Govind Anil Nair, a final semester Engineering student won the fourth annual Swinburne Sarawak Creative Writing Competition that was launched on 19th September. Students had one month to submit their short story of less than 1,200 words. Govind’s story, Semina Vitae was a dystopian piece that told of the protagonist’s journey through the harsh landscape of an Earth whose air is so polluted that humans can only survive in domes where the only clean air on the planet is available.
Honourable Mentions went to Sally Yong Ming (last year’s winner) with The Portalist, a humourous take on not just time travel, but on bodily exchange; Selena Yap Feng Ling’s Rust, a story whose narrator tells the tale of a woman’s life experiences; and Karen anak Patrick Lai’s The Death Eater, a story of a protagonist who spends a lifetime evading death, only to…. no spoilers. The stories are posted on the webpage of the School of Foundation Studies for all to enjoy.
This year, the competition was organised and funded solely by the School of Foundation Studies with the aim to encourage students to develop their creativity and hone their creative writing skills. Professor John Wilson, the guest of honour at the launch and the prize-giving (on 14th November), supported the School’s initiative to encourage creative writing at the university, saying to the participants: “Whether you will eventually be an accountant, an engineer, programmer or designer, I hope you will nurture your creativity and never stop writing – on blogs, online writing communities, news or academic articles, poems or stories.”
Govind read his winning story after certificates were presented to the eleven participants who ranged from Foundation students to undergraduates majoring in various fields. Before the prize-giving ceremony started, and while partaking of refreshments, participants and the audience enjoyed reading the entries that were posted on the walls and whiteboard in the lecture hall.
Interested staff and students can join the weekly Creative Writing sharing session at G205 from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. on Tuesdays. A prompt is released each week and anyone interested can write a story to share at the session. Others who don’t have the time to write may join the session to listen to the writer read his or her story and to offer constructive feedback.
A Swinburne Sarawak Creative Writing Community Facebook page has been created to support creative writing, the arts and literature at the University.
Click on the buttons to read the stories.
As Ella ran across the desert, she could feel her thighs burning. The hot sun beat down on her and there was no shade in sight. She checked her smartwatch to see the oxygen reading in her tank. 30% it read and a range of 3km with her current heart rate. If her calculations were right, she needed this supply to last 2km. She would then receive her refill after exchanging the seeds. Every step climbing the sand dune required effort. She made her way up slowly, monitoring her watch and hand on the pouch on her waist. The contents of the pouch decided her fate.
As she approached the peak of the dune, she could feel her heart rate increase. She looked back on the tracks she had left behind. The hot breeze quickly masked her step as it pummelled her with sand. She could see the wind reshape another dune further away. As she reached the peak, she saw a huge dome. She felt relieved. She was in the right place and her destination was just a few hundred meters away. She unhooked her sleigh from her back and placed it on the hot desert sand. This should be fun, she thought to herself, as she lowered her visors and checked to ensure the pouch was secured safely to her waist. With a gentle jerk, she was speeding down the dunes, fast approaching the foot of the dune.
The dome was a ginormous structure that imposed itself on the vast desert. Ella recalled reading that the size of the dome to be about ten football fields in length and width. A large electronic display on the dome wall illuminated the message in bright red text: ‘Maximum occupancy. Dome defence activated. Proceed with caution.’ As Ella approached the heavily fortified entrance, she could see the bodies of what appeared to be men, women and children scattered all around. That was something else she had read. Thousands had tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the dome and had lost their lives in the process. The air toxicity was at an all-time high and without the help of respirators, it only takes a few minutes for one to perish. As she climbed over bodies, she checked her watch reading again. 21% it read. She was now at the metal barriers. She spotted a few cameras zooming in on her as she got closer to the gates. A loud buzzer rang out as if to warn her to stay away. A robotic voice said she was in proximity to the dome walls and risked death if she tried to force her way through. Ella checked the contents of her pouch again as she cleared her throat and took a deep breath. “I have currency. I do not come empty handed. I need a place in the dome and I am willing to pay for my spot,” she said. “I fit the requirements,” she continued. For if she didn’t, she wouldn’t get so far.
