The number and quality of the entries, all written to the theme "A Garden of Eden,"was impressive! As a result, it took a bit longer for the judges to winnow the list down, eventually coming up with 13 rather than 10 stories from which Vanessa Gebbie was to choose the winner. The winner of a place in her workshop will be announced on the writing.ie site the week of the 16th of April and will be included here as well. Thank you to all the writers who entered the 250-word Short Fiction Competition, congratulations to those on the short list, and good luck to each of them as we move toward announcing the winner..
So here, in no particular order, are the top 13 entries:
Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, Ireland
My hand was cold and purple when I withdrew it from between the bars of the cot. For six hours I had opened and closed my eyes, reluctantly falling into a restless, jumpy sleep while my fingertips rested on her, noting the rise and fall of her ribcage. During the night, when nothing moved except the flickering lights on the monitors, or the nurse doing her hourly checks, I did not move my hand once from the warm body. I believed nothing could possibly stop that rhythm of breaths once my hand was across her heart, instilling calm, reminding her I was here. I had gone beyond exhausted at this stage, my body struggling to cope with the fact it had been rushed from pregnancy seven weeks too early just five days ago.
Outside the Special Care Baby Unit, life was going on as normal for other people. Nurses arrived, there was a shift change, the cleaners came and went. Other parents arrived; we nodded at each other, each face looking as haunted and hollow as mine. There was a special language we used and we had learnt it very quickly. ‘Day by day’, ‘Doing well,’ ‘Stable- thank God.’
Placing our trust in technology, the equipment our babies were connected to, the collective knowledge of medical learning. It was only in a quieter moment, when I readjusted the cotton bandage that protected her transparent eyelids, that terror gripped me. If science failed, all that remained was hope.
Kibbutz Kadarim, Israel
“La Deux Chevaux”
Michael lets his hand caress the bonnet. In the café window opposite, he watches its reflection. A Citroën 2CV, Deux Chevaux, ’63 model he reckons from the features: smooth bonnet, round lights, wheels only a little wider than a bicycle.
The first time he saw a 2CV he was a kid. It was a Matchbox car he’d picked out for his fifth birthday with Grandpa Saul in a windy shop next to St. Kilda beach. Everything was covered with a layer of salt, and grandpa wiped the boxes with his sleeve so Michael could see through the plastic.
The first car Michael picked up was a Volkswagen, and Grandpa took it from his hand and put it back. "Morrie, what you got these for?" he called out to the shopkeeper, who shrugged his shoulders. "Feshtunkener German car," he spat, "Hitler’s design."
Michael walked along the edge of shelves and took another one, it looked like it was moving through the plastic. "This one?" he asked, and grandpa took it from him gently, turned it over in his hand. "Andre Citroën, Jewish boy," he said and put it on the counter for Morrie to wrap in a brown paper bag.
He takes a last look at the 2CV, then feels in his pocket for a business card and leans it on the roll-back canvas roof, stretched tight enough to write on. "If you ever want to sell this car, call me," and leaves it under the windscreen wiper.
The first feather was a surprise. She got her tweezers and it came out easily. Her glasses were new- varivocal - and she squinted at this delicate intruder on her finger.
Maybe it had just transferred to her chin when she had collected the eggs that morning. She laughed at herself, yet the little sting in her skin remained. Something had been extracted, and there was no hair to be seen.
Each morning, more feathers. Finding them began to replace her previous obsessive fingertip probing for the hard shaft of any rogue hair. She had been so upset when the first dark line had interrupted the soft smooth profile of her face, memories of childhood and the bristly chins of elderly female relatives filling her with dread.
The feathers coming were different. It was somehow soothing to discover tiny brown ones under the brow line, longer glossy ones under her arms and on her thighs. She covered them with clothes, but there was no one to notice anyway. Her waist expanded, yet she found herself clucking contentedly to herself as she pottered around the garden. The hens ran across the yard to greet her, always pleased to see her, always interested in her news. They snoozed under bushes, gave themselves dust baths, stretched out their wings in the sun. Called to her.
