2017 Short Story Contest Winners
By Sally Choi
By Sally Choi
Congratulations to Chris Gilmore (MA 2014), who won this year’s short story contest for “Fanny & Keats” (below) and to Michelle Boone (MEd 2000 OISE, PhD 2005), whose story “The Mathematician” was named runner-up. The “People’s Choice” winner, as selected by your votes, is “Down Feathers,” by Linh Nguyen (BA 2017 Victoria).
Fanny & Keats
We took the train north to see some snow. Fall was indecisive. Too cold for shorts, too warm for a jacket. We wanted a season that knew where it stood.
“Nothing more peaceful than a winter night,” she said. “No sounds. No sights. No smells. Just stripped-down, emptied-out reality.”
Winter was the world on pause. A chance to catch your breath, to drift through the air like a snowflake taking its time to fall.
The train station was packed. Couples of all ages, children of every shape and size. Emily found a seat by the window, away from TVs and conversations. We put down our bags and pulled out our notebooks.
Side by side, silent, suspiciously still, we looked to the street for inspiration. Despite the absence of winter, I jotted down phrases like “snow-speckled hat” and “wind-tugged scarf,” sentences like “The snow tickled my face and snuggled my beard.” Bits and pieces. Scraps of something.
Emily stared at her page, pen tip hovering just above.
“Still blocked?” I asked.
She nodded without looking my way. Sometimes she doodled when she couldn’t write. Today she just sat there and stared.
“Excited for snow?”
She nodded again, with even less enthusiasm.
Poets usually picked our destinations. Hart Crane took us to Brooklyn, Frost to New Hampshire. This time, I wanted to go south, but Emily thought warmth was the wrong kind of escape.
“At least for now. For where we are creatively.”
I was glad she didn’t say “emotionally.”
To make my case for warmer climates, I quoted Eliot: “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”
“You really want to let ‘The Waste Land’ make our plans?”
She had a point. But instead of hiding behind a happier poem, she countered with more of the same: “Winter kept us warm, covering earth in forgetful snow.”
“Touché,” I said, both defeated and proud.
“Bested again by my superior brain.”
She used to say this with a wink, or at least a grin. Now it was simply a matter of fact.
We booked a motel room 800 miles north.
Wordsworth, the Travel Agent. Byron, the GPS. A silly ritual, I know, but fun for part-time poets. Even if the words we quoted meant something else entirely, we enjoyed taking things out of context, turning light into darkness and darkness into light.
Our train shivered its way through the field, moaning into the sunset. Every few minutes, a storm cloud appeared. Hovering, threatening, moving on. Saving itself for something better.
“Al,” whispered the woman across the aisle, after an hour of silence. “Are you sure?”
Al considered her question, frowning. “We gave it a shot.”
“Yeah,” she mumbled. “I guess.” She looked down at the tissue in her lap, half-embarrassed, half-resigned.
Emily was still asleep on my shoulder. Whispers never woke her.
When Al and his companion had boarded they were chatting about stock prices, sales reports, some guy in accounting named Phil. They were smiling, talkative, full of jokes and nudges. Then came the awkward lull, the gaze-avoidance.
Al started his speech with “Look” and ended with “Sorry.” The rest was muttered, either out of respect for his companion or embarrassment for himself.
Who they were, what they did, where and why they were going, I never found out. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was where they were, what they were doing.
Al’s companion began folding her tissue into bite-sized squares and triangles. She flattened it, crumpled it, wrapped it around her finger. She turned it inside-out and around, trying to find a revelation in its folds.
Al scratched his beard and adjusted his glasses. He moved his hand from his lap to the armrest, then back to his lap. He plucked something small off the sleeve of his suit and flicked it away.
His companion’s throat made a sound, a pitchy murmur. She was trying to harness her words, shape her thoughts. Al scanned her face, perhaps for tears, then looked down at her hands. Twitching, sculpting. He studied the tissue’s transformations.
“Amy,” he finally said. “You’ll always…”
A ring-less hand hid her face. The tissue unwound in her lap.
Al knew his duty. His chest became a pillow, his arm a sponge.
I turned back to the window and opened my notebook, searching for inspiration on the other side of the glass. I imagined, like any responsible poet, the field coming to life, preparing its scene for the evening. A tableau of wind and snow. One whistling, the other shushing. Wind blowing snow, snow massaging wind. A mute understanding between old lovers.
A leafless tree swayed in the distance, waving to the train as it passed. I wondered how long the tree had been there, how long it might stay.
Something tickled the hair on my wrist. Emily’s fingers were sleepwalking. Her right hand traced the ink of Auden’s “Lullaby,” half-open on her lap, while her left began nuzzling my palm. I studied the lines of skin, maps of vein, mounds of bone. All moving with the rise and twist of the tracks. A song without sound. A poet and his muse.
More accurately, a poet and her muse. Two poets, two muses. Two poets-in-training on a train. Two twenty-somethings taking a trip.
Across the aisle, two thirty-somethings taking a time-out. Forever, most likely.
Would that be us in a couple years?
“Al?” I heard from Amy.
A sympathetic mumble was his answer.
