The paper moon

Prose Writing Prize

Congratulations to Elise Liu, winner of our 2023 prize! This year's theme was FRUIT. Read her submission as well as those of our honorable mentions Ali Santana and Benjamin Wachs below.

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By Elise Liu

Grandpa always got the first bite. Gramma with her sugarsickness liked to wait till last for the sweetless rind. Mama and Daddy used bowls. But Grandpa always went first, and then you and Big Baby took your drippy chunks out to the yard behind the thornleaf bush, where it was all quiet and nothing to be quiet about.Remember? That’s where Super-Teddy practiced leaping from branch to spindly branch and on days Mama cut your slice just right, One-Eyed Barbie sailed a green-bottomed pirate ship into the lawngrass sea.Beyond were the shrubby arrowcorners—hot pink, blue-violet. These were the Far Lands, you told Big Baby. Fortified with cereal boxes. Navy bean artillery. We have to work together, you said, wise. Old One-Eye paddled through the Dandelion Forest and fought at the Last Stand of the Lionflowers, Teddy by her side.For battle, seedy watermelons were the best. You cut up the striped-rind shields. Big Baby spat blackseed bullets. Then the two of you set off on your journey, hundreds and thousands of leagues, so far from Mama on the porch she had to yell for you to hear.We gotta go back, you said, just before the Gnome heartlands.
You’re not the boss of me, Big Baby yelled.
But you were, weren’t you? You were the boss of him and Mama was the boss of Daddy and Gramma was the boss of Grandpa and Mama was the boss of Gramma, too. Grandpa wasn’t anybody’s. Grandpa only laughed when you sucked too hard on the sandy sugarmarrow, when the long meaty dribbles slicked down your dress and spilled over your knees. Grandpa let you do anything. But Mama was in charge because Mama always saw.Mama says, you told Big Baby.Good girl.Big Baby kicked a rock. His tee shirt was pink from chin to belly. Two more minutes.Okay.It was the summer of red wet watermelons you could eat so loud, smacking and slobbering. Mama picked them out of bins taller than you, and then you and Big Baby carried them from the car trunk between your cradled hands. The melons were heavy and your feet crabbed along like ant feet. But then all it took was one good chop down the middle and Grandpa dug his spoon straight in.Try to remember.You told Big Baby: Gimme Teddy a while.Why?Can’t tell. I’ll show you.Teddy sat on One-Eye and she squirmed. Her legs were like thin plastic scissors, her hands up past her painted pink mouth.See? And he didn’t.What’s the secret? Tell me!
So you did it again—on Big Baby himself this time. You mashed Teddy’s big pillow-butt down.
Big Baby screamed.Grandpa called over: Hey! What’s going on with you kiddos?
Then you ran up to the porch. Remember? Big Baby ran too, but it was always you he put on his lap, wasn’t it? It was always you even when you didn’t run. His hands were rough, his big face craggy.
It’s a secret, you said. Grandpa smiled and his smile stank.
What’s a secret?Not telling.No! Big Baby screamed again and his snot was down to his mouth. She scared me! Sissy scared me!
Mama picked him up and spun him around so fast his feet flew out. So fast her hair rose ‘round her head and shone. What is it, my love?
No secrets here, Gramma said.
Remember that?
Oh, you were so mad. You stood up from Grandpa and so did One-Eye, thistle sword in hand. It was your secret to tell.It was the last summer you saw Grandpa and it was the last watermelon summer, too.Afterwards you planted spoons and grew windmills. Toothpicks formed new forests and cartons of milk grew to cities spouting white balconies. Between the every-colored arrowcorners, on the slabstone islands that marched on and on and on, you could hardly hear us grownups from the house. Big Baby shouted, Teddy defeats the Gnome Whitebeard! Boom boom boom! Mama’s brave, brave girl. Remember how you stopped saying, Shhh? You didn’t have to anymore. No, you didn’t have to.


