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Authors: Julie Cantrell

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BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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Raelynn then woos the guide into giving her Beth's forsaken slice. “Score!” She turns my way, beaming.

I nibble my cake and stay with the girls as our guide leads us into the massive warehouse—one of many owned by the business-savvy Kern family. Here, they design and decorate floats, while storing the oversized parade trailers.

We are led past giant replicas of everything from anime characters to zoo animals. At our first stop, a woman stands on a ladder,
coating a massive sea monster in papier-mâché. Strip by strip, she covers the sculpture with brown craft paper, patiently building a smooth surface for the next round of artists to coat with primer.

“They must not know your trick,” Beth says, wafting the air as if she can't bear the odor. She knows I add cinnamon to our glue at home, where Ellie and I are always working on some kind of art project.

“I want this job,” Ellie says, now admiring a half-painted prop. The artist dips a thin brush into a pool of pink and drags it across the lips of a goddess.

“Seems like a fun place to work.” I roll my fingers through Ellie's dark curls. She tolerates my touch for a second before easing away, moving from childhood through tweendom, closing in much too quickly on the tipping point of thirteen.

“I wish I could draw.” Sarah's praise causes my daughter's cheeks to turn pink.

“What do you want to be?” I ask Sarah.

“A missionary,” she says. “Somewhere far away. Like what my parents did.”

Beth responds with affection, recalling her brief stint in Ghana where she fell in love with Sarah's father—the laid-back Cajun youth minister known only as Preacher.

Before Beth gets too deep in reminiscing, the guide redirects our attention to another artist, this one drawing a corset around a tiny waistline, exaggerating the voluptuous figure. The painter holds a feather and examines her work.

“What do you call that thing she's wearing?” Sarah asks.

Beth stiffens. “We'll talk about that later.”

Sarah blows her cheeks and accepts defeat, but the artist turns and with a grim expression says, “It's a corset.”

I'd guess she's in her sixties, with thinning gray hair and skin that hasn't seen the sun in decades. Her clothes, wrinkled and paint-stained, give her a look not so different from the homeless men we saw on our way through the city this morning.

“What's the feather for?” Our guide points to the brilliant blue plume in the painter's hand.

After a heavy sigh, the woman grimaces. “Well, a long time ago, women used to wear these corsets under their fancy dresses. Some people called them
stays
. Girls had to start wearing them when they were very young. Maybe eight years old.” She looks at Ellie. “How old are you?”

“Twelve,” Ellie answers, nibbling her fingernail. It's a habit she's trying to break.

“Twelve,” the woman confirms. “So, if you lived in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, you'd be wearing one of these. Your ribs and your lungs and your stomach would all be pinched up tight beneath the stays.” She tweaks her face at the thought of it.

“Why?” Sarah asks. Not a speck of hesitation.

“That's the question.” The artist smirks. “Why do you think?”

No one comes up with a guess.

“Because women were slaves.”

Beth scoffs.

“It's true!” The artist comes closer. “Slaves to fashion. To society. To culture. The men wanted women to have tiny waists, and we gave them what they wanted.” She points her feather at our tour guide, the only adult male in the group. “Sometimes, if a man was looking for a wife, he would line up women and wrap his hands around their waists. If his fingers could touch, she might stand a chance.”

The girls begin to wrap their midlines, measuring their own worth according to waist size.

The artist notices. “Women were expected to wear these corsets all the time, so they could train their bodies to have this wasp shape.”

“Why?” Sarah asks again, leaning in for a closer look.

“Because most women couldn't work, remember? They needed someone to provide for them. Many even slept in these corsets, tightening the straps more and more each day. Some schools would measure their female students, making sure waistlines were shrinking. Like those foot-binding traditions in China. Ever hear of that?”

Ellie looks back at me, her eyes wide with curiosity. “Later,” I whisper.

“The things we do to our girls. Torture, I tell you.” The painter shakes her head. “Good thing I wasn't alive back then. Put me into one of those things? Might as well wear a straitjacket.”

Beth whispers between her teeth, “I'm thinking she could use a little time in a corset.”

