Short Story Winner
By Dru Richman
The twelve-year-old boys and girls sat on the ground in a semi-circle with their fathers sitting behind them, facing the king. The king was seated on the royal throne in full regalia — leopard-skin cape, lion-tooth necklace, golden bracelets encrusted with jewels on both his wrists and ankles, his scepter was made of zebra wood and topped with an amethyst crystal as large as a man’s fist. He wore a dark purple robe that covered his entire body to his calves. The sun was dropping beneath the horizon and darkness was slowly spreading over the village. The king looked at each of the young candidates for a second or two and then began.
“This evening,” he said in slow marked tones, “marks the beginning of your passage from childhood to adulthood. Tonight begins the rite of ascension, that by our ‘mesora,’ our tradition, determines who will become warriors. Many will try and many will fail. Those who fail may become goat herders. And that task is also very important. Because we all need to eat, do we not?” He paused to receive a collective head nod of assent.
“Those who fail,” he continued, “may also become watchers of cucumbers. And that task, too, is also very important. Because we do not survive on meat alone. Is that not also true?” He paused to receive another nod of assent.
“Over the past years,” the king went on, “you have been trained to hunt and fish, how to make a fire and a camp, how to track wild animals, and how to avoid dangerous beasts. And through it all, you were always told to ‘never go into the Dark Woods alone.’ Tonight that will change.”
The king paused to let his words sink in before he continued
“Tonight,” he said, “you will be blindfolded and led by your fathers deep into the Dark Woods. You will stay there, alone, from high-night until sunrise, without food or water. Be warned: If you cry out or if you attempt to find your way out of the Woods or fall asleep, you may be devoured by some of the dangerous beasts you have been taught to avoid. Now stand and face your fathers.”
They all stood and faced their respective fathers. The fathers reached into a pouch hanging from their shoulders and withdrew an object wrapped in leather. After unwrapping it, a beautiful handmade knife was revealed. And as one, they recited the traditional words:
“Take this knife, which I have made by my own two hands much in the way that my father, and his father, and his father’s father made knifes for them on their night of their rite of ascension. Keep it close and it will protect you from harm and many evils. Whatever tasks await you, it is yours alone and can never be taken from you.”
With that, they handed the gleaming knives over to their children.
The king nodded this approval and the fathers and their children broke up into individual groups.
“Father,” said K’el, “I have never been in the Dark Woods before, let alone at night by myself, and blindfolded! What am I to do?”
“Do not worry, my son,” said T’shea. “You have been taught well by me and the others. Just remember your lessons. I have found a spot in the Woods, that is a far distance from the village, but when last I saw it, it looked like there were no wild animals there. That is where I will leave you. Remember, do not fall asleep or cry out or you may draw the creatures to you. You will have your knife, your training, your wits, and the spirits of our ancestors. You will be fine.
“And also remember, no matter what happens your mother and I will always love you.” With that, T’shea reached into the pouch and withdrew a blindfold, wrapped it around K’el’s head securely covering his eyes, and proceeded to lead his son to his fate in the Dark Woods.
T’shea led his son on a very circuitous route that encountered fallen trees, big rocks, a ravine or two, and even required them to ford a small stream. After two hours of walking, T’shea announced that they had arrived at the spot that he had previously found. He sat K’el on the ground next to a large tree.
“It is a bit past high-night, said T’shea. “The sun will rise on your right hand in six hours. When you feel the sun, you may remove the blindfold. Until then, your thoughts will be your own. And remember, do not sleep or cry out or you may draw the creatures to you.”
With that, he drew his son’s head to his, kissed his son on the forehead, and was gone into the Woods.
K’el was more than a bit dismayed. What am I going to do? he thought. I don’t have a spear. I don’t have a bow or arrow. All I have is a knife. The Dark Wood is very large and I am very small, and if I am not very careful I could end up as some beast’s dinner. I tried talking to some of the other warriors about what happened on their ascension night. They all laughed at me and said that I would have to see for myself when my time came. Great! Well, my time has finally come and their help was no help at all. Perhaps if I just sat for a while and just listened to my surrounding I might get a feeling as to what is around me.
K’el did just that. He sat and listened very intently. He could hear the wind through the trees. And if he listened really hard, he thought he could identify what kind of trees they were and tried to remember where those types of trees were in relation to the village. He gave up on that task in short order. Next he tried to listen to the insects and identified several that he knew. But they were very commonplace. Next he listened for other animal sounds. He heard some he knew, but many he didn’t. It was the ones he didn’t know that worried him. They didn’t sound like they were small harmless beasts, either. Over the next few hours, he used each of his senses to explore his environment…all without moving from his tree.
