right here, write now
2017 Writers Competition
WRITE ON THE RIVER WRITERS COMPETITION
These six fiction and nonfiction writers are all from North Central Washington. The announcement of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners in each category and the presentation of $1200 in cash awards will be during the 2017 Conference on May 20. Read their submissions below, and see the individual prize-winners’ names on May 22.
Finalists (in alphabetical order):
Jen Barger “Pocket”
Standing in front of the old mildewed wardrobe, I wondered why I had let my older sister Val talk me into this. Val, who told me that I had no soul because I’d had my appendix taken out the summer before. Val, who told me that cheesy dog treats tasted just like Doritos. And yet here I was, in front of the wardrobe, preparing to climb inside and hide from her and my cousin Jeanette.
“Hide in the old house,” Val had said, “She’ll never look for you there.”
I walked down to the end of our lane and through the unused pasture, feeling the warm evening air on my arms and legs, cow parsnip and tall brushy grasses hiding my progress. The noises from the yard above quieted as I neared the house. Swallows flew in and out of the black eye sockets of its open windows. Built in the late 1800’s by my great Granny and Grampa, it was as plain as any country house could be.
I paused at the door, remembering last summer when I had peeked inside but was too scared to enter. A few more leaves on the floor, a new swallow’s nest up in the corner of the living room; there was really nothing to mark the year’s passing. An unmistakable smell rose up from the curling floorboards; mouse pee, cold earth-scented air, and the dust of every year for the last one hundred. A mama swallow stared at me intently from the edge of her mud nest.
I stepped over the threshold. Outside, the warm air shooshed in the grasses. Somewhere faraway, thunder made a deep and throaty growling.
Walking carefully around the broken glass scattered on the floor, I approached the narrow staircase built onto the living room wall. The hole in the ceiling where the stairs ended looked black and threatening. As I ascended the stairs, I hoped they would hold my weight. Peering into the upstairs rooms, I was poised to take flight should anything fly out at me or try to pull me unwillingly through the hole.
In the bedroom to my left, the window let out onto the deep purplish-pink sky of the early evening. Thunder sounded again and I heard Mama call Rufus in for his supper. Her voice seemed very far away, and I had the strangest thought that maybe she, the dog, and I were the only ones left on the planet.
I climbed up the rest of the way and walked into the bedroom on the right, where the wardrobe stood. Made from dark oak, it had been too old and heavy to move down the stairs and into the new house, so my Daddy had just left it there. Gently leaning, its doors were ajar. The wood was stripped and dry.
A few steps more and I paused in front of the wardrobe. Could I do this? I told myself I wasn’t a scared little baby. The wardrobe door caterwauled as I yanked it open, climbed inside, and pulled it closed. Hunkering down, I tried not to breathe too loudly. It was unbearably hot in the wardrobe, as though it had sucked all the heat from the bright August day and wrapped it around me as I sat, folded and waiting.
Sweat formed on the backs of my calves and thighs. My upper lip tasted of salt and dust and my forearms smelled like dusty wet grass. I would always remember this smell whenever I missed the warmth of summer.
There was a soft knocking and I held my breath, listening. My heartbeat was rushing in my ears. Nothing but the sounds of the late summer crickets in the grass, and the call of a night hawk.
With the light from the small crack between the wardrobe doors I could see the yellow dress hanging in front of me. Here was the reason no one would look for me in the old house, much less the wardrobe. The dress had belonged to great Granny and Grampa’s daughter Fern, who had died of influenza when she was just about my age.
Hesitantly I touched the soft and faded dress. On the front were two patch pockets. One sagged slightly so I cautiously put my hand into it and pulled out the stub of a fat red pencil, a wheat penny dated 1909, and a brass-colored button with red glass in the center. I tried to picture Fern; where she had found these things, and why she had tucked them away. For the smallest moment, I considered keeping them, but I heard the knocking sound again and the wind shooshed softly. The sun dipped below the horizon and the ambient light darkened a bit. Cool sweat traveled down my neck and I carefully placed the pencil stub, wheat penny, and button back in the dress pocket where they belonged.
There was a crash and the wardrobe doors flew open. I screamed and jumped clear of the wardrobe, knocking Val onto the dusty floor.
“Christ Ellen, it’s just me! Calm down!” Val glared at me as she stood up and brushed off her shorts.
