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Authors: Julie Cantrell

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BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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For Larry (and Dean), you entered my life at exactly the right season, reminding me we are here to love in spite of, not because of. For that, I owe you “every day by the sun.”

And for the students of Still Creek Ranch, you are the bravest spirits I have ever known. Keep fighting for the light.


Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Part 2

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Part 3

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

A Note from the Author


Discussion Questions

About the Author

Part 1

Love is the child of freedom, never that of domination.


Chapter 1

Friday, October 29, 2004

The Day

. P
it's the pulse of jazz in the air, or the rhythmic churn of the riverboats, or the warm winds that swoop the levee, but there's a hint of mystery surrounding us. Something has charged the marrow walled within my bones.
Pay attention
, it says. And so I do.

It's the week of Halloween—not the best time to bring a sixth-grade class on a field trip to the Big Easy. But three rain delays pushed back the date, so here we are in New Orleans, where thick, milky fog rises from the river like steam. It nearly blocks our view of a shiny white tugboat and her long string of barges nosing their way through the coffee-colored currents.

We wait at Mardi Gras World, the famous tourist trap where my daughter, Ellie, and her classmates have come to learn the history of carnival season. Unlike the cars that buzz across the Crescent City Connection, or the boats that linger lazily beneath the bridge, we are landbound. We're also surrounded by mermaids, each elaborately carved and painted by Blaine Kern's studio artists.

Around the sculptures, a festive crowd filters through. They are free spirits, wearing rainbow face paint as they scuttle for a better view of the Mississippi. “A cape?” my friend Beth whispers. “Cute.”

“Getting that party started early.” Raelynn eyes the most flamboyant tourist before taking a seat beneath the pergola. “Argh, it's wet.” She pulls beads around her neck, adjusting the plastic pendant that serves as our admission ticket for the guided tour.

Across the waterfront patio, a brass band pipes through scratchy speakers. Potted palm trees dance in the breeze. From the river, a dull horn bellows, causing our students to roar. The raucous tourist swings by again, her cape whipping wildly, her cheeks all aglitter. While this scene might be expected during Mardi Gras, it's unusual for a Friday morning in October.

My daughter shuffles through the crowd, staying close to her best friend, Sarah. A heavyweight redhead wearing dollar-store fangs jumps in front of them with a deep and masculine “Boo!” Ellie startles, and the jokester jolts away, laughing. This leaves our students wide-eyed, the chaperones on edge.

“Let's go ahead and get the children back inside,” Miss Henderson instructs. She is young and not yet burned out from the never-ending demands of public education. Even now she remains pleasant as she taps one of her more rambunctious students on the shoulder, nudging him down from the railing where he's at risk of falling into the dangerous currents.

“Girls?” Beth and I both call for our daughters. In response, Sarah and Ellie skip into line, their arms laced together, their steps in sync. As they prance beneath a strand of purple and green party lights, Sarah's blond hair catches a glow, exaggerating her angelic complexion. Her innocent blue eyes twinkle with a sort of naïve joy not normally associated with raucous Bourbon Street celebrations. I whisper to Beth, “She could model for American Girl dolls.”

“They're both beautiful.” Raelynn drags behind. “The only problem is, which one will get to marry my Nate?”

“Yuck!” they protest, and Miss Henderson laughs, closing the double doors behind us.

Inside the gift shop, students explore rows of spirit dolls and voodoo pins, while Sarah and Ellie move to the collection of intricate masks. They have just begun to dance in disguise when a shopper steps up from behind. She's older than us. Close to fifty, I'm guessing. At thirty-five, fifty is sounding younger to me by the day.

“They sisters?” She asks this while watching Ellie and Sarah giggle in feathered face gear.

“Might as well be,” Beth answers. “Born on the same day. Best friends since birth.” She doesn't bother explaining that our girls are without siblings and have learned to rely on one another to fill that role.

“Figures. My daughters wouldn't have been so nice to each other at that age.” She looks at me a little too long, and I shift away, adjusting my heavy backpack. It's crammed with first-aid gear and water bottles—just in case.

The woman leans closer. “You're from Walker?” She points to my bright-green shirt, the one Miss Henderson designed. It shows a school bus surrounded by classic New Orleans symbols: Mardi Gras masks, musical notes, and the traditional fleur-de-lis. At the bottom it reads
LP to NOLA 2004
, suggesting we've all traveled more than an hour east from rural Livingston Parish to explore our state's most famous city, “The City That Care Forgot.”

I nod. “We're here for a field trip. You?”

“Albany,” she says. “You may not remember, but are you a social worker? In Denham Springs? Amanda Salassi?”

My heart sinks.
Is she one of my clients? Why can't I place her?

I scrape my brain, trying to pull this file—her round face, the
gnawed fingernails, the tiny Hungarian hamlet of Albany known for its strawberries and quiet way of life. I draw nothing but blanks.

“You go out on call sometimes, with Sheriff Ardoin?” She keeps her voice low, hesitant.

Chills rise. I remember. She weighed at least a hundred pounds less when I last saw her, but her soft voice, something about that thin smile. “Mrs. Hosh?”

She nods, and we offer one another a warm glance

“I'm sorry I didn't recognize you. Your hair was a lot longer. And brown.”

