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The Weight of Feathers
Author:Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore




For JEM,

for holding your hand out to me,

and keeping it there until I took it





Una golondrina no hace verano.

One swallow does not make a summer.

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?”