The next reader was Dawn Softlight, Harriet’s cheerleader friend who’d tagged along a little with us at Settlers Cemetery. She was tall with blonde hair that was nearly white, and on our poetry reading day she was wearing a wedding dress, a white garment, I later learned, was her mother’s. Dawn already looked older than the rest of us, and in a very odd way the wedding dress seemed almost appropriate. She did not look like a little girl playing dress-up. She looked like a young woman about to be married.
She walked to the lectern with all the confidence of a born performer. She turned to us, smiled a smile that benefitted from genetics, whitening products, and orthodonture. You know how teeth in TV commercials sometimes sparkle? Well, hers actually did. It was terribly annoying. She looked … perfect. And my resentment for her deepened.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ms. Medwin, “our next poet is … Dawn Softlight.” Wild clapping from her friends and fans and boys who wanted her (almost all of them, I would guess); polite sounds from the rest of us.
Dawn looked down at the lectern, then looked up at us with a deathly serious face. I’d never seen her display such an expression—not that I’d seen all that much of her. “My poem,” she breathed, “comes from the gravestone of Jane Williams, 1798–1894.[i] Her epitaph reads, ‘Is the jay more precious than the lark because his feathers are more beautiful?’” She paused. “I’m not sure of the original source,” she said.
“Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew,” I muttered.[ii] Dawn apparently heard something because she shot me a weaponized look. I smiled sweetly. Innocently. And thought some homicidal thoughts of my own. This was the girl that Harriet was choosing to spend as much—or more!—time with than with me!
Meanwhile, Dawn had once again affixed to her face the sober look of a serious poet (or so I interpreted it) and began to read in a voice both breathy and urgent …
“I made everyone jealous.
The girls, of course, because
They wanted to be me.
The boys because I was popular
And got away with things that
I probably shouldn’t have.
The adults because I was young
And they weren’t.
I lived a long and lovely life,
And I stayed young and beautiful—
She kept her head down for a moment—until we were positive she had finished—and then she slowly raised it, and I watched the sober seriousness dissolve into pure pleasure as the clapping began and continued until it was time for the questions and comments.
“Thank you very much,” said Ms. Medwin. “You’ve created quite a character, Dawn. Now … are there any questions or comments?”
I had some.
[i] Jane Williams and her husband, Edward, were friends of Mary and Bysshe Shelley; Edward drowned in the boating accident that killed Bysshe. Jane and Mary remained friends—until Mary discovered that Jane had betrayed her—talking about her behind her back. The dates on the gravestone are—no surprise—the same as Jane’s.
[ii] Vickie is correct. At this point in The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine is upset about not having nice clothes for her sister’s wedding, and Katherine’s husband, Petruchio, makes a long speech about how looks are not all that important. Here are a few of the other lines in that speech: