Golden phoenix, grey hen
Vera Dong, Kerikeri
Northland Regional Prize
“People rise, water falls,” Mei said when her daughter Yu announced, upon graduation from Auckland uni, that she was not going back to Shanghai but moving to a rural town in the Far North to try a market garden. “For generations, we were trapped in the land. I was the first golden phoenix flying out of a henhouse; you are the first who studied overseas. Why become a hen again?! Why fill your fingernails with dirt when you should be wearing posh nail polish? I swear to the Buddha that I can hear your grandma crying in her tomb right now!”
Six years later, sunrise breaks the horizon; Yu’s gumboots are washed clean by heavy dew. A stack of crates of red chilis, spring onions and bok choi are waiting to be picked up. On the way back to her kitchen, Yu picks up run-away worms from the ground, returning them to the worm farm. “You don’t want to be gobbled up by Mrs Chicken,” she murmurs.
Mei is in the garden, arms up, palms open, taking deep breaths. She is surrounded by freesia sprouts, blooming dahlia, and fidgeting sparrows waiting for their share of the chook food. This is Mei’s first visit to her daughter in six years.
Rice porridge is bubbling on the stove. Yu scoops some into two white ceramic bowls and adds a spoonful of golden jam she made from her own sweet osmanthus tree. When Mei comes in, she says, “Mama, close your eyes and say ahh.” Mother opens her mouth like a baby bird, Yu feeds her the golden porridge, Mei savours it, so slowly, so focused.
“Mm, the taste of my childhood. Your grandma was the master of the golden osmanthus jam.” Mei opens her eyes. “Now we have a new master.”
He Rangi Mokopuna
Helen Waaka, Te Matau a Māui
Central Districts Regional Prize
You wake and, for a moment, you forget. You hear the tūī, whistling and coughing in the garden, the one that comes every morning and then, you remember. The pain is instant. Visceral. Somewhere between your chest and puku, pressing down, heavy, on your heart and your gut. Organs that keep you alive. You lie there, staring at the ceiling, listening to the tūī.
You remember the tangihanga, the panic you felt when they closed the coffin, the people who said, “… she’s in a better place now, free of pain.” Piss off, you wanted to shout. But of course, you didn’t.
You have to get up. You have to “keep going” like they said. Your daughter is coming today, bringing her son, your mokopuna. You have to make an effort. Your body feels heavy but you get up. The cold air presses into you. You notice the blue scarf then, hanging over the arm of the cane chair. You pick it up, smell it, hold it to your chest.
“Dad?” your daughter calls. “We’re here.”
“Koro, where are you?” Your mokopuna comes into the bedroom. “Why are you crying, Koro?” He stares at you. He has his grandmother’s green eyes.
“Help Koro open the curtains, Mātai,” your daughter says.
Mātai takes your hand. You follow him to the window. He helps you pull back the curtains. Outside, shaded parts of the lawn are stiff with frost, but the sky is a brilliant blue, almost white and the sun is shining.
“He rangi mokopuna,” you say. “Do you know what that means?”
He looks at you with his green eyes. “No, Koro, what?”
“A mokopuna day. A beautiful day, in the middle of winter.”
Before it sets
Rebecca Ball, Ōtautahi Christchurch
Canterbury Regional Prize
On the day I read the email, the Nor’wester had dried mum’s new sheets like papier-mâché. I remember the toothmarks left by the pegs, the groan of cotton as I forced it back and down and over itself, stacking it like hot slabs of cardboard in the washing basket.
The imprints of my Converse soles in the brown lawn. Rich tang of plums on the ground. Distant cry of a wattle bird. Grey arch of cloud.
When mum found me reading the email, first thing she said was don’t tell dad. Then please try to understand and for onceinmylife somethingforme and justwaituntilyou’reolder and whyisitstill. So. Effing. Hot.
And for some reason what came into my head was this line from a Paddington Bear book, quick, before it sets, but in dad’s reading voice. That quiet urgency. And an image of those sheets in the basket softening, melting, oozing through the wicker weave, pooling like PVA on the carpet.
