We're delighted to reveal the team over at Firewords Quarterly have chosen their winners for our recent short story competition. Over 550 entries directly inspired by Maggie Chiang's wonderful illustration came in, each story providing its own unique take and prompting plenty of debate amongst the editorial team over at Firewords HQ.
It was such a tough job to choose a winner, in fact, that the work of two writers couldn't be separated... meaning two stories will be published in an upcoming edition of Firewords Quarterly!
The first runner up, who will receive back-list copies of Firewords Quarterly Magazine is...
Jeanne Panfely with 'A Mother Whale Lifts Her Head.'
Feedback from Firewords Quarterly:
Jeanne pulled off something really challenging in this story: she took the reader by the hand and let them experience a child’s imagination without patronising them. Writing from the perspective of a young protagonist and making it feel authentic but also engaging to a reader of any age is no easy feat. Neither is the lovely curve this story takes, starting with the main topic of whales before diverging into the protagonist’s story. We are grabbed from the beginning.
In a story of such short length, we were introduced to a whole cast of interesting supporting characters and, somehow, we manage to get a clear sense of them all in only a few words. It isn’t just the whales we focus on and we are taken into the world of the protagonist effortlessly.
The structure, which had a carefree whimsy to it, jumped from place to place but was still heading in one direction, culminating in an ending that left us with a sense of awe that is usually only experienced by children.
The prompt was used here to great effect. We could imagine the literal depiction of whales flying through the sky and the one, solitary spectator being the child, while everyone else who was brought into the story fades out of importance for the child at the end. This takes us back to the beginning of the story again, where it all began, with the whales.
There were some comma splices and fragments here. However, these were very small things that were less noticeable due to the voice of the child being created and it did not affect the enjoyment of the story.
Scroll down to read Jeanne's story.
Which means the winners of the 2016 Firewords Quarterly short story competition, and who will both be published in an upcoming edition of the magazine and also receive the latest edition of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook are...
Jen Falkner with 'Last Man Standing' and Stephanie Percival with 'The Man With No Shadow.'
Feedback from Firewords Quarterly:
Like a gripping mystery, this story pieces together the complex and troubled history of two brothers as they head out into the wild to scatter their father’s ashes. The setting of Jen’s piece – the snowy middle of nowhere – adds an atmosphere of bleak isolation that is impossible to shake.
Though there is a lot of backstory relayed to the reader, it never feels like forced exposition. The way the characters reveal their past is completely believable and, through observing their interactions, it feels like you’re eavesdropping on real siblings with a strained relationship that could break at any moment. It is this relationship that hooks us but distracts us from a subtle undercurrent within the plot. The timelessness and normalcy of sibling relationships adds to its appeal and the realism of the piece as a whole, despite it drawing on unearthly subjects.
The contrast between the real and the surreal is captured in the prompt picture of the very human man surrounded by the abstract sky. The layers of meaning delivered by the use of the prompt make it gritty and hard hitting. Twists at the end of a story can often be handled in a clumsy way that either feel awkward and forced or just plain obvious. The conclusion of this story, however, was cleverly put together and succeeds in being both surprising yet completely natural. The foreshadowing and careful groundwork was all there from the start.
Scroll down to read Jen's story.
Feedback from Firewords Quarterly:
Stephanie opens this story with a child being sent off to a remote mountain clinic to try and cure her recurring nightmares. The sense of foreboding that builds during the narrative is relentless and masterfully constructed. It feels like you’re trying to run from an impending storm but are stuck in one place.
The fact that the ‘twist’ comes halfway through the story rather than at the end, showing us who the man with no shadow is, almost makes it more chilling, giving us insight into an inevitable outcome that cannot be stopped. In fact, it still had a powerful effect that left a chill with us long after we finished reading. In a short time, we were carried into an epic story which was historically riveting and the writer built up a protagonist that the reader had a lot of compassion for.
The prompt was used extremely well. It could be taken literally, depicting the isolation felt by the protagonist and the rural setting. The sky’s explosive effect could also be seen figuratively as the turmoil the supposedly troubled child, and the world, will go through in the proceeding years.
Scroll down to read Stephanie's story.
A Mother Whale Lifts Her Head by Jeanne Panfely
My father once told me that if a whale is beached in London, legally the queen has a right to the tail and the king has a right to the head. They are royal fish. He also told me that Humpback Whales could also be called Megaptera, coming from the Greak, meaning great wings.
Say it back to me, now.
“Megaptera,” I say. I take extra care with the last syllable. I get the 'ah' sound exactly right.
