[Image: Blue Noon by Lucie Bonvalet]
I. The Desert
From the peak of the tallest mountain, I can see the whole blue desert with its graphite sun. Our sun a stain, a smudge. As if someone used a thick oily graphite stick to erase the sun, to block its light.
The blue sands shift hues throughout the days, the nights, the seasons. Cobalt blue, ultramarine, turquoise. No other colors: a pale grey sky, a black sun, blue dunes.
I say the dunes are made of blue sands, but in reality, I do not know. It looks like sand, it has the texture of sand. Warm to the touch always, even at night, it stains the skin. Permanently. Like a tattoo.
I do not know what has happened because I was born after. Some people who were born before are still alive, but most have become insane. Among the very few who have not, no one speaks. It is taboo to put words to describe the world that no longer is and what happened to it. We are only taught there used to be more than three colors, but it’s forbidden to name the ones that disappeared.
I love the mountains. I love sleeping on the dusty earth, under the pale grey sky (during the summer weeks, night never really falls). In the night I can hear lizards hunting among blue sage, thistles, ceanothus. One morning I found one unique dark-blue flower on a small grey cactus. I ate it immediately.
Among the children born after it is believed that if you ever find in the desert an animal or a plant that has the same color as your skin, you must eat it raw. That was the first time I ever found a living thing that was of the same color as my skin. But after I ate it, nothing happened. I do not know what it was I was hoping for, but nothing happened. The flower was delicious. Much sweeter than ants juice, or even more complex than the rich thick roasted paste of cockroaches we feast on through winter months.
The great majority of us is born with blue skin. The range of mutated skin colors goes from blue-grey to mauve to ultramarine. Some of us have night vision. Our scotopic adaptation varies widely in strength and complexity. Some of us claim to have discovered one new color at night. But they are at a loss how to name it or to describe it.
A prophecy says: one day the graphite sun will melt into a black rain that will fall on the blue dunes, heal the earth. A new sun will appear, ancient colors will be restored.
Some doubt the prophecy to be true. Some believe, but secretly worship the graphite sun and do not want it to melt. The majority is preparing, through rituals of purification, for the advent of colors.
II. The Story of A.
My name is A. I was born before. I am the mother of the first child born after. I was already pregnant when the graphite sun came. I do not remember the coming of the graphite sun. I do not remember anything about my life before. I remember my name used to be more than one letter. The other letters were erased together with the colors, all the colors that once were.
I can remember the names of all the colors. I cherish the names but I no longer remember the colors themselves. Sometimes they appear to me in dreams, vividly, but by morning I can no longer recreate them in my mind’s eye. I swore I would never pronounce their names out loud. But sometimes I tell them to myself in silence at night. Sometimes I want to forget. Sometimes I want to remember.
I have a recurrent dream. Perhaps a fragment of memory from something that truly took place days or hours before the graphite sun: from the entrance of a cave, hidden as best as I can from the-sun-that-once-was, I watch the desert with my binoculars. The desert is not blue. The light is blinding. I see lost colors I refuse to name. I see a creature. Perhaps a large lizard. Perhaps a hairless cat. It jumps out of a hole in the sand, attempts to run, dies within seconds, his skin turning black like charcoal.
Another version of the dream exists in which I am the creature. Perhaps I am forced out of my hole. Perhaps I want to commit suicide. I smell melted tar, fear and burned flesh. My last sight before I die and I wake up is a human, clothed in what looks like a worn-out antiquated tantalum carbide suit, watching me burn through binoculars.
My child was born with a long deformed skull, very large brown eyes, and ultramarine skin. I was soothed by the thought that she would not survive. But they told me she was strong. I did not believe them. They asked me to name her. I refused. For several days after the birth, I stared at her staring at me. Her skull was slowly changing shape, becoming rounded, more human-like. But her skin would remain forever the color of a mutated desert, the color of my sorrow. It ached me to nurture her. I resisted the urge to kill her and eat her. I was so hungry all the time. I gave her to another tribe.
