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Maria Spiridonova Remembered Writing Contest Runners-Up

Elaina Erola won the Maria Spiridonova Remembered Writing Contest with her essay "What Their Spirits Know," but there are a number of fantastic entries to the contest by the writers that are contest runners-up.




The Assassination of Sebastian Santiago -

Kyle Callam

 

“That is Final!” proclaimed the Indorran leader Sebastian Santiago as he gave a fiery speech to the Indorran people. This latest declaration, along with a string of harsh recent declarations and laws, would unofficially make him a dictator.


In a small and dilapidated apartment in Markasha, one of Indorra’s largest slums, three young menFernando Garcia, Pablo Alvarez and Luis Martinezwatched Santiago’s speech on their television screen with an intense expression of ire on their faces.


Fernando Garcia, a twenty-year-old male of medium build and height with jet black hair, Pablo Alvarez, a twenty-year-old male of medium build, quite tall with strawberry blonde hair, and Luis Martinez, a twenty-one-year-old male of small build and height with red brown hair, were all close friends that grew up in impoverished Markasha.


Through hard work and dedication they had each managed to study at one of the nation’s traditional universities: Fernando had studied biochemistry, Pablo had pursued computer science, and Luis had studied philosophy and history. Each man could remember the many nights in college when they had nothing to eat and had to beg friends for scraps of food to abate the pain of hunger. The dedication that led them to receive scholarships and complete their undergraduate degrees was driven by the societal promise that a good education could elevate anyone from abject poverty. Sadly, this was false; none of the three young men could secure a job after graduating college in the worsening economy under Santiago’s rule.


The citizens of Indorra felt the ever worsening economy and most could barely afford basic amenities.  In recent times, all areas of Indorra had become similar to Marksha under the rule of Sebastian Santiago where a general lack of electricity and clean water access prevailed.


Sebastian Santiago was democratically elected following a bloody coup d'état that ousted the previous leader. What was originally hoped to become a successful and just administration became an oppressive nightmare. Under his regime rife with corruption and governed purely by cronyism, the nation’s critical infrastructure fell into disrepair, healthcare, which was already poor under the previous administration, had become abysmal and youth unemployment had skyrocketed. The rich resources of Indorra, which included substantial deposits of cobalt, oil, and lithium were sold for little on international black markets due to the international sanctions that Indorra was subjected to because of Santiago’s poor foreign policy. The income generated was then funneled into the pockets of Indorran officials and the military and the nation was neglected.


“Words have consequences and this fool has a debt to justice!” Luis proclaimed, as he pointed at the television in front of him.


“Shut up you idiot, do you want us to get executed before we even have a chance?” Pablo responded. “You know that if the neighbors report us for ridiculing the regime we’ll be sent to one of those secret camps,” Pablo said, in a slightly angry voice.


One night while drinking beers and reminiscing about college, the three young men joked about assassinating Santiago, but what initially started as a joke became a complex plan involving weeks of preparation.


***


The dictator was scheduled to make a propagandistic visit to the council office in the nearby city of Rio de Belleza. This visit was heavily advertised to encourage a large crowd and would be a ceremony to open the newly renovated council office. All three men were familiar with the city as their college was situated there and with their knowledge of the layout of the area surrounding the council office, it would the perfect occasion to attack. Luis had also managed to procure a detailed map of the area from a former roommate in college.


There were several challenges against them but their well detailed plan was comprised of ways to overcome this. Firstly, Santiago would have a significant security presence; he was aware of the possible threats on his life from the mostly angered populous and foes eager to take his place. To counter this, Pablo had created three press passes for journaliststhese were very well done and were nearly indistinguishable from genuine ones. Accompanying this was an old, non-functional camera and three three suits to complete the façade of being a journalist.


  Lastly, there would be a challenge to quickly pass Santiago’s close bodyguards and assassinate him. To counter this they had acquired a single tear gas canister as well as an old single action revolver which they bought from a known gangster in the slum by selling all their personal items to gather the necessary cash. Using their press passes, they would get as close as possible to the stage before throwing the tear gas canister into the crowd to create mass panic.


