Under the Regime of Austerity, Stella can no longer afford much color. What she gets she uses on her hair and her eyes, even though all the magazines say that’s a waste. Hair falls out and eyes tear up, and eventually the color wears away and she’s left with nothing until her next ration coupon. The magazines recommend using color on things like coats and shoes, things that last a long time and don’t get washed often. These days there are a lot of gray people walking around in bright blue coats with green shoes. Lately it’s become popular to use color on the inner walls of your home. There are a lot of people walking around completely gray, and it’s hard to tell whether they’re trendy or simply too poor to afford any color at all.
Sometimes Stella puts color on her skin, and that’s the most wasteful of all. It flakes off every time she scratches.
Stella works in a wealthy area and there she sees the rich kids swaggering down the street with color on everything. They stick their tongues out at strangers to show off the pink. Even their pets have color—red dogs and fuscia ferrets. Their parents are more understated. The old-money adults have everything colored, but so subtly as to almost be invisible. They wear gray skirts suffused with just a hint of pink. Their hair is gray with the slightest sheen of pale blue. It costs a fortune to do that, not only for the colors but also to get such expert tinting.
Before the Regime, Stella had been an artist, a painter, but these days the only artists really thriving are sculptors and photographers who don’t mind working in shades of gray. Some artists save up their colors to paint with, but they are always found and punished by the police. Hoarding is not acceptable. Color must be used before the next ration coupon is issued. Stella saves her receipts.
Now she works at the Carnegie Mellon Mouse Brain Library, staining cross-sections of mouse brains with whatever pigment she’s given: blue, purple, green, red. It’s a very good job, a very responsible position. Not only does she have to have a good eye and a steady hand, but she’s entrusted with vial after vial of precious stain, glittering in the florescent laboratory light. It’s almost art. Stella would never want anything to go wrong at the Library.
It’s practically a miracle that the Library can continue its work. Under the Regime, arts organizations have lost nearly all their color privileges and the sciences haven’t fared much better, but the Mouse Brain Library is headed by the son of a color company executive, and he’s able to use not only his family money but also his family connections to ensure a steady supply of stain.
Sometimes Stella sits and stares into the vials of color before plunging her eyedropper into their jeweled depths. Around her, other lab workers stain brain slices, run flux-gate gradiometers, and file slides. She settles her eyes to the electronic microscope and the delicate cross-section of brain slides into focus. Gently, carefully, she maneuvers the needle-thin eyedropper into view and stains the neurons emerald green.
On her way home, Stella usually stops in the local park and watches the children play. She sits and thinks about when she was a child and all parks had deep green grass, green as the stain she used at the library: green grass with patches of dried brown earth, and playground equipment was in bright primary colors, and trees with rich brown bark and pink flowers surrounded her home. The bright white-yellow sun would beat down on her from a sky that could be anything from robin’s-egg blue to a purple-black bruise. Sometimes it had even been dull gray, the way it always is these days, now that there is always a pale gray sun beaming rays of gray light. Gray children play on the swings and jungle gyms of the gray playground.
They’ve never known anything different, Stella realizes. They think this is the way things are supposed to be: a world of grays, with only the occasional blue coat to relieve the monotony. Unless they have relatives always nattering on about the way things used to be, the way Stella does. Only in her mind, of course. It’s never wise to be overheard complaining.
Stella does not want to be stopped and checked by a color agent, because in her handbag, she is carrying contraband. At the bottom of every vial of stain is a drop or two that the eyedropper can’t get. At the end of the day Stella puts stoppers in the vials and takes them home.
She is hoarding color. She is planning a painting.
It is a ridiculous thing to do, she knows that. She could never exhibit her work anywhere. Being found with such a piece would be enough to get her imprisoned, exiled, transported, disappeared. But she can’t stop sketching a scene from her childhood. Her family was on vacation in New England and they came upon a carnival with a snake-woman who charmed serpents into winding themselves harmlessly around her arms and legs while she sang sad snake songs. The woman was dressed in a rich, mossy green and the snakes were flowering in reds and purples and browns. Around her, Stella and other children clapped and gasped. Stella plans this painting obsessively. She has tried doing all she can with charcoal, pencils, and gray ink, but it’s no good. The scene calls out for colors, for rich, thick, oily, obscene colors. So Stella is obtaining them, a drop at a time, a few drops of different stain each day, every day, for years. She never takes vacations.
