Photography First Place:
“Sea the Reflection” by Leena Meyers
Judge’s comments: I love everything about this photograph! The colors, the composition, the subject matter, and I love the awe and wonder on the child’s face. The focus is also spot-on, and the light in the image makes your eyes go straight to the child’s eye and center of the jellyfish – right where it’s supposed to. – Tytia Habing
by Lee Thomas
It smelled like heaven – all toasted wood and citrus shampoo and the raw bite of chlorine under it all – but she had other things to think of. The girl hitched the baby higher on her hip as she peered into each nook between the lockers, desperate for one unoccupied by pale, naked bodies. She didn’t know where to rest her eyes. The baby sprang up and down on her hip, rocking his chubby legs and cooing at the grannies. She found a few feet of bare concrete and knelt, careful to place their towel down first.
“Oh, Gloria, look at that baby on the ground.”
“On nothing but that itty-bitty washcloth.” The second woman’s breasts hung like two stray oranges in the bottom corners of a net bag.
The steam-filled air drew sweat from the baby’s forehead. She needed about seven more hands, and, of course, removing his coat came second to not dropping him, or spilling the shopping bag across the floor. The locker room had not been designed with children in mind. For one thing, there was nowhere to put a baby but the floor; she knew better than to try to balance him on the wooden benches where women with skin like pale Batik sat pulling on hose or finger-combing their damp white floss of hair.
“He’s too hot, get that coat off him.”
“When a child cries, that means he’s too hot, don’t you know that?”
Of course, there were a thousand reasons babies cried. And the boy had begun to wail, not from the coat, which she nevertheless struggled to pull off, but, she felt sure, from the close press of women, the vinegar tang of their breath leaning in, their too-loud voices, their waving brushes and naked plodding.
How to get the order right? First her clothes and swimsuit, or first his? What if he peed while out of the diaper? She needed to use the bathroom, too, but could she manage him? She decided to change herself first. In five minutes, they’d be late for class.
“What’s that boy’s name?”
“Matthias.” She stood with her swimsuit halfway up her legs, struggling with the elastic. Hiswhimper sent an electric tingle through her chest. There’s no stopping the body, and she could only jerk the suit the rest of the way up to cover the slow stream of milk down her belly.
“How unusual. Patty, have you ever heard such a name?”
“It’s from the Bible.” Granny had picked it, said it would chase the bad seed with good.
“Are you suggesting I don’t know my Scripture? Why, I’ve gone to church longer than you been alive, honey.”
The women wore plastic sandals. Her own bare feet scraped across the tile as grit worked between her toes. The baby squirmed in her arms as she hovered in the stall, and she gave up the idea of washing her hands, because she needed them both to keep from dropping him. A spiderlike woman with cherry red glasses that enveloped half her face clucked at her as she passed the rusted sinks.
“Got to set an example. Infants are just like sponges.”
The mother looked at her smiling little boy. For him everything felt exciting and bright and new. He bounced his chubby thighs and flapped his arms. His eyes widened at the flood of steam when the sauna opened for two women already bent in gossip. Drawing the humid air in great gulping mouthfuls, his lids grew heavy with pleasure. The mother felt the possibility of pleasure, but there it stopped. Scrutinized, as she felt, by a hundred watchful eyes, her face took on the blankness of a Madonna.
“Those trunks look tight.” The woman was half made-up, and, with only her lips stained, her eyes disappeared into the colorless face. “Nellie, don’t you think a baby’s most comfortable swimming in a diaper? Less binding.”
They had told her the baby needed a suit. She had needed one herself, and Granny had spent the jar money, it was so expensive finding one in the dead of winter. The baby had gone still in her arms suddenly, and she looked down at his perfect small face just as the hot wet warmth hit and spilled over her pelvic bone and down her bare leg. It felt nice, then she felt ashamed.
“You can’t just leave that, you know.” The woman held an accusing finger toward the puddle. Of course she knew. These women weren’t the only ones raised right.
By the time she gathered a fistful of paper towels, still balancing the child on her hip, him complaining to get down and crawl, hairless elephants parading around her, they were late.
The instructor wore a red bathing cap, as did the other three mothers, and the old man holding a baby in a frilled pink suit wore gray. She had no cap. No one had told her.
The instructor wore tight navy trunks that set off his caramel skin. He waved her over. “I’m Daniel. You must be Matthew’s mom.” He consulted a clipboard, checked a name.
“Matthias,” but he didn’t hear.
The first jolt of water took her breath, but she continued down the blue stairs. When the baby’s legs touched the surface he shrank against her, pulled his limbs tight. He made a sound like a stray cat begging.She skipped the last step, plunging him all at once into the pool. He must know how to swim and not be embarrassed when he reached school age, or worse still, grow into a man afraid of the water. She felt certain that her father would not have known how to swim. You could avoid water if you tried.
“Bounce. Bounce. Dip their shoulders in the pool. Yes, like that, Josie’s mom.”
Daniel looked old, 24 or 25, Puerto Rican, his muscled arms and chest glistening with water droplets. Matthias stared wildly, thrashing, then going still, like a creature fighting for survival. Shouldn’t water feel familiar, comfortable? She supposed that without the hemmed-in feel of her belly it only confused and chilled him. He craned to view the other babies. He wasn’t around many other children, not since she’d dropped out. He nuzzled her chest and clung to her suit.
But she was there. Holding him aloft, showing him how to kick while saying the word “Kick.” She was there and that circumscribed all. She, too, was young enough that the sun rising every morning, casting striped shadows through their dusty window,still felt miraculous. She called it zebra light to the boy, and he would smile like an old man with a secret.
The other mothers would be grandmothers already in her neighborhood. Nearly half of her friends had a baby – or had quietly gone to the clinic– while still in high school. She’d almost made it, would have graduated that spring, but here was Matthias, and as tired as he made her, she also felt the sweetness of his need of her, that utter dependence and abandon, trust even, of all children toward their mothers.
The parents drifted in a loose circle in the shallow end, holding the infants lightly in the pool. The tiny pink girl scrabbled and twisted around her grandfather’s neck to hoist as much of her body out of the water as possible. The old man pushed her back toward the relentless chill.
