Bread Loaf Awards 2020 Poetry and Fiction Prizes
Congratulations to the winners of the 2020 Robert Haiduke Poetry Prize: Mariella Saavedra Carquin in first place for her poem “wait,” Trish Dougherty in second place for her poem “Reading Walt Whitman,” and Xu Li in third place for her poem “while social distancing during the 2020 pandemic, vivian calls me again.” The winner of the 2020 Fiction Prize is John Lehman for his short story “Kazoo People.”
by John Lehman
My Dear Donkey-Eared Husband,
Let me preface what I’m going say by saying that I love you—so much. I don’t know why. I can’t help it. No one ever talks about what unconditional love really is. There can’t be conditions because it’s born in a place where conditions don’t exist, and no one wants to admit something so important can only keep living if we leave it deep and alone in the sewers inside us. That’s why I can still love you even if I’ve done some things. Because I don’t know why.
You really can be so bone-headed sometimes, too. You’re sweet and you care, but you don’t know what you care about. There’s this big, clean, empty space inside you, bigger and darker than any I’ve ever heard of, and when anything real shows up, you hide in there. You really think you’re dealing with things, and you think you’ve been talking to me all these years, too. But my voice has never really reached you. You yell and yell in that empty space inside, and when the echoes bounce back, you tell yourself it’s my voice. That’s why you could never get what I needed you to.
I hope this time will be different. I’ve been digging a secret passage to your empty space for months now. I won’t tell you how. It’s too awful. Now, I think I’ve done it. The tunnel I made is too small to fit me, but maybe this messenger will reach you.
I told you once how I walked in on my brother. He was in my big sister’s room with a box of her things a few years after she died. I told you I was only a third-grader then, and he was in college, and you asked if he was in love with her. But there was more I was trying to say, and you stopped the flow. This time, you can’t interrupt. Maybe, you won’t believe what I tell you. Most of the time, I try not to believe it myself. Still, I hope knowing more will help you understand why returning to you isn’t an option. Not yet.
I walked in on him that morning. I thought I heard someone crying, but it was just my brother, and he never cried. You already know what he was doing. I saw him and he saw me. He had always been strange to me, but that was the day I knew there was something very wrong. The lights were off, and there were used tissues all over the floor. Our eyes met. He didn’t move or say anything, but those eyes grew colder and blacker and heavier than ever. Somehow, he was dragging me in, showing me two, wet eyeball-holes where gruesome things crawled and slithered in a thick pool of jelly. I could see the hallway light shining dully off the bodies in his eyes, and one of the faceless creatures raised itself up and started pushing at the inside of the left eye, pulsing its way through his pupil into the room. Something else in the room made a sucking sound, and out the corner of my eye, I saw it moving toward me on all fours. I ran away, and a voice that wasn’t my brother’s laughed.
I went to my room, locked the door and crawled under the bed. My head felt like a popped balloon, my lungs like scratchy burlap sacks. My fingers dug into the carpet, and I fell asleep right there, just as if sleep was part of the plan, just not my own.
I woke at the touch of the bed skirt brushing my face. My whole body ached, and I really needed a shower, but I didn’t move. I could hear footsteps approaching as if from very far away and bickering voices growing louder. They sounded like many small children jabbering and whining through kazoos at each other.
“Go find her,” a high voice ordered. “We know she’s in here.”
“But where?” a second voice complained.
“Under the covers” said a third.
“Wait,” said a fourth voice. “Look.”
A small, backlit hand lifted the bed skirts, “Hah, you can’t escape us, little girl.”
More small hands grabbed my hair, my shirt, my arms, my ears, tugging me out from under the bed and into a pool of moonlight. I was sprawled out on the floor surrounded by little men, at least I thought they were men. They didn’t scare me as much as they should have. I was more worried about how nighttime had come and how cold the moonlight felt on my skin.
There were eight or nine of the figures that I could see. All of them stood under two feet tall, sporting red suits and white shoes. Their faces were white, too, like plaster masks, but their lips were black as their slicked back hair. One was jumping up and down like a maniac, another was sniffing at the ground near my feet. Behind me, some were running tiny fingers through my hair. The rest stood by my face, looking down at me, arms crossed.
“Ever heard of the tooth-fairy, kid?” one said, touching his chalk-white nose. It was long and conical like an ice-cream cone.
“Quiet. I’m spokeswoman, today,” another indistinguishable from the rest croaked. “Little Girl,” said the spokeswoman. “We’re going to owe you a favor someday. A big favor.”
“We eat bubble-gum for dinner where we come from,” a kazoo voice whispered in my ear.
“Bubble-gum and gravy!” the jumping figure called, giggling.
“Sssshh,” several interrupted.
