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Learncurious is proud to introduce
the winning authors for the fourth annual competition for the

Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship
Excellence in Writing

First Prize

Michelle Liao

Runners Up

Kaelin David

Anthony Cruz

Thank you and congratulations to our 2023 prizewinners! 

Winning entries are featured below along with three honorable mention pieces from this year's finalists.

Michelle Liao

michelle liao.jpg

Grand Prize Winner

Class of 2023

Prompt: Wacky

Complete the 11 Mad-Lib-style fill-in-the-blanks below, then craft a piece of poetry or prose that includes both a secret message* as well as each of your chosen words at least once (in no particular order):​

Something inherited: Temperament

Item seen in nature: Sun

Random word you like the sound of: Turbulent

Type of weather: Clear

Specific texture: Smooth

Color: Gray

Type of body of water: Brook

Plant or animal: Cat

Specific scent or flavor: Sweet

Emotion: Panic

Something you love: Rain

*Secret message hint: 


The secret message is contained within the first words of each paragraph.


To Mr. Muhich, my former chemistry teacher, who always kept the plants in the greenhouse watered.


Michelle Liao is a freshman student at the University of Michigan studying psychology and political science. Her work has previously been published in The WEIGHT Journal and Balloons Literary Journal. When Michelle isn’t writing, she enjoys reading mysteries, spending time with her friends, and attempting to play piano pieces correctly.

Notes from Michelle: 

Coming soon!

Notes from LearnCurious:

Hearty applause for our this beautiful piece from Michelle! What an honor to feature the stunning attention to detail and thought-provoking nature of this original work. 

The woman did not belong here. When she walked, she did so with hesitation, almost as though the unyielding concrete was foreign to her. Her hair fell in waves, not gracefully, tendrils curling over her ears and under her collar. Her temperament was one that changed like the weather. When the sun shone bright over the tops of the infinite skyscrapers, she did not look away. When, years later, people were asked what they recall of her, several said the variable annoyances of nature seemed not to bother her. She seemed never to hide her eyes from the light or swarth her body with garments when the air turned biting cold. And, of course, there was the bucket.

   She carried the bucket everywhere with her, loosely held in one hand. On days when her hands were full–such as when she had found the rare dandelion peeking through gaps in the sidewalk–she secured the bucket to her back, gently tapping against one hip. It was a rather ordinary bucket, made of a cheap tin, easily bent out of shape with slight force. It was a tired silver, gradually turning gray in certain parts: smooth in the way a well-used coin was, its ridges rubbed flat by innumerable fingers. Yet the strange thing was that the bucket was always empty. Curious bypassers would often take a quick peek inside, torn for a brief second from their screens, then glance away disappointed. There was nothing there.

   Who knew why she held the bucket, or for that matter, where she was going? Night and day, seemingly without regard for her own safety, she would wander the city streets. She would walk through narrow alleys, unknown substances flattened beneath her feet, people huddled to the sides watching her passage with hungry eyes. She would squeeze through gaps in chain link fences and walk through cracked, empty parking lots. Occasionally, she would pause and glance up at the sky in a searching manner. Then, as though she had received a secret signal, she would turn and continue on her way. Throughout it all, the bucket remained with her.

   The people who saw her recounted all of this years later, but they did not take notice at the time. They had more important things to worry about, after all: an upcoming promotion, a suitable gift for their ex-girlfriend’s wedding, the tax returns due next week. Yet even they could report feeling a notable change in the air in the weeks leading up to the incident. The woman still walked the city streets as usual, but there was a heaviness to her steps. Her searching glances at the sky would lengthen a half second more than usual. Whatever the woman was seeking, she was close.

   Earth was uncharacteristically still when dawn arrived on the day of the incident. By this time, the woman now stopped to stare up at the heavens every few paces, observing cat-like in guarded silence. The people around her began to take notice, watching her as she watched the sky. She took no notice of them but restricted her movements anyway, almost as though she was now waiting, not searching. As she stood there, the clear weather grew a shade darker, a distinct tang in the air as the clouds came rolling in. An unmistakable wind came twisting through the streets, sending her hair flying in turbulent waves, hiding her face from the view of the onlookers. Thus, no one could say for certain what was going through her mind when it finally happened.

