Excerpt

When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky

Margaret Verble

October 14, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Margaret Verble’s new novel, When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky. Verble is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Her first novel, Maud's Line, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her second novel, Cherokee America, has recently been listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2019. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Two Feathers looked forty feet down into the pool. The water was peaceful and slightly brown, the color of the canvas containing it. Beneath the canvas was wood. Two looked at each hook securing the lining and at the boards they were nailed into. A few people were already on benches beyond the pool’s edges, but Two didn’t glance toward them. She was meticulously professional in checking her equipment, and, also, being mysterious.

She stepped back to the middle of the diving tower where the audience couldn’t see her, and eased down to the floor to pull off her cowboy boots. She was wearing her swimming costume under her robe, but diving required long socks and clunky shoes she didn’t like to be seen in. It required, also, a diving helmet that was hard to get on, and not particularly attractive. Two was on the floor because there were no benches up there. Her mare, Ocher, would come up the ramp alone, usually walking fast, but occasionally running, and sometimes at an angle. A knock into a bench would shake the whole tower, and although it’d never happened, everybody in the horse diving business (which wasn’t many people, but more than you’d expect) worried that someday a horse would run into something and bring an entire structure down. Horse diving was risky business. That’s why people liked it so much.

After Two changed into her shoes, she rose, closed her robe, and peeked out at the benches. They were filling, but not enough for her to yet step into the sunlight and wave. She retreated to deeper shade and flexed her fingers and wrists to loosen her joints, limbered her legs by stretching, and visualized Ocher coming up the ramp, hooves slapping the planks. She imagined grabbing hair and harness, swinging her leg. She saw Ocher carrying her to the edge of the platform and stopping abruptly. What was next was harder to gauge. It depended entirely on Ocher’s mood. Sometimes the horse liked to snort and prance. Sometimes she wanted it over. Two believed her steed’s decisions had to do with the size of the crowd. The bigger and louder, the more prancing around. Horses have pride. And show horses have more than most.

But, eventually, Ocher would dive. Always the extreme plunge, not a safer one. It was the dive both Ocher and the audience preferred, but for Two the most difficult. Ocher would go in headfirst, at a completely vertical angle, and it was easy to be tipped off her into the air. Also Ocher would jerk her head back at their landing to keep water out of her nose. It wasn’t uncommon for a diver to get hit in the face as the horse went in. Two would have to dodge, but not so far as to tilt over. The trick was to hang on at an angle while underwater, avoid getting hit or kicked, and come out straight, smiling, and in control. Like she’d done nothing more difficult than ride a bicycle to the end of the street. That illusion had helped make Two a star.

Two wiggled her helmet down over her hair. And she was tucking strands in when she spied Crawford leading Ocher down the path to the ramp. Both children and adults were reaching out to pat. One boy was skipping along close to Crawford, clearly chatting, asking questions. Crawford shook his head, nodded, or, maybe, replied. He was too distant for Two to hear. But she saw Ocher was alert and not overly excited. The ideal mood for a jump.

Two lifted a board in the floor and dropped her robe and cowboy boots straight down into an empty washtub for Crawford to retrieve and have for her after her dive. She walked to the front of the platform, smiled, and waved. The crowd waved back and clapped. Some men put their fingers between their teeth and whistled. Music piped through speakers started up: “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” the current number one on the charts, and the song most often chosen while Two was on the platform. Two waved more. The clapping, whistles, and Al Jolson continued. Then Two turned her back, walked under the roof, and hopped onto a rail with extra padding and a plank that would keep her from falling should she lean back. By the time she was settled and calm, Ocher was at the end of the ramp and the music had stopped. Crawford shouted, “Three.” Two cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Three,” back.

Two flexed her fingers. Crawford shouted, “Two.” Two flexed her neck. She heard “One” and hooves on wood. She turned. Saw nostrils flaring, ears alert, muscles churning. Ocher was coming up fast. Pounding, nearer and nearer. When Two smelled her horse, she reached. Grabbed her mane, then the harness, and threw her leg over her back. She landed square and tightened her knees. Tucked her fingers under the leather. Then Ocher stopped. They were out in the open. The crowd cheered. The water reflected the sun. Drums started up. A bad imitation of an American Indian beat. Two flung her head back. Appeared to be praying to the sun. Really, she was limbering her neck.

Ocher snorted. Then backed up. Went forward. Eyed the crowd. Whinnied and nickered. The audience clapped louder. Ocher tossed her head. Shimmied down her back. But not from fear. Horses that didn’t like diving didn’t do it. There was no forcing after the initial try; a panicky horse is a danger to itself and its rider. And though a few animal protection activists complained, most folks still believed animals should work for their livings, just like people.

Ocher had been diving for five years before Two got her. She had the plunge down, and wanted to excel and have the pleasure of a jump done well. But she’d also developed a craving for recognition, a lust for attention, and a taste for the crowd. In short, Ocher was basking in the applause, and Two was becoming slightly impatient. Ocher could keep that up for a while. She didn’t have an accurate nose for when an audience was tiring of clapping and wanted to see the jump. And Two sensed this crowd was getting restless. She pressed her heels to Ocher’s sides.

Large, alert ears turned back, then forward. Ocher took a step to the edge of the hanging ramp. She inched down slowly; her muscles tensed, she pushed off hard. The crowd leapt to their feet cheering. Two ducked into Ocher’s mane, snuggled, and dived in unity and freedom. Two leaned in time to keep from getting knocked by Ocher’s head, and the splash was smooth and the water warm. Ocher hit the bottom with her front hooves evenly placed, and she pushed off strong. Two centered herself on Ocher’s back, and they rose together, dripping in sunshine, sparkling with water, and to great applause and more drums. Two undid the strap of her helmet, gave it a tug, and pulled it away from her head while Ocher climbed the ramp out of the water.

Two hopped off. Waved, grinned, and clicked her heels. The drums died, the claps grew. Two slung tassels, shed water, and flung drops. She waved more, grinned and glistened; her costume reflected the sun. The audience was eating her up. And Two loved the attention. Radiated in the admiration. And was thankful to have made it out of the tank alive and uninjured after another dive.

Crawford was on the other side of Ocher, holding her harness, gazing over the crowd at the Overton Hills. He’d camped in them as a boy, still rode through them as a man. But his mind wasn’t on the knobs, or at the diving tank either. It was on his past Saturday night. He didn’t show that. Or move. But Ocher shimmied like Two. She shook her mane, slung water, and sprinkled Crawford. It wasn’t an intentional slight. Ocher loved Crawford as much as she loved her rider.

Two moved to Ocher’s head, spread her fingers, and firmly grabbed her mane. She nuzzled her horse’s muzzle, and kept waving her free hand. The audience had clapped nonstop. And they didn’t let up. But Two never waited until the din abated. She said to Crawford and Ocher, “That’s all,” snatched her robe from a rail, slipped her arms in its sleeves, and picked up her boots. She waved once more. Then she lowered her head and walked off. She gave Ocher the last of the claps.

She stopped just past the ramp to sign autograph books held out in female hands. She also scribbled on newspaper ads where she and Ocher were lauded as “The World’s Most Thrilling and Daring Act.” But many of her fans were men, angling their shoulders to get in the front of the crowd, angling their smiles to get Two’s attention directed on them. She answered questions she heard every day she dived: “Are ya a real Indian?” “Do ya ever get water up your nose?” “Does your horse like diving?” “What are ya doing tonight?” The answers were “Yes,” Yes,” “Yes,” and, “Working.” Two rarely added details because the questions were simple, white people didn’t expect chatty Indians, and she had no intention of starting a romance.

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From the book When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky by Margaret Verble. Copyright © 2021 by Margaret Verble. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.




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