Winners & Commended
A Moth in the Clementines – Ashleigh Cattermole-Crump
Centripetal Force – Christine Cloughley
Doing the Math – Claire Beynon
Encounter – Kate Mahony
Moon Landings – Rose Wunrow
My Wife’s Best Friend – David Howard
No Memory of Dying – Tim Saunders
One Bedroom, Sky – Susan Wardell
Shoes – Nathaniel Herz-Edinger
Sparkling Duet – Rhonda K
The People Who Go Missing – Michael Carson
The Punchline – Heather McQuillan
The Tall Horse – Lynn Jenner
The Unwelcome – Tim Saunders
Try a Different Standpoint – Jac Jenkins
Unfinished Things – Heather McQuillan
Memories of a Stolen Child – Norman P Franke
Judge’s comments from Diane Brown, with Paula Morris
The Bottom of the Cliff
Susan Wardell , Dunedin
Otago Regional Prize
There are some stories you can’t write. Like the story where your mother drives you to the top of the cliff. Where she asks you to stay in the car, and she gets out and stands in the wind, staring down at something crawling beneath the world’s blue-black skin.
In the story you can’t write, she gets back in and drives you to town, and you sit by the window in a noisy café, and your fingers get sweet and sticky with marshmallow. Then from the church across the road – proud gothic phallus, gutting the pale clouds – bells begin shouting in two tones of triumph. They toll on, and on, until an arched door lets two people out, one in a dress that looks like waves breaking, and the other tall and dark as a cliff face.
“Oh, look Mum!” you say, “don’t they look happy?!” as colourful people spill out like confetti. And your eyes are fixed, so as not to see the oil-slick of her eyes, their rancorous shine, and the creature emerging from her breastbone to lick them clean.
There are some stories you can’t write. Like a grey wedding and a sharp drop. Like the story your mother tells you, years later, where while you sat admiring gulls reeling like winged moons, she thought about jumping off that cliff, but instead brought you to a place where you licked up foam and didn’t see the way the chimes filled her belly with stones.
How ignorant was your joy? How pink and white and empty. You can’t write its taste, its stupid tongue. Can’t write the things you didn’t know till long after the drive home, to find your father – with his salt hair and blue-black eyes – standing ready to break you both with his silence.
Nonna Frances[ca] of Waripori [Te Wharepōuri] Street
Catherine Trundle , Wellington
Wellington Regional Prize
Her hallway is a vein of darkened wood. It’s shrouded by a plastic bead curtain. Her husband cannot pass through unless she parts it with her hair. It’s intentional. How it mimics a string of fake pearls, a rosary, the sound of her undressing.
Her house is arranged to expose her up in slow succession. The front room thresholds the grandchildren like piano keys. We always knew the ghost could not live there. Glass figurines sit on glass shelves within glass-doored cabinets.
By the age of ten, her name was clipped by two letters. She gave them to me like coins. Her street is no longer wide enough for a Chief. She stakes herself against the front fence, close enough to touch twelve eggs passing, under a Greek woman’s arm. Her ankles grow thick like hooves.
Her kitchen juts out into the back yard, sinking with the green smell of tomatoes. She layers the floor with linoleum and concretes over the grass. Sat at her table, we watch as she bends, holds her loose apron back, strikes the oven with a match. We all hear it: the gas pop and catch, a volcano spitting black rocks against blue fishing boats.
Slowly, her memories silt, run her aground. But her hands still move, a code of gastronomical life lessons. No amount of garlic will fix certain hearts. When she was younger, she never sat while her sons ate. Now the great grandchildren, stalky and thin-skinned, find her compressed in the armchair, fingers tapping, mouth ajar. They venture forward, peer inside her, looking for the ghost.
Sophia Wilson , Dunedin
Exit school gate east side. Turn right. Follow footpath uphill. Remember sunhat. Stick to shade. (Stop at curb. Check, right, left.) Continue three blocks until corner of Field and Home Streets. Do not turn right down Home St. Take long way via playing fields. Leap fence. Run through tall grass to gully. Clamber between willows, lining slow brown creek. Imagine trolls beneath rickety bridge. Skip along track to cathedral of pines. Listen to creaking boughs, crunch of pine needles beneath school-shoes. Quiet.
Exit playing fields via upper gates. Turn left. Turn right at corner. Take first left into Home St. Enter green gates second house from corner on right. Pat black cat curled in sun by rosemary hedge. Open front door. Home.
Take long way home. Leap playing fields fence. Run through autumn leaves. Clamber banks of slow brown creek. Imagine faeries in willows. Enter cathedral of pines.
Register lunging shadow. Register head and shoulders pressed to trunk, backpack digging into spine. Him. Register choking.
Register survive. Bite down. Run.
Running. Crying. Running and crying. Leap fence. Puke on footpath. Enter green gates. Hide bruises. Hide shame.
Exit school gate east side. Turn right. Follow footpath uphill. At corner of Field and Home Streets, turn right. Do not take long way home. Do not return to shadowy pines. If threat is registered, do not hesitate.
Melanie Dixon, Christchurch
Canterbury Regional Prize
In the back paddock the cows are mooing. Mooing as if it’s the end of the world.
But it isn’t the end of the world. That stuff is for bad dystopian novels. It’s Tuesday lunchtime and it’s raining. I should be at school. I should be reading a bad dystopian novel and seeking out deeper meaning. But it isn’t the end of the world and this isn’t a novel. It’s Tuesday lunchtime and it’s raining.