If I could just remove this stupid blindfold, then I might be able to figure out where I am and to possibly defend myself against any wild beast that might attack me.
With each passing hour K’el became increasingly more anxious and fearful. He wondered if other warriors experienced this kind of fear. Of course not. Warriors are fearless! Maybe the king was right. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a warrior. Maybe I ‘am’ destined to be a herder of goats.
Just then he heard a twig snap off to his left and slightly behind him. Immediately, he was on his feet, crouched in a defensive posture, his new knife gleaming in his hand. He waited, trying to calm his breathing. He cocked his head from left to right trying to pinpoint any other sounds, but none were forthcoming. And after several harrowing minutes, K’el put the knife away and returned to his seat under the tree and his dark thoughts.
And then he heard them. The Calypso birds! They were the harbingers of the morning. And then, the Bangangas! These small creatures were one of the first out in the day to forage for their morning meals. K’el smiled and slowly rose to his feet. He turned to his right and slowly removed the blindfold. Before his eyes was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen — the sun! He had survived! He had made it through his rite of ascension. Maybe he could become a warrior after all. He turned to his left and there, not ten paces from where he had been sitting blindfolded all night, was…his father!
“Father!” shouted K’el with joy, “Have you been there all night?”
“Of course,” replied T’shea, “I had to make sure that no wild beasts would eat you for dinner,” he laughed.
“Father,” said K’el, “I was so afraid. I thought I would die alone in the woods. Never to see you or mother or anyone else in the village ever again.”
“I know,” T’shea said. “That is one of the true tests of the rite of ascension. Whether you are a warrior or a herder of goats or even a watcher of cucumbers, we all have fears. And those fears must be overcome. The rite is the first step in learning to cope with those fears and understanding that fear is a natural thing. Everyone fears something. Dealing with those fears is where the real courage comes in.
“The second thing the rite teaches is that we all watch over each other. Even as I watched over you this night, each father watched over their child. Just as my father watched over me and his father watch over him. And, hopefully, as you will watch over your children some day. That is our tradition.”
T’shea smiled and asked his son, “Are you hungry?”
K’el said, “Yes! But we’re a long way from the village.”
“Follow me,” said his father pointing with his head.
They walked for about five minutes and came over a small rise and there before them was the village! K’el looked at his father incredulously.
T’shea smiled. “All the mothers of the village have prepared a great banquet in honor of each of the new ascendents,” he said. “This, too, is one of our traditions!”
K’el looked at his father, gave him a great hug, and then took off running to the village to have breakfast with his mother and his fellow ascendents.
By Richard Oyama
My nisei mother wept the moment
Her mother’s soul winged
In West Hiroshima from her body.
Who knows the circuitry
Stitchery of omens,
Coordinates of a dream-province,
Secret topography of wishes and fears?
This is the planetary skin
Easily cut, easily abraded:
A half-crucifixion in the dark.
Late Spring Rites of The Middle-Aged Apostate
By Sherre Vernon
I brush my teeth like there’s god in it, split
my medications into morning & evening
prayers. Offer a word for the ambulance drivers,
another for the small squirrels & lizards
that they might outrun the dog. I am learning
to make & hold eye contact. To practice asking
people what do you mean by that? & waiting. I am
making small talk. I think the cat is having a crisis
of faith, I say. What I mean is there’s an orthodoxy
to keeping & eating leftovers & it feels
like penance. Like socks that are too tight
at the toes but good enough & why am I
When I submerge myself
in water, alone, or my daughter still climbing in
uninvited, I am thinking of salt
& buoyancy, of eucalyptus. Wondering
when I began to ache
for a good scrub. When I let go
of shame, I started buying
& wrapping gifts for myself:
long, fingerless gloves, pens
with smooth ink & no caps (I love caps
but I lose them & I’m practicing
At the store where I buy
sturdy discount shoes, all the ladies have silver
hair & good gold watches. May we all guard
our mouths in plastic at night, amen. My husband
rubs hemp oil into my calves & near sleep I recite
the litany of calendaring to him: specialist,
vet, specialist, car repair, dentist, tree
A few houses from the traffic light
where the bar burned down, my neighbor
with greying facial hair tends a black tree,
a dead tree in the center
of his yard, climbs the winter ladder
with a chainsaw. He’s been doing it
for years. I say good morning
when I see him,
though I still don’t know
his name. He waves.
I confess a gluttony
of blackened fish tacos, avoidance
of highways unless I’ll be driving them
all day. I’m a sucker
for sunk cost, full commitment
when I’m alone. All the jasmine
I gave over to the yard on my knees
has vanished. The potted one
By Perry Wyatt
It never happens at the call of the moon,
The crust of dawn ever watching,
Nor the blush of leaves from green to brown,
This flourishing happens quietly.