“Yeah.” She says this with a half chuckle, reaching up to feel her short blond crop.

It's all coming back to me now. The tight-knit settlement. The protective way her kinfolk circled, unwilling to let me in. Her late-night calls to my home phone, in secret, asking to talk.

“I want you to know”—she dabs her eye with the back of her finger—“I couldn't have survived it without you. Knowing you cared. And you didn't judge. Getting the others to call me. That helped. More than you can understand. Just knowing they had survived it.”

I gesture for Beth to watch the girls. Then I lead Mrs. Hosh to the side. “You're here,” I whisper. “You survived it too.”

“One breath at a time. That's all I can do.”

“That's all you have to do,” I tell her, drawing her into a gentle hug. “Just keep breathing.”

She holds me close, so tight her shoulder clamps against my throat, but I don't dare pull away. It doesn't matter that we are in a public gift shop, surrounded by chaperones and strangers. Or that my daughter and her friends watch us as they toy with touristy trinkets. All that matters is that this woman, right this moment, needs a hug. So that's what we do. We hug.

After the emotional exchange with Mrs. Hosh, I hurry to catch up with Ellie's class. They are following a cheerful tour guide into the theater, where he instructs us to zip sparkly costumes over our clothes. I grab four hangers, each with a long satin shirt that's been studded with sequins. Ellie chooses turquoise, her favorite color. It works well with her olive complexion and dark curls, which she inherited from Carl's Italian roots. In contrast, Sarah snatches hot pink, a bright anchor to her blond ponytail. Beth and I settle for the leftovers, while Raelynn snags a set for Nate and crew.

“Choose a hat.” Beth points to a stand filled with plush velvet caps. We select a few and hurry to the back of the room, where a three-dimensional Mardi Gras mural has been built for photo ops.

Sarah waves her hand like a princess and stands straight. “I'm the Queen of Endymion.”

“And I'm the Queen of Bacchus,” Ellie adds, bending her knees in a dramatic curtsy. I snap her photo, certain it will make the cut for this year's scrapbook.

Just on the other side of the wall, a café keeps our space swirling with scents of chicory coffee, a temptation that is becoming hard to ignore. “Man, I need a cup of brew,” Raelynn admits. She rushes past us with her group of boys, a motley crew of hunters and fishermen who would rather be on a boat or a four-wheeler than anywhere near a city. But they are being good sports, pretending to fight over which one of them gets to wear the pastel pink shirt for the photo.

Before the students get too hyper, the guide takes over again. “All righty. Parents, please put the costumes away while I start the film.” He speaks with enthusiasm, dimming the lights.

The students quickly pass the gear while black-and-white images begin to flicker, bringing us back to the early 1800s when Creoles held lavish masquerade balls. Eventually the parties spilled into the boulevards, and revelers began to toss special treats to onlookers. Then came the first floats, lit with flambeaus—an elaborate party-on-wheels.

“When will they pass out the king cake?” Raeylnn asks, causing the students to look our way.

Beth puts her finger to her mouth, the way a mother would tell her child to hush. Then she sweeps soft curls from her forehead, revealing a thin streak of gray at her crown. Raelynn's brightly dyed locks and tattooed wrists mark a stark contrast to Beth's conservative style. And yet we've grown up a tried-but-true trio. The “three amies” as Raelynn likes to call us, a play on her Cajun tongue.

The film ends, and we make our way into the café where our guide begins doling out the cake, a braided sweet dough topped with confectioner's icing and sprinkled with colorful sugar crystals. Miss Henderson prompts, “Do any of you know why we eat king cake?”

Sarah, teacher's pet and usually the first to raise her hand, draws a blank and turns to Ellie for backup. But my daughter, too, seems to have no clue. Either that or she's too shy to answer.

One of the boys shouts his guess. “Some kind of voodoo thing?”

The guide chuckles. “A lot of people do associate New Orleans with voodoo, you're right. And some in these parts still practice, but we're mostly a Roman Catholic culture. So if you grew up in Louisiana, you probably already know the story of the three wise men.”

Seeing we are from Walker, a rural sidekick to Baton Rouge and the kind of place that has more steeples than graves, the guide must realize he's safe with this religious topic, even if we are a public
school. “Twelve days after Christmas, on January 6, we celebrate the wise men's visit with the Feast of the Epiphany. And we keep the party going all the way through Fat Tuesday, which in French is called . . . what?”

“Mardi Gras!” A handful of students are proud to know the answer.

“That's right. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, which of course launches the Lenten season—when Catholics give up our favorite treats and focus on being good.” He laughs before adding, “Well, as good as we can be down here in New Orleans.”

Then he steers off course a bit. “I'm sure some of you are Catholic.” About half the class raise their hands, including Nate, one of the many CCD kids who has spent his Wednesdays riding the catechism bus to Immaculate Conception. “Anyway, to honor those three wise men, or
, we make the cake round—like a crown—and we only serve it during carnival.”

Ellie takes a bite, dusting her lips with green sugar sparkles, just as Nate cheers, “I got the baby!”

“Figures,” Sarah says, eyeing the small plastic token in Nate's hands. “He wins everything.”

When offered a piece of the dessert, Beth holds her perfectly trim waistline, saying, “I'd better not.”

BOOK: The Feathered Bone
8.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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