It’s raining like it knows what’s going to happen today. Raining as if there’s nothing else it can do. Raining as though it’s a cliché in a bad book where the girl saves the world with nothing other than her wits about her. But it isn’t the end of the world and my wits are shredded. Shredded with the doing and the thinking and the not-doing and not-thinking. The not-thinking is the worst. It’s Tuesday lunchtime and it’s raining.
The cows blink at me, staring in through my bedroom window. I gazed into those same eyes, hour after hour, night after night, hand feeding them until their legs strengthened, until their hearts beat loud, until they left me for their own kind. Like the ending of a bad dystopian novel. It’s a Tuesday lunchtime and it’s raining.
I don’t look when the truck arrives. I close my eyes, hold my hands over my ears, blocking out the mooing. But I know it’s happening. And I’m stuck with the not-doing and not-thinking, and the not-thinking is the worst.
When I’m sure it’s over, I go outside. Stand in the rain where the cows used to be. I’ve got nothing but my wits to save me and I know that won’t be enough. It’s Tuesday lunchtime and it’s raining, and I’m trapped inside a bad dystopian novel.
Vera Dong, Northland
Northland Regional Prize
Every Chinese Spring Festival Eve, Mum invited Dad’s parents, sisters and brothers for a family meal. Our cold, dim kitchen held a traditional mud stove, and a honeycomb briquette one. The month leading up to the meal, less water was boiled, more food-ration coupons were saved. A week before, Mum spent every evening in the kitchen, sitting down only to ease her back pain. White and red radish pickled in sugar and salt; preserved duck eggs, boiled, cooled, and cut; identical thin wedges like toy boats docked in a quiet harbour. Pan-roasted Ci Gu (taro) from Mum’s garden; soup with pork bones from Dad’s chess mate butcher; white-liquor pork sausages and gluten-rice-ginger meatballs were made by Mum’s mother living on a farm two hundred kilometers away. They were a once-a-year treat.
Our chopsticks did not work hard that night. We needed space to relish Mum’s spring- onion noodles after our guests said Wan Shi Ru Yi (all goes well) and goodbye.
Mum and Dad renovated the kitchen soon after the food ration was lifted. A brand-new two-head gas stove sat in pride in the middle of the old kitchen. Every Sunday evening, Mum’s kitchen was a hot sauna: steaming ginger-pork buns; bubbling chicken soup with peppery pork and baby bamboo shoots. Mum sat there smiling, watching us dipping the buns into rice vinegar, soaking the chicken and pork in sesame, garlic and red-chili sauce.
She apologized for not being able to feed us good protein when we were growing up. Steam softened wrinkles around her eyes and lips. Tears in her eyes sparkled like bright stars.
Many years later, we visited Mum in China. With her back bent, she managed ginger-pork buns and meatballs. Her grandson wanted burgers and asked if we could order a takeaway and have it delivered.
This Kitchen Moment
Tim Saunders, Palmerston North
Central Districts Regional Prize
My mother was never happy cutting onions.
She turned back to the battered benchtop, salted tears slapping the chopping board as I hid under the table. Thock thock thock. Cold hard lino flaked like dead skin after sunburn. I worked my fingers into the edges and peeled it back, felt its frail brittleness. Black dust stuck to the old glue.
Thock thock thock.
Light bruised the window and screened a thin slash of the world beyond this kitchen moment. I could see the tops of pines, catching the breeze, while Kahu churned thermals over paddocks, searching for the small and the dead. A daytime moon hooked the sun’s late afternoon lustre, faint and tenuous over the dry hills.
Thock thock thock.
My father sat down again, rubbed his fingers over the knuckles of his right hand, scrunched the newspaper tightly. Bulbous heels bulged from holes in his socks, calloused orbs of gibbous skin. He crossed his feet at the ankles, the bottoms of his trousers folded up in layers.
Kahu scooped arcs from the air outside, anticipating the loyal wind that would lift him into the waiting sky. I wondered if it was the bird that was turning or the earth itself.
Mum scraped tiny crescents of onion into the pot, steam erupted and flattened against the ceiling. Dad read paragraphs from the paper, his voice tore flesh in the buoyant air. Terse words tumbled to kill the careless: interest rates, subsidies, the bloody government and their bloody restructuring.
A fine crust curled around Mum’s lip as sunset split the dimming day.
That’ll teach you a lesson, Dad added as the sickle moon waned over the ranges.
Kahu’s feathers quivered as he clutched the cadaverous sky.
Thock thock thock.
Onions always made my mother cry.
Alan Recuperating on a Bed of Rabbits
Rose Collins, Christchurch
Grace had insisted on a Flemish Giant; the largest domestic rabbit available. Now as Alan lies prone on the once-white duvet, rinsed with nausea, pale and porous as a cut apple, the rabbit and her nine surprise kits vault and dance at the foot of his bed.
Through the window is the wash of the sea, stirred up by news of a tsunami surge off the Kermadecs. Alan hears the tide’s shingle-clatter and, closer in, his old dog’s chuffing sighs.
He is counting up what he still has and what’s been lost. He’s lost his nerve when it comes to having his blood taken – his traitorous old veins slip and shrink from the needle. He’s lost the energy to clean up the shed or pull out the wind-battered silver beet.
He still has the dog and all these rabbits, his work boots at the ranch slider, the little house itself with the sea leaning in at the windows. He and Grace still have a laugh, so there’s that.
He has lost his hair but it will come again. He has lost the sort of fool security that rabbits never have. Every rabbit is born vigilant; each is born fearful all the way to its trembling axis.