“Good,” he tells me. “You’re free to go.”
My father is a biologist. His real name is Harry. He is studying the microorganisms found trapped inside of glaciers. He has a dusting of light brown hair and it's receding, like two tides up the side of his forehead. From the time I was six to the summer after I turned eight, my father would take me out of school for months at a time and we would live in Alaska, right on the rim of the Pacific Ocean. The building we lived in was a kind of bunker, housing scientists who were there on grant, who were there to study the ocean or the fish or the glaciers themselves. "It's a scientist's colony," my father would say. "It's the best education there is."
On the day I best remember, I am seven. I am given free reign of the bunker, though I cannot go outside alone. This does not bother me. I believe the bunker is magic. I am friends with everyone in it.
Once, I followed Pieter, a Dutch scientist, as he strapped on snowshoes and clambered around the ice. I mimicked him in my smaller pail. He brought with him a black dish, connected by wires to a pair of large headphones. Every so often Pieter would stop, and hold up the dish to a piece of ice, and we would stand perfectly still. I would imagine that I was a perfect statue. Once he put the headphones on my head. They were too large and I had to support them with mittened hands. He wanted to know what I heard.
"Like the sounds they make?" I asked him, in a careful whisper.
"The sounds, and also the silence, yes."
Today, I am following Leslie, who is from Maine, who is taking me out in a boat.
"Have you ever seen a whale up close?" she asks me. I tell her I haven't. "You will today," she promises, and I am charmed by her curly auburn hair, her blunt eyelashes, the discoloration on the front of one of her teeth.
There is a car that takes us down to the docks. It has special snow tires. I am uncomfortable in my clothes and I am squirming. Itchy long underwear, and a full body snowsuit that is purple and green. Mittens that make it impossible to hold things or to open doors.
Leslie is sitting in the front seat. She is here to study the feeding habits of Humpback Whales. On the way to the boat I ask her all of my questions. Like, how much does a whale weigh, and what do they eat, and how do they breathe?
"About a ton," she tells me. "Krill, which are like little shrimp. And they come up for air, well every seven to twenty minutes or so."
As we approach the dock I hear a man shout for a little snail, and I know he is shouting for me. The man is Sven, who lives in the small town nearby, who has a full beard and a yellow knitted hat. He works odd jobs that include transporting food to the bunker, and being a handy man, and being a tour guide for anyone who might want a tour.
The best thing about Sven is that he can fit all of me on one shoulder. Which he does now, in one scoop. He walks to the boat while I am perched there. He pretends to forget where he put me. He says, "Are you ready to see the whales, little snail?"
Going out in the boat, it's cold, it takes a long time to get anyway. I can feel the wind and I can see the land receding, but I feel as if we were standing nearly still. The ocean spray is so thick I can barely keep my eyes open. It feels as if the ocean itself is rising up above the side of the boat, and taking over the places that should be air. I think that I could swim through it, if I wanted.
And then the whales come. I see a back. Another. A flipper, maybe. One of the whales shoots straight up, pokes its eye out of the water and sinks directly back down. And then nothing, it's just quite and we are all, every one of us on the boat, collectively holding our breaths.
When the breaching begins it happens fast; one, two, three in a row. An intake of breathe from the crowd. Leslie in a hurry, trying to record everything. Sven working the boat, fighting the clips of the waves, while still taking a moment to greet the whales with a booming smile.
And I am realizing something. I am edging right up to the threshold of the water. The whales are breaching and they aren't coming back down. A great whale thrust its body out of the water, and it's so close to our boat, and I can see a barnacled flipper, the gray-whiteness of its body, and I imagine that if I reached out my hand and grabbed the animal, we would swim into the sky together.
And I can hear Leslie and she's shouting "Not so close!" And Sven is telling me to walk in his direction, but I can see that the whales are flying. And I can feel the thickness of the water around me, and I know that if I step off the boat I could be flying too.
The Man With No Shadow by Stephanie Percival
You must understand this is for the best, Johanna. You are fortunate.”
I knew I was. My life was a privileged one, you could tell that from the quality of the trunk being packed. Yet my hands fumbled as I pulled the leather strap through the buckle.
I think Mama supposed I was reminded of the restraints which had shackled me whilst electric shocks were applied to my brain. A treatment supposed to rid me of my nightmare. It had not worked.
She reached over and smoothed the shadows below my eyes with her fingertips.“Liebchen, there won’t be any of that at this clinic.”
