her voluptuous thighs have become thin under the sheet, her hipbones protrude. Her food bag looks filled with puree of vegetables, something you sieve into a baby’s mouth out of a can. The tube they have inserted into her to receive this nourishment disappears under the sheet. “Careful, careful of all those tubes,” the nurses are forever warning me, as if I’m going to lunge on her, crawl into bed beside her. Fit my body alongside hers there in the white envelope bed and by osmosis absorb her through my skin—Beth, my food and drink. For now I hold only her hand, feeling faint spasms ripple through it like a fish nibbling on a line, those fingers always seeming on the verge of gesture.
I could pick her up now and carry her, away from the baby food and the other six patients, slumbering on, out of this hermetic den. The door would resist, then the airlock would surrender, letting oxygen in.
I sit and feel the spell overtake me, my head jerking backwards, awake and stricken.
“You should go home,” says a nurse, carrying bedding in. “You need . . .”
She is going to say some sleep, but under the circumstances, amends it to rest.
At home I will listen at last to the string of messages David will have left on the machine.
“Hate to do this to you,” he’ll start, “but one of us has to make petit fours, believe it or not, for the Professional Women’s Network tomorrow. Rebecca, the last time I saw a petit four I was the only boy in Home Economics class. I’m . . . well, ring me. Will you?”
I would have said once that I am a person who revels in the time-consuming. I used to do things like stuff mushrooms, make all the stocks from scratch, rub sugar cubes into orange peel while watching TV because I don’t think you can get that zest flavour any other way.
The day Beth had the accident, I was doing something which just had to have black sesame seeds, and I called out to her, busy planing down a new back step, and asked her if she’d run down to Nicholson Street and get me some. I had to lift the headphones away from her ears to ask again, and I remember the glossy slip of her hair between my fingers, her nod, her tucking money into her jeans and going out on that foolish chore. Black sesame seeds, as if the world would stop if I didn’t have them. And the sun in the kitchen, listening to PBS, and the time lengthening and lengthening. Sharpening into fear. And the phone ringing.
The sequence of events locking into place around that phone call, what came before and what came after, has dislocated something in me.
Because now I am another person. I am someone who drags her feet like she was underwater down to the 24-hour Safeway, for blocks of plain, commercial yellow cake and home-brand cocoa powder, and I stand at the same kitchen table at midnight constructing counterfeit petit fours that fool nobody, that taste like nothing, that sit there like stage props.
I watch my hands make them with a distant fascination that something like this ever engaged me. I marvel that the human brain can be bothered to store the knowledge of how to do it, the brain that can know how to select a bolt to secure a step, listen to music, remember poetry and, with enough impact and under enough duress, be switched off as suddenly as a current.
I am a person, now, who sits and holds a wrist and tries to inhale a scent that’s been leached out from skin that tastes of antibiotic and somehow, impossibly, of that yellow, cottony cake.
Do I want to climb into that bed and take my turn forgetting, to look inwards into the hazy darkness of that cave? I do. Yes, I do.
It pumps out of me, my will. I lift Beth a little in her bed and feel her flesh move across her glutinous bones like fabric, her muscles dissolved away. I know she is using up stored energy now, that as she respires she is converting all those past meals eaten. I have plenty of time to consider this, breathing the sweet cellared-apple smell of her breath. This whole room reeks of hibernation. My exhaustion pours into the void, chatters to itself, bends towards that thick pure silence of disengagement. It is almost spring now, and I have brought some jonquils into this room. Their cut stems ooze viscous fluid like plasma, their scent wafts in tiny measured exhalations, like the invisible ticking of a clock.
At home I cook her favourite soup and relive the last time I made it. She had sat at the kitchen table, reading bits out of the paper. I see her hand reach over and take a pear, and that wicked smile.
“There’s something so sensuous,” she had sighed, draping herself mockingly over the table, “about a woman eating a pear.” Those teeth, sliding into brown skin.
Now I put the soup into the blender, garnish and all, and pour it into a plastic jug—a smooth, pale puree that disguises every ingredient. This is the thing about cooking: its labour is invisible. It’s a gift you absorb without noticing, storing it away for when the winter finally hits.
I have what I want to say worked out, but when the charge sister finally pushes open the door I can only turn the jug on the laminex table and stutter something.
“I’m afraid it’s not possible,” she says. She’s not unkind. On this floor there are thirty-three people like Beth, and she must weigh and measure her compassion out, like medication.
“It’s only soup,” I say. “Almost exactly like what you already give her. Just vegetables. I’m a cook.”
“What we give the patient,” she says, “is perfectly nutritionally balanced.”
Beth’s hand lies in mine like an empty glove just discarded by someone warm.
