What Could Be More Beautiful Than Feathers, Lace, and Fairy Lights? by Jean Strickland

Our apartment is swelteringly hot. The front room is the only one with airflow, so my sister and I both moved our work in here.

I practice illusions. In front of me, an illusioned swan flourishes its wings, revealing a textured underbelly and black feet. I wonder if it might be seen as more beautiful with its wings folded, its feet hidden. As the swan splays and gathers its wings, waiting for me to decide, it sweats feathers onto the floor.

Meanwhile, Luisa sews a mask. The in and out of her needle sounds like a trickling fountain, and it powders her legs in pollen. She cuts the thread, dusts her lap, and puts the mask on a dressed mannequin. The moment the mask makes contact, the mannequin’s clothes cascade as if in a constant breeze, its shadows take on the texture of lace, a porch swing creaks, and citrusy flowers scent the room.

Even though this mask is new, I feel as though I’ve seen it many times before. Anyone else would disagree. People wear Luisa’s masks on errands and to parties alike. They fawn over them.

My illusioned swan sheds its last plume. Its exposed skin is rusted metals intricately twined. Fluid leaks between the cracks and sputters as if from an overworked furnace. The swan stretches, bending the metal to reveal a radiant core, and screeches.

My sister glances, disconcerted by the noise. I fix feathers of lace to cover its skin because I know this is too far. No one would appreciate its flawed architecture as I do. The swan sighs gracefully, dully.

Luisa sinks onto her floor pillow, reminding me of a pool of sweat. She peeks, puts on a sad face. “Marva, will you bring these to the shop for me? It’s so hot.”

I lift my arms to show my stains and a full bead of sweat drips from my armpit. “I know.”

Luisa packs her masks as if I’ve agreed. I point out her presumptiveness.

“Where is your job tonight?” she asks.

“Minstrel Plaza for the Spring Festus,” I emphasize to indicate the importance of my practice.

“It’s an easy stop on the way. I’ll put them by the door.”

Groaning, I recalculate my departure. She pops her head back out. “Or would you rather stay in the hot laundry room and wash our sheets?”

By the front door, we keep going-out masks. Usually, I don’t wear them, but not wanting to remove myself from beauty before my first paid performance, I put on my formal illusionist mask. It blurs me into the background, so that patrons can better enjoy my illusions. It’s not traditional to wear on errands, but it has its own kind of beauty: the way that it makes me a half person, blended in with the world around me. I love the surreality of it.

Outside, the heat weighs. Everyone and their mother is running errands. I cross to the main street where illusionists work back-to-back. The nearest illusionist fashions bubbles for people to walk through. The bubbles feel cool and viscous. Stepping into them dilutes the light and makes the outer world appear like soap. I add a tip to the illusionist’s waiting sun hat, and tiny bubbles gush from the ground like a geyser.

The next illusionist creates floating umbrellas and violins. The violins play a melody that the umbrellas dance to. They are not as talented of an illusionist, though, because walking through the shadows does not always feel cooling.

The mask shop doors are open. A basket of wet towels sits by the entrance for customers to wipe their faces, and illusioned paper fans cool my sweat. On shelves, masks sit delicately with embossed tags.

The shop owner beckons me. He does not wear a mask himself. He sweeps his vest as he repositions on his stool to take the package. As he processes the masks, he glances up at me and back to his work. “Were you in a rush this morning?” He leans in and lowers his voice. “You’ve got an illusionist mask on.”

“Oh.” It isn’t just untraditional to wear on errands, I realize. It’s strange. A mistake. “Oops.”

“Do you want to buy a replacement for the rest of your trip? I’ll give you a discount.”

On the counter, masks are encased in glass. Their tags read: hand-sewn: fairy lights, distant flute, moonbeams and hand-sewn: honeysuckle, butterflies, wind chimes.

These sorts of masks are worn by everyone, but I’m convinced they wouldn’t look right on me and I don’t particularly like them. “That’s okay,” I say.

He purses his lips in concerned disagreement and tells me to hurry off.

Nearing Minstrel Plaza, the illusionists become more frequent and more talented. Their illusions expand from simple cooling tricks to full displays: cherry blossoms float in dancing breezes and shallow puddles, birds harmonize with ocarinas, colorful laundry hangs on lines that climb the sky, and the fabrics beat in the wind. It always surprises me that they find laundry beautiful, but people point it out in amazement. The smell of flowers is fragrant and fresh and everywhere.

My area is sanctioned off. A sign indicates my arrival time. Each year, the illusionist for this area creates a fantastic, sprawling garden. This year, that’s me. Already, the people milling about raise their heads and comment on the creation of this year’s illusion garden.