When I got back to them they were still warm, and I carried them to the airing cupboard without remembering that the whole house had been swelling for months. I yanked the handle and it gave a scream and came away in my hand like the tail of a frightened lizard. I slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans and forgot about it as well, which didn’t really matter because after I’d forced the cupboard open with a screwdriver and pushed mum’s new sheets inside and screeched the door home with the white toe of my Chuck Taylor, we never tried to open it again.
The Art of Dentistry
Margaret Moores, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland
Auckland Regional Prize
I am pictured barefoot and heavily pregnant in the front garden of our first house. I am looking away from the lens and toward my husband who is holding a garden fork, tines uppermost. It was meant to be a joke, but everybody commented on the enormous Phoenix Palm in the background, and nobody mentioned American Gothic.
The woman in American Gothic was a daughter not a wife, the man a dentist. I’m thinking about this while wearing sunglasses against the glare of a dentist’s light. Michael Bublé is oozing into my ears above the clatter of dental instruments and a disturbing sound of sawing or filing. I am neither awake nor asleep.
When I was first pregnant and desperate to wear maternity dresses like Princess Diana, I used to look at diagrams in books and compare my baby bump with the pictures. It was like comparing the engorged rubber breasts and belly that Cindy Sherman wears in her Untitled #205 with Raphael’s La Fornarina on which she based her photograph. Raphael painted his lover, Margherita the baker’s daughter, with rounded belly visible through a gauzy veil and her right hand pointing one small naked breast toward the artist. She directs a coy, sidelong look toward the viewer as if she knows we are wondering how long she sat there pretending to be virtuous.
Sherman replaced Margherita’s veil with acrylic sun filters like the ones in the sun porch of that first house. They used to snag on my nails when I drew them aside, setting my teeth on edge. Her Margherita looks exhausted, as if pregnancy was as much a nightmare as my tooth implant. I dimly remember giving birth. The sound of scissors. Stitches.
A bruise like a signature blooms on my jaw overnight.
Kerry Lane, Ōtepoti Dunedin / Glasgow
Otago Regional Prize
The little key safe sits on the kitchen bench next to his new fruit bowl, which holds too many oranges even for two people. He entertains the idea that he might become the kind of person who eats that much fruit. He buys enamelled pans and gleaming knives instead of furniture; a couch, or curtains, would mean he lives here now. He finds a new job. He puts a vase of baby’s breath in the window of the empty lounge and leaves his books on the floor, starts writing a novel instead of learning how to put up a shelf alone. He pulls a muscle carrying a third-hand coffee table up the building’s two ragged flights before standing in the chilly kitchen to cook dinner; he stares at the tomato seedlings taking up half the tear-shimmering benchtop and determines to be the catalyst that will turn these flats into a thriving mutual aid community and he will be able to put up his pictures without having to buy his own hammer. He waits for his friends to contact him first and decides he is the only person alive with nothing beautiful to say about grief. He makes some ugly choices out of nostalgia. He gets a library card and buys contents insurance. He registers to vote. Every cheerful voice on the phone wants to know his address. The safe sits on the bench until the oranges are gone and he has copies made of the flat keys: one set goes in his pocket, one in the safe by the building’s front door, and one on the hook in the hall, where it sits for a time, accusatory, before being swallowed, slowly, by the patient mess of his jackets and scarves.
Benjamin Jardine, Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington
There she stood: blood, bone, DNA. Feet in synthetic fur slippers, fingers wrapped around a metal pantry handle.
Glass is born at 1800 degrees, she thinks, reaches for a jar of smooth peanut butter. And this label paper born from a conifer grown across the world, cut down with a machine built in the outskirts of metropolis, refined and sent to a printer in another metropolis, then sent to a peanut-butter factory in this country, in the city where she was born, then sent again to her local supermarket for purchase last Friday morning – a purchase made on either side of driving a car that was made in Japan and shipped here ten years ago.
Outside her window in the garden, rain fills up a small porcelain bucket held by a porcelain gnome. She thinks about birth and soil and umbilical cord roots tapping into good green earth beneath the foundation of their house. She smells the dusty pulse of her childhood just then, in the whiff summoned by her turning left away from the pantry.
