Adventures in Writing
Winners of the 2022 Contest


The past few years have been chaotic, unlike any others we've experienced. Think disease, war, inflation, violence, climate change and bitter political disputes. We've been challenged in ways we never anticipated, yet resilient North Carolina women have adapted with aplomb. This was no more apparent than in the submissions that gifted writers made to the 2022 Carolina Woman Writing Contest. Talent abounds in our region, which made selecting the prize winners especially difficult. Like our writers and readers, the judges persisted, and you can explore each of the award-winning entries below. Enjoy! Coming next month: Staff Favorites.


– Debra Simon, Editor & Publisher





Grand Prize




poem by Cindy Brookshire of Pine Level, N.C.


The church hallway hums with students
Minnowing into cinderblock rooms,
Taking mismatched seats at plastic tables.
Women, braided hair covered in hijabs
Men, bent over their iPhone Google translators
Pulling out spiral notebooks from satchels
Whispering in a cacophony of languages
Until the volunteer stands at the whiteboard,
Directing them to page 35 in the Side by Side workbook.
They came to the U.S. two years ago, eight months ago,
Last week, from Africa, Guatemala, Portugal, Russia.
Their names are Aziz, Emilio, Fatima, Selena, Tomas.
They are hungry to learn English
To absorb what they can in 13 weeks.
To get a job, to read signs, to understand cooking directions,
To listen to their children's teacher, to tell a doctor where it hurts.
When they go home they read newspapers aloud,
Watch TV with closed captions, practice at the dinner table.
They set simple goals now, but you can sense the dreams
That sparkle in their eyes -- Fatima's future law practice,
The ribbon cutting on Tomas's neighborhood tienda.
The class welcomes all; laughs together, praises together,
Encourages. No one gives up, and no one gets up
Until the clock says exactly 9:30 p.m. and the teacher
Has packed away her books and left the room.
They're here to stay.





First Prize




short story by Molly James of Chapel Hill

You pointed your headlamp toward the horizon. From far away–with my eyes narrowed just so–you were own little lighthouse. You were looking for a hellbender, the largest species of salamander in North America. You were always doing things like that and with no reason other than "seeing what the world has to offer." I thought the world had a great deal more to offer than a bottom feeder in the shape of my dad's discarded sock, but then again, I always liked how we thought differently.


As we walked through the overgrown, make-shift parking lot on our way to the creek, the grass reached above my socks, and the humidity made it itch. My backpack was heavy with the weight of the wading boots I didn't feel like wearing until we got to the water. I was slowing down. You didn't wait for me. You rarely did. Instead, you made a couple wisecracks and tossed a smile over your shoulder while you slipped through the tree line.


You were a funny guy. I imagined you always had been. Sometimes you would say things to me–just for me–and the laughter would fight its way out, beating me up on the inside as it tore through my belly and my lungs and my throat. I'm tempted to put your words to paper, but I won't because it wouldn't do them justice. When I tried, the mechanical feeling of my fingers moving took all the fun out of it. It didn't make me laugh anymore.


That night, you were in a bad mood. You said you didn't like the summer; it took too long to get dark. I said that was one of my favorite things about it. A firefly flew past your head and for a split second illuminated your left ear. I thought a pair of firefly earrings would be cute. You said, yeah, dead bug jewelry would be very marketable with the goth demographic. I said, no, they had to be alive. They had to glow.


We made it to the creek. I put on my boots, stumbling in the dark. You were already in the water and elbow deep into the silt. Overturning rocks, moving your head and the light along with it. I thought the night would wash over me, a peaceful midnight blue, but all I could see was the frantic spotlight made by your headlamp. I thought it would be nice to just stand there in the still water and watch, but the splashing was loud and you looked so undignified hunched over like that. You asked me to keep an eye out in case I saw anything you didn't. Then I got bored.


I asked if I ever hurt you. You said of course I didn't, but you didn't understand why I looked so disappointed. I felt like I should've hurt you a little bit sometimes. I should've made you feel something. You didn't think that should be the goal. People say love is pain, but that isn't true. I told you I didn't mean it like that, but you didn't get it. You thought I was mean. I didn't think it would matter, anyways. You didn't love me because I was nice. You were a funny guy, and you loved me because I laughed.


We didn't find a hellbender. You know this. I wonder if you're still looking. Not with me, obviously. We didn't have a lot in common, you said.


Then tell me why The Encyclopedia of North American Reptiles and Amphibians is laying open on my kitchen table. Tell me why my still-muddy wading boots are sitting in the entryway, toes to the door, ready to go out again.






Second Prize




poem by Joyce Compton Brown of Troutman, N.C.


