Sarah Long

Sarah was born and raised in a hippie surfer town in California before running away to New Orleans to read literature with vampires. After a hurricane and a degree, she found herself wandering around Los Angeles, dreaming of becoming a novelist in a script writer world. The heat was a tad too much, so she moved across the pond to pursue an MA in English Language and Linguistics, focusing on practical applications of linguistic theories on fiction. She's currently writing from her small West London balcony with her dog, husband, and toddler cheering her on. 

Screenplay Award Category
In this climate disaster fairytale, a girl who communicates with trees must decide whether to warn a neighbouring town about an upcoming Great Storm that will flood their valley. But the town has just murdered her best friend, a young spruce named Sky. She must ask: do humans deserve another chance?
The Woman In The Charm House
My Submission

I should let them drown.

Winnie recoils at the thought, but it’s true. The Town, and the people in it, are evil. She shouldn’t warn them of the upcoming storm, because humans are termites. Worse than termites, because they should know better.

She had been pressing her fingertips into the soil to create cradles for her tiny pumpkin seeds, harvested from last season’s crop, when she’d first heard the warning.

Now, she’s running to the house. The early spring ground feels like ice beneath her bare feet.

If Winifred had been wearing shoes that day, she may not have heard the warning, which continues to shoot through the roots of all the trees in this forest. The silver birches noticed the imminent danger first, mostly because they are more sensitive to changes in the air than the poplars, the pines, and the boxes. The willows should have also picked up on the danger, but they’ve spent all morning tending to a young sapling that has been struggling in the shade of its parents. Regardless, the birches send their messages into their roots, which intermingle with the aforementioned trees, and of course the oaks, who then send warnings to the buckthorns and hollies. The dogwoods are incredulous, but they’ve always been leery of anything coming from the birches.

Winnie does trust the birches. They have always been her closest friends, and they know how to keep secrets.

When she first heard the warning, she stood up straight, which sent jolts of pain up her back. Normally, she’d complain to the birches about how decrepit she was becoming, at only twenty two, no less. Worse than Mamama, before she died.

But the pain doesn’t matter now, because the warning comes through clear: a Great Storm, one which will surely flood the valley and destroy everything in it.

Until now, the valley has avoided these storms. It’s placed on the perfect latitude and longitude, one of the rare places in the world where the rising temperatures actually help fortify the land. Summers are longer, giving plants time to grow lusher, and the river running through the centre of the valley has never flooded much more than half a metre. Never enough to destroy, unlike the coastlines and angry rivers that have become fat with water they had never wanted.

This river has avoided the hurricanes and typhoons that have destroyed its siblings. It flows calmly, starting from somewhere deep in the tallest mountain edging the valley, into an ancient lake one hundred kilometres away. It’s a relatively short river, but these days, short rivers are the lucky rivers. They’re less likely to pass by the destruction.

Like the valley – and the land itself – humans once gave this river a name, but with so few humans left to use the name, the river has forgotten it. New humans have come to the valley in recent years, but they have yet to rename it. So the river remains, for now, simply the river.

Winnie has never cared much for names, and neither did Mamama. In fact, Winnie doesn’t even know what Mamama’s real name was, and ironically, she wasn’t actually her grandmother. They didn’t share blood, but they did share food and a home and work, and since the woman was much older than Winnie, they decided it made sense to call her Mamama.

Hearing the cries of her friends running through the roots has sent Winnie’s heart pounding. She has forgotten the seedlings, waiting patiently for their new homes in the soil, and run back into the house.

The front doorknob is still loose, and it takes Winnie two jerky twists to get it to do its job. The door opens angrily, and peeling paint scatters like ashes at her feet. Since Mamama’s death, the house has seemed to have given up hope.

Despite her general aversion to naming things, Mamama called it the Charm House, but Winnie never knew why. It was painted a bright blue on the outside, the colours of the jay birds that flittered through the trees during summer. Once, this house had been called a bungalow, but Winnie doesn’t really know what that means. She only knows that the windows need cleaning, the shutters are coming loose from their hinges, and the dozens of wind chimes that lace the eaves have rusted beyond repair.

Before, Mamama focused on these things. Winnie spent her work hours in the garden, or the greenhouse that some members of the Town had helped Mamama build years ago.

Inside, Winnie skips wiping her feet on the entry mat and heads straight through the living room, with the floral sofa and iron fireplace, into the kitchen. The wood floors have been baptised with a fine layer of mud and dirt in the months since Mamama’s death. Before, Winnie would never have been allowed inside with muddy feet. Before, Mamama would have scrubbed the floors with boiling water from the well and, if necessary, a few scraps of melted soap.