Her husband reads a newspaper (groundwood pulp, water, ink) at their wedding present dining table (reclaimed elm, brass butterfly joints) and stirs a metal spoon (France) of sugar (Caribbean sun) into a ceramic (ex-riverbed) cup of dark roast coffee (Brazilian mountain).
“A bunch of lab monkeys escaped from a truck on the highway,” he says aloud to the ticking clock of their dining room. “A hundred macaques heading for Florida.”
In her head, a scene from the end of the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes: the main ape atop an enormous redwood, watching the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Those monkeys will have a hard time adjusting,” she says, and dips the knife into the jar.
Susan Wardell, Ōtepoti Dunedin
Her daughter’s body is made of data. She cradles this at night, now she that has the device. She sleeps better feeling that tight wad of numbers tucked under pillow. Somehow the shape of it presses through the cotton and filling, through the skin of her temple, through the clean curved bone, and into the tangled grey matter of her dreams. It shines there like a vast blue sun.
By day her phone weighs in her pocket like a happy anchor. The data is a ridgeline – as she moves between work and school and home – rising and falling, but always there on the horizon. She is working hard to afford this microscopic/telescopic access: to afford the little white button that suckers onto her child’s soft warm stomach, sending these precious signals, these signs of life, to her, all day long. Every ten days, she swaps this device out, shucking its expensive twin from the packaging. And she sweats, and she calculates.
To strangers, it is plastic and wire. To her, this spindle sunk into interstitial fluid means that she can sleep, that her daughter can sleep, watched over by sensors that will SCREAM if her blood glucose levels fall off a cliff. Then they can wake and inject insulin and breathe … and avoid another type of screaming that she knows would never, ever stop.
She tries to tell the people on the internet how much it is worth to her: this type of sleep, this type of trust. She summons up stories of a time before, when her daughter’s body was a blanched mystery, a receding echo in a hospital bed. She types and types, but the words seem small and distant on that moon-bright page, and somehow the other numbers – the ones linked to donations – stay very, very still.
Eden and Vanessa
Jennifer Eller-Kirkham, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland
Eden left Vanessa in Gills Road at daybreak and walked to Eastern beach. She ate at a table – three digestives tasting of handbag grit. She imagined biting into a custard Danish like Mum bought one time after a bender when she’d noticed she had a kid. Cream oozing rich and sweet over her gums.
The tide ebbed fast, like it had somewhere better to be. Oystercatchers followed, orange bills probing for tuatua. There was kai to be had if you knew where to look.
She spread her tatty tatami on the sand and slept, head on backpack, like some suburban lady enjoying the fading, autumn warmth. Vanessa could wait – one thing she was good at.
In the afternoon she walked. The toilets down the end were good for a wash and to refill her water. She kept an eye on a mum with two toddlers eating fish and chips from the corner chippie. As Eden expected, half of it ended up in the bin. Dinner sorted. She waited as the parade of chubby joggers, show-offs in lycra on flash bikes, and dog walkers dwindled. Waited as dusk darkened, the earth gave up its heat and the oystercatchers flew home to their nests crying, weep-weep.
She wandered back past homes glowing orange and blue, past families cooking meals and cuddling on sofas with throws.
“Hey, Vanessa. Your lock’s bloody wobbly.” Eden climbed in the passenger side; crawled into the back, onto the mattress. Vanessa retained a bit of warmth thanks to her black roof. Eden pulled everything on top of her, which wasn’t much; checked the bits of tarp blu-tacked to the windows. No one could see in. Still, they’d smack Vanessa’s sides on bad nights, shout obscenities – like they knew she was in there. She listened, shivering; waited for daybreak.
My father is a tennis star
Sophia Wilson, Ōtepoti Dunedin
A Doubles Champion. Double standards. Double vice. Closed doors.
My father is a Tennis Star. I used to like it when he took me to hit balls against walls. But afterwards he grand-slammed like I was wall, not person. A volley of mandates. An authoritarian Ace. A shape up. Competitive. He dominated the hardcourt. Hardcore. Moulding my shape to his form.
