Photography First Place:
“Surf Sisters” by Laura Joeckel
Judge’s comment: This terrific travel photograph succeeds on several levels: The nuns are captured in a non-instrusive manner and we see just enough of their facial expressions to give it life. The viewer knows that we’re in Italy by the writing on the boat. Great use of composition and a telephoto lens to visually compress the elements. I would have been excited to have made this picture while on assignment. – Kevin J. Miyazaki
by Scott Winkler
Clay and I milked the cows for the last time. Our mother insisted on being in the barn with her camera, switching out flash cubes between pictures of us washing the cows’ udders, slipping on the black rubber inflations to draw out the milk, dipping the cows’ teats in an iodine solution, and pouring milk through a filtered funnel into the large metal cans we toted to cool in the stone tub filled with cold water in the milk house. When she prompted me to smile, I had no difficulty in doing so. I wouldn’t miss them. The herd had been good to our family, but with my father gone, Clay leaving for Basic in two days, and my going to Madison in August, selling the cows to a trusted neighbor was the right thing to do.
Clay didn’t smile so easily, but then he’d never been the type to smile for photos. Pictures of him in our mother’s album showed the sternest face in America’s Dairyland – not angry or sour, just stern. She did capture a hint of a smile in one shot that day when she oohed and ahhed at his muscles while toting surge bucket of one of the milking machines.
After milking, we completed the morning chores but didn’t herd the cows to pasture; loading them in trailers was easier if we guided them from stanchions to the walled ramp at the barn doors. Melvin Zwijacz and his son Robert, eight years my senior and certain to one day take over his father’s operation, arrived soon after the chores.
Though we’d sought to make our job easier by loading from the barn, cows are cows – stubborn, prone to urinating or defecating without warning, massive, and dumbly strong. Not every cow presented a problem; Old Plug lumbered easily, her rear hips swaying slowly, without any prodding. Some, like the young cow we called She-Devil, proved difficult. She-Devil couldn’t be milked without positioning a large clamp, resembling an inverted horseshoe with a crank at its axis, in front of her rear hips. Cranked tight, the two halves squeezed to prevent her from kicking. We didn’t have the luxury of using the clamp for transport, and she did her best to do everything but what we wanted.
Eventually, though, with the aid of shouts and raised arms, of waving broom handles and pitchforks, we loaded and transported all the cows. The job took hours. The adult cows were easier to load than the heifers, who hadn’t entered the barn since we pastured them in the spring. We collectively worked to close in on each heifer individually, herding it toward the barnyard door. Smaller than the cows, the heifers had spring in their steps. 800 pounds of Holstein trotting toward collision prompted each of us to step out of a heifer’s path more than once, requiring us to begin again our efforts to herd the animal into the barn and trailer.
We didn’t stop for lunch. By three o’clock, we’d all sweat through our clothes and were covered to varying degrees with chaff, dust, and manure, but we’d successfully transported 42 adult cows, 24 heifers, and a dozen calves to their new home. Clay and I stood beneath the light pole near the asphalt shingled well cover. Clay, perched on the edge of the lid, didn’t look as tired as I felt. As Melvin spoke with my mother and tucked his check book into his shirt pocket, Robert approached us. “Thank you, guys. Dad and I couldn’t have done this alone.”
Clay shrugged. “It’s what neighbors do,” he said.
“Not a problem,” I said. “We’re happy to help.” I wasn’t going to miss waking up for 5am milking.
“We’ll take good care of them,” Robert said. “Your dad had a good herd.”
“He did,” I said. “He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to have them.”
“It’s appreciated,” Robert said. “I’ve been hoping to grow our operation for a while now.”
I saw an excitement in his eyes I’d never felt and was happy for him.
“If there’s anything we can do,” Robert said, “to help you out. I know it can’t be easy with your mom being – ”
Clay interrupted him – not rudely, but coolly, in that way Clay had. “She’ll be fine,” he said. “We all will. Right, Walt?”
I looked at my brother. “Right,” I said. Several of our mother’s siblings still lived in Shawano, much closer than either of us would soon be. Peace of mind. “We will.”
After the funeral, I’d asked my mother if she wanted me to stay home that fall. She looked at me as if the sun had risen in the west that morning and made it very clear that I wasn’t about to abandon my hopes or her prayers for me. She said she hadn’t really thought about what she’d now do, but that her gardens always needed tending, that our church would never turn away a volunteer, that the new library might need someone to re-stack the shelves and read for preschoolers at story time, or that she’d discover an adventure waiting for her.
Melvin walked to us. Behind him, dark clouds gathered in the west. “Thank you,” he said. “Your father would be proud. You’ve taken good care of the farm, and we’ll take good care of the animals.” He shook hands with Clay and me. “Good luck at school, Walt, and Clay, do us all proud. Your father will be smiling down.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“I will,” said Clay.
Melvin and Robert walked to their truck. In their movements, I sensed the same weariness that had settled in my bones.
Mine surpassed the exhaustion of having worked since sunrise, though. If the last three years had beaten me down, the last month had drained me – but not drained enough to dismiss the thought that crossed my mind when walked toward the house and looked to the side yard, where the fruit of the cherry trees was just beginning to streak red. “Hey, Clay,” I said, “hungry for some chicken?”
“It’s been a while,” he said, “but you know me.”
“I do,” I said and went up the front stairs and into the mudroom for our gloves and a baseball.
Chicken ball was a silly and, to be honest, dangerous game Clay and I had played since we were boys. Standing at opposite ends of the side yard – Clay near the outhouse that went unused since my parents installed indoor plumbing and I near the sprawling lilac bush whose lavender flowers perfumed the air each May – we lobbed high, soft tosses to loosen our arms. Once loose, we each took a step closer. Easy lobs became faster pegs, and as the distance decreased, velocity increased. We repeated the process: another step closer when we agreed it was right, sometimes with a word, but more often than not with a gesture or a nod. Ultimately, we stood no more than thirty feet apart, throwing the ball as hard as we could, aiming for a shoulder or shin, a knee or even a crotch, daring one another either to trust hair-trigger reflexes or to flinch and bail – to chicken out.
As we took our places on either end of the yard, the clouds drew closer. Lightning briefly flashed, followed several seconds later by thunder rolling. Clay’s first toss was high and lazy, and I could easily see the slow rotation of the red laces as it dropped from the darkening sky. Though exhausted from the day’s work, I limbered up quickly. Muscle memory took over. Clay and I had played chicken ball more times than we could count, and for as ludicrous as the game was, we loved it. Clay and I were so different in so many ways, but this – this we shared: a link, however tenuous, to my kid brother.
