Powerful Storytellers

Part 2

Champs in the annual
Carolina Woman Writing Contest


Chalk up another exceptional year for the Carolina Woman Writing Contest. We received nearly 100 outstanding entries, many dealing astutely with the lives of women and girls in all their complexity. Powerful narratives displayed their characters' audacity and fortitude as well as passion and joy.


Last month, we posted champs from Grand Prize to Honorable Mention. This month, we're sharing Staff Favorites. Enjoy the read!


– Debra Simon, Editor & Publisher




"Weighing In"


Poetry by Molly Hanna of Boone, N.C.


I miss how I saw the world when I was five 
years old, had a mind and interests of my own 
without the realization I inhabited a body 
or compared it with those of people I admired:


before my mother's friends met up at 
weight watcher weigh-ins, assigning value  
to food while I licked a lollipop in line, 
sugar not yet earned by two hours of exercise.


before my mom told me she was fat, 
not realizing I would grow into her 
short frame, fear of carbohydrates, 
and hatred of dressing room mirrors.


before magazines deemed my 
shoulders, hips, and waist ratio 
the shape of a pear with rules  
around what dresses I could wear.


before I cried in the mirror  
at eight years old, routinely  
clenched my abdominals 
to look smaller than classmates.


before puberty left me hiding  
my thin body – now objectified –
with sweatshirts, shoulders hunched  
as if my back could not carry me.


before a year of college left me twenty-two 
pounds heavier, a golden gift 
on my birthday that taught me 

I will always shift and sorrow for it. 




"Whale Tales"


Poetry by Janet Joyner of Winston-Salem, N.C.

I. Whale Poo


Whales eat a lot;

they poop a lot too.

And when they do,

a lot of this rot

simply would not

do for your barbeque

or Brunswick stew

even if served quite hot.

When whales defecate

near the top of the sea

they nourish growth

at the food-chain's base

with a carbon-free tea

that's good for both.


II. Whale Bellies


Jonah, they say, spent three days and three nights

in the belly of that whale, all because

Nineveh, as a city, was not nice;

was even wicked, with many more flaws

than all of Gaul. Which is saying a lot

since everybody knows Charlemagne,

plus each German, Welch, Irishman and Scot

today still loves his wee bit of champagne.

Suffice it to say, Jonah escaped his whale,

warned Nineveh, and proved ever after

every prophet needs someone to hail

or to blame for whatever current disaster.

Whether you sail in whale belly or yacht

be sure your vessel has its own dock slot.


III. Whale Falls


The sea is earth's great carbon sink that traps

this noxious (for us) gas in its darkest,

deep abyss through evolutions' impacts.

When whales die, they sink, each with its carcass

that sequesters thirty-three metric tons

of the stuff, for at least a millennium,

on average. Which isn't crumbs for our lungs

and should prompt at least a symposium

if not a moratorium on whale

hunting & killing planetarily.

You'd think that an easy thing to curtail,

life being consuetudinarily,

contemporarily, preferable to death,

and survival, in the end, about breath.


IV. Whale Tails


end, or (begin?)

with two flukes.

that beat up

and down to

propel the beast

forward through sea's

murky deep. Thus

it's not a fluke

that a whale-tail

on a two-footed

female one of us

all comes down to

that g-string

or thong. Hence,

this little bit

of song

which is

what sonnets

& limericks

really are.




"Purple Lights"


Short fiction by Sarz Savage of Chapel Hill, N.C.


We pulled up to the vegan ice cream truck. It was closed.

"What? I swear it said open 'til nine." Ryan checked his phone. "Yeah, see?"


He handed me the phone. It did.


"What do you want to do?" he asked.


I thought.


"Well. There're those purple lights on Raleigh Road. We can take the photos there. You brought your camera, right?"


He pulled it out. It was vintage and I was wearing a vintage jacket I got at the thrift store last week for six dollars and we were going to do a vintage photo shoot. Because it was fall break and there weren't many students on campus, which made the night cooler and more fun.