“Sister,” I begin, and she shakes her head regretfully. I am not being constructive. I am being unhelpful. The young nurse accompanying her rubs slowly at the sink with a spotless towel, and, when the charge sister leaves, comes over and sits on the bed.
“Sorry,” she says. “It smells great, whatever it is.”
Beth’s lips are parted like someone in an opium dream. Under her bluish lids I see eye movement. If ever any beauty I did see, she had said that day, Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. I had given her an old edition of a collection of John Donne’s, last year, our paper anniversary. I was expecting a cookbook from her, a lush edition I had seen and told her about, but her gift to me was a page in an envelope, and I had that page now in my bag, folded among the other documents and bills and residential-care stipulations, because what she had given me was a new will naming me, among other things, as her medical power of attorney. Beth, Beth. Headfirst into the riddle.
“How old are you?” I say to the nurse.
“What time do you finish this shift?”
“Five in the morning,” she answers, and I’m opening my mouth to tell her that she’d better have the soup, when a ribbon of sound emerges from Beth’s lips, her breathing jerks and a little grunt of effort starts it up again.
I lean down. “Tell me again,” I whisper. “I missed it.”
The noise drifts again from her throat: four vowels lifted from the air, the mouth wadded with loss. The young nurse’s face lights up.
“Did you hear that?” she says.
“Can you work out what she said?”
I hesitate. I am so tired, Beth. I want my own oblivion from this savage procession of images; of a bag of shopping untouched while you lie ruined, of some ambulance officer prising your fingers one by one from the bunch of lilies you’d bought (for me, for me), of that step I have left just as it was, so that each time I go outside I stumble, my ankle jarring, tripping over the black hole of something inexplicably seized.
“What do you think she said?” I answer at last.
The nurse blinks. “She said, ‘I love you.’ Didn’t she?”
“Yes,” I say. “Take that soup with you. Please. Help yourself.”
So I am left alone with you again, out of visiting hours, three days until our deadline, as you slumber in this cave, this room that is an everywhere. What did we do, till we loved, Beth, and what will we do now? Maybe when I was nineteen I would have believed that if the power of speech could be mustered with such effort, it could be squandered on declarations of love, but I know you, and so I know better now.
Take out this tube is what you said to me. Take out this tube.
How is it that I can want to sleep, as I walk through my kitchen at 2.00 a.m? Here is the wreckage of preparation, of dishes piled and unwashed, of a red light flashing on an answering machine like an abandoned satellite signalling for re-entry somewhere, anywhere. Here are debts in unopened envelopes, the slow drifting swansong of resignation. And here is a plane and a set of drill bits, a piece of timber leaning against the back door, a small pile of wood shavings I scoop into my hand before stepping carefully over that dark gap and sitting down.
I raise them to my face and inhale as I sit there, smelling forest which is gone now, a breathing tree turned mute and felled and unrecognisable, nothing but lumber.
1. “I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.” —Eudora Welty
Do you think Kennedy seems to love all her characters? Does she enter completely into “the mind, heart, and skin” of different people? Do you, as a reader, feel drawn to follow her there? Which characters in these stories do you understand and feel the best, whether or not you condone their actions?
2. Did you find that the stories offer a surprising range of subjects, tones, and settings? Most are focused on one relationship or a family. Yet think about the variety of human natures and conflicts. The spirit may be sly satire or grim vengeance or just endurance, but usually with ironic insights. Which stories use shock value effectively? Which ones make you smile with satisfaction, perhaps along with the narrator?
3. Violence, real or imagined, is often a place of revelation or a sharp turning point. Think of the accident in “What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved.” And the near murder in “Flotsam.” Recall the sustained imagery of trapping that leads to the final event in “Cold Snap.” What other stories turn on a violent act?
4. Crimes can be blatant or subtle in the stories. Do you think some are even debatable? Eco-crime in “Direct Action” is a destructive yet justifiable act of civil disobedience in the eyes of the perpetrator. And in those of the reader? What about the border smuggling in “Habit”? Where on the scale would you put the pickling episode in “The Testosterone Club”? And how about letting the dog loose in “Sea Burial”?
5. Is lack of communication, or, more dramatically, a failure to communicate something crucial at a crucial time, often the problem in flawed relationships in the stories? In each of them do you notice small, seemingly insignificant moments that might magnify a whole malaise in a relationship? “Oh Andrew, he never talks” (p. 16) in “A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear.” In this story where does Andrew find his best communication? Does Kennedy allow us to feel sympathy for both husband and wife? Do you feel more empathy for a character with remorseful insight into his or her limitations? What does the title mean? And the forlorn last words, “Can you hear it Vicki? I want to say. It’s not words, it’s nothing so coherent as words. It’s all of us, hoarse with calling, straining in the darkness to hear something we recognise as our names” (p. 22).
