We received a record number of entries for the 2021 BRWF Writing Competition, and quite honestly the overall quality was truly outstanding.
This year’s theme was SEASONS with prizes awarded across three categories, and judges assembled from the festival committee and the exceptional booksmiths at the Bellingen Library.
We are thrilled to announce the winning stories, as well as Honourable Mentions…
Junior: Ages 7-12
James Quodling: Seasons
I am a tree.
My roots burrow deep into the loamy soil.
Through my branches, leaves, roots, I sense it all.
I hear it all.
I see it all.
The seasons do not escape me.
No, I know them well.
They are an old drum that keeps beating.
One, two, three, four.
In Autumn, my leaves change. Their colour softens from the Summer decor and turns crimson and auburn. They later fall from my branches, sail past the trunk, and land limply on the soil. At night, I see merry patches of colour, flickering, and people around them with scarves and hoods.
In Winter, my leaves are long gone. Frost and dew gently land on my branches. Light snow settles at the base of my weathered trunk. Not many animals visit me at this time of year. Owls and possums hibernate deep within my trunk.
Spring! My leaves tenderly emerge from my branches and my flowers begin to bud. The air begins to warm and with it arrive my animals. Ducks and geese fly over my canopy, squawking loudly to announce their arrivals.
In Summer, the air is warm and muggy and heat resonates in the air. Cicadas and other insects flock around my tree with the warm temperatures. In this season, the rains arrive. Wet and moist, raindrops fall down from the sky and land on my leaves.
I am a tree.
A year has gone by.
Another will come.
One, two, three, four.
Eido Roques: Sliver Seasons
Once upon a time in Bellingen, there were four special animals;
There was Wasty the Whale who loved Spring when the water current was calm.
Kangi the Kangaroo loved summer when her babies were snug in her pouch
Eddie the Eagle loved Autumn when there was a gentle breeze
And Iva the Eel loved the icy water of the Never Never.
But this past year, things changed.
Wasty the Whale’s ocean became too rough for her babies to swim
The pouch got too hot for Kangi’s babies.
Eddie’s nest blew far into the Bellinger river
And the Never Never became too warm for Iva’s little eels
The humans had left too much rubbish and cut down too many trees. All the seasons had changed for the Bellingen animals
But, there was a special snake named Slivers who wanted to change things for his world. He gathered all the rubbish in his big wide mouth and blinked it out of existence! He used his fangs to turn paper back into trees. His magic mouth helped the seasons return to normal. He layed hundreds of magical babies that would do this job for years to come.
Westy the whale sporned her live young in the gentle ocean
Kangi’s pouch stayed the perfect temperature.
Eddie’s nests rested safely in the tree for her to lay her eggs
And Iva the eel swam with her babies in the cool Never Never
Everyone liked it again in Bellingen. Just how it was.
Hannah McNeil: Fading
She carefully placed the small yellow watering can on the bench, pausing to admire its printed daisies, as she had done so many times before. Dotty ran her fingers down the smooth and waxy leaves of her favourite cactus Cecil, who seemed to straighten up with the touch of her bare hands. Dotty then lifted the heavy watering can in her weak hands and very slowly poured the water evenly over Cecil’s many leaves.
Dotty sat back in her old wooden rocking chair, peering through her glasses as water droplets slid gracefully down Cecil’s leaves into his roots. Cecil’s leaves glisten in the fading sunlight as autumn begins to transform into winter. Winter awaits, but for now Dotty and Cecil enjoy the majestic colours of the autumn sunset.
Dotty starts to sing to Cecil, his favourite tune, making Cecil sway in the last breath of the autumn breeze. Reaching out with her wrinkled, frail arm, she clasps her cup and saucer, a drop of weak tea spilling onto the table. She takes a shallow sip and feels the warmth and comfort as it slowly radiates throughout her body.
Dotty’s gaze slips back to Cecil, admiring his symmetry and beauty. She shares a contented, grateful smile with Cecil that no one else in the world can see.
This is how it is today, and this is how it will be tomorrow.
Secondary: Ages 13-17
Ren Thomas: Lead and Follow
The ballroom was bright, and the music beautiful.
The Four led the night onwards, as always – their presence the constant variable that the masquerades revolved around. They burned bright under the ambience. Always did, when the dances began and the orchestra struck up a joyous chorus. Four beings, two pairs of partners, and innumerable lifetimes of history behind and between them.
