Anhelo, Ode to Color: A Short Story
Cours d'eau sous les arbres, Martinique, Paul Gauguin. Public domain, copyright expired.
She didn't mind the dark. Her eyesight had dimmed so she preferred not to look through fogged lenses at a milky universe. Instead a kinetoscope of stored images played against her shuttered eyelids.
"Hijos," in her relaxed moments she fell into the vernacular of her youth on the . "I cannot teach you to paint. To paint you must see. And to see you must look. No one can do that for you."
She lapsed into silence as the images in her mind distracted her from the cravings of the young at her feet.
"But Grandmother, we do not know how to begin. We have no experience in these things, no one to teach us, except you. Even those who understand, who remember, do not have the courage to speak."
The slender hand, almost transparent, let go of her chair and reached for the hand of a young one. "When the sun is new tomorrow morning, barely risen over the distant plain, watch the play of on the field, on the sky, on your flesh. See. You cannot paint, you cannot create, until you see."
She rested her hand once again on the armchair, and leaned back. The young ones recognized this signal and quietly rose, all except for one. Always one stayed behind to keep vigil over the treasure known to them as Grandmother.
It was believed Grandmother was only one of a dozen Anhelos who survived the Great Purge, although so much secrecy surrounded the sect that it was possible many more were in hiding. Rumors surfaced occasionally of an Anhelo discovered and Adjusted, but these reports were likely urban legend, for there had never been official recognition of Anhelo's existence.
The origin of the sect was lost in the maw of oral tradition. Whispers in dark corners perpetuated the legend. Some suggested the sect arose spontaneously in the era of the First Caudillo, who was color blind. This proposition was dismissed by sensible people, because it insinuated that the whim of a self-absorbed individual was responsible for the Great Revolution. Such a notion was heresy, and struck at the core of equilibrium that had prevailed since the Caudillo waged his successful battle for global dominance. One world order. One world perspective. A unity of purpose and vision premised on essential Tenets of Faith: The Order of Black, Grey, and White.
The First Tenet, from which all others flowed was:
It is universally acknowledged that visual stimulation separates people.
Humans are by nature primitive. In order for society to function, primitive inclinations must be curbed. This training begins from the First Days. Just as one is taught not to take merely because one covets, and one learns not to strike merely because one is angry, then one must learn to filter images from cerebral processing that would be inimical to the General Good.
The Second Tenet:
Temptation exists everywhere.
Temptation and Will are in a perpetual struggle. We must school ourselves to abhor manifestations of nature that appeal to lower life forms, insects and plants, but that are corrosive to human solidarity. The lower orders require for survival and propagation sensual displays. They require visual stimulation to navigate and collect food. Humans do not require such depravity. It is by creating this distinction between low orders of life and humanity that the Creator has set us above all species on earth. Human superiority resides in the preference for Black, Grey and White. Humans reproduce optimally in an environment of Black, Grey, and White. Human conflict is reduced in the uniformity of appearance offered by Black, Grey, and White.
Grandmother was aware that a young one had stayed with her. She was not indifferent to the reverence that insured she would always have at her side one of these Initiates. It was not a service she sought. The many years ago when she abandoned Black, Grey and White to become an Anhelo, she knew she was breaking with Authority and this likely would insure a life of alienation. But she had no choice. She found it impossible to deny a hunger for color.
She was young then, perhaps not quite as young as the acolyte who watched over her on this night. But too young to realize how difficult it would be to live in opposition to the Authority. There were many more Anhelos at that time. The Authority had only been in existence for forty years. Many of her elders remembered the time Before. These people were always held in suspicion, because it was not considered possible that there could be true Belief if training was not begun in the first months of life. Unless an individual was born with the Gift of Black, Grey and White. Born in this state, one was essentially clean.
Her difficulty with the Faith had begun early. When she was a toddler no amount of punishment would stop her from pointing at insects that hovered over in pursuit of nectar. In grade school she would protest to her teachers, "But I see them. The plants are not Black, Grey or White. What is the name by which I may call them?"
Her teachers would blanch and instruct her in the tenets.
