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August 2016: NFFD Winning Stories

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Contents


First Place

Trampolining in the Matukituki

Heather McQuillan
Regional Prize, Canterbury

I reached the knoll first, nothing to boast of. My pack was lighter. Kyle carried both the Primus and the billy.

My hands were chafed from pulling myself skyward by tree roots. I raised them, let my heart’s echo-beats subside. I inhaled the mountain’s breath. I am Hineahuone, a girl made from clay. Kyle strode to the edge to take Rob Roy’s photo. His lens focused on the mountain’s white-crowned head, its chest – battle-scarred with waterfalls – its challenge.

Tarns, like torn patches of sky, littered the tussocks. On the next rise the bivvy sat, squat and orange. Beside it, the trampoline was a yawning rectangle.

I reached the hut first. As I lay on slices of glacial rock, heaviness ascended my legs, pressed my heart to the mountain. The taste of blood rinsed my throat. Cloud-swatches of greywacke painted the sky.

Jarred by grating pipes and screws as Kyle assembled the Primus, I rolled onto the trampoline’s sun-warmed netting. My weight sank to unfathomable depths. I coiled to protect my bloated lungs. Breathe out, clay girl. Breathe out.

The billy simmered as I jumped – hesitant bounces at first, fearful that the thwomp-slap-thwomp would prompt an avalanche. Legs straight and bent, arms up and down. My body a curled ammonite, I bowed to Rob Roy in somersault after somersault. I sneezed.

While Kyle checked the map by Primus mantle, I counted the distances between us.

When daylight arrived, in cold slices of watermelon pink, the trampoline was gone. Kyle had already set off, not waiting for me to finish tying my bootlaces. The breath from my nostrils blended with the mountain’s mist.

I reached the conclusion first but there was still the long walk home.
About Heather McQuillan…


Second Place

Shapeshifters on the Bus

Nod Ghosh

When Ronald McGourvey and his family of shape shifters caught the 47 to Scarborough, nobody noticed.

Timothy McGourvey had perfected becoming nitrogen-fixing bacteria, so he went as a rhizobium. He’d had trouble with symbiosis, but discovered he could run solo for short periods. The bacterium was proving to be one of Timothy’s favourites.

Timothy’s sister Rebecca wanted to try something new. She’d been practising Muscovy duck for weeks, summoning forty pairs of chromosomes and an opposite spiralling cloaca. Aspergillus was a word Rebecca liked to roll in her mouth like a chip coated in sherbet, so she went as an Aspergillan fungal spore. Rebecca and her brother floated above an Asian schoolgirl’s ponytail.

Vivienne McGourvey had lately found reverting back from inorganic forms problematic, so she floated onto the 47 behind her children as a curl of cellophane. She needed the experience. Vivienne sailed in eddy currents behind a lady wheeling a tartan shopping trolley-bag.

Ronald watched his wife with cautious devotion. He was thinly disguised as dog dirt around a wheel of the tartan trolley.

The bus rolled on.

The bus stopped.

Passengers alighted at Scarborough, and Ronald found himself stranded. The tartan bag, with accompanying lady, stayed put. Ronald transformed into a gas and slipped through the opening doors, turning adiabatic somersaults.

Vivienne remained attached by static cling to the nylon coat of a rugby enthusiast. She flexed her transitioning apparatus, but nothing happened. Vivienne watched her children waddle and roll down the metal steps of the number 47, accompanied by delighted squeals from the Asian schoolgirl.

Timothy had transformed into a French fingerling, one of sixteen varieties of potato he’d learnt to emulate. Rebecca followed, her penguin flippers slapping her sides like wet cloths.

The Asian schoolgirl laughed.

Nobody else noticed.
About Nod Ghosh…


Third Place

The Wheat Field

Linda Moser

On certain days in summer our wheat field becomes an ocean of rolling ochre. On days like these I am only eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth. I squint into mid-day sun until blue black crows morph into screeching sea birds and the Ferguson’s barn creeks and groans like some long lost schooner.

On days like these the wind from the west wraps its way around lower legs and sinks feet softly into wet sand. On days like these I remember the road that wandered like us, hugged hillsides and promised eternity, where we stopped and ate grilled fish for breakfast and later found ourselves alone, on a stretch of white sand, watching triangle waves point and plunge, pound and pummel.

And I’m there.