“You’re going to bury something for us, little girl. Something very important,” the spokeswoman continued. “It’s time people! Let’s get made in the shade!”
All the little people goose-stepped into rows in front of me. I couldn’t tell how many. Their eyes snapped wide open, and they pursed their black lips, and kneaded their cheeks with their fists, pushing a colorless substance from their mouths like beef from a grinder.
I sat up and watched. They swayed and hummed a tune while they worked. Their song felt familiar, and it made me feel heavier and heavier. Soon, every figure had a pile of gunk as high as its knees, and I so wanted to climb into my bed and fall asleep for real.
“That’s a wrap!” yelled a harsh voice. It jolted my drooping head awake.
I gasped. My sister was lying on the ground in front of me, beautiful as the day we found her dead.
“We made her for you, so you can take care of our little problem. Doesn’t she look just like your sister?” the spokeswoman said, straightening her double-breasted blazer.
“What do you want from me?” I said.
“She speaks! She speaks!” several voices cried, laughing.
“Quiet,” the spokeswoman ordered, and kazoo voices grumbled. “You’re going to put her in the ground. Lock her in for us.”
I shook my head and started to stand, but the kazoo people shouted, jumped up and dragged me to the floor.
“Do you like bubble-gum?” a voice tittered in my ear.
“So? What do you say? Will you help us?” asked the spokeswoman.
Many hands grabbed my hair and forced me to nod.
“Good. Off you go. Oh, and don’t forget this either. If you don’t solve our problem for us by sun-up, well, we won’t be very happy. Bye, bye.”
The weight of many small bodies disappeared. I lay still on the carpet, eyes closed, breathing in and out, reassuring blood pumping steadily through my body. Alone again, my world was mine.
But my relief was short lived. I hardly noticed as slow arms, human arms, my sister’s dead arms, eased onto me and turned. I felt my chin gently raised, and limp hands reached, sliding around my neck. Before I knew it, I was pinned. I fought those arms, but they clung on, clasped together like links in a cold, necklace of flesh.
True terror struck then. Everything that had come before was too strange, too confusing for my thirteen-year old brain. I could cry now, and I screamed silently into the carpet for a long time, but I couldn’t stay there forever. I knew what the kazoo people demanded.
I tried to stand with my big sister’s corpse hanging from my neck and failed. Then, I shifted her body to my back and lifted up onto all fours. I crawled so slowly across the room to the door. The house was silent, the hallway was black, and I made it down the stairs on my belly.
When I reached the ground floor landing, I stretched to turn the knob and found it locked from the inside.
“You need a key,” a wet voice said.
“Me.” It was the corpse.
“You can talk?”
“Now and then. Pull the key out of my mouth.”
I reached back and found the key sticking out from the corpse’s dry lips. The knob turned with the key in it, and a rainy, gust of wind blew in. I hesitated, but there was nothing for it. I crawled out the front door and into the yard, the key still in the lock.
The grass felt so nice under my palms and knees after the thin carpets in the house, and the summer rain felt cool on my bare arms and legs. I wished I could stay there in the damp grass, just slump over on my side, my sister’s body hugging me from behind and let the grass grow over us together forever.
“I am not your sister,” the corpse interrupted.
“Who are you, then?” I asked.
“If you don’t know already, you never will. Find somewhere I can sleep.”
I slumped to my side right there by the rhododendrons, not to rest but to free my right hand. I worked my fingers beneath the close-fitting flagstones of the front walk and pushed and pulled until the ground released a long hunk of shale. It toppled over and shattered onto the other stones. The earth beneath was too hard for my fingers. I used one of the broken chunks of rock as a spade.
I don’t know how long I dug there in the rain, half-choked by the body on my back. The more I scraped, the muddier the ground got until the hole I was making had become a puddle several inches deep. I tossed the rock aside and closed my eyes and reached in to dig with my fingers, trying not to think about tossing the body in such a grimy, unmarked grave.
Digging got easier once I passed a layer of gravelly soil. I found a rhythm lifting slop from the bottom of the puddle to sling onto the grass until I felt what seemed like long fibers flowing up and around my fingers. I felt around at the bottom, the water now up to my shoulder, and touched what only could have been someone’s scalp. The submerged head shook at my touch and rose, its body following behind. The next thing I knew, I was thrown onto my back, the corpse under me, and like a muddy swimmer raising himself out of a horrible pool to yell at rambunctious kids, the dripping man loomed over me. Propped by his two arms and coughing mud, he said, “Leave me the hell alone.”
With that, the mud-man plopped back in the hole and did not resurface.
The corpse spoke in my ear. “If he is here, there will be others. Try the yard across the street.”