6. When do women make conscious choices to leave men in the stories? When do women decide to live their own lives instead of plumping up and being subsumed by men? How is Daniel portrayed in “Wheelbarrow Thief”? How does Stella’s cuisine, especially her stock cooking, prefigure later events? (“But she sees now, what seemed like waste is actually a kind of gift. Something reduced to its essentials, a sum total strained of its parts” p. 159 ). What gives Stella the strength to free herself? “Thinking about it now she savours it, a distilled flavour, runs her hands down her breasts and hips and legs. She is all here, and the cramp is lifting off her like steam” (p. 164). Talk about a similar liberation in “Seizure.” Are certain traits shared by Steve and Daniel?
7. How does Monica start to preserve herself (preserve: an operative word in the story) by designating her husband and his two pals “The Testosterone Club”? What in their behavior merits this name? We read of “their complete confidence in their own majestic sexual magnetism” (p. 66). What is the tone of Monica’s recollections? Is she appalled, amused, or threatened by the trio? How do Monica’s talents as a can-do woman in the kitchen provide her highly satisfactory escape? How does her husband sow the mustard seed of his own destruction with his special gift to his wife? Does the story remind you a little of Alec Guiness’s film Kind Hearts and Coronets?
8. Would you say that Cate Kennedy is shrewd about contrasting turbulent interior lives with threats from the outside world? Which stories explore this contrast most dramatically? Can the outside threats be imagined, as perhaps in “Dark Roots”? Is the narrator her own nemesis as she “spirals down” into deception? She calls it a “slippery slope” and “a poison,” her fear of aging. “You have traded in your unselfconsciousness for this double-visioned state of standing outside yourself, watchful and tensed for exposure” (p. 84). Is there hope at the end for this May-October romance? What do you think will happen if she turns the light on?
9. In “Habit” when do we learn the sex of the narrator? Does withholding this information contribute to ambiguity in the story? Do we nonetheless learn quite a lot about the narrator through her internal monologue? How real is the menace at customs? How does it compare to the larger menace in the narrator’s life? Talk about how sentences like “I seem to be inviting confession,” “I have, I suppose, a habit,” “it’s the faith that heals,” and “I am blessed” stitch together the story?
10. In “Cold Snap,” how would you describe the boy’s mental state? Is he somehow gifted with odd intuition even though he is limited in other ways? How are his love and understanding of trees important to the story? Is it appropriate that the feed-store boy refers to Deliverance? How does the father’s revenge foreshadow the pattern of the story later, and does it create a sense of dread? How do the new people bring trouble on themselves? Comment on “Well, it looks like the light’s on but there’s no one home” (p. 52), “Look at all those bloody trees . . . I’m sick of the sight of them” (p. 53), and “I started explaining but she wasn’t really listening” (p. 53). Do the woman’s alien, exploitive values lead her to a trap? How does Billy use nature to ensnare “the loony lady” who is herself a threat to nature? “That’s what nature’s like, for everything poisonous there’s something nearby to cure it if you just look around” (p. 57).
11. In “Resize”, Dave as a husband feels bleak and inept. How does the imagery of removing the wedding rings (“He feels the moment heat up, become molten”) alleviate his feeling baffled and numb? Is the shift buttressed by the clunker of a car suddenly behaving? “He steps on the clutch and finds first gear, feeling the calibrations gnash like teeth momentarily then drop into place, lubricated, fitted together like bones in a hand” (p. 64). Talk about this shift of gears in the marriage.
12. Three of the stories set in motion the relationships of mothers and daughters. Explore the challenges, conflicts, and resolutions faced by both mothers and daughters in “Flotsam,” “Angel,” and “Soundtrack.” The characters and settings are strikingly different. Do you see any points of comparison? Are there some elements of universality?
13. Flannery O’Connor has said that “a story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” Is that a useful way to look at the stories in Dark Roots? O’Connor further says that good stories are not triggered by problems or abstract issues but by concrete details and the five senses. Which of the stories leap to mind for the mystery of personality, concrete detail, and the senses? Can you give examples?
14. Motivation for characters’ actions can be murky and deceptive. Often even the characters fail to understand why they do what they do . . . or fail to do. Auden has said, “The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews.” Do you understand what drives people in this book? Which ones still perplex you?
Suggestions for further reading:
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray; Where You Find It by Janice Galloway; Goodnight, Nobody by Michael Knight; Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap; the short fiction of Lorrie Moore; The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio; Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany.