30 November 2022
The 2022 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers Fiction Winner- Grey Clisby de la Piedad
Grey Clisby de la Piedad’s story Claylike has been awarded The 2022 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of fiction. Clisby de la Piedad was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks.
Read Clisby de la Piedad’s winning piece below!
She was a small baby that grew into a large girl. She knew this, though not why it mattered. She knew that it did; she knew that large boys were good and large girls were bad, and that boys that were larger than her found it very easy to pull the ground from her feet and rub dirt into her skin. She knew that the dirt caked against her face, and that though she cried when her mother washed it off, her father did not care.
She was a large girl with a larger voice, dark hair that crowned her head like the spindly hands of her mother’s calacas, and eyes so wide they held the sky and the ground and the space in-between. The dust that blew between her home and the paper factories was the colour of the fog-smothered sun, painting the shoes that strangled her as she walked.
Her feet were ripe fruit, shelled brown, and inside, mottled purple and red. A boy from her class liked to crush the juice from them with his heels. He would press them to the edges, stress her blisters until she ran home, red flooding her white socks. He would laugh.
“He called me big-foot,” she told her mother.
“That is what boys do,” her mother said back, and smoothed her chicken-scratch hair, and offered her a plastic-wrapped caramel sweet. She took it.
“You shouldn’t let her eat so much,” her father said, in passing, on his way to the bathroom.
Her mother smiled at her thinly. She smiled back, and twisted the edges of the silver plastic in time with the clock over the mantle. Her mother’s back turned, and she slid the sweet back into the bowl.
She was a large girl turned hungry, and she was not getting any smaller. The boys still called her big-foot, and popped her blisters and boils under their heels. The girls with hair of silk and bones of glass thought her indelicate, with her clamouring lungs and voice that climbed higher with every note it sung.
Her stomach ached as she skipped around her dusty yard, as she wrote and did her arithmetic, as she marched behind the flag with the rest of her school. Could they not see how empty she was? How hard she had tried to be hollow?
She was the slowest when her class played football, lagging behind the rest of her team with a weakly spinning head and limbs that wanted always to be married to the ground. She felt the full weight of her largeness, now that her legs were straw instead of stone.
Quiet laughter, held behind hands so the teacher could not see, shared in a breath. Always, she was on the other side.
She was tired. She was nauseous. Hunger was so, so exhausting.
She snuck into the shed and took her father’s knife that he used to gut fish at the waterhole. She guessed he would not be angry when she returned it in the morning.
She stood before her cracked mirror, large and naked and tinged-green, hateful and dusty and alone. She held the blade against her stomach and pressed it into her skin. She cut, sawed, pulled back layers of skin and flesh and fat, carved her body into something loveable. She bent down and cut the blistered toes from her feet. The knife fell from her shaking hand.
She could breathe when she slept that night, cool and delicate, glass-boned. When she stood, her legs hardly shook. She could have been blown away by the touch of a feather, by the breeze floating through her open window. She laughed, high and soft, like a bluebird, and looked in the mirror.
She was long and languid, hair dark like spider-legs and eyes so wide they held the sky and the ground and the space in-between. She stepped into rust-stained shoes and felt no pain, slipped her cotton dress over her head with ease, reaching for a ribbon to cinch the waist.
She walked into the living room with an airy gait, tottering on her toeless feet, learning to walk again when she was unstable as a bowling pin. She grinned the grin of a madwoman or a clown or a daughter, and she began to eat the eggs her mother had placed in front of her with a trembling hand. She could see the whites that framed her mother’s eyes.
Her father stroked her hair with a rough, kind hand. “Did you take my fishing knife?”
She ate the eggs and they disappeared inside her. “Yes.”
He ran his fingers from the root of her braid to the ribbon that tied it. “Will you return it to the shed after breakfast?”
She smiled, and looked up at him, and could not find disdain on his face. “I knew you wouldn’t be mad.”
Her mother’s face looked to be the colour of the dust outside.
She was only glad to be full again.
She was a small girl that grew into a large girl, though this time in the right way. She was old enough that tall was not something awkward, but something that girls with heeled shoes and thigh-length skirts whispered about her.
She soon learned to differentiate good whispers from bad whispers—the kind that meant you were doing something right or the kind that meant you should brace yourself. Good whispers looked up at her with pink cheeks and red lips and eyes that flickered to her collarbones. Bad whispers bore down on her with a cast-iron grin and spat in her mouth.