In stories of old and new, Winter hooks sharp fingers behind teeth and tongue. Pries souls open and twines down deep into ribs. A commanding presence, with a gaze as keen and silver as the ice that always followed. The stories don’t account for the masquerades spent in lavish locations, and the tender dances performed through the night. They never do. Burning cold hands wrapped around waist and wrist, and two partners began their first dance of the evening.
Winter swept Spring into a turn, pressing close and breathing ice. “How lovely to see you here.” Step, one, two.
The candlelight painted everything in a different shade of warm, flickering amber. It was soft and it was honest – laying everyone bare as they entered the expanse of marble floor and gilded ceiling.
The stories speak of one side of Winter, and in the candlelight Spring gazed upon the other.
“You’d think they’d eventually choose a different venue.” Spring said, looking over the crowd at the room, as though every detail wasn’t already committed to memory. As though ‘they’ were some mysterious hosts deciding when and where everyone gathered. As though the Four didn’t expect this event like one expects the sun to rise the next day.
“We always end up here,” Winter grinned, “just the way it goes.”
Another grin, another cold breath. Spring is twisted and dipped low in a way that has hands white-knuckling embroidered fabric over familiar shoulders. The music is louder now. The buzz of conversations underlies it, laughter weaving through the chords. They dance on; step, one, two.
“This is ours, this place.” Spring whispered once they were upright once more. The Four were here long before the dances began. They would be here for a long while after they stopped.
Winter hummed low, threading long fingers through Spring’s. “Our temporary Eden.”
The song ended soon after. Applause sounded throughout the ballroom, the pair untangling to join in.
“They play wonderfully.” Said Winter. A breath of silence rang out as the orchestra repositioned themselves, instruments poised and pages of music adjusted. The first note was from a violin, clear and vibrant. A new dance started.
“Oh,” breathed Spring as cold hands drew them both into the rhythm once again. “I don’t think I know this one.”
“You don’t need to. I’m sure you’ll pick it up quickly enough.”
“My dancing skills are subpar, darling.”
A sigh. Winter drew Spring closer still. They both danced well. They’d been dancing together for eternity. They both knew that. But for tonight it was ignored as Winter guided them across the floor. As Winter said to Spring: follow me. Phrased like a demand, spoken like a promise. Echoed throughout their time together since the beginning.
Step, one, two.
Across the room, the other pair spun.
“My love,” said Autumn, grasping tight to the hand offered, “aren’t we flawed?”
“Of course.” The reply came quickly. Summer was an enigmatic presence; an idea that flickered in and out of the crowd with a flash and danced like the world bent to the will of the rhythm created in turn. The pair whirled into another spin, feet rising and falling with the orchestra’s melody.
“And this world,” Autumn continued, “isn’t it so far from perfection?”
“Indeed.” Step, one, two.
“Does it ever bother you?” The question seemed vulnerable voiced aloud. Autumn was temperate, steady – smoothing over where Summer was sharp and intense. They were balanced, and they were equals. Insecurity made its presence known regardless.
A side-step. Another spin. “No.” Summer said. “Because the flaws give way to growth, and the mistakes precede lessons.” The song hanging in the air drew to a close, the last notes stretching on and on. The pair came to a stop with the ballroom around them. And as a new song – a new story – started up, so did their dance. “We are broken, and then mended with the gold of our mortality.”
“You know we are immortal.” Autumn murmured. Step, one, two.
“We end when the world does.” Summer replied. “That doesn’t sound very immortal to me.”
The finiteness of existence had many names. Armageddon. Apocalypse. Eschaton. Doomsday. Harsh words for a harsh concept. There’d be no masquerade at the end of the world. No orchestra in the final moments, no slow waltz as reality collapsed. Between now and then was an isolated hallway of billions and billions of years, and the gradual spin of the planet.
“It sounds lonely,” said Autumn. Step, one, two. “And silent.”
“It won’t be.” Summer sounded so certain in this statement that to argue would be a waste of precious breath and time. Autumn decided to listen instead.
“Is that a promise?”
The answering ‘of course’ was felt – not heard – in the tightened grip on Autumn’s hand, and the building crescendo in the strains of the tune they swayed to. “I will lead you through it. Through here.” The same words had been whispered between them aeons ago, when they’d first danced in this room.
For the ballroom was the world, the Four the composers, and the guests mere witnesses to the great requiem they played. The cycle they fell into again and again, for every turn of the Earth within the universe, and with every shift in the cracks between crust and core. The rotation of a globe, and the passover of one season to the next. For Summer would always lead Autumn, and Winter would forever be followed by Spring. These were the promises they made, and the dances they would perform until the universe collapsed and the Sun burned out of existence.
Step, one, two.