Though Mamama tried to teach her countless times, Winnie never learned how to properly make soap.

But this doesn’t matter now, she realises. Everything looks different, because now, Winnie sees that even this home is not permanent. The Charm House will surely flood.

The birches are saying that the storm will come two sunrises before the full moon. Today is the quarter moon, waxing, which is why Winnie has been rushing to sow as many seeds as possible. There is so little time. She must pack whatever she can, mostly food, and then, say goodbye to the trees.

They won’t survive this flood, will they?

Perhaps a few of the hardy oaks, and maybe the trees sitting higher in the valley, along the hills sloping up, up, up. Other trees, including the birches, will break with the winds, and those who manage to outlast these will eventually rot in the drenched soil. This is all assuming, of course, that lightning doesn’t strike them.

Winnie wishes she could dig up every tree in the forest and carry them with her. But where will she go?

Her heart is breaking, looking out the dirty window, at the new spring leaves glittering in the sunshine. Above ground, the forest seems serene, with the calls of birds and whispering of the young leaves in the wind. Anyone who cannot hear the mayhem of the root systems will have no idea that disaster is about to strike.

This is the moment when Winnie realises, with a sick drop in her stomach, that Mamama would demand she tell the Town. No, not after what they did to Mamama, and to Sky. They wouldn’t listen, anyway. Winnie knows what they think of her. She couldn’t close her ears to the words one of the old men called her, as she was running away from them.

Witch.

This all happened two full moons ago, but her cheeks burn just remembering, and she paces the living room five times to wrap the memory up tight and put it in the back of her mind, to erupt through again another day.

No, she only has time to pack what she can, say goodbye to her trees, and find a new place to be.

This valley has been lucky up until today. Trees and plants and grass still grow. Animals have been born and then gave birth and died, then did it all over again, like they always have. It has been something of an Eden to the Town, who’d travelled years to find such a place, and who were willing to kill to keep it for themselves.

But the Great Storm will come, and the valley will never be the same.

Winnie’s first eight years occurred nearly fifty miles away from the Charm House, on a sea relatively calmer than its counterparts. It was still rough, with foaming waves and nearly constant storms, but it was a place that still had fresh water and decent soil, so Max and Camila Cooper figured it would do for a while, at least.

They’d inherited a house that had once been two kilometres away from the beach. Now, it sat just on the edge of the ocean, a perilous position, but still, Max and Camila were thankful. Most of their friends were stuck in the cities, assuming they were still alive. Life expectancy, especially in the cities, has dropped considerably since the storms worsened.

Winnie didn’t learn about this until much later in life. Camila had refused to tell her about the cities, the diseases and climate refugees, about how life was once not dictated by storms, and electricity was much more available when she had been a child.

She equally didn’t tell Winnie about riding in airplanes or eating cocoa puffs from a bright purple cereal bowl. Instead, she’d read Winnie children’s books written before the mid-twentieth century, stolen from an abandoned city library fifty kilometres away.

One of these books had been inspiration for Winnie’s name. Camila had loved the Winnie the Pooh as a child, and years later, when she met Max, the stories had been one of their first conversations, as they struggled to communicate through a mixture of English and Spanish. She’d managed to find a Pooh bear during a raid of a department store during the Serpent Storm, when everything had been closed and boarded, per usual, until the winds died down. This storm, however, had lasted for two weeks without a break, and most people had not stored enough food and water. This included the Coopers, and Camila knew they’d need to raid to survive.

Max had always hated raids. He still held on to long-forgotten ideals of rule-following and ethical high roads, on which he was convinced they could survive. Camila knew better.

They’d still been living in the city at the time, so she snuck out of their boarded-up apartment in the middle of the night, with her rain jacket zipped up, her thick rain boots, and her backpack, in which she’d stuffed a flashlight, a sawed-off rifle, and an axe. The department store was two blocks away, and the wind was going strong, at two hundred kilometres an hour. Camila was a tiny woman, only just over five feet tall and barely one hundred pounds, but her determination anchored her to the concrete as she walked, crawled, to the department store.

As she’d expected, raiders had already broken through. One of the boards protecting the front windows was askew, and she pulled it aside, careful of the broken glass as she stepped into the cool, dark store. She turned on her flashlight and swiped the beam of light over the ground floor, which used to house groceries. Now, there were only a few leftovers on the shelf, food that even the starving didn’t much want: canned asparagus, anchovies, marmite. She stuffed all of it into her backpack.

The bread aisle was still somewhat full, but Camila realised why upon closer inspection. The bread had gone green with mould.