At night my brothers would giggle
in the darkness of their cold iron bed
stacked with musty quilts. They'd
cup their hands under hollow armpits,
flap elbows till they'd stirred enough air
to make fart noises, or maybe quacking ducks.
The four of us were in one room–
the boys, my mother, and me.
Maybe in a bigger house
we would have sought distance,
solitary and brooding– the boys
in little boy fears and fantasies,
my mother in memory and resolve,
me in the infantile mystery of shadow-
faces creeping on beadboard walls.
But now, this ragtag house
was just enough for seeking peace–
those boys to dim the death they'd watched
a year ago, their father's final breath–
our mother to know she'd kept us all
in spite of smug well-wishers and
orphanage talk–me, the last,
to live in an aura of enfant love.
In that dark room, my brothers could
force my sad-eyed mother to laugh,
ignore her great grief, where the
walls hid all, and the beadboard goblins
were trapped behind the paint
when we were safe and blind
and could not read her broken face.
She was not to be seen, dressed
in less than stoic housewife form,
this farm woman of a past age.
Loss had breached her soul, gnawed
her pride. But here in a small cold room,
three children in the darkness,
within a beadboard fort, a quiet space
with iron beds and time-touched quilts,
two boys were mending a childhood,

a family, creating a reason to smile.





Third Prize




creative nonfiction by Emily Carter of Beaufort, N.C.


The Ouija board seizured and stuttered. We were hiding in the closet. The orange lens of the flashlight ignited our features. It was Hardy Boys meets the Mystery Machine of Scooby Doo. I was creeped out and struggled against the urge to slam my eyes shut. An impenetrable chain link fence was dug in deep around my innards, an iron curtain effort to block Satan and his cronies from transmitting messages from hell's underbelly. Donna Rae called me a chicken and clucked in my ear. How I hated being poultry.


"Let's conjure the dead," Donna Rae suggested, mean-like.


"Let's not," I thought, not sure what conjure meant, but suspecting that anything mixed with Donna Rae and death was destined for a rough ending.


We were sentenced to friendship because of our parents. Donna Rae's mom, Thelma, dressed in glamorous pant suits like Shirley Jones from the Partridge family. Her pierced ears hung low with dangles. She made meatloaf with Hunt's ketchup squirted on the top. It was escorted to the plate by brown and serve rolls. Mama never made meatloaf, and all our bread began with self-rising flour and a buttermilk pond.


Donna Rae was one year and three months older than me. Her pale skin, brown hair and bright blue eyes contrasted with my olive, blonde, and dark brown. She was city. I was country.


She smelled of Love's Baby Soft. My scent was bulk bought Dial bar soap and hay field.


My clothes were homemade or on an occasion, such as Easter – Sears and Roebuck, mail order catalog, delivered to Rural Route 2. Sometimes if I got lucky, Donna Rae gifted me with a Piggly Wiggly bag stuffed with hand me downs. Miss Thelma gave me this bag discreetly, necessary discards as Donna Rae's drawers and closets burped out the latest fashions. I was happy to get the boost not comprehending that it was an act of charity.


"I mean it, Emmy Jean," she said, calling me the nickname I shed back when I started first grade. "Name a dead person. Do it."


"Uncle Harvey," I responded. My mama's only brother died when I was two. His death murmured among his seven sisters to be drug overdose, or a cocktail of liquor and pharmaceuticals taken while working at the jewelry store he owned. Sainted in death by my family, I figured if there was a spirit hovering close to the mantle layers of the earth, it might be Uncle Harvey, and he would come in peace.


"Call him," Donna Rae said. I was confused. Did I call him on the phone? Was it long distance? I hesitated. Donna Rae hissed, "Hold the Ouija board, and say his name, you dumb-stinky-butt."


I fingered the triangle on the board and whispered, "Uncle Harvey."


"Louder," Donna Rae commanded.


I cleared my throat, coughed, and projected loud just as Mama opened the closet door.


We tumbled onto the bedroom floor, screaming. Ouija board, flashlight, and poltergeists spilled out hard onto the Donna Rae's pink shag carpeting. It was time to go home.


Uncle Harvey's name was hot in my mouth. If he had been conjured, he hightailed it back to spirit world when he saw Mama's face. From the hard look in her eyes, I wished he would have taken me with him.


"You know we don't believe in trash like that," Mama said after a tortured pause of prolonged silence. I watched the trees pass in a blur from my window as we drove back to the country. "It's of the devil and you aren't going to play with those boards. Lord knows how Donna Rae ended up with a Ouija board. I guess Thelma bought it for her. That girl has never had an ounce of discipline."


I understood that Mama had the floor, and I kept quiet it my own thoughts. I knew Mama's words were grounded in reality. I wasn't going to agree with her and betray Donna Rae and I sure wasn't going to disagree and get a switch to my rear. I liked Donna Rae and spending the night at her house meant limitless helpings of Count Chocula. I wasn't ready to surrender that privilege, but there was something reckless brewing in her, even at age eleven, that caused me to ponder her intentions. She accelerated this path later, fueled by a lack of boundaries anchored in having never been denied the simplest of desires.


When we got home, Mama washed my soul out with soap by having me read a chapter of the Bible. I read the passage in Genesis with all the begats because I liked the rhythm of the words and was hard-headed against learning lessons.


Years later when I stopped to visit Miss Thelma, Donna Rae wasn't home. She had just been put on second shift at the mill. On my return from the bathroom, I glanced into her childhood bedroom where I spent many nights coveting her town life. That same room now housed a thirty-year-old. The dresser overflowed, trending with the latest styles, empty in most every other way.







