The colour came into Oyan by the dyes on silks. Gur Toyehn split the first case, trying to pilfer a slip for his girl, and his hand came out smeared in the stuff. He laid eyes upon it and saw straight through a nothing that had always been there, a solid nowhere that could not be, but was. He staggered back, reaching for something real, and thunked against the storehouse wall. He slid to the floor, his hand still out in front, still impossible. They found him the next morning, coddling a bloody stump, with an axe pinned tight against his chest. His hand was beneath a pail, and he begged them not to show it. They kicked the pail over and saw the greyed appendage. Nothing was amiss, except for it being no longer on the end of Gur’s arm. The colour, by that point, was already out.
It could not be seen by cows. They were the only creature spared. When rats saw it, they froze until they burst. When cats saw it, they clawed their own eyes out. When cockerels saw it, they charged it, pecked it, and within an hour or two their combs were changed. And so, the colour roamed the farmyards and called new victims to see it. But the cows remained oblivious, the happiest creatures the whole known world. The blindfolded sexton took the bodies to the meadow with the cattle, hoping for some miracle bovine cure. Raw beef became a staple meal, but it made no difference.
It was Nina who suggested a black-and-white conversion. She claimed to cut lenses that rendered all monochrome, which would be set in frames of copper wire, much like the rich people did in the capital. She said that looking upon the colour with her oclars sent the thing to the depths of slate grey and made it benign. But they would have to be worn at all times and none could go without. Despite the madness, despite the pains, despite the death, many refused. How were they to work with such machinery about their faces? What of God’s greens and reds and his sky blues? Were they to be so banished?
The colour got into the stained glass of the chapel. It felled a whole congregation in one false sermon. Survivors set the place ablaze first chance they got.
Two in Oyan were blind, three others colourblind. It was they who converted the Caltuck Caves as the new place of worship. Only those wearing Nina’s oclars could attend, but by then that was most. Bolio the herbalist preached black-and-white saturation. He stroked the damp stone and called it bedrock. He said it came before all else and was, therefore, the purest of all matter, the matter most pure. It held no colour, he said, because colour is pretension; colour is passion; colour is excess. He piled the silks and lit a fire and told them all to warm themselves on the flickering white, then cool themselves on the solid grey above. He said: this is all they needed. He said: this is all there is.
The colour grew bored and left them. It seeped down between the cracks, on the hunt for new victims. It found itself trapped in the cavernous depths. Time and weight pressed down on it, crushed it from stain to crystal. It became a mineral and leached into passing waters. It was mined by descendants of the Oyans and set into jewellery. One piece went to the bishop, who in turn gifted it to the Pope. The Pope stood upon marble with the colour on his finger. Worshippers queued to kiss him, but their lips only ever met the jewel, not his skin. He muttered phrases in an old language that they did not understand. He said: I am all you need. He said: I am all there is.
David Hartley is a writer of strange short stories based in Manchester, UK. His latest collection is Fauna, a menagerie of weird tales about animals. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester and tweets at @DHartleyWriter.
A Song for David