We had an open topic this season. Our only guidelines were that submissions be nonfiction with a minimum of 200 words, and a maximum of 1,000 words.
THANK YOU TO OUR CONTEST SPONSOR:
It is the sincere desire of our sponsor that each writer will keep her focus and never give up. Mari L. McCarthy has kindly donated a prize to each winning contestant. All of the items in her shop are inspiring and can help you reach your writing goals. Write on!
Note to Contestants:
We want to thank each and every one of you for sharing your wonderful essays with our judges this season. We know it takes a lot to hit the send button! While we’d love to give every contestant a prize, just for your writing efforts, that wouldn’t be much of a competition. One of the hardest things we do after a contest ends is to confirm that someone didn’t place in the winners’ circle. But, believe it when we say that every one of you is a true winner for participating.
To recap our current process, we have a roundtable of 8+ judges who score equally formatted submissions based on: Subject, Content, and Technical. If a contestant scores well on the first round, she receives an e-mail notification that she passed the initial judging phase. The second round judging averages out scores and narrows down the top 20 entries. From this point, our final judges help to determine the First, Second, and Third Place Winners, followed by the Runners Up.
As with any contest, judging so many talented writers is not a simple process. With blind judging, all contestants start from the same point, no matter the skill level, experience, or writing credentials. It’s the writer’s essay and voice that shines through, along with the originality, powerful and clear writing, and the writer’s heart.
We hope that you continue to enter so we can watch you grow as writers and essayists, because each season is a rebirth of opportunity!
Now on to the winners!
Drum roll please....
1st Place: Betsy Armstrong
Oak Park, Illinois
Betsy Armstrong is a writer and Intuitive Eating coach who enjoys writing creative non-fiction essays, flash, and memoir which explore family, feelings, food, and our physical forms. Writer’s Digest and WOW-Women On Writing have recognized her essays, “The Alchemy of Apple Pie,” “Letter to My Body,” and “A Mother’s Whalesong,” in various contests; she has also been published in The Pinch Journal. She is currently at work on a memoir about losing her mother and adopting two children from Russia. Betsy lives in Chicago with her husband and two children, four pets, and a recipe collection that spans four generations. You can learn more at her website: www.betsyarmstrong.com; on Facebook: Betsy Anderson Armstrong; or on Instagram: @wordsbybetsy.
To the Lady of the Evening in Moscow
I noticed you immediately. You were holding court on the patio when the hostess settled us at a table across from where you lounged with some girlfriends and a smaller group of men—much older, much uglier, men. Doug and I had only come for dinner, but the stench of cigarette smoke permeating the restaurant forced us outside. We never expected front-row seats to a performance about trading sex for money. But you. You were in the spotlight and once the drama began, I couldn’t look away. I’m sorry.
It was our first night in Moscow after a sixteen-hour journey from Chicago. The next morning, we were scheduled to meet a translator who would guide us through the first steps of international adoption. Two children, 11-year-old Andrei and his 9-year-old sister, Svetlana, awaited us in a tiny village on the other side of Russia, but the embassy and accompanying paperwork were in Moscow, and thus, so were we.
Between time zones, miles, and the anxiety of what awaited us, my internal clock was cuckoo with fatigue, but Doug insisted on exploring and finding something to eat. Walking down Tverskaya Street, I felt drunk within the kaleidoscope of old architecture and modern shops spinning around eight busy lanes of traffic. We dipped underground to cross the street, stumbling into Red Square just in time to see the changing of the guard outside the Kremlin and an old crone selling trinkets from a table beside St. Basil’s cathedral. As the sun set on the August evening, we finally found food. And you.
What struck me about you were your angles and curves, your beautiful geometry. Cheekbones sharp as glass next to pillow-lips painted pink, surrounded by a straight sheet of ice-blond hair hanging down your back and framing your perfect, teardrop derriere.
You and your friends wore more skin than clothing. A lacy crop top hinted at a peeking nipple; a pierced navel glinted above low-slung jeans perched precariously on jutting hipbones. Your sky-high stilettos stabbed the cement upon which you stood. Some of the ladies displayed their stomachs or shoulders; others showed off their mile-long legs; everyone’s breasts were up and out, proudly counterfeit. As a middle-aged American in stretchy pants and Danskos amidst all of your juiciness, I felt dried out, barren. A twinge of jealousy amidst an ocean of sympathy flowed inside me.
