The Weight of Feathers

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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?”

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 great-aunt’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 Abue ...

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