"Yeah. But I kinda want ice cream first."


"There's Ben and Jerry's on Franklin."


"Yeah, sure."


We arrived ten minutes later. I ordered vegan cookie dough and chocolate swirl.


Ryan ordered a milkshake with milk.


We sat outside.


I ate my ice cream. The spoon was wooden, and I liked that. I dug in and tasted the vanilla on my tongue and the chocolate and the chunks of cookie dough that were like little treasures in the swirl of white and brown. The best part of cookie dough is when you think you're out of it but then you take a bite anyway, because good ice cream is still good ice cream, and suddenly you find one in your mouth. Like a little secret, between only you and the dough.


I sat and I ate and I thought about how the wooden spoon made it taste better. And then I thought about if it even made a difference and if so how much, and how it was like using a metal straw instead of a plastic one, or like using wooden chopsticks at a Japanese restaurant instead of a plastic fork to help save the fish in the sea as you ate sushi made of fish in the sea. I also thought of how using a wooden spoon didn't help the environment all that much if you drank dairy milk a mother cow made for her baby and how the whole thing didn't even make sense because you wouldn't drink rhino milk or zebra milk even though it's similar to human milk and how forty million tons of grain can end world hunger but twenty times that is fed to factory farmed animals each year and how everything will probably end up in the trash anyway.


"...but I don't think that just because you wait for something means it has to be better than if you got it right away. It's not like the universe owes you anything. It's like...coincidences. And randomness. Not everything in the universe can line up perfectly for you. Because that wouldn't be random anymore, wouldn't be coincidence. And beauty lies in coincidence, I think, in letting you make your own sense of what you see."


"What're we waiting for?"


"My friend Lucas hasn't had his first kiss yet."




"He said it's gonna be better than everyone else's first kisses 'cause it's taken him twenty plus years to have it, thinks it's building up 'goodness.'"


"Oh. How did we get to talking about kissing?"


"Don't worry about it." He was quiet. "You know, I haven't, either. Had my first kiss."


I looked at him. He shrugged.


Then he said more stuff but I didn't listen. I thought about Ryan's words and how he said just because you wait for something doesn't mean it'll be worth it because not everything in life has to be fair. And I wanted to disagree, wanted to think things happened for a reason. But then I thought how you don't have to be desperate to find meaning to recognize that something doesn't have to have any greater significance that it simply does, to recognize you aren't special, and still accept it, still appreciate it for what it is.


I looked up. Ryan was looking at me funny. "Every last drop, huh?"


I stopped scraping the cup and smiled. "I can eat a whole tub."


He laughed. He'd barely touched his shake.


"You don't like it?"


"Just waiting for it to melt. It tastes better that way."


We started walking.


"You never told me about the lights," he said.


"Yeah? I said they glow deep neon purple and look cool at night, remember?"


"Sure. But what's their story?"


"I don't know. I didn't install them. I just always see them when I drive here. The rest are regular and then there's just a couple..purple lights." I paused. "I guess I don't really know."


We arrived at the purple lights. But they weren't there. "Huh? They should be here, I swear they always are. Every time I drive this hill." I opened Maps on my phone, as if it would help us, as if 'Purple Lights' would glow like a landmark, as if we were special.


"You sure we're in the right place?"


"I'm positive."


He didn't seem bothered. "Oh. If you could write a story, like, right here, right now, what would the first sentence be?"


"The stupid lights were purple before but now they're not because the world sucks and the time we finally bring ourselves to go to the vegan ice cream truck it's closed. And I'd title it 'Shit'."


He found that funny. "Maybe we should wander out more often then. Increase our odds. And maybe that's why the universe doesn't always make good things happen when you wait. Because maybe it doesn't want us to wait. Life is long, but it's actually short, and if we wait the good things might never come."


Then he asked if I wanted to go geocaching.