Sienna Biggs: Swimming Season
Harper’s ash hair masked her face. Her frame angled into a corner of the living room as if it were the piece of a puzzle. Lora could see her eyelashes flutter in sporadic directions, kissing one another with each prolonged blink that she took. Teacup cradled in one hand quivering to the rhythm of her heartbeat, locket shaped frame in the other. She began to whimper, damaged eyes rolling aimlessly over the black and white portrait. A tribulating series of images attacked the back of her eyelids; foggy views, like old paintings of viscous water, flashing lights, emptied stretcher beds. Her daughter’s porcelain face watched her, immortalised from behind the glass. The familiar metallic taste flooded her mouth as cold liquid met and breached the lips of the cup each time she twitched a little too hard. If it weren’t for the tears, there would be nothing left to spill.
‘I saw her Harper. By the same river. It could not have been anyone but her-‘
‘Dead.’ Harper adjusted her weight to face Lora, but her blurred gaze lingered past at the oil painting strung to the wall.
‘My little artist is dead’.
For purple, Harper would beat her till her flesh blossomed like lavender, and for red she slit each of her fingertips till scarlet pearls ran in streams. Plastered her in blue, until her face matched the sky, her limbs turned to green and her blush pink head lolled imperceptibly atop the river flow.
‘I know it’s taken time for us all to process it, but I did see her. You must trust me she is only a couple of minutes downstream. I believe it is only right for her mother to be the first one to speak to her’.
‘She died’. Harper’s chest sunk deeper into her ribs as she drew away from her sister, locket falling from her grasp to the floor.
‘They never found a body! What’s wrong with you?’
Lora swiftly looped the chain of the framed girl between her fingers, stumbling through the door in a spluttering urge.
‘Bitch!’ Harper swept across the floor. As she reached the door, her lungs filled with miry air, wilting the pair and closing the entrance. Light fuelled the disease writhing in the nerves from her brain to her eyes. Lora stole her hand and ran with it to the river. Pain hiked up and down Harper’s spine, each curve a place to stamp it’s feet in. Sobs as course as sand grated her throat as her legs blindly submitted and fell behind each other, hauled by her sister’s strength.
The river sat as glutinous and rabid as it had a year ago. Children adorned it in fluorescent swimwear, squealing in animation as sprigs of water were sent through the air. It resembled an uncoiled snake: body at rest across the land, tail lost in the depths of the rainforest. A canopy of foliage swept from one side of the bank to the other, allowing ribbons of light to slip and dance through the air. Lora lowered her grip on her sister’s wrist, brushed Harper’s hair aside and clasped the locket around her neck. The sensation that crawled the crevices and cracks of Harper’s brain inched its way to the back of her corneas, digging a burrow in her eyes. She ignored the pain.
Draped in grey, a young woman watched from high on the riverbank. Water trickled from the incisions in her fingertips as she faced Harper, lips swollen, skin as dull as the sky. Harper’s pinhole vision locked to the image of the girl: it was as if she was colourless entirely, monotonous. As the girl stared into Harper’s eyes, hers grew three shades duller.
Shivanshu Garg: Fall in Berlin
There is a grayscale of emotions in the world but the agony of separation is black and white. Rosie understood this notion and sundered but still with her, Karl plodded through the bleak streets. They listened to the sounds of each other’s heels clicking against the pavement below. Attempting to stay with one another as they walked on their own path, facing their own ups and downs in silence.
The trees shed their leaves creating a pool of warm rich colours beneath. Rosie dragged her hand against the rough barrier which divided her family. The leaves neatly swept into a mound to her left. Awaiting children hand in hand to leap into the heap dispersing them and painting the path an earthy colour. Different colours smeared her vision as time went by, but the harsh reality remained monotone. Duplicitous even.
Slowing and picking up speed now and again to keep up with the sounds of feet pattering. The cool breeze picked debris on and off the path altering it every time. The crisp leaves crumbled underneath the weight of Karl’s sorrows and seclusion.
He admired Roesie’s freedom, her carefree attitude as she flourished under the sun. He just wished that through the gaps of the wall a small ray of that sun, just a glimmer of hope could shimmer onto him. Happiness just bloomed over there every street and block was different. Karl recalled the colour that painted the city. The reminiscence added more weight onto his shoulders as he continued to trudge alongside the inordinate partition.
As he looked around Friedrichshain, Treptow and Weissensee all appeared the same. The stimulating view creating the perfect neighbourhood. Apartments identical all across the block and little trees neatly trimmed lining the kerb. But it was far from utopic. Individuality being outlawed the civilians lacked their sparks. Painting everything black and white.