My father is a Tennis Star. A strong backhand. A toughen up. A suck it up. I tried to purge his curved trajectories. His terms of play. I double trained. But I was double trouble. A double fault. Doubled over, more air than bounce. A tennis elbow. On the weedy side. I learned the baseline. The dimensions of the net. The width of a breach. That tennis comes from tenez, meaning hold / receive / take.
I focussed on weeds: how they cling to cracks in the forecourt. Withstand hits. Extend shoots. Send SOS’s from battered corners. Spring from the smallest spaces.
Everything needs substrate: earth, blood, bone. Game / set / match.
Topspin. Tiebreak. Take. Receive. Hold.
Sometimes survival depends on matter splitting open: Releasing a hold. Receiving a due. Taking back. Breaking ties.
My father was a Tennis Star, a love-wound — une blessure.
You can Google him.
My uncle said he would take me to England
Leeanne O’Brien, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland
We would visit the North where the tide crossed the marshes more swiftly than a tuatua digging away from hunting hands. You’re nothing now, but I can change that, he said each night, fucking me after clearing the traps. He made a paste with ground ginger. Bragged it brought the possums from miles around.
We had a one channel television. The reception was poor, the images on the screen forever ghosting and fracturing or softening with snow. I watched the six o’clock news with my aunt. One day we saw flour bags denting a rugby field. Policemen with moustaches and truncheons stood in rows around its perimeter, the light aircraft from which the bags were falling dancing above like a pīwakawaka.
The sun disappeared behind the ranges each day. We lived in a crack between their toes. It got cold quickly, even in summertime. Sometimes I would scamp to the beach, climb the greasy rocks, and watch the plains that led all the way to town being swallowed by a charcoal-blue tongue.
I read paperbacks my aunt chose from the boot of the travelling salesman’s car before she sold them in the shop. To avoid a bent spine, I read them almost closed. It compromised the words of each line, but mostly I could guess.
They’re dead now – my uncle and aunt – and here I come up your gorse-grimed hill, pushing my love for you because it’s easier than pulling it in a string bag. When I arrive, I’ll slip in your back door, pick it clean before I offer it to you. Perhaps it’s not quite what you need (a broom, a packet of seeds, a cake, a dog with a gummy grin, me, mended). But it’s all I have to give. Love. Pushed uphill.
Susannah Poole, Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington
Just before Whole School Music, Miss Perkins smugly told Mr Drake she had never raised her voice in class. “I’ve four older brothers. It takes a lot to provoke me.”
She glances over to Sophia and Amanda who are slouched against the wall. They have flipper-sized feet and beautiful skin. The hairs on the back of her neck bristle.
The children are learning a song that will not be performed for whānau in the upcoming show.
“I wipe my brow and smell my rust. I’m breathing in the chemicals……”
“Sophia and Amanda, sing like you mean it,” she calls encouragingly. “It’s going to be your last Primary School performance.”
“I’m radioactive, radioactive.”
“God, I hate Miss Perkins and Mr Drake,” whispers Sophia. “Look at them laughing at us. As if we can’t tell this song is inappropriate.”
“They have crushes on each other,” Amanda mutters.
The two teachers are standing close (their hearts beating fast). The girls break into hysterical giggles. All the other children turn to watch. The air feels like that before a storm.
“Right, you two. Out,” yells Miss Perkins.
Still giggling, they push their way, stepping on New Entrants’ fingers, to the glorious outside.
The concrete of the netball courts is cold against their bare legs. Sophia picks up a discarded vivid and draws a long whiskered cat on Amanda’s arm.
At the flat across the road students are drinking. “Hey pretty girls,” a young guy shouts. “Come over!”
His girlfriend slaps him on his bare chest. “Creepy.”
Mandy screws up her nose. “If we went out-of-bounds the teachers would get in trouble.”
“More trouble than us.”
Kōwhai pods cover the ground. Peeling them open, the girls pluck out the yellow seeds and place them in neat lines. They know the seeds are poisonous.
