A person washes their hands over a small pottery bowl.

First place, Autumn 2022

Picture by Nguyen Dang Hoang at Unsplash

I. Charms against fire

Weave a circlet of straw.
You talk about the old ways as we walk out of town. Rites to save the harvest from blazing into ash. The hay is tinder, the clay is cracked with thirst. You brush a thunderbug from my shoulder and I shiver. We linger till the sky flames, melting our long shadows.

Gather mistletoe from an oak.
We stand on the ridge where larks used to sing. I dare not meet your flint-blue eyes. Careless sparks cost lives. I say, ‘I have to go,’ my throat dry as grass. My husband will be waiting. The moon is a sickle, cleaving my heart.

Whisper sacred words; draw sigils in the dust.
The ancient charms have lost their power. The straw’s too brittle to braid; the oaks fell long ago. This rain-starved earth is too hard to scratch. I can’t speak a blessing; your lips steal my prayer. When lightning sears the land, I’m defenceless. I burn.

II. Charms to protect a home

Hide a child’s shoe in the chimney-breast.
I don’t own a child’s shoe – I have to ask my sister. The tiny thing can’t fill the hollow space in the hearth. A hair-fine crack spreads to the ceiling. When I tell my husband, he says there’s nothing there. The fracture gapes and splits the floor.

Lay a hedge of rowan, holly and thorn.
I plant prickly saplings in the barren clay. They can’t block the sight of you, strolling with some girl. My hands bleed. You kiss the broken skin, murmur, “She means nothing”. A wall of thorns is no defence if I open the gate.

Carve signs against fire on the door.
The rune-marks don’t stop me dreaming of Hell; don’t stop the burning in my mind. Embers rise to the rafters as I lie in your arms. The roof could catch light at any time, and everything fall down. I hold my breath and close my eyes.

III. Charms against poison

Wear a bezoar stone
It’s too late for ward-stones now. My blood is thick with desire and despair; you taste the acrid bane on my skin. His ring tightens, weighing down my hand. My swollen tongue is black as lies.

Crush the ashes of nine virtuous herbs.
His gaze burns like gall as he asks, ‘Where have you been?’ I try to answer, but a canker closes my throat. Words unspoken hang like smoke, stifling us both. I turn away to hide my smarting eyes.

Wash your wounds with holy water.
The well-springs are choked under concrete and contempt. The church is shut tight against breakers of locks and vows. No rain blesses this shattered earth, the charred wreck of my home. But saltwater cleanses wounds. As you walk away, I welcome its sting. Tears scald my cheeks and scour my tongue: bitter as healing, sweet as truth. Moonlight floods the charred fields and makes a silent river of the track. I kneel in ashes softer than new-fallen snow.