We have included the winners who agreed to have their winning entry published on the blog. The winner of the following award did not give permission:
The Second Place Adult Poetry Award (Sponsored by an Anonymous Donor)
All remaining winners agreed to have their entry published on the blog. They are listed as follows:
The First Place Award for Adult Poetry (Anonymous Donor)
by Rufus A. Skeens
Winter’s child stalks the yard
in her chill blue dress: black, yellow, burnt umber—
the crow’s, starling’s, cardinal’s leather boots
roughly scuffing at crust, as if to find a hem
to snow’s blanket, seed each visualizes
covered there. The mallard, too,
mottled brown, blue feathers, dresses oddly, one
wing frozen in the puzzle nature sets
to hollow bone someone’s bumper has broken,
believes God’s the occasional bread scrap,
millet, cracked corn neighbors throw down for him
and his mate beside the cow’s pond. Thin,
as February wind, she also whispers
between house walls, little rectangular breaths
that shape themselves to fit windowpanes whose putty
has cracked, flaked away. Old woman who lingers there,
couple miles down the valley, outliving
every scruple except pride, has burned through
her coal stock two months early, hums
under breath dies the fire to the oven’s eye,
as if speaking a thing so will prevent
the element’s immolation. How stubborn,
blue cold’s stain to leave a hand. And here too,
the wife’s blue slip winter’s child has forced her
to wear, million little hurts, as she asks
is it me, denial of the body’s betrayal age,
arteries, heart has placed upon me. Again,
I say I want you desperately, but in youth’s absence
there’s only mind, hunger, need to inflate this balloon
become obstinate as mountains.
The Third Place Award for Adult Poetry (Anonymous Donor)
“Last Mountain Cabin”
by Ben E. Campbell
Built in ’45, we learn, betwixt their hardships and our progress, it stands
a wooded icon of our past. Daniel Boone box. Davey Crockett castle.
Great abode set high up on the hill—the ol’ mountain cabin.
We rally here before it in the sunlight leaking dusk
four souls split up by generation, my grandma in twilight the common,
passed-down thread. Her father raised this house, felling trees from up the cove,
hitching logs to horse-drawn sleds, chinking gaps with his own hands.
Self-sufficient some might say. Strange and peculiar utter others
that a man might choose this style of dwelling
cabins long since banished by then, at least
by one informed account, even in far Appalachia.
Sealed in creosote as black as preexistence, the logs hold strong in keeping pace,
yet surrender they surely must, their fate now decided by another’s callous hand—
to succumb to demoed madness, to return to mountain soil, as us four will in
God’s expectant time. Which is why we are here, in this photo op.
Why my daughter fills my arms, not two months old even, so I
can say “you saw this place! You took it squarely in!”
Show her such skills I cannot, not now, less likely even later,
mountaineering gone lost among our kin, lost among the
mountains growing fewer every day. One county over there are hills stripped gray
with blight. A greed disease slowly spreading.
But that’s another picture. From the current there are things she ought to know.
I want to tell her as a child here Prince Albert wisped the cob pipe,
that voices sang like wind sweep, that a clan’s worth filled these steps.
Remember these jewels I plan to urge her as I coach in taming mountains,
so that one day, while digging up some box, and finding this photo nearly
faded, she may look on it with awe. At the remnants of her blood past,
at the mountains fully shadowed—at this cabin standing proud, and
not take notice of the young man in her clutches gazing down at useless hands.
The Appalachian Authors Guild, A Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club First Place Award for Adult Short Story
“Slate Dump Football”
by Fred M. Powers
In the hills of southern West Virginia in the early 1960s, an event was building up rather quickly in the neighborhood where I lived. This event was not newsworthy by any means; however, the uniqueness of it, kept the local tongues a-wagging. Who could remember that my neighborhood once stood for something, besides devilment? My dad worked in the local mines, like most all of the other kid’s fathers, including the black children.
The only difference between my community and others throughout the country was my small
Coal mining town of Keystone had a red-light district located dead center in the town of maybe 500 souls. This section of town was called Cinder Bottom and was actually well known throughout the land, including overseas, by way of the military man. It was said to have begun slowly before the turn of the Twentieth Century. A segregated area of brothels began as a place for entertainment for the single and wayward coal miners in this isolated, rugged mountainous area of the southern coalfields of West Virginia. Fires were a constant danger, due to carelessness, probably from too much drinking, gambling, etc. and consumed many of the wooden structures at this time. Miners would still traverse this area looking for pleasure and a stiff drink with cinders on their shoes. The name Cinder Bottom came about because of these events. It was constantly being rebuilt, some say by the coal operators. The name identified this unique microcosm of Appalachian-America.
Oh man, it had been a nervous week! The tension which builds up before a big game is something else. The game was to be Saturday on a smelly, coal slate dump located on the edge of Cinder Bottom. In the early days of Keystone, a small mine was located on the back next to this section of town which would dump its coal refuse there. It was eventually smoothed out and this was where we played our sandlot football. It wasn’t the best field to play a big game, but it was about the only one available for the black kids to play on.
The black team would play pickup games of football there. I had played with them many times. When my other black friends needed someone else to field a team, they would sometimes ask me to play, as I would be hanging out with Roy playing on the streets of Cinder Bottom or delivering the evening paper. I felt lucky to be asked and tried to do my best. I don’t recall any other whites being asked to play. Roy would also come and stand outside the fence downtown at the segregated “whites” only playground, where I played Little League baseball and midget league football and cheer me on. I don’t recall any other black children watching the white sports programs. There were no organized sports programs for the black children that I was aware of, except at their secondary schools and that was only against other teams of their segregated school system. They had only a grassless field with shoddy sports equipment to play with, even though their fathers worked with ours in the dusty and dangerous mine. I was pretty young at the time, but I knew this wasn’t right. I felt ashamed of this discriminating practice and wished that it would end one day soon. The tiny black and white televisions in mine and Roy’s living rooms were starting to show news reports of “The Freedom Riders” trying to end the discriminatory bus practices in the Deep South.
