This speculative fiction short story is inspired by this feathery masterpiece created by French Fashion Designer Thierry Mugler. I was fortunate to be able to visit an exhibit with lots of his creations. It was a magical day, and this ladybird inspired a story that I have recently wanted to work on. I will be posting the first part of the story today, and hope you will want to come back next Sunday to hear the second half. As always, all feedback is most welcome.
The Last Feather
“You’re only as good as your last feather.” Papa whispered those sacred words the night I turned five, folding my first feather into braided hair. I wondered what he’d make of me now.
Tonight’s dressing will take three hours and begin before sundown. Two chambermaids will lift a golden bodice over my delicate frame, careful not to dislodge any feathers from the gown during their grooming. I need thick armor now that rivals outnumber friends.
When the maids finish, the feathers will form a second skin, drip from my arms like candle wax. In the courtyard, my four brothers argue over their latest catch, mending an intricate mist net torn by the creature. They will be on the hunt again tonight. As the eldest, Samuel imparts his wisdom below a broom-like mustache. “I told you, nude chickens lay just as well.”
One lean chicken circles the family pen, wobbly legs, wings too weak to spread wide. Most wild chickens are too panicked to lay, but fresh eggs carry huge appeal to hungry boys.
“Not true, Sam.” Benji speaks from his bottomless belly while finishing a slipknot in the net. “The fat ones, fine, but the skinny birds shiver to death; their hearts fail.”
They will debate all day over the fate of the chicken’s feathers, but in the end, Samuel will force a plucking before tonight’s Bluebird Ball. Too much risk of theft if the feathers remain attached during the event.
Roasted turkey is the greatest delicacy, and I watch our cook massage oregano and thyme into the skin of tonight’s bird; she lifts her shakers in a tap dance, sprinkles seasonings before using her fingers to carefully separate the skin from the meat. With the care of a surgeon, she places fat pats of butter at the end of each new tunnel. The nude body of the bird is creamy and smooth, exposed at long last in the roasting pan.
Even as fowl populations dwindle, bird hunts remain popular among the young, lads eager to improve their social standing by bagging a bird. After all, the Grounding Fathers established that any man who captures a creature of flight retains the rights to all its feathers. This is the most sacred law of our time.
The wealthiest families arrive at the ball before eight, punctuality is a popular strategy. Their elaborate displays of plumage make the grand entrance more like a New Year’s Day parade. Exotic birds trail behind these entourages attached to golden leashes.
The elders tell us that morning used to be filled with a variety of bird songs, cacophonies of sound that intruded on the lay-ins of late-night partygoers. Now the slightest chirp is cherished.
“Feathers beget feathers,” my mother would always say, needle and thread in hand, stitching a new feather onto a jacket or gown. Her fortune had flourished, but in the end, her regal brocade became too heavy. Unable to sense the edges of a trap door, gravity took her life, and her feathers were stripped by her captors, as per the law.
New traps are set every day for us ladybirds, and I’ve been amassing feathers for fifteen years, a rainbow of plumage drips from my frame making it hard to raise a glass in toast. But I am not expected to function, only to attract. Tonight’s ball is no exception, and I watch as the chambermaids strap golden bangles on my ankles and wrists, careful to avoid the sharp spikes meant to ward off unwanted advances on the dance floor.
My card is full. Potential mates make gestures, mindful of my every move. They want to be certain that I can fulfill all the matriarchal duties they have in mind, the most important being my ability to safeguard our family fortune.
The headdress is attached last. A warbonnet, it was fashioned after the Crow, an Indigenous tribe that used to live on our land. The heavy headpiece extends to the floor and displays my ancestor’s fortune in linear fashion. The bonnet is brought out only on special occasions as many of the feathers are fragile.
Two chambermaids stand on chairs. They strain to lift the headdress over my crown. If they destroy even one of the sacred quills their reputations will forever be ruined. And if they are found stealing, they will be put in crude claptrap and left for public picking.
The families begin the ball with a promenade. The men encircle their female relatives in traditional fashion, ready for a tussle should one take place. Any dance can easily dissolve into a dispute. At last year’s ball, our family ensnared several prominent ladybirds with a funnel trap maneuver before the end of the first galop. Ever since, welcomes between other households are no longer warm.
I shudder at the sight of so many signatures on my card. The dance floor is full of pitfalls. Families set noose traps in the carpets in hopes of snagging an unsuspecting heel. It is high fashion to catch your female dance partners off guard. Once entangled, a ladybird is easy to pluck.
Tonight, my family has coated several squares of the dance floor with birdlime. The sticky substance will catch low-hanging feathers during the dance. I review the pattern in my mind and watch as two unsuspecting ladybirds lose their steps early crossing one of the sticky surfaces, feathers lost as they free themselves from the tiles.
During the waltz, a spotlight blinds a young ladybird. Frozen birds are easily bagged. A quick chance to pilfer treasure until her family fights off the attackers or the blanketed female figures out how to free herself.
It’s been a decade since I’ve been plucked. Not even a few stray feathers since childhood. Four brothers mean I am heavily guarded during every dance.
“May I?” A well-preened man with a cane bows, extends a tail feather instead of his hand. An unexpected offer and my brothers drool in amazement at the rare feather, a tropical blue stem with black stripes and a white tuft at the end, the bird of honor for tonight’s ball.
The man twirls the feather in his fingers, “This is the Bluebird Ball, is it not?”
“Of course, kind sir, but you see, my card is full.” I labor to lift my wrist, the dance card dangling into sight. “Simply no room to squeeze another dance in.”
© 2022 | K.Hartless
To be continued next Sunday…