The field was a monochrome slate of gray. Varying brightness separated the earth from the sky. A swash of lead reigned over a blur of silver-twilight stems.
My mother called out from behind my shoulder, “Bring me some violets, my dear.”
I stared at the neutral blossoms, trying to decipher shades of darkness and pale light. The language of colors eluded me, like a distant notion of another world I couldn’t touch. I’d played along, listening to my mother mouth the words and point to objects, but I never truly understood.
I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I reached out and picked the darkest shade of pewter, remembering the shadowy likeness in the threads of a tapestry on our wall. The petals were soft under my fingertips like the skin of a baby. I closed my hand gently around the blossom as if it would wilt under my touch.
She knelt at the grasses edge, unpacking her bowls. Running back in triumph, I held out my offering, “Here, mama.”
My mother stared at the flower in my palm and froze, her eyebrows crinkling. “But this one is indigo. I said violet.”
“Oh.” I scrambled back to the field, the wind tearing at my hair as if to mock me. All of the flowers looked the same, tilting in the breeze and bowing their heads to my feet like a sea of worshipers. I choose another sacrifice randomly and prayed I was right.
“Tora, this one’s pink. Are you playing a trick on me?” Annoyance tugged at the corners of her mouth. This was no time for games, yet I played anyways, thinking she hadn’t taught me all the rules.
“No, mama, I want to learn the ways of the weavers and grind petals for dyes.”
“What about this one?” She plucked a flower that looked bland as charcoal. Her lips quivered as if she feared my answer, “What color is this?”
I shrugged my shoulders and searched my mind for any one of the names she’d etched in my memory from birth in rainbow lullabies, “Crimson.”
She dropped her hand and the flower fell to the ground like a broken dream, “My Heavens, Tora. You can’t see the difference?”
I shook my head, curls falling in my face. Her disappointment weighed heavily on my soul. I yearned to follow in her footsteps as if her shadow was my own.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Tears stung my eyes. “I thought if I tried hard enough, I could see.”
She collected her bowls and took my hand. “Come on, dear. There will be no dying today.” Although she turned her face away, I knew that she shed tears, and I vowed to find a way to distinguish colors and make her proud.
Years later, I sat at the loom with weary eyes, my fingers dry and cracked. I’d been working on a particular pattern my mother had laid out for me, thread by thread. The Festival of Ancestors loomed three days away and our part of the Tapestry of History lay unfinished. I wove the pattern of trees where the Great Migration took place after the Battle of Wills. My fingers looped a thread through the weave work and I strained my gaze, trying to catch a glimpse of how it corresponded to the tale. The fabric was an enigma, and I felt like I had raindrops cluttering my eyes.
My mother walked into the room with a basket filled with spools of thread. With one look at my creation the basket dropped to the wood floor, pins and thread flying.
“Tora, no! You’re doing it wrong.”
“I followed the pattern exactly,” my voice was defensive. “You’re the one who placed the threads in order.”
“The Trees of Passing are upside down. Their leaves sag on the ground. And here,” she pointed to a grayish mass of pulls, “the bark bleeds into the sea.”
Fury rose up from my stomach to clench like a fist in my throat. “I can’t see anything wrong. I wove the pattern you designed.”
My mother lectured, annoying me further, “A weaver must always consider the picture as a whole as it emerges.”
“How can I do that if it looks like a blurry mess?”
I stood up and toppled the loom. The threads unraveled at my feet, along with my dream of ever pleasing my mother. I pushed past her, headless of the strewn pins. I ran from the room and skittered down the stairs.
“Tora! Please, come back!”
I ignored my mother’s pain-stricken cry and flung myself out of the house. I couldn’t stand to see my own failure and I couldn’t stare her directly in the eyes. I’d have nothing to contribute to the festival and the villagers would start to question my abilities. My mother couldn’t weave my patterns for me for the rest of my life. It was only time before my secret disability was known. I bolted through the woods as if I could outrun my own problems. The forest grew thick, the floor covered in brambles and leaves. Some might describe the earthy tones of vermilion and jade, but every leaf was gray to me, a ghost of what it was to others. I ran until my lungs burned raw and my tears dried up.