Beyond the puddle of Al and Amy, the field continued its nightly routine. The snow and the wind were envied, I decided, by the leafless trees, which never touched, and by the sun and the moon, which never danced, except on anniversaries, when one would blot out the other.
I looked back at the couple across the aisle. Awake with closed eyes, fingers joined, for better or worse, in a motionless dialogue. For old time’s sake. To stop old time from aging.
Our own fingers had fallen into a similar pattern. Hairy and wide interwoven with soft and thin. Indistinguishable, perhaps, from Al and Amy’s, but still unique and autonomous.
My lips found Emily’s dozing hair. Unwashed, as usual. Pungent, but not unpleasant. Glossy from days of neglect. In daylight her hair was brown with flickers of blonde. At night it was border-line black. Never quite sonnet-worthy, as she would say. Too bland, too brittle. But it was alluring, at least from a distance. From a time. Without dates, for the moment, but a time like all others. God only knew when it would expire.
I opened my notebook and started sketching:
My smile melted with the sun
as it dipped over the horizon,
and my past joined the snow
and the wind in the field.
They took shelter under a leafless tree
and watched my future rattle endlessly
down the track, forever slower
than the setting sun it sought.
I drew an X through the page and started again:
A passing barn groaned in the breeze,
mumbling about better days,
and as restless clouds stretched
their wrinkled hands across the sky,
the tree and the wind spoke,
and the silence swayed from branch to branch.
“Why talk?” I said. “Why not just listen?”
“The sheets ruffling. The bed creaking. Your stomach rumbling—”
“My stomach doesn’t rumble.”
“Please. Every time we eat burritos, you hit a new high on the Richter scale.”
Emily held her breath to test my theory. She waited, motionless, watching my eyes scan her face. “All quiet on the Mexican front.”
“Be patient,” I said. “They’re just reloading.”
“And you’d rather listen to my body’s earthquakes than speak to me.”
“I’d rather speak with you, not to you.” I pulled back the sheet to study her fault lines. My ear scouted the southern valleys, the plains of beige.
“Heard melodies are sweet,” I said, “but those unheard are sweeter.”
“Are you referring to my stomach or my conversation?”
“That’s not what that line means, Mr. Keats.”
I lifted my head and looked at her, semi-serious. “You think I’ll be a Keats someday?”
“Someday. Maybe. I don’t know.” She could tell I wasn’t satisfied. “You’re my Keats today. Isn’t that enough?”
“Now is all we have, my dear. Just ask the folks on the urn.”
“Say it again.”
“Keats. Call me your Keats.”
“Fanny, I think you know what I mean.”
She scoffed and slid down the bed, placing her chin on a hairless patch of chest. Her smile went limp as she fingered a mole.
“What an awful name,” she said, flicking a nearby hair. “Fanny Brawne…”
She wore the same vacant expression as the woman on the train. The same hangdog defeat.
Al. Are you sure?
We gave it a shot.
Would that be us in a couple years? The question would not surrender.
Would I be able to see it coming? And would it matter if I did?
Did Fanny and Keats ever have this problem? Or did dying make all the odds even?
I stared at the ceiling. White and flat as a field of snow. Spotless. Lifeless. Bare.
“Wasn’t Keats about five feet tall?” I asked.
“Something like that.”
“I bet Fanny was at least six-four, all muscle—” She grabbed her pillow and hit me in the face. “Seriously,” I continued, “with a name like Brawne—” She hit me again, grinning her favorite grin. “Stop it, Fanny—”
“Or what, Mr. Keats?”
“I’ll write an ode.”
“And I’ll publish it in all the ode magazines.”
“And I won’t portray you fairly at all. I’ll make you an object of patriarchal pleasure. A trinket of soulless aesthetics.” She gave me a weak slap and a weak smile, half-dead with easeful love. “An Ode to Fanny. And her brawn.”
I poked her bicep. She pecked my cheek. Our hands explored familiar terrain. Rough hands through hair, soft hands on skin.
“An Ode to Fanny,” she said, “and Her Keats.”
“I prefer my title.”
Our lips and hands and hips did their work, and the furniture watched in envy.
The wine was nearly empty, as was the room. A flowerless vase with faded images. A plastic painting of a bird, singing its silent song.
For minutes that felt like hours, the highway and the hallway were traffic-free. Snow-crunching tires had ceased, along with floor-stomping boots. Even the TV next door had turned itself off.
She said my name. I replied in iambic pentameter.
“Very funny, Mr. Keats.”
I added an English accent to my persona. “Who is this other fellow to whom you refer?”
“A poet who is about to lose his muse.”
“Is his muse going somewhere?”
“If his muse continues to be called his muse.”
“Then his muse is henceforth no longer his muse.”
“She is just Fanny.”
“Pure Fanny. Nothing but Fanny.”
“Are those your favorite websites?”
I retreated beneath the sheets. “Don’t judge me, Ms. Brawne.”
She retreated with me. “Never, Mr. Keats.”
Chris Gilmore (MA 2014) has published stories, poems, essays, and reviews in The New Quarterly, Matrix, Hobart, and The Puritan. His first book of short stories, Nobodies, came out last year.