“Show them there’s nothing to fear from the water,” said Daniel. His eyes swept the circle with lazy confidence, as though stating a fact as obvious as breathing.
But wasn’t that a lie? Wasn’t there only fear when it came to water? A baby could drown in a few inches. A man could drown as soon as he lost his footing. She looked around the pool and realized that the other parents felt the same as Daniel. They brought their children here for recreation, for diversion, for pleasure. She looked at Matthias and pictured her arms failing, his stillness as he slipped beneath the surface, all the while looking up through clear water into her eyes. Expecting.
The class ended. Daniel emptied a mesh bag of toys. Ducks and boats cascaded with a terrific crash. The children practiced their reach-and-pull, their kicks and splashes, chasing after bright plastic nothings. Matthias strained toward a neon green alligator, but the girl in pink wanted it too. Her grandfather had longer legs, and so he got it. Such dependence exhausted her, the mother, as she registered without thinking that she had failed her tiny son by being short and therefore slow-moving through the water. She failed by being his mother, and not one of the other women here, who likely never saw a state-assistance check and had paid for this class themselves.
Even a young woman, if she has had a child, knows the ways a body will fail. The bald spots and weak bones, the foreshadowed droop and sag of it. Her teeth would soften and return to gumming soft fruits, she saw it all clearly now in her son. She knew, with time, herbloom would fade,that no man, not even an old one, would turn to whistle after her. She knew her Granny’s complaints, and that one day they would be her own. She knew the unexpected could carry her off in a moment, without notice (the cross-town bus had struck down her mother). She knew the way a teenager’s body revolted against labor, that nurses would pump such a girl full of drugs, enough to black out her hysteria so they could tunnel in and save the baby. She knew all the boring ways she would break.
And a baby could fall to harm. The burden of it weighed on her. Her own body had betrayed her. She didn’t fault hormones or lust, but her mind, for knowing better and not stopping her. It had all been set up in advance, the XX, the knowledge of good and evil. Enough evil to fall upon the good like a pack of dogs, no matter what you did.
Yet in the pool, her baby buoyant against her full breasts, the cool of the water, the warmth of her son radiating toward her, in the pool she felt alive. Matthias laughed as she raised him high out of the water and brought him down to show that when you leap, you make a splash. The instructor said this was so that in the future, when the babies learned to jump in for themselves, the splash would not frighten them. She knew better, but lifted him high and crashed him down again all the same.
Judge’s comments: An evocative story that left me wishing I could mother this young mother. – Cynthia Swanson
by Tina Higgins Wussow
The air is thick. Heat sticks to Laura’s skin, climbs under her shirt, all of her body is damp with sweat as she runs up the hill to the creek. Luke, her boy, told her Annie needed help, that the other boys had thrown rocks, that he didn’t know what to do; and so she runs in her long jeans, meant to hide the extra pounds. Loose dirt slides between her feet and her sandals and cuts like finely ground glass with every step.
Over the hill, past the camper, and down the rocks to the creek’s edge Laura’s body is propelled by fear. Annie’s clothes lay loose in a small stack on the shore. Her old sneakers are kicked off nearby just like she would kick them off at the front door at home. Cool water covers Laura’s sandals and seeps through the narrow space between the leather straps. Water rises above her ankles, up to the base of her knees making goosebumps rise along her thighs.
And there Annie sits naked on the big rock in the center of the creek, knees pulled up to her chin, her bare back exposed, the bones of her spine falling down like a string of pearls. Her sunburned shoulders lift and fall. Lift and fall. She is crying but hardly making a sound. If Laura were to focus on what she can hear now there would be blue jay calls leaping across the water, a distant hum of tires on the paved county road not too far off, the air she needs moving through her head, down her throat, and the almost imperceptible cry of her child, mostly wet breath traveling in and out of pink lungs, hardly any sound at all.
There’s blood on Annie’s leg, a nickel-wide red circle of it. Tendrils of red streak down her freckled calf muscle, curl around the bone of her ankle. Laura kneels down in the cool water, letting her jeans become heavy with it, feeling the chill rise over her hips. Water pools between her legs and there is a sensation, quieter than touch, of the cool flesh of water entering her body. She cups the clear creek water in her palms and pours it over Annie’s wound. Dark red dilutes and flows down Annie’s leg in a thin pink curtain. Again and again Laura pours the water until just pin-tip bubbles of blood remain in the circle of skin cut away and this is when she notices that the pale blonde fuzz that once swept across her daughter’s legs is gone and this is when she knows what has happened. Annie shaved her legs. She had missed a few spots; strips of short hair like peninsulas still emerge from her warm skin. Laura wants to admonish Annie. She wants to say you’re too young but the words lodge dry and brittle against her back teeth. The words explain that the hair will come back thicker, darker, more like a man’s whiskers. It’s like the hairs are angry that we don’t just leave them alone. They’re angry at us for wanting something better.
Laura feels heat in the center of her chest. A ball forms just below the hollow of her throat when she thinks of the boys coming down to the creak to find Annie sitting here. This stunning girl glowing in the sun must have burned their eyes and so they threw rocks at her to save themselves. Rocks flew, some hit her, some plopped in lazy creek water and they hollered and they laughed and she turned away, curled into herself as small as she could and felt the sting of them like a sand storm against her taut skin.
Laura lifts Annie from the rock and she still is so light even though it is almost time for 4th grade. Annie tucks her face into the nook of Laura’s neck like she did when she was little. Annie is light but all of Laura’s body is heavy, heavier than it’s ever been and weighted down more by her saturated clothes. Every step brings a burn to her thighs and her back muscles sear when she has to bend low to avoid a tree branch at the top of the embankment.
Back in college a roommate asked Laura if she knew how intimidating her height was to other women. It was a surprise for Laura to know she intimidated anyone. It seemed impossible when her insides trembled like they did, like her heart was made of cold gravy. She learned that night while they talked that Laura is especially frightening when she is focused on something, like when she is running late and walking with urgency to class or studying French. You should smile more, is what she had always been told. Don’t be so serious all the time.
