The Potomac School
Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Runner-Up for Fiction
A resounding creak, and the door to the attic swings open, rudely awakening a half century’s worth of dust. Hordes of tiny specks flutter in the air, a whirlwind illuminated by a single ray of light peeking through two time-warped wooden boards. On the floor, a small photograph, smeared with sun-stained memories from a distant past. Two dusty textbooks, half-filled with chunks of crinkly pages and well-packed chapters. A crumpled bill with a distant date, 1-9-6-something, insignificant, and yet surely an artifact of some grand history. Two eyes scan the foot of the sunbeam, driven by a memory. A beautiful doll -- where is it? -- worn out by now, undoubtedly, but the image remained strong -- and that dress! -- a silk rainbow-colored masterpiece fit for Joseph the Dreamer himself. The eyes dart back and forth, scouring the floor. A realization. And suddenly, the dust vanishes and it is 1950 again, and like a torrent the memories of a birthday and a long walk and horror come rushing back and flood the attic.
It was Korea and 1950 and summer. The doll was a gift for a birthday -- six was it? -- no, seven, and hand-stitched, a present for a girl from her loving mother, a mother indeed long gone but whose warm smile still radiated sunlight through the cracks of the attic roof. It was that glorious season, yes, those ephemeral few weeks when the year was still young, and summer, having just sprung forth from the buds of the trees, was unblemished by the rains of the coming monsoon.
Then the war came and a wondrous time of birthdays cut short. Surprise, terror, questions. Uncle’s house, it was decided, a safe haven from the armies of the North, but so far away it was -- over 200 miles -- and no car in sight.
Walk. Father, ever the disciplinarian, declared nothing but the bare essentials. No toys.
And yet that night, there was still a girl and her beautiful doll, the doll carefully tucked away under a shirt, clutched ever so tightly away from the watchful eyes of father.
And so the walk marched on, from dawn to dusk, from town to town, from the road’s serpentine windings to the sun’s cruel yellow whips, from the aching burden of their well-stuffed sacks to the cruel thirst in their sandpaper throats, from the scuffles for the last scrap in the food jar to the red dust kicked up by their heels as they marched, one foot in front of the other, the small plumes of dust climbing up, up, up, like birds -- no, like lost souls reaching for the sky, for the heavens, only to be displaced by the wind and never reach the clouds, yet still again and again the plumes rose from the earth, a monotonous cycle, the girl’s small heels and heavy footsteps beating into the ground, and she was merely an ant crawling across the face of a drum, the drum of the world, and she was a soul playing a tune, sending a melancholy rhythm up toward the heavens, the plumes rising into the cerulean sky, and a doll, her doll, clutched tight and shielded from the dust of the world.
And then the war. An American plane. So close -- close enough to see the young face up in the plane, up in the sky, close enough to count the stripes on the flag, yes, seven red ones, blood red ones, and then the blast and blood everywhere -- one step and now the babies, yes, close enough to see the babies, close enough to see the blood, the veins, pulsing, twitching in their necks, spurting blood up into the heavens, their souls scattered with the dust, two more steps and now close enough to see the men lying there, stomachs spilling out, too close, too close, too close for a little girl, yes, a little girl and her rainbow doll, her small heels kicking up dust into the heavens, the red dust and now the smoke and the blood and the flames curling, billowing, rising with the fallen souls, reaching for the sky, twisting and stretching and yearning and crying out, but the sky, so close, tantalizing, taunting, its gates closed, closed forever. And there on the ground, eyes open and tilted toward the pale sky, was a girl, a girl -- six was it? -- no seven, seven years old, a girl and her beautiful rainbow doll, clutched tight against her chest, so tight, so tight, so tight she could not let go.
Then the thirst. The monsoon rains had not yet arrived. A stream, but 10 miles off the main path, the thorny underbrush clawing at their legs as they picked and plodded, yearning for the old red dusty path, for the same dust which they had once hated so dearly. One foot in front of the last, their feet this time playing a slower rhythm, a more emotional rhythm, a pain-filled rhythm. Finally, the sweet melodies of the stream. Flasks and bellies filled to the brim and then some, and the clawing in their throats now replaced by a new weight and a new heavier, hobbling rhythm -- but how wonderful to be rid of the thirst! Then the thorny ten-mile walk back to the road. And another blast -- a young boy sprawled on the ground, blood everywhere, his soul on the platform and the train pulling into the station -- and his eyes, tortured, eyeing the splash, the gentle splosh of the newly replenished flasks. And then the moaning, begging, only for a few drops -- but no -- No! The next watering hole is 40 miles away and we can’t afford it, we must save. And then a desperate flurry of whimpers cut off -- a crying silence, and the boy, abandoned. Plodding off -- swish, swash, splosh -- a funeral dirge, the boy’s soul waiting to depart and be scattered off with the dust. His soul and all the others, the smoke, the flames, and dust, to wander and cry out and pry at the sealed gates of the sky.