My black friends talked a lot of mess about the whites’ playing abilities. I just ignored it and played extra hard at guard. I must have been decent because I would never be picked last as that was embarrassing at times. I was called “Little Powerhouse” at times by the older black teenagers, as well.
The miners and painted ladies, mom insisted that my brother and I call them this, out of respect, instead of the derogatory names that others would call them, usually “whores.” They would watch from their second story balconies when they weren’t working the houses, as we would go back and forth on the short field.
The black miners would be talking much smack as they would yell for Hooks whenever he got the ball. Hooks, another good friend of mine, whom I later worked with for several years in the same big mines, lived in the neighboring town of Kimball would just show up. I believe he was courting a young lady in our town. He would almost always gain yardage as he was exceptionally strong and was a little older than myself. I hoped the best for him later as he was a good guy as well. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe his daddy had been killed a couple of years before in a massive roof fall in the mines. I remember him working part-time mopping floors at the Smoke House Restaurant downtown to earn extra money for his family. In the field he would shake his head and say “I gotta do it, I gotta do it.” I knew because I played some with him and would hear him mutter this as I blocked for him. Other black names that I can recall who played at various times in different games were Jimbo, Bosko, Sonny Boy, Sammie, Gunnie, Mule, Hawk, Rat, Dogman, Babe Brother, Junebug,Vinson, and Little Railhead. Railhead, his father, got his unusual name from the way his head was shaped, and being in a coal camp, it was gonna happen. Nicknames were a colorful part of the mining culture.
As we held our last practice on Friday at the “whites” only playground, a small field that was used for baseball as well as football, it became apparent this would be more than a friendly game of football. This playground was off- limits to the blacks, and it was always closed on Saturdays anyway, so we went to their field.
The miners were getting wind of the upcoming game and were blowing it out of proportion and started to bet each other on the outcome. I had walked downtown the day before and was questioned about the game by Old Tally Angelo who spoke only broken English. “Powerhouse” Ya’ll gotta chance Saturday, or no?”
“Why, Heck yeah!” I declared, and walked away confidently.
The whole thing was getting crazy as we planned to be there an hour early on Saturday. We brought a few clean rags to use as bandages and iodine for minor cuts and scrapes were to be expected from the rough slate surface.
Time came to go and I left our house and began the short trek through the backway of the Bottom along the creek to the path up the slate dump hill. I watched in amazement as a crowd gathered next to the smelly field of football glory. I saw a couple of our players up ahead, and walked faster to catch up with them.
“You ready, Powerhouse? “ Spike asked me.
I nodded and replied enthusiastically, “Absolutely!”
As we walked the path to the old slate dump, which was located beside the Elkhorn Creek at the far back of the Bottom, but was within sight of the houses.
We were called together by Spike and Kemp, the older boys who played for the white junior school at Keystone. Kemp spoke first, “Look fellows, we didn’t come here to be whipped by a bunch of blacks. I want to win this quickly by getting ahead and staying there. If you can’t do your job, we have a couple on the bench that will do it for you. “Anyone too chicken poop to play, go on and walk away now before it’s too late,” said Spike in a commanding voice. “Good, let’s stretch and loosen up.”
We did so and looked fairly good in warm ups. I watched the colored team warming up and putting their old sweatshirts on. Noticing how chiseled and muscular some of them were, I thought, “Lord, I hope we can hang with them.”
As game time approached, I looked around and saw a small crowd of miners and a few ladies watching us and who were jostling for positions of viewing space on the sidelines.
There were no pads or helmets used because no one owned any, and you had to be in school below the tenth grade to play. These were the rules agreed on by both sides. Most everyone had overalls, canvas shoes, and tee or sweatshirts. A couple of the dad’s had brought up some well water in large buckets for good cold drinking water. A couple of guys in their 30’s would referee: one white and one colored to make it fair for all. The game would last one hour and a half with a ten minute break at half time. A ten-minute halftime was agreed up-on.
Because we had won the coin toss, we elected to receive and Duffy took the kickoff a good ways back. I played guard and could keep my man Bosko from breaking through the line. He was my size so it was pretty even. Our quarterback, Spike was really good as he could dodge a rush for a couple of seconds if someone broke through the line on him. We scored twice in the first quarter! Spike connected once to Frog, our wide receiver, and Big Timmy, our fullback, broke through again for a touchdown.
It didn’t long take long for the blacks to tie because Hooks was gaining massive yards rushing. He was like a madman plowing through and around our lines muttering the whole time, “Gotta do it, Gotta do it.” We really needed helmets for this as you had to be extra careful not to get your neck twisted up.
There was no turning back now. Both sides were playing well, and the mixed crowd was hooping and hollering the whole way. Hooks had tossed a lateral to Little Railhead, a smaller running back, who had snuck in and scored just before the starter pistol was fired for halftime. They took a touchdown lead.
“Dadburnit!” Spike squalled out. “We gotta win this ballgame or we’re gonna look like a bunch of pansies when it’s all over with. Get yourself a drink and come right back and we’ll talk some more fellows.” Our players wiped the mixture of soot and blood off their arms with a damp wet rag. I started gagging a little from the god awful smell, but caught myself before I puked. We walked slowly over to Spike and Kemp.
“I’m going to air it out more in the second half, so be ready to protect your quarterback at all costs,” said Spike. Some of us were hobbling around a little at halftime trying to stay loosened up but rest at the same time. This pretty fall day was unusually hot, and the rough slate playing field was stinking and scraping any body parts not covered by our raggedy shirts or overalls. The leaves were changing colors and were a sight to behold on this pretty October day.
