His wife offers tea.
They accept, the ten representatives.
The Colourist sits facing them. They fumble for milk, sugar, lemon. Apologies all around as they jostle each other, stare down at the thick carpet.
Steam hovering. Pursed, prim lips. Praise for the sugar cookies. The Colourist’s wife nods.
Then, they fall silent.
By now it is late afternoon. Sun blazes through the streaky bay window, irradiating the clouds of dust that fill the old room.
They try to remain perfectly still. They twitch. They are: air conditioning, delicate pastries, leather upholstery.
The Colourist begins.
The bidders shift uneasily. Silt spumes.
The Colourist continues.
Violet caught in motion.
Raspberries and fresh blood.
Robbers shot, writhing wounds, trickling springs.
Nightmare of a dream entering. So: day uninvited.
The perverted coupling of red and orange, hidden incest suddenly unveiled.
A repudiation, an uneasy stain, a day’s anger.
Spreading cerulean sunset.
A past time.
Fingers peeling beets.
Stain on a stain.
Dream on your own: an abortion.
A dog drooling feral hunger.
A great building on fire during morning.
The representatives slowly produce their pens. Shielding their numbers from view with their arms, they write their bids on the backs of creamy cards emblazoned with the logos of the firms that sent them.
The Colourist’s wife collects the cards in a wicker basket lined with a fading blue handkerchief fraying at the ends.
She disappears into the kitchen.
The Colourist sits motionless. Head bowed. Blank eyes closed.
Through the window, city sounds: rattling trash truck, children playing in the street, a siren getting fainter as it hurls toward some distant emergency.
A few, believing themselves to be unobserved, grimace at each other, pantomime gagging.
They will not be asked back.
The Colourist’s wife returns. She utters a name. Polite rattle of applause.
The representatives hurry from the apartment.
In the evening, the Colourist’s wife closes the window against the cooling breeze.
The Colourist starts.
Mother? he says, though they are childless.
She goes to him. Runs a hand down his creviced cheek.
It’s getting harder for you.
It’s time to—
The Colourist pushes her hand away.
His wife looks out the window.
Take me to bed, the Colourist says, groping for his stick.
Tomorrow arrives in a haze. The Colourist sits down to his breakfast. His hands are trembling. He spoons cereal. Milk on his chin.
What is it? his wife asks.
I have another.
But they were here yesterday, she says reasonably. Why not wait until next month?
It must be now.
His wife steps across the small kitchen. She dabs at his chin with a napkin.
He lets her dab.
It doesn’t matter, he says.
These aren’t the olden times, she says softly.
He lowers his head to his bowl.
They gather. It is night.
The Colourist’s wife looks at them disapprovingly. They are bedraggled. Dark circles under their blue eyes. Those not reinvited have been replaced by others exactly like them. In a break from convention, she offers a cooling punch served in thick goblets that remind them of a previous century. There are no cookies. A tepid trickle of air makes them long for open suburban backyards, wide dark roads driving wind into lowered car windows, humming efficiencies of frigid filtered air pumped into sparsely furnished lounges.
They take quick halting glances at the Colourist. He sits impassive, hands folded on his lap. He seems to stare at them. He smiles awkwardly, a man who has never seen a smile. Some note the faint gleam of sweat on his upper lip. Sign of discomfort, evidence betraying weakness. But what does it mean? their bosses will ask them later, as they stand on the crumbling sidewalk outside the old apartment building, cellphones flattening their ears. They shrug, the humid night pressing down on them.
A hush as they settle. A few close their eyes and, feeling ridiculous, open them again.
…Teal, the Colourist finally intones.
Jalapeno flecked with freshly cut grass.
Swirled circle of fired pottery, glazed imperfection its own cosmology.
Leaves bearing…unripened fruit.
Avocado glistening, wet with lemon.
No blooms, no permission.
Fresh and hopeful, this child.
Rays of light through brackish water rich with sucking fish.
The marbles we coveted and collected.
Childhood in the woods.
A nostalgia more keen: alive.
The Colourist’s wife stares at her husband. His mouth hangs open. The grey top of a tongue.
Then, a near-frantic scramble for pens, paper.
Teal! It is an achievement. Among the finest of his career.
There is no one in the room who does not understand the potential of such a vibrantly rendered shade.
The representatives are furiously scratching out numbers. How high can they go?
