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Power of the Pen
Winners of our annual writing contest

 

 

"Thanks for inspiring readers to become writers," said a Chapel Hill resident in a note with her short-story entry in the 2017 Carolina Woman Writing Contest. It's a mutual admiration society! Thanks to all of you for submitting your work. Congratulations to everyone - from newbies to prize-winning scribes - who sent in their fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In my opinion, just keeping your pen moving makes you a champion.
– Debra Simon, Editor & Publisher

 

 

Grand Prize

 

"As You Say"

 

by Sepideh Ataei of Chapel Hill

 
Amber tea
swimming
with leaves,
fragrant steam
bedewing
my nose –
tea-cup stratified in tawny, ocher and ochre.

I've forgotten the first –
undoubtedly
placed in my hands
filled
to the brim with demand,
served
in virgin-white porcelain,
sipped
through resignation,
eyes soaking up steam,
leaves
stuck between teeth
bared in a wide smile –
as you should.

The air smells of pita bread
smothered
in feta cheese–
bites slowly
roll
down my throat,
tea grows tepid –
quickly, don't you have work to do?

Sundays are for studying –
tests
consume
my glory days,
frequent as they are –
nothing worth it comes easy, dear.

Readings for English –
unimportant,
focus
on
the
future –
you will make a great doctor.

Hair
flows down my back,
a straight
waterfall –
satiny and pristine,
born from a super-compressed
mane
of knotted curls,
always
placidly floating.

Brides have smooth tresses,
zereshk-stained lips,
sun-lit golden eyes
twirling hands –
happy,
as you will be.

His gaze
flickers
to the sound of applause,
an ocean wave
undulating
for the moon –
our eyes meet:
his ever-widening smile
distracts
from his blank eyes –
what a nice grin he has,
so handsome,
yes?

Bone-white walls
scattered
with empty frames,
awaiting
child-filled memories –
furniture flawless,
smelling
of antiseptic money and artisans –
you are both doctors, after all.

The lone purple pillow,
afloat
on the wide ocean that is our bed
constitutes one
dash
of color in the house –
you insisted.

In autumn,
trees blaze,
leaves gliding like a
snowstorm of wildfire set alight in rainstorms –
sunlit opaque windows
smear
mosaics everywhere,
distorting reality,
bathing
me in kaleidoscopes of illusions –
close it, it's dangerous!

Nature
is
beloved
by all Iranians –
the bubbling of a brook,
cheerfully chirping songbirds,
gales that coax hair into dancing,
redolent plants permeating the air
tingling our nostrils –
such life gives liveliness, no?

Naturally,
family picnics are a must –
the kids adore
these
picturesque events –
look, all your walls are finally covered.

Their births
exhausted,
as did conception –
a perfectly matching set,
one carved out of us each
but
inseparable:
a peculiar blessing –
proof you're meant to be.

First beholding them,
so reminiscent of ET,
my fingers relentlessly
prodded
the squealing mess of their faces,
whip-cream soft
just as pure,
layered –
vision hazy,
like the movie,
I wept from instant irrational love
sodden
with sadness:
I don't want to see them go –
has he seen the little angels yet?

My Melody,
his Rose –
both all mine
for a time–
aren't they worth it all?

Life is decisions.
I've made mine,
not freely,
but I'm no untouched island:
whispering
waves
commanded
me
daily –
depart now, daughter.

 

 

 

 

First Prize

 

"To-Do List of a First-Time Teleworker"

 

by Ashley Memory of Asheboro

 

Teleworkers need to be careful they do not slip into "workaholism." They should give careful consideration to the balance of their work and personal lives to avoid burnout. – U.S. Office of Personnel Management

7:30 a.m. - Get up and throw on an old T-shirt from the dirty laundry. Gloat over the fact that you will be uberproductive while your co-workers are trapped in gridlock. Scribble your to-do list:

  • Respond to a call from Suzy Costas, a reporter from the Herald Tribune
  • Draft remarks for your boss Cynthia, for a reception celebrating the transit system's anniversary
  • RSVP to the office picnic
  • Write a poem about the baby bluebirds learning to fly in your backyard
  • Spend some time playing with your dog Buster, who's been feeling neglected
  • Make a grocery list for the weekend
  • Wash all of your dirty dishes by hand because your dishwasher leaves spots on your glasses

 

9:00 a.m. - Realize that your back hurts because the chair you're sitting in is not ergonomic. Review the office policy to see if a new work chair for home is a reimbursable expense. It is. Spend a long time going through the online inventory of office chairs at Staples. Rule those out because they are ugly. Look instead at the Ikea website because if your work station is at your dining room table, your new chair ought to match the others. Call the 800 number and order swatches since the online images may not be true to color.

 

10:35 a.m. - Open email from Bryce, an employee you manage, asking you to proofread a brochure. In the same email he asks you to call Suzy Costas because she's called a second time. Suddenly remember that you did not eat breakfast. You usually order this from a drive-through and eat it on your way to work. Decide to make yourself an egg sandwich. Realize that you do not have eggs.