From the back of the beach light bounces off the chrome fenders of our Honda 50 as it rests against the solid trunk of an otherwise swaying palm and watches as our clothing comes off and piles into a heap, like the tangled limbs of lovers, next to a half-eaten mango that turns brown in the afternoon sun. We wade into warm water under a sky so infinite I almost cry. Your lips on my eyes, my mouth on your chest, my breasts are brown and our bodies meld together rocked by the rhythm of rolling waves.

“I put a baby in you.” Your proclamation is shouted back to the beach where I spread your T-shirt across the sand and let the earth embrace my bones, engulf my body. Where I doze and dream of the child that never is.

I watch and wait for you to surface, sometimes all day – until the sky is full of purple bruises, until the wind eventually dies, until this ochre ocean is just our wheat field again.
About Linda Moser…


Highly Commended

Calligraphy

Sue Wootton
Regional Prize, Otago

Around ten to three we gather in chatty groups outside the classroom. He never joins us. He takes up a position to one side, alone. He pulls a paperback from his jacket pocket. He adjusts the Mandarin collar around his nape, lowers his capped head, and reads. He reads vertical lines that from a distance look like bird claws. His face is steep and still, his expression sorrowful. There are scoops of shadow in the fall of flesh beneath his cheekbones.

One day I arrive early. The playground is deserted. No, he’s there, squatting in the middle of the netball court, peering into a puddle of rainwater. He holds an artist’s paintbrush. He dips the brush in the puddle. A trail of claw marks appears on the asphalt. Each glistens for a few seconds, dulls, and vanishes. The thin brush moves deliberately and delicately, but quickly, quick as a heron stepping through an estuary in pursuit of butterfish. Quick as a poet with a caught shoal of words. As quick, as shy.

He lifts his clay-cliff face. Although it is completely silent, and there is nothing to be seen on the netball court except an old man now carefully pocketing a paintbrush, birds are lifting off the surface in their thousands. I hear a beat-rush flurry, warning cries.

I look away.

*

After the bell, my daughter and his granddaughter emerge from their classroom, head to head, giggling. He’s standing to one side, eyes on his book. My daughter glances up. Nihau Mr Young! she sings.

Some small winged moment passes between them, sets loose from him the slightest of nods. His granddaughter skips over and takes his hand. He leads her out, across the netball court, across that wide, quiet delta, its evaporated claw-talk, all its birds in flight.
About Sue Wootton…


Now you are a curved white boat

Trisha Hanifin

Before you leave the north, you dream of southern light, islands scattered across southern seas, your mother’s shadow draped across Otago’s tussock hills. Crimson clouds streak the sky and you are curled, a frond at the mouth of the birth canal, waiting in a soft-beating muscle of darkness. For the journey you prepared a striped black bowl, oiled with sandalwood, filled with four painted eggs: child, maiden, mother, crone.

The south is a country of painters and poets: they tramp the light-washed hills; they take the long view home. Dunedin is a garden of stone dreaming of the sky.

When you reach your brother’s house an island of shadow sleeps between the mottled windows and the back door. You imagine chisels, laid out, ready for carving words into bone and flesh – and all around you the flax flowers sing.

Soon their pods will bow their blackened heads, click and rustle in the autumn wind. Here the sea surrounds all other sounds and the night comes down like a hawk.

It’s the stranded southern child you seek, standing in her hand-me-down dress and gumboots in the backyard, abandoned in the past. You lay claim to her. Your bowl becomes an island, anchored in ancestral seas. Its fauna of eggs passes from hand to hand: mother to child, maiden to crone, each mirrored in the other’s image.

Now you are a curved white boat skirting the coast, seeking haven by the wet stones of Moeraki, your sails feathered as a returning albatross.
About Trisha Hanifin…


May 1941: Day and Night in Crete

Sam Averis

We landed on a white beach as wide as a rugby field. Nick took off his boots and was first off the boat. He winced while the brine worked its way into his feet, but then his face relaxed as pleasure overwhelmed the pain. Wisps of blood unfurled from the cracks, barely curling in the dead-calm shallows. He was swarmed by fish, little transparent cockabillies. They were attracted by the blood, or the dead skin, or by what had built up between our toes during the campaign. They were like angels.

After a hot meal we felt like Kings: splendid but irrelevant to the new world we fought for. We lounged on stone verandas fifty, a hundred, a thousand years old. They were all the same to us, blasted to a timeless beige by sand and saltwater.

The Germans came in the evening; I saw their parachutes silhouetted against the pink and gold sunset. They descended slowly, as alien to that island as snow.

