What Can Never Be Known is about the lengths we’ll go to understand the loved ones in our lives and what it means when we finally locate the answers for which we’ve been yearning. Emma Scarbrough has had a fractured relationship with her mother her entire life, a fact that only magnifies after her mother dies. Emma’s belief that her mother’s love was more conditional for her than it was for her two sisters is influenced by a variety of things, some as small as her mother allowing her older sister to name her, and some as large as her mother revealing Emma’s sexual assault to her family after she discloses it in private. While Emma’s sexual assault prompts her career in victim advocacy, it also leads to her pushing her mother away and often distrusting her family members, believing their intentions are not what they say. At the novel’s open, Emma oscillates toward pushing others away—especially her sisters—when she needs them the most.
Two months before dying, Emma’s mother, Penelope, travels to India to revisit the country she had loved and lived in as a young adult. However, when Penelope returns from the trip without a cherished necklace she had worn her entire life, Emma’s inquiry into the necklace’s whereabouts turns into an obsessive quest to understand why her mother had chosen to spend time during her final months away from her family. After Penelope’s death, the search for the necklace becomes much more than trying to locate a family heirloom; Emma becomes fixated on understanding the mother she had spent her entire life pushing away. As regret fuels Emma’s longing and guilt, she wonders if her mother’s love for India wasn’t just a love for a place, but for something—or someone—much more specific.
Ultimately, What Can Never Be Known questions the bonds of family and asks us to consider what true familial connection looks like. Is it knowing all the details of our family members? Is it connecting with them, despite past transgressions or secret histories? As Emma contemplates what it means to know her mother as not just her mother, but as a woman too, with her own desires, knowledge, and life history, we begin to question whether it’s the labels that matter more—mother, father, sister—or the person and his or her unique life, separated from the familial bonds.
Chapter One, Excerpt
My mother insisted she left the necklace by accident. In a rush, while packing. She left it sitting on the dresser in her hotel room and it must have still been sitting there when she left. She must have been in such a hurry to leave, so fearful of missing her flight, that she forgot to put it back on, that it remained in India while she returned to the United States.
“I thought I was going to miss my flight,” she told us, breathless, as we all sat around my parents’ kitchen table. It was late May, one month before her death. She had dark circles under her eyes, but the rest of her looked invigorated, despite the long flight. My father held her hand, smiling obliviously. “You can’t rely on the taxis there sometimes, you know.”
My whole life, my mother said things like this about India. India occupied a domineering presence in our home, even though none of the rest of us had ever visited. On our second-floor landing, canvases of elephants and camels and marbled buildings, though preserved in delicate frames, hung crookedly. In our living room, a large colorful tapestry with tiny children holding hands was above the couch, placed so she could eagerly share the story of how she haggled over the price in a Delhi market with anyone that entered our house. Bollywood posters tucked away in our basement level TV room, so she could share the stories of how she fell in love with these movies when living in India, memorizing the dance moves and the lyrics, swept up in the expansive and sometimes ridiculous plot lines. My mother mimicked our house’s structure with how she shared details of her life: the deeper within it an item was held, the fewer people she shared that particular detail with.
This was generally how my mother operated. She would share one piece of herself, loudly, with anyone that would listen and the other pieces, the multitudes, with the select few she invited in.
We were among the select few she invited in, or so we believed. But even as she shared the stories behind each item—of her haggling over prices in an open market, the sun burning her neck while she bought the canvas with elephants on it, or how she snagged the Pakeezah poster from a bin outside a movie theater, or how she talked down the price on the gold and ruby bangles she wore at Christmas—I got the feeling she wasn’t entirely convinced she wanted us to be part of the few she invited in. That it was more out of necessity than anything else.
“It’s gone now, I suppose,” she muttered, placing a hand on her chest, her fingers thin and wrinkled. “If I left it in the hotel, it must be.”