The grief of bees
Susan Wardell, Ōtepoti Dunedin
It was after the smoke had cleared. We had become used to soot lodged under our claws; not a fine graphite powder, but a gritty hot charcoal that tasted acidic. Despite this, the haze was lifting and there was such a thing as blue again. It was under a patch of this that we encountered the grief of bees.
We met them first as the sound of a distant ocean. The hum was not so sharp as we had been led to believe. We entered the clearing curiously. We met them then as a visible wind – got lost in its semiotics for a moment or ten thousand – a spiral, a spout, a face made of fifty-thousand bodies in motion, and showing no sign of settling.
Someone – not us, but a human – once wrote that the bee isn’t the organism, but rather the hive is. It was a warning, I think, to scale your mourning against small losses. This was useless, that day, as we watched the distress of that one organism spiraling out from the last swatch of green, the last cluster of pale-fringed blossom, in the whole blackened forest.
We lay down at their feet, then: myself and the other orphans. We asked them to pierce our tired skin, to help us to rest at last. But they were uninterested in death (which is different to grief after all) and eventually we stood – licked helplessly at the dew-less grass, nosed at brickle leaves – and then left.
Who can tell why we walked away so willingly? There was no room for anything else under that burning blue eye, but the grief of bees. So we left, treading each on our own individual pain; walking, walking, in the clear air, with all the world’s ash at our feet.
Branch by branch
Rosie Copeland, Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington
A hunter walking alone through a forest hears a rustling sound high above. He looks up and sees a giant nest of twigs in the furthest branch of an ancient totara. A low murmur is caught in the space between the leaves. Curious, the hunter puts down his gun and pack and scales the tree which creaks and groans as if it has something to say. During his ascent, a voice murmurs something he can’t understand.
When he reaches the nest it reveals deep in its hollow a young girl curled in a foetal position. Her ivory skin glows against the dark twigs and packed earth and is covered in a thin, white membrane that clings to her body like the inside of an eggshell. Her limbs are gangly like a new-born calf’s and her ribs stretch prominently against her skin.
The voice grows louder. “Take her, take her.” Without question he knows what he has to do. He can’t leave this girl here on her own. She is starving. He cradles her in his arms and holds his palm to her open mouth, sticky with mucus, noting a faint inhale of breath, the warmth of an exhale and then a pause. He needs to move quickly.
The hunter lays her over his shoulder and descends towards the forest floor, balancing his burden carefully. A branch threatens to snap. The tree releases a sigh as if it is pleased to be relieved of her into his care.
The girl stirs and turns. It is then he notices, instead of arms, tiny pink translucent wings covered in wispy white feathers sprout from her torso. The hunter, startled by her appearance nearly loses his footing.
The voice says, “Hurry.” The hunter averts his gaze and continues the dangerous descent, branch by branch.
Šiduri’s Watercress Salad
Mark Sanders, Ōtepoti Dunedin
Arthur calls himself chef. Arthur knows how to make a salad. The tourists eat Arthur’s salad because they have paid for it.
Arthur thinks Šiduri is Japanese. Šiduri welcomes this misclassification. She allows her name on a tag on the T-shirt Arthur insists she wears. Šiduri makes her own salad. Šiduri likes to guess what the tourists will order. The early-risers who sometimes walk the riverside track; these are the salad-eaters.
This morning, Šiduri gathered watercress from the stream. She sensed someone standing, watching her. A young woman, about her age, smiled. Šiduri’s face flushed. The woman walked on, unhurried.
The woman is Samantha. Samantha orders salad. Arthur presents a bowl of grated carrots, cubed cheese, hard sultanas, mayonnaise from a jar. Samantha regards this without expression. Šiduri cannot bear it. She hurries over, reaches for the salad.
“Please…? Can you wait?”
Behind the counter, Šiduri works quickly, puts a griddle on high. She mixes her own Za’atar – freshly-ground toasted sesame and cumin, oregano and sumac, fresh olive oil, lemon zest… She chars asparagus and the tenderest watercress leaves, tosses these in the marinade, drizzles a little more oil, sprinkles some seasoning…
Samantha watches as Šiduri brings the salad, hiding it behind her body so that Arthur cannot see. The watercress is glossy with oil, the herbs fragrant. Samantha closes her eyes and inhales softly through her nose.