  In the ensuing panic and poor visibility, Pablo and Luis would immediately tackle the forefront bodyguards hopefully giving Fernando a brief window of opportunity to shoot. Fernando was chosen to be shooter since he was the only one experienced with firearms due to his five years spent in his secondary school’s Cadet Force.


“You’re awfully quiet, do not choke tomorrow,” Luis exclaimed, as he turned his fury to Fernando.


“I won’t, but is this right?” Fernando replied. “One of his cohorts will take his place and he may be worse, what if we create a power vacuum?” he commented, in an anxious tone.


“I knew it, I knew it, he’s having second thoughts!” Luis very loudly exclaimed.


“Luis keep your voice down, you’re going to get us killed!” Pablo quickly responded.


Fernando was indeed experiencing second thoughts. His innately pacifist nature, which was challenged during his time in the Cadets, was conflicted by the violent plan. He had spent the past week distressed with the fact that he would soon take a life and grappled with the morality of the situation, whether or not murder could be justified.  One of the recent laws passed by Santiago was the strict prohibition of firearms, which carried the death penalty. Fernando as well as Pablo and Luis had accepted that this was a one-way mission even if the attempt was unsuccessful all three would be executed for the possession of a firearm and treason against the state. But this acceptance did not alleviate Fernando’s conflicting thoughts. 


“We’ve come too far and sold everything of value we have, his words and actions must have consequences and tomorrow his debt to justice will be paid!” Pablo said, in a reassuring tone.


            “Vive la Indorra!” Luis chanted.


“Vive la Indorra!” the three chanted in unison.


***

 

“Fernando and Luis wake up its time,” Pablo said, while tying the tear gas canister to his inner thigh with a thick string. It was hoped that his tall frame and large pants would disguise the outline of the canister.


“I’m already up,” Fernando replied.


“The true rebel does not sleep,” Luis answered confidently.


“Are you alright Fernando?” Pablo asked, as he was concerned by the dry vomit on Fernando’s shirt and the distressing look on his face.


Before Fernando could reply Luis loudly interjected, “His face will get us killed, he’s not ready!”


“I am,” Fernando replied, in a rough voice as he feigned the confidence to perform the attack. “This will be done, Vive la Indorra!” Fernando then added.


“Vive la Indorra!” responded Luis, while suspiciously looking at Fernando.


It was a short ride on the public bus to Rio de Belleza, Indorran public transportation was one of the few infrastructural amenities that was still maintained. The bus had passed through two military checkpoints but luckily the bus was not stopped and searched, which was peculiar to all three men. However, they thought that searches were likely prohibited so as to not discourage citizens from attending the ceremony.


Approaching the council office the three men noticed the surprisingly strong attendance by the populous, which would make it easier to blend in, but the security presence was stronger than expected with armed men strategically placed on roofs and canine units at almost every entrance. However, this did not deter the three young men in the slightest.


“Another prosperous renovation under my rule!” Santiago said, dressed in a luxury mulberry suit accentuated by a pin of the nation’s flag on his chest.


“It’s time, let’s get closer to the stage!” Luis shouted into Pablo’s ear, as the roar of the crowd engendered by Santiago’s speech was deafening.


 “He’s going to cut the ribbon soon!” Pablo loudly replied.


Brimmed with confidence from the press passes around their necks and their suits, the three young men began making their way towards the stage. Surrounding the stage was a ring of bodyguards armed with AK-47 rifles and adorned in ballistic vests and helmets.


The insignia of a red helmet on the right shoulder of their uniforms showed that these bodyguards were a part of Santiago’s new elite police force that was infamous for their heavy-handed methods for dealing with civilians.


“Who are you?” a bodyguard asked as he stared angrily into Pablo’s eyes.


“We’re with the Rio de Belleza News, we’re going to take pictures,” Pablo replied, as he showed the bodyguard his camera. 


Now a mere ten meters from the stage, the three men became extremely nervous and this was apparent from their sweaty faces. Luis placed his trembling hands into his pockets to hide them and Fernando did not talk. They could clearly see Santiago cut the ceremony’s ribbon and he was beginning to make his way off the stage.


The bodyguard who was beginning to grow suspicious radioed his boss, “We have three journalists from Rio de Belleza News that want to get closer to the stage. Over.”