“If you left it in the hotel?” I asked, which caused Caroline to shoot me a stern glare, but I couldn’t help it. I was always the one that pushed back. I had long ago figured out that was what you were left with as the middle child, the slots of “golden child” and “baby” already filled.
“Yes, Emma,” my mother responded, wearily, already exasperated. If I had known she wouldn’t make it much longer, the cancer slowly moving through her body like an uninvited guest, I might not have been so obstinate. But being the middle child had its perks in some ways, and one of those ways was receiving my mother’s necklace when she passed; she promised me this when I was eight years old. My mother’s necklace, which she had been wearing since I was born and was featured prominently in all our family photos. It was a gold lotus, delicate petals curling outward, with three miniature stigmas visible in the middle. The story we’d been told, all our lives, was that our great-grandmother had come to America after the war with very few possessions, and the locket had been one of them.
“But you never leave it anywhere. I’ve never even seen you take it off—”
“Emma.” This time it was my father, his voice sharp. He was still holding my mother’s hand. He believed her, of course—she had insisted on visiting India once again, one final time, to say her goodbyes to friends from long ago, many of whom we had never even met. She insisted on going alone; my father was just happy she had made it back alive.
Just as we had all gathered to see our mother off, we all descended on the house for her return. The original five, Caroline’s husband and two children absent; it seemed more fitting this way. Perhaps if we could momentarily mimic our childhood years as a family of five, then we could have a few moments free of our mother’s cancer. We could unburden ourselves of all we had been carrying; exhale the collective breath we’d all been holding since our mother’s flight departed. My sisters and I made idle chitchat as we waited, each of us immediately forgetting what the other had said, our eyes on the driveway. What if Dad returned alone? What if Mom was even more frail than three weeks prior? But when the back door finally opened, she stepped gracefully through, her eyes alert, her hair in a tight bun. Nothing to indicate she had just stepped off an international flight. And truly, for the amount we heard from her while she was there, she could have spent three weeks at an airport hotel, and we would have never known. The occasional picture volleyed our way, minutiae, and that was it.
We squeezed around the table, asking for details and pictures, our mother sharing exactly ten photos and one anecdote. The anecdote was elongated, a fairly meaningless story about an Indian family approaching her at Birla Mandir in Jaipur, asking her to appear in a photo with their youngest child and when she finally acquiesced—“they wouldn’t stop following me”—the child screamed and screamed before kicking our mother in the leg and running off.
“Mom!” Caroline admonished, as if it was our mother’s fault for getting kicked in the shin. A laugh escaped me before I could control it, and Caroline tossed a glare in my direction so quickly that I wondered if she even realized she had done so, while Jane reached quietly forward and squeezed our mother’s knee. Our mother shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, that happens sometimes,” but we never found out the “what” she was referencing because she exhaled dramatically and said she needed to rest.
I objected—“Isn’t it better to stay awake to get back on a normal sleeping schedule?”—not because I knew what I was talking about, but because objecting was what I did best. Caroline did what she did best by pinching my elbow, and Jane hugged our mother gently while I yelped. We three watched as my father put his arm around our mother’s shoulders to walk her to their bedroom. We waited until we heard their door close before dropping our smiles, Caroline and Jane’s faces looking just as haggard and exhausted as our mother’s, although I would never tell them this. Caroline would say I was being insensitive—“Why are you being so dramatic?” or “What do we have to be tired for?”—and I hadn’t yet figured out how to make the case that a family member dying, especially a parent, left its own kind of residue. We were all marked.
