During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.
by Nicole Shuey
Editor's Note: This short story is rich with imagery as it paints a picture of the narrator's thoughts. The story dances through the narrator's mind and pulls the reader in through the stream of consciousness. Shuey has proven herself skilled with descriptive language, and the visions of color all but leap off the screen. This truly is a captivating story. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
Some words are hard to say.
Simple words, complex words, normal words. My lips can shape them, my mouth can pronounce them. My tongue tastes them. Hearing the words is one thing. Ignoring them, half-listening to others speak the sounds, I can forget to notice. I can forget to notice how sharp bile trickles down my throat, while everyone else is ignorant of the essence of what they say. I can forget how my toes curl up, my lips rolling inward, when I hear this word, or the immediate reaction to that other one. A liberal lack of concentration is key.
The first word is spelled with letters which are no trouble on their own, or in other words. This word is spelled with navy, dark brown, white, emerald. The navy and the brown make it a dark word, a black word, all the colour left out. It’s troublesome. It’s tiresome. It’s unavoidable.
The second word, the older word, is brown, red, and yellow. It’s musty, sour and old like empty and unwashed milk cartons. Even connected to other words, lined up like train cars, these words will taint my mouth. The more I hear them, the more I want to take my toothbrush to my tongue and scrub. I fight to keep my face from scrunching up. Because no one knows. And no one senses the same thing. They see me, but not the hate I have for these words, these tastes. They use them against me, accidentally, on purpose, again and again, repeat and repeat…
-Pete and Repeat are in a boat. Pete falls out. Who’s left?
-Pete and Repeat…
Or is it Pete and Repete? Maroon red and dark brown, or maroon red and almost-green? Who knows? Do I know? It’s another thing I see that no one else seems to notice. Dark notice, quiet notice, that sees a little with a little openness. Flavorless notice. Flavourless notice? That extra letter does a lot of work.
Knowing it’s there, shading the sound with weight and pale light, my mouth moves differently. It feels different…differently. Definitely distinctive. Dark again, black or brown, and green and white, and maybe yellow, maybe not. Depends on the word, on the context, on the connotation.
Red and brown.
Brown and white.
White and yellow.
Yellow like sunlight. Yellow like summer, the light shining on the sea.
-She sells seashells by the seashore.
Does she who sells those seashells see the red haze in on that seashore? In the sand? And in sandstone, and salt, and…and.
And what does it—black, red, sturdy—matter?
I’m lying in bed, my head on the crook of my arm, and I’m not sleeping. I should be sleeping. I’m tired, so tired my eyelids can’t fight the Earth’s gravity. I’m listening to the deadened night sounds: my little fan humming; the wind pushing on the building, the wall near my head creaking like ship’s rigging; night birds calling in weird voices.
“They sound like cats,” I whisper to myself.
They also sound, sometimes, like they’re being strangled. Concentrating on the hum of my fan, I lose the bird calls. I escape into a blanket of white noise. And why do they call it white noise? White noise. If anything, noise is dark, black, blank. Colourless. Just the same as the ink the word is printed with. White noise… What else is white, really white?
White as the new-fallen snow. Snow is ice crystals shoved into a solid form. True snow, not memory snow, is blue; it reflects the open, vaulted sky. Snow means ice. Ice means cold. Cold means a coming darkness, or a puff of mist.
I roll onto my right side, facing the dim wall. I’ve opened my eyes now and they stay that way. The quiet power of thought gives my eyelids strength. Nothing much to see physically, but with a world of ideas inside me, my attention turns back to that landscape. I decide, this landscape will be vast and low and slightly sepia. I should try to get some rest. What do people usually do…?
My new mental landscape is the perfect habitat for a flock of sheep. The ground’s colour deepens to vivid green, the kind you see in children’s books and in paintings. The sky is the most archetypal blue. Both colours are at once soothing and too good to exist in reality. Hills rise in the background; a nice white fence is in the middle foreground. Maybe not a fence. Just one section of a white fence: two end posts with three horizontal slats. It’s an empty pastoral scene, obeying the rule of thirds—two thirds above the ‘fence’, one section sky and the other green grass. Are there clouds? A quick glance at the sky and the answer is…
Clouds would be nice, especially fluffy cumulus ones, but more white would be distracting from the main focus. Which is the fence segment. Or should it be something else? Something less standard, less generic, might be good. Besides, why would sheep jump just the one slice of fence? Granted, sheep are stupid, but surely they would just walk ‘round it.