Frozen foods had all gone bad as well. The city had lost electricity the previous week, and all of the refrigerators in the store felt warm to the touch. Still, Elizabeth took a few packages of once-frozen pizzas, just in case.

She and Max also needed new batteries, so she started walking up the motionless escalator to the first floor. The battery stands were empty, but Elizabeth swept her flashlight all around, and under, to make sure. Thankfully, the raiders had missed a pack of AA’s that had fallen beneath one of the battery stands. She grabbed these, then turned towards the hardware section.

The boards covering their windows at home were getting loose, and they were out of screws, so she grabbed a few packs of these as well. It was as she was leaving hardware that she noticed the toy section, illuminated only for a second under her flashlight. She saw the Winnie the Pooh doll first, before any of the other toys.

For years, Camila had been forcing herself to be tough. Emotions had no place in this new world. She’d long forgotten what it had felt like to be a kid, the long summer days spent colouring with scented markers and the feeling of carpet beneath her small toes. Her own stuffed animals were somewhere beneath a new sea.

But this little bear was safe, and waiting for someone to play with him. After all of these years, watching people die in front of her, saying goodbye to her parents, leaving her home in a rush before it drowned beneath metres of water, her body weakening after a flu had swept through the city, shooting a small rabbit, barely a few months old, because she and Max were starving after the Dragon Storm. It was this Pooh bear that broke her.

She cried for a long time, squeezing the bear tight, telling it she was so sorry for all the things she’d done, and would he come home with her?

Max was furious when Camilia came home that morning, until he saw the bear. He knew, then, that his wife was still his wife.

One year later, in the house by the beach, Winnie was born. On her first night in this world, Camilia put Winnie in an apple crate suffered with pillows, and set Pooh bear next to her for comfort. Winnie opened her eyes to the bear, soft and furry and golden, and knew she was home.

With the bear, Winnie never cried at night. She was an easy baby, Max always said, having raised many siblings as he’d grown up. He’d known all about colic and had been mentally preparing for Winnie to have such problems. Why wouldn’t she, he’d thought, in a world like this?

Winnie, it seemed, was fine with the world as it was. She began crawling when she was only a few months old, a strong and sturdy baby, bigger than Camilia had been at that age. She’d take after Max, Camilia had hoped, because it was the strong and sturdy who would survive this world.

It turned out, as Winnie grew, that though she had Max’s strength, it was Camilia’s old, long-lost spirit that she carried. She was curious about everything, and to her, the world was filled with all sorts of magic. Max took her to the sea every dawn, to watch the tide go out, and Winnie giggled at the sun rising, pointing at the golden light, as Max laughed and shielded her eyes. Each time he did, Winnie batted at his hand, because she wanted to see everything. She also wanted to do everything, and for that to happen, she needed to grow.

So she shed her baby hair and sprouted permanent hair — bright red — earlier than expected, and she began babbling and speaking at only a year old. To those who claimed to know better, this was of course not a conscious decision on her part.

Max and Camilia actually did know better. They saw their daughter as a mystical creature, something not quite like a baby. Sure, she suckled Camilia’s milk and burped and spit up and did all the normal babylike things, but all of it seemed like an act, like Winnie was merely doing all of this for their own entertainment.

Most of the time, Winnie liked to hum songs that Max and Camilia had never heard before. It began when she was two months old, something like a coo, that turned into musical notes that neither parent could have taught. They called it, with a mix of nervousness and pride, her baby songs. They continued throughout the day, and changed with the tides, then with the seasons, until Winnie began speaking.

Her first word was multitudinous. This was what sparked Max to make an appointment with Doctor Garcia, the nearest paediatrician. The doctor, who in these decades had seen too many infants die, saw no immediate danger in Winnie saying a word borne from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She told Max, in the gentlest way possible, to come back to her if Winnie developed rashes or fevers, because those were of greater concern.

Camilia loved Winnie’s eccentricities. She found her greatest joy in watching the baby crawl through the garden outside their home, sit beside a patch of pansies, and pet each bloom as if it were a kitten.

When Winnie was just shy of two and walking steadily, Camilia brought her into the sea, on a calm day. The waves weren’t making much foam out on the water, and they crashed in low arcs over the new beach, which was pebbly with broken concrete and asphalt from long-lost neighbourhood streets. Camilia put on her swimsuit, a leftover from her college days, when the world wasn’t quite so destroyed, and brought Winnie, in her cloth diaper, to meet the sea.

Winnie immediately took to it. She began lapping her arms around, as if she already knew what it meant to swim. Camilia helped her float on her belly, and Winnie laughed as the water rose up to her face, and she snorted it out of her nose and giggled some more. Then, she began paddling.