   Gifts tumbled out of the sky, each in the shape of a perfectly formed raindrop. The onlookers froze in shock as the rain dampened their skin, beading on their eyelashes, trickling into their parted lips. For the youngest among them, those under ten, this was a new experience; they turned their faces tiredly from the ground beneath their feet and instead raised them to the sky, breathing in this new wonder. As for the adults, they glanced at each other for the first time in weeks, reflexes rusty from years of disuse. Gradually, they slipped into their old habits as one would slip into a childhood garment that no longer fit them, hesitatingly ushering the children inside and out of the rain. Only a select few stayed behind to witness what came next.

   The woman, with a faint tremor only the sharpest-eyed would notice, grabbed her bucket with both hands and raised it to the heavens. She remained steady as the wind threaded through her thin clothes and traced asymmetrical lines across her body. The drops that landed in the bucket clung to one another, pooling together, twisting in their metal confines even as they undeniably gained in mass. The woman, face still obscured though less so, lowered the bucket so that she could see the progress. But as she did, she noticed something else. A thin, almost indiscernible stream of water slipped guiltily from the bottom of the bucket, emptying it even as it filled. She ran.

   Out of the street, around the corner, no longer hesitant as her feet pounded against the concrete, leaping over cracks in the crumbling roads. The last of her hair flew back as she ran, revealing a face stricken by panic. Whatever she was feeling before, if anything–ecstasy, indifference, trepidation–it was gone, replaced by a sense of urgency conveyed by every movement of her body. She was never graceful before, and she wasn’t now. She clutched the bucket tightly to her as she raced along the lifeless gray terrain, thousands of eyes in buildings watching her pass. Thunder kept time with her footsteps; lightning illuminated her path. No one could tell if the rain spilling down her cheeks contained tears.

   Finally, she reached an old apartment building, tucked away from the rest of the street. Chipped paint outlined the doorway, dripping with the remnants of the rainfall. By this point, her bucket was less than half full, more drops lost each second to the tattered carpet as she rushed inside. Down the stairs she ran to her apartment door, which she unlocked with trembling fingers. As she entered, she took one last glance down at her bucket, which she had carried and watched over for months, all in preparation for this moment. There was terrifyingly little rain instead, but it was enough.

   No one knows what was inside her apartment, but rumors have their way of reaching the right ears. The rumors speak of lush ferns and tangled wildflowers, of winding brooks and trees too tall for a typical basement apartment’s dimensions. People whisper in the streets about soft moss and sturdy shrubs and the sweet scent of orchids curling through the air. They say that it was a plant paradise, an ecological diversity that hasn’t been seen in decades. They say–and these are the softest rumors of all, the ones that arrive in the strangest circumstances, only when the conditions are right–that as the woman traveled through her home, she doled out a little portion of water to each one.

   Painstakingly, she gave each plant a few drops of the collected rainwater, letting them drip from her fingers to burrow into the soil. Mushrooms and berries, mustard and witch-hazel–each was given its share, until she was finally done, nearly limping from the distance she had traveled. The final drops of rain began to slip through the crack in her bucket, and she held it to her lips and drank.

   What happened next was visible to all.

   Vines pushed out of the walls, curling up the crumbling bricks. The trees grew to their full, proud stature, punching holes through the floors as though they were paper. Moss crawled outwards, turning the yellowed paint a vibrant green. Shrubs engulfed pieces of plaster, burying them deep into the rich loam. Rotting logs replaced carpet and scattered leaves replaced the floor. Small daisies bloomed beneath towering pines, surrounded by various wild grasses. It was a full-grown forest, an impossible sight in a city long since polluted by human greed. 

   In the next few years, as land became a premium commodity, fertile land even more so, thousands of people attempted to cut through the plants. Yet every time they seemed to make progress, the plants would regrow at impossible speeds, becoming even thicker and more impenetrable than they were before. Those who ventured inside claimed that the area seemed larger than the paltry amount of space allotted to the apartment building. They were never able to explore the full expanse of what was in there. And as for the woman, there was no trace of her. It was as though she never existed.

i. a subtle love.

My mother has a small five foot tall frame draped in aegean blue scrubs, always striding with an unwavering conviction. At the grocery store, I always trail behind her by a few stretches of concrete, lugging the cart along. At every aisle, she peers at the heaps of bags and boxes, carefully lowering my favorite snacks into the metal lattice–ube ice cream, Hello Panda crackers, and Nova chips. Her movements seemed practiced, a custom that had been internalized for so long that it became instinctive.

I remember this because that is how my mother loved. Quiet observation. Being beside someone at every pace, sharing your every meal with them, seeing their eyes light up when they bite into chocolate-creme filled wafers, or their lips puckering at bitter melon. My mother learned and studied every interstice of everything I loved, and etched them into her mind. 

