The moon took my brother Curl-Haired Silas the Monday before Easter. He was all spit, colour and rainbows, his hands fisted like flower bulbs. He was loud with his legs swinging out but he had not an ounce of venom on him.
Grandma Agnes snatched up her shoes. Putting them on was no easy task in those last moments, her fingers were shaking, but she knew that walking out in heels was the only way to bargain. Over by the window she pushed out fennel, cherries, promises of piousness. Sweetmeat pies with gravy on the side. Twice baked cakes and freshly ironed summer linen.
I saw parts of her I had never seen before. I saw that inside she was blunt sinew and blanch blood. She was trace elements tingling, her heart laid limp like five day old flatbread. I watched her plead for two straight hours with a takeaway moon, then scuttle to her sickbed where she lay flat guilty of nothing but hard-loving my brother. With her face buried in her down pillow, she said that we lost him but not for want of trying. And that she was beholden to no one, not a single, solitary soul.
Death was no easy fit for her. It made her petulant. Her voice was shrill, her work skirt creeping up to show the veined bulk of her calf muscles. ‘I’ve seen better days with the coming in of the rain,’ she said tugging at my shirt collar and demanding meat broth served up only in her best dish. When I brought it in, she said she had no more inside space for hunger. That she was full to the cup rim with gloom. She asked instead that I pull down the shutters and push my palm against the heel of her foot to propel something cumbersome through her skin. ‘Something strange like glass that hampers my way,’ she said.
I worked my hands the way she wanted. It seemed to momentarily settle her. She had some radiant back light in her eyes. But then she collapsed on her pillows crushed of breath, emaciated. The hand she held up to me was a blue-tinged stalk. Her flatbread heart was tender, flyaway.
She was on her way out. I said not one single word for I was the watching type, beholden to no one.
On Holy Wednesday, I was the first to rise for Curl-Haired Silas’s memory ceremony. Grandma Agnes came lean into the kitchen in tulle and a bridal train, her skirt too long, too cumbersome. She had shrunk to a pin with the weight of grief. ‘There’s no more undoing,’ she said winding sunflower yellow cotton thread around her thumb. I pressed tight the thread: I took her hand and led her out to the sound of birdsong. There were finches flying wild with one for us to follow. I walked out tall, the soft melodic crunch of leaves underfoot pitched perfect to save me.
I watched on as Grandma Agnes laid out my brother like premium beefsteak in the hull of a working boat facing north. He was dressed in a neat grey coat buttoned tight, an angled fedora and family leather boots. There were only five short men available to push him out into the next world. The rest were busy fighting someone else’s war. Holding a handkerchief to her nose, Grandma Agnes spoke out for him. I said not one single word. I was the watching type beholden to no one holding tight the tin of heavy blacking that she put about my brother’s eyes because she did not want him to become the plaything of spirits. That blacking made his eyes pop out. Made him seem not quite ready for leaving.
Black was the colour to save the house. And save us all. Grandma Agnes told me so. Leaning in and pressing down on the sunflower yellow thumb thread, she was watching me watching him. She said she had such undulating heartache as to make her skin furl. And the way out of a locked room was to be unduly generous with the blacking. That meant we must smother him round the eyes with it like we had never smothered anything before.
She scooped it out and pursed tight her lips to hum. ‘Nothing in, but always something out,’ she whispered laying it on like paint then turning the tin on its side to press it to the dip in her breasts as though it was an overzealous lover. She pointed her toe.
She cooed like a bird from the cold on it, thought fondly of herself, enough to smile because she said Sweet Jesus would soon be coming. Climbing the hill in daylight, strap sandals on his feet, as was his way.
I watched my brother change with the colouring, seem of a different mind. It slipped beneath his skin, went one way then another, met him in the place where he was busy brooding. It was saving him from ruin.
I prayed to call him home. One step off the ground, and I was flying like the loons. ‘Don’t be the boy that’s never found,’ Grandma Agnes cried plying the cold tin from her breasts to call me home. I came reluctant to her, part mashed up, shoots for arms, my brother still alive inside me. Flying was in my blood.
On the Maundy Thursday, Grandma Agnes woke with her head twisted up like field corn. Hunched by the fireplace, she proclaimed that the tin of blacking was our sole redeemer. It was a colour come from Above. ‘There to make a queen of me and a prince of you. And save our Silas,’ she cried unravelling first the knot in her apron strings and then the sunflower yellow thread from her thumb staring wistfully at the floor in search of a suitable way out.
She spent the day like that unravelling and tying, unravelling and tying like God was good and we were not. Later that afternoon when the birds had finished their singing, she called out to me to bring good parchment paper, some charcoal and the blacking tin. Making a miniature drawing of my brother and blacking around the eyes, she said that she was saving us by saving him. She sang out like an angel the Sunday songs of her childhood before putting him high above the door. She felt in the ridge of her spine for wings she did not have. The dearth of wings whipped her silent. Made her weep. She closed her weeping eyes to pace the floor.
Back and forth she went with the blacking tin. Back and forth. She was finding a way. And he took a while to settle needing more than he was given. More daylight, more hope, better night dreams. We had none of those.
‘I’m looking for diamonds,’ Grandma Agnes said wiping her face. Looking for diamonds where? I thought. And then I saw her. She let go of the blacking tin, felt up her spine once more. She was tentative with her touching fingers, looking for diamonds there, in the place where she sought wings.
She could not have both. No one could have both.
All spun out, she was down on the ground. She was dark, so bittersweet dark like molasses. She hummed to herself. She had nothing but her skin to smell until she stretched her fingers thin holding her side in case a part of her fell out. Carefully, carefully she started blacking around the hearth for good measure. That was the blacking to change her.