The iron curtain that draped over the city suffocated him and closed him in the dark. It provided a new warmth, one not familiar and as enticing as the sun. However, Karl would take anything. It seemed like only last week that Karl could freely walk around the corner of Friedrichstraße to the bank.
A matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time caused such suffering. Remember, to let your act slip was a death wish. Fake smiles. Pretend you don’t hate your life. Greet the Volkspolizei.
He found himself becoming invisible, unrecognisable as he merged into the communist life. The crowd determined, living to work. Motivated to push through the upcoming winter. It was an absurd thought to Karl, almost animalistic. Slaving throughout the day unaware when the predator will strike. Is it your neighbour or the vecheka looking through the window?
“Do you plan to come over for mamma’s fall celebration?” Rosie asked delicately. Karl’s quick temper was well known and it often led to the end of their regular discussions and Rosie walking home with her head hung low. Nonetheless, she continued. As if she was throwing spaghetti on the wall to see if it sticks.
“Mrs Wagner and her daughter will be coming. They arrived last week from Friedrichshain. Perhaps you knew them?”.
With his shoulders hunched, he kicked at the leaves becoming increasingly exasperated. Yet she continued. Karl already knew where this was heading, he just didn’t have the strength to do anything. “They passed the Checkpoint in a car… no one even questioned it!” Feeling himself becoming increasingly more aggravated by Rose.
He couldn’t just stroll through the checkpoint. And he couldn’t attend Mama’s annual celebrations or birthdays or anything. Every time, sweet little Rosie came proclaiming the same, irking her brother. Her enthusiasm mistaken for acquisitiveness.
He lacked motivation. Mrs Wagner would do anything to reunite with her folks. For him, the family wasn’t enough. Living was. And Rose couldn’t argue with that. With autumn now here, like the rusty leaves, she lost colour. Her Berlin sun alone couldn’t help her anymore. But Karl would blossom and would so with whatever dignity he could muster.
Rose knew not to expect an answer but instead listened to the leaves. The louder the crunch, the more force the brittle lead faced. He never expressed his worries, thoughts or passions. Leaving her in the dark. Her voice now meek, aware of her brother’s silence. The knot in the pit of her stomach didn’t even compare to the one of the rope that hung above Karl. “I suppose you’re busy.”
Content with this newfound thoughtfulness he lifted his gaze off the path and onto the grey cement. Instead of meeting cold matte eyes, he saw the hideous slab of grey concrete.
Giving each other their farewells, both returned home with a wall wedged between their heart and mind.
The autumn leaves continued to sprinkle onto the path lighting up Karl’s way home and adding new pigments into Karl’s world. As he strolled through the door the window accentuated with its arched frame stood sturdy. Compelled, he looked out and beyond the wall. The concrete staggered on and like a goldfish in a bag, surrounded the west.
The boy traced the charred patterns of a single tree with the tips of his fingers. His nails were chewed down and the skin of his bony hands blistered. As he looked up he saw the trees splintered arms, reaching for help in a broken sky. For a moment he was seven again, sitting below a tree, looking up at his brother in the branches and humming songs barely knew. Then the collar of his shirt rubbed against his neck, and he looked back down; the earth below him made his dirty feet feel clean.
Disorientated, the boy, now an orphan, began to walk.
When he was smaller, he’d stay up late to hear his father’s footsteps. He rehearsed the sounds of the boots until he became the very floor beneath them, as if in some way he knew they wouldn’t be around forever. In another world he’d still be in his bed, waiting up with a flickering torch counting the bricks on the wall. Not in this one. As he held his stomach tightly and stopped to vomit over a broken mirror that had already forgotten the faces it had once seen, his eyes caught on a small bird laying in a deafening whimper of silence. He crouched beside it and wondered what would happen if the bird had survived instead of him. Would it be sitting confused beside the boy’s dead body, with its feathers slightly burned and its mouth crying for water, wishing they would swap places as well? He only lifted his head from the bird when he noticed the shadow of a man etched into the side of an unscathed concrete wall. The charred outline stared blankly back at him; the boy began to scream.