We all gathered and listened to Spike as he was determined to be a winner. The white boys that played mostly in these games were Wild Bill, Tarzan, Earnest, Duffy, Timmy, John, Gary, Mackie, Little Stovepipe, Dittle and David. The rest of us would bump each other’s chest and yell out like wild-men trying to build confidence and intimidate the other team. We were trying to stay pumped up for the second half of this game played in hellish conditions.
Frog kicked off to open the second half as Hooks took the ball and ran the length of the slate dump for a score. The black players and miners were sure enough happy as they figured they had us now. But Old Spike didn’t make all county junior high quarterback for nothing. Now he was beginning to show his passing skills as he connected again and again to Frog and Too Tall Mike for a couple of quick scores and evened it up going into the fourth quarter.
I looked around and saw a lot of hand wrangling on both sides of the crowd as tension mounted.
“Can we do it?” I wondered as it was time again for Hooks and Railhead to do their thing. Little Dogman, their quarterback, wasn’t throwing that well, but he could hand it off smoothly to Hooks who seemed to follow his blockers well and was as strong as a madbull. Hooks scored again as he carried two white tacklers into the end zone. The end was near as we were moving the ball into the end-zone with Spike’s passing and Stovepipe’s rushing. Somehow, on a busted pass play, Spike got loose and scrambled in for a score with less than three minutes to go. Now we were only down by three!
Frog kicked off a good one as Babe Brother got it and was moving quickly my way. Keith, his powerful blocker, slipped on a slick piece of slate and fell down. Yes! Opportunity presented itself. Stovepipe, Raymond, and I gang tackled him so hard it took his breath away from his body, and we wrestled the dirty pigskin out of his sweaty fingers. Pete recovered it, and we used our last time-out to talk it over. Carolyn and Henrietta, a couple of black girls, along with the rest were holding hands and yelling for their team to get the ball back.
We decided to let Mackie try to kick a field goal as we were within distance for a thirty yarder. “Hurry fellows!” Kemp squalled out.
The time keeper pointed his pistol at the heavens. Jackie Joe centered it to Spike who held it and Mackie kicked it towards the make-shift uprights. It sounded like a herd of buffalos was blasting through the line after the ball. The pistol blast was loud enough for all of creation to hear. The flying ball nudged the side of the make-shift two by four goalpost, as it sailed through and splashed into the waters of Elkhorn Creek. We had tied! Two young boys around eight split the water, going after the ball, just like I used to do as well. We felt like we had redemption as we were the big underdogs in this game. Elation was ours as we squalled out and congratulated each other quickly. We turned and shook hands with the black team who were still in shock. As I shook everyone’s hand, I heard Hooks telling Spike, “We took it easy on you today, fellow, but next time, we gonna kick your white cracker butts!” Maybe so, but for now, I planned to enjoy a hot bath and run the streets of Keystone tonight.
The Second Place Award for Adult Short Story (Anonymous Donor)
“Uncle Eb and the Frogwater”
by Richard Perreault
Uncle Eb pulled the old Chevy truck onto the main road and headed toward the peach fuzz dawn blooming in the east beyond the darkness. The rows of simple houses melted behind us and we found ourselves in scrubland, gliding through towns with Seminole names that twisted like wood smoke and tangled on the tips of paleface tongues.
Just north of Wewahitchka the pavement yielded to hard-packed sand. We rolled past the Scott’s Landing fish camp and backed the boat trailer down the concrete ramp into the brackish water. Still half asleep, I opened the passenger door, stretched and yawned. Full light coughed up a gentle breeze that set the Spanish moss dancing like grandmother hair unfurled and waiting for a morning brush.
I’d been fishing with Uncle Eb countless times, but never to the watery graveyard of cypress stumps known as Dead Lakes. Dead Lakes played a prominent role in family lore as the place Uncle Eb, using a cane pole, had landed a 65-pound alligator gar. If someone asked Uncle Eb how he did it, he’d simply say, “You gotta know how to play ‘em.’ ” I came to believe that if Uncle Eb caught a great white shark on a safety pin tied to the end of a piece of kite string hanging off the end of a broomstick he’d explain it just that way: “You gotta know how to play ‘em.”
Uncle Eb parked the truck beneath sheltering live oaks beside a sign that asked, “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” I knew it would be a long time before we returned to the landing, maybe sunrise the following day. A fishing trip with Uncle Eb was the closest thing to eternity a fifteen-year-old boy could imagine.
We climbed aboard the wooden skiff and settled in our places. Uncle Eb set the cooler between us with its stash of Budweiser, and RCs, and a Mason jar of tap water Aunt Flo insisted we bring because she knew a day on the water could be hard on a man.
The little Evinrude fired on first pull, sputtered and hiccupped, then settled into a reassuring purr. We moved away from shore, Uncle Eb masterfully weaving the boat through the gnarled cypress knees, out into open water.
There are places where clocks are so irrelevant they surely must wring their hands in despair. Time on the swampy backwaters near the Apalachicola is measured not in hours, but in fish caught and beverages consumed. When we had been fishing for five bass, a catfish, six beers and three RCs, Uncle Eb tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a log floating beside the bank a few feet away. As I watched, the log climbed onto the muddy bank and flopped down with an echoing thud. I had seen gators before, but never one that big and never that close.
I glanced at Uncle Eb, his face tanned to caramel-coated nutmeg from a life in the Florida sun. His azure eyes twinkled. “Even if you get hot, I wouldn’t advise going for a swim. I’d hate to have to explain to your mom and Aunt Flo why I came home without you.”
The day crawled along. We sat. We fished. Snake doctors rested on the tips of our rods. Few words passed between us. Uncle Eb was not afflicted with the too-prevalent adult malady of asking teenagers meaningless questions just to break an awkward silence. When I was with Uncle Eb, the silences were never awkward, they were just part of a tableau in which the slightest sound not made by a herring or itinerate hornet could desecrate the solitude. If something was worth saying we said it. Otherwise we let it be.
