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Our Town’s Talent

It’s always the final event of the school year, which means it’s late June and it’s hot and sweltering when we gather outside the gymnasium doors, dressed perhaps too informally in our summer skirts and blouses. Our children have been preparing for the annual talent show for weeks, though for some of us it seems no time at all has passed. No matter how early we begin to sew costumes or help practice routines it always feels as though we’ve started too late, and the date of the show is rushing too fast toward us. We are never as prepared as we’d like, but we’ve grown used to being in such a state.

With the children already ushered into the school for a final rehearsal, we use the time outside the green gymnasium doors to compare notes on our travails and laugh at how cute our daughters and sons look. Some of us show photographs to the other mothers, or display a talent of our own by re-enacting the moments of last-minute terror suffered by our littlest ones. We know from experience that the show will be tough for us to endure, with long stretches of boredom until our golden child is lit on stage, but those few moments in which they’ll perform will be the subject of memories and recordings that will last forever on the digital tapes and in the boxes of photographs we’ll store at the backs of our closets or in the furthest crooks of our attics.

When the time arrives, Mrs. Jaworski opens the green gymnasium doors for us to enter. Inside, we find walls covered in blue mats, and above them construction-paper art of varying quality decorates the room for the show. There are electric fans blowing from every corner, circulating the heat instead of dissipating it. We file between rows of folding plastic chairs and seat ourselves in small clustered pockets, designated by those cliques that have formed over time in our town. Such groupings are natural, but unlike what we’ve heard about the next town over, where the wives are often at odds with one another, our cliques are comparatively tame and relatively friendly. All the wives are polite with one another, and we hope this lack of animosity is due to more than how infrequently we have cause to meet—the annual talent show might be the only time the entire group of wives is together at once.

Few of us attended this school as children, but we all recognize it from our past. Gymnasiums, they are all the same, no matter where or when. They all smell of stale children and floor wax; all are covered in scuffs and scrapes, with painted courts chipped away by time and hundreds of rubber-soled feet. If we close our eyes, we can almost imagine being back at the one from which we graduated so many years ago, feel the pressure of its walls fencing us in, remember the way our voices reverberated off the painted concrete walls during school assemblies. Gymnasiums don’t change, the people in them change.

The crowd settles into silence as we feel the electric anticipation in the air; the show about to start. Already, some of us have drawn our cameras from pockets and purses in preparation. Music plays through the loudspeakers, and we recall wistful memories of how it used to be, back when the student band was expected to perform some warmly out-of-tune standard.

A dour Mr. Peavoy takes the stage, wearing the same grey suit he wears to every parent-teacher meeting and every school event. We sometimes wonder what he must be like at home, if he wears that same suit to weddings and funerals, if there is a Mrs. Peavoy and if we might ever meet her. We wonder if she cuts his hair and looks at him with mischievous eyes. Or has he no wife at all? No one really knows Mr. Peavoy because he doesn’t live in the town with us. All we can do is wonder.

Mr. Peavoy introduces the first child and we recognize her immediately. Little Jennifer Branston with her rusty hair and tightly-clustered freckles. She’s wearing a bright orange sweater and green trousers, and on her head is an old floppy-brimmed hat, the sort we used to wear when we were young, just before we met our husbands, when we’d picnic in parks and laugh with our friends. When we wore hats like that, we wore them with the sort of seriousness reserved for French films and French cigarettes. When Jennifer Branson wears it, it’s funny because it doesn’t fit her apple-shaped face, and unsettling because it reminds us of who we once were.

Jennifer lifts the hat and three red and blue rubber balls spill out unexpectedly. They bounce across the stage, and she dashes to retrieve them while we laugh, unable to help ourselves. It’s a darling scene. When she has them back under control of her tiny hands, she’s panting heavily, and looks to the crowd only to become stunned by the faces watching her. We hear whispered reassurances urging her on, and from somewhere in the dark there is the flash of a camera. Jennifer Branston blinks her rusty eyelashes twice and then tosses one of her red and blue rubber balls into the air, and then another, and then the third. Round and round, little Jennifer Branston juggles them, concentrating as the gymnasium fills with applause. But she doesn’t seem to enjoy our response as she’s too focused on keeping those rubber balls aloft. The excitement dissipates quickly, the novelty of the act faded for us after so many years and so many children repeating the same routine, and it isn’t long before Mr. Peavoy appears from the edge of the stage, clapping and smiling his same tired smile, as omnipresent as his grey suit. Little Jennifer Branston catches her balls and looks to him with confusion and no small relief. When he says her name we all smile warmly and clap, and she bows and dashes from the stage and to her freedom.