He still has the beach to roam and fossick. He has three weeks now until he’s going back in for another dose. He has the hum of Grace in the kitchen seasoning up the broth. He has a snatch of poetry: ‘I feel it in the deep heart’s core’ and the sense that there’s a shiver right in that place that wasn’t there before.
He has the sea-loud edge and everything that washes up there.
Gerard O’Brien, Wellington
The small green light glows bright on the otherwise glossy-black glass. He starts speaking —
I’m storing all my emotions in the cloud now. At first it was just a curation of my designer life. Then it became trendy to display weakness – share something deeper.
You’d remember that, Dad, I’m sure. Now I’m offloading and uploading everything into the global emotion storage stream. In return, I’m delivered curated ads on finding love and anger management. I reckon there’s a glitch with the algorithm though. Or there’s a developer with an ironic sense of humour.
It’s a difficult concept to grasp, at first, I realise that. But honestly, Dad, everyone’s doing it. GDP is way up, too. I’m sure you’d be into it if you were still around. Non-surgical implant on the back of the head –all existing tech really, low-power Bluetooth, 7G. Perfectly safe.
Sometimes I feel an emotion welling up. You know, the physical manifestation in the belly, before the thoughts are formed – an inexplicable dis-ease or, rarely, a sense of lightness. Butterflies, you’d have called that. I hear they’re working on a robust, scalable solution to eliminate it, but the sensation is always only momentary – once it solidifies into thought, it’s whisked away.
It’s fine, actually – there’s a dedicated stream where we discuss how we don’t feel anything in particular about it. There’s just that swirl in my stomach most mornings – but that settles down soon enough.
Okay, well, I’m not sure how to end this. Should probably say, Miss You, Love You, but obviously that’s not true anymore.
— he touches the screen again and the green light turns black.
In the Boonies
Andrea Pollard, Auckland
Auckland Regional Prize
I pick up the phone on a drizzly Friday afternoon.
“I’ve found it,” he says. It’s my son in the big smoke.
“What’s it called?”
“The Secret of Zarb.”
“Could be right. Read me the first bit,” I ask and then stand still so as not to lose reception.
It’s not the one.
“I’ll pay you back,” I say.
“I thought I had it,” he murmurs, his voice flat as though I’d downed it with the 303.
“Chin up, boy. We’ll find it.”
A book I once read to the boys after their Mum left is The tie that binds us, but it got lost along the way. Our only clue, the title contains the word, ‘secret’. The boys, now men, will each tell you something different about the story. There was a dog that died for his master, or the wheel came off a train. They’ll both tell you it was sad. They scour second-hand bookshops and take a gander on computer trading sites but we’ve never found it. I used to tell them that when I went into town, I looked too but I didn’t.
The rain’s stopped. I whistle for Blue and wrestle into my damp oilskin. We walk towards the letter box for a bit of air, about a kilometre and a half each way. Blue’s glad to be out and is soon off and sniffing. I don’t remember what the story was about myself, certainly couldn’t tell from a sentence or two if it were the right one. But it’s the search we want, the calls, the parcels in the post containing seventies children’s titles; the voice of one of my sons reading to me down the phone all the way out here in the boonies.
Benjamin Jardine, Wellington
On the flight back from Roma, he listens to a podcast about machine learning, sits in a leather chair that later causes the acrylic fibres in his pants to stick to his ass, and wonders if by the time he dies humans will be able to master the art of inorganic replication, be able to 3D print two-bedroom townhouses – carbon copies creating carbon copies creating carbon copies like Russian dolls of mass production – and he smiles at the image of a townhouse hatching from an even bigger townhouse, and just before he can make up his mind about which knock-off game to play on the sticky TV screen the size of a postcard, the drinks cart skirts by his seat and knocks his knee so hard that the word “fuck” throws itself from the space between his bottom lip and crooked front teeth, but because of the machine- learning podcast in his ears, the noise-cancelling technology, the only indication of the volume with which he uttered the word ‘fuck’, the only way he can tell if he’s offended anyone, is in the curious look the small girl gives him from across the aisle: a kind of withheld nod that people wear when they’re watching a performance unfold but not quite sure if it’s meant to be funny or incredibly serious, and he wonders if he’s meant to be funny or incredibly serious, and he feels trapped between the two – like the bardo, or like emerging from a steaming outdoor bath in the middle of winter, when the snow lands on pink skin, then fizzes out – elevated into the great beyond.
Maybe I’ll play Solitaire, he thinks.
Outside: a snapshot of the dawn sky, still rendering.
Thanks for the Dinosaur Eyes, Dad
Annette Edwards-Hill, Wellington
When I was born my family gathered around and marveled at the blueness of my eyes, but my father saw something dark in me.
“She’ll turn soon enough,” he said.
Dad’s eyes were alive with water and something murky like the weed that grew in the swamp. As he got older there was more water than weed.
Day by day my mother watched as the swamp seeped into my eyes. First the blue turned to sludge and then the yellow flecks crept in.
At university I met a man who was studying hepatology. He stared into my eyes, until I blinked. He moved away. “You’ve got eyes like a dinosaur,” he said.
In time, more and more water leaked into Dad’s eyes. He would stand outside at night and gaze at the sky, watching and pointing at lights only he could see. The doctor gave him an eye patch and one watery eye looked out at us. Small children stared at him and cried. He took the patch off.
In the end we sat by Dad’s bed. Mostly his eyes were closed. But he opened them for a moment when we said he could go if he wanted to. All I could see was the ocean.