In a messy garden of destruction the boy sat holding his knees to his chest, there were buildings still standing watch, listening to his painful scream, devoid of the life that pulsed through their veins only days ago. Behind him, an old woman stood, and just as he had to the little dead bird, she crouched beside him. She smelt of dirt. Her face was blotched with age and her eyes were densely sunken into her thin face. Mud dried into her wrinkled forehead, blood leaked from deep cuts on her face. Grey hair only grew in clumps on her head. She spoke to him once, and never again. Don’t be afraid. For everything there is a season, a time to be born, a time to die, a time for war, and a time for peace. She stood up, slowly as if a bag of bones, and looked out over the city. The boy stood up beside her. With the old woman dragging her broken shoes closely behind the boy, they began to walk. Stumbling over the fractured ground, the old woman started coughing. The boy reached out his hand. Her fingers, old and fragile, touched softly like fallen petals from a delicate flower. Her nails were impossibly black and her knuckles drew prominent from her fingers. They walked in silence. The boy held the hands of a thousand strangers by the palm of the old woman. The strangers that only lived through her, and now by the touch of a hand, the boy as well. She was loved; he was forgotten. They walked together, their hands so gently in each others’ almost as if they were meant to be there, as if this were meant to happen.
Hiroshima Railway. The boy and the old woman looked up at the sign, and then at the train. A man with a burn that stretched down the majority of his left leg wailed for his daughter. Two siblings held each other tight, dust sticking to their small bodies. A wife blindly searched for her husband through the cracks in her fingers covering her eyes. A young girl vomiting blood and mucus, as another girl comforted her unconvincingly. A grandmother howling over her son’s body who she had carried for miles through the shattered city. An old man with one arm blown away, painting pictures on the ground with droplets of blood. A group of kids waiting patiently. Pain. Chaos.
The trains weren’t taking everyone. The boy held the old woman’s hand tighter as he pushed through, reaching for a spot that wasn’t there. Carriages were full, people spilled out of the doors as a man dressed in blue ripped crying people off the sides and ushered them back into the rubble. Slipping through the legs of survivors, the boy found himself lying on the floor of the train, a mess of mud and blood. The boy turned to the old woman, who was no longer by his side. She stood off the train in the midst of madness, giving her spot away to a mother and a small child. Even though her hands were burned as well, she’d still sell her memories to let others make their own. The train began to roll across the tracks with gentle thuds, like a fathers footsteps through a lonely hall. The boy watched as the old woman faded into the blur of people who didn’t make the train. In that blur of screams and tears, the boy found her eyes, and she smiled.
As Nagasaki came into view, the boy heard people cry in relief. A stranger wrapped his arms around the boy, and his fingers held their knotted hair. When he pushed out of the train a guilty glow from the morning sun rained down on his defeated body. Three Sakura trees stood in front of him, guarding a peaceful city. Their pink flowers drifted like clouds in the night sky. He caught a falling petal, and felt the old woman’s hands one last time, before walking off into the city of Nagasaki. He was safe.
The boy arrived on the last train to Nagasaki on the 8th of August. 1945.
Open: Ages 18+
Kristin Vlasto: Bloom
The five remaining competitors stood in a line on the lawn, cradling instant coffee cups and breathing out a collective cloud that mixed with the winter morning mist. An official drone zipped and hovered over the compound, just as it had done for the previous three days.
Sharlene looked down at her sweat-stained yellow ‘unisex’ tracksuit that was too wide in the shoulders and long in the legs, but too tight across the hips and bust. Clearly unisex meant ‘men’ with the label removed.
Since she arrived on Thursday, she had not been allowed to make contact with the outside world or to shower, and it was this second detail that bothered her the most on this final day of competition. She had woken that morning with patches of angry red chaffing on her thighs and in her arm pits and a strange yeasty smell she couldn’t quite explain. But a win today would see her secure pre-selection with the full endorsement of the Crooked Bay local government sub-branch; a win today would kick-start her political career. Her spring bud would finally come to bloom.
Yesterday she had won the penultimate challenge. The warehouse building at the side of the compound had been set up to look like a shopping mall. She had successfully filled her reusable bag with ethically produced items, returned a lost child to the help-desk, located a defibrillation machine and performed life-saving CPR on an elderly gentlemen and got back to the car in time for afternoon school pick-up. She even had time to apply red lipstick, and in the heady thrill of the win, she could hear the excited voices of the commentators and the film crew packaging sound bites to use in the publicity package. She felt as if she could win this.
The group were ushered towards the bottom of the compound, past the fence lined with thick sheets of black plastic. A group of organisers stood in close proximity, huddled around a cardboard box. The presence of the film crew signalled that this was indeed the site of the final challenge. A grey-haired man with a thick moustache and army boots ushered the competitors to form a line. In his arms were a stack of what looked like colouring books and he handed one to each competitor, along with a red pencil. He stepped back and in the click-flash of the cameras, addressed the group.
