The Deadliest Sin
All the Slav ladies had to have one. Whatever failings they hid inside their hearts, whatever they lacked beneath the bed sheets or beneath the slip, it was what was on the outside that mattered. Something to cover the fact that when your husband came in from the sea, oiled and soiled, beery and brined, he often didn’t know which fork to use or to use one at all. And the rub (beyond the stubbly beard) was that his work made it possible for you to wear something that let you act as if you were married to a man with fingernails as clean and translucent as washed moons.
A fur coat showed your family was doing well, that when your husband came into port his boat sat low in the water, swaying back and forth like a duck with a belly full of fish. A fur coat put distance between you and what the neighbors whispered about you when your back was turned, that you were “off the boat,” though almost everyone was off the boat if you went back far enough. A fur coat let you stroll into church on Sundays, walk down the center aisle—that holiest of catwalks—and join in the procession of the forest, all the furry creatures; the foxes and minks and chinchillas, the long swath of carpet to the altar colored blood red, as if the creatures had been gutted right there, turned into fashion, and quickly donned.
The most coveted furs came from farms far away, where the cold, cold weather caused animals to grow thick, plush fur. Some furs covered from head to toe, from foot to chin. (So you can’t tell if she’s fat or thin, your father said). Some wrapped around the shoulders, a mink’s furry arms circling around a lady’s neck, its face alert. The black, shiny eyes never closed.
But your mother didn’t own one. What she had was a blue raincoat, practical, useful given the Northwest’s constant rain, but not a coat to envy. Every Sunday she watched as the other ladies walked into church, their eyes slightly downcast, their noses slightly lifted, with their dutiful husbands walking a step behind. (Who screw everybody all week long and on Monday start all over again, the hypocrites, he said. He wouldn’t set foot in the church.)
At dinner, she would tell him about the Sunday procession in detail: how grand Mrs. Yancich looked, how Mrs. Sevenich shined, how Mrs. Mardesich stole the show in her mink stole. He tried to argue, in this weather furs get soggy and heavy and wet, what she needed was a new raincoat, go ahead, why didn’t she look at the catalogue and see. But he noticed how she just grew silent and looked away.
That night he promised himself he’d do them one better, the bastards. He’d get your mother a fur no one else possessed. Better than mink, better than fox. He’d get the seal skins himself, on his next trip to Alaska. Then he’d bring the pelts down to a furrier in the city who would make a coat that put the others to shame. Light brown, shiny pelts that would glow no matter which way you stroked the fur.
Winter turned to spring though the gray skies remained. He’d been away a long time. The Bering Sea was rough but full of salmon, the boat’s hull packed with pinks and reds. One night he called on ship to shore to say he’d be coming home soon.
When he returned, he walked in the house carrying a large, white box, placed it on the dining table, then stood in the hallway, out of sight, when she returned from grocery shopping. He watched as she opened the box, watched as she slipped the coat around her shoulders, saw her twirl in front of the mirror, her eyes wet and shining.
All week she waited, hoping the weather would turn colder. When Sunday came your mother leapt out of bed, drew back the curtains, saw that once again it was raining, a soft spring rain, a warm rain. As she dressed for church she yelled to you and your sisters to hurry. You yawned and dawdled and wanted to stay in bed, to burrow underneath the covers where the warmth from your slumber still remained.
When everyone was finally ready to go, your mother went to her closet and took down the coat box, removed the fur coat, gazed again at the dark rich pelts, softer than any other, richer than any other, deeper in color, and heavier too, for seals grew the thickest pelts to withstand the cold Arctic seas.
She walked down the center aisle, slowly, regally, you and your sisters in tow, walked with her head held high, as the nuns sang in the choir loft. Those penguins, your father would say if he were there. She felt the Slav ladies’ hot stares, muffled a laugh as she took her place in the pew. It was warm inside the church—the priest must have finally turned on the heat, the cheapskate—but she kept the coat on.
The sermon that day was on the seven deadly sins. The priest started with greed, how certain families in the parish weren’t tithing enough (was he looking straight at her?), how having more possessions didn’t matter in God’s eyes. He took his time with greed and went on and on with sloth. As he went on to the next sin, and the next, she started counting down. He’d gone over three of the deadliest, now four. He was taking his time. The first bead of sweat coursed down her breastbone, followed by another, then another. Sweat was streaming down now. Your mother knew that if she took off the coat dark wet moons would show under her arms. It was warm now, so warm. Why didn’t the priest turn the heat down if he was so concerned about money? That would save the church a bundle. Your sisters, usually so fidgety, grew sleepy, very sleepy, and leaned against her, one on one side, one on the other. They snuggled up into the coat. Like seal pups they burrowed into her, as if they were all floating together on the sea.
Pride. The priest was stuck on pride. To hell, that’s where pride led, he said. To hell. She stopped listening, she was burning up. Her face turned red, red as the carpet, red as the blood of His wounds, up there on the cross. She heard the Slav ladies tittering, could hear them snicker. The coat was like a thick second skin but isn’t that what your father said she needed? What you need is a thicker skin. Why do you care what those old bats think anyway?
At the last amen, she roused you from your sleep and walked quickly for the door, you and your sisters like tired pups trailing behind. But not fast enough to escape the ladies who scurried to meet her. “A new coat? Where did you find such a heavy fur?” asked Mrs. Sevenich. “I’ve never seen anything like that in the stores,” said Mrs. Mardesich. “Such an unusual cut. What fur might that be?”
She didn’t stop to answer. She just kept walking. She walked out into the rain, falling harder now, coming down in sheets, in buckets. The skies opened up and released a torrent. She looked down at her sleeve, noticed how the raindrops did not penetrate the fur. The drops beaded up and ran off the coat just like water washes off a seal’s back.
She stopped walking, turned slowly around and smiled. There they were, the Slav ladies standing in a circle, drenched, dripping like wet dogs, staring at her. With envy. They were staring at her with envy. The deadliest sin of all.
TONI MIROSEVICH is the author of six collections of poetry and prose. Her collection of linked stories Spell Heaven is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. New writings can be found at Catapult.com. She is a Professor Emeritus in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Visit her at http://www.tonimirosevich.com/.