The winner of the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition 2011 is Val Nolan's Hanging Valleys, a bittersweet tale of a petrified marriage

Speckled granite, ice and red sequoias. A thin woman stands on the edge of a wilderness, the Sierras above her like an impossible thing. Real life is little more than fairytale compared to it, a damp little island on the far side of the world, the errant memory of bluejays on warm air or a recollection smothered by the tang of juniper and sap. With quick steps she picks her way from one side of the overlook to the other. Here and there, patches of packed snow glisten where the sun breaks through the canopy. Typical Yosemite June, six thousand feet up at least. ‘Come and look’, she shouts, ‘it’s incredible’.

Off the bus, Linda and her husband tend to drift apart, she and her lenses towards the sights; Robert towards the shade of lesser pines. ‘Just look at it’, she tells him as he shuffles out of the moss and the saplings. Hands in his pockets, Robert surveys the valley. He doesn’t understand the view, how it’s possible. He thought they were at the other end of the park entirely but the beak of Half Dome is a contradiction rearing from the batholith to admonish him.

‘Thirty million years of glaciers’, the guide is saying, ‘cutting and re-cutting everything you see here. Can you imagine?’ ‘No’, Robert says quietly. ‘How do they know that?’ ‘It’s science’, Linda says. ‘I dunno . . . ’ She shakes her head. ‘You can’t just enjoy it all?’

Robert moves uncomfortably from one foot to another. He looks around, but none of those with whom they’ve struck up conversations are nearby. With a sigh he turns back to their guide, the young man busy naming all the domes and waterfalls along the valley. Robert doesn’t see the point. Where he comes from, all the hills are low, the stone is grey, and everything has but one name: Burren, Great Rock.

Linda is from further south of course, where better soil had lent the people time to play with myth. It’s no surprise to him that she feels at home here, having grown up in the shadow of fanciful creation, in a townland where muffled peaks and sandstone deities consorted. It’s in her blood but not in his.

‘I wonder’, he says, ‘how Mikey’s getting on with the farm.’ ‘He knows what he’s doing’, Linda says, though part of her hopes that Robert’s sullen brother might somehow ruin their little holding. It was a home, she supposed, though the land could never match the smooth glass bubble of a camera lens, the touch of happenstance and magic one required to paint with light.

Taking pictures was her world but Robert, God bless him, could never see the worth in that. Her mother told her once that he would always love that farm far more than her, which would be fine, Linda thought, only she could never love the place herself. Why did he come here, she wonders. Because the tour was her idea and he has to ruin it?

He sits on the bus intransigent and silent, his bulk occluding a great swath of the window. She strains to see across him as they head back down into the valley, the forest passing in a blur. With more force than is necessary, she hoists her camera across him, taking pictures at random out of spite until they reach their next stop, a turnout deep in the forest. As a short queue forms outside the pit latrine, Linda wanders down the slope to where the pine trees rake the sunlight into waves.

‘Here’, she says, standing at the edge of an empty meadow, a sea of green run through with mirror water, a sudden, simple emptiness amongst the crowded trees. Robert wrinkles his nose. ‘What about it?’ ‘It’s like home, no?’ ‘I don’t know. I mean . . .’

This is how they speak now, in sentences that just fade away; all their unsaid things left hanging like those ancient valleys which feed Yosemite itself. ‘It’s a field’, she says, climbing atop the rotting body of a fallen pine and tip-toeing down its length, arms wide to keep her balance. ‘I thought it looked like one of ours, is all.’

‘It needs draining’, he says, not with mirth but with a kind of grim delight. Linda bites her lip. ‘It’s fine’, he goes on, and she regards him for a moment, the lines on his face like cracks in rock. They have deepened lately, in advance of his years and without the dignity with which the men in his family are said to age. ‘I hate it when you scowl’, she says, making her way back along the log and off again towards the bus.