But I wasn’t concerned about the treatment I might undergo, just how long I would be banished from home. The trunk was very large.
The Mountain Clinic nestles beneath the Bavarian Alps and as I am driven towards the remote building I’m amazed at the space around me. The air appears lighter, the fragrance sweet, and when I emerge from the car I hear cattle lowing and bells chinking. There is calm which makes me hopeful the dream might go.
Doctor Brauer tells me I will have a consultation with him daily to discuss my nightmare. Most of the other patients are recuperating from Tuberculosis. I am expected to dine in the refectory and go on daily hikes with them. The regime is about healthy living, nourishing food and exercise.
It does not take long to adjust to the routine. The first bell sounds at seven and we rise, then further bells ring throughout the day indicating different activities.
I am nervous about my first consultation with the doctor; most medics have labelled me hysterical. But Doctor Brauer has a kind face and gentle voice, and I find I am able to relate the dream which has troubled me all my life.
“Tell me what happens in the dream Johanna?”
The couch in his room is comfortable, from here I can see the purple of the mountains and the snowy peaks rise so high they become hazy.
I take a deep breath before I reply, as I revisit that dark place.
“I am being suffocated, as if I am being engulfed by cloud. I cannot breath. And I cry out, try to scream, but then a gloved hand clutches my face, pushing me down further. I smell the tannin of the glove, so when I finally awake my face is clammy and my nostrils sting.”
“Is there more?”
“Sometimes there is a man. He is dressed in black. He might be the man with the gloved hand. And if I see him...”
I can’t help but pause and I drum my fingers against the couch, “...He has no shadow.”
I know I sound foolish.
The doctor nods.
“It feels like a premonition.”
There, I have said it; my fingers drum harder against the wood.
Doctor Brauer smiles and scribbles something in his papers, I wonder what he writes. That my dream is sexual, even Oedipal or just agrees Johanna Eckstein is hysterical.
Following my meeting I go and sit on the terrace. I stretch out on a lounger, my legs covered by a blanket. I read or just watch shadows move across the meadows and mountains. Other patients sit further from me, their conversation light but interspersed with coughing.
“Did you know, we have a famous neighbour?” One of the men has come to sit near me. I allow myself to look up from my book. He has a wide face with freckles, and brushes sandy hair away from his eyes. He is smiling at me.
“The Fürher himself!”
This does impress me. Though tucked away in an obscure region of Bavaria, an important person chooses to live here as well.
“Can you see his house?” I ask.
“No, but if you look carefully at the ridge on the right and follow the line down, where the shadow changes from blue to grey, that is the valley where the Berghof is.”
I follow his pointing finger, and believe I glimpse a building, a black daub against the grey of the mountain.
That night I have the dream again. Instead of cold cloud suffocating me, it is hot, as if I have descended into Hell. My screams bring nurses running. The needle stings as a sedative is administered. At breakfast I am drowsy, hardly able to lift my spoon to my mouth. But around me I detect a clamour, an excitement which I have not noticed before.
At my appointment, I recount my nightmare. Doctor Brauer smiles and scribbles and suggests I sit on the terrace in the sunshine.
The man with the sandy hair approaches.
“Have you heard? We’re going to have a visit.”
“A visit?” I say, my brain still groggy, “Who?”
Life here is so calm and ordered that a famous visitor is quite an occasion.
The tension builds throughout the day. I hear the clattering of pans as extra provisions are baked in the kitchens, there is a flurry of mopping and sweeping, and we are all asked to present ourselves at four O’clock on the terrace. The excitement is contagious and I am trembling as I change my dress.
We wait in a group on the terrace; washed and presentable and smiling.
His car is parked at the bottom of the drive, so he walks up the slope towards us, the mountains massive behind him.
And as he approaches I sense the ground shaking, I expect to look up and see snow sliding in an avalanche down the mountainside. But there is no movement. In fact everything seems remarkably still as if it is holding its breath. He is not a tall man, but the closer he advances the more I shudder, because his presence oppresses the atmosphere; absorbing air.
He is silhouetted against the dazzle of white mountainside, he should cast a shadow. But there is no shadow.
Last Man Standing by Jen Falkner
The unpacked snow squealed like new shoes as Warren turned off the highway into the parking lot. He climbed out of the car and his nostrils stung with the smell of the pine woods. The woods looked thicker and the air felt emptier than he remembered. It had been a long time since he’d been properly out of the city.
His father used to say he’d been coming to the hot springs since the Alaska Highway was a gravel road. He brought the family once or twice a year when the boys were small. He would have hated to see it again now, to know that all the protests and petitions were in vain.