Each evening she carefully tips the droplets into cleaned-out peanut butter jars. She has seven that are almost full. Each morning she brings the empty vials back to the lab so that the glassware won’t be missed.
She has never been caught.
She is concerned about one thing; she wants the painting to last. She cannot imagine starting over from scratch; she can’t imagine getting away with this a second time. She can hardly believe she’s getting away with it this time. She hopes that the painting will be worth the risk. One afternoon, admiring her staining handiwork under the microscope, she twists a curl of turquoise hair around her gray finger and asks the lab’s supervising scientist a question.
“Carl,” she asks. “How long does stain last? I mean, will we have to do all these brain slices over again in five years or something?”
Carl smiles through his gray beard. He’s used his color ration on his teeth, which are gold. He’s quirky that way, like Stella herself. Scientists often are, like artists. He and Stella went out on a few dates the previous year, but she called it off when she realized that she would have a hard time hiding her color-poaching ways if they started going home together regularly. They are still friendly and the lab atmosphere is always one of good will.
“Stain lasts forever,” he says proudly. “That’s why it’s called stain.”
“Forever . . .” muses Stella dreamily, wondering at the glowing tones. “That should be long enough.” Then, in a sharper voice, “I wonder why they don’t make our color rations out of stain.”
“Too expensive,” says Stan, another stainer. “Stain is state of the art. You can’t buy it at your local drugstore.”
“Planned obsolescence,” says Paul. He is a constant source of conspiracy theories, and these days it is harder and harder to dismiss him. He’d seen color rationing coming years before it had become reality, or so he claimed. He is also completely gray. Nobody knows what he uses his color ration for. Perhaps he is hoarding it and will come in some day with every inch brightly colored shortly before being arrested by a crew of color agents. The thought is so incongruous that Stella can’t help but smile.
“Stain is for brain,” Carl says. “That’s all there is to it. Don’t get any ideas.”
That afternoon, Stella goes home on the train, her head full of ideas. Ideas for her painting, ideas for her eyes (that would take such a small amount of stain after all), ideas for the gray people packed in around her. At home, she works on the sketches, studies for her painting. She’s decided to use a background of mysteriously patterned tents, bright lights, a ferris wheel, and a menagerie of animals and performers. At the bottom center, staring up at the snake-woman, she sketches in a girl in a coat that will be bright red, staring up in wonder. Herself.
When will she dare to paint it, she wonders. To dip her long unused brush in the carnelian stain and taint the pure pale gray of the canvas? Will she dare at all? If she never paints with the stain, she won’t run the risk of wasting it, of ending up with nothing at all, just a bad painting and empty jars. She can cuddle these jars of stain to her bosom for the rest of her life.
She wonders if she’s turning into Paul. Perhaps he’s too terrified to use up a cup of his color ration, and that’s why he’s completely gray. Gray skin, gray hair, gray eyes, gray teeth, gray coat, gray shoes, gray hat. Stella doesn’t want to be like that. But it’s taken her so long to save up all this stain.
The next day is one of her days off and takes her sketch pad down to the park. She draws charcoal studies of the gray children in the gray park. Color on children is the most perilous and difficult sort. Give a kid a brand new pair of red leather shoes, and within a few days, they’ll be scuffed into a dusty gray mess. Parenting magazines are full of suggestions. Some articles suggest using a kid’s color ration on food—nothing gets a kid to eat vegetables like making them bright purple. Other tips include coloring mittens so that they don’t get lost as easily and coloring letters in books to help kids learn how to read.
Stella isn’t worried about how little color the children are allowed to play with, but she is concerned about how little they see, how they have learned to take the flat gray as given. How they understand color as a private possession, rather than a surrounding element, a shared world. Even the richest children, those teenagers uptown with the pink tongues, even they wake up every morning and look out the window onto a colorless view.
Her own childhood, before the Regime, was full of color, from the glossy green of the vegetables on her plate to the creamy shells she found on the beach at her grandmother’s house to the glowing sunrise her mother woke her up to watch early one morning on vacation. Her mother, she remembers, always wore red nailpolish, and her grandmother drank tan, milky tea that she sweetened with shiny red cherry preserves. And that sunrise was like hot golden honey spilling over the dark ocean.
