Coat of Many Colors

Shauna Friesen


Little brother dies on Easter.


Mother tells you he turned blue in his sleep, and you picture him over-soaked in indigo, cobalt as glass-cleaner.



Little brother was born with half of a heart.

You wondered every time you looked at him, if he could feel the space where the other half should have been, an aching gape in his chest the size of a key-lime or a chickadee. You wondered if he would slosh with leaked blood like the neighbor-girl’s waterbed if you shook him.

You made yourself sick with your wonder.

You liked best to play with him through the slats of his crib, the bars your cage and not his.



On the day of his funeral mother asks you this: “Is there something of his you’d like to bring for him?”

No task has ever felt so important as finding his most treasured possession in all the world, but you can only point at your feet. “I have shoes on. I’m not allowed to walk on the carpet with shoes on.”

You are not allowed to do a great many things, such a great many you try to keep everything you do a secret, playing in caverns made of throw blankets or in your closet with doors rolled over the entrance like a Jesus-tomb.

“It’s alright. You can leave them on. Just for today,” mother tells you.

In the nursery you crawl on your hands and knees with your ankles in the air as you search, flinging open bureau drawers, spelunking under his bed, excavating the closet. You hold a pacifier. A teddy. A tube sock. Nothing is quite right. Mother is calling for you to hurry.



Before today you have never seen a dead person.

Only bugs, mashed ants, daisy-plucked daddy long legs, ladybugs pressed like calculator buttons.



Aunt holds you up off the ground so you can see him and you understand right away why everyone is crying. Little brother looks thirsty and no one is giving him any water. Little brother looks so wasp-nest dry you wonder if he will crumble if touched. You think he might need to molt like a cicada, wriggle out moth-marinade wet and prism-translucent and humming from his ashy outer layer. You want to dunk him into the baptistery, coat him in the vaseline mother gels on your winter-chapped elbows. You wish you had chosen to bring a canister of petroleum jelly.



At the cemetery you are given one tulip to place on his casket.

One is not enough.

One is never enough of anything beautiful, anything you like. You cannot help but ask aloud for another. You want to snatch tulips from cousins’ hands when you are denied, tackle older brother for his.



A brass-knocker heaviness settles over your house in the weeks after. Weights are tied to mother and father and older brother’s necks and wrists and ankles that scrape across the floor when they walk. No one turns on the television. No one puts cassettes in the player. No one says anything at all and you can’t stand the silence so you ask it over and over until mother is begging for you to stop. “Are you sad? Are you sad? Mom, are you sad?”



She wants you to go outside. She wants you to stay out for hours. It is too soon to come back in. “Go back and play something else.”

A lark flies into the house when you leave the back door open, reeling in panicked circles around the ceiling fan like it is strung to a baby-mobile.

“Is that him? Mom? Is it?”



Older brother has a secret to tell you.

The two of you have invented a new kind of game. Little brother liked it best when you hid things, toys and books and your grinning faces behind your hands, bodies folded under bed frames and behind recliners to surprise him.

When he laughed his toothless pink gums showed.

You and older brother have started to hide everything.

You stash away blocks and marbles and matchboxes. A chess set and nativity figurines. You bury whole Bicycle decks a go-fish at a time so months later you are unfolding diamonds and spades from quilts. There are king’s bishops under the sink. Necklace chains slipped down furnace grilles. Mary-Mother is between two sofa cushions.

The secret older brother whispers is this: “It’s my fault. It’s because I was bad that day. Remember? I took your Easter hat. And stepped on it. On purpose.”

You agree but you know it is your fault, for asking right before little brother was born that he would be a sister.



Grown-ups tell you that little brother has both halves of his heart. He has wings like an angel. He is singing in a chorus. Great-grandmother is with him.

Mother and father help you memorize New Testament passages so you will be able to see him again. They drill you with adhesive jewels as your prize until you can recall whole sections of Romans and Colossians, and you pretend you have pierced ears in the mirror after.

It is all you have to do, just to say just the right words and a holy-ghost will imbed itself into you like the diamond in mother’s wedding ring. You imagine swallowing the spirit like refrigerated skim milk in August, feeling it waterslide all the way down your esophagus. You don’t feel anything new behind your sternum after you pray, but you have not seen mother and father so happy in a long time, and you decide to try harder.

You will force the cut-gem down your throat if you have to.

You will put out a fleece like Gideon.

You flip a penny and ask god to make it heads.

It is tails.

You leave it on the floor by your bed and ask that it be turned while you sleep.

In the morning it is still tails.

“Let me have a dream about little brother. Then I’ll know.”

You dream the sun turns into hands.

“I just want to see him. One more time.”

You don’t see him.

You hide under a quilt to cut pages of a picture-book Genesis with safety scissors. Mother hits you with the spatula when she finds the bible-confetti.



Some nights you stay with grandmother.

At her house, grapes must only be eaten quartered so they don’t get stuck in your windpipe. She halves everything she gives you, halves the halves to keep you from choking. She is so afraid that you will choke that she hides the potpourri and puzzle pieces. The toaster is unplugged. Plastic bags are put in high cabinets. She thinks you will drown in the tub and perches on the porcelain lid of the toilet to watch you sud your hair, fists pressed into her thighs.

When she finally leaves you alone, you fit her potpourri into the sad smiley face of a triple-prong electrical outlet.

You find a table-lamp missing its bulb, and when you slide your fingers inside the empty socket the voltage unfurls up and down your spine, knots and unknots you and leaves a taste like coins in your mouth.

You rifle through her drawers. You find a packet of silica-gels like the ones that come with fresh sneakers.


When you swallow them they look like sugar crystals, candy dots, drops of calcified moonbeam and taste like nothing at all.

You tell older brother what you’ve done.

“Yup,” he decides, with solemn assurance. “You’re going to die.”

“I feel normal.”

“It could take a while. Maybe a month.”


You are not sure how long a month feels. Little brother lived for more than a month. Less than a year. A very long time. Not enough time.



Close to Easter, mother cuts a whole color wheel of sugar-paper squares for you and older brother and father. You write notes to little brother.


I miss you a lot. I think you were going to have very wild hair


how is heaven? are you a baby still or do you get to choose how old you are


sometimes I think you are just hiding and I look all over the house for you


You tie them to helium balloons at the cemetery and fling the messages at the sky.



When you see little sister for the first time she is a minnow, a moon-crater, the monster-eyeball of a hurricane on the glossy print of an ultrasound. Mother waddles when she carries the storm of her around and you wonder how she can stand bulging the way she does. “I’m so afraid. I’m not ready,” she says, and you wonder if she can curl up like a fist around little sister to keep her inside for years. You wonder if babies are made from eating too much supper and pick at your food. You make yourself sick with your wonder again.



Little sister is the Easter shade of a tulip when she comes.

Mother will want to weave her a coat of every color but blue, and you will want to help her at the loom.


In memory of BWF, 1997-1998.


Shauna Friesen (she/her) is a mountain climber, rock collector, mediocre skateboarder, and LGBTQ+ author living in Los Angeles, California.