Thanks to all of the writers that shared their
incredible tales with us. Every single story was a gift. Full of memories, history, wisdom, pain, humor and love - each tale brought us right to the heart of the storyteller's life. Each entry was full of reverence and respect. Some were full of wonder and magic. All of the tales resonated with what it means to be human. Our treasures may vary, but what they bring to our lives are universal. Our judges struggled to choose these winners for our Fall 2010 Writing Contest...
FIRST PRIZE $500 "Cigarettes for Melvin"
by Emily Sloan Charlottesville, VA
I left things for her to find. Small things. Nails on the floor, windows shut when they were open, keys where they weren't before. It was as much as I could manage; what 60 years of practice would allow. I wasn't sure she noticed. Footsteps back and forth, on the pinewood floors still golden and unscarred, my paces limited within two dim rooms stuffed with stale attic air. Can she hear my boots above her head? When she walks her creaky floorboards downstairs, up late again, is it because my steps woke her up? I like to think so. Back to bed she goes, I hear her quiet the dog (did I spook the hound? They see with animal eyes), hear the soft thump as the cat jumps up and settles. Sleep some more; I'll be here when you wake. Listen! Her feet loud on the stairwell, a yellow shell of light surrounding her body as the old door swings inward. She comes with a cigarette and a pail of water, a mop and soap. She wears blue jeans and plugs in a radio. My windows were painted shut years ago so I know, as she struggles with them, that this air she breathes is my air, and these decades of dust make me sad and unreachable. This little brick bungalow is hers now, but she is not family. She is Now, she doesn't know about Then and What Happened; she's not afraid of change. She washes the baseboards, surveys the drywall, cracked and swollen from water, peels away ragged wallpaper layers like an onion, revealing an archaeology of time and pattern. I watch as she pauses at the thickened stains running down the wall like dried up little rivers, north to south. She holds her breath as she scrubs them away. The half door in the corner leads to unfinished space, where bare roof beams slope and loose planks form a path. She is curious, I can tell. She pulls the latch to the small door. I hold very still. She crawls inside. There are no lights here and September heatwaves rise to the beams and sweat into her eyes. The click of a flashlight. She is close, I am here, she is right here with me. Keep going, go more, past the old chamber pot, the broken umbrella, Dad's old leather satchel with the buckles rotting away. Shine your light on the shadow in the corner. Go back as far as you can. The trunk is so heavy that when she tries to drag it back to the light, it won't even budge. A spoonful of silence weighs a ton. So she holds the flashlight between her cheek and neck and uses both arms to crack open my chest. My ribs ache as the dark wooden lid opens on its hinges. Her eyes widen at my treasure. Her neck hurts, holding the light that way, so she balances the beam across the surface of the trunk casting deep crazy shadows across my life, hostage to a sea chest hidden in the eaves. She is reverent and for this I am glad. She carefully, ceremoniously, peels back each layer and takes her time. Breathing dank heat and dust stuck to sweaty skin. She smiles when she finds my favorite plaid shirt and my best leather jacket, oh did I look sharp in that. She rattles the heavy cardboard box, full of hundreds of marbles. I was a champion when I was a kid, that's why I had so many. Look at all that kid stuff: an old leather mitt, those boxing gloves Dad got me, a cloth bag of jacks. But see, I was a man, see there's my wallet, yes, take that out and look inside. Wow those pin-up gals sure were fine. Oh now don't look at that, that's not meant for the eyes of a lady, that old list of mine. Maybe she won't know what I meant, penciling down all those girls names and then with a check mark for every time we made it. We'd put on those 78's, see them all there in the carrying case? Old Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, all those country records, that really got girls in the mood. Yeah some of them have cracked from all this heat and time but boy they sure were good, you can find the phonograph back behind that beam over there. What else. Keep going. This is me. My old cap. A pair of shoes. A deck of cards. The gun. The gun. She stops at the gun. It's in a cloth and she slowly unwraps it, weighs it in her hands. Well what am I supposed to say? Don't look like that. You try being 19 and your parents think they know everything but they don't know anything and the whole world has gone mad and you're here in this nowhere town and you keep