As a child, my mother was the youngest of four children–one sister, two brothers. Her older sister had been idolized, with porcelain skin and a lithe body framed by gauzy dresses, always swept up by schoolboys frolicking in a dizzying haze of laughter and dancing at the disco. Her brothers idled in alleyways, lying supine on damp rice paddy fields with salakot hats hemming in their faces. They were always roaming about. 

Mother was always alone.  She learned to not mind the silence. 

My mother was the only child who drifted through the market with grandmother, heaving brown paper bags filled to the brim with ripe, sweet mangoes, milkfish, okra, and jasmine rice. She tells me how she loved dried anchovies blanketed with billowing heaps of rice. With three other siblings, my mother had lived in scarcity, always prodding her food towards them. She, too, scoops grains of rice from her bowl and places them into mine. 

It was like a mechanism–always offering herself to others–filling the fissures of her physiological hunger with a manifestation of endearment only understood by her. Solitude never hardened or soured her; it seemed to make her more tender. 

It was a hushed, covert love that seeped through me, silken and warm.

ii. a fearful love.

On the first day of summer break, my throat began to constrict. 

I have a severe allergy to shellfish. My mother had brought me to Hometown Buffet to celebrate the end of fifth grade. The fried chicken I ate ravenously that day had been fried with the fish filets. Sweat had flooded the creases of my hands and pooled at the nape of my neck. My lips were purpling at the edges and my complexion had become pallid and clammy. 

I had only seen my mother cry once. A nurse had called her on a Friday morning as I donned my school uniform. The nurse’s voice was small and sweet, but monotone enough not to betray any emotion. She had told my mother that her father had died that night. In California, we were 15 hours behind. I remember my slippered feet murmuring against the glossy linoleum as I gazed down at my mother. Her lips drooped downward, the rest of her face crumpling into itself, tears pooling into hardened hurt–something that can only be described as  grief. 

In the rearview mirror, I could see my mother’s eyes gleaming as they darted between my swelling, plum-colored lips and the road ahead. That was the first time I had seen fear eddying in her eyes. 

Amid the hacking coughs, the bleariness of everything around me, how everything had seemed sleep-touched and hazy, I began to understand the weight of a mother’s love. A love so deep that it was often subsumed by fear, throat and eyes taut with the utter petrification of loss. In that strange space of delirium, I grinned, the constriction of my throat beginning to loosen, as if my mother were tugging some monstrous serpent off my neck. 

iii. a relentless love.

My mother always said that she didn’t enjoy reading. Her eyes had become strained by the minute print scrawled on paper. Yet, she told stories of living across three countries: the Philippines, Japan, and the United States. 

Over the years, I trace the topography of her stories: drifting through wet markets in the Philippines, clutching roly polys between her fingers in Japan, learning how to mow her own lawn in the United States. 

As a child, my grandmother left my mother in the back seat of their Volkswagen Beetle, where her father’s cigarette stubs were strewn across the carpeted floor. Mother had clambered out of the car towards the corrugated sidewalk. In every groove of asphalt, roly polys had crawled. Those were the first creatures that enamored her–their small gray bodies crawling along the crook of her finger, around the cosmos of her hand, not knowing end from beginning, flesh from earth, shadow from luminosity, cynicism from naivete. 

When the roly polys furled into helpless balls out of fear, she stroked them gingerly, coaxing them out of spherical captivity. It was a tenderness she had learned when she was young. She told me that they had been her only friends at the time. 

In the United States, my mother and her brother would bike to Chinatown in Downtown Los Angeles to study for their nursing exam. The classes had been in a narrow dilapidated building, blinds hanging by a mere screw, the air thick with cigarette smoke. Her head lolled as the teacher droned on. My mother mused that she had never been a steadfast student. Yet, she always brought me to the library and constantly perused New York Time Bestseller lists to find me books to read. She told me that she wanted me to be the brightest girl around, that she wanted me to teach her everything I learned. 

My mother was the only child to buy her own home–two stories with a grove behind it where the plants craned towards the sunlight, leaves outstretched like hands in surrender. There had been a certain  industriousness and compassion about my mother that I relished. Even the plants in the grove could not resist her warmth, their stems craning towards her as she stalked across her lawn, mowing it. 

iv. my wish. 

I want to imbibe my own children with my mother’s relentless love–to experience all the subtleties, the fear, the fragmented narratives, all of it.



kaelin david.png

First Runner Up

Class of 2024

Prompt: Meta

If / when you become a parent, what is something you wish to teach or provide to your child(ren)? 