Catching my breath, I collapsed by a stream and cupped cold water in my hands. I’d spent the anger that flowed through me, leaving a hole for darker, more complex emotions like resentment and regret. Why had I, a person sightless of color, been born to a master weaver?
While sipping, I scanned the woods around me, trying to judge the distance I ran and the direction I headed. The town rested in the Southern valley and my house was back to the West. To the East lay the witch woman’s cottage, sitting like a scraggly bird on the next ridge. I flopped to the ground and considered my options.
If I went back home, I’d be forced to apologize and watch my mother unravel the threads to reweave my mistakes. If I walked to the village, I would have to explain why I couldn’t contribute to the festival like my ancestors before me, bringing disrespect to my family. Another choice lay before me. I stared at the thatched roof of the witch woman’s hut as if she held my salvation. The wind flowed in her direction, and my hair reached out around my head to point toward her rickety porch.
Picking myself up, I trekked to the adjacent ridge. The journey took me half the day, and the sun blazed down through the leafy canopy when I reached the dirt path leading to Helga’s door. Dusty mats lined the cracked steps. I treaded carefully, ducking underneath hanging charms of beads and feathers. Dirt smeared the windows and dark shadows flickered within. After taking a breath to calm my beating heart, I knocked on the crooked door.
Long moments passed and I heard scuffling inside. The door creaked open and an eye, white from cataract, peered around. She wore layers of shawls, moth eaten and wrinkled like the skin on her face. Her hair was a white nest of wisps.
“Goodness! Look what beauty lies on my doorstep! Whatever do you want, deary?”
“Madame Helga,” I made a point to show I knew her name. “I’ve come for your help.”
“Come in, come in.” She opened the door further and the clutter of the place clogged my eyes. Cages of various birds and lizards hung from the ceiling, and books, old and worn like used travel journals, lined the walls. Ceramic bowls and wooden buckets littered the floor with murky liquid that swished and steamed.
“I’m in the middle of one of my experiments.” She explained as if it all made sense to me, “Sit here, by the fire.”
Two chairs piled with old quilts faced a dark chimney with glowing embers. I picked my way through the buckets and bowls and took the seat opposite her. She offered me a cup of tea.
“No. Thank you,” I remembered my courtesy as I tried to get comfortable, but my nose started sniffling from all the fur, feathers and dust. I wondered if I’d made the right choice in coming. With her thick cataracts, it was like the blind leading the blind.
Before I could change my mind, Helga reached down for a velvet bag. She shook it and upended the contents on a wooden table by the fireplace. Tiny bones, slim and slender like a birds, scattered across the wood, peppered by black gnome’s teeth.
“Ah….” Helga leaned in to study the formations and I held my breath. “There is much you cannot see.”
“Yes.” At least she had that part right. Helga took a moment to glimpse into my eyes. She squinted and scrunched up her button nose as if she assessed a broken telescope. With a sigh, she glanced back over her bones.
“Much is expected of you.”
Although I doubted her far fetched tactics, her observations were correct and I found myself wanting to hear more, already impressed. “I wish to please my mother and follow in her footsteps, but that’s not what-”
She silenced me with her hand, as if she needn’t hear any more. “The bones are clear. You will find what you seek at the rainbow’s end. Only then will you begin to see.”
“What?” The reading made sense up to the last part. “But there’s no such thing.”
“Come along, dear,” she took my hand and pulled me up with a surprising amount of strength. One of her bowls began to boil and a tea kettle hissed, “I have much to do.”
I realized that she pushed me to the door, “But I don’t understand. How can I find a rainbow if I can’t see color?”
“Ask a friend, my dear.”
I stood on her doorstep, once again lost and helpless. “But there’s a high sun with no chance of rain.”
