Furious Fiction December 2021 winner and shortlist

Furious Fiction December 2021 stories had to include a tree
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It’s a new year and a new format for your beloved Furious Fiction – with competition weekends now taking place each quarter. But first, we still need to crown the final winner of 2021. Here were the challenge criteria:

  • Each story had to include a tree.
  • Each story had to include something being taped.
  • Each story had to include the words DANCE, SEARCH and CHANGE. (Longer variations were accepted as long as original spelling was retained.)

Considering the time of year, the “tree” prompt sent many rummaging through their Christmas decorations. Meanwhile, others gathered up a search party to scour the woods or got busy dancing with the faeries. It was a time of change – from the loose coins variety to more epic transformations, with a mix of cassette tapes and sticky tape wrapping themselves around the entries we received.

It can sometimes be hard to see the forest for the trees – but we managed it to pick our winner from more than 1100 entries. The star perched atop this round’s tree belonged to Eugenie Pusenjak for her story, Poor Sap. Congrats Eugenie – we’ve taped the $500 prize to a random tree in the forest.

You can read the winning story below, along with some other shortlisted ones, plus our longlist of entries that piqued the judges’ interest. Thanks to all who entered, and we hope to see you ALL back on the start line in March. You won’t want to miss it!


 

DECEMBER 2021 WINNER

POOR SAP by Eugenie Pusenjak, ACT

By the time George realised he was a tree, he was three years old and ten feet tall. Being a tree was a somewhat relaxing change from his previous life. As a human, George had worked hard, never complaining when asked to work evenings, or to cover the office on Friday afternoons when Mr Carruthers and everyone else left to play golf. Nor had he complained when, after decades of diligence, he’d been passed over for the managerial position in favour of Mr Carruthers’ nephew. Nor when said nephew laid him off three months before George became eligible for the company’s pension scheme.

His wife of course, had not attended the funeral, having left George right after his cancer diagnosis for a man she’d met at her salsa dance class.

Still, his daughter had grieved, for a time. She’d planted a seed and watered his ashes into the earth – which, George supposed, was how he came to be reincarnated as a jacaranda.

Years passed. George grew. Birds built nests in his upper branches and shat on his lower branches. Teenagers gouged their initials and the occasional profanity into his trunk. Now George was seven years old – and yet to flower. However, it was a largely peaceful existence, and George didn’t mind providing shade and watching the world go by.

Then came several years of drought. George weakened. The beetles arrived, boring into George’s brittle bark. This caused George to develop a rather embarrassing leakage problem. Sap dribbled uncontrollably from his trunk and limbs. It dripped onto the road and the cars parked beneath his branches.

The owner of one such car – a BMW 5 series – cursed when he returned to discover George’s sap all over his British racing green paintwork. Within days, men from the local council arrived and taped a sign to George’s trunk: ‘Condemned’.

With his date of execution scheduled for the following month, George needed to find a way to survive – and fast! He didn’t fancy being hacked to pieces and left to rot. Or worse, incinerated. He needed to regain his strength, and to do that, he needed moisture.

The skies stayed clear, so George reached underground with his roots, searching, searching, searching, for any sign of moisture. Then – relief! One probing rhizome discovered a cracked sewer pipe. George drank thirstily from it, like a man slurping a beer on a summer’s day. He felt the nutrients rush through his veins, his wood hardening, his buds bursting.

When tree removalists arrived, they discovered the jacaranda in full bloom, and not a drop of sap anywhere. Several local residents gathered around George, blocking the men and their chainsaws. Someone must have called the council, because before long the sign was taken down, and the removalists left, never to return.

If trees could smile, George would be beaming. He’d spent all his previous life taking other people’s crap, but this time, it had finally paid off.

What we loved:
We often stress the importance of a strong opening line, and this one can’t help but hook you in with its matter-of-fact first sentence. As a reader, you know you’re in good hands – with a confident story that knows what it wants to say from beginning to end. Even with such a stripped back narrative, the author cleverly weaves in the 3-act structure so you’re drawn to the character and plot at every point. There are no wasted words on explaining George's supernatural state. Instead, we connect and accept his tree-form character as quickly as he does and follow his plight with a smile. What’s more, its cheeky conclusion brings the story into full bloom. A simple yet surprising concept contained neatly in its flash fiction parameters – with a great title too!