Mr. Peavoy introduces the next act, Jimmy Parker, whose parents moved to our town fewer than six months ago. They still have the air of the city about them, always rushing, always anxious, and Jimmy parrots them with his jittering hands and fierce blinking. Once Mr. Peavoy abandons him onstage Jimmy clears his throat and shifts from foot to foot, glancing above as though the instructions on what to do are written there. We grow uneasy, wondering if the show will derail itself on only the second child, and Mr. Peavoy’s presence at the back of the stage, not quite hidden by the curtain, only further discomforts us. But before he can intervene, before we can’t hold our breaths any longer, Jimmy’s ticks settle down and he steps forward to sing a song we remember from our childhood summers, though we have never heard it like this. It’s a talent show, after all, so none of us should be too surprised, and yet the voice that emerges from Jimmy’s mouth seems incongruous with his perfectly round head and squinting eyes. Some of us even cry as we hear him sing, which is often a sign, though we aren’t sure of what.

When the song ends, Jimmy exaggeratedly bows, and respectfully we clap, just as we do for the rest of the children that take the stage afterward, offering encouragement for all the talent that hides within our local elementary school. There is Leeann Grayson and her baton twirling, Susanne Costello and her rudimentary gymnastics, and Stephen Liebert with a guitar that is far more expensive than his talent or interest warrants. We know Stephen’s mother well, and it inspires more eye-rolls than surprise from most of us.

The show takes two hours to complete, and culminates in a long line-up of all the participants, bowing again from the stage to audience’s applause. Or at least the attempt is made, as it’s clear to us that Mr. Peavoy’s ability to wrangle that many children into a single task remains limited. Still, more camera flashes go off, and we hear soft weeping from the crowd as some of us are overcome with pride and love for our children. Once again, the annual talent show is a success.

But that success is short-lived. We typically don’t hear or say much about the talent show once the evening has passed, other than a few words in passing about how great it was to see each other again, and my didn’t the Tavares girl look nice, before continuing on our way to run our errands or push a stroller through Brookbanks Park. Instead, this year, for the first time that anyone can remember, we hear rumblings that not everyone felt moved by the talent show. The whisper travels through the town, from ear to ear in the corner mart, between the stacks in the library, on the breeze through the local coffee house patio. Those of us paying attention hear it most outside the school when we’re collecting our children, spurred by the pained expression Mr. Peavoy makes as he patrols the halls at the end of the day. It’s more than marital trouble for once, we gather.

It’s Mrs. Parker. We are not surprised to hear it, since she and her family are still so new to the town and unfamiliar with our ways, but the vehemence of her displeasure takes us all aback. To her, it appears her son’s talents were not properly showcased by our “tar paper shack of a school” and, even worse, the notion that her son was not crowned the most talented child of the show was an insult of grand proportions. The word among us is that had she known there would be no winners, she never would have allowed him to participate. Perhaps not even moved from their unnamed costal city to our small land-locked town. The words, even second-hand, are biting, and we all experience a mixture of embarrassment and anger upon hearing them. Our town is not wealthy, but it is our town, and we have chosen to celebrate all our children rather than pit them against one another. Mrs. Parker or no, we don’t expect that to change.

But expectations are funny things, especially in the face of the unexpected. It doesn’t take long before talk of Mrs. Parker and her distress over her son’s experience at the talent show fades from our conversations, replaced with casual commentary about the weather and the ripeness of fruit at Edmund’s Market. No one remembers the incident with the talent show at all. Or, at least, if they remember, no one thinks to mention it. It’s done and in the past and we, the wives and mothers of the town, don’t like to dwell on such distasteful things.

