|Short Story Contest
|About Dawn Wood
Dawn Wood dedicated a great deal of thought to her entry in the Weekly's short story contest. She pondered and rejected several story ideas before making a decision. "I had this really great spooky one, but we said, 'No, no, they won't want that,'" she said. She finally picked on a story she wrote a few years ago, finding that easier than trying to start fresh under pressure.
"Broken Wings" actually evolved from a class assignment in which the teacher instructed the students to write about a small town. Wood loosely based the locale on Bakersfield, where her grandmother used to live. Her vivid descriptions of character and setting bring the story and its theme of "seeing things differently" to life for the reader.
Now a senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Wood has been writing since she was in first or second grade.
"I don't know where I get ideas," she said. "A lot of times, I start out with a character and build a story around (them)." Creating vivid characters, like those in "Broken Wings," is actually her favorite part of writing, Wood says.
Once she has the personalities of her players worked out, Wood finds plunging in immediately is the most effective strategy for her.
"I just start writing," she said. "I hate clusters. I don't do rough drafts."
Being a slave to her inspiration can often be distracting, Wood admits.
"A lot of times I'm scribbling ideas in class," she said. With such an active imagination, it's not surprising that she is currently working on five different stories.
In addition to her writing, Wood also enjoys drawing cartoons and reading.
Over the past several years, she and her family have been gathering together books written before 1950. Their substantial collection now dominates their home, according to Wood. "We live in a library type house," she said. Of the assemblage, her favorites include "Twin Beds" and "The Adventures of Remi."
Broken Wings:by Dawn Wood
The town was ugly, it always would be. On Main Street the dusty rough-cut wood-shingled stores squatted stubbornly, and in the heat they seemed defiant against the weather that wished to destroy them. Some were painted, others logs or pine board, and from within a few came the notes of a honkytonk piano and the shouts of men with too much drink. On the porch of Sam's Store lay an ancient hound dog, expert, so they told me, at eating ice cream cones. He looked miserable in the heat.
Women passed, calling howdy, and men, too, their shoes raising the red dust so that the world became hazy. I didn't answer, didn't return their greetings, but kept my head down and cursed them silently.
I suppose I should tell that times were hard then. Most of the men had been called up to serve Billy Yank, joining the blue-clad ranks as they marched through town, leaving the women, children and old men to fend for themselves. Between turns at the spittoon, the old men swore up and down that although the government could draft them, they couldn't force them to shoot. The fact that they had been drafted, tested, and rejected was unmentionable.
I cussed Pa out for bringing me here with his stupid travels. I had the same fate as many others: when the animals died out in the Tehatchepi Mountains, we had to move. It was his fault that we had come from the beautiful mountains to the dusty grime of treeless Bakersfield. Oh, I called them every bad word I knew, under my breath, and then I made some up to fuel my anger.
I decided to pass by the Walker house on my way out of town, although it had been described by several as a place to avoid. Old Man Walker sipped a bit too much whiskey, they said. "He'll kill you," the kids told me. Well, if I died, it'd be Pa's fault, so I saw no reason to detour.
Old Man Walker was a favorite of the old men's club at the store. Among the shelves of nails, shirts, calf weaners and feed bags, they spun tales at a rickety table about Walker. He had buried bodies in his back yard, they said, and then piled the possessions of the dead shamelessly on his back porch.
The Walker house must have been older than Main Street, for it was the only residence there, set a little ways down from the strip of stores. It was a dilapidated old farmhouse, the few patches of white paint that clung to it were blistered by the sun and grayed by the dust. The front yard was a wild jungle of weeds, surrounded by a sagging fence. This was burdened by a huge vine, gnarled and twisted, and thicker than my thumb. From the dead oak tree in the yard hung a solitary strange object, unnaturally bright in the dull-colored yard. It was a porch swing, dazzling white, creaking gently in a small breeze.
I was wondering why only the swing would be painted, when I was startled by someone running toward me, shouting. "DJ! DJ!"
Then before I could think I was attacked by a bundle of arms and legs. They clamped round me in a hug, as I attempted to pry them loose. When I had succeeded, I said curtly, "I ain't DJ. I'm Andy."
An odd round face studied me, with shaggy brown hair, and tired, trusting eyes. A boy a little shorter then me, dressed in worn overalls, and no shoes. He spoke slowly, pushing the words out with effort.
"No," I repeated, pushing past him, but a hand gripped mine. The kid pulled me along, jogging clumsily. "Looky, DJ, looky."
"I don't want to looky." I said angrily. We had stopped in front of the oak, to which I was introduced. "DJ, looky tree-ez." Well, I looked, but all it was was an oak. Suddenly, I was shoved forward from behind, cracking my nose a good one against the "treeez." I cussed, hopped round some, and then I saw. Little rivers of black snaked between the gray of the bark, which was dry, hard and rough.
I turned to see the kid examining a leaf, holding it close to his face, turning it over, stroking it. I picked one and did the same. The leaf was yellow, with dark purple cobwebs making it curl at the edges. It had a slightly velvety texture.