It's the meanest thing I've ever heard Beth say. I raise one finger, just enough to catch the artist's attention. “I'm still not clear. What's the feather for?”

“Oh yes. I got sidetracked. Sorry.” Her eyes light up. “For years, the corset boning was made out of hard, rigid materials. Rods. Reeds. Whalebones. Can you imagine? Being caged into that every day? Even at night?”

Girls peak their brows. Boys shake their heads. Parents sigh.

“But in the late 1800s a man named Edward K. Warren had a store up in Michigan. Dry goods, they called it back then. His customers complained about the whalebone corsets. They were too expensive, too uncomfortable. They didn't seem to hold up. So when Mr. Warren was buying supplies over in Chicago, he noticed a factory that made feather dusters—you know those old-fashioned
dusters?” She waves her feather as if dusting the corset. “Y'all ever seen those?”

Miss Henderson promises she'll bring one to class next week.

“Well, anyway, Mr. Warren noticed that the factory threw away big piles of feathers. He thought he might be able to use them to make corsets. And he was right. He patented his idea. Earned himself a fortune. People loved his new featherbone corsets. You know why?”

Blank stares.

So she continues. “They were less expensive, for one thing, but mainly the featherbones allowed women to bend.” She bows the feather, demonstrating her claim. “So in a way, Mr. Warren helped women break free from bondage. You see? This was the beginning of their—emancipation—so to speak.” She stresses this word. “Anybody know what that means?”

Nate pipes up from the back. “Set them free?”

“Exactly!” The artist's face softens, and a warm smile stretches her mouth. “So when I got this assignment to examine women's fashion, I decided to give these nineteenth-century women some breathing room. Kind of my own little act of rebellion.”

She looks at the group of children with a tenderness now, then toward the ceiling where birds flitter between the roof beams, serenading us. “Girls, promise me this. Every time you see a bird flying around with her beautiful feathers, I want you to think of all the women who strapped themselves into corsets against their wishes. Think of all the women who fought to break free from those restraints. And then remind yourselves to never again become slaves. In any way, to anyone. You keep yourselves free. Understand?”

The girls whisper as we leave the woman. “Who would want to look like a wasp anyway?” Ellie asks.

“I'm glad we don't have to live like that. In a cage!” Sarah says. She squirms as she reaches behind her back. “Now if only we could stop wearing these.”

They both giggle, and Beth pulls her lips tight, still recovering from our recent shopping trip when we bought the girls their first real bras.

I put my arm around Beth's shoulders. “If only we could slow the world for them,” I say. “Keep them young, and safe. And free.”

Chapter 2

W
E SPEND THE NEXT TWENTY MINUTES EXAMINING ALL SORTS OF
floats and props while the birds dart above us. By the time we exit, storm clouds are building. Miss Henderson eyes the sky. “I can't believe it. Three weather cancellations and now it's going to rain on us anyway.” She sighs. “We'd better get Gator to drop us at the ferry. I'd hate for the kids to get wet.” She waves for the bus driver to head our way.

While we wait, students pose for more photos, many of which will land on their MySpace pages later today. Nate climbs the jester statue, pretending to pick its nose. The entire group of boys follows suit, aiming for the giant nostrils.

In response the girls yell, “Gross!” and share looks of disgust.

I switch gears and plan next week's LSU tailgate. We're all skipping tomorrow's match against Tulane.

“I'll kick in dessert,” Raelynn says. “After that Georgia disaster, I should probably make my Good Luck Cupcakes. Maybe some divinity? Pralines?”

“Cupcakes!” My daughter's dimples expose her love for Raelynn's famous buttercream frosting.

“Pralines!” Sarah counters with an equally persuasive grin.

“Both it is.” Raelynn is happy to oblige.

“Carl and I will cook up a pot of jambalaya.” My friends nod. I
pull the heavy backpack from my shoulders, tempted to leave a few of these water bottles behind. “We did gumbo last time, right? Red beans and rice before that?” They nod again.