This work is dedicated to my mother, and also to my amazing junior English teacher who inspired me to continue in my mission as a writer!


Kaelin David is a student at Walnut High School. She currently serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Trailblazer Review Literary Magazine, an international publication dedicated to preserving native language and culture. She is an alumna of the Iowa Young Writers' Studio and has received recognition for her work through The Pulitzer Center. Outside of her literary pursuits, she serves as the editorial team lead at Our National Conversation, and oversees newsletter production for several youth-led projects. In her free time, she loves to read and watch documentaries!

Notes from Kaelin:

Coming soon!

Notes from Learncurious:

Coming soon!




ac headshot.png

Second Runner Up

Class of 2023

Prompt: Wacky

Complete the 11 Mad-Lib-style fill-in-the-blanks below, then craft a piece of poetry or prose that includes both a secret message* as well as each of your chosen words at least once (in no particular order):​

Something inherited: Knowledge

Item seen in nature: Sand

Random word you like the sound of: Whisper

Type of weather: Rain

Specific texture: Rough

Color: Blue

Type of body of water: Ocean

Plant or animal: Horse

Specific scent or flavor: Cinnamon

Emotion: Anger

Something you love: My family's business


to my grandparents Bertha & Joaquin


 My friends call me Tony. I live in the Bronx, NY. I like watching Soccer and Lacrosse. I read and write poetry, I also paint and draw.

Notes from Anthony:

Coming soon!

Notes from Learncurious:

Coming soon!

I’ve got nothing tangible to inherit. 
My family only just arrived. 
My grandfather doesn't own a home, 
His kingdom is a shack made of plywood and plastic.  

My grandmother talks about the horses she owned 
The ranch she lived on 
And the cloudless blue sky above

As it rains down 
I coat churros in sweetness
The dough crisp 
The crunch whispers

The pan filled with sand
Really it's a mixture of cinnamon and sugar
And if you close your eyes and grab a handful 
You can't tell the difference 
Because the roughness is the same.

We sell on the beach, 
Yet never touch the sea. 
Only when we sell out 
Do we get to enjoy the ocean. 
But by then the sun has set and the water is dark
We dip our feet which have been standing since the early morning
They put me on lookout
Because sometimes the state rangers kick us out

My anger builds as I signal 
but my uncle’s greediness 
Takes one more customer 
he thought he was quick enough to serve
Meaning he would risk $50 worth of churros 
If it meant making a $5 sale

In this way I inherit something 
We may not own a house 
But rather an enterprise 
A kingdom 
I love the business 
I love the customers compliments
I love helping my mom count the money 
I love getting to eat at the end of the day

Thank you and congratulations to our 2023 prizewinners! 

Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship
Excellence in Writing

Honorable Mentions

Kafira Adam

kafira adam.jpeg

Erin Owens

Author profile coming soon!

Naomi Snyder

Author profile coming soon!

Kafira Adam

Prompt: Wacky

Complete the 11 Mad-Lib-style fill-in-the-blanks below, then craft a piece of poetry or prose that includes both a secret message* as well as each of your chosen words at least once (in no particular order):​

Something inherited: Eyes

Item seen in nature: Tree

Random word you like the sound of: Haphazardly

Type of weather: Heat wave

Specific texture: Velvety

Color: Green

Type of body of water: Reservoir

Plant or animal: Mulberry

Specific scent or flavor: Tartness

Emotion: Guilt

Something you love: Mother


"My secret message has to do with an allusion to the Babylonian love story of Pyramus and Thisbe, linked into the poem by the line "..conversion of lovers to deathmates beneath my body.."- you should read the story!"

Inheritance of an unripe mulberry

When my mother dies I will inherit a piano.
I will already have inherited her face, bone structure,

                                                                    hair pulled into curt curls by gravity.
I will ignore those things, tired of hearing that I am a carbon copy of my mother.

I do not feel like a copy

                            rather, an unripe mulberry,

                                                               base white, tinged with green and pink.


Each of my pores exudes tendrils of dead portions, their growth ceased.


I cannot yet be offered to hungry mouths, cannot yet satisfy the need of sweet juice that coats tongues and stains fingers with lipsticked kisses.


I am unripe.

I lead with tartness, pulling back bark in hopes to find something other than guilt filled expectations.

I cannot trick myself into ripening faster. Cannot pull sunbeams into my body to expedite the process. I cannot offer my skeleton to someone looking for a body that will leave them with velvety stained fingers.