The undertaker said they had special ways to keep his eyes closed.
“To stop the water getting out?” I asked him.
“To stop him looking at you,” he said.
My baby had the biggest blue eyes. My mother said it was genetics, there was a twenty five percent chance. She waved her hand in front of her own eyes, blue as sky.
My husband and I looked at her with our dinosaur eyes and tried to find the darkness, a flick of brown, the sign of the swamp, but there was nothing.
The Seven Stages of Grief Are Really Eight
Catherine Trundle, Wellington
I saw it first in your pale shins, placed like milk bottles against the bed. But I’d prefer to begin elsewhere. Like when another baby’s death still shaded her womb. Your mother smoked the fear right through you. Still, she stored luck like sweet potatoes along the shorelines of your placenta.
Evening light creased you, birdlike, to the sheets. I found trails of dry skin confettiing our house, the soft crush of your debris. It’s possible to lose a man infinitesimally, cell by cell.
All along, your death month knew how to fend for itself. Still, we marveled on and into a wet spring, chewed the soft center of each day away from the curvature of sleep. When your tongue rose like a purple oyster, the sound was skyless.
Walking to the ward, bearing ice creams, we came across a winged wreck. The dogs wouldn’t touch it. Some things die not knowing how to arrange their feathers. Our son took a stick and pushed the remnants towards the nearest bush. Even four-year-olds have an instinct for futile protection.
One afternoon the cold fleeced you of all your pluck and peacock courage. Overhead, I remember, the trees peeled back their shade, and then, swung back to touch each other. There was no lesson. No miracle. Just another Easter, a glistening egg-hunt.
At the hospital you said my mouth sounded like an unmade bed. Even I could hear it. Each word was stretched an acre wide with all the practicalities.
Right before the end, you offered me a parable about vicious love. You said, Better to hold open the trap, wrists folded back, face sunk with mutiny, than remain, standing here, in the warm, cunning shape of me.
Jennifer Black, Dunedin
It’s hard to know what to do with the evenings. He walks. Up the hills. Down again. It seems every night it gets darker earlier. It seems every night he stays out later. For, once he gets back, there is just the waiting. Waiting until the bathroom is free. Waiting until the man on one side of the wall turns off his music. Waiting until the man on the other side of the wall stops talking on the phone in a language unfamiliar, but in a tone that transcends words. Waiting for sleep that taunts him, coming close and beckoning, making tantalising promises that are never kept. It’s hard to know what to do with the nights. He can’t go out walking – there is a curfew. He can’t get up, or someone will complain about the noise. And so, he waits. For the slow dawn. Then, it’s hard to know what to do with the days.
A Moth in the Clementines
Ashleigh Cattermole-Crump, Christchurch
Mum used to call them Christmas oranges, stuffing the handful of spackled, burnt-coloured fruit into the tips of our stockings. In the morning, the peel, rounded off in one long strip, would drop to the ground like a spring, folding in on itself. Sweet and seedless bursting segments would be thrown into our mouths one by one, perfumed juice dribbling down our jabbering chins. When Mum died, we planted a clementine tree over her ashes, scattered her in the soil she used to sweat over. As the house grew to bursting with unmet grandchildren, as the paint peeled and the weatherboards buckled, still the clementines grew.
One spring, when clearing out the twigs and leaves and mulched feathers gathered at the base, a small orange drops at my feet. Running the smooth skin under my fingers, I feel a hole burrowed through the peel. A moth has made his home in one of the diminutive citrus balloons. As his wings unfold from the sticky, juicy fruit he is grounded, droplets of sugar holding him down. I watch as he sits, calmly helpless in the sun, wicking his wings, until he can once again lift himself from the ground. He turns and smiles at me as he retreats, back to wherever moths live when they move from their clementine homes.
Inside, I pull the mesh bag of supermarket oranges from the fridge and offer them up, but they are passed over for chips and biscuits, crumbs spittooning from tiny mouths.
Christine Cloughley, Tauranga, Bay of Plenty
The new girl had sat beside me at primary school, smelling fusty and looking slightly adrift. Her hair was chopped at chin level and brown strands fell either side of her ears. She didn’t seem to care that her clothes were wrong. That they were stained, ugly, too big in places, too tight in others.
She spent most of the year trying to make friends. Like her clothes, she didn’t fit. If I wasn’t quick enough, she’d wait for me after school and we’d end up walking home in the same direction. The orphanage was on the road leading to my house. I never asked her to play but left her at the pillared entry of the big brick building that housed the nuns and their few charges.
One day she told me what had happened to her parents. She was quite matter of fact. They’d been having a bath and were sucked down the plughole. I wasn’t sure what to say. Not long after that she stopped coming to school and I stopped thinking about her and the parents who’d been vortexed down the clawfoot tub.
My friends and I are driving into the city. We’re heading to a short film festival that’s playing downtown. On screen, a woman sings while scrubbing her kitchen sink. She pauses. A single black hair lies partly down the drain. The woman tries removing it but can’t. Soon she’s tugging, hauling, wrestling with the hair. She stops singing. The woman watches fearfully as the strand starts to multiply, grows longer, thicker, a full head of hair stuck under the chrome rimmed hole.
I leave before the film is finished and don’t know why I feel sick.
Doing the Math
Claire Beynon, Dunedin
Phi, she tells him, is the model of discretion. It will not violate a woman’s space or intrude in her thought processes. Phi respects silence, never presumes it has the right to clamber into her bed or her head to see or seize what’s in there. Phi will not disturb her equilibrium or rifle through her papers. Phi cannot get her pregnant.