She knows he is ill at ease here, lost where forests like green carpet stretch in all directions and wash the distant feet of balding slopes. It is the scale he cannot comprehend. His own Sierras are an ocean and a continent away, a string of limestone hills, bare and sullen, mere paupers against the majesty of ranges which encircle them today. Somehow though, Linda cannot bring herself to care any more. The next morning is cold, Linda pulling her jacket tight around her as she steps into the dark.

Those who wish to take the early excursion are assembling in the parking lot, though of course Robert has refused to sacrifice his precious extra hours of sleep. To hell with him, she decides, watching the mist cling to the valley like a blanket as the bus threads between the river and the rock wall, the road gaining height as it curls tight around the granite backbone of the mountains.

An hour or so later they reach the peak with what the guide calls ‘perfect timing’. Following the others along the trail, Linda stops to pick up an off-square chunk of granite from the ground. She weighs it in her palm, this artefact of long ago, this freckled stone made real in the Earth’s heat by the headlong rush of continents. A piece of the Sierras themselves; what are the odds that it would fit her hand so perfectly?

‘Grab a spot everyone’, the guide says, sweeping his flashlight around the low boundary wall. ‘There’, he says, ‘right across from us that’s the crest of Half Dome. You’re gonna want to watch it’. And so she sits, the mountain’s bulk looming out across the night. Around her, conversation drops to a murmur, then to a hush. Minutes pass and a dark blue creeps into the sky. Linda turns up the collar of her jacket, her whole being drained and weary.

Then comes the sunrise, like a switch is flipped. Two fierce beams of morning break from behind the peak and in their wake the mountain’s granite silhouette throws off its cloak of darkness. For the briefest instant, the Sierras themselves seem somehow to be made of light. That part of Half Dome still robed in shadow shrinks and withers and is gone. Linda remembers to breathe as the new day advances on the upsweep behind her. The stone underfoot is almost glowing and a wave of warm air caresses her. She closes her eyes.

‘The legend of Half Dome’, the guide says, ‘begins with Tis-sa-ack, a beautiful young woman from far beyond the valley who wed a man and sought a home. Weighted down with baskets, they began a long trek which led them here, but after days and days of travelling they quarrelled. Nangas, the husband, struck Tis-sa-ack and so she fled amongst the lakes and rivers. Nangas followed, but because of the anger they had brought here to Yosemite, the Great Spirit was aggrieved. It decided to separate them forever, to transform them. The husband became North Dome and Tis-sa-ack became the mountain we call Half Dome.’

He pauses theatrically for a moment. ‘There’, he says, ‘on the rock face, you can still see her tears of pain and humiliation’. All these stony wives, Linda thinks. Not just Tis-sa-ack but the mountain woman in whose shadow I grew up, the Hag transformed into a rock who sits alone on a Cork peninsula, waiting for her husband to come home. Why, Linda wonders, should I be petrified as well?

By the time they return it is mid-morning, the air warm but the light thin and peculiar. Linda finds Robert sitting with those others who opted out of the excursion. Their table is covered with coffee cups and curls of pastry, squirrels darting around their booted feet in search of an easy meal. Linda slides in beside her husband. ‘You missed it. It was spectacular.’ ‘Did you take pictures?’ ‘No’, she says. A surprise to herself. Robert shifts his weight on the bench, opening a gap between them. He says nothing and Linda feels the group begin to turn towards them.

‘I didn’t realise you were Irish’, a woman across the table says at last. ‘I was just telling your husband about this spread I saw in the New Yorker . . . ’ Linda feels herself begin to cringe. ‘. . . Those photographs, it all looked so grim. And the figures in them, so cold, so distant; all their little cruelties hidden under scarfs and caps. You couldn’t see their faces but you didn’t need to. Their bodies said everything they needed to.’ ‘I must look out for that’, Robert mutters. ‘I’d love to know what you make of it, as an Irishman.’

Linda leans forward, smiling weakly. ‘You know’, she says, ‘I think we’re a little pushed for time. We’ve still to pack, and the bus leaves in an hour . . .’ She turns to Robert willing him away from the table and back towards the tents. ‘Are you happy now?’ she asks when they’re out of earshot. ‘I should ask you that, shouldn’t I? People praising you and all.’ Linda shakes her head. ‘It’s only idle talk.’ ‘So’s everything.’