“It’s now or never, he’s leaving!” Luis exclaimed.


With a quick nod of assurance to Luis and Fernando, Pablo immediately pulled the canister from his inner thigh and threw it close to the stage. With a loud bang the surrounding area was filled with tear gas and screams erupted from the crowd as mass panic erupted.


“Vive la Indorra!” Pablo and Luis shouted in unison, as they pushed the frightened bodyguard on the ground through the haze of tear gas. 

 

Fernando’s eyes became tearful from the tear gas and his body instinctively lunged towards the stage with the revolver already in this hand. He could clearly see Santiago’s face turn pale with shock, his eyebrows raised, and his mouth gasped with the horror that was occurring before him.


Fernando’s heart began beating as quickly as a drum and with a strong voice he loudly proclaimed, “Words have consequences, actions incur a debt, Vive la Indorra!”


 Fernando then felt the recoil of the revolver as he fired the revolver several times.


As the smoke from the gunshot cleared, the three men could see Santiago lying on the stage with his nearby staff desperately rushing towards him, the elite police unit coming to apprehend them.  The rule of Sebastian Santiago was no more and the future of Indorra was now open to any possibility.



Balloon

Emma Wells

 

A balloon for a stomach,

expanding, inflating like lungs

yet this buoyant ball

screams neon-notes at times,

coursing jagged lines,

near-piercing stretches

where elastic rips clean,

tethering thinly to plastic sides

like comedic masks

melting under scrutiny.

 

Sometimes it quells,

black and stormy,

as turbulent aircraft;

ribbony rivers restrict,

narrowing as in sleep

when minds’ eyes

pivot in dreamy husks

of twilight twittering;

nocturnal nuances

are slanted moonbeams

in mirrored reflections:

slashed, dusky, divisive.

 

Sometimes it’s bubblegum pink,

hot as Tenerife soil

cooking sandy stones,

hollering jaded epiphanies;

half-truths that I’m numb to:

they pivot now as crows

scanning for crumbs

on verdant lawns

waiting for moments to swoop;

I’m prepared, shielded

like soldiered chainmail

where chocked realities

float just beneath the surface,

clinking discordance as I walk.

 

Other times,

it is round, wholly mine

where no obscene colours shout,

vying for stiletto stages

on heeled prowess

flaking to pastry tatters;

it exists in beige,

happily, non-plussed

as teenagers over Christmas gifts

managing half-inkling smiles,

keeping prying grandmothers

at bay, who beg for attention.

 

I like it when it’s blue

or green:

calm, pastoral colours

colliding with the sea;

waves tumble to pastures

and sun waves stroke both alike

as much-loved children;

no ripples rotate

its globular surface;

it rotates harmoniously

as a patchwork globe

rotating merrily on a spinning axis

in the hand of a god

poising as a curious child.



The Girl Who Read Solzhenitsyn

J.B. POLK

 

She reads the book every day. Unprompted, her hands reach for it and open it randomly, as a priest might open the Bible. A page or two is enough to settle her for the day and nourish her better than a bowl of breakfast cereal.


“At five a.m., as usual, reveille was sounded—a hammer banged against a rail by the staff hut. The intermittent ringing came faintly through the windowpanes, two fingers thick with frost…”


Today, just like in the book, she woke up to a volley of noise—the early morning combat of the couple from across the hall that seems to form the basis of their relationship.


Vera Pavlovna likes the woman—a thin, haggard girl who wears army-surplus clothes and crack-frosted boots. They even exchange shy smiles over the sink piled high with yesterday’s dishes or at the grease-spluttered cooker in the communal kitchen. Her fridge is just below Vera’s, two shelves under Oleg Stepanovich's, a political sciences teacher at Lumumba University.


The girl’s shelf is nearly always empty—a plateful of kasha, a splash of tomato puree, a dollop of sour cream, and sometimes a few pickled cucumbers. That lazy husband of hers has a good appetite, and Vera Pavlovna has often caught him snooping in the fridge, stealing food from other shelves.


She puts down the book, slides the reading glasses off her nose, and gets up, letting the chill of the parquet floor climb up her shins. She pads to the bathroom and opens a window. The toilet roll is soggy. As usual, Oleg Stepanovich hasn’t bothered to let the steam out after showering. The bliss of living in a communal flat!