I followed Nick along the beach. Each breath came hard, the hot night air heavy with smoke and dust and bullets. The pap-pap of the stubby paratrooper guns kept getting louder, so we kneeled behind a stone pier. Nick waved his lemonsqueezer over the top, but no gunfire came. When he stood they shot him, three times down his side. He twisted towards me like he wanted a chat, then folded into the water.

Against that beige stone I learnt that the night sky isn’t just above us. It meets the ground, the sea. It’s tight and cold like a fresh sheet. I fought it to stand, to pray, to run. To run from Nick, as black waves soaked his serge blouse and washed away his blood.
About Sam Averis…


Rewilding

Zoë Meager

The tea party was necessary, they explained. Without it, the chimpanzees would riot. They’d had tour buses turn back and funding lost, but people mostly understood; rehabilitation takes time.

So in striped T-shirts and polkadot party frocks the chimps sat, doing the necessary. With their bow legs crimped onto the seats of their chairs, they swept long arms over the ground or folded them into coolie hats over their heads, as their lips delicately syphoned tea from real china cups.

“Relax,” he said, turning to me. “It’s all the fun without the guilt.”

The sentence hung in midair until an orangutan approached; an orange gentleman proffering a keyring and holding out his palm for money.

“We should talk,” I said.

“Jesus he gives change, what more do want?” He laughed.

The ape had turned away, businesslike, while the man was still raking the coins in his palm and counting aloud.

In the tearooms we sat on a vinyl banquette, the tabletop watermarked with the ring stains from a hundred cups of tea.

He fidgeted. His buttocks, two irrepressible helium balloons, kept lifting him from his seat. I waited to hear them pop every time he wrestled himself back down.

I made a weak attempt at some mango bubble tea. When the waitress walked past I pretended to sip, eyes wide over the rim.

We each perspired whitely.

The cup tipped when his finger wouldn’t fit through the handle and the spill ran to the table edge. Each time we stemmed the flow, another trickle snaked to the floor until we just looked on, hands full of sodden serviettes.

“I thought you’d like this place,” he said, looking down at his big hairy hands, the tan line where he used to wear a ring.

“I do,” I said, “It’s great.”
About Zoë Meager…


MAYDAY

Dione Jones
Regional Prize, Auckland

‘This note was sealed inside a small personal water bottle, metal, found in the flight wreckage. What I will read is a translation from the original language. This has not been previously released.’

There was a collective gasp from everyone in the room.

I die. Everyone already dead. Oxygen tubes. Maybe air in the cabin too. Instant. Person next to me, passengers, crew, everyone collapsed. One breath. No real pain. Neighbour now clammy, wet.

Not long after takeoff I fainted. Hostess brought me an oxygen cylinder. “It will last 20 minutes,” she said. “You’ll be fine by then.” When the tubes dropped down, I just stayed, breathing my own oxygen.

A big thud, plane lurched. Everything normal until then. A big jolt. Lightning strike? Air pocket maybe? Bottles fell off trolley. It was frightening but plane steadied. No change in engines.

Then lights went out. No announcements. People cried out. Much talk. Crew rattled trolley back into galley. Hurrying. Only emergency lights up the aisle. Engines sounded same, no change. No point in panicking. We stayed in our seats.

Tubes dropped down. Neighbour grabbed one, pulled to face. Bag inflated. Everyone doing the same. I already had my own oxygen.

Neighbour took one breath. Then fell back. Tube swung free. Other tubes hanging too. What happened?

I tried to get up without taking off my mask. I got a short way. Too hard. People fallen over armrests into aisles. Couldn’t carry cylinder.

Now: Silence in cabin. Only engines drone on.

I realise: no Beijing. Soon my cylinder’s empty. One breath and I will die too. No one can help. I die.

About Dione Jones…
 


The Maiming of Uncle Po

Heather McQuillan

Nanny never remembered any circuses being in town the week her boy Po ran off.

“Every day was a bloody circus in this house when your Granddad was alive,” she said.
And she didn’t mean he was a clown. Nanny hung calendars over holes in the wall the shape of clenched fists.

After eleven years, Uncle Po returned, minus a hand and with a voice down low in his throat as if it’d dropped below his Adam’s apple and couldn’t get back past. That Adam’s apple bobbed even when Po was silent.

When Po leaned on that bar at the Bottom Pub and growled for a beer, Gerry the barman nearly dropped a glass because Po’s the image of my Dad. But Dad’s safe up in Waikeria for a few years yet.

