First place winner of our Short Story Contest for January goes to a dark horse entry that gave us chills for it's perfect rendering of an original folk tale, Katie Sakanai. Katie is a musician who was born and raised in northeast Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York. The only two radio stations that came in reliably were the oldies station and the country station, so her only connection to Kansas City before entering our contest was the famed Wilbert Harrison, she says. She is a musician and Russian Language enthusiast. She enjoy writing original folk tales and telling her daughters impromptu stories involving dragons, trolls, and fearless princesses. She says she "writes songs, short stories, and poetry full of nostalgia for her rural upbringing." Find her at @denver_city_music or on LinkedIn.
Unlike any we've ever read before, our Judges found that this folk tale reminded them of their favorite Eastern tales of finding a lucky fish that grants wishes combined with those dark tales like The Juniper Tree where love and loss mix together in ways unexpected. It also shared valuable heart lesson in loss, and doing what's right that seemed so authentic to the form. Thank you Katie for sharing this work. Both our judges voted you as first place!! Way to go. We didn't expect any original folktales because we know how hard they are to write, but this was a gem. If you'd like to still enter a dark retelling of a folktale, myth or fairy tale there is still time. Whether short story, art or poetry, you can submit for our upcoming collection in paperback and ebook.
Fomka by Katie Sakanai
There’s a land that always smells of mud and river and marsh. Where things that die are taken back gratefully and easily into the earth; not some hardened prairie where the dead must wait until the frost subsides to get a proper burial. It is there that Fomka lives with his mother, father, and brothers. The boys are hunting for rabbits and checking their snares. The oldest brother kills the rabbit and the middle brother carries them over his shoulder. It will be little Fomka’s job to skin them when they get home.
Fomka watches the lifeless rabbits bounce up and down on his brother’s shoulder. If not for their still eyes, he thinks they might run away if he were to set them down on the grass. The older brother stops to survey the hedgerow. He takes his rifle and aims for sport at the sparrows that are noisily discussing the day. He shoots three times but brings down only one. They clamber over the hedgerow on their way back home. Fomka asks “won’t you take the sparrow?” and his older brother laughs and says “a sparrow is a just bones with not enough meat for soup.”
Fomka lags behind and pockets the still-warm sparrow.
That afternoon after the rabbits are skinned and in the pot, Fomka walks to the river’s edge. He doesn’t understand killing something that is not for supper. He gathers the cattails and weaves a small mat. The fruit of the cattail that will keep the raft afloat. He places the sparrow on the raft and pushes it until it finds the current. He watches it until it rounds the bend and is out of sight as the scent of night begins to replace the scent of day.
The next morning Fomka sits in bed waiting for some sign that he should greet the grey day and finds none. His mother hums as she knits in her rocking chair. She is convinced this baby will be a girl after all the noisy boys. Suddenly Fomka finds his reason to get out of bed. A sparrow sits on the window ledge, tapping on the glass. Fomka thinks the sparrow must be 1 fighting his reflection, but then he thinks he hears a wispy, fluted voice saying his name. It couldn’t be the sparrow?
He throws on his clothes and without even stopping for breakfast heads outside. The sparrow leads him back to the river’s edge, then perches on his knee. Thank you, Fomka, for giving me back the life your brother took so readily. This gift will be bestowed upon you two more times.
The summer turned to fall and the boys made themselves useful to their father. The wheat harvest grew tall and waved grasshopper green. Then, all of a sudden, the wheat seemed to bleed red blood, as though it was pricked by sharp teeth. The blood coagulated and sat on the stem of the sheaf. The boys had never seen this before, and late at night Fomka heard his father speak to his mother in a whisper.
“The rust will kill the whole crop. The boys will starve. I won’t be able to feed you and you won’t be able to feed the baby.” His mother tried to reassure. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.” But then the rust starting spreading. Neighbors met, hats in hand, heads hung low. Fomka couldn’t bear the thought of his baby sister suckling at an empty breast- crying, crying.
He took a shaft of murdered wheat to the river. He wove the mat and sent it down the river again, following it with his eyes and it rose and fell in the current. He went to bed hopeless but was met with a bright, clear fall day and a sparrow at his window. When he walked outside to greet the sparrow, it told him that the rust would stop its spread and the wheat crop would be saved. “The children of this town will get to meet another winter thanks to you, Fomka.”
Fomka felt reassured. He took time after a day’s work to ride the horses and search for bullfrogs and pop the jewelweed. His mother’s belly grew large as the days grew colder. The harvest had been enough to see them through the winter; they had nothing to fear.
One cold December morning his mother said “it’s time” and sent the boys out to walk to the neighbor’s house and her husband to fetch the midwife. She kissed Fomka on the head as he left, and promised he would love his new baby sister.
But he did not love his new baby sister. When they returned from the neighbor’s that afternoon she lay there blue and rigid, the cord wrapped around her neck too tightly. His mother was grey and glassy-eyed. The midwife spoke to his father in hushed tones and suggested the boys say goodbye. Fomka refused, and sat next to his mother until it was too late to say goodbye. The older boys went outside in their private sorrow but Fomka would not move from his mother’s side. His father pleaded and pulled and finally gave up. He told Fomka he would get the womenfolk to attend to the bodies and the wood for the coffins and would return that evening.
Fomka was alone with his still-beautiful mother and the dreadful baby. He knew what he had to do. He fetched the wheelbarrow and dragged his mother’s body from the bed to the barrow. When he got to the riverside he set about weaving mats. A hard crust of ice at the edge looked sharp enough to cut as he pulled her into the water. No matter how many mats he wove and layered, it was not enough to hold her weight. Tears streamed down his face as his mother’s body sank softly into the silty muck at the river’s edge,. He held her neck to keep her face aloft. Like the rabbits, he thought were it not for her blank stare she could still be alive. As if she could still wake up and walk from the water, newly baptized. He stayed there holding her until his body was wracked with shaking from the cold and the sun was setting dusky purple. The sparrow came, alighting on a cat-tail. “It is not nature’s way.”
Fomka was angry. “I can save you, worthless sparrow, but not the person dearest to me? I still have one gift left.” The sparrow said “there is another you can save” and with a jerk of his tail that he flew away.
Fomka abandoned the husk of his mother. Why save that wretch of a girl who took from him all he loved? He wandered back to the house to look at her. She was so small. Not much bigger than a dove. When he got closer he saw that she had the straight black hair and dark black eyes of his mother. Could he save this thing? Is that what his mother would want?
He unwrapped the cord and gingerly touched her tiny, almost transparent fingers. He carried her to the river wrapped in a blanket. As he held her he softened. This time he wove a raft shaped like a canoe to shield her from the weather. He kissed the baby’s forehead and kissed his mother one last time as he pushed the baby downstream. He went to the house and packed a rucksack with a few things, including the clothes his mother knit for the little girl.
All night he walked alongside the river. He could see very little by the light of the stars, but he walked until he saw the glow of morning at the horizon. He came up to a rock outcropping, and that’s where he heard her. Crying with all her might. Angry and hungry. He picked her up from the raft, dressed her, and quieted her. He put her inside his jacket and walked. He had used his last gift, and now the two of them would have to face the world together. The sparrow flitted after him.