As we played, I wondered about my brother’s reaction to our father’s letters to us. I wasn’t surprised that we hadn’t spoken of them; it wasn’t the only subject floating between us that we couldn’t bring ourselves to voice, and I wasn’t going to force the issue. My openness with Meg and Tom and even my mother was counterbalanced by the silence between the men in my family. With each other, we’d always been detached. When frustration, desperation, or anger forced a moment to its crisis, we resorted to shouts, resentment, and uneasiness writhing like something electrical.
Another step closer.
Clay couldn’t have felt what I did when I read my letter. It was impossible. We may have spoken little, but history told me that much. He had his own dreams, and I could only imagine the measure of pride that filled him when he read our father’s thoughts about raising us to serve and be better men than him.
Another step. Higher velocity.
He had to be proud, embracing our father’s ideals, that he’d become the man our father envisioned when squinting through the mists of time for a glimpse of his sons in the future…
… that he – not me – was on the cusp of fulfilling the dream closest to our father’s heart, repaying the debt I’d never see as anything but a liability.
Thirty feet. Terminal velocity.
And all that – was okay. We chose targets with impunity. More lightning, more thunder. Clay’s next throw was low and hard, a beeline for my right ankle. I speared the ball just above the grass.
I loved Clay. I returned his throw, left shoulder, snapping my wrist for maximum backspin. And it wasn’t simply blood. His throw streaked toward my left knee, my mitt swallowing it before it struck me. He was a hell of a ballplayer. Right shin. I wished the scouts had swayed him. I saw Clay as misguided, but his beliefs were his; I wouldn’t change them. The knee again. Rain began to fall. I was afraid for him. I knew he’d live through Vietnam, knew that as a soldier he’d carry his body with the same preternatural grace he exhibited on the diamond, treading lightly, gliding through razor grass, over paddy and trail without triggering a mine or allowing an unseen soldier to draw a bead. I threw sidearm, changing the trajectory of the ball, making it rise toward his throat. He snared it with nonchalance. I wasn’t afraid for his body. I feared for his soul.
The rain fell in sheets, but we didn’t stop. Our mother called from the porch, but I couldn’t hear her voice over the thunder. The knee a third time. I couldn’t remember my last win in chicken ball. I might have been nine, maybe ten. A long time ago. I whipped the ball toward his chest, hoping in the act of catching it he’d hear. Not a word now. It’s okay. He’d even won when one of my throws had skipped just before reaching him, catching him in the mouth and snapping a front tooth cleanly in half. But someday. Angled away from me, I threw at Clay’s heel. You’ll talk. His left hand reached downward, snaring the ball and transferring it to his meat hand as he pirouetted to return the throw. You’ll need it. I caught the ball a hair’s breadth above the bridge of my nose. I’ll listen.
As I gripped the ball, the hair on my arms stood on end. A concussion sucked the air from the world for a heartbeat. The butternut tree whose limbs hung over the cows’ path to pasture exploded in a flash of smoke and splinters. A thick limb groaned and dropped to the ground, pulling away the bark, exposing a white gash. Our mother screamed, but her voice came from somewhere far away, too far away to reach us. Clay, his smirk situated between amusement and wonder, crouched as he would in the field, motioning for my throw. I did, trusting I’d neither flinch nor bail.
Judge’s comment: How amazing to evoke a whole world in a small space, which “Chicken” does so masterfully. The dignity and the strong bond of this grieving family are rendered with compassion and warmth. It’s also a quite admirable “brother story,” which I am always a sucker for, and contains an earned moment of (actual!) electrical magic. – David Haynes
by Dan Powers
It looked like a picked-over carcass flipped on its back. Tires and pedals pointed at the blue summer sky, seat and handlebars cradled in the grass. Kevin thought, no, more like a patient – flat out on the operating table. But the thought quickly gave way to feelings of frustration and helplessness. Frustrated, because his dad had already showed him twice how to get the chain back on the sprocket. Helpless, because he lacked confidence and feared making it worse. This time the chain was solidly wedged between the rear wheel gear and the hub. It wouldn’t budge. If he yanked too hard on it, he might break the chain.
So he’d been out of commission all afternoon, like a cowboy whose horse had come up lame, or had been shot out from beneath him. He let out his breath slowly thinking how lucky he’d been not to go over the handlebars and land on his head when the chain suddenly jammed. He slowly turned the pedals by hand. They produced only a scraping sound, but no resistance. They moved easily but uselessly since they were disconnected from any functionality. That’s how I feel, Kevin thought. He didn’t really understand ‘functionality,’ but viscerally felt the emotional repercussion. To soothe himself and the patient – for by now he was thoroughly invested in the idea of his bike as his faithful but injured steed – he said, “That’s OK boy, Dad’s home now and will be out in a minute to help us.”
When he heard the back door, he jumped up and began talking even before he completely turned around. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know you showed me how to do this before, but the stupid chain is jammed and I didn’t want to accidently break it.”
“That’s OK, we’ll get it fixed.” Mr. Cullerton’s assuring words seemed almost visible and a bit magical as they came wrapped in the exhaled smoke of his cigarette. He had changed into his household chore trousers held up by a black belt with a buckle bearing the silver plated initial ‘C’ for Cullerton. It had been a gift from Mrs. Cullerton so long ago that as far as Kevin knew it was the only belt his dad had ever owned. His buttoned shirt and tie were gone and his v-neck white T-shirt, tucked into his waistband, hung loose against his narrow chest and the afternoon air. He gave the back of Kevin’s neck a light squeeze as he knelt next to the injured red Schwinn. “I see you started off on the right foot. You have the back wheel nuts loosened up.”
Kevin felt a tiny flash of pride. He took a knee in imitation of his dad’s position. “They were tight, but I got them. I even remember you told me they were 9/16 inch and to use the box wrench instead of the open-ended so it wouldn’t slip off and smush my knuckles.”
“That’s always a good thing to remember. I think we’re going to need a flat head screwdriver here.”
Kevin was off towards the tiny garage before his dad finished. “There’s one on your bench in here. I’ll get it.” He was back in seconds. “Here, Dad.” He handed it to him and took a knee again, this time on the other side so he could better see and also to be out of the haze from the cigarette now dangling from his dad’s lips. Mr. Cullerton squinted through the smoke as he worked the driver blade beneath the chain and braced it against the hub.
“I tried pulling it out, but it was too tight. See?” Kevin held up his hands to show his father the grease marks from where he’d grasped the chain. He wanted his dad to know he’d tried and not just waited for him to come home.
“You can usually pry it out as long as you’re careful not to bend the links.” His dad wiggled the blade and dislodged the stuck chain with a flick of his wrist. “There we go,” he said as he handed the screwdriver back to Kevin. “Well since you already have your hands oily, why don’t you put the chain back on while I slacken the back wheel?”
Again a sense of pride ran up Kevin’s neck. “OK.” He stood and re-fit the loosened chain unto the teeth of the pedal gear. As he did so he noticed for the first time one of the links looked strange and different than the others. “Dad, what’s this? This link looks wrong.”