Caroline got up immediately and began clearing our coffee cups, and I quickly grabbed the spoons and spoiled napkins, having been on the receiving end too many times of my eldest sister’s particular brand of orneriness and diligence. I wasn’t in the mood for being accused of not helping her clean up precisely half a second after our mother’s bedroom door closed. Jane had seemed distant the entire time we were catching up with our mother. She hadn’t said much, and her eyes had seemed distant, like she wasn’t really with us. I turned to ask her if everything was alright only to find that she was frozen, her gaze lost somewhere in the kitchen tile. I moved to squeeze her shoulder right as Caroline dropped a mug in the sink in an action that could only be defined as hostile. Jane and I both jumped, her eyes quickly catching mine before I zoomed over to the sink, nudging Caroline aside in order to place the mugs in the dishwasher after she rinsed them. She glared at me, this time longer than before, and I halfheartedly asked, “What?” My mind was still on Jane’s face for that brief moment we shared a glance. Jane appeared wounded and I wanted to ask why—wanted us to have an open conversation about what we were all feeling—but those were often hard to come by when Caroline was in scorched-earth mode. When she glared again, this time I slammed a mug into the dishwasher. “Caroline, just say it.”
“Jesus Christ, Emma. It’s just a fucking necklace.”
I rolled my eyes. “Seriously?”
“Yes, seriously! Why do you always have to get hung up on the tiniest of things?”
“Why do you get to decide what I should care about?”
Caroline scoffed, turning her face away. She stared into the running water, and I knew this jab had gotten her; it always did. When it was laid out for her, it didn’t matter how many articles and podcasts she consumed on how to relinquish control. She was just that ten-year-old kid again complaining that her sisters wouldn’t follow her orders, screaming until she either got her way or was sent to her room.
She eventually reached for the next mug, water splashing as she thrust it under the faucet. Her words were grumbled. “It’s just a necklace.”
“It’s my necklace. She promised it to me.” The words curled at the edges a bit; I knew how childish they sounded. “Plus, you’re the one who borrowed it for your wedding.”
“Fine, I did.” The gold bounced off her chest as she danced during the reception. By wearing it, it was as if she was able to share in something that had always seemed unavailable to us. The necklace was so connected with my perception of my mother’s identity that Caroline wearing it, even for a short time, was groundbreaking. Without her necklace, my mother seemed exposed; a protective barrier stripped away that threw my understanding of her into chaos. The next day, my mother had it back on herself. “But you know she is dying.”
“God, Caroline. Yes.”
“And that when she’s dead, she will be gone forever.”
I cupped my forehead in my left hand, familiar with Caroline’s tendency to talk to all of us like we were children.
She stopped the water and wiped her hands on the towel hung over the oven’s handle. “Not like lost. Like dead.”
“Oh my god, Caroline!” I kicked the dishwasher closed and she turned away, occupying herself with perfectly aligning the towel back on the handle. “I’m not Peter and Marianne. You won’t trick me by replacing the dead goldfish with a new one.”
In any other scenario, she might have laughed at this. We already had, her dilemma over replacing her three-year-old’s dead goldfish ending in tears anyway because the replacement had a “funny wellow color.” But, instead, she kept her back turned, her shoulders so tense they were practically touching her ears. “I’m just saying, it seems like all you care about is the necklace.”
“That’s not true.” I placed my hand on my chest, as my mother had done earlier, the absence of the necklace weighing on me like a heavy stone. “I just want to know what really happened to it, that’s all. Aren’t you curious?”
“No.” Caroline’s voice was clipped.
I was taken aback; even though Caroline was incessant that I drop my inquiry, I didn’t buy that she wasn’t curious. Because how believable was it, really, that a necklace we hardly ever saw our mother without, that was a family heirloom from her beloved grandmother, just suddenly went missing in the last months of her life? We had been warned that she might become more forgetful as the cancer progressed, but she had been cognizant enough to get on a plane and return with all of her other possessions intact, including her wedding rings and a pair of diamond earrings our father had given her. The necklace being left behind seemed like a coding error; a puzzle piece shoved into the wrong puzzle.
