gray girls 4

When the man in the violet coat was a child, his father would take him in the summers to live in the clouds. His father, as a young man, had helped his own father build a small cottage on a mostly barren, uninhabited stretch of land atop a mountain.

“You see that, son,” his father said when they stepped out in the morning to make their daily trek down the mountain to a nearby well where they drew water for bathing and drinking and cooking, “that right there is our cloud.”

In a lot of ways, the mountaintop looked like a bunch of nothing—being up there was no different than being down in the village, except it was harder to breathe, except a person could get dizzy just from looking out into the open nothing that that was everywhere, except a person could feel insignificant just by virtue of continuing to exist.

“We’re safe here,” his father told him. “It’s just us boys here.”

“What about Mom?”

“What about her?”

His father was a boy. He drank until it was only funny to him. He flung his empty bottles at his wife like she was a wall and she was a wall, how she stood there and did not flinch or protest or try to flee. She was as indifferent as a human being could be to everyone else’s horrors. While everyone else was whining and moaning, she just stood there in her violet trench coat that had been her father’s and that—so she claimed—had once been the color of sand. As a young girl, the story went, she spent a week crushing violets and lilacs into the coat to make it the color of spring mornings. When her father found out, he slapped her across the cheek, leaving a purple bruise that kept expanding until it was a petal covering the entire right side of her face. After that, the coat belonged to her, and she wore it like a full-bodied talisman, the hem so long that it grazed the ground and had to be patched many times.

As a child, the man used to hide inside his mother’s coat of violets. Each time he lifted the back of the coat to climb inside and wrap his little hands around her knees for balance, the fragrance of her childhood enveloped him, like a shell that still rings of the sea when you hold it up to your ear. Now the coat was his.

The girls were upon him now. A small, strange beam of moonlight grazed the face of the smallest, who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, but had what appeared to be fresh, red claw marks slashed across her cheeks.

“Please,” he said.

Pleeeeease,” one of the girls repeated in a grossly mocking, high-pitched tone.

“Please,” another girl said with such casual disgust that it was clear no one—certainly not the man—would be using that word again.