We found ourselves in a graveyard. A graveyard, one of those places where you don't know if you should pay your respects through prayer, keep quiet or make insensitive jokes for your own sake and sanity.


It doesn't matter. The dead can't hear.


"Imagine being dead," Ryan stated.


I couldn't tell if he was joking. I looked over. The corners of his lips were tugged up.


"Imagine being alive," I replied.


He was quiet for a moment. He pulled a shovel out of a mound. "Imagine."


"Why'd you do that?"


He held it horizontal, twisted it in his hands. "A geo. I'm gonna hang it on my wall when I get home to remember this night."


We looked at the pile of dirt, the hole it left behind. At the tombstone, the blankness on its face, except for one word: Leo. No last name.


I wondered if Leo had anything to live for.


"Probably lots of things."


I turned to Ryan. He'd heard me. "What do you have to live for?"


"Lots of things."


"Like what?"


"Family, friends, aspirations. Future children, maybe."


I counted on my fingers. "That's only four."


"Guess it is, then."


We sat on a ledge close by. I took out my phone, searched up 'purple lights'.


"Right now I'm feeling…actually, I don't know. How're you feeling, Lyd?"


Chapel Hill: streetlights seem to be glowing purple lately? I tapped it. Residents of Chapel Hill report seeing several purple lights over a few town streets com dusk. Theories have erupted–alien invasion? hidden toxins? an easier color on the eyes of drivers? or mere artistic expression? Fear not, folks. The harmless answer lies in – wait for it – faulty bulbs. "I don't know." I wasn't sure if I happy or sad we never got the pictures. The lights were nothing more than a mistake. They were fake, the Wizard of Oz. I wished I'd never searched them up.


"You okay?"


I nodded. Then I smiled.


I never told Ryan.


There's something sad about discovering the thing that you thought was real is actually not, that magic is actually ordinary. But with those revelations comes new perspective on life; you learn to create your own magic from subtlety and disregarded moments. We found a shovel that night and Ryan took pictures of me simply existing and we walked for miles and miles and his milkshake got all the way melted because it tasted better that way. And that was already four things to live for.





"SÍ Lo Soy"


Poetry by Maria Solorzano of Carrboro, N.C.


Desenfrenada is what my uncles call me
when I serve myself food at a family party
before they do.
I guess I shouldn't eat
when I'm hungry.


Irrespetuosa is what my aunts call me
when I openly disagree
about the way they call me a slut.
I guess I need to learn
how to keep my opinions to myself.


Rebelde is what my mother calls me
when I go out twice a week
and wear what makes me comfortable.
I guess I should only do
as I'm told.


Loca is what my family calls me
when I laugh too loud
and sway my hips "too sensually."
I guess my sanity is dependant
on the way I enjoy myself.


¿Y qué si soy asÍ?


Soy desenfrenada because
I refuse to wait on a man.


Soy irrespetuosa because
I defend who I am.


Soy rebelde because
I do what makes me happy.


Soy loca because
I love life

and would like to keep it that way.


Desenfrenada: uncontrolled, unconstrained
Irrespetuosa: disrespectful
Rebelde: rebellious
Loca: crazy
¿Y qué si soy asÍ? : So what if that's the way I am?





"September Awakening"


Fiction by Nancy Werking Poling of Black Mountain, N.C.


Television. A work of the Devil, Mary Hester's father said. Making it all the more enticing when she went to college. A Christian college, of course, where all the students were white and dancing wasn't allowed. But on each floor of the women's dorm, there was a lounge with a TV set. Nearly always she was the sole occupant of the lounge on the first floor, all the other girls choosing to be as far from the housemother's apartment as possible.


On this particular Sunday evening, Mary Hester cheered when Lassie rescued the little boy who'd fallen into the swirling river current, shed tears when a triumphant melody heralded the collie coming around the corner of the barn. Once the episode was over, she climbed the flight of stairs to her room, where she sat down at her desk to write the essay for tomorrow's English class. She rolled a blank sheet of paper into her Royal typewriter.


