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National Teen Storyteller Contest

A Letter to Mama

Photo of Ciara Balanzá<br>11th Grade, New York

Ciara Balanzá
11th Grade, New York


The second place winner of our Summer 2021 National Teen Storyteller Contest, presented in partnership with the student-led and founded Decameron Project! We invited young writers to share a story responding to themes of social justice and the criminal justice system.

This contest is part of our NEA Big Read initiative, made possible through a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in celebration of Ernest J. Gaines’s classic novel,
A Lesson Before Dying.

Dear Mama,

I find it difficult to keep
track of the days without my regular routine. I no longer feed pigeons bread crumbs or drink hot milk in a mug before bed. Life feels like it has stalled without these markers. I wanted to date this letter, so I tried asking my cellmates what day it was but they did not know either. I asked anyone who came across the cell. One of the guards, the nice one with wide brown eyes, answered that it was April 8th. I realized your birthday was six days ago and I forgot to wish you.

It’s been a month since I
have been here and I’ve tried to reconstruct what happened that day. Usually in the early mornings when it is quiet and not dark. When I think of that day all at once it’s a blur, so I’ve tried to go through it methodically. I remember waking up that morning with a groggy feeling like when I forget to take my pills.

I got up from the sofa and ate
my usual breakfast, trying not to be loud so I would not wake you up. I felt a dark presence behind me and knew he was back again. I know you say he is not real, but I could almost feel him breathing down my neck. I yelled at him to back off and insulted him. You jumped up from the mattress and tried to calm me down. With your tight hug that promises to never let go, to protect me.

But, that day I knew he was
finally going to kill us. This time he was not only there, smirking and then flashing his teeth. No, for the first time he was talking back to me. That was what I heard. Not your calm voice, but his static voice threatening your life. I had to punish him for daring to vocalize my darkest fear.

You have always looked after
me and now I have a duty to protect you. Where would I be without you? I reached for a knife on the kitchen table and slashed at him. He dodged me and reached for his own knife. We fought for what seemed like ages. I felt your heart beating against mine as you tried to squeeze me tighter.

Did I hurt you? I don’t
remember. I just know that he hurt me because I still see red scars forming crisscrosses on my arms. I’m sorry if I did hurt you, Mama. I was only trying to protect you.

I didn’t hear your warnings
and pleas. Nor did I hear the siren bells. At 7 am they were probably the only sound on the street. I didn’t hear them knock and then knock down the door. Or them rushing to me at the exact moment that I finally slayed him. But then I felt the cold metal on my wrists and I saw your tear-stained face. I never saw you cry before, Mama. You said something to the officers then, “She needs me to live.” In a quieter voice you also said, “I need her to live.”

Ever since I have been here,
I’ve felt ungrounded. In my 29 years I’ve always lived with you. When I was younger I would spend time away from you, at school and with friends. But ever since my episodes started I think we’ve never been apart for more than a few hours. Without you and our one room apartment, life has lost structure. Time passes by me with no distinction except for the bells that tell us when to wake up, do chores, and eat our meals. But you and I operated on a different time.

I know they won’t let me see
you when you visit, so that’s why I wrote this letter. My aunties see me as dependent; I am hardly living for myself. Maybe it’s better that I’m here separated from you. But at home I felt like I deserved life. I had my responsibilities: feed the pigeons, hide from him, respect you. Now I wait for everything to happen to me, because I cannot do anything. It’s been a month now, and it feels too long. I need to live again.


PS: I realized that this letter may hurt you more. I don’t want to do that, so I’ll send you a birthday card. Sorry that it is late. I’ll keep this letter in the back of my drawer. I hope they will give it to you when I’m gone.