It had started twenty years ago with the disappearance of the bees. No one had paid attention when apiculturists across the world began noticing the dwindling number of bees. “The birds will make up for the lack of bees” one world leader had remarked when the scientists reported their findings at the United Nations. Without bees, the pollination process did not take place as efficiently and that led to fewer trees. The older trees could not cope with the deforestation rates and the increased environmental temperature. By the time the leaders acknowledged the impending catastrophe, it was too late. And so, the humans did what they do best, damage control. The construction of eco-domes began simultaneously in multiple first world countries. The second and third world countries who were robbed of hectares of trees to aid the development of these first world countries, were ignored. Ella had been stationed in Kenya at the time. She remembered seeing the once vast areas of marshland and forests turning into barren deserts. As an activist, her group tried to protect the people and the land, but it was all too late and the fight against corporations and foreign governments was always a losing cause. As mass suicides gripped nations across Africa and Asia, the first world countries sped up their efforts in constructing the domes. The access to domes was granted on the basis of desirable physical traits, a circular read. In a nutshell, people who were considered to take up a lot of air were denied entry. No vehicles or machines that polluted the environment were allowed. “The domes will represent the ideal ecosystem, devoid of pollutants. These include humans that are considered to consume excess levels of oxygen due to their physical ailments,” the leader of the dome establishment agency had said.
As the air toxicity increased, populations across the globe began to die. Ella read reports of mass deaths due to asphyxiation from the poor air quality. Animal carcasses were seen everywhere, and diseases thrived and spread like wildfire. Domes set up hastily barely survived as flaws began to appear. The number of domes decreased every day. Ella was allocated to a Dome in Lycée, France. She was leading the research in producing Semina Vitae when a neighbouring dome came to know of the presence of Semina Vitae and decided to attack. She managed to escape with the pouch and a respirator with a few tanks of oxygen. The pouch had the ability to sustain life, and Ella was aware of the extent people would go to get a hold of it. And so, she ran with it.
As a man walked towards the gate entrance, Ella unfastened her pouch from her waist. “It’s all in here,” she said, shaking the contents. As she pointed the open pouch to the camera, the man froze. It was a look of absolute shock. “Where are they from?” he asked. “From France. A nursery we had in the dome before the attack. It is still healthy, and they have survived this trip,” she replied. As the metal doors opened, Ella made her way into a tunnel which was the decontamination chamber. “Place the currency here. And my staff will escort you to the bunker,” he said.
The man moved towards her and held out a tray. Ella smiled as she emptied out the contents from the pouch. Bright green seeds fell out of her pouch onto the tray. “Semina Vitae,” she said proudly as she emptied the last of the seeds onto the tray. “The seeds that had survived the journey of three months. The seeds that forced a neighbouring dome to attack and wipe out an entire population. Semina Vitae has fast growth rates and a longer life time than other seedlings used to refurbish the ecosystems. The oxygen production rates are higher than any other seedling that had been used so far,” she announced, as she made her way to the bunker.
She removed her mask and set down the empty oxygen tank while taking in a lungful of fresh air - the first fresh air she had inhaled in the three months since she started her journey. A warning sounded on her watch: ‘Tank empty.’
Stanlee awoke on the soft, warm bed. Suddenly aware that something was amiss, he sat up straight on the bed.
Where the hell am I?
In the dim lighting, his surroundings looked so unfamiliar yet, familiar at the same time. His eyes swept the room and saw that he was in a spacious, minimalistic decorated room. It was as if the room were decorated exactly like the pictures found in the interior design catalogues which he liked to flip through, just to get an idea of what his dream home would be like.
Maybe some rich stranger took pity on drunk me.
He yawned again and shuffled in the direction of the bathroom. He needed to wash off last night’s hangover. As he entered the bathroom, he heard the sound of rushing waters.
Is the bath running?
He stopped in his tracks and stared at the magnificent view that was before him. A wide, circular window showed that the house seemed to be situated in a deciduous forest overlooking a spectacular waterfall. He felt a light breeze brushed across his dishevelled face.
Isn’t the window closed?
He shuffled closer to it. The closer he went, the more he felt like it wasn’t just a window. It was as if he could almost touch the leaves. He extended his hand and then, he could. He could feel its rough, jagged veins. Without thinking twice, he crossed over to other side. A warm feeling coursed through his body as he did so.
Now he was face-to-face with the breath-taking waterfall.