Which is why we find it surprising to hear about the other talent show. At first, it’s difficult to even understand what that means. Is the school holding a second Autumn event, so close to the start of the school year? We eventually come to understand that neither the school nor Mr. Peavoy have anything to do with it. The other talent show is to take place shortly before Hallowe’en, in the acres behind Mrs. Parker’s house, and all our children are welcome to participate. This is how many of us learn about Mrs. Parker’s Talent Show—it is our children who tell us, all to a one excited there’s another show coming where they might perform their newly practiced routines. We’re wary of the unusual nature of such an event, not to mention the suggestion that our own event is somewhat lacking, but some of us make the case that Mrs. Parker should be allowed to hold any event she chooses, and wouldn’t more community events be better than fewer? More chances to see one another outside our tiny groups and cliques, away from our husbands and household errands? We don’t all agree, but even those who don’t aren’t able to discourage their children from demanding to be part of Mrs. Parker’s show, and soon it seems that the unexpected has arrived, and has brought with it the unknown.

So we once again help our children prepare. We watch them practice and recite their lines. We sew their costumes and suffer their disappointments on the way to success, and when the day comes for Mrs. Parker’s Talent Show we arrive at her house to find her acres decorated more lavishly than anything the school could have done. There is food laid out among whispers of caterers, and amid the fallen leaves there is a wooden stage erected that no doubt cost more than many of our husbands earn in a month. There is no Mr. Parker present, as the encroaching end of the year banking requires his full attention, so Mrs. Parker stands alone among the folding chairs with a wide smile on her face, as close an approximation to friendliness as we have yet seen from her. She thanks us each for coming to the show, then helps us herd the children away to prepare.

We mill and chat as we are wont, but this time there is an air of hesitant caution, of unfamiliarity, of confusion bordering on suspicion. We are not used to seeing one another in such surroundings, drinking punch and nibbling on finger food. We wonder what to expect from Mrs. Parker as this sort of display is unheard of in our town, but before we can form any conclusions recorded music begins to play through the rented speakers behind the stage. We all take our seats and watch with dread anticipation what Mrs. Parker has in store for us.

She emerges immediately, clutching a stack of note cards. She has donned a dark blazer tapered close to her narrow waist, as though it will add some formality to the proceedings. She does not remind any of us of Mr. Peavoy, other than by how much she differs from him, and by how strange it is to attend such an event in the middle of the day in the cool sunshine. Talent shows in our town have always been for the night, for the dark. It’s just how it’s done, and Mrs. Parker is doing it differently. None of us are quite sure yet if she’s doing it wrong.

She introduces herself despite us knowing who she is, then she introduces the judges for the event. Mrs. Sisson, Mrs. Nixon, and Mrs. Ainley all look uncomfortable in their assumed rolls, chosen for their impartiality and childlessness, yet likely wondering why they agreed to subject themselves to such a perilous job. They worry how we might treat them, but their worry is unfounded. We are too unsure of what to think about any of what we’re witnessing.

When the first child takes the stage, we all brace ourselves for what’s to come. Suzanne Kirby appears from behind the curtain, carrying with her a small box shaped like a miniature treasure chest. She is dressed in white tights and a violet ruffle around her waist like a skirt, and her hair is pulled back against her skull, bound in a knot at the top of her head. She pads nervously to the centre of the stage and puts the box down before opening the lid. Gentle music plays, and it is louder than it should be from such a tiny object. Are the speakers amplifying the sound so it will reach us? It’s a quiet, haunting tune, plinked out by metal tines, and to its rhythm Suzanne dances. Or, if not dances, then glides. It’s as though her feet all but touch the floor of the stage as she sweeps back and forth, tiny arms periodically affecting the letter V, then O. She arcs her body at the waist and kicks her legs in the air as though it’s water, sending her upward and away from the ground. She hangs long enough to spin her body like a top, the axis running from head to foot. It’s the most amazing dance we have seen in the history of the town’s talent shows, and we wonder how the extra few weeks have allowed Suzanne to transcend gravity. It’s only on her final scissor kick that her buoyance dissipates and her tiny cloth shoes smoothly meet the floor. When she comes to a stop, Suzanne Kirby raises her head one last time and performs a closing bow with arms drawn to her side like folded wings.