I cannot ripen myself.

I cannot control time.

So I wait, watching others around me grow and bulge against stems.
Watch them fall, ready to be tasted: to meet the mouth and tongue. To leave the world having done something other than melt into soft dirt.


I do not grasp the relationship between those who consume and those who give themselves up to be eaten. I watch this conversion of lovers to deathmates beneath my body, watch misunderstandings take deadly paths.


I do not know if I learn from these mistakes
Do not know if my raw body is taken as a sign of innocence. If my innocence is also inherited from my mother’s child form.

Do not know who to trust when I become ripe. I am afraid the sun will feed me until I burst, that heat waves will dry my skin to strips. Afraid that the tree will hold me so tight I cannot be reached  even when I am no longer raw and green.

(I do not want to look like my mother because I am afraid she will look at me and only see herself. That she will try to shape me into a vessel of her beliefs leaving no room for my own. )

I have yet to ripen into understanding, yet to learn that the tree from which I was born holds more than bark peeled back into sanded wood.

I am unripe.

An incarnated breathing carcass, I have amassed the inheritance of generations of eyes, of noses, of teeth, of hair.

I have become a collector of haphazardly pieced things.

I have learned, through a reservoir of lives, to stay unripe

Until I am ready

To fall.

Erin Owens


Narrative prompt:

 Bring characters from mythology to life in a story detailing an event from your own life. You may choose characters from any culture’s legends (ex. Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, etc.) or mix and match to strike the balance of personalities needed for your story to feel most true to your experience. 

“Dorthy Brookes Had to Die”

The cave-like room was lit up by the rhythmic flashing of the red alarm light. The vast office was dully lit, though there were no windows or light fixtures to be seen. In fact, the room was empty spare a long rectangular oak conference table. Not real oak, of course. Trees didn’t grow here, nobody manufactured saws or any materials necessary to build a table, and it’s not like you’d find a home furnishing store either. Nonetheless, Good rubbed her hand over the table in front of her, thinking about the worlds where trees grew and tables were made. 

   “Though I do enjoy these little meetings of ours, this one will be pointless if he never shows up,” said Evil, sitting directly across from Good, who was glaring pointedly at the empty seat at the head of the table. Balance, sitting opposite the empty chair at the other head, clicked their tongue as they silently thumbed through manilla folders labeled with long strings of numbers. 

Abruptly, Death stood from the table, his spinny chair loudly rolling out from behind him, stalking silently to the empty seat, leaning both hands on the back of the chair, “I know I physically can’t, but some days I just wanna kill Jerry,” he said as he pushed off the back of the chair with a dramatic drawn-out sigh, walking back to his chair.

“Really? That’s so out of character for you,” taunted Life, faking concern. 

Balance lifted their eyes from the box of folders sitting at their feet, squinting at the glaring red light illuminating the dull room every other second, “There has to be a way to turn that thing off, right? I feel like I’m gonna have a seizure,” they said, trying to rub the pain in their right eye away.

“The visual alarm for Error Code #4511263 will not cease until all members of the Council have entered The Great Room and the meeting has commenced,” Evil mocked as he repeated the law out of the Reality Council Handbook verbatim.

“Well, remind me of that one when I’m flopping on the ground like a fish out of water, choking on my tongue,” said Balance sarcastically, giving Evil the fakest smile they could give.

“That would certainly put a damper on this already dull day,” said an out-of-breath voice as he huffed through the massive arched doors. His hair was a mess, unbrushed locks going in every direction. His arms hugged a bundle, that was most likely a neat stack at some point, of crumpled papers and documents. 

“The man has no sense of time, I swear,” mumbled Life.

With an exasperated sigh, he dropped the papers onto the wood -- or wood-ish -- table and dropped his weight into the black spinny chair located at the head of the table.  The table was meant to resemble the corporate offices found on Earth. Well, some Earths. Pretty on-brand considering the Reality Council’s job was to protect just that: Earth. Well, all versions of Earth. And given the numbers on Balance’s report-filled manilla folders, there were plenty of versions, giving them lots of work to do. A silence fell on the group, drawing their attention to the obnoxious glow of the red alarm light. After a considerable amount of time went by in silence, Balance looked over to the disorganized man smiling at them with his hands folded out in front of him. With wide eyes, Balance slowly moved their head forward in anticipation.

“Ah! Right, of course,” Jerry said, knocking himself on the side of the head, “Let the meeting commence,” and with a wave of his hand, the rhythm of the red light was broken, and the dull lighting of the room fell over the extremely odd, powerful bunch. 

