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 Cottage
She 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!

    Congratulatons my frend. A well-deserved wn. :)

    Glory and Teresa – both your artcles too were so close. We had a tough tme decdng.

    Jm, thank you for ths honor of makng me one of the frst judges at your contests. I had fun readng and commentng; the most was tryng to guess the author for each submsson.

    • Thanks, Mandy! I’m as surprsed as you are.. “:)) Much apprecated! Curously, I guessed exactly opposte regardng the authorshp of the other two fnalsts. Wth Glory and Teresa’s excellent chapters, any of us could have won, no problem. I thnk beng a judge n ths competton was tough–the overall qualty of submssons was excellent and hghly vared. Clearly, I have been blessed! –Thanks agan for choosng ‘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 ste. In the end, I thought that both you and Tammy dd a wonderful job scorng and decdng ths frst contest. The fact that we were able to mantan anonymous entres, despte some techncal gltches, was a real plus. It was fun to be surprsed, wasn’t t?
      Our runners-up were excellent, too. In fact, I felt the entre feld of entrants was outstandng.
      Congrats on a hard-earned wn, Raymond!

  2. Wow, Jm!..Thank you! … I am not only honored, but amazed to have ‘From Raggs’ chosen as “Fcton, Best Frst Chapter” –especally wth such great entres n ths tough competton!
    Congratulatons to Glory and Teresa especally–I have to agree wth Jm, ths really was a close call, from a compettor’s pont of vew, too close for comfort! I enjoyed your submssons -I really had a lot of doubts about my own chapter when I read the other entres…I fully agree the fnal decson had to be a very tough call for our judges, and I do thank them. All of your work and comments–and the dffculty of renderng a decson– s much apprecated. Thank you, judges!
    I am also lookng forward to partcpatng n future compettons! Thank you everyone! Ths was a great competton and I enjoyed t mmensely. Specal thanks for holdng ths challenge, Jm. ON to the next ! “:)

    • Jim Bessey says:

      I’m happy for your wn, Raymond.
      It was fun standng on the sdelnes and watchng the judges hash out ther decsons. They arrved at a “fnal three” after some pleasant back-n-forth; but decdng the actual Wnner was somethng else agan.
      When I frst desgned ths ste, my goal was to have three judges and to award the wnner only by consensus. So … as trcky as t was for our two judges to agree on the fnal outcome, magne f we’d had THREE judges? Actually, I can’t wat to see that happen!
      As I mentoned, Raymond, I’d lke you to st out the next round. You won’t fnd t n the rules anywhere, but seems only far to me that the same person probably should not wn consecutve contests. I’ll amend the rules to reflect that decson.
      All n all, a splendd story started. I’m very nterested to see where you take t from there!

      • Thanks, Jm, I can see that decson was dffcult, no doubt about t. wonder f t mght actually be easer wth three judges –extra eyes, total experence pool, and n the fnal round 2:1 vote could come n handy. Subjectve opnon of lterary value s nvolved, after all..”:)
        I don’t mnd sttng out ths next round at all, I was delghted to wn ths one! Consecutve contests rule mght be a good one. Personally, I’d lke to see other contestants get the same tremendous BOOST ths wn has gven me. MUCH apprecated, Jm!

  3. Julie Helms says:

    Congratulatons, Ray! Well done and well deserved! I also apprecate the judges feedback and comments, and hope to mprove for the next challenge. :-)

    • Thank you, Jule, your comments are much apprecated. I am lookng forward to seeng you n the next challenge ! “:)

    • Jim Bessey says:

      I’m so happy that you entered, Jule!
      Ths was a leap of fath for everyone — the whole “pay to play” concept. But trust me on ths — ths competton was no runaway blowout. Both judges remarked upon the hgh qualty of ALL entres, and agreed that there was nothng easy about whttlng the feld to frst three and then just one.
      Future contests wll each use dfferent approaches, themes, and provsonal rules. I hope that all of our talented wrters — whch certanly ncludes you! — wll fnd “just the rght contest” n whch to shne — and wn.

      • Julie Helms says:

        Thanks for the knd words, Jm. Do you know when the next contest wll be?

        • Jim Bessey says:

          You’re entrely welcome, Jule.
          The next contest wll debut very soon — I need a full day to put t together. (My day job has been crazy busy lately, whch s good, don’t get me wrong!)
          One way or another, I want to put some prze money n another wnner’s hands before the Chrstmas holday. Stay tuned!

  4. Congratulatons to the author and to you, Jm, for ths frst, very specal contest!

  5. Sometmes we are too close to see the forest for the trees, often gnorng or mssng altogether the excellence n our mdst. Fortunately ths s not one of those stuatons. Congratulatons Ray on your mpressve achevement, and n sharng your wrtngs wth us. I’m lookng forward to readng the rest of the story, and I can stll taste the burnt potatoes.