Nature really is amazing…. But what the hell?!
The portal behind him had closed. Leaving him thirsty, dizzy and very much bewildered.
“It’s okay, it’s okay…it’s only a dream….” he said to himself reassuringly.
A bearded man in a hooded travelling cloak suddenly appeared beside him.
“Ahh!” Stanlee jumped at the sound of the voice.
“Haha!” the man laughed and the stern lines on his face relaxed. “Gets them every time.”
“Who are you? Where am I? How did you even get here? And why the bloody hell did you scare me?” Stanlee interrogated the bearded man after regaining his composure.
The man removed his hood and replied, “I’m Tom. I’ve come to bring you to the Gathering.”
“For someone mysterious like you, I thought you’d have a cooler name, like Gandalf or something you know.”
Tom smacked his head.
“You’re not in a dream. Come.” He beckoned for Tom to follow him into the foliage.
“Shit! This really ain’t a dream! What the bloody hell just happened? Did I just walk through a portal? Did you make that portal?”
“You can ask these questions when you meet the Head,” Tom stopped to look up at the canopy and then resumed walking. “The Head answers questions better.”
“Why should I even be following you?”
“You can choose not to. It doesn’t stop me from having my lunch,” Tom shrugged.
“There’s food there?”
“Yes! I mean, I shall follow you to this um meeting or something.”
Stanlee tried to ask a few more questions but Tom kept replying that the Head would answer them all. At last he gave up and they hiked the rest of the way in silence. After what seemed like forever to Stanlee, they arrived at a dilapidated wooden shack.
“This is the place?”
Without replying, Tom entered the shack. Sceptical but extremely thirsty and hungry, Stanlee followed.
The shack seemed bigger than it looked from the outside and it was full of people. A sea of unfamiliar faces stared at him but one face stood out from amongst them. It was a Chinese woman who was sitting behind a desk. Clearly, she was the one who had the authority here. Stanlee collapsed on the chair opposite her and gulped down the glass of water put before him.
“My name is Li. I am the Head of the Portalist Committee,” Li folded her hands and looked directly into his eyes. “So you are Stanlee Hummings. Parents divorced. No notable academic qualifications. Constantly unemployed.”
Stanlee’s eye twitched. If he knew he was going to be humiliated like that he wouldn’t have minded eating leaves instead.
“Welcome, new Portalist!”
A thunderous applause was heard across the shack. There was even cheering at some corners.
“What’s a Portalist?”
The room quietened down. He could feel every pair of eyes staring at him.
“A Portalist is someone who can make portals and travel through them.”
Stanlee burst out laughing.
“Me? Being able to make portals? Like Dr Strange?”
The room was dead quiet now.
“Really? You guys don’t know who he is?”
“Let me ask you a question, Mr Hummings,” Lee began calmly. “How did you get into that millionaire’s bedroom?”
“That bedroom belonged to a millionaire?!”
“You visualised it in your head.”
And then, realisation hit him. He thought the room looked familiar because it was what he would have imagined his dream home would be like.
If I really am a Portalist, I want to go somewhere on a mountain, overlooking a grand city with its skyscrapers and beautiful waters.
The ground beneath him began to shift and change colour.
Tom wanted to grab hold of Stanlee but Li raised her hand, as if to say, “Let him”.
The floorboards revealed a black hole and Stanlee fell through it.
Stanlee felt as if he were on a narrow waterslide. One second he was swooshing down, the next he was lying face flat on something hard. He got up from his feet and saw that he was indeed on a mountain, overlooking a glorious city with its many skyscrapers extended towards the sky. The city had a beautiful emerald lake beside it. What made it even more beautiful was that the entire city was surrounded by mountains.
I’m a Portalist.
He stared unbelievingly at the magnificent landscape. No sooner than that, a loud war cry was heard in a distance.
Stanlee saw a huge mass of people charging towards each other at the far side of the city.
“Wait a minute….”
He looked down at the hard surface he was standing on. It was the head of a black panther statue.
“What the f-?”