Laura balances all of Annie’s weight in the sling of her right arm as she tugs on the camper door. It pops open easy with the shuck of metal against metal. The kids’ camper is narrow and cluttered. The beds are pulled out and unmade from the night before. Crushed pop cans litter the table along with a deck of cards tossed every which way like one of the older kids asked a young one if they’d ever played 52 Pickup. A greasy Tupperware bowl holds a small handful of shiny gold popcorn seeds. Laura lays Annie on the largest bed in the back of the camper and fights the urge to speak. If she could have it her way, Annie would be telling her every detail of what happened without any prompting. But as it was and had been for many months, Annie didn’t talk much, not like she used to before her dad moved in with Rebecca. Laura had tried begging Annie to speak, tried bribing her with gifts and her favorite food, warm banana bread damp with butter. Laura even cursed and threw a plate across the kitchen one night; just the thought of that night, the sound of the thick plate cracking against the far wall, the thud of its pieces hitting the tile and sliding every which way, the clock that fell to the floor and never kept time again, just the thought, made Laura’s stomach ball up like a wad of socks. After that she didn’t bother Annie about her silence. Someday she will speak again in that loose and light way she once had. Someday she won’t be so serious all the time.
The camper floor creaks and bows beneath the weight of her body. Laura kicks a grape pop can out of her way and pulls open the cupboard door next to the bathroom, grabs the first aid kit, the tall brown bottle of peroxide, a stack of square white napkins. When she flips open the plastic latch of the first aid kit, the bandages and gauze that had been stuffed inside billow out as if they are taking a desperate breath. Annie hides her face under her long freckled arm. Laura knows that feeling of wanting to hide. When Rebecca comes to pick up the kids Laura wants to run but instead she stands at the door with all of her height blaring, their overnight bags in her hands wondering if Rebecca is intimidated by her; wondering if she’s getting too fat, thinking about how pretty she used to be back in college, before the kids, when they found their first apartment and he snapped that Polaroid of her asleep on the old pea-green sofa. Rebecca always smiles when she arrives and, even now a year later, her chin still trembles a little when she looks Laura in the eyes. Annie had asked Laura in the car not long ago, Mom, do you think dad left because Rebecca is prettier than you are? The question, let loose in the small cavern of the car, flung itself against the closed windows like it was trying to get out, like it was a trapped bat. I don’t know, Annie, is all she said. She almost said, probably. And, who cares? But that didn’t seem right. Laura hoped that her response opened a window, so the question could fly away. But there are wise words she should have uttered instead. Laura knows that, but she has no idea what they might sound like.
And now Annie asks, will it hurt? Probably, Laura says, but we have to clean it up. And then she wants to ask questions too. Questions like, why do you think it matters so much? Being pretty? Does your dad seem happy? Why doesn’t he ever come to pick up you and your brother anymore? Why does he always send her? But Laura doesn’t ask any questions. She holds the bottle steady and fills a capful with clear peroxide, then pours it over her daughter’s wound while cupping a napkin beneath, so the white paper becomes pink with diluted blood and the circle where the skin used to be is coated in clean white bubbles.
Does it hurt too much? She asks Annie. Not too much. Her face is still hidden beneath her arm. Are there bubbles, mom? Yes. That means it’s working. I know.
I think you’ll have a scar this time. That’s okay. Yeah, that’s okay.
How many scars do you have, Mom? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe five or six. Did they hurt? I guess they did. The older a scar gets, the harder it is to remember.
I think I’ll always remember this scar.
I think I will too. Rebecca will be here soon.
Is there time to sleep a little? Sure. Laura reaches over Annie’s body and slides open a small square window, one on each side of the bed, and a cool breeze pours inside.
Annie inhales an excited clutch of air as Laura stands up. Hear that, Mom? Blue jays.
Her eyes shine up at Laura, glisten turquoise. Sea glass in the sun.
They’re far away, but all around. Can’t you hear them, Mom? Sure, I hear them.
No you don’t. The sun leaves her eyes. You’re lying. Just sit here.
Annie pats the bed. Sit still. Just listen.
Judge’s comments: A beautiful, gut-wrenching story. – Cynthia Swanson
by Meredith Ammons Ollila
Scarlett had been down this road countless times, yet today, it felt foreign. Quiet, cold, barren – a stark contrast to the summer with its steady flow of over-packed cars towing campers and trailers sardined with bikes and coolers. She had always felt lucky being able to stay for two months while most had to cram their adventures into a weekend. And even though her grandparents’ cottage was small, most of their time was spent outside so it never felt cramped.
But it was fall and everything they passed was shut down. A wood plank across the serving window at The Frosty Tip proclaimed, See you next summer! The racks at Dockside Sports, once stacked with paddle boards and kayaks, sat empty. Even The Bay Breeze motel had closed, its lakeside line of Adirondack chairs void of tourists.
Scarlett’s mom broke the uneasy quiet in the car. “Won’t it be exciting to see how the lake changes throughout the seasons?” she asked with feigned enthusiasm.
Scarlett glanced at her younger sister, Grace. Grace stared blankly out the window.
The girls had learned previously unfamiliar terms over the last few months – downsizing, seniority, furlough. They understood why they needed to sell their house, they just weren’t prepared for it to sell so quickly. And although they would still be able to see their friends at school, they’d be living too far from town to participate in evening activities. For Scarlett, that meant figure skating. Even though competitions were a source of anxiety for her, she just couldn’t imagine not heading to the rink every day. Her high school teammates, her coach, Jamie, the sound of her blades on the ice – she would miss it so much. She felt her jaw tighten.
“It’s just temporary,” her mother reassured. “Just until we find something within our price range back in town.”
It was almost dark as they rounded the last bend. The tree canopy that once created a welcoming tunnel to the lake was now stripped of leaves, bare branches skeleton-like against the fall sky.