trying and trying to find something different but no one understands and the girls liked me but not enough and there was something else out there I could feel it but I couldn't find it so what was I supposed to do so I did That and then everything stopped and before you know it everyone just shuts up and packs up all my stuff into this lousy trunk and shoves it back away and no one even talks about me anymore and so all I can do is sit alone in this stupid attic and look at the stupid stains on the wall they forgot to clean up. But now, she's here now, with my stuff and I can tell she would have liked me. Is she lighting that cigarette and opening up that cold beer for me? She sets it on the floor with a candle and just leaves it there, so I think maybe that's right. She knows my name, it's Melvin, from my ID in that wallet. She says my name. Takes my favorite record, the Hank one, and puts it on her turntable, and turns it up loud. It sounds scratchy and fuzzy but she plays it anyway, and she takes 3 of my biggest marbles and puts them in her pocket. Oh I think we are going to be friends. Maybe I won't stomp around upstairs anymore trying to wake her; I don't want her to be scared of me. I'm glad she's not family. Soon the young relatives come to clean out all that junk in the attic: newspapers from 1951, the old sewing machine, bed frames, plastic flowers. They save that chest for last; oh they know it is there. She pulls a son-in-law aside to ask about me and my chest wide open bleeding my life. They can only whisper what happened, far away from the aers of my sister, so old now, and sitting in a chair white as a ghost. When they heave it out from the dark space they don't treat like she did. They toss my life into cardboard boxes and dump it into their pickups. Fifteen minutes for my disfigurement. Later on they take it to the county dump. I know she would have done it different. Maybe my old plaid shirt would have fit her. But she couldn't ask them, not after they threw it away as fast as they could. That's why I'm glad she secretly snuck those marbles into her pocket, and hid my old Hank Williams 78 among her own stack of records. That way I can still be around, here in my old brick bungalow. Sometimes I think I'll still make a noise or two, just to let her know I'm here, and thank her for that cigarette.
SECOND PRIZE $100 "My Treasure"
by Remona Gail Tanner Sulphur, LA
Of all the many treasures in this world, none are more cherished than those without a price tag attached. There are people who treasure some very precious, priceless things. It will take a vain person a lifetime to realize this. Individuals who choose only to be thankful for shiny things will miss the opportunity to stumble upon something truly amazing. I'm one of those people who can see past glamour. It's because of that, I found a very special treasure or perhaps it found me. My mother, like most mothers, kept me away from death ceremonies as long as she possibly could. I was seven when I finally joined my mother and older sister at a funeral. It was on this day that I first saw what is now my treasure, but back then it meant nothing to me. During the service, the wife of the dead man entered the church. I turned all my attention to her. She was cloaked in all black from head to toe and her face was covered by a black veil. Her high heels echoed from wall to wall. She made her way to the casket and lifted her veil, as if to give her one true love one last passionate gaze. Then it was like flood gates had burst open. The widow cried out and heartache brought her to her knees. I watched from my seat in awe. I thought, "Why is no one rushing to comfort this woman?" Instead of running, family members slowly walked over to the broken woman and joined her on the floor. Then a man dressed in all white, pulled out a pale colorless handkerchief from his pocket. It was so spotless and white that it seemed to glow. She looked up at him with a more peaceful disposition, as if she knew that he knew the extent of her pain and didn't intend to tell her it was alright because it clearly wasn't. He placed the cloth in her hands and she picked herself off the floor. She made it back to her seat and clutched it tightly in her hands. I attended lots of funerals after that and never saw anyone feel that type of pain. I always felt guilty for not feeling that type of sorrow, having never lost anyone that close to me. Most times I barely knew the person who died, sometimes I was too young to remember them, or didn't care enough to look around me and shed a tear for those who knew enough about the person to cry. It wasn't until almost a decade later that I felt that pain and reunited with my treasure. It was the funeral of my only sister. She had been killed in an accident. I stepped inside the church and broke down just as the widow did years ago.
