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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Beauty

A Novel

Anna-Marie McLemore

Square Fish

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ONE


Later, they would blame what happened on the little wooden horses.

Estrella had found them when she was five, the set of them dust-frosted and forgotten on a high shelf. They had been small enough to fit in her hands, carved wooden wings sprouting from their painted backs.

No one could tell her where the little horses had first come from, or who they’d belonged to. Estrella took her mother’s shrug as permission to keep them. She dusted them off, lined them up by colors, their wings rounded and splayed like stouter versions of a dragonfly’s. At night, she counted them like sheep. She trotted them along her bedspread like the folds in her quilt were hills.

Now, eleven years later, they were more charms than toys. When she couldn’t sleep, she ran her fingers along their wings like her grandmother did with her rosary beads. And tonight, she lay in the dark, turning each one in her hands, trying to ignore that hundreds of blue borraja flowers had sprouted from the ceiling of her bedroom.

Outside the door, she heard her cousins talking. Whatever they were whispering about was good enough to keep them awake; they were all worn down from work. Today they had finished bringing La Pradera into its spring bloom. The gardens were thick with lilies and irises. Morning glories covered the arbors. The blossoming trees floated their clouds of lilacs and mimosa.

There would be more work, of course. At La Pradera, there always was. Keeping up the bulb gardens, stopping the borders from overgrowing, filling in the flower beds. But it wouldn’t be the same task they had each spring, forcing their fingers down into the hard earth, bringing the ground back to life after the cold months. Their hands were raw from it. They had called up new flowers so many times that the crescent moons of dirt under their nails seemed as much part of them as their skin.

Each spring felt like all of them, not just the gardens, coming back to life. They spent winters giving their flowers to ceramic pots they kept indoors, or pulling snowdrift roses out of patches of land soft enough to grow. But now all of La Pradera was theirs. They had every acre to let out the blooms that had been waiting in their hands all winter.

Estrella looked up at the ceiling, all those starflowers crawling over the rafters. Now that the season was coming on warmer, she had hoped she could wring herself out, give the ground all the flowers she had in her. But this still happened, borraja painting the space above her bed blue, no matter the season.

She left the little horses on her quilt and found her four cousins in the hall, all of them eyeing one of Azalea’s ballet flats. Estrella couldn’t tell why until she looked closer, and spotted the three letters Azalea had inked into the lining, where the writing would follow the lower curve of her anklebone.

Bay. Those three letters were as damning as a confession to a priest.

They all rushed into Azalea’s room, Azalea calling protests after them. Now that they knew to look, they found the same three letters in her clothbound journals. In her books, as though they belonged not to her but to that name she had written on the fly leaves. On the pale inner satin of a velvet choker.

Then, there was no stopping them. They raided one another’s rooms the same way their mothers checked for bottles of violet liqueur, or the dark-dyed lingerie they weren’t supposed to have until they were older.

In Gloria’s room, they found the creased photo she had pressed against the bottom of her middle drawer. The back looked sponge-painted in the lightest pink and coral of her lipsticks, the faint imprints of the hundred times Gloria had kissed the picture’s backing.

The length of yew in Calla’s closet told the same story. Bay, the girl those three letters and the face in that photograph belonged to, had been showing her how to carve her own bow. They had been sanding down the wood together, smoothing it in the last daylight hours before dinner.

Azalea eyed Estrella, willing her to be the next to confess.

Her glare reminded Estrella of the story neither of them had ever told. How Estrella had once kissed Bay under the flowering trees, how Azalea had seen it and, that night, gone after her like a lynx. Both of them had grabbed each other’s hair until Gloria pulled them apart, demanding to know what this was about. They had traded stares, understanding that they would not tell the truth, instead piecing together some lie about a dress borrowed without permission.

Now Azalea looked ready to grab Estrella by the hair again. She must have assumed Estrella had grown out of that small, fierce love that made her kiss Bay under the mimosa trees. Estrella had thought the same thing about Azalea, that she was done with wanting Bay, or at least that she’d gotten distracted. She’d seen Azalea flirting with the young wives who grew bored at La Pradera’s parties, their husbands talking of business they thought women couldn’t understand.

