Cliona’s Coat

THE OLD WOMAN SITS NIGHTS on the porch of Marcel’s bar in Le Havre, on the side facing the waves, wearing a fur coat. Her fingers are gnarled mangrove roots around a glass of something thick and amber that Old Marcel refills for her without being asked, and without ever asking to be paid. Each night’s coat is different: a cumulus of white and gray rabbit pelt; a fox-fur stole old enough to have been looted from a headless aristocrat; a jacket lined with a high wolf trim; supple mink sewed together, so the faces and claws still show they were beasts before they were evening wear. She wears them all with equal restless dissatisfaction.

Sometimes, when the old woman’s mood is light, Marcel can coax her to sing for the patrons. Her voice shakes, and she has never lost the accent of a rocky island far to the north, but she still kisses life into the jazz they played in Paris before the tanks rolled in- not the disco the children like now- and to the somber songs after the peace.

The patrons sing along to the old Trénet that passes heavy and melancholy through the old woman’s lips: the argent waves, the clear gulfs, the heart that is rocked for a life by the sea. She sings this one more often than any other, and everyone knows the words. Sometimes, newcomers who know she speaks English ask for the version in that language, where there is a lover instead of just the waves. Those nights she goes back onto the terrace with the spray and the cold north wind, and neither shouts nor pleading will draw her back.

From time to time, a student or journalist comes to Marcel’s and asks for her by name, prospecting for history. The old woman receives them like a hermit blessing pilgrims but sends them away empty-handed. No articles are published.

Secrets, the patrons whisper into wine. What is she guarding?

Not one of the patrons has ever seen the old woman eat.

Sometimes they complain to Marcel that the old woman drinks for free, and Marcel leans over the table and shows the patrons the antique murder under his sagging eyebrows. “She fought for the Resistance,” the old man says. His hands are not soft. They do not quake. None of the patrons know how many men, how many women, Marcel has killed, only that the number is not zero. “What did you do, eh?” Time has ground Marcel’s voice sharp. The patrons agree they will pay for their own drinks, and some for the old woman as well, because they are not too drunk to be afraid.

When Marcel is gone, they whisper: “Is she even real?”

When the bar empties and the chairs on the tables are crenelated towers, Marcel limps out to the old woman. He draws a seat and, together, they meditate before the surf.

“What a life!” he says, because that is the ritual. He cradles an unlit cigarette with his lips. Saltwater glitters in the cracks on the old woman’s cheeks.

Marcel would cup her hands, kiss the creases of her fingers, and lead her gently to the room he keeps above the bar as if they were still young, but he knows better than to salt an open hurt. Tomorrow, he will buy fresh fish for her again, and with love in his eyes, he will watch her devour them raw.

Tonight she tells the story again, though Marcel could recite it himself now. “Damn him,” she says. “Damn him. I thought I hid the coat so well, but naked I came out of the ocean, and there he was, standing like he’s proud of himself, demanding I be his wife. As if I’ll love him because he has a hostage, because I can’t go home. I looked for it.” She draws the sharp edge of her hand against wet eyes. “I looked so hard, all those years. When I left he was heartbroken- the bastard- like it was me who betrayed him! Like I should want nothing but a linen dress and his kitchen.”

“Think,” Marcel whispers, “of the adventures you would have missed…”

“I’m not sorry I left him,” she says, resolute and vicious.

Marcel knows there was a trip she never speaks of, back across the channel to a bombed house and a grave where someone had chiseled “beloved husband” into mossy stone; to chests torn open and emptied to the spiders. She is quiet, except for the slosh of her drink.

The waves roll and Marcel cannot see the dark shapes moving in beneath that darkness, cannot see black eyes that should be dull and animal but instead shine brighter than any human’s. He imagines them, but he has only ever seen their shape in the lacuna of the old woman’s scars.

Tonight, she slams back the drink and hugs the fur around her, restless and dissatisfied. She watches the sullen roll of the sea.

Tonight, Marcel kisses the bottle, refills her drink, and stands to leave her to memories. He will not press, but should she surface on her own, he will offer his hand.

Tonight, for the first time, her fingers loosen from the glass and reach across the cold air for his. Tonight a soft sable shawl slides discarded to the floor.

There is no replacement for a lost coat, but tonight, maybe, this will be enough.