Fourth Prize


"Nature Knows What to Do"


poem by Arlene S. Neal of Granite Falls, N.C.


When wringing hands fret nervous
Over his old farm fallen into ruin.
He could not manage it, you know,
Daughter murmurs half to herself,
That rusty roof, tin pieces missing.
But nature sends vines, green and
Tender twining up loose boards
Never nailed back to close the gap
Tells swallows to keep company
In eaves, on beams, with
Sparrows and mourning dove
In their evening wake of field songs.
Spiders web shrouds for shovel and hoe
While black-eyed mice clean out
The last of old corn and oats.
Nature knows when wind
Will usher it down and then
Send wild rose runners to
Conceal the collapse, as if in apology–
Please excuse the mess–
While her borers return the barn wood

To earth, as if it never were.






Honorable Mention




flash fiction by Nicole Arch of Raleigh

I stare at the bare walls. Grandma doesn't have many decorations. Just an analog clock, with an illustration of a different songbird for each hour mark. I know from previous visits that it makes twelve noises too, one for each species, but someone must have switched the sound off, or maybe the speaker is broken. Either way, I watch the big hand pass 6:00 pm, then 6:01, then 6:03. . . and still the clock remains silent, failing to ring with whatever chirping sound it is that sparrows make. Though it always startled me before, now I almost miss the consistent source of noise. Something to break all this quiet.


Beside me, Mom says something to Grandma in a hushed tone. I shift my glance away to the window, where more birds line the pane. Not real ones, of course–just a few crude, stained glass decorations. Grandma made them when she was a girl. Even back then, something about birds spoke to her, echoed in her own constant need for movement. But that was long ago, back when her hands were steady and she could hold the cutters without shaking. Before the flesh dangled, wrinkled and loose, between her numbing fingers. Before her body was in a constant state of trembling, like the fervent beating of a hummingbird's wings.


Yet despite having lost much of her motor capabilities, her liveliness has always kept her going. In fact, for as long as I've known her, she's been in a perpetual state of motion. Whenever guests arrive, she flies about her room to greet them, swooping coats onto shaky arms and offering old Christmas chocolates from the little glass bowl on the corner table. And even when someone manages to make her sit down, her hands never stop fluttering about, eager to pinch her grandbaby's cheek, squeeze her daughter's hand. Touch as much of life as she can. Above all, she never fails to ask the question that's always on her mind: what food we'd brought her this time.


"Is that all?" she would say with a wink, rummaging through each of our three to-go containers before pulling them all towards herself dramatically, arms enveloping the styrofoam like wings as she chirps slyly: "but what are you two going to eat?" I know the question is coming every time, and yet I can never help but laugh at her exaggerated gestures, the animation which accompanies each subsequent conversation. Her mannerisms fill the room with so much life, despite the sterile halls and antiseptic smell of the nursing home. And during those rare times our talking lulls, she shows me how her birds distort the sunshine, bending pale red and yellow beams across the floor in kaleidoscopic patterns. She never stops moving, even in those quiet moments. Her fingers weave through the colorful rays with a kind of second nature, as if of their own accord. And when she smiles, cheeks trembling slightly with the effort, her eyes are filled with enough light to rival the stained glass.


Beside me, Mom says my name softly, snapping me from my reverie. But I won't turn towards her. I can hear Grandma breathing from where I sit perched on the edge of her bed, each slow gasp rattling out like a snore before another long stretch of silence. I tried timing it on her analog clock, but stopped after she took more than two minutes between breaths. They're just. . . so far apart now. Mom wipes her cheek before reaching for my hand, her fingers warm and wet around mine. But I keep my eyes focused on Grandma's window. I don't want to look. I don't want to acknowledge the withered apple core where her face should be. Cheeks concave and sinking in on themselves. I don't want to watch her waxy skin growing cold, veins bulging and blue, or notice how her slack jaw seems almost unhinged as her lips curl around toothless gums. And I don't want to see her hands, wrists bound by clinical tubes, lying so terribly still on the bed beside me. Her eyes staring straight ahead without any movement. Any light.

I want to focus on the wings of the birds in the window. How they shimmer in the sun. How they cast bright beams dancing across the floor. How, if I squint just right, until my vision blurs and my eyes sting and my lids blink back water, it almost seems like they're beating.




Honorable Mention


"House in the Woods"


poem by Ruth Moose of Albemarle

We cleared space
Between trees, claimed
Rocks, small singing creek,
Put up scaffolding, studs, walled
In a world to keep weather out.
Roof, windows so wide the moon
Came in for the night. Big eye,
Little us. My walk-in closet
had bluebirds, morning glories
climbed the walls. There were thirteen
of them. One day I counted.
Our wide hearth
Made the inside out
of weariness
when the rough rains came,
winds hard blowing the unbelievable
worst of news.
We ignored the warnings
Of what was to come;
How the world would take down
What we had made with hammers
And saws, bolts and nails.
How our hands had cleaved
From wood and glass
What we thought was true
Paradise though not
The name
We gave it
When the creditors came
With facts and forms.