As if on cue, thunder cracked overheard. I opened my mouth in shock. The old crone flicked her eyes up at the heavens, “You’d better get moving. You don’t have much time.” With a wink, she closed the door, leaving me huddling under her porch as the sky opened up and the rain poured down in waves.
Drenched and shivering, I reached the chandler’s shop. The bell jingled over the door as I stepped in. My soggy shoes left puddles on the floor, and I waited a moment, ringing out my sleeves to dry off before I tracked the whole rainstorm in with me. The golden glow of the candles warmed my cheeks and I basked in the heat as I sniffed the scented oils. Iron candle snuffers lined the walls, along with pillar shaped candles carved and decorated with ribbons and beads. Wicks stuck out like stems from jars, and an iron chandelier hung overhead. I wondered why it had taken me so long to come back, and my answer stared me right in the face.
“Tora, what are doing out there in the storm?” Hans emerged from the back of the shop. Soot streaked his wavy hair and smudged his forehead, but no amount of ash could hide the perfect ridges of his face or the gleam in his steamy eyes. In the last few years, he’d turned from a scrawny boy to a hardened young man. It was difficult for me to ignore the transformation, and I found myself scrambling for words.
“I had an argument with my mother.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Come in, I’ll get you a warm blanket.” He gestured for me to follow him to the back of the shop. I took a seat in front of the brick oven where the beeswax melted and he draped a quilt over my shoulders.
“I figured it would take nothing short of the end of the world to get you to visit.”
“Hans,” I started but couldn’t finish.
“It’s all right. You’re here now, aren’t you?” A smile twitched at the corners of his lips.
I changed the subject, pulling the blanket close around my neck, “We argued about the festival.”
He untied his work apron and took a seat across from me, “I know it’s a sacred event, but it stirs up trouble every year.”
“You’re having problems preparing as well?”
Hans sighed. He picked up a candle mold and ran his fingers over the ridges, “Not me, it’s Miri. She’s been arguing about the festival with my father. She doesn’t want to learn the words of the history, and she fears speaking in public. I’ve sat with her many nights to help her learn.”
“I’m afraid my situation is worse than your little sister’s.” I was infuriated that he’d even compare me to her. I knew that’s how he saw me, as a sister. Why else had he pulled away? I wanted to leave right then, but I needed someone to find the rainbow, and he was the only friend I could trust.
“It’s not as simple as practicing and learning the ways.”
Hans leaned forward, his fingers stilled, “What do you mean?”
I took a deep breath and let it rush out like water spewing from a fountain, “I’m blind to the colors. My mother’s tried everything to help me, but I simply can’t see the patterns on the loom.”
“Heavens sake, Tora! Has it always been like this?”
I looked down at the candle shavings on the floor, “Yes.”
“And you’ve kept it secret?”
I bit my lip before speaking again. “I’m sorry. I was too embarrassed to admit it.”
Hans’s voice was tinged with hurt, “You know you could have told me.”
“I wanted to be treated like everyone else, not like some poor, disabled girl with no hope.”
“I would never treat you like that.”
I found myself drawn into his dark eyes like a rose to the sun. My cheeks felt hot, and I looked away. “But I have nothing to contribute to the festival. I can’t follow in my mother’s footsteps.”
Hans had known me long enough to know I had a plan. He placed the candle mold down beside him and gave me his full attention, “What are you going to do?”
“I visited Madame Helga.”
I almost thought he’d fall off his chair, “What? You went to the old witch woman for help?”
“She told me I would find what I wanted at the rainbow’s end.”
“What kind of nonsense is that?”
I stared at him with as much conviction as I could muster, “She knew about my blindness, Hans. She told me of my mother’s expectations, and she’d never even met me before.”
Hans quirked an eyebrow, “So that’s it? You’re going to travel to the end of the rainbow?”
“No, it’s not that simple. I can’t see rainbows, remember?”
Hans leaned forward and his eyebrows rose, “And?”
