I entered a local short story contest and lost. I wrote the story in the hospital while wife was in labor.
This weekend we went to the book festival that was to announce the winners. It was in a convention center downtown, in Room 210. The room was so packed I stood towards the back. They started announcing third place and I realized that the winners had been notified ahead of time. “Third place goes to … who I believe is here today.” And third place was dressed up, with nice hair, and full makeup on. “Aha,” I thought. They announced second, who was not there, but her husband was there to receive the award on her behalf. Even he was dressed up: in a corduroy sport jacket and tweed pants. He sat in front of me. I wore a t-shirt.
“They spelled her name wrong on the check,” he said to some older people sitting next to him – maybe his parents or in-laws. “Can you believe that?”
“You’d expect more from book people,” they said.
The theme of the contest was The River. My story did have an actual river in it but mostly it was metaphorical; Time was my river. Maybe that did not come across. The knowledge of death mixed with Time caused a type of erosion: the drama in the story. Maybe that did not come across or it did and it was cheesy, etc.
For those of my readers who are curious about this losing story, you can read it below. After reading it again, I think it’s a bit contrived, like I was trying to be too much like Italo Calvino:
The tree palace bustled with activity. Loin-clothed servants carried platters mounded with food for the guests lounging around the fountains. Oyo drank tea, patted her flowerbeds, and kissed each bud before planting it while her father reclined in the shade of a giant leaf and read the morning paper, checking the price of corn.
It was the year 50,000 B.C. The sky was charred gray from volcano smoke.
Oyo’s father looked up at the gray sky and said, “A beautiful day. What more could one ask for?”
“I don’t know, father.”
“Man is blessed to live forever.”
At night Oyo was attended by her favorite servant Joffrey. He snuck chocolates into her room when it was time for bed. He blew the soft petals of volcanic ash off of her windowsill and told her stories late into the night.
“Joffrey, what color is the sky behind the volcano smoke?”
“Nobody knows, young one.”
“I dreamed about it once.”
“What color was it?”
“I don’t remember.”
Joffrey’s grandmother was often with him. She was kind to Oyo but so old that she couldn’t talk. Oyo didn’t know the meaning of the woman’s slow movements or the creaking in her bones. The old woman sat silently with them, intently listening to Joffrey’s stories until she got tired, and then went to her room.
“She told me every story I know,” Joffrey said.
“Really?” Oyo said.
“Yes. She’s the oldest person in Los Angeles.”
“How old is she?”
“I can never get a straight answer from her. My uncle says she’s Eve, the first woman ever born. I don’t believe him.”
“Is that why her skin sags?”
“Old folk’s skin does sag. Maybe it will be pulled tight again. We don’t know. Maybe she will run fast again. We don’t know.”
“Will my skin sag when I’m old?”
“You will never be old, young one.”
Oyo woke up one morning and everything was wonderful until she couldn’t find Joffrey. She looked in all his usual cleaning stations: the kitchen and the bedrooms. His own room was completely empty. All of his things were gone. There was a bucket on the ground with a note on it.
Your father knows about the chocolates. He decided to let grandma and I go. I’m very sad about this.
Grandma insisted that I leave you this bucket. She said it’s one of the last ‘old’ things – from her time. She said what’s inside never runs out. I don’t know what’s inside. (She wouldn’t let me look.)
I’m sorry that I couldn’t say goodbye. They sent us quickly. I will write to you once grandma and I settle down in a new place.
Oyo went to her room and cried. Her little shoulders heaved as she hugged the bucket, the last thing she had of Joffrey. Her father came in at the end of the day.
“You took Joffrey away!”
“He told you stories when you should have been doing your homework and fed you chocolate after dinner time.”
“I hate you.”
“You need to do better in school.”
Her father left. She sat up on the edge of the bed when she was done crying and opened up the bucket, curious to know what was inside. It was filled to the brim with bright blue paint. She dipped her finger in.
“I will paint everything blue,” she said.
The next day she started on blades of grass, going one-by-one with a tiny brush. The other kids laughed at her as they hit rocks with hammers.
“What are you doing?” they said.
“I’m painting everything blue,” she said.
“You’ll run out of paint.”
“This stuff doesn’t run out.”
Horrible news: Grandma died. Don’t know what ‘died’ means? I didn’t either. She and some of the oldest members of our tribe have stopped moving. Their bodies just stopped. They don’t walk or talk or even breathe. They stank so we dug holes and put them in the holes. We didn’t know what else to do!
I have not been able to sleep.
How are you doing? What was in that bucket, if you don’t mind me asking?
The news had a story: Resident of Los Angeles Believed to be the First Cro-Magnon, Pronounced Dead. The article went on to explain:
“No word yet on whether this ‘death’ is a permanent condition.”
Oyo imagined her tears to be blue and walked around for days with her bucket and brush, thinking of what to paint.
“If death is true for everyone,” Oyo thought. “I won’t be able to paint everything blue. I won’t have the time. This paint may last forever but I won’t. The world, the universe, would’ve been so beautiful, all blue. What have I finished? Some birds, some flowers – that’s nothing. I could go on with birds and flowers but so much would be left out. There would be no blue tigers, blue stars, or blue sky.”
