“Color Me Grey” by Swabir Silayi
They came for him in the night. It was a cool night, the moonlight reflecting off the droplets that told of a just ended drizzle, giving everything a surreal sparkle that livened up the dominant grey of the walls and everything else. They came with their boots stomping into the concrete streets, doors crashing, shouting orders with everybody else and everything else silent. Even mother made no sound. Him, he sat in his chair, not even turning his head as the hinges buckled and the locks broke.
This was the year of the Mango in the time after the end of Modernity. Not that anybody knew what a mango was. But the BigBelleChiefMan had declared it. He made a lot of declarations. Like the time he decreed the Funny-Funny day to be celebrated once every new-moon-rise with a statement he issued. He called them ‘joke’.
Joke number 1 – What did the bean say to the bean? He said, ‘How you been?’
These are strange times, Grandmother used to say. She said there used to be color. But how was that possible? Everything was grey, it has been since I could remember. And all other colors were banned, as the BigBelleChiefMan had decreed. She said that once upon a time, you could spend even up to ten minutes just getting to find out how people were doing, no matter if you had been with them two days ago. Scandalous! Had not the BigBelleChiefMan declared that no one was to shake another one’s hand more than once? Grip hands, up, down, release? Had he not declared that in our own best interest if any man or woman should interact with another man or woman for the purposes of greeting they had no more than forty five seconds to get it over with, with an additional thirty seconds for those that had not seen each other for a period no less than three moon-rises? Ten minutes, eat my hat! I thought about how many people I could greet in that amount of time.
How things hardly ever change, Grandmother used to say. I would laugh because she also said these were strange times. But was that not contradictory? Did not logic as it was approved by the BigBelleChiefMan state that the truth is singular? That things cannot be one and another? So how could the times be strange and yet hardly ever change? If it never changed, would it not seize to be strange? Silly Grandmother. She had such fantastically incredulous stories. But I had always preferred the stories in the BigBelleChiefMan approved course book for the stories-of-the-past-days of the Newafrik. Before, there used to be too much color. And too much sun, and too much time. But then the seas rose, and the skies darkened and there was lightning and thunder and strong winds that uprooted even the baobabs. And when it was all done, it was time for these new times. These grey times.
There had been a ChiefMan before this BigBelleChiefMan. And there had been another before that, but he had been known simply as the Man. In the final days of too much sun and too much time, when there was too much color and too much chaos, the Man had appeared. And he preached. He enlightened us on the causes of all our problems. The rising seas? Those were our enemies out to drown us obviously. Were we not the most worthy of the land and were they not very envious of our worthiness? The Man spoke the truth. The proliferation of time? Were we so blind to the machinations of the enemies of our people? They gave us so much time that we thought we had all the time. But they made the sun shine too beautifully and there was too much color and all that beauty distracted us from our worthiness. And thus we wasted too much time not thinking of how worthy we were and instead admiring the color and the beauty of everything else. By the time they were done, we would be finished! “They are out to finish us my people!” The Man declared and all hailed the Man.
And so our people built the walls to shield them from the dangers of the others. And the Man he had a tall tower built from which only he could look out and warn us of what they were planning against us. All the extra time that we had no use for was given to him. And we blacked out the sun because it distracted in its brilliance, and everything was made grey. And the days passed.
Then came the ChiefMan, the son of the Man. And he built the tower higher and made everything greyer. And when he was done, came the BigBelleChiefMan, the son of the ChiefMan who was the son of the Man. And he gave us ‘joke’.
Joke number 2 – Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato are walking. Baby Tomato is moving too slowly and the others are pulling ahead so Papa Tomato goes back, squashes him and says, “Catch up!”
The wisdom of the Man, the order of the grey, the comfort of the tower that was built ever higher for the BigBelleChiefMan to see farther – these were the things that made life what it was and kept everything as it had to be. I did not understand the Malcontents and their agitation for color. What was color if not the very antithesis of grey? Why would anybody want to allow back those death rays of sunlight that carried poisonous color and would reintoxicate us with the chaos the Man had sacrificed so much to eliminate? Truly, they must have been infected by the lingering radiation of color. It said in the books that we would never truly be free of it.
I saw my father shake another man’s hand twice. Twice. When they met. And again when they parted. Twice. I saw my father stand under the illuminating post letting the glow wash over him as he did nothing, like he had some extra time. On some days, there were others that came into our house to talk and, as far as I could tell, they had no agenda for discussion. In fact, sometimes, some of them came after the others had already started to talk!
I was confused.
I had grown up in the grey. I had been inspired by the stories of sacrifices the Man had made. I had devoured the escapades of the ChiefMan as he tangled with and dispatched our enemies from within, those agents of color, while always keeping an eye out from the tower for any threats from the outsiders. As the BigBelleChiefMan decreed, I was always ten minutes early for my rendezvous, and was fastidious in my greetings- shaking once and keeping it under forty five seconds. I kept everything grey as it was supposed to be. In the grey, there was order and balance that allowed us to achieve great things. We could never have built the tower so high in the chaos of color.
I was unable to understand the actions of my father. And the stories of my grandmother caused me even more consternation. In her fantastical stories she had sometimes crooned these spontaneous arrangements that went against everything grey. Had not the ChiefMan declared and the BigBelleChiefMan affirmed that every composition must be deliberate and confirm to the preapproved musical format? Grandmother was old. She must have been forgetful of the official standards. Which was probably why they finally took her away. But my father? Perhaps he had been infected by the color radiation.
