The winners of the 2024 Wheatbelt Writers Short Story Competition are….

First Place – Rita La Bianca with Yearning

Second Place – Rhian Healy with Reflections

Under 17 First Place – Sophie Smits with The Time Traveller

Under 17 Second Place – Amelia Syson with Time Travel

Congratulations to all winners. Prizes will be awarded on Saturday 13 April at 2pm during the Regional Writers Weekend.

 

Yearning by Rita La Bianca

Shooting dying sheep with empty eyes staring at you as you pull the trigger is only one of the agonies that break your heart into smaller and smaller shards with every blue-skied day that passes.

The earth is a network of cracks and chasms.  Deep chasms that could swallow the barely-lived lives on the parched land and any remnants of happiness that have managed to survive despite everything.

The joy of this unexpected blessing is overshadowed by the gloom of another year of drought and the bank knocking ever louder on the door. Overwhelming joy tarnished by the reality that looms large as you look out at the windswept paddocks and ever-diminishing stock. The empty shearing sheds and the dust storm racing full and angry towards you as you shutter windows and pack hessian bags under doors in a fruitless effort to stop the unstoppable.

How do you tell the stooped almost broken man, the love of your life that you are finally going to give him his most cherished wish?  How do you rejoice when confronted by so much gloom? How do you do anything in the middle of another storm without rain?

The doctor at the clinic in Perth refused any further treatments for you.  No more IVF or ovulation induction or artificial insemination or ICSI or IMSI or any other stupid acronym that adds up to nothing but sorrow. He was kind and compassionate but made it abundantly and clinically clear that it was the end of the assisted reproduction line.

You went home to lick your wounds and face the all-too-obvious reality.  There was no heir for the good years with abundant rain and crops. There was no heir for the thriving farm.  You carried on together but so close to being torn apart.

And now in the middle of the worst drought ever…

You look back at all the years as climate change wreaks havoc. The rain becomes something that happened a long time ago.  Today you both stand on the threshold of ruin, barely holding it together.

He stamps his feet on the splintery veranda and slaps his hat against the wall to shake the dust off.  The storm is about to hit and cover everything with dust like a shroud. It’s been another long, sad day of merciful shooting.

He wraps you in his sinewy arms and sighs a deep sorrowful sigh as if the drought, the dust storm, the whole unbearable universe is of his making. He lets go of you and asks about your day. You know better than to ask about his.

You remember the first time he hugged you on your parent’s porch.  How he whispered in your ear.  The gentle breeze as you sat feet dangling from the jetty on the Swan River on balmy summer nights. How you fell in love with the farm the moment you drove up the gravel road with gently swaying fields of wheat on either side. You knew at once that you had arrived home. You had to pinch yourself you felt so lucky.  Your whole life at that time felt like a dream come true.  You took for granted all the plans you made.

So much has happened but you are both still hanging on to the slim hope that everything will get better … soon.

He turns and asks hesitantly if you’re OK.  He has that questioning look. It’s as if he knows something is up but can’t put his finger on it.

You’re afraid of all the possibilities, too many to think about or try to explain.  

Geriatric pregnancies are fraught with unforeseen… You stopped listening at that stage. You could see the GP’s lips moving as you grabbed your bag and ran out into the full waiting room.  Tears streaming down your cheeks, laughing and crying at the same time.

You know he’ll be happy but you worry about everything, the drought, the bank, your age, and what the doctor was saying that you did not wait to hear.

The heat is unbearable.  The sandstorm is almost upon you.  Soon the dust will seep in through every tiny crack and have you and him gasping for air like fish in a drained pond.

You sit next to him at the kitchen table, take his gnarled work-grimed hands in yours and tell him you have good news.  He asks if your crystal ball is predicting rain.  You shrug and smile an uncertain smile as you tell him you’re twelve weeks gone.  He turns pale and all your fears rise to your throat and you rush to the bathroom.  Other than tiredness you’ve not had any signs before.  No morning sickness or queasiness, nothing. You thought you’d finally gotten rid of the monthly curse but something was urging you to see the doctor.    You had no expectations other than confirmation your motherhood dreams were over; your time clock had ticked over for good.

