Year 9, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu
Her name was Elizabeth May. Swooping back bone and arched ribs. Her spine curled upwards, a stubborn child’s defiant chin. Her bones creaked and protested and still she obeyed. We loved her. And over the months we were absorbed into her. When her chest heaved and moaned, so did we. When she danced merrily to the uneven beat, so did we. But when ice bobbed in the black, cooling her to the core, she kept us warm, blankets draped across shoulders. The farther south we went the colder it grew until her skin froze and our warmth cracked. We became embedded. A dark speck in a plane of white. A bullet in bone. Some of us left. When their blurred smears could no longer be seen all that remained were their bootprints, impressions of a weight lifted. Right, left. Left, right. Leading back to her in reverse. We loved her. We did. But that didn’t stop floorboards being lifted, matches being lit. We hoped she knew, hoped she would remember. We burned our bibles first.
Year 13, St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
There was a game I saw on TV when I was a boy. It was played by a stuffed bear in a red shirt and a boy who I imagine became sad and silent and possibly a little suicidal, as all boys must.
They would stand on a bridge and toss sticks into a river and wait to see which came first from the other side. Their rivers were achingly bright. I don’t think I ever saw colours like that again.
It struck me as inspired, before I became sad and silent and possibly a little suicidal, and so I’d break sticks from the oak tree that Jack and I used to pretend some wood-fairies lived in, before we learned that fairies were for fags and that we had no business with them. We’d bundle the sticks in our arms and walk down to the river that passed beneath the bridge. Ours was not bright blue. Ours was languid and dull, and it crept along arthritically, but it served.
It amazes me still how long it entertained us, watching the sticks drag themselves through the water to the other side. I’d still think about it when I learned all the mysteries that had dictated it, fluid dynamics and drag coefficients and the like. Jack never did, though. He was interested in other mysteries, I think, like the magic in the way the water moved, and the subtle shapes hidden in the sticks, and all the colours that had congealed into the river I always thought was dull. He never stopped thinking of those mysteries, not for all the bruises it brought him.
I think that’s why I found him there, drifting dead under the bridge. There was no one racing against him. Just all the colours he’d seen.
Year 13, Diocesan School for Girls, Auckland
Somewhere in the storm, in a place as unnoticeable as the freckle on God’s left toe, there is an aeroplane. It is poised like a dancer, wrapped in mist, the nose dangerously tilting down.
Inside the aeroplane, someone is crouched in the cockpit. He is a boy wearing a man’s skin, and his mother called him Max when she used to stroke his hair at night.
He’s propped over the controls, his veins knotted in adrenaline, the furrows at his brow hiding raw panic.
Far away in the storm, or maybe very close – for who can tell in the fog of fear – lightning cracks. There is a small bird, inverted in shock; it plummets, lashed by the rain-whipped air. No one sees it fall.
The boy has been given instructions. They spread out in his mind like the rough-hewn boards along a wharf, sand-scratchy on bare feet. He used to run over that wharf, leaping to the sea’s calm embrace as the day grew ripe; or to stand in silent solitude, tossing scallop shells to their slimy graves as dusk peeked into the sky. There is the smell of wet dog, the spice of the salt, the keening of the birds. His sister. His mother. His earth.
He knows what is going to happen, even if he does not know he knows. He will struggle to the last second, even if his fingernails and his hair follicles hum the truth.
There is a painted target somewhere in the storm, swinging like a searchlight. There are rocks, there are creatures, there are songs.
There is also nothing.
In the gap between each raindrop, electricity sings its symphony.
Somewhere in the storm, there is an aeroplane.
The plane falls; the boy falls; the world falls.
No one sees it fall.
Year 9, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu
I could never write nicely. My letters were sloppy and uneven, scrawling across the page in an untidy mess. You mastered cursive by eleven. Your efs looped elegantly over themselves like a neatly folded scarf.
Your head on my arm, my toes in the sand as I read to you. The Hobbit. You said you liked it. And that was all I needed.