She enjoyed the good whispers immensely. She enjoyed the kindness her father’s expression had gained. She enjoyed the waves and the smiles from her classmates. She enjoyed the cards on Valentine’s Day. She enjoyed the look of her face, clear of dirt and dust and ash. Whenever the largeness began to return, she only had to take her father’s knife and carve it back like wet clay.
She did not play football anymore, but that was alright. Football was for boys, now, the same boys that used to call her big-foot and liked her better toeless. They were larger too—all of them—and they made her feel very small when they stood next to her, like the paper factories loomed over the town. They put their hands on the small of her back to direct her movements, and leaned over her from behind to help her find something on her computer.
“I like your hair like that,” one boy said. He was a boy with hands for holding and a mouth for smiling.
Her hair was loose around her face. She was unsure what to make of what he said. “Thank you.”
He said something else that made the gaggle of girls that now typically followed her scream and clutch each other with delight, that made them hurl advice at her with a vigour that was hardly necessary. Their words pierced her flesh like fishing knives.
“Say yes, say yes,” one girl hissed.
She said yes.
She wore her hair down and met the boy at the arcade above the supermarket. They played Mario Kart and tried their luck at the claw machines.
He was a boy with a mouth for biting and hands for holding you down.
She came home a girl with purple skin and mouselike movements. She no longer enjoyed her father’s smile, or the way he stroked her braid from root to ribbon. She flinched at his heavy movements. She was a small girl.
She stood again in front of her cracked mirror and wondered if she had made her body too loveable, by accident. She touched her hand to warm skin, unbroken but aching. Perhaps if she had carved a little less, or a little more, her nails would not be bleeding with the boy’s skin. She hugged her limbs tightly and was struck by how breakable they were. She no longer felt power in her fragility.
She stole away to the shed and took her father’s fishing knife, and then out into the moonlit orange yard of her house. She took clumsy water from the hose and force-fed it to the ground with her fist and her broken nails. She made skin from the earth.
Knife in hand, she stood, and whittled away her chest, marred and mottled and finger-printed. Each piece she hacked fell to the ground and melted into the soup of dirt and water. She shook with the effort, with the sharp pain that tried desperately to bend her form. She put the blade to her jaw, her cheeks, carved herself a meaner face and an easy harshness.
She moulded the dirt to her waist, filling herself out so she was not so easy to hold. Large in the way the boys were. Her thumb smoothed the crease until it was not visible, but she pinched the flesh there and felt nothing at all.
Her hand captured her wispy hair and she knifed at it with abandon. This, she wanted gone; this evil creature that had polluted her scalp and bruised her skin. She pulled and tugged and cut with the full force of her arm, wound the threads around her fingers as they came away. She held them tightly in her fist, and then raised them in the air. She let go, and they vanished into the dark sky.
She fell to the ground and braced her elbows on her knees. She felt stuffed. The skin on her chest was lonely, and the flesh on her waist battled itself. She felt as if her body was trying to crawl into her.
In her bed that night, she was weak and heavy, made not of stone but of gold. She was like a great orchestra out of tune.
When she stood the next morning, in front of her cracked mirror, she was solid, an oak. She was a girl with hair like moss and wide planes of skin, and eyes that held the sky and the ground and the space in-between. She was a girl who wore her father’s clothes.
He touched her at breakfast with no delicacy or gentleness. He clapped her on the back with a great, heaving hand that she was not so small next to. She ate three eggs and did not think about the fishing knife.
Her mother was quiet. It did not matter, because she was not spared a glance.
Her bruises faded in the places she fixed herself, she realised. It was nice not to hurt quite so much.
She was a small girl that forced herself to be large by moonlight, by knife and dirt and insistent fingers. The foggy sky, the long, dusty roads and the paper factories stopped being her home. The shade of the factory buildings reminded her of the shadow her father cast in the doorway, and the orange roads she used to walk to school by made her remember the lifeless skin that clung to her sides. Worst of all was the boy—the smiling boy, who kept smiling.
She tucked her father’s fishing knife in her suitcase and hoped it would not shred her best dresses, the ones she had hidden in her closet, and boarded a plane that took her far from the town with chemicals in the air.
The city she landed in smelled of salt and foliage. The dust that blew in the open streets was sand, the colour of shattered stars, touching her freshly-grown hair with a softness. She walked barefoot on the line between the water and the sand. Her toeless feet no longer matched the ground, and when the clay fell from her this time, there was no dirt from which to make more.
