‘Chin up, Anansi. Shoulders back. You’re slouching. No one likes a hunchback.’
I straightened my back as Mother tightened the ribbon at my waist. Her manicured nails dug into my shoulders as she looked me over in the mirror. ‘Anansi, show me your pretty face.’
I smiled sweetly at my reflection, my teeth white beneath my painted lips. A second passed and I felt Mother’s fingers pinching my cheeks.
‘I told you to put on more blush before we left home. Your complexion is all wrong, you’re too pale!’
She spun around to dig in her enormous purse, searching for the makeup bag she always carried. I looked over myself, properly examining the outfit Mother so kindly laced me into. Pale blue was definitely better than the colour of my last dress, especially with my fair skin.
I pulled at the ties on my shoes, hoping to allow some blood flow back to my feet.
‘Ah, finally! Here it is. Anansi, I told you to stand up straight!’
She gripped my arms and turned me to face her, before dusting a powder brush across the bridge of my nose. I held my breath, but some of the blush got into my nose and I sneezed loudly.
‘Anansi! Cover your nose when you sneeze. It’s very unbecoming of a lady.’
‘And stand with your feet together. No one likes an untidy girl.’
I adjusted my feet as she continued to nit-pick, brushing more blush on my cheeks. After several near sneezes, Mother pulled away from me and I looked at the mirror. My face now had a rosy glow — a stark difference to my usual paleness. I looked at Mother’s reflected face. There was a glint in her eyes as she carefully smoothed my ponytail and tightened the hair bow.
‘Perfect. You look perfect, Anansi. My perfect winner.’
I tensed at those words and smiled again, showing my teeth. I was perfect. A winner.
There was a knock on the door, and we turned to see a lady walking in with a clipboard.
‘Anansi Spinster? I’m Mrs Night. Follow me please, we are about to begin.’
I stepped off the platform with ease and moved towards Mrs Night, only for Mother to pull me back.
‘I expect another prize Anansi. Don’t disappoint me.’
‘Of course, Mother. I won’t let you down.’
Mrs Night walked out, and I followed her. I kept my steps small and held my shoulders back. I was perfect. We passed other girls dressed in outfits like mine, all waiting to be called upon. Their eyes followed me, but the moment any made eye contact with me, they lowered their gaze. I smirked softly. I was the perfect one. I was the winner.
Mrs Night stopped suddenly, and I nearly bumped into her. She held her hand to her earpiece, listening intently.
‘Wait here, I’ll be back shortly.’
I frowned. Wasn’t she taking me to the stage? Where was she going? I clasped my hands in front of my waist and pasted a charming expression on my face as she disappeared behind a nearby door. I was the picture of perfection.
I turned around to observe the other waiting girls. My smile fell into a sneer as I recognised some who had competed against me before and lost. Failures, the lot of them. Serves them right for trying to take my title. I smoothed out the invisible wrinkles on my dress, holding my chin high. This competition would be just like the others. I tilted my head as Mrs Night returned. I narrowed my eyes at the plainly dressed young woman who was with her.
‘Ladies, this is Maya Quinn. She is a late entry. Maya, you’ll be on after Anansi.’
Mrs Night pushed Maya behind me, and I gave her a sickeningly sweet smile. I was always the last girl to go on stage. I preferred it that way. The final girl would always be the most memorable for the judges. Mother drilled into me what they liked and what they didn’t. My routine was flawless. No late entry would change that.
Especially not one who looked as plain as her. I watched smugly from the wings as each girl went up on stage. Some of the newbies forgot their intros, and after a bit of mumbling, they would burst into tears. Others were too fixated on their footwork and would stumble over, almost falling off the stage. I nearly laughed when that happened. Each time, the judges would hold up a scoring card. Each time, nothing higher than four. This would be too easy.
I glanced over at the three judges and frowned briefly. I recognised all but the third. A tall dark-skinned man, dressed in a blue tux. He was watching with an impassive expression, occasionally taking notes on the paper in front of him. His scoring card was always the lowest.
My gaze flitted over to where Mother was sitting; she looked as perplexed as I felt. I returned my attention to the rest of the line, only to nearly scream at the hand that touched my shoulder.
‘You okay? I know that competitions can be scary. It’s normal to be nervous.’ Maya had a comforting smile on her lips as her grey eyes bore into mine. My face turned red.
How dare she. How dare this nobody make assumptions about what I was feeling. I ripped my shoulder away from her touch.
‘Worry about yourself, Quinn. This is my domain and I do not need your attempt at support.’ My perfectly lined eyes narrowed at Maya, who just stared at me in surprise.