Someone phoned Nanny, and I’ve never seen her move so fast. When Po pressed his forehead to hers, Nanny held him real still like that for ages, like they were mind melding. All the blokes stared down at their beers, their Adam’s apples gulping saliva.

Po never said where he’d been but I figured it. It’s how he says ‘good boy’ with a swirl in his throat, and pats my shoulder with his one hand. And the way the cat dashes out of a room when Po comes in, as if it can still smell the lions on him.

Whenever I fetch Po home for his tea, Gerry gives me a bottle of L&P for the road. Nanny says I have to fetch him because it’d be the death of her if she lost him for another eleven years.

Those lions, they would’ve scrapped over Po’s bloody hand while the crowd rose to their feet cheering and screaming.
About Heather McQuillan…


Standing Water

Sam Averis

After the rains, when the puddles are half-dried, mum lets you outside. The little pools spot the fields, slimy and thick like honey, and in them there are visions of what’s coming. You know you’re not supposed to, but you find the biggest, and plunge your face right in.

First you’re in the font in St Michael’s. The stained glass looks strange, seen through the chromium underside of the water’s surface. A baby’s head dips in and you see dimples where forceps bit. You have them as well, because mum wouldn’t push, dad said. When you come up for air it’s gone, but you take a breath and go back for another.

Next, everything’s blue, and your eyes burn from chlorine and spears of refracted light. You see your daughter again, you know it’s her this time, sinking to the bottom of a forest of pale legs and polystyrene noodles. You see yourself, too, turning this way, that way, searching. Your chest seizes, and you know that this is what loss feels like, you know you should listen to your mother. You hold your breath as long as you can, but you’re forced up, gasping, before you see what happens.

Your third time in; all is translucent white. It smells like mum— earl grey with a splash of milk. You can barely see through the cataract brew, but you hear her. She must be talking to you; she doesn’t take that tone with anyone else now, does she? And you’re moving towards her and there’s not a single extra wrinkle, not one. It’s you, and your daughter. You sound just like your mother.

Then you run home. Best get back before the clouds close in. Your gumboots leave tracks in the mud, zig-zag pools for worms to bathe in.
About Sam Averis…


Commended

Ophelia at Huntly

Sian Williams
Regional Prize, Northland

She was stumbling back from the pub, singing, cursing, crying. No need to hurry home, now Dad was dead and Joey doing a long stretch up Paremoremo.

Orange streetlight dripped onto the road and, in the distance, a siren sounded the shift change. She stopped on the bridge for a quiet smoke. Morning glory climbed the railings, its violet trumpets throbbing in the darkness. She reached over to touch a velvet bloom. Over and down.

And then the water, surprisingly warm, welcoming even. She didn’t struggle; she let it take her under.

The river entwined her in its sinuous limbs, embraced her, and caressed her with its slippery fingers. Lithe and serpentine, it slid into her mouth and between her thighs. She was coming and drowning at the same time.

No one would know whether she’d jumped or fallen. Was she flotsam or jetsam? She didn’t know. The river didn’t care. But it would keep her safe — safe from the drinking and the drudgery, the hidings and the hurting, the pricks and the fists. The river wouldn’t grow tired of her or reject her. It was her one true lover. She wanted to lie in its silten-silken bed forever, sleeping in the warm darkness – floating beyond time – watched over by the sad-eyed catfish while the watery stars wheeled above.

*

They found her amongst the other debris at Intake No.4: plastic bottles, polystyrene, old jandals, a supermarket trolley. Her dress wound in a tight shroud around her body, rotting raupō in her hair.

As they prised her away from the grating, she rolled on her back and floated for a moment, arms outstretched, blank face to the wide Waikato sky. The police diver thought she reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t think who.
About Sian Williams…


An Approach to Keeping Cacti

Rachel Fenton

It said on the website that members could meet every third Thursday of each month to exchange specimens.

“I’ve been meaning to come for the last two,” Aril said, doing his best to give the eye contact he had been told was so crucial to new social interactions. He adjusted the pot in his arms.

The table attendant seemed interested in his specimen and said,

“Is that a Dioscoreas?”

Aril had to tilt the pot slightly to see the plant information tag, but this meant all the weight rested on his left arm.

“It’s a fat plant,” Aril said, shifting it back and slouching to gather his guts and give himself something to rest it on. Pain was a cable-car between his shoulders and neck.

