Terra Mater

This story was created as part of round three of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition 2018, having completed round one and round two. The following details were received at 5am on Saturday 10th September and I was given 48 hours to research, write and upload before 5am Monday 12th November (midnight in NYC). 

Round two

  • Word limit: 1,000 words
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Location: Battleship
  • Item: Skull
  • 500 participants remaining, competing in groups of around 30 people. Top 3 in each group progress to final.

Terra Mater

The kingdom of Terra is the last remaining piece of earth in an infinity of water. With its future at stake, it falls to Isla to ensure the voices of past and future generations are heard. 

I sense the shadow rays swimming all around, translucent like ghosts of the sea. The waves rock the boat and I take deep breaths to steady myself. I’m no longer on solid ground. The hull of the galleon is in darkness and above me I hear the footsteps of men. They are oblivious to my presence, but then why would they imagine me here? Isla, a woman from Terra.

It’s been five hundred years since the Immersion, when the waters came, covering land and washing away life. My people had clung to the earth, taking refuge on the last remaining rock. The others had taken to the sea, learning to tame tides and control underwater creatures. On the vast briny foam they built the floating kingdom of Thalassa. 

The roots of Terra had been planted by our ancestors and the seeds of fear sown too: the Thalassians would come one day, the floods would follow, we weren’t safe. As a young girl I listened wide-eyed to terrifying tales of Grindylows – ocean demons who would lure children to the water’s edge to feed on their flesh. Reaching adolescence, like our bodies, the stories changed. For Terra males it was Melusine they had to be wary of. Beautiful sea spirits with golden locks, coral coloured lips and an intoxicating song.

While warning stories filled the air, on the ground we staked out displays of strength. An enormous Ceto skeleton flanked one side of the island, the beast’s skull menacing with three eye sockets and its long tail draping down the cliff, a symbol of our might. This war cry was just an echo now and the bones crumbled where the lunar tide had burnt through.

I make my way up the warship’s stairs, out onto the deck. The glow of Terra catches my eye. A ring of fire traces the cliff edges of my home, day and night bonfires burn, the flames to demonstrate power and the heat to keep the watchers warm. I imagine these men sitting around the fire, looking out to sea at this galleon I am on, following its red sails. 

I have treated many men from the afflictions of being a watcher. Musk mallow poultices to soothe skin blistered by acidic sea spray and hemlock tinctures to block the pain of boiling ocean steam. I understand the healing potential of the earth’s treasures; I am a keeper. My apothecary shop, with its rows of glass bottles, had been my grandmother’s. From her I learnt to harness old earth magic and to understand the responsibilities I now had. I spent time deep in the forest, collecting nature’s legacy to keep it safe. The green pines were disappearing fast, felled by the watchers to keep the warning fires burning. So busy looking out to sea, they had stopped seeing what was happening here. 

This morning a watcher visited the shop to get feverfew for his headache. As he arrived, the warning horns signalled out a warship on the horizon. I knew it would have 240 rowers, 80 soldiers and one captain. The hull would be made from oak and coated in copper to protect from the corrosive ink of the death squid. 

Now, as I move across the galleon’s deck, I see my instincts were right. There’s exactly the number of Thalassa men I thought there would be. I will work my way through them one by one; rowers, soldiers and then the captain. They won’t see me coming and they will all listen to me in the end. 

The watcher had thought I was afraid of the warning horns. “Don’t fret, the ship won’t get any closer. They know their place and it’s out there in the filthy water.” I had turned to answer, but he had moved towards the heavy velvet curtains. He swept them aside, revealing more shelves. This time the bottles were laid on their side and their contents were not ferns or petals. He moved closer, taking in the sight of the miniature galleons in bottles. A fleet of copper bottomed ships with scarlet sails.

My grandmother hadn’t just shared the secrets of potions, she had shared the secrets of generations of keeper women. The words that when spoken aloud could move bodies through air, could part seas, could take me from the corner of the shop to the belly of a galleon in one breath. The words of the Terra Mater. 

