After a time, a small light becomes visible in the center, increasing in brightness as the color becomes deeper.
— Wassily Kandinsky, The Yellow Sound
The color red is for remembering. Every time I remember, I paint a harlequin square on the side of our wagon in thick red tempera. I sew a red diamond of slippery imitation silk onto my husband’s white costume. I color something red every time I manage to recite a poem I used to know when I was little. Before I left school. Or when I remember one of the songs I never sing anymore, the ones that the stage manager said didn’t sound right—or a line from the monologue that was torn out of my zibaldone one night, when I forgot and left it out on the damp nighttime grass after rehearsals.
Blue is for my husband who is so often asleep, especially in the daytime. He exhales blue air so loudly when he sleeps that I forget a line of poetry each time. He is as vast and massive as the blue sky always, but more so at night. The stage lights shine on him with their small blue incandescent flames, and his white costume glows. People who wouldn’t even stop to speak to him on the street during the day come alive under that diamond light, reflected in their greedy eyes. When he grabs and pulls at my skin the night sky spreads across it in dark pools. Here he is, and here, and here underneath the shirt of my costume, and here.
When he first came to me, he came to me in pink—young as I was with my unripe skin just beginning to turn color. He left the dark berry print of his thumb where he tested its pliancy. I made no sound with my mouth, but a light pink film passed over the whites of my eyes. I could barely see through their golden rims. Still he looked fresh to me, flesh I didn’t know and hadn’t yet been forced to scrub and caress every day of my tiny life. Even so, I don’t think I would have gone with him if my mother hadn’t sewn the fat gold coins he gave her into the skirts of her best black dress. After that, there was nowhere else to go.
Green here does not mean envy, though the other wives I meet along the road tell me so. There is nothing to envy here. Green is the color of new things, things like my new name: Pulcinella’s Wife. No last name—only rich husbands can afford to give last names away, city husbands. Just a first name, a new one, not the one that was pressed into my forehead when I was born and scrawled onto the covers of my own books when I still knew poems by heart. And stories! I used to be able to read stories even when they were turned upside-down. Now I doubt I would even recognize a story if I saw one. These days I only know the outlines of plays, and my own monologues in the zibaldone I inherited from I don’t even want to imagine what vanished creature, my predecessor.
Once when we played in a town with a large and important university, one of the professors tried to describe to me a musical play written by a Russian painter. He said it was an opera of colors—all the characters are colors, who sing and dance and occasionally turn into mountains. I could not imagine it. I wanted to know how a character could sing yellow, but the professor sensed my ignorance and offered no further explanation. His face turned sallow and his lips soured when I told him about the play we would be playing in the town that night. I could tell he didn’t like the sound of it. We were not the colors he had hoped we would be. He never came to see us, but that night I tried to act my part as though I were the color red. Not Red Columbina, who might be angry or passionate or in love, but Red itself. I couldn’t do it.
I put a streak of white in my hair with a cloth dipped in costume bleach that I found in the stage manager’s wagon. A streak in the front over my forehead to make me look wild, but it didn’t come out quite right. The stage manager complains and complains that it’s too strange for a Columbina—the innocent, the ingénue—and she’s always pinning it up into a little crown of fresh white flowers to mask the contrast. The stage manager’s own hair is a basket of silver wires shot through with black, so striking—but when I point this out she reminds me that she never appears on stage, except to move furniture. My skin is deep olive from the sun with peach beneath, so the streak of white hair looks especially witching, for all its unevenness.
When we were alone the professor swore he would take me in, wrap me up in the lavender quilt that sits folded at the end of his bed until I grew truly warm again. I imagined him singing yellow to me. He told me he would be in the audience that night—standing room only in a dirty parking lot beneath our outdoor stage—where I might know him by the deep purple coat and lavender tie he always wears to the theatre. I searched and searched for him, as hard as my golden eyes have ever sought for anything, but I never found him. The thought of him turned gray beneath that midnight stage. My husband’s blue must be made to understand.
Here is red because I remembered—and here—and here. Here is red because I remembered every time the blue spread across me, every time your fat pink fingers grabbed at what is rightfully mine, every time white waves of angry sound exploded from between your wet red lips. Red in the chest, red across the throat, red from the nose and ears and even beginning from the corners of the flat black eyes. This I will remember. Red everywhere. Yes, yes, I will remember.
E.C. Messer holds an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Theatre from UCLA. Her work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, the Columbia Journal, Faultline and Caketrain, among others, and is forthcoming from Diagram. Her piece "Anna in 22 Parts: Both Slowly & Quickly" also appeared as a Misfit Doc in Queen Mob's in 2016. She lives in San Francisco and Pismo Beach, California. Image: Improvisation 19, Wassily Kandinsky, 1910