The water is lukewarm. She showers rapidly, dries herself with a scratchy towel, pulls her hair into a knot, and pats Ponds into the skin under her eyes. Pond’s is not available in Moscow shops, but Vera works in the sorting section of the Central Post Office, and among the few perks (to be quite honest, the only perk!) from the job are packages that, for unknown reasons, failed to reach the addressees.


She has found the oddest things in the parcels: wooden masks from Zambia, stale liver sausage from Germany, gluey blancmange, and dolls in Austrian dirndls. Once, she unwrapped layers of soft tissue to reveal an instrument. She consulted the Encyclopedia of Music and found a picture of the charango, a four-stringed guitar from the Andean Plateau made from the shell of a mammal called a quirquincho.


There are other things, too: French perfume, butter cookies from Belgium, boxes of Hershey bars, and Italian scarves of nebulous transparency. They divide the unclaimed articles among the workers, with the lion’s share going to the postmaster and his cronies. That’s why she has the cream. She uses it sparingly, taking a tiny drop each morning to make the fragrant smoothness last as long as possible.


Back in the room, she makes the bed, slips the book into her bag, and puts on her Astrakhan coat and hat. The orchestra version of "Moscow Nights" filters through from the room next door.


She straightens a sepia photo of a uniformed man on the wall before departing. Her father. She barely knew him. The Great War had claimed him first and spit him out after five long years with a chest full of medals and a wooden leg. Soon after, he vanished again, swallowed by the Siberian taiga's six-month-long winter with his awards, leg, and all. Mother remarried fast—to a bottle worker, a party member, and an ardent follower of the politburo.


Outside, light is creeping in, painting the skies a timid white. Sloppy snowflakes pirouette in the air before melting on the sidewalk. She walks briskly to the bus stop, seven long blocks between two rows of twin-like apartment towers.


Her apartment is in Goluboi Prospect, around the corner from Dniepr Boulevard. In Russian, goulboi can mean both gray and blue, whichever of the two connotations the speaker chooses to give it. Today, her mood is gloomy, closer to the ashen hue of birch trees than to the turquoise flush of summer skies. Grey Prospect, she thinks. I live on Grey Street.


She has been feeling uneasy lately. Things have been changing. Not all at once but in stages, as if on the installment plan. Things she has always taken for granted have taken on a different form, similar to genetically modified soybeans.


She noticed it first when she dialed through the bands on the radio, trying to find the typical crackle of the Voice of America. She became accustomed to deciphering words amidst the rapid-fire sounds of the jamming equipment.


“Good evening…crackle... Moscow… this…the...crackle…voice of…crackle…America…”


But that time, it came through as clear as water in a spring. The unexpected clarity took away some of the sweetness of the forbidden. Of course, she continued to listen; the habit was too ingrained, but most of the pleasure had vanished.


It's past rush hour, and the Voronki-City Center bus comes nearly empty. She sits down and takes out her book. Reading on a bus is difficult because every pothole and every swerve of the vehicle to avoid speeding Volgas and Moskviches make the book jump, blending words into a black pulp.


She has noticed over the years that reading on a bus is like extending an invitation to fellow passengers. They feel free to peek at the title and read a paragraph or two, waiting impatiently for the page to turn. She doesn’t mind. It's flattering in some ways! She despises trashy romances and cheap science fiction. Although printed on coarse, grainy paper, her novels are little treasures. Solzhenitsyn, no less! It amuses her to see furtive glances, pursed lips, and astonished frowns when they discover the book’s author.


The girl who reads Solzhenitsyn—that's what they call her at the post office. Secretly, they admire her stubborn defiance of the censor’s list and her resistance to conform to the rules established by the society she must live in.


She reads openly on buses, in restaurants, and at work. Once, the postmaster scolded her in the clipped tones of an absolute despot: “Vera Pavlovna, you should realize that reading at work is not allowed.”


He was obviously irritated because crimson veins popped up on the tuber of his nose as he added, "The parcels are piling up; surely you could leave reading for your tea breaks.”