He knocks gently on the door and asks if you’re OK if he can come in.  His big calloused hands that cradle your head feel like soft velvet gloves as he brushes your hair from your clammy forehead.  He wipes your mouth when you finish and lifts you into his arms as if you were a small child.  The heavy load of doubt you’ve been carrying is lifted off your shoulders by your man, the one you have not seen for a long time. He is shouting and laughing whooping and dancing with total unrestrained happiness. 

You hear the dust storm like a hundred helicopters surrounding the farmhouse as the thick red cloud breaches the flimsy barriers you placed earlier.  It covers everything, the table, the shelves, the books, the clothes on your back like caramel icing on a cake.

You think of all the cakes you bake for morning teas or fete stalls for the CWA, none of them memorable.  Just the right thing to do in return for the kindness and caring of the ladies who without demand give companionship and camaraderie and the best scones ever so freely.  Earth Mothers all of them, strong and resolute, the unsung warriors of farming life.  In future, you will bake for birthdays and parties and the sheer joy of seeing your child mark their milestones as well.  But you are jumping ahead of yourself.  Even though the pitter-patter of tiny feet has already cast its imprint on your heart you must wait a little longer to hear them. 

You wish the rain would come in time to welcome the little miracle you’re carrying. You imagine green paddocks and tiny lambs gambolling everywhere, mud-caked boots on the veranda, tractors in the paddocks.

~~~~

Your wishful thinking is just that. Did you believe otherwise?

The drought continues unrelenting.  You’re horrified at the fires that are raging out of control over East where whole towns have been burnt. Lives are lost or torn apart while other places are submerged under ever-rising floodwaters.  The heartbreak etched on the faces of ordinary people left homeless and beaten by Mother Nature beams unrelenting through the airwaves into your life and everyone else’s.   

You sit in awe in front of the TV watching brave volunteer firefighters tell stories of courage, endurance and terrible loss.  You’re proud of your fellow Australians for their generosity of spirit and their willingness to donate time and money to help those in desperate need.

You thank the universe you still have a roof over your head if only just.

Days run into months and your time gets closer and closer.

You keep busy sewing baby clothes and trying to get comfortable. He watches you and your growing belly like a clucky hen. 

The bank gives an extension and you hope that your child is the bringer of good luck and much-anticipated joy.

Time passes and the news moves on to other current events.  The sad, worn-out faces on TV have been relegated to history, the weather forecasts bring no joy, and the climate sceptics still chant their denials.

~~~~

Your waters break and the journey to bring the life within you into the light begins. You wonder what sort of world you are offering your child. 

The midwife hovers encourages you and waits.  Your husband holds your hand and wipes your brow with tender care. The long waves of pain follow brief moments of reprieve.  You find one final burst of energy to push your child into the world.  Your son pink and screaming is placed on your chest.  All pain is forgotten.

He latches on suckling loudly stopping only to gulp air. You look at his little pink hand with tiny, pearly nails on your breast. You count his fingers and his toes; you caress his sparse downy hair and tiny perfect face.  You marvel at the miracle in your arms and how he has made your lives complete.

You pray silently that there will be no need to shoot any sheep next year.

 

 The Time Traveller by Sophie Smits

 

The whirring and clanging of metal rang in Akira’s ears, and the blue light showering him got colder. He looked at the date he had punched in: the 19th of March, 2024. Akira placed his hand on the lever and pushed it forwards. He pulled his hand backwards, and exhaled. The bright blue light swallowed the machine, and the whirring got louder and louder. The blue fog began to dim, and he saw through the light… ‘Asher… I hope this works.’ Akira mumbled, as the fog began to clear.

He stumbled out of the machine, the whirring still ringing in his ears. Akira pushed himself upwards and looked around. Everything is different. He walked around for a few minutes then entered the house. It’s a house he remembers ever so faintly. His mother is at work, presumably his father is too. Despite knowing how unruly it can be to make contact with people from the past, he decides to break that rule. Akira walks into the kitchen, and grabs a knife, a sticky note and a pen. He writes swiftly.

He puts the  pen down, and hesitates. After a few seconds of deep contemplation he sticks the note on the counter and sighs. Akira walks away, and heads towards the machine. He sits back in the capsule that has transported him here, and enters the date:  26th of June 2034. The whirring and clanging of metal ringing once more in his ears.

Akira looks around- the blue light and fog have disappeared. It is raining. Akira breathes deeply, placing his hand on the lever, but pulling it away instantly.  It has burned him ever so slightly. This is a
surprise to Akira.