‘I’m marrying again. Come and meet the old gang. Hen party this Sunday.’
She mailed a card. ‘Sorry. Can’t come. Going to one already this weekend.’
Tamil Nadu. India
The well in our back garden was still. Not a ripple on its dark waters. No frogs. No blind white turtles. No snakes. The boughs of an ancient Margossa tree kept the sun out and the dead leaves in. The leaves lay like anchored boats on the water’s surface, until they had soaked up enough liquid to drown.
We never threw stones into the well. Nobody drew water from it. Even bats avoided it. Only during the monsoon, when the rain fell so thickly that it seemed the whole sky had turned into one massive waterfall, did it show any signs of life. It opened up its maw and drank up all that water. But its thirst was never quenched. The water never reached out for the rims of its old brick walls. Worse, the water remained dark like before. Never glassy white like the fresh rain it consumed.
The elders said the well was an endless tube running straight into the Earth’s bowels. Of course we were forbidden to play there. We didn’t feel tempted either. The well annoyed us. It took up good garden space that we could use. It ought to have been bricked up long ago. But the elders would have none of it. They shared something with that old well; and someone.
We would just have to wait until the elders died and we were able to take their place.
Freshford, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland
At the seaside beach balls, shovels and buckets were stacked in colourful bundles under a flapping canvas; wind whipped windmill toys into a frenzy of spinning brilliance. Then I saw the kite, straining and tugging in the breeze.
My brother and sisters had buckets and spades; they wanted to dig to Australia. I didn’t want to see any more dark holes in the ground.
Ted, my brother, was born a week after my father was buried. Aunt May said he arrived early because of the shock and that’s why he hadn’t walked yet.
The last time we saw the sea my father was with us and he taught me how to fly a kite.
“Hold on tight now,” he said “or it will fly out to sea.”
“Where does the sea end Da?”
“I think that’s where heaven might be.” he said.
I released the kite like my father had shown me. It arched up overhead, graceful and calm, its long tail swirling and sweeping the wide blue sky. For a long time I watched it play, I watched it buck and dip and all the time I held on until I was tired holding on and my arms ached. Then slowly I opened my fist and felt the string slip through my fingers, the kite soared wide and high, out towards that blue line where the sea ends.
Turning back I saw Ted in the distance; he stood up slowly, balanced himself, and took his first step.
Elizabeth Rose Murray
Schull, West Cork, Ireland
His dad had always said that a home wasn’t a home without a few ducks. Now, Declan wished he’d never opened his mouth about that. Amazing how foolish a few whiskies at a wake could make you.
Victor Sullivan hadn’t been an hour in the ground before his doting son had shared the anecdote with friends and well wishers. Within a week, there was an army of ducks in Declan’s care and yet another red face to contend with.
“Erm, here you go, lad,” murmurs Old Pat as he hands over a Khaki Campbell. A good layer. Over 300 a year. Better than the Saxony that Mrs O’Regan presented earlier; friendlier too, according to the booklet he’d been forced to buy.
“As if the funeral costs weren’t enough,” his wife had grumbled.
“Thanks, Pat,” Declan calls from behind the wriggling neck, before carrying the duck to the back garden and introducing it to the mob.
Wings flapping, the duck runs clumsily over young lettuce shoots and hides in the prized herb bed. Declan hopes it’s feeding on a juicy slug, rather than his basil. Marcy would like that as much as she liked his old man.
As the gate swings open, Declan crouches on his heels, sinking into the grass.
“Not another bloody useless duck,” tuts Marcy, eyes lifted to the heavens. “I swear, Declan, I won’t be back out here until they’re all gone.”
Following his wife’s gaze, Declan smiles. Maybe the old man was right.
Ally ducked under the honeysuckle arch and the wooden gate closed with a decisive click. The rumble of lorries in the street vanished like magic, and a collective humming took its place. Bees. Honeybees flying loops in the lavender, bumblebees rolling themselves fat and yellow in the buddleia, cross bees fighting amongst Love-in-a-Mist under the almond tree.