Last winter, I saw them. They told me she survived, but she left them recently to travel with others born after, like her. They said she looks like me. I did not ask her name.
0. The disaster of being born
At the beginning, there was only water. I swam, bodyless, inside of Her. Night and day were one. She and I were one. I slept soaked in dreams and water. Perhaps my dreams fused with hers too. I perceived a myriad of complex sounds from the outside. Voices. But the main sound, the one I bathed in and that shaped me, was the sound of her heart.
That was all before. Before everything broke. Her waters broke. Night and day broke into two pieces. She and I broke into two bodies. They cut the cord of flesh between us. My skull did not break because it was soft and pliable. When they used force to extract me from her, my skull did not break but changed shape the way the body of an octopus can change shape.
I had a body, but I did not know it. I could not tell where it started and where it stopped. Outside of her waters, everything burned. The cold air on my skin burned. The air inside my lungs burned horribly. When the air came inside my lungs and forced me to breathe for the first time, I screamed. My first knowledge of the world was the pain of breathing. Lights flashed and burned my eyes. I had eyes, but I did not know how to use them, I only knew that light broke and burned and divided things. Sounds, voices, I could discern and trust.
From then on life would keep burning slowly every day and at night I could try to pretend to go back to her, my body resuming the same exact position it had inside of her. Inside of sleep, my body disappearing and fusing with night.
The complete absence of memories from this event forms a sort of burn too. Or perhaps I do have memories, but they are archived somewhere in my body where I am not granted access. Perhaps the memories are kept inside the waters that constitute my body.
II. Lessons of darkness and colors
What is a desert? The desert is absence, longing. The desert is abandonment. Once you enter the desert, you are deserted. The desert is silence. The silence of the desert has immense reverberations. The desert is light, pure light, raw light and it burns the skin. Inside the desert, secret oasis, mirages, hidden wells, underground tunnels built by unknown animals. The desert is full of water, but only for those who know where to dig for it. The desert, a maze of traps. The nocturnal wind is so violent up in the mountains, it drives humans insane. Gradually they lose their minds, they lose most of the words from their mother tongue because of the wind. The desert will give you new vowels. The desert is pregnant with invisible colors.
The bird encounters the girl in the mountains of the desert. The bird is black. The girl is blue. The bird migrates with the two seasons, just like the girl. He spends his summers high up in the mountains. In the winter he hides and nests inside the turquoise caves in the South, just like the girl. The bird is born after, too. But the bird, a tetrachromat creature, sees colors, all sorts of colors the girl cannot perceive. In the bird’s eye, his feathers are iridescent, magnificent, with complex shades of mauve, blue, even yellow, a color most humans have never seen or forgotten. His feathers absorb and reflect back all the great beauty of the desert, invisible to humans.
The bird observes the girl for a long time, out of curiosity. The bird is extremely curious and playful by nature. The girl is not. The bird notices that her eyes rarely meets the horizon line when she walks. Instead, she stares at the gnarled dried roots of sagebrushes, she kicks rocks with the tips of her blue boots. The bird concludes she’s starving, always prowling, hoping for a lizard or a hidden nest to steal the eggs.
One day at dawn he follows her. He sees her wandering on the rockiest windiest versant of the highest peak, where humans rarely go. The bird stays at a distance and hops from rock to rock. Whenever she turns around and stares in his direction, he pretends to look for ants, scratches the dust with his talons. Is she pretending not to see him? Will she attack him if she sees him? He cannot tell. But his wings, when spread wide, are nearly as long as her arms. His beak is as sharp as glass. He knows ways to scare her off if he needs to.
She seems to be looking for something. Now she is on her hands and knees among rocks. Her face, enwrapped in her long hair full of wind, blue dust, black twigs, radiates with mauve and yellow iridescences only the bird sees. She crawls among cacti. She is about to cut the large blue flower of a small cactus. She wants to eat it. As she brings the flower to her lips the bird snatches the flower from her fingers. He lands nearby, on top of a large blue rock. He stares at her, defiant.