His father leaned forward to see as Kevin held the chain towards him knowing the gesture would again show off his oil-stained fingers.
“That’s the master-link,” his dad said. He coughed twice and crushed out his cigarette on the lawn.
“Master-link?” Kevin repeated. “What the heck is that?”
“Here let me show.” His dad slipped his hand between Kevin’s without
the slightest hesitation about getting oil on it. His left palm supported the chain, so the link was facing up and Kevin could see what he was pointing at with his little finger. “You see these two pins? This side has a double slot. It slides onto the pins and then the tension holds the link tight. This small clip then makes sure they don’t come apart. It’s called a master-link because you can pop the clip off and take the link apart and open up the chain.”
“Why would you ever want to do that?” Kevin asked.
“Well, if there was a problem with the chain like you needed to thread it around or through a tight spot, or if you ever had to add or take a link out because it was too small or large.” He looked up from his hands to make sure Kevin was following his explanation.
Kevin found himself eyeball to eyeball. His dad’s eyes were blue, the same shade as his own. Surely, he must have stared into his dad’s eyes sometime before, back when he was little and didn’t know it was rude to stare. But this felt strange, like he was looking inside his dad and seeing back to when he was just a kid his own age. “Dad?” he asked. “Who taught you all of this stuff?”
Kevin would always remember the moment. Tiny and quick as it was, it etched itself deep into him. In later years, sometimes it would float to the surface as one of those rare moments of deep connection between father and son. At other times it seemed, in retrospect, a moment of sadness. The visual memory though, when it drifted into his mind’s eye, was always the same. His father’s eyes seemed in that moment to slide from blue to a grey drizzly color, washed out like faded jeans. He’d also remember the words, even long after the sound of his father’s voice had faded from memory:
“I guess…” his dad said and slipped his palm out from beneath the chain leaving it in Kevin’s hands. “I guess, unfortunately, I had to learn on my own.” It would be a long, long time before Kevin realized what his dad was telling him; about his own youth, about his own father, and about the potential of a master link.
Judge’s comments: I love the quiet, simple beauty of this story. So much is packed into a small space, with each gesture and image offering something important and useful to the fiction. A small, beautiful gem. – David Haynes
Lost and Found
by Roger Barr
“This ain’t how Grandma told us to go,” Connor says. Jake ignores him and trudges along Michigan Street, the waters of Sturgeon Bay glassy in the distance. Connor follows because he has no choice.
“You going where I think you’re going?” Connor demands. “Jake? Are you?”
“You said you’d go by yourself.”
“I don’t want to go there,” Connor says.
“Cemeteries are creepy.”
“Then go back to Grandma’s.”
“Then shut up and keep walking.”
They keep walking, making a right turn onto Bay Shore Drive. As they hike along, the breeze off Sturgeon Bay feels cool on their faces.
Why you like cemeteries so much?” Connor asks.
“Because I do.”
Jake regrets he ever mentioned his intentions to Connor. He doesn’t understand himself why, at thirteen, he’s developed such a fascination with cemeteries. There’s just something interesting about them. Back in Minneapolis, he sometimes drags Connor to the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery on East Lake Street, a few blocks from their house. They wander among tilting old headstones and newer stones of polished granite, reading the names, until Connor begs to go home. Jake has been itching to walk around in Bay Side Cemetery since spotting it when the two of them arrived in Sturgeon Bay three days ago to stay with Grandpa and Grandma Billings while their parents toured Europe.
Grandma thinks they’re headed downtown to get ice cream cones. When
he asked if they could walk downtown, she reluctantly agreed, giving him ten dollars and detailed instructions so they wouldn’t get lost. As if they could get lost in a town this size after growing up in Minneapolis.
Grandpa and Grandma are nice, Jake thinks as he and Connor walk along, but it never feels right. It’s like they are out of practice in dealing with kids. Two or three times a year, they drive from Wisconsin to Minneapolis to spend the weekend. Jake is glad when they arrive and glad when they leave. Grandma is an older, fussier version of his mother. Grandpa is okay but sometimes he tries too hard. Or not hard enough. When their parents traveled once before, Jake and Connor had stayed with the Vandersteens next door. Despite their protests, this time they had been dumped here in Sturgeon Bay.
“We gonna get ice cream or not?” Connor asks.
“Later, if you’re good.”
“Half of that ten bucks is mine,” Connor says. “Grandma said.”
“Try an’ collect it, half a brother,” Jake says. It is a private endearment that Jake uses lovingly, as much to describe Connor’s still small stature as to acknowledge that they have different fathers. Having different fathers is something Jake is painfully aware of lately. It barely registers on Connor’s radar screen — despite the fact that at age nine, Connor is a clone of Ed Gilbertson and he, Jake, looks like someone else. When the three Gilbertson men, as his mother calls them, stand together, he feels like the odd man out.
In recent months things haven’t gone smoothly between Jake and Ed, whom he calls Dad, even though the step in their relationship sometimes feels more like a cliff. For reasons Jake can’t explain, he challenges Ed Gilbertson’s authority at every turn. Ed shrugs it off and says it’s hormones. His mother asks him what’s wrong, but Jake evades the real issue. Because she does.
The Bay Side Cemetery grass has recently been mowed. The smell of the cut grass is faint in the air. Small American flags rise above a few gravestones, rippling in the breeze. For several minutes, they wander silently among the stones. Jake suddenly sees a large headstone, reddish in color. There is a familiar, forbidden name chiseled in the polished granite: GRANGER. On each side of the red headstone is a row of three flat gravestones. On one of them, Jake sees the name Adam Granger, and under it the dates February 7, 1974 – April 13, 2004.
Instantly Jake understands that this is the reason for his fascination with cemeteries. Without admitting it to anyone, even himself, he’s been searching for this particular grave. To make it real. Suddenly it feels too real and he turns his head so Connor won’t see him cry.
“What?” Connor asks.
“Nothing.” He makes a show of looking at other headstones standing guard over family plots, but he can’t help glancing back at the red granite stone.
Connor sees through the ruse. “What’s wrong, Jake?”
Jake hesitates for a moment. If he can’t share this with his half a brother, then who is there? He puts a hand on Connor’s shoulder and walks him back to the red headstone. “Granger,” he says, “was my last name before our Mom married your Dad and they had you.” He points to the smaller stone. “That’s my dad.”
“Holy smoke!” Connor exclaims. For a long moment, the only sound is the flutter of the flags. “Did you know him?”
“He died in a car accident,” Jake answers. “Before I was born. There’s more to it.” He knows this not by what he’s been told, but by what he hasn’t been told.
“Like what?” Connor asks.
“I think it has to do with how the accident happened.”
“Why don’t you just ask?”