“I heard knocking! I didn’t know who it was and you scared me!” I yelled.
“No one was knocking, you potato head. That was just the wind blowing the shutters.” She grabbed my hand. “C’mon, Jeanette had to go home and Mama wants us to come inside before the storm hits.”
Rufus was waiting in the pasture and he led us up the hill to our house, his tail wagging slowly. I walked backwards, both to annoy Val and to watch for lightning. The old house looked less scary from this distance.
It wasn’t until several years later, home from college, that I realized there were no shutters on the windows.
Jennifer Barger, who lives in Wenatchee, has been pursuing her writing for many years, and her supportive husband and two teenage sons have become all writers too. She feels that now she is “managing to catch up to her dream.”
Judy Brezina “Eliot”
In early 1980, I bought a restaurant in Madrona, tucked above the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle. I should say, my mouth bought it. The words, “I’ll buy it”, were spoken before my brain engaged. It was then I embarked on a journey of light and dark. This story is about a portion of that trip. It’s not about the hiring’s and firings. Nor is it about how I fine tuned my alcoholism during that time. Nor is it about being hogtied and robbed at gunpoint. It’s not about weird employees or the grinding work schedule. This story is about Eliot…and Kathy…and Cowboy. They were the rank and file of lost and forgotten souls that lived in a dilapidated old house near me.
We called them The Thorazine Kids. They were truly walking dead long before zombies were in fashion. The marginally mentally ill people held in chemical straightjackets, warehoused in a quiet neighborhood before strict zoning laws pushed them out.
The Café I owned had a small street entry coffee shop and bakery. The restaurant was accessed by a stairway in the back of the shop. It was a cozy spot that was a meeting place for much of the neighborhood. I sold the New York Times and had an old Cafethema single pull manual espresso machine that cranked out the best coffee ever. Life was good.
The inmates of the House of Dementia were not allowed to stay in the residence during the day. They were turned out en masse to wander the streets in their slow shuffling gait. Puffing cigarettes and staring at the ground as they circled not unlike a school of heavily drugged fish. Around and around the neighborhood they walked their beat. Hour after hour we were patrolled. They would come in my shop if the weather was particularly bad to warm up. Usually it was during the slow times. Although thinking back on it, they never came in when it was busy. Maybe out of respect for me but it could have been that the noise and bustle bothered them.
I would be cleaning something downstairs and they would sit almost perfectly still. Slowly a cup of coffee would be raised to pursed lips. Just as slowly they set it back down, a cigarette would be lifted in the same manner for a long drag. We would engage in an amended version of a conversation. The words were never complicated, the sentences seldom more than a few words. I managed to get across my ideas and I learned to harvest theirs as they struggled to converse with trains of thought long derailed.
Cowboy was locked into a childhood where he was the Lone Ranger, Eliot, when he did speak, used a vocabulary that resonated and Kathy had been somebody very important once. There were around 15 of them in all. Some never came in, others were regulars.
On one bright sunny spring day Eliot walked into the coffee shop. It never failed to shock me how the medication took a toll on him. He sported a pale yellow cast and his skin was a map of fine lines. It sagged from a face devoid of expression. His were eyes sunken, his hair was in a buzz cut that gave him a maniacal look that belied how gentle he really was. I glanced over at him and he was smiling. I mean, really smiling.
Shocked, I asked him, “Eliot, what’s up honey? You get lucky last night?”
His eyes actually focused when he turned to me and said,’ I was just remembering the year I spent in France’. I froze literally in mid motion and stared. I had never heard him string more than three or maybe four words together.
Taking a deep breath, I replied, “Oh really? What were you doing in France Eliot?”
Again he smiled (my God, he had dimples) and said, I was on an exchange student visa studying Lexicology at the University. The air around me was so electric it was actually singing.
As he slid into the booth he literally pulled me into a ride of the century. He spoke in flowing words about a picnic in the spring. All of them around a blanket spread on the soft green grass in a pear orchard, drinking wine, eating and smoking late into the soft night. They were gods. He described people so well I felt as though I were gazing into their eyes. Under his melodious song the sky streaked with rose and gold as he rode his bike home with baguettes of fresh bread in the panniers. Eloquently he talked of good wine and dear friends. Quietly, he spoke of the suicide committed by one of the orchard friends.
