Claudia Ann Seaman Awards for Young Writers, 2017, Fiction
Winner: Mia Nelson, Denver Colorado
When the caravan comes, the plums come with it. The wagons, slung in gold coins, slip their way into towns under the looming shadows of cypress tree boughs and the hymn of cicadas mourning the blackness of night. Ornaments of paper cranes, baby tooth garlands, alligator eyes dot each trailing coach. The soft, purple wax candles lit inside make the processional seem like a funeral march, but the wolf-in-heat howls of the gypsies reveals that they are on their way to a baptism. The plum trees litter soft baby fruits with tight purple skin, little bits of yellow peeking out from underneath are waiting to be born again. The holy work of these women requires splintery fruit stands and willing customers. Hungry hands. Red dotted knapsacks. Pie crusts waiting to be filled at home. And, because small towns feel hunger in dull aches that can only be filled with sweetness, the plums are always christened.
When the day opens its arms to the usual morning clatter – old man roosters, the creaking of straw-filled beds – the fruits are hustled into position in their wooden cradles. Women, waddling with their weight, peer into the gypsy tents and makeshift marketplace. They see the strings of white earth-scented beads. The vials of emerald sleeping aids. The paperbound books on curses. Their curiosity noses into the camp, and soon are struck with the roundness of plums. They buy them in armfuls. Baskets are heaped high so that each retreating customer appears to be carrying a tower of pregnant violets. Children, with their bony, almond-skin legs, dart underneath the menagerie of oddities and steal glimpses of the fruit. They are offered tastes of the plums by the mother gypsies, and are swatted away by the others. The day unfolds in tendrils, until the last eyelash of night shuts the blackness in; a new set of customers are brought then.
The men are dry-mouthed as addicts. After their wives slump into the hollow of their bed, they sleepstumble to the arms of the light-filled camp. There they are greeted by women who sleep atop one another like baby lambs, who are as dully sweet as sucked-on caramel. They like to muddle their bodies into a drowsy, cherry wine and they don’t mind the men who come to sample a taste. Drunkenness sips the confusion of a full moon, rounds the edge of guilt. After the men are heaving like rabid dogs, are as bellied up as wine canteens, after the lovemaking, they are offered plums.
Their hands are filled with purple sand that pulls itself into the perfect circle – like the sun, or the warm belly of a sleeping orange-grey cat. The fruit seems to breathe in and out, its tiny fists pumping against the warm palms of the holders. Then, they are devoured. The virgin bites are timid, then ravenous, then inconsolable. The flesh writhes, presses on cavities,
pulls at each taste bud. Their bodies rise to meet it. Eyes loll in heads, a dizzy, sugarcane thud pulsating throughout their limbs – purple becomes the way the dirt lusts for rain. Purple washes away the topsoil, only to find there is nothing left. And when purple is gone, so are the wagons.
Left beneath the inveterate moon, spit gathered on their fingers, eyes hollowed out, the men are disgusted at the fruit skin around them. They peck at the ground, cocks pulling at shrubs, and find nothing. The sour milk taste sticks to their gums as they crawl, beaten, back to their marital beds. They feel the women on them sticky as honey, smoldering like cayenne but think of the plums. The way the juice beat down like the song of a headboard. They can’t decide which sin to apologize for. Which body they miss most.
Mr. Ritchell comments: Wow, this piece is jam-packed with talent and love, both for the piece and for craft. The writer oozes confidence and rightly so—the imagery is on-point, the language and “groove” are concise, precise, and consistent, and the piece uses the literal and figurative fruits of life to impress very strong themes on the reader. Crafty, clever, very impressive.