 

SHORTLISTED

A WELCOME GIFT by Anne Peck, VIC

Jack thought he heard it.

He was lying in bed, and should’ve been asleep, like his wife next to him, but he was listening intently to see if he could hear it once more. There was no rhythmic regularity, but it was a familiar noise he hadn’t caught in such a long time.

He turned over and pulled the covers up, she liked to tease, and the heartbreak it caused was taking its toll. Just the thought of it, and the joy it would bring, made it hard to ignore.

Almost too frightened to move, he knew he would have to check. He threw the sheet off, and sauntered sheepishly over to the window, the one he had yet to repair. There was no money, so as a quick fix, he taped it up.

But unexpectedly the rolling rumbles of thunder bellowed over the mountains, and a flash of jagged lightning lit up the night sky, and it made him jump. Mother Nature was brewing something in the distance.

Jack stood mutely holding his breath like he had done many times before.

‘What are you doing,’ he heard a sweet voice in the darkness.

‘Just waiting.’

‘Waiting for what? Come back to bed. God, it’s three in the morning.’

‘Did you hear it, Emma?’

‘Yeah I did, but I’m sure it’s nothing. Honey, please get some sleep.’

They had to be up early; the truck would be there at seven. ‘No more overdraft,’ the Bank Manager told them, ‘it’s out of control.’

Then the gum trees started creaking, the rustling of their dry crisp leaves groaned as the wind whipped up. The garden and the fields, which were previously an oasis of beauty, had died months ago, but this might create an abundance of harvests again.

Ping, ping, ping on the old tin roof. It was like a dance, the tempo getting faster, and the beat more consistent.

‘God, please,’ he whispered.

He couldn’t control his frenzied desperation to get outside. Running down the hallway, flinging the wire door open, practically taking it off its hinges. Then jumping down the stairs, two at a time, almost childlike in his haste to feel it.

He looked towards the heavens searching. What was that floating towards him? Low lying heavy clouds, gracefully moving across an inky black canvas. Fuck, did he dare to dream?

Then one large dollop hit his forehead, and another, some were hitting the barren scorched land, and that earthy scent when rain falls on red soil, wafted through the cracks in the ground. This is all it would take, a soaking rain, and the stress would be washed away.

Jack prayed desperately; it had been four tough years, and things had to change. Then as if his litanies were understood, Mother Nature let go. It came down in sheets, like someone was pouring a bucket of water over him, and he opened his mouth wide, gratefully drinking his gift from the Gods.

What we liked:
The structure of this piece is what effectively creates such a well-paced story. As readers (and humans!), we’ve been conditioned to think that noises in the middle of the night are largely sinister. Even here, when the wife offers “I’m sure it’s nothing”, we assume it’s meant to soothe, rather than her own faltering optimism. These opening exchanges tease the reader with mystery and suspense, slowly releasing droplets of backstory and clues to the protagonist’s conflict, before its climactic (and climatic) conclusion. And while one night of rain here may not realistically be the answer to all of Jack and Emma’s problems, it’s used deftly as a dramatic symbol of hope. Ultimately, this is a clean and simple idea told well.


 

SHORTLISTED

ME, A HERO by Warren Benedetto, USA

They call it a ghost forest: thousands of white cedars protruding from the marsh, their bark the color of bloodless skin, their branches barren against the corpse-gray sky.

A thin veil of fog diffused the morning light, filling the air with an eerie spectral glow. As I approached the police line, I passed a TV news crew taping a segment nearby. I recognized the reporter, a former salsa dancer named Maria Espinoza. Her breath swirled in the chilly autumn air as she spoke to the camera, glancing occasionally at a small spiral notebook in her hand to verify a detail of the case. I was enthralled—she was even more beautiful in person than on TV. I couldn't wait to meet her.

My pulse racing, I joined a group of twenty or so locals who had gathered to search for the missing girl. A tired-looking police captain was speaking to the crowd.

“All right, folks. We're gonna spread out and head in that direction.” He pointed into the forest. “We're looking for anything that seems out of the ordinary. A purse, a shoe, a—”

“A body?” I interjected. I glanced at Maria to see if she had noticed me asking the question. It didn't seem like she had.

The cop frowned. “A body,” he acknowledged. “Any other questions?”

A young man spoke up. “What do we do if we find something?”