The sharp, white sunlight moved the garden like a mirage as if Ally was seeing through the gauze of a cataract. She screwed up her eyes but the flowers stayed cloudy, the colours indistinct; and the bees droned on.
Paper and paints sat waiting at the garden table. She decided quickly; just graded washes and modified hues: thin, raw umber and zinc white with a dash of purple for an old blousey rose; diluted cadmium red with a hint of black for a graceful hollyhock.
Working fast with a sponge, a rag and a voluptuous sable brush dripping with wash, she let the paint dribble and granulate, allowing the colours to mingle. She tilted the paper from side to side. She mopped and wiped. There was no need for a fine brush. Ally was making shapes and traces - an intimation of what could be.
A bumblebee covered in pollen crash-landed on the paper and left a golden sun. It righted itself indignantly and flew off.
Ally blinked twice and time shifted once more. She heard the sound of lorries rumbling past, sighed, and lifted the latch.
Skerries, Co. Dublin, Ireland
As her husband moved deeper inside her, Rose wondered whether to cook carrots or sweet corn for tomorrow night’s dinner. Carrots were cheaper, of course, but sweet corn was more usual with tuna.
It wasn’t that he was a bad lover; it was just that she had already had her pleasure and her mind, being of the efficient sort, had turned to the next thing. She had already bought the tuna, onion, tomatoes and garlic; it was just the vegetable she needed to consider.
Her husband’s movements slowed. She panicked. Would he want to move positions? She didn’t think she had the energy for that. ‘You’re wonderful,’ she murmured. ‘ I adore you.’ His movements became more enthusiastic.
The problem was money: they barely had any. She had lost her job and was trying to keep it a secret. Jonathon did not take much notice of bank accounts. Rose did. She knew how much was in each and could give a startlingly accurate estimation of the amount of brown coins sitting in the change jar in the hall.
Jonathon slid off her onto his side; they sighed together and Rose switched off the lamp. It was immediate; the switch from dynamic-love-machine to comatose- wipe out. She kicked the duvet around and fluffed up the pillow. Her last thought, before she drifted off, was that she would choose the carrots over sweet corn.
The carriage clock ticked on the mantle, marking the passing of a long Sunday afternoon. The monopoly set lay untouched on the coffee table. He glanced through the window from time to time, checking to see the car approaching through the overgrown hedges, despite knowing he’d hear the crunching of tyres on the gravel in advance. He noticed in passing the tired and dejected garden, long ago referred to as their Eden in this the garden county.
The clock ticked as evening drew in, embracing the shadows cast by the watery sun. He decided to stock up on turf for the night ahead, better now than later, as he zipped up his fleece before stepping out into the cool blast. Back inside the fire crackled as he lit a candle to ward off the gloom and eased himself into the depths of the armchair. He glanced at the serpentine amber liquid resting on the sideboard. Instead he picked up the newspaper in an attempt at distraction.
The memory of their last visit flitted repeatedly into his mind. The angry words exchanged, the bitter tone, the grandchildren’s chatter abruptly halted as they were bundled into the back of the car before they sped off towards Dublin. Two longs weeks had since passed, time spent hoping it would all blow over, that they’d arrive as usual for their fortnightly visit.
A car swung by on the road, a light thrown onto the living room wall. He stood to look out the window.
Donoughmore, Co. Cork, Ireland
“In the Beginning”
In the beginning, she didn’t even slow down, just drove on past.
After a few weeks, she grew brave. She would roll down the car window when passing the house and inhale the scent of honeysuckle from their garden.
Then she began to stop. An apple tree overhung the pavement and she would park in its shadows and watch another woman peg his shirts to the line.
One Friday – after dinner but before sex - Adam took a call on his mobile. He paced the floor of Evie’s flat, frowning.
‘Trouble in Paradise?’ Evie said, when he hung up.