By the age of four, after developing her muscles just enough, Winnie was swimming all by herself. Max was terrified of letting Winnie out into the sea, and it sparked one two many argument between the parents, because Camilia believed swimming was essential in this world, and besides, Winnie loved it more than anything.

Max knew, on some level, that Camilia was right, but it didn’t keep him from looking into the waves with a new kind of fear.

Winnie was five when she started swimming every day, despite the waves and storms. She was such a strong swimmer that even Max was starting to settle into the new norm. Both parents still dutifully watched her, and they never stayed more than a few metres away, just in case. Winnie, however, never needed their help.

She began wondering, when she was six, whether she had invisible gills. Sometimes she imagined that she could dive deep down, touch the bottom of the sea, and still be able to breathe. She knew better than to test this, at least not until her parents stopped looking at her with that mix of nervousness and cautious pride each time she stepped into the water.

When Winnie was seven, though, Camilia left for two months to raid for supplies at a nearby city, and Max had severely limited her swimming time. Winnie was furious at her mother for leaving her to an overly protective father.

She didn’t forgive her until the evening after she returned home. Camilia had found The House at Pooh Corner in the abandoned library, and when she began reading from the book about Winnie’s bear, everything was all right again. Winnie snuggled up with Camilia, Max, and her Pooh bear, looking at the pictures of little animals walking through a green field dotted with trees, and began wondering if a place like that really existed.

That night, as she drifted to sleep in her cot overlooking the blackened sea, Winnie promised Pooh bear that they would stay together forever. She didn’t know at the time that this promise would be tested to the greatest extent in only a few months.

Great storms had been lashing at the coast more frequently during Winnie’s seventh year. Camilia knew, before anyone else, that they had to leave. On a day with electricity, she called her brother, Henry, who’d bought a sturdy fishing liner five years before. He said he’d pick them up in two months, and they’d all go somewhere new.

Neither sibling knew where somewhere new might be.

Max wasn’t comfortable with the idea of leaving, especially without a real destination in mind, but he knew that his wife had already decided, and there wasn’t much use arguing.

It was Winnie who fought. She didn’t want to leave her home, with the soft pansies and wide sea, the latter of which had been invading her dreams more frequently. The dreams were turning to nightmares of waves taller than the roof of their home, collapsing down on their heads, and drowning. In these visions, Winnie didn’t have gills.

Camilia’s patience with Winnie had been waning. The little girl was growing stranger by the day, with her long red hair in loose, frazzled curls and eyes like inkwells. Where had Winnie gotten those eyes? She wondered. Her own were hazel, and Max’s were bluer than the sea outside their door.

But it wasn’t her looks that worried Camilia most. Winnie had taken to staring through their back window, out onto the sea, sometimes for hours, and all but ignored her mother and father’s pleas to get up and play with them.

When her brother arrived with his two children, Camilia noticed even more oddities. Winnie had always been painfully shy with anyone who wasn’t her parents, but it seemed she was getting worse. Her cousins tried everything to get Winnie to play with them, but she had turned mute, only shaking her head to tell them that she didn’t want to play.

The cousins, a boy about Winnie’s age named Thomas, and a little girl two years younger, Emily, both loved building castles on the small patch of sand near their home, or racing each other back and forth from the edge of the waves to the porch. Winnie simply sat, on the porch, with her Pooh bear, watching.

Camilia asked her, over and over, why she wouldn’t play with them, but she never gave any real explanation. This was because Winnie knew her reason was strange. She knew that she couldn’t play with these children because she would become friends with them. She did not want to grow close to people she knew were destined to die soon.

It was bad enough, knowing she was about to lose her parents.

The night before the family was due to leave on her uncle’s boat, Winnie threw the worst fit of her life. She hollered and cried and begged her parents not to go, please, because a storm was coming. She tried bartering, what about a trip in a car? We don’t have a car? What about horses? Let’s get a wagon, a carriage, and roll its wheels over the crackling asphalt to an inland town.

Camilia and Max knew that no storm was forecast for the upcoming week, which had been why they’d chosen to leave precisely then. They’d already gotten used to Winnie’s sudden bouts of fear and certainty of impending doom. Unsurprisingly to them, none of her prophecies had come true.

So her parents calmed her with some herbal tea, laced with a drop of dopamine, and soon Winnie was fast asleep.

She was still groggy the next morning, as her father and uncle loaded the last of their things into his ship, and Camilia grasped her little hand as they walked up the plank. The only thing Winnie could get out was a whimper.

