1st prize – Brontë Crawford
The Tale of the Missionary
‘Beware the boggarts on the marsh.
‘There was a young girl jus’ las’ week, why –
About thy age.
Snatched off ‘er feet as she wor on ‘er way.
They found bits of ‘er skin in the thorn bushes.’
Still Annie took the same path to the university across the marshes, between the bare hedgerows like the blackened bones of the damned, the trees that sprouted crows’ nests like witches’ warts.
She could well believe that even the land and its fey offspring would conspire to keep a woman from her books. She found it harder to believe that God was watching over her as she walked there, with the cold gnawing at her hands even with a hot butter pie clutched between her fingers, her feet sinking into the bog, her path forward wreathed in mist that rose up from the bog. And the berries hanging from the bushes, like drops of that poor girl’s blood frozen where they fell.
But faith is measured in the flesh, Annie knew, not in fine words and fairy tales. And so she went on, wishing for her grandmother’s hearth fire if not the stories told around it, for the ringing of church bells to drown out the echo of old wives’ tales in her ears.
If the boggarts did see her, books strapped to her back, bent at the waist against the cold, perhaps they took her for a witch, spellbooks and all. Looking out for their bones to crush into her cauldron.
‘Beware the ksuids in the forest.
‘There were two young girls last month, why –
You might’ve taught them.
Tickled to death by U Ksuid Tynjang.
They found strands of their hair in the trees.’
Still Annie took the same path to the school through the forest, between the white heads of mushrooms like the crowns of skulls, beneath the blue rudraksha fruits like watching eyes.
She would not have it that the land and its ghastly offspring should keep her students from hearing their lesson, from listening to the word of God instead of the fables told by their foremothers. Fables that haunted her too as she walked there, with the air itself too hot to breathe, her dress as damp as the soil and her path fringed by cobra lilies that swayed without a breeze. And the strings of moss hanging from the trees, like strands of those poor girls’ hair.
But faith is measured in the footprints one leaves behind, Annie knew, not in fearful visions and feeble lungs. And so she went on, the taste of kwai fading on her tongue, through this forest of which neither the Good Book or even her grandmother could have told, with only wise women’s tales to light her way.
If the ksuids did see her, with her student’s workbooks in hand, bent at the waist with coughing, perhaps they took for a ghost, for her lips were blue enough. Hunting for other lost souls to guide on their way.
2nd prize – Courteney Baker
3rd prize – Elizabeth Gibson
Our final night, and I am up until the early hours,
listening to the wireless and copying the picture.
My father had it on the wall, and I found it again
in a book from the library, after a week of searching.
I hope it isn’t too much, too formal and sombre.
You will mock me up a quick skit of a cat or fox,
or us whacking each other with hockey sticks,
or laughing like chickens over our hot chocolate.
The day I tumbled from my bicycle somewhere
in the wilds of Ormskirk, the world flipped upside down
– I was clinging to a grassy ceiling, terrified to fall
into the blue below, and you thought I was joking.
Then you took my wrist, and the world tipped back.
With brush, paint and water, I ease in ripples of ocean,
smudges of ship, leaving no tear or wrinkle in any sail.
I want you to have a safe voyage, wherever you go.
I may never see you again, when I head further North;
you, South. You were never good at holiday letters.
Remember our vocab cards? Pictures from magazines,
mine neater. We each did two of each, then shared.
I have half of yours – frogs, plums – and you have half
of mine – moon, snow. Our pupils will chant them
like a song. When we are old – you maybe keeping bees,
me baking for my village – I’ll whisper your name,
and there you will be, sails billowing. This is what
I am hoping for, with my ship, careful and loving,
in your friendship book, which I will return to you
tomorrow, our last day. May we meet again, in this life.