Flipping through his stacks of paper, trying to right some along the way, Jerry mumbled, “Unfortunately, we don’t have much time to deal with this matter.”

“And who’s fault is that?” mumbled Life, looking down at the table, resting her head on her folded hands.

“We haven’t got time to be passive,” scolded Good.

“Yeah, Jerry made sure of that,” laughed Evil, but one look from Good made him clear his throat and put on a serious face.

Jerry straightened the papers on the table, “We haven’t had an Error Code #4511263 in quite some time, so to briefly review: when two events happen simultaneously in different universes, The Merger happens, and the two realities collide without the knowledge of those living in either. This keeps the number of realities in the multiverse manageable for us. Error Code #4511263 is alarmed when two realities should have Merged, but the unforeseen actions of one change the course of one reality, stopping The Merger with another Universe.”

Balance added, “And this makes our already hefty stack of worlds to keep an eye on a little less…”

“Manageable?” offered Good.

Balance glanced back down to the box of manilla folders at their feet and began thumbing through them again. Evil and Death shifted in their seats at the same time, as silent thoughts passed through the minds of the beings.

“So, how has this changed the course of that world’s timeline?” asked Good.

“Nothing on a global scale, but the astronomics were slightly altered due to the lack of Merging. When the realities didn’t collide, the stitching was ripped between worlds, sending a ripple through space, causing a rock to break off of…” Jerry paused to lick his fingers and turn the page of the document in his hands, “Astral Body B-43 heading straight towards both worlds, just in different parts of the worlds and a few years apart,” he dropped the papers from his hands and they drifted neatly down in front of him.

“Out of curiosity,” pried Death, “Can we do nothing and let both worlds end?” Good and Life gaped at Death’s remark.

“Less work for us,” added Evil, smiling either at Death or the surprise displayed on Good and Life’s faces.

As if Death hadn’t just proposed mass extinction, Balance grabbed a folder from the box, flipped it open to a page somewhere near the end, and slid it across the table to Evil, “Because that’s how Joint World 78302240567 is supposed to end after The Merger. Not an astral impact. In fact, neither of those worlds should ever end separately, they should just have one joint ending,”

Death, who was leaning over Evil’s shoulder to read the page, sucked in a breath through his teeth, “Why don’t we just be kind and let the asteroid hit them?” Balance gave a considering nod of their head as they took the folder back. 

“Unfortunately, that’s not our job. We fix what’s broken, not decide whether or not it’s broken enough,” interjected Jerry, “Nonetheless, we need to find a way to match up a new moment to create a new Merger.” Balance once again pulled out two different folders, one belonging to each would-be Merger world. 

Papers from both folders were passed among each other, the documents being traded, read, put down, and covered with more documents. Finally, one long line of papers was strewn out from Balance to Jerry. The twelve eyes scanned over the coherent timeline surrounded by a jumble of meaningless papers.

Life slumped back in her chair letting out a long sigh, “That should do it,” she said.

“Indeed,” Jerry agreed, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck, “If Dorthy Brookes gets a phone call 10 minutes before she has to leave for work, she’ll miss her bus, making her catch the next one which crashes, killing her. Her sister won’t go to work once she finds out, leaving the meat company she truck drives for without a driver, leaving the meat delivery to Joanne’s Deli a day old. Jacob Downes, a regular at the shop, should get food poisoning from his regular double grilled turkey panini, and so on and so forth until we have…” Jerry’s eyes stopped at the last page in the line, which overlapped with the last page from the second world doomed to collide.

“The Merger,” finished Good.

“Someone has to make that call though,” hinted Life as they all shifted forwards in their chairs to look at Jerry.

“I know, I know, I’ll get to it,” shrugged Jerry as he gathered his papers again, standing up and moving towards the wide arched doors he had so abruptly shuffled in through earlier.

Good huffed, “Don’t wait too long, reality stops for no one.”

Jerry stopped momentarily to pull open one of the doors to the office and called over his shoulder, “Has to wait for me!” and the door swiftly closed behind him.
The remaining five stood from their chairs but didn’t turn to leave just yet.

Finally, Good spoke, “For Time himself, that man has no sense of it.”

Naomi Snyder


Narrative prompt:

 Bring characters from mythology to life in a story detailing an event from your own life. You may choose characters from any culture’s legends (ex. Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, etc.) or mix and match to strike the balance of personalities needed for your story to feel most true to your experience. 