Throughout the years I have come to the bitter conclusion that blood tastes like rust. My father first taught me that. My father made it hard to love. He made it difficult to be in the same proximity of middle-aged men who had played baseball in college. Despite this, I fell in love once. I fell in love when I was nineteen years old in college. The warmth of his embrace and his poetry were worth the fall. The love felt fabricated but necessary for social status. Years later I can still feel this love when I run my fingers across the texture of a wooden fence. Rough like fingerprints and hopeful like an extended arm offering help. The door on the fence could be slammed every day upon entry and exit and yet the fence would resist the abuse effortlessly. Like a strong woman in an unfaithful marriage, pushing forward despite adversity. It was with this wooden fence that I wanted to protect our children from the cruel world beyond it. A fence I would not have torn down for just anything or anyone.
When I was twenty-three, I met someone special, an old mutual friend who was working in a local bar. I remember her brown hair and the way her eyes lit up when she made it on time to work in the morning. I can still feel her presence when someone who hasn't quite established enough rapport with me offers a spontaneous high-five. I feel it when I see more than three missed calls from the same caller ID. I feel it the most when someone slams a door.
When I blew out the candles for my twenty-fifth birthday, I had finally learned to love myself. I loved myself a total of once and will live to remember the consequences. A year’s worth of salary was put into investing in a hiker's bag. Plans to visit popular hiking spots around the country were put into place. With a flight ticket in one hand and my newly purchased hikers' bag in another, I left the travellers’ store feeling the best I have ever felt. All the planning had got me excited beyond my wildest expectations. "This calls for a celebration," I thought to myself. Being an introvert, the local bar on the next block which was particularly empty seemed inviting. I walked in and had myself a beer, an alcoholic beverage my father was very fond of. After finishing a mug, feeling accomplished and undefeatable, I took a shortcut back to my car. Every strand of hair on my skin stood at a proportional angle the second I had realized I was not alone. I offered the mysterious man my expensive bag, but it was clear that he had other intentions. I screamed at the top of my lungs for as long as I could manage. It was the night that plagued my memory, "I had loved myself once" I murmured to myself. I sat on the alley flood, covered in scars and scratches. It took approximately 20 minutes for me to break the world record for having every possible injury ever recorded in the "what's such a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this" handbook. It is true what the survivors say, it was not about feeling merely defeated. It was like nothing the human language was equipped to help express.
The clock on the hospital wall ticked consistently. I stared at it hoping it would stand still, just this once. I had stared at this very same clock for once a month for eight months. It was this one night that I was physically able to feel the tears trickling down my cheeks, caressing my lips and hanging on my chin for dear life. "For dear life," I thought to myself. I would have torn down that wooden fence if I had known it would destroy my children. I have never wanted children, but I would have done anything to protect them. I lost my first child at 2:34 A.M. that morning. I watched as the blood gusted across my inner thighs. I observed the viscosity, the color and the volume as it dripped from my slender legs. I looked at the child that could not be. I spent an hour staring thoughtfully at this decreased being. Born from pain and the law's inability to ensure men understand the concept of consent. I don't remember how I landed into the lap of my father. My neighbors tell me my mother left me in an expensive bag, draped over my father's wooden fence on a humid night. "Classy" was what the old grandmother thought of it. A cigarette in one hand as she reminisced the event that happened nearly twenty years ago. It was the night she chose the adventures in the Amazon over being a maternal being. My cries woke the neighbors, who woke my father.
All the things we love make us bleed. We bleed fluids that wreak of mundane mortality and rust-like taste. It is almost as if we could say it is rather, ironic.
On her last day, my grandmother called me to her bedside and gave me a token. Her trembling hands were webbed with age and her milky eyes were so clouded with cataracts that she could barely see me anymore. When I saw her lying there, I thought of pitted prunes, of wrinkled old clothes left out in the rain. The stench of death permeated everything, clouding us like an invisible haze.
“You are the only person who can save me.” She gestured at the small copper coin on her bedside table. “Do you trust me?”
And I said I did because I had no one left on earth to believe in anymore.
When I was younger, there had been no one around but my grandmother. She had taught me to carve wood, to grant wishes and to read the jagged lines on my palms. The day she scared off the people bullying me at the town square by shaking her broom at them, I knew I would rather burn myself at the stake rather than see her leave me.
I clutched her wrinkled hands, feeling every groove and wrinkle. “I’m here, Grandmother. What do you need?”
“I want you to take this token and give it to the blacksmith down in the village.”