Šiduri hurries back to the kitchen. Her skin tingles.
Samantha knows that Šiduri thinks she is a tourist. Samantha knows watercress salad is not on the menu. Samantha knows things have changed little since she left town.
Tomorrow, Samantha will order salad again. She will say Šiduri’s name. She will say it the Sumerian way, soft yet guttural. She will say:
‘Šiduri… I know that name.’
Songbird and Sunshine
Heather McQuillan, Ōtautahi Christchurch
Miss Flint’s voice sliced across tinny piano notes. “Sing up! All I hear is a mouse squeaking.”
She didn’t pick me. She also rejected special-needs Raelene, Tracey who smelled of wee, and most of the boys. On Friday afternoons, while her choir sang in the hall, we did chores for Mr Jenkins. The boys got to bang out the dusters. We girls washed the glue brushes in the sink, swishing them in time to the music.
Raelene droned, “You ary Sunshine, my ary Sunshine.”
I joined in. “You make me happy…”
Mr Jenkins said I had a pure voice and offered to ask Miss Flint to give me another chance. I stared at the ground and shook my head. He asked anyway.
Tracey, the eavesdropper, reported it all back in perfect snip-snap mimicry.
“If Man-u chooses to hide her talent, so be it. I’ve not the time to waste on her sort.”
Raelene stroked my hand and sang the music back into my name.
“Who wants to be in her dumb choir anyway?” said Tracey. “Snarky bitch.”
One Friday, Mr Jenkins asked us three to put the gym mats back under the stage because the boys were stacking hedge clippings for a burn-off. We crawled through the doors at the back of the hall and piled the mats beneath the antsy feet of her choir. We mocked in lip-sync until Raelene joined in with her drone. Miss Flint rapped her baton, demanding to know who was mucking about. Beneath the stage, we giggle-snorted. Tracey had to dash to the loo.
Outside, the air was smoky and the boys were dancing like devils round the bonfire. The sunshine had never looked so good. Raelene and I held hands and ran towards the flames singing our hearts into apricot haze.
Alex Reece Abbott, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland / England
Our smooth new elephant’s breath plasterwork is cracking around us. Day by day, morse code is rupturing our matte skirting boards. With increasing frequency, dots and dashes are riving our once smooth off-white coving.
Fault lines are breaching our beautiful, newly decorated Georgian home. Two hundred years old, at the confluence of two rivers, surely on this earth too long to be settling – the culprit is the shuddering heavy construction work in the old railway yard nearby, that’s our diagnosis. As the commuter network is expanded, what was once joined is sundering.
Yesterday, during a Zoom meeting, a woman admired the big crackle glaze vase that was standing proud in the background. After the call ended, I took your ash-grey pot from my dresser. With fresh eyes and a soft cloth, I polished. Buffing the maker’s mark, I mulled how we’ve lost touch over the waves. No great rift, just the hemispheres and the chasm of time, the gulf of distance…and I remembered you, Strombolani girl, strong, vibrant and fierce. Hostess with the mostess, Always on the go.
I see you Up the Coast, still burning bright. Seated in your beachside studio at your simple, efficient wheel, treadling steady, patiently layering earth on glistening earth, laughing as you shape and control the plastic clay. At the pit firing, your infectious, primal joy. Unloading the kiln, your terracotta babies emerging pocked, perfectly imperfect, the glaze crackled and crazed.
Distance weaves a subtle, complicated warp and weft of time and memory. From Over Here, Everything Over There remains the same. Google unravels that complicated tapestry. I’m shocked to read that you’ve moved. Into a Home. Up Karori way, away from the ocean. Synapses brittle, no longer firing, cells cleaving, neurones unravelling, parting ways. Fractures suddenly appearing in unexpected places. Aue!