“We'll do our usual,” Beth says. “Drinks, coolers, appetizers.” Then she switches back to our plans for today. “I wish I could go with y'all over to the French Quarter. This wedding has been planned for a year, and with their family coming in from out of town I couldn't reschedule the rehearsal.” She straightens Sarah's green hair bow.

“It's okay, Mom.” Accustomed to life as a youth pastor's kid, Sarah seems unfazed.

“Wedding coordinator. Just another hat.” Like Sarah, Beth says this without complaint, fully accepting her role as one of the church anchors. “I have to hurry or I'll be late.” She fishes car keys from her purse and offers final instructions to her daughter. “Keep close to Ellie and Mrs. Amanda. And please don't mess with those palm readers. Remember. The tour guide said there's still some crazy voodoo stuff in this city. Eyes open and stay safe.”

Both girls react sarcastically, voicing a deep “Voodoooooo” to exaggerate their fake fears.

“Don't worry,” I reassure my friend. “I won't let them out of my sight.”

“I know you won't.” Beth gives each girl a quick peck on the cheek. Then she heads for her car and rushes back to Walker.

Raelynn leans against the wall. “So who was that woman? The one in the gift shop?” She lowers her voice.

“Just an old friend.” I look around to make sure Mrs. Hosh is nowhere near.

“She lost her son, didn't she?” Raelynn persists, even though she knows I'd never violate client confidentiality. “Couple years
back. Suicide. It was in the paper. If my boys ever did anything like that, you'd have to kill me too. I couldn't handle it.”

I sigh. “No one thinks they can survive it. But somehow they do. They have to.”

“You still like working with Jay? What do you call it you're doing up there? Forensic something or other?” Raelynn bends to adjust the knee brace she's been wearing for the last two weeks. She slipped at the school cafeteria where she manages the nutrition program.

“Oh, I'm still at my clinic most of the time. Outpatient therapy. Normal family counseling stuff, you know. But yeah, I'm still on contract with the sheriff's department too.”

“I never have understood what you're doing with them.”

“Like you said, forensic interviewing. Case-by-case basis.”

“You mean child abuse?”

“That's only when they need me. Mostly they call me out to counsel people at trauma scenes. Crisis intervention. Your knee okay?”

“No, it's killing me.” She rubs it.

“You should sit.”

“Yeah. I should.” She looks around for a seat, but there's none to be found. “You like it? Forensic whatchamacallit. All that therapy stuff. Going out on suicide scenes. I can't imagine anything worse.”

“It's tough. To hear some of the stuff that happens. But it's rewarding too. To help somebody come back to a safe space after trauma. I guess that's why I do it.”

“I don't think I could.” She winces. It's clear she's in pain.

“Well, it's not what I set out to do either, remember?”

“Yep. You wanted to be the school counselor, right? Work the same hours as Ellie.”

“I'm lucky. I manage my clients around Ellie's school schedule,
but summers are tricky. And Carl worries when I get called out to a scene. Still not sure how I ended up with that gig.”

“Jay, of course.” She bumps against me with a playful tease. “Our friendly sheriff. No matter how long you fight it, y'all are gonna end up together. Mark my word.”

I swat the air. “You really have to stop, Raelynn. Carl and I have been married fifteen years.”

“Yeah, but the only person Carl's ever been in love with is himself.”

“Aww, come on. He can be a little too serious, but Carl's a good guy, Raelynn. In fact, he's good at everything. People love him. Even you.”

“Hmph.” She grimaces. “He's good at everything except being your husband. And that's kind of the most important thing, don't you think?”

This catches me off guard. “Are you talking about my husband or yours?” As soon as I say it, I have regrets. After the last violent attack, Raelynn filed a restraining order against Nate's father, a hardened man who likes to take his anger out on his wife. She steps away from me now, and I follow. “Raelynn?”

She keeps walking down the sidewalk, away from the students.

“Raelynn, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean it the way it sounded.” I reach for her shoulder, and she turns toward me.

“Say whatever you want, Amanda. At least I have the sense to draw the line. Might be something you should try. Or else you might find yourself being hit one day.”

BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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