“Blue” by Kelly Marshall

02Feb09

Caleb’s choice of crayon today was a deep, rich blue. Midnight Blue, like the ocean, Miranda thought, as her son made wavelike motions on the page and water appeared. His fingers eased a bit, creating highlights on the crests of the waves that gently lapped over each other. More pressure and the murky blue depths of the ocean bottom. He didn’t always draw monochromatically, but today, in his playroom, Miranda knew he was feeling very blue indeed. Caleb stopped suddenly, perhaps sensing a change in the air around him. He turned away from his Fisher Price easel and toward the playroom door, where Miranda was watching and her new boyfriend David was leaning, his face Peach and Antique Brass.

Miranda had learned to think in colors after seven years of living with Caleb. The sun was not yellow, it was Laser Lemon, a carrot was Outrageous Orange, her favorite dress a Radical Red. She learned this by watching Caleb draw them, and afterward she would read the crayon names out loud. My lipstick is Shocking Pink? Are you sure? But of course he couldn’t hear or answer.

David went and laid a hand on Caleb’s shoulder, spinning him around, but he couldn’t quite interpret the expression on the silent child’s face. A shadow of life rushed through his cheeks, up into his eyes, and then away, until there was nothing but a cavernous depth to him that seemed to parallel Caleb’s drawing.  

Caleb turned back to the ocean now, dropping the blue crayon and surprisingly selecting a bright, complementary Yellow-Orange. As he worked, the sun’s last rays began to fade over the water’s edge. Next, some Ochre, a bit of Fuchsia, a bold dash of that Radical Red. If Caleb had looked back just then, he would have seen the dawning fascination of David and Miranda’s conflicting pride and distress. But he never turned.

His silence penetrated them and lingered for whole minutes, and finally, not knowing what else to do, they retreated into the kitchen to discuss remedies for his restrained behavior and the cultivation of raw talent.

After finalizing plans with David, Miranda snuck into the playroom an hour later to check on her son. Caleb caught her as always, staring with his big, blank, Sea Green eyes that pressed into her lightly like a newly sharpened crayon.

Caleb, she said mostly to herself. I’ve planned something for you. Maybe then you’ll let us into your wordless existence.  

 

He didn’t talk because he didn’t want to. He couldn’t hear because he had drowned everyone else out long ago when he discovered he could draw and give himself whatever he wanted or needed at his easel.

When he felt the air from the closing door brush his cheek, Caleb meticulously placed his crayons back in their proper places in his Crayola Classic 96-Color Flip-Top pack and studied his picture. He didn’t regard anything he colored as a masterpiece, only what came into his head. He drew the places he wanted to be, places he saw in his picture books while his mother flipped the pages slowly, reading the story. He colored the scenes he wished he could step into, where people knew what he was thinking all the time, where he could play without speaking or making people cry. One time his mother had opened a book and he saw a boy named Harold, the only other person who knew how to color his own world like Caleb himself. Except Harold used a lot of Purple, and not everything was that color.

Caleb opened the box again and chose Raw Sienna. He touched the crayon’s sharpened tip to the paper, sketching lightly, filling it with texture until the pier was fully formed. He was careful to clean up after himself, sealing his crayon box with an old, scraggly piece of tape so they wouldn’t fall out when he wanted them later.

He touched his fingers to the page, closing them around the wooden rail, lifting himself up onto the pier, and walked to the edge. He sat down and let his small legs dangle in the crisp, Midnight Blue water, looking out at his beautiful ocean world.

For the first time in months, Caleb smiled.

 

They arrived at the museum office early, too early in fact. Miranda had to rip a page out of her planner and lend Caleb her Cross pen until David showed up. It had been enough of a struggle to get him out of his playroom and into the car; the last thing she needed was more time for him to start feeling anxious again. Especially after the security guard had tried to greet him in words and not colors. It was frustrating for her son, she knew. He barely even made contact with her, and well-intentioned strangers often shut him down completely. She hoped this would be an exercise in liberation for once, and not suppression.

When he arrived, David had hidden a box of pastels behind his back. Caleb looked up, and David motioned for him to pick a hand. Caleb stared blankly, as if to point out that he was deaf, not a silly kid amused by guessing games. Miranda fidgeted with her purse. David handed Caleb the box with an easy smile and led him out of the office to a child-size easel set up in the corner of the museum lobby. Miranda watched her son open the pastels, his fingers rushing over them in excitement and bewilderment. She had never thought to give him anything so sophisticated before. She thought of this moment as his first step into the real world, an opportunity to show everyone (and herself?) that he could excel at something besides tuning people out. He looked at her skeptically, and she nodded to say, Go ahead. It’s all for you.

His first stroke was cautious, timid, a bland Apricot, if it had been a crayon. The second was larger but reserved. He put the pastel back in the box and took out a new one, a sort of Cornflower, and bravely swooped it over the canvas, trying it out. Gaining confidence, he began making little circular motions that produced for him a small patch of flowers. Only once in the next fifteen minutes did he look up to see people gathering.