Te Taura Here – Leash/Binding Ropes
Melissa Marie, Ōtepoti Dunedin
The cry into Te Pō. Reaching out in the darkness for her phone. 3:20 in the morning. Lying frozen listening to rain on the roof, her fear let out a roar into the gloom. Heart clamped in her chest by bleak memories. Bolting upright, the cat sped down the hall away and jumped on her.
Adamant it was a man that had shouted it. Brain screaming that he was in the other room waiting to grab her. Te Pō-kumea.
Immobilised, she considered her survival. Slinking off the bed, she crawled to the doorframe. Te Pō-nui, Te Pō-roa. The shadows and the darkness made way for a million grotesque thoughts. Movement echoed in the room next door. Deep breath to centre herself, her feet planted to the ground. Too afraid to look, she shouted.
“If you are in my fucking house, get the fuck out now before I call the cops.”
The silence waited. Te Pō-uriuri, te Pō-ki-tua. Although ready to kill, she sensed that no-body was there. Reaching to the wall on the right, she hit the light switch. Te Pō-whāwhā. Nothing. No movement, dead air. Te Pō-ki-roto.
Tall, gnarled walking stick shining out in the corner. If she could just get enough space between her and whatever it was. Te Pō-papakina. Sword fighting stance, rākau ready. She kicked open the door on the opposite wall. Nothing. Bathroom door. Nothing. Lounge door. Nothing. Te Pō-tangotango.
On the mantle above the aged Orion coal range, she saw the void. Te Pō-whakarite. Her dead brother Rāwiri’s picture had fallen from the mantle.
Rāwiri and his dog.
Emer Lyons, Ōtepoti Dunedin
“It’s about your donkey,” he says.
My uncle owned the donkey originally. The donkey would drag him to the local pub and sometimes the donkey would get annoyed halfway home and leave my uncle out of his mind in a ditch. My uncle left the donkey to me when he died. We lived in a house stuck to the next house stuck to the next house up a small hill by the Protestant church. Where was I to put a donkey? I tied it out the back by the coal box but my aunt next door kept complaining about the smell and the shit and the braying and so I started going out for walks with the donkey. Trying to leave it places. You ever tried to get rid of a donkey? Every time the donkey made its own way back up the small hill, my aunt would go on and on about the peace and quiet of before the donkey. She’d a pain in her mind from the whole thing and she couldn’t go about getting rid of it herself with her bad hips. My uncle always said at least there’s a warning before last orders but there were no calls or bells before one day the donkey was gone. Off into the night. And back came the peace and quiet.
The doorbell clanged and there he stood, the fella asking about the donkey. My aunt, she got to the door before me and she says, “We’ve nothing to do with that fucking donkey.” Never in my life had I heard a swear from her. The fella sold the donkey to a travelling circus. Russian.
Apparently. I look out for the donkey on television.
Erica Stretton, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland
I find the first kina shell when I arrive. The lost spine buds, perfect lines. I raise it to my nose; the sea rushes in.
This bach’s a bolthole, not home. The deck paint underfoot bubbles in the heat. The dirty ‘Welcome’ mat frays. Inside, grubby wine glasses and sticky whisky bottles litter the room. Nothing homely. My mother’s friends’ voices echo: that teenager of Rose’s, that dog collar she wears, the sullen expression – that kid’s going to hurt herself, or someone else. A disappointment.
Or an inconvenience. I clean, and the turbulent sea within me calms. At home my stepfather shouts, the dog whimpers, and strangers crash around the house at 4am. Here, I’m less driftwood angles, more substantial.
More kina shells line the deck rail each day. I draw circles with a protractor, dot on the pattern. I make food circles too. One for breakfast. One for lunch. Two for dinner. Timed six hours apart. Like tides.
I draw more circles on the black sand. A dog showers them in yellow droplets.
Sorry, a floppy-haired smiling boy yells.
I see him every day at ten, after that. Soon I let him take off the dog collar, slide fingers across my collarbone. Nothing he does is perfect lines, but he’s sweet.
He strokes my cheek, speaks of curves, but he lies.
On the last day of summer he says, see you tomorrow. He lies.