Wally could see headlights across the lake slowly navigate the last turn of the driveway at the Ericksons’ place, then park between the big cedars. He had been sitting at the table by the large picture window, working to finish the day’s crossword puzzle. The headlights caught him by surprise as he knew the Ericksons were summer people and most cottages had already been closed up for the winter.
He had built the table by hand and it was here he and Elise had sat for every meal, plus their mid-afternoon coffee. It was narrow, but fit the space, and was close enough to the woodstove to stave off the morning chill. An antique stained glass lamp sat centered on the table. Elise always preferred the warm lighting of lamps to ceiling fixtures so insisted that the table have one. Although Wally often complained that it took up too much room and made the Scrabble board hang precariously over the edge, he knew she was right. The lamp light was much more pleasing.
She was always particular about her lighting.
Now, without Elise, there was plenty of space on the table. Too much space, Wally thought.
Space. Of all the aspects of living in town that Scarlett missed, it was her own space that she longed for the most. The main level of the cottage proved cozy and warm, but it was just one room for her entire family. It reminded her of those rare rainy summer days when everyone was forced to stay inside. How quickly they grew tired of puzzles, Monopoly and each other. She sensed the walls closing in and retreated to the attic bedroom she shared with Grace.
They slept in twin beds on either side of the room. When they were little, they loved the roof so close to their heads and pretended they were in a ship’s berth. Now as teens, the angled roof didn’t allow them to sit up without hunching their backs, so they spent most of their time cocooned under patchwork quilts, eyes fixated on Netflix and cruising social media.
Tiny square windows were centered on each end wall, one overlooking the lake, one facing the gravel drive. Positioned directly across from one another, the windows provided a much-needed cross breeze on sticky August nights. Now mid-winter, they were decorated with floral patterns of frost.
Her thoughts turned to her friends at the rink, lacing up their skates for lessons while the Zamboni refreshed the ice after junior hockey. How fast those first laps were on that flawless ice. She shook her head to stop the memory, but not before a tear had escaped.
The sound of activity on the lake woke Scarlett the next morning and her curiosity drew her out from under the warmth of her blankets. Through the frosted pane, she could make out a fisherman using his snowmobile to tow a shanty out past the mouth of their bay. Her heart quickened as her mind calculated. If the ice was thick enough for a snowmobile out there, where the waters were much deeper, the ice in front of their cottage could certainly hold her. A surge of excitement sent her rummaging through bins to find her skates.
Wally, too, had seen the fisherman. He watched as he detached his shanty, secured it to the ice and fetched an auger, five-gallon bucket and other supplies from the sled. Oldies droned from the cottage radio with an occasional hint of static. The static didn’t bother Wally. He really wasn’t listening. The radio was just a way to punctuate the stillness. When Elise was here, the calm of the winter lake was magical, but in her absence, quiet outside and quiet inside proved to be too much. He welcomed anything that could break up the silence.
Eventually, the fisherman settled into his shanty. Before turning away from the window, Wally’s eye caught movement out on the lake. A girl on skates cautiously moved away from the opposite shore. He knew someone was staying at the Erickson place, but he was surprised to see a young girl – typically only retired folks stayed at the lake year-round.
The ice creaked and moaned as Scarlett wobbled away from the shore. She was nervous at first, but after a few minutes of slow glides, her confidence improved and she ventured further out on the lake. She increased her speed. She felt free and welcomed the familiar sound of her blades on the ice. Her energy, pent up for months inside the tiny cottage, flowed onto the frozen stage. She envisioned an audience, except this time, there were no nerves. She circled. She looped. She spun. No fear of falling. No fear of forgetting the routine. No fear that someone would skate better, stronger, faster. Occasionally, an imperfection in the ice sent her stumbling, a reminder that she was far from the Zamboni-smooth ice of her old rink, but she’d regain her balance, motivated by the freedom of her space. She was invigorated.
Not until the cold stiffened her feet did she head back to the warmth of her boots, already thinking about returning to the ice after school the next day.
Wally was sorry to see the girl go. “Well that was delightful! She’s an athletic, powerful skater just like you were,” he said aloud to the memory of Elise. “I can’t remember the last time I saw someone skating out there. It was probably us!”
The two had spent so much time skating that Wally even put up a floodlight so they could enjoy the lake after dark. He smiled at the memory of installing the light. He had affixed it to the tall wooden pole topped with a purple martin house. As he teetered precariously on the ladder, Elise skated circles out on the ice, directing him to “move it more to the right… no, my right!”
“It’s a little hard to figure out your instructions when you’re moving in a circle!” Wally retorted.
Elise erupted in laughter, her appreciation for his comeback echoing across the frozen bay.
She was always particular about her lighting.
Once the light was adjusted to her liking, they partook in after-dark skates nearly every night. She always remarked that the cold air was good for clearing your mind. She even went out occasionally after she had gotten sick, when the treatments didn’t make her too tired.
“Up for a skate, Old Man?” she’d say with a laugh on her way out the door, skates slung over her shoulder. They’d skate arm-in-arm, the cold air numbing their cheeks, numbing their toes, numbing the reality of her horizon. Sometimes he’d let her go alone, choosing instead to sit at the picture window and watch her skate under the lights. With precision and grace, she’d etch impeccable figure-eights over and over. She made it look so easy, gliding effortlessly across the ice.
It was nearly sundown by the time Scarlett returned from school the next day, so she quickly grabbed her skates and headed down to the shore to lace-up. Confident from yesterday’s skate, she made her way quickly toward the center of the bay where she remembered the ice was smooth and consistent. Just like before her lessons at the rink, she skated big circles to warm up her legs, increasing speed with each lap. She decided to skip the jumps for today – too much uncertainty on the landing with the impending darkness – and went right into spins.
The twirling figure caught Wally’s attention as he passed the picture window. With fuel for the woodstove in hand, he stopped and squinted into the fading light. The girl was back on the ice. He marveled at her ability to spin so well on lake ice. She was confident and fearless he thought. “You were fearless, too,” he said aloud to Elise. Thinking of how in her last days she was the one comforting him. Making him promise that he’d stay active. Insisting that he not hermit his days away after she died. “Don’t let your light fade just because mine is gone,” she had said.