The assistant nodded.

“It was named after a Greek botanist. Yours is a member of the yam family, identifiable by its heart shaped yet otherwise inconspicuous leaves.”

Aril looked at his plant. It had no leaves.

The assistant said,

“A ballot sale of large plants is held three times per year. The ballot system ensures all members have a fair chance of getting their preferred plant. There was a ballot last week. Do you want to swap it for a stone plant?”

Back in his room, Aril lowered the pot onto the counter of the kitchenette, half-filled a pan with water and put it on the back hob of the two. His hands were trembling too much to use the sharp knife. He slumped on his bed to wait for the water to boil and noticed a compost stain on his shirt, a semicircle on his belly. It resembled a mouth. Aril couldn’t decide if it was smiling or frowning.
About Rachel Fenton…


The Moon in a Bowl of Water

Michael Harlow

Mother said, in the Old Country you make a lot of kids, they’re money in the bank, water in the bucket. And still, you know that so many of them are going to die before they’re ready to fly;
you hardly have time to shake a fist to heaven. And she dressed in permanent black.

In the New Country, Father replied, you have as few kids as possible, or none, and you might end up living almost forever in a small, fat town where your neighbours always shout hello and never goodbye. And still there’s so little time for good morning glory, are you there?

Because I didn’t know what to say, and we were running out of words to tell love; and something about surviving even ourselves, I said: The dog of time is already on too short a leash, barking at the traffic, biting the air, and the moon in a bowl of water.

And you know, the banks have turned into penny arcades. Not a single safe-deposit box hosting the tongues of strangers, like ourselves. The jackpot: a short year’s supply of fortune-cookies.
About Michael Harlow…


Beach

Xander Stronach

Mum had a bucket, and dad had a towel, and the whale died anyway. It reeked while it died, and more afterwards: like fish, but meatier and more human. It was glossy grey-black, and its rubbery lips were set at a sad smile. It was smaller than the whales from the book I got for Christmas. It was sleek – graceful, probably. On land, it lay on its side with its chest heaving. Its tail flailed.

An older volunteer with dreadlocks got me a cup of tea. He had kind eyes. The tea was already cold.

The beach wasn’t like the beach from the books: it was all mottled stones that were painful-hot to stand on in summer, and painful-cold to stand on in winter. It was littered with driftwood, and little bones. The whale fit right in. He was smiling, after all − as if he’d finally come home.

I sipped the tea, and watched mum’s legs. They skittered as she ran down to the surf to fill the bucket; they pumped as she brought the full bucket to the whale. The tea was cold. The whale’s chest was moving less, and its breath rattled.

Years later, an American in a Wellington cafe would say to me, “It’s so beautiful here, and so dead. I think the gap between makes you all mad.”

Mum had a bucket, and Dad had a towel, and the whale died anyway. It died with a smile, on the cold stones. It died while I sat and drank cold milky tea from a stranger. It died surrounded by bustle, and hard work, and − I like to think − love.

It died anyway. It’s a small comfort, perhaps; in some far-off way, it died at home.
About Xander Stronach…


Dragonfly Collage

Gail Ingram

The dragonfly’s eyes are made up of multiple hexagons. Inside each hexagon is a black and white picture of my face. I’ve printed the photos from my files and glued them on, one by one. There must be at least a hundred. They’re very small. You don’t know they’re faces until you look closely, then suddenly you see them, a million disembodied eyes staring at you in the dark.

Dragonflies are capable in darkness. I saw one in the hallway mirror after what I’d done. It involved a gun. No, it didn’t. I like that gun rhymes with done. A knife. I took a knife outside and sliced all the leaves off Mum’s blood red begonias. You said that I should tell the truth. I am telling the truth, Alice. The begonias were the first thing I remember getting in trouble for. They’re represented by one of my faces. My skill is this: to see everything from every direction simultaneously. I didn’t want to take the Zyprexa. Though, at the time, I remembered thinking I don’t have eight pairs of visual neurons like the dragonfly, yet I am capable of collating multiple parts into a whole, I will not be affected. I said I would take it. I think it’s fair to say, Alice, that my stabbing of Mr Gotthard’s cheek in front of 323 spectators only deserves a small part of the picture.

Blunt craft scissors sharpen effectively on a raspy concrete floor. The dragonfly is very skilled. It tracks its prey, calculates its flight path and moves into it before you can blink. It must be a shock for the prey to see its own face reflected multiple times in the dragonfly’s eye, don’t you think?