At half-past eleven beers, six RCs, and a dozen swigs of water from the Mason jar, the sun dipped behind the tree line, casting us in welcome shade. Summer days near the Apalachicola are long, but when the sun’s work is done, it hurries home and the dark clocks in.
“Better get the gear ready while we can still see,” Uncle Eb said. “Soon as it hits second dark, we’ll start working the river.”
I knew working the river meant cruising through the darkness, shining a light on the bank until you caught the reflection of a frog’s eyes. “The light freezes ‘em,” Uncle Eb had told me. “As long as the light’s in a frog’s eyes you could step on him and he wouldn’t jump.”
I had also learned there were two kinds of eyes you were likely to see along the bank at night: little yellow eyes, which were frogs, and big red eyes, which were gators.
“What about a gator?” I had asked. “Does the light freeze them too?”
“I think the light just ticks them off,” Unlce Eb said “I’d try not to step on a gator.”
When we got our headlamps on and insect repellent smeared around, Uncle Eb asked if I wanted to steer or gig. I pretended to think about it. I had no interest in sitting in the front of the boat as we plowed through the darkness into low hanging limbs and curtains of Spanish moss. More than once I’d seen water moccasins sunning on tree limbs and spiders bigger than my fist dangling from the moss. “Maybe I’ll steer,” I finally said.
“Take us up current then,” Uncle Eb said, lifting the loop from the stump where we’d been moored.
By the time we found our first frog, both the beer and the RCs were gone, and we were down to swigging water from the Mason jar. I was in mid gulp when Uncle Eb spotted a pair of yellow eyes and directed me to swing the boat in toward the bank. I ducked as we slipped beneath the boughs. Uncle Eb lurched forward, there was a deep, resonant croak, then Uncle Eb swung around and slapped an unfortunate frog against the bottom of the boat. He took out his knife and cut through the frog’s spinal cord just behind the head, to keep it from hopping away when he pulled it off the gig.
Uncle Eb tossed the carcass into the cooler. I offered him some water. He chugged it down. “Not exactly Budweiser,” he said.
I shoved the jar into the slushy ice and closed the cooler lid.
For a while, no sooner would we plow into the bushes where Uncle Eb would gig an amphibian monster, than he’d nod toward the bank and whisper, “We got another one just up ahead.”
Then, for what must have been close to an hour, the frogs went into hiding. The air was tropical, the mosquitos fierce. We sat in the darkness quenching our thirst. I brushed a swarm of gnats away from my eyes. They retreated, then returned. Uncle Eb shined his light along the bank. I was expecting him to say it was time to head on in, when he whispered, “Oh, my. That’s either two one-eyed frogs sittin’ side-by-side, or the biggest damphibian this side of the Amazon Jungle. Think you can get us in there real quiet like?”
I turned the bow toward the shore. Uncle Eb kept the frog impaled with the light.
“Put it in neutral now and let it glide in,” Uncle Eb said softly.
I slipped the motor out of gear. The boat slid ahead, slicing the ink-black night, the gentle ripple of wood gliding through water the only sound. Uncle Eb perched on the prow. As he drew back the gig, the water exploded, the boat lurched, and Uncle Eb pitched overboard head first, swallowed by the dark.
I called out Uncle Eb’s name a half dozen times before a single beam from a headlamp on the bank blinded me. From just below the light came a deep, matter-of-fact laughter. “I’m over here, Sport. Come get me. I’m marooned.”
Braving a thousand unseen fangs, I guided the boat beneath the overhanging limbs. When Uncle Eb was aboard, I put the motor in reverse to escape what I knew must be teeming in the branches. “That was a gator hit the boat, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“That or the first fifteen-foot frog I’ve ever run across,” Uncle Eb said.
When we reached open water, I popped the motor into neutral and for a while we rode the current. I wondered what Uncle Eb would say about our latest adventure, but all he said was, “What say we get a few more before we call it a night?”
We gigged for another hour, Uncle Ebb emerging from the thicket time and again with another frog. He’d slice their necks and toss them into the cooler with the others. We’d pass the Mason jar, then Uncle Eb would spot another frog.
Finally, Uncle Eb shut off his lamp, the darkness devouring the light that encircled his head. He nodded at the cooler where more than four-dozen frogs lay silently awaiting an appointment with Aunt Flo’s frying pan. “I guess that’ll do for tonight.” He took a long drink from the Mason jar. “Can you get us out of here?”
“Out and to the right?” I asked.
“Out and to the right.”
I shoved the jar back into the cooler and gunned the outboard.
For a long while we motored through the blackness, a spattering of stars overhead just bright enough to cast menacing shadows along the bank to either side. I could barely make out the silhouettes of the cypress knees dotting the way ahead. Uncle Eb knew Dead Lakes – day or night – like a sailor knows the reefs and shoals. If there were any danger, he’d make it go away.
Uncle Ebb motioned for me to cut back on the motor. I twisted the throttle and set my eyes and ears to discover what had caught his attention.
“How much water we got left, Sport?”
I hefted the jar out of the cooler. “ ‘Bout half full.”
“ ‘Bout half full,” he echoed thoughtfully. “We been goin’ at that jar since before
dark. Ought to be closer to empty than half full.” He turned his headlamp on. “Let me see it.”
I handed him the jar. He held it up into the yellow-white beam of light. The once clear water was now murky green with red tendrils suspended in a viscous liquid. Uncle Eb nodded knowingly. I leaned over the side of the boat and threw up.
Uncle Eb chuckled. “I ‘spect next time we’d better get us a water jar with a tighter lid.”
He moved to the back of the boat and helped me to the front. “I’ll take it on in,” he said. I nodded agreement, but didn’t – couldn’t – speak.