‘If it gets wet, it’s game over.’ The Creator had mentioned. He was stuck in 2024!

 

Reflection by Rhian Healy

When he closes his eyes the sound of the river becomes an undertone of old men whispering at the edge of hearing. Two kookaburras are sitting in the eucalyptus tree outside his window. Greg thinks about what Julie would do – she’d get up and stand at the window and talk to them. He gets out of bed and adjusts the blinds so that light floods the room. The male kookaburra cocks his head at the sudden movement of light.

 

He doesn’t like kookaburras. They are an introduced species and bully the local birdlife out of food and territory like
mafioso. Julie always liked them though, for their fierce braggadocio and their in-your-face laugh. She always said we were introduced pests too so there was a lot in common. He stands at the window, knowing the kookaburra can’t see him as anything other than the flickering pattern of light and shadow he makes as he moves behind the glass.

 

He pads out to the kitchen and turns on the coffee machine. The light comes in almost parallel like a spear thrown directly from the sun. The whole bank of windows is alight. There is a loud crack like snapping wood and he jumps. The kookaburra has smashed into the glass door on the balcony and is now standing on the mat outside the door. The bird shakes himself off and hops back along the balcony and jumps up to the balustrade. He looks back at the window like the bell has rung to end the round and he’s waiting for the next round to start.

 

The sliding glass door has symbols marked so that people won’t walk into it. It obviously doesn’t work for kookaburras
though. Greg slides it open, waving his hands at the kookaburra, who flies back to his tree with a clatter of feathers. Greg goes back inside. The room has filled with light like honey and the smell of coffee. He fills his cup with
coffee but nearly drops it when he hears another whump as the kookaburra smashes into the glass door again. What would Julie do? He considers his knowledge of Julie’s habits and decides she’d google why and then try and do
something about it.

 

The male kookaburra can see his own reflection in the glass and thinks it’s another male come into his territory to
steal his food and lady. It’s not a battle anyone can win, Greg thinks to himself. How can you beat your own reflection? Or fight glass with a keratin beak? He sits out on the balcony with his coffee watching the kookaburra. The kookaburra eyes his mirrored image in the glass but doesn’t come onto the balcony again. When the sun rises enough the reflection disappears and the male and female kookaburras fly off.

 

The next day, Greg is woken by the thud of kookaburra on glass. The sound is very distinctive. It is a heart-wincingly
solid thump that makes his bones ache just hearing it. Surely the kookaburra is going to do himself some serious injury. Maybe knock himself out or break his neck. Greg brews his coffee and goes to sit out on the balcony again. The
kookaburra looks at him as if he may be working in concert with the glass kookaburra, and possibly wondering why the glass kookaburra is not concerned with his own presence. Will the kookaburra spend the rest of his days hanging
around this eucalypt looking for an opponent to battle. He might go on to tell his little kookaburra babies the myth of the glass kookaburra, unflappable in battle, able to match any attacking moves and undaunted by your attacks. They
might spend generations coming to this same place to battle the glass.

 

In the afternoon he drives to the hardware store and walks the endless aisles until he finds the pest control section. He
buys a fake owl to mount on the balustrade. He takes it home and with his adjustable wrench affixes the plastic owl looking out towards the eucalypt tree here the kookaburra sits. He names it Oliver the Owl. He talks to it as if it
were Julie. When he realizes what he is doing, he goes back inside and pulls the blinds down. But he can still hear Oliver talking to him from the balcony.

 

Make sure you take the washing off. It looks like it’s going to rain. 

He looks at the sky dubiously, but he goes and takes the washing off, folding it carefully, touching each shirt to his face to catch the warmth of the sun. When he used to
pick up a shirt that Julie had carefully washed, ironed, folded and placed in the dresser drawer, it would smell of clean love.

 

Make another cup of coffee

He takes his coffee out onto the balcony and sits watching Oliver who is watching the empty eucalypt tree. The afternoon sun stretches branches and leaves into long caramel toffee. The river ambles along, mumbling incomprehensible advice. Every time a car goes over the bridge the wheels thwack. Later in the afternoon, there is a brief shower of rain that leaves a layer of damp on the ground.

 

Time to make dinner

He cooks steak, mashed potatoes and salad, which is his specialty. The evening is too cool to sit on the balcony, so he turns the balcony light on and sits at the dining table looking out at Oliver’s back. His feathers seem to be swaying in the wind, but it’s the balcony light fitting moving subtly in the wind, throwing shadows and light like a boxer.

