Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize Runner-up, Together

The children are not sure they want to go, but the long morning shadows of their parents cheerfully say it is an adventure. There is turquoise sparkling at the earth’s fingertips, there are sausages to brown on a fire. Together they will walk the arm of land called peninsula.

The road outside their house has always rolled out for push bikes and for chasing games, for melting bitumen and grazes, and for a while today the road says yes; agrees to another bend and another downhill stretch that hammers the children’s toes into their shoes.

They walk under the shade of trees and vague houses set back from the road. They pass the forgotten parts of gardens. Even on this summer day, woodsmoke. Their parents whistling back to birds too loudly and walking in the middle of the road. Cars do not come.

Then the road says no, deposits them on a bright flat, and the children turn to see the road snaking away into the bush. They squint against the sun to see their house but it could be any of those corners or planes breaking the tree line.

‘Couldn’t we just pick one and go back?’ The smaller child thinks aloud.

‘We can’t go back on our own,’ they each already know.

Striding away are the backpacks of their parents. ‘We’re only just starting out!’

The sun jumps on them. Beats on their bodies, trying to get inside. The children’s faces turn to bad fat, and their arms and legs are dead white eels. The children are being cooked in their skins. Hāngī, buried in the heat.

Ahead of them, the undulations of their parents’ shadows turn the grass from sorrel to a diving black-green. Other clumps of it are flaxen and spiky and dry scrambles that used to be green, and only sometimes thick mats still hold something that was once lush. There’s too much of it and there’s too much perspective, depth that plummets like a rabbit hole of all the steps they still have to take. There’s no tree to puncture the horizon, there’s only the grasses, standing up like hairs on the back of your arm. The children and the grasses shiver in the heat.

The children try to play games. They play Would You Rather:

‘Have no eyes or have no hands?’

‘Eat only glitter or eat only hair?’

‘Do chocolate milk vomit or lemonade wees?’

They play Eye Spy until one of them says ‘…something beginning with I,’ and the other one says ‘Idiot,’ and the game is over. They make alphabetical lists of dogs, girls’ names, flowers, junk food:

‘Anzac biscuits.’

‘Boston buns.’


They get thirsty. There are several rounds of asking before their parents stop. One parent turns away so the other can get at their backpack; there’s no water bottle. They switch positions and find that there’s just one bottle between them. Their parents turn to each other and smile but their lips stick together awkwardly in parts. They takes slugs, one each, two. They pour capfuls of water like medicine and hold it out at the end of their arms for the children. ‘Rations,’ they say. This is a funny game, the children think. This is a weird tea party, tipping their heads back to swallow the warm water.

‘We could have brought some more,’ the younger child says.

‘It’s all part of it!’ Their parents say from the clouds, then move on, leaving vapour trails of themselves for the children to follow; a flick of trouser hem, a wisp of sunny hair.

‘If you’re still thirsty, drink your saliva,’ the older child says, swallowing hard and stepping forward not to be lost. The younger child runs to catch up, and the children close their eyes and hold hands against the wind. The wind does not believe anything could ever stop it, and hoons towards the peninsula before skipping over at the last minute, saying the land is not as hard as it thinks it is. Their parents’ faces are pushed into this wind; a high-whistling baptismal.

Underfoot, the grass becomes hesitant and here comes the wrist of peninsula and down go their parents, striding giants climbing down towards the sea, daring the rocks to roll underfoot, and laughing when they judder.

The children stand at the edge. They look across at the little fist of land that punches the sea, a tall island joined to the mainland by only shallow water. Foam blunders in from either side of the narrowed land. The rocks are flung over with thick brown belts of seaweed and they have been waiting a long time.

‘Why can’t we cook the sausages up here?’ The children call.

‘You can, but you’ll be running down here when the grass catches.’

The children turn their backs to the drop and begin to climb down. Hugging close to the hunchback of rock that is cool and damp and precious.

‘I’m scared,’ says the younger child.

‘Same. Just say you like it when we get down.’

‘I don’t even want sausages.’

‘You have to. Promise.’


The army-green gas cooker sputters in the wind. The smell of kerosene is a rusty ghost around them, licking their noses, creeping away. One parent squats, annoying the sausages with a fork and squinting out to sea. The sausages are browning. The foam kicks up and the children enjoy the cool globs that dollop onto their outstretched arms and they enjoy saying their arms are covered in bird poo.