Jake almost smiles. Connor is too young to understand the gulf between the kid and the adult worlds. There are some things you never ask an adult, not if you want an answer with any truth in it. In the last year, when he really started asking questions about his real dad, his mother answered each question with a minimum of words, sending the message it was a forbidden topic. Everything he wants to know remains locked in the past. By not knowing, he feels like part of him is somehow lost, like losing a pair of gloves.
“Come on,” Jake says. “Let’s go get ice cream.”
Despite being from the big city, they manage to get lost on the way back to their grandparents’ house. As they wander around, a car suddenly swerves over to the curb.
“Where have you two been?” Grandma demands.
They climb into the car. Jake shoots Connor a look that says keep your mouth shut.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Grandma says. “I knew you’d get lost.”
He could never explain to Grandma that suddenly he doesn’t feel lost at all. In fact, he feels like at last he’s found a part of himself, like one missing glove had turned up in Lost and Found.
“It’s no big deal,” Jake says. “You found us.”
The next day is Saturday. Grandpa is off work. About midmorning, Grandma decides to bake chocolate chip cookies and drafts Connor to help.
“Jake,” Grandpa says, “What say we take a walk? Stretch our legs.” By the tone of Grandpa’s voice, Jake knows there’s no escape.
Grandpa follows a route through town that brings them to Bay Shore Drive. He turns north and suddenly Jake knows where they’re headed.
Grandpa cuts through the cemetery lots like he knows exactly where he’s going. When they reach the GRANGER headstone, Grandpa stops. Jake waits.
Grandpa’s hands slide into his pockets. “So I understand you’ve been asking some questions around home, giving your folks a hard time. Your mother asked me what to do, and I said you’re old enough to know. She agreed.”
Now Jake understands why he and Connor are staying here instead of with the Vandersteens. It makes him angry.
“If she wants me to know something, then why don’t she tell me?”
“It’s not something she likes to talk about,” Grandpa says. “So she asked me if I’d talk to you. What do you want to know?”
Grandpa’s question bears the directness Jake has craved, but suddenly finds a little terrifying.
“She told me he died in a car accident.”
“Is there more to it?”
“There is.” Grandpa jingles the change in his pockets and looks toward the bay.
“Your Grandma and I weren’t very happy when your mother married Adam Granger,” he says. “We knew the family. Let’s just say they were kinda rough and Adam was a wild one.” Grandpa shakes his head. “To make a long story short, around the time your mother married Adam, he got into drugs. It was hard on your mother. He used them more and more, and after a couple years, he started manufacturing them. He set up a factory out in the country where he made a drug called methamphetamine. The sheriff’s department arrested a bunch of drug users. They said they bought their drugs from Adam. The sheriff put Adam under surveillance and found his factory. They went out there one night to arrest him.”
Grandpa taps the July date on Adam Granger’s gravestone with his toe. “That’s the date they went out. Adam found out the sheriff’s posse was coming. Somebody tipped him off, though the sheriff never determined who called. Officially. Adam made a run for it in his car just as they arrived. During the chase, he crashed his car. That was it.”
Grandpa falls silent. Jake thinks his way through what Grandpa has said and not said, decoding his meaning.
“Was she the one who called him?”
Grandpa hesitates and then nods. “It was real hard on your mother. She didn’t know where Adam was when she called him. She told him the sheriff had been to the house looking for him. She begged him to turn himself in. The sheriff determined she wasn’t involved in any of what Adam was doing and left her out of his report. But she blamed herself for Adam’s death.”
Jake studies the gravestone. It is overwhelming, hearing it all laid out so matter-of-fact. This is a different side of Grandpa, one that Jake wishes he had known before.
“Right after Adam died, she found out she was carrying you,” Grandpa says. “You’re the one good thing that came out of a pretty awful time for her. She needed to get away from here, start over. That’s why she moved to Minneapolis. Eventually, she met your step-dad. You know the rest.”
It is Jake’s turn to nod. Everyone knows the story of how his mother met Ed Gilbertson in the business ethics class they were taking in night school, Jake thinks. God knows he’s heard it enough times, as if her life began on that day and everything Grandpa just told him never happened. He thinks of Ed Gilbertson and Connor, two thirds of the Gilbertson men. A question nags at him.
“Do I look like him?”
“Yes,” Grandpa says. “Adam was tall and rangy — like you.”
That answers that question, Jake thinks, but generates another, scarier one.
“You need to understand,” Grandpa says, as though reading Jake’s mind. “A man’s made up of more than flesh and bone. He’s also the sum of the choices he makes. Your father made a lot of bad choices.”
Grandpa rests his hands on Jake’s shoulders. “There’s years of choices ahead of you, Jake. They’re yours to make, not your father’s. Ed Gilbertson is a good man. He can be the father Adam Granger never could be — if you choose to let him.”
Grandpa claps him on the shoulders. “Let’s head back. I’ll bet those cookies are done.”
They make their way between the gravestones. Jake looks back at the red headstone a final time. He senses that Grandpa’s account is an abbreviated version of what happened, sanitized to protect everyone involved — his dead father, his mother. Grandpa and Grandma. Maybe even himself. Connor, too. It is, he is coming to understand, what adults do.
They leave the cemetery. Grandpa’s step has a lightness that wasn’t there when they first set out. So, Jake thinks, the rest of the story, the other glove, is laying out there somewhere, waiting to be found. He’ll keep looking. Someday. For today, one glove found is enough.
Judge’s comments: A fine coming-of-age story about the ways that our wisest elders often seem to know the moment when we are ready to know the next thing. I want to follow this young man and find how this truth will shape his world. – David Haynes
About the fiction judge:
David Haynes is a Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and since 1996 has taught with the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He is the author of seven novels for adults and five books for younger readers. His most recent novel is A Star in the Face of the Sky. He is the founder and director of Kimbilio.
Photography Second Place:
“Chinta’s Love” by Shannon Thielman
Judge’s comment: This photograph is a winner because it’s both touching and informative. Good environmental portraiture is a respectful and provides information about the subjects. This photograph does just that via clothing, posture, the home environment. Effective use of soft, pleasing light.” – Kevin J. Miyazaki
Things That Won’t Happen Again
by Joanne Nelson
I’m washing my brother’s dishes. Actually, I’m boiling his flatware before I can begin the washing. It’s all that dirty: the knives and spoons coated with something filmy, the fork tines clogged with what might be old eggs. Other than the jarring sounds of pans sliding against pans as I search cupboards or move dishes from counter to sink, the cabin is utterly quiet, the heavy air undisturbed.
My brother Steven – bearded, thin, and haggard enough to appear Christ-like – says he might have barfed in the sink, but he’s not sure. He mentions this from the one comfortable chair in his cabin, where he sits naked from the waist down, cigarettes and vodka within easy reach, his long hands flat on the black leather armrests, his body motionless as he stares out the glass sliding doors to the woods beyond his deck. Steven’s golden retriever, her fur dull and matted, lies on the rug next to his chair. The dog doesn’t bark, or move her tail, but tracks my movements with her eyes.