He painted a picture so poignant and vibrant that I realized I was holding my breath, afraid that if I spoke the spell would be broken.
Through his words I could smell the lilacs, taste the deep red wine and hear the laugher. The feeling of being swept along, carried, by his words was inebriating, disorienting.
The cadence was perfect, his voice rising and falling in a baritone that at first was rusty then smoothed out, getting its legs under it, becoming rich and fine not unlike an expensive brandy.
The mini travelogue went on for a good fifteen minutes, maybe more. I was enthralled. Then he just stopped. I waited hoping he was pausing, that he would continue. Distraught, I watched as the blind slowly dropped down over his eyes. Once again he wore his usual blank expression. The medication must have kicked in.
Standing there I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Never again would I look at that group of souls the same way. How could I?
Judy Brezina, from Carlton, was a voracious reader as a child. She’s experienced distant travel and varied work and says, “My blessings have always been the ability to look at the world with fresh eyes, to delight in the simple things and to turn a word inside out.”
Desiree Donohue “The Eighth Day”
Tremors shot through the rocky terrain as I squatted in the debris alongside my human mistress. Her fear was palpable; her breath coming in short pants as she clutched a tightly swaddled infant to her breast.
There’d been no warning from the aliens when the ships appeared just outside Earth’s atmosphere. They didn’t take their time or drag out the suspense. Within a few hours of their arrival they made it clear that their plan was global annihilation.
For seven days the bombs rained down. On the eighth day the ships breached the atmosphere and those who managed to survive the bombing were targeted by the giant exoskeletons that the aliens donned to eradicate survivors. Our group of six had been reduced to half as we fled from one of the aliens, leaving it up to me—a simple household android—to keep Mistress and her child safe.
A sudden hitch in breathing brought my attention back to Mistress. I watched as she lifted a trembling hand from where she’d pressed it to her side and frowned at the sticky blood that coated her palm and fingers.
“Mistress—” My voice was soft with a metallic bite and my processors whirred as I scanned the injury, calculating its severity.
“Its fine,” she lied.
My scan revealed that her injury was not fine. Her normally flushed cheeks had turned the color of chalk. Unstaunched, the gash in her hip oozed steadily and her life ebbed with the loss of blood.
Mistress sagged heavily against the rubble. Eyes closed and teeth clenched, she pressed her hand against the wound once more, “I hoped that we’d make it through the city and into the forest before they detected us.” Opening her eyes, she looked up at me with a sad expression. “Now my clumsiness has cost us our lives.”
She was wrong, of course. While she and the child might perish, I would go on. The aliens didn’t seem to have an interest in androids. As we’d traveled I’d seen quite a few of my kind wandering aimlessly. Without masters we have no direction, and so we merely exist until we eventually break down or our plasma cores wear out.
Mistress grabbed my robotic arm, bringing my attention back to her. “Listen to me carefully,” she hissed, pulling me down to her level as she shrugged out of her backpack. Turning me so I faced away from her, she looped the padded straps through my reinforced arms settling the backpack across my narrow frame. “I won’t make it. I’m losing too much blood. You’re her best—her only—chance of getting out of here.”
I swung my head around to face her while my smooth faceplate radiated a dim glow. My programing dictated that I keep Mistress safe, but also that I follow her orders. I had failed to protect her and now she would surely die because I didn’t have the resources to treat her injury. Therefore her direct order became my prime directive, and yet I found myself oddly conflicted. Androids did not argue, and yet—
“Mistress, I am not qualified to tend to her.”
The ground shook with another heavy footstep and Mistress grunted, “This isn’t up for debate. You will take her and you will make it to the forest, doing whatever you have to in order for you both to survive! Do you understand me?”
“Yes Mistress, but—”
“Once you get to the forest, head toward the mountains. There are caves,” she tightened the wrapping on her daughter, tucking a strand of hair inside the swaddling. “Inside those caves are probably people. Find someone willing to take her.”
“Mistress I—surely there must be another alternative,” I contended while my faceplate flickered from plum to slate. Despite my hesitation, I scanned the terrain until a route through the rubble became apparent.
“I wish there were.” Mistress was growing weaker by the second. Her arms trembled as she thrust the soft, blood smeared bundle into my rigid, alloy arms. Tears fell from her eyes, leaving wet trails through the grit on her face, “Stay with her. Protect her. Tell her about me, and let her know that I loved her.”