As he saunters away, he plucks one of my shells from the line and tosses it onto the path, so it smashes under the dog’s feet.
After a few days’ wait, I trash my circle drawings. Perhaps triangles? My food fits into fingernail-sized triangles. I toss the urchins in the sea, where they bob away, sink like tiny curved islands.
They don’t return, either.
Sara Litchfield, Te Anau
She came into the world barefoot and that was how she remained.
The tide came in and she danced in the froth, white bubble delight. She skipped over the kelp’s long arms and gathered the shells she found as though they were the fossils of friends she loved in another life.
She could call like a kiwi, warble like a tūi, cackle like a kākā. The birds of the island were her compass and timepiece, telling her where she was and at what time of day, and she danced among the ferns of the lush forest that reached fingers into the island, green feather delight.
Fleet of foot, she explored bay to bay. The fishermen knew her by sight far from the shore. Head of brown curls, skinny legs that lengthened by the month. She had island eyes of different hue, one whispering of the forest, the other of the ocean. From Golden Bay to Thule, from Halfmoon Bay to Horseshoe, she danced between the dunes, golden dust delight.
Those tourists who caught a glimpse of her, who came by ferry and small propeller plane, were charmed and concerned in equal measure. Was it safe for her to play among the tenders roped up on the beach, dancing over the tethers? (Frayed knot delight.)
She laughed to overhear them. They were not her world. She had a sacred task, and then she would be gone, a memory insubstantial as the mist that stroked the shore.
It took six years, but the day came when she uncovered the skull of her sea spirit, half buried in the sands of Mason Bay. With a sigh that sang on the wind, the girl wiped the salt from her island eyes, stroked the kelp in her tangled hair, and walked naked into the tide.
Judges’ notes – Anne Kennedy and Kiri Piahana-Wong
Reading the entries for the NFFD competition was a rich and rewarding experience. The cohort displays so much talent and a wide variety of ideas, voices, styles, characters, mini-plots or anti-plots.
We said to each other more than once: Writing flash fiction is not easy! The brevity of the form means that every word, every nuance, every moment counts. Flash requires precision, refinement, economy. We saw these qualities in abundance in our travels.
We congratulate all the entrants into this important competition. We congratulate the writers of the long-listed stories, and the shortlisted stories.
In the end, the stories that stood out for us were precise, refined, economical, and also original, daring, sensory and moving; these stories, despite their small size, have something big to say about how we are here, how we get by in this world. These flash fictions stood out as gemlike for their precision and polish, and for their impact.
Commended: ‘Safe’ by Kerry Lane
With this story we were impressed by the way the author evokes starting again. With detail after detail the story builds up the accumulation of all the things that make up a life. All of us have started over at some stage, so there is a real sense of recognition here.
Highly Commended: ‘The Art of Dentistry’ by Margaret Moores
This piece of ficto-criticism packs in a powerful commentary on attitudes to the female body, using drenched imagery yet tossed-off language – so there are interesting and clever juxtapositions going on. The narrator is remembering, from the dentist’s chair, her bodily history. She pictures herself in pictures – ‘American Gothic’, Cindy Sherman photographs – and ultimately warns against a kind of violence.
Third Place: ‘Before it sets’ by Rebecca Ball
This story describes family dynamics from an angle that is impressively subtle, interesting and unusual. The descriptive language used is likewise precise and fresh.
Second Place: ‘He Rangi Mokopuna’ by Helen Waaka
This story articulates the crush of grief with aching imagery, in a spare but beautiful telling voice. A widower wakes wondering how they will get through the day. What gets them through is being there for mokopuna. Deceptively simple, the perfectly calibrated narrative arc delivers something profound about grief, survival, whanau, about legacy.
First place: ‘Golden phoenix, grey hen’ by Vera Dong
The winning story is one that Anne and I returned to over and over, and with every reading, it impressed us more. There are so many things that stand out with this story – the characters are so compelling they felt as real to me as if I’d spent a whole novel’s worth of time with them. There is a seamless six-year time jump in the story. The language is detailed and delicate. And I could almost taste the golden jam. I hope to read more of this author’s work.