Writing Contest: Fiction

FIRST PLACE

Autumn Leaves by Patrick Mehaffy, Santa Fe

Billy had stopped at the spring near the low bluff hundreds of times to let Red drink. This time, as Red put his muzzle into the clear pool, Billy noticed the rock wall built into the bluff. Over the years he had found half a dozen ancient cliff dwellings riding in the canyons of the Bar D, each just a small room or two built of stone and adobe high in the rimrock. But the rocks in this wall had been laid without adobe and it was at the base of the bluff.

A week later, Billy came back with a flashlight in his saddlebag. He pulled a few stones from the wall and reached in with the light. The walls were covered with pictographs in red ocher, hand prints, deer and birds, human figures, spirals, and double bar crosses that he had been told represented dragonflies. All made hundreds, if not a thousand years ago. He wondered if the rock wall had been built by someone wanting to hide and protect the wall paintings. And then the beam of his flashlight found something on the floor.

He pulled more rocks from the wall and crawled in.

For a moment he wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but then it came together. It was the body of a young girl lying on her back, shrunken and mummified by the dry desert air. Her hands were folded across a faded threadbare dress printed with red roses. Her blond hair was carefully plaited into thick braids that lay on her thin chest. She was barefooted.

Near her head Billy saw a piece of paper under a small rock. It was a label taken from a can of peaches. On the back, in writing that reminded Billy of Harriet’s, he read:

this was Jean

April 14, 1936

nothing to dig with

He looked at the girl again, her dusty yellow braids and parchment skin. How carefully she had been laid out. But it was her worn dress and bare feet that touched him. After his parents had been killed, Billy had been raised by his Choctaw grandparents. He knew poverty when he saw it. Had she even owned shoes when she died? Or had her shoes been given to a younger sister when she no longer needed them? He turned off the flashlight and sat on his heels and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. He could hear Red tearing at the grass just beyond the rock wall.

That night, lying in bed while Harriet slept, he thought about Jean. The bluff with the spring was not far from the highway that had once been the road used by families going to California during the Depression. Okies. Although having been born and raised near Enid, he didn’t much like the word. He wondered if Jean had been on the road with her family when she died. Had her father and brothers built the rock wall to make her tomb? Had her mother written her peach label epitaph?

Billy knew he should call the Sheriff and report finding Jean. That was the law when any human remains were found, no matter how old. But then what? Television crews, like vultures, would descend and land on Jean and she would become just more carrion for a devouring, sentimental public. Billy could imagine Jean’s yellow braids and barefoot poverty on display on the 5 o’clock news. Reporters, with their porcelain teeth and practiced sympathies, speculating about the barefoot girl in the print dress in every living room. But how many would really care?

In the barn the next morning, he tied a pick and shovel and an old blanket to Red’s saddle and rode out towards the bluff.

When he got to the spring, he took Red’s bridle off and loosened the saddle so the gelding could graze while he worked. And then he took the pick and shovel to a flat spot near the rock wall and began digging in the dry sandy earth. By early afternoon the grave was deep enough.

Sitting with his boots hanging in the open grave, Billy ate the bologna sandwich Harriet had made for him and drank from the thermos of hot coffee. When the sweat had dried from his shirt he pulled more rocks from the wall and went into the painted cave, wrapped Jean in the blanket, and carried her out to the grave. She was as light as an empty cardboard box. He tucked the canned peaches label into the blanket over her chest and lowered her into the hole.

“Jean,” he said out loud.

Then he filled in the grave and leveled it off, rebuilt the stone wall in the bluff, and whistled for Red. After tightening the cinch, he tied the pick and shovel to the saddle, took the bridle from the horn and slipped the bit in Red’s mouth. He felt old and worn out. He was used to hard work, but digging Jean’s grave had left him thinking of other graves he had dug. And graves he had yet to dig.

Stepping into the kitchen he found Harriet at the stove.

“I made green chile stew with the last of that elk you shot up near Chama,” she said. “I’m just warming up some tortillas and then we can eat.”

Billy washed at the sink and opened the refrigerator door.

“Beer?”

“Put one on the table for me. I’ll be right there.

“How was your day?” Harriet asked, sitting across from him.

“Fine,” answered Billy. “More of the same.

“You get a chance to do some saddle work with the new mare?”