Alice?
About Gail Ingram…


My Mind Is Clear

Rachel Smith

“Reach, stretch – let your fingers paint the sky.”

I listen and move. Joints and muscles extend. My fingers stretch away and the sky colours vermillion and orange. I wish for tie-dye purple and slut red.

My mind will not clear today. It sees a piece of fluff on my mat and chipped toenail polish.
Outside a building sheds its coppery skin – exposed wires and crooked ceiling tiles. Dirty pigeons perch on its roof. Men in bright hard hats move along its surface.

One turns, a raised eyebrow. Pervert.

“And again, feel your fingertips pulled towards the light.” I stretch further, feel my ribs separate and my lungs expand. Peel back my clothes, skin, and you can see it all. Flesh and bone, the gentle pulse of organs, an empty uterus.

I glance. He is looking, and I dare him to watch me watching him. Head down, hips raised, breathe and leap, stand and arch, twist and bend.

His eyes follow. My breath runs fast.

“And rest – relax into the ground’s embrace. Give thanks to your body for its efforts.”

His hands will be calloused. My mind is a pool of lurid yellow. We finish in dead man’s pose, palms open to the sky.

He is gone when I roll up my mat, remove my sweaty clothes and shower clean. He is not there as I leave, stopping in the doorway to look up and across the street.

The sky has turned slate and the building is empty. On the footpath a cluster of reflective vests catch the light from a street lamp. Raised voices and a siren calls.

I step onto the footpath and walk away. My mind is clear.
About Rachel Smith…


New Beginnings

Nikki Crutchley

I need air. I cross the road from my parents’ house and into the park. I look down at my hands, calloused and dry, sporting a French manicure for the occasion. Even my hands are pretending to be something they’re not.

Old lady walkers, arms pumping but not really getting anywhere, stop and stare. I pull at the tulle of my wedding dress clinging to my body, ignoring the train dragging behind, collecting gravel in my wake.

Daffodils have detonated in the most unlikely places, sending explosions of colour that sear the backs of my eyes. Shades of green throw themselves against the landscape, khaki, lime and chartreuse. Colours of spring on steroids.

Is it wrong to want to hold desperately to the harsh shades of winter, dull and cool? A day filled with bruised clouds ready to burst forth rain, hail or snow is far better than one where the thirsty earth cracks under the sun’s gaze.

The man I’m about to marry doesn’t know I detest spring. I don’t know when it happened, but his favourite movies have become my favourite movies, his favourite foods are now mine. He grumbles of winter, cold and grey, and so then, do I.

Mum said, “Oh Claire he’s lovely,” in that hushed reverent tone she saved for men she thought could be ‘the one’. Friends fawned over him and my brothers seemed to worship him. So, of course, I thought, surely he was the one.

I rip the veil from my hair. It takes flight but just as quickly drops into the gutter. The fine mesh sucks up grit and mud turning it grey, and there it rests, with the last remnants of winter, rotting and wasted.
About Nikki Crutchley…


Ex Libris

Michael Harlow

Thirty-three years and he’s given up publishing his Books Without Words. Such an astonishing presence of so perfect an absence. That great hole behind words − even if love does begin inside a word. Not a flirt of such a word or a wanton syllable found its way onto the pristine snow-white pages of his books. Each page, emptied of himself, and other visitors.

No ecstatic romancier, swanked with fabulation. He began life as a changeling, left in a basket on the steps of the cathedral. Without words, and a name that was never there. He became
someone called anon. He learned early to talk with his hands.

And he gave each of his books the same title. How can you survive as an original writer and publisher without publishing something. Even if my books are so exquisitely composed of nothing but a profound silence.

An early reader, he soon discovered that ‘reading between the lines’ was the story itself of the deepest silence. It was then words in swarms of flight began to abandon him; flights of words and sentences, and phrases left hanging in air.

Working long nights was best. Composing his books, listening to the heart at his wrist for company. Each book, a year’s duration. Volumes of unsullied fields of emptiness. He began to dream of his tongue being taken away in a black box. And at the New Year, for a fine finale, Dark Book XXXIII.

And a postscriptum in a sealed envelope: Epitaphios, a final reading.