“Most importantly, don't touch it. Just raise your hand and shout ‘Here!' Let us handle the rest.”

With that, the search party fanned out and made their way into the woods. The search was quiet, almost mournful. There was no talking, no conversation. Occasional shouts of “Kristie!” punctuated the silence as searchers called the missing girl's name.

I looked back at the news crew. Maria was chatting idly with the cameraman as he captured footage of the search. They would be wrapping up their coverage soon. I had to hurry.

I scanned the forest, searching for the landmark I had memorized a few days before: a fallen tree beside a black pool of liquid mud. Finally, I spotted it. Picking up a gnarled branch, I plunged it into the muck until I felt it catch on something soft. A ghostly form began to rise from the depths. Long brown hair fanned out across the murky water.

I looked back at Maria. As if sensing my gaze, her head turned in my direction. She smiled. I felt a surge of joy. She had noticed me. I had been seen.

I imagined what it would be like to be on TV, to be a somebody instead of a nobody for a change. I imagined being close to her, feeling her hand on my arm as she interviewed me about how I had found the girl, about how it felt to be a hero.

Me, on TV.

Me, with Maria Espinoza.

Me, a hero.

Glancing down at the girl's bloated corpse, I lifted my hand and shouted.

“Here!”

What we liked:
This round, the combo of trees, searching and (police) tape inspired a number of search party scenes, but here we focus more on the searcher than the victim – with the ‘taping’ (TV camera style) itself the coveted prize. The result is a story driven by action and a clear character’s goal, making for an accessible, if creepy, read. The first person POV blends factual observations and authentic dialogue with the delicate hint that their obsession with the reporter is not so stable. Yet rather than a story focusing on murderous intent, the piece wisely leans into the literal periphery – the main character’s adoration of Maria – to gently misdirect the reader. The use of repetition of the final lines, and the echo back to the cop’s instructions, firmly cement the piece.


 

SHORTLISTED

FIFTEEN TERRIBLE THINGS by Lisa Jose, ACT

There is a leopard in this story. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you, but you might have guessed anyway. A story will either have a leopard, or it won’t. A one in two chance. There’s a one in two chance you’ll win the lottery, or get swooped by a plover. You will, or you won’t. Most people don’t get that.

When I got to work I knew it was a good day because I’d counted fourteen terrible things that hadn’t happened to me. I love arriving at the zoo before everyone else, and today was especially exciting. It’s Christmas Day, and this year’s decorations are amazing. The main avenue is lined with endangered animals made from polystyrene and glitter. The rhinoceros and sea turtle were sparkling in the early sun, but the kiwi was looking a bit sad. A week ago, she had beautiful blue tinsel feathers, but the magpies have been pinching them, and now she looks like a faded disco ball. With a beak.

Of course, the animals don’t know it’s Christmas. They keep doing their business, and I keep shovelling it up. I always start with the big cats. They sleep indoors, and the keepers prefer me to finish early so they can let them out for breakfast.

Today there was police tape stretched across the path. Strange. But it was easy to wheel my cleaning cart underneath, even though I had to do a little dance to free the shovel handle when it got tangled up.

Luckily, someone had left the gate of the leopard enclosure ajar. It’s always a bother searching for the right key, but today I could just walk straight in. The first thing I noticed was a fresh smear of blood across the gravel. I figured the keepers must have changed their feeding routine so they could go home early for Christmas.

I unloaded the bucket and shovel from my cart, and as I moved to the corner to make a start, I realised I was being watched. Turning around, I saw three policemen waving their arms, and silently mouthing something at me in wide-eyed panic. My eyes followed their frenzied gestures to the tree in the centre of the enclosure, and I saw the leopard stretched along a branch, her paw protectively guarding the remains of her breakfast. It seemed odd that they would put her meat in a leather boot, but maybe it was one of those enrichment things they talk about. I waved at the police to let them know I’d seen her, and that it was fine. The thing is, the leopard was either going to eat me for breakfast, or she wasn’t. And she had obviously already had breakfast. I smiled to myself as there were now fifteen terrible things that hadn’t happened to me today. Then I heard a huge thud as the leopard fell to the ground, a feathered dart in her rump. And three furious policemen were running towards me.