“Most of the afternoon.”

He spooned stew into a folded tortilla.

“You know that spring near the bluff not far from the highway?”

“It’s not gone dry, is it?” Harriet asked.

“No,” Billy said, “it’s got water yet. But those old cottonwood trees, they’ve completely yellowed-out. It’s something to see against the blue sky.” ◀



Writing Contest: Fiction

SECOND PLACE

Feeling in the Night by Daniel Donoghue, Santa Fe

From the start, he did not like working the swing shift. It seemed as if the hours between four and midnight should be filled with something else. Maybe the time would be better spent with his family, or reading, or listening to NPR. Maybe just relaxing. There should be something to those hours other than work.

After a few weeks, he began to enjoy the ride home. Still not the work, or the hours — just the ride home. The first night he felt it was after a hard rain. It was one week before Christmas and it had been cold and dark when he had arrived at work. And when he got off and went out to the parking lot, it was wet and quiet and cool. The freezing rain had made the parking lot shine with a fresh glaze. The small grass dividers between parking lots glowed a fresh green that they could not muster in the daytime. Everything looked so clean.

As he drove out that night, on the access road that led to Route 1, the little road that hardly anyone used except for the people who lived in the little box houses to one side, he rolled down his windows. It was about 12:30 in the morning. Everything was quiet. Cars were in the driveways … streetlights were on … front porch lights were on. Everything was so orderly. This was the time for everything to be in its place.

He turned down warehouse road, with its succession of small buildings and car shops and suppliers, and the change here was even more pronounced. What by day had been a random wreck of cars, trucks, and refuse strewn about in a chaotic cluster of ice and metal and oil, now looked like a serene and orderly procession of American commerce.

The warehouse buildings were lit with floodlights by the doors and windows and the parking lots, black and empty and glistening with the rain, were just barely touched by tall lampposts with orange lights. He drove slowly down the street and listened to the nothing.

The night was clear now and the moon was out full. The moon and the orange lights and the white lights and the large parking lots looking freshly painted made for a pretty picture. It seemed that he could think clearly now. That he could think about things with some perspective.

It got so busy during the days, being a father, being a husband, being a worker, paying bills, trying to keep track of expenses, keeping up with all the health care bills and paperwork and crap. He had so little time to think anymore. Day to day to day, just an endless succession of decisions made on the fly. Everything was by the minute now, the information age was a timely age, everything had to be done quickly. Speed was more important than quality now. One had to be on the ball, both at home and at work, there did not seem to be any down time these days. It was all up time, time on the move, time to get something done. If you were done paying the bills, finished recording the expenses, completed the healthcare paperwork filing, logged on for your E-mail, dealt with your voice mail, read your postal mail, and the newspaper, got your stock quotes from CNBC, well, then, it was time to take care of your infant daughter while your wife went to work. Breakfast to be made — lunch to be made — diapers to be changed — clothes to be washed, dishes to be

washed and you to be washed. Jump in the shower. Then it was time to go to work.

But now, it seemed that all of it made sense. There was a clarity to the night. The cacophony of the day and the workplace now given way to a funereal calm. And he could think. Clearly think, not rushed thoughts. Route 1, that rotting route of daytime death, was almost empty. He made all the lights. Even the Beltway was almost a magic carpet ride. He heard no horns and saw no tailgating teasers nor was he tied up in traffic.

Pulling up to his street, he looked at his watch and saw that the ride home had taken a full fifteen minutes less than the ride there. His street was quiet, too. He saw his house, dark, except for the front porch light. It shone like a beacon over his front door. Beckoning him. Calling him home. He parked the car and stood by the Christmas lights, glowing, twinkling and smiling. He looked around and heard nothing and saw nothing. Everything seemed ... so arranged. He thought of his sleeping wife and baby and he was happy. Things appeared different now. It was all good now.

He went downstairs with an old John Steinbeck novel and sat in the easy chair and began to read. He decided he would start driving home slower after work. Make it take a little more time. He had gotten a lot done on the ride home tonight. 



Writing Contest: Fiction

THIRD PLACE

The Lion by Gregory Coplans, Santa Fe

I wasn’t wearing my mask or hearing aids when the lion materialized out of nowhere.