She walked through crowds of starlike people, faces the colour of sand. When she spoke, those faces questioned her. They exchanged side-eyed glances that needed no translation. You are not wanted here, they said.
Her skin did not feel warm anymore, no longer filled with the sun and earth. She was whittled of wood and clay, and they were ivory. Her tongue was clumsy.
But she was tired of running. She liked the clear sun. She could not do this again.
At night, the sand glowed like it fell from the sky. She touched a hand to it.
She gritted her teeth. The ocean water swallowed her tears. She hit her fist to the wet sand, but it held fast against her, stinging her fingers and sticking in the folds of her knuckles.
Her cries had never done her any good.
She took a handful of the sand from the seabed and smeared it down the skin of her arm. Another handful went on her legs, and her face, and neck. She pulled the last of her flyaway hair from her scalp and threw it into the ocean, and ripped the trim of her yellow dress into ribbons. She fashioned herself like a doll, with hair of fabric pressed into her scalp and heavy glass skin. She shone in the moonlight.
Her tongue was swollen in her mouth. She thought of the fishing knife back in her room, but its broadness was not made for this sort of delicacy.
She took, instead, a seashell lined with mother of pearl from the ocean floor. She washed the sand from it and sharpened its edge into a blade with the flat side of a stone. Then she stuck out her tongue, and carved it into something that could belong in a finer mouth.
When she awoke the next morning, curled over the beach, there was no one to know that she looked like a stranger. She was a girl whose eyes held the sky and the ground of a faraway place: ocean and sand and cloudless sky.
She was a girl with sea-glass armour and a practiced air of ease. A girl with heavy skin that tugged her to the ground, skin which she bore as if it were feather-light. An invisible girl, who did not show signs of crying in the face of her uncracked mirror, of leaving streaks of clay over her porcelain cheeks.
But she was alright. She shone, just enough.
And then there was another girl. Starlike. One who was slim, and small, and unassuming, though not by knife’s edge.
She had an extraordinary power. Not like the power of the boys in the factory shadows, with clumsy muscle and violent teeth, a power that forced and took and demanded, but one of delicate hands and a witty mouth. This girl had the power to elevate heartrates and to redden cheeks, to fill stomachs with fluttering monarchs.
Her body did not seem to stop betraying her, the masked girl thought, as the starlike girl forced her to contort her armoured face into a smile. She wondered what she had done to be born so offensive.
She knew the result of straying too well. She knew the feeling of blisters popping under heels, of being held against metal and forced to stay silent. She knew the feeling of being the outlier. Abnormality was punishable; she felt this in her feet and her breasts, her face and her hair.
She took her father’s old fishing knife into her hand again, the one she kept tucked behind her mirror. She undressed and faced her reflection without flinching. Her knife was aimed carefully.
The blade pushed past her skin, then her layer of fat. It hit muscle and bone. She winced, though adjusted her grip and soldiered on. The knife pulled away shards of her heaving ribcage, revealed to her slowly the delicate ecosystem of her chest.
First, the knife went to her stomach that turned, that fluttered with phantom insects. It fell to the carpeted ground and stained it red. Then to her lungs that struggled to function—one, and then the other. She aimed the blade then, finally, at her heart. It gripped stubbornly to her with its many fingers, but she would not be outlasted. She cut and cut and cut until it fell away from her as well.
She stared at it on the ground: that heart that beat far too quickly.
She looked, then, at herself in the mirror, at the way she gaped open like the maw of a beast. Red. Garish. Empty.
She went to pull her skin back over her chest, to mould it back together, but found her hand to be weak and heavy. She tried to take in a breath, but her throat constricted over nothing. She coughed, and up came the bitter remains of her arteries.
She collapsed among her lungs and stomach and heart and looked to the answerless ceiling. She felt the shell she wrapped herself in crack, tumble away from her skin like glass shards. She was claylike again. She grew large and tired under the glaring light of the room she didn’t belong in.
She conjured the dusty image of her mother. She thought, then, that surely there was something her mother had learned to swallow, too. The heavy hand of her father, perhaps.
The fog and soil poured from the large girl’s eyes until they reflected the faceless gaze of the white walls.
She and her mother had twin mouths, she realised: small and silent. Her voice-box sat in her throat, yet it did not let out a cry.