* * *
Years later, when Uncle Eb died, Aunt Flo wanted me there. Other than the two of us, there wasn’t much family left. Uncle Eb had gone out in St. Andrew’s Bay for flounder one night and hadn’t come home. The next morning they found his body floating just up from his favorite scallop beds.
At the funeral, a man from the Boilermakers’ Union told everyone it was a blessing that Uncle Eb had died doing something he loved. I suspected then, as I do now, that Uncle Eb would have considered it even more of a blessing to go on living doing what he loved.
The day after the funeral I took Uncle Eb’s boat to Scott’s landing. I went alone. I hadn’t been fishing since the day of the frog-water trip. I guess time doesn’t sneak up on us as much as it just blows on by.
I took a cane pole with strong line, and a bobber and sinker that would work well together. I also took a six-pack of beer and tap water in a Mason jar with a really tight lid. I knew a day on the water could be hard on a man.
The Elizabeth Fox Third Place Award for Adult Short Story
“Christmas Eve and the Dancing Foxes”
by Margaret Sue Davis
Ella carefully loaded each of the shells into the rifle. She paused to consider the age of the ammo but decided it looked okay. She had cleaned the gun herself on Election Day. That’s what Ed always did — at least he did so during the old days. He would collect his cleaning supplies and sit at the kitchen table and clean and check each gun while they listened to the election returns on the radio.
Sometimes he would go into town and loaf around there waiting for results, especially during a hot local election. He had spent the early evening hours there the night of Truman’s election. Ed liked Truman but despised LBJ and his great society. Ed said people needed to work for what they had. That’s what he and Ella did. Then there was LBJ and Viet Nam. Ella tried to never think of that. She finished with the gun and hung it back in the rack by the door. She wasn’t ready to go outside yet. First she needed to fill her thermos with coffee and put together some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She might splurge and add some of her frosted butter cookies. After all it was Christmas Eve. Every Christmas there would be leftover cookies to get all stale. Slowly Ella smiled to herself. There was no good in that.
At last the fire was banked, the coffee fixed, and the sandwiches packed. Ella’s good cookies were encased in zip lock bags. She pulled on her coat, gloves, and warm snow boots, picked up her gear and headed out.
It was going to be a cold, cold night. The snow already had a crust on it. Ella picked up her walking stick as she went through the back door, no since being careless. The barn wasn’t too far away, but it hardly, deserved to be called a barn since it hadn’t
been used as such in years. The horses had lived there last, not counting stray dogs, cats, and other critters.
Ella’s mind drifted away to the summer that Warren had raised a calf for his 4-H competition. It just about destroyed him when the calf didn’t place. The competition had been fierce. The next year Warren broke his leg helping his dad prune apple trees and there was no 4-H project that spring.
The break healed and it didn’t keep Warren out of the draft later. Viet Nam was a black hole that needed Americans to fill it. Warren had been one of them.
Ella remembered how green and colt like he was the day he left. He had finished training and got some leave before departure. He looked too thin in his uniform. Ella hated his short hair. She pretended not to notice how nervous he was that day when they put him on the bus to leave.
He kissed her cheek when he hugged her. He hadn’t done that in years and he let her kiss him too. When they got home Ed took off for the barn and Ella went upstairs to her quilt frame. She sat there and cried all afternoon. Ed must have done the same thing out in the barn or somewhere. He didn’t come home until dark and didn’t even notice that supper was leftovers from the special meals she had fixed that week for Warren.
She and Ed had tried for other children after Warren was born, but Ella had several miscarriages and a stillborn little girl. Finally a new doctor did some blood work on her and Ed and told them they had the RH Factor and probably wouldn’t ever have another healthy baby. It was harvest time when they got the news. Ed said “Honey, we already knew this in our hearts.” After the first wave of hurt began to wear off, she and Ed took stock of all their blessings and didn’t look back — at least not often.
Ella’s boots made crunching sounds as she approached the barn. She used her flashlight to see the steps that led to the loft. At least in winter, one didn’t have to worry about snakes. Ella knew there were plenty of rats and bugs in the old building. She’d just about as soon have snakes as spiders and rats.
Warren was killed after being in Viet Nam for less than three months. THREE MONTHS! She and Ed were totally unprepared. They held each other and cried. When Warren’s body arrived home, they were shocked to find that the casket could be opened although the body was sealed behind glass. Ella always believed that seeing Warren forced Ed to accept Warren’s death. Otherwise he would have always believed it was a mistake and somehow Warren would still come home alive. For herself, she considered herself to be dead too and everything else was irrelevant.
Ella tramped through the loft and moved some dusty old hay bales against the opening that served as a window and opening to lift supplies into and out of the loft. Now she could sit on the hay bales and look out to see the entire snow covered field and down across the hollow.
Everything was covered by frozen snow illuminated only by beautiful clear starlight. The closest houses were not visible and the town was too far away to lessen the darkness. Her brother Vince had tried to get her to come to his place in town and spend the night. There was plenty going on there with it being Christmas Eve and all. Vince and his children would all attend their respective churches for special services and then all meet at Vince’s for gift opening and a late supper. The partying would last long into the night. She and Vince were the last of their family. The other four had left long ago –scattered to the four winds.
Ella was glad there was no wind tonight. It was bitterly cold in the loft, but she pulled her blanket around herself, crouched down between the hay bales, and watched the tree line. The foxes would come from the woods. Their tracks had told her that as well as explained the blood trail from her chicken house. They had taken one of her prize white leghorn hens. Oh her white chickens were beautiful and costly too. They were a special breed and Ella had hoped to sell the chicks come spring time. A lot of people had gone to raising their own food and white leghorn chickens were not only pretty, but good layers and fine for meat too.
Ella didn’t need the income. The chickens were more of a hobby than anything. Tending the small flock kept her busy and, for Ella, it was easy work.