Please, the Colourist’s wife murmurs. The Colourist is pale, waning in lamplight. She collects the bids, hurries into the kitchen. Returns mere moments later, speaks the name of the winner.
The bidders are ushered on their way.
The Colourist falls into a fever. Outside, the raw cruelty, the jealous intensity of vermilion.
Outside, the cool contemplative compassion of teal.
The Colourist soaks his pyjamas.
A band is formed. A parade struck. Bleeding pinks and soothing greens march up and down the boulevards, pause in front of the squat apartment building. It is as if such things had never been, so bright is their combined and complex intensity. All the residents gather on their crescent balconies. Like movie stars, they wave to the crowd.
The Colourist groans as his wife turns him over on his side, strips him of his wet garments. The Colourist’s wife sits beside the sickbed. The shades are drawn. Her husband sweats again, shivers. His hands curdle into fists, then go abruptly slack, like the final transition from rigour to rest.
Night falls. The Colourist’s wife sits beside the dark lamp.
Weeks. Then months.
Summer rusts into fall, traditional season of epic pronouncements, celebration of startling hues, a time of expectations harvested. Lime streamers and crimson pompoms lie in gutters, stained water leaching into the sewers.
Still, the Colourist is bedridden. His wife dribbles broth into his mouth. Her vigil measured in the progress of shadows and the accumulation of gloom. He thrashes, cries out. She draws figures on his forehead with cooling fingers.
It is winter. As cold and drab and unrelenting as any.
There are murmurs, muffled accusations, private confabs that encompass the highest ranks and the wildest of speculations.
Swaddled in fur gloves and long black coats lined with silk, the Representative of the Representatives and the Parliamentary Adjunct from the Department of Heritage and Legacy sweat in the hallway. Their minion knocks insistently on the door.
February. Snow falls again. The days are short as breath and desperate couplings. There is hunger and lack. There is war overseas. Rising prices. Nothing much on TV.
It has been eight long months since the apartment last opened.
Knock again, intones the Adjunct.
Louder, snaps the Representative.
They fiddle with the leather bands of their gloves. They stomp their feet, shaking off the dripping slime of snow.
Finally, the door does open.
The Colourist’s wife, in a faded nightdress covered with a grey cardigan. The apartment behind her, a tomb exhumed.
May we? the Adjunct says, the Representative already brushing past into the blackened living room.
The minion follows, feeling along the wall for the light switch.
They blink. Their footsteps marked in dust.
The Colourist’s wife, her eyes like an old wounded owl’s.
Well? she says.
The Colourist groans from the bedroom.
Is he…? the Representative asks.
Mr. Sands will look in on him, says the Adjunct, indicating the minion.
Sands steps smartly toward the hall.
No, the Colourist’s wife snaps.
The Adjunct and the Representative glance at each other. The Adjunct nods. Sands continues down the dark corridor.
The Colourist’s wife sinks into a Chesterfield. Dust in tear-gas cones. A smell: rot, time passing.
It’s not done, the Colourist’s wife says.
We must, soothes the Representative, take into account the times.
Adaptation, murmurs the Adjunct, is the key to survival.
He won’t permit it, the Colourist’s wife insists.
As if on cue, the Colourist moans.
His wife makes to get up, but the Adjunct stays her with a gloved hand to her thin shoulder.
It’s been almost a year, the Representative says.
Eight months, the Colourist’s wife snaps.
A longish period, the Adjunct points out.
But not unprecedented. The Colourist’s wife is pale to the point of being ethereal, the Chesterfield’s brown fabric encompassing her.
The times, the Adjunct says.
The Representative nods fervently. People have expectations, he adds. The pace of modern life.
She glares up at the men. What do I know of modern life?
Sands reappears, clears his throat. He is nursing a wrist, rubbing it.
Well? the Adjunct demands.
He, Sands says, raising the injured arm up to display a bite mark, has refused treatment.
And? the Representative says.
Sands glances anxiously at the Colourist’s wife.
Go on, the Adjunct demands.
He is dying.
In the lamplight, winter darkness, in the Colourist’s apartment of sixty-some years, the men’s smooth flat faces twitch imperceptibly.
He cannot die, the Colourist’s wife says. That is impossible.
Traditions are…shifting, the Representative says.
There is another, the Adjunct says.
The Colourist opens his blind eyes.