I felt so alone and lost in a room full of people. In fact the only thing I remember is a hand, a hand reaching out to me holding a pure white handkerchief. As I stared at the cloth, I felt something. I felt a small bit of tranquility in the central point of my emotional typhoon. I managed to pull myself up. I held that handkerchief close to my heart for the remainder of the service. I still have it years later. My tears are still there, invisibly dried into the fabric. I like to think that the handkerchief, my treasure, is more than a sympathetic token. No one rushes to the wounded at a funeral because letting it out is a soul-cleansing process. The hankie represents purity. No matter how many tears you have to wipe on it, it never reveals them to whoever holds it after you. It's more powerful than a diary with twelve locks. The handkerchief cleanses and helps you get back up. My treasure will continue to circulate this world and help people get back up again.
OUR CONTEST IS CLOSED
WE WILL BE BACK!!!
Jimmy crouched low in his safe place behind the tool shed and held the warm egg close to his body. The mama chicken had walked away, just like his Mama had walked away from him. If the neighbor boys saw him, they'd laugh and point and say again, "Your Mama's gone!" She's no good and she hates you! You're an orphan kid!" They'd see his egg and try to hurt it like they tried to hurt him with their sticks and clumps of dirt. But they couldn't hurt his egg. They couldn't make it cry. He whispered, "You're safe. I'm here. I'll be your mama now."
Jimmy knew that his egg needed a warm place - a safe, cozy house - so that the baby chick inside would come out and play with all the other chickens that lived in their yard. Jimmy held the egg with both hands, oh so carefully, as he edged through the hole in the bushes that led to the road in front of his house. "It takes a little longer to get home this way, but I have to see if Mama's coming," he whispered to his egg. Jimmy had walked along that road every day since his Mama left. He'd stood by the side of the road again and again, looking as far down the dirt lane as he could, ever since that last time his Mama had held him. Jimmy put his egg close to his mouth. "We'll just take one more look, and then I'll take you to your new place...where I live too." Being careful to avoid the ruts in the road, Jimmy thought again about the last time he'd seen his Mama. He didn't know exactly how long it had been because he couldn't read the paper in the kitchen that had the days on it. But he knew there had been lots of sleeps since his Mama was home. There had been loud talking and noises from his Mama and Daddy's bedroom the night before Mama left. He had heard the sounds of things getting thrown around the room, and too much shouting, and his Mama crying. Jimmy had tip-toed to their bedroom door, being careful not to step on the squeaky boards in the wood floor. But even with his ear close to the door, he could only hear a few words of what his Daddy was saying because Mama was crying so loud. "Larry...in our bed...whore...whore just like your mother...ungrateful...Larry...out!" Jimmy didn't know what "whore" meant, but his Daddy kept shouting that word over and over. Jimmy knew what Horehound candy was - maybe that's what his Daddy meant. Jimmy figured that Daddy must be talking about the nice man who drove the red truck and came to visit Mama sometimes when Daddy was at work.. He'd told Jimmy to call him Uncle Larry, and every time he brought Jimmy a piece of Horehound candy and told Jimmy to "take it outside and suck it - hard." Then Uncle Larry and Mama would laugh. Jimmy was worried because his Mama was crying so much, but he knew better than to open the door when it was closed. He'd gotten whipped more than once for doing that! So, he'd crept back to bed and held very still until the darkness came over his eyes and he drifted off to sleep. Jimmy had woken up a little later than usual that next morning, and although the sun was already up, his Mama didn't have his breakfast toast in the oven. She wasn't even in the kitchen part of the house; she was sitting in the big chair by the front window. Whe he asked her where his toast was, she had only said, "Heart-to-heart," so he ran over and got on her lap. That was their favorite thing. "Heart" was the first thing