‘I’m sorry, I just thought—’
‘You thought what? I am a five-time reigning champion. I am perfect. I don’t need your encouragement. So, let me tell you something—’
‘Ahem, is something the matter Miss Spinster?’
Maya and I stilled at Mrs Night’s voice, and I quickly painted a sweet, innocent expression on my face.
‘Oh no, Mrs Night. We’re fine. Just a little hiccup, but it’s all fixed now.’ I fluttered my lashes at Mrs Night, who looked over both of us and adjusted her glasses.
‘Maya? Is this true?’
Maya opened her mouth, but I pinched her arm before flashing her a dark look. She eyed me with a hurt expression before nodding at Mrs Night.
‘Very well then.’
She walked away, her heels clicking on the floor. I faced forward, my cheeks purple with anger and embarrassment. How dare she. Trying to get me in trouble with her little kindness act. I know her game and it won’t work. I am perfect; I am Anansi, the champion. I won’t be swayed by failures.
‘Next on stage for the Juniors, our reigning champion, Anansi Spinster!’
I shook my head and planted my hands on my hips, a sparkling smile on my lips. Sashaying out on the stage, I mentally went over my routine.
Two steps and pose with hand up and foot out.
Three more steps and then spin, leg high in the air.
Strut the stage, hand swinging in front with each step.
End up in the centre.
Spin on pointe, leg again in the air.
Flash the judges that million-dollar smile.
As I gazed down at the audience, I could feel my eyes beginning to water from the glowing spotlight above me. I could barely see Mother through the glare, but I knew she was critiquing me with every movement. Each judge watched me, two of them smiling at me, except the unknown judge who merely raised his eyebrow, his pen still in his hand. As the music faded, the first two judges began clapping, flipping their scoring board to show identical sevens. The third judge briefly joined in, before flipping his scoring board. I watched the number five flip over. Two sevens and a five. Nineteen in total. The highest score so far, but it wasn’t perfect. Did that mean I wasn’t perfect? No, that couldn’t be true.
Unwilling tears formed in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall, keeping the smile on my face as I walked off stage. I kept my shoulders back and my chin up as I passed the other contestants who were whispering as I passed. I would not break. I am perfect. I am flawless.
‘And to close out our competition, please welcome for the first time, Miss Maya Quinn!’
I stared as Maya took the stage, a honeyed smile on her lips, her previous demureness gone. She approached centre stage where Mrs Night had set up a single microphone and stood facing the audience.
When she started to sing, I couldn’t help but watch in awe as her voice instantly captivated the attention of all those present. From the wings, I spotted Mother, and upon seeing her face, pain stabbed my heart. There were tears in her eyes. Tears of joy and awe. Something she had never shown at any of my performances.
My nails dug tiny red moons into my palms as I continued to listen. She didn’t have an intricate routine, nor did she have a flashy outfit. She didn’t even choose a complex song. Everything she did was so effortless. I stared at the judges. All of them had various expressions of wonder on their faces.
When Maya finished her song, the audience was silent, before ripping into one of the loudest applauses I had ever heard. I watched as all three judges gave her a standing ovation. I watched as Mother dropped her purse as she too stood to join the clapping. I felt tears start to form again and this time I let them fall.
I refused to join the other girls congratulating Maya. She didn’t need any more fans. I waited in the wings, waiting to hear the name of the winner. A tiny voice inside me kept trying to speak to me, to tell me I had no chance. I ignored it. As Maya’s name was called instead of mine, I couldn’t help but flinch. I clenched the stage curtains, fearing the aftermath, knowing Mother would be disappointed. Maya went to walk past me but stopped and looked at me instead.
‘There’s no such thing as perfect, Anansi. You can try, but you will always hear you can do better, that you can be better. It’s easier to have humility rather than pride, as only one will give you the opportunity to grow, to improve.’
She started to walk away, turning around before she disappeared behind the curtain. ‘See you at the next competition, Anansi.’
Author: Rebekah J Pouw is a third-year creative writing student at QUT. She loves reading and writing pieces based on mythology, especially from Greek myths. She mainly creates stories and fantasy worlds where she hopes that people will always love to return to.
Artist: Lilian Martin is a writer, poet, and now artist based in Meanjin/Brisbane, who wants to publish their own zines one day! They used to be keen on the art thing in high-school and have slowly been trying to ignite their visual spark once again. They have begun incorporating visual elements into their writing career by designing magazines, doing illustrations, and making graphics for the QUT Literary Salon. You can find both their writing and visual work at https://linktr.ee/lilianjmartin.
Editors: Euri Glenn & Tracy Channell