It was an autumn night when your mother found out what we’d done. Your purple and red floral sheets. You ran from the house, bare feet in wet grass, your jeans flaring, their cuffs staining green. You told me you were scared. We held each other close, whirling through space, both trying to get a hold of something – to make the world stop spinning for a second.
It’s a summer day. Seagulls are cawing at the beach. A girl drops her ice cream into the surf. A busker is singing Feeling Good.
Your dad’s truck’s taillights, burned into the bone behind my eyes. Just before they twisted out of sight behind the trees. I imagine you, swivelling your head and smiling. Watching me in the middle of the road, arm up, fingers splayed. You blew me a kiss through the glass. The quietest of love notes.
I Own a Dog
Year 10, Tauranga Girls’ College, Tauranga
I own a dog. A big black scary dog with teeth like pointy gravestones and eyes like sinkholes. I didn’t mean to get it. It crept up on me when I least expected it. Followed me around. I try to keep it quiet but it constantly barks. At night, I try to sleep through it but the deafening howls drive me insane.
I caught my first glimpse of it when I was younger – about thirteen. It was just after the bullying started at school. Instead of protecting me, like many dogs instinctively do with their owners, it prowled around and circled me like a shark ready to strike.
By the time I was fifteen, it started biting at my wrists and thighs. The pain was strangely calming compared to the bellowing barks that echoed into strange thoughts such as, “The world would be better without me,” and “I need to end it all!” Luckily, I was one of the few owners that knew I needed help.
I’d heard of Trainers, but never really knew what they did until I went to see one. It was a relief to talk about my problems and the Trainer gave me some tips:
- Accept that you now have this responsibility.
- Ignore the dog’s words because, after all, they are only barks.
The Trainer showed me how to soothe and calm the dog. Now my dog has changed colour – misty grey instead of black. It has a waggy tongue and doe eyes.
I see lots of people with unwanted dogs. They are mostly invisible, but you can often see the owners breaking down. Some even end up being bitten to death. I was close, but now mine sleeps at home and I live on, every day.
Year 13, Green Bay High School, Auckland
A forlorn signal from Paratutae gave us warning. The Commodore was wrong.
‘Turn North,’ it said.
Our convicted quartermaster echoed the message.
We took an improper course through the harbour, prey to the dunes of an ocean floor we couldn’t see. Doomed to his locker by the charts we wouldn’t read.
We tried and failed to turn our course, met only by the sound of ground beneath our keel. We were too late.
Our Greek Poet turned port, exposed broadside to the reign of waves. Hatches burst, windows shattered. We took on water.
“Abandon ship!” Only to be swept away. Dragged down to meet our fate.
Those of us alive clung to the rigging, but that too failed us; a monstrous crack and the mast collapsed, crushing what was left of our petrified bones.
Wonga-Wonga: the mighty steamship that buried us on the sandy shoreline, safe from Davy Jones. The saviour to 70.
We are the rest.
We are the sunken, we are the weighed-down, way down. The damned, the 189 as one.
We could not save ourselves, and neither could you. You lost us.
The ocean: the only beast you couldn’t tame.
We become the remnants to be found on child’s beaches for decades to come.
Shirt-buttons, driftwood, bolts teemed with rust.
Oh, Orpheus. Why couldn’t you sing a song for us?
Year 9, East Girls’ College, Wellington
I look into my father’s eyes in the mirror and smoothly run the razor along my jaw. I am just like him now. I concentrate on the garish blue contraption in my hand; it pleasantly glides through the hair on my face. The razor is old and worn as it used to belong to Dad. I go over my chin again then bend down to the sink which is now almost a metre to short for my lanky frame.
Once I’ve washed the foam off I look into the mirror again. The shave is patchy. Shortly after setting out to shave the last of my moustache I slice my lip, curse loudly. Then apologise even louder, in case Mum heard.
Not a great first shave. I blame it on the old razor, and the lonely problem of learning from a photograph.