I have never felt the touch of a deity in any task undertaken. I possess no sporting prowess granted by the grace of Chaquén, nor am I gifted in theater by the favor of Dionysus. I am no musical prodigy made in the shadow of Saraswati’s hands upon her veena. I am not Thoth’s favorite; my intelligence is regular and un-special. There is no God in the math.

I have never seen the face of a blessing, but I have seen a deity before.

I live in a desert. It is a hot and dry place, with lights and cities surrounded by stark and arid land, occasionally broken up by rocky, mountainous portions. Our greatest beauty is the color and formation of these rocks. So rare is the rain that creosotes open their leaves and release a sharp asphalt smell when it does occur. There is life, but it is tough and stringy, clinging on by its fingernails. 

The wilderness is no lush forest, but a scorching, orange wasteland.
I say this to contextualize what I mean when I say I became lost one morning while hiking.

Becoming lost is a funny thing, mostly because the realization is not sudden, but slow and creeping, a foregone conclusion. I keep going, and perhaps I start to become suspicious that the path is too small, or that I’m not heading the same way as I was, but I chalk it up to a funny turn, or a part of the trail that’s just a bit more challenging. 

I’m in the wild, I tell myself. If it were obvious and easy pavement, it would not be hiking, now would it?

Eventually, I decide I might have made a wrong turn at some point; I turn back, trying to figure out where I went wrong. Any clear spots within the brittlebush and the desert spoon and the ocotillo look like the possible beginnings of paths. 

I step over a barrel-shaped cactus and end up on a different path. I traverse it for a while until I come to a part so densely populated by coral reef-like cholla fuzzed with pale spines that I must concede I have gone down the wrong trail yet again.

I turn back. Again, I meet a dead end. I kick up dirt, and feel some of the fine grain end up in my shoes.

To realize you are lost is to look up and see the teeth of a Venus flytrap, knit around you, and realize you are much too late to get out. Struggling will only make things worse.

I crouch under a desert willow bush, putting my elbows on my sandy knees and using my shirt to mop up sweat. I take a sip of water. It is running low.

I look down and between my red dust-caked trail running shoes, I find a sprouting of lovely purple Mojave aster.

When I look forward again, sweat drips in my eyes, and I squeeze them closed. I wipe my dusty hands off on my shorts and use them to rub my eyes, then blink them open once more.

I see her. 

I know instantly she is not a fellow hiker. Her eyelashes are the yellow of Baileya flowers, glancing over her smooth cheeks, which contain the whitish green of sagebrush. Her irises are those of a coyote and her fingernails are hard, curled, and white. On her shoulder sits a black bird with shiny, shrewd eyes, oily feathers shifting in the light. A smile and a frown both rest at once on her lovely and twisted face.

“Who are you?” I cry.

“How rude,” says she, her voice as powdery as sand and as sticky as pollen, “That you would not even greet me.”

“Forgive me, I was startled,” I respond warily, “But you have still not answered me.”

She looks down upon me, clothed in the lovely bursting patterns of gold lace cactus.

“If you can give my name,” she replies, “Perhaps I will set you free.”

“So it is you who is responsible for this!”

“Not I,” she protests, “But yourself, sweet fool. I only appear before you in mercy, to offer myself as a guide.”

“I am well-versed in myths. This will be easy. You are a nymph.”

Her laugh is the odd warbling of a shoco, and her bird shakes, as if in agreement.

“A yaksha.”

“Not even close.”

“You are Libitina, the Roman goddess of nature and death.”

“You wound me.”

“You are Asintmah, the first woman. You are Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth. You are Asaase Afua, the Akan goddess of love and farming. You are Veles, the Slavic god of the earth and the Underworld.”

“Do you have any more guesses?”

I huff, irritated. My throat is dry. I take another drink of water. My eyes draw to her bird.

“Aha! You are Nantosuelta, the Celtic goddess of nature. Your raven is what gave you away. And you are here in the desert because you are lost. No one worships you anymore.”

Her black-rimmed coyote’s eyes widen. I can tell I have struck a chord.

Still, she crosses her arms and shakes her head.

I scowl.

“I will find my own way out,” I declare. I head down the path, unsure if it really is even a path, squinting for signs of other humans; footprints, anything. I never hear or see her move, but whenever I look over my shoulder she is there.

The sun hits my back unrelentingly and the dust dries my mouth. Sweat covers my face and drips in my eyes, but I do not stop to wipe it away. When I lift my water I know I have only a few sips left and am nowhere close to the parking lot where I came in. I am now properly panicking.