“This is your final challenge. It’s aptly called Policy Graveyard. One single wrong choice, one single error in political judgment, and your political career will be dead before it even starts. Frozen in the eternal winter suffered by candidates that no one will ever remember. But win, and you will already have a set of winning policies to take to the upcoming election.”
Sharlene smoothed down her tracksuit and took three deep breaths. She felt for the lipstick in her pocket as a rising sense of feverish excitement rose in her stomach and spread itself like thrush. Every sinew and surface of her body prickled with anticipation. She wanted this. Decision making under pressure. She could do this. Had to do this.
“You have ten minutes to complete the challenge. In your books are a series of ten gravestones, all representing potential policies. It’s a simple game of noughts and crosses. Cross out the policies you reject, circle the ones you support. Make a wrong choice and your political career ends today.”
The five competitors had a staggered start, one minute apart. Sharlene went last. As she dashed through the plastic covered gates, she could finally see what was on the other side. A path was marked out with arrows on the ground, and the large area was dotted with huge Styrofoam structures that looked like oversized clipboards. On each was taped a sheet of paper.
As she got closer to the first one, Sharlene could make out the words. One. FREE CHILDCARE. A tough one. In theory she supported it, but she knew that middle aged voters hated the idea of women mooching off the system. Men generally saw it as a women’s issue and struggled to find their own equivalent. She crossed it out. Two. CURFEW FOR TEENAGERS. Hmm. Circle. Three. COMPULSORY MILITARY BOOTCAMP FOR THE UNEMPLOYED. Smirk. Circle. Five, six, seven and eight were a series of centre right choices, no problems there. Nine. INCREASE THE RETIREMENT AGE TO 70. Okay, this was a challenge. She thought about her electorate. Lots were too young to care, lots had already retired. It was just the vocal 40-60 group she was worried about. She crossed it out. All that remained was number ten.
The final oversized clipboard loomed before her. She could see on the oversized novelty clock that she had less than 60 seconds to make her final policy decision. QUOTAS TO ENSURE THE EQUAL REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT. Sharlene stopped and felt time slow down. She was a woman, so she wanted to circle it for herself and all the young women of the future. For them to reap the ripe autumn harvest of their struggles. But…she knew the arguments around merit and knew that endorsing it was a bad idea. She’d won these challenges fair and square. She could make ethical choices AND wear lipstick. She took her pencil and firmly crossed out the last policy on her list.
The other competitors were all laying exhausted on the grass, and the official came around to check their entries. Over the loudspeaker Sharlene could hear crackling and hissing and the reverb drilled into her frontal lobe.
“The successful candidate is Mitch Reynolds.” A murmur swept through the crowd. “And he will campaign for equal representation for men and women in government.”
Sharlene felt like she was suffocating in her unisex uniform. She felt the suffocating weight, like heavy woodsmoke in the dead of winter. And on her skin the rash kept spreading, like ill-informed votes across the map on election night.
Isi Ferguson: Cold Season of the Heart
A white rag flapping on a barbed-wire fence. Well, that is what my peripherals told me.
Sun sinking, legs leaden, and half a lecture left to listen, I was in my stride and not expecting to be interrupted. Rural roadside distractions consist of seeded grass heads, distant mountains, and little more.
This sight, however, stopped my heart. My legs trembled to stillness of their own accord, and I narrowed my eyes to peer at the white rag flapping on a barbed-wire fence.
It was an egret.
Like a fly in a web it thrashed, sinuous and graceful even in its predicament. I stood for a moment. The lecturer’s voice faded as I tugged my earphones out and woke up once again to the autumn afternoon. The bird was trapped, I could tell even from this distance, but what could I do about it?
Poised to walk on, I was tripped up by the wire of my own disgust, my guilt, my shame, my pity…whatever it was, it possessed my feet to cross the road and wade through the grass. I crawled under the gate, thinking what could I possibly do?, and struck out through the paddock, dodging thistle and thorn to get there. To get to this white egret flapping on a barbed-wire fence.
Whose paddock was this? Did they know I was on their property? Did they know they had a bird stuck in their fence? Would they find it dead in the morning, suspended like a painting, or would it be gone by then?
It stole my breath. Snowdrop wings framed a carved beak like a dagger, its eyes glowing golden and intelligent. The egret saw me coming and strained against its bonds, but I slowed my pace and mustered all my nervous charm.
“Hey, hey there now. It’s okay, little one. It’s alright. I’m here to help.”
I think it understood. It hung patient as I leaned over, quite close. Careless, crimson blushes caked its plumage. Craning around to inspect the wound, my throat caved in, and my pulse shuddered.