We clap of course at the remarkable skill Suzanne Kirby has displayed. We agree it’s like nothing she has shown before in the past talent shows, those put on by Mr. Peavoy at the elementary school. Perhaps, we mutter among ourselves between acts, Mrs. Parker’s idea of a separate show has merit after all. We still find it distasteful that Mrs. Sisson, Mrs. Nixon, and Mrs. Ainley must judge which of our children is the most talented, but perhaps that competition is what sharpened little Suzanne Kirby’s resolution to dance better. Our jaws remain agape as we wonder who will take the stage next, and how their talent could ever complete with what we’ve already beheld.

And when blonde Billy Brooks steps out from behind the curtain, our hearts quicken. Around his neck he wears the oldest and ugliest tie possible from his father’s closet, and in his hands he carries a wooden dummy that nearly dwarfs him. The dummy’s eyes bulge and rotate, and its limbs are strung loosely at the joints so its pendulous arms swing freely. Otherwise, the dummy looks like Billy. It wears the same jacket, and its punched-in hair is styled just as Billy’s is, though its colour is a shade too blonde. Billy Brooks’s chubby head bobs and turns red as he heaves the dummy onto his lap and his wooden twin turns to address the audience.

The act startles many of us. Far from the conversational repartee we’ve seen from Billy Brooks at past talent shows—a mixture of vaudevillian jokes and simple songs—in preparation for the new show he has transformed the act into something closer to a mentalist routine. He announces the dummy’s name is Billy Jr. before asking for a volunteer who might stand and repeat a simple innocuous phrase. Mrs. Ryan done so, and once the words are spoken Billy Jr. makes a rattling sound with its wooden jaw, pumping the neck up and down as though caught on a syllable it cannot speak. Then those large round eyes roll forward and the dummy announces a truth about Mrs. Ryan that is clear from her expression Billy should not know. Mrs. Ryan is visibly upset by the revelation, and by the reaction it causes in the audience, for we are all unnerved to hear it. Mrs. Ryan collects her things immediately and flees from the rows of rented chairs and away from Mrs. Parker’s house. Billy scolds Billy Jr. and the dummy just laughs, though we notice it never takes its eyes from Mrs. Ryan as she flies.

We are all surprised by the chain of events, despite many of us doubting it was anything more than an elaborate ruse. Doesn’t Billy’s mother know Mrs. Ryan? None of us are certain. None of us remember.

We are anxious to discuss it, looking from one to another, filled with compulsive desperation, but there is no time. Before any of us can act, Mrs. Parker has returned to the stage, smiling and ushering Billy Brooks off while announcing her son’s return. Jimmy strides out from behind the curtain, passing young Billy and his dummy without a glance. Billy does not turn either, but Billy Jr. does, its head swiveling around to watch Jimmy take centre stage. We feel restless.

Music plays through the speakers. It’s not a song we recognize, but we agree it’s beautiful, filled with sweeping woods and winds. It builds slowly while Jimmy remains before us, eyes closed, in a practised pose that suggests he’s absorbing every note, and those notes are accumulating within him. When the song reaches the crescendo of its introduction, Jimmy appears incapable of preventing his mouth from opening and with eyes wide he emits a sound so heartachingly sorrowful all chatter stops, including that from any nearby birds. Everything quiets in the presence of the song he sings. What is strange, though, is none of us listening hears it the same way. For some, it evokes specific memories of our childhood, of sitting with long-gone parents in front of an old phonograph. For others, it reminds us of friends and loves long lost, of those taken by the flowing rivers of time. There are also some who remember none of these things or people, and instead have the empty holes within them uncovered, and who feel the ache of that emptiness bend apart their bones in an effort to escape. The song affects us all, including Mrs. Parker, who stands in the wings of the stage, openly weeping, smiling proudly if not happily.