Year 12, St Cuthbert’s College, Auckland
There’s breeze tonight, soaked in a liquid lilac sky. Julia springs from rock to rock, the ones that separate beach and pavement. They’re a jarring reality barefoot – she left her school shoes a while back. The evening bustle starts again as the light bursts into the green, the only whir of colour in these shades of black and business suits. The points of their heads become lines as move, outwards, away, ever further, how boring. Never meeting again. Not even looking up to this wonderful lavender watercolour.
Night creeps outside, the door shifts closed in a flurry of skirts and papers. She dumps her bag, geometry books flung everywhere, shapes, circles, lines. Julia is sick of it all.
There’s a mess on the coffee table. Photos of Julia, school reports, dregs of red wine. Her and him, after work, in silence. Their wavering eyelines that glance off each other. Their legs are so agonisingly close. The creased corners on his pants and the flare of her dress could touch. But they don’t. Their lines are lovelessly parallel, not meeting on the plane of reality but some infinite place. Sad, really, that this might be all Julia could learn.
The phone buzzes. It’s Eva, that girl at school. Life should be intersections, she thinks, something to change, to cross her path and cut her in half, sew her back up, make her feel new things. And this girl’s made her feel something with glances, an ache and a yearning deep within her bones.
She picks up.
Year 11, Logan Park High School, Dunedin
Your muesli-eating technique annoys me. Your spoon is overburdened with muesli, yoghurt and milk, and this inevitably means that the yoghurt seeps through your lips as you chew. I find this rather unpleasant.
Yesterday morning, you had toast for breakfast. Three pieces, with marmalade. The marmalade was not spread right to the edges. I like my marmalade spread right to the edges.
While you ate your toast yesterday, you read the newspaper. You do this every morning. I have no objection to this; the newspaper is a great way of keeping up to date with the ever-changing world we live in.
Okay, well, I do have a teeny weeny objection. I would like to have an engaging conversation in the morning before I go to work for the day. That would be more stimulating than watching you read. But you’re not a morning person.
I would feel more comfortable with your lack of vigour in the morning if you had some vigour in the afternoon. When I arrive home from work, I frequently find you slumped across the couch, watching television. I suggested that you could get a job, to help support us. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out.
I also suggested you could take cooking classes, and make some meals for us to share. “It would take some of the pressure off me,” I said. That idea didn’t work out either.
Tomorrow, since it’s Sunday, I’m going to get up early and make you pancakes for breakfast. I know that you like pancakes.
While you eat your pancakes, I will imagine the unshared stories inside your head. I will think about the day when the stories will all splurge out of your mouth, like yoghurt when you eat muesli.
Victoria University of Wellington
14th of July 2084. The very air around us sweats, a blackened night feverish and humid. Moths collect around scummy windows like tiny vultures. Maggots crawl through fetid food waste and lice burrow into rotting wood. But I’m used to it. Everything decayed the day the outsiders arrived.
I’m woken by creaking sounds on the other side of the door. One slight flex of the floorboard and I’m alert. You can’t afford to sleep heavy these days. The dim glow of the hallway light shines through the warped door frame, although I swear I turned it off before heading to bed.
It has to be an alien.
A slimy, wretched, thieving outsider, trying to steal what little food I have left. Infesting the place like a plague. A parasite. Sucking every last drop of life out of a poor planet until it shrivels up and dies like a mouldy old prune. And now one was in my house. To hell with it.
My shaking hand finds the Glock 17 on my bedside table and I rise from bed in chilled silence. In the six heartless steps between the bed and my door, I cock the gun and cast any thoughts of mercy from my mind.
Reminding myself that the alien deserves it. We were here first.
With a grimy, calloused foot, I kick open the door and hold the gun level with my empty eyes. The alien stands there in the hallway like a deer caught in headlights, it’s hideous features bristling as it stares down my barrel. I feel nothing as I tighten my grip on the trigger and grim streaks of fear dart across its face.
The young refugee girl whispers only one word as her last. “Please.”