 

11:05 a.m. - Arrive at the drive-through. Be told that you are too late for breakfast. Throw a fit because you're a regular customer. The manager comes to the window and says something about their standards and how older items are cleared by now because they would have deteriorated in quality. Resist the urge to get out of the car and go inside and ask the manager since when has the word "quality" been synonymous with fast food because you are not wearing a bra.

 

11:30 a.m. - Return home and decide to wait until lunch to eat. Try to entice Buster into a game of catch but then realize he's not interested in interrupting his nap on the sofa just because you happen to be home. Decide that at least one of you should get some exercise.

 

11:40 a.m. - Get on the treadmill. Watch HGTV while you exercise. Feel badly because modest updates to your d├ęcor can be done in just half an hour and you haven't even removed last year's holiday wreath. Order a pizza.

 

12:15 p.m. - Answer door. Realize that you are lonely and that the pizza deliveryman looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Try to interest him in going out with your sister. Realize that he thinks you're the one who wants to go out with him and he isn't interested. Binge-eat for the next 20 minutes.

 

1:15 a.m. - Decide that you should get caught up on the news and make sure nothing cataclysmic has happened today. It has. But instead of reading about an earthquake in remote parts of China, watch a video of a bulldog on a swing. Then get absorbed by a love letter from Arthur Miller to Marilyn Monroe now up for auction at Sotheby's. Examine your own derriere. Would it remind anyone of sweet cantaloupes? It would not.

 

3 p.m. - Check email again. See message from Bryce asking why you haven't responded about the brochure. Make a note to have a meeting with him soon to discuss his tone. See another email from Cynthia titled "Call Suzy Costas!!! Where is my speech???" Make a note to explain later that her browbeating is interfering with your productivity.

 

3:10 p.m. - Try to RSVP to the online invitation to the office picnic but stop when you realize that all of the good bitmojis have been used. Give up and go on Facebook. Learn that Camille Townsend, the girl you hated through high school, just updated her status with news of a promotion at work that will require European travel with her new Italian boyfriend. Hate her for another 10 minutes. Find a picture that makes her look fat.

 

Feel better. Troll the internet for a less stressful job that doesn't infringe on your personal life.

 

4:35 p.m. - Look back at your to-do list and decide that most of those things can wait. Sit in front of the window and start poem. Realize that while you've been working, all the baby blue birds have successfully flown from their nest. Understand that this is what happens when you become a workaholic. Decide to take tomorrow off. Start the dishwasher.

 

 

 

 

Second Prize

 

"Hunger Is"

 

by Alice Osborn of Raleigh

 
a plastic bag in May
waltzing across bare parking lots.
The neighborhood's tarred up telephone poles
drenched in sepia and creosote
trap famished flies.

Can hunger be strength;
a willful dance
of power, denial, refusal?

Stop your whining
and do your writing instead
of distracting yourself
with cheese sticks and lightly salted peanuts!
Eat and eat. Never be satisfied.
If you don't eat?
You won't die–this isn't The Grapes of Wrath.

You need courage not to give
into buying more Amazon T-shirts,
sustainable striped scarves,
more cookbooks for all the uses
of buttermilk. But yes to more drinking books
about the history of whiskey–
how does the angels' share
evaporate more drops in Kentucky than Scotland?
Another hour lost to heavy alcohol study.

Hunger locks you into the future,
but also the past. Can't leave
this place of neither up or down.
Meditate? Contemplate?
Without attention you'll wither
like those angry grapes. Or starving insects.
You don't want to eat silence.
You want bacon. Fried, please, with the crispy
ends covered in pimiento cheese.
You know, the homemade kind.

 

 

 

Third Prize

 

"Topaz"

 

by Heather Bell Adams of Raleigh

 

When we were growing up, our parents often took me and my little sister, Melissa, to the Henderson County Gem and Mineral Show, part of the North Carolina Apple Festival held over Labor Day weekend.

 

Over time, the show has been held in different locations, but the basic premise is the same–to show off the ruby, diamond, agate, amethyst, quartz, topaz, sapphire, emerald, garnet, peridot, moonstone, citrine, opal, and tourmaline gemstones mined from the green hills around us, in places like Franklin, Spruce Pine, Cowee Valley, and Hiddenite. Vibrantly-colored stones born from the earth's constant shifting, the increase of pressure, and the application of heat.

 

It must have been at the show where Melissa and I learned that the nation's first gold discovery was at Reed Gold Mine near Concord. We heard about how our state is the only one where the "big four"–diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies–have all been found. That the beauty of emeralds comes from something broken, the beryl and chromium merging together in six-sided prisms within pockets of quartz veins formed only after the bedrock has cracked. That underneath the ground where we lived on Kanuga Road, halfway between the antique stores of Main Street and the low rock walls of summer camps, there might be something more than dirt, something valuable.

