The Weight of Feathers – Anna-Marie McLemore

The feathers were Lace’s first warning. They showed up between suitcases, in the trunk of her father’s station wagon, on the handles of came-with-the-car first-aid kits so old the gauze had yellowed. They snagged on antennas, turning the local stations to static. Lace’s mother found a feather in with the family’s costumes the day they crossed into Almendro, a town named for almond fields that once filled the air with the scent of sugary blossoms and bitter wood. But over the last few decades an adhesive plant had bought out the farms that could not survive the droughts, and the acres of almonds dwindled to a couple of orchards on the edge of town. The wisp of that black feather caught on a cluster of sequins. Lace knew from the set to her mother’s eyes that she’d throw the whole mermaid tail in a bucket and burn it, elastane and all. Lace grabbed the tail and held on. If her mother burned it, it would take Lace and her great-aunt at least a week to remake it. Tía Lora’s hands were growing stiff, and Lace’s were new and slow. Her mother tried to pull the tail from her grip, but Lace balled the fabric in her hands. “Let go,” her mother warned. “It’s one feather.” Lace dug in her fingers. “It’s not them.

” Lace knew the danger of touching a Corbeau. Her abuela said she’d be better off petting a rattlesnake. But these feathers were not the Corbeaus’ skin. They didn’t hold the same poison as a Corbeau’s body. “It’s cursed,” her mother said. One hard tug, and she won. She threw the costume tail into a bucket and lit it. The metal pail grew hot as a stove. The fumes off the melting sequins stung Lace’s throat. “Did you have to burn the whole thing?” she asked.

“Better safe, mija,” her mother said, wetting down the undergrowth with day-old aguas frescas so the brush wouldn’t catch. They could have cleaned the tail, blessed it, stripped away the feather’s touch. Burning it only gave the Corbeaus more power. Those feathers already had such weight. The fire in the pail was an admission that, against them, Lace’s family had no guard. Before Lace was born, the Palomas and the Corbeaus had just been competing acts, two of the only shows left that bothered with the Central Valley’s smallest towns. Back then it was just business, not hate. Even now Lace’s family sometimes ended up in the same town with a band of traveling singers or acrobats, and there were no fights, no blood. Only the wordless agreement that each of them were there to survive, and no grudges after. Every fall when the show season ended, Lace’s aunts swapped hot-plate recipes with a trio of trapeze artists.

Her father traded homeschooling lesson plans with a troupe of Georgian folk dancers. The Corbeaus never traded anything with anyone. They shared nothing, took nothing. They kept to themselves, only straying from the cheapest motel in town to give one of Lace’s cousins a black eye, or leave a dead fish at the riverbank. Lace and Martha found the last one, its eye shining like a wet marble. Before Lace was born, these were bloodless threats, ways the Corbeaus tried to rattle her family before their shows. Now every Paloma knew there was nothing the Corbeaus wouldn’t do. Lace’s mother watched the elastane threads curl inside a shell of flame. “They’re coming,” she said. “Did you think they wouldn’t?” Lace asked.

Her mother smiled. “I can hope, can’t I?” She could hope all she wanted. The Corbeaus wouldn’t give up the crowds that came with Almendro’s annual festival. So many tourists, all so eager to fill their scrapbooks. That meant two weeks in Almendro. Two weeks when the younger Paloma men hardened their fists, and their mothers prayed they didn’t come home with broken ribs. Lace’s grandmother set the schedule each year, and no one spoke up against Abuela. If they ever did, she’d pack their bags for them. Lace had watched Abuela cram her cousin Licha’s things into a suitcase, clearing her perfumes and lipsticks off the motel dresser with one sweep of her arm. When Lace visited her in Visalia and they went swimming, Licha’s two-piece showed that her escamas, the birthmarks that branded her a Paloma, had disappeared.

Lace’s mother taught her that those birthmarks kept them safe from the Corbeaus’ feathers. That family was el Diablo on earth, with dark wings strapped to their bodies, French on their tongues, a sprinkling of gypsy blood. When Lace slept, they went with her, living in nightmares made of a thousand wings. Another black feather swirled on a downdraft. Lace watched it spin and fall. It settled in her hair, its slight weight like a moth’s feet. Her mother snatched it off Lace’s head. “¡Madre mía!” she cried, and threw it into the flames. Lace’s cousins said the Corbeaus grew black feathers right out of their heads, like hair. She never believed it.

It was another rumor that strengthened the Corbeaus’ place in their nightmares. But the truth, that wind pulled feathers off the wings they wore as costumes, wasn’t a strong enough warning to keep Paloma children from the woods. “La magia negra,” her mother said. She always called those feathers black magic. The fire dimmed to embers. Lace’s mother gave the pail a hard kick. It tumbled down the bank and into the river, the hot metal hissing and sinking. “Let them drown,” her mother said, and the last of the rim vanished. Her mother spit out the words like a bad taste, but Lace couldn’t blame her. The Corbeaus would’ve let a Paloma drown any day.

Eight years ago, Lace’s older cousin Magdalena got caught in a fishing net the Corbeaus had set in the lake. She would’ve drowned if her novio had not seen her stuck in the nylon threads and pulled her out of the water, half the net still tangled around her costume tail. The Corbeaus had been setting nets to trip them up for years, and the sirenas learned to spot them and get out of them, the same as colanders. But the one that got Magdalena was nylon, not rope. The dark water made those thin threads and tight knots invisible. Lace’s father had filed a police report about what happened to Magdalena. The report went nowhere, but it had scared the Corbeaus off nylon nets ever since. Lace went to break the news about the tail to her great-aunt, but Tía Lora had already seen. Lace found her watching from the motel window. “Which one?” Tía Lora asked.

“The blue one,” Lace said. “One of the new ones.” She waited for sadness to wash over her greataunt’s face. Tía Lora showed little more than a wince. It crept into the muscles around her mouth, but barely reached her eyes. “It’s okay. We’ll make another.” She accepted it with such quiet. This was her work, every stitch born from the pain in her fingers. Lace could help, but she didn’t have Tía Lora’s years and instinct.

Even with her eyes going, Lora Paloma’s sewing by touch came out better than Lace’s by sight. They were lucky Tía Lora had stayed with them. No one had been so good with the costumes since Lace’s great-grandmother died. Four years before Lace was born, Tía Lora had every reason to leave. The Corbeaus had killed her husband, the man who had given her his name and made her a Paloma. But Tía Lora stayed, and Lace’s grandmother made sure the whole family knew they would not leave her alone and widowed by Corbeau hands. That Tía Lora had no Paloma blood meant nothing. The Paloma name she had fastened to herself on her wedding day was still hers. “Lo siento,” Lace told her great-aunt. “I’m used to it.

” Tía Lora turned her face from the window and smiled. Light gilded her brown cheek. “Every year your abuela brings us back here and pretends we can keep the feathers away.” Lace gave her great-aunt a smile back. A few weeks earlier, Lace’s grandmother had drawn the family’s route on an age-softened map of California, announcing they would set up in Almendro even earlier this year. Now Abuela sat in the motel parking lot with her coffee, smug smile ready to greet the Corbeaus’ Shasta trailers when they realized the Palomas were already here. What she was hoping for, waiting out there with her Styrofoam cup of Folgers and powdered creamer, Lace didn’t know. A good brawl, maybe, between the Corbeau men and Lace’s cousins. A shouting match, Abuela screaming in Spanish, Nicole Corbeau shrieking in French. Either way, her grandmother was disappointed.

Lace’s cousin Matías brought her the news that instead of taking a block of rooms at the River Fork, the Corbeaus had rented a run-down house, like they knew the Palomas had gotten ahead of them. “Where?” Abuela demanded. Matías told her it was somewhere near the campground, if he could even call it that. Five years ago the state had cut the funding to keep it up. Now it was just a cluster of fire pits, the root growth of porcelain vine and wild roses turning over the earth. “At least they’ll be out of the way,” Lace said. Matías folded his arms. “I don’t know what they’re doing. That house is only half as big as they need for all of them.” “I bet they make their children sleep outside,” Abuela said.

“Los gitanos and their trailers.” Abuela drained the last of her coffee and crushed the cup in her hand. She tossed it over her shoulder, knowing Lace would throw it out. This was her grandmother’s pride. If she wanted Lace’s father and uncles to make the aguas frescas, she would pelt them with lemons until the mesh bag was empty. Instead of asking for la Biblia from her trunk, her brown, ring-covered hand pointed until the nearest grandchild obeyed. Lace bent toward the asphalt. If Abuela left her coffee cup on the ground, any Paloma daughter knew enough to pick it up. Volez de ses propres ailes. Fly with your own wings.