I swallowed a lump in my throat, “I need someone to go with me.”
“Tora, this is a crazy plan.” He shook his head as if to rid himself of the thought of it.
The bitterness seeped out of my voice and I couldn’t hold it back, “Listen, I’m only requesting another pair of eyes. I’m not asking for another kiss.”
Hans looked at me as if I’d cheated at a game. Somehow, I wasn’t allowed to bring up the past. “That was a long time ago, and I was still young-”
“You don’t need to explain,” I snapped back. “It won’t happen again. All I’m looking for is an escort, nothing more.”
Hans whispered under his breath, “Nothing more, huh?”
I couldn’t tell if he was relieved or frustrated. I jumped up, the blanket falling around me. “Never mind, I shouldn’t have come.”
“No, Tora.” He rose and grabbed my arm as I passed. “If that’s what you want, then I’ll come with you.” I searched his eyes for mockery, but he was sincere.
I breathed again, not noticing that I’d held my breath. I stood close enough to feel the warmth of his body and see stubble on the curve of his cheek. I had to force myself to pull away. “Good, now all we need is a rainbow.”
Just then, the pitter patter of the rain stopped and the sun came out, shining white light on the floor of the shop. Hans broke away from me and peered out the window.
“Would you look at that!”
I didn’t need to ask what he saw.
The rainbow arched just beyond the hills in the East. Hans turned the sign over in the window and closed the shop. We left through the back door to avoid any questions with a bag stuffed with bread and bottles of water. Hans lead the way, carving a path through the wheat fields at the back of the village. Anxiety bubbled in my blood, and I felt like I would faint before we reached the rainbow’s end. Being near Hans again didn’t help my nerves at all.
He swung his arm ahead, parting the long stalks, “Let me get this right: Helga said you would be able to see colors at the end of the rainbow?”
I thought back to the scene in her cottage, her white eye haunting my memory, “No. She said You will find what you seek at the rainbow’s end. Only then will you begin to see.”
Hans stopped and turned around. Exertion from parting the wheat and carrying our bags flushed in his face, “You remember her exact words?”
I didn’t need to think about it, “Yes.”
He nodded, not surprised. “You always had a knack for words.”
I rolled my eyes, “They stick to my mind like pine sap. Even if I want to get rid of them, they’re still there.”
Hans lifted his brow, possibly thinking back to all the words he gave to me. Perhaps, I hoped with melancholy, he regretted a few.
“Hm. You will find what you seek at the rainbow’s end. What, exactly, do you seek, Tora?”
His question caught me off guard. There were a thousand things I wanted, Hans being one of them, despite my attempts to push him out of my heart. I stumbled forward and he caught my arm, pulling me up beside him. My voice sounded meek, “To see the colors, of course.”
“Is that really it?”
I thought about what I wanted most of all, “No. I want to make my mother proud.”
Hans nodded as if it was a worthy cause, but his eyes held a twinkle of a deeper emotion. He blinked and it disappeared before I could catch the nature of it. “Come on. We’d better get going. Rainbows don’t last forever.”
The fields ended at the base of rolling hills which spread like the backs of giant turtles to the sea. The grass grew long and spindly. Pollen from the dandelions tickled my nose and stained my knees.
I was eager to lay my eyes on the sea. My mother had taken me to the glimmering waters once as a small child. Sadness hung over her shoulders that day, although she tried to hide it behind smiles. She pointed to a sailing ship off the coast. I remembered her words perfectly, “Your father once sailed these waters before he was taken by the sea.”
“Tora, the rainbow’s fading!” Hans’s voice broke my revisit to the past.
“Come on, we must hasten our pace.”
We ran in a mad dash to the cliff top at the land’s edge. My shawl fell off in the rush. I turned back and Hans shouted, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it on the way home.” He waved over his shoulder anxiously, “Keep going.”