 

We lived ordinary lives in that white house on Kanuga Road, the one with a concrete sidewalk that looped around the yard, perfect for riding bikes. Ordinary until it wasn't. Our mother, who was almost always in motion–organizing closets, soaking the labels off used peanut butter jars, stretching up to dust the books on the top shelf–one day couldn't get out of bed.

 

Here we are–I'm sixteen years old and Melissa is fourteen and we're waiting on our grandparents' scratchy couch. When our dad gets back from the hospital, the TV is on, but only for the sound, which fails to drown out the words he has to say. Cancer. Leukemia. Words that, if they had a color, wouldn't be anything but brown.

 

A year later, when I knock on her bedroom door early one morning, Melissa is already awake, standing by her bed and holding onto the bedpost like it will keep her from falling. I'm the one who has to say the words this time. Our mother is gone. I don't say she'll be buried in the same ground that has turned up rubies and emeralds because I don't think of it, at least not then.

 

I can still see my sister that morning, young and scared and standing very still. On the shelf behind her is a brown paper bag, a "grab bag" from the Gem and Mineral Show, the same kind of bag our mother used to pack ham sandwiches for our school lunches. Sometimes in those grab bags you'd get smoky quartz or a tiny amethyst, always at least some flakes of mica or chips of garnet, something to assure you that your money wasn't wasted. That day neither of us touch the bag on her shelf, which is crumpled and tipped over on one side, because gemstones and anything sparkly are far from our minds. Melissa has already opened the bag anyway. She has already decided it's worth keeping.

 

When I leave for college a few months later, Melissa and our dad live together in the house on Kanuga Road, together and yet each alone, a time which forges a bond between them much deeper than the stories imply–the head-shaking over a thermos of hot chocolate that exploded in the kitchen, the grimacing laughter about the frozen dinners they ate and the women from the church choir vying for a date with our dad.
How does loss take its toll? How much might be enough to hollow out what was once whole?

 

This is my sister at college–laughing with her best friend, Molly, cooking in a tiny toaster oven stacked on top of a dorm-sized refrigerator, trying to mediate a dispute among her suitemates. And–because she's a person and not a saint–banging her notebook down on her desk, frustrated with the foreign language requirement. But mostly laughing with Molly.

 

And here she is a few years later, hearing that a tractor-trailer struck Molly's Honda Accord, that it barreled down an embankment, that Molly was killed. So here is Melissa, an expert now on letting go, this time robbed of the opportunity to even say goodbye.

 

To be fair, we have a father who would do anything in the world for us, good health, good jobs, grandparents, aunts, teachers, and friends. And now a kind and generous stepmother and husbands and sons of our own–gifts that are whole and pure, that fill us up.

 

Yet even without all that, at her core Melissa has always been more sweet than bitter, more light than dark. She makes the four-and-a-half hour trip across the state to attend my son's first birthday party even though back home she has a long to-do list and a ten-month old of her own. She sends mail–anniversary cards and "just because" cards and magazine pages of dresses and furniture she thinks I might like.

 

This sister of mine makes spaghetti sauce from scratch and knows the best way to serve tacos to a group. She sends me recipes–lots of different ideas for chicken because she remembers I don't like red meat.

 

Recently, I was thinking about how much and how well she cooks because I cook only enough to get by. I told my husband, "Well, you know, I didn't really have the chance to learn how to cook from my mom." And then I thought of Melissa, who has a cupcake holder and a cake stand and insulated devices to keep casserole dishes warm during transport. Who was either paying better attention than I was or has since taught herself.

 

This is who she is now, when we return as thirty-something adults to the Gem and Mineral Show, taking turns pushing her younger son in his stroller and reminding the older boys not to bump into the trays of gemstones on the folding tables. This is her smiling at the man selling citrines the color of sunshine. She buys a citrine ring as we remember that the yellow topaz was our mother's birthstone, more gold and less sun, but a similar color. Topaz, from Topazos, the ancient name of St. John's Island in the Red Sea, which was difficult to find and from which a yellow stone was mined, or alternatively, from a Sanskrit word meaning heat or fire. Known chemically as aluminum silicate fluoride hydroxide, topaz is, because of its strong chemical bonds, the hardest of silicate minerals. In ancient lore, it cured fevers and was said to have the power to cool boiling water as well as excessive anger.

 

As we leave the show, Melissa reminds me of the blue topaz ring she often wears. Although topaz comes in multiple colors, the blue is rare, made by what so-called experts deem impurities in the stone.

 

"Right, you've always liked blue," I say, assuming she's casually cataloguing the jewelry she has picked out at the show over the years.

 

"I got it–the blue topaz one–with Molly," Melissa says. Her voice cracks the slightest amount. "We picked out rings that looked alike."

 

"I didn't remember that," I admit. I should have remembered.

 

But she smooths over my mistake because this is who she is. Bright, saturated colors where there might have been only sadness, the color of dust. Maybe this is what constant shifting, the increase of pressure, and the application of heat do to some people, when the conditions are right, when there lies underneath something crystalline and extraordinary.