“I’ll never understand why some people go out of their way to kiss death,” Violet said, the second night I knew her. As she spoke, the presence of the Emerald Coat in the museum behind us crawled down my neck.
• • • •
I met Violet for the first time when she tiptoed through the museum door in her gray schoolteacher’s dress, trailing the smell of autumn leaves into the antechamber. She pulled her faux-kid gloves off finger by finger as she craned her neck around the mahogany-paneled room. Then her eyes fell on me, sitting at the podium that bars the door leading to the exhibits.
“Excuse me, do you know the way to the Bethnal Green Tube stop?”
I told her it was right round the corner, and she laughed, showing white teeth, almost straight, with one canine cocked to the side. “Thanks. I just moved into a flat on this street, and I’m afraid I have a pretty terrible sense of direction.”
I nodded curtly. I suspected she hadn’t come to the museum to purchase a ticket to see the coat: She smelled of the sun and her teeth gleamed too white. She said: “I’m Violet Kenting. I just moved in across the street, and I’ve never—what is this place?”
“It’s the Emerald Coat Museum.”
Violet raised her eyebrows, blank.
I recited the explanation that I memorized when I was a child, the rote speech that Da taught first to Josephine, then to me: The museum is a catalogue of death-related items, from poison collections to human teeth. The Emerald Coat is the capstone exhibit: a coat that’s said to bring the wearer beyond the veil to another realm from which he or she can never return. A perfect attraction to visit on All Hallows’ Eve. An excellent place to bring an easily fascinated schoolgirl or a macabre auntie.
A place where I’ve sat my whole life, the gatekeeper, waiting to put on the coat.
Violet backed up, slipping her long fingers into her gloves, worrying at her crooked tooth with her tongue. “Ah, I see, um, well then, thank you for the directions.” She retreated out of the museum like the sun retreating behind a cloud.
So she certainly wasn’t one of them, I decided, one of those visitors that flock to the museum every year, longing for the scent of danger, wondering if they might allow the Emerald Coat to tempt them, caress them, take them away, forever.
• • • •
When my sister Josephine and I were children, specifically the summer I was six and she was nine, we crept every night into the washroom tucked in the back corner of our flat above the museum. The chipped-corner tiles would dig into my bare feet and I would hold tight onto Josephine’s hand because in that washroom at night without the lamps switched on, the dark seemed more luminous than bright, and the shadows popped and grew teeth. Josephine and I would stand before the mirror and together we would turn around three times, marionettes that operated our own strings, and whisper Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, performing that old nursery story about how children can summon the ghost of Mary Tudor to their washrooms on summer nights when shadows come alive.
Bloody Mary never appeared to us, but we smelled her, the scent of a ghost: dirt and sulfurous street lights.
Why do some children stand in bathrooms inhaling the scents of ghosts of their own calling, while other children run shrieking into the sunlight away from the dark?
Why would a teenage girl remain in the chapel after other mourners have fled, walk up the aisle like a bride in black, lift the lid on her sister’s coffin to see how her hands looked silent and embalmed, folded over the white of her nurse’s uniform, hands that had once clapped to summon a ghost, years ago?
Why do some people visit our museum and proceed past the antechamber to the room where the Emerald Coat hangs and reach up to snatch it off its hanger?
I don’t know, Violet, and if you don’t feel it, then stay in your world of light.
• • • •
Violet was only one in a long line of hundreds when she returned to the museum, wearing the same dress and a determined little frown, asking to see our exhibits after all. My eyebrows rose as I accepted her pounds and handed her a ticket. That time, I noticed other details besides her straight teeth and prim dress: the slight slump of her shoulders, the stains on her gloves. I had misjudged her and her lightness.
I hefted open the wooden door and led her into the hall filled with an exhibit designed by Mum: She called it the Map of the Garden of Death. In that exhibit, a series of panels looms overhead, lit from behind by glowing globes, depicting skeletons wearing jewel-tone dresses preparing for a cotillion, and snakes and butterflies twining through the eye sockets of skulls. Violet squinted at the lit panels and followed me into the main hall, decorated deliberately by Mum and Da with black velvet cases lit by cold silver lights, filled with teeth from various animals, silver medical instruments, pearls and maps of the edges of oceans.
