The Masters Review is excited to share the third place finalist in our 2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, “The Distant Daughter,” by Brenda Salinas Baker, chosen by Chelsea Bieker! Bieker writes, “A novel packed into a short story, the tale of Vera’s life built itself line by line into utterly surprising and powerful territory. The complexity between the mother and daughter and the force of things unsaid culminated in a final heartbreaking outcome that was deeply moving. This story felt timeless and cinematic but offered enough specificity to become something all its own. I found it haunting in the best way.” Read the story below.
Vera cleans the dirt from under her fingernails. She can’t distinguish between the ornate words her mother lances her with: Ungrateful, defiant, disturbed. They all mean the same thing: Bad.
Inside a closet, there’s a faded mint green album with a row of pink and orange houses. Tucked between its pages is a photo of Vera on a mustached man’s lap. She wears a wrist-length turquoise dress with puffed sleeves and a lace collar. On her heart, a white bib with embroidered marigolds in a pink vase. Worn over a safety-pin-secured diaper, Vera’s white tights tuck into black Mary Janes. A white ribbon holds her chocolate hair. Her dimpled hands fold together, gripping the curled ribbons of a balloon bouquet. Trapped inside a balloon, a baby bear dusted with glitter.
Vera’s grandfather has traveled a long distance to see her on a day she won’t remember. They sit on a cream loveseat so overstuffed it might burst into song. The maids struggle to clean the lion-mane carpet, the reason the room is reserved for formal occasions. The blackwood table holds an orchid in a planter, an ashtray with a smoking cigar and a highball glass. The sky darkens through the window. The man is heavy in a way that suggests affluence. The ends of his mustache point to his sagging cheeks. He wears a gray button-down shirt under a blue knit sweater. His tweed pants, in proximity to Vera’s tights, produce a friction she finds impossibly itchy. The man’s fat fingers curl around her calf. His black hair is the same color as his leather loafers, though considerably less shiny.
A slender figure casts a shadow over the carpet—Vera’s mother, Camilla. She is the architect of this tableau and its documentarian. The man looks sternly into the lens of the camera. Vera’s eyes, black as marbles, look downwards and towards the left. Neither of them smile.
If you were to peel the plastic film from the page, its crinkling would threaten its disintegration. On the back of the photograph, in Camilla’s punctuated loops, you’d see the words: Vera, age two.