A big thank you to everyone who entered our 16th Award judged by Nod Ghosh from New Zealand. Once more we received a huge number of entries, 1457 from 37 different countries listed here:
by Johanna Robinson
You remember how you counted your steps as you planted: one step, one potato. The years God gave you babies, the steps were smaller with the weight in your belly, on your back. The years He took them away before you could count a single breath, the steps were smaller still, the potatoes fighting for space and soil. Those years, you ate such small potatoes.
In the barn, in the dark, you’d count the rungs, so you knew how far up you were, how far down. Sometimes you felt you could climb forever, out through the roof-hatch, inching up the sky until your hands brushed theirs, tiny, grasping.
You’d count stitches and rows: hats, jackets, bootees. Seed stitches, garter stitches, cable, plaited, travelling vine. Casting on, and on, and on.
You’d count the steps around the kitchen table, through colic, through cries, until the minutes unravelled, flat like ribbons, and your heels blistered.
Every morning you’d count:
the eggs and then the chickens, and
in the evening, brushstrokes, dividing your hair, weaving it into one heavy rope, and
at night, stretchmarks like rungs across your belly.
And now there are no potatoes for anyone, you take uncertain steps, quay to jetty. You walk gently, the baby’s head on your shoulder. You walk steady, like you used to carry eggs.
You lean on the ship’s rail, wet with spray, your faces already salty. On the quay, people wave, and you wave back as though you know them. The children count down and other passengers join in. The rope sags, like a stitch dropped. You clap, clasp hands, cast off. You leave behind bone, blood and eggshell, but your history is more than that; it is ploughed through you all. You count the days, knots, miles until land. You will reap again.
by Tara Isabel Zambrano
Before, my mother settled my twin sister and me every morning in a neighbor’s front yard and boarded a bus to a local bottling plant, in her powder blue uniform, her hair pulled back so hard her veins showed. We read comics with missing pages, stripped our dolls to the sun.
At the filling station, my mother watched the slosh of juices into empty bottles, her nails rubbed raw working labels, the glue peeling the skin of her finger pads. No windows, stark lights. Sealed cans holding the fruit piss. Before my mother understood the difference between acids, caustics, living and suffering, she was moved to the water treatment center where she cleaned the vents, scrubbed the floors, the chlorine, settled on her skin, in her eyes, and in her hair, made her sterile. Before the factory swallowed her each day and spit out at night, a dry seed, my mother was glass, my mother was an orange wreathed in luscious peels, my mother was sun’s magma. Before, my mother’s name was Anna, and the payment slips called her Lee, the last name of my father who fled to Florida with his girlfriend, his memory a blooming wound at the back of her throat. She pushed her fingers inside to pluck it, puked blood.
Before, my mother untangled the kinks in our bone black hair, kept locks of it in her purse. Before, she smelled us and scrutinized our faces, knowing how each of us looked from the day of our birth, rooted to her dowager womb by our breath placenta. Before she hibernated, before she milked tears that couldn’t fix her chlorinated lungs. Before she became our child, her lips pressed against the wall, her mouth plastered. Before she crumbled into ash without a trail of soot.
The White Dwarf
by Jan Kaneen
It’s months into lockdown, and Clayton’s showing Thelma how to train their new state-of-the-art telescope onto the crow-black Tennessee sky. He twists the eyepiece to trap the distant white glow from a small dying star, but it’s tricky capturing the faint luminosity emitted by degenerate-electron matter, and he doesn’t want to seem unfocussed in front of his wife, so he bends to the lens and tries real hard to sharpen the image – sees the old wooden swing on his granddaddy’s porch, a curl of Thelma’s once corn-coloured hair, remnants of his long-passed mamma’s last apple pie, a Thanksgiving turkey, Uncle Sam’s stern white face, flickering footage of Neil Armstrong taking one giant leap, a bucket of hot chicken, Johnny Cash singing Ring of Fire, a bottle of Jack, his old CB radio, the penultimate episode of Dukes of Hazzard, Resisting Arrest as a black-and-white headline, a nest of wasps, the Twin Towers tumbling, his Smith and Wesson, that Ku Klux Klan robe and hood he saw years ago in Uncle Frank’s drycleaners hanging up under a see-through plastic covering, the faces of three little kids in an SUV watching their daddy get shot six times in the back, a manacled captive under an officer’s knee pleading for his mamma and his life gasping I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.
Clayton looks away, straightens himself up, stares out into the unfathomable sheet of night-time sky – the vast blackness of it – then asks Thelma if she’d care to take her turn.
‘You okay, Honey?’ she says, taking-in his blanched white cheeks and tight, thin lips.
‘I’m fine,’ he drawls, ‘Ain’t nothing. Then he gazes into her blue-sky eyes and creases his face into half a smile. ‘Leastwise nothing for us to worry about.’
Our fathers, who we have strewn like seaweed behind us
by Alison Powell
We buried our fathers to their necks at Llangennith Beach, at Swanage Bay, at Portreath. They are still there now in their thousands, their balding heads all facing out towards the sea, a hint of something like confusion in their arched eyebrow smiles. They loll and bob their chins against the razor shells, make half assed jokes about the crabs.
The castles that they built for us have long ago been washed away. And, in the manner of the waves, we have forgotten everything: the kites they flew into the sun, the way they held our arms and lifted us above the surf, the way they gently towel-rubbed our skin.
From our viewpoint in the dunes, we moan in unison, an outburst of lament that grieves across the sky. It is no use. For way too long we’ve held our fathers out of reach. Afraid of what might foam out from their mouths. Afraid of salty tongues, of scratchy cheeks.
We’ve lost the tools to raise them from their sandy graves.
And anyway, it’s too late now.
The tide is coming in.
The reallocation of a child’s atoms
by Jim Toal
On board the early morning bus to her cleaning job at the Museo del Prado Fatima reads a magazine article explaining how atoms in a human body are replaced every ten years. Because atoms are neither created nor destroyed it’s their redistribution that shapes us into several people in a lifetime.
At work she buffs, mops, and vacuums but isn’t allowed to touch the artwork. Her mop swishes past crucifixions and martyrdoms. Her vacuum-cleaner wails at Titian’s gruesome depiction of tortured Tityus. Even gentle still-lives are pregnant with loss: the sweet, seeded fruits of her homeland, flowers soft as baby skin.
The last room to clean houses Goya’s Black Paintings.
Silencing her vacuum-cleaner, she gawps at raving, moon-eyed Saturn, devouring the headless body of his son. Two skeletal men slobbering over soup, unable to satisfy their appetites. A baying guitarist serenading huddled pilgrims on an unending journey into a gloomy void.
Eventually, she comes to a picture called The Drowning Dog, which captures the last moments of a small dog sinking in what resembles quicksand. With only its head left to be consumed, it looks at Fatima with such perplexed loyalty, such pleading faith, she yearns to reach into the painting, grab it by the scruff and heave it to safety.
For the rest of her shift the image of the hapless dog stays with her. It follows her on the bus journey home. In her tiny flat it sniffs about, wagging its tail. It sits, ears pricked, as she kneels to her prayers. When she picks it up, and it snuggles its damp snout under her armpit, she lullabies a vow. That she’ll cling to the hope of liberated atoms and their boundless capacity to conceive new life. It’s all she can do to stop herself from slipping under.