First Prize

First Prize Story Winner
2024 Short Story Competition 

By Jan Mackenzie

Meg changed when Harry went away. Head up. Shoulders squared. Face softened. Smiling.

Harry with his backpack, with his rifle, with his skinning knife, following the little creek behind the house. Up the hills. Into the bush. Gone.

Meg read the job list he’d left for her. At least three days’ worth of work, maybe four. Three days before he came back. Four, even. She flung aside her shawl of wary stillness, and she danced.

It happened every time. She took the tape player and the extension cords from the “Keep out of the cupboard!” cupboard. Her life was in the cupboard. Opened all the windows. Stripped the beds. Stuffed sheets and pillowcases into the machine. Stabbed the “Hot”button. Shook the blankets and threw them over the line to air.

She set the player on the ground beside the garden. Wound the sound up high. All morning as she worked, she went back and forth and changed the tapes. The Judds. Emmy Lou Harris. Charley Pride. Eddie Low. When a song hit her in the heart she crouched and keened. Tears fell among the vegetables. She let them.

After lunch she re-stocked the stall at the gate. The people of the village, aware of Harry gone, came to buy. A lettuce. Tomatoes. Carrots. Glad to find her still in one piece.

They knew the situation. Everyone did, but what could they do? Harry was big. Mean. He frightened the women with his blue-eyed scowl. A man brave enough to chip him about Meg’s bruises, might wake up in the alley behind the pub, missing a tooth or two, a boot-shaped purpling bruise above his broken ribs. The collective conscience of the village shuddered and held its tongue.

Each time Harry left, Meg would clear his job-list, then make improvements around the place. Lugging stones from the creek to make a rockery. Clearing the tangled growth at the edge of the section. Planting things. Not things she had to buy but ferns and flax and creepers. She worked until it was dark, squeezing every minute from her precious solitude.

This time, a pond. She dug a channel from the creek, with crowbar, pick and shovel, to lead the water into an old plastic bathtub she’d found buried in the long grass. The bath was ok, just badly stained. Meg thought that if she bored a series of holes around the rim of the lower end, then dug a pit for the tub and sunk it in the ground, she might let the water run in, then out along another channel and back to the creek. She wasn’t sure, but she thought it might work.

Overnight, it seemed, “The Pond” lay under the trees, surrounded by pebbles and cuttings and flax roots yanked from the big bushes by the boundary fence. Meg, thinning onions, glanced at it now and then, satisfied. She’d put the player back in the “Keep out of the Cupboard!” cupboard, but dancing fantails kept her company, and tui called from the bush above the track.

It rained the next day, and the next, and then the next again. Around the village. The rivers rose. Civil Defense volunteers left their farms and businesses, gathered at The Hall, talked about evacuation.
Two men dripped their way through the downpour to fetch Meg. She didn’t move, stood gazing out the window, the light of Harry gone away absent from her eyes.

“Better come with us,” they urged.

They thought it was the house. Thought it was her things she didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t. She turned back to the window.

They followed her line of sight. The creek broke savagely and roared down her little channel. Gouged at the sodden earth. The bathtub floated out of the ground. In its wake, tumbling and rolling in the torrent, the hole in his forehead washed clean by the water, was Harry.

Harry of the quick hands and sarcastic mouth. Harry, who turned up as she finished the trench, just on dark. Harry, furious at losing his rifle and pack over a bluff and into the river, looking for someone to take it out on. Who sneered at the bath sitting on the bank. Who pushed with his great feet at the side of the trench, caving it in.

Harry, who lurched at her, fist raised to punish her cry of protest. Rage blinding him to the pick she held in her hands. The pick she used, still bloody from his shattered skull, to scratch a shallow grave beneath her pit, to drag him to it, push him in and bury him. She put the bathtub over Harry.

She worked carefully, calm even when she washed the pick in the creek and had to pull a matted chunk of hair from the crack where the wooden shaft met the solid metal head. Flicked the hair into the water. Watched as it drifted down stream.

“Goodbye Harry” she said and with the saying, was hit by a shudder of horror and release. Hit. Hit no more.

The Civil Defense men stood with her, waiting. Jim the butcher. Will from the farm down the road. Good men, faced with a dilemma. Holding a good woman’s life in their hands. No way of un-seeing the body, un-seeing where it came from, un-seeing Meg, frozen at the window.

No way of un-seeing the black eyes. The split lips. The arm in plaster from a “fall”. Two great thumb prints purple green and yellow on her throat and a voice that rasped for months from the damage done. For months!

The men’s eyes met in silent agreement. No dilemma here. Will took Meg by the shoulders and turned her towards him. She waited. Head down. Passive.

“Look at me,” Meg.

Will, urgent now. He lifted her chin until she met his gaze.

“We’ve got to get out of here, but before we go, Jim and I have some bad news for you.”

Jim nodded.

“Harry’s dead.”

They saw her flinch at the flat statement. Will put his finger on Meg’s lips to stop her speaking.

“We think he must have slipped, trying to jump the creek. Seems like he hit his head and got swept away. We saw his body in the flood but it could be weeks before they find it.”

He looked at her intently until he was sure she knew what he was saying, knew exactly what he meant.

“We’ll put a report in of accidental death.”

Jim nodded again, patted her reassuringly, sealing it.

“Now,” said Will firmly, “we’d better get out of here before we all get swept away.”

As they left the house, the water roared against the porch, testing the foundations. In Meg’s battered heart, a twisted knot of pain five years in growing finally let go. Five years of tears and tentacles slid seamlessly into the driving rain.

“Harry’s gone away.”

It pealed like bells in her mind, turning, spinning, flying.

“He’s gone.”

“He’s never coming back.”

Her head came up. Her shoulders squared. Inside herself, she flung open the door of the “Keep out of the cupboard!” cupboard. Her stillness shawl, the frightened shawl that covered up her fear, whipped into the water with the bruises and the brokens and the hidden, covered hurts. She let them go.

“He’s really gone?”

Will and Jim nodded.

“This time” they told her firmly, “Harry’s really gone away.”