The blacksmith was a bitter man no one would miss but I did not manage to find him. Instead, I found his daughter playing all alone. She was only five years old. She came running up to me eagerly because she had been my best friend and I gave her the token without thinking. Perhaps vaguely I knew what would happen to her but I was selfish back then. I wanted nothing but my grandmother to live.
When I arrived at our house, my grandmother was already up and cleaning the stove, smiling at me with a radiant smile. Every last wrinkle on her face had disappeared and she stroked my hair. “You have always been my salvation, Morgana.”
I felt guilt in my heart that I was too young to understand but I asked, “What’s for dinner?”
“Death, of course. Freshly served.” She winked at me and a man younger than her would have sworn she looked like a maid of twenty years. We sat around the table and ate the meal in silence. Another day, another death. Another life saved.
The next day of course, the town found the blacksmith’s daughter dead.
They would search for us but we would already be long gone, taking our coin with us.
Centuries later, my grandmother called me to her bedside once more. She had given me all her magic in order to keep me young. Eventually, she became so old and wrinkled we knew it was time for her to eat again. She kissed my cheek with her wasted lips and whispered, “You are my salvation, Morgana.”
The copper coin in my pocket burned against my palm and despite having done this for centuries, I felt so tired and heavy with a guilt I could not name. Still, I dressed up in my best black dress and walked out on the street, mingling with crowds of children dressed like me except with cartoonish pointed hats. I stopped to look at a nearby Harry Potter exhibition for a moment, smiling ironically.
There was a sudden movement next to me and I found him standing next to me, as quiet as a shadow. He was wearing a black suit that was certainly an improvement over the awful hood he had had in the last century. He smiled his charming grin and said pleasantly, “Selling something, Morgana?”
I should have walked away. My grandmother begged me to never ever talk to this man but something held me back. I cast him a flirty smile. “The usual.”
Nobody looked twice at us as I took his arm and walked into the nearest restaurant. He ordered us a bottle of fine wine.
“Do you like it here? This world, I mean,” he asked me.
“I should think so. I don’t have to hide. I can get a job. People think witches are cool now.” I smiled at him.
He drank the wine. “I like it too. New dress code and everything. My job has been busier though.”
My grandmother was dying now. I was sure of it as I sipped my wine. But somehow, I was taking my time. I played with the coin on the table and he caught my hand with those skeletal fingers of his. “I’d like to have this if you don’t mind. You’ve owed me for such a long time.”
I shook my head but I knew this meant nothing. I was deeply tired and he could see it. He gently took my hand and led me out into the moonlight.
“You have been flirting with me for far too long, Morgana.”
“I don’t know if I have enough to offer you,” I blurted out, clutching the coin so tightly.
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t mind. One soul is worth as much as another.”
A trembling leaf on a branch. A push of the wind and finally, the leaf drifted down to earth. I felt the weight of centuries gone by, of thousands of deaths and sins weighing me down like chains. My heart gave a tired heave and I finally passed him the token.
Somewhere, my grandmother breathed out a final breath and I closed my eyes, letting the tears drip down my face. He pocketed the coin and I knew I wouldn’t ever get it back.
“You truly are her salvation, Morgana. She would have understood, you know? She was so tired.” Death looked thoughtfully at me and then took my hand.
I held hands with Death all the way home. Age was finally catching up with me and I found myself wheezing when I entered my apartment.
“Would you like to have a meal with me?” he asked.
I nodded. We prepared a simple meal using the microwave. Upstairs, I knew that my grandmother had floated away into dust but I did not mind. It was past our time anyway. As we ate, we talked about the people I had traded with, the people who held that copper coin and found themselves dead. He laid out my sins one by one on the table until I was crying.
“I loved her so much I didn’t want her to die. I think she also felt she couldn’t bear to leave me so she gave me that token to buy her life over and over again,” I slurred drunkenly.
His hands were so cold as he held me. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Then he kissed me and murmured, “You are forgiven.”
The next morning, Death laid two copper coins on Morgana’s closed eyes. It would be enough to buy her way across the river. He felt slightly sad. She had been the one face he had known so fondly because she had kept running from him over thousands of years. But she wouldn’t be running anymore.
Death shrugged and wandered off to search for something to eat for breakfast.