Desperation helped me haul the corpse over my shoulder and stumble barefoot off my family’s property and into the street beyond. The asphalt was warm to the touch where the streetlights cast no shadows, and while I crossed, never once had a road seemed to me such a slow river, a river people had frozen with hard stones and tar. Still, I could feel it flow beneath me, ever so slightly making its inevitable way with all other rivers down to the sea.
The neighbor’s yard across the street didn’t end up working either. I limped up the drive-way, but when I reached the wrought-iron gate, I looked up and saw pale figures looking down on me from the granite walls, running back and forth, shouting and jeering soundlessly, making rude gestures and throwing invisible stones at me. I knew they wouldn’t be able to stop me from coming in if I tried, but looking in their faint faces, I saw pain under their crumpled glares. A little one wept openly as it hopped and waved me off, not once letting go of its mother’s hand.
“Not here,” said the corpse.
I agreed. I turned and started down the street. I had an idea. By now the rain was starting to slow, and I could tell now what was sweat oozing down my spine and what was rain.
“What are those small kazoo people?” I asked aloud as I trudged along. I didn’t expect an answer.
“They’re everybody,” the corpse said.
“Everybody? What do you mean, everybody?” I asked.
As if rehearsed, it said, “They’re the wind that snakes in the trees and the electricity in the wires. They’re the sailors on the ocean and the fish swimming in every head. They are building an empire to last a thousand years, and they will crush anyone who gets in their way.”
“And they have something to do with my brother?”
“Yes, they made me out of bubblegum and gravy, and he is their puppet.”
Thinking that my brother wasn’t his own person was reassuring. Maybe, he’d been someone at some point, but now he was a mouth and hands for something else. I can’t express how much it has comforted me all these years to know that he is a nobody. He isn’t even a henchman. He’s like a hammer, just an object, and I don’t share genes with whatever uses him to bludgeon the world. Maybe, that’s why, in some small way, I can still love the idea of my brother, even if he doesn’t exist.
An hour or more passed before I got to the spot I was looking for. There was the path into the woods. Normally, it was a ten-minute walk, tops, but time wasn’t working right, and at some point in the night, I had stepped on something sharp and sliced my foot. I was frightened when I first saw dark splotches showing every step I took. It was even worse knowing that if there was enough light to see my footprints, dawn couldn’t be far off. How could I possibly dig a grave in so short a time?
I rushed as fast as I could into the gloom under the trees. The carpet of pine needles stung my injured foot but made walking easier. As soon as I reached the tall rock where my sister and I used to play sometimes, I dropped to my knees and cast about, looking for soft earth.
“There,” said the corpse. It had released one arm from my neck, pointing to a small circle of stones my sister and I had piled once years before. I dragged myself and the corpse over to our play-site, and there was the freshly dug hole at least six-feet deep. At the bottom there was a long box. It smelled like cedar.
“No moths to come eat your sweaters,” I said.
The corpse didn’t respond but slid off my back and fell into the casket with a thump.
“Just lock the door when you close it,” the corpse said.
“Lock it? With what?” I asked.
“But I left that at my house, in the front door!”
The corpse sighed, and as it did so, its flesh began to sag, then flow. Soon, it was a pool of gunk, and at the center there was a pink worm, trembling slightly as if it were cold and lonely.
All I could think of was to smash the lid down and push the rocks my sister and I had once gathered down onto the box. They made a terrible sound bashing the wood, and I hoped I wasn’t ruining the wooden frame or disrespecting the grave, but I had to make sure the casket wouldn’t be able to open. Maybe, I could come back another night with the key.
Then I pushed in the damp pile of earth next to the hole and stamped the ground with my good foot until it felt solid. It was the best I could do.
I walked home under the rising sun. I was a mess, but no one was out to see me. I needed sleep and a shower and probably a lot of stitches, too. What would my parents say? What would my brother do?
When I got home, I passed the still puddle I dug in the front walk. The front door was still unlocked, but the key was gone. I was tempted to throw myself on the ground and cry, but I was too scared, too overwhelmed. I could feel how displeased the kazoo people were with me. It was worse than shame or guilt, it was dread. They would have their revenge, and what could I do to resist? How could I fight something I didn’t even know was real? My only option was to go through the motions, numb myself, pretend I didn’t know what I knew, make doubt my shadow.
They’ve never left me alone ever since. Not really. After that night, the kazoo people were always watching me. They never revealed themselves to me again. They never talked to me, either, but I could feel their eyes on me at school and when I played piano. Sometimes, I could see them move in the corners of my eyes, or if I was quick, I could glimpse a spindly person scurry out of sight. I could hear their voices, too, sometimes, and when I saw my brother, he’d give me a knowing smile.
