“Dead Dresses” by Rachel Cantor
Rachel Cantor’s story “Dead Dresses,” which appears in the Jan/Feb 2015 print issue, begins like this: “It being an odd day, they meet on Emmilloni’s bunk, Emmi being the odd one.” This first line suits its story in many ways, not least of which is that the story is odd. I mean that entirely as praise: the story is unusual, but not for the sake of being unusual. Its freshness surprises and delights.
Rachel’s cover letter mentioned that “Dead Dresses” was one of a series of stories she was writing based on the lives on the Brontë siblings*. Even if she hadn’t included this information up front, the “game” would have become clear early on. The first paragraph continues:
It being an odd day, they meet on Emmilloni’s bunk, Emmi being the odd one. Tomorrow, they meet on Anniloni’s bunk, Anni being the even one. Brannilini, up top, is the leap year: look! he leaps bunk to bunk, how odd! He does this because Charlemeanie is at boarding school, abandoning her side of the top, abandoning them all to Papa’s silences and Auntie’s sewing hour. She writes excited letters: I’m learning Geography! I’m learning Arithmetic! As if hills and numbers were something to talk about.
Emily, Ann, Charlotte, and Bran: names we know, but not quite. People we might think we know (as pale, consumptive authoresses, perhaps), but not quite. They’ve been transfigured into kids jumping on bunk beds, playing with and resenting each other, taking refuge against “Papa’s silences.”
Of course, that tension between what we think we know about the historical Brontës, and Cantor’s vision of them, is only present for those readers who have bothered to think anything about the Brontës. I happen to be one of those people; I’ve loved the novel Jane Eyre since childhood. But I can also assume that not everyone who reads the Kenyon Review shares my affection, nor should they. Part of my editorial duty to them is not to select any story that’s ultimately a literary in-joke.
So what else is “Dead Dresses” doing, beyond playing with the Brontë legacy? So much. It’s a story about childhood, about siblings, about sex and death and love, and the way those things are understood by girls who grow up through the stories they invent. There are moments of hilarity, moments of seemingly casual wisdom, and moments of both:
Emmi teaches Anni what it’s like to be dead.
First you lie perfectly still. No—arms by your side. Yes, like that, touching nothing. Now you think about absolutely nothing. Go ahead, try.
The two girls lie perfectly still.
I keep thinking about thinking nothing, Anni says. Then I think about lunch.
The honesty and anarchy of the children reminded me of Richard Hughes’ wonderful novel A High Wind in Jamaica, but “Dead Dresses” is entirely its own. The Brontë siblings may have been her jumping off point, but Cantor has crafted a deliciously original, surprising story that stands firmly on its own feet.
*Please don’t read into this detail any particular advice about what to include or exclude in cover letters. Some submitters tell us something about the piece being submitted; most simply list previous publishing credits (if any, and please don’t assume that a lack of these dooms your submission. We always want to publish new voices alongside established ones.). An editor might read the cover letter only after reading the actual submission. If you feel you absolutely need to explain your submission in your letter, that’s probably a red flag that the piece isn’t working yet, and won’t stand alone for readers.