I didn’t tell Violet that it’s all fake. The luminous death-garden, the cases full of ephemera . . . Mum and Da only placed them there for effect, to usher the visitor forward to the main attraction: the Emerald Coat.
A long garment, reaching the ankles of most people who try it on, made of a silk thicker than most silk, overlaid with tulle and capped on the sleeves with silver epaulettes and trimmed with thin silver buttons that are long and thin and shaped like twigs. It dangles in our museum on a thin silver hanger, lit from behind, popping against black velvet. I’ve always been able to hear it breathing, with breaths as soft as a moth’s wings.
Violet tiptoed behind me as I swept my arm at the coat. “This is the Emerald Coat, said to kill its wearers by taking them to another realm.”
“Oh please.” Violet’s voice was small, swallowed by the velveted room. “It’s a pretty coat, and a silly story.”
“Of course,” I said. “But we must make a living somehow.”
Violet nodded. The coat shimmered and shifted and its rich greens played over the skin on her arms as she backed up, slowly, heading for the door to the outside world but not taking her eyes off the coat even once.
• • • •
“Mum and Da died years ago, and my sister died in the war. She was a nurse,” I explained to Violet, as we drank at Ten Bells later that week, Violet with a napkin spread underneath her dress and me sprawled out on a bench not caring about the sweaty smell rising from the upholstery beneath me. I gulped my beer. “Malaria. Malta.”
“It’s awful.” Violet sipped her own drink, cheap wine. “I’m dreadfully sorry. You know, I think it was terribly brave and selfless of your sister to—”
“I don’t think it was brave and selfless at all.”
Violet’s tongue touched her tooth again. “You mean she wanted glory and all that?”
“No, I . . .” Green emerald silk fluttered through my mind. “I think she wanted to kiss death, as you put it.”
“We spent our whole lives up until the war selling tickets to a coat that brings its wearers to another realm from which they can never return. It was the natural next step for her.”
“But it’s just a story.” The alcohol stuck Violet’s words together. “A silly story, for tourists.”
“You know, Jack the Ripper frequented this pub.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Do you think it’s just a silly story?”
• • • •
I didn’t tell Violet that Josephine wasn’t the only daughter of our family to flee to Malta. We boarded the ship together at Portsmouth Harbor, watched England fade to white, steamed south to another island overflowing with color and fecundity. The other ship that left the harbor that day met a German torpedo before it even rounded Gibraltar. When Josephine fell ill in the barracks, I wiped her forehead, lay awake beside her watching the feverish stars move overhead. I never contracted malaria. When my sister kissed death, shoved her way to another realm that I still don’t know or understand, I was left alone in the bright Malta heat, alive, alive, so very alive.
• • • •
When I was seven, I saw a woman try on the coat for the first time.
She was a Mayfair girl, all ermine and wool and sinuous diamonds on her hands. She must have been younger then than I am now, but at the time I thought her ageless, someone who had stepped over the border into womanhood and beyond what I could imagine. She visited the museum with her governess and her younger twin brothers, and the governess clucked and shook her head and murmured about how first it was giggling over Ouija boards and next it was journeying all the way beyond the East End to visit this horrid museum.
The Mayfair girl ignored her governess. Her hands trembled and she resembled a lacy flower about to perish in the first winter frost. She crossed the room, looped the coat off the hanger. I think her governess must have shouted, but all I could hear was the rustle of silk as the girl dropped her ermine to the ground and slipped the silk coat first onto one arm, then the other, then hefted it so it fluttered against her back. The coat was too long for her, and its hem trailed against the ground.
Hands fell against my shoulders: Josephine had materialized behind me, and she squeezed tight. The Mayfair girl stood before us, her hands trembling, glowing in the light of the Emerald Coat, frozen like a painting.
Then she sighed, and her eyes unfocused, and her hands scrabbled against the fabric of the coat over her ribs. She convulsed, her chest heaving, and she fell to her knees. Her fingers, her toes, her ears, dissolved into heavy cold mist. She screamed or sang a final note before all that remained of her was a puff of fog, drifting out of the crumpled Emerald Coat like steam rising from a subway grate, and then that was gone too.
People who don’t want to believe it don’t have to. The coat takes care of that. As far as the governess knows, the Mayfair girl left the museum and promptly tumbled beneath the wheels of a motorcar in the street outside.