Caleb didn’t care if anyone watched him draw. His mother watched often, sometimes pressing the edges of a tissue to the corners of her eyes, wilting it away. He knew what crying was, though he’d never done it, and he knew that sometimes it happened when his mother was with him, and sometimes when the man that gave him the easel left their house, and sometimes when she spoke to the man in the gray hat that brought him cookies and took him to the park. Caleb didn’t like him because he was gray and the park was Royal Purple and Forest Green and Carnation Pink. They didn’t fit together, so in his pictures Caleb usually left the gray man out, and his mother cried.

He liked these new coloring sticks, he decided. They were rougher than crayons but went on smoother. By now there were many lines and gestures on his canvas, but they made a strange sense to him, and so he kept going. He felt something odd in his stomach, a new sensation, like the first time he ever used Electric Lime, the best crayon. He suddenly wanted his mother to feel it too, to be like him, and so he looked around until he found her standing off to the side and reached out to her. She came and he put a pastel into her wet hand and waited for her to draw. Finally she made a leaf, too simply, and Caleb saw she was crying again. Suddenly, he knew how to finish the picture.

Miranda knew she was ruining his art with her tears, and so she stepped back and rummaged around in her purse for some tissues.

David put a hand on her shoulder gently. Good idea, he’s taking to the pastels well. They make his art seem abstract instead of childish.  

She didn’t answer, but as she brought her head back up, she spotted something drastically out of place in his picture. It was the color gray.

Caleb leaned back ever so slightly to admire the effect of his garden, glistening and alive. He was satisfied with his picture. He looked at the Vivid Violet flowers, the trees of Tumbleweed and Tropical Rain Forest, the grass of a brilliant Yellow-Green. And yet the thing that stood out the most was the gray. Surrounded by all the colors of his new pastels, Caleb thought the man looked right at home this time. And so he grabbed onto a grass blade and hoisted himself inside the garden, and walked toward the man, who gave him a hug and an ice-cream cone. Caleb wanted desperately for his mother to be like him again, to be in the picture with him, so he hopped out and reached to his mother for the second time.

Miranda thought he wanted her to draw again, but she couldn’t bear to mark up his canvas with her uninspired stick drawings. He grabbed her hand instead and placed it on the page with his own small one, right where he had placed his father. Caleb’s touch, voluntary and heartfelt, was overwhelming to her after so little access to his life, and she drew back. Caleb tried again, but she couldn’t do it. Not right away. It was too much, that thing she had craved since he was born, too sudden.

And then she felt immediately that she had made a mistake. Caleb dropped her hand, and his eyes glazed over as he sunk into his little chair. People entering the museum slowed and, seeing that there wasn’t anything to watch but a pouting child, dispersed again quickly. The two never moved until finally David suggested they could try again some other time. Miranda nodded and began packing up the pastels. Someday soon she would bring them out again, when she was ready.

Caleb’s sensation was replaced by an even newer one – something he recognized as sadness. He whipped the box out of his mother’s hands, grabbing the darkest pastel he could find, dragging it down the page, then another. Beaver, Eggplant, Mahogany, and finally Shadow, until the only thing left of his garden was a dull, muddy brown. Caleb climbed inside it and looked out to the world, wondering what color tears were.

Kelly Marshall is a recent graduate of Boston College, where she developed a true passion for writing alongside her theater arts major. She has written articles for her high school, local and college newspapers, as well as a large collection of short stories and creative nonfiction. She is currently pursuing a career in ad copywriting and would love to continue sharing her work as long as her fingers can still type.

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Notes from Chad Peterson, Associate Editor
There is a wonderful simplicity about “Blue” that I found very compelling. It reads very cleanly, with such judicious and effective word choices. At the same time, there is a depth to this story, and the terseness of the writing gives us greater ability to sink into those depths. I also particularly liked the use of color to embellish the story, and more thoroughly sketch out the characters in it. We’ve all heard of the concept that the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to life (or nature). I’m thrilled to have the chance to publish a story that is, in essence, art holding a mirror up to art holding a mirror up to life.

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Comments on this story by Maureen Connolly, author of “Seeing”
“Blue” uses color as a kind of objective correlative. The feeling tone of the story is strong. Caleb doesn’t talk or hear because he prefers to be in the world of his drawings. His mother Miranda deeply feels his emotional absence. Without words, what does one intuit or guess, from gestures, movements, expressions, color?

Point of view alternations between Miranda and her seven-year-old son give the reader insights unavailable to the characters. Miranda feels hopeful, and at story’s end overwhelmed. Caleb reaches out to his mother in hope, and feels defeated when she can’t respond. There is a collision of their needs. The climax is intense and compact. This story has a circle shape: it begins with Caleb’s lack of tears and ends with him able to feel sadness, as he wonders about the color of tears.




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