The back of its neck had been opened like a jacket. I could see the sinews and tendons, tangled in red around the four-pronged barb and crusted with bloody feathers. By these exposed tendons it hung, talons shaking with the effort to relieve the pressure. The heaviness of its struggle spoke from that gaping flesh. The bird breathed faint bubbles of watery blood.
“Oh, oh. Hey, hey now. You’re going to be alright. Oh, little one, I don’t know what I can do for you.”
The egret must be a brave creature. There was no noise, no arrogant caw warning me to stay away. This bird burned with an inner pride, one founded on a good nature. It understood my noble intentions as I reached cautiously, carefully for its body to see if I could free it. Silent, it regarded me. No battle or bravado. The pain it must have endured to humour my naivety…
The egret was utterly caught. Those tendons pulling out of its neck – I had not the skill nor the grit to tug hard. They seemed wrapped around the metal like a rubber-band ball. I could not tell where the wire ended and the flesh began, coils spiking in all directions.
“Oh, little one…”
I think the sun hid its face behind a cloud at that moment. The field breathed a chilly breath on my tear-stung face. I tried to loosen the egret again, and it gave a little heave this time, but too jealous was that fence’s grip. I looked into the egret’s eyes – those brilliant, beautiful, liquid eyes – and they conveyed to me a deep sorrow and resignation that words never could. I burst into tears.
“Oh! Little one…I don’t know what can be done.”
Small birds in the bushes beside us fluttered shrill into the frigid air. Casting around, I wondered again whose paddock this was. Should I have knocked on all the doors of this quiet road? Should I have called WIRES? Or was it too late for this egret?
I stood beside that fence for a long time. Cold descended with the darkening skies. Considering the dangling creature before me, my heart tore like the lesion in its neck. If I left, would it die here? I felt certain it would, a death neither rapid nor compassionate.
I stepped back and watched the bird a bit longer. Tears were running down my neck, now. The egret flailed again, then fell back onto the gravity of its juddering limbs. Its gentle, ragged breaths seemed to steal my own.
Finally, I wrenched my gaze away. Night was falling like a blanket. Legs leaden, feet freezing, I padded back the way I had come: around the thistles, through the field, under the gate and onto the road.
I glanced at my hands to find them blotched with the bird’s blood. A tiny, white feather had bonded itself to my shirt. In the fading light I lifted my eyes to the distance, where I had just been, and took one last look at the white rag flapping on a barbed-wire fence.
Jessie Henderson: Hope Springs Eternal
There is a girl in a field. She has been in this field for as long as she can remember. The field stretches as far as she can see, and the wheat, which is planted in long rows and nearly as tall as her waist, ripples and dances with the wind. The girl is content in the field, for it is all she has ever known.
One morning (for it is always morning in her field), the wheat shudders and the ground shakes and the girl’s field is no longer endless. The sky has stretched, the colour deepening as it dips past the horizon. The second sky is darker and richer and it moves of its own accord in a fashion similar to her wheat. She thinks she has seen it before but has no recollection. Stunned, the girl notices that down one side of her field the wheat is lined with a row of cypress trees, tall sentinels standing guard. On her other side, dark earth rises, small trees and scraggly bushes clinging to the side of the escarpment. She turns around and sees a horse, dark as night, snorting and stamping the ground, flattening her wheat beneath its hooves. Atop the horse there is a man, clothed in swathes of dark material so much so that he seems to have melded with the horse he rides. The man swings out of the saddle and lands lightly on his feet, striding towards the girl. She is not scared, only curious as to what brings this strange man to her field. He stops, a few steps before her, and folds his hands behind his back.
“Your mother hid you well.” He says.
The girl frowns, and tries to remember her mother. There is no face there, only a warm feeling, and a whisper that sounds like her wheat.
“Who are you?” asks the girl. “What brings you here?”
The man frowns, and it scrunches his face, pulling his brows together.
“You know me” he says “better than anyone.”
Confusion weighs heavy on the girl’s shoulders as she replies.
“I don’t think that I do.”
“I promised you that I would bring you home.” He says.
“Am I not already home?” She asks him, knowing that she is right and wondering what he will answer.
The man’s frown deepens, impossibly. Something about it looks sad, now.
“Will you let me show you?” he asks.
They sit in the shade of the cypresses as the girl decides. She thinks about leaving her field and her wheat and an ache unfurls in her stomach. She thinks about the second sky and the trees and the mountains and the dark man and his horse and she thinks about all the rest she might be missing staying here with her wheat and she decides to go. She winds her arms around the man’s waist as his horse carries them away from her wheat and when she looks back all she sees is a steadily shrinking row of trees.
