Shontae M. Johnson wins the Essence Short Fiction Contest
The Essence Short-Fiction Contest returns after a 15-year hiatus. We received more than 2,000 entries from as near as Newark, New Jersey, and as far away as Japan and Africa. Now we're pleased to announce the winner, Shontae M. Johnson from Portland, Oregon, who will receive $1,000.
The second-place winner is Rachel Skerritt, Dorchester, Mass., who wrote "Stealing Moments" and third-place winner Lenore M. Taylor, Philadelphia, Pa., wrote "Before The Storm" Click on their names to read their stories.
Johnson's entry reminds us of the soul and skill of Terry McMillan and Gloria Naylor, who got their start in our pages, and former Essence executive editor Tamara Jeffries, who won this international competition in 1991. In "Blue," the promising writer has created a true original, with a narrator who makes a controversial choice. An absorbing mood piece, this story will stay with you and provoke heated debates among you, your family and friends, just as surely as it did among our judges, who in the end, were mesmerized by her talent.
ABOUT THE WINNER: Shontae M. Johnson, 26, says she has been writing stories since she was "old enough to pick up a pen." The Portland, Oregon, clinical-data specialist admires the work of writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. With her first published piece now under her belt, Johnson hopes her untitled novel will land with a publishing house. When she's not cooking up her stories, Johnson, who's single with no children, enjoys whipping up chicken enchiladas. But nothing gives her as much pleasure as writing: "Writing has always been my outlet to deal with my emotions," she says. "It's my passion-I can't imagine life without it." -Margaret Williams
For more "Blue," keep reading.
I realized that I had failed as a mother on the day my daughter was born. Though that seems a very pessimistic attitude toward a day that should have been filled with unprecedented joy, for me it marked the beginning of the end of my existence as myself. I lay there in the hospital bed, nodding in and out of consciousness, struggling to block the fluorescent lights and sterile noises from my brain. The sea-foam green walls of the room seemed to take on a rippling effect, and I was drowning in waves of conflicting emotions. Everything I was feeling seemed to intensify despite the residual numbness of the epidural that was administered during labor. When I expressed my concern, through tearful sobs, the nurse just gave me a weak, sympathetic smile and explained that the combination of turbulent hormones and medication was causing what she called "the postbaby blues."
That's exactly what she called it, the Blues. Blue being my favorite color, a color that reminded me of sunny cotton-ball-dotted skies, serene tropical waters and misty mornings. The Blues-the soulful, passionate, expressive music I remembered hearing my father play in the forbidden smoke-filled back room of our house when I was growing up. Neither of those descriptions seemed to mirror what I was feeling. I was feeling, well, black. An all-encompassing blackness-a dark, intimidating cloak of blindness to whatever it was this state of motherhood was supposed to be revealing to me. The nurse-a short, cinnamon-colored woman named Anna, clad in Hawaiian-print scrubs-came to me after what seemed a lifetime since the ordeal of labor was over and informed me that it had been 24 hours since my delivery and I had yet to ask for my child. That is what she called her. My child.
Did I have a name picked for my daughter? I didn't know. I guess I was supposed to be thinking of that during the abruptly halted eight months we shared the same body or during the 18 excruciating hours we spent separating ourselves from each other. I had not thought of a name for her. I spent that time trying to figure out how I would care for a child when I still felt so childlike myself. I spent that time trying to ignore the physical changes my body was undergoing. I spent that time trying to think of one person I knew whom I could emulate as a mother. No, a name for her had never even crossed my mind. I knew the kind of mother I wanted to be. Coincidentally, I never realized I'd wanted to be a mother at any point in my life until I discovered I was pregnant. That was when I realized in my heart that I had always imagined children in my future. Yet I always saw motherhood as something in the future, never in the present tense.
My own mother was cold and distant, the neighborhood "crazy lady" whom children taunted and adults shamefully avoided making eye contact with. Her spirit was broken from years of seeking solace for her tortured mind in the bottom of bottles and the pull of smoke. I'd wondered throughout my childhood if she indeed did love me. I grew up hoping and praying she wouldn't call out my name when I passed her on the streets on the way to school. I constantly wished she had just left me behind. Who had given her permission to bear children?