What we liked:
Every time Furious Fiction rolls around, we challenge entrants to create an engaging story that stands out from the crowd. Here, we see that immediately in its quirky and almost childlike naivety – fueling a narrative voice that sets it apart. The matter-of-fact tone and preposterous tale somewhat resembles a tongue-in-cheek children’s book – and we’re totally here for it. While literary purists may scoff at the story’s silliness, it balances it in equal parts with a self-assured approach, piquing reader interest from the opening lines and leading us through the comical zoo to its farcical end. It was either going to pay off as a shortlisted story, or it wasn’t. A one in two chance – and we like those odds.


 

SHORTLISTED

THE HANGING TREE by Thomas K Slee, VIC

They hung from branches, gnarled and tangled.
Her body danced, head right-angled.
The duct tape muzzle choked her final cries.

A frantic search through vision misted
Found just one man; leering, twisted.
A stained white sheet framed his hateful eyes.

Rending pain blocked out all sound,
Shrunk the sky, erased the ground.
Devoured all, but archangel in disguise.

One final throe, boughs creaked, feet swayed.
The man dropped to his knees and prayed.
“Only from your death can Christ the Lord arise.”

He begged, receiving only silence.
Perhaps, one more act of violence
Would free the truth beneath their sins and lies.

Tyres screeched in plumes of dust,
His mind awash with greed and lust,
The hanging tree dark against the flaming skies.

The others consoled: “You’re not alone.
Like us, you’ll soon be naught but bone.”
As buzzards swooped, eyeing off their prize.

What we liked:
Poem-like structures to a story can seem like an easier approach, but it’s that same confined structure that makes them incredibly hard to do well. That’s partly why this poetic piece stands out. It may be short, but its unsettling effects on the reader are long-lasting – and not simply due to its dark subject matter. The language is rich, vivid and bold. The stanzas smoothly roll off the tongue, with a roller-coaster-like rhythm that soars and dips in just the right places, before catching you off guard with an evocative image or the whiplash of a surprising twist. Its eeriness seeps into every line – conjuring a sense of setting, character, tension and connection as well as any classic short story. A masterclass in word efficiency.

 


 

SHORTLISTED

NOTHING QUITE LIKE IT IN THE WORLD! by Hunter Liguore, USA

When Old Maple spotted Spruce Brown, he lit up like twinkling Solstice lights, and waved Spruce over to his most prized row of humans. “I saved the best for my favorite customer… over here, you have this year’s Stout Lisa’s, right next to the Tall Charlie’s. Take your time—search every row if you have to!”

Spruce Brown searched each row and human carefully; he needed to find the perfect one for his family. There were short ones, and tall ones, thin ones, and straggly ones. He felt one of its branches. “Mmm, I do love that smell!”

“You said it, Spruce! It makes me think about how special the season is.”

“What about that one behind you? Its color changed quick!”

“Well, once you cut them at the ankles, they dry up and take the color with ‘em.” Old Maple scratched his bark thoughtfully. “I can tape the roots. It won’t take but a minute to stop that ol’ sap from flowing!”

“In the meantime, I’ll take this one with the roots.”

“A fine human if I ever saw one!”

With a bright Solstice smile, Spruce dragged the human all the way home. Over the snowy hills, he whistled a tune—even skipped and danced too, as the night sky seemed to expand with a perfect, harmonious beauty. He sang the refrain aloud:

O Solstice human,
O Solstice human
How lovely are thine branches?

Spruce Brown’s family jumped with joy when they saw the human. He set it up in the middle of his homestead, the night stars shining brightly overhead, as the family gathered. Mrs. Brown was the first to point out the obvious…

“It’s too tall, love.”

“No, it’s perfect.”

“We’ll have to take a little off the bottom, then it’ll be perfect!”

Spruce Brown’s needles sagged.

“We don’t know how to take care of it anyway, Spruce. I don’t know what you were thinking in the first place.”

Spruce Brown’s branches sank further, wanting to tell his wife how humans were nearly extinct now, and how crucial it was to replant them, to which she'll accuse him of being a sympathizer, a “naturalist,” even.

Spruce gave in, and brought his saw over, turning the human on its side. It wiggled under the might of his branch, as he cut the roots off at the ankle; the red sap dripped onto the white snow. Spruce thought for an instant that it let out a small cry, but realized how foolish, and finished by taping the roots, just like Old Maple had shown him.