The other children were ecstatic to be back on the sea. They helped their father with the anchor, and tried navigating on the compass they’d found at a shipyard the year before.

Winnie sat below deck, clutching Pooh bear has close to her as possible, wondering if she’d be able to hold him while swimming. Even at that age, though, Winnie was practical enough to know that this was impossible.

She found her parents’ sewing kit in one of their backpacks. When the ship went down, she’d have to wear something light. She was a strong swimmer, but the less weight, the better. Her bear would be enough of a burden as it was. So she took off her t-shirt and began sewing each of Pooh bear’s paws onto each shoulder, so that he formed an X on her back. For good measure, she also sewed his stomach into the middle of the shirt.

She pulled at him a few times to test the strength of her stitches, and seeing that they’d hold, she pulled her shirt back over her torso. Pooh bear was secured to her back, just where he should be.

There was her rosary beads to consider as well. Wearing them around her neck or wrist wouldn’t be enough. She stuffed them into her pocket, cut a new piece of thread and sewed the pocket opening shut. Pooh bear and her rosaries would be all she’d need.

Winnie stayed in the cabin until they set sail. She needed to be alone, to have time to think. To prepare. But for what, she wasn’t entirely certain.

The other kids were hollering on deck, and when Winnie felt the lurch of movement, she forced herself upstairs to join them. She knew the cabin would fill with water first.

Henry was at the helm. Thomas stood beside him, compass in hand, held just high enough to stay out of reach of his little sister, who was scampering around him in an effort to nab the thing.

The wind began then.

Winnie’s heart thudded. She looked around, searched the face of each family member for some sign of the dreaded realisation that the storm was approaching.

Nobody seemed to notice.

Winnie glued her eyes to the south eastern portion of the horizon. If she caught the clouds fast enough, rising from the thin line between sea and sky, maybe, just maybe, they would have time to get back to land.

But no storm came that evening. The seas were calm, and remained calm. Her mother demanded she take off her dirty shirt after four days of coercion. Winnie carefully snipped the stitches off Pooh bear’s paws, took out a clean shirt, and began sewing once again.

More days passed as quietly as the first. Still, Winnie could not — would not — rest. Not for a moment. Her eyes were always on the south east, waiting, watching.

Once, at the mess table, uncle Henry took out a map and pointed to a part of the sea not too far from land. “See, we’re here,” he said, tapping the spot. His fingernail was blueish and cracked. Winnie didn’t like looking at it. “And we’re traveling up this way.” He traced his finger up along the coastline. “Never more than twenty miles away from land. If a storm comes, we’ll just navigate toward the coast. Worst case, we also have a life boat.” He got up from the table and opened a compartment underneath the seating area. Stuffed inside was a heap of grey plastic. “It fills with air in two minutes. We’ve also got life vests.”

Winnie nodded and began sewing Pooh bear’s paws to another clean shirt.

Two days later, and the storm came. It was faster and stronger than even Winnie had predicted. She woke in the middle of the night to the ghostly calls of the wind. The ship jerked at odd angles. Henry and Camilia were already putting on life vests. Groggily, Winnie climbed out of her cot. Her heart was pounding, but her mind had not yet woken.

Waves covered the deck, and loomed as high as the old buildings Winnie had once visited with her mother. Walls of ink. White caps of foam glowing in the night before hurtling down upon them, over and over. Never once a break.

Winnie’s father struggled to stay on his feet as he wrapped the buckle of a child-size life vest around her waist. The other kids were screaming, crying. Camilia pulled the the familiar grey plastic from underneath the seating area. Just in case, she said.

It didn’t make sense. How could that piece of plastic protect them from the storm any better than this boat?

A jolt knocked everyone into the starboard side of the cabin. Blood pooled down Emily’s forehead as she screamed. Somewhere, there was a popping sound, and the floor began filling with water.

It was up to Winnie’s knees in minutes.

The next things that happened were so fast, Winnie had no time to process. Shouting, cursing, someone carrying her up to the deck, people disappearing in the waves. The plastic, and Camilia, trying and failing, over and over, to blow it up into something that may save them.

The waves grew taller, or the boat sunk deeper. Winnie wasn’t sure which it was. She was soaked through and shivering, and only while standing there did she realise she was wearing Pooh bear on her back. He’d keep her safe.

Comments

Nikki Vallance Sat, 23/07/2022 - 17:43

So full of imagination. Winnie is a unique magical character and the setting feels all too possible. I didn’t want it to end.

alicedeby Sun, 25/09/2022 - 02:46

I was captivated by the concept and the opening paragraph. Winnie's magic is quickly understandable, and I want to know all about her and what will happen next.