The men. Pigs, I thought, as I named them in my head. Man #1: Ugly. Man #2: Squat. Man #3: Man-spread all over a couch. They were all arrogant and leering, streaming nicotine vapor from their nostrils like bulls in the winter, determining which of you they wanted to mount first. The men filled all the space with their toxic misogyny. I don’t know how you kept smiling or found oxygen in all that poison. I hated them on your behalf.
The way you fawned pierced my heart, seeing you place your delicate hand on one man’s beefy shoulder, the sweat stains in his armpits broadcasting his BO, I wanted to vomit. You giggled and accepted a drink, which I noticed you drank as if you were trying to forget. I don’t blame you for that.
At first, when you saw me staring, your Aegean-sea eyes slid sideways. You turned away so your hair formed a shield, hiding your face, but you must have gathered yourself because suddenly, you flipped your hair and locked eyes with me. Defiant. Fierce, right next to your fragile. Challenging me as if to say, “What else can I do?” I had no answer. All I can tell you now is that I desperately ached to help you.
I remembered the pediatrician we consulted about Andrei and Svetlana, a doctor who already had adopted five daughters. He’d informed me that 90% of Russian orphans who were never adopted grew up to become sex workers. Before I saw you, I believed I came to your country to rescue two kids from that fate, not to witness someone who’d already succumbed.
Did it show on my face? Shock? Anger? Impotence? Sadness? Resignation? I went through the five stages of grief, sitting there, watching you entertain those trolls. I had no idea, I would soon join your ranks.
What I didn’t know, was that over the next week I’d be tortured by the Russian patriarchy too. When in court, fighting for my kids the way you fought for your living, the judge ordered me to undergo an entire day of medical exams to prove I was “fit” to be a mother. The last doctor, a man with iron-colored eyes I’ll never forget, stared into mine as he sexually assaulted me. I didn’t have to pretend I liked it, but I was powerless to resist. I wanted my children that badly. Just as badly as you needed to survive.
Sitting in that restaurant, two women from two different cultures, from opposite sides of the world, I believed we had nothing in common. A week later, I realized women, all of us, are sisters in some way. You and I were bound by how we were forced to cater to men, by how the world chains us to servitude, demands we put ourselves on a platter and use our beauty, our youth, our street smarts, our intelligence, our bodies...to get what we want, or need, to simply to survive.
Wherever you are now, Lady of the Evening in Moscow, I need you to know I’m ashamed I did nothing for you. I saved my kids, but I couldn’t rescue you. Please remember: I saw you. I keep seeing you. When I look into Andrei and Svetlana’a eyes, I see the same blue flame I witnessed staring into yours. You, they—we—are made of ice, of diamonds, of fire, of steel. We are untamed ferocity, defined. We may seem conquered, but we’re not.
We are indestructible.
What Betsy Won:
2nd Place: Lisa Butler
Lisa Butler is a writer, art dealer, curator, and Director of Business Development for a small West Texas company focused on Creative Placemaking. As a child of a transient diplomatic family, she constructed her sense of home through books and a tacit absorption of the complex cultures she was immersed in. For the past five years, she and her writing partner have been researching, cataloging, and documenting single artist and private art museums around the world. Her next piece on Texas Single Artists Museums will be published in Art Houston this fall. She currently lives in Odessa, Texas with her husband, nine-year-old daughter Izzie, and a cadre of five (yes count them, five) feline terrorists. This essay is her first public share of a private world that is richly populated with sentient stories and apparitions—all clamoring to be heard. You can’t follow her anywhere yet, but maybe one day soon. To request an article and/or collaborate, reach out to her at cityoftheartsmf[at]gmail[dot]com.
I am in an otherworldly Beetlejuice-esque house in Little Haiti, sitting on a rattan couch with florid floral cushions, struggling with the finite nature of words. How small they are as containers for the infinite. An overwhelming amount of ephemera surrounds the nine of us who sit in a rough circle. A decoupage of memories thrown together that form a voodoo vortex of disorientation.