I followed him up a winding path that led to a steep ledge. The height along with the run made me dizzy and I grasped his arm for support. The land jutted out over the water like a branch from a tree. We stood at the edge as close as we dared, the sea breeze whipping our hair and stinging our eyes.
“Well?” I shouted over the din of crashing waves and wind.
“This is it.” Hans tightened his grip on my arm, “I can’t get us any closer. The rainbow ends somewhere over the sea.” My eyes searched the lead sky and saw a blur of light, a smear in the blankness that could only be the rainbow’s arc. I followed it until it disappeared into the mist above the water crests.
I blinked and rubbed at my eyes. “Nothing’s happening. I must get closer.” I reached out to touch the sky but Hans held me back, “No, Tora. The footing is too dangerous.”
“But we’re not at the rainbow’s end.” I yanked my arm from Hans’s grasp and the force of the move threw me back. Slipping on a patch of pebbles, I felt my balance teeter as I swayed over the edge.
Hans grabbed my hand just as I fell and I dangled over the side of the cliff, feet kicking in the air. I whipped my head around to look over my shoulder and a glimmer of light caught my eye, a tinge of luminescence, bright and sparkling.
“Tora,” Hans laid on his belly, clutching my wrist as the skin wrinkled and bunched up in his grasp. “Look at me and hold on.”
Whether it was from the dizziness, the shortness of breath, or the shock of it all, colors danced before my eyes. “I see it! If I could only reach further out…” My hand slipped further and Hans struggled to retain his grip. Soon, I’d be following in my father’s footsteps and joining him at the bottom of the sea.
“Tora, listen to me.”
The serious tone of his voice caught my attention and I tore my eyes away from the light.
“What you see is an illusion. I know how you can participate in the festival and make your mother proud.”
My heart yearned to look back again at the light, to peer into the other world I’d dreamed of for as long as I could remember. But his words had also caught my attention, “How?”
“You say you can remember words long after they’d been said. Can you remember the History of Ancestors?”
My hand had gone numb and I felt like I was flying on the wind, “Every word.”
“And you know how Miri doesn’t want to do her part?”
“You could recite the history. She’d give you her task in a heartbeat.”
I struggled to grasp his words, but the pull of the light called me, and I turned back around. Reciting the History was a privilege, but it did not compare to seeing the colors of the light. If I could only reach out and touch the rainbow I knew I could bring the colors with me. He distracted me from my cause.
“Tora!” I whipped my head around to gaze in his tear filled eyes. He was losing me and we both knew it. A cloud blew overhead. In moments, it would obscure the sun and the rainbow would have no light. If I wanted to touch it, I’d have to act now.
“When you kissed me that day, I wasn’t ready. I was young and foolish and it scared me. I wanted to run away on an adventure, join the King’s army, see the world. I wasn’t prepared to settle down.”
My eyes darted between Hans and the dwindling light. I moved to reach out, but his words held me still.
“But I’m ready now.”
The meaning of his statements hit me like a bucket of cold water and I froze, staring incredulously in his eyes.
“I’d been trying to tell you this whole trip, but I didn’t have the courage until I realized I could lose you.”
I felt the strength return to my limbs and I reached up, grabbing his arm with my free hand. He heaved and pulled me over the cliff’s edge. We lay on a rough patch of crabgrass, catching our breath in each other’s arms.
“I’m sorry it took me so long.” He kissed me before I could protest, and I realized I had been blind to more than color.
“And so they walked through the green pastures to the Promised Land. The Great Migration began with sweat and tears and ended with laughter and new life.”
My voice rung over the audience as I completed the final verse of the Festival of Ancestors. Miri stood behind me, pointing to my mother’s great Tapestry of History. In the spring she would become her next apprentice. My mother sat in the front row of the assembly with a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. I’d finally made her proud.
Hans blew out the flickering candles surrounding me and the village cheered. I squinted my eyes as a moment caught my attention in the shadows of the forest’s edge. Madame Helga stood under the bow of a sagging evergreen. She nodded in my direction, a knowing gleam shining in her good eye.