meet the winners of the 2019 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st place, “limpet teeth” by jane o’sullivan
Jane O’Sullivan’s story, Limpet Teeth, won the 2019 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Jane, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on winning this year’s RFP for Fiction, Jane! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I work as an art writer so I spend a lot of time interviewing visual artists. It’s amazing and inspiring, but maybe also a little intimidating. It’s taken me a while to work up the courage to do my own thing.
What do you think makes a great short story?
I don’t think there’s a single answer to that. Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points just stabs you through the heart, but then there are writers like Ryan O’Neill and Elizabeth Tan who stretch the short story in such different directions. For me, I’m really interested in how short stories can capture a moment of change.
What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’?
Definitely not a plotter, though I’m learning the hard way to be a bit more disciplined when it comes to thinking about plot… otherwise nothing ever happens.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s) or the story?
Sometimes it’s a line of dialogue, but most often it’s a setting and the characters flow from that.
How do you know when one of your stories is ready to be sent out into the world?
That’s the big one, isn’t it? Does anyone know? Limpet Teeth sat in my dead ideas folder for over a year before I decided it was worth going back to and fixing up.
Writers are often told to ‘write what they know’. Do you agree?
No. Yes. Sometimes? I think you just have to be honest.
What (or who) inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write Limpet Teeth?
I’d read a strange science story in the news and I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somewhere out there, people were already working on how to turn that new discovery into something ‘useful’. Patricia Piccinini’s artworks were another inspiration for this story.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I’ve just finished Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout. I had to read it slowly because it was so powerful. Some of her lines about motherhood cut very close to the bone. I’ve also been reading NK Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders and Marlon James. I think Melissa Lucashenko might be next.
What book/poem/short story do you wish you’d written, and why?
In the past year I’ve read some really wild, genre-bending books by female Australian authors like Jane Rawson, Angela Meyer, Claire Coleman, Elizabeth Tan, Claire Corbett, Jennifer Mills, Krissy Kneen… I’d like to have that sort of guts.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
It’s an amazing prize that always seems to get great judges. I’ve loved some of the stories I’ve seen in previous years. But really, I just entered because I need to give myself deadlines to finish things.
What does this year’s theme, ‘fragments’ mean to you?
I have two young kids. Everything is fragments. But there is always sticky tape.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
Right now, my goals are just about the discipline of writing, finishing and submitting. From watching artists, I wonder if that’s all you ever get to control anyway.
Where can people follow your work?
I’m @sightlined on Twitter and Instagram, and my website is janeosullivan.com.au
She watched her dad line up the limpet knife while the worm slowly writhed.
‘You want this bifurcation here,’ he told her. ‘This is the easiest bit to pierce.’
He didn’t see her nod. He didn’t need to check to know that she was watching. Then with a dark grunt, he pushed the blade in hard and she saw the tiniest bead of creamy blood well up. It squeaked against the limescale as he dragged it down, again and again.
Then he angled the knife into the blood and cracked it open.
‘Like that,’ he said.
She’d never seen this part. She’d only ever handled chunks of meat for the cooking pot, already gone grey in the heat.
‘It’s so pink,’ she breathed.
‘Yeah, most of it’s in the shell. That’s why they’re safe to eat,’ he said. They watched as the last twitches faded to nothing. An ugly wet lump.
‘Here, you hold it. Scrape down the inside, from here to here. Try and get right up inside the scales. Watch the gut.’
Shen grimaced. It was hard to pull the knife without the limpet teeth snagging on the scales. Then she was through and the viscera, pearly and soft, spilled onto the wooden table. Her dad’s hands were in there straight away, separating out the intestine.
‘It’s safe to cut here, right behind the head,’ he said, nodding at the knife still in her hand. ‘Leave the anus attached, that’ll burn off. And don’t wipe your eyes; it’ll burn.’
He sounded so tired. Neither of them even wanted the meat. Eating worm was like chewing mouldy plasterboard, but protein was protein. And at least they were easy to catch. Nothing else was these days.
