Trembling with fear, he was much more like a bird than a man. And now he felt a sudden warmth between his legs. The girls observed him. Their eyes were stones.
One of them, sucking her top lip and smiling, suddenly burst out laughing. “Bett, he’s taking your advice. Look, he’s pissed himself. Fucker.”
“Has he.” The other leaned in close to him. Her pocked skin was like the surface of a cruel planet.
“You can be so damn mean,” said one of the others.
“Mary Kelly, since when are you so SENSITIVE,” another yelled out. But she wasn’t looking at him—her face, distrustful, was turned toward the sky. When she glanced back down, her sisters were advancing.
His legs were flailing. The violet coat was glittering. The littlest one bared her milk teeth. As she lowered herself over him, his whole body shook with a fear that started from the top of his spine. But then, she and the other girls shrank back.
A dusky powder filled the air in front of his eyes. It seemed to be rising from him. It smelled of dead flowers. A fog gathered between him and his hunters. He felt the now-ancient protection of his mother around him, and realized he could hardly see them now through the haze. One of them sneezed.
The man dug his heels into the dirt and pushed hard, back and away from them. But they clamored through the dust. The girl with the bland, round face coughed and shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?!”
With a new fury, they were on him again with their feline claws, tearing at the coat, trying to get to the fleshy parts under his arms, and his throat. His mind went blank with terror.
The coat was in pieces, but he lay there unscathed. Somehow the delicate fabric had been as tough as armor against their assaults. The girls stood over him panting, exhausted.
“What are we even doing wasting ourselves on this loser?” the doughy one asked. “What would Mom say?”
“Yeah, we lost the handsome one,” said the baby with the sharp, tiny teeth.
“Forget this fucker, we want that one,” retorted the one who had screamed when she first spotted him. Her eyes were already scanning the woods.
“But we can’t just leave him! What would Dad say?” asked another.
“We only wanted the coat,” said one as she looked over him—his pants wet, coat in tatters—like he was an insect under a lens.
The man, realizing they no longer wanted him, whispered in desperation. “That man, he went over the stream. I saw it.”
“You’re not lying?” asked the one with the raisin eyes.
“Why would I lie? If you can’t find him, you can just come back and kill me.”
The creatures seemed to murmur their approval at this. They shuffled their feet in the dirt. The little one put her terrible face right next to his. It took all his life force not to wince and turn away. He didn’t want to make them angry, and he feared that he had drained the powers of the coat.
She took his hand in hers and raised it to her mouth. She licked the surface of his palm carefully, the way the way a cat might lap up its dinner. Her saliva burned. The others looked on and nodded. Then somewhere in the distance, a twig snapped. Their eyes lit up.
A cloud moved across the sky, darkening the clearing. One of them let out a low moan, and their legs leapt over him as they sprinted back into the forest. The man was forgotten where he lay. He felt again the cold wet between his legs. His face fell into the shreds of his mother’s coat, and he breathed in violets.
The Gray Girls may have loved Mother more, but they would not come home to Dad empty handed. It was a matter of pride—it was what she had taught them. Jenny led the pack of them, quick and slight as sewing needles, into the night. ♦