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Claudia Ann Seaman Awards for Young Writers, 2017, Fiction
1st Honorable Mention:  Carolyn Cheng, Oakland California

 

Artichoke Heart

When he first asked her where babies came from, she balanced him in her lap and pointed at the garden.
“They dig the children out of the soil,” she told him. “They come from the earth. Parents plant the seeds; God helps them grow. After nine months, the midwives go into the garden to see how they’ve come along.”
“You can tell what the children will be like,” she said, “by which flowers grow from them.”
His eyes widened. “Which kind was I?”
“You were a daffodil,” she said, tickling him.“My bright, sunny boy!”
He laughed and squirmed away, pointed at her abdomen.
“What about her?” he asked.
“I think she’ll be roses.” She rested her palms on her faintly blooming stomach, a mystery to him. “Or maybe plum blossoms.” In his head, the small flowers looked like bits of folded crepe paper. One breath might blow them all away.
“What about Dad?” he said.
“Not a flower at all,” she said, shaking her head. “He’s an artichoke.”
Months later, the boy learns the facts of life, of embryos and wombs. His father explains it to him very carefully, the complications that grind the cycle of life to a stop. Why his mother and the baby girl die in a failed delivery.

He turns the memories of his mother over – small, rare treasures – and embroiders them with fancy. He imagines the midwives finding the babies curled in fetal position. The bigger ones are ready to be born into the world; they cry the moment the diggers cut the roots and lift them from the dirt, wailing as they scrub earth from their eyes. Others are too small, too pale. Their skin translucent. These they shovel dirt over, leave them to sleep and grow. Sometimes they make it.

The dead ones get planted back into the earth. That’s only part of the story that’s true.

It is just him and his father now. His father extends one tendril out to him: he buys him a puppy, and the silence expands to accommodate three. At dinner, sitting across from each other, it is very quiet, save the soft sounds of chewing and the trees in the yard shaking in the early spring storms. The garden runs rampant and wild now, the flowers brown and ragged, the gardener dead. Indoors, his father becomes thorned, curling in his petals tightly. The boy learns to be careful, lest he be pricked and bleed.

Seasons pass, and the boy learns from his father to grow into armored solitude. The house splits into two thorned fortresses, ghosts of a half-family sleeping within. The boy takes his dog out on walks. He climbs to the top of the hill where she unburies her bone. He might once have imagined that it would sprout into a skeletal tree. He knows better now. His mother taught him how to boil artichokes to unearth the soft heart. But he has learned to peel away the stories, to reach that hidden center: the hardened truth.

But if his mother was right, he might go out to the abandoned garden and dig up the sunflower patch. She would be beneath, and he would lift her out, and they’d wrap their arms tight around each other. His father would enclose them in a soft embrace. In the dream, if their hands all touch, the spell would be broken – the barbed vines would shrivel, fortress walls topple. And she would emerge as whole and fiercely alive as spring.

 

Mr. Ritchell writes: This piece captures the transformation of a child’s innocent perception of the world into a calloused adult’s awareness in the span of two pages. The garden birth-story is unique and refreshing, and the de-masking of the story is equal parts heart-breaking and believable. Great writing combined with tight, precise story-telling and pace make for an entrancing, emotional read. This piece accomplishes quite a lot, very quickly.

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