He doesn’t eat the flower. He waits to see what she might do. She opens her lips, articulates forlorn sounds muffled by the wind. Nothing in her body language he reads as hostile. He only reads starvation in her eyes, the lost look of a doomed species, hunted for too long by its own kind. Partial blindness. Strength too. Her strength he likes. He wants to tame her. Teach her things. He will start by teaching her how precious and rare a cactus flower is. She has no idea. He will land on her head, repeatedly. He will direct her gaze towards important things: the horizon line, the light, pregnant with lost colors just behind the dunes. He will use the weight and sharpness of his talons to direct her. He will tap on her head, translate the colors of the desert into complex rhythms. Their restored shadow will form a totem, visible on the blue dust, deformed by the mountain rocks. The colors will enter her skull as echoes via the bird’s talons. He will start with dawns, cacti, feathers.
Winter comes all at once in the blue desert. Night falls in the middle of an afternoon like a heavy curtain. It then never fully leaves the earth for months, until the following summer. The graphite sun disappears almost completely during the winter months. No transition exists between the two seasons. We must leave the mountains and migrate towards the turquoise caves in the South before the first signs of winter. If we are caught up in the mountains when the winds change, when the graphite sun is no longer visible in the grey skies, we will not survive.
Most creatures now have left the mountains, except for one bird, perhaps a pinyon jay, but terrifyingly large for its species. Once, weeks ago, it landed on my head. I was scared it wanted to harm me, perhaps pierce and eat my eyes. But nothing happened. It stayed on my head and though the pain of its sharp talons on my scalp was more than I could bear, I did not move. I was too scared to move.
There are signs we are taught in order to know when to leave the mountains and start the seven-day hike towards the turquoise caves: when the desert kingsnake sheds its blue skin, when lizards nests are empty, when you stare at the dunes from the highest mountain at dawn and you see the sands oscillate between manganese and cerulean, but all the other different nuances that exist during the summer months: cobalt, turquoise, ultramarine, lapis, sapphire, have disappeared.
But this year, something happened. I stayed too long in the mountains. I stayed alone too long. When the others left, I promised them I would catch up, I would only stay one more night, perhaps two in the mountains, then I would follow them towards the caves. But the truth is, I don’t want to leave. I know the consequences. Every morning at dawn, my fingers and toes numb with cold, I hike the highest versant, where cacti grow. I stare at the dunes, I measure the impossible. The sands are not losing colors, on the contrary. Every morning the light coming from the graphite sun breaks, splits, radiates in new ways. Its beams snake through the sands, undulate, shift colors. Colors I so long to name, but words fail me. Colors I want to pair with lost vowels of dead languages. Colors I want to learn to worship like animal-deities. I perceive an impossible lost warmth coming from the earth, buried deep below the blue, though my skin registers the colder and colder winds and I am weakened by starvation. I should have left, but I did not. I could not. And yes, the nights lengthen. Some mornings I fear dawn will not come. And yes, lizards’ nests are now empty. Hunting has become harder every day, but I cannot leave. I have become obsessed with the changing lights at dawn. Each morning, they vibrate differently. Each morning, though the graphite sun appears more and more like the ghost of itself, an empty grey eggshell, with strange, visible indigo fissures on its surface, its rays I perceive sharper, though devoid of warmth. I ache more from the lack of words for my new colors than from the cold. Any moment now I wait for something to take shape or to disappear, or both. Perhaps inside of me, perhaps far away, beyond the horizon line, buried deep in the ground or the sky.
Lucie Bonvalet is a writer, a visual artist and a teacher. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Michigan Quarterly Review, 3AM, Fugue, Oregon Humanities, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Word Riot, and Shirley Magazine. Her drawings and paintings can be found in Old Pal magazine and on Instagram.