A knock shook the trailer door. “Ten minutes,” Cluck said, scrambling to replace a broken wire. During the season, fixing wings was a full-time job. His mother’s qu’il pleuve ou qu’il vente policy meant they performed through every summer storm, rain damaging the feathers and wind warping the frames. “Five,” his mother said. Her shoes crunched the ground outside. He tied his hair back. Pépère hated when he did that. He thought ponytails were odd on both boys and girls, something strange and American. He’d fluff the back of Cluck’s hair with his hand and say, “What is this?” But Pépère was already down at the show site, checking Cluck’s work.

Without the wings, there was no show. Chemical smells blew in through the window. Boiling water. Rusted metal. Hot adhesive in the nearby plant’s mixing tanks. Reminders that his grandfather used to check the temperature and pressure gauges, the pipe-washing logs, the vent gas scrubbers. That was twenty years ago. Now the plant ran so hot the smell of plastic and ash blew clear to the highway. One day the whole system would overheat and shut down like a fried car engine, his grandfather said. The owners hadn’t replaced the old overflow tank, just to save a hundred thousand dollars.

And the plant’s trainings didn’t even cover how workers shouldn’t wear cotton near the tanks. Last year, a pipe burst, and a spray of cyanoacrylate burned through the shin of a man’s jeans. Cluck’s mother kept the show coming here because of the Almendro Blackberry Festival. Each year the town celebrated a variety of blackberry first cultivated by a local fifty years earlier. It was a point of pride around here, the berries growing so easily in backyards and ceramic planters that the brambles trailed on brick walkways and crabgrass lawns. The festival brought in enough tourists for a quarter of the season’s ticket receipts. But if it were Cluck’s call, they’d go west to the coastal forests, or north and east, where wildflower fields fringed the groves of trees. They’d never stop in the town that had turned on Pépère. A pebble bounced off the trailer’s window. “Cluck,” one of his cousins yelled through the pane.

Cluck cut a few feathers. He wished all his fingers worked. He’d gotten used to three being nothing but dead weight, but when he had to rush, he missed them. “Did you go back to France to get the feathers or something?” Cluck’s cousin laughed at his own joke. A few of his younger cousins gave him an echo. “We didn’t wear wings in France, crétin fini,” Cluck said under his breath. In Provence, the Corbeaus had been les fildeféristes, tightrope walkers. They’d moved from town to town, fastening their ropes to church steeples. Onlookers swore les Tsiganes had sold their souls to the devil so he would take from them their fear of heights. Now the Corbeaus were a tentless circus, performing anywhere they found enough trees.

Their fildefériste blood had thinned out enough that they now walked branches, not tightropes. Cluck came out of the costume trailer, arms full of feathers and wire, and put the repaired wings on the last few performers. He had to dodge to keep from bumping into anyone. The ring of travel trailers was busy as a yellow jacket’s nest. Performers cycled through the pink Airflyte to get iodine for their feet. Cluck’s mother and Yvette kept the books, receipts, and maps in a half-white, half-red 1962. Lights and cables came out of the aluminum 1954 Cardinal. Anyone with a twisted ankle or a cut palm waited for Georgette in the 1956 Willerby Vogue with the melamine-green underbelly. And a 1963 Airstream was the junk drawer of the trailers, half schoolroom for the younger Corbeaus, half workshop when Pépère and Cluck needed the extra space. Cluck watched Clémentine and Violette skip off into the trees, carrying burlap bags of petals.

Each night they refilled them with cornflowers and seven-sisters roses that grew wild in the woods, the same kinds they wove into flower crowns. They looked like wood fairies, their wings made of forest and sky colors. His mother snatched the spare feathers from his hands. “What were you doing, trying to grow wings yourself?” She followed after the performers, her shoes clicking on the rocky ground. Only his mother would wear high heels in the woods. Cluck got to the show space in time to see the performers taking their places in the boughs. The wings drew the audience in, but they made the performers’ jobs harder. It took years for a Corbeau to learn to wear them without knocking the wide span into branches or snagging them on leaves. Cluck knew. His grandfather made him climb trees wearing a set of wings when he was fourteen.

Cluck had been scrambling barefoot up maples and oaks since he was old enough to walk, hiding in the higher branches Dax couldn’t get to. But his first time up with those wings took him twice as long. The weight pulled him back or pushed him forward. Hitting the outer wires on the boughs made him fight to keep his balance. “If you’ve been up there wearing them, you will be better at making them,” Pépère had called up from the ground. Now Cluck only went up into the show’s trees twice each run, once to hang the glass chimes and once to take them down. In each town where his family stopped, he had his own trees, always far from the show space. Pépère found him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Good work.”

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