The ground shook and the grind of mechanisms became a deafening roar.
“Go now! Don’t look back.”
My faceplate darkened to matte silver and my programing overrode the last of my disquiet as I focused on my task. Tucking the infant against my metal frame, I turned and loped away. Without Mistress to slow me down, I was able to set a punishing pace as I scurried through the debris that had once been a bustling city.
A line of red light appeared on the ground ahead, but I didn’t slow or change my stride. I only clutched the sleeping child closer and hunched my frame around it, hoping that the scan would reveal a machine and nothing more.
Don’t look back…
When nothing happened, I chanced a glance over my shoulder. The alien had turned away, its sights focused on where I had left Mistress behind.
A deafening explosion, followed by the resulting aftershock of heat and shrapnel, hit me at the same time I reached the edge of the forest. In my arms the child jerked awake with a shriek. Mimicking the shushing sounds I’d often heard from Mistress to quiet her cries, I focused on pushing further into the forest.
My night vision could just make out the outline of the mountains ahead, looming in shadow above the thickening forest. As I carried on, the child in my arms was lulled back to sleep by my rhythmic, rocking strides.
Stay with her… Protect her… Tell her that I loved her.
An android without a Master has no purpose, but my Mistress had given me both a new Mistress and purpose. As I looked down at the contrast of the warm, sleeping child in my cold robotic arms, I felt something change inside.
Desiree Donohue lives in East Wenatchee with her husband, two kids, and her cats. She grew up in Ephrata, where she was lucky to have “several amazing teachers” who encouraged her love for creative writing. This is her second year as a WOTR finalist in fiction.
Mary Gallagher “The Fruit Room”
I am almost fifty-three years old, five feet eight inches tall, and twelve pounds heavier than I would like to be. The distance from my days as a young, short, skinny child lengthen with each breath I exhale. Until I grab the small wooden knob on the old plywood door and give it a yank. Carefully, I step up and over the four-inch threshold that separates the cement basement floor of my Mom’s little blue shingled house from the dirt floor of her Fruit room. As I inhale the earthen aroma that this tiny room of wooden shelves exudes, I am seven years old again. I am standing on the tips of my toes, balancing with my left hand against the door frame as my right hand reaches for the pale-yellow-gold jar of canned pears. I have been sent on a special mission. Sunday’s roast beef dinner is almost ready and we need dessert. Dad is still alive. My four older siblings all still live at home.
Mom said, “Mary, hurry, go down to the Fruit room and get a jar of Green Bluff pears.”
I did, taking those fourteen steps, two at a time. I was not allowed to grate the cheese or help around the hot stove but I could be trusted to get the pears and not break them. I knew then that dessert would be a halved canned pear, filled with cottage cheese and sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese. I didn’t linger, or look right or left. I just found the pears, three jars deep and three jars across and grabbed the closest one. I hopped backwards off the threshold, spiraled and headed for the fourteen stairs. Slowly, one at a time, concentrating on not dropping dessert.
My pocket vibrates, bringing me back to the adult I am. I consider seeing who is calling me but my gaze stays up. I see the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes inside the gold-rimmed glass jars. Medium jars of round, red cherries; small jars of raspberry and strawberry red jams and jellies; red sliced beets; large jars of red-orange tomato chunks with almost translucent white slices of onions; pinkish orange peaches and nectarines cut in neat halves; golden apricots in halves; halves of pale-yellow-gold pears; yellow to green sliced bread-and-butter pickles in small jars and deep green dill pickles in big jars; dark green cut string beans; blue-purple huckleberry jam and deep purple quartered plums. The rainbow of bounty that Spring, Summer and Fall bestow and we devour in Winter.
