Story Wine Prize winner: That inward eye

On the bus she’s pressed next to a man with the same grey hair as her father, and he’s reading the news while the rain falls outside the windows on the new blossoms, and she thinks how glad she is of the fact of spring because it reminds her of when she was four, when they still lived in York and she saw the daffodils stretching all the way to the city wall, the wall that looked like a castle wall, the wild gold daffodils so thick, shouting the joy of her childhood from their frilled trumpets, before she emigrated and became this tight person on the bus, with no ambition despite the money her father spent on her education – all that money, where’s your ambition – and she turns the word ambition over in her mind and can’t connect it with herself, she just has to stay on this bus until she gets to the shop because she didn’t go to university which her father says she will regret – another word she has no use for – though she does wonder what she would do if she didn’t have to work in the shop and all she can think of is the daffodil bulbs she’d plant, digging holes to the horizon, the shorn earth cool enough to host thousands of bulbs that will hatch into a brimming gold forest such as no-one, certainly not the passenger beside her, has dreamt of, though he no doubt houses daffodil lore from childhood, songs like daffy down dilly or the opening line from Wordsworth’s poem, and maybe he likes daffodils but there is no way he could love them as she does, this grey man with his head bent, studying the news as though it could contain thoughts as interesting as those streaming right now through her head, with commas breaking the thoughts as thick as the daffodils by the lake the poet passed on the way to Keswick, nor would he have considered the force of sunlight pressed into petal flesh, the pressure needed to make those rich ochres and yellows, and the straight upright quality, the sturdiness, the vivid strengthening joy the soul can eat from, though she is making assumptions and doesn’t know the first thing about him and never will, and she smiles to herself, wondering what he would make of her fantasy that she is waiting for her lover on the city wall and she sees him returning from war in the distance – no, she revises this, recasting herself as the male soldier returning from battle, war-torn, weary, in rags of filth, the smell of men’s blood in his hair, clogs heavy on his feet, sword crusted and hanging from his side, heart leaping at the clear yellow daffodils sweeping up to the city wall, and life seems worth living despite the lives he’s taken, and he shears off a few yellow heads not from spite but to enjoy the resistless gentleness of vegetation against the blade rather than gristle and bone and the burst and drip and rip of death, and all that matters is the integrity of this purest of yellows, and the subterranean mother hatching it out, and knowing the same procreative power waits in his lover on the city wall, he’ll husband her, and she looks around the bus, content that ambition would not teach her these inward valleys of knowing, and if asked what she was thinking, there wouldn’t be a single person on the bus who could guess.

Leah Swann

Leah Swann is the author of the story collection Bearings, and The Ragnor Trilogy, a series of fantasy novels for children. Her work’s published in Best Australian Short Stories, The World to Come, Review of Australian Fiction, Award Winning Australian Writing, and page seventeen.

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