The nakedness is fair. Steven ’s stomach is so distended from his failing liver that his pants are probably useless. Besides, he didn’t expect my visit. I’ve arrived without invitation, after driving on winter roads for several hundred miles, to see if he’s still alive.
In our last telephone conversation, Steven ’s voice was low and full of pauses. He described shooting pains in his chest, how little he ate, how much he slept. While driving, I prayed he hadn’t answered his phone for the last several days because it wasn’t charged or because he was sleeping a lot, lost in the wild colored dreams he’d been telling me about.
Both assumptions were correct. I discover this when I walk into his cabin, as casual as some neighbor with a coffee cake, although it’s chicken and rice I’ve brought to cook for him. When I call his name he doesn’t move from the chair, greet me, or rush to cover himself. He just says, “I’m not going to some damn hospital.”
Shutting the door behind me, I childishly reply, “No one asked you to.”
I’ve messed up before, arguing or trying to reason; or worst of all, using my social worker skills – something he always detected and mocked me for – to get him to stop drinking, to change who he’d become. Even now, way into my forties, I’m only the younger sister, and anything I suggest is unlikely to happen. So I’ll boil the flatware and wash all the dishes instead, because nothing is clean and I want to make him a meal. It’s unlikely the dishes will get dirty again once I leave, not with how used-up Steven looks, not after his admission that nothing stays down anymore except for vodka.
This is what I’m here for. With my grandmother and mother dead, it’s become my job to make a last attempt to save, or at least feed, my brother. I remember us eating meals together, the pancakes our grandmother made: the smell of bacon, the eggs fried in butter in a cast iron skillet. Our own mother always at the stove, making meat and potatoes and a vegetable each night. After supper the two of us would do the dishes together. Steven washing and me up on a stool drying each plate and putting it away in the cupboard where it belonged. I want to give this to him one more time, to change the air in the horrible cabin, cover the cigarette smoke, the unbathed body and dirty dog smell, change it to something like home – like our grandmother’s home. Like the people we were.
Steven knows this, I’m sure of it. There’s the way he mentions the sound of the chicken frying, and the way he sniffs the air as I turn the meat over in the skillet. I serve him such a small portion, resisting the urge to cut the meat for him. He eats everything on the plate, being precise about each bite, looking almost happy by the time he finishes. He tells me how good it tastes, but soon after he pushes heavily on the arms of his recliner to stand and make his way to the bathroom. I doubt he’ll reheat the leftovers I’ve wrapped and put in the refrigerator.
Steven returns out of breath and with a towel wrapped around himself and tells me, “Don’t go in there.” I pull up a hard kitchen chair and sit next to the table piled with weeks of mail. I’d much rather scrub at spots on the counter, or vacuum around the dog, but I’m remembering that Bible story, the one about Martha and Mary hanging out with Jesus, how Martha cleans while Mary listens. I realize I’m imitating the wrong sister, so I stop and sit down. It’s clear to me I won’t visit Steven here again. Not with how large his belly has become on his emaciated body or with the way he’s missing his ankles, his lower legs just swollen, jaundiced blobs ending in feet. One foot, I notice, has dried poop stuck to it. I point this out and he expresses minimal interest, just moves his head unhurriedly to look, and says he doesn’t know if it’s his or the dog’s. He does not attempt to clean himself. Still, I press where his ankle should be, and comment on how long the skin takes to bounce back. There are lines on both legs, streaks of ochre against his skin’s oddly yellow-tan color, like the straight roads on a map. They represent past bouts of diarrhea, I realize, but this time I stay quiet.
Despite the gravity, the finality of this visit, my heart isn’t pounding and my thoughts aren’t all jumbled and rubbery as often happens to me in a crisis. It’s more like the lingering cigarette smoke is a fog I wade through to face Steven. I fight the desire to pull back, to dissociate and watch the events play out from the ceiling somewhere or out in the woods – the woods my brother loved. I’m surprised by the memory of a phone call from months, maybe even a year, ago. He was sitting on his deck, tossing a ball to the dog he said – and drinking, from the sound of his voice. I was busy running errands and told him so. He mocked me and called me foolish for living my suburban life driving my van, doing everything from a list, and eating eggs only at breakfast.
“That’s what you’re doing. I know that’s what you’re doing,” he accused from his sunny patio. My stunned silence as I drove the curved roads of my neighborhood encouraged him to ramble on. He said I could eat anything, anytime – there were no rules. His words were sarcastic, his laughter cruel.
If I keep working, if I vacuum, as my mother surely would, perhaps I’ll make up for the chicken, do something right. There is a risk to just sitting with each other, not even a sink of dirty dishes between us. What if I say something wrong, open some old wound between us, and there is never another time to fix it?
I talk about my kids, ask questions about his dog, the best things he’s ever done, and about his worst memory ever. Without a pause, he tells about when he was a kid, maybe seven, and I was a baby. He was in the garage with our dad and Todd Markowski from down the block, who smoked smelly cigars. Steven sat in the driver’s seat of one of the old cars Dad loved to restore. I imagine the way his brown hair stood up in the back, his freckled face with its slanted smile. As Steven talks he looks out the screen window, at the spot between the pines where the deer come in the early evening. Steven was supposed to press the brake pedal so Dad could show Mr. Markowski something. He messed up – what little boy wouldn’t – pushed the gas pedal instead and caused some problem. Maybe the men jumped back, startled at the sound of the motor racing, or maybe the car lurched forward, Steven doesn’t say. But he tells about the swearing and name calling that came next, all in front of Mr. Markowski who kept smoking his cigar. Steven refused to go into the garage after that.
In my mind, as Steven talks, I add bottles of Pabst to the workbench underneath the windows facing the backyard, and a smack as he’s hauled out by his elbow, the harsh words ringing from him, as he runs to his room and slams his door. Or, it’s possible he sat frozen in the lousy cab of the broken car intent, despite the shouting, on the view of crab apple trees, wash lines, and our red-shuttered house outside the double glass of windshield and windows. Maybe our mother’s shadow moved past a window, carrying the new sister he wasn’t allowed to touch without cleaning up first.
Steven finishes his story and turns to me, “What you gonna do, write about it?” I remain silent, make no promises, already wondering how to memorize each portion of this day, how it might look on the page. I fear I’ll forget his sunken cheeks and ragged beard, or the way he lifts his unlit cigarette to his mouth inhaling and exhaling nothing. The drawn-out pace of his words, the raspy sound of his laugh, his light touch on my arm, and even the long imprint of my finger on his ankle make me wish for paper, some way to get it all outside myself.
