Presenting our November Fiction Winner for “Best First Chapter” ~ From Raggs: The Bent Man

After a small delay, and without further ado, I’m very happy to announce our judges’ choice as Winner for SoWrite’s November Fiction Contest: “Best First Chapter”

Congratulations to Raymond Alexander Kukkee for his First Place entry:

From Raggs: The Bent Man

by Raymond Alexander Kukkee

Stone CottageShe sat rigidly on a low, coarse three-legged stool next to the blackened hearth of the dull fieldstone fireplace, the lines on her face betraying her intense, silent determination to burn the potatoes in the blackened pot she was tending. She was the executioner, scorching the evening meal over the smoky peat fire, the flames catching her grey eyes and flickering, but not moving her soul. She did not seem to blink. It was a curious thing, watching her in the dull yellow light. She seldom moved at all.

I did not know any time after my father died that she did not do that. She always did that, sitting there motionless while she burned the potatoes, and then the stones, too, in their time; perhaps it was the illness, or just a reflection of incessant, unfeeling numbness she suffered from the endless, backbreaking work of the island; it was like that, or maybe it was her best effort at trying to ignore the maddening wind, the uncaring, ceaseless wind that shrieked through the cracks in the walls in the winter-time, chilling the body and dulling the mind like the endless scream of a black soul , that of a wandering banshee.

Perhaps it is even more realistic just to say her dullness came from the sickness, but it was certainly easier to pretend it was from the hours of knitting or gazing out over the dull, gray cold water –that is what the other boys said when they saw her sitting, cursing to herself, either spitting, or staring at the flame, or poking at the blackened stones of the fireplace and the smoke-blackened walls and the smoke-black window.

“She is not right, she will kill us, first chance,” they whispered excitedly and always backed away carefully as she stared blankly or turned, threateningly, or pointed toward them but not directly, just as if they were not standing beside me at all, but in another dark place in her mind, then shifting her gaze and her pointing, crooked fingers slowly to the single window pane, or the fire, or the blackened stone walls.

She is not right,” the whisperers repeatedly told me.

She’s been hit in the head by a stone as a child, she will kill us, wait and see,” they whispered, and turned to run away. She never chased them, just pointed at them, and saw them turn white with fear.

The ceiling too, was as black as insanity, a midnight shadow, and everything else in the stone house was blackened and worn and old and dull and tired like she was. Maybe it was just that she intuitively knew that the stones, and the potatoes before them– like us, just like the peat bricks on the fire, were already condemned to be burned like desperate souls on the way to the deepest black guts of hell itself.

One way or another, and only God knows why, the potatoes always got charred so that they looked like knobby rounded coal-black stones, no different than a pot of coal burned on a forge as if for an offering to a terrible false God; for in their state, the potatoes were most certainly not a fit meal for anyone, not the hard-working, bent man and his thin-boned boy or even the almost-starving, squealing pigs in the sty.

When the stone-faced woman finally swung the smoking, heavy cast-iron pot off of the fire, the potato charcoal smouldering in it was no different, no less black than the charred, soot-encrusted exterior of her pot, no different than blackened stones paving the way to hell, and no more fit to eat.

Sometimes, when I got older, at the suggestion of the bent man, if we thought she was not looking, I jumped up and stopped her ritual sacrifice in time by swinging the pot-iron off the fire but only if she was looking elsewhere, for she proved to be a frugal woman, using every bit of heat from the roaring fire, and if she caught me, silently scolded me for doing what she would not. She stared agonizingly into my soul with her penetrating, blank eyes, pushing my hands away from the pot, pointing at me with her crooked white fingers and forcefully removing my hands from the fire iron and swearing both at me, and to herself. She never failed to place the pot over the raging heat again, no matter how scorched.

“She puts it back,” I said to my father quietly. “She always puts it back. I try, but she puts it back.” His face was grim and tired.

“Let her burn her pot of charcoal as she will then” my father said, one day, and he got a second pot to cook the meal in while the woman sat and ignored and cursed and stared, scorching the contents of her own pot to nothing.

We ate in silence that evening, she said nothing about the second pot, the real food we were to eat, and my father smiled grimly just outside the door when he told me to put pieces of smoothed, blackened stone from the seashore into her pot every night instead of allowing her potatoes, for it was the time of a bad crop, a small, two-barrow crop, and we had no food to waste.

I did as he asked. She did not know the difference. She burned the stones instead, saying not a word.

“She knows not the difference, boy,” he said, watching her the next day. “We shall burn the potatoes, not too badly, God willing, and we shall leave her to burn the stones as she will do.”

It became my job to cook and take care of her in the best way I knew. I cooked the potatoes in the other pot just as the bent man showed me, and sometimes my inexperience and tender age burned them too, and we ate them bitterly.

(to be continued)

For his winning entry, Raymond receives the $50 First Place prize and our sincere congratulations.