We discuss sacred sexuality—the ancient spiritual path known as Tantra. “The breath as the fuel building up erotic energy,” she says. “You become the embodiment of love in the world,” he says.
I have given up on my sexuality. There is no format I find in which I can be free to express what once used to be volcanic within me. The energy of my love, if it remains, is buried somewhere deep and dark.
Dark like the night I tell you I want to open our marriage. I only comprehend you’ve taken the gun from the safe when I hear it pop. Acrid smoke burns my nose. I walk into the closet not knowing if I’ll find you, or the contents of your head, clinging to uniforms and party dresses.
Dark like the road. “Take me to the hospital,” I say. It’s been hours since a nascent fist, or foot has grazed my womb. “It’s not good,” the silence echoes. I deliver him—tiny, perfect and without breath.
Dark like camping in the mountains. Sixteen, high as a kite, feeling the speed of light that the stars and I share. Unable to contain myself—the orgiastic glory of being one with these celestial beings. In my reverie, I miss that you have gone to bed, in pairs like animals, securing yourselves in the safe container of Noah’s Ark. I am not the light body of stars. I am incarnate, alone, and full of grief.
I weep during this exercise in brokenness.
Initiation and ego death sound like such scary things from the outside. Being involuntarily rent from the stultifying confines of comfort. Undulating Electroshockicution! Is this the secret of awakening Kundalini? These dark incantations blow my mind, my pain invoking the most holy of holies, unadulterated light.
I am comforted in my terrified surrender.
I’ve dreamt this dream a million times before. I am lost in a desert, so parched, but I have forgotten what it is to want even the nourishment that would keep me alive. I have been walking so long that I have forgotten I am moving. I walk with the ghosts of other travelers. The crows have feasted on the opulent delicacy of my eyes, but somehow I am better able to navigate without the terrible spectre of the endless sameness of the dunes, remnants of what once used to be mountains. I remember that they call this the highway of the lost. The ghosts and I keep on walking.
What Lisa Won:
3rd Place: Natalie Fynn
Natalie is from England but has lived in France for the last eight years. She discovered her passion for writing whilst living in Paris where she began exploring her experiences in the city of love through creative nonfiction.
She spends much of her free time salsa dancing around her living room with her charming French husband and cuddling their “baby”—an adorable Maltese dog called Buddy.
She is currently working on a series of children’s books but her ultimate goal is to write a memoir based on her Parisian adventures.
This is the first time Natalie has shared her work with a wider audience.
How Did We End Up Here?
You writhe around on the stone tiles in desperate agony. Your little round belly rises and collapses with every laboured breath and your yellow beak hangs open, screaming for help yet no sound comes out. Your toes stretch out and clench, clinging on for dear life. The thunderous sound of your crash still rings in my ears.
It was as if an unruly child had kicked a leather ball over the fence and it smacked against the French patio doors. But it was you, duped by the deceptive reflection. You thought you were flying towards the cherry blossoms that decorate the glass. But now here you lie, helpless, on the terrace of a stranger’s garden. You never thought you’d end up here. And neither did I.
Moving to this town after quitting my job as a teacher and pursuing the duties of a trailing spouse has been about as pleasant as running into a glass door. You don’t belong here, in this garden. And I’m not sure I belong within the confines of these barracks either.
It took Francis thirty-six years to finally fulfill his dream of becoming a military policeman. I couldn’t have been prouder of him when he decided to quit the restaurant business and make this career change. It was going to be a glorious adventure. We’d discover every inch of France together. And while Francis was protecting the community, I’d be following my dreams. But instead of following dreams, I’m folding laundry. I couldn’t have known that in the process of supporting my husband in the pursuit of finding his identity that I’d be stripped of my own.
So I know what it feels like to be fooled by the trickery of seeing only wonderful things ahead reflected in the glass. I see what this has done to you. The cruelness of this deceit has left you struggling for air and your tired toes are pulsing less and less. I hold my head in my hands for I refuse to witness you taking your final breath. I’m suffocating along with you.
