Once long ago there was a lone town in the wild mountain country where the people wore clothes only of plain white, since none among them knew the art of staining cloth with color. One day there came into town an old man in a cloak of deep blue spangled with golden stars, leaning on a staff as he walked. The people gathered round him in the market place and asked, “How is this, sir, that you are clad in blue and gold? For never have we seen colored cloth.” “I am a dealer in colored stuffs,” replied the old man, “and I will gladly sell you cloth of any hue.” “But where then are your goods?” the people asked him. “I will buy white cloth from you,” he answered, “and sell it back to you after I have treated it with my art.” So a woman brought him a bolt of white cloth and gave it to him after agreeing to accept one silver piece as its price. The old man shook out the cloth in the air and struck it with his staff, and the cloth immediately turned to forest green patterned with autumn-brown leaves. “I will sell this to you,” he said, “for two silver pieces.” Then the people brought him bolt after bolt of all the white cloth in the town, and he with his staff turned them into every shade and design of color the eye could perceive or the mind could imagine. When the work was done, the old man asked for his payment in silver for each bolt of cloth he had colored, but the people said to him, “Who are you, old man, to demand payment for sorcery, which among us is a capital crime? Go your way, and if it is without your money, be glad it is not also without your life!” The old man left, but muttered as he went, “What they do not pay for, they shall not have, not they nor their thirty times grandchildren.” And the colors of that day’s sunset were the last any of that town ever saw, for in the morning a white sun rose over black fields into a grey sky, illuminating a world devoid of color, like a drawing made with charcoal on parchment.
A hundred years passed, and there was no one still alive in that town who had ever seen the blue of the sky or the red of the rose. But so that the memory of color should not utterly perish, the elders of the town decreed that everything any remembered their parents and grandparents saying of color, as well as any old tales, poems, songs, or stories in which color was set forth, should be copied into a great Book. “Let us never forget,” they told each other, “that the true world is one of countless colors, and though we have lost the sight of them through our crime, let us still preserve for ourselves the truth of the world so far as we may in this sacred text.”
Nine hundred more years went by, and with every year that passed in their bleak world The Book of Color grew more precious to them, and they learned from it to live in a world in which colors were words. They knew from The Book that the clear day sky was blue and that the eyes of some were blue and that woodland violets were blue, and that all these blues were somehow different and somehow the same, even though they did not know what the differences or likenesses were. They knew also from The Book that the slowly changing aspect of clouds around the setting sun portrayed the shimmering iridescence of life in all its sadness, though why a mottled pattern of light and shadow should convey such a lesson, or how they should feel when they learned it, was beyond their ken. They powerfully believed, since The Book told them so, that the rainbow when it appeared exalted the heart with its promise that every beauty the world held could be realized, but how a curved spectrum of bands modulating from near black to the palest grey could embody such a hope, they would be at a loss to explain.
Then early one morning a young man gathering wood in the mountain forest outside the village came upon a hare which running frantically from some beast of prey had taken refuge in a huge thorn bush and had pressed so deeply therein that it was unable to make its way out again without impaling itself on the thorns. The young man with his knife carefully cut away enough of the thorn branches so that the hare could escape, after which, laying himself down by the bush, he fell into a deep sleep. At length he awoke, started, and looked around in sheerest wonder: shafts of golden sunlight were filtering down upon him through branches of varied green, through which he could glimpse patches of the bluest blue. The young man leaped up and stood a long while in a confusion and disbelief which gave way more and more to awe and delight. Then, barely able to walk for his greedy gazing at the multicolored splendor around him, he emerged from the forest and stood amazed anew at the endless blue brilliance of heaven. He began to make for home but after a hundred paces stopped yet again, for he had come into a mountain meadow, whose tiny flowers among the green grass were as numerous as the stars of a clear night sky, and as numerous were their different colors.
All that day the young man wandered the mountain forests, his eyes feeding eagerly on the colors of life like a colt on spring clover, until the setting sun lit up the western sky with a vibrantly dying glow which made all the hues of glory he had yet seen seem pale, and filled his heart with a sorrow and a joy which made all the other passions of this day seem poor things.
Finally returning to the town by the last light of that fading sun, the young man strode into the main square and began ringing with the hammer set by it the huge gong which by custom summoned the folk to hear some great and sudden news. The people all crowded into the square in alarm, asking what enemy was approaching or what natural disaster impending. “My people,” the young man said, “the world is alive with the beauty of color.” “Of course it is,” one replied. “Our Book tells us that.” “No, you do not understand,” the young man told him. “The sky is a deep blue as endless as the deeper blue of the sea! The million tiny flowers in the forest clearings are points of more different colors than there are words to describe them!” “Certainly these things are true,” answered another. “They are in our Book.” “No, no,” the young man continued desperately. “The colors of the setting sun make gold seem shabby and roses dull! The green of the forest is so varied that the single word green becomes an entire language! And look at yourselves, my people: your eyes are the blue of clear noon sky or the grey-green of ocean mist or the brown of bark of trees, your complexions are milk white and earth dark and blushing pink, your hair is yellow as ripe grain and red as flame and blue-black like coal!” “But why,” others asked him, “are you telling us so urgently what we already know? For have we not been reading these same things all our lives in our Book?”
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