That day we touched many things, and we continued to do so. He showed me the feel of the pine boards at the store. In return, I shared the groves of eucalyptus trees and the river.
I learned that his name was Billy, and that he was the town's child. Sometimes we would go to the store and look at all the painted tins, and the old men would laugh and flip Billy two pennies for candy. He ate his meals in the town's one restaurant, the Boxcar Cafe, for no charge, and everyone had a kind word for him. From him I learned to look at things I'd only taken for granted.
"You hafta be nice to him," kids said, "He don't know nothin'."
Although everyone had a kind word, no one really did anything with him except for me. When I asked Mr. Taylor, who owned the store, how old Billy was, he told me 12, my age, but that the boy had never been quite "right."
Then one day, a hot, dry day that smelled of cottonwood, I passed by the Walker house like always, and I saw not Billy, but Old Man Walker himself. Billy would usually swing round the porch posts, trying to whistle through the gap in his teeth, then jump off the porch to meet me. So when I saw the bent figure slumped against one such post, I froze and stared.
He wore overalls, a tattered leather jacket thrown about his shoulders, with bare feet, and he was old. His face and hands were brown with age, weathered and tough from life in the fields. His eyes, half closed, were bloodshot and red-rimmed, symptoms of the bottle he clutched in his lap. He had a lean face, with a day's stubble on his chin, thinned black hair, and eyes of black obsidian, that, when they rose to meet mine, were like sharp arrows.
"Ain't you the one allus round here?" His voice was rough, like sandpaper, and slow.
"Yessir," I said.
He told me to come sit with him, and I did so, but I was wary, and sat on the very edge of the porch.
When I asked where Billy was, it was a minute before he answered. He pulled at the whiskey like a desert man, and when he came up for air, he growled, "Gone."
"Gone? Please, sir, d'ya know where he went?"
"He left last night," he said bluntly, "He ain't mine anyway, anymore, so good riddance to 'im,"
Although I was concerned for Billy, I held my tongue, and began to ask another question instead.
"There's a name he calls me," I said. Mr. Walker pulled again at the bottle, then turned toward me once more.
"DJ," I said. The words hung in the air, cushioned by silence, brittle by the tenseness that now seized Billy's father. Somewhere a bird called, but the sound was distant. My eyes were fixed to where his hands had tightened white round the neck of the bottle. Chills shivered through me when he looked at me again, and though his eyes burned with fire, for an instant I saw the pain behind them. "I'm sorry, sir," I choked out, "I didn't know--"
He seized my wrist and jerked me to my feet. I was afraid he would hit me. I remembered the stories about him, and a cry came from me.
"Be quiet," he ordered brusquely. "You asked."
With one finger he pointed to the white porch swing. "That was Mattie's swing," he said, his voice rough, "Billy's mother. DJ was his brother. He looked up to that boy, but not anymore. They both died in the diphtheria epidemic of 1861. Does that answer your question?"
He shook me by the shoulders when I didn't answer. I stuttered out a "Yessir," and he released me. I stumbled from the yard, running like Billy, down along Main Street, crying. For a moment I didn't know why I was crying, only that I was. I was saddened by the world Billy lived in, where he could be discarded with no more thought then you would give something broken and useless. From somewhere behind me I heard Mr. Walker shout. "Don't you worry about us. We've been dead a long time!"
The next day I went into a thicket of eucalyptus, miserable, and heard a hollow tree call me DJ. Billy never returned to the Walker house, being accepted into mine, and though I knew Mr. Walker saw him, he never tried to reclaim his son. Although a look would cross his face occasionally that told me he knew what he missed. Perhaps he realized that Billy, like his mother and brother before him, had tired of that life and gone on to another.
From Billy, labeled poor in both money and mind, I learned to see. I saw things I had taken for granted, and I learned to accept people. Even Mr. Walker, the town drunk, and my own father, with his faults. Billy knew far more than most ever would, knowledge he would've shared had they taken the time to listen. Through Billy's eyes the town became beautiful.
'Broken Wings' summons up an unmistakable time and place: a poor town depleted by the ravages of the Civil War. Told through the eyes of a young boy, the story highlights the author's extraordinary command of precise detail coupled with his/her gift of knowing exactly when to stop and say no more. Although its reliance on the old fable of the village idiot who brings enlightenment to the outsider is somewhat hackneyed, the clean craft displayed here lets those of us reading know that a maturing writer is at work."
--Linda Gray Sexton
"What impresses me most about "Broken Wings" is the confidence of its telling. I never doubt the narrator's voice, his anger at finding himself stuck in Bakersfield, the story's spare dialogue, or the fact that it all takes place 140 years ago. A genuine achievement by a talented writer."
"I'm so impressed with the sophistication of this writer, who not only shows the nasty power of small town gossip, but also overturns the town myths. The bonus of this deeply layered story is its final comment on how sons learn to forgive their fathers. Congratulations to a talented young author who has an incredible range of insight."
One more week to vote!
Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.