Color Study

My mother always said to eat white things when autumn came: pears, daikon radishes, snowflake wood ear. She reminds me that eating these will help release negative outlook and crystallize thoughts. It’s hard to argue with three thousand years of Chinese medicine, even harder with my mother, so I take the orange line uptown. As I watch the train doors wheeze open and shut, I try to remember what to do with daikon. How to coax it from its stained green jacket and render its marble flesh translucent. I have these thoughts often now. How did my mother take this vegetable apart? What did things look like in her hands? Were they always this heavy? How had I not noticed the weight of leaves and fruit once they were plucked, taking with them some of the earth’s gravity?

On my way home, I stop at a payphone to rest. The cord is long enough for me to sit on the pavement. The payphone has no walls, but I felt sheltered by a large maple nearby, its leaves a blanket of copper. The sunlight is bright, paying no mind to the frost spreading blue across the sidewalk.

“Hello, it’s Ester.” At first, I think I have someone else’s father on the line. There are birds on his side, much sweeter than the usual evening traffic in Shanghai.

“Ba, where are you? Can you hear me?” The birdsong grows louder, so silver and sudden that I imagine it dropping like coins through the phone. I thought I could count thrushes, chickadees, a lone raven, but the connection was not strong enough to hear anything clearly.

 “I’m just in the mountains,” he says, as if stopping by a new bar after work. “I wanted to see the sea, but so far there’s only stones. No porcupines either, even though the map promised some.” I laugh, hoping it arrives as solid as it feels in my chest.

“And you? You’re all settled in? Don’t forget to buy some pears. Steam them with rock sugar. Has your mother ever made this for you?”

“Yes, I know.” For a moment, I hear an echo of my mother’s voice. She always ended phone calls with him this way. I know, I know. When I was little, I used to fill in the rest of the sentence. I know you are coming home soon. I know you are going to take Ester to feed the ducks for her birthday. I know you would not leave without your blue oatmeal bowl and favorite grey slippers. “Don’t worry, she helped me move in.”

“And are you painting? Do you like your apartment? Which way does it face? North, I hope. You need the warmth.”

“Fine. Everything’s fine.” For a second, I am not here be- tween the walls of the payphone, but there in the mountains, the atmosphere spooling green into my lungs.

 “I’ll call you sometime, Ba.” I thread the bags back through my fingers and inhale the cold metal of the city.

“Sure,” he says. We both let the birds sing a while before hanging up.

I moved to Chicago after I found my boyfriend painting one of our old classmates. After art school, we had moved in together into a cottage across the lake from my mother. Pear trees, violets already in the garden. My mother thought the town’s name, Bear Lake, was a bad omen. “Bears sleep on top of nests of bees. Snakes too,” she said. But I didn’t pay attention to her superstitions. I had grown up with barn owls as large as dogs, their faces as familiar as moths circling the porch. Nothing seemed dangerous.

On a day when the sketches fell fast in my lap and the sun was sweet enough to demand lemonade and a six-pack from the store, I had come home to find the door open. A pair of unfamiliar white flats in the doorway. Leather, which I could never afford. A little kitten heel, which I could never wear through the grass, all the places that demanded a closer look.

In the studio, my boyfriend was stretched over one of our old classmates. I had never seen him bare in daylight and his nakedness embarrassed me. It made me glad that we had never slept together with the lights on, bright enough for me to see his belly, beginning to distend with a potent concoction of age and beer.

One of his brushes was poised over her breast. The other had already been painted to become a sunflower. Buttered petals fanned from her dark nipples. I had to give him credit because it was some of his best work. Delicate and sensual. Maybe better than what I could do. Later, this would become his style. Magazines would hire him to drape orchids across models’ hips. Cut cornflowers across their cheeks and spray lilacs on their stomachs. I would always wonder when these brushstrokes had started.

There was no need for him to explain. I had watched my mother beg enough men to know what to do. I walked around them into the bedroom, taking only my brushes and a few sets of clothes. Everything else—the canvases we had stretched together, even the jeweled paints we had saved for by eating cereal and unripe pears from the garden—seemed better for him to keep. Sometimes the only way to leave is to just leave.

On my way out, I wore the white flats. Fresh canvas.

To live in a new city, I gave up all my paintings, even the ones I had promised to my mother. We hauled them to open-air galleries on Grand Avenue and LaSalle, to gallerists who swore collectors hunted for these landscapes. So pure and wild; it would be like having their summer cottage in their downtown apartment.

Once, a gallerist asked if a painting of Bear Lake on the cusp of summer was a real place. I said nothing for so long that my mother asked me what was wrong. “Nothing,” I said. “I am ready.” The gallerist took it with a smile, almond-shaped nails scalloping the dried paint. I pressed my hands against the canvas one last time, rough where I had scraped out waves from an endless blue.

