Epistolary Short Story Competition - Winner

Damien McKeating

Epistolary Short Story Competition


Damien McKeating has written stories since his primary school teachers taught him how to put letters together into words. If he looks vague when he talks to you, he’s either working on another story in his head, or the kids haven’t slept again. He is fond of corvids and is currently the oldest he has ever been.

Hiraeth By Damien McKeating

3rd March
It’s going really well here. You’d love it. We’re right on the coast, listening to the waves when we camp, and watching the mountains behind us stretch up into the sky. Sometimes it’s a blue expanse above us, and sometimes the clouds come in like wraiths. The weather can change fast in Wales!
There’s so much to do. We’ve mapped out what we can see of the original settlement and estimated where we might find more. It looks like the rising sea level claimed much of the earlier village. I’ve got my diving gear ready to find out more!
Rhys, one of the locals on the dig, told us a story about people seen dancing on the beach at night. They ran off into the sea when approached, vanishing into the waves. It sounded spooky around the fire at night, but it’s not a feeling that stays with you. Not here. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful.
It all feels so familiar and comfortable we’ve decided to call the site Hiraeth. It means, as close as can be translated, a longing for home. Whether or not that home even existed – isn’t that wonderful? I think it’s something we all feel sometimes; a longing for something, somewhere, or someone. Sometimes we just sit, listen to the waves and breathe it all in. We lost over an hour yesterday just sitting on the sand. Rhys called it a modern temporal phenomena: the losing of time to the waves.
I hope you can come out and visit soon. Write back as soon as you can. Tell me all about Conny’s wedding and how drunk Franky got.

14th March
I miss you. I wish you were here to talk to. There are things here at the dig that get confusing. You’re always so good and cutting through it all and asking the right question.
We’ve seen a woman. We’ve all seen her. She walks through the dig site, out among the ruins, or we see her standing in the waves by the shore. When we try to reach her, she vanishes. Not in a cloud of smoke or anything. Something always seems to happen: we turn away, or the sun catches our eyes and when we look again, she’s gone.
I know how it sounds. It’s an odd experience. Not creepy. Like seeing someone you know in a crowd and then losing them. A sort of disappointment that you didn’t catch up to them. The team have taken to calling her Morgan, because we’re close to the river mouth. An odd choice, if you know your mythology. Rather too close to the Morrigan for my comfort.
Oh, and the time! We lost an hour! Well, Rhys says we lost an hour. We were digging, mapping and excavating in the ruins. No one noticed anything strange, but Rhys has an old watch you have to wind manually. He’d left it in the tent and it was an hour ahead of the time on any phones or watches we’d taken with us to the dig. We’re blaming old clockwork, which put Rhys in a bad mood. He’ll come around.
I wish you could be here to see it all. It’s hard to find the right words. It sounds strange but it doesn’t feel it. Everything feels right here. It feels like coming home and we’re excited to see what we uncover. I think the settlement might be even earlier than we thought. Pre-Roman, certainly.
There’s a circle of wild grass and flowers that might have been the village centre. We call it the Fairy Ring; I’m going to sit there with the others for a while. It’s been a long day. I still miss you. See you soon?

30th March
I’m in a café, just in the village not far from the dig. There’s a couple of retired ladies nattering away over cakes and coffee just across from me. There’s a man reading a paper with his dog asleep under the table. It all feels normal. But nothing is normal now.
Rhys is gone. I think that’s where I’ll start. I went diving, and that’s its own story. There’s a submerged section of the village and a shelf where maybe there was a coastal collapse millennia ago. There are houses down there! We were in two teams, half at the dig and half on the dive. When we got back together, Rhys just wasn’t there. No one knew where he was. He’d left everything behind, even his old watch.
We tried to tell someone. I watched Alice call the police to report him missing and all she kept saying was that everything was fine. I could hear the operator getting frustrated with her. Alice started crying and saying she didn’t know how to say the words. It all went nowhere.
Nothing feels any different; you should realise that. Hiraeth is still beautiful, still as welcoming as it ever was. But it has taken our language. I only think I can write this now because I’m not there. It’s as if it wants everything to stay perfect. The place, I mean. Or maybe Morgan. We’ve seen her again. More and more.
There’s so much to tell you. I think we lost a day. We didn’t realise until our food delivery turned up and we thought it was a day early. How does that happen?
I need to get back. I keep thinking about running, but that’s not fair to the others and… we’ve found something. There’s something at Hireath and I want to know what it is.