"Who in your life has most influenced you?" Dr. Hayes had asked when presenting the essay topic.


Who had influenced her? she now wondered. Daddy? A man of staunch faith who sheltered his family from the evils of the world? No. Mama? A pious woman who taught Mary Hester how to make German chocolate cake and fruit cobbler? No, not Mama either. Never a persevering student, Mary Hester returned to the lounge and turned the TV back on.


Breaking news.


A man of stern disposition read from a sheet of paper: "This morning, in Birmingham, Alabama, at 10:24, a bomb ripped through a back stairwell of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four Negro girls."


School pictures, they looked like, individual photographs. One girl in particular, Denise McNair, locked eyes with Mary Hester, as if eager to tell her something important. The camera zoomed in on an elderly Negro woman. To see her better, Mary Hester stood within a foot of the black and white screen. With a thin face, her dark hair pulled back, the woman urged others to join her in song: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."


More camera footage flashed on the TV screen, a review of events from the past spring and summer. High pressure hoses aimed at colored people; snarling police dogs attacking boys and girls. A movement, the reporter said, a movement intending to desegregate the South. Desegregate?


Back at her desk, Mary Hester again tried to write her essay. But she could only think of Denise McNair. What was it like to be a fourteen-year-old colored girl? "She was always thoughtful of others and had many friends," Mary Hester typed. "She could also make everyone laugh."


But the assignment was supposed to be about how Mary Hester herself had been influenced by this person. In margins of the lined paper, she began to doodle. Circles. Denise McNair died, that was a fact. Lines inside circles. Why would anyone want to kill her? And why were the white people so mad? Circles around circles. Something to do with being afraid, she guessed. Why else would they be so violent? Afraid of what? Lines connecting circles. Of Denise McNair? A movement, the newsman had said. White people must be afraid of the movement. So one might say that the four colored girls died for a cause. It had never occurred to Mary Hester that a cause might be worth dying for.


The next day she rushed back to the dorm after dinner to watch the Huntley-Brinkley Report. Then the evening after that, and ones that followed. Instead of sinking into the worn, cushiony chair, she stretched out on the floor, chin cupped in her hands, her face not more than three feet from the TV screen. There she viewed a world she knew little about. A place where police wielding clubs hit Negroes and dragged them off to jail just because they wanted to vote. Where young, colored women and men were blocked from attending state universities. Washington, D.C, where Men of Importance — all of them white — decided Negroes' future, the future of the whole country, in fact. Maybe the whole world. Why, television was about much more than rescuing Lassie.


It was only September.




"Road Food for Thought"


Nonfiction essay by Kathryn Louise Wood of Edenton, N.C.


July, 1960. The lush strains of "Theme from A Summer Place" drift from the radio of a sleek 1959 Oldsmobile gliding down two-lane Route 17 between Norfolk, Virginia and Swansboro, North Carolina. That balding, middle-aged man – white-knuckled fingers gripping the steering wheel – is my father, and that slender, raven-haired woman–arms, tightly crossed – is my mother. Behind Daddy, my brother's thirteen-year-old Carolina-Blue eyes scan the passing countryside for cows. Beside him sits a plump, little pug named Pam, bulbous eyes lifted skyward above the skinny back of an eight-year-old girl whose green-eyed gaze searches the landscape on her side of the car. I'm that girl.


After playing "Count the Cows" with Terry for several miles, I heave a sigh and lean my head back against the seat. "Mama, I'm gettin' hungry. We gonna eat soon?"


She snaps off the radio and faces my father, cocking one arched eyebrow. "Well?"


Daddy pulls a damp handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the back of his neck. "Like I told you, we can stop at the restaurant near Little Washington. It's air conditioned," he says, eyes glued to the road.


"It's Saturday night," Mama says through clenched teeth. "You know what that means."


"It means they'll be open."


Mama hugs herself tighter and stares out her window. I don't think she's counting cows.