Gulls gather, stretching their wings out flat like tea trays. The wind lifts them up and offers them around.

‘Impressive wingspans these birds have.’

A bread bag is revealed, rustling, and tomato sauce is set out upon a flat rock. In line behind the cooker, all the humans wait. The sausages are handed out, the tomato sauce squeezes out from the bread. Hands and fingers are licked while the children wobble away, picking their own careful paths across the rocks.

‘Sit down to eat.’

‘I’m standing up,’ says the smaller child. The rocks are slippery. The misbalancing begins. The hand holding the sausage jerks through the air. ‘See, I’m fine!’ The child turns away, towards the sea, and brushes a tomatoey hair from their face. A red streak across the cheek.

‘You’ve just been told to sit down.’ Both parents are watchful now, in warning. The gas cooker tells itself small, blue words.

‘I think someone’s a bit tired and grumpy.’

‘I’m not tired! I’m only tired because of this stupid walk!’ The world swerves. A foot skids down the slick rock. An ankle twists. A sausage goes flying, bounces off the gas cooker with a soft thud. Something is unscrewed. There is a small spill, it shouldn’t have happened.

Both parents up and stepping as if on stilts. ‘Come on, let me see,’ one says. The child is wedged and splayed across the rocks, all the wind knocked out of it, all the heat knocked out of its chest and given to the sky.

A powerful gull secures one eye on the bread. Shrieks. Sail-hops towards it. Snatching up the bread, the bird is left with tomato sauce smeared down its gullet.

‘Oh shit, the cooker,’ a parent says, stalking back, sweeping arms out low and shooing.

An unimportant trail of flame is licking and smoking across the rocks. The gull is flushed back. Its wingtip, already luminous in the sun, flicks at the edge of the flame.

It sounds like a baby crying. All the other gulls rise up, bend their heads forward and expel sound like they are purging demons. The black and white wing that is now aflame is beating, the gull is throwing itself from rock to rock, the gull is trying to fly. The wing is melting, already shorter and only good for turning treacherous circles. Upon the damp black rocks, the gull is painting grey smears of liquid feather.

One parent has left the cooker and is now trying to work the bird towards the water. Shrieks still come from the mobile of gulls that decorates the air, rising up and down on the currents of surprise, witnessing this orange calamity as they witness everything else; with one eye and then the other. The bird on fire hops towards the foam and then flaps away, watching half of itself disappear in the tangle of smoke.

The parents are making disgusted sounds. One has hooked the gas cooker back upright and is dealing with it in a jumpy way. One is snatching looks back at the gull while trying to block the children’s eyeline, trying to tame their view, trying to shield their eyes, pulling at the children’s t-shirts, snatching looks back at the gull and saying, ‘For goodness’ sake, oh for goodness’ sake,’ making balls of fabric to hold close, twisting and turning, but the children will only scrunch their noses up and keep staring with their milk teeth at the burning bird.


They sit there for ages not holding hands. For absolute ages, for years. Pressing their palms into the damp gritty rock or biting a chunk of hair, or knotting tomatoey fingers into their mouths, for absolute years. They are adults before they even think about telling the story. Then sometimes they try telling it with the bird plunging into the sea and wading ashore. There is a hiss of steam, always, and the bird is startled, bedraggled, but rediscovers the bread and soon forgets that its wing was ever on fire.

Then they try it with the gull breaking free, up into the blue. Sudden and sharp as a firework out of season, it flies away in a straight golden line towards the horizon while here and there on the dark, dangerous rocks, all the family sits, not moving, just staring up and out to sea, up and out to sea, watching the bird fly away until it’s nothing more than a small bright scrap of hurt in the distance. One or two times, perhaps, they tell it like that, but each time they tell it, they find the story will not come together quite right.

Now the children have sat there for such an age, and the road has wound itself back into the bush, and their house is still dark against the glare of the sky, and the way home ends up being something to find by yourself. Still they never think to tell what really happened, how long it took, the way the day folded in on itself like something to be thrown away.


Zoë Meager

Zoë Meager is from Ōtautahi, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her work has appeared abroad in publications including Granta, Lost Balloon, and Overland, and locally in Hue and Cry, Landfall, Mayhem, Turbine | Kapohau, and Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand and two volumes of Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy.

More by Zoë Meager ›

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