Every spring semester, the Department of English at the University of Texas hosts a variety of prestigious writing contests. This year, a Waxahachie High alumna was amongst the four finalists.
This year's Fania Kruger Fellowship in Writing competition received over 70 submissions from undergraduate and graduate students.
"I was really surprised because I didn't expect anything," said Sloane Smith, a 2018 WHS graduate. "I didn't know how big the competition was so when I got to the reception I saw all of these older students that were talking to faculty because they had close relationships with them."
Fania Feldman Kruger is a Russian woman who fled to the United States in fear for her family's safety in 1908, according to the UT website. These experiences influenced poems written by Kruger that address persecution, injustice and terror that also reveal an abiding love of family and Jewish culture.
Kruger's work demonstrated a deep compassion for all humanity and a commitment to human rights. Later in life, Kruger settled in Austin and frequented courses on the UT campus.
Smith was tasked to characterize her writing by the social vision that is the hallmark of Kruger's poems.
Smith submitted her nearly 9,000-word narrative titled, "Beggars in the Snow," which is a story about displacement.
"It explores both sides of the issue from the perspectives of two characters that fall on opposite sides of the struggle," Smith explained. "Through the characters' interactions, you are also able to see how the generational gap affects how the characters act and how their values differ."
Though the Longhorn has heard time and time again that she won't make it as a professional author the award and acknowledgment of her talents helps provide a positive look toward a bright future.
"It's always nice to hear positive feedback about your writing because it gives you motivation and the self-assurance that you can make that a career in the future."
Smith is a sophomore studying English and will complete 18 hours to obtain a creative writing certificate.
Smith has an interest in photography and travel writing, fiction and screenwriting — really any form of storytelling.
She spent the last three years of high school competing in academic UIL. In her senior year, she competed at the state level in the Ready Writing and Journalism contests. She also served as the copy editor of the WHS yearbook and student newspaper.
Smith claims to have been an avid reader her entire life and found her passion for writing her sophomore year in high school. Vividly, Smith recalled her childhood crafting picture books with square pages stapled together.
During the Holocaust unit her sophomore year, Smith read the book, "Between Shades of Gray," and Skyped the author, Ruta Sepetys the following year during an understudy class.
It was then that idea of pursuing a writing career sunk in.
"That was one of the big points where I saw that I could — like just communicating with an author what the day-to-day life is and seeing that I could do that and it was an option for me," she said.
Smith typically writes fiction and short stories. Before a storyline even comes to mind, Smith conjures the title for the story first and will then usually type out a summary in the notes on her iPhone. Smith noted she has over 200 notes with half of them being related to her work.
Once she gets an idea, Smith typically will write it out in one sitting.
As Smith elaborated on her writing style focuses on the details of the setting and atmosphere to advance other elements.
"The one that I wrote for the competition there is maybe three lines of dialogue in the whole thing. There's a lot of description and setting because whenever I read, I like the atmospheric books. So I like to incorporate that in my own work."
"I feel like the setting and atmosphere lends a lot to the character development itself. You're a product of your environment. As a reader, when you are reading something more atmospheric, you feel like you're there rather than kind of an observer."
In her piece she submitted for the UT writing contest, Smith exercised this in her short story.
This summer, she will spend nine weeks in Oxford, England studying Shakespeare and Arthurian literature, which focuses on the legendary King Arthur.
The devoted writer has attempted to maintain a journal her whole life but hopes to achieve the daily task while abroad.
Beggars in the Snow
by Sloane Avery Smith
The girl spoke in Russian, but the boy was unlearned. He watched more than he listened to the girl, white lips forming pleas lost to his ears. The boy did not need to be schooled in the girl’s language to know that it was cold, very cold, and the girl had no jacket, no shawl.