Phi, he tells her, is an abstraction, a construct. Pure idea. It will never disenchant, fail her ideals, or forget to change its underwear. Phi has no flesh, no blood, no warmth; it cannot inspire beyond the mathematical limitations of its own philosophy. Phi will not converse with her, caress her or cover her back. She cannot break bread with it nor curl up beside it with a whiskey at end of day.
And still it’s Phi she favours.
Kate Mahony, Wellington
On her way into the supermarket, Justine sees a teenage boy mooching along towards her. He wears sweatpants that almost reach the tips of his big white sports shoes and a loose grey hoodie. There is something odd about his eyes and she tries to look away, but it is too late. She turns and goes into the entrance past the cheap biscuits and the newspaper rack.
When she comes out, her trolley full, it has grown dark outside. She opens the boot of her car and begins to place some bags in it.
“Hey, ma’am.” It is the same boy, now close by her, swaying. “You going to Springvale?”
Justine notices again how dark it has become since she first went into the supermarket. There is no one around. “No,” she lies.
“Oh. Where are you going?” His voice has a hopeful lilt.
“I’m not going anywhere.” She looks down at the open boot of her car, and then back to her over-filled trolley. “I’m just putting my shopping in the boot and then …”
Should she just leave it there and run in the darkness back to the bright lights of the store?
The boy stares at her. “Hey, ma’am,” he says. “You don’t have to be worried about me.” He hoists his backpack straps and begins to amble off across the lot.
She puts the rest of her bags in the boot. As she waits in her car at the traffic lights, she sees him on the grass strip that divides the busy road.
He is trudging among the shrubs, a slight figure barely visible in the growing darkness. He looks much younger from a distance. As if somewhere out there a parent could be worrying about him, Justine thinks. Then the light turns green.
Rose Wunrow, Wellington
The fire came and cooked up our fruit trees. Now our yard stinks of boiled bananas.
I’m sad about the trees, but Nola doesn’t mind. She hops around like a bird. She winces where the rocks are still hot.
“Let’s play moon landing,” she exclaims. “On the moon, there aren’t any plants.”
I ignore her from the porch. I don’t want to play moon landing. If the moon is this dusty then I don’t want to go.
“Play with your sister,” Mum says to me. Her voice is firm. She’s scrubbing soot from the outside walls of the house with a big brush.
I slide off the porch and tiptoe towards Nola. When I look over my shoulder I can see my footprints in the ash, between the burnt branches. Mum keeps saying that this wasn’t the first wildfire and it won’t be the last. But it’s the first one I remember. It makes me dizzy, not seeing the grass. I want to fall down.
There are cat faces on Nola’s knee socks. An astronaut would never wear them. But she holds my hand once I reach her, so I don’t say anything. She points at the hazy half-moon in the sky. Nola is older than me. She remembers other fires.
“Since we’re on the moon, that’s the Earth now,” she says, her voice serious. “We’re going to practice holding our breath. It’s important to save oxygen.”
She pulls me up on my tiptoes, because everybody can float on the moon. I hold my breath when Nola does. We look up at the Earth-moon.
Mum stops her scrubbing. Out of the corner of my eye I see her look up too. With Nola’s hand lifting mine, I feel lighter. Who knows? Maybe up there, plants are starting to grow.
My Wife’s Best Friend
David Howard, Dunedin
I scratched my picture in sand. Biggest is closest and that’s why the sky seems to touch the top of my head. There’s not much space, the world’s compressed in me. You say I’m far away. Women keep each season in their bodies, forever. But men behave as if it is the last day: That’s summer done, hurry. They tear off buttons; after, alone, we sew them on again. They evade by fronting up, withdraw like the tide: Never forget, they tell us, certain they are the ones who will go down through time, as if they are made of bronze.
No Memory of Dying
Tim Saunders, Palmerston North
My father doesn’t remember dying slowly.
He sits in a chair by the window, gazes at gaps between the socially distanced as they stomp through autumn leaves. Bare trees cage tiny birds in bent fingers.
I talk to him gently, ask him how he is, say things like “Do you remember…?” even though I know he doesn’t. He is a shell, an imaginary friend. I wonder if I could hear the sea if I hold him to my ear.
My father doesn’t remember dying awkwardly.
A man mows the lawn outside. Another kneels beside soft brown dirt, crumbles clumps in smudged hands. Dirt stains the lines in his hands like rivers on a map.
Sometimes the nurses tell me when my father has had a bad night. The shouts and screams, the fists and restraints. I stare at the ship tattooed on his arm, the black and blue clouds that bloom on his skin like a storm at sea. Salt spray crusts his cheeks.
My father doesn’t remember dying quietly.
It’s been two years since we sat shoulder-to-shoulder on driftwood and waged a staring contest with the ocean. He threw his diagnosis like a stick on the wind, told me what to expect as the dog carried it back from the shallows, scattering the gulls.
“It’s calm under the surface,” he said, pointing towards a thin strip of troubled water beyond Kāpiti. “And quiet above the clouds.”
We watched small boats scythe lines, each of us knowing some things are better said side-by-side.
My father doesn’t remember dying daily.
Nurses whisper, flutter outside his door, soft shoes shuffle on lino. A delicate brittleness of breath fills the slow advance of receding hours like the tock tick of unwinding clocks.
He leaves a turbulent wake behind him.
One Bedroom, Sky
Susan Wardell, Dunedin
At first it is all one. One meadow. The government has bought back the broken fences and walls, only to put them in skips, erase them. The earth was eager to assist, offering thick clumps of purple clover, daisies and dandelions in golden grasses.