Year 12, Gisborne Girls High School, Gisborne
We sit in an old fruit bin, its weatherworn planks shielding us from the burning sun. He is hunched over, dirty hands ripping into an orange. Juice drips down his chin as he eats. We’re silent. Whether it’s exhaustion from working between long rows of apple trees or hunger to eat hastily packed lunches, neither of us seem willing to say the first word.
Finished eating, he stuffs his lunch into his kitbag. It shoves aside his jacket, revealing a light blue pack of tobacco.
“Don’t tell the boss,” he chuckles.
“I won’t,” I say, doing my best to seem nonchalant.
He pulls out papers and filters, fumbling over his tobacco. “You want one?” he asks. I shake my head. He goes back to rolling his cigarette, blonde hair falling in his eyes.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I say, already regretting the words, “why do you smoke? I mean, what’s the attraction of it?”
“I find no attraction in it,” he replies immediately, gleaming blue eyes looking up at me. “I started smoking when I was at parties, and in the days when I was sober, I thought, ‘Fuck, those are nice.’” He laughs, a big, boisterous sound. “And now I’m addicted.”
We resume our silence for a while. He lights his cigarette, shielding the flame from the wind with his hands. He inhales and breathes out with relief. Smoke escapes his lips and floats away with the wind. For the first time that day, he seems relaxed. The hostile expression I have grown used to has disappeared as he looks across at the seemingly endless orchard rows we have yet to walk.
“I’d stop if I could,” he adds, with what seems to be a tiny hint of remorse.
Year 13, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu
The heart beats silent.
He stands in front of it, sand eking its way between his toes. The whale looks foreign, not of this world, this sky. Its deathbed gathers around its body like feathers statically charged, clinging desperately to the figure’s form. The wind is grey, like the poetry he hears her read at night. Rain whispers of birth.
He walks along the beach, stepping slowly, as if the ground were a living thing, fragile, and ready to be broken. His feet are heavier now than they used to be, but when he walks, he feels like a child.
Salt crystallises, tiny stars on pale skin. You are of the sea, he said. He remembers how it smelled, when he moved with her. He remembers how it tasted. And you, you are of the sky, she said.
The creature lies on its side, its stomach turned. It looks like it could have fallen from the heavens themselves. A shadow from the sun, a gift.
Give me your hand, she said. This is for you, she said.
Selections from the long list
A Petal on A Pebble
Pattarintorn (Emmy) Jusakul
Year 12, ACG Strathallan, Auckland
Awaking in the black void, a tiny figure cloaked in a blanket appeared on the shining endless white road, flickering in the gloominess. Her body was lifted up gently by warm, loving hands. Cold, blistered feet started moving towards the white path that lay beyond the three of them. The melodic pumping sound underneath the chest lullabied, taking the vulnerable girl back to her fantasy.
The couple had been walking for a while before they decided to lay her down on the ground. A pair of spherical gems reflected their owner’s confusion. Her small figure was no longer tiny’ it grew up…so much that it could not be held anymore.
Either stay here or move on. You choose.
They kept going on without a thought of looking back. It was already hard enough to stand up on those shaking legs, and it was even harder when the white road was full of pebbles and thorns. She turned her head, wanting to go back to when she was still little, to when she was cared for, to when she was loved.
The whiff of roses wafting up from the ground was vivid in her memory. Unaware of anything but happiness. Ignorant of all the blood, sweat and tears hidden behind those smiles. Never doubting the white road. Now, as she bit her lips and endured the pain, her feet moved forwards, following two people who walked gradually more slowly. One day, she surpassed them; she had become much bigger and stronger. Later, there was no more warmth to fall back on. The lullaby stopped rendering. Whatever was beyond this white road, whether it would be a bunch of flowers or a pile of stones, her feet would tread on.
Bones Shouldn’t Speak
Year 10, Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery, Christhurch
Bones near the ocean warn you only once.
If you’re warned a second time, it’s already too late.
You’re the warning now.
Year 6, Grantlea Downs School, Chrischurch
“Are you ready, Maka?” I asked my Slovak cross-eyed grandma, who likes to eat a lot of garlic because she thinks it will protect her from punches and bee-stings.