‘Lucy thinks she’s being watched.’
‘I know.’ He rolled his eyes.
At night, tiny snake-like thoughts slithered through her head. They flicked little forked tongues and shaped themselves into words like
love and babies. She began to leave things behind. A breath at first. Then a hair. Slivers of skin. A drop of blood. Once she threw a book he had given her over the wall, watched the wind turn the pages.
‘We have a good time, Evie. What more do you want?’
The bark was cool against her skin. She was almost asleep when Adam rang.
‘Mind if we cancel tonight?’ he said.
‘Lucy’s having a breakdown. She thinks there’s a naked woman in our apple tree.’
Evie waved down at Lucy. Then she reached for an apple and bit it, let the juice drip down her chin and breasts onto the grass below.
Doolin, Co. Clare, Ireland
“A Garden of Eden”
“Your mint looks as withered as the skin a snake sheds.”
I smile and continue tending my turmeric. Ameera is trying to rile me; my mint is the best in the district.
I look up from my devotions to survey the rooftop scene. My garden is a haven amidst so much concrete. A young couple promised to each other snatch a quick word among the vines. I pretend not to see them although I know my Imam would complain that I have created a new Garden of Eden. Ahmed receives excellent internet reception here so he sits and reaches out to the world from beside the coriander. Ameera and her friends come after their household labours to gossip and escape the busy streets. My daughter makes mint tea and generally maintains order.
That was two months ago but it could be two lifetimes. Today I brush the dust off my mint. My tears cut rivulets through the grey coated leaves for Ahmed whose shattered body was pulled from his crushed home. I weep for the women and their children who sit shaking with fear in basements.
My daughter begged me to leave with her but I said I was too old to be afraid. My home and garden lay at the edge of the destruction but now feel as if they are being pulled into the middle of the hell around me. I am not fearless; I just won’t leave my garden. Normality is my defiance.
Ormesby, Middleborough, UK
“Man of Straw”
It is Sunday morning. As usual he is walking the dog.
As he approaches the barbed wire fence his attention is caught by something that flutters as the breeze gusts.
He stops. He calls the dog to heel. As it runs back to him he stares at the fence, focused on the thing.
It is a piece of string, teased out to no more than a bundle of sisal, the shape of a man, caught on a barb.
“Sweet suffering Christ.” The blasphemy, once so common because it was so exact, springs unbidden to his lips after twenty-four years.
Unbidden too, summoned by this man of straw, come the images he tried forget. Fabrics caught and hanging on barbed wire. In the rain and the wind, the fibres rot, fray, separate.
At the edges the warp and woof part company. Clinging to the whole cloth they flutter in the slightest breeze, like Tibetan prayer flags. One day, all unravelled, the strands are blown away, souls wafted from limbo. But there is always more material, draped, decaying, caught on the wire.
The dog whines for his attention. He pulls his watch from his pocket; time to go. At noon the Prime Minister is to broadcast to the nation. It is September 3rd.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
The children had gone. She walked down the corridor, breathing in the smell of bleach and old gym shoes. The caretaker's store was open and she could see the red bucket of sand, brought out whenever one of the girls vomited in a classroom, sitting on its hook.
Her room was still there behind the mural of Prince Pondicherry's chocolate palace on the green door. She had wanted to put this off, hoping she would be the last person to see the room before the desks and chairs were sold. All 30 copies of Fair Stood the Wind for France were still stacked by the back wall. The whiteboard had been taken away, revealing the old blackboard where she had written: “What role does fate have to play in The Woodlanders?”
She had not wanted to leave but the school was 'no longer viable'; the spreadsheets said so. Soon weeds would push up through the paving stones in the playground and people would break in to tear out the copper wiring and sell it for scrap.
She unlocked her storeroom and picked up the last cardboard box of old exam papers. A book fell from a high shelf she thought she had cleared. Some of the pages came free and lay in paper curls on the floor. She picked up a page and read, seeing the words she had taught for twenty years as if for the first time:"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."