Last month, I entered my first 24-hour short story contest sponsored by Writer’s Weekly. In part, because it’s one of the cheapest contests out there; at $5 for the entrance fee, it felt like a steal. I’d enter more contests, but most want $20+ for the pleasure of judging me and I simply can’t justify it.
The day arrived, a lovely Saturday at 1PM, and I excitedly pulled up the prompt:
The barren, tan corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold evening breeze, the only sound louder than the dry, fiery red leaves swirling around her tiny, shivering bare feet. She’d lost her bearings again and she hoped the dinner bell would ring soon. A gray tree with endless arms and fingers, devoid of any remaining foliage, loomed before her. She gazed at the odd markings on the trunk, which appeared to outline a hand-cut door of sorts. And, as she stared, it opened…
My first thoughts: Have a little, old lady come out of the door. With a warmth and sneakiness, she would lure the lost, panicky girl into the tree. And once inside, the little old lady and her family would eat the girl.
Sure, it’s dark, but it’s a fairy tale. My husband said, You should write something ‘real,’ you’re good at that. So I wrote something horribly dark, and real. Like, Holocaust real. Yeah, I went there.
Here’s the winning story. Can you guess what happens? You’ll never guess! A little old lady lures the girl into the tree so she and her family can eat her.
And did I win anything, anything at all? Of the 60 winners, honorable mentions, runners up and consolation prizes, you-know-who got nothing. Apparently, I may have gone way far off into territory that the short story judges didn’t want to follow. I suppose the point of a contest is to find out exactly what the judges are looking for and deliver exactly that to them. Lesson learned.
The Sins of the Father
Lina ran through the cornfield, fighting to find her way back to the cottage. Twilight was falling and curfew would soon be in effect. If she was caught out at night….A shudder coursed its way down Lina’s spine, through her heart and out her limbs. A cold North Sea wind had kicked up, adding a shiver to her shudder.
That afternoon, while wading in a pond by the edge of the property, Lina had caught sight of a large hare, which she followed in hopes of catching. She couldn’t remember the last time they had meat with a meal. Lina imagined the pride on her parent’s faces when she showed up with dinner, their sunken eyes and hollowed out cheeks lighting up to resemble their former, joyful selves.
But she’d lost track of the hare and, eventually, herself as well. Before long, Lina was lost in the cornfield. For hours, she wandered through the yellowed stalks, the unharvested corn left to rot, abandoned when soldiers and tanks trampled through her small country. Lina listened for the nightly dinner bell her mother rang, signaling to anyone within earshot that curfew was thirty minutes out; but the rustling of the dried stalks overrode all other sounds.
Terrified of being caught out at night, panic threatened to take hold when Lina stumbled into a clearing. At the center stood a huge, dead tree, gnarled and crippled like a weary, broken man. I know how you feel, Lina thought as she leaned against the tree’s trunk, trying to slow her pounding heart. Her shaking fingers fell upon an oddly shaped carving, invisible in the gloom. Lina knocked on the trunk to see if it was hollow when she heard a click and a creaking, like rusty hinges.
A door stood ajar in the tree’s trunk; an eye peered out, as did the barrel of a gun. Before she could think, Lina was yanked into the tree and the door clicked shut behind her.
“Maartje!” Lina cried, throwing her arms around her best friend who stood holding the pistol. “We thought you were lost in the invasion.”
“Shh! Keep your voice down or we’ll all be lost,” Maartje whispered; her once adored, chestnut locks were oily and tangled, her face gaunt and haunted.
As Lina’s eyes adjusted to the dim, she made out the familiar faces of Maartje’s parents and younger brother, Wim, huddled together in the shadows. “But you’re all here! And in this tree?”
“Yes, your father has been hiding us. I thought it was him at the door with some food,” Maartje said, settling onto a small stool next to the door, like a guard on watch.
Just then, a rap at the door was followed by the entrance of Lina’s father. “Lina,” he said, pulling her into his arms. “Never scare your mother and me like that again. We couldn’t find you anywhere, we thought they’d gotten you….”
“I’m sorry, Papa. I won’t wander off again,” Lina said into her father’s chest.
Lina’s father addressed Maartje’s family. “I have arranged transport for you, tonight. You will go to Rotterdam and from there, on a plane to England.” From his coat, he pulled out an envelope. “Papers for all of you, to get you there.” He went on to explain the particulars, but Lina tuned him out and turned to Maartje.
“My best friend, you’ll be saved!” They hugged each other, a rare and necessary comfort in a time like that. Lina felt in her pockets for something to give Maartje, a token of remembrance. “Here, have this,” she placed a smooth stone in Maartje’s hand. Lina had been collecting the prettiest ones from the pond when she’d been distracted by the hare.
Maartje turned the rock over in her hand; streaked with green and silver, it was shaped like a heart. “Something from your home, so you’ll always have a piece of it with you, wherever you go.” Maartje blinked back her tears.
When he felt it was safe, Lina and her father left the tree and, under cover of darkness along a well-worn yet hidden path through the cornstalks, made their way home.
“But Oma, did Maartje and her family escape?”
“Yes, kindje, they did.” Lina always referred to her granddaughter, Anika, as ‘little child.’ “They got to England and then boarded a ship to America. When the war ended, Maartje and sent me this.” Lina reached up and grasped the polished stone she always wore on a chain around her neck. “Maartje had the stone cut in two; she wears the other half. I wear it always so I never forget.”
“Did anyone else ever hide in the tree?”
“Oh, kindje, so many people Papa hid there and helped out of the country to freedom. He was a hero to those he saved, especially to me.” Anika stared at her Oma with awe.
The last time Lina told Anika a true story about the war, her daughter Kalie had scolded Lina for taking away the innocence of a nine-year-old girl. Lina liked giving this particular story the ending her friend deserved.
Maartje and her family never made it to England. They were carted off that night to internment, placed in the hands of the Germans by Lina’s father. An offer of food to save his starving family was all it took to extract the location of a secret hiding place. Lina found the stone on the path outside the tree; she believed Maartje dropped it there for Lina to find, with the hope of receiving it from her friend again one day.