‘We’re lucky,’ he used to say, back when they first came. ‘We’re a long way away.’
He didn’t say that so much anymore, although sometimes she would still find him studying the old map. The pictures didn’t mean much to her, and she didn’t like the way the lines snaked across the paper like gritty worm casings, but even she could see how far they were from that small dot on the coast. She understood that look in his eye, every time the dogs started barking. They shouldn’t be here, not like this, but they were.
He worried too much. Their house was set well back from the road, one of the old timber Queenslanders that flaked paint in the heat and juddered through every storm. The only thing they really had to worry about was the mortar in the foundations, but they’d dug a pit around the place months ago and checked it every morning.
Her dad kept quiet as he lit the old incinerator in the back paddock. Shen worked beside him, breaking down logs with the hand axe. She was little and wiry, but getting stronger. She knew it. Still, the blows shuddered through her shoulder, and a blister was already rising on the pad of her hand. She would never say anything. She was too proud that he was letting her use it now. Most of the time the axe stayed locked away in his toolbox. It was the most precious thing they owned. Losing it meant finding another town and he told her he couldn’t risk that anymore, not with her.
But he’d always known how to make do. He’d made an art of it, the way he lashed the teeth in. A good limpet knife could last months, and now he was finally teaching her how.
Her own knife.
It would be a long afternoon. They needed a lot of wood to get the coals going. It had to be hot to burn off the last scraps of flesh and soften the limescale so they could get the teeth out. Limpet teeth, but it felt dumb to call them that. They hadn’t belonged to limpets in ages. They’d taken them out, and made them bigger—too big for limpets now—because those teeth were the toughest biological material that had ever been found. The name had stuck, even though it made no difference what animals they’d stolen from to make the worms. All that mattered was what they’d forgotten: the reproductive checks and balances, the off switch.
And now that high-tech eco demolition crew was eating its way through the veins of the world, feeding out along the highways and stormwater drains and service pipes, as far as they could go.
Shen shuffled the axe to her left and wiped her blistered hand down her shirt.
‘Are you going to teach me how to hunt? When we finish it, I mean?’
He looked up, his eyes still hidden in the shadow under his hat. ‘Hunt what?’
‘Real meat,’ she said.
‘Worms are real meat. You know how to catch worms.
‘A baby could catch worms.’
She saw the dust-caked hat shake slowly side to side. ‘My little Shen-shen doesn’t want to be a baby!’ So he was laughing at her.
Shen felt the mad rise in her chest. She threw the axe down with her wrong hand—an impulsive, ill-timed blow that glanced off the log and pulled her arm hard after it. She heard him sigh as the log tumbled into the dirt. ‘
‘Shen, how many animals have I brought home lately?’ he asked.
‘A few,’ she said, still sullen because it felt good.
‘Not a few.’
‘A couple then.’
She shrugged. She felt like one of the dogs at the kitchen door, whining to be let in.
‘Nothing’s changed, Shen. I will teach you what I can, when I can.’ He waited. ‘Shen-shen?’
‘What about goannas? Lizards?’
‘Well, sure. You can try. But you know I can’t waste that time on maybes. I’m losing a day as it, making this knife for you.’
‘The dogs find them.’
‘I am not a dog.’
‘But we could use them. I bet…’
He took more wood off the pile and gestured at the chopping block. She knew she’d annoyed him. It vibrated off him like a silvery midday mirage.
Her dad thought everything was dying. Just because the cities had crumbled and people had swept across the land, taking everything that wasn’t already took. Because they’d been alone too long. Because the radio only spoke in static. But he wasn’t looking anymore. It was like his eyes had calcified with limescale.
They stayed by the incinerator for hours, her dad checking it constantly and feeding in logs. When dusk came, they left it to burn out and the butterflied shell to cool in the ashes overnight.