She smiled at him indulgently as one might to a child afraid of the Baba Yaga. “Would you mind if I read Mayakovski?”


He hummed and hawed unconvincingly.


“It’s not what you read, but the fact that you read at all.”


She cut in quickly, “Then fire me! Fire me for reading Solzhenitsyn!”


He didn't, of course. Deep down, he was impressed. They all were. The girl who reads Solzhenitsyn is like fresh air, and even if they can’t breathe it themselves, even though their lungs are clogged with the official propaganda, the tasteless mash of Pravda’s revolutionary slogans, they enjoy sniffing the breeze of freedom floating above the stale winds of taboo.


She gets off by the Red Square, her daily walk to work taking her past the Lenin mausoleum and the stiff-necked soldiers in green uniforms. As a young girl, she used to come here (against her mother’s warning: It’ll be too late to cry over going bald when the head is chopped off!) to tease them and eat lemons and sour apples, hoping to elicit a scowl or even a curse. But they stood impassive, eyes fixed on the Kremlin’s onion domes, not a twitch or a grimace heralding human emotions, indifferent like the plaster goblins in her mother’s flat.


The queue by the tomb is short today—just a group of rednecks from backwater Kolima or the snow-laden region of Yenisei. The brevity of the queue surprises her. She remembers days when coils of visitors snaked around the square.


Construction is underway a hundred meters from the Mausoleum, but it is too early for the May Day Parade. A giant red and yellow sign is stretched across a metal frame: This is the location of the first Moscow McDonald's. She sees uniforms among the employees, dressed in colorful overalls. Words in a foreign language pierce her ears. The soldiers engage in animated conversations with the workers, shaking their hands and even exchanging little gifts.


It's a quarter past nine, so she must hurry. She was late last week and the week before.


In front of Books and Stationery, she spots a group of youngsters, the thunderclap of percussion and electric guitars leaking out of their oversized radio. They are dressed in odd clothes, not unlike Mao’s navy-blue uniforms, with Wrangler scribbled on the trouser pockets and Bad Attitude on the jackets. Is it some kind of artistic statement?

In the musical drawl of native Muscovites, they discuss the books in the shop window.


“Overrated…”


“Still, it got him the Nobel…”


“But you couldn’t put Solzhenitsyn in the same category as Gordimer or Neruda,” one of them says with the finality of a judge pronouncing a death sentence with no right of appeal.


Her eyes alight on the thick volumes, glossy covers, and red and silver titles. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Collected Works. Piles of them, together with The Capital and Pushkin’s Selected Poems, stacked one on top of another like parcels that failed to reach the addressee.


One of the youngsters turns and tips her a wink—hardly more than a flick—but her heart speeds up from a slow canter to a wild sprint. Her legs gather momentum. She runs mindlessly to the post office.


“Late again, Vera Pavlovna,” the doorman greets her.


Her hurried footsteps take her to the bathroom. She shrugs out of her coat. Dark patches of sweat have stained her white blouse, and a little pulse throbs in the temple like a quasar about to explode. She turns on the tap. Water dribbles on her hands in a thin trickle.


“Overrated…”


“Not in the same category as..."


They used his name as if it were a ball tossed by careless players. When did it all happen? What has gone wrong in her country's carefully structured microcosm? All those unwelcome changes... The well-defined landmark on which to lean her shouldergone... And worse, there is no one to tell her which way to go, how far, or when. There is no one to rescue her from the dreary scenario of the future.


She can hear the water drip from the tap, smell the odor of the blue disinfectant cakes in the toilet bowls, and feel the sweat under her arms, but nothing seems real. She sees herself in the mirror above the sink. The hair peeking out from under the frowzy hat has turned silver with age. Her eyes were blue once but are now faded and lifeless. There is a look in them that wasn't there a week before. Or... was there? Has it always been there, and she simply hasn't noticed?


She is no longer a girl. There used to be charm and confidence in the girl who read Solzhenitsyn. There is humility and tedium in the old woman, who will never read him again.

 


Compare and Contrast, or, Parallel Structure

January 202_

James B. Nicola

 

One was a general. The other was a reverend.


–Michael B., grade 6

 

One was a martyr. The other was a traitor.