She stops walking and grabs him by the arm. Two children run across the path, playing tag and yelling loudly. ‘Why did you come out here at all?’ she demands. ‘Why, Robert?’ ‘I wanted to see’, he says. ‘I wanted to see what the big deal was; what you get out of traipsing around with those cameras of yours.’ She turns away, looks up at the valley walls and imagines for a moment that they’re falling in.

‘Well then’, she says, ‘did you find out?’ ‘I get that it’s important to you’, he says. ‘I get that people think it makes some kind of statement, about what I don’t know, but I still don’t get why that statement had to be about me.’ ‘Because you’re a guilty, loveless bastard is why, out with your pitchforks and your prize-fucking-bull.’ ‘You can’t take your pictures of anyone else?’ ‘I never wanted to take pictures of anyone else. Goddammit, Robert.’

She feels something on her face now; something hot and wet like tears. She wipes the back of her hand across her cheek. ‘Goddammit’, she says again. ‘I think’, he says slowly, ‘that I’ll be at the bus.’ ‘Oh for Christ’s sake . . .’ But her husband pretends not to hear, his head down, his heels crunching on the gravel walk. Linda throws her arms up in disgust. People don’t change, she thinks, storming back to the tent to sit numbly on the edge of the bed.

Robert’s bags are already gone. ‘Fuck you’, she says, and immediately feels better. She has seen the sun illuminate the world so who is he to hold her back? She gets her purse to go to reception. She’ll need to stay another night; she’ll need to rent a car. Opening the wooden door she expects the busy sound of families unpacking and the fresh embrace of valley air. Instead she finds Robert, waiting on the bare earth of the path with his battered suitcase and his duffel on the ground beside him. He says nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The runners-up in the RTÉ Guide / Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition are:

1. Twice a Child by Brian Mora, Tralee, Co Kerry. 2. Shadows by Patrick Holloway, Crosshaven, Co Cork. 3. Just Like a Man by Claire Tuttlebee, Dunboyne, Co Meath. 4. A First Step to Unity by Chris Warren, Roundwood, Co Wicklow 5. Australia! by Fintan O’Higgins, Dublin. 6. Below Ground by Danielle McLaughlin, Donoughmore, Co Cork. 7. Fifty Ways to Catch the Rain by Pat Murphy, Kilkenny. 8. Fountain by Wes Lee, Wellington, New Zealand. 9. Carrot-Head by Marie Bashford-Synott, Skerries, Co Dublin. 10. Fed-up Freddy – The Boy Whose Sister Turned into the Mona Lisa by Camillus John, Ballyfermot, Dublin.

Penguin Ireland Workshop

A total of 70 people will be invited to the Penguin Ireland workshop on Friday, September 9, including the winner, the runners up, and a further 59 entrants deemed to have the strongest stories.

The schedule is as follows: 9.30am – Registration and coffee; 10.20am – Welcome address by Jane Alger, Divisional Librarian, Dublin City Libraries; 10.30am – Getting Published, Speakers Patricia Deevy, Editorial Director, Penguin Ireland and Faith O’Grady, Literary Agent at Lisa Richard Agency; 11.10am – The Published Author, Speakers – Sinéad Moriarty, Sarah Harte and Jean Kwok; 11.40am – Coffee; 12 noon – Selling and Marketing your Book, Speakers Stephen Boylan, Books Purchasing Manager, Eason & Son, Donal O’Donoghue, Features Editor, RTÉ Guide and Cliona Lewis, Publicity Director, Penguin Ireland; 12.45pm – Presentation by Donal O’Donoghue to the winner of the Short Story Competition; 12.55pm – Lunch; 1.45pm – Seminar/Workshop. Paticipants will include Rachel Pierce (Editor), Patrica Deevy, Sinéad Moriarty, Sarah Harte and Jean Kwok; 3.15pm – Wrap up session; 3.30pm – Finish.