I feel a flood of memories sweep me away. I remember outings to U-Pick fields. Bending down and tenderly picking the red strawberries from under protective green leaves and the scratches as we gleaned from the well-tended rows of thorny raspberry bushes. Half day trips to Green Bluff for cherries, apricots, peaches, pears and apples. My favorite part of Summer fruit gatherings, and the only one I still partake in, was huckleberry picking. Long day trips and once a Summer, a multiday camping trip, in the wilds of North Idaho up around Priest Lake. No cultivated rows, no fees to pay, lovely vistas and tumbling creeks and the ever-present fear and excitement that we might see a bear. Of course, we practiced what to do if that should happen. We cried when we tripped and spilled our buckets, we were in awe how fast our Dad could pick and giggled that Mom was wearing pants. We tried to hide our tongues as the deeper purple it was the more our parents knew we had eaten then saved. Our reward was swimming in the beautiful waters of Priest Lake and a soft vanilla or chocolate ice cream cone on the way home.
Our own back yard garden yielded much that filled the Fruit Room. I never questioned why, even though canned vegetables lined those wooden shelves, we never called it the Fruit and Vegetable Room. As I type it, I realize that would have been too much of a mouthful. I reminisce on all that went into each jar of beets, green beans, tomatoes, and pickles. As a child, I never appreciated all the work my parents did, how tired they must have gotten. I just enjoyed the gathering, the eating, the being told to go read a book as the hot August kitchen with the screeching pressure cooker was not a safe place for a young child to be. The vegetables began and ended in the Winter. My parents, even us children, would ponder the Burpee seed catalogue on those January Sundays as the canned green beans were warming up on the stove and our garden plot was enveloped in snow. Once the Spring melt allowed, the earth was mulched and tilled by my father’s weathered hands and a shovel. He let us help plant but only if we could patiently drop one itsy-bitsy carrot seed at a time. I didn’t help with the carrots much, but beans I always did plant. As the Summer heated up and we children played in the sprinkler and little plastic pool, my parents did the weeding and watering. We grew tanner and leaner and the vegetables bloomed, formed, matured, were harvested and canned. Once cooled, they were carried down the fourteen stairs by anyone going that way and arranged in rows three deep on the wooden shelves. The Seasons of my childhood were contained in that tiny, wooden shelved room Mom called the “Fruit Room”.
My pocket vibrates again, this time I do look down. It is the funeral home. Mom died yesterday, at ninety-four. I remember to breathe. The earthen smell lingers but no canned fruits or vegetables have been stored here for years. My gaze drifts back up and this time I see what is truly there: the dust blanketed wooden shelves holding various sized empty, uncapped glass jars.
Mary Willard Gallagher lives near Lake Wenatchee, retired from 22 years as a Seattle veterinarian. She’s been writing for 15 years, learning “the magic of turning individual words into captivating stories” and was published in The Good Life magazine.
Daniel Klayton “The Wedding Cake”
The twinkling lights strung overhead danced shadows across the cake, as Isaac forked another bite. Crumbs fell into his lap, and Isaac willed his shaking hand to steady.
Looking up, he saw David jogging over from the dance floor with a flushed father-of-the-bride smile. Warmth spread through Isaac’s chest, remembering his own similar pride at David’s wedding so many years ago.
“Hey Dad!” David said breathlessly, kneeling in the grass next to Isaac’s chair. “Enjoying the cake?”
Isaac nodded, wiping his mouth.
“Maureen and I got a little gift for you,” David said, holding out a small box. “We meant to give it to you before the ceremony, but everything was happening so fast and–”
“That’s fine, David,” Isaac assured him, taking the gift. “And that’s very thoughtful of you two.”
Inside was a small cloth cap, white with “R&E” stitched in blue. Isaac picked up the yarmulke – a religious covering that a sneering coworker had once called, “Isaac’s Jew beanie” – and held it in the shimmering light.
“It stands for ‘Rebecca and Ethan,’” David explained.
“Yes, I realize that,” Isaac chuckled. “It’s beautiful, David. Thank you.”
“Of course, Dad. We’re so happy you made the trip – I know it’s not easy for you traveling alone.” David sighed and glanced away. “I wish Mom could have been here.”
“Wherever Cheryl is, she’s smiling on us all,” Isaac said, resting his hand on his son’s shoulder.
David nodded, his face still averted.
A cheer erupted on the dance floor. David grinned, twisting to look.
“I better get back there. Enjoy that cake! There’s extra if you want more.”
Isaac took off his well-worn yarmulke and put on David and Maureen’s gift, clipping it to the few white hairs he still had.
Isaac knew he was the only one wearing the Jewish head dressing, though many of the guests were Jewish. Most were of the “cultural but not religious” branch of Judaism, and the rest wore them only in synagogue, if ever. Different norms for a different time, Isaac thought.