On the drive to my new apartment, my mother’s smile was strained in the rearview mirror. I explained the woods behind our house would always be there. Whenever she wanted, I would be back to paint the birch trees and ravens in the backyard. The waves of Bear Lake would chew the same spits of sand, and perhaps, the glaciers melting meant that there would be fewer inches of beach—and didn’t she always think the shore was too stony? She nodded, reaching over to tug my ponytail, just as I used to do to her from the backseat.

When we said goodbye on the curb, I promised to see her in a few months, to take the train back to Bear Lake with all the new paintings I would make here. She gave me a kiss, mauve and citrus tint, a stamp on each cheek. Then she was gone, turning the car onto a street whose name I did not yet know. For weeks after, I would go into cosmetics stores, uncorking tubes of balms and lipsticks, searching for the color she wore.

In Lakeview or Pilsen, the studios were built as seriously as chapels. Perhaps if I painted plastic squares or obsessed over lines instead of color, I would have made enough to work there. Light cast everywhere, a vacuum of sturdy quiet. But I painted trees, which was only enough for a place in Bridgeport, where the shadows of warehouses stretched longer than I had known possible.

At first, it was not always easy even to breathe. The air was thick with hot grease, either from the manufacturing or the neighborhood deli, I couldn’t tell. My landlord was very polite when I tried to explain how the air smelled worse than death, worse than a family of chipmunks decomposing in the attic that I wish I didn’t remember. Meatball sandwiches, he says. Lunch time.

At least the sky was the same. I remembered when I told my boyfriend the skies were special in the Midwest, he didn’t believe me. When I went to the paint store, I was not surprised to find a tube labeled Midwestern Blue. A blanket of cerulean so bright it made soft geometries across the backs of your eyes. Someone else had bottled it too. Ex-boyfriend, I corrected myself as I picked out Naples Yellow and Mars Red, sparing no expense now that there was only one of me.

Though I had abandoned the landscapes, it was almost a relief to do so and wait for new paintings to arrive in my mind. I was sure they would come soon. They were most likely stalled some- where between the pages of my sketchbook and a late train to the city. Perhaps they were watching the thickets and woods blur into light as the train moved into a tunnel. Perhaps the paintings had motion sickness, trying to remember how to stay upright, when even the light resisted going forward around it.

I sat on fountain ledges, in empty doughnut shops, waiting for ideas to strike. Even if I had wanted to sketch passersby, I was left with pigeons who were at ease even when crowds welled up from the L. People moved swifter than birds, left greased feathers of takeout containers and shopping bags they condensed as they waited for the train. The dandelions in crevices and butter cups in the park made willing, if shy subjects.

Everything else had a harder edge of color—everything man-made that is. The trees were anemic, leeched of grain and color. How badly I wanted to stop and kneel at their allotted square of soil. Pour some red bean soup, like my mother would prescribe on days my hands were cold. I wanted to blow the steam as she did, before letting the tree have a sip. The beans would cover the roots, rose-colored silt and steam, and I would wait until it swallowed, before giving more.

“So what are you painting these days?” my father asks. I unfold a newspaper to mop up the turpentine I spilled earlier but was too lazy to clean.

“Nothing,” I say. “I think I’ve forgotten how to make greens and blues.”

“I thought you were giving up on landscapes. You are going back to them now? I understand, it’s hard to let go of the things you know well.” I imagine for a second, that he speaks of my mother. He continues, “It’s autumn now, shouldn’t you be finding your reds? Purples too, right? You explained this to me, I think.”

“Yes, it takes a lot of colors to make red look like red. You have to pummel it with purple, brown, a little blue.”

“That sounds like you’re making a bruise. Or a storm.” My father laughs. “But maybe you’re right. The leaves here are turning darker and darker like blood.” He tells me of the trees in the mountains, growing like unruly giants, and I examine a small beech tree some distance away from my window. Rubber bands wrap around its trunk, and the bark buckles around the ties. Its leaves are soft crimson tatters.

“Are you eating enough?” he says, changing the subject. I can hear him moving in the kitchen, picking up fruit and testing their ripeness.

“The turpentine makes everything taste like it. So it’s either painting or—”

“Seeing people?”

“More than enough. I’m meeting a friend tomorrow for lunch.” I imagine him settling on an orange, reducing it into rind and soft fruit. Mama always said he carried an orange wherever he went.

“Promise.” I link my pinky finger around the phone cord. We both know that I am lying.

I imagine how he is the orange now, strands tied in his teeth. The pulp, effervescent on his tongue. How he will let me have the first word.

“I guess Mama was always the better actress,” I say, and he laughs softly.

“That’s why you paint right? Have your fiction.” He swallows, and I want him to peel another for me. I know it’ll taste better that way, even if it’s sour fruit.