  6. Raymond, Congratulatons! Ddn’t even know you had entered. How cool to wn, huh? Thanks to Mandy and Jm and…ooh, I forgot the other judge! Forgve me but as anyone here can tell you, I can barely recall my own name sometmes. Thanks to mystery judge, too!

    • ha, Glory, ths s too funny, when I read ‘Agnes’s garden’ I thought t was yours! I really lked your “The Boy wth the Black Leather Jacket”. Excellent!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      I never realzed how out of touch you were whle on vacaton, Glory —
      I was sure you knew that Raymond had entered. He was my number-one contest promoter from the start. The surprse of these no-names entres actually adds to the fun, doesn’t t?
      — as n, for nstance, the number of our peers who smply assumed YOU had wrtten Agnes’s Garden!
      The whole contest was dfferent for me, because I was the only one who knew the dentty of each entrant — but I couldn’t tell anyone!

  7. Thanks everyone- each and every one of you. Knd comments are hghly encouragng and are much apprecated! It s so cool to wn especally n a feld of hgh qualty submssons. Congratulatons are due to all of our entrants–beautful work! I’ve really enjoyed ths challenge, hopefully we shall see you at another one n the near future!

  8. Congratulatons! What an ntrgung story! Best of success wth the rest of the chapters.

    • Thank you, Patt! Your comments are very encouragng, much apprecated!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Great to see you, Patt.
      As I mentoned to Bobb, I hope we can lure you nto jonng one of our upcomng contests. If you have deas for themes or contest-twsts, please don’t hestate to pass those along. I’d be happy to talor future contests to sut dfferent wrtng audences.

  9. Tim O'Dell says:

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

    • Thanks, Tm! I do have another chunk of t wrtten, t s a work n process. Hopefully t wll be completed at some pont. I wonder how many ‘frst chapters’ are sttng n flng cabnets or dusty drawers, never to be completed? I lke ths story lne though, so t wll lkely be completed at some pont. “:)

    • Jim Bessey says:

      I just want to read a contest entry from my old frend, Tm O’Dell! -grn-
      Thanks so much for trackng us down, Tm. Hope you and your famly are well.

  10. Wow Raymond …fnatastc vsuals and stroy lne.!!!! Plan to follow…:)

    • H Olva!! It’s wonderful to see you, here, Lady Olva! Thanks for the great encouragement! I do hope the muse keeps the story lne comng, ths s qute a challenge n tself….”:)

    • Jim Bessey says:

      It’s so good to hear from you, Olva.
      I’ve mssed seeng you around the Castle. Hope you’ll come back and vst, maybe even wn a contest or two!

  11. Tamara Narayan says:

    Thanks to all the partcpants for lettng us enjoy your stores. Every one had ts own merts and makng our decsons was no easy feat.

    • Tamara, thank you so much for allowng ‘From Raggs’ to wn ths competton. The other two fnalst entres were wonderful! I MUST agree wth you fully Tamara… ths had to be a very dffcult decson. Heads or tals n a con flp, and ths s the frst tme I’ve seen the con stand on edge….. Thank you agan !

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Thank YOU, Tammy —
      for devotng so much tme and thought nto your role n our frst competton. I know you have a busy lfe and a novel to fnsh. I really do apprecate your help and advce. When the novel s done, I promse to be your devoted promoter!

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

  13. Congratulatons Raymond! What a great read, so many ntense and ntrgung detals.

    Congrats on a successful contest, too, Jm!

    • Thanks, Dave ! I really apprecate your comments, and glad you lke t! I must agree,
      Jm dd run a superb contest!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Thank you, Dave (and Raymond, too!),
      I admre the way you wrte, and sncerely hope that we can fnd a contest theme that suts your talents. You have an almost-magcal way of takng small and smple thngs n lfe, and makng your readers understand them as exceptonal. Thanks for takng the tme to comment here, Dave.

  14. Congrats Jm & Raymond! Next tme, those $50 wll be mne 😉

    Actually, probably not. Ths knd of wrtng s not my cup of tea. But t’s great to see you got some good entres!

  15. Congratulatons to you Jm for puttng ths together and gettng such great response – and to Raymond for a great chapter. You both rock!

  16. ¡Oh! A m tambén me chfla el pcante! Me acuerdo que antes de ponerme malta de lo mío me traje de Méxco centos de salsas súper pcantes y con ella condmentaba todo todo todo, hasta los huevos frtos. En casa hacemos bastante pollos asados así enteros, con su salsa de cea&2ltbo#8l30; pero esto de la crema de pmentos: Wow! Me encanta la dea, tengo que probarlo algún día. Besotes


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

  2. […] of four judges for the January competton: Jule, wnner of our December contest; Raymond, our November wnner; plus two brand new […]

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