Eventually we find it. We study the shape of the garden, with the house removed. We stand side by side, not touching.
There in the far corner that is no longer a corner, the pear tree sulks under heavy fruit. Here the line of box hedge grows unconstrained. And there, the rosebush that once squatted under our bedroom window.
You shadow me as I move to it, and kneel. It is blooming now – right now – as the cicadas scream across this vast carnivorous plain, eating memories and histories. It is blooming the fine pale pink of your throat when I place my lips to it. I reach for the rose, terrified to inhale its scent. But do.
It is, as I expected, too much. So I turn and lock onto your eyes, focus all of my feelings of loss there, into the blue. And you hold. You do not shake or flinch.
So I reach for you, both of us kneeling in the dirt where our bed once was. In the place where we once made love. And made plans. Where we made children. In what the earth has so easily unmade.
Right now, we will take it: what is left here.
And we do. And the sun is glaring down when we finish, shaking. When we lie still, with wildflowers digging into our backs. We stare at the sky instead of the ceiling, and nothing is familiar except your heat beside me. And I wish you were all that I wanted back.
Nathaniel Herz-Edinger, Christchurch
People are always telling each other stories. Here’s another one. I wake up and my shoes are gone. Where are they? They aren’t under the bed. I know that without looking because I’ve got the top bunk. It’s still dark and I bother everyone rooting around the cubbyholes, under bags. They all groan and shush in that hapless long-suffering way you fall into, living in a hostel. No shoes in the hallway or the stairwell either. I find myself on the street and figure I’ll just keep retracing my steps back to Nadia’s. Shadows escort me under the streetlights, a short one and a long one, always swapping places. It’s a fair distance and all concrete but I don’t mind, it feels pretty soft. Can you guess? The shoes are still on my feet. A bit early for the denouement. Well, I get to Nadia’s and wake her up and she’s a big X in the door jamb as I tell the story. She’s not pleased. Can’t I remember? Since last night things are finished between us, it’s over. Why else would I be sleeping at the dorm? That’s pretty convincing. As I walk back, the light comes up cold and grey, and now even with shoes on my feet are sore. That’s two round trips for less than nothing. At the hostel I tell everyone the story and they all tell me to shut up. It’s still too early.
Rhonda K, Wellington
My friend snipped the stitches the Actuary used to gather me in safety. A growth should crowd everything out, but it opened me. All my fears were someone else’s, I let them float away.
This has been left in the driver’s seat. Let yourself in – we left the key on the wheel. The car is parked facing the sunrise. I was not alone in my final days.
We wear headlamps even though we are familiar with the track. The path is steep and has sharp switchbacks. The gorse and Darwin’s barberry provide a habitat for our hallucinations.
Stars vault over us. We notice a faint inching of light on the horizon and speed up. There is a schedule. One steep last grind; a few times we skid backwards, arms winnowing air. Our legs are not as powerful as they used to be.
The city is lit below. We stop above the sheer cliff that merges into a skirting of steep hillsides. We share a can of sparkling duet spiked with opiates.
Sitting in our lounge we discussed the best stroke for flying. You thought a breaststroke, I wanted my arms straight ahead like Superman. My point was that Superman would have come up with the most efficient means of flying. You conceded, it is my last rodeo.
We start running, a half stride before the edge of the cliff we jump forward and soar, arms ahead, wind rushing by. The moment is pulled long, we soar into the pink and golden sunrise colouring the mountains. I’ve always wanted to fly.
Scrub hands catch us. The Earth’s pulse claims us. Dark swaddles us.
The People Who Go Missing
The people who go missing say goodbye, walk out the door, go to work. They don’t come home for dinner. They live in another city, with another family.
The people who go missing run away. They put on a hoody, grab their secret diary, climb out the bedroom window. They live under a bridge and don’t go back.
The people left behind wonder why and are angry.
The people who go missing were best friends in school. They moved to the city, married into money, forgot their roots. They drifted away, lost their job, ended up on the streets. They hated their small town and couldn’t leave fast enough.
The people who go missing are abducted and murdered. They are sick and go into the wilderness to die alone, not to bother anyone. They are killed in a fiery accident and cannot be identified.
The people who go missing are abducted by aliens and live on another planet. They join a cult believing Jesus will take them to heaven soon. They journey to the enchanted land and live with the forest people.
The people left behind grieve and want to forget.
The people who go missing sail into the sunset and live on a deserted island. Their boat sinks and they cannot get home. They write poetry overlooking a blue lagoon.
The people who go missing never write or call.
The people who go missing turn up as suggested friends on your Facebook profile.
Heather McQuillan, Christchurch
A fresh cowpat sprawls over the riverbed path. We marvel at its diameter, its steaminess, its thickness as determined by Julie’s poking stick. My brother Richie lifts a loaf of a stone in both hands. I spin away so the wet shit spatters the backs of my sun-scorched legs. The other four, dung-chested speckle-faced, sputter and spit. In synchronised ecstasy they plunge into the river. I stand back as they splash and dunk but Richie drags me in, smears runny dung through my hair so I don’t miss out. Forever after, when one says ‘Cowpat’ another responds ‘Splat!’ and we laugh our bellies sore.
There’s just Richie and me now, down the pub. When Julie nicked her ex-boyfriend’s drugs, he smacked her head into concrete and got manslaughter. At eighteen, Tim, who shone golden in the sun, was seduced by a travelling shearer. Tarnished by valley shame, he hung himself from our river swing. Last week, Georgie’s car skidded into a power pole. I’m only back for the funeral.