Through the holes in the fingers of my gloves, I could feel nothing. I could see each individual flake of snow as it tore at my clothes and unbound hair, I could hear the song of the wind taunting the chattering of my teeth, I could smell the smoke trickling out of the chimney of this cabin, but I could feel nothing. This is something to which I had grown accustomed. Along with the look in this boy’s eyes. I knew my words were lost on him. Before I had even buried my fist in the solid oak of the door, I knew my voice held no familiarity here. I had a choice: Lithuanian or Russian. I had always spoken my native tongue in the company of my mother, but she taught me that our language would garner disgust rather than respect. Thus, I was taught Russian. And that is what I used now. I dared not risk the downturned eyes of my last refuge on this stormy night.
She was not the first. Not even the second. The boy’s father had turned away countless others in the past few weeks. At first, his father would open the door. The boy would steal glimpses from behind his father of tired faces and shaking, upturned hands. Sometimes there would be families, other times, a lone figure. The boy remembered one woman with dull eyes and a dead newborn, wrapped in her only blanket. All of them, his father refused. The boy did not know why, but his father was much wiser than him. There must have been a reason for his turning all of them away. After a few weeks, his father stopped answering. The boy would sit on the ground with his back against the door, the knocking, sometimes even banging, on the door echoing up and down his spine in time with the beating of his heart. He would sit there until the knocking ceased. Sometimes he saw them through the window. Sometimes they saw him, too. The looks he saw on their faces read of anger, sadness, or nothing at all. He would sometimes wonder how many times they had been refused before they stumbled upon his cabin. But always, they kept going.
After what could have been minutes or months of knocking, I had accepted the closed door. I had turned back towards the raging blizzard and leaned my back against the door. I barely registered my clothes snagging on the wood as I slid to the ground. While the doorway somewhat protected me from the screaming wind, I was scarcely spared. I think I had given up. But then I was sprawled on the ground. My upper body had fallen into the threshold of the house while my legs remained outside. Somebody had opened the door. I had sprung to my feet and retreated back outside while I pulled my clothes tighter around me. In the doorway stood a boy no older than eight. The boy to whom I now spoke.
After the knocking had ceased, the boy remained on the ground. He kept an eye on the window to see what stranger had been denied this time. But then he felt a thud against the door. It was too muffled for another knock. At first, the boy was paralyzed by the thought of a dead body falling against the other side of the door. When he did not see anyone through the window retreating from the cabin, he knew they were still there. Alive, he prayed. He had to open the door. The boy got up and walked back down the hallway to where his parents slept. When he heard his father’s snores, he retreated back to the front door. After taking a deep breath, he unlocked the latch and turned the knob. He did not even need to pull the door, for the weight of the person on the other side swung the door wide open. He winced as the girl’s back hit the floor and sent a prayer up to the gods to keep his father asleep. In no time at all, the girl was on her feet. Not dead. She was tall and thin, very thin. And pale. And poorly dressed for the weather. She could have been nineteen, or she could have been twenty seven. The boy did not know the difference.
The boy’s head was barely even with my belly button. He reminded me of my little brother. He had shaggy blonde hair that brushed the tips of his ears and hands that hid behind the hem of his sleeves. The boy’s presence was not the only one for which I rejoiced. The inside of the cottage was so warm. The golden glow of the room beyond the boy-who-was-not-my-brother even resembled heat. I needed to be closer to that warmth. I opened my mouth, and what spilled out was jumbled Russian. The boy did not understand, but I was expecting that. What I was not expecting was for the boy to look over his shoulder at something behind him. I wasnot expecting the boy to step out onto the porch with me, pulling the door shut behind him. His dark eyes widened as he was met by the relentless force of the pounding wind. I do not think he was expecting it to be this cold. But then again, I wasn’t either. I had not realized just how frigid the air outside had become until the warmth from the cabin had been leached from the air by the closing of the door. I stumbled back a step. A deep pink had begun to bloom on the boy’s fleshy cheeks from the cold. His eyes were brown, circular orbs, watering from the vicious bite of the air. I think the boy realized his foolishness. He pushed the door back open, the wind shoving him back inside as the warmth wafted back out to meet me. His little hands emerged from their haven inside his sleeves to wave me inside after him. I opened my mouth to convey my thanks. I did not care if the boy did not know Russian. Before I could say a word, the boy brought a finger to his lips, a universal sign for silence. I nodded in compliance and allowed the wind to push me inside the threshold of the cabin, the blanket of heat wrapping me in its friendly embrace.
