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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. An excellent place to bring an easily fascinated schoolgirl or a macabre auntie.
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Violet backed up, slipping her long fingers into her gloves, worrying at her crooked tooth with her tongue. 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.
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.
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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 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? 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.
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. Violet tiptoed behind me as I swept my arm at the coat.
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. I gulped my beer.
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It was the natural next step for her. 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. 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.
BENJAMIN A. HEYDRICK
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.
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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.
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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. 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. 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.
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.
Violet craned her neck, scanning the unknown faces around us. You can come away. Come be my roommate. Take a teaching course. Learn to type. Violet shook her head, worrying at that tooth. She stank of cigarette smoke. Not many visitors to the museum know how we acquired the coat. 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. The fae are very cunning creatures. Contrawise, they can be easily fooled, if you happen upon their blind spot.
Your best bet is to outwit them. Most faeries are bound to keep their promises, at least within their interpretation. Wording is everything. Depending on the ilk of faerie, you have other crafty options. Know your folklore, so you can identify what kind of faerie you face and what his weaknesses are. True Names. It is no mistake that stories like this abound in the lore. Knowing the true name of a faerie gives you absolute power over them.
The only problem is that faeries keep their names hidden. What we can learn from the lore, however, is that the fae can be proud or careless. Just stay alive long enough for them to slip up. Sandy and Jina run a secret society to hunt faeries.