BARBARA’S GIFT • by Z. L. Porter

After a week, a small band of followers started to gather at the bottom of the hill each morning to listen to Barbara’s magnificent voice. She took to wearing a bird-like mask to preserve her anonymity. When these supplicants asked her what made her sing in this way, so open and yet so concealed, Barbara would simply smile behind her feathers and say, “I’m not really sure.” Of course, this was only half true.

Certainly she had been as surprised as anyone when it first happened. It was on One Tree Hill in Greenwich Park, under the coloured aria of the cold, dawn sky. “O Mio Babbino Caro” had surged through her body, up through the rings of her throat, over her muscular tongue. Her voice had sparkled with the very fire and ice that a great man once told her she lacked. It had swirled and flared over the tree canopies, over the still, copper plains, over the Thames towards the gleaming, violet towers of Canary Wharf. Dog walkers stopped in their tracks. Insomniac joggers pulled out their headphones. Sleeping locals woke with a start. Everyone was enchanted, and none of it had been planned.

Of the other half of the truth, Barbara could not speak. She could not say that they were the first notes she had sung for seven years, that for seven years she had buried her gift so deep that sometimes she forgot it was there at all. Nor could she say that the doctor had been unpleasant when he had diagnosed chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, and that he had signed off her letter to the Department for Work and Pensions with the kind of sneer medical professionals reserve exclusively for people they believe to be malingerers. She could not speak of when she was very ill and spent most of her days in a bedridden fug in which she heard chants from her past.

That the loudest was her only lover, Lawrence: “Your body is like cold porridge. It’s like you’re dead. I cannot even bear to touch you.”

That the sharpest was her mother: “Just who does the ungrateful bitch think she is, to audition for a scholarship to the Royal College of Music? It’s absurd!”

That the cruellest was the flamboyant Professor von Kleistman in her final year at the College: “Your voice is too sterile, my dear. You need more colour, a shade of smoke, a sparkling stream; a crack for the light to shine through. It is not perfection that makes the greats, but exquisite imperfection.”

Barbara could never tell of the night before she first sang from the hilltop, when she nudged the point of a kitchen knife under the stiff, white tendon in her wrist, just to test, not to break — yet — the skin. That after doing so, she ran a bath and dipped back her head, and that in the scant minute her head was under the water, she understood everything, all at once, in a whole, in a circle, in a flash:

That in her obedience, she had proved these people right.
That her gift was precious and it languished on a bed of jewels.
That it was her duty to that gift to be ruthless, to be furious.

Of this, this other half of the truth, she could only sing, in her newly shaded voice, from the hilltop at dawn. So she sang.

Z. L. Porter lives in North Yorkshire with her husband, children, and chickens. A former speechwriter, this is her second published story.

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