But Azalea had been caught, and that stare was her way of telling Estrella that if she, too, didn’t confess, Azalea would do it for her.

So Estrella opened her jewelry box to her cousins, showing them the collection of thick ribbons coiled together like a nest. They were each lengths of satin that had fallen from Bay’s hair during La Pradera’s summer parties and winter balls. When a ribbon slipped from the end of Bay’s French braid without her noticing, Estrella lifted it from the flagstone courtyard before it got trampled.

Gloria’s eyes slid upward, where the thick blanket of blue starflowers coated the ceiling. Her gaze made the rest of them follow.

Each five-pointed bloom was the deep, clear blue of a new night, the twists of vines flashing sea green between the flowers.

Dalia shook her head at Estrella, not in disappointment but in sympathy. Gloria gave her a small smile, gentle and sad, like Estrella was a child they were looking after. As though Estrella, not Calla, was the youngest Nomeolvides girl.

Calla, for her part, studied the flowers, asking if Estrella could remember what she might have been dreaming this time as blue stars opened over her bed.

“No,” Estrella said, the same thing she said every time Calla asked.

Calla let out a disapproving hum, like a doctor being denied the satisfaction of making a diagnosis.

Azalea shuddered, the way she always did when Estrella grew a dark sky over her bed. Estrella didn’t take it personally; Azalea had more superstition in her heart than she’d ever admit. It was the rest of them that worried Estrella, their concerned faces, like she was a child suffering night terrors. The rest of them drew flowers from the earth and over wooden arbors only when they wanted to.

Azalea drew her eyes away from the ceiling. She nodded at Estrella’s jewelry box, those nests of ribbon, satisfied she didn’t have to tell Estrella’s secrets for her.

Dalia had been smart enough not to keep any evidence. But her cousins knew, as soon as they saw the color bloom in her cheeks. Dalia, too, had fallen a little in love with Bay Briar. With Bay’s laugh, reckless as any boy’s. With how she dressed like a character from one of Gloria’s old novels. Satin trousers to the knee, cinched coat, ivory stockings. On anyone else, it would’ve been a costume. On Bay, it seemed as ordinary as her fine, straw-pale hair, as though she’d been born in a waistcoat.

All five Nomeolvides girls loved Bay Briar. They didn’t just flirt with her to needle their mothers and grandmothers. They didn’t just admire her as some ornament that moved through La Pradera’s gardens. They didn’t all harbor crushes on her just because she was there.

They had all fallen in love with her. With how she could beat her grandmother’s friends at card games, stirring their roars of cigar-smoke laughter as she took their money. With how she swirled and sipped the red-black wine at La Pradera’s parties. (Estrella and her cousins stole bottles and passed them around behind the hedges, seeing how fast the wine could make them feel warm.)

It took only a few minutes standing in the unlit hall for them all to realize what this meant, the love held between them for a girl named Bay Briar.

For as long as anyone had memory, longer than the Nomeolvides women had been at La Pradera, each generation had borne five daughters. Only daughters, always five, like the petals on a forget-me-not. And ever since La Pradera had gotten its hold on them, sure and hard as a killing frost, every generation of five daughters had been trapped in these gardens, like their hearts were buried in the earth.

But Estrella and her cousins couldn’t have five daughters if they were all in love with the same woman.

If they all loved Bay Briar, if they were too lovesick over her to sleep with men, their wombs would stay empty as their hearts were full.

They could be the last generation of Nomeolvides girls. The last ones bound together like forget-me-not petals. The last ones who could not leave La Pradera unless they wanted to die, spraying their pillowcases with bitter pollen they coughed up from their lungs as though it were blood.

The last to see their lovers disappear.

Then dread passed between them.

Nothing good came from the love of Nomeolvides women.

Five years ago, Calla’s father had vanished. Before him, the traveling salesman who’d stayed at La Pradera longer than he’d stayed anywhere in a decade, all because he’d fallen in love with Abuela Flor’s bright laugh. And before him, a man who collected old maps, and who became more of a father to Gloria than the man who’d given her half her blood.

If the love of one woman in this family was enough to make her lover disappear, what would the obsession of five Nomeolvides girls do to Bay?