Rebecca and Ethan hadn’t been wed by a rabbi. Ethan was Catholic, but they hadn’t chosen a priest either. One of their friends had performed the ceremony – he was apparently a “minister” with an online organization. Five minutes, five bucks, and you too can consecrate the union of any eligible couple.
The ceremony had been nice. The only Jewish tradition had been at the end, when Ethan stomped on a wine glass. The rest of the guests had laughed and applauded, but Isaac cringed as the officiant explained with a wink that it marked “the last time Ethan gets to put his foot down.” In Isaac’s remembering, the tradition was to remind the couple that even the greatest joys are always tempered with sorrows, and to recall the millennia-old destruction of Jerusalem. But that probably wouldn’t get as many laughs.
He knew the gesture was meant well, but it stung. Rebecca would choose her own spiritual path, which was as it should be. But the nod to their heritage felt like an ironic joke, the faith of their ancestors reduced to a wink and snicker.
Maybe it was just part of getting old: watching what was once sacred become kitsch, then fade away. Respect turned to ridicule turned to dust. Isaac knew he was far along that path himself. He saw the amused smiles when people noticed his bow tie – there he was, just being a “cute old man” again. It wouldn’t be long before he, too, faded into memory.
Isaac sighed, massaging his knees.
It was true what David had said – the trip had been difficult. Lately, flying set off a deep aching pain in his legs that lasted days.
Isaac had thought about bringing Esther. He knew she’d be welcome, but it would have meant telling his family about their relationship.
They’d been together for years, but Isaac knew it wasn’t something he’d ever share with his children or grandchildren. They’d be happy for him, but it would be that belittling kind that plagued the old and wrinkled. Whenever they got together, the rest of the family would ask about Isaac’s “hot new girlfriend” with conspiratorial smirks, telling him how “it’s just so cute that you two are dating.” At a certain age, it seemed ‘cute’ was the best you could hope for. Isaac couldn’t stand it. Esther didn’t have kids of her own, but she understood.
He hadn’t expected to date again after Cheryl had died, but he’d found that the longing for companionship and intimacy didn’t wither with age. Esther was a brilliant woman, sharp with her wit and quick with a smile.
And on those nights after yet another friend had slipped off into the great beyond, it helped to share a warm bed with a good friend.
The apartments in Isaac’s retirement home had little oval plaques on the doors, bearing the names of whoever lived inside. When someone died, the staff would remove the plaque, leaving the door blank until a new resident moved in. In the intervening months, the absent plaques would leave behind pale shadow-marks, the surrounding wood having darkened over the years. Those shadows gaped at Isaac like bleached mouths. Sometimes in dreams, he’d find himself walking down a hallway filled with them, each silently gnashing as if trying in vain to be heard just once more.
Isaac knew that his relationship with Esther also helped fend off a quiet fear that grew like an inoperable tumor – the fear of dying alone.
Isaac sighed again. This was a day for celebration, not despair. He saw Rebecca, beautiful in her flowing white dress, eagerly waving to him from the dance floor.
“Love you, pop-pop,” she mouthed.
Isaac grinned and waved back. Yes, he thought as he reached for another bite of cake, today was a good day.
Daniel Klayton moved from Los Angeles to an off-grid Oroville homestead. New to fiction, he’s been a copywriter and ghost writer, has published his sonnets and currently writes about arts and entertainment for the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune.
Rachael Lundin “Road Trip”
Bags packed? Check. Fuel in the tank? Check. Grandma strapped down? Mom tucked in her corner? Check and Check.
Two days ago I called to reserve the moving truck. The lady taking my reservation asked, “What are you hauling?”
I wasn’t prepared to answer that question. “Do I have to tell you?” I asked.
There was complete silence on the other end.
“That sounded pretty sketchy, huh?” I said.
“Yes.” The lady said.
So I told her, “My sister and I are hauling my dead Grandmother back to North Dakota for her funeral.”
“That didn’t help, did it?” I asked.
“Um, no.” she said.
I could sense no laughter in this woman, but I hope at the end of the day she went home and told her family all about it. “You’ll never guess the conversation I had today,” I imagine her saying.
I didn’t mention that we were also hauling our mother’s ashes.