But I’ve come to accept that if I don’t leave the barracks, nothing bad can happen to me. I won’t be interrogated by a man in blue uniform who blocks my entry at the gate because he doesn’t believe I live here. He won’t ask why I speak his language with an accent. I won’t have to tell him my name only for him to shrug his shoulders because it doesn’t ring a bell. I won’t have to remind myself that the only name I have these days is “Francis’ wife.” I won’t be relieved when he hears me say my husband’s name and the penny finally drops. I won’t have to thank him for letting me go to my own home. If I don’t leave the barracks, none of this has to happen again. I am safe in my home.
You feel safe here too. Your breath begins to steady. Your belly rises and falls again, your spotted tail bobbing up and down as it does so. You propel yourself to an upright position and find your feet firmly on the ground. You take your tentative first few steps while your crooked wing swings outward and back in again like a door on loose hinges. A flock flies overhead, making a mockery of your woeful state. You raise your head to watch them. You want so desperately to feel the wind rushing beneath you as you soar through the clouds. And I understand that need entirely.
I often reminisce about those carefree years in Paris. It was a time when Corona only existed in the form of a beverage, when any day of the week caused for celebration and when I didn’t think I could soar any higher. I looked in the mirror and saw a courageous woman who took risks and wasn’t afraid of anything. When I look in the mirror now, the same image is still reflected back at me. But I won’t be fooled. It’s just a trick of the light.
It will take time to repair my wings and join the flock again. It will take time to find an identity that exists outside of being “Francis’ wife.” One day, in time, I will have a name again. And you know better than anyone that time is a healer.
You cautiously recuperate from the shock. You’ve found a suitable patch of grass in the sunlight which you seem content on occupying for now.
The key turns in the lock signalling Francis’ return from work. I rush to greet him at the front door with a kiss and lead him out into the garden, all the while telling him about your plight. He follows behind as I approach the patch of grass you were resting on in the sunlight. But you’re not there.
We look all around the garden but you’re nowhere to be seen. You’re not perched on the stone tiles or standing among the daisies. We claw back the overgrown weeds and see only dirt below.
You used your disfigured yet magical wings and fled the place where you never meant to end up.
I turn to face the house and there it is. The last thing you saw before your world went momentarily dark. The reflection of cherry blossom branches gently swaying in the wind really is so vivid. I turn back and gaze up at the real-life Sakura and hope you’ve finally made it there, safely settled somewhere within their pale blooms.
As we head back inside the house, I notice two of your tiny feathers still stuck to the glass. An imprint of your collision. I think I’ll leave them there for now. Whenever I see them, I’ll be reminded of how, against all odds, you managed to overcome the desperate state you were once in. And if you can do it then, maybe one day, I’ll fly again too.
What Natalie Won:
Congratulations to the runners-up! It was very close, and these essays are excellent in every way.
Click on the titles to read:
Oven Spring by Sara Hartley, Traverse City, Michigan
Tennis by Jennifer Lauren, Austin, Texas
Dissociative Love by Dorothy Collin, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Remaining Embers by Eden McCarthy, Talent, Oregon
The Gathering Storm by Lynn Nicholas, Tucson, Arizona
A Father By My Name by Jennifer Juniper, Key West, Florida
Exposed: Impoverished Beauty by Rosie Schaller, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Congratulations to our essay contest honorable mentions! Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.
Unicorns by Shelley Stoehr, West Haven, Connecticut
Poor Margins by Elizabeth Crowell, Boston, Massachusetts
Scribbles by Kimberly Bella, Winchester, Massachusetts
Quasi-Persephone by Erini Loucaides, Nicosia, Cyprus
Writer’s Cinderblock by Kristen A. Frederick, North Mankato, Minnesota
I am a Nasawiyya by Kristin Azar, Beirut, Lebanon
The Art of Longing by Barbara Olsen, Colorado
Life on the Edge by Jo Skinner, Brisbane, Australia
Christmas Shopping by Janet Smuga, New Jersey
An ode to small and vulnerable things, or to fathers by Sawyer Schweitzer, Atlanta, Georgia
What the Honorable Mentions Won:
This brings the Q3 2022 CNF Essay Contest officially to a close! Although we’re not able to send a special prize to every contestant, we will always give our heartfelt thanks for your participation and contribution, and for your part in making WOW! all that it can be. Each one of you has found the courage to enter, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in itself. Best of luck, and write on!
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