His dog cries at the door and I take her outside. Tail wagging, she checks the air and tests the length of her leash while I pour corn for the deer from a bucket in the shed. I’m on Steven ’s property, his land ends where the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest begins, but it’s the crab apple trees in the backyard of our parents’ home I’m picturing. Steven could lean against a rake, motionless for long stretches of time. Mom and I would watch him from the kitchen window, her hand holding back the ruffled curtain so we could both see. I remember her exasperation at his lack of progress. How she’d say, “That kid … What’ll become of that kid?” I knew I could rake better, get rid of all the crab apples and make her happy if only I were big enough.
Later, as I drive away from his cabin, another memory returns. I’m still little, and Steven wants me to toss a football with him. Crab apples and yellow leaves litter the autumn ground. Our laundry line posts denote end zones. There are the rich sounds of crackling leaves and pigskin hitting palms as he teaches me to catch and pass. He plays defense and I make my slow way towards those laundry pole goal posts. Success is in the air, as he allows me to get close, oh so close, to a touchdown. And then he uses all his power to push me back to the fifty-yard line and tackle me until time is finally called and the game is over.
Driving south towards home I suppose Steven is in his chair, the dog stretched out beside him. They’ll both watch for deer that make their way out of the woods at dusk looking for corn. Later Steven will rouse himself enough to pour another drink or light a cigarette. I’ll futz with the car’s radio or talk on my cell phone. Both of us are moving on.
Judge’s comment: This is a gut punch of a story filled with indelible images – the clogged fork tines, the “jaundiced blobs ending in feet,” the imprint of a finger on an ankle. I can picture it all even as I don’t want to, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since my first reading. The starkness of the now is beautifully mixed with the past and what is, unfortunately, likely to happen next. – Erika Janik
France in the Family
by Ronnie Hess
My parents would always have Paris.
They met on Sunday, April 18, 1937, my father’s birthday, on a blind date on the western edge of the city. It was cloudy, and my mother wasn’t keen about the meeting, dragging her feet. She usually spent Sundays in the suburbs having lunch with colleagues and changed buses at the Porte de Saint-Cloud. To please a best friend, she was squeezing him in.
She was 26, single, independent, cosmopolitan, working in the Paris office of my grandfather’s import-export business, a moderately successful pharmaceutical firm. Her flair for languages was an asset, coming in handy as she took dictation in her own multilingual brand of Pitman shorthand, handled correspondence and answered the phone. She tweezed her eyebrows, smoked, and had dared to pose nude for art students in a life drawing class. If she was handsome – some would say even beautiful from the photographs – she could never acknowledge it, being instead utterly convinced that she was ugly or at best plain, while her younger sister, with blonde curls and blue eyes, was the conventionally pretty one. She was smart and bookish; played the piano; and was not easily won or impressed.
My father was a sound- and cameraman who had started out as a sales representative at Fox Movietone. Starry-eyed about America, its cultural icons like Shirley Temple and Tom Mix, he was lured by drama and thrills, of travel across Europe and journalistic scoops. In Berlin, he photographed Hitler when he rose to Chancellor in January 1933, standing in the Reich Chancellery just a few feet away from him, and Mussolini’s family when my father, no longer able to work in Germany, was moved by Fox to Rome. During all this time, he didn’t seem to make the connection that as a Jew getting so close might put him in harm’s way. Perhaps it didn’t matter, because he was committed to covering the news. Or perhaps he was hoping this proximity might eventually pay off. It was something that, like so much else, I never thought to ask.
Indeed, it was my father’s connection to Spain’s Generalissimo Franco that probably saved his life. My father had been sent to Spain in 1934 where, as a soundman, he had recorded bullfights, flamenco dancers and Seville’s Holy Week. In 1936, he had been assigned to cover the Spanish Civil War from Franco’s side, coming under fire near Málaga from Loyalist troops as his team took their first combat pictures. One day in May 1937, scarcely a month after meeting my mother, he was stopped at Irún along the French-Spanish border and interrogated by a Gestapo officer in charge of German nationals in Spain.
“Mensch, Sie sind doch Jude,” the German officer hissed at my father. “So, you’re a Jew.” My father was detained and sent to an internment camp in Fuenterrabía. As he was filling out papers there, he listed Franco as a reference, having interviewed him two days before in Burgos, then demanded to speak by phone to his press headquarters in Salamanca. He got through to a press officer who phoned the military commander in Irún who had him released. A slightly more dramatic version that I recall hearing from my father as a child had him behind bars yelling in Spanish, “I want to speak to Generalissimo Franco,” until a Spanish guard opened the jail door and told my father to get going, saying he’d look the other way. My sister always believed that was the better part of the truth.
As a youth, my father had been raised in a close-knit, middle class, not particularly religious Jewish family that could trace its ancestors back to the early 18th century in southeastern Germany. Relatives had established themselves in and around Bavaria as innkeepers and optometrists, solid citizens respected by members of both Jewish and Gentile communities, according to an account my grandfather had written about his relatives. The Urkunde, the official document that had conferred German citizenship on one of my ancestors in the 19th century, was a treasured family heirloom, handed down along with the embroidered sheets and tablecloths that were either spirited out of Germany just before World War II by my aunt or put away for safekeeping by friends until family could reclaim the possessions after the war. I never found out which.
After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, after my father left home not to return again, he threw himself into gallivanting across Europe, fancying himself not a refugee but a foreign correspondent and ladies’ man, especially since he was on the rebound, not yet divorced but putting behind him a failed marriage to a woman he had wed years before in an extravagant, formal ceremony in a Kraków synagogue. That he was dapper was without question, a man who dressed impeccably in tailored suits and hand-made, monogrammed shirts. He was over six feet tall, energetic, athletic, an ex-amateur boxer with a broken nose, a man who liked to pose, even mug, for the camera, a man without hesitation or reserve.
He had been sent to good schools, like my mother, and was pleased he could still recite the opening sentences of The Odyssey in Greek, which he had learned along with Latin at the gymnasium, or high school. But when he and my mother met, he spoke in a peppery “Broadway English,” a patois of swear words, bloody this and bloody that, and street talk learned from an Italian cameraman. It never occurred to my father that no self-respecting Englishman would ever utter these kinds of phrases in polite company and it probably never crossed his mind that his brazenness and showy self-confidence might be off-putting to a well-brought up, reserved English woman. Or, did he just know his own charm? He was bent on seizing the moment, a man who didn’t so much embrace life as powerfully tackle it. For her, he must have been the brass section of an orchestra, a one-man band, a blaring, unapologetic, one-of-a-kind composition, pulsing his beats straight to the heart.