I eat the pears I bought immediately. I know I should put them in a bowl of salt water, peel the pesticides away. But even if the sink water isn’t pure, I think it’ll be good to have a little metal in me.     

It is hard to imagine the pulp, wet and sweet, clearing heat from my body. My mother says eating pears will save me from colds. They are soft enough that even their cores come apart, so I eat those too. I leave the seeds on the counter, like slivers of fortune waiting to be read. If I were really my mother’s daughter, I would know how to coax them into tall fruit-bearing trees.

The radish and snowflake wood ear are harder to eat. I soak the mushrooms until they turn gummy between my fingers. Cooking them with rock sugar makes the kitchen my mother’s, the room spins with the rhythm of a pot burbling, like birds in a fountain. I am hungry for the first time since getting here.

When I tire of the taste, I flush it all down with hot water. I am usually not so afraid of getting sick, but I want living in this city at least to be easy. I listen to my mother, and drink.

The sun is a haze today. My cold cheeks drink in the weak light. The air doesn’t smell terrible yet. I’ll take this teacup of quiet.

“Mama, where do you think we go when we die?”

“I’m not coming back for sure.”

“But what if you had to? Don’t you think we were something before this?”

“I would be a bird,” she says. “Definitely not too beautiful, but one that can still sing, with a gold or green belly.”

“Okay, I’ll be a tree.”

She hums and we consider this new arrangement.

“What do you think Ba would be?” The distance between us makes me bold.

“We don’t need him with us,” she says.

“But in a past life? Don’t you think he gets a chance?” I say. 

“He’s too hungry to live with us. Your father would have been a tiger or wolf. Vampire maybe,” she sighs. “Not sexy enough.” 

“Is that why you’re a bird?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Why do you want to be a tree?”

I don’t know either. None of the reasons fit inside my chest. Perhaps I’ve projected too much onto trees, how you could stake a home around them, how you could have one foot underground, the rest trying to touch the sky. I do not blame her for not speaking with my father. Still, we are creatures of want.

Sometimes in the night, the city sends out arms of light, and I learn there are no hours early enough to be alone. There is always a train going somewhere, splitting the dark open. Cars singing their grievances. When my mother asks if I can see stars there, I don’t even know the answer. The more she asks, the more I learn to make secrets.

“I’m practicing portraits,” I say, the plastic walls of the phone booth muffle my voice. “Do you remember when I used to be obsessed with mixing skin color? Still just as hard. Especially when you know the person.”

“Don’t put me anywhere,” she says. “You can draw much more interesting things.”

“Like what? Landscapes? I can’t be successful if I keep painting those things.”

“Why not? You don’t have enough for rent?” Her voice curves away as she stands. I know she is by the window, the big one that arches beneath the maple. It must be all red now. Or yolk yellow. The tree alternated colors each year. I couldn’t remember which color year it was now.

“I’m just looking for something new to draw,” I say.

When my mother first gave me the news, I thought of rabbits.

How if you let them make one house in your yard, then in ten years, they would own your house, collapse it from the ground up.

“The government—actually the university—wants to buy our house,” she says. For years, the government has been buying properties all over Bear Lake. Like rabbits—each warren a move towards eating the whole territory.

“Jesus,” I say, knowing this would make her wince. “Why do they want it?” Our house is small, wedged between the cornfields and forest. Wasp nests in the bathroom light, butter burgers and frozen custard down the road. Unpaved, but we liked it that way.

“You left as fast as you could,” she says.

“That’s not true.”

“What about all the times you begged me to go live with your father in Shanghai? How come you’re so fuzzy about this? This is a good thing, Ester.”

“They’re paying a lot of money for it, aren’t they?”

“This is how cities are built, Ester. Just ask your father. That’s his job.”

“Let me guess—they’re not touching Barton. Someone would throw a fit if that happened.” The houses there cut a private swath by the lake. Driveways so long the houses hid behind a curtain of hedges and ivy. Everything lathered, trimmed, plucked.

“Will you just let me finish?” she says. I hear her crack open a soda, metal puncturing the air. I knew if she had taken the deal, she would have bought the expensive ones. Glass body and real sugar.

“I haven’t signed anything,” she says. “Still here.”

“Okay,” I say and think of the deer. All those tufted white tails, preemptive surrender. How they don’t even know this is what gives them away.

“So you’re just going to let her do it,” my father says.

“Can’t you do something? It’s not just Mama, our house. The university already bought Blimpy’s Burgers and the old theater on State Street. They tried to buy Angelo’s but thank God they wouldn’t take the money.”

“Angelo’s? That sounds familiar. Did we ever go?” I want him to stop asking questions. He never understands where my line is.

“Good hash browns and avocado omelets.” I only know the Chinese for avocado because my mother told me yesterday. More cow oil fruit for tonifying yin. The characters sprout in my throat, obscuring what I actually want to say.