 

Next morning, he’s woken by the whack of keratin on glass again. It takes a moment to clear the sleep from his brain.

 

Wake up Greg, your mate is here.

He gets up, splashes water on his face in the gloom of the bathroom and then opens the bedroom door. He has a good view of the glass sliding door. There is a smear on the glass at about chest height. The kookaburra swoops again and Greg can see the whole pane of glass shiver in the cold light. He opens the glass door and waves his arms and shouts at the kookaburra. Greg stands in the cold morning air and shivers. He goes back
inside but leaves the door open. After getting dressed and making his coffee, he sits out on the balcony again. The kookaburra is in his eucalypt tree as usual. He is eying off the glass still and doesn’t seem concerned about the
plastic owl at all.

 

The kookaburra drops out of the tree and flies to the balcony and sits on the balustrade next to the plastic owl. Greg
stays still, wondering whether the kookaburra will notice him. The kookaburra steps from foot to foot and then paces the length of the balustrade from end to end.

 

Shoo. Shoo, little bird

Yeah, a lot of good that’ll do. Just as the bird is about to fly at the window again Greg waves his arms which startles the kookaburra who flies back to his eucalypt tree. There must be another way to stop him. He can’t sit out here every morning to scare him away.

 

Why not? You don’t have anything else to do

He ignores the voice, and goes back inside, getting some old newspaper and masking tape. He papers over the glass at the level of the reflection, hoping that the kookaburra will finally see sense. He stands back and admires his handiwork, and he thinks that Julie would be pleased. He waits inside to see if the kookaburra attacks the glass again, but he only flies to the balustrade next to the owl and cocks his head at the
glass.

 

The next morning, he isn’t woken by the sound of kookaburra smashing into glass. The river murmurs peacefully and the sun gently caresses the window of the bedroom. He has a leisurely morning in bed reading. From where he is lying, he can see the male and female kookaburras. The male flies to the balustrade on occasion and looks at the
glass, but there is no assault.

 

Good job, Greg. It seems to have worked. 

He takes his coffee out to the balcony in the morning. The kookaburra flies to the balustrade a few times to check where the glass kookaburra is, but he can’t find him. Eventually the male and female both fly off and Greg goes back inside.

Don’t forget to call June. 

Oh yeah, that’s right, it’s his sister’s birthday today. He remembers seeing it marked on the calendar yesterday in Julie’s scribbly handwriting. What will he do next year when he needs a new calendar? Julie used
to spend hours copying out birthdays into the new calendar every January.

 

And by the way, I’m not coming back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Time Travel by Amelia Syson

I entered the cage and sat down. A shiver up my spine. I entered the date, 1999, 4th of December. I grab the lever, it’s ice
cold. PPPSSSSSSSHHHHH, the lever goes. It makes a funny kind of sound. Then it suddenly stops, “click, click, click” it goes. I look around, getting
more shivers up my spine. I smile.

 I look around again amazed by what’s happening, everything getting de-built, plants growing, snow falling. It was
mind blowing. Then once again it stops, I hear a “ding, ding, ding” lots of people yelling to sell fruits and veg. Cobblestone floors, ice cold
rain falls on me.  I know this is the place. It’s time, I have to find them!

I step out, cold. I walk around and I see the food stalls. It was crowded. I get pushed around here and there, all the way to a school. The bell rings, it rings again.
Suddenly the old creaky door flies open, “BANG!”. Thousands, maybe millions of children yell “Hooray!” 
I guess it’s the end of the day. I look around and find a girl. I look at the picture in my hand. It’s her! Now to warn her about the future!

As the sun sets, it gets colder, ice cold. As the girl does her nightly routine I wonder if it’s actually going to work. As she drifts off to sleep I put a head-set on
her, and it plays these words exactly, “Don’t run away to the forest when you are an adult, don’t run away to the forest when you are and adult,” it
repeats all night, and just as dawn comes I take it from her. I quickly turn around and run for my golden cage. I hope it worked. I reset the date for the
future. It does it again, the funny noises, then the “ding, ding, ding”. I’m here and….. IT WORKED!!!

My mother is back. I’m amazed. I haven’t seen her for years. I cry and cry but not in front of her, I’m so happy.