The inevitability of death made people do weird things. Cities sectioned off whole areas for old people to live in housing units like pariahs. Nobody talked about it. This troubled
Oyo. She more frequently skipped school and spent time in the forest.
She went to the edge of the trees by the river and made a bamboo ladder. She made it as tall as she could, propped it against the gray ashen sky, climbed up with her bucket and brush, and began painting. She had no idea what she was doing but it felt like the right thing to do. Hours passed like that. Drops of paint fell on her face and her arm got tired. She came back down, took a step back, and looked at her work.
She felt like an artist.
“Looks pretty good,” a passerby said.
“You should do the whole thing.”
“All of it?”
She dropped out of college, got into arguments with her father, and stayed out later into the night.
“You’re going to squander everything.”
“It’s what I was born to do, dad.”
“You were born to paint the sky a different color? It looks fine how it is.”
“It could look better.”
She made a scaffold so she could paint like Michelangelo. She took it, her bucket, and her ladder, and set off to paint the sky, from California to New York. She wanted to say goodbye to her father but didn’t know how. She waited a long time outside his office one day, held up her fist to knock, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
She saw a lot of things on her journey. She saw wooden satellites shoot into space and ancient wooden city skylines. She met the Choctaw and the Cherokee, saw what they hunted, what sauce they put on their food, and what they watched on TV. Each chief saw what she had done to the west and gladly bade her welcome to do the same over their sky.
“The blue is better than the ash,” they said.
Oyo was still young when she finished the sky over America. She didn’t get to go home to check her mailbox to see if Joffrey had written her but she hoped he did write. She thought she would probably never get home.
Was there an end to the world? If there was an end and she got there before she died, she was going to keep on going. She would walk right off the edge with her ladder and scaffold and start on the sky in some other world, or fall off the big waterfall into space. That was fine. She was tempted in certain weak moments to paint something other than the sky: a sleeping boy, a palm tree, etc. These were reminiscent of her original plan to paint everything. The sky was boring and flat. There were moments of monotony. But she couldn’t stop and dawdle if she wanted to finish what she set out to do.
Although she didn’t know it, by the time Oyo had reached middle age she was about halfway done with the sky. She met kings and queens, and asked them if she could paint the sky over their countries. “Yes,” they said. “Please.” There was applause every time she got down from the ladder. She learned a lot. Wrinkles started forming on her face and arthritis in her hands, but she kept painting.
Oyo’s fame spread everywhere she went, and then after many years people forgot who painted the sky. A legend would be told but it was always vague, the details fuzzy, until there were many interpretations, and people stopped believing it.
This repeated itself many times over until one day, in the twilight phase of her career when Oyo was an old woman, she was painting the sky over the Pacific Ocean, having finished the sky over China, and she thought she saw the end of the world. There appeared to be a drop off point. She would be the first person to see what was on the other side. But what she saw was not the end of the world but the coast of California, where she’d started. Oyo thought she may’ve been losing her mind. She staggered to shore to the amusement of a few sunbathing youngsters.
“What are you doing, lady?”
“I’m painting the sky blue.”
They laughed at her.
“The sky’s always been blue, lady. Are you crazy?”
There was a horrible sameness to Los Angeles, but a difference as well. Death was there: more bars and opium dens, more ramshackle pockets of town with burned out junkies, and strip malls that didn’t sell anything. Half the town was burned out, hung up to dry. The charming things of childhood were gone. The distasteful was popular. Her father’s cornfields had been bogged down with swampy runoff, and were now part of a large chicken head-cutting factory.
She wandered around in a daze and came to her old forest. All that was left to paint of the sky was one thin strip between the first strokes she ever made, and where she’d left off that afternoon. She put up her ladder and struggled up. Her old bones creaked. She had very little strength left. These were her first marks. They were clumsy. She smiled at that. She finished the last piece of sky with a steadied and wise hand, connecting the two blue sections, one new, the other old; she had never expected the end to be like this: with no one, and no way, to communicate what had happened to her. After she was done she laid down on the scaffolding and drew her last breath.
A small number of followers were gathered at the foot of her ladder. They had read news stories about her, seen old documentaries, and carried on a dedication to her cause. They were a fan club, old residents of Los Angeles who never expected to see the legend Oyo again. They retrieved her body from the scaffold and carried her down the ladder.
They took her to the river and prepared a raft. A woman like this, they reasoned, deserves to be sent into the next life this way. A few candles were lit and a small vigil was held. Each person said something about Oyo. It was a quiet evening. There were no loud tears or news cameras. A man came forward just as they were about to send her body down the river. He was an old man who had not spoken in a long time. He put a small chocolate on the raft by her body, so she would have something to eat on her journey.
“The river, just like time, sends everything to the end of the world,” he said.
Her body faded into the curvature of the river, past the grazing mastodons. They watched her until the flicker of candlelight was no longer visible. Then the small group went back to their homes.
© Daniel Douglas