“I’m sure we went,” I say. Somehow, we’ve always agreed to pretend that he’s visited me many times. Not just once, when I was five, when I did not even know how to make memories that stayed.

“Your mother will move on,” he says.

“That’s not the point.” It is possible he is trying to be kind. It is possible I don’t know how to apologize. I get that from him. The phone goes in my other hand, and I try again.

“I mean it was just the two of us for so long. And the house was there for all of it. Something just feels so wrong to leave it.”

After a long quiet, he says, “I know.”

The portraits of my mother are difficult. I wish I had taken pictures. Even if they were just from a cheap camera, they couldn’t have been blurrier, more fallible than my own memories. It wasn’t poetry or principle when I listened to my teachers’ advice to paint from life as much as possible.

I work on the paintings whenever I need her company. If she had known that I had been watching in these moments, she would have thrown a dish towel or covered her face even if her hands were floured. What’s there to see, I know she would say. It is with these faint outlines that I trace out an image of her.

The light by the kitchen window lathers her in blue evening. Her back is turned, but I know she is reading a recipe, some new way of tricking me into eating lotus root. On the counter, vegetables sway in tubs of water, their roots softening to let go of the soil. Her hands surround flour and water, clearing it against the bowl until a new surface emerges from it, luminous and supple. There’s a swipe of flour across her cheek, hard to get the dust right with brushes, as she turns to call me downstairs. It’s here that it is even more difficult for me to fill out the shapes. Her shoulders aching by the boredom, the fatigue of work. Her hands always at the task of raising me. Her fingers holding onto a new offering, burnished sweet pancake. I want to remember how her eyes met mine, if they were mixed with the same colors I use now.

“Ba thinks we should keep the house,” I say. Faint flakes of snow crisscross in the air. I try not to be enchanted with them now. I know how they will settle into frozen rock, ice cubes on my neck.

“Does he?” my mother says. “Where were his opinions when I had to raise you alone?”

“He made some mistakes,” I say, even though I know little about them.

“Don’t do this. Don’t make me feel this.”

“Mama, he’s old now. I don’t see—I don’t see why you let me talk to him if he’s so bad.” When I pressed my face into my mother’s hair after she moved me into this apartment, I saw the first white strands. It made me wonder if they were spun overnight, or there all along. They must have been multiplied on my father, who was born in the year of the tiger, six years older than my mother, born in the year of the monkey.

“Ester, I’m not talking to you about this.” She uses my English name, and this makes me desperate.

“Okay, we don’t have to listen to him. But I’m grown up now, Mama. You can tell me whatever it is that happened. Why he left.”

“This isn’t about the house anymore, is it?” she says as if she can see me nodding through the phone, from her perch. Her voice is quiet. I have always thought it was impossible to talk about my father without shouting.

“Your father is a hungry man. He might not seem that way to you now, but he got to start over with you.

“When I got pregnant with you, I was honest. I told my PhD advisor. I told your father. I was stubborn because I was young. Because then, if you were a teacher, once you started showing, they wouldn’t let you see your students anymore. Don’t you see?”

“Yes,” I say even though I am finding it difficult to breathe. My breath shallow, square, inside the lines.

“They gave my thesis away, but that was nothing. Your father told me to give you up. Adoption or foster care.” The words split me through the middle, the color of a fresh bruise.

“Now you know,” she says.

I cradle the phone a little closer.

When I go home to Bear Lake, to paint that picture I promised before the birch were stripped away, it’s nice to not use the phone anymore. My mother is right here, in the next room over. She tells me I have an hour before dinner. I wear the wrong shoes, and the gravel snaps between my toes. The road soon turns into forest. Wet grass kisses my calves.

Light falls like patchwork between the trees, shaved and shorn. In all the years I knew them, they were knit too tightly together to let the sun through. The construction has stopped chewing for now, leaving the cicadas and owls to their evening duet.

I make my way through a tangle of Queen Anne’s lace that is beginning to bear burrs instead of white flowers. A thrush careens through the darkness. Its song has changed since my father taught me how to listen for them.

When I look back, it is almost dark again, time to go back. I step onto the veins of asphalt that do not lead anywhere. And yet I stay for just a while longer, wondering how to paint this thin light that holds me here.

Artist’s Statement

It wasn’t until I moved away from my family that I realized how much of our lives was steeped in superstition. In Chinese Medicine, there’s rules about the colors of foods, their inherent temperature, how to balance your body’s climate with nature’s. I thought it would be interesting to write from this perspective, especially from a landscape artist’s, as someone who needs to be aware of their surroundings in order to make their living. The delicate balance an artist has with their natures, internal and external, can be disrupted and I was curious how that would ripple through this story.

Star Su grew up in Ann Arbor and is a recent graduate of Brown University. Their fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Offing, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, & elsewhere. They read flash for Split Lip Magazine. Find them on Twitter: @stars_su.