Last year our mother died of metastasized breast cancer. Last week our Grandmother died of old age. We are taking them both back to Stanley, ND to bury them side by side.
The moving van lady may not have had laughter in her, but I have it in me in spades. Laughter, along with anger, peace, sorrow, and joy, have all moved into my internal living room and have made themselves comfortable. These competing emotions have set aside their differences and are becoming fast friends. Sometimes they all get to talking at once creating a cacophony so loud that all I can do is sit and stare, usually out a window, sometimes with tears running down my face.
“You got the story?” my little sister asks.
“Check” I say, as I pull up the audio book.
This road trip to North Dakota is the same annual 2,000 mile trip we took as kids and we would sing “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.”
Grandma lived all but the last few years of her life in North Dakota, coming to Washington only when she could no longer care for herself. She was a prairie girl, used to the silence and wind. To sit with her was to sit in the eye of the storm: peaceful and calm.
My mother, a nurse, was the logical choice of Grandma’s five children when she needed full time care. Mom spent her adult life riding an emotional roller coaster. To sit with her was to be inside the storm: restless and sometimes volatile.
I look at my sister. She is beautiful, but she doesn’t know it. She is tough as nails, but so tender that I’m scared of hurting her. She is the warrior you want at your side.
Grandma is peace, Mom is adventure, my Sister is courage, and I, I am afraid of being left alone.
My mother was afraid of a lot of things, but she was not afraid of death. Her favorite thing to say was, “I’m in a win win situation! If I live, I get to stay with you guys, win! If I die, I get to go home to Jesus, win!”
That was fine for her. But where is my win? When she passed away the only thing I got was a living room full of emotions and more responsibility.
My first decision as the newly appointed most highly functioning matriarch, was to move Grandma into memory care. On moving day, she was in fine form, my little cutie in her big sunglasses and pink pantsuit ready for an outing. She didn’t really understand what was going on; just that it was all about her. We got her settled and then it was time to leave her there. It was a cozy room. The place smelled nice. But she looked so small. She must have sensed my unease. She smiled at me and thanked me for the visit. Then she said she thought she might nap.
And now, a year later, she is strapped down in the back of a moving van. These are my thoughts as we pull out into traffic.
My sister and I, the two living members of this adventure party, listen to our story, a murder mystery, and whenever we stop, we talk about what we think might happen next. And as soon as we finish our food, gas fill-up, or picture taking, we race back to the truck to hear the next chapter.
We watch the most amazing thunder and lightning storm move across the prairie.
We take pictures of fence lines, oil wells, buffalo, and old barns. We drive through The Badlands which, while beautiful, will never be as beautiful as my mother’s description of them.
When the road is bumpy I worry that our passengers are getting jostled, which is ridiculous, I know. What do they care? But still…
We stop late in a hotel whose hot tub has closed for the night. My sister insists we go anyway and hops over the fence. She slides into the steaming water and looks back at me. “What is taking you so long?”
I consider my little sister. We are so much alike: both messed up and both sort of badass. And I think, “I’m hauling two dead bodies in the back of a moving van. What’s a little trespassing?” Responsibility scoots over to give recklessness room on the couch.
An idea has been creeping up on me all day and when I join my sister, it peeks out at me. The idea has to do with my “win”. It has to do with being so incredibly thankful for this moment and for my sister, and for my mother and my grandmother. It has to do with the circle of life. And…
And then the idea slips back into the shadows. It isn’t ready for the light. But it leaves behind contentment, who smiles at the room and says, “Alright everyone, it’s time to settle down. We have work to do.”
Rachael Lundin of Wenatchee was the very first fiction winner in 2008 and subsequently became a WOTR volunteer as room host and registrar. She journals and has “a book under the bed that comes out once in a while for editing.”
Honorable Mention: SaDonna Heathman, “There Ain’t no Strangers Here”
Where I’m from a name means everything. If your Mama got it right, it was as warm and smooth as melted honey, but a bad one would follow you around like a skunk on a hot summer day. I had the kind of name that could knock a person out.
You know the kind that’s whispered in the church pew behind you, while your Mama’s steadily gazing at you with her steely eyes, but now the giggling’s started, and all you want to do is turn around and slap one of them upside the head to make it stop? You probably have no idea what I mean. I bet you got one of those nice names like Emma or Kate.