Theirs is a small city in a vast country. It is a city known for only one trade, a singular industry that affects the doings of the entire sprawling nation. The cityscape is dominated by the great colour corporations, their massive downtown headquarters an assemblage of lusciously painted towers penetrating an ashen swirling sky. Within are the captains of commerce, the shapers of colour consensus and their teams: salespeople, marketers, public-relations experts, accountants, and factotums. From their vantage points on the tenth and thirtieth floors, they can see the vast warehouses that surround the outskirts of the city. Here the colours are made, churned, dabbed, bottled, boxed. And between the great warehouses as wide as city blocks and the skyscrapers as high as the clouds, thousands of small enterprises—middlemen, hustlers, deal markers, tone brokers, shade speculators, liars, buyers, fools, and their false prophets. They, too, find their place in this small outpost city with a hold on a great empire.
And yet, reduced to greys, monotone variables.
And yet, who would know him when he steps among them?
He is just a blind man with a stick. He picks his way through the crowds, walks with difficulty on slush-slicked sidewalks lined with icy embankments. Above him, giant skyscrapers set the sky on fire with their corporate colours.
Tap, tap, tap. He pauses at the foot of one such headquarters. He sighs, leans forward to take the weight off his swelling feet.
A security guard, uniform adorned with an armband of green and pink, waves him away.
Move along now, old man. You can’t stay here.
The Colourist allows himself to be propelled back into the streets.
He makes his way through the workers in their business suits sporting lapel pins of delicate chartreuse and magenta. They swirl around him, each one trapped in their worries—business is slowing, layoffs coming, confusion at the top, no one knows a damn thing, and the government—ha!—the government.
And on into the nearby entertainment district, past the restaurants and bars overflowing with anxious employees seeking brief solace in happy hour—all shades welcome. The Colourist taps and shuffles his way into the old city. Here is where it all began, in the legendary souk, marketplace of myths. Even today tourists lose themselves in the abundance of bright craven hues and collectors searching out the rarest exotica, ancient formulas for pigments long thought lost that might be reintroduced at a tidy profit.
Such discoveries are rare.
The market has been plundered over and over again. Only a handful of dignified old traders still ply their wares here amongst the hucksters and con men, tricksters employing scams almost as old as the colour trade itself.
Into the area known as the tapestry, a cobblestone maze of narrow corridors and winding alleys leading to the cubbyhole homes of ancient couples wizened by time, anxious to talk of the old days, magenta and plum, sunflower yellow and ruddy ochre, uncorrupted colours capable of breathing vitality into an entire nation.
The colours today…they croak, gathered in tiny café caves, sipping bitter coffees, hot water stained a gloomy hazel.
The Colourist could be one of them. He shuffles forward, his bulbous knees preceding each step. His head dangles from his leathery neck. He breathes heavily through curled lips.
He is old and tired. He does not deny it. Let them know, too, that every hue cannot pump up the economy, revitalize nationality, inject purpose into a faded collective consciousness. Let them know, too, the beauty of colours that dim as soon as they are imagined, the transitory redemption of permeable inky moments, gone, gone, gone.
The Colourist emerges into one of the many squares, dust-and-dirt-swept plazas enclosed by stunted buildings leaning into tight, empty spaces. Their bricks slowly crumbling. Their askew balconies crammed with dead plants and rusting chairs. And above them, the yawning skyscrapers, their luminescent facades endlessly replenished by teams of painters clinging to the ramparts.
In the centre of the square, a man in a black suit, his hair long and rakish, his tie a vivid ripple of watermelon and carnation. His eyes buried under tinted sunglasses.
The Colourist stops where he is. Where is he? He shivers. It is cold. The air, wet on him.
The young man addresses a modest crowd of pensioners, hustlers, and scoffing teens. The assembled stand in the wet square, shuffling their feet, looking down at the slick cobblestones.
If we are not the leaders, the young man boldly proclaims, we will be the followers. Others will take our place. Others will produce the great colours of the world. Where is the Colourist? Where are the proclamations? How long can we go on tied to one man’s vision—admirable though it once was—but a vision that no longer comes, that restricts us just as surely as if we were dragging behind us a great weight. We want colours. We need colours. Can there be others? Must there be a single successor—not yet named, I point out, even as the Colourist, God keep his soul, lies on his very deathbed? Let those who have the vision step forward. Let us compete, like all good workers, on the open market.
