Incendiary Clothing from the Consignment Shop of Horrors

"Brocade," a story by Naomi J. Williams

Incendiary Clothing from the Consignment Shop of Horrors


It will take investigators only two weeks to trace the fire’s origin to your backyard. They will find no trace of you.

It all started with a rich girl. Her family’s wealth had provided her many fine things but not, alas, common sense. It had spared her many troubles but not the pain of unrequited love. It did not, in the end, confer long life. Or even a medium-length one.

After her death, her parents were surprised to learn that she’d withdrawn from college. And that she’d spent the last tuition check they sent her on a custom-made brocade coat. The coat resembled a black and gold jacquard blazer belonging to a boy she hopelessly loved. The girl’s housemates suspected—and told her—that the boy didn’t really like girls that way. On the last night of her life she’d worn her bespoke coat to a party, where the boy pointedly ignored her. She left the party and went to bed, where her heart literally broke. This shocked everyone, given her youth and apparent health. Her parents were also surprised to learn that she’d carefully hung the coat in her closet before lying down. She’d always been so untidy.

You didn’t know the girl. You learn her story because she left behind a walk-in closet’s worth of beautiful clothes and accessories, and a friend of the girl’s mother delivered it all to the high-end consignment shop where you’ve worked for six years. You’ve listened while the woman related the sad details to your boss, the shop’s elegant owner.

“Oh, how tragic,” your boss says in her gracious, measured way.

“Yes,” says the woman. “Devastating.” She will collect 40% of the proceeds from the sale of the dead girl’s things. You wonder if the girl’s family will ever see that money. Perhaps they are so sad and so rich that they do not care.

Meanwhile you inventory, price, tag, and set out each new item, the dead girl’s things. The coat, with its mannish cut and astonishing fabric, gold roses subtly hand-woven into black silk, goes in the window, on the mannequin that models the shop’s priciest wares. But first you try it on, surreptitiously, in the back room. Even with the staff discount you could never afford it. Also, it doesn’t suit your short, lumpy frame. You look like a child playing dress-up.

Every morning, before you unlock the shop door, you take a moment to look up into the window and acknowledge the coat. You’re not sure why you do this. But one day, you come in and it’s gone. The shop owner can’t remember who she sold it to. “Maybe you can find something new for our mannequin?” she says. She always assigns you tasks by saying “Maybe.” Maybe you could deposit this at the bank during your lunch hour. Maybe you could take these to Goodwill on your way home.

You’re minding the shop alone when the coat returns. A sour-faced young woman brings it in. “My mom bought this here last month,” she says.

“Did it not work out for her?” you ask.

You’re ready to recite the store’s no-refund policy, but she says, “She died the day after she wore it.”

“Oh God, I’m sorry,” you say, and you are, because you’ve mistaken grief for petulance.

“You might have heard about it on the news,” the young woman continues, and indeed, you have. Her mother was a state senator running for re-election and had mysteriously died after a campaign event. You now learn that she’d worn the coat at the event.

When you tell the owner about the coat and the dead senator, her eyes widen. “How morbid,” she says. When you ask if she still wants to sell it, she says placidly, “But of course. It’s just a coat.”

You re-inventory the item. You raise the price. You write on the tag, “Not just a coat!” You don’t display it in the window or on a mannequin. You tell one prospective buyer, “It’s not a very slimming style.” But someone buys it on your day off, and you’ve nearly forgotten about it when it turns up, again.

This time you don’t mistake grief for sulking. You don’t ask. You don’t want to know. But she tells you anyway: Her sister, an aspiring actress and model, had bought the coat for a photo shoot. The woman insists on showing you a picture. Indeed, the deceased looked very glamorous in the coat.

“I’m so sorry,” you say, and you know: you’ve offered your condolences over this infernal garment for the last time.

Your boss is away at her seaside vacation home. By the time she’s allowed back, her shop will have burned up along with most of the town. She, like everyone who knows you, will be shocked to learn that the fire began behind your house in the town’s wooded outskirts. About your disappearance, she will say, in her earnest, even way, “How sad.”

She will not know, of course, that you took the coat home with you that day. That you tossed it in the firepit in your yard. That match after match smoldered and died on the lustrous fabric without catching. That you would finally resort to lighter fluid. That the flames that erupt into the clear hot sky will be the most gratifying sight of your life. That you will watch with unsurprised horror when a piece of the garment—part of a sleeve, maybe—rises over the altar, aflame, lightly touching down, anointing one drought-stricken tree after another before floating on toward town. That you won’t know what to do: run inside to call for help, jump in your car and speed away, dash up the street to alert the nearest neighbor—or walk into the wild, blazing tapestry before you. You’ll stand there wondering and wondering until another fragment of burning brocade flies up in the air and compels you to move.

a retelling of Lafcadio Hearn, “Furisode”

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