Make way for the winner! “Russian Thistle” was chosen by Ye Chun as the winner of the 2021-2022 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers. She writes, “In a mirrorless psychiatric hospital room, a woman relives her past as images click on in her head like a slide show. She is twelve years old again, forced to grow up too quickly in a world of poverty and misogyny, absent parents and toxic boy cousins, and Soobie, her mentally challenged girl cousin whom she attempts to save but inevitably fails. ‘Russian Thistle’ looks unflinchingly at trauma and the brittleness of humanity, but also captures the tenderness of one’s effort to be good. Intense and graceful, the story moves with a masterful fluidity and sentences so finely chiseled they sing and reverberate.” Read the winning story in full at the link below.
After it all, you made Soobie a birthday treat out of a chocolate pudding cup, a candle stuck in the middle. You sang to her, softly, the two of you in a closet so the cousins wouldn’t hear, as the candle sunk into quicksand. Then you both scooped up pudding with your fingers until it was gone.
The place where you grew up plays like a slideshow on the screen of your eyelids years and more years later, one after another, click and click and click, the pictures coming up in no order, here’s your daddy bringing a lemonade to your mama, here’s grandpop next to the big truck he drove for Sears, that’s Aunt Lavender at her fifth wedding, and one of you as a baby having a bath in a metal washtub under the cottonwood in the backyard. The way a place looks when you turn backwards like that switches on other kinds of memory: the retinas, the plasma, the knees.
You remember how the old cottonwood smelled, something eating it up from the inside, like cancer for a tree, exhaling sickness over you while you ate overdone hotdogs with your cousins. In college horticulture, you learned the problem is called slime flux and is common in certain tree families whose roots have been compromised.
You know a little bit about that kind of thing.
A slide of your daddy sitting in a lawn chair, shirtless, eating a drumstick, shortly before he left to find God, sometime around ‘78. One of mama, asleep in the recliner and still in her janitor uniform, mouth slack and a mug of something that wasn’t coffee balanced on her belly.
Then a picture of cousin Soobie. Soobie-soo. Someone had painted up her face like an owl. You must have done that. Who else. Who. Who?
You asked Pete, the guy you’d been seeing in 1987 if his childhood felt candy-colored at the time, when he was actually living it, and he maneuvers the whiskey away from your hands like you are inebriated and talking nonsense. Well, mine did, you tell him. Which is true about the years before your daddy left. Pete shrugged, which plumped his gut against the table and upended your drink.
You were not going to have that cocktail anyhow. Or tell him why you should not. The barmaid shimmied her rag into the mess. Beneath the table, your belly popped open the snap of your jeans.
The eastern mountains in your hometown looked purple and pink at sunset. Edible, your child-self would pretend, just like the Big Rock Candy folk song, and they were even named in Spanish for a fruit with rosy flesh. Your daddy explained it to you once, something about the length of light waves at that particular angle and the reflective minerals in the granite. Watermelon. Sandias. Brightest in late summer.
The hospital shrink asks you about your early years, but you cannot answer. Okay, let’s make a picture of where you grew up, she directs, and the hospital paints, dull and cheap, will not shine like those candy mountains, so you grab old magazines and tear out photos in colors that might work, mauve sweatshirts and magenta jogging shoes, sofa pillows in a pink that is almost red, purple jars of jam, bleached blue Levi’s, and the shreds of all these false things, pasted down flat, will come close enough.
How lovely. I did not know you were an artist, she says.