Wally refocused on the girl. It was nearly dark now. He made his way to the side door, paused… then hit the light switch.
Alarmed by the sudden flood of light, Scarlett abruptly stopped mid-spin, a spray of ice coming off her braking skate. Her very own spotlight. She squinted past the light to the tiny cottage up on the hillside with the big picture window. By the lamplight she could see a man – the man responsible for her well-lit stage.
Wally assumed that her enthusiastic two-handed wave meant that she appreciated the extra skating time. He was actually surprised that the light still worked since it hadn’t been used in so long. He was happy to have a front-row seat and gave the girl a standing ovation when she bowed, signaling the end of the night’s performance.
The spotlight was still on when the Scarlett cozied into her bed – its light through the window panes projecting four squares onto her ceiling. She thought of the panes as seasons and how drastically different they were here on the lake. Summer was warm breezes, popsicles on the porch and kayaking on the bay. Fall brought bold colors and bonfires. And now lake skating has provided an appreciation for winter. She burrowed deeper under the covers, her mind replaying her spotlight skating session.
Wally remained at the picture window long after the girl had gone back to her cottage. A light snow was falling – occasionally swirling, dancing across the ice. He was entranced. His mind played back Elise’s words, “Don’t let your light fade just because mine is gone.” He missed her. He thought of how she would have loved skating on a night like tonight.
“You up for a skate, My Friend?” he said aloud, and headed for the door.
Judge’s comments: A charming and tender multigenerational story. – Cynthia Swanson
About the fiction judge:
Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of The Bookseller, which is soon to be a motion picture starring Julia Roberts. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction, The Bookseller is being translated into 18 languages. Swanson’s second novel, The Glass Forest, is partly set in Door County and was released by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in 2018. She lives with her family in Denver.
Photography Second Place:
“Hat Shop Regensburg Germany, 2018” by Paul Brophy
Judge’s comments: The quirky subject matter, perfect exposure and focus, and great composition immediately caught my eye. I also like the city reflected in the glass. It gives it a multidimensional look. – Tytia Habing
by Kerri Lukasavitz
The last time I saw my mother was February 26th, 1996. She was laid out in a handcrafted wooden coffin the color of acorns my father had made for her in between teaching his sophomore-level industrial design classes and overseeing the 3D lab at the art college he had co-founded and taught at since 1975. Once finished, the box was kept in my uncle’s garage until it was needed to transport her lifeless body to the crematorium. She wore the spruce green, long-sleeved, jersey dress she had picked out especially for her pending death, green and white knitted mukluks with worn-thin leather soles, and nothing more to adorn her body. My mother and the wooden box had been placed on the wooden dining room floor she had painted cobalt blue a few years earlier in our family home, waiting for the cover to be lifted into place.
I recently moved home to the 10-acre farm located 30 miles northwest of Milwaukee my parents purchased in November of 1969, property that sprawled across the steep, glacier-made hills of the Kettle Moraine. The original 110-acre land parcel, homesteaded in 1840, was used as a dairy farm by its first set of German owners and was gradually sold off over time by six different owners, leaving the remaining 10 acres, the farmhouse with no running water or central heat, two barns – one long-deserted milking parlor and one small barn for heifers – and an odd assortment of declining outbuildings for my parents’ first go at homeownership. The land where I had shared most of my childhood with my parents, an older and a younger brother, a younger sister, four hunting dogs, two ponies, a yard full of colorful chickens, four domestic rabbits, a raccoon baby, and eventually several cats, but only after my mother first insisted on adopting two, too-young kittens to nourish.
I didn’t want the coffin cover put into place. I wanted more time with my mother, alive and not sick from ovarian cancer. My older brother told me of his rising panic on the plane flight from his home in California to Wisconsin that our father would wisk our mother’s body off before he had a chance to see her, say good-bye. I said I wouldn’t have let that happen.
Emotions ran amok in our house during the four months of her illness. My attempts at caring for her at home along with the occasional hospice nurse visits and trying to maintain some sort of “normalcy” failed miserably. I always felt like I could never do enough to keep her comfortable. She once got angry with me for dumping out a cup of cold coffee. I said I would get her a fresh cup but she refused it saying the first one had been exactly the way she liked it. Cold? Like the way her skin had felt when I pulled on her spruce green jersey dress when she was dead?
Our family property became available when my younger brother had been offered a new job in Stoughton. Since it was an hour-and-a-half daily drive to and from the house to his work, he and his wife decided to purchase a home in Columbus to end his endless commute. They had been living with and caring for our aging father for two years – a responsibility I had been asked to originally consider but steered clear of since, in the past, my father and I rarely could be in each other’s company for more than ten minutes without starting some sort of argument. Aging had left our father vulnerable to falls, foggy thoughts, and forgetfulness, but after he became a resident in an assisted living memory unit, my brother took the opportunity to move on, leaving the house empty for either me and my husband, my older brother and his wife, or my single, younger sister to inhabit.
I thought my younger brother would be the one to buyout the property since he was the only one of the four siblings who had voiced any interest in owning it, so I was shocked and then distressed to find out he was moving. Besides, my older brother and his wife lived on the West coast and weren’t interested in returning to Wisconsin, my sister couldn’t manage the property’s upkeep on her own, and my husband and I hadn’t planned on moving back. I had clung to my assumption because it meant I wouldn’t have to return to the house to poke around in the past.
I remember my mother sitting on the edge of her bed in her bedroom located on the first floor next to the kitchen and the dining room with its painted blue floor and the doorway to the laundry room addition my father had built the first summer we lived in the farmhouse. She wore a pair of maternity jeans to accommodate her growing belly from the abdominal tumors, a long-sleeved jersey shirt, an expensive white sweater she bought at Boston Store when we had gone shopping two summers earlier, her brown ankle-high moccasins with soles worn shiny, and the plastic breathing tube she needed to survive. She had asked me in slow, metered breaths if there was anything I wanted from her. I stood there, numb from her pending death. I said no.