A man, neatly attired in the style of a Representative, takes attentive notes.
The Colourist slumps, head on his chest, at the back of the crowd. The whiskers his wife shaves gently each morning have sprouted, yellowing needles of grass pushing up.
I, too, have the vision, the young man exclaims, pacing now. I, too, have seen the shades in my head, from behind these sightless eyes that have never known tones other than in endlessly receding landscapes of white. I will not lie to you, my good countrymen, my fellows. I have not been named the successor. How could I? I have never met the Colourist, who lies ill for months on end.
And yet—here the young man lowers his voice to a whisper as the gathered folk lean in to catch his final words—I. Have. The. Colours. The time is now. Let us embark on a new era of prosperity. I have the colours. Let them come.
From the blank stare of the heavens falls a desultory snow. The crowd breaks up like guests disinvited.
The Colourist follows ringing footsteps, his stick marking out the narrow dimensions of alleys and corridors. The Colourist hears not just the steps of a man, but also the hum of the televised news, the flushing of toilets, the complaints of old bones cramped into shared beds. Briefly, irresistibly, he contemplates a pallor to accompany this crowded moment, this march backward toward an inevitable future. Some beige bumpy concoction, hints of grey and purple, smears of flesh.
The footfalls stop. The Colourist falters, swings his stick in front of him. Nothing. Empty space. Voided distance.
Abruptly, he feels himself grabbed by the stiff starched collars of his shirt. His back hits the brick wall and air pushes out of him in a hiss.
Why are you following me?
The grip on his collar tightens.
What do you want?
A…a…colour, gasps the Colourist. His throat freed.
The young man laughs.
One colour. Please…
And what makes you think that I can give you a colour?
Your speech…in the square…
Did you like it?
Tell me, are you blind?
As you are.
And do you really…see…?
The Colourist feels something cold and sharp at his neck.
Go home, old man. Or else.
Just one colour. If what you say is true. One colour. And I’ll leave you.
Who sent you?
Who would send an old blind man?
Who better? You’ll steal my colour! Sell it on Blue Street to the shade scalpers. What’ll you get for it? A few hundred. Do you know what they pay our dear Colourist for his efforts? Millions.
The young man spits on the cobblestones. A venomous sound whirring past the Colourist’s furry ear.
Colour has no value to me, the Colourist says. Not in that way.
In what way then?
To see the colours…it is a duty. A fleeting moment. Cruel compensation for the indignities of sightless life. It is a bridge. This world…and the next.
Very good old man. A very heartfelt speech. What would you know about it?
And what will you give me in return?
The blade retracting.
The young man’s loft on the top storey of a four-level walk-up. A white leather couch faces a sleek stereo awaiting remote-control instruction. The walls of exposed brick suggest the old town factory this once was, before the last of the small-scale operators sold out to the real estate speculators anxious to cash in on the sudden cachet of urban living. The Colourist stands uncertainly. Bass and synthetic drum. He pants for breath, waits for his host to return with a glass of water.
He feels dizzy. The music around him.
Abruptly, a cool glass is fit into his hand.
The Colourist drinks. Sputters.
Ha ha. The younger man laughs. Vodka. Something to warm your old bones.
The Colourist gasps as the liquor spreads.
He feels the tremor as the young man’s glass meets his.
The music booms, shaking the floorboards.
You’re not drinking?
The Colourist holds out an arm for balance. Please, he says. That…music.
Too loud for ya?
I must…sit down.
He feels his elbow pulled, lets himself be directed. Slumps heavily. A chair, soft under him. The music continues, soundtrack to the conundrum of infinite light.
Please, he says.
He feels a glass at his lips. Water this time.
All right, old man. Have it your way.
The soft underbelly of sound recedes.
The Colourist closes his eyes.
He wakes up. How much time has passed?
What does it matter?
The Colourist smiles to himself.
What’s so funny, old man?
It’s been years. Since I tasted the bottle.
You should get out more.
There was a time…
Ah, the good old days.
Let us drink again.
What about the colours?
The bottle, boy. The bottle.
This time, the Colourist is prepared for the harsh heat of cheap vodka.
Again, he demands, swaying, waving his glass in the air.
The sound of settling, of downstairs and upstairs, of night falling in drifts.
The Colourist struggles out of his overcoat, feels truly warm for the first time since catching fever.
Another? asks his host.