In addition, I’ll invite him to participate in SoWrite’s next contest as a judge, rather than a contestant.

Our runners-up, tied for second place:

Please follow those title links for Teresa and Glory to read their delightful entries. In fact, just navigate to the now-public contest entry page, and scroll down to the comments section to see all of the entries as well as our judges’ responses.

Both of our contest judges remarked that this was a difficult decision, a close call, and agreed that choosing the winner was by no means a slam dunk. So read, comment if you like, and judge for yourself.

Thanks once again to everyone who participated in November Fiction. Stay tuned for December’s contest, starting soon.

»photo credit:  rgallant_photography

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  1. Ohhhh… my!!!!!! Raymond? …. WOW!

    Congratulations my friend. A well-deserved win. 🙂

    Glory and Teresa – both your articles too were so close. We had a tough time deciding.

    Jim, thank you for this honor of making me one of the first judges at your contests. I had fun reading and commenting; the most was trying to guess the author for each submission.

    • Thanks, Mandy! I’m as surprised as you are.. “:)) Much appreciated! Curiously, I guessed exactly opposite regarding the authorship of the other two finalists. With Glory and Teresa’s excellent chapters, any of us could have won, no problem. I think being a judge in this competition was tough–the overall quality of submissions was excellent and highly varied. Clearly, I have been blessed! –Thanks again for choosing ‘From Raggs’ !

    • Jim Bessey says

      I’m honored that you agreed to serve as a judge, Amanda.
      I know how hard you work on your own site. In the end, I thought that both you and Tammy did a wonderful job scoring and deciding this first contest. The fact that we were able to maintain anonymous entries, despite some technical glitches, was a real plus. It was fun to be surprised, wasn’t it?
      Our runners-up were excellent, too. In fact, I felt the entire field of entrants was outstanding.
      Congrats on a hard-earned win, Raymond!

  2. Wow, Jim!..Thank you! … I am not only honored, but amazed to have ‘From Raggs’ chosen as “Fiction, Best First Chapter” –especially with such great entries in this tough competition!
    Congratulations to Glory and Teresa especially–I have to agree with Jim, this really was a close call, from a competitor’s point of view, too close for comfort! I enjoyed your submissions -I really had a lot of doubts about my own chapter when I read the other entries…I fully agree the final decision had to be a very tough call for our judges, and I do thank them. All of your work and comments–and the difficulty of rendering a decision– is much appreciated. Thank you, judges!
    I am also looking forward to participating in future competitions! Thank you everyone! This was a great competition and I enjoyed it immensely. Special thanks for holding this challenge, Jim. ON to the next ! “:)

    • Jim Bessey says

      I’m happy for your win, Raymond.
      It was fun standing on the sidelines and watching the judges hash out their decisions. They arrived at a “final three” after some pleasant back-n-forth; but deciding the actual Winner was something else again.
      When I first designed this site, my goal was to have three judges and to award the winner only by consensus. So … as tricky as it was for our two judges to agree on the final outcome, imagine if we’d had THREE judges? Actually, I can’t wait to see that happen!
      As I mentioned, Raymond, I’d like you to sit out the next round. You won’t find it in the rules anywhere, but seems only fair to me that the same person probably should not win consecutive contests. I’ll amend the rules to reflect that decision.
      All in all, a splendid story started. I’m very interested to see where you take it from there!

      • Thanks, Jim, I can see that decision was difficult, no doubt about it. i wonder if it might actually be easier with three judges –extra eyes, total experience pool, and in the final round 2:1 vote could come in handy. Subjective opinion of literary value is involved, after all..”:)
        I don’t mind sitting out this next round at all, I was delighted to win this one! Consecutive contests rule might be a good one. Personally, I’d like to see other contestants get the same tremendous BOOST this win has given me. MUCH appreciated, Jim!

  3. Julie Helms says

    Congratulations, Ray! Well done and well deserved! I also appreciate the judges feedback and comments, and hope to improve for the next challenge. 🙂

    • Thank you, Julie, your comments are much appreciated. I am looking forward to seeing you in the next challenge ! “:)

    • Jim Bessey says

      I’m so happy that you entered, Julie!
      This was a leap of faith for everyone — the whole “pay to play” concept. But trust me on this — this competition was no runaway blowout. Both judges remarked upon the high quality of ALL entries, and agreed that there was nothing easy about whittling the field to first three and then just one.
      Future contests will each use different approaches, themes, and provisional rules. I hope that all of our talented writers — which certainly includes you! — will find “just the right contest” in which to shine — and win.

      • Julie Helms says

        Thanks for the kind words, Jim. Do you know when the next contest will be?

        • Jim Bessey says

          You’re entirely welcome, Julie.
          The next contest will debut very soon — I need a full day to put it together. (My day job has been crazy busy lately, which is good, don’t get me wrong!)
          One way or another, I want to put some prize money in another winner’s hands before the Christmas holiday. Stay tuned!