I wished I had asked her to live another 30 years or more. I wished I had asked for her wooden box of 100 thin pastels I used when I had an art project due in high school or her blue, hand-thrown pot thick with assorted paint brushes or her silver metal toolbox of paints – tubes of acrylics and watercolors – or especially the emerald green fountain pen she used to write letters to friends that my father gave her for Christmas several years earlier. If I couldn’t have her around, I mostly wanted her writing pen. At some point, the pen and all of her artist materials were gone – thrown out by someone and lost forever, like her.
After several phone calls a few days apart from my older brother, who had become P.O.A. of our dad and the property, asking me and then begging me to move back, I relented and said I would drive over to take a look. I knew I couldn’t leave the house empty – someone had to care for it. I just wished it wasn’t me.
My husband parked his truck in the lumpy, frozen driveway on a gray afternoon in early January. We got out to check on things. He found a shovel to clear the snowy sidewalk, and I went inside the house to see if my younger brother and his wife had left anything behind.
I stepped into the first room of the house – the dining room, the blue floor now covered with colorless carpeting. The same room where our family had gathered for dinners and holidays around a table “borrowed” from my dad’s sister when my parents were first married, where we’d come home from grade school to find the table full of homemade cookies, where my mother hurled “slut” at me before I knew what it meant, where my sister refused to eat a chicken supper because she was sure it was her beloved butchered rooster, where my younger brother cut fat off his meat with the precision of a surgeon, where I learned to eat left-handed because my older brother nudged me with his elbow every time I tried to eat with my right hand. The same room where my mother announced – stunning us all – her six-month death sentence from inoperable 4th-stage ovarian cancer.
Standing within the silence of the dining room and knowing my mother had been gone for nearly twenty-one years, I still wanted her to walk out of the kitchen to ask me how things were or to show me the new seeds she had received in the mail for her plant nursery or did I want a piece of bread she had baked earlier that morning? Would I ever get used to missing her?
I only wanted to remember my mother in good health – when she was tan from gardening all summer, strong from hauling wagon loads of mulch or manure to her gardens, busy watering her new seedlings that she would sell when they matured, cooking something fabulous for supper, laughing at a passage in the book she was reading, buying the perfect gifts for everyone on her list, playing her 6-string acoustic guitar, singing along to her Simon and Garfunkel records, being alive.
I didn’t want to remember her mutating from a healthy 56-year-old woman into an Auschwitz-like prisoner with an oddly swollen belly and jaundiced skin or the ever-increasing in-home visits by hospice nurses or pressing my face deep into the stack of clean towels I had just folded so no one would hear me sobbing and choking for air, or the sound the oxygen machine’s long breathing tube made as it slid across the blue dining room floor like a plastic prehensile tail she dragged behind her every time she walked from her bedroom into the adjacent kitchen and then back to her bedroom again.
But what I didn’t want to remember the most was the silence after the oxygen machine had been turned off, its once-steady breathing blended into the background along with the other sounds of her daily life that had included classical music from her kitchen radio, MPR after lunch for a Chapter-A-Day, the old wooden floors that creaked in familiar places as she moved throughout the house, and her voice when she talked on the landline to a friend who had called to see how she was doing. Once she was gone, I had avoided the house. Now, I was being asked to live there.
On the first day I went over to the house to start cleaning before we painted, I still wasn’t sure if I was up to the task. Was it even worth living there? I figured I’d start with the second floor and work my way downstairs. I went upstairs to the hallway where two maple dressers stood for the last 48 years. They had been a part of a bedroom collection my parents had purchased as a wedding gift from my paternal grandparents back in 1959, but my mom had sold the full-size, four-poster bed to a family friend – something I wished she hadn’t done. I would have liked to have had all of the pieces.
I held a can of furniture polish and a soft cloth to clean the dressers, something that obviously hadn’t been done in years. Grumbling to myself and listening to the radio play classic rock, I sprayed an even amount across the surface of the eight-drawer dresser, hoping the polish would bring back some lustre to the wood finish. As I made my first swipe with the cloth, I swear I my mother stood near me and said thank you. I stopped mid-swipe. I looked around. I then turned back to my task. I smiled and replied you’re welcome. As daunting as our workload would be to clean up the property in the months to come, I grew determined to make it our home.
I spent last summer recovering the remnants of my mother’s former plant nursery. I was sure my father had sold off all of her flowers after her death, which had, at the time, left gaping holes all over the yard when the plants were dug out, but I was amazed by the number of perennials that had held on to flower again as spring moved into summer. The more I took back the overgrown yard, the more of her original plants I found.
After spending an afternoon replanting daylilies she had bred, I leaned on the shovel handle for a break. Body aching and sweating in the sun, and as a light breeze brushed my skin, I thought it’s good to be home.
Judge’s comments: The author writes an elegy in this essay for her mother. She captures the conflicted feelings that come with deaths of loved ones. Her attention to details like the description of her mother’s ‘slow, metered breaths’ make every page a discovery. This is original and timeless. – Thomas Pecore Weso
The Trouble with Ellen
by Kathryn Gahl
There were three things wrong with Ellen and by fourth grade, we all knew what they were. None of them alone nor all of them together, however, should have caused the bad thing that came into Ellen’s life. Though we didn’t know that at the time.
We Catholics saw cause and effect between bad thoughts and bad consequences. Like, if you dreamt of a fire and the next day the neighbor’s house burned down, you knew it was your fault. And impure thoughts: if you had one of them and then broke out in a rash, well, it was easy to conclude how thoughts created reality.
And the reality in fourth grade was that Ellen was pretty, smart and rich (not much to like there). So here’s point number one: she got her hair curled – a “permanent,” in a real hair salon. No one had ever done that. No mother had even attempted to apply a Toni Home Permanent to create poofiness. Ellen’s perm brought out her high, round cheekbones and green eyes. Green eyes that looked like jewels with her newly tanned skin, which was point number two.
No one had a tan in January but Ellen did, from a Florida vacation. We got summer tans, from picking beans and making hay. A perm plus a January tan? It was enough to keep her away from us at recess.