Perhaps I too had been exposed. I said to the watcher of the desk of the Department of Color Radiation Extermination that I might be suffering from the early effects of exposure. I said to him that my father had probably been exposed because he was acting very un-grey. I said perhaps they should aid us in the extermination of these early signs before we were completely taken over by color. They said they would come.
That was the first time they came for him. For me, they brought a letter.
The letter said, ‘In recognition of your model us-ness, and your complete devotion to our cause of preservation against those others that would seek nothing less than to see us finished and bring back color and the chaos that comes with it, I, the BigBelleChiefMan, the son of the ChiefMan who was the son of the Man, the watcher in the tower and the greyer of the walls and the keeper of the extra time, do here invite you to a supper-just-as-the-moon-sets in the tower. Keep on keeping it grey. TBBCM’
Such an honor was usually reserved only for a precious few that caught the eye of the watchers in the tower who, in turn, sent their names up to the apex where the BigBelleChiefMan stood guarding against threats to the grey. None ever came back down but with an even greater grasp of what it meant to keep things grey. It was time to be colored completely grey.
I was there right on time, ten minutes before the appointment time. And I was careful in my greetings, firm grip and just one shake, making sure to keep within the time limit of forty five seconds. I was ushered into the elevator that would take me up to the top of the tower where I was supposed to meet the BigBelleChiefMan himself, and he would show me the world over the walls and the chaos that he protected us from. It was said you could see the sun from the tower, that source of color and chaos. I was looking forward to finally getting to curse it for all the trouble it had caused. I was looking forward to meeting the BigBelleChiefMan, who kept us true to the ways of the Man.
I stepped out of the elevator into a room such as I had never before in my life imagined. The light was different, I could not see grey. Instead, my senses were overpowered by an infusion that felt like something in the grey had been let loose and was wreaking havoc on my optical receptors. It amplified a thousand fold in me the stirrings I had felt listening to my grandmother’s stories. I remembered her descriptions of what color would look like and I realized that this must be white. These feelings I was having, was this what the chaos felt like?
As my senses settled, I saw that in front of me were windows in the white walls and they let in rays of light much like the light from the moon but more brilliant. I put my hand out in their path and I felt a warmth in them that was a contrast to the coolness of the moonlight. Curious, I moved closer to the window to look out of the tower and what I saw so shocked me my knees buckled. It could have been nothing else. Color! The rush of color! The expanse! The brilliant hue of the sea that spread out in front of me as far as the eyes could see. The lush hills rolled out under me in a shade of color that made you want to stare forever. And the sky that was not grey, like the sea had been overturned and made weightless, and the sun, the sun! Was that the sun? Was this really chaos that I felt? I felt the tears on my face before I realized they had escaped my eyes. There, on my knees at the window on top of the tower, I was moved.
Chaos was so beautiful. So completely beautiful. And engulfed in its chaotic beauty, I experienced a moment of terror when I longed for the order of greyness.
‘And now you understand.’ The voice said into my ear. Half my mind registered that it was the BigBelleChiefMan speaking to me, but I was transfixed by the scene before me. I could not move, I could not speak, completely overwhelmed.
‘And now you understand why we need the grey.’ The voice kept on. ‘Can you imagine if everything was as you see still, and everyone was so overwhelmed as you are right now? It would be the end of us all. There would be no order, and we would be distracted from what we need to do to protect ourselves from being finished. From building our walls higher and our tower taller. From progress. Can you feel the chaos infecting you? This is why grey is good.’
Then everything was grey. Then black. A complete absence of color.
I don’t remember how I got back down and out of the tower. I don’t remember how it is that I was standing now under the street lamp taking comfort in the cold light of the moon that was so invitingly familiar. But I could not shake the sun and the colors and their chaos. For many nights and many days I thought and thought. I thought of contradictions, things being one and at the same time another. How I had feared chaos and yet loved it. How in the moment of loving and fearing I had longed for grey yet felt trapped in its confines. For the first time, I doubted the Man.
Joke number 3 – on me. On us.
I realized, the truth can be contradictory.
My father was an agent of color. A proponent of Chaos. A distributer of propaganda that aimed at finishing us. He dilly dallied, he told stories of times when things were more than grey, he doubted the grey truth as had been declared by the Man. Those were the accusations that they made against him as he stood in the judgment circle. Looking into my mother’s eyes, he had repented and avowed all that. He had promised to no longer go against the teachings of the Man as they were enforced by the son of the ChiefMan, the BigBelleChiefMan. They let him go. But then they came for him in the night. They said he had been infected by color. His chaos was a permanent affliction.
I am my father’s son. I have stood at the top of the tower and had my blood infected by the warmth of the sun and my eyes made impure by the colors of the world beyond the walls of grey. I am afflicted by chaos. Now the grey seems so dull that not even the moon light adds any shine to it. Now the walls seem so stifling. I am questioning the ideas of the Man. Were there really others who were out to finish us using colors and chaos? Would it be so bad to live under chaos and color?
The other day, I arrived right on time for a meeting. I extended my greeting for an extra five seconds, refusing to let go of the other man’s hand even as the seconds counted on. From grandmother’s old things, I found a scarf that was a different shade of grey and I wrapped it around my neck. I found the contrast with my coat delicious. Soon, they will come for me, as they came for my father, as they came for grandmother. I have become an agent of color.
Joke number 4 – Things hardly ever change. These are strange times.
I had even made up my own ‘joke’.
Swabir Silayi is a Kenyan writer. He writes mostly poems and the occasional story. Currently, he is working on a poem collection while thinking of more stories. Once he has collected enough thoughts, he intends to write a seriously good book. From time to time, he puts up a poem on spot54, which is his blog, since he is a writer.
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