A peaceful pact of one-to-one,
Laying plans at their feet,
Collecting dreams like acorns,
And planting them deep.
A promise that’s sworn in blood,
The marrow of their bones attests,
To good, or bad, or broken,
Born anew once more.
Mother of Pearl
By Dr. Ronja Vieth
I cut you
from my thighs and birth
you like I was from the lips
of the shell in which I stand,
swaddle you in love and tie
you tight in ropes
of freedom, use locks
of hair to wash your face
and dry your tears away
before I offer you
to the gods from whom you came,
all sparkly bright like
the light you are I
return you to finally claim
that part that’s you in me,
a treasured pearl hatched
around a grain of pain. For eons
it scratched until last year’s labors
forced it smooth
like a rainbow bead.
ritual of fire
by Joseph Farina
roots , flesh and grain
offered up as sacrifice
by ritual of fire
upon white hot coals
aromatic with mysterious unguents
the high priest turns and gathers them
with implements of sacred wood and iron
prepares them with anointments
of secret herbs and lotions
with eyes and hands
by ancient signs examines them
announcing at the precise time
when the gods of hunt and fire
have blessed their offerings
rises and proclaims aloud
to those assembled
the BBQ is ready.
by Jenna Scott
the moments in between time
as i become two
my midwife tells me
this is transition
words don’t happen in the moments of birthing
moments don’t happen
time is but a marker on my midwife’s watch
heart rate. contraction. push.
time doesn’t happen in birthing.
birthing happens outside
outside and inside my body at once
as i become two.
all of the markers set out before me
setting us through the footsteps of the ritual laid before us
my body doesn’t follow the rules of the books i’ve read
how this is supposed to go.
my body knows more than the markers
this ceremony is innate
this ceremony is primal
my body doesn’t need the permission to do what it’s meant to
the sacrifice comes naturally.
i split open
the birthing becomes birth
the birth becomes baby
i was once one
now i’m two
my heart laid upon my chest
“on the anniversary of your passing”
by Renee Sgroi
instead of sorrow, i will mark the day
with ceremony, from the moment of waking
to the feel of my body’s curl under darkening
covers i will breathe ritual, so that even
coffee’s steam will recognize its incense,
offer grounding, so that even work will fall
into quiet rhythm. instead of tears
i will laugh at childhood’s inconsistencies,
your Napoleonic years marshaling children,
how i so feared you, in the seventies
disco, glam rock that washed out folk
birthed me into polyester and velour,
softening textures. instead of scrolling
through my phone to search
for videos of you, like an augur,
i will watch the sun expose beneath
autumn leaves bright berries,
and sense cold pierce my ungloved hands
as it did that day, as it did.
instead of prayer, i will proffer
the best of me to a stranger, a kindness
in a word you might have said, you said.
i will not speak to your image or the rime
of your tomb, its russet marble too
polished and too smooth for contact.
instead, i will light small candles,
festoon my house with lavender so that air
is cleansed, the future tinged with garden.
this vertigo of sadness like foliage fallen
from a tree instead of clinging will i relinquish
this daughter-name you gave to me
like a crumpled curbside page
wind-swept, the street cleared for ambulating
Behind the Stone
By Terry Cox-Joseph
Easter morning you pull on black hoodie,
force calloused feet into red Reebocks,
deny three times you’re in a rush,
blow off brunch. No leg of lamb for this
eighteen-year-old. I slip an oversized
card into my purse. Easter,
after all, is about hope.
I envision you sauntering past hostess stand,
late, table for four, white linen tablecloth
and sterling everyday affairs. Later, orange
sun melts behind weeping cherry blossoms,
ephemeral silhouettes slip into woods like
shapeshifters. I envision you out there—
stranger’s porch, parking lot.
Prescription untouched, chores undone,
you chose laced smokes, video games
over springtime ritual. You know not what you do.
My collar is crisp, necklace colorful as confetti,
yellow mimosa cool against my lips.
I welcome lazy conversation, settle into booth.
Sun blesses windows,
paints halos on waiters. I feast on crème brulee
but hunger for resolution. Who will roll stone
from tomb’s entrance? When will you outgrow this?
I tick off emotions: Bitter lemon distress. Fresh
ground peppered anger. Sour cream dread.
Everywhere, clergy preach verses of promise:
He is Risen. New life begins.
You text me after dark. Praise be!
I wrest terse messages from your domain.
“Uh-huh.” And your favorite: “No.”
Pearls of blood clinging to my crown of thorns,
I recognize that forgiveness is a sacred
form of freedom
we strive to procure.