by Caitlin Upshall
He called it the color of envy.
The old tales say that it was once his color. His armies wore it while they conquered the world. But soon, the armies became the rebels, and the world grew smaller behind tall walls. The rebels used the color as the only mockery they could afford. Some sewed it into their uniforms; others found it in nature and painted it on their skins. When they were caught, they were punished. If they lived, they were sent to work, far away from the righteous citizens within the walls.
But still, the insult survived.
It slithered into paints, buildings, and even along the edges of the lake. Sometimes children were born with the insult in their eyes. To protect the righteous, the Leader destroyed the bad paints and buildings, and drained the lake. As a show of his mercy, the citizens were allowed to wade through the mud and collect any fish they could find.
On most days, the Color Seekers roam the streets looking for violations of the law. They wear a light blue, blending in with the sky, and hold a picture of the color in their hands. They’re the only ones allowed to see it. Mama fixes my hair with a not-red ribbon and smiles.
“It’s like a sunrise and a sunset,” she says. “Think of it as a bookend for your day.”
I ask her what a ‘book’ is and she shrugs. She takes care of the bruise on my arm that I got while playing with Josie. Eventually, the mark will turn from the hideous color it is now to a beautiful blue or black. In the meantime, she wraps bandages around it, hiding it from the view of the Color Seekers.
“They went into Mister Whittaker’s shop yesterday,” I tell Mama. “They searched through his register.”
“Oh?” Mama looks up from her bowl of ribbon-colored fruit.
I nod. “They found the color of envy and took him away. That’s what I heard, anyway.”
There is a noise from Mama’s darkened room as Nurse Abraham comes out, a candle in hand. She carries a baby in her other arm, and he wiggles and squirms as they step into the light. Mama takes a deep breath. She walks around the table and drapes her arms around my shoulders.
“Keep some blue in your heart,” Mama whispers. “That’s what the Color Seekers wear. That’s his favorite color. Remember your blue.”
Nurse Abraham makes a humming noise, and Mama walks to her slowly. She picks up the baby from the nurse’s outstretched arms and turns his little body so that she cannot see his face. Then, Mama wraps a piece of cloth around his head to cover his eyes and unbuttons her shirt. It’s difficult for the baby to latch without sight, but he manages after a few tries. Nurse Abraham smiles approvingly, while Mama stares at the wall with a distant expression on her face.
“He seems strong,” says the nurse, “and his cough is nearly gone. It was probably just some fluid in the lungs.”
“Yes, probably,” Mama agrees.
When the baby has finished, Nurse Abraham takes him from Mama’s arms and coos at him. Mama’s arms stay curled, as though she’s still holding him.
“In a few days now, it’ll be time to see what his eyes look like,” says Nurse Abraham.“That’s when their true colors come in.”
“Doesn’t it hurt them, being blindfolded?” asks Mama.
“Not anymore,” Nurse Abraham says after a moment. “Their eyes are only covered when the mothers hold them now. It’s different than before.” She glances at me and Josie.
Mama nods, her blue eyes following the baby. “But he’s in darkness all the time,” she says softly. “Could it be me instead? Just until…until his colors come in? My girls could help out around the house while I’m blindfolded.”
Nurse Abraham hums again.
“It’s best not to get attached,” she says, like she didn’t hear Mama.
“I know.” Mama watches as the nurse undoes the blindfold, keeping the baby’s face pressed against her chest.
“It’s always hard—the waiting—but you’re young, still. You have options.”
Mama sucks in her cheeks real hard.
“And I’ll be back when it’s time,” says Nurse Abraham.
“You don’t need to be,” Mama snaps.
Nurse Abraham looks at me and Josie again. Then, she turns back to Mama and says in a quieter voice, “It’s better if I’m there. Sometimes, if the color isn’t right, even a righteous woman can do something regrettable.”
“If he’s an Insulter, they’ll send him to the Desert,” Josie tells me one morning, while she puts on her glasses.
“He won’t be an Insulter. He’ll have eyes like us.” I want to throttle her for even thinking that. “Besides, Mama loves him.”
“She’ll love him after she sees his eyes.” Josie yawns. The Leader would never allow the death of a child, even a rebel’s child. He’s too kind for that. But an Insulter isn’t allowed to live here. They’re sent to the Desert outside of our walls, to be raised by other Insulters. The Leader says that the Desert is full of that color; it spreads through the land like a sickness. But here, in the Forest, we’re safe.Mama says that the Desert is new-ish, and it wasn’t around when she was little, but the Leader says that we’ve always had a Desert.
I tell this to Mama one night during dinner and she says, “Maybe I forgot.”