“No,” all five of them said at once, quiet as whispers, at the thought of Bay vanishing under the weight of their love. Not Bay, who visited the stone house where they all lived by ringing the doorbell, bowing, and announcing herself as the Briar bastard, at your service. Bay, whose mother had left her husband for Bay’s father but had not bothered to take Bay with her. Bay, whose heart always stayed a little bit broken no matter how often her grandmother told her Bay Briar, being rid of the two of them was the best thing that ever happened to you.

And now, with her grandmother in the ground almost a year, the Nomeolvides women gathered around Bay like she was some fragile egg. Estrella’s mother and her cousins’ mothers brought Bay to their table at meal times, expecting her there as much as their own daughters. When Bay was sick, their grandmothers took bowls of blue corn pozole up the hill to the brick house Bay now slept in alone. They set cold cloths under her neck, changed her sheets when her fever soaked them through.

Estrella and her cousins saw the brittle sorrow, the grief drifting off Bay like a mist, and they all wanted to set their lips against her forehead to warm her.

They could not let their hearts destroy this girl they had all secretly loved.

Then Gloria had the idea for the offerings. She whispered into the space between them. “Why don’t we ask it”—here she looked at the floorboards under their feet, as though staring into the ground below the house’s foundation—“to protect her?”

The tilting of their heads turned to slow nods, all of them drawing closer to this hope.

The only thing stronger than the curse of their blood was La Pradera, this flowering world that possessed the Nomeolvides women so deeply it killed them if they tried to leave it. If they did not want Bay vanishing, they needed La Pradera to guard her. From them. If anything could save Bay, it was the force and will of this place. Bay had grown up here the same as they had. This land must have fallen in love with her light footsteps and loud laugh, too. So they would beg La Pradera to give Bay its charm against the venom of their hearts.

In return, they gave the ground everything else they loved. Not just the photo at the back of Gloria’s drawer, or the ribbons Estrella had collected. They took down lockets they admired so much they hung them on walls instead of keeping them in boxes. They gathered copper-backed hand mirrors and tins of apricots they’d sugared on Easter Sunday.

Gloria volunteered her best earrings, the color of champagne, bubbles embedded in the small globes, and her favorite apron—the ruffles in every shade of purple, from lilac to blackberry. She had worn it so many times to candy rose petals that even after she washed it, it smelled sweet as meringue.

Dalia chose the best perfume from her collection, a heavy bottle that held the scent of lavender and dry wood and bergamot oranges. Then, the fondant rose Bay’s grandmother had saved for her off a princess cake from a summer party. She had kept it under a drinking glass so it wouldn’t gather dust, and it had stayed as perfect as when it had topped the cake’s green fondant.

Azalea gave up the spoon she ate dessert with every night, the pewter handle ending in a spiral like the curled tip of a fiddlehead fern. Then she surrendered her favorite candles, the wax as bright pink and red as the flowers she grew.

Calla offered the candy hearts she’d saved over the years, the big kind they carried at the shop in town. She’d collected ones with single words etched into the sugar. Dream. Honey. True. Next, she tore down the tissue paper flowers that hung on fishing line in her room; she had saved them from being thrown out after a spring ball.

Estrella parted with her favorite dress, the sheer layers of the skirt ending in points like the petals of starflowers. From her collection of carved horse figurines, wooden and winged, she chose her favorite, one with just enough color left to show the indigo it had been painted.

They scattered Gloria’s earrings and Calla’s candy hearts. They poured Dalia’s perfume onto the flower beds. Into the thick hedges, they tucked her fondant rose and Calla’s paper flowers. Azalea buried the pewter spoon, and Estrella planted the little indigo horse deep in the ground like a bulb.

Then they gathered at La Pradera’s lowest point, a dark pond at the center of the sunken garden.

Gloria’s apron and Estrella’s dress floated in the water for so long the cousins all shivered, the ruffles waving as though they felt the loss of the girls who’d once worn them. Azalea lit each of her candles before throwing them in, the flames flickering before they went out.

Later, they would all swear they had seen something bright in that water. A few trails of light swirling around the things they gave. A glow buoying up the apron and dress. An echoing of the candles Azalea lit and then let go.

It was this that let them sleep that night, this sign that La Pradera had heard them.


Copyright © 2017 by Anna-Marie McLemore