Ed and she had handled a lot more than a measly flock of chickens during their days together. Their number one project had been Warren; and after that, the apple orchard. The farm had mostly been for their own use although Ed kept a few head of cattle on the mountain. That’s where they got Warren’s steer for 4-H.
The apple orchard had been a big operation. They had shipped apples into five states. They had equipment to grade apples, packing crates with their logo and a big staff of part time workers. The work was seasonal for the employees, but it kept her and Ed busy most of the year. The pruning of the trees took a lot of time. That was how Warren broke his leg the year he was a junior in high school.
Ella smiled. Warren was always into something. There was the time when he was 5 or 6 and got stuck in a plowed field and stepped out of his shoes. Ed didn’t find them until the next year. Then that day when he was playing Tarzan and swung off on a tree limb that broke off. She thought he was killed, but Warren got up laughing. Later he admitted to scrapping a big streak down his back. She always expected him to get snake bitten, but he never did.
Ed never worried about Warren like she did. Oh how she missed Ed. Ella turned to look back into the dark loft of the barn. More than once she and Ed had got to fooling around up here in the loft, in the apple orchard too, and a few other places that were almost indecent to remember. Ella smiled to herself. Ed seemed to be with her even now after all these years.
People probably thought she grieved the most for Warren, but Ed and she helped each other through that. There had been no one to help her through losing him. Her heart had looked for him everywhere, and she dreamed about him at night — sometimes with Warren and sometimes not.
Ella focused on the snow covered field and the woods beyond. Everything was so still, so cold, so beautiful. She nibbled on a cookie, then poured herself some coffee and ate a sandwich. Time slowly passed.
Her mind drifted to other Christmases — most of them had been happy, faith filled events. Ella, Ed and Warren had seen animals born in the barn. They could appreciate the idea of a woman having a baby in a stable and shepherds on a hillside suddenly seeing the sky alight with angels singing. Ella thought about the angels as she looked out into the clear star studded blackness.
She glimpsed a movement at the edge of the woods. There they were. One fox, then a second tip toed out on the crusted snow. Suddenly one began to rush around in circles; the other watched holding one foot off the ground. Then it charged the other and jumped right over it again and yet again. They were getting bolder and wilder by the minute. Finally one lay on its belly watching its mate, then they both jumped up and headed for the chickens.
Ella watched the celebration of life, attachment, and pure joy. She raised her gun but hesitated just for a minute. It was enough. Warned by some instinct, the animals turned, froze, and then bounded back toward the woods.
Ella did nothing but watch. Realization began to dawn on her. She was glad she had done nothing. The graceful, glorious dance had been her Christmas present, as beautiful as anything she could ever have received. In all of her years she had never before watched foxes dance in the moonlight. She couldn’t wait to tell Ed……. Well, not Ed but Vince.
In the meantime she best be getting inside to warm up and sleep a little before leaving for Vince’s. Come to think of it, she might slice off some of that boiled country ham she’d fixed for Vince’s. That was what she’d do. Heat up some ham and bake biscuits for her own Christmas. Then she’d go into town.
Ella stopped at the foot of the porch steps and stomped the snow off her feet. She looked up at the star encrusted sky. In her heart the angels sang. Slowly she went on into the house.
The Virginia Writers Club First Place Award for Adult Essay
by Hazel Hale-Bostic
“Come in! Where have you been so long?”
Ninety-four-year old Stella Stiltner lay in a hospital bed. She was supported by two large pillows which had been placed behind her back. I pulled a chair close to the bed, and before sitting, offered my assistance. She was struggling with a cup filled with hot coffee. Frightened that her trembling hands could not hold the cup, I reached to support her. She immediately pulled away and told me, “No thanks. I’m just fine.”
I smiled as I eased into the old ladder-back cane-bottom chair, the same chair my childish body had folded into when I came with my mother to visit. Now several years and several pounds later, caution was the rule of the day.
She’s still the feisty old thing I remember, I thought.
“So, how’s everything?” I asked.
“Well, how do you reckon they are?’ she threw at me. “Trussed up like a hog, wearing all these tubes – one in my nose – another at the other end. I’m wore out.”
I’d been told Stella’s mind was failing her, so I said a silent prayer of thanks that the reports were wrong. I carefully maneuvered the old chair closer to the bed. While Jean, her live-in help removed the lunch tray, I looked around Stella’s bedroom. Everything was the same, almost. She’d never gotten around to having a closet door installed. Instead, curtains hung on a rope stretched across the opening. Her bedroom furniture was brought in 1922 when she and her late husband, Arlie married. I glanced at the floor and was shocked to see the same faded cracked linoleum on which I’d played almost 45 years ago.
Her walls, however, were no longer bare. There were several beautifully framed photographs of Arlie and her invalid son, Lacy. Jesus Christ looked at me from every angle: framed pictures of Him as a child, the Lamb crucified and finally as the risen Savior.
I observed too, that scattered among various sized medicine bottles angels kept a silent vigil; some kneeling and some standing with wide spread wings.
I’d known Stella my whole life, had grown up living next door to her, and during her lingering illness I’d visited several times. Why, then, was I seeing all this as if for the first time?
Jean, after cleaning the lunch tray, motioned me outside the room. Once outside Stella’s astonishingly clear hearing range, she again cautioned me, “Since your last visit, Stella’s mind ain’t quite right, so don’t pay any attention to her.” I assured her that Stella and I would be just fine, and stepped inside Stella’s room only to find her snoozing. Once again, I eased into the creaky old chair.
She opened her eyes wide and looked at me. “Been across the road to your dad’s old place?”
“No, what do you think of it, Stella?”
“Oh, honey, I think it’s beautiful, don’t you?”
“It looks all right, I guess. I’ll bet Daddy’s turned several times in his grave, though, especially if he got a good look at that big Sears fence stretched all around the place. He always said he’d never put up a fence to keep himself in and his neighbors out.”