I put Maka’s go-kart together with an old motorbike engine and welded with an arc welder.
Everybody sped off except Maka.
“Dushan, how I go?” she yelled.
“Push the foot pedal!”
She finally went off, way too fast.
“Watch out, Maka!”
She has driven into a bale.
Then she drove into another bale five seconds later.
“You need to get your grandma out of here, and fast!”
I ran onto the track and told Maka to get out.
“I’m sorry Maka. That go-kart thing was a TERRIBLE idea.”
“No, Dushan, good idea. We go home, and I show you.”
The next day Maka requested to go on the lawn mower. We waited until my parents left, then went outside to the utility shed. She turned the mower on full throttle and turned on the blades. That’s when the IMPOSSIBLE happened. I could see the change in her eyes: her eyeballs were starting to come right and her pupils dilated. The blades had suddenly turned into thousands of mini propellers and the lawnmower lifted of the ground. It was no longer a mower. It was a perfectly functional hovercraft. Maka turned around and spoke in perfect English. “This is why the go-kart thing was a great idea. We fooled everybody around here, Dushan. People need to think that I am a terrible driver.”
Then she zoomed off to her secret meeting.
The Grand Piano
Te Puke High School, Bay of Plenty
There it stood, stern, alone in serenity. Its black exterior complimented the naked wood, propped open to exposure. Strings stretched the span of the instrument, parallel and tight.
Perched on a stool, entranced by the craftsmanship, was a girl.
Her fingers traced the keys, fluttering past the ebony and ivory with the slightest of touch. She pressed down lightly, the keys carrying the weight of her fingers and her thoughts, as they ascended and descended the staircase of notes. Tones swerved and swirled, expelling high and low sounds, pausing intermittently like a breath as if the music were alive. Her fingers danced in harmony.
Sound radiated the stage, floating between the bare seats, rippling along the curtains and ricocheting against the walls. Finally drifting into the wind’s embrace.
She swayed about in her seat, drunk in her movement. Her lips pursed together, humming with the tune. A melody transmitted with tranquility and snap.
“Who’s there? This is private property!”
The voice cut her peaceful solitude, inviting the silence to return. The final chord still rang beneath her hands. Diminishing, like fireworks into smoke.
There it still stands, withered by the years of neglect. A row of decrepit keys, sunken into the warped timber. The weathered fallboard collapsing into the dappled lid.
A figure approaches the instrument – dark, merging with the shadows. Her dusty hair the same colour as the keys. Her fingers, weary yet wise, reunite with the keys.
Their first fingertips since the girl’s hands, gliding across with effortless fluidity. Her exhales fill the lost notes and odd pitch. The melody fills her head. Lost in sound but not in memory. She smiles.
The instrument still whispers, still sings and still shouts at the will of its player. The only thing left to soothe her soul.
Three’s a crowd
Year 13, Hagley High School, Christchurch
I knew he’d been there, because he’d stubbed out his cigarette in the sink. I let out a long sigh and grabbled my phone out of the back pocket of my navy-blue jeans. Ring ring… I tried to call him but all I got was, “Hey, it’s Jake here, can’t come to the phone right now, leave me a message, bye.” I hung up. I wasn’t going to waste my time. Jake must have nabbed a lot of his things, because the cupboards were almost devoid, and my room looked like a scavenged tip. I sat down on my bed as tears started trickling down my freckled cheeks. All I could hear was the ancient washing machine jumping around and gurgling – he must have put a load of washing on before he left. I got up, wiped my snotty nose on my soaked hoodie sleeve and started to clean the apartment, starting with the foul tobacco-stained sink. It’s funny how things that you don’t see as being a problem blow so far out of proportion. Judging by how much mess he had left and by the clothing in the washing machine, he was coming back. I always hated how much he abused certain substances; whenever he was breathing, he was smoking and whenever he was smoking, he was drinking. I felt a kick in my stomach and looked down smirking. “He doesn’t care, but I do, sweetheart.” I made my way to the bed, curled up tight and held my belly, then the sobbing commenced again.