Then, I met you, and it felt like a miracle. They left me alone for a long while. I thought by making a new life with you, I had put it all behind me. Close and lock the door to that past life, but I just ended up barricading it, and when it was time for me to make the decision, when you went up north for business, and I said I got the operation done, I didn’t go to a clinic. I went to my brother. I went to them.
I threw it in the coffin that night while you were away. It screamed and cried, and it broke my heart. I returned to you, but the box still wasn’t locked. I pretended like everything was fine, but everything wasn’t. They were watching me again, waiting for the right moment. It was so horrible, and I was terrified they would get you, too. That’s why I had to leave you. That’s why I can’t come back. Not before I find the key again. Not before I lock the door.
One day, I promise, I will find the key and turn it in the lock. Then, I can come back to you, and you will have me, and I will have you, and we can start a real life together.
by Mariella Saavedra Carquin
make yourself smaller, they said
well, they didn’t directly say it
lower your voice when you speak outdoors
in restaurants, in stores, they said
except they didn’t really say it
even though their voices consumed/ the air, the room
because surely we wanted to know/ what they were saying
fit in your space, your booth
your home, they said
except they didn’t really say it
but then one time/ one said:
could you wait so that the two women behind you can go?
what he didn’t say was:
….so that the two white women can go?
and so, you, caught off guard [it’s not your fault] said:
um, ok, I guess, I don’t….
great! he said
and you watched them go in before you
in that moment of waiting you wondered
why your time means less or
why the white women’s time means more
but the waiting is just / aggravating
you feel your anger climb towards your throat
you wanna scream/ jump up and down in place
you wanna say, but don’t:
why did you ask me that?
and he, the door monitor, smiles as he watches you/ wait
watches but doesn’t see as you
float away above yourself/ if only for the wait
to a place where your time matters/ to a God that says:
Wait with me/ until the rest understand
Wait with me/ so you don’t fall through the floor
Leaving behind only a puddle of yourself
the voice of the door monitor/ shakes you back/ in a cheery voice:
you twist the words in your head
your turn was 2 white women ago.
your turn, you think/ will be when you don’t need
to float again/ to stay grounded on this earth.
Reading Walt Whitman
for D.J.D. 1926-2019
by Trish Dougherty
I don’t ask for your blessing, I am blessing.
Done with inadequacies, wrong-footedness, mispronunciations,
Strong and content, I sit beside your bed and read Whitman to you.
Whitman was a bear of a man, stronger than life’s calamities.
His words carry me, and I, holding fast
Your warm hand, can carry too.
Many are the poems I could be reading now, many the poets, many the verse.
My trust in him guides us away from this white hospital bed,
Away and out the broad window
–Lead us away sir, drown out the hissing of the oxygen tanks,
Lift us beyond the methodical pumping of the dreaded feeding tube, fill us instead with joy.
The poem rambles this way and that.
The road it conjures reaching back towards birth and on to the sky;
The verses are cobbles of every moment betwixt, this moment most of all.
I think about eternal moments preserved with absolute clarity
in the depths of our souls, this moment joins them.
You are now the furthest you have ever been from perfect health, from perfect happiness;
But you are also approaching the most perfect health and happiness you will ever know.
I write swiftly while I still remember the ugliness,
Some roads dissolve into the forest, melting among the trees.
Some poems reach the final verse and overcome the meter to become silence.
Now if the perfect silence should appear it would not amaze me,
Now if the hiss and pump should falter it would not astonish me,
Now I see the road and that it does not end.
Now I reconsider all prior considerations,
Every decision made without full knowledge
Of the exact manner in which sunlight flows.
Here is knowledge,
Here is a man tallied—he grows and stretches like a shadow in evening,
The past, the future, grace, sunlight—he is bathed in them and colors them back.
Here is all that matters, these hands entwined
Do you know what will happen next?
Do you know that I will miss you?
We never spoke about Whitman,
Now it has grown too late.
He is speaking to me now,
Not offering flowery psalms but a glorious end to a road that was hard.
This is the end that was promised to you:
Father, I give you my hand. I give you my love,
I give you Whitman saying all that we want to say now and forever.
while social distancing during the 2020 pandemic, vivian calls me again
by Xu Li
while social distancing during the 2020 pandemic, vivian calls me again:
mercury & venus are in retrograde, she says. i curl on a rock, this planet
in retrograde, too. shadows mark a slow, angular dance. light is there
& then, not: eclipse after eclipse, we revolve backwards.
we’ve been alone before, but not
like this. at night, we dream
new ways to touch,
text each other
bluing orbs that
contain a bright
on earth: we sing
& chant on streets. we raise
a thousand signs to sky. it listens, grays.
the same circuits saming circuits. we want to find
the stretch of the elliptical, a wave of light
bending its way out an open door