Whatever humour the place once had has shrivelled in drought and death so, after I’ve taken a sip of lager foam, I whisper ‘Cowpat.’
Richie resists. Rubs at his nose with his stump, the legacy of his brief forestry days.
‘Wouldn’t happen now,’ he says. ‘Creek’s all fenced off. Kids in front of screens.’
Yet, there’s a shimmer across his eyes.
‘Cowpat!’ I say again.
I can’t hold in the yeasty snort and that’s all it takes to send the magnitude of our shit hoot-splattering up the pub walls.
Richie’s remaining hand is big enough now to pick up a loaf-sized stone on its own. He slaps it around my shoulder, says, just realising it after all this time, ‘You’re the only one that saw it coming.’
The Tall Horse
Lynn Jenner, Kerikeri, Northland
When I was eleven, I was scared of everything. My mother would hardly talk to me. My father said that was because you needed courage to be a woman and my mother was worried sick about how I would manage. My father said he had studied up the situation and learned that horses make girls brave, as long as the girl is less than twelve when she gets the horse. He would introduce me to a very famous, very tall horse, known for helping girls with their courage.
The tall horse was already in Christchurch, my father said. During the day, the horse slept in Hagley Park, right behind the Museum. Every night the horse would clip clop up Cashel Street and stand beside the Cathedral spire, waiting for me to open the window and step out onto his back. That’s how tall the horse was. He wants you to ride him, my father said. Once you ride this horse, you’ll find you can do all sorts of amazing things.
But before I could ride the tall horse, I had to open the wooden door of the Cathedral, and climb the stone steps inside the spire, right up to the top. By myself. At night. Then I had to open the window and climb onto the horse’s back. Then I would actually have to ride the enormous horse.
Every night, after tea, when my father asked if I was ready to ride the horse, I said no way.
The night before my twelfth birthday, I said yes. My father drove me to the Cathedral. I looked everywhere but there was no tall horse. Dad, I said, the horse isn’t here. That’s right he said. You don’t need him anymore, so he has gone to help another girl.
Tim Saunders, Palmerston North
I tell him not to come in, the bloody moon and his slinky light.
“Go away,” I say. “Leave me alone.”
But my words come out all muffled as a cloud passes over my voice, and the moon slides in anyway. Through the gap where the curtains don’t quite meet, down the set of drawers by the window, a slash of fleshy belly over the floor.
“Not tonight,” I whisper. “Please not again.”
He circles me, his lunar face phasing from hunger to pity to full lust. I stay still as he creeps over my bed and makes waves with his crescent smirk. A relentless high tide slowly blankets me, and his breath pools in my mouth and nose, flecked with thick spume as I lie spindrift, alone, demilune.
I sink under his total eclipse, waning and diminishing beneath a pale blue glow.
He sprawls, bone-heavy, across my thighs, wet and sticky as if I have been licked by a dog. My duvet has fallen, scrunched and mountainous, on the bare boards by my bed. My pyjama bottoms are tangled within it like an eel in a net.
And then the moon is gone. The earth turns and shadows take back their positions. After a while, I hear my father’s cavernous snores through the wall, the feathered shuffle of my mother’s slippers outside my door. Her slender sobs in the night.
Soft rain falls on the roof, and my room is dark once more.
Try a Different Standpoint
Jac Jenkins, Kohukohu, Northland
Start with a wall struck with flowers. Stand back far enough and you might see the couple, à la Seurat. Yesterday there was a window; no matter how you try, you can’t re-imagine the pane into being. Start with the wall. Add a door, teal blue, and a hand on the knob.
Start with the door. It is in a wall of tansies. Add a man with his hand on the knob and a foot on the sill. You look from far away at a wall of yellow flowers. There is no couple. Seurat is dead.
This is how it is. It is not a Sunday afternoon. There is no island. There is a man at the door. Yesterday there may have been a dog, lean, black. There may have been a monkey on a leash. No. Seurat is dead.
There is a man with a foot on the threshold. Up close he is an assemblage of points. You are far away. You pretend you see a couple strolling on a riverbank, a monkey on a leash, a lean, black dog. Up close, they are an assemblage of flowers. Seurat puts down his brush. Here, a lean, black dog bows to a monkey. Tansies wilt from the wall and fall at your feet.
Heather McQuillan, Christchurch
We hover in fumes of cinnamon and musk beyond the boundaries of our bones.
When we ghost-wander too far our guardian draws us back. He lights incense, bows three times, offers rice and tea to wafting smoke. Don’t leave hungry. But we cannot return to our ancestral homes. There is too much ocean.
He was, as we, mind and body bent to extract gold from this land that now consumes our flesh. Rockfall crushed his thighbone to splinters and shards. He lay close to us, heard our lamentation borne by snow flurry winds. We are too many. Who will sweep our graves?
He lights incense. Makes tea. Makes promises. While the earth devours our muscle and meat he empties the bedpans of the dying, cradles fevered flesh, croons lullabies. Bathes bodies where sharp bones seek release from rice-paper skin. To the rustle of a final breath he nods agreement, a fallen leaf must return to its roots. A single day becomes three autumns.
An old man, he undertakes the exhumation of our graves; shrouds our washed bones in calico, solders them into zinc boxes, tucks us into coffins of whitebait-flecked wood. He brands each box: name, age, home. When the wheels of the dray hit ruts, his unfused bones jar while ours chatter in their boxes. Home. Soon. When? He sings to soothe us. The moon is bright, the wind is quiet.