‘Dear friends, and those who pass by: from the beginning, I have desired to leave my readers speechless. And now myself. It may be in my quiet-hearted but true way, I have at last succeeded.’
About Michael Harlow…


Salt

Lynne Kohen

My father called us a tribe of savages and perhaps in our souls we still are. Barefoot, barely tamed, the half-dozen children of a Waikato dairy farmer with Presbyterian habits and peppery temper. We were restless and rowdy, muted in church by barley sugars passed along the pew from mum’s navy purse.

He was a clock prisoner, my father, chained to routine. His five a.m. alarm reverberated through our childhood, dragging us from our dreams to dully register the backdoor slam, the metronome of gumboots quick-marching into dawn.

Our house was draughty, wooden, starved of sunlight by a circle of pines. Mould sprouted in wardrobes, wetas nested under beds, and winter lingered like an old man who won’t be budged. Icy mornings, my siblings and I jostled to dress in front of the smoking wetback.

Porridge, prized for its three-ingredient economy, was breakfast year-round. Mum blobbed it into bowls and we’d sit waiting for our father to come in from milking, wearing smells of dung and hay. Always efficient, he ate his porridge in six large spoonfuls, silently.

Only one morning was different: my mother was bedridden with bronchitis; she croaked breakfast-making instructions to us. The result, after fierce squabbling, was black-flecked glue. We smeared it into bowls and waited for our father. He sat, took his first mouthful, grimaced, put down his spoon, and cleared his throat.

“Porridge is three ingredients,” he said.

He stood and picked up the glass salt cellar with his chaffed-red hands. Working his way around the table, he leaned over, sprinkling and stirring smidgeons of salt into each plate. His rough fingers balanced the tiny silver spoon delicately between index and thumb. Wordless, we watched him, the air thrumming with a great pity that felt like love.
About Lynne Kohen…


Settlement

Jac Jenkins

Where are the crosses? Where are the stones? Our bones have been loosed like runes; my father’s femur lies crossed over mine.

I ride the bales high on the tractor tray. Daddy drives, half-turned in the seat. Sun and dust turn my eyes to firewater.

It rains on the wounded puriri. It always rains. In the dank shade our exposed bones turn green. One femur has a spiral crack; its neck has been gnawed by rodent teeth.

Daddy hangs a swing in the rimu. He spins my smile more and more and more, until I can’t right the world.

The puriri is scarred with the calluses of ghost moth burrows. A wētā huddles in an older, smoother hole.

Daddy holds me up to clean the trophy antlers with a duster. I used to fear the Daddy-long-legs spiders when they were nameless.

Once an emaciated hound snuffled through the litter and took away one of my ribs, then returned for another.

Daddy comes to get me in his new Kingswood. I know Mummy’s waving from the porch but I don’t look back.

Time slips on its sprockets, skips from now to when and back again; am I fleshed or flayed? Am I me or memory?

We climb for a long time. I try to place my feet in Daddy’s footprints; a game I can’t win, but it helps me keep up. Water drips off the brim of Daddy’s hat.

The litter around our bones twitches with life. Sometimes, when time lunges forward, violet, coral-like fungi explode from the compost.

Daddy talks of hallowed ground, special places like where the antlers appeared. We’ve gone off-track and onto an un-marked goat path. He says it’s not far now.

Sometimes, when deer pass, my father’s bones and mine catch and slip like tectonic plates.
About Jac Jenkins…


Stolen

Lee Kimber

I am a child of the earth. I go to the school and I learn the stories of the teacher’s world. He talks of other countries and capital cities. He tells us about the Murra Dam and how the pouring water under its wall makes the power, and makes the lights and signs flash in the Wooroola shops.

I see the shoes in the window. They are red – shining, dazzling red. Nineteen bucks and ninety-nine cents. My sister says, “If you really want them…”

I wear my new shoes and twist through the traffic. Just now, I am white.

I dance to the bus station where my people are sitting. I ride out of Wooroola and am in my home town and my people with dark wiry hair are afraid. They are watching my feet.
I dance to my boyfriend. I feel his breath, but it is different. He loves my red shoes, but I don’t think he loves me. My mates wait for me to turn white.

I shine the dust off the shoes with the bottom of my dress and I dance. My mother says, “Whatcha get those for?” Jack points and laughs and his drink spills and Mum and Aunty are watching the bottle.

I walk with my mates towards the dam. We see Wooroola, a way over. The dam has changed the big river and the cliffs below are empty.

My shoes are dusty. I take them off and feel the little sticks and stones bite as we walk beside the water in Murra Dam: the same dam which makes the sign in the city saying, “Fab Footwear.”