The next morning, he hooked it out and blew on it. White flecks billowed into the sky. Then they brought it inside and sat at the table together, at the cool centre of their creaking house. His toolbox sat between them, unlocked again. Shen stared at it, studying the key in the lock. Yes, she knew where he hid it.
Then, without warning, he brought the butt of the axe down hard, smashing off one side of the butterfly, then the other.
‘The fire makes it brittle,’ he explained, picking up the head. Then he showed her how to identify the lead tooth and count around to find the crack point. ‘You want to get your pliers in here,’ he said. ‘Hold the leather around it with your left, here. File it a little way. Yes. Just get a bit of a groove, to help it along. And then snap it.’
She strained. ‘I can’t do it, Dad.’
He said nothing. She could or she couldn’t. He wouldn’t tell her otherwise. She tried again, and her knuckles bleached white. Three more tries and she almost said it again, but that would’ve been the end of it. Then the mad rose again, hot beneath her ribs. With a jolt she cracked it, and her face split into a smile.
He took it from her then and set the main section of teeth into the timber handle. Then he showed her how to do the rest: a tiny, complicated jigsaw. And there it was. She held it up. It still needed work, but it was hers.
She was still looking at it when she heard the gentle thunk on the table. ‘A present,’ he said, sliding it towards her. An old butter knife, silver, judging by the patina, with a bone handle yellowed with age. ‘I’ve been keeping it for a special occasion.’
‘Where…?’ she asked, even though she knew he must have had it in the toolbox.
‘It’s old,’ he said. ‘This pretty little thing is what I used, to begin with. Before I started figuring out my tricks. Your dad was pretty fancy back then, ey?’
He wiggled an eyebrow as she weighed the two knives in her hands. One jagged and sharp; the other dull and nicked and dented but still pretending to be civilised. ‘It can take an eye out, if you need it to,’ he told her quietly. Shen nodded, feeling grave and heavy with treasure.
‘My little Shen-shen,’ he said, in that empty, half-dreaming way of his. Then he snapped back. ‘I should get back to the plot. Finish lashing that and come out when you’re done.” Her eyes widened but he just grinned at her. ‘We need to hoe, Shen-shen. Then you can play with your new toys. Promise.’
When he finally let her roam, the day was already starting to slide. She took her aching shoulders and struck north along the old road, away from the sun. Brown dog loped off in front. She’d lost her by the time she hit the next farm, but she turned anyway, cutting towards a low, brown hill. The dog might wheel back and find her, or she might not. It didn’t matter. She had two knives. She could hold her own.
Shen stepped through the wire of an ancient paddock fence and entered the scrub. The breeze scritched through the trees above her head. She stepped as lightly as she could, her calloused feet more delicate than they looked. She tried to listen, but she was making too much noise. It was no use. Maybe best to hide and see what came past.
She eased herself down against a tree trunk, pulling her feet inside a nest of roots that arched like tendons into the dirt. Slowly the birds came back, little brown finchy things and scrubwrens; small and meatless but their presence gave her hope. Then something rustled in the leaf litter. She tensed, her eyes roaming. Something big.
She found it, a scrap of dappled leather beneath the scrub. It moved with a lazy, wallowing gait. Not a snake then.
It hooked claws into bark and started to climb and she saw it properly then. A goanna. She knew it. She knew they were still here. But for such a lazy creature it was fast. It was already four metres up the tree, settling into the V of a branch, its tail slung down like rope.
Shen bit her lip and thought about climbing. She studied the yellow lines across its back, and the shine of its long black claws. Her breath scooped into shallow arcs. She could do it, maybe, but not without scaring it.
The handle of her limpet knife was already slick with sweat. She felt the weight of it then—all that science and stolen DNA. That’s what her dad always said. All that science and they could’ve just made less waste. And now here it was, all that science in the teeth of a rough-made knife. Her knife. In her hand.
Silently, Shen watched the goanna as the ants crawled over her feet. She could hold on. She could wait.
It would have to come down eventually.
And then she’d show him. She’d sling it over a shoulder and bring it home and he would have to see just how real the world was.