In this (very) short story contest, I received so many interesting and clever submissions that took the prompt of ‘earth’ and explored it, turning our preconceptions about nature, humanity and climate change on its head to create powerful, punchy reflections on our world.
I’m excited to share with you the following excellent pieces which respectively came first, second and third in this mini-competition!
I used to live in Yokohama, right on the border of the Ooka river. Cherry trees had scattered the banks and often, when I was little, I used to pluck the shiny red orbs from the low hanging branches and slip them into my pockets to take to my friends at school. I think that’s probably the happiest memory I have of my home. When I close my eyes and try to picture what it was like, all I remember is bark crumbling from the tree trunks and turning to ash on my fingertips. I remember my trainers kicking up dust from the chalky earth beneath my feet. Sometimes, on a particularly hot day, it used to crack slightly under my weight.
We began to realise something was wrong after the January of 2062. Crowds of us had gathered to watch as armies of jellyfish danced through the Ooka – spat out by the ocean and sent upstream when sea levels had risen too high. By only a few months later, the sun had turned all the water into nothing and the veins of the river had bled dry. What remained was only a graveyard; a trench littered with their limp bodies, tentacles splayed lifeless on the parched earth.
We were sent to live in villages near Yokohama bay when the sewers started flooding the city. The thick, shit-filled soup had snaked up had through the drains and reared its ugly head, slithering down every road and alleyway and carpeting the town with its stench. Its breath clung onto to our clothes and our hair. The roots of the blossom trees began to decay and once the pink petals fell, they never grew back. Some families in neighbouring cities tried to dig underground; burrow into the intestines of the earth like parasites that could no longer inhabit its skin. A few dozen metres were excavated before the tunnels collapsed into themselves and the people realised it was time to leave.
Volunteers set sail last week in search of a fresh water supply, now that our barrels are almost empty. We don’t know when they’ll be back but we’re hoping that it’s soon. Every day I pray for their return and sit watching, watching the horizon for the sight of the boat, gliding towards us across the surface of the water like a large, white jellyfish.
2. The Owl’s Tale
It was late February, and the rolling mists had, once again, been ambushed by the forest. The young ones, afraid of the mist-sprites, had scampered into their burrows and refused to return until the dampened silence was defeated; we alone kept watch.
I am assured that above our green canopy, the sun slid across the sky in its usual way, and the dewy morning made way for a beautiful, clear day. Yet in our hushed retreat, the light never altered. Three days passed thus; in still, close quiet. When the witch’s song finally reached our ears, I remembered with a rush how alive the forest had been when the Sisterhood was still strong. The young wiccan was the first of her kind to set foot here in over a decade, and few of the hiding creatures could have recalled that, once upon a time, her ancestors had sung the very same words:
The twilight lingers,
The shadows are long.
Oh! Ancient Mother,
Attend to my song!
By and by, the old words melted into long, sighing melismas. Her voice reached into every hollow, filling our ears until it was impossible to tell if the voice came from the witch’s throat or the trees themselves. As she continued her cascading vocals, her feet began to drum a steady dance against the forest floor, her plaited hair trailed behind her, marking a circle out of the leafy debris. The song called every creature out of hiding and hibernation, the trees bent their branches towards the sound of her voice, and the snowdrops pushed through the earth to flower in her presence.
Reaching the end of her dance, the witch expelled the last of her breath, but when all else in the forest was silent, the branch beneath our claws continued to vibrate with her song. Awestruck, we evacuated to a nearby perch. The young wiccan reached her hand to the branch. With a quick twist of her arm, the tree surrendered its limb and the singing ceased.
This was the first time she looked at us, the sorceress graciously bowed her head as, with a deep exhale, she conjured a keen wind which chased away the dank mist and darkness. The air swirled around our old home, the wood began to crunch against the deafening gale, and the woman leapt lightly onto the branch, allowing the swirling winds to carry her up through the leafy ceiling.
Where the branch had been, there was now grown another, new and smooth, and draped in the same succulent berries which still grow today. When they are ripe, they will sing to you, and you will hear the forest’s voice.
3. Her Children
She used to love her children.
In the beginning they were few and far beyond, only young in their development, unable to compute complex thoughts. All that mattered was being the biggest, being the strongest, being the one others wanted to be. And in their simplicity, she loved them.
She used to love her children.
As they grew, the world became a more beautiful place. They were everywhere, developing their skills, forming groups to protect one another, starting families. They were primitive, yes, focused on the hunt for food and the majesty of fire, but there was something so awe-inspiring in the power of community and thirst for knowledge. And in their discovery of self identity, she loved them.
She used to love her children.
Ideas and elaborate thinking was second nature now, skyrocketing them into the status of the most powerful beings under her care. Groups focused on discovery began to pray to her, showing their love through gifts and words, through which came power as she rewarded them by granting more wisdom, more insight. And in their growing complexity, she loved them.
Her love was beginning to waver.
What had once been beautiful, the desire to flock together and protect those around them, had developed into something else. Something twisted. The once unified creatures had begun to splinter, what had once been hushed words and sideward glances escalating into anger and blood shed. Still, they were her children and she would continue to love them for as long as she could.
She no longer felt proud.
In the beginning, the journey of self discovery had been a beautiful thing. A thing that had become contaminated with a thirst for power, self discovery instead becoming hubris, the need to dominate those around them. The growth of civilisation, which had filled her with joy, now filled her with dread. Civilisation meant pain, meant injustice, meant corruption. Her once clean lifeforce of water and air had become disrupted, her need to look after her children only causing her pain as they continued to ignore the warnings and hurt their mother in any way they could.
It was over.
Everything she’d put into her children had been destroyed. All of the other beings in her care had been overrun by what she once thought would be her most wonderful creation yet. Everything she’d set in place to help and heal had been weaponized, utilised in the insatiable fight for power. Gone were the days of prayer and respect, replaced in a frenzied race as to who could use her gifts to cause the most destruction.
She used to love her children. And now she wanted them gone.