“Well, I’m fucking curious. Jane, aren’t you curious?” I turned and realized Jane was gone, her chair shoved far away from the table. I felt a twinge of guilt. Jane was good at disappearing, but only because Caroline and I so easily became consumed at going tit for tat that it was easy for her to slip out unnoticed. How many times had this happened before? Too many times to count, but it didn’t make me feel any less guilty for not realizing she had left the room, especially when she was so evidently consumed by something. But this was our usual routine. Caroline bossed, I pushed, and Jane disappeared. It didn’t matter that we were adults. In this house, time flung us violently backwards, assuming our roles from youth as if we never left. When it was just the three of us, anywhere but our parents’ house, we didn’t fight like this.
Had our mother’s diagnosis brought us closer together? It certainly brought us together, the physical necessity of illness mandating more family dinners and the occasional need for a driver to a doctor’s appointment. But otherwise, our relationship remained very much the same, sisters who were close because we always had been, not necessarily because we were friends. When I heard others mention how they couldn’t go a day without talking to their sister, I always felt a small pang of guilt, a sense that I was doing something wrong. Up until we started gathering because of Mom’s illness, we had regular sister dinners at Caroline’s house, where we made our way through several bottles of wine, and Caroline fed us different recipes she found online, always insisting she be in charge of the menu.
When our mother was first diagnosed, Caroline created a care schedule that mandated who would visit our mother and when. I followed it for the first few weeks until I realized what an unnecessary burden it was and started visiting my mother whenever I wanted. I did that not because I was particularly close with her, but because I wasn’t going to let Caroline dictate how I cared for my mother in her final months. Now, she was trying to control the necklace narrative as well and, as I returned to my seat at the kitchen table, Caroline barging toward our parents’ room at the back of the house, I felt a shift inside me, a deep unsettledness that I couldn’t name but had already buried itself deep in my bones. The necklace was part of my mother, and for her to leave it behind was, to me, like leaving behind one of her limbs, or shaving off all of her hair without telling anyone. It was a massive change, a shift in our family’s universe.
Jane suddenly reappeared, plopping into the chair next to me. Her face was puffy and starkly white except for a rim of cherry red around her eyes, which were still damp and swollen. I wanted to ask, “Where do you always disappear to?” but instead asked if she was alright. She shook her head yes, stiffly, before placing her forehead on the table with a soft thud. If I was Caroline, I would have pushed for an explanation. But that had never been my relationship with Jane, so instead I patted her back a few times and then mimicked her head on the table and waited until someone found us.
Ever since Mom was diagnosed, Dad would alternate calling one of us to come and assist her in completing different tasks, which is how I found myself back at my parents’ house a few days after she returned, under the guise that I was helping her unpack. Except she never really needed our help, and this time was no different, so, as I watched her unzip her suitcase and pull different items from its depth, I felt like a supervisor, obsolete in the face of her unshakeable capability. That would be the last thing to go, even though we didn’t know it yet. Plus, it didn’t take a mind reader to understand my dad’s true motives. Forced last-minute memories.
Mom asked me how work was and how the cat was doing and if I was thinking of taking a vacation this summer, questions that didn’t really amount to anything, but I answered anyway because I knew they were her way of asking how I was doing. She sometimes was never very good at the direct questions, but then again who really answered “how are you” with an honest answer anyway. This way she at least collected details about my life; fairly meaningless details, not enough to construct a robust understanding of me, but enough to form an outline. Our conversations had been stilted for some time. We no longer talked about anything real or anything that mattered. With Caroline and Jane, especially Jane, she could easily hug them and ask them how their day was. With me, it was as if she had to prod her way in first, checking to make sure it was safe, for emergency exits. If you traced our history, we would both be pointing fingers at the other. She didn’t arrive to this cold shoulder-tiptoeing around my island on her own.
I could only answer so many meaningless questions before my skin started to crawl so, after she asked me if I had seen any of my old roommates recently, I answered with a stiff “no” before asking how her trip was.
“Oh, just fine.” She was halfway through her suitcase and suddenly angled it away from me, dropping clothes on different piles on the bed, partially hidden now by the suitcase’s flap.
Too broad of a question, I tried again. “What was the best thing you did while you were there?”