When he first saw her – was she walking toward him, did he fix his gaze upon her, eye her up and down, or was she the one sitting down as he approached, did she extend a gloved hand, did he kiss it? – he knew he was not indifferent. A coup de foudre. A lightning bolt. Love at first sight. My father pressed my mother to meet him again that evening and she agreed. They ordered lobster — because it was his birthday — in a restaurant around the corner from the Gare Saint-Lazare. He walked her back to her hotel behind the Place de la Madeleine. The next day they lunched near the Rue Des Poules, and then, in the evening, without remembering being asked and without reconsidering, she went to his hotel, asked the night clerk for his room number, climbed the stairs, knocked on the door and walked in.
During the next two years, from 1937 to 1939, my father’s situation became increasingly precarious. Since Germany’s racial laws had cost him his job in Germany, Fox shifted him to Spain; but the Nazis also made it impossible for him to continue working there and Fox transferred him to Italy. There were rushed introductions to family – my mother to my father’s mother and brother during a visit to Rome; my father to my mother’s family in England on a 24-hour pass. Just before war broke out, my mother agreed to follow my father to Spain, ironically the only country now that would issue him a work permit. The border agents told her she was abandoning Britain in its hour of need. She swore she said, “I’m going to be with the man I love.”
In Madrid, my father worked for Fox until the Spanish government acceded to Germany’s demand to bar German Jews from Spanish or German companies. My father resorted to making a living as a freelance photographer, his Jewish identity known only to close friends, while my mother taught English to the daughter of a Spanish duchess. In December 1940, visas finally in hand, my parents set sail on the Magallanes, a Spanish steamer bound first for Cuba and then New York City. They were leaving loved ones they would never see again – my father’s parents, who later would be deported to Theresienstadt, then executed in Treblinka, along with my father’s aunts; my mother’s beloved brother, a violinist turned artillery man in the British army who would be killed in 1942 in Crete, his body never recovered; and my mother’s father, who would die of heart failure in 1950.
But in the early months of 1942, recently married and expecting the birth of my sister, my parents tried to be hopeful. Bad news would come later, shadows of the heart, phantoms of loss. Yes, they were alone in America, but full of New World optimism. They had their life together, beacons of light shone for them. In an early snapshot of them together, on an outing to Washington Square, they looked confident, their heads held high, my mother’s belly full with my sister, rounding the outlines of her cloth coat.
As my parents made their way in America, putting down roots, the French private school they sent me to came to represent neutral ground in their own culture wars. As a small child going to school during the Great War, my mother had knitted bandages for wounded British soldiers and surely had been exposed to large doses of British propaganda against the Boches, the German enemy, although she never used that word. She never shared my father’s affection for German food and popular music, and their conflicting tastes sometimes would trigger an explosive exchange. He would go on the defensive while she would misguidedly try to settle things by saying he wasn’t really German, or “Jews go one above every race.” At those moments he would cry out in exasperation and disgust, bang his fist on the table, and storm out of the house. The tension, as I now see it in broader terms, was between decades of attempted Jewish integration into the larger German society by my father’s family, and my mother’s ideas about Jewish exceptionalism. My sister and I were witnesses, hostages.
My mother never considered that I would have any difficulty thrust into an utterly foreign linguistic environment where, at first, I couldn’t communicate. She assumed that I would simply catch on, much as she thought she had as a child when her father decided that at the dinner table his family would speak French. My mother had become a convert of this over-zealousness. When my grandfather sent her to work in his Paris office he may not have seen the posting as a reward for her follow-through or belief in him, but for her it was all that, and an idealized, almost innate faith in France.
And there was no escaping my mother’s preposterous name. My grandmother, in what must have been a romantic haze as she expected her first born, invested in my mother much of her own youthful imagination and yearning for French ground and culture, for the people she had come across in life and in books. Like so many Europeans of her generation, she had been won over by France’s idealized “civilizing mission,” its centuries of international influence. When my mother was born, just a few, short months after my grandparents had married, my grandmother named her child Clementine Marie-Antoinette Martine.
Through her school years, my mother insisted it took teachers an eternity to read her name out, that she could walk to the front of the classroom to pick up an exam paper before they had even finished calling on her. When my parents married, she didn’t object when my father insisted she become simply Tina. It was the only time she let anyone kill her connection to France.
Judge’s comment: This story is cinematic in scope filled with vivid descriptions as the author tries to make sense of her own life in the story of her parents’ early life and courtship. The opening makes you think you’ve read this story before – they’d always have Paris – but it quickly charts a different course. The details of their lives and characters are exact and yet spare, painting a rich portrait of two very different people coming together in just a few pages. – Erika Janik
The Prairie Schooner
by David Bueschel
It was late of April and the sea ice had all but disappeared from the edges of the channels and bays. The sun felt warm on our backs. Though it yet harbored some coolness, the air was warming, and had a heady aroma that smelled at the same time of fresh linen and earth. The doldrums
of winter were reliably over, and we were ready for another season of adventure in the limitless possibilities of our world.
My crew and I strode through the ripening field of grasses and wildflowers, and when atop the last hillock before the harbor, we saw her there below our feet, riding high at tie-up. Her bare yards beckoned us as if with welcoming arms. With one mind, we all stood there agape, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and potential of the day that welled inside our breasts. The march down the hill and conversation with crewmates escaped my remembrance as I suddenly found myself dockside, ready to board. Now close to her, we stood transfixed for the second time, drinking in the width, breadth, and awe of the vessel that would bear us up on her planks to destinations only imagined.
We had not noticed her for what she was before. It was just a tree that had fallen in a gale some years before, left to succumb to the ways of nature. The bark was gone, and certainly no leaves. But, to me, my sister, Kathy, and our neighbors, John and his brother, Joel, it became that day a schooner set in the sea of warming prairie, floated by our spirits, and propelled by our youthful imagination.
One by one, we clambered aboard. It was a very large tree, with the trunk held high up off the ground by its branches. Our efforts of throwing a leg over the trunk and hauling ourselves up hand over hand by pulling on still supple branches added to our image of manning a real ship of the line that was not made for human comfort, but for speed and transport over the brine. Once standing on the deck and viewing our surroundings from a higher perspective, everything looked different, making it easy to ascribe new characteristics to our neighborhood, as we imagined the grassy yards a blue ocean, the homes distant islands far offshore. Gazing upwards into the branches reaching skyward over our heads, the masts and yardarms that had been purposefully set for us in the firmament by the very wind itself, were poised to capture the force of that ether as it blew across us, toward wherever we willed it to.
Our preparations for voyage continued, as we disembarked momentarily to fetch household items necessary to complete fitment. Lengths of rope and an old bedsheet were commandeered for rigging, and piping from an old plumbing project for cannon. We finished the fitting out with, what was standard childhood equipment in our youth, our ever-present cap pistols and rifles to handle any adverse consequence of unfortunate encounter.
After tying the sail to the upper branches and stringing the ropes from yardarm to yardarm, we were by all accounts ready to embark upon the open waters. And, so we did. It was a magnificent ship, and would serve us well as we began making way.