“You made it then.” His brother Will stood on the steps to the visitor’s centre. His hands were wrapped around a thermos cup. The heavy smell of hot chocolate drifted towards him. Will never did grow up to drink coffee like everyone else.
“Of course I made it.” Warren struggled through the thick snow towards him, guessing where the path must be. In no time his ankles sparkled with clinging snow. Will gave Warren an awkward half-hug. He could barely feel it through his parka.
“How was the drive?”
“Good. Fine.” As good as a sixteen hour drive from Calgary could be, he guessed. The radio kept him company until he got too far north and the station started to fade in and out on tides of static.
“And the kids?”
Warren searched for something to say. He looked up at the jagged line the trees made against the sky. The air really did feel clearer up here.
“Emily and I are getting a divorce,” said Will.
“No, not really. I just wanted a reaction. Your face looked, I don’t know, kind of stuck.”
“It’s my beard. Hides all expression.”
“Oh yeah. Thought you looked different.”
The snow was deep and untrammelled; they had to rely on memory to follow the old boardwalk to the hot springs. There used to be signs urging visitors to stay on the boardwalk, that there were plant species unique to the park that could be endangered by kids rampaging through the marshes. Not that that ever stopped them.
He pictured how everything used to look when the steam from the hot springs coated every branch in fingerlings of white ice. The air just above the water was always cloudy, as if the water was an open mouth exhaling into the cold.
“How long has it been since the springs froze over?” Will was looking out across the expanse of snow. Edged by bushes, it made an almost perfect semi-circle. Warren wondered how thick the ice was underneath. Was it safe to walk across? Was there even water there anymore?
“Six, seven years since the earthquake. I don’t know.” He did know. He knew the exact date.
“At least it got them to stop drilling up here. I hate that word, fracking. It sounds like it should mean something else.”
“Too fracking right.”
Warren stuffed his hands in his pockets. His left hand collided with the soft plastic bag.
“Why are you here, Will?”
“Why did you want to do this?”
“This? You mean, say good bye to our dad? Gee, I don’t know, Warren, why d’you think?”
“But doesn’t it bother you, what he was like? Mum’s funeral?” He didn’t know why he persisted, but the words wouldn’t stop coming.
“Here we go.” Will sighed.
“He made money from her death and then bragged about it.” He was pushing too hard, trying to get a reaction. “He should’ve cancelled that policy after the divorce.”
“Well, he didn’t. So what?”
“So what? He bragged. At her funeral. Thirty thousand dollars.” But an image of his parents floated before him. They were just two heads above the steaming surface of the water, sitting close together. Mum’s hair was encrusted with ice; she called it her space helmet look. Dad, smiling at her.
“I think he was probably just happy to get one over on the insurance company. You know what he was like about them. Corporations. Besides, it’s not like he was betting she’d go first. Like he thought the cancer was some kind of jackpot. Funerals are tricky. People say the wrong things.”
Warren said nothing.
“Hey, remember the moose?” said Will. He waited for Warren to turn. “Dad left the towels draped over the railing and this big bull started nibbling them. He nearly had a fit when he finally noticed. Remember?”
“The only time Dad ever properly heated the car. He thought we’d all catch pneumonia on the way home.” He and Will used their chattering to make vibrating robot voices from the back seat.
“Mum couldn’t stop laughing.”
Warren pulled out the bag. He thought it would be like sand from the beach, like a souvenir of a summer holiday. But it was lighter, its contents dustier. “Do you want to–“
“No, no. You do it. You’re the oldest.”
“The last one standing.”
On the drive up he had imagined this moment, upending the bag and watching the ashes fall like snow. It was going to be beautiful and poignant, his father coming to rest in the park he had loved. Now the ashes blew back on him in a sudden burst of wind. He stepped back, repelled, and brushed them off his sleeve, the front of his coat.
“We hadn’t spoken since the earthquake. He wanted me to join the protest. He had extra placards, he said. I told him I knew a lost cause when I saw one.” It’s funny, Warren thought, that he still called it the day of the earthquake. Not the day of the accident. The fracking accident a hundred miles away.
“I didn’t even talk to him at your funeral.”
The sky, unsoftened by steam from the springs, made his eyes ache. The woods had never been more silent.
Many congratulations to Jeanne, Jen and Stephanie and thanks once again to all those who entered. Remember, if you're looking for another free writing competition with equally exciting prizes, be sure to visit our competition page.