Spruce stood the Christmas human upright and donned it with lights. The saplings gathered joyously around it, and danced, as they hung pinecone ornaments on its two sagging branches.

Mrs. Brown snuggled close to Spruce. “It’s certainly the most beautiful human I’ve ever seen.”

“Sure is.” Spruce Brown smiled. “I do love the smell of a solstice human—ain’t nothing quite like it in the world!”

What we liked:
What better way to end this month’s selection than by turning the whole world upside-down and presenting a familiar annual ritual with the main players switched out. It takes a special skill to make this macabre tale of human torture a positively festive read – but here we are! The tree characters spring to life in this piece, giddy with the solstice spirit and full of enthusiasm for their rare ornaments. The commentary and descriptions of the humans are chuckle-worthy and vivid… reminiscent of a dark fairy tale (someone call Burton or del Toro) and more enjoyable on each reread. Again, a great title that works on two levels.

 


 

LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

If you made this round’s longlist, congratulations! The judges saw something in your stories that made them pause, laugh, think or cry. You may have thought outside the box or simply filled the same box with new things – but whatever it was, you caught their attention this time round. Give yourself a self-five and to all entrants, we look forward to seeing what you dish up to us in the next round!

THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):

  • THE INVENTOR'S SON by J.A. Penrose, NSW
  • JUST ANOTHER CITY TREE by Cherie Mitchell, New Zealand
  • TREE OF LIFE by Kenneth Mann, United Kingdom
  • AN IMMORTAL REPUTATION by John Drake, Ireland
  • UNTITLED by Tim Law, SA
  • THE GIFT by Ilona Wickham, NSW
  • THE TREE SANG SONGS OF LIFE by Shelley Kirton, New Zealand
  • THE GIRL ON THE DOCK by Evonne Biggins, United States
  • WINTER MEMORIES by Genevieve O., United States
  • THE ROOKIE by Dick C. Waters, United States
  • LAYLA'S B-DAY 12 MAY 1997 by Ibtisam Zaïneb, Netherlands
  • A MOST HEINOUS ACT ON CHRISTMAS DAY by Danielle Alice, VIC
  • DON'T LOOK DOWN by Abi Hennig, United Kingdom
  • CHORDS OF SILENCE by S A Potter, WA
  • TINSEL, TICKETS AND LIVING CHRISTMAS TREES by Jemma Green, QLD
  • RENAISSANCE by Teddi Dicanio, United States
  • ROAR by Cassidy Luque, United States
  • THE TREE HUGGERS by Denise Newton, NSW
  • THE WOMAN AND THE TREE by Astrid Jef, Belgium
  • A CALM AND SUNNY EVENING by Georgia Wedgwood Mayne, Isle Of Man
  • OH, CHRISTMAS TREE by Pauline Yates, QLD
  • ONLY THROUGH THE LENS by Phoebe Rogers, VIC
  • SOLD by Cynthia Bolton, QLD
  • THIS YEAR WILL BE DIFFERENT by Anne Freeman, VIC
  • A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE by Neille Williams, ACT
  • 9 TO 5 by A C. Millington, WA
  • MERRY CHRISTMAS, MAUREEN by Sheree Somers, SA
  • AN OLD FRIEND by Donna Lee, QLD
  • THROUGH THE CAMERA LENS by Paul Nally, United States
  • TIME FOR A CHANGE? by Nicholas O'Brien, ACT
  • NEW YEAR, NEW ME by Dylan George, NSW
  • ROCKS FALLING, INSECTS, ALL ANIMALS by Lucy O'Suulivan, VIC
  • DEDUCTIONS by Christopher Hart, QLD
  • THE SECRET by Rhonda Hyder, VIC
  • THE TREE by Roger Leigh, NSW
  • FIVE HOURS SOUTH by Juliette Salom, VIC
  • PEES ‘N QUEUES IN THE BIG CHAIR by Jeff Taylor, New Zealand
  • STICKING POINT by Claire Schön, Austria
  • BE HER TO BE WITH HER by Jack Cannon, VIC
  • FIRST RUN ADVICE by Renée Bennett, Canada
  • UNTITLED by Anne Younghusband, NSW
  • UNTITLED by Hannah Kelly, United Kingdom
  • UNTITLED by Grace Parsons, QLD
  • THE MATTE MIRROR by Rose Iwati, United Kingdom

 

 

 

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