The focal element, front and centre, should be a hoop. Oval, floating off the ground, but big so the sheep won’t have troubles getting through. The new oval hoop replaces the fence section, but it’s still white. The surrounding area’s saturation is turned down a tad, to more normal levels, though still picture perfect. There. Now time for the sheep. Time to start counting.
A slightly stylized, soft woolly sheep appears from the right. Its wool is the truest white, but its face and legs are midnight black. It gains speed and, with a ‘baa’, jumps. It clears the hoop with plenty of space all around it, as planned. Then off it goes to the left and leaves the field of vision.
The black and white sheep is gone for the span of a breath. The next sheep is blue, the sweetest of the light blue family. In fact, it almost looks like a piece of the sky. It is just as fluffy, with an equally adorable, if vacant, face. It, too, gracefully takes a run-up, goes through the hoop with a gentle noise, and disappears left.
Then a rosy sheep, the ideal carmine red. (A strawberry sheep?) Here it comes, through the white hoop, and there it goes.
Four is a rich royal blue. It has no trouble with the hoop.
Five is like a living topiary from the rainforest, or a rare emerald cut to resemble a sheep. (Who’s going to want a sheep-shaped gem, though?)
Six has a yellow-orange tint. (Maybe it was a white one who fell into a vat of turmeric tincture.)
Seven: green, like the fifth one, but lighter. It almost blends with the grass.
Eight. This one looks stained with blackberry—or maybe blueberry—juice. (There must be a bramble patch further right, offstage, out of frame.) Dark and purple-red.
Nine is black. The fullest realisation of the colour. Not like the night sky, which is vaguely navy. Not like charcoal, which is vaguely grey. Not obsidian, which is vaguely brown. Sometimes. The ninth sheep is a little sheep-shaped black hole with shining, dark eyes. The contrast between this sheep and the brightly white hoop makes me think that this is the kind of thing people mean with the phrase ‘seeing things as black and white’.
Then the ninth sheep is gone and here come number ten, looking like a cotton ball, almost the same white as the hoop itself.
I am calmer now. Not exactly sleepy, but more ready to dream. I am also tired of counting sheep. Anything else would be better about now. It might have been less tedious—and cuter—with lambs instead.
-Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow. Everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go. It followed her to school one day, school one day, school one day…
Mary had black wavy hair. She tied it up with a red ribbon, in a loose ponytail like my older sister’s. Mary’s lamb had a red ribbon, too. She’d tied it around the lamb’s neck in a bow, so they’d match. I gripped the crayon tightly; my face was inches from the paper. My eyes were almost closed, narrowed to see better, even if my sister said that didn’t work. Next to me, all around me, the other five- and six-year-olds in the class all colored their work pages. Once we were done with tracing and copying the letters on the front, we could draw whatever we wanted on the back. The letters today were L, M, N, and O.
L is for…lemon, lion, lamb. So I started with the lamb. White crayon on white paper doesn’t work well. I changed to blue, a light one, just so the lamb wasn’t hiding on the blank page.
M is for…mango, mice, Mary. Mary had a little lamb. I wanted her to wear a red dress, to match the red ribbons, but when I was making the lamb’s bow, I broke the crayon.
Debbie, my tablemate, looked up from her shading. “Don’t color so hard.”
She said it with the same tone my sister used. The same tone that all Debbie’s brothers and sisters used, too, maybe. Debbie was the youngest of nine.
I blinked at her, my lips pushed tightly together almost until they hurt. I couldn’t decide whether to tell her to mind her own beeswax or tell her I liked her picture. It was a tree with yellow, red, and green apples in it. Debbie dropped her head to watch her crayon slide around the edge of the tree trunk, outlining in a slightly darker brown. I went back to my picture, too. I decided to color a little bit lighter, not just because Debbie told me to, but because I didn’t want to break more crayons. I gave Mary a blue dress instead. She’d match her lamb even more like that.
When I was done, I had a little more time. Two or three other kids were still tracing and writing their letters. I thought it might be nice to label my drawing. Just in case someone who didn’t know the rhyme saw my picture. Of course, everyone knew the rhyme, but adults could be silly sometimes about drawings. They saw things that weren’t there. I looked over at Debbie’s tree. She was shading in the sky now, and drawing little round-ended V’s for blackbirds. No one would mistake her drawing for anything else.