“You are Artio, the Celtic goddess of bears and wilderness,” I call to her.
Her raven lifts from her shoulder and flies overhead in a circle, crying like a death knell.

I swallow painfully, my throat sticking. Helplessly, I take my last sip of water, so desperate for it that I have no choice. I tip back my bottle, hoping for a few more drops, but there is none.

I look to her again, “You are Set, the Egyptian god of deserts.”

“So close,” she says, “But I think you’re on the wrong track.”

“You must be a nature deity, so then which one are you?”

“Why should I be a nature deity?”

I turn to her, and my throat fills with terror, taking up all the room in my mouth for words so what I say comes out in a whisper,


“You are a god of death. The desert is the vehicle of my death, and that is why you resemble it.”

Her mouth is a dog’s, salivating and sharp.

“You are the Morrígan, the Celtic goddess of war, prophecy, and death.”

“And truth,” she adds, “You will never know a lie when you are with me.”

I cry out, a hoarse sound, and I intend to run, but cannot bring my legs to move.

“I have guessed your name,” I say, like a rabbit in a trap, “So you must set me free.”

“You will be free,” she promises, “And your heart will not strike another beat.”

I shake like water under a tuning fork, “No.”

“You are out of water. You must be feeling thirsty and overheated by now. But don’t worry. I will guide you to the House of Donn, because I feel kind. You will keep going until you are no longer.”

Above my head, the bird, which I now realize is no raven, but a crow, the Badb Catha, cries overhead.

I ask, “Why kill me, if I am not in battle? Why take the form of the desert?”

“This is a battle,” she says, “One you will lose. And I am a goddess of earth. I am not one deity, but three. All sisters we, though your kind have forgotten us.”

Her voice is momentarily sour. I do remember that the Morrígan is often made up of three goddesses, Badb, Macha, and another whose name is debated. It is true, we have largely forgotten her, as exemplified by the uncertainty around the third sister. In some ways, she is herself a dead goddess.

With this knowledge, I feel a strange sympathy for her. Lacking the terror that struck me still, my feet are unfrozen, and I turn around, walking swiftly down what I knew must be yet another false path. I look to the sides, to the bushes and cacti and the stretches of rock and sand.

In order to escape, I must leave the path. I cannot rely on it anymore.

I clamber over the side of the path, on top of a small bump in the earth, and start to head in the direction of the rocky hills, where I can vaguely see the highest point here. 

The Morrígan is behind me, a bemused expression upon her beautiful, warped face.

I scale the sides of the rocky hills, sliding on sandy parts at some points, but continuing to travel upwards. Eventually, I stand and look around me.

I make a sound of joy, which scrapes my dry throat, when I see the black curve of a road in the distance, to the northwest.

I am nearly running as I head in that direction, my head swimming with heat and desperation. I slip and fall in the dirt twice on my way downwards, and I scrape my ankle on a spiny pincushion cactus, but I keep on moving. 

The Morrígan is intended to prophesize death. In stories, she often washes the blood from the armor of those fated to die. If she has said it, I know it must be fate, but I still move forward. I cannot give up.

It is a shock to me to find my feet hitting hard, paved ground. I see the black road under me. I almost do not believe it.

I look behind me to the Morrígan. She stares back at me blankly. The Bhad Catha dives down and alights on her shoulder, shuffling its shiny feathers, watching me with black eyes.

I almost feel bad for her at the lost look upon her distorted face.

“I suppose this is the end then,” she calls to me from where her feet plant in the twisting underbrush, “Are you satisfied with your story?”

“I am intended to bring you to life,” I tell her, “But how can I bring to life something that is dead?”

Her laugh flies over the wind, the sound of a coyote’s shrieking, “Leave the path, human. Learn to stray.”

And she takes my face in her hands, as soft as petals, and presses her sharp lips to my forehead.

I memorize the contours of her face and then I turn and I run towards the parking lot where I will find my family. I will travel back to civilization, and I will promise never to go to such a remote place again.

But that will be a lie; soon enough I will return to the wild, if cautiously. I am not blessed but I will never stop and I will never rest until I have run over the ground of every terrible and beautiful deity I can find.

Because maybe there is a god in the desert. Maybe there is a god in the moving rocks in Death Valley that create long grooves in the earth. Maybe there is a god in the eyes of little animals peering from burrows, hiding from the sapping heat. 

I need no grace of a deity in arts or physical power. To be in her embrace and to be gone from her is both the greatest act of mercy and the greatest act of sorrow a dead goddess could ever bestow upon me. It is the purest of love.

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