When she was done, I pushed out her hand to where I thought the sun might be. I watched her bend her head in half. The hearth was tacky black, the smell of it blotting out the life I knew and Grandma Agnes was driftwood shifting without anchor before her time. It wasn’t much of a way to live, two of my fine hands around her waist and she was boneless enough to pass right through them.
I walked away. I am not proud of what I did, turning to him for nourishment. But he was all I had.
I saw a halo light around the irises that outshone the black. A clear, strong bolt of light and Curl-Haired Silas was speaking out to me with his eyes. It was providence round and tight like a daffodil bulb. Moving in, I caught the corner seams of words. I closed my eyes. I needed more. I needed gospel truths. Don’t let her black out the whole house in my name. That is what I heard.
They say the dead don’t talk. They say they have no raw-bone rage. But that is fallacy. Speaking out in tender voice, they bind dreams, if only we would listen.
Curl-Haired Silas slipped to the floor unprovoked Good Friday eve and Grandma Agnes moved him over to the hearth alongside her house slippers. ‘One may keep the other perfect company as both are inanimate,’ she whispered. Crossing herself then plucking at the sunflower thread, she picked up the tin of blacking and started on the kitchen table. Stretching her fingers thin she started on the table, rubbing and pressing, rubbing and pressing, turning it brown to black. I knew what she was doing. Thinking herself strong. Thinking herself a whole person with no deep-cut places.
Folding her hands when she was done, she climbed on to her bed, brought out her purple velvet and smoothed it right out. No creases, not a single fold and it had something that her life did not. Bearable beauty. She bound it to her chest. Singing of bleak midwinters in a whisper voice, she stopped mid verse to tell me she was warm with it.
When the moon was down, I went to Curl-Haired Silas for sustenance. Peeking into his speaking eyes, I thought I saw doves resting there. If she blacks out the whole house, that will be the end of us, he said. I drew him down with those words. He was everything I had. I pulled my fingers through his hair, straightening out the curl. As I wiped at the blacking, I saw for the first time that black was not one ordinary colour. It had many parts. One was treacle smooth, another thick like dripping fat. A third was bouncing off the paper like it had some place better to go. I made an underscore where I thought his heart should be and I wished him only good things in his next life.
On the Easter Saturday morning, Grandma Agnes turned the windowsill black. She had a shawl at her neck, sheepskin house slippers on her feet to bind her, but they were not enough to stop her legs sliding wide. Unsteady and delirious, she was for a moment a lamb just born. She was passing expectation. Stretching her fingers thin once more, she pressed down on the sunflower yellow thread, made black the dullest grey.
Bring a little colour in, begged Curl-Haired Silas. I was over by the door but still I heard him. Slipping out so Grandma Agnes would not miss me; I brought in sage from the garden, lilies and sorrel from the top field and long stem grass and placed them all in a wide-necked bottle on the table. They were warriors glistening but she was blind to them. She was elbow deep in black. And she was singing once again. Like an angel she sang about hills faraway and bright blue seas. Such flawlessness and she could not bear it.
She grew so lean. She was budget bones and carcass gravel. Abbreviated breath and pepper dreams. I pumped my fist to fix her. My bed was turning black. My chair was upside down and on the mirror there were handprints. There to take the evil out and just for looking. Not even raising her head, Grandma Agnes spat into the blacking tin and whimpered.
She said that on this Holy Saturday she found herself all woe and flotsam. That Sweet Jesus wasn’t coming because there were too many curves in the road and she had no place to go where the devil wasn’t watching.
Curl-Haired Silas looked at her like she was a young child needing a lullaby to soothe her. He knew the spine she felt up was melancholy iron bars. That her inside parts were cinders and she needed wings to set her free.
Turning my chair the right way up, I rocked myself to sleep that night. I had Curl-Haired Silas by the head and I slipped him down beside me. Down where dreams were razor thin and even the wool bed blankets seemed another country. I breathed in sobs and retching until he spoke out to me at dawn, imploring me to bring more coloured flowers, a little fine pink and some orange here and there. With the rising of the sun, he said. She can still be reached.
I rammed my body up against the wall for leverage. I slept fitful hollow where I should be firm. I was frozen some way inside, no chance of a deep sweet sleep and that is when Curl-Haired Silas left me.
I woke on Easter Sunday to a world without a scrap of birdsong in it. I woke to a house all black, there was no finding out where some things ended and others began. Lighting a candle and stepping out on tiptoe, I called out for Grandma Agnes. I looked everywhere for her; under the table and behind the door. I opened every cupboard. They were black inside. I looked in every crack; every crevice, every floorboard and I scoured the ceiling. I looked under both beds and on top of them. Laid out on her bed beside the velvet were all the things she owned and to the side a solitary travel basket too idle to house them.
I held my breath. What was a house turned black without a single life in it? Down on my knees, I went. I had no choice. Down through the wooden floor, down, down to where the bracken was. I was falling from grace.
They say that laughter saves a boy when he is broken. And loss of faith will take him first before the angels come. ‘I won’t be the boy that’s never found,’ I cried. The house was fierce with fumes and vitriolic, stripped of life and screaming out for what it was and what it wanted.
Curl-Haired Silas knew it in the place where he was, remembered and accounted for.
Grandma Agnes knew it enough to put on some makeshift wings when the hope was gone.
Sinking through the bracken, I slipped out the only way I could.
It was a good life I lived. But I was drifting from ruin then. I was glimmering.
I felt a touch no heavier than a feather. The peace of earth seemed permanent. I was not the black house. I was not the sunflower yellow cotton thread. Not the sky stripped of blue. I was my own colour on the way out. My own colour.
Colour Up, one of Katie Willis’ earliest short stories was long-listed in the 2013 Bristol Short Story competition.