31st March
It seems silly now. I hope I didn’t worry you. I must have lost perspective. Too much living in the past and digging through ancient history! Rhys isn’t missing. He’s right here. Everything is just like it was before. I think we named this place wrong when we called it Hiraeth. There’s no longing here: this is the place we’ve arrived at. Where we’re meant to be.
You should come and see for yourself. You should come and stay here. There’s the Fairy Ring. There’s the village under the waves. I went back over the shelf today. It’s calmer than you’d think down there; no clouds of silt being stirred up. Just the foundations and walls of something long gone now grown with lichens and seaweed. Another world buried in the watery embrace of another world. We forget, I think, that ours isn’t the only way of seeing things.
There was something I wanted to tell you. There’s something I have to tell you. But it’s not important. We’re all fine here.

16th April
I’ve seen it! I’ve been there! To Hiraeth – the real Hiraeth, that is. What this place used to be. There are timeslips here and it goes both ways. You can lose time and gain time. I thought I’d only been gone a day, but it was two weeks! Just think of all those stories of fairy and alien abductions and missing time. Forget about archaeology – this could change the world of physics. How much do you get for a Nobel Prize?
It was everything you’d think it would be. I was swimming past the shelf. There was a ripple of water, a warm wash that knocked me forward, and in its wake there was the village. The waters receded, although I was still swimming. I was in two places at once. They were singing. They looked happy. Oh, they… the people… I should try to tell you…
You should see it for yourself. I wish you’d write back. I wish the phone signal was better here. I wish you’d come and see me. Maybe Morgan wouldn’t like that. She’s protective. She’s part of this place: all beauty and serenity, if you have the eyes to see it. And what is archaeology, but the art of seeing what isn’t there anymore?

19th April
I saw a message on the sand today. The rocks had been arranged to spell out my name. Was that you? Did you come to find me? Why didn’t you stay? Why didn’t I see you?
Everything is so peaceful here. So right.
I find it difficult to write the words. The words that I mean. You tried to find me. I could tell you how to get here. You follow the swallow’s wing and the nightingale’s song until the sun kisses the ocean.
I’ll try again.
You have to follow a poet’s heart and step with each beat and learn how to melt like the last frost in the face of spring. That will lead you here to where I am. To where we all are. To where time is so different.
We are happy.
I promise you I will try to find the words. Language has slipped away. I think of Alice on the phone, crying, pressing her fist into her mouth as if the words might be stuck there.
I do believe that if there was a path here then there will be a path that leads away, although they might not be the same one.

29th April
I want you to keep looking. Do you understand? Do you understand what I’m trying to write? You should keep looking. You should scour the coastline until you find us. There is a welcome in Hiraeth for everyone. It is so welcoming. We won’t leave. So it’s important you come and find us.
Please, understand me.
Come here.
I want you to keep looking.
Find me.




Judges Comments

The outstanding winner in WM's Epistolary Short Story competition, Damien McKeating's Hireath makes the most of the fragmented nature of sporadic communications. It's a story whose folk horror elements are delivered with a yearning, atmospheric fragility that creates a longing in the reader to experience the strange, time-slip place that Damien conjures so intriguingly.

What makes this apparently delicate story so effective is the way Damien has used the power of suggestion. Every carefully selected element in this story is a clue, from the title 'Hireath' - a Welsh word that means 'longing for home', to the sightings of the creature the archeologists call Morgan, with echoes of Arthurian enchantress Morgan Le Fay, and The Morrigan, the Celtic triple goddess and Great Queen. There's the clock, and the way there are parallel timeschemes in the everyday world and the world of faerie.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the way Damien uses the epistolary format to reveal the effect of the enchanting, seductive, and ultimately sinister faerie world on language and communication. As the writer of the missives from Hireath falls increasingly under the otherworldly influence, the way their feelings and  thought processes are changing is revealed in the language they use: what's there, what's changed, and what's missing. It's a story where the reader has to look between the lines to find all the layers of meaning, which is entirely fitting for a timeslip story about the otherworldly home of fae.



Runner-up and shotlisted
Runner-up in the Epistolary Short Story Competition was Peter Caunt, Harrogate, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull; Daniel Bentley, Woking, Surrey; Anna Cornhill, York; Ellen Evers, Chester; Fiona Grainger, Cardiff; GP Hyde, Grimsby, Lincolnshire; Caroline Jenner, Bromley, Kent; Margaret Penwarden, Bournemouth, Dorset; Rachel Titley, Luddenden Foot, West Yorkshire; Alexandra Watts, Edgewater, Western Australia