that Jimmy's Mama had taught him. He could point to his heart before his eyes or mouth or ears. She'd say "Heart," and Jimmy would point to his and then to his Mama's. Then she'd pick him up and hold their hearts together, and say "Heart-to-heart." When Jimmy got to be big boy, like he was now, he'd climb into her lap and they'd put their hearts together - like they did on that last morning. After a while, Mama said, "Go on now. Daddy's going to take you to your Aunt Marion's. She'll make you toast." Jimmy was glad to go to his Mama's sister's house because her big brown dog had new puppies and he knew he would get to play with them. His Daddy hadn't said anything all the way over to Aunt Marion's house, but that was okay, because his Daddy didn't talk much anyway. When Jimmy got to Aunt Marion's, she'd grabbed hold of him and hugged too long and she was crying just a little bit, but finally he wiggled away and run through the yard looking for the puppies. It was long time after lunch when his Daddy came back to get him. Through the dust that the truck tires stirred up, Jimmy could see his Daddy waving at him to get in. As soon as he'd climbed inside his Daddy said, "Your Mama's gone and she's not coming back. Don't talk about her and don't ever say her name." Jimmy couldn't stop the flood of words. "What do you mean Mama's gone? Where did she go? When is she coming...?" His Daddy had hit the steering wheel hard with both of his hands, cutting off his words. Daddy had shouted, "I told you not to talk about it!" Jimmy had raced into the house as soon as they got home. He looked everywhere, but there was no sign of his Mama - all her clothes were missing, and even her little statue of the girl with the kitty and the umbrella was gone. All of Mama was gone - except for her apron that was hanging on the nail behind the door. Jimmy dragged the kitchen chair over to the apron, climbed on it, and carefully lifted the apron off the nail. It took a long time, but his Daddy was looking inside the hood of the truck again, so Jimmy knew he wouldn't catch him. As he held the apron close, Jimmy could smell his Mama in the biscuits she'd cooked the day before and the fish she'd fried for supper. He knew his Mama would need that apron when she came back, so he went to his treasure place to keep it safe for her. Jimmy had crawled under his bed, pulled up the loose floor board, and removed the broken bicycle bell that he'd found on the road. He didn't want it anymore - that was his old treasure. He had folded the apron the best that he could and laid it under the loose board. "Mama will be happy when she comes back and I get her apron out of the treasure place, " he'd thought. When Jimmy got home with his egg, he knew just where it would want to be. Like he did every night, he lifted the apron out of the treasure place and put it over his face to smell his Mama again. Then he laid his new egg on the apron, folding the sides around the egg like it was getting a big hug. Slowly and gently, he put both of his treasures back into the special spot and slid the board over them. Then Jimmy climbed onto his bed and reached underneath the low mattress to feel for the board. No, he wasn't laying on the right spot. He scooted down just a little and checked again. That was right. His Mama and his egg were right beneath him. Heart-to-heart.
FIRST PRIZE $500 "Heart-to-Heart"
by Jeanne Gulbranson Henderson, NV
SECOND PRIZE $100 " On This Side of the Wall"
by Amy Pechukas Watertown, MA
Along the edges of the Berlin Wall, the sections that have not been torn down, still stand as a memorial to how a divided human heart can manifest itself in reality. The usual garbage has been sprinkled - a gum wrapper, dog poop, a needle. Things that have not been cleaned up yet, because on this side of the wall, they can still only afford public works once every two to three weeks. I sit in a clear spot where the grass has grown thicker and hopefully will not stain the seat of my jeans with mud spots.
I have scoured the the ground for a sign, but the rock was removed long ago. The bare earth below it, filled in, grew grass. The only reason I am searching this stretch of wall is the mere hope that my memory has preserved the skyline perfectly and it was in fact, at this spot, that my brother buried the treasure while I stood guard two decades ago.
