Vote for your favourite from these fab stories to win the surprise People’s Prize. Our judging team are busy re-reading to choose the winners of the cash prizes. Voting is open until 23.59 (UK time) on 26th June 2023. Results will be announced on 27th. Good luck everyone!
A New Family Tree
As she climbed, bark scratching off layers of skin, Seph smiled her mouth around the word ‘free’. She imagined she had new flesh underneath, unscarred as an unfurling bud. The tree held its boughs wide in welcome. Once she reached a sturdy branch, hidden from sharp gazes and sharper words, Seph nestled herself against the gentle shh-shhing foliage, sighing out memories and watching them tumble. She shrugged out of the rest of her skin and let that fall, too, like pieces of a torn family photograph, as she pressed herself further into the bark and made her home within it.
I buried you beneath the barren snag. I think I’ve trapped you inside the tree; there’s a delicious irony in thinking of you as Daphne. I’m the one who remains, even my bruises have faded to an almost pink tenderness.
Once, I read a poem that said almost was the saddest word. I think of the word as a blessing. I almost didn’t make it. There was no almost in what I did to you. I hope the word doesn’t turn on me; she almost got away with it.
Sometimes, I dig into the earth to check you’re still there.
31 …. 32 …. 33…
I raise my head and look through the twisted tangle of naked branches to the cloudless sky.
Their giggling retreat behind me confirms my suspicions. Last time, red-faced, heart-wounded and strewn with cobweb lace and rhododendron petals, I had sneaked past Tilly’s garden where they sat laughing and eating biscuits.
48 …. 49 …. 50!
The dead tree is my only witness.
I hope for acceptance, but today I will not go looking for it.
Resting my head against the weathered trunk, I listen for the chomp of the woodlice and pretend it doesn’t hurt.
I’m done for when bobbin thread snaps for third time today. Foreman’s in me face, sour spittle flying. Get out.Forget that five bob I’m due. That’s rent money gone. No use lifting me skirts for this one—‘is fancies fall elsewhere. It’s me as kept little ‘uns from ‘is fiddling, fornicating fingers. Our Nan’s only seven.
Outside, factory’s blazing, but streets are dark, dank grave cuts. Workhouse looms deadbeat-black against moon. Foreman’s on towpath with ‘is bottle, tipping bitter down ‘is throat. Canal’s cold and silent as despair. Drown a man, it could.
I swore I’d swing for ‘im one day.
How To Carry Countries Inside Of You
The afternoon that a bolt of lightning struck a tree on St. Edmonds, Josephina signed over her Italian citizenship. While officially American on paper, when she stepped out of the cab blocks from her Brooklyn apartment and smelled burning wood, she was of Portici, her father’s fig tree overhanging her family’s kitchen steps. She remembered how the figs would rot, fall, burst on gravel. Amethyst split in two, byzantium hemming in laurel like fresh wood. At dusk, she watched wasps curl inside the chalky flowers and give their wings in payment. Let the tree swallow them whole to live again.
In The Shade Of My Mother
“I’m fine,” she says in the learned English way though her dry skin is scaly, her voice as rasping as bark. When I hug her close, I feel she might break. Her bones are twig-brittle, bare of the plumpness of blossom.
“And you?” she asks.
“All good,” I reply, and we let both our lies slide though once she was sturdy, strong rooted and sure.
Now I’m the ripe one, bearing fruit and though she still feeds me seeds of her wisdom, feeds me with love, I’m already grieving, knowing she’ll be leaving me soon. Leaving me hungry for more.
Telling The Tree
I’d come here to tell the tree. It was our tradition. Anything important, shared. Rosie had gone and I couldn’t silently swallow her betrayal.
An age ago we’d shimmied up the trunk like young koalas leaving ludicrous notes, meaningless as morsels of fruitcake, to make each other laugh. The tree had been our confidante, green, with whispering leaves that tickled our bodies. Sweet sap had been sticky on our fingers.
Now I encountered a desiccated ruin. I tried to climb but brittle branches snapped. I fell into a cat’s cradle of knotted roots. The tree and I moaned unheard, unremarked.
The Green Green Grass Of Home
The old house is no longer standing, and the oak tree I used to play on is a nuked monument of memories.
A swing, a fort. My first kiss.
A wildfire they’d said, then my frantic, long-distance flight, and my Momma and Poppa no longer there to greet me.
A futile, melted garden hose snakes across Poppa’s vast, pride-and-joy lawn. Now a sooty carpet. Momma’s walking frame lies charred in the driveway. A nice policewoman gives me the clutch of treasures found with them, and my smoke-blackened graduation photo from the other side of the world grins accusingly at me.
They Burn Women Here
“I’ll love her like my own, she’ll want for nothing,” the lady says as I leave, blanking my eyes to rose-petal skin, closing nostrils to sun-warmed scent, ears to new-born purrs.
When they come for me, I’ll know she’s safe with her new mama.
They burn women here.
The pyre in the village is stacked high with favourite trees – dancing willow, stately oak, gossipy alder, caring birch. I trust them to offer succour when I stand amongst spiralling flames. I hope to accept my fate.
My daughter is the seed that will flourish, grow roots, come into her inheritance, someday.
When He Falls
Good can come from bad, says your wise-worded grandmother, so you hold your breath and hope hard.
You nurture. You nourish. You wait.
He is smooth skinned, sweet smelling, russet cheeked. He is knowledge, wisdom, joy. He is deliciously golden. He is yours.
You are vigilant, always, for the aphid, the maggot, the worm, for the tiny punctures that will alert you before the rot sets in. You are afraid.
He will fall, eventually. You know this. Your faith has long since flown, but still you pray that, when he does, he will fall far, far away from the tree.
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