First Prize: Cave of Dreams by Dorothy Collard
Review from judge Suzanne Joinson: "I was impressed with the immediacy of this piece. It is strongly visualised and the reader is there, right in the story. Wonderful imagery and the prose was refreshingly clear and light. Excellent stuff."
Cave of Dreams
The great ridge met the sky in slabs of layered ironstone. It soaked up the sun, magnified it and threw it back so vehemently even the still air smelled hot.
The ancient scar slashed the land like a giant red welt.
Xa knew there was no respite up here. Rooted to the rock, feet burning like a firewalker’s, he watched and listened. There was no sound. But Xa, whose people had grown with this land, perceived the stunned bird brought down by his slingshot. It sheltered among the sharp white spears of a thorn bush in a crevice.
He reached in. A noisy flutter and the bird dropped away and was gone. Xa could not believe the magic.
Then he saw it – hidden by timeworn, twisted branches - a hole, two-arms wide, piercing this spot on the high ridge with the yellow-blue light of the plains below.
Xa moved the leather thong round his waist so that the little pouch rested against the small of his back. He peered down the shaft. It spiralled away like a hole bored in wood when your firestick won’t light.
Where the bird had gone, he would go. He edged towards the opening. The ironstone grit ground into his flesh. The thorns tore at his back. He swung his legs into the hole, jamming one on each side of the shaft to support himself and, limbs moving in sequence, lowered himself down the rock tunnel.
It opened on to a ledge hollowed into the side of the kranz. It was cool and shady and, most marvellous of all, a trickle of water ran down the side of the cave, gathered in dips, then dripped through a mossy carpet over the edge.
Xa sat for ages in wonder of the place. He drank from the fresh spring. He watched kudu moving on the plain below. He watched the sun flash orange as it sank beneath the horizon. He watched stars appear, grow bright and slip like raindrops across the night sky. He saw dawn spirit-mists rise from the burnt earth. He saw herds huddle against the cold morning air. He heard the song of silence. He drank again and gave thanks.
Moved by all he had seen in this place, he opened his pouch and laid out a large egg and three stones. He turned to the wall, ran his fingers over the surface, felt for depths and textures.
Another day’s sun blazed.
In the cool of the cave Xa took up his stones. He ground each into a separate hollow. He dripped water from his fingers onto the grains and churned until red, brown and dark ochre pastes glowed like treasured offal.
Xa felt the weight of the egg in his hand. His stomach contracted with longing and hunger.
He looked at the plain of his ancestors. He thought of those to come.
He broke the egg.
He shelled its contents into the paste-filled hollows. He mixed and thought. Then, dipping his fingers into the colours, Xa began to paint. He conjured the bird that lived another day; a running kudu and its foal; and his ancestral spirit - a tall, long-legged, man-form with a horned wildebeest head. He smoothed his hand over the last paint and pressed it against the rock.
The tableau was perfect - a semi-circle of story and the maker’s mark on the curving cave wall.
Honour would last longer than hunger. Xa adjusted his pouch and began the long climb up through the sacred shaft to the top of the kranz and another day’s hunting.
Second Prize: Ocean Gateway by Kathryn Nelson
Review from judge Suzanne Joinson: "A wonderfully atmospheric and intriguing piece. Very well written in cliche-free prose that is both evocative and lyrical. A lovely read."
Just the sighing wind and the restless waves. Just me alone in this tiny boat surrounded by the immense deep blue ocean and endless pale dome of sky. I sat back against the rough planks of the hull and rested my arm over the tiller to keep heading in the right direction. I glanced behind to check the wake. It stretched out straight, the only mar on the ruffled surface. It was like my past, stretched out behind, whilst I glided on into the future. I looked ahead but whatever the future held, it was obscured by secretive, shifting waters.
I shook my head to clear such fanciful thoughts and pulled in the mainsheet to adjust the sail. It was a triangle of glossy black material with a few coarser patches of cotton near the edges. A great tangle of the black material had washed up on the beach many years ago. The Elders had called it Kevlar. It used to be expensive, reserved for racing boats and fancy yachts, but now it was just useable scrap like everything else that washed up on the beach. The way of making the material had been lost, like so much else, to the rising water, to the insatiable ocean that had swallowed the old world, well before my time. Where apparently there used to be enormous land masses, now there were countless islands scattered in the vast ocean and we lived on the edge, between the water that took and gave without love or hate and the useless memory-haunted ruins inland.
My thoughts drifted as aimlessly as the albatross that glided over the wave tops. I have been alone at sea for three days and knew I must be nearing the island.
Before each adolescent can become an adult in the community, they must undergo the Numrar; directly translated as the gateway but it meant a challenge, a test. This was mine: to sail to the Island of Fruits and return with offerings for the Elders. I had dreaded it for months.
Whilst, like all in the shore-side community, I had learnt to handle a boat and a fishing line from a young age, I had never relished going to sea. It seemed too vast and heartless, empty and lonely. I much preferred to sit in the shade and talk whilst making baskets and hats. I could weave a story as well as I could weave sea grass and colourful strands of seaweed. It seemed important to remember the old tales and to build new stories. Each had a lesson to teach, some knowledge to impart, wisdom to inspire and mistakes that should not be forgotten. The Elders told me that stories used to be written down, hidden in books, stored and lost. When I spoke the words, they were shared and remembered.
My parents did not understand. They wanted me to be more practical. All I wanted to do was to tell the stories. They filled my mind and flickered behind my eyes. Maybe if I passed this test, if I could face this challenge, the Numrar, I would find the strength to decide my own future, to take control of my life.
I looked ahead. I could just make out a tiny smudge of land on the horizon. Behind it rose ominous dark storm clouds.
Strangely, the tension, fear and worry drifted away, evaporated. I could do this, I realised. I was filled with an inner calm and certainty as vast and mysterious as the waters that surrounded me. I focused. It was just the ocean and me.