The Strongman Bell Prize


The Strongman Bell Prize


Dear Mrs. Thompson,

            I’ve never asked anything of you before. Always respected your not getting between me and Johnny. But Aiyanna has just turned 17, and it would mean the world to her (and me) if you’d share this photo with your son. The last card I sent him came back “address unknown.” I’m guessing he’s moved again. Can’t believe how many places Johnny’s lived. California. Nevada. Wyoming. Colorado. Oh, no, I don’t mean that as bad! Only crazy as compared to my never having left Duluth despite, or in spite of (as Johnny might say)—oh, well, never mind that. Everyone gets that Minnesota can be a cold climate if you’re not white. And even if you are. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I don’t blame Johnny for leaving. Heck, we were so young. As young as Aiyanna is today. Trust me, I can’t imagine my baby old enough to have a child, so I understand how you felt, really. But, if you would please give this photo and letter (below) to your Johnny the next time he visits…well, there’s something I want him to know.


Dear Johnny,

I’ve been thinking about you and

Your daughter rang the Strongman Bell at the Duluth Fall Festival and bagged herself a panda—a stuffed one. Ha!

Honey, I hope you’re well. We’re still fine. 

Oh heck, how can I write to your mom without much worry, but can’t figure out how to begin? Perhaps my ancestors should have called me Woman with Tied Tongue. Ha!

            It’s that time of year that you used to call “the teaser season.” The sun’s tempting warmth thwarted (as you’d say) by the slap of that Canadian breeze. Oh, remember the enormous hand-knit maroon sweater my boss’s Ojibwe wife gave you? At first, you couldn’t imagine Native Americans knitting. Then, you thought she’d deliberately sewn wire around the neck to make it scratchy. I can’t remember laughing so hard. You laughed too, and I loved how your quiver of a snicker quickly opened into a drawn-out, husky bellow. After that, you said you didn’t like the sweater’s deep red color because it made your skin look pink. I said, “your skin is pink,” expecting you’d laugh, but you didn’t.

            I loved how you blushed the first summer we met when I caught you glancing at my long, tanned legs after a breeze swept my skirt past the point of decency. And those winter months, oooh, how I relished when your fingers turned bone white from poor circulation, because baby could I ever bring back your color by warming them in my mouth. (I don’t care about your mother reading this.)

            I meant to start off by telling you about our Aiyanna who’s “forever blossoming,” as the name we gave her implies. Oh, Johnny, she’s so smart. Got an A in art class. Abstract paintings cover her bedroom wall (one even won a gold ribbon).

            And she’s strong. Some might say too strong (her arms have muscles like a boy). But she’s also strong in a way that you and I could never be, at least not together. The other day at school when a boy made fun of her, she just punched him. Sure, some prissy schoolmarm sent her home, but our girl let that idiot know what she thought of “half-breed,” such a stupid antiquated term. Aiyanna and I, with our long generational history in Minnesota, know everyone else is a foreigner, even though we’re largely outnumbered. (BTW nonwhites hope to break 2K in the 2020 census.)

            Oh, how I wish I’d had the power to ease the pain in your eyes when you saw the hypocrisy of this world, such as when my uncle, a Vietnam veteran, told you about the jerk who called him a dirty injun and tried to pull him out of Duluth’s Veteran’s Day parade.

            I know it hurt you too much to stay, and I was never going to leave. I won’t go into the reasons—heritage, ancestry, history—because youve heard it all before. What I’m trying to tell you is though our time together was short I’ve always loved you. And Aiyanna does too from all the stories I’ve told, including the stories I made up, for her sake, as to why you left.

            Now, look at that photo. See how Aiyanna’s arms are hugging that oversized panda? She wanted me to take this picture because she won that cuddly stuffed bear at the festival to show off two colors in one animal (like you and me made her). However, as proud and smart as she is, there’s a simple side to her that’s afraid to share something; it’s why she asked me to write you. You see, I met someone, an Ojibwe, and he wants to adopt her. Aiyanna is worried you’ll feel she’s negating you. She’s not. It’s just that she also wants to belong to the Anishinaabe Indigenous people who are here. I don’t expect a letter back. But I’m hoping you’ll keep this photo of our daughter, sitting on the bed with those two big feet (wearing new Timberland boots) dangling off the edge, and her arms wrapped around that bear as if she’s squeezing you tight.

            A while ago, I took my students to the zoo and learned that a panda’s cubs are blind at birth. That’s how you and I were in the beginning. Blind to the world we lived in; seeing only each other. I hope this photo brings back those memories, because I can still hear the faint bellow of your laugh. Or was that merely a gust of wind from this old teaser season?


Your Star Dancing


Sylvia Schwartz


Sylvia Schwartz studied literary fiction at The Writers Studio and One Story in New York. Her stories have appeared in the Potato Soup Journal; Savant-Garde; The Write Launch; Bold + Italic Magazine; Bull & Cross; Edify Fiction; The Airgonaut; The Vignette Review; and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and can be reached at or @aivlys99.




  1. Charmed by this work. The fiction only gets better at Ariel.

  2. I love the way this love story is told, through the rose tinted glasses of Star Dancing. Sylvia’s way with words takes us on a gentle and forgiving journey of her experience with Johnny. There is also a sadness that runs alongside this, of a young woman abandoned by the man she loved, and their child, dismissed by him and his family because of the colour of their skin. I would love to see Johnny’s reply, even though she doesn’t need one. Fab piece of work Sylvia!

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