Five days before Mama is supposed to take off the baby’s blindfold, we get a visit from two Color Seekers. Mama comes out to greet them with a smile on her face that forgets to touch the corners of her eyes. There are such large bags there now, I don’t know if it would make much of a difference. The Color Seekers talk to her in whispers and look back at the two of us. When they’re finished speaking, they bow and leave as quickly as they arrived.
“Mister Tian needs help with a project,” Mama tells me. The baby starts to cry in the other room. I know Mister Tian…or, at least, I know who he is. He is in charge of the Garden; the land around the town hall.
“The Leader is coming,” Mama’s smile still doesn’t quite touch her eyes, “and Mister Tian asked for a young person in this neighborhood to help him prepare the Garden.” The crying becomes louder. “You should meet him tomorrow morning.” Mama yawns, one foot angled toward her dark bedroom. She bends down and cups my face. “Remember your blue, okay?”
I get to help someone with a project. An important project!
When she goes to nurse the baby, Josie and I dance around the room.
The Garden is smaller than I imagined it would be. The fence around it always made it seem like there would be more there. It is beautiful though, and I tell that to the Color Seekers who walk with me along the concrete road.
“Mister Tian does a good job here,” I say.
Today, the Color Seekers are wearing light blue again, and they are silent to my comment.
We meet Mister Tian inside the Garden. He is wearing white. I wait for the Color Seekers to introduce me, but they don’t.
“Is this the one?” he asks them.
“Are you the one?” he asks me.
“Yes,” I say.
The Color Seekers leave, blending into the sky with each step they take farther away from us. I follow Mister Tian through the Garden and look around. The plants are all the same not-red color, like my ribbon, and the ground underneath them is a sea of blue. It looks like they’re swimming.
There’s one bed of flowers that is the color of Mama’s lips. I saw that color in a quilt one time. It’s not illegal, like the color of envy, but I’ve still never seen it so close before. I stop at one of the flowers and bend down to smell it. Mama always says we should stop to ‘smell the roses.’ I’m not sure if this is a rose, but I definitely don’t like the smell of it. I put my hand out to touch it, but then Mister Tian shouts at me.
“Don’t do that!”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“They’re very delicate.”
I tell him that I understand and I will keep my hands to myself, but he is still angry and tells me to go home.
“Come back tomorrow,” he says.
I leave the Garden with my head down. My stomach feels wobbly and sick from the smell of the flowers. When I look back at the gate, Mister Tian is lighting incense.
We were not allowed to leave our house yesterday. Insulters broke through the walls and ran down the streets with bags full of terrible things. Mama said they’re called leaves and they come from trees, but they didn’t look like any tree I’ve ever seen. The lumber that arrives in the city on the backs of trucks doesn’t have leaves. Mama took me and Josie inside and made us cover our eyes until she closed the door. She told us later that the Insulters ran through the streets, throwing the leaves as they went. They only stopped when the Color Seekers caught them and took them away.
When Mama nursed the baby that night, she closed her eyes and cried.
I have decided to listen to everything Mister Tian says, and I think that it’s working. He doesn’t seem as angry, and I’m being careful not to touch anything. We spend a few hours watering the flowers, but it’s not the regular kind of water. It looks murky and smells gross.
When I ask him what it is, he tells me that it is water infused with Indigofera. I think he mistakes my silence for understanding, because he changes the subject then and asks me, “Do you like the color orange?”
“Orange,” I repeat.
Mister Tian points to the not-red colors and continues to water. “What is your favorite color?” he asks.
I frown. There’s so many, but I don’t know the names for most of them. There’s blue—that’s the color of the sky—and there are other ones, too. The color of the sea, the color when a fire starts to eat away at the log beneath it, the color of Josie’s eyes. I feel like a person in a painting who has been asked to name their favorite part of the picture by someone holding the frame.
I look at Mister Tian and say, “I like the color you’re wearing. It reminds me of oat milk.”
He seems pleased with my answer and takes the empty watering can from my hand. I follow him to a flower bed near the steps leading into the town hall building.
“These are called tulips,” he says, pointing to the orange flowers. “Come here, I want to show you something special.”
I kneel down next to him, and he pushes through the flowers, looking at each one carefully as he goes. He stops on the fifth flower and beckons for me to look closely. The leaves are the same color as a sunset, but the stem of the flower reminds me of a sunrise. The orange is lighter and less intense.
“They’re very beautiful,” I say.
“Tulips are all different colors,” Mister Tian says, though the oranges don’t seem that different. “They have bright leaves and strong stems. The stems are the problem. Look here.”