While upon the waters, we each performed our duties as we saw fit. The lookouts, John and Joel, climbed the masts, leaning out from the yards to better search for whatever might come our way by manner of fortune or imagining. I was happiest walking the deck from fore to aft and back again, checking on all the many facets of marine engineering that a good master ought to keep stock of. Kathy was at the helm, finding a pliable branch with which to swing the rudder port or starboard, depending on contrary wind direction, current change, or other whim of the sea or spirit.
As most spring weather goes, it was a usual blustery day, and provided us with excitement as the deck rocked beneath our feet from it, making footing precarious for the sailor of little or no experience in the ways of the wind upon the water. Our youngest shipmate, Joel, was walking aft to explore another mast, one he had not yet climbed, when a sudden gust of wind rolled the deck hard and sent him over the gunwales. “Man overboard!” was shouted, followed by cries of “Shark!” and all seamen on watch came running to lend hand to retrieve him from the threatening deep. It spat him back out at us as we grappled at his arms and legs, pulling him aboard. He was none the worse for wear, albeit embarrassed for the likes of it. No other mishaps of ill-advised foot placement were recorded in the ship’s log that day, as all took heed of what had happened, and what acting without regard for the unexpected meant while at sea.
Tired from the averted disaster and selfless acts of heroism, we now all lay prone upon the deck with eyes closed, deeply drinking of the warm sun upon our faces, and were made drowsy by the rhythmic rocking of the deck as the wind lulled us as if back in our cradles of perhaps ten years previous. To an observer, I’m sure we appeared as turtles lined along a half submerged log, soaking in the sun rays to warm their blood. So it was with us, taking advantage of what nature had to offer for our growth and well being.
After a time, my reverie was shaken with a shout of “Cannibals! All hands on Deck! Man the guns!” And sure enough, the ever aware and sharp-eyed John had spotted three canoes heading our way, as while at rest, we had approached an uncharted island unawares. I could hear the thrumming cadence of the lead canoe’s chief metering out a beat the paddlers followed, making them appear at a distance as some sort of mechanical toy with
their simultaneous stroke. But, mark my word, they were no toy. Never was seen such a band of savage and bloodthirsty renegades. Wild hair and painted faces marked their visage, a sight one might have easily thought up in a nightmare. They approached.
We took up arms. Being the individuals of proper deportment that we were, we held our breath and waited, keeping our fire until the foe committed to battle by making the first offense. Then, a cloud of seemingly thin shafts of wheat seared the air toward us as it became apparent upon nearing that this was a volley of arrows. Some thudded as they burrow into our masts and gunwales. The rest whistled overhead and all around our sides like a hoard of unearthly wraiths. These mercifully only found the ocean to their end, and not muscle, bone, or flesh. The advantage was now with us, as their store of arrows was half depleted and we had not yet begun to fire at what now had become even closer range. Kathy yelled “Fire!” as she turned the rudder into the savage flotilla. Our cap pistols barked, sending up our own cloud, this time of smoke from the black powder contained in the narrow strips of paper ammunition with which they were loaded. The heathens were terrified at the sound. They had neither seen such a sight as our courage, nor the superiority of our weapons and resolve. Their chief made some sort of guttural utterance, intelligible only to those of his fellows, at which they all broke heading and made a half circle with their canoes, paddles flailing at the water in attempt to get away from us. Our merciful spirits took pity on them as we ceased fire and watched them land their boats and take foot upon the beach and run, only to become lost in the thick jungle overgrowth that was their island. Kathy spun the wheel seaward, and we once again continued our journey, this time with greater caution.
Eight bells. High noon. Dead calm. Our enthusiasm flagged. Hot, and adrift without the ether’s push behind us. We felt depleted and unsure of what to do next. Restlessness invaded our disposition, but yet each was filled with a fatigue that prevented us from carrying on. Then, suddenly, a harkening from one of the distant islands off our starboard quarter was heard. “Lunch!” With this rousing call, Kathy and I headed off back home for provisions. John and Joel went off to their respective island for the same, and we agreed to muster back at the ship afterward when we would be refreshed and fit again.
We all had a fine mess, returned to our vessel, finding our vigor restored, and continued on our journey of discovery. There were a few more challenging encounters that afternoon with a hurricane, as the wind had come up again, and pirates. The pirates went much the same way as the cannibals, having no stomach for the staunch resistance as what we gave. Our cannon came into play as we loosed our shot at them, wrecking their vessel for strategic maneuvering, leaving it seaworthy enough to employ their retreat. We found these actions to not be as extensive as those experienced in the morning, and were over much sooner once they had begun. Perhaps it was due to our increased maturity in dealing with such threats, that they were disposed of more expediently than were our earlier dealings with untried ventures.
The rest of the voyage was peaceful, and we had time for reflecting conversation, free from further imagined challenge. We spoke more of what were our actual experiences as children in the moment and not as sailors on the bounding main. John told us of a teacher who was pressing him for greater academic results that was echoed by his parents. Joel was hurt by a seemingly innocent nickname, Jojo, that made him feel small, unimportant, and ineffective. Kathy spoke of the unrealistic expectations our mother had been placing upon her outward appearance. Although their words did not use those terms, as their meaning would not be known to any child, the theme of their experiences would make an internal connection and bring understanding as we developed into adulthood. My experiences and feelings would remain silent and unshared for many more years. With time, I too would be able to feel these things as my shipmates had at an earlier age, and make sense of the world to a somewhat greater degree than before. I would go on to resign my self-appointed role as captain, as I became aware that I was merely a passenger upon my ship.
All of us grew to become contributors to the society in which we were placed. We made decisions on behalf of, and issued encouragement and warning to, others as well as ourselves. We based this upon what we understood of our world, and what we had learned in our travels. We would be far from the perfect and exquisitely successful souls we had imagined ourselves to be upon the open waters, but we were experienced. We were experienced with near death, experienced with foes that would tear us asunder, experienced with storms of the soul and mind, and pirates!
Judge’s comment: This story captures the imaginative spirit of childhood with the language of a great nautical adventure story and a sentence cadence that matches the action of the story. It brought me back to my own childhood in and around the trees and the sudden ways that kids can veer from make-believe to serious discussion and back again. – Erika Janik
About the nonfiction judge:
Erika Janik is a historian, author and the Executive Producer of Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, A Short History of Wisconsin, and Odd Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Salon, Slate, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, Edible Milwaukee, On Wisconsin, Midwest Living, and The Onion, among others. She holds master’s degrees in American history and journalism from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Originally from Redmond, Washington, she now knows more about Wisconsin than she ever thought possible.
Photography Third Place
“New Friend” by Ron Maloney
Judge’s comment: This is a lively, fun photograph that immediately registers with the viewer. But it also has terrific composition and lots of information and details, the closer you look. Great use of camera position within the water setting. The photographer truly put themselves into this experience. – Kevin J. Miyazaki