“What do you think about all of Jo Ann’s flowers? Don’t it remind you of them pretty flowers your Granny kept planted around the porch?”
“Yeah, but Granny didn’t have Mary followed by three little lambs in hers. Have you ever seen so much yard art? And it’s hard to recognize the porch, junked up as it is.”
Stella began laughing so hard Jean came running and sternly warned me not to upset her.
Stella just as forcefully told Jean to mind her own business, and while she was at it, to find her dark glasses.
I giggled when she slipped on those dark glasses and threw her long braided silver-white hair across her right shoulder.
“It’s good to hear you laugh,” she began. “When your mother, then your dad died, I worried about you more than the other two sisters. I know they were just as hurt, but they didn’t live as close as you. You never missed a day comin’ back up on this old hill. I still don’t understand why they wouldn’t sell the place to you.”
I started to answer, but her head dropped on the pillow and she again drifted off. As before, she awoke with a start and picked up on our unfinished conversation.
“What you need is to have a good talk with your mother.”
Oh, brother, here it comes. Her mind is doing crazy things. Why hadn’t I left as she slept? I decided rather than upset her to play along.
“Have you talked with your mother, Stella?”
“Oh, honey, lots of times. She was mad at me though, and didn’t come around until I promised her me and Lacy would be buried beside her and not up on the mountain with Arlie. The first time she visited she was wearing her grave clothes: a purple dress, but the oddest thing, she was wearing a wide-brim picture hat. She’d made herself a veil out of the same material her dress was, you know, that gauzy stuff. She came walking back of the house one Sunday June morning. I was standing at the sink washing quart jars when I saw her. I dropped the jar I was holding and it broke into a million pieces. I leaned out the window, and I don’t know why, but I wasn’t afraid anymore.
“Mother, what are you doing wearing that veil?”
“It’s Sunday, and I’m going to church. Stella, I raised you to not work on Sunday and here you are, washing jars. You stop that right now!”
“Mother, don’t fuss at me. You know I can’t leave Lacy. I’ve got cucumber pickles ready to can, and had to get these jars ready.”
“Well, it ain’t right. The good Lord ain’t pleased and I’m not either.”
“Mother, before you leave, promise me you will uncover your face. You must show that pretty skin and let people see you.”
I hurriedly asked, “How many times has she visited since?”
“Honey, she came to me this morning. She told me she’d talked to your mother yesterday. Said Effie told her you’d be coming by. I wasn’t a bit surprised to see you.”
“Did she say how Mom was doing?”
“Oh, bustlin’ about, tellin’ everybody what to do. She said Effie liked her veil so much, she asked her to make one for her. She did too, except Effie’s was pink to match her grave clothes.”
“So, your mother didn’t listen to you about lifting her veil?”
“Why no, she just sewed another one, only fuller this time. She told me she already had one made for me, wanted to know what color my graves clothes would be. I told her pink, like Effie’s.”
Hidden as she was behind dark glasses, I felt, rather then saw Stella’s piercing gaze as she asked me, “Do you want one?”
“No, I’ll make do with what I have, Stella. I never did like veils, didn’t even wear one on my wedding day.”
She reached out for me, and I took her small, cold, feeble hands. I felt incredible sadness as I looked at this shadow of a once vital woman. I leaned over, kissed her and assured her I’d be back in a few days.
I’d almost reached the door when she said in a loud, clear voice. “When you talk to your mother, tell her I’ll soon be with her, and you see to it my grave clothes are pink. Mother has my veil ready.”
I blew a kiss and through tears, promised her I’d honor her wishes.
As I drove down the hill, I kept thinking about Stella. She was already wearing that invisible veil; at least it partially covered her face. One side of her brain, the uncovered side, saw clearly into this world, while the veiled side lived in twilight, already in the other world.
It was the twilight side I found fascinating. Some day I pray I’ll see Mom again, and I’ll not be surprised to see her wearing a wide-brim picture hat wrapped in gauze.
The Second Place Award for Adult Essay (Anonymous Sponsor)
by Linda Hudson Hoagland
Mother’s Day was going to be just another Sunday as Sonny and I celebrate alone without the pleasure the seeing either my oldest son, Mike, who works for Food Lion and is scheduled to work on my special day or my youngest son, Matt, who lives in Nebraska, half way across the country from our southwest Virginia home in Tazewell.
Matt hasn’t been back home for a visit for almost five years and due to money problems, I really don’t expect to see him for another five years.
“Sonny, I’m going to cook a turkey for the two of us.”
“To celebrate Mother’s Day, of course.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot,” he replies sheepishly.
“I know, but don’t worry about it. After all, you’ve always said that I’m not you mother,” I add trying to hide the hurt I am feeling deep inside.
“Now, I really feel bad about not doing anything for you. But, remember, I’ve been in the hospital for a week and I don’t have any money,” he says as he tries to come up with an excuse so that I would forgive him.
I look at him and shrug as my mind tells me that it comes once a year, just like my birthday does each November. He has had a full year to get me a gift. I never forget him when his birthday and Father’s Day comes along. Why does he always forget my special days of celebration?
I should be happy about not having to sit at his bedside in the hospital on Mother’s Day. He has a serious heart condition that is making no effort whatsoever to get better or go away for that matter. Things could be worse, I guess. At least, that’s the little bit of encouragement I always get from my coworkers. God knows I hate to hear that phrase repeated to me time and again.
“Forget about it, Sonny. I don’t need a card or a gift. It’s just a waste of time and money. We will eat our big dinner and have plenty of leftovers for the week,” I say as I force a smile to crawl across my face.