My mother hadn't named me herself, but left it for my father to do, for she was unable to stand the sight of me from birth. My father, a thoughtful man with sensitive eyes, a booming voice and strong hands that manipulated piano keys into the sweetest melodies, made sure to protect me from my mother's harsh stares and accusations. He, a man whom I later found out had not one drop of blood running through my veins, made sure I grew up feeling loved, nurtured and protected. I had no one like that for my daughter, no one to protect her from the pain of the world, teach her to love herself, shield her from the hereditary madness that was sure to descend upon her, eventually.
I grew up watching television mothers like Claire Huxtable. She was the epitome of what I thought a woman should be. Sophisticated and beautiful. Smart, successful, loving, caring, and so together. I saw myself balancing a career, a relationship with my successful, loving husband who had an incredible sense of humor, and attractive, well-behaved children who only got into laughable real-life situations. But I was not Claire. I was Sophie.
Anna brought my daughter to me in the twilight before morning on the second day of my being there. I imagine that to Anna I appeared indifferent and awkward. Anna stood hesitantly at the door, trying to determine if she was using her professional judgment or letting her emotion get in the path of something she could not change. She had held my daughter beforehand and felt her power. She thought that all I needed to do was to hold her to understand that we needed each other.
My daughter was soft as a peach as I touched her caramel-colored skin. I studied her face for reminders of her father or myself. Her slightly misshapen head was evidence of the pain I endured despite the numbing anesthetic I had received during her birth. I searched her face for some knowing, hoping she possessed some clairvoyance into our future together. Her hazy hazel eyes droopily opened and closed, struggling to gain focus on her new surroundings. I searched her eyes for reassurance. She stared back at me. All I saw in her face was need-a need I could not fulfill. I cried tears of shame and pain and tears of amazement and joy. How had I created something so perfect out of utter confusion? Suddenly the most selfish feeling came over me. I wanted to share her perfection. I, for one split second in my lifetime, felt validated by her very existence. I instantly thought about everything she would give me: pride, a sense of accomplishment, laughter, unconditional love. I could think of only one thing I could give her.
I lifted her to my chest and did the only thing that felt natural. She looked at me knowingly, as if to say, "I was born to do this, so you can't get this wrong." I closed my eyes and imagined a lifetime of sustaining her. I grew exhausted by the thoughts and fell asleep with my daughter getting what she could from me without my help.
When I awoke she was gone. My chest was moist from the memory of her being there, though hours must have passed. For the first time in days, my thoughts were clear. It was as if a fog had been lifted from my consciousness. I sat up and placed my feet on the cool linoleum floor in the now dimly lit room. On the nightstand near the left side of the bed was a telephone with the red message light blinking, a small notepad bearing the hospital emblem, and a pitcher of ice water. I picked up the pen and pad and began writing my thoughts from the past few days. I gave my daughter the one thing I could: a note explaining who I was, what she had come from, and all I wished for her. I gave her a name. At the bottom I signed, "Your loving mother, Sophie."
I searched the room for my clothing-now ill-fitting as the curve of my stomach had deflated, leaving me an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness. I imagine, when I snuck down the busy hallway and out the side doors of the hospital, that it only took minutes for Anna to discover I was gone. More than likely Anna entered the room just seconds after I left, my scent still lingering there. She may even have seen me leave. If she did, she didn't try to stop me. She probably entered the room, to open the curtains and have me sign discharge papers, and found it void of everything except an empty bed of tangled sheets, discarded tubes dangling from various machines, and my letter, which I had propped against the telephone. Noticing it only when she went to dump the ice water in the sink, she may have discarded it. Life would be impossible to endure if I harbored that thought.
In my imagination, she folded the note in half and slipped it into the pocket of her scrubs, leaving the room without a second thought for my well-being, and with mixed emotions of relief and disappointment. Later she went into the nursery and held my daughter with a close familiarity and natural maternal instinct that I would never come to know. Feeding her from a bottle of milk pulled from the hospital's inventory, instead of expressed naturally from me, her mother, she remembered the note. Pulling it from her pocket she read it partly aloud and partly to herself. With pity and confusion, she would finally address my daughter by her name: Blue.
Second-place winner: Rachel Skerritt, Dorchester, Mass. - "Stealing Moments" Third-place winner: Lenore M. Taylor, Philadelphia, PA - "Before The Storm"