I hate masks, except for the indescribable pleasure of ripping them off in my car, my townhouse or anywhere where other people aren’t in close proximity. If you have a goatee, like me, you’ll know how much masks itch. What’s especially annoying is the inevitable entanglement of the mask’s straps with my hearing aids. Then there’s mask-muffled speech — like hearing conversations through a wall — so frustrating and I’m always the one apologizing, “So sorry, could you repeat that?” I have balanced the risk of death against a mask’s discomfort and, at sixty-five, I’ve opted for the latter. Now, thanks to my booster shot, my long-planned ten-day canoe adventure down the Zambezi is finally a reality. We don’t have to mask up on the river.

It’s irrelevant that I wasn’t wearing hearing aids when the lion appeared — you never hear a lion approach. The canoes, beached for our daily mid-morning break, rested on a shallow bank of soft white sand dotted with the tracks of birds, in a protected inlet shaded by overhanging trees — a haven safe from lurking hippos and crocodiles. This was one of the so-called dead times of day when animals remain concealed, so while the rest of the safari group chatted over coffee and rusks at the river’s edge, I wandered up a trail carved out by elephants that wound up to the riverbank. It was late in the dry season and once at the top of the riverbank, I easily threaded my way through scattered dry scrub vegetation that gave way to denser bush, evergreens and acacias. I settled behind a large thorn bush that screened me from the river because nature was calling.

The lion halted about a dozen feet from me. The mane was black and lush, the forelegs and chest heavily muscled. Fierce yellow eyes impaled me. My pants were around my ankles so I couldn’t run. I couldn’t move. The lion stood motionless, head cocked to one side, looking at me quizzically. What do you do when confronted by a lion? Do you avoid eye contact? Stand up and make yourself look as large as possible? I felt absurd standing up with my pants down.

The lion spoke. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you. I’ve just feasted on a bush buck. Damn tasty she was. Nothing more delicious than a bit of tender venison, wouldn’t you agree?”

Lions don’t talk, certainly not in standard English. Nevertheless, however surreal, I knew it would be rude not to reply.

“I’m an old man,” I said. “No exotic flesh on this body. My bones are brittle, largely void of marrow. You’ll spit me out in disgust. I’m not a meal for you.”

“Well, there is always the question of dessert,” replied the lion.

The lion advanced and licked my arm. The tongue was raspy. It was a surprise that the licking was painful.

“Ouch! Cut it out! You’re hurting my arm!” Red irregular bruising immediately spread along my forearm.

“I was only joking about dessert,” the lion said.

Why was the stench of the lion’s breath so pungent? Aren’t cats scrupulous about their hygiene? Isn’t a lion an oversized cat? I reached out and began to scratch the enormous head behind one ear — a move that generates friendly purrs from my daughter’s cat. The lion began to purr. I remembered that lions are a feline species that can’t purr. Was I imagining everything?

“Good man,” I said to the lion as I gently scratched it behind the ear as I would a cat. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “good boy,” not to a male lion. Not to a male lion in its prime. “Who’s a good man, then?” I scratched the lion’s other ear.

I saw myself looking down at the lion, observing from above. The thorn bush was not something I could climb. How did I get up here? Disoriented and nauseous, I seemed to be floating.

“Well, I’ll be off then” the lion said looking up at me. “It’s been a pleasure.”

***

“My God!” exclaimed Aneni, the Shona guide, pale, despite his dark skin. “A lion took him.” He pointed out the large paw prints in the sand and the spattered blood. “Here, see the tracks? It dragged him away. I never heard a sound. Did anyone hear anything? It must have been over so quickly that he didn’t have a chance to cry out for help.”

“What if he had?” a safari guest asked. “We couldn’t have saved him. We don’t have a rifle and I wouldn’t care to test your puny revolver against a lion, especially one that might still be hungry. Anyway, I thought you told us that this time of day is too hot for lions.” He looked around apprehensively. They all observed his shudder.

“I’m a nurse,” a woman said. “He would have gone into shock, so he probably didn’t feel any pain. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t hear anything.”

I looked down, heard them talking, saw them looking around, observed their horror.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured them. “It’s so much nicer here. I’ll never have to wear a mask again and my hearing is so much better.” 

(1) comment

dennis feeley

great story. I thought it was going to end with you pulling a thorn out of his paw.

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