Saturday afternoon is filled with watching the NASCAR race on television. Sonny is a big NASCAR fan whether it is the junior circuit called the Nationwide Race, the senior circuit known as the Sprint Cup, or the truck competition. It doesn’t matter which one is showing, he will be watching it, or trying to, because he falls asleep at the drop of a hat.
The telephone rings and startles both of us.
“Matt, is that you?” I ask because sometimes his voice sounds different when he uses his cell phone.
“Yeah, it’s me. How are you guys doing?”
“Fine, Honey. It’s great to hear your voice,” I say as I ponder the early phone call. I really expected him to call me tomorrow.
“Mom, did you get your package?”
“The one I sent you for Mother’s Day.”
“No? Wait. I’ll ask Sonny.” I turn my head towards my husband, “Did I get a package?”
“No,” he responds as he tries to chase the sleepy sounds from his voice by clearing his throat.
“No, Matt, no package.”
“Well, you need to open your front door and look outside. Your surprise package is on your porch.”
I run to the door and fling it wide open to see my son, Matt, and his girlfriend, Becky, standing there waiting for the scream of pure joy that was going to be emitted from my heart passing onto the outside for all of the world to hear.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” Matt and Becky shout in unison.
“Oh, my God, Matt, Becky,” I shout through the tears. “This is the best Mother’s day present I could ever want to have,” I say as I throw my arms around Matt and Becky, my wandering children.
“Mike said he well be over as soon as he gets off work, Mom.”
I will get to celebrate with both of my sons. Nothing could be better than that.
To this day, when I think about the surprise, joyful chills run up and down my spine causing me to smile broadly and savor the moment of happiness, once again. It doesn’t take much to make me happy. A real family gathering for a celebration will do the trick very nicely.
The Reminiscent Writers Third Place Award for Adult Essay
“It’s a Southern Thing, Darlin'”
We have a particular way of doing things in the south, especially if you were born before 1960. We were taught that ‘proper’ applies to manners, dress codes, getting in and out of cars, anything that anyone else, especially the neighbors, can observe and pass judgment on.
People in this area honor tradition and the one of the most honored is the concern shown at a death and funeral. This applies to anyone who has ever lived in the neighborhood, gone to the same church, relatives of any of the same, and any family member or members by marriage. Nothing brings any family closer together than death. It all starts with the phone calls….”have you heard about ___________? He/she died this morning. Let me know if you hear anything.” Then the visits to the home begin and all the relatives show up from wherever, bringing their new families along, with kids whining about ‘there’s nothing to do here’ and ‘I’m bored’, spouses sitting in the corner being scrutinized by the home folks, and the door opening and closing constantly with neighbors bringing in food. Nothing can console like potato salad, fried chicken and triple layer chocolate cake (homemade, not out of a box). This goes on for at least a couple of days and then everybody congregates at the funeral home.
“Law, doesn’t he look good?” or “doesn’t he look natural” and “have you met ___________? She’s junior’s wife…the one from Ohio. Her daddy’s people were in the paper business. This is my son Billy. He works in the mill.” (My personal opinion is that the deceased may look nice, but they still look dead and certainly not ‘natural’.) The scrutiny continues by all who come through the line as they glance around and then linger over the coffin, offering their thoughts on the life and looks of the deceased. All family news is learned at the funeral home. I’ve seen relatives that I haven’t seen since we were in grade school and then I probably won’t see them again until the next funeral. I had a great aunt who visited every viewing room in the funeral home when she attended. Funerals were a source of entertainment for her and it didn’t matter if she knew the decedent or their family. She got to view the corpse and for her, that was better than television any day.
Names are important in the south. Many young men are called ‘Junior’ or ‘June’ simply because they were named for their father. This brings a lot of confusion at family gatherings ….nobody knows which ‘junior’ anyone is referring to. North and South
Carolina folks have a fondness for calling people by both first and middle names. My husband’s relatives are mainly from South Carolina.
He has family members named Frances Hope, Mary Etta, Barbara Etta, Henry Ray, Terry Elaine, Linda Joyce, Nettie Mae, Harold David, Bobbie Joan, Mary Lee, and the family also has a Bubba and a Boo.
You can say almost anything about anybody as long as you say “bless his heart” which can cover a multitude of sins. Anyone can be “dumb as a stump, bless his heart” and that’s fine. It’s all covered in the blessing of the heart just like a blessing from the priest covers any sin committed by a good Catholic. Just be sure to add “bless his/her heart” when making any detrimental comments.
I have noticed that many people who work in the public often call customers, patients, or clients by ‘honey’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘darlin’ ‘, or ‘dear’. The receptionist in my mother’s doctor’s office makes a habit of going down the sign-in sheet calling everyone by these terms. She starts off with ‘honey’ on the first name, goes through ‘dear’, and then starts all over. This repetition does get on one’s nerves after the first ten or fifteen names and one does want to get the receptionist by the neck and strangle her, bless her heart. A friend of ours recently greeted another man with a “hey, Jack, old buddy. How’re you doing?” He got a reply of ‘My name ain’t Jack, I ain’t old, and I ain’t your buddy”. I guess it all depends on the mood at the time.
Church going is a really important part of lives in this section of the country as people many times are judged by the church they attend. Many years ago my father-in-law was asked what church he ‘was from’ and when he replied that he went to a Baptist church, the lady said she “guessed that was a little better than nothing”. People are also inclined to ask “what do your folks do”…. translated into “how does your daddy make his
living”, or “how do you afford to live like that?”
Have you ever noticed that in this part of the country we can’t bear to let guests leave? We follow them to the door, we follow them outside and stand in the yard or driveway, still talking, then go to the car with them and wait at least another thirty minutes while their hand is on the door handle, and then finally we give it up. We watch the taillights go down the driveway, go back inside and then discuss the visit and visitors.
We are a proud people and we love these mountains, hills, and hollows, taking care of our families and being kind to our neighbors. Bless our hearts; it’s a southern thing, darlin’.