And, still more children perform, each with a talent so honed it’s as incredible as the one that preceded it. We watch amazed from the gallery with the knowledge that Mr. Peavoy’s shows will never be the same again. They will remain the refuge of the youngest children, perhaps, too young to know better. But, the older children? There can be no going back for the older children.

Mrs. Parker is smug when all the acts are complete and the judges are deliberating. She stands apart from us and behind her son, both arms over his shoulders and crossed at the wrist, her chin resting on his head as she awaits the verdict from Mrs. Sisson, Mrs. Nixon, and Mrs. Ainley—whom all have been comparing notes for a quarter of an hour while we watch and patiently wonder if the effort and expense was enough to buy Jimmy his award. Not that any of us believe it wouldn’t be warranted, though we feel the same about all the children. Each of them accomplished the incredible and should be as rewarded. But we have always felt this way about our children, about awards, which is why Mr. Peavoy and the school do not issue them. How will the children react, we wonder, when one of them is singled out and the rest swept aside? There is not much longer until we find out, and it makes us as nervous as they, if not more. Yet it’s also worse for us as we can see the long line of failures ahead that may spring from this decision.

It’s Mrs. Ainley who clears her throat, rises from her folding chair aside the stage. She is not a tall woman nor especially large, but her voice is loud and firm and no one questions what she says is truth. Mrs. Ainley stands and puts the bridge of her glasses on the end of her sloped nose and speaks at us over the frames. We hold our breath and listen. She informs us the judges have reached a verdict. She admits it was difficult, because so many of the children were so good, so talented, and that the judges wish they could make each one of them the winner as they all deserve it. She asks us to applaud our daughters and sons for all their hard work and we do so. Even Mrs. Parker, whose smile has tightened into place. Mrs. Ainley goes silent again, looks at Mrs. Sisson and Mrs. Nixon who are both pale and nervous. Mrs. Ainley clears her throat and announces the winner is Billy Brooks. The crowd applauds again and Billy Brooks takes the stage, Billy Jr. in hand and scanning the crowd with unblinking eyes, but we have shifted our attention to Mrs. Parker in order to evaluate her reaction. She continues to smile, though much like Billy Jr. that smile is painted on. Jimmy Parker looks up at her, first turning his head left, then turning it right, unsure which way is correct, because they both result in the same thing, the same truth. Mrs. Sisson, Mrs. Nixon, and Mrs. Ainley will not look at her. They will not look at any of us, as though they know what they’ve done will likely drive the Parkers from our town. How could it not? Mrs. Parker will know and remember every day what happened. No matter where she goes, she will see us and remember. It’s better for her this way. Easier. If she goes, everything may go back to normal.

Yet she doesn’t go. And even if she does, it’s too late. Nothing will ever be the same.

Because Mrs. Parker sparked an idea. An idea so ludicrous none of us would have considered it a few months ago, before the town’s talent show. Before Mrs. Parker’s talent show. It’s an idea that is so bizarrely out of step with who we are that when it matriculates to the surface we think it’s a joke. We tell our husbands at night, when they’ve returned from work and are staring blankly into the dinner they’re scarfing down, and it sounds like a joke as we’re saying the words out loud. So we laugh, and our husbands grunt and nod and affirm the ludicrousness of the idea, and then remind us of the work that they have yet to finish before they disappear from our tables and rematerialize behind the closed doors of their make-shift home offices. We don’t disturb them and instead tend to the children, reminding them that Billy Brooks’s win does not mean they are somehow less or he somehow more, then put them to bed and assure them that everything will be better in the morning. And, all the while, we consider that idea Mrs. Parker has given us. Mull it over, roll it this way and that in our thoughts, examine and test it. It is indeed ludicrous, and a joke, and bizarrely out of step with who we are in the town, but it’s also an idea that is curiously fascinating and we all tacitly agree it’s one we’d like to explore.

And, so, yet another talent show is born.

This is not a public talent show, however. There are no signs or flyers. There are no decorations or designs. There is nothing that says to anyone, anywhere, what we are doing. We are the only people in town to know what is happening—the collective wives, the quiet and hidden voices. Each of us understands something that we cannot put into words, that for our husbands’ work and our children’s play we must necessarily fade into the background. But a talent show, our own talent show, a secret talent show? There, for a brief moment, we might shine.