One day, the nun in our classroom left to fetch handouts from the mimeograph machine and someone went nuts. Maybe it was a spitball, copied homework, or a love note read out loud. The exact nuttiness doesn’t matter. What mattered was the tattling that followed, a code among classmates broken, by someone blurting to the woman in black with starched white cardboard framing her face. Sister Mary Francis had cheeks with red pores and buckshot for eyes: the face of a possum.
Beautiful, tanned, and permed Ellen tattled to Sister Mary Francis. Gave out four names of fellow students, two boys, two girls. And out came the ruler. Not on the hands. On the backside. Humiliation flamed up in the four, unjustly accused. So there was point number three that Ellen gave everyone in class – everyone – one more reason to hate her.
At recess, someone said to her, Wish you were dead. We all cheered but she held her ground. She was, after all, a doctor’s daughter. That gave her executive privilege and pastoral protection (Daddy gave lots of money to the church and school) – this, in addition to the prettiness, perm, and tan.
We had an impromptu roller skating party that Friday night and Ellen wasn’t invited. We couldn’t wait to see her Monday face, see if a hair was out of place, for that was the thing about perms; they guaranteed to never have a bad hair day.
Monday came and Ellen wasn’t in school.
Maybe she got sick of herself, someone said after Mass. We giggled, smug and out of range of the priest.
Back in the classroom, we settled into our lunchbox breakfasts – fasting was required for Communion, so we could swallow the host every school mass morning.
Then, Sister Mary Francis clapped her hands. “Class. Continue eating,” she said solemnly, “and as you take in your meal, take in too the sorrow of Ellen and her family.”
We stared at possum. Her eyes had sucked themselves farther into her head. She folded her hands. Looking out over the tops of our heads, she appeared to be in a trance. Then, in a near whisper, she said, “Ellen’s father died of a heart attack this morning.”
The room fell silent, even squiggly Eugene who ate white paste and staples and did anything to get attention. Now, the attention was on Ellen. And she wasn’t even there with her beautiful, bright, tan, and newly permed self.
She would never be the same.
And neither would we – our hatred had caused her father’s death.
In fact, it was the first time we learned of the power of hate. And we worried whether our sin could fit in the confessional box – and what penance could we possibly serve.
Judge’s comments: This essay tells a poignant tale in brief, well-chosen words. It centers on a childhood memory that gives the flavor of early understandings. The first death experience for a class of fourth-graders is made unforgettable. The author is able to suggest the setting of Catholic school, economic social classes and childhood. – Thomas Pecore Weso
by Valerie Fons
I asked the waitress for a quiet table. She led me to the back of the restaurant and offered me a comfortable booth. Though I had a bag full of books to occupy me, I put my chin on my upheld palm and watched the lunch bunch.
After my order came, between bites of salad I looked up and saw a man come into view. He was walking toward a table without escort and stopped behind a waitress who was facing a wall-mounted cash register. I didn’t have time to really look at him, but I couldn’t avoid seeing what he did. With his left arm he grabbed her waist and with his right he reached under her arm, over her breasts and pinched her face in his hand, pulling her head back against his chest. His fingers closed around her mouth.
She didn’t fight. There was an instant when she seemed to go limp and then he released. He proceeded down the aisle and found a table across from mine. What he had done to the girl was his way of saying hello.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” my waitress asked as she stopped by my table. “Do you see that man over there?” I asked, looking in his direction, “He isn’t a nice person.” After I described the incident she said, “I know she didn’t like what he did because she asked me to wait on him. That girl won’t do anything else about it, she is afraid she will lose her job. Once, I slapped someone who pinched me and I got fired.”
“Send the manager over,” I requested. “I’ll tell him what I saw so that neither of you get into trouble.”
The manager never came. In my mind, I could hear the voice of a woman at my field education site who spoke the week before as we served meals to guests at the homeless shelter where I work. “Watch out for those people out there,” she told the servers. “They’ll try to con you and they will pinch bottoms.” The man in the restaurant was a person she would never suspect; better dressed, more powerful, certainly not economically disadvantaged. As I remembered her prejudice, I got more upset about the injustice I had just witnessed. Maybe I could tell that man “no” on behalf of the people I minister to. Maybe I could tell that man “no” for the sake of the manager who doesn’t want to lose a customer and the waitress who doesn’t want to lose her job. As I sat thinking about the situation I didn’t know it was for me. I identified myself as the one person who didn’t have anything to lose by telling the truth.
I put my napkin on the table and got up, walked over to the man and sat down in the seat across from him. He looked up from his lunch plate and said “Hi darling,” with a big, confident smile. His voice expectant and sure.
“I saw what you did,” I said quietly. “You can’t do that. It wasn’t right what you did when you grabbed that waitress from behind. She didn’t like it and won’t …” I didn’t get a chance to say anything more. The man erupted. “What do you mean to tell me, I come in here all the time, and I don’t have no right to …” He threw his napkin on the table and pushed his plate of eggs away from him. The plate lunged toward me. Before he got up, I did, and made my way back to my table and sat down. Shaking.
He wasn’t done. Loud so everyone could hear, he said, “I’m never coming in here again, some creep tell me what I can do and what I can’t do.” He raved all the way to the door. The waitress and manager hovered in confusion. I couldn’t stop shaking.
Another waitress sat a few tables away smoking a cigarette. She was on break. “He is a regular customer,” she explained. “Did he touch her in an inappropriate place?” she questioned.
“It wasn’t right what he did,” I tried to explain. But her question wouldn’t leave me. He got so upset. Did I do the right thing?
A few minutes later two policemen came in and sat at the table next to me. I went over and asked if we could talk. Kneeling at their table, I told them the story, and asked for their advice. “You should have let her handle it,” they explained. “She could have called us.”
I went back to my table and knew I was finished with lunch. As I paid my bill the waitress who had served me said, “Thank you, thank you so much.” I wasn’t so sure. Outside the door, two women were waiting. “No matter what they say, you did the right thing,” one assured me.
I got to my car and locked the doors. I couldn’t stop shaking. I drove for a couple of blocks and then parked, turned on the heater full blast and let the temperature comfort me. Then I started to cry, for all the times when I hadn’t been able to say no, hadn’t known that it wasn’t right, thought that I deserved it and the big boy owned me.
