The Sisters, 2013 First Place Winner’s Circle
By Les Tanner
Even though I knew it was about to happen—at least I thought it was about to happen, but I wasn’t certain I wasn’t dreaming—I was sitting on pins and needles as the woman at the podium picked up a wooden plaque and an envelope.
“And the winner of First Place in the Adult Division this year—” said Miss Fleishman, apparently pausing for dramatic effect “—is Madeline Satterfield for her wonderful little story entitled ‘The Sisters’.”
I don’t remember much of the next minute or two. John told me later that I managed to get to my feet and walk up and accept the plaque and the hundred-dollar prize without either tripping or babbling. He said the small group of people in the audience applauded, too, but you couldn’t prove it by me.
This had all started last fall when John came home one evening with a copy of a publication to which his dental office had recently subscribed for its waiting room. It was called Idaho Magazine. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I just assumed it was just one of those fluffy things put out by the state to attract people to come to Idaho to ski and hunt and fish and hike and float the Salmon River and gawk at rodeo cowboys and take photographs—and, primarily, to spend money.
That night as I was waiting for “Dancing with the Stars” to begin, I picked up the magazine from the coffee table. The very first thing I noticed was an article about Princeton. It wasn’t Princeton University, either, but Princeton, Idaho, and that was just a hop, skip, and jump from Bovill where I’d grown up!
Wow, I thought. Our Princeton surely isn’t something that the tourism folks would spend any time or money publicizing.
This was either a mistake or a different kind of magazine.
It didn’t take me long to determine that the latter was the case. The magazine was so interesting that “Dancing with the Stars” was almost over before John came in and found me reading one of the articles instead of watching my almost-very-favorite show.
“Here’s the main reason I brought this home,” he said, pointing to a page I’d just turned to. It was an announcement of a fiction writing contest. “I’ve told you before that you should write down some of the stories you used to tell the girls and the grandchildren when they were little.”
I nearly laughed. “You know I’m not a writer. I have a hard enough time coming up with a Christmas letter every year, and when I do it doesn’t get mailed till March or so, if ever. It says here that the stories must be original and unpublished, too. And about Idaho. All of the ones I told the children were things that were told to me when I was little or that I read somewhere, and the only time that Idaho ever got mentioned was when I said something like the Seven Dwarfs worked in a mine in Kellogg or that Hansel and Gretel lived in the forest near Moscow.”
“I still think you should give it a try,” he responded. “Your painting and your music show that you’ve got lots of creative talent. And I think the fiction part would be right down your alley, too. You’ll have to admit you’re good at stretching the truth a bit when the occasion demands it.”
That last part surely caught my attention. “Examples?” I asked.
“Well, if the topics of your age or whether you dye your hair come up, you have a tendency to…”
“You’re treading on pretty thin ice there, Mister,” I said, rolling up the magazine and pushing it at him. “Now if you’ll go back to your whittling”—“It’s called wood-carving”—“whatever, let me get back to seeing if the professional wrestler and the ballet dancer will get to come back next week.”
As far as my age goes, it really is none of your business. Just let me say that although we have five grandchildren, John and I and our daughters all married very young. And I surely don’t dye my hair, although I suspect that Typhanee down at the salon does touch it up a little now and then while I’m dozing.
John and I get over our little spats, if that is what that was, very quickly, and before we turned out the light that night we had made peace.
John even brought the subject up again. “At least give it some thought, Maddy,” he said. “I honestly believe you’d do a great job.”
I did give it some thought, too, for nearly three hours before I finally went to sleep. I decided it might be fun to give story-writing a try. But there was at least one major stumbling block. What would I write about?
I had read and heard that the human brain has an amazing capacity to work on, and even solve, problems while a person sleeps, problems that the person hadn’t been able to get a handle on while awake. I just never thought it would happen to me.
It did, though, but not that night. About two weeks later, I popped awake in the middle of the night with the memory of a dream whirling around in my mind. I’ve always been a good dreamer—I even dream in color much of the time. I can remember parts of dreams rather vividly, as well.
This time, however, I remembered virtually the whole thing, and it was an exciting one. That is worth writing down, I thought to myself—and suddenly realized that I would write it down. Here was my story for the fiction contest!
I was in luck, too. John had left the previous afternoon to drive to Sun Valley to attend a two-day workshop on some sort of new breakthrough in dental technology, so I had two whole days with nothing special to do but write.
And write I did.
I logged onto our computer while I was still in my nightgown, robe, and slippers, and began writing what I could remember of the dream. It took me almost two hours to do so, and amazingly, most of the details of the dream remained fresh for that entire time.
I took a breakfast break, got myself caffeined-up, and went back at it.
John got back late Sunday evening, and the first thing I did when he walked in the door was to grab him around the neck and exclaim, “You’ll never guess what happened!”
“What?” he asked with alarm. “I don’t smell smoke. You’re not on crutches. I see the cat, and he’s not on crutches, either. Your hair is about the same color it was on Friday. Please don’t tell me you invited your brother and that dim-bulb wife of his over for Thanksgiving.” He hesitated. “Are you, …well, you know?”
“Enough about the hair. And, no, I’m not…’well, you know’.”