The boy looked down the hall to where his parents still slept. He could hear his father’s deep breaths through the bedroom door that always remained slightly jarred. He really should not have let the girl inside. His father would never forgive this. He turned back towards the girl and raised his finger to his lips again. He couldn’t risk it. The girl did not nod this time. She just stared at him, her blue eyes still and unyielding. Then, a slight dip of her chin. Okay. The boy nodded his head in the direction of the kitchen. The girl crossed her arms across her chest, tucking her gloved hands under each arm. The boy let the girl go first. He kept his distance as he followed her into the kitchen.
The smell of coffee was the first thing I noticed. I tried to ignore its nagging scent as I scanned the small, cluttered kitchen. Stained countertops ran the length of the room on both sides with a small breakfast table stuffed into the corner by the doorway where I now stood. There were three placemats. Where were this boy’s parents? Three plates sat unwashed by the sink. The boy must have seen me looking at the plates for he went to the small cupboard behind the table and pulled out a half-eaten loaf of bread. “Brot,” the boy whispered. The word sounded harsh on his lips, his accent thick. I was about to take his offering when I caught sight of the source of the smell that bombarded my senses when I first entered the kitchen.
For reasons the boy did not understand, the girl was not interested in the bread. She must have been starving, but she didn’t even give the loaf a second look. Something else captivated her attention. The boy followed the girl’s gaze to the pot of coffee on the stove. He wanted to tell her that it had been made hours ago. It wasn’t even steaming anymore, but the girl didn’t seem to notice. She looked back at the boy with raised eyebrows. He nodded, swallowing his instinct to tell her that the caffeine would keep her awake, like his mother always told his father when he made his late night brew. He supposed that didn’t matter to the girl. He found a clean mug on the counter and poured the girl some coffee. He filled it to the brim, fearing the girl would be offended if he gave her too little. The girl took each of her gloves off and set them on the counter before taking the mug from him. The cup wasn’t even that warm, the boy thought, but the girl seemed to dethaw, sprawling her fingers around the mug and tipping it back. She did not take small sips, but big gulps. She was finished in a matter of seconds and handed the empty mug back to the boy with a nod of thanks.
It felt like the flame from a candle had traveled down my throat and flickered back to life at the bottom of my stomach. It had been so long since I’d had something warm to eat or drink. I was going to throw up. I barely made it to the small garbage bin at the end of the counter. When my heaving subsided, I found the boy staring at me with frightened eyes from the doorway. I foraged through my brain, searching for any words the boy might understand. “Es tut mir Leid,” I tried, but it ended up sounding horribly butchered. The boy lowered his eyebrows in thought, but his eyes soon lit up with understanding. I put the garbage bin back on the ground and walked to the doorway on the opposite side of the kitchen. It opened up into a sort of sitting room with furniture dating back a century at the least. In the corner of the room stood a piano. A beautiful Steinway in perfect condition. I’d never seen one in person. I had always played on ones that were out-of-tune and falling apart, repeating the notes and phrases of the song I always heard wafting out of the wealthier homes as I made my trek into town. I walked up to the piano, running my fingers, still warm from the mug, along the dark, polished wood. As I took a seat on the bench and rested my fingers on the pristine ivory keys, I heard the boy breathe in sharply. Before my mind processed what my fingers were doing, middle C echoed through the small room. The boy looked quickly down the hall and ran to the piano. He was saying something urgent and harsh. He must have known I wouldn’t understand because he cut himself off mid sentence and fell into the nearest chair with his hands over his ears. I knew what frightened him. I also knew I was going to be thrown out no matter what, so I decided to keep playing the only song I knew.