She briefly looked up, smirking. “Channeling your dad, huh?” I grinned despite myself. At the end of any family vacation, Dad would ask us how we would rate the vacation, scale of 1-5, or what was the best and worst thing we did. He inevitably asked us when we were all bleary-eyed and delirious, so close to reaching home that we collectively entered into a catatonic state. So, even though we often resented giving answers, the questions lingered, their own version of a family unable to ask the hard questions, the necessary ones.
“I guess. So, what was the best thing?”
“Hmm.” Mom cast her eyes down, her forehead a cluster of wrinkles. Her eyebrows were drawn together, tightly, leaving the signature wrinkle in the middle that all three of us had, each our own miniature version of this woman who only ever revealed portions of herself at a time. Even now, standing a few feet away, I felt an impenetrable vastness. Surely it would take me eons to cross the room. “I suppose—oh!” She exclaimed as her small bag of toiletries dropped to the floor, spilling miniature bottles of shampoo and perfume and lotions everywhere. Suddenly I was three years old, watching in confusion as my mother frantically packed a suitcase, our nanny repeating her name until my mother seemed to snap out of a trance, dropping her toiletries bag as she herself dropped to the floor, whimpering and shaking. As she stooped down in the present to gather her miniature bottles, I momentarily concentrated on the memory rather than the fact that she seemed to drop the bag on purpose, a convenient deflection. On how I ran toward her and threw my small body around her, unable to grasp exactly what she was feeling, only knowing that hugs were powerful. For the longest time, the memory of how my mother clung to me in that moment was the singular evidence of her love for me, a moment I would return to when I was most desperate. See? She does love you. Remember? You’ve just forgotten. The memory was crumpled and starting to fade, I had used it so many times.
But what if it wasn’t that at all? What if, instead, it was evidence that she always had one foot out the door, part of her always somewhere else. Giving only so much of herself to us, enough to pass an invisible threshold. Enough to convince us that she was here.
She stood back up, her toiletries intact, and immediately disappeared into her bathroom. I called after her, even though I already knew it was pointless.
With her gone, the room felt larger, the air easier to breathe. I leaned against my father’s dresser, wished for my phone that was tucked in my purse in the kitchen. What good would it do to be on the phone when I was meant to be with her? Then again, she removed herself first, retreating to the bathroom, Mom’s safe haven. As children, it was understood we were not meant to bother Mom when she was in the bathroom with the door closed. That still didn’t stop us from rapping our knuckles, lightly, as if that would dampen the fact that we had broken an understood house rule. Somehow, I was the one almost always admonished for breaking the rule, Caroline and Jane excused.
This time, Mom had left the door open, but I knew better. I picked at my fingernails for a few minutes, ran my hands nervously through my hair, until deciding I could still help, even if she hadn’t directly asked. Her clothes were rolled tightly, and I continued her sorting process, shirts stacked together, a singular pile of leggings and skirts, scarves tucked and knotted, an unfamiliar delicate pink one packed at the bottom. I turned it over, figuring it must have been purchased during the trip, morbidly wondering why, if she’d only be able to wear it for a short amount of time. I was ashamed at the thought, so I dropped the scarf, and when I turned my eyes back to her suitcase, there it was. Her jewelry pouch.
The necklace. A furtive glance to the bathroom confirmed my mother wasn’t standing near the entrance and that she was humming some shapeless tune, another marker of my childhood. In the days since she claimed she lost the necklace, I had mostly released my anger at her for leaving it behind, because it was really me being angry at her for dying, and how would I ever be able to tell her how angry I was about that? How could I be angry for something that was beyond her control? But now, an opportunity. Maybe she’d just overlooked it in her jewelry pouch. Maybe I would find it crumpled at the bottom and I could show her, victorious, and she would exhale in gratitude, thankful for my resourcefulness. Perhaps she would look at me without complication and we could pretend, momentarily, that the years we had spent living under the same roof hadn’t marred our relationship so irreparably.