It is weeks later in the cold of the winter, in a small barn hidden at the edge of town behind the widow Mrs. Morgan’s home, that we gather for our secret talent show. Unlike outside the school gymnasium, or Mrs. Parker’s acres, we don’t speak to one another. There are nodding heads and the hints of perfunctory smiles as we pass, but no words and no meandering. The air is too cold for it, but it’s more than the weather that keeps us silent. Fear, perhaps. Nervousness. Or the pleasant dread of anticipation and suspicion that once the secret talent show is over, nothing will be the same.

There are long benches in the barn arranged in rows like pews, and as we file in we take our seats on them. The small cliques and groups we’ve formed in town hold no sway inside the barn, and are summarily ignored if not dissolved. We are all ourselves in this place.

With no one guiding the show, there is no one to call the performers to the stage, and that initially delays us as we struggle with how to begin. But Mrs. Havagal stands, brushes errant straw from her wool coat, and walks to the front of the barn—to the presumed stage. She doesn’t ask permission or introduce herself because why would she? She’s one of us. She has taken the first step for us all.

Mrs. Havagal closes her eyes behind her thick-rimmed glasses, brown hair in a bob, tucked behind her ears. Her tiny mouth shrinks to a narrow line as she concentrates, and none of us speak. She trembles, perhaps from the cold, and holds her trembling hands out to the sides of her wide hips. There’s the sound of a hiccup or a gasp but it’s so tiny it barely carries, and then Mrs. Havagal seems to grow taller an inch at a time. But, no, we all realize, not taller; she’s not growing but floating. Mrs. Havagal has left the straw-covered ground, and lifts a foot into the air, then with a quick jerk it’s two feet. She hovers, her legs dangling while her eyes remain closed, and then she moves. With limbs remaining still, she tilts slightly forward and her body follows, bringing her closer to us until she’s five feet away, then four, followed by three. Those of us in the front rows do not react with surprise or fear because there is none left. We all knew there was talent inside Mrs. Havagal waiting to be unleashed, and we feel lucky to have seen it. After a few moments, she travels slowly back to where she took to the air and, just as slowly, allows herself to sink to the ground. Only when her feet are firmly planted do her lips turn from white back to pink, and she opens her eyes to find us staring back. One of us claps, so we all do. She is flushed, and retreats to the benches with a smile. As she passes, some of us squeeze her hand in gratitude.

She is followed by Mrs. Patti-Carlson, who carries with her a large roll of burlap. Once before us, she unfurls the roll across the floor and picks it up by two corners, showing us that it’s a large sack, the sort we might use to store root vegetables in our cold cellars. Except in her hands it’s empty, and as if to prove it she turns it upside down and inside out and shakes it so vigorously her grey streaked braid of hair bounces against her shoulder. We nod in union and understanding. She rights the sack and gathers the sides until it’s a small circle, then lays it on the barn’s packed dirt floor. She carefully unties her navy blue sneakers and removes them, putting the pair off to the side, and then steps into the centre of the burlap circle. Mrs. Patti-Carlson bends to take hold of the edges, and draws the rough fabric up with her as she stands. Some of us lean forward, curious what she’s going to do, while others lean back, not certain they want to know. When the sack is fully drawn up, it reaches just below her neck, so Mrs. Patti-Carlson shimmies herself down until the material completely consumes her, hiding her from us. And without allowing us time to breathe or blink, the sack drops to the floor, empty.

None of us moves, none of us speaks, too stunned by what we’ve just witnessed to fully comprehend it; and even as understanding trickles in, still we don’t believe. Mrs. Patti-Carlson has vanished as surely as if she’d been plucked from existence.

As the full truth washes over us, some of us in the audience twist our heads, scouring the barn for where she might have reappeared—for what’s a disappearing trick without the final reveal? But Mrs. Patti-Carlson doesn’t reappear. She doesn’t rematerialize. Mrs. Patti-Carlson is simply gone, swallowed by that burlap sack that lies beside her navy blue shoes on the packed dirt floor. The applause lasts for two minutes before it abates when Mrs. Tomkins takes the ad hoc stage.