"Not all that exists in the universe is fit for humans. We use the toilet when we must relieve ourselves, because that function is disgusting. We deny thirst when we are in class, because we cannot disturb others with our individual need. And, we obliterate from our consciousness obscene aspects of nature that are outside Black, Grey and White. If we perceive another presence, if we seek to name the unmentionable, we allow their insidious influence to puncture the uniformity that cements peaceful human interaction."
Yolanda--for she would not be called Grandmother for another eighty years-- learned after many hours in school detention that she needed to control her tongue. She no longer gave voice to objections that formed in her mind. And, as she grew older, she realized that expressing doubts, even to her peers, was hazardous. She became a loner, one who was marked by peculiar, unhealthy impulses. Everyone knew that such a person, if not Conformed, would be Adjusted upon reaching maturity.
The first irresistible temptation came when she was eighteen. This was delivered on a slip of paper, one carried on a gust of wind that presaged a looming thunderstorm. The slip of paper was white, but on it was a mark that was like the plants she saw in the fields. She could not give the mark a name, because she had not been taught the name for this thing, but it pleased her. It answered the hunger she had felt all her life.
She tucked the paper in her pocket and when she arrived home hid it in the back of her black dresser drawer. She would wait for the house to be quiet at night, and then would take the paper to her bed and look at the mark with her flashlight. She became obsessed. This mark was a denial of everything the Authority taught. Who had made it? Had someone sent this paper on the wind in the hope it would find a sympathetic eye?
She knew, at last, others of her kind existed. She began to hunt. A year passed before she came across someone doing the Forbidden--staring at that had bloomed in a field. This person was not a farmer. Farmers were specially equipped to resist contamination. They submitted to annual screening to make certain they did not slide into corruption. No, the person who paused and stared at the flowers was a passerby, perhaps a student much like herself.
Yolanda sidled up next to the gazer. He did not show surprise. What was it about her that led him to expect her approach? She did not know enough then to understand how subtle signs could communicate sensitivity.
Neither of them spoke as they stood, in stark defiance of Regulation, and beheld the field.
"Color," he said. "That's the word for it. And there are different names for different colors. There's yellow--the bright ones that look like sunshine. And blue, they look like the clear patch of sky over there. There's so much to know. If you care, come here tonight at 8." He slipped her a piece of paper with--now she knew the word--color on it. There was an address. This was the beginning for her. That night she became an Anhelo.
For sixty-five years she lived in color. All she had to do was open her eyes. All she had to do was see. This she had done surreptitiously through her youth, but now she could drink it in. There was no conflict. She realized now why the Anhelos were suppressed. If everyone accepted this joy, then Black, Grey and White would merely be background to the spectrum of visual sensation nature offered.
Her initiation into the sect was rapid. Soon she learned not only names for colors, but how to bring them to life by crushing flowers and natural chalks together. She learned how to express her hunger by creating color images with her original pigments.
"The bright colors are seductive," her mentor advised her. "But explore the shades between. There is so much nuance, an infinite array of possibilities. The only limitation is your ability to imagine and to see." She grew close to him, Carlos, her mentor, who soon became her lover and then her spouse. They did that in the Anhelos. They bonded and chose their mates among the group. How else could they live with this grand secret?
It was dangerous. They were hunted. They moved frequently, and left her beloved Pampas. They had to be careful not to give themselves away. An indication of color awareness in an individual might be signaled by something as simple as lingering at farm stands and staring at brightly colored produce. , strawberries and oranges were common lures.
Fields and farms were off limits for all civilians. Only those employed in the profession were allowed on farm reserves. The environment was considered too provocative for the average person. Too much concentrated color.
She had children, but she and Carlos kept their secret from the children, because this was a life that had to be chosen. It was far too perilous to impose on another. If the children showed indications of color hunger as they matured, they might be invited to share in the beauty of the spectrum. Oddly, sadly, neither of her children showed an interest. They adhered absolutely to the strictures of the Authority.
She lived with Carlos for fifty years. She was at his side when he died, peacefully, at home. Her children had wandered to different parts of the country. They kept in touch but had their own lives. One of them even found work with the Authority, in bulletin preparation.
Meetings with other Anhelos became scarce as members of the sect were detected and Adjusted. Or, as they died off.