I follow his finger as it trails down the orange tube, trying to figure out what he means to show me. When I see it, I wonder why I didn’t notice it before. The orange becomes less smooth when it gets to the bottom of the stem, almost blotchy. And there, the size of my white fingernail, is an opening in the orange. And the color of envy stares up at me.
“It’s okay. That’s what it’s supposed to look like. That’s its natural color.”
I shake my head. My eyes feel blurry. “We need to burn them,” I say. “All of them.”
“No, we’re not going to do that.”
Mister Tian stands up and retrieves a bucket from beside the steps. It’s large and made of tin, and it makes a popping noise as he opens it. He reaches inside and pulls out a real paintbrush.
Mama made two of them for me and Josie a few months ago out of yarn and twigs. This one looks like it was made by a paintbrush maker. He hands the bucket and brush to me. They’re heavy, and I nearly drop them, but I manage to raise my knee and balance the weight while I adjust my feet.
“I’m not going to burn these plants. I’m going to hide them.”
I look into the bucket now and see orange paint. Mister Tian speaks casually, but there is some worry behind his eyes. I can see it. “The Leader will be arriving in a few days. It’s our job to make sure that he doesn’t see any of…that color. Will you help me?”
I think about the Insulters that infiltrated our home and the Desert, filled with people who want to destroy our country. I think about the Color Seekers and what they would do if they found out about the real color of a tulip stem. And I think about Mama and the baby. I take the bucket and begin to paint the stem.
Mama says it’s pointless to pray about these things. She even slaps Josie’s wrist when she tries. Nurse Abraham sits across the room, a basket of baked goods at her feet. I wonder if we’ll get to keep any of them if the baby’s eyes are the wrong color. I can’t remember the last time we had fresh foods.
Nurse Abraham watches with pursed lips, and we sit in silence next to the rocking chair as Mama unties the blindfold. When it’s balancing on the baby’s face, I see her muttering something under her breath. Mama takes off the blindfold and looks down at the baby’s face. She starts to cry, and the bags under her eyes look bigger today than they were yesterday. Soon, she turns him around in her arms and shows us his face.
“Blue,” she whispers.
And they are. A strong blue, no chance of being mistaken for the evilness and no chance of the baby being an Insulter. Nurse Abraham pushes past us to reach the baby. She looks down and smiles.
“A glorious day!” she announces. “Girls, help yourselves to some treats.”
Mama pulls him close to her chest and walks back to her bedroom to put him to bed. She pats Josie on the head as she goes. When she’s out of the room, Josie looks at me and says,
“She loves him. Now that she’s seen his eyes, she loves him. I promise.”
I nod in agreement as we go to rummage through the basket. He’ll be named soon, and he will grow up in the country with the three of us. He won’t have to worry about being an Insulter, and he’ll never have to see what the Desert is like. He’ll grow into a righteous citizen. Mama told us not to pray, and I don’t blame her for muttering a prayer under her breath. But I wonder if that’s what she prayed for.
I can’t stay asleep. Josie falls asleep and stays asleep, with loud snores that would usually help me dream, but they’re not working tonight. The baby isn’t crying as much either. Perhaps Mama’s feeding him more now than we know. I tiptoe into the kitchen to look for something to eat, passing by the bowl of vitamins that come from the Desert. They’re all the color of wood, but Mama says that they’re made up of foods we don’t have here in the Forest—foods we need to be healthy. I prefer anything to the taste of those vitamins, and I stick my tongue out at them as I walk by. Occasionally, there will be honey sticks left out, or a plate of carrots on the counter. I root around through the cabinets, but I don’t find anything that looks good enough to eat. On my way back to bed, I pass by the closet and stop.
The closet door is ajar, and I see Mama’s shoes inside. I push aside our coats and look at the ladder. It’s always been there, drilled into the wall, but we’ve never climbed it. Mama says it stops at the ceiling and doesn’t go anywhere; but tonight, I see a light at the top. When I’m halfway up, the light seems brighter. We’re on the third floor of the building, so it can’t lead anywhere. When I reach the top, I move aside a piece of plywood and climb up onto the roof.
Mama is sitting barefoot, a shawl around her shoulders, with the baby fast asleep in her arms. I’ve never seen the world from this height. I can see the town hall, and my school, and the food bank, and even Mister Whittaker’s shop.
“I wanted him to see it,” Mama says. I don’t understand why she looks so guilty. “I took all of you up here when you were little. Sometimes, they were even inside the walls.” I squint in the direction she’s facing, but it’s difficult to see what she’s talking about.
After a moment, the street lights begin to turn on, as do the lights on the wall. I’ve never seen the top of it before, but here, I can see large fingers stretching above and over it. Some of them bend like a snake, while others are straight and tall, trying to reach the sky. There is no order to their placement. They’re messy and fall over and around each other. It’s not just the tulip stems; the trees are that color, too. I stare out at the Desert and wonder why I’m not more afraid.