An unruly tide lurches beneath the ship. Our caskets are stacked ‘tween decks, tier upon tier, and tethered. Steadfast, he binds us with incense, bows even as the joss is extinguished by salty waves, seeks our forgiveness even as his bones, weighted by flesh, sink to the ocean floor. We hover between sea and shore.
Leaves scatter on the tide.
Memories of a Stolen Child
Norman P Franke, Hamilton
Waikato Regional Prize
We had already started the shooting.
Outside the window, the branches of her mighty avocado tree that fed the whole neighbourhood swaying in the summer wind. The ice-clad volcano on the horizon.
‘I can’t do that. I can’t lay everything bare. It’s too hard.’ Rose put her mauve cardigan back on.
Everything had been set up. The mate on the hardware had trained the viewfinder on Rose.
The lighting kit cast a glow on the child-sized Madonna in a niche behind her. I had asked about her first memories as a child in Europe.
‘Alright then, of course,’ I said. It was part of the agreement: stop the filming any time at the participant’s request. ‘Let’s have a cuppa.’
‘OK,’ Rose replied, ‘but I mean for good. I can’t do it forever.’
Tripod and camera produced a shadow on her living room wall, faintly resembling a machine gun. What would I have done in Warsaw? Or in Rangiaowhia?
I had first met Rose by the City Council’s bicycle rack. She had accused one of the councillors of a love of money. She had received a warning. Like me, she spoke with a Central European accent. She said the city was a nightmare, a male monoculture. With her help, her autistic son had received a BA in te reo.
Rose made tea. We clenched the cups. Her living room was always chilly, even in the summer. Like a chapel. ‘My poetry is more important than my story,’ she said. She had self-published two volumes: about the avocado tree; the female aspect of God.
They had stolen her in Poland when she was three, and some nuns in Dachau had fed her and read her poetry.
‘Aroha mai,’ she said.
From Diane Brown, with Paula Morris
It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to be a judge in National Flash Fiction Day 2021, working alongside Paula Morris. We were given a list of 115 stories which had been culled down from a much larger number. A somewhat daunting task but I quickly narrowed it down to those that best fulfilled my notion of a story that was utterly complete in itself. That is, it didn’t require explanation to accompany it and it built up to a satisfying ending. Apart from a unified story I was looking for language that flowed and carried the reader through the story.
As we know, judging is subjective, and I hoped that Paula and I weren’t going to come to blows over what was best. I was relieved when we combined our separate long lists and found we agreed on 16 out of 29. Not bad odds, I think to differ only on 13. After a closer look we agreed on a shortlist of 13, which we had both included in the long list.
They were all worthy winners, well-constructed stories all rich in language and content but we had to narrow further. At this point subjectivity is more of a factor. I looked for those that attracted my interest and emotional engagement. Those that made me laugh or cry or think. And again, though Paula and I had shuffled around the order on the final six a little we did not come to blows.
Perhaps it’s not much consolation to be told that on another day your highly commended may have come first but this is the way of competitions – and it’s worth noting here that all the top entries are of winning quality.
When the winners’ names were revealed to us late last night, I was delighted to see winners were well represented from all around the country. Many of the top placed winners have been previously placed but emerging writers were also shortlisted.
All of the long listed, shortlisted and winners can be hugely proud of what they managed to achieve in 300 words or less. I am impressed by the wealth of writing happening in Aotearoa and congratulate the organisers of National Flash Fiction Day on a successful competition. We can look forward to reading all the shortlisted writers in Flash Frontier at the end of June.
Cows – Melanie Dixon, Christchurch
The narrator in this story feels as if he or she is trapped in a bad dystopian novel as the cows that they have hand fed are taken away. We were able to emphasise entirely with the inevitability of the situation.
Family Meals – Vera Dong, Kerikeri
This story takes us into a very different world of family meals in China. Dishes are lovingly described but there is also acute observation on the toll of all the preparation taken on the mother. The ending reveals heart-breaking differences between the western raised grandchild and the grandmother.
This Kitchen Moment – Tim Saunders, Palmerston North
This story, revealing tensions in a farming family with fine description, was also well constructed and layered with subtext, leaving the reader worried about the observant child.
Third Runner-Up: Run – Sophia Wilson, Dunedin
We were captivated by this story from the beginning. In stark concise sentences it lays out the options for a child returning home from school, which way they might go, what they might see and what might happen to them depending on the route. The innocent imagination of the child is contrasted with a shadowy but very real threat. Sadly, the safest route, for the child in the story, is the most straightforward, the most suburban, the least imaginative – but this story itself is imaginative in content and form.
Second Runner-Up: Nonna Frances (ca) of Waipori (the Wharepouri) St – Catherine Trundle, Wellington
This story is lyrical, evocative, portraying an almost mythical old woman whose great grandchildren peer inside her open mouth looking for the ghost. It’s rich in mystery and pays attention to language in carefully crafted sentences, a fine prose poem.
First: The Bottom of the Cliff – Susan Wardell, Dunedin
This story captures the reader’s attention with its first line, There are some stories you can’t write. The reader is set up for something hard, difficult, traumatic – and the story does not disappoint, though nothing ostensibly bad happens. Still the grief and despair of a mother is slowly revealed, though her child is ignorant in her own joy with fingers sweet and sticky with marshmallow and a wedding happening across the road. There’s enough subtext in five small paragraphs that many writers would take at least five pages to tell but that fact that is so compact, so beautifully crafted is miraculous.