  4. Congratulations to the author and to you, Jim, for this first, very special contest!

  5. Sometimes we are too close to see the forest for the trees, often ignoring or missing altogether the excellence in our midst. Fortunately this is not one of those situations. Congratulations Ray on your impressive achievement, and in sharing your writings with us. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the story, and I can still taste the burnt potatoes.

  6. Raymond, Congratulations! Didn’t even know you had entered. How cool to win, huh? Thanks to Mandy and Jim and…ooh, I forgot the other judge! Forgive me but as anyone here can tell you, I can barely recall my own name sometimes. Thanks to mystery judge, too!

    • ha, Glory, this is too funny, when I read ‘Agnes’s garden’ I thought it was yours! I really liked your “The Boy with the Black Leather Jacket”. Excellent!

    • Jim Bessey says

      I never realized how out of touch you were while on vacation, Glory —
      I was sure you knew that Raymond had entered. He was my number-one contest promoter from the start. The surprise of these no-names entries actually adds to the fun, doesn’t it?
      — as in, for instance, the number of our peers who simply assumed YOU had written Agnes’s Garden!
      The whole contest was different for me, because I was the only one who knew the identity of each entrant — but I couldn’t tell anyone!

  7. Thanks everyone- each and every one of you. Kind comments are highly encouraging and are much appreciated! It is so cool to win especially in a field of high quality submissions. Congratulations are due to all of our entrants–beautiful work! I’ve really enjoyed this challenge, hopefully we shall see you at another one in the near future!

  8. Congratulations! What an intriguing story! Best of success with the rest of the chapters.

    • Thank you, Patti! Your comments are very encouraging, much appreciated!

    • Jim Bessey says

      Great to see you, Patti.
      As I mentioned to Bobbi, I hope we can lure you into joining one of our upcoming contests. If you have ideas for themes or contest-twists, please don’t hesitate to pass those along. I’d be happy to tailor future contests to suit different writing audiences.

  9. Tim O'Dell says

    Well done Ray! Much deserved and I hope to be able to read the full novel someday! Congratulations!

    • Thanks, Tim! I do have another chunk of it written, it is a work in process. Hopefully it will be completed at some point. I wonder how many ‘first chapters’ are sitting in filing cabinets or dusty drawers, never to be completed? I like this story line though, so it will likely be completed at some point. “:)

    • Jim Bessey says

      I just want to read a contest entry from my old friend, Tim O’Dell! -grin-
      Thanks so much for tracking us down, Tim. Hope you and your family are well.

  10. Wow Raymond …fnatastic visuals and stroy line.!!!! Plan to follow…:)

    • Hi Olivia!! It’s wonderful to see you, here, Lady Olivia! Thanks for the great encouragement! I do hope the muse keeps the story line coming, this is quite a challenge in itself….”:)

    • Jim Bessey says

      It’s so good to hear from you, Olivia.
      I’ve missed seeing you around the Castle. Hope you’ll come back and visit, maybe even win a contest or two!

  11. Tamara Narayan says

    Thanks to all the participants for letting us enjoy your stories. Every one had its own merits and making our decisions was no easy feat.

    • Tamara, thank you so much for allowing ‘From Raggs’ to win this competition. The other two finalist entries were wonderful! I MUST agree with you fully Tamara… this had to be a very difficult decision. Heads or tails in a coin flip, and this is the first time I’ve seen the coin stand on edge….. Thank you again !

    • Jim Bessey says

      Thank YOU, Tammy —
      for devoting so much time and thought into your role in our first competition. I know you have a busy life and a novel to finish. I really do appreciate your help and advice. When the novel is done, I promise to be your devoted promoter!

  12. Congrats on a contest well run! And Amazing success to Raymond!

  13. Congratulations Raymond! What a great read, so many intense and intriguing details.

    Congrats on a successful contest, too, Jim!

    • Thanks, Dave ! I really appreciate your comments, and glad you like it! I must agree,
      Jim did run a superb contest!

    • Jim Bessey says

      Thank you, Dave (and Raymond, too!),
      I admire the way you write, and sincerely hope that we can find a contest theme that suits your talents. You have an almost-magical way of taking small and simple things in life, and making your readers understand them as exceptional. Thanks for taking the time to comment here, Dave.

  14. Congrats Jim & Raymond! Next time, those $50 will be mine 😉

    Actually, probably not. This kind of writing is not my cup of tea. But it’s great to see you got some good entries!

  15. Congratulations to you Jim for putting this together and getting such great response – and to Raymond for a great chapter. You both rock!


  1. […] some serious November fun, I’m pleased to announce our fast and festive December Jackpot […]

  2. […] of four judges for the January competition: Julie, winner of our December contest; Raymond, our November winner; plus two brand new […]

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