I picked up a yellow crayon first, again gripping it almost too tight and drew the L. Putting the yellow down, my fingers hovered over the other colors for a second. Then I put my hand up high, so my teacher Miss F would see me. She came over and knelt next to the table. Our heads were almost the same height.
“Miss F, how do you spell lamb?” I asked. I thought I knew, but I wanted it right.
“L. A. M. B.” She smiled. “I see you’ve already got the L.”
I nodded and picked up a red crayon for the A. I was in a matching mood. Not only should Mary and her lamb match, since they were best friends, but the colors should all match the letters, too. Yellow for L, red for A.
“Black for M,” I murmured. M black like Mary’s hair. Mary’s hair black like M. I met Miss F’s eyes. “Then a B?”
I frowned, my forehead getting lined. “But you don’t say the B…?”
“It’s silent,” she told me. “What color should we make it? Green?”
I shook my head wildly. “No, no, it has to match. B is orange.”
“There’s no other orange in your picture…” A classmate put his hand up and called for the teacher, so Miss F left my table with, “Keep up the good work.”
I looked over my drawing and wrinkled my nose. Who ever heard of a green B?
A rhythmic buzzing pulls me out of sleep. My hand swats at the bedside table, searching for the source of the sound: my phone. My alarm. Somehow, the night before, I’d switched it to vibrate only. I am definitely lucky I sleep light in the mornings. I tell the alarm to shut up, both out loud and by tapping a button. Then I curl under my blankets, feeling like a caterpillar. (But I don’t want to wake up and try and be a happy, beautiful butterfly.) Or else maybe I’m a burrito. In which case, I’m justified in never moving again. Unfortunately, being human, and being employed, and being alive on a Monday, I have to leave my wrap. Why didn’t I turn the heater up a bit last night? My bed may be warm, and cosy, but the rest of the room is chilly. That’s only all right if I’m a warm burrito.
“You’re not a burrito,” I tell myself. “Get up.”
I turn on my stereo on the way past; the volume is up high enough for me to hear the music in most rooms of my small house. I go on with my morning routine, shuffling around groaning like a zombie. Give me coffee: coffee will give me braiiinsss…
While the coffee is percolating, I hunt for something edible. The bagels in my cupboard are about to expire. I take one out of the bag and throw the rest in the freezer. If the bagels are going bad, then surely the cream cheese is out of date, too. I might just have to melt regular cheese on the bagel if that’s true. The toaster oven browns my bagel while I check the date on the cream cheese. Bonus! Still good. I smell it for extra safety. Yep, still good, smells normal. When the bagel is cooked to perfection, golden brown with darker edges, I slather on the cream cheese. Some melts down the side of the bread; it’s almost too hot to hold.
Maybe I’ll get coffee first.
I watch the dark liquid drip into the glass carafe. ‘Carafe’ is sort of close to ‘giraffe’, but they’re nothing alike. Other than the fact the first is inanimate and the other’s an animal. Carafe sort of blushes red, under the yellow of the C, and the brown of the F. Giraffe’s kind of green. Like leaves in savanna trees. If anything, the word ‘carafe’ is closer to the colour of a giraffe… Once the last of the coffee has gurgled down through the filter, I take the carafe out of its cubby. A spare drop of hot liquid sizzles on the warmer pad.
Mug. I need a mug. My favourite one’s dirty, so I take out a white one instead. The coffee makes a nice contrast as it swirls into the mug. I click the carafe back into place, and grab my bagel plate. Finally, I settle at the kitchen table, bagel and plain coffee before me, and lick some extra cream cheese off my finger. The clock ticks under the music still playing in my bedroom. I watch the second hand while I’m eating, calculating just how much time I have before I need to run out the door.
Speaking of doors, do I remember the alarm passcode at work? Wasn’t it coloured like fire? Red, orange, red, white…? Red, white, orange, red. That’s it. White like a zero or white like a one? I’ll have to check. I wrote it down somewhere.
The sharp-sweet of the cream cheese reminds me of something else. What else? I’m halfway through the bagel when I remember. I once read a story about a crow named Morgan. I always liked that name; it put a sort of tart taste in my mouth. Like the cream cheese, but not as…milky? The effect was only for a moment: think of it and it was gone.
Unlike some other words I could mention.
Nicole Shuey has been writing for over fifteen years. In 2016, she earned her MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She currently runs a blog and is writing a fantasy novel series, in addition to her day job and her work as one of the Co-Chairs of the Southern Oregon Willamette Writers.