Blue hills yonder by Joanna Wills
What the judge said
‘This is an ambitious piece that takes great risks with voice and world-building. Its unusual grammar and simple vision, mixed with more mature poetic language, forces us to approach the story’s world on its own terms’ Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Editor of Flashback Fiction, a Co-Editor of Flash Flood
The winning story
Blue hills yonder
Is hard to bind heart to harrow and drill. I is ever becoming silver wind in aspen, indigo swallow tracing curve of brook. Is harder still to enter farmhouse with dead shadowless corners, magic of eventide dropping from shoulders like cloak.
I turnover plough in Bottom Gully and Papa he mishappy. He hold up poor-poor finger-less hand and say, ‘Look. This is what happen to me, Boy,’ to stop my dreaming.
Oh but I cannot halt dreaming of Blue Hills Yonder across wide vale. And they drawing light of my eye from furrow and stook. They lying in ranges of colour from dark to cornflower to sky, curving gentle like woman resting on side in meadow.
I say, ‘Why McKellan hills so Blue?’
And Papa he say, ‘They are green like any other.’
He look at me some.
‘Son,’ he say. ‘The morrow you go to McKellan’s farm. Take my purse for the chestnut filly.’
I walk and walk wide vale the livelong day. I come to McKellan yonder and give him Papa gold. I cross hillside with bright filly, deep grass cool like living water. Filly feed on freshest slope of green, and I see my Papa words was true. I spy over vale to our own home hills – and they the very Blue of Heaven!
Oh, my aspen and brook, my swallows, land where our name rest on gravestones. My own place of root is Blue Hills Yonder! And Angel of Peace, she stretch soft wing of feather about my heart.
How I did it
People in my writing group had been saying how scattered they’d felt since lockdown, and how hard they’d found it to focus, so I decided to set up a weekly writing challenge. Every Monday I circulate a writing prompt and we all try to write exactly 250 words by the end of the week. Then I publish them all online. It’s been a huge success – we’ve all got around 30 pieces of crafted text, poetry and prose, some of which have led to bigger projects.
‘Blue hills yonder’ was my response to the prompt ‘blue’. It made me remember being in Maputo, in Mozambique, and staring across at the misty blue hills of Swaziland in the distance, like an oasis of fertility and vegetation. Whenever life was difficult in Maputo I’d yearn for Swaziland.
The voice of the boy in the story emerged when I was chopping out words to get down to the 250 limit. That’s happened with a lot of my 250-word pieces. Cutting has resulted in a more voicy text and I think voice is a good way of creating character. I imagined him as someone uneducated but with an intelligent and poetic heart, who responds deeply to the world around him. Being in lockdown has given me time to look at things. That description of swallows came from my own observation that they were blue, not black. That really blew me away. I’d never noticed that before.
I have a notebook that I write in every morning, bits of fiction and other things. I try to write in quick fragments, to get the ideas down, not trying to make sense of it. So the first draft of this piece was spread out over the week, interspersed with other things. Then at the end of the week I type them all up and shape them into 250 words. And it works, it really works as a process. And it’s keeping me sane.
The piece is not set in Africa, and he’s not Mozambican. It’s a kind of fairytale land, perhaps rural England in the past. And the story is a kind of fable. It’s my way of saying that where you are is just as magical as those distant blue hills.
Joanna Will has been teaching creative writing in Dorset since 2008 and will continue via Zoom when she moves to Italy. Prior to this she taught literature, trained teachers and wrote scripts for three films shot in Mozambique and Tanzania.
The other finalists
- Freya Bantiff, ‘Ground control’
- Belinda Rimmer, ‘Dog’
- Marie Gethin, ‘Merrythoughts’