My feet know the earth again and my eyes follow the red shoes turning in the air, and then they hit the water.
About Lee Kimber…


The Window Is Closed

Rachel Smith

The window is closed. A column of light between the curtains. Two stones wrapped in my left hand. Clench, unclench.

You will be sitting on that ugly floral bedspread, trying to find a foothold, a place to rest your eyes, where the room will again be your own. A diary is in the third drawer, the one that sticks as you slide it open; a book beside your bed. If you lie back, a constellation of discoloured paint where we scraped stickers from the ceiling. Their faint glow a world away from our bodies.

You are waiting, or not.

My fingers peel open, palm a map of indentations. Two stones with roughened edges of winter sky and concrete pillars. You would tiptoe tender across gravel to the river. Chill water took our breath – jump in, don’t think, just in and under. In warm shallows, the current gently combed your hair downstream. Bare skin baked on sun warmed stones. Your lips tasted of sweet river weed.

You are waiting, or not.

The light moves − a curtain brushed or moon shadow tease. The window is closed. Gravel cuts now. Clench, unclench, scratches and scrapes. I throw, glass pings; my aim is always good. Clouds shift, light flickers. Breath from a ghost. Soft skin, sharp edged words.

I take the last stone with me. Sit it on my windowsill until it is no longer mine.

The window is closed.
About Rachel Smith…


The Helping Hand

Heather Sylvawood

I could see her, poised on the brink of knowing what to do, yet hesitating between one possibility and another. I understood because I’d stood there once. She knew that. It was why she’d asked me to meet her here.

Her hand-dyed, pure silk scarf fluttered at her throat in butterfly distress. Her fingers tapped against the reflective glaze of the hand-potted mug.

“I really can’t understand him,” she said with just enough exasperation to show that she did, but didn’t want to.

Across the table I stirred my black Jamaican.

She didn’t want a reply. No! She didn’t want an opinion, but she did need a nudge. And which way didn’t matter. It was the indecision that frightened her. Once she was launched on a course she would fight to the bitter, disillusioned end for the rightness of it all. But now she needed a push.

“Perhaps he has a mistress,” I said with words that wafted like her scarf.

I saw her take them, one by one, and assemble them into a logic she could consider.

“You think he might?” The slight inflection of disbelief.

“It’s just the timing of his comings and goings and… well, you know him better than I do.”

“Yes. That’s true.” Yet her voice betrayed something quite different.

When she stood up she almost knocked her chair over. She smiled at me while anger tugged tight at her lips.

“You’re a good friend, Carmel.”

Then she walked purposefully away.

It was the last time I ever saw her. That night she accused Peter of having an affair. An intense row erupted in which she excelled with cutting remarks about his inadequacies. Of course Peter’s ego couldn’t cope. By 1am he’d packed his bags and was on my doorstep.
About Heather Sylvawood…


What We Talk About When We Talk About the Treaty

Rachel Fenton

I’m at his table, too big for this apartment, pushed next to the new bookcase. His place is crammed with bookcases. There’s not a wall I’d be safe from in an earthquake. This bookcase he bought; isn’t “Ours”. It’s the one I’d least mind being crushed to death by. He’s reaching over me. I smell wine on his breath.

“Got it. This. This is a map.”

There must be three hundred pages in a book the size of a pizza box. He fingers to the middle. Prodding at Waitangi, he wants me to see the place names.

I say, “There’s no reason not to have bilingual signs.”

He raises his eyebrows, says, “They managed it for The Treaty.” He’s smirking. Softening: “Isn’t it beautiful?” His expression now like when I got on my knees, the first time.

I say, “The thing is, when I showed you the map of my home town in England, you hated it.”

“Did I?”

I nod.

“Did it have statistics for where settlers came from?”

“It was brown and I loved the creases. The place names, suffixes, told you where the colonisers originated.”

“Awe. Sorry, hon. Show me again. Go on, I’d like to see where you loved.”

“You don’t need another piece of English culture thrusting down your throat.”

“I am sorry, you know?”

“I am, too.”

“You’re sorry? Are you kidding? I’m the one who needs to be sorry, I’m the one…”

“No,” I say. “You didn’t want…” Suddenly, I’m the one who can’t finish a sentence.

“I love you,” he says. “You know I mean it now, don’t you?”

I blink.

“You are my one love, the only one.”

We talk then, the way we always do, until I’m the only one speaking.
About Rachel Fenton…