She does so empty-handed. It’s just her, dressed in a burnt red knit shawl, her blonde hair shorn close to her skull except for a handful on her scalp that has been brushed straight back. The hoops in her ears are small and numerous, stacked along the outside length of her cartilage. Without a sound and with long fingers, she bends and picks up the empty burlap sack, then folds it meticulously and places it in the gap Mrs. Patti-Carlson left on the bench. The empty shoes, Mrs. Tomkins places on top. We stare with anticipation as she completes these tasks, and when she returns to the front of the room we find our stare mirrored back, albeit with rheumy eyes that gaze deep into each of us, one after the other. When Mrs. Patti-Carlson is done, she straightens herself, opens her frowning mouth, and speaks. The words are sharp and clipped.

Agnes. Sherry. Linda. Margaret. Cheryl. Delphine. Kim. Amanda. Marcy.

She points at each of us in turn and speaks our name, our given name. The name we had before we were married. Before we had children. She says our names and they sound strange aloud. Like words from some long lost and forgotten language.

Julie-Ann. Rebecca. Heidi. Lisa. Monica. Olivia. Gayle. Sonia.

Each of us is startled when she points at us, but as the list continues to grow, we feel the tenuous strings extending outward from deep within us, weaving us together. The bonds strengthen, and the words that are our names become something else, something more powerful. We start to understand the talent Mrs. Tomkins—we mean Miranda Tomkins is showing us. Only it’s not a talent. It’s a gift. The gift of connection. Because with connection comes sight. And as though waking from stupor, we waver only slightly as we find ourselves revealed.

When Miranda Tomkins finishes speaking our names aloud, our true names, we are collectively weeping, as weeping is all we can do in the face of such complete understanding. Miranda Tomkins doesn’t remain at the front of the barn, but instead nods to herself, then simply walks back to the bench, retrieves Harriet Patti-Carlson’s belongings, and continues toward the barn’s door. She pulls it open and cold air rushes in, reviving us. Into that cold, she walks, and one by one we follow.

We walk out of the barn, and away from the widow Olivia Morgan’s home. We walk down Piccadilly Street and past Haughton Hardware. We walk until the storefronts of our town fade behind us and the telephone wires strung above dwindle. We walk for a long time, for much longer than we can guess. Long enough for our husbands to grow concerned, long enough for them to pack our children into the backseats of our cars and drive out in search of us. Some drive past and we see our  children’s pale faces pressed up against rear windows, their tear-swollen eyes imploring us to stop, to return home. But we don’t listen. We don’t speak. Sometimes, one of our husbands will grow angry enough at our refusals and pull the car to the side of the road. He will then leap from the door and attempt to drag his wife into the passenger seat. At these times, our steady march pauses, and we descend on her husband as though he were our own. We descend and protect our sister, ensure he cannot take her. What this means, what we’ve done, none of us are certain, as the memory is forgotten as soon we are out of sight of the car and its screaming voices. We abandon it behind us somewhere on the endless road.

We continue on, a single long parade of women, leaving behind encumbrances with each step, forgetting one more piece of the anonymous lives we once led, lives where our hidden talents were subsumed, where our shows never celebrated us. But we have seen the truth now, and that truth continues to lead us forward, lead us in the direction of the next town only a few dozen miles away. The town where they too have an annual talent show such as ours, though not quite so large or so memorable. But that will change. We will bring them something more, something permanent. We will teach the mothers and sisters and daughters of that neighbouring town the lessons we have learned, and help them understand the talent they still have within them. And when they do, they will be one of us, a part of our special talent show. And in the end each one of them will remember that they have their own name.

Originally published in Nothing is Everything (a collection).

About the Author

Simon Strantzas is the author of five collections of short fiction, including Nothing is Everything (Undertow Publications, 2018), and is editor of the award-winning Aickman’s Heirs and Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3. His fiction has appeared in numerous annual best-of anthologies, in venues such as Nightmare, Postscripts, and Cemetery Dance, and has been nominated for both the British Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards. He lives with his wife in Toronto, Canada.