I start with a gentle rain. The air fogs, softening garden lights. Moths flutter. My lace swan dips its head and ruffles. Flowers fill beds of varying heights and the smell of moss melds with that of lilies and lotuses.

People stream in. They wave the humid air and cover their hair against the rain, so I open the garden to the sun. Fountains steam and spray the flowers, which spread and spread, emerging from the path, overflowing from the beds, flourishing constantly. A single dropped leaf turns into a vine turns into a tree of wisteria.

The work drags on. Halfway through my shift, I’ve illusioned thousands of flowers—so many that the petal folds of each rose, the dustings of pollen across each morning glory, and the arrangements of each cone of lilacs all look the same.

I itch to make a flower that interests me. So, buried at the back of the garden, where no one will see, I let a single daisy wilt.

The flower shrivels and crinkles. It bends backward, showing its face to the sky. All of its petals hang down like the arms of an arched ballerina, and the pollen dries up and browns. The petals fall, scraggly, twisted, beautiful.

I leave it there, unfettered, and diversify the fresh flowers.

Someone yelps. At the back of the garden, two grandparents and a young woman have spotted the wilted daisy. I panic and it sprouts petals of lace.

“I never imagined I would see a wilted flower on Spring Festus,” the grandfather exclaims.

“I’m sure it was an honest mistake.”

“It is hot,” the grandmother agrees.

The man pulls his hat down and turns round. “They should only hire experienced illusionists for Spring Festus.”

As they leave, the young woman opens a parasol for her grandmother. Tears stick on my sweat-sheened cheeks and dampen the edge of my mask.

I feel unable to create any new flowers, so the constant state of change in my garden halts. The best I can manage is channeling breezes to flutter the leaves. I angle myself away from the exit, so I don’t have to watch more people go.

At the end of the Festus, every illusionist carries their illusions into the sky. Mine fly faster than the rest. When they’re gone, I take off my illusionist mask, bury my tips in my pocket, and walk home.

In the front room, Luisa is asleep on her floor pillow. Her hair is gathered into the world’s loosest bun, but she has one curl saved by her neck. I’ve told her before that she leaves it out and she says she does it on purpose.

A box of practice masks sits beside her, which she uses to try out new combinations without wasting good material. There’s a strange scent, like charcoal and licorice, that makes me wonder whether one of the masks went wrong.

I wish I knew, as well as everyone else, what beauty is and isn’t. Sleep is too warm. In my dream, a swan screeches at me.

In the morning, I have to go to the office to receive feedback and my next job. I put on a mask—it’s one of my sister’s simplest: the smell of morning dew paired with the sound and effect of a breeze—and leave before Luisa can come up with an errand to give me.

The street is less crowded. Many illusionists take the day off after Spring Festus. I recognize a few in the waiting room. We’re called back, a few at a time.

At a desk, a woman in a striped dress flips through a box of cards. Bouquets decorate her office. The sight of the flowers makes me a little sick.

“Oh, your first job was the Spring Festus illusion garden.” She touches her chest. “How nice. Don’t you love the Festus?”

“Yes,” is the correct answer.

The woman’s nails are painted with butterflies in pastel and gold. The plastic tips click on each review. She pauses to examine one, fingers through a few more.

“Did you have a good time?” she asks. “This year’s was the most beautiful yet, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I think so.”

She takes out a few cards near the end of the box to look at more closely, one by one. “Did you get tired near the end? I know it’s so hot.”

“I managed,” I answer, losing heart. She doesn’t seem interested in sharing any of the cards’ contents, so I can only imagine what they say: She must have been exhausted from the heat. Illusioning a dead flower on Spring Festus? The poor girl.

“How about a shorter shift next time? A little break.”

I worry my next assignment will be to a shop or a street corner instead of a prestigious party where the greatest illusionists perform. “I don’t need a shorter shift.”

“Okay,” she laughs. “Good. You’ve got stamina. Just remember that the illusions at the end of your shift should be as beautiful and grand as the illusions at the beginning.”

My next job is tomorrow at a manor party. Two other illusionists will work there. One the entrance, one the ballroom. I am given the space between.

Outside, the sun has finally moved behind a cloud. My heart feels willowy. Soon, I will be judged again for my sense of beauty, but I now doubt my ability to know what is too strange.

For dinner, we eat iced soup. Luisa sews around her bowl: the Festus and the series of parties to follow it generate a lot of demand for masks. The thread drips dew. Luisa breathes between her teeth, undoing a stitch.

“Have you ever made a mask that people didn’t like?” I ask.

“Could be making one now.”

“I mean, one that you thought was okay. Or good. Or beautiful.”

Bugs thump against the screen window. One falls onto the sill. Its legs fuss.

“Did people not like your illusions?” she asks.

“They liked them.”

They liked them,” she repeats.

A basil leaf sticks to my tongue.

Luisa continues stitching. “People always like the masks I sell.”


When I arrive at the manor, the entrance illusionist works on creating tall vases to distinguish the sides of a scalloped carpet. The vases are filled with elegant underwater terrariums housing white turtles whose backs are flowers. The intricacy and grandness astound me.

Inside, my area is eerie unillusioned: heel scuffs mark the floor and window smudges dilute the sun. The ceiling is grand but empty and a removed chandelier has left remnants of metal.

The leftover metal is angled and strange. Trying to find inspiration, I illusion a mazework of pipes. A golden liquid flows from one chute to another. The smell of fuel burns. Spires sprout from the ceiling, striking into xylophone key ductwork. The liquid overflows, puddles onto the floor, and I see myself in it, hidden behind my illusionist mask.

This is not beautiful.

The door creaks. Panicked, my illusions crash and a flurry of feathers fall to the floor. The ballroom illusionist walks through. One of the feathers sticks to their shoe and they smile at me, impressed.

I try again, hiding the metal on the ceiling with a regular chandelier. Its lights unfurl as if attached to strings and a lacework of shadows adorns the floor. The lacework is blurry and boring, so I leave the feathers strewn. A piano plays itself.

As guests enter, they awe at the high ceiling, all the lights, but it isn’t long before they move into the ballroom and leave my illusioned hall unlingered.

I wish I made something more worth admiring. Feathers and lace and lights are safe because I know that people like them, but they’re unimpressive and make me feel amateur.

The party goes late into the night. To amuse myself, I open a gap in the piano hood and play with the mechanical world inside: brass spheres pull strings like rolling carts while tiny factory horses fold themselves into plates. I close the hood anytime anyone walks through.

At home, Luisa is surrounded by practice masks. The smells are unusual again: fumes of some kind. It isn’t displeasing; in fact, I like it.

And that is wrong.

I slump down onto my floor pillow, and my face squeezes into the frown that only happens when I try not to cry. Being an illusionist requires so much of my own soul, but my own soul likes wilted flowers and rusty metal pipes.

Outside, a strong wind blows, rattling a screen. Luisa purses her lips.

“You know, I don’t sell all my masks,” she says. “When I make masks that I don’t think will sell, I don’t sell them.”

“Okay?” I say.

She rolls her eyes. “I have something to show you.”

Luisa takes a practice mask from the floor and hangs it on the mannequin. Feathers pop out of the mannequin’s hair, and cracks forge in its dress. Gears churn.

I sit up.

“I was inspired by your swan,” she says.

The mannequin’s dress moves as if air comes from beneath it, and light shifts behind the gaps as if there is a whole factory inside.

“No one would ever buy that.” My voice breaks.

“Your swan was beautiful, Marva. I’m not the only one who would think so.”

I shake my head. She’s just saying that. She feels guilty that I’m sad.

“I’m being serious,” Luisa insists, frustrated.

Also frustrated, I keep shaking my head.


“Everything is easy for you,” I sputter.

Luisa gives me an incredulous look. “Easy?”

Words escape me, so I grab one of her other practice masks and replace the fluke mask that she made for my sake.

She panics. “That one isn’t done!”

The air takes on the smell of cinnamon and dried paper. A blanket wraps around the mannequin’s shoulders, and crinkled leaves float down. I’m about to say “Do you see?” when a tree branch tail swivels out from behind the mannequin, and little mushrooms pop out of its arms. One piece of the mannequin’s hair curls up.

Luisa and I both stare at it. Then, I stare at her. Her face is bright red.

“Luisa,” I say. “This is weird.”

A frog croaks. Its voice is drawn out and clacky.

Luisa looks at me pathetically. “I like it.”

I keep staring at her until she covers her face, groaning. My sister, master of beauty, likes funny mushrooms and wooden tails.

I reconsider the practice mask that she made for me. It is thin and papery. I rub my thumb over the cheek, imagining the leathery feel of a real mask. Soot stains come off onto my fingers.

“Will you make this for me?” I ask. “For real?”

“If you’ll wear it outside.”

“I’ll wear it outside when you wear that outside.”

“Fine,” she says.


Luisa pulls out her threads. She sews my mask and metal dust collects in her lap. Our front room fills with the sounds of clanking machines and moving presses.

While I wait, I illusion my sister’s frog: a small thing on a mushroom. Its stomach vibrates into its mouth and it holds the air there in a long, loud croak.

Jean Strickland received her BA in Writing from Loyola University Maryland, and her fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans and Strangelet Journal. She enjoys watching anime and convincing people to play games with her. Find her on her website or Twitter.