Elmwood Cemetery wishes to thank the creative, talented writers who submitted stories to the first-ever Snowden Spirit Series Writing Contest in 2021. The entries were all inspiring and well-written. We are proud to announce the winners of this year's contest!
The first-place winner of $750 and publication in the Elmwood Cemetery newsletter and here on our website, as well as the Soul of the City Tour adaptation, is Melissa Bolshinskaya's Cut Her Out in Little Stars. See below to read the historic fiction piece written about Memphis madam and martyr Annie Cook.
The second-place winner of $500 is Gloria White's Hell's Half Acre.
The third-place winners of $250 are Cathy Wilson and Ann McCormick with A Fatal Decision.
Cut Her Out in Little Stars
By Melissa Bolshinskaya
July - September 1878
Annie Cook is not her name. It is part of the uniform she wears as a madam: easy to wear, easier still to shed and discard.
She is no stranger to the realities and lines that crisscross her world, dividing it along race and sex and wealth. Like so many others, she is a child of poverty and war, a half-feral thing with strong hands, darting eyes, and sharp teeth. In eking a living out of the delta clay, every wound is a lesson. Every memory is a tool. Every happiness is a gift. Every gift can also be a debt.
When the madam of Mansion House slides on her silk gloves, the fine fabric catches on her scars.
She often promenades along the river and politely converses with the businessmen that hold court at Cotton Row. Her vision is overlaid with how she imagines herself, like a glass photographic negative over her eyes. She could be the daughter or niece of a wealthy investor: witty and refined, with enough business knowledge to engage but not intimidate. The finest thread of innuendo weaves through her voice and their eyes linger on her knowing smile. Her house will accept new patrons tonight. She knows because she has watched herself do this a thousand times.
The Row is a whirlwind of shouting, fingers jabbing at ledgers, and crates piled on the roadside. Through the din, Annie hears her name and turns to see a gleaming carriage approach her, one of her longtime clients leaning through the open window. He is normally so stoic that the edge in his voice alarms her.
The fever has claimed its first life in Memphis.
This year will be worse, we all know it.
We are leaving town.
Come with us.
Vaguely, Annie registers that the earnestness in his eyes makes him look younger. She realizes that he isn't mocking her; the other two men seated in the carriage share his solemn expression. They are all watching her, and as always, Annie is watching herself, too. She has spent so many years gilding herself in the finery that would bring these men to her, the illusion so complete that they would offer her shelter from the creeping tide of pestilence. She should feel gratified. She should feel triumphant.
Instead, she only feels her feet slipping clumsily in her impractical shoes as she turns and runs back the way she came. She does not look back to see if they follow her.
She welcomes the sick into her house and they come, wave after wave. Death comes early one morning for a boy who was only an infant when the 1873 fever claimed his parents. Numbly, Annie wraps his small body as dawn arrives. Golden sunlight streams through the window and she hears birds chirp merrily in the verdant late-summer trees, unaware and unbothered.
It is obscene.
Grief finally enters her with a gravity that leaves her bones heavy and her pillow wet with tears. Some nights are better than others, but the undercurrent is always there.
She thinks that perhaps grief comes in waves, too.
Annie reflects often on the story of Exodus. If God turned the Nile into blood, surely He could do the opposite for her. If her blood became a river and that river flowed out to sea, perhaps the moon could pull her, like the tide, far away from here.
Word spreads of the noble harlot who overcame her moral failings to care for the sick. She is commended by newspapers and a Christian women's group. Politely deflecting the praise, Annie resumes the pattern of her day within the house. Rich fabrics darken under the sheen left by the humidity, sweat, and sickness. Wallpaper wilts in the stagnant air, like the slowly collapsing insides of an overripe fruit.
When she falls asleep during brief moments of respite, she dreams of bright country homes and women draped in white gossamer, discussing what it means to be a good Christian.
In another city, people might balk at seeing a lady walk unescorted at night, but Memphis no longer feels like a city, and Annie has never been much of a lady.
There is no moon rising tonight, so Annie is grateful for the remaining street lights along the riverside. They once bathed the Row in lucent warmth, but there are now so few people left to tend them that they hang sporadically, like crooked teeth. One provides just enough light for Annie to carefully descend the embankment. Standing at the river's edge, she watches a dense cloud of moths flutter around the lamp's glow. There are so many tiny beating wings that she recoils, disturbed, but realization settles in her chest and aches like an old wound. This is the last working street lamp, and they have nowhere else to go.
She crouches and dips her hand into the cool water of the Mississippi River, letting the gentle current pull the grime from her skin. She cups some water in her hands, lets it still and grow warm against her fingers before releasing it. The water quickly joins lapping waves, folding in on themselves in little fractals on their way down to New Orleans, out to the Gulf, against the beaches of islands past that, into oceans beyond even those. Maybe this can be enough, she thinks, and then her thoughts are stumbling over the word enough, enough, enough. Maybe this can be enough. Maybe I was enough.
Annie stands but lingers for a while. She has never been sentimental, but she lets the night air stroke her face like a goodbye. The street lamp flickers, dims, and winks out as dusk crushes over the horizon. It brings a strange relief, like a shadow in summer. It cools; it soothes.
The stars overhead, thousands of beacons standing sentinel across the galaxy, are reflected at her feet.