–Rodney K., grade 7

 

One was a man of war. The other was a man of peace.


–Sandra B., grade 8

 

One won a Nobel Prize. The other lost a rebellion.


–Matthew S., grade 4

 

One told followers to kill. The other told followers not to.


–Rayshard B., grade 5

 

One fought for freedom for all. The other fought for the freedom of some to deny the freedom of others. 


–Sojourner T., grade 10

 

One believed the premise that all are “created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The other fought against that premise and slew many to defend the right of pale-faced people to enslave, torture, maim, lynch, massacre, and rape those of only slightly deeper skin tones–even half-siblings and cousins–with absolute impunity.


–Fred H., grade 11

 

One, to defend a slave society, a rape culture, and his right to rape and enslave fellow human beings (even though these rights were guaranteed in the Constitution–which every president, including Abraham Lincoln, swore to “preserve, protect and defend”), committed treason against the United States of America. The other did not.


–Medgar E., grade 12


One, for doing nothing wrong, was jailed time and again, but was pardoned repeatedly in the hope that he would continue to help the healing–which he did till the day he was assassinated, and even afterwards. The other, never jailed or even arrested for treason, was pardoned in the hope that he might help begin a healing that was so long overdue–but instead did nothing, staying silent and useless until his dying day.


–Marian A., grade 12

 

One is invoked, more than half a century after his death, to inspire love of fellow humans, the right to peaceful protest, and liberty. The other is invoked, more than a century and a half after his death, to inspire hatred, the killing of peaceful protesters, and oppression.


–Eric G., grade 9

 

One, so quick to forgive others, was the best of America. The other, though pardoned by President Lincoln himself, wasn’t.


–Malcolm Y., grade 6

 

One has streets and schools named for him, and we are proud of this. The other has cities and schools named for him, and we are ashamed of this.


–Rosa P., grade 7

 

One has a national holiday, held around his birthday, and appropriately so, because of all he did for peace, liberty, brotherhood, and justice. The other does not, and appropriately so, for all he did against peace, liberty, brotherhood, and justice.


–Harvey M., grade 8

 

One, when mentioned by school boards, politicians, pundits, or the press, is a national cause for embarrassment. The other, when so mentioned, is a worldwide beacon of hope, bravery, sacrifice, and heroism.


–Breonna T., grade 5

 

One led his troops in violence. The other insisted on non-violence in all his “troops.”


–Leo F., grade 4

 

One armed his followers with guns. The other, with truth.


–Harriet T., grade 3

 

One was a winner. The other was the loser.

–Ulysses G., grade 1

 

One will never be forgotten. The other probably should be.


 –Frederick D., grade 4

 

One was America. The other is America.

–Jesús C., grade 2


 

One was America. Is the other America?


–Harriet S., grade 2


***

 

The above are prompt responses drafted by public and private school students, mostly in [american Southern State], in response to the directive to integrate robert e. lee into studies for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

 

This Truth to Power Project started in Mr. Floyd’s seventh-grade social studies classes, but word got out, other teachers grew interested, and eventually it was joint-administered by both social studies and English departments throughout the school district and beyond.

 

English teachers rewarded the participating students additional credit for effective application of “parallel structure.”

 

Upon unanimous request, participants have chosen pseudonyms, and the municipality’s name has been withheld, because students fear for their safety, faculty for their jobs, and both, for their lives.


Violence

Matthew Ellis

 

Some days I wish my rage would alchemize into real power

I’d tear down these systems of oppression with my bare fucking hands

Become violence embodied.

                                                                                                Raw primal screams

Frustrated with peace by peaceful means,

                                                                                                Anguished howls

Leave naught but wreckage in my wake

Mangled bodies.

                        Come now,

                        the time for being squeamish has passed

How do you like your violence?

State-sanctioned?

Drones dropping bombs on the others we’ve been told to hate,

                        Human beings with different colored skin living in different countries speaking different                          languages worshiping different gods

Or do you prefer your violence

in the name of upholding the status quo?

                        Where children meet their death at the end of the barrel of an AK-47

Tell me, how do you like your violence?

 

                                                                                                Me?

                                                                                                I like it none at all.

 

 

 


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