Judge’s comments: This moving essay shows a scene of harassment and what happens when a bystander, the narrator, stands up to it. The complicated repercussions show how bully tactics succeed too often in institutionalizing injustice. The first-person narration is effective. The writer makes the incident unforgettable. – Thomas Pecore Weso
About the nonfiction judge:
Thomas Pecore Weso, an enrolled member of the Menominee Indian Nation of Wisconsin, is an educator, writer and artist. Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir was a finalist for the international Gourmand Award and national Gourmand Award winner in the category of Historical Recipes. Weso is a co-author of Langston Hughes in Lawrence and articles, reviews and personal essays in Muckleshoot Review, Yellow Medicine Review, Native Literatures: Generations, Overland Review and others. Weso has a master’s degree in indigenous studies from the University of Kansas and teaches social sciences at Kansas City Kansas Community College. He is a speaker for the Talk about Literature in Kansas program at Humanities Kansas.
Photography Third Place:
“Jack and Marlie” by Lori Fahrenholz
Judge’s comments: If you know anything about me, you know kids and animals enjoying nature will catch my eye every single time. The carefree joy of both the boy and the dog draws me right into the image. I love all the green and the scattering of wildflowers. It’s technically wonderful, too. Perfect focus, exposure and color balance.. – Tytia Habing
other words for mainline
by Jessie Lynn McMains
a principal highway or railroad line & /// the train we took into the city for a night of
slam — dance & booze — instead of prom & /// a principal vein of the circulatory
system & /// slamming that god, that sugar smack, that poppy-seed wife straight into
your heart-shaped heart & /// chicago: train tracks black & charred, set ablaze to keep
the trains running through the ice & snow & /// the marks on your arms, tracks, toxins
turning blood blue to dark, to scars & /// the beach in winter, quiet drifts of dirty snow,
beneath the sand — rusted cans, cigarette butts, syringes & /// a knife of white slicing
through all that blue & /// sea smoke: steam fog rising in ghost-trails from the water
on days so frozen the surface of the lake was warmer than the air & /// our breath,
making smoke, making ghosts & /// hotboxing in your rusted car, outside the diner:
coffee to go with cream & sugar, maybe smack, always smoke-breath steam on
the windows, cigarettes & /// weed when the harder drugs ran out & /// being part of
an established group: the fiends with dank basements & d-beat records, who never
knew my name but cared enough to fresh me up with snow when my breath stalled,
when my face turned blue & /// ripped black clothes over skinnybones & /// our
introduction to self-annihilation & /// slamming & shooting & smashing & banging
& pinning our own wings to the wall & /// shadows, bare lightbulb swing, glinting off
the spoon, the studs in a black leather jacket, eyes so pale blue, but that’s a different
song & /// you were prince of promising you’d phone, saying you’d show, then
forgetting; so good at playing dead, going hollow-heart & ghost though you weren’t
yet & /// we called you casper, the dopest ghost in town, the dope & /// how we wanted
your hands, your lips, your love but the needle turned your desire flat white, blanked
out your burning blue & /// your family banned us from the funeral but we didn’t care,
you left long ago — only your body was in that coffin & /// what was in that coffin: only
snow. sand. smack. only smoke.
Judges comments: The beauty of poetry is its dialogic nature, the way a poet talks back to another poet, the way they utilize the structures and rhythms of another poet. But a good poet is able to create something entirely new, something that keeps the heart racing, something that transports and places readers into a tight pocket of a moment. This poem does just that. This poem is beautifully dark, viciously addictive. – Ira Sukrungruang
In The English Language There Is Only One Word For Dream
by Tom Boswell
We are playing tennis in the basement
of the house we had walked away from,
the house that was ours no more, you going
back to the city, me: where? But here we are,
swatting the ball back and forth, intense
and agile. At one point, I push an old sofa
out of the way and the flurry of volleys
persists. There is no net between us.
I hit the ball at you in a fury
and then it morphs into a butterfly
and I’m sleeping restlessly, this night after
the doctors have unclogged, once more,
the pathway to my heart. This heart, battered
but still beating, sucking in blood, flushing it out,
and now the sweet breath of another day as the ball,
wings aflutter, floats away, and I can’t
remember if we are keeping score
and what part love plays.
Judges comments: This poem traverses the landscape of a dream, yet in this moment, there exists so much that isn’t said – a yearning, a heartbreak, an imagine world that unfurls the intricate layers of the word ‘love.’ – Ira Sukrungruang
CHINESE NEW YEAR: FOND DU LAC
by John Walser
No fireworks to wake
the rooster, the dove
the horse, the monkey
the sun before it sets:
no smoke ghosts of flashes
the ash dusk sky:
but what if this cold tail swish
dragon’s breath that fans
the smoulder, the light
the burn, the hardwood flaking
to slough, to smear
to brume, to paper
pressed and inked
the black bark characters
the leaf bare alphabet
of maple trees:
to the season to come:
Go slowly. Go confidently?
What if it sings a verse
about freezing before lightening?
Judges comments: You fall into this poem, and it’s a plummet of images and wordplay and sensorial upheaval. And this is what the poem is trying to grapple with: the fall of time, the descent from one month to the next. The poem makes you realize time doesn’t pass idly. It falls, and the sky is also the ground. – Ira Sukrungruang
About the poetry judge:
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short-story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is also a co-editor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection and teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida.
Photography Honorable Mentions:
About the photography judge:
Tytia Habing is a self-taught photographer who lives and works in Watson, Illinois, near where she grew up on a working farm. She spent most of her adult life living in the Cayman Islands and moved back to Illinois a few years ago. Her work focuses on family and the Midwest, with nature being the cohesive thread that ties it all together. Her photography has been exhibited internationally and is held in both public and private collections. Most notably, her work has been featured on CNN and shortlisted for the 2015 Black and White Photographer of the Year, Critical Mass 2015, LEAD Awards 2016 and Head On Photo Awards 2017.