By Benjamin Wachs

Most of the time, when I leave food in my desk, it rots fast. Oranges, french fries, cookies… I try not to do that often, but I’m busy, and I eat lunch at my desk. Mistakes happen. I’m not proud.But I’ve had one piece of fruit, a tangerine, that has sat there, beautiful and barely touched by time, for five months now. I don’t remember where it came from, the truth is I only noticed it after the first month, when I realized that it was untouched by all the rotting fruit around it. I didn’t eat it because I wanted to see what would happen—how long this would last.It reminded me of the saints whose bodies allegedly do not decay after death. I don’t know if that’s a thing that really happens, but I don’t see why not—spontaneous combustion is a real, documented, phenomenon. Life is weird that way. But I never understood why it was supposed to make them sacred. Why it was a proof of something holy.I’ve been trying to reconcile with my wife… I know that seems like a tangent, but it was on my mind during most of those months. We’d been married eight years, and I know that’s not a lot, but, each year was slightly worse than the last, and it added up. We were in therapy, we were eating lunches together a couple times a week, trying to see if absence really does make the heart grow fonder. And it wasn’t. We were locked in a cycle of decay.And when I thought about relationships, that’s when it occurred to me that being immune to decay really is holy. That two people who can live together and retain the simple ability to love one another, like children, like teenage sweethearts, like mature adults… that is a beautiful, sacred thing.And we weren’t going to get there. We weren’t going to make it.It was in the midst of all this that I found myself wondering if I should eat the sacred tangerine… if the right thing to do was to partake in it, like a communion wafer… or if I should let it be, a symbol of something beautiful, but ignoring its function, until eventually time had to take it. Didn’t it? Wasn’t that inevitable?The tangerine is still there. Waiting for a special occasion. Waiting, I think, until I meet someone new. At which point, I will be ready to ask for a different kind of miracle.


By Ali Santana

I’m sitting on a bench, a short walk from the place where i work.
I'm watching the water.
I look down at the exposed bit of skin between my ankle and cropped pants.
I have psoriasis.
I have had psoriasis for as long as i can remember.
I have always desperately wanted the smooth, flawless skin of my friends but instead i have big pink patches that are painful and itchy all over my limbs.
For the most part i taught myself to not think about it but it was hard to hide in everyday childhood life.On this particular childhood evening something had made me upset, maybe it was an invitation to a pool party or maybe i had received my uniform for soccer with shorts that would not cover all the spots. I tore all my clothes out of my drawers and threw them on the floor. I sat in the mess and cried. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. My mom came to me and held me, she told me, “it’s ok,” and “it’s not that bad,” “i’ll call the doctor tomorrow,” “did we put your cream on it this morning?” “Let’s put some medication on it and you can take a bath.”Some of the creams burned and made it worse and the oatmeal baths were chunky and gross.I learned that my body was not right from a young age.I was laying down in my bed when i heard the front door open and close then my dad's heavy work boots coming down the hall on the other side of my bedroom wall. Then, the sweetest sound in the world, the murmurings of my mom and dad conferring on my well being. My wellness was the only thing in the world they could agree on.He carried in a little stool from the hallway. He sat on it next to my bed. He stroked my hair and patted my head a little and he told me a story.Once upon a time there was a young girl. She lived in a small little fishing village where all the neighbors knew each other. The fishermen would wake up early and go out for the day's catch. Meanwhile, all the people in the village opened their windows and walked in the streets, they had their coffees on benches in the center and they would hang their laundry out to dry in the sun.In that town there was a young girl who used to look out on the water and long to sail. She had a dream to sail around the world. But everyone in the town used to laugh at her and they called her silly. No one had ever done that before.So she had to stay persistent and work really hard at it. She saved up enough money for a little boat and restored it all by herself. She sanded it, and waterproofed it, and sealed it, and painted it, and rolled the sails up tight.Many springs came and went and finally one day in may she was finally ready. She packed up her things, all of her books, drawing utensils, and writing instruments and the last thing she packed was her stash of nuts and dried fruit.As she sailed towards the horizon she watched the land get smaller and smaller until it disappeared completely. Eventually she was so far away from her home that there was no land in any direction, all she saw was horizon all around her.And this is where the story ends. At least this is the last detail that i remember because I must have fallen asleep.I am awake now.
I am looking at the bay.
My grandpa looked at this water, my grandma looked at this water, my dad and mom looked at this water.
I am sitting on a bench eating nuts and dried fruit.