“What is it, then? You’re going to drive me nuts.”
“You mean nuttier?”
“Whatever. Just tell me.”
“I wrote a story for the fiction contest.”
“Really? In just two days?”
“Cool. Now I’ve got to use the bathroom. It’s a long drive from Sun Valley.”
“Well, what do you think?
I’d talked John into reading my story, and he had reluctantly agreed to do so, even though he claimed he was beat from his rough weekend. (I’ve accompanied John on more than one such trip, and believe me, two days and nights in Sun Valley is anything but rough. Being a good wife, I said nothing, of course. At the moment.)
“Not bad at all,” he said finally, which is truly high praise from John. “There are some rough spots, but the story line is great and it’s an Idaho story, for sure. I do have a question, though. Is it fiction?
“What? How could it not be fiction? Like I said, it all came to me in a dream.”
“Maybe you read about the characters and events somewhere, and they came back to you when you were sleeping.”
“Impossible,” I said aloud.
Possible, I thought to myself.
Drat. It could be a pain sometimes to be married to a man with a mind like John’s. Drat and double drat.
Which is the reason that I didn’t mail the story in until the last week of January—and the contest’s deadline was January 31.
I spent most of the next two weeks surfing the Web and searching through historical information at the library, and found nothing even close. That didn’t rule out the possibility that someone else had written a similar story, so as I had time over the next few weeks, I searched for such things. I even had the local librarian help me, after swearing her to secrecy about what I was doing.
At last, John said, “Maddy, you’ve done all you could. My advice is to send it in to see what happens. I promise I’ll put up the bail money, if things go wrong.”
“Thanks so much, Dear,” I said, hugging him. “There’s nothing like the support of a good husband to make a wife feel better.”
So my story got mailed, and believe it or not, a few weeks later I got a letter from the folks at Idaho Magazine that contained the list of contest winners, and it had my story—my story—listed as receiving First Prize in the Adult Division. I was so excited that I called John at work to tell him, but he was up to his elbows in someone’s mouth at the time and his receptionist had to take the message.
Now there I was at the awards ceremony, already having received the award but dreading the next part, reading the story. I had read it aloud to John a dozen times, and thought I would have no problems.
But as I stood looking out at the twenty-five or so people sitting there in front of me, my mouth got dry and my hands began to shake. I thought I might topple over until Miss Fleishman put a gentle hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Take some deep breaths, Madeline. Once you get started, everything will be fine.”
“I am Madeline Satterfield,” I said, and began to read:
Her name was Kimani. It means ‘Butterfly’ in the language of her people, the Shoshone.
I had made up that name. It seemed to fit, for some reason.
I knew the story by heart of course, and I don’t recall much of the next few minutes, but as I neared the end, my throat began to tighten, as I knew it would.
…that was a happy summer, but it was to be their last together. As the leaves of the trees on their home mountain began to turn golden, her sister was taken away and they never saw each other again.
Many were the times during her long life that Kimani thought of her sister and wondered what had ever happened to her.
Her sister’s name was Sacagawea.
I was surprised and very pleased at the applause that I got when I finished, and at the number of people who came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed the story.
John had gone off somewhere to look at books, and I was standing around, rather awkwardly as always, sipping punch and munching a cookie when I felt a tug on my sleeve.
I turned to see a tiny dark-skinned woman standing there. There was no way of telling her age exactly, but she was clearly very old.
“Where did you get that story?” she asked in a voice I could barely hear.
“Why?” I asked in surprise. “Is it important?” The words plagiarism and lawsuit suddenly cane to mind.
“My name is Elsa Bird-Woman. My great-great-great grandfather was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.”
It took several seconds for that to register.
“Sacagawea’s son was your great-great-great-grandfather?” I asked in amazement. “Then Sacagawea was your…”
“Yes,” the woman replied softly.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say next. It even occurred to me that perhaps I should have a lawyer present.
“I’m so sorry if the story offended you in any way,” I replied at last. “I assure you it is purely fiction.”
“Actually, it is not all fiction,” Elsa Bird-Woman said. “Sacagawea did have a younger sister.
Until today I believed that no one outside our family knew of her existence. It was not a secret. It was just our way not to speak of such things with others. How did you learn of her?”
“I had a dream about her,” I said.
“You did?” She sounded surprised, her first sign of emotion. “So did I, not too long ago.”
A chill ran up and down my spine. “Do you happen to remember when that was?”
“Yes, I do. It was early in the morning of my ninetieth birthday. It was the first time I had thought about Sacagawea and her sister for many, many years.”
“When is your birthday?” I asked, somehow knowing what the answer would be.
“November 17,” she replied.
And it was that very morning that I’d had my dream. I knew, because that was the day that John’s workshop in Sun Valley had begun.
“I assure you that no one but you and I will ever know that my story was anything but fiction.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It was a beautiful piece of writing.”
“Thank you,” I replied, flattered to the soles of my feet.
“I must go now,” said Elsa Bird-Woman. “Have a wonderful life.”
And as she turned to leave, she said in that quiet voice of hers, “By the way, Mrs. Satterfield, Sacagawea called her sister her ‘little butterfly’.”