Your mind can lie. I know. You can always believe it was yellow tie you wore to your sister's wedding - until you see a picture of yourself dancing in a green one. You think, I must have worn the yellow one at my wedding, but you didn't, it was red. All you know is that at some point there was a yellow tie. Then at another point, when you looked for it, it was gone. All I know today is - that somewhere in time there was a treasure box buried beneath a rock near this section of the wall. Later, at some other point, the rock was gone and security tightened so you couldn't approach this close. Now all traces of it - like photographs of you in the yellow tie, that maybe after all, was only a tie you tried on in a department store and never wore - have disappeared too. The grass beneath my seat is beginning to soak through. I am not thirteen anymore and my brother is not a revolutionary anymore. He has been dead for twenty years and had been imprisoned on and off for the six years before that. The night I remember digging here was only shortly before he died in prison. I think that is why some parts of it are so clear and some irretrievably lost. There is no guarantee that they didn't dig up this section of the wall and replant it a little further down, when the rest of it came down. I think the only sense in digging anywhere is the same sense there is in a child digging a hole on the beach that will reach to the other side of the world. You smile and nod. You don't help him dig. I have a memory of the beach, bright waves, we are on vacation, the Amalfi Coast. I am ten years old. Our mother has lost her glasses somewhere on the long stretch of empty sand between where we were sitting and the hotel beachfront. Tiny pale brown wire frames that blend perfectly. "I will find them for you," Rolf says. Even I, who believes my brother capable of anything, says "No, you won't." He is jogging down the beach and not a minute later, jogging back. "Here they are," he says. My mother kisses him and places them back on top of her head. No one else questions him, maybe because they have known him longer and know how he is. But I ask, "How did you?" He tells me, " I told myself I would, I could and I would. I always knew he had this power. Many years later I wondered about how he had died. Why he didn't say, I can't and I won't. I stand up. The patch of grass did not keep the moisture from soaking through and I am uncomfortable. I walk back along the way I came, kicking garbage. I have come here many times in the past few years. At first, my wife thought I had a girlfriend. She followed me here one day, criticizing and crying. Since then, she just packs me a sandwich in the morning and tells the children I went hiking. Now we are closer. "I can and I will." I say. I keep walking and kicking things. I reach down to touch what looks like a dead worm. It is an old leather shoelace, blackened, half-buried in the dirt. Suddenly, I remember running down the hill away from this place, in shoes that flap on my feet without laces. I begin to dig first with my bare hands, scratching. A certainty driving me. Remembering more, I use my trowel to dig along the length of the wall to the left. I know when I've hit it. We packed sand in and around it as a preservative, to distinguish the dirt. It was a finished wooden box, sealed completely in wax, placed in a leather bag and tied with our shoelaces. The bag has disintegrated, but scraps remain. The hard wax has cracked. Part of the wood is preserved, part gone. I try to open it, then realize it must be done quietly and I shouldn't be seen. I carry it to my car, leaving the trowel and the hole uncovered. I sit in the passenger seat. I use a nail file on my key chain to clean its edges. I find the lip of the top and gently ease it open. For just a second, I swear I catch a whiff of brother's cologne. His scent is a balm to my soul. All nine items are there: two wedding bands from my great-grandparents, my father's gold watch, my mother's diamond necklace and earrings, a tarnished, but beautiful silver bracelet handed down to each baby girl in our family and two silver baby spoons. We had very few riches by today's standards, but we treasured them. At the bottom of the sand-filled box, I found what I knew would be there. A note in an envelope sealed in wax. I crack it open gently. I read my brother's handwriting. " Whether or not you are my enemy: May our children know who their ancestors were. May we live in peace. May we not forget to care for one another. If you are my brother and you are reading this and I am dead, do not grieve for me too long - find happiness in your own family and future and remember our good times together and laugh. To my family with love." Now another fragment of memory comes to me. The night we buried this treasure, I cried for a long while before falling asleep. My brother asked my why. I couldn't answer him. I felt the grief already for what would become real. It was weight. If I could have dragged my heels against the future I would have. He knew it too, but seemed calm about it. He patted my back, said good night and went to bed easily. Perhaps he knew I could and I would find the box and be comforted.