The boy was crying. He knew he’d made a big mistake in letting this girl in. Her playing was going to wake up both his father and his mother, and yet, he couldn’t bring himself to force her to stop. It was obvious she was familiar with the piano for she played beautifully. She started out with a few slow arpeggios, them moved into a three note sequence that was instantly familiar to the boy. His grandmother had played this same piece for him when he was younger. After they had eaten their dinner, his mother and father would sit on the couch while the boy sat on the bench with his grandmother, watching her fingers dance across the keyboard. The boy’s grandmother had always wanted him to learn this particular song, just as she had learned from her family back home when she was a child, but she was gone before he was old enough. As the girl played more of the piece, the boy fell deeper and deeper into the memory until a strong hand on his shoulder pulled him back to reality. The boy looked over his shoulder and found his father watching the girl play, her back to them. The boy immediately jumped up from his chair and stepped away from his father in fear. The boy saw his mother standing behind his father, holding his hand and watching her son staring back at her. The boy looked again to his father. His hard brown eyes remained on the girl, the hand that was on the boy’s shoulder now hanging limp at his side. When the boy looked closer, he could see a rim of silver in his father’s eyes. He still held onto that memory, too. The boy didn’t dare move for fear of drawing the girl’s attention.
As the final notes rang out, I turned to look at the boy, who had been quiet after that single outburst. The boy wasn’t looking at me. I turned my head further and saw two tall figures standing in the doorway of the hall. I quickly dropped the cover back over the keys, wincing at the crack of wood as it fell shut, and stood up quickly. “Es tut mir Leid!” I tried. It sounded wrong, but it was the only words of theirs that I knew. I repeated those words several times, looking to the boy for help. I realized how foolish that was, expecting a little boy less than half my age to provide protection from the wrath of his father, this towering man. But the man said nothing. He just stared between me and the piano, squeezing the hand of his wife at his side. Then, as if the fog in his mind had cleared, he crossed the few steps between him and his son and pulled him to his side, his grip unflinching. His wife took the boy from him as the man came towards me. He reached for my arm, too quickly for me to flinch away. I could hear the boy crying in his mother’s arms as the man led me into the kitchen. He grabbed my gloves which I’d left on the counter earlier and picked up the half-eaten loaf of bread the boy had left sitting out. The man pulled me towards the front door and said something to his wife that I did not understand before opening the door and shoving us both out into the harsh, freezing wind. I was not prepared for the biting cold that ripped at every point where my skin was exposed and made my eyes water. I was not prepared for the man to kneel down in front of me, making us eye-level to each other. He took my shaking hands and pulled my gloves over my fingers. Then he handed me the bread.
“I am sorry,” the man said. It took me a moment to realize he had spoken in Lithuanian. His accent still carried the harsh quality of his native tongue, but he knew what he was saying.
“This is all I can do. These are tough times, what with these wars and everything. You understand.” It wasn’t a question. I stared at his dark eyes, the skin around them creased with age.
“How do you know Lithuanian?” I asked him.
He did not answer. The man just stood up and opened the door to the house. I savored that last bit of warmth before it was gone for good.
“Es tut mir Leid,” the man said, then shut the door with a thud.
The boy’s father let him go to the window after he came back inside. He pressed his tear stained cheek to the icy glass and looked for a figure in the dark, snow covered lane in front of their house. After a second, he saw a hunched figure trudging along, hugging herself for warmth. He watched the girl walk for a few yards without looking up before thumping his knuckle against the glass. The girl’s head bounced up as she looked back at the house. The boy didn’t know if the girl could see him, but she lifted her hand to wave in his direction. Maybe a sign of thanks. Maybe a silent goodbye. He waved back, but she was already walking away. The boy watched her figure move further and further away from the house until he could no longer distinguish her from the swirling snow.
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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450