I removed the pouch and quickly unfolded it. It was yellow, with an unnecessary number of zippers. I started at the top, the tiny zipper momentarily snagging, revealing a few stud earrings and a miniature bottle of perfume. The next one contained a gold bangle I didn’t recognize, undoubtedly another souvenir, and I toyed with putting it on my wrist. The next zipper held a collection of delicate bracelets, a long-ago Mother’s Day gift from the three of us, and I dug through the bracelets to see if the necklace was hiding underneath, even as sentimentality over this packing choice threatened to swallow me. She was very hard to shop for and hardly ever wore anything we gifted her after the requisite amount of time had passed. No necklace underneath. The second to last zipper contained just miniature perfume bottles and the bottom zipper was empty. I slid my hand into the large, open back pouch, grabbing onto what felt like a string of pearls, just as the room shifted and my mother, so unbelievably frail, demanded to know what I was doing.
I dropped the pouch. I was caught in her sock drawer, searching for our Christmas presents; I was rapping on the bathroom door, long past the window where I could stop, and my mother would forgive the intrusion. “I just thought—”
“You just thought what?” Her voice was surprisingly strong for a woman who looked as if she might break in two at any moment.
“I thought—well, maybe, that the necklace was in there.” I cleared my throat, my heart racing. “Your necklace.”
Her gaze was long and sharp. It was astute and also far away. It was deciding what it wanted to be. Eventually, she smirked, and said, “You’ve never been one for trusting, have you?”
The comment was so breathtakingly unexpected it knocked the wind out of me. “What?”
Mom crossed the space between us, took the pouch out of my hands. “Trusting. It’s just never come easy to you, has it?”
“What are you—what does that even have to—what do you mean?”
My mom tightly rerolled the pouch and placed it among her piles of clothes. “I told you I must have lost the necklace. Why can’t you trust me?”
I wanted to respond “trust has nothing to do with this” but that wasn’t entirely true. Was it that I couldn’t trust her to safely return from a foreign country with all of her possessions intact? Or, I didn’t trust her when she said the necklace was lost when she had worn it every day of her life, when she spoke with such frippery over something supposedly significant to her. Because why wasn’t she more upset? That was the splinter in the fingernail, the reason why I couldn’t let this go. Something was off, and my mother knew something was off, knew that I knew. “I just don’t get it. Must have lost it? Either you did or didn’t lose it.”
Mom slammed the suitcase lid, a few clothing items rolling off the bed onto the floor. “Emma. Have you always been this impossible? I lost it. Can we just drop this?”
“Why aren’t you sad, then?”
“Who says I’m not sad?” The question carried the necessary emotional heaviness but was empty, too delicate. The kind of thing you say when you don’t really mean it. “Of course, I’m sad. But it’s just an object. It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter?” I felt my face flushing, sure I was beet red. The undeniable tell even when I alleged I was keeping my cool. “What are you talking about?”
“Emma, please. I need to finish unpacking. If you’re not going to help me unpack, then please wait in the living room.” She ran her eyes over me quickly but averted my return gaze, looking down at her closed suitcase. As an afterthought, when I was almost out the door, she added, “And I especially don’t want you in here if you’re not going to trust me. Now close the door.”
Even though I was the one that pulled the door shut, I still felt the full force of it slamming in my face. I had no doubt that my mother had that kind of power.
The rest of the house was quiet, the living room unnervingly still. This house had held our bodies in so many stages over the years that being unoccupied seemed only a temporary state, bated breath until someone flung their body onto the long sofa in front of the fireplace or curled up in one of the worn plush chairs to watch TV or read a book. I half expected to hear one of my sisters yelling down for our mom, or our father turning the kitchen TV on to watch football or Jeopardy while he drank a beer, peanuts loosely shaking in his hand. To believe these things made the door slamming all the more acceptable; otherwise, I had to reckon with the fact that, at twenty-nine, I was still waiting on the other side of my mother’s closed door, desperate for her attention.