I had looked at the watcher, as he looked at the ships in bottles. My heart pounded and I willed him to ask me. I would have told him it all, right then. How I was not just a keeper of nature’s remedies. All the bellowing out to sea the watchers did was meaningless. They didn’t protect Terra, I did. These warships had been coming for years and it was me who now made sure they never reached land.

He’d met my gaze, eyebrows raised in question. Then I saw he had resolved something in his mind. “This must have taken your father years to make. How dedicated to his memory you are to keep it.” I pushed past him, grabbing an empty bottle and slipping it into my pocket.

That same bottle is in my hand now. It’s still empty, but soon it will encase this warship. I knock on the door and the captain opens it in surprise. I am a siren of the land; a halo of marigolds circles my hair and a rosa gallica bloom is pinned to the front of my dress. A heady perfume of the forest masks the scent of the sea. I put my hand on his shoulder and pull him towards me, leaving an imprint of soil where my fingers have pressed his skin. My lips brush his ear and he makes a low moaning sound. I take a deep breath, the salty air filling my chest. Exhaling, I begin to speak, whispering the secret words of all the women before me.

This is the original work of the author Hannah May and copyright belongs to the author.

Thoughts and feedback

Argh fantasy!! When I saw I got that genre I considered throwing in the towel. Despite the utter fear and being so far out of my comfort zone, this was the story I was actually the happiest with.

Again, there was a lot of detail I ended up cutting out, but I was pleased with the fantasy tone I’d got to: it wasn’t all dragons and goblins (my pre-conceptions) but hopefully there’s still a sense of the ‘other’ and this being a different world.

I did shit loads of research for this too – all medieval detail, all the lotions and potions are real cures from the time, the fantasy creatures are all based on folklore (the grindylows are a yorkshire coast myth etc). Terra Mater means Mother Earth. So although it’s fantasy I tried to root it in something human and relatable.

Surprise surprise it’s about a woman again. That’s what I realise each of these flash fiction stories has in common – women and their battle (internal or external) and the constraints that society puts on them.

I’m definitely going to re-visit this with more time and turn it into something else. I didn’t get placed in the top 3 and didn’t go through to the final stage. Judges feedback was positive, a couple of them said they wanted more of a resolution at the end, but I’m sticking to my guns on it for a piece of flash – I like how it ends with questions.

What the judges liked:

  • {Judge 1809}  I like the concept of “keeper women”. 
  • {Judge 1598}  The world of the story is inventive and vividly described. The narrator’s voice is strong. The tension is superb when the watcher saw the ships in bottles.
  • {Judge 1788}  The mythology of both Terra and the Immersion was extremely creative, with several interesting facets. The opening paragraphs made for an enticing introduction into the fantastical world. The narrator was an empowering and dynamic protagonist. In particular, the narrator’s appreciation of her grandmother’s gifts and devotion to practicing them was very alluring. 

What the judges felt needed work:

  • {Judge 1809}  What are the responsibilities of keeper women? Why are they important? Isla’s main goal wasn’t clear. What is Isla’s main goal? Try showing and not telling details because it takes away from the story. It’s not clear what happens in the end. What happens with Isla and the captain? Try answering these questions within the editing process to create a stronger plot and characters. 
  • {Judge 1598}  The story brings up the problem of the pines disappearing because the watchers are felling them to keep the fires burning. This introduces a profound problem that is not specifically addressed later in the story. 
  • {Judge 1788}  The conflict would be stronger if the author cultivated more suspense in the rising action. While the narrator drawing men in to protect Terra is new to the reader, it’s an everyday occurrence to her. This lessens the amount of suspense since she’s going about her regular routine and she meets with little resistance. Consider this: why would she remember this warship over any of the others? What’s something that’s different about this day that will stay with her once the deed is done? Perhaps things go completely wrong and that’s why this instance unnerves her. Presenting her with an obstacle or new circumstances will raise the stakes and make for a thrilling conflict. She may be highly capable, but don’t be afraid to test her because this will give the story’s conflict more dimension. ‘Terra Mater’ is beautifully written and shows tremendous potential. Once the author elevates the suspense in the conflict, it will be stronger as a result.

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