On November 3, I taught a world-building workshop at the University of South Florida at the Tampa Bay Youth Writer’s Conference. My room was packed with kids and young adults sprawled over the floor and standing in the back, so when I introduced my short story contest, I expected one or two entries.
I didn’t realize I would get so many!
The task I’d outlined for them certainly wasn’t easy. They had two weeks in which to write a 2-page short story based on the fantasy world they’d created in my workshop. Double-spaced. 12-point font. If you’re a writer, you know that is not a lot of space to build and develop a world, never mind throw in a main character with a desire to boot. But I wanted to limit their word count to make them focus on the very heart of the story. To develop an emotional connection that could grab the reader in just a few quick bites.
And wow, did they deliver.
I promised to publish the best of the best here on my website, so that’s what I’m doing today. The winner of my short story contest is Jordyn Dees. She’s a student at a Tampa area high school and runs her own book blogger site, Jordz the Bibliophile, too! She’s not only a wonderful storyteller as you’re about to see, she’s a lovely spirit with a genuineness about her that takes my breath away.
So, without further ado, here is “The Island of Bazuli” the winning short story by Jordyn Dees.
THE ISLAND OF BAZULI
Mama said praying to one of the gods for anything other than food, water, or health was disrespectful. And while a kiss from my long-time crush wasn’t on that list, I was asking for it anyway. The god of my choosing, Themba, who took the form of an elephant, stood before me. His trait may have been hope, but of all the gods, he was the closest one to love I could find.
Kneeling for Themba in one of the many temples in Sindwa, I strongly encouraged him to nudge Bheka in my direction at the festival tonight. In return, I promised to be the most hopeful seventeen-year-old on the island and to bring Themba an offering every week.
Finished, I reached into my worn wool sack and placed a chunk of bread on the platform before the great clay statue of an elephant, which towered above me with painted tusks and bright eyes. My bread sat next to a cob of corn, a beaded necklace, even a wedding band.
Then I stood and allowed the next person in the line of worshipers to step up and pray. I walked past lines leading to the other godly statues, sliding between blue crane Nomusa, god of mercy, and the rhinoceros Mandla, god of power.
When I made it outside, the hot Sindwa sun embraced me, the humid air welcoming. I was almost knocked down by a boy on a news cart, announcing today’s happenings. “The Festival of the Spirits is tonight!” he yelled, as he sped past. “Dance, food, and worship awaits!”
The boy, whose house was just two doors down from mine, realized he’d almost run into me a beat later and threw an apologetic look over his shoulder. “Sorry, Jabu!”
Despite the near-hit, I squealed, earning a look from a woman in a brightly patterned head wrap selling pottery and colored glass next to me. I couldn’t bring myself to care. The Festival of the Spirits was the best day of the year on Bazuli. Every summer on the solstice, the entire island came to the city. Avenues and streets were lined with merchants and entertainers, games and music, beaded banners and crackling torchlight. Though the festival started as a way to honor Bazuli’s many gods, as the years went by, it had turned into a day of general revelry and celebration.
I skipped down the steps of the temple, feeling much younger than seventeen, and cut through the bustling marketplace. Traders shouted after me as I passed, offering grapes, carrots, vases, bronze bracelets, and floral perfumes. I paused at a stand selling fresh fruit from Arenta to buy a ripe mango from an olive-skinned merchant, at odds with the dark faces of Bazuli.
Being right by Bazuli’s busiest harbor, Sindwa was a restless place, filled with merchants and visitors from neighboring nations, on a regular day. But on Festival Day the entire city pulsed. The warriors of the Mandla mountains, hunters from the Swamplands, and even the people of Setho Beach travelled here for drinks, dance and trade.
Which meant Bheka would be here, in all his dark-skinned, muscled glory. I could only see my best friend when I could make the day-long journey east to sandy Setho Beach and his warming presence, or if his family made a trip to Sindwa to buy supplies for their sea-side resort. Or, of course, when they visited for the Festival.
My stomach flipped as I imagined his eyes, silver as sea foam, tipped by a crooked smile and deep dimples. The last time I’d seen him was at the start of this summer, when I visited Setho Beach with my father for a week. Bheka and I had spent days together, him teaching me how to surf, me eating more seafood than I could ever stomach. And on the night before I left, we’d walked along the beach, talking, laughing, until the sun set and the moon rose and I was sure that he would kiss me. But he hadn’t. Tonight, I would make sure that changed.
I swallowed my mouthful of mango and headed home to get ready, imagining a million stars, drumbeats to jive to, and a cute beach boy’s lips in flickering torchlight. I sent one last prayer up to Themba. For hope, luck, and just a little bit of bravery.