But I’ve always believed, and as I watched the girl disintegrate into steam, Josephine whispered moist in my ear, “Get ready, Alex. That will be our fate someday.”
• • • •
Violet insisted that I accompany her to the opera, one autumn evening. On the walk from the Tube station, I crossed the street against the light, lunging in front of a hurtling motorcar. It didn’t hit me. They never do. We snuck into the gilded lobby at intermission, and my memories of sneaking into the washroom to summon Bloody Mary with Josephine tugged at me.
I had never attended the opera before, and we sat in a cavernous cold theater, the world opening up on stage, where a woman wore red and let her music shake the room around us. Part of me felt the same way I feel when I run the coat through my fingers, but something else welled inside me too: possibility. Possibility ran through the music, instead of a finite end.
After the performance, Violet and I joined the crush of people swarming the lobby. Trapped against a curved eggshell-colored wall as we pushed our way down the stairs, I noticed a wainscot panel, carved with an intricate geometric pattern of sharp angles and shapes. Someone took the time to carve and create this, to make this smallest portion of the world notable. Someone took the time to create so much of the world. Perhaps I’d like to see more of it.
Violet craned her neck, scanning the unknown faces around us. “I look for him,” she whispered. “Whenever I’m in a crowd, I can’t help myself.”
“I should get back to the museum.” I didn’t know who Violet was talking about, and the melancholy in her whisper made my skin crawl, dimmed the wonder of the music and the carved panel.
Violet’s luminous eyes focused on me. “It doesn’t have to be like this, Alex.” She held out her hands, lined differently than Josephine’s but still, how long had it been since a woman reached out her hands to me, comforting? “You don’t have to put on that coat. You can come away. Come be my roommate. Take a teaching course. Learn to type. You—”
“I was born for it. It’s the endgame.”
“Perhaps. But I don’t see why it has to be. Just because it’s there? Just because it’s—”
“Because I dream of it every night. Because my entire family has kissed death, as you so aptly put it, and—”
“Just your sister.”
“What do you think happened to Mum and Da?”
Violet shook her head, worrying at that tooth. She stank of cigarette smoke. “Even so, Alex, you can come away . . .”
“You don’t understand. It’s inevitable.”
“Then tell me this.” Violet’s eyes locked onto mine. “What are you waiting for?”
• • • •
Not many visitors to the museum know how we acquired the coat. Many of them probably assume that we sewed it ourselves, but in reality, the coat came to our family more than a hundred years ago, when my great-grandfather on my mother’s side hiked into a forest glade behind the crumbling wall of an abandoned castle, and found the coat hanging between two pine boughs, glowing against the dark trees around it. Its emerald color had not yet been invented by clothing manufacturers and wouldn’t be for another twenty years. Its silver buttons were intricately wrought, beyond the skill of any metalworker in the village.
My great-grandfather brought the coat home and asked his daughter, who was learning letters at school, to write down his observations about it. It smelled like home to him. Its fabric appeared soft, comfortable, like something a Dublin lady would wear in her boudoir. He thought it would probably look best on a taller, slender woman, with dark hair and heavy eyebrows. At the thought of trying on the coat, his breath caught in his chest.
My great-grandfather lasted three and a half days before he shrugged into the coat and disappeared forever.
• • • •
And here’s the truth. I’m tall, and I’ve never needed a corset. My hair is long and thick and dark and my brows lie heavy above my eyes. I’ve spent my whole life sitting in the antechamber of this museum, on a straight-backed chair, selling tickets to hordes of curiosity-seekers, spiritualists, priests and madmen and little girls, watching them step into our carefully designed museum to gaze upon the fabled Emerald Coat. Some of them laugh breathless behind their hands. Some of them ask if they can photograph it with their Kodaks or Brownies. Others scoff.
And some of them cross the room, reach trembling fingers forward, stroke the silk, run the tulle between forefinger and thumb.
Still others take the coat off its hanger and shrug into it.
I’ve watched Mum and Da and Josephine shrug into the coat, in one way or another. And I’ve envied them. They took the leap.
I’ve run the silk through my fingers. The coat has slipped through my dreams.
But in my waking hours I’ve never even taken it off the hanger.
What are you waiting for? Violet asked.