I feel something besides hunger gnawing at my stomach. "Mama? I think I'm gonna be sick."


"You're probably too hungry."


"She's probably too hot," adds my father.


Both, I think. Terry reaches down into the jumble beneath his feet and hands me an empty paper bag. Seeing it makes me even queasier. "I don't think I can hold it in."


"Pull over," says Mama and the Olds comes to an abrupt halt off the side of the road.


She opens the door and helps me out into the dry scratchy grass, gently guiding me toward the deep ditch bordering the highway. Her hand presses against my forehead and steadies me as I bend over and empty the purple vestiges of my Nehi Grape Soda into the long shadows.


"I'm sorry, honey. We'll get you something to eat soon."


Back inside, I slump into the depths of the seat. Daddy starts the car but doesn't move back onto the road. "The restaurant's just a couple miles away."


"It's Saturday night," repeats Mama as though this means something beyond the fact that the restaurant's open for business.


Daddy drapes his freckled arm over the steering wheel and peers at her. "I don't see the problem."


"Look at us!" she says.


I glance down at my polka-dotted shorts and scuffed sandals and over at my brother's cut-off jeans and sneakers.


"I am looking at us," says Daddy. "What's the problem?"


"You remember what it's like in Little Washington on Saturday night. We lived there long enough. People get all dressed up and go out to dinner. Dresses, hats, gloves, suits, ties. We're in shorts, and we're sweaty!"


Daddy huffs out a sigh. "But...there's air conditioning."


Mama's shoulders look as though they'll meet her earlobes any second now. "Let's stop at the drive-in. They have chili dogs."


Good. I like chili dogs.


"No air conditioning," says Daddy as he glances over his left shoulder and pulls back onto 17.


Icy silence chills the air as I drift into an uneasy nap. I'm jerked awake as the car jolts to a sudden stop. Pushing my knobby elbows against the seat, I rise up and peer out. It's the drive-in. Without a word, Daddy gets out, slams the door, and marches to the outside order window. Returning, he slides back behind the wheel and hands Mama a white bag. She doles out the chili dogs, and Daddy starts up the Olds.


"We could sit here while we eat," she says.


"Too hot." His face glows a violent crimson.


Soon, dusky summer air flows through the open windows as he drives with one hand and fumbles at the chili dog's wax paper wrapper with the other. After a few unsuccessful tries, he tosses it back into Mama's lap. She carefully unwraps it and turns to face him, hot dog balanced in one hand. Without a word, she hurls it against the side of his face, chili and onions streaming down, sliding over his ear and down his neck.


The earth stands still for a few heart-stopping moments as Daddy continues to drive, staring stonily ahead, the disassembled hot dog resting on his shoulder. Terry and I exchange wide-eyed looks of horror. The world as we know it must be over. Pam stands up and places her paws on the back of the front seat, stretching her scrunchy neck toward Daddy. Her little, pink tongue reaches for the aromatic trails of chili inching down his throat. Terry grabs her before she makes contact, grasping her tightly against his chest like some kind of canine life preserver.


A quiet ripple of sound breaks the tomb-like silence. Mama is crying. Her narrow shoulders twitch rhythmically as the sound grows louder. She turns to Daddy. Tears spill from her eyes but...she's laughing! He looks at her, wipes a red ribbon of chili from his glasses and bursts into laughter. He slows the car and pulls it to a stop beside the road. Mama removes the sticky glasses from his face as he collapses into a stomach-clutching belly laugh.


Terry and I look at each other in disbelief then dissolve into laughter, ourselves. Curly tail wagging against her wiggling hips, Pam barks and slips from my brother's arms, snatching the stray hot dog as it rolls down Daddy's back. Reaching across the seat, Daddy gathers Mama into his arms, rocking her from side to side as the precious music of healing laughter fills the car.


Our world hasn't ended after all. And I've learned an important life lesson summed up by John Powell, "Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself for he shall never cease to be entertained."



Last Month: Grand Prize to Honorable Mention