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
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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