One day, her little daughter was playing hide-and-seek with her brother, and she went behind the wainscoting… and found there a robe all made of feathers, and took it to her mother. As soon as [her mother] saw it, she put it on… and flew away.
When the hunter came home next morning, his little daughter told him what had happened… So he set out to find his wife in the Land East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.
~Joseph Jacobs, Europa’s Fairy Book
The Hunter’s Daughter
The man stands tall with a dark brow. Carnivals are beneath him. But he’d heard of Leda – everyone had – and so he slips beneath the frowsy tent.
After the performance, he pays the ringmaster for a private audience with the maiden. He waits in the master’s own train car, eyeing the grimy, unmade bed and the red corset lampshade.
The door opens, and a tiny bundle of pale skin and feathers stumbles through as if pushed from behind.
She catches her balance.
The man removes his top hat – the felt one, not the silk today – and begins to circle her, examining every inch of the curious fusion of feathers and flesh. They say the girl is a half-breed, abandoned with her half-breed brother in a cabin of furs and guns and taxidermied geese, no parents for miles. Indeed, it is a flawless costume. He pulls at one white pinion protruding from the girl’s sharp shoulder, but it does not come loose.
The girl does not look up.
The man finishes his orbit and stands in front of her, surveying her nakedness. She is flat and small.
“Take off your feathers.”
For an instant, the girl meets his gaze – even her eyes are white. Delicious.
She twists to reach her own back, arm crooked across her neck. He watches. Her slight hip bone juts out.
She yanks. “I can’t,” she says, fixing her gaze again on the rickety floor.
The man settles himself on the master’s messed bed.
“Try,” he says. “I believe in you.”
She clamps her jaw in concentration, pulls at the plumage on her wrist. A bruise rises under the shaft, but the feather remains intact.
“Leda,” he says, “come here.”
She takes a diffident step. “My name is not –“
The man shoves two fingers into her mouth, pressing down on her tongue. She gags, and he presses in further, down her throat, holding the back of her neck with his other hand. When she stops resisting, he takes her by the shoulders and tears feathers from her skin, one by one.
The Hunter’s Son
Dark curls frame the woman’s face. She stands stiff as a rod. Carnivals are beneath her. But she’d heard of Zeus – everyone had – and so she slips beneath the chintz tent against her better judgment.
The performance does not disappoint. Young Zeus is every bit the god: white as snow, a ruffle of feathers, taking tiny, delicious Leda under the ringmaster’s narrow gaze. He hesitates only once. The ringmaster raises the whip, but does not need to use it. The show goes on.
After the performance, she pays for a private audience with the god. She waits in the master’s own train car, a mess of scarlet and beads. She straightens the amethyst sheets.
The door opens. A scrawny bundle of skin and feathers lurches through, as if pushed from behind.
He catches his balance, and she circles him, hawklike, examining every inch of the feathered boy. She pulls gently at one bright pinion protruding from his spine, but it does not come loose.
The boy glares at her. Even his eyes are white. Remarkable.
“A god cannot be hurt by a mortal woman.”
The boy says nothing.
The woman finishes her orbit and stops in front of him, surveying his nakedness, his smallness. “Take off your feathers.”
The woman settles herself on the master’s messed bed, poofing out her dark skirts with delicacy. “They didn’t want you, did they, half-breed?”
He takes a step backward.
“Zeus,” she says, stretching long fingers out to him, curling them around his bony wrist, “you don’t need to disguise yourself with me.”
“My name is not –”
The woman closes her mouth over his. She grasps at the feathers on his back, tugging at them, calculating how much force each quill can withstand, gobbling his screams as she pulls.
They squat together on the steel tracks between the contortionists’ wagon and the aviary car. Wherever they are, the train tracks are always the same. The peacocks squawk from within their cages.
Phoebe stares into the dead night. Her brother dabs her gapes and gorges with ointment. “How will I fly away if they keep taking my feathers?”
“They’ll grow back.” Sampson scrubs dried blood from the down on his sister’s neck.
Phoebe turns to him. She contemplates the purpling bruises scattered across his shoulders and chest, each punctuated by a ruffled, but intact, feather. They never pull his out.
“I understand why Mother left.”
He meets her colorless eyes, the only eyes in the world that match his own. They do not belong here. They do not belong anywhere. “I’ll carry you. When my remiges fledge in. I’ll carry you.”
“I’ll be too heavy.”
They both know she’s right.
Sampson studies Pheobe’s mottled bald patches. The real Zeus had been a monster, but even he didn’t mutilate Leda.
A cluster of new pinions grows from her left side, just below the rib cage. He leans in to be sure. “Tomorrow night, keep your arms down if you can.”
Sampson points at the fresh growth: long, structured quills.
Phoebe twists to see. “Wing feathers.” Her voice is a hushed prayer.
Sampson scoops a blob of ointment and pastes the elegant remiges to his sister’s skin so they hide in the slight contour of her waist.
Phoebe stares at the winking stars.