She was detected when she was 83. Age had made her incautious. A lifetime of vigilance was exhausting. She never discovered who reported her and she couldn't figure out how she had slipped up. But once she was called in for examination they were able to observe her heightened reaction to color on PET scans during interrogation. There was no question about her guilt.
The Adjustment took place within a few days. Even at her age the risk of contaminating others was considered great. Surgeons had perfected the first cone extirpation technique soon after the Great Revolution. Not perfected, but performed. The eyesight of those cleansed was often damaged to a great degree. Not just color but acuity was lost. In some cases, total blindness resulted. Surgeons who chose to specialize in this field were often not of the highest caliber. The object was to remove color. The fate of the offender was not much considered.
After her Extirpation Yolanda lost touch with her children. More precisely, they cut her off because they were horrified by her behavior. It would be difficult for people to believe that all their lives these children had been unaware their mother and father were Anhelos. Survival and continued success in society required a complete break.
And so Grandmother--for now, though her children had rejected her, others began to regard her with respect and call her by this title--retired to a small apartment. Meager savings allowed her to provide for herself modestly. The visits from the curious young began quite soon after retirement.
These young ones had a hunger she'd never seen in her own children. The acolytes feared the attention that gazing at fields would attract, so they glanced furtively and tried to hold the memory in their minds. They would speak of these sightings to Grandmother when they visited.
"I don't understand where the hunger comes from," she explained. "Why do some have the yearning and others not? Why do some have courage to pursue the yearning, and others not? I don't know. There is one thing I do understand. Once the hunger has arisen, it will stay with you the rest of your life. It is as natural as breathing to those who have experienced it."
"Grandmother, how old were you when you first felt the hunger?" The young one who had stayed behind to keep vigil caught her in a moment of wakefulness. It was always this way. The ones who stayed behind, used their time to learn. They knew Grandmother was fading and hung on her words as gems of received wisdom.
"I was born with it, child," she answered. "It was never a choice. The choice was in defying the Authority and becoming an Anhelo. That, also, was not much of a choice, so strong was the urge in me. It just needed opportunity."
"When did you learn to paint?"
"That came quickly, after I acquired the skill of mixing pigments. The power in my own vision, and at the tip of my fingers, was a driving force in my early years. Of course I had to destroy the paper upon which I painted once I was finished. But the work, it is here with me now. I see it always. And the work of others. We shared our inspiration and fed the of all members in the group."
"Were you all painters?"
"Not really. Some felt the urge to paint. Some merely to mix color so they could better understand. Some merely drank in the beauty with their eyes."
"What happened to the Anhelos?"
"Many had their sight taken from them. Some perished as they ran, and tried to escape. The Authority values above all else the catch, not so much the life of the captive."
"How many of you are left?"
"I live in this apartment, my days coming soon to an end. Are there others? I don't know. But there need not be Anhelos for art to flourish. You will be art. All it takes is a hunger and you have that. Feed the hunger."
"I'm afraid, Grandmother."
"Yes, be afraid. But know that the Authority is a temporal entity. It will pass. All forms of government pass, eventually. But color is eternal. It is an inseparable part of the universe. Be discrete but rejoice in color."
Grandmother began to breathe heavily after this last statement. The acolyte perhaps had pressed her too hard for information. Never had she spoken for so long, in his memory. He watched her chest rise and fall,her mouth open as she reached for air. It struck him. She was dying. Sorrow overwhelmed him with that realization. And then the sense of duty to remember everything she said. He now became a vessel for her wisdom. Thus had it been passed among the young for years, the words of color. He recalled her last statement. It stayed with him his whole life.
"Rejoice in color."
This story was originally intended to be part of @calluna's tellastorytome contest. The prompt was provocative: A permanent blackout forces mankind to rely on books for knowledge once held at the tap of a finger. Unfortunately, this is not the story I wrote. Sometimes that happens. What I learned in writing, though, was that it's really good to hang around with creative people. I never would have discovered @calluna if I hadn't participated in another contest: finishthestory, sponsored by @bananafish. Whether or not I win a contest, I find myself creating more, and enjoying it more, because I'm engaged. That's really the best prize.