What happens to the coat’s true owner when she finally succumbs and puts it on?
• • • •
Violet looped her arm through mine, and together we traversed the hall of illuminated skeletons and stepped into the main exhibit hall. She dropped my arm and stepped forward, stopping in the middle of the room so she was backlit by the glow of the coat.
“He used to love puppet shows,” she said, in a flat voice. “You know, the sort of puppet shows you see in Covent Garden? But he left, like they all did, like you and your sister did, and when he came back, he said he hated them. He couldn’t stand the sight of a puppet. He called them frivolous.”
She fiddled with her left ring finger, and not for the first time I noticed that a ring-shaped band around the base of the finger was lighter than the rest of her skin.
“I bothered him about it, Alex. I bothered him until he went away, because he didn’t love puppets anymore. What a foolish thing to do. Isn’t that a foolish thing to do?”
She cut me off with a look, stepped forward, raised her arm as though about to run her fingers over the coat.
“I’ve been dreaming about it,” she said. “The coat, I mean. You know it’s hanging here, you know it’s poison, you know it will kill you, but still, you can’t stop thinking about it, drawn back to it like you’re lost on a city street and keep ending up at the same corner, no matter how much you try to find the place you’re looking for.”
• • • •
I was tired of ending up on the same street corner. I was tired of waiting in the gloaming, the gatekeeper, dreading and longing for the day when I finally tried to follow Josephine into the dark.
It doesn’t have to be like this. I packed a bookbag: carved cameos of my family, a small stack of books, face powder, and sturdy boots. I raced downstairs from the shabby apartment where I’d lived my whole life. I crossed the antechamber just as the front door of the museum flew open and there stood Violet, her face drawn, her gloves off, her tongue twitching against her tooth.
“Let’s go,” I said, and I pressed my lips against hers, because maybe I loved her, or maybe she was a replacement for the sister who died of malaria raving about an Emerald Coat on a battlefield in the sun, but did it matter? I chose her life, her world, her typing courses and Tube stations, her carved panels and theaters full of song.
Violet pulled back, wiped her mouth, not looking at me, and charged around the admission desk, heading for the main exhibit hall. She had that determined cant in her step, the kind of step that took Josephine onto the ship, that took Mum and Da and the Mayfair girl out of the shadows and into the dark.
I had seen that step before. And I couldn’t stop her. I didn’t stop her. She leapt across the room in her gray flannel, already lost to me, and when she snatched the coat off the hanger and the fabric licked her frayed stockings and her eyes rolled back in her head, I inhaled the scent of ghosts in the washroom. I thought she was laughing as she swirled away, or maybe screaming. I didn’t know; I had never tried on the coat.
But I knew then that there’s no safe place beyond, outside the dusk, outside the antechamber. They all ended up at the coat eventually, even Violet, who smelled of sunlight, who once wondered why anyone would ever want to kiss death.
There is no escape.
My hands trembled as I advanced on the coat. It fluttered, exhaled a little breath. I imagined it licking its lips.
I scooped it off the floor. It trailed over my fingers, the silk cool.
I was born for this.
But what exactly does that mean?
What does it mean to be a gatekeeper to death? What does it mean when a death-coat is your birthright? What does it mean when you and your sister steam to Malta and only one of you comes home, when a motorcar has never struck you as you fling yourself across the street?
What are you waiting for? Violet asked. She was nothing but the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, but if I could, I would answer her with another question:
If everyone you ever loved stepped away from you, drawn into the dark, almost as if you sent them there, wouldn’t you wonder: Am I even capable of following them? Would you hasten to answer that question?
I cradled the coat, my coat, my hands glowing in its light. Do I care about kissing death, succumbing to the embrace that we’re all born for? Am I in love with death, or am I in love with them: Mum, Da, Josephine, Violet, all beyond the veil now, all far past me in a place that I might never, ever . . .
I thrust the coat away from me, looped it around the silver hanger, placed it back in the cabinet, closed the glass doors. I retreated to the antechamber, to the early dark falling outside the mullioned windows. I settled on my chair, teetering on its edge, and I folded my hands on the desk in front of me. I stared at the door, waiting for my next customer, waiting for the day when I will run away from this place forever, or waiting for the day when I will finally slip into the emerald’s embrace.
I’m waiting here still.
Spread the word!