The earth beneath them is painted a rich orange and they ride under stone ceilings decorated with handprints and sketches of animals and she throws her head back and laughs. The animals on the walls of the caves run alongside them. When they leave the caves, the world is white and snow falls softly on their shoulders, dusting the ground. The horse tosses its head and shakes the snow out of its mane and the man nudges its sides with his heels. They weave through huge wooden boats, their path lined with snow-dusted dragons and serpents on the prows of each ship. Coloured shields decorate the sides and the girl hears a bell ring in the distance, low and urgent. The snow melts and they are climbing the slopes of a mountain, passing gnarled olive trees. Water flows beside them and when they reach the top the girl can see it bubbles out of the ground there, a freshwater spring. The girl and the man ride for hours, years, centuries, eons. They ride through cities built and cities fallen, ruins crumbling into the sea. They ride through harsh winters and bright summers filled with birdsong. They ride through all the things the girl’s mother took from her and when they come to a stop she remembers.
The man reins in the horse when they reach a cavern deep under the earth, and they water the horse at the swiftly flowing river. The walls of the cavern are shot through with veins of gold and other precious metals, gems glitter in the firelight and the man unclasps his dark cloak. The hood falls from his head to reveal a simple silver circlet amongst his dark hair. Looking down at her own light linen shift, the girl finds shakes her head and wonders how she could have been so blind. The ferryman dips his head as they board and steers them quietly towards the far bank, only once remarking on the weather.
“Bit of a gloomy one, isn’t it.” The ferryman says, in a voice that grates like bone on bone.
“It’s a good thing hope springs eternal, eh Charon?” Hades replies, bundling his dark cloak into a small chest at the ferryman’s feet.
Charon laughs, and it echoes off the stone walls. “Good one, sir. The souls are indeed uneasy tonight.” He grins, as if sharing some inside joke, which, as a matter of fact, they are. The ferry bumps lightly on the bank of the Styx and Hades takes the girl’s hand as she steps over the lip of the ferry and onto the bank. He turns and tosses a coin to Charon, something heavy and smeared with deep red rust. Charon waves them off and turns back across the river to collect his next load of passengers. The girl stands alone with Hades at the gates of the underworld.
In the world above, it is winter. In the world above, there is a wheatfield covered with snow. In the world above, a mother screams for her child. She is filled with rage as she beats the frozen earth with her hands, nails scratching uselessly through the dirt. This woman is great friends with Inevitability. She is even closer with Perseverance. She is, in the absence of a better analogy, the unstoppable force. The immovable object, of course, you have already met.
Demeter does not bother to ask for an audience with Zeus anymore. She does not need the help of her brothers and sisters. She knows where her daughter is hidden underneath the earth. There is a certain way these things must be carried out, and she will honour that. She turns away from her crops and walks alone, waiting for the day when she can bring her daughter home.
There is a way these things are done, Persephone knows. When they arrive at the palace and she has changed from that horrible linen shift into her favourite gown, dark plum velvet sweeping behind her, she joins her husband at their hearth and they share the pomegranate. She threads her fingers with his, sticky with juice, and savours the bittersweet taste of the fruit. There is a certain strength in ritual. There is power to be found in repetition. It may have been forgotten over the centuries but people on the earth knew this too. They would hold the sacrifices on solstices and battles would be fought according to the weather and this was how you worshipped your gods. Not with gold, or treasures, but with remembrance and recognition. Achilles did not fight until Patroclus was slain, and despite knowing his end would follow Hector’s still he fought, defying fate. The gods ate well that night.
The days go much faster under the earth than above it. It is their own curse to bear for their forbidden love; that their happiness is so fleeting, a candle with the wick cut short. These short days are when the underworld is at its most glorious, with its Queen returned. Those who die in winter are always sure of a warm welcome underneath, and the palace gardens bloom. It is a happy time, and it is a short one, for spring must come again, and Demeter descends through the soil. Her journey is long, for she cannot take the wide and easy paths, hers are cramped and winding. When she arrives, her daughter is waiting. Persephone kisses her husband goodbye and spits in her mother’s face. She holds herself with pride and as Demeter closes her fingers around her daughter’s wrist, Persephone looks over her shoulder.
“Bring me home.” She calls to her husband.
“I will.” He vows.
And it is spring.
There is a girl lying in a field of wheat. She looks up at the sky and wipes a tear from her cheek. She does not remember crying, and does not know why she would, for she is home.