Then one day the bombs arrived like raindrops in the monsoon. And smoke rose to the heavens, spiraling upward, a great conflagration, burning the lungs. And with each blast the dust rose with the smoke, blinding, and the noise, the crying and wailing and coughing. The girl, lost amid the heat and the ash. For the first time alone. And at last, a hand -- father, but where was mother, where was mother whose warm smile radiated sunlight through the cracks of the attic roof.
Pale hands, slim, tiny fingers, so tense, a doll wrapped inside. The small tent gone to the smoke and flames. A tree now in its place, the wide-eyed girl staring up at its branches until well into the night, watching as the great oak twisted and turned into a tapestry of leaves, each limb stretching and climbing toward the black, misty sky, the unknown. And it was then, in spite of the shock and horror it was then of all times that the girl felt most afraid, still tethered to the ground and clutching her doll, a doll of all things, a doll and a girl with dreams of the sky.
Father, with sagging eyes, shrouded in a sadness that the girl could not place. Comfort, indeed, she longed for comfort, and her soul was a leaf in a storm, a fluttering, soaring leaf relishing the sensation of momentary flight, when her father, never before the comforter, assured her that mother had gone in another direction and was okay. That mother had gone in another direction and no need to worry. That mother had gone in another direction and would be joining them soon. And she believed him, holding tight to hope, and to a doll, as if a doll could replace a mother.
Uncle’s house. It was at last, a joyful rhythm -- the girl skipped up the wide path, heels crunching on the gravel, as father tapped four times on the door, feet shifting in anticipation.
And then silence. The songs had ceased. The door shut. They shuffled away from the house. And at last, a quiet mumbling. Father, repeating Uncle’s words, over and over again -- no more mouths to feed, no more mouths to feed, no more mouths to feed.
A temporary home -- a small campsite, packed with people, after a three days walk. A sky for a roof and at last, a peaceful sleep. Only rain fell from above.
A dream. A dream where thieves visited the girl in the night, taking everything -- valuables, clothes, food, mother. At last, they reached for the beautiful rainbow doll. She would not let them have it. They pried and pried and pried, but her fingers would not let go. She woke with a start.
It was still dark outside, and drizzling. She rose, doll tucked in her arms as it had always been. And yet that night it was different. She walked away from camp, doll in hand, basking in the night air, her eyes to the sky.
The sky. For the first time, stars. Shining down from above.
Her mother, she realized, shining down from above.
She took a few deep breaths, letting the crisp air fill her lungs.
She knelt down, and with her hands began to claw at the dirt.
Her hands. Her hands so small, so small, still the hands of a little girl -- six was it? -- no, seven, seven years old and grown up already.
She paused, examining the hole in front of her. A brief smile, and then the tears came. She tossed the doll inside and buried it.
The dark sky engulfed her.
“Mother’s Doll” is the story of a vibrant, loving little girl and her doll braving one of the most violent periods in history. The story has a life of its own, starting with a steady heartbeat rapidly quickening as the sections grow smaller, more gripping—until the end, when our ragged breaths match the rhythm of the poignant one-liners extricating us from the girl’s spell.
EDITORIAL PRAISE FROM MICHAEL ZAPATA, FICTION JUDGE
"Mother’s Doll" is a devastating historical witness of loss, told with absolute urgency and measured tenderness. Its exceptional use of ascending imagery and repetition forms both a hopeful rhythm and a harrowing reminder of the type of exile that war manifests. When reading, I thought both of The "Mountains Sing" by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and "Fruit of the Drunken Tree" by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. I’m honored to have selected Mother’s Doll as an honorable mention for the Claudia Ann Seaman Awards for Young Writers.
Benjamin Choi is a current student (Class of 2022) at the Potomac School in Northern Virginia and an avid reader and writer. His short story, "Mother's Doll", is loosely based on the experiences of his grandparents as refugees during the Korean War. Outside of his literary pursuits, Ben enjoys trivia, playing the violin, and enjoying a good game of squash.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR