A winning way with words...

We publish the winning short story, poetry and Irish poetry in this year's Words by Water annual competitions, run by Kinsale Literary Festival.
A winning way with words...

BACK TO NATURE: “Every tree had leaves back then..”

Words By Water, the Kinsale Literary Festival, was unable to go ahead this year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Organisers did run their annual competitions and judges praised the high standard of entries. The winning short story, poetry and Irish poetry are published here. Congratulations to the winners and the festival committee looks forward to returning with a full programme of events in October, 2021

Short story winner: Cadenza by Rachael Murray

SMILING had become a remarkably difficult exercise, and Lola found that her face hurt when she was forced to employ the action for too long.

This was odd, because she distinctly remembered teachers in school commenting that she was ‘happy’ and ‘smiley’ as a child and then as a teenager. The muscle memory from that time spent smiling did not do the accompanying emotion justice. Today, Lola felt as if onlookers would see her expression and think it was a harlequin-like grimace and not the smile she was once known for.

“Here’s your visitor’s badge. Please go down the hall and wait by the first set of yellow plastic chairs, your guide will be will join you shortly.” The receptionist chirped, her red curls bouncing as cheerfully as the wide grin she flashed.

Lola felt drab in comparison. It had been a while since she had done anything to her own hair except brush it. The thin layer of make-up on her skin that she had forced herself to apply that morning was already smeared from lack of attention. Thankfully, the receptionist either did not notice the sense of inadequacy that her cheery demeanour caused, or was too professional to let on that she knew.

“Thanks. Is there a bathroom somewhere nearby or...?” Lola trailed off, scanning the room unsuccessfully for a sign.

“Down the same way, before you get to the chairs. Good idea too, this took quite some time last year. After all that effort you spent to get here you’d hate to miss anything!” The receptionist, identified by her badge as Naomi, beamed knowingly.

“You know that I...” Lola broke off mid-sentence, suddenly feeling self-conscious.

“Do you think the researchers read email requests from the public? Ha! I passed on your emails, girl. Go get ‘em.” Naomi winked conspiratorially. The spark of warmth that resulted from the unexpectedly engaging interaction calmed Lola enough to smile weakly, but genuinely, at her.

“Thank you.” Lola dipped her head in gratitude before turning on her heel and stepping onto the chequered laminate flooring of the corridor signposted ‘Sound Surveillance System: SOSUS’.

Lola walked for a few minutes while keeping an eye out for the yellow chairs. The hallway was surprisingly long, the building hadn’t looked as big from the outside.

Lola didn’t pass any others in the hall. It felt fittingly isolated.

Eventually, Lola saw them. The yellow plastic chairs strewn at the side of the hallway next to a door labelled ‘SOSUS’ looked out of place in the personality-less building. It made the surroundings feel like a children’s hospital. A masquerade of cheer.

As Naomi had said, the bathrooms were mere feet away.

Lola rushed inside, relieved herself, and brushed her hair self-consciously before returning to the waiting area.

Just sitting on the plastic chairs was a nerve-wracking experience. They were too cheaply made to be sturdy. The backrest bent too far under pressure to convince anyone of its security.

Lola only had to remain seated for a few moments before a middle-aged woman with frizzy hair and an equally frazzled expression appeared with a clipboard clasped tight in her hand.

“Okay... You must be... Lola, right?” The woman glanced down quickly at her clipboard, reading the name printed clearly at the top.

“Yes, that’s right. Are you Dr Stern?” Lola reached out her hand instinctively, but withdrew quickly. The overall movement turned into a strange jerking motion, but Dr Stern merely smiled.

“Don’t worry about it, I still do it all the time. Old habits huh? The kids got used to it so fast.” Dr Stern sighed, pulling a pocket-sized sanitising spray from her breast pocket and spraying a pen before offering it to Lola. She accepted it limply, mechanically wiping the disinfectant over its surface before doing the same with the plastic clipboard.

Lola filled in her information and repeated the routine when handing the clipboard and pen back.

“Before we get into it, you are the first non-employee and civilian we’ve ever had on site for this event. Your... circumstances... have been explained. If it all gets to be too much, feel free to duck out into the hall to collect yourself. You can leave or rejoin whenever suits you.” Dr Stern didn’t fumble around the difficult topic, which Lola appreciated.

There had been too many platitudes and panicked words of sympathy these past few years.

“Thanks. So do we just...” Lola nodded towards the door behind Dr Stern, who immediately brightened at the change of topic.

“Of course! Yes, very exciting stuff. How long have you been interested in Blue?” Dr Stern asked while opening the door, and then winced immediately. Her excitement had spoken quicker than her thoughts, which caught up just a little too late.

“It’s fine, it’s... I heard about him for the first time around ten years back, but my interest was renewed last year after the virus hit my town. I bet you guys got way more requests after the virus, I’m surprised that you read mine.” Lola said, trying to keep her tone light and free of the pain every mention of coronavirus etched further into her soul.

“Like you wouldn’t believe. A lot of people relate to Blue, despite the hundred tonnes difference in weight. He helps a lot of people feel less alone.” Dr Stern smiled softly, gesturing to the cramped room they were standing in.

“This is how we hear him.”

The room was filled with equipment that Lola couldn’t begin to guess the function of. Some looked far too old and weathered to still be in use. There were wires trailing along the floor at odd angles that supported this assumption. There were papers piled high on desks that looked hastily wiped clear of layers of dust. The entire room was in a state of erratic disarray.

“It’s... uh.” Lola started, not sure what to say.

“A mess, but that’s fine. We only use it to track Blue once a year, really. Nobody that uses the room feels like they use it enough to do the honour of cleaning the damn place.” Dr Stern rolled her eyes. Lola refrained from mentioning that the doctor’s statement seemed to include herself.

“I wasn’t going to be the one to say it.” Lola acquiesced.

“Now, here’s some of our research notes and background info if you want to read through these while I get everyone together and set up?” Dr Stern pressed a tatty folder into Lola’s hands, winked mischievously, and disappeared back out the door she had let Lola into. Lola had the impression that she was not supposed to be left alone with this expensive equipment, but did not complain.

Small talk could be as difficult as smiling.

Instead she thumbed through the pages she had been given, smiling at a picture of an artist’s rendition of Blue.

The whale was drawn next to a scuba diver for scale, dwarfing the man entirely, and was thoroughly detailed. Bubbles twisted around the whale’s elegant form and his beady black eyes looked uncharacteristically morose for an animal. A liberty taken by the artist, Lola was sure.

Scrawled in pretty curled lettering across the top of the page were the words ‘52-Hertz Whale’. Lola smiled softly at it, her hours of pouring over information on the internet coming back to her.

Blue’s migratory patterns suggested that he was most likely a blue whale, possibly a fin whale, but he had never actually been seen in person to confirm. Despite the lack of footage, his story had still become popular online and attracted Lola and other lonely peoples’ attentions with a unique physical attribute. This unique and distinctive quality was that he sang his song at fifty-two hertz. Blue whales typically sang between ten and thirty-nine, while fin whales sang at twenty.

Blue had never been recorded with other whales. Researchers believed it was because they couldn’t hear him, that his song was too high pitched. This didn’t affect his ability to survive. He had been following the same migratory route, singing his song by himself, for over thirty years.

A lonely existence without family or friends, or even the hope that there may be one some day.

Lola was interrupted from her musings when Dr Stern and two other technicians came through the door. They exchanged pleasantries and Lola tried to focus on idle chit-chat as the trio set up SOSUS for the day. They were nice people, truly, but she was finding it incredibly difficult to concentrate.

Lola was glad for the silence when they donned their headphones and began fiddling with dials. She settled into a chair in the back of the room and allowed them to work without interruption, this was not the part of the day she had come to observe. She idly flicked through the folder that Dr Stern had given her while they worked.

Two hours passed before there was any unusual movement from Dr Stern. Lola nearly fell out of her seat in shock when the frizzy-haired woman ripped off her headphones and cried out — “Listen to this!” — and turned several dials on the dashboard up.

It took a moment, but soon a haunting series of pulsating sounds filled the room. The sound was repetitive and low to her ears, but to a whale she imagined it was very high pitched. To her, it almost sounded like the wind moaning through trees.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Dr Stern murmured, flashing a concerned look at Lola before averting her eyes.

“Yeah.” Lola brought trembling fingers to her cheek, feeling a wetness there that she had not noticed. She wiped at her face with the back of her sleeve, but the tears were soon replaced with more.

The moaning song grew a little more insistent, and Lola shuddered violently. The sound no longer reminded her of trees. Now it was the wheezing of a ventilator, pushing and pulling the air from her seven-year old son’s lungs.

It was the air in the priest’s breath as he gave that awful long winded speech at her husband’s funeral, a mere month after she lost her son.

That wheezing song was every lonely day that she had spent without her family since the virus had taken hold in their asthma-afflicted lungs.

“I’m sorry, I...” Lola hiccuped and fled the room, falling into the terrible yellow plastic seats outside the room and gasped for air like they did once.

Lola had expected a lot of things from her trip to hear Blue sing, but she had not expected this.

“Hey now, after all those emails you sent us begging to come hear Blue, you’re gonna sit out here as soon as it starts?” A familiar chirpy voice called out, and Lola felt relief pool in her chest when she looked up and saw that it was Naomi.

“Dr Stern gave me a text to come up and join you guys. Scientists can be so bad with emotion, you know? Don’t know how to handle it. Doesn’t mean they don’t care though.” Naomi nattered as she hooked an arm under Lola’s elbow and hauled her to her feet, a truly sympathetic smile on her face.

“Now, why don’t we both go in and listen to Blue for a bit? Then we can go grab coffee. No, don’t worry, my co-worker just got back from her morning break. Reception will survive. Now. Tell me. Your emails mentioned your husband and son, but you never said your son’s name. What was it?” Naomi continued, pulling a now-willing Lola towards the door labelled ‘SOSUS’ with the ease of someone very comfortable in their own skin.

“Jonah. His name was Jonah.” Lola smiled softly at the look of incredulity on Naomi’s face.

“Jonah? And the whale? Honey, you should have led with that. You never would have had to write the other emails.” Naomi laughed in disbelief, and opened the door.

The song that washed over them sounded like trees again.

Poetry: Winner: Prelapsarian by Partridge Boswell 

Winging to their summer home, geese garble waking dreams 

warping the convent of morning air above our makeshift

shot at permanence. Can it be I’ve survived my first night 

alone in this house in the twenty-four years since we built it 

— aside from dogs and cats, of course they count — every other 

human inhabitant unspooled at the end of their invisible 

gossamer somewhere else? Solo as the boy whose parents 

went out to a party and never returned, a single fiddlehead 

unfurling to early sun in a grove of pines. Every tree had 

leaves back then. When they were young, we’d lie awake 

and hold our breath for their first stirrings — dove coos

and phoebe trills, chattering in honey light to stuffed 

animals or planets swirling from a cerulean ceiling, rapt 

in wonder’s wordless astral eloquence… until a hunger 

dawns in them for a glowing pulse of skin, blue milk 

better than heroin, home within a home. The way we knew 

— though we were kids ourselves, the answer wasn’t in you

or me or even the symbiosis of us both together exploring

the garden of our sleepless stupor. We lay alone inside 

the world humming through their eyes: void of answers,

questions, truths and lies — stranded on the shore of paradise.

Irish Poetry: Winner: Cóisir an Taoisigh by Caitríona Lane 

Tagann Róisín béal dorais liom 

Trasna na páirce 

Ar cuairt tí chugam.

Tá leadrán uirthi agus taispeánaim an 

Dreoilín beag marbh di, 

Ina chodladh faoin sceach.

Ligeann an cat osna fada as.

Faighim bosca cairtchláir agus clúdaímid 

An t-éan le Deora Dé agus nóiníní.

Le cur sa chré níos déanaí.

Pléimid flaitheas agus aingil Dé 

Agus féileacháin an tsamhraidh.

“An mar an gcéanna iad?” 

Comhrá fealsúnachta idir chailín na 

Samhlaíochta agus seanbhean na háite.

Beidh sí cúig bliana d’aois i gceann 

Cúig lá agus tiocfaidh a cairde chuig 

Cóisir sa ghairdín, “Má thugann an Taoiseach cead”, 

a deir sí liom go dáiríre, 

Mar bhean feasa.

Ceistíonn sí mé faoin tuar ceatha , Ós ár gcionn sa spéir.

“ Dathanna Dé” , a deir sí i gcogar liom.

Siúlaim abhaile leí, agus guím le díogras , 

“A Thiarna, ná lig don Taoiseach an 

Cóisir a chur ar ceal”.

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