Did you follow me home to get drunk?
Tell me, have you always been blind? Your steps are so certain. And the way you fill the glass.
We learn differently now. We are taught independence. We are taught that there is nothing we cannot do. As a child, I was instructed to see without seeing.
And how is that accomplished?
It’s too late, old man. Your time has passed.
The Colourist slumps into himself. Drifts away.
He is awakened. His host’s voice, above and around him: You promised me a colour.
The Colourist paws the empty space around him for his stick.
Stay where you are, the young man says.
Where am I?
Don’t you remember? We had an agreement. A colour for a colour. A trade.
Such things, the Colourist says slowly, settling back into the armchair, are not ours to exchange.
Why not? Why should the Colourist sell while we go hungry?
What is your name, my friend?
What does it matter?
Not all things are as they seem.
Consider it. A blind man who sees colours.
So what? Is it such a miracle? Don’t you also claim to have the gift?
I claim nothing.
Well get out then, old man. The Colourist feels his coat slap his face. Get out.
But we have an…agreement.
A colour for a colour.
But not a trade?
Sharing. The young man extrudes the word. Paces the floor, his boots cracking off the boards.
O.K., old man. Why not? What do I have to lose?
A gurgled swish followed by a swallow and a gasp.
Ah. A little lubricant to get the ink flowing. If you know what I mean.
The Colourist suddenly feels the urge to vomit. A heat in his chest. His head shimmers. He begins to sweat.
The young man drives oxygen into his lungs, exhales loudly. Begins. Speaking hurriedly, his voice lilting to a shout.
Charcoal stygian night a mind’s imagining no moon wild dogs breathing mist rocks under a deep still sea the remains of the house after the fire-singed skeleton the men who sin all our lives night sky in winter insouciant haze of confusion stairs leading nowhere tar poured and dried in the sun factory chimney stained the smoke of a billion colours the remains of all of our lives. The remains!
The bottle gurgles. The Colourist hears swallowing. A belch.
Your turn now, old man.
The Colourist thinks of his wife, of the old apartment. How far they are from him now. And yet, with him, on him, a tint shading every action and event—memory.
…Dun, the Colourist finally says.
His voice quavers, shrinks. He shakes.
Sand fleas mating.
Their lives in moments.
A Chesterfield in the southern exposure.
A thousand thousand days.
Bottle of spirits: once clear.
The space between.
Mind and imagining.
The assurance of a cloud.
Rusting fall forest.
A first time, a second time, a third and final time.
Fading to feeling.
Cities, beaches, condominiums.
God’s pupil squinting into a slit.
Her arms around me.
The Colourist feels the wet soaking through his shirt. Then the sound of boot heels slapping floorboards. The smell of alcohol, cloying rot. His host’s breath.
And what of mine, the younger man demands, his lips hot on the Colourist’s face.
The Colourist turns away.
Fingers sinking into his mottled cheeks. His face forced forward.
Come on, old man. Don’t be shy.
You see nothing, the Colourist whispers into the swelling air. You aren’t even—
The Colourist feels hot lips on his own. Biting. Sealing. His nose pinched shut.
He doesn’t struggle. He has not named an apprentice. He cannot die.
His eyes water.
It is morning.
The Colourist’s wife, the Representative of the Representatives, and the governmental Adjunct enter without knocking.
The Colourist sits, head slumped. The younger man, dressed in a freshly pressed suit of charcoal black, his hair flowing and disappearing down his shoulders, rises. The Colourist’s wife tries to run to her husband. The Adjunct restrains her. Sands approaches, presses a finger to the nape of the Colourist’s wattled neck.
The Colourist’s wife breaks free of the two men and falls across the body.
The three officials regard the young man in front of him. He is resplendent in a deep, shimmering ebony suit. Behind him, the empty swallow of a sunless morning.
He came to me, the young man says wonderingly. He named me. And then he—
The Colourist’s wife: Liar! Murderer!
The Representative of the Representatives clicks his tongue. The Colourist, he says, cannot die without the naming.
So it is written, intones the Adjunct.
The Colourist’s wife digs her fingers into her husband’s drab shirt. She screams. Sands opens his case, extracts a needle.
The Representative and the Adjunct regard the young man in his startlingly dark suit.
He named me, the young man says.
Show us, the Representative demands.
The young man nods. Eyes absent behind dark plastic.
…Dun, he begins.