I remember begging Mama to call me something else, but she would always say, “Clarabelle Opaline Patience Pearl Ellen Rose, your names are a gift from God. Your great-grandmother’s would roll over in their graves if I even thought of taking them off the roster.”
I think God stepped in anyway. He knew I needed saving. He saw fit to perform a minor miracle on my name the very first day of school after Ms. Bee called me a mouthful. By the end of that day, I was officially launched into the world as Copper.
At school anyway.
God still didn’t see fit to save me from Mama.
I should add that my little brother got it nearly as bad as me. Mama named him Juniper Aloysius Kaleb Edward. The school named him Jake. But I like to call him Junebug. I mean, who am I to suffer alone.
Now the first thing you’re gonna need to know about growing up in Beaudry, Alabama is you can’t be no sissy. ’Cuz this town’s gonna to do its level best to keep you covered in Muscatine vines and mosquito bites. So you’ll either be licking sweetness off your fingers, or itching ’til you bleed.
My daddy likes to call it a sleepy-eyed town. But that always makes me think of our old hound dog lazing on the porch with one eye closed, while the other one’s wide open keeping watch over you.
For some reason, that very same hound dog let’s Junebug climb all over him and never says a peep about it. But me, I can’t even step on the porch before he’s let out a howl the size of Texas.
Stupid, old dog.
“Hush up, Boone!” I hiss, quietly closing the screen door behind me. His tail thumps loudly in response, and through the porch window Mama Bessie’s bedside lamp blinks on. I dash down the steps into the darkness, the satchel banging against my hip. Boone groans behind me, toenails clacking against the wood, as he attempts to roll himself up.
Stupid, fat, old dog.
I am already half way to the garden before he finally catches up, his wet nose plowing into the back of my legs.
“Boone!” I hiss at him again. But he’s fully awake now, whirling excitedly around my feet, his short legs stumbling over patchy clumps of grass. A half blind tornado on the loose.
“You know, it’s a good thing I love you.” I lean down, scratching behind one ear.
He collapses on top of my feet, back leg kicking in rhythm, and I wonder if he’s trying to help me, or if he’s actually convinced himself he’s the one doing the work. When I finally stop, Boone rolls on his back, and looks up at me expectantly.
“Sorry, but I do have more important work to attend to than this.”
By the time I arrive at the garden, the moon is shining down on it like a spotlight from Heaven. According to the paper, it’s the brightest its been in 30 years, a super moon. I’m just hoping God’s spotlight is more attuned to helping with my search than it is with getting me caught.
Blanketed along the garden gate, Mama Bessie’s daisies are basking in it, their luminescent blooms hovering over the ground, like the warm bedspread she’d covered me with earlier tonight. I’d kept myself awake by running my fingers over its woven ridges and knitted pebbles, trying to make out each intricate design.
Next to them, spiky, purple Liatris are lit up bright as torches, and I half want to snap one off and carry it with me into the garden, but Boone is already nudging past my legs.
“You better stay out of trouble.” I warn, knowing full well he’s likely sniffing his way towards something dead to roll in. But he’s already in full tracking mode, head buried between two long rows of green beans, tail moving back and forth like a wind shield wiper in a rainstorm. I let out an exasperated sigh, and head into the garden behind him.
Other than the quiet cooing of the chickens, everything is silent. Even the crickets have put themselves to bed already. The night air nestles in around me, still as stuck molasses, and smelling almost as sweet.
In her former life, which I pretty much call any part that doesn’t include me in it, Mama Bessie delivered babies. I’m not sure that she ever received any formal training, but she’d learned how by following her aunt around, who’d done the same thing.
I don’t even remember the day Junebug was born, but I’d once watched an old milk cow give birth. She’d just stood there the entire time, chewing on some hay. Looking at it from that perspective, I’m not sure what all the ladies at church go on about. From the way they make it sound, when it was their turn for the blessed event they’d had to deliver three baby Jesus’s the size of watermelons before it was all over.
Lord, makes me queasy just thinking about it, but I’ve already decided I’m never having children. Parenting Junebug through life is trouble enough.
SaDonna Heathman lives and works on a ranch in Hartline and said, “The characters I create also become companions for this country wife and mom.” In her writing, she pays homage to the strong Southern matriarchs in her life.