“Trees,” Mama coos, looking down at the baby. “That’s what they look like before they’re stripped apart for lumber.” She sighs. “The sun will wake soon. We should go back in.”
“Mama,” I say, “what color is my ribbon? What’s the name of it?”
Mama stares at the Desert real hard. Her eyes scrunch together and she starts to look scared. “I don’t remember,” she says. “I used to, I think.”
The baby wiggles around in her arms and she strokes his cheek absentmindedly. He is much calmer without the cloth over his eyes. Mama goes to the ladder, holding him against her side with one arm, and begins her descent. I stay on the roof for another minute and stare out at the trees. I didn’t know they could be so tall.
Mister Tian is wearing orange today instead of white. The tulips are painted, and the incense is lit to cover the smell. I walk through the flowerbeds with a magnifying glass to make sure that I haven’t missed any. Soon, Mister Tian comes into the Garden, following a tall man who wears the color of lumber. He doesn’t look regal or important, but the men around him think that he is. They lower their eyes when he speaks and agree with everything he says. A pair of Color Seekers follow at a distance.
I stand next to the tulips, holding my breath as Mister Tian speaks to the Leader. He talks about the history of the flower and where it can be found. He doesn’t talk about its color or the paints.
“And who are you?” the Leader asks me.
Mister Tian nods at me to answer and I lower my eyes, like the men did. “I’m Mister Tian’s helper,” I say.
“This is a good garden,” he says, “with some of the greatest flowers growing in it.” He looks at Mister Tian. “You’ve done well to create a place where they can flourish.”
And then it’s over.
He turns and says something to the men with him, and they go into the town hall, giving no more attention to the Garden. Mister Tian seems to be done for the day as well, letting out a sigh of relief and going to weed the hydrangeas. I sit down on the stone pathway beside the tulips and reach out my hand to touch one.
It bends under the slightest touch, and I see that the layers of paint have worn it down. Itsmells, too. The incense is strong, but sitting so close to the flower, the paint makes my head hurt. I look out at the rows of tulips, searching for at least one that’s standing tall, they’re all bending down. They all smell of paint. They’re not flourishing. The Leader is smart. He must have noticed.
I stand up, but I can still smell the paint. There’s no wind today, and the stench sits in the Garden, like it was planted as well. It occurs to me that I don’t actually know what a tulip issupposed to smell like. I wonder if the smell of paint stuck to the Leader’s clothes.
I gather my things but, before I go, I pluck a tulip from the flowerbed and stuff it in my bag. It is midday when I get home and Josie is still at school, so I turn on the faucet in the kitchen. The bright blue water comes out, and I put the tulip in its stream, wiping and scrubbing at the petals until the orange starts to come off. Now, it’s a color I haven’t seen on a flower before. It looks like the color of the sun in the morning, like someone had taken orange and thrown more light on it. I wait for a moment before starting to scrub at the stem, and when that color starts to show, I hold my breath. I expect it to burn, but it doesn’t.
Mama is asleep in the rocking chair, the baby in her lap. The windows in her bedroom have been uncovered and the piles of clothes on the floor don’t look like scary monsters anymore. I can tell that she’s been crying again from the way that she breathes. I reach for a nearby pencil and paper and write the word OR ENG. Then, I put the tulip on her dresser, tucked underneath baby blankets. It’ll be a bit flat, but I just want her to see it.
Tonight, I’m going back to the roof.
by Jeff Hersch
Caitlin Upshall (she/her/hers) holds a B.A. in English from Western Washington University. Her work has been published by the tiny journal, OyeDrum, The Sweet Tree Review, and others. In her spare time, she enjoys most things dinosaur-related and trivia nights. You can find her on Instagram at @CaitlinUpshall or at www.caitlinupshall.com.
Jeff Hersch provides analog collages for the modern being. Like his thoughts, these pieces are often constructed in short, frantic spurts of energy, with bursts of self-doubt, though calm and subtle. Also like his thoughts, these pieces represent everyday observations and conclusions about the vast world that erratically suffocates us, with little time for a quick escape or chance to relax, as we are currently inhabiting an advanced state of infinite stimulus.
His works lend themselves to your own interpretation of meaning – if any – but should also serve as inspiration and demonstrate the simple notion that you too can and should create something/anything on a regular basis.
When he’s not hunched over his desk cutting and gluing clippings, Hersch finds the time to play in bands (Glazer, Civic Mimic, Postman Agitator) and volunteer as the executive director of Flemington DIY, a non-profit community arts space in the town he grew up in.