She also remembers her box of sixty-four crayons with a built-in crayon sharpener. Each crayon was a different shade—ten different blues, a silver, ten different purples, pale colors and rich jewel tones, and always too many browns. It seemed like there were more browns than anything else, and at the time, Stella had thought that brown was the most boring color imaginable. Now she knows different. That crayon company has gone out of business now; the Regime hit crayons and magic markers hard. Pencil- and charcoal-makers, though, have prospered.
These children of a monochrome era have never had a box of sixty-four crayons. They run screaming around the playground flinging up clots of gray earth onto their gray clothing, and when they skin their gray knees, gray blood runs down gray skin, and as far as they believe, no matter what their parents might drone on about, that’s the way it’s always been. If the Regime goes on long enough, Stella thinks, she will die and the parents will die and there will be nobody left who remembers anything other than the Regime’s color rationing, nobody who can hold onto the past and use it to fight for the future.
Stella could bring her painting down here for the children to see, she thinks, once she’s completed it. But she knows what happens to contraband color. If her carnival of colors becomes public, it will be picked up and burned, all her painstakingly saved stain and carefully crafted images eaten by gray-tongued flames. She goes back home disconsolately. What is the point of a painting that can never be seen? But what is the point of stain that just sits in a jar?
Resolutely, she closes the curtains and props a large canvas on a long-disused easel. She take out the stain, dips her brush in and tries to paint in the red of the little girl’s coat, but the stain turns to water as soon as it touches the canvas, and runs down to the bottom of the easel harmless and clear. Disbelieving, Stella tries again, and again the stain loses all color the moment it touches the canvas. Are all her plans come to this, she wonders? Why won’t it work? She tries each of the seven colors she’s saved, just to be sure, and none of them work on canvas. What will she do with the stain now? She can’t just return it.
“Stain is for brain,” she remembers Carl saying. “Stain is for brain.”
She imagines taking the stain down to the playground in the dead of night, splashing the entire park with it, and then coming back in the afternoon to watch the children discover the Technicolor marvel their playground has become. She dismisses the idea. If the stain won’t work on canvas, she doubts it will work on metal and wood, and even if it did, the entire park would just be razed, paved over with gray concrete.
She doesn’t know what to do anymore, and she falls asleep with Carl’s words ringing in her ears. “Stain is brain,” she thinks. “Stain is for brain.”
When she wakes up the next morning, she is still turning over the possibilities in her mind. She could return the stain and get arrested. She could pour the stain down her shower drain, wash out the jars, and pretend that nothing had ever happened. She could hoard the jars of stain, taking them out to stare at whenever she was alone. “I’ve got stain on the brain,” she thinks to herself while she’s in the shower. And then she realizes what to do.
After breakfast, she brings out her jars of stain and lines them up in rainbow order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. She rinses out a juice glass and pours a measure of each color into it. They don’t mix. Instead they lie on top of each other, shimmering, perfect, impossible. They smell chemical and intoxicating, like uncapped magic markers and ditto machine ink. Stella closes her eyes, raises the cup to her lips, and drinks.
Stain is for brain.
She waits five minutes, expecting to fall down dead or convulsing, but she feels fine, so she finally opens her eyes.
She almost faints.
Color is everywhere she looks. The walls of her apartment are a dusty rose. Her skin is pale eggshell with the slightest bit of tan. Her shirt is a mulberry red and her skirt is bright, vibrant purple and her couch is pale green. She runs into her bedroom to find that the curtains are periwinkle embroidered with sea-green vines and pink flowers. The tiling in her bathroom is lavender and pale blue. She sticks her head out her bedroom window and sees the park below, a mossy green square under an azure sky. She can see the children from here, too, dark brown and peach-pink and ochre. The swing sets and slides on which they play are rich brown wood off which red and yellow paint peels. The slide is bright silver and the rubber padding under the children’s feet is pitch black.
The children don’t see any of this. As far as they know, the world is gray and always has been. The blood that oozes from their knees is not the ruby red that Stella sees, nor is the scraped raw flesh pink.
Stella packs her jars of stain in a large tote bag along with plastic cups and, as a last-minute thought, a box of sugar to smooth out the chemical taste. She is going to help the children see.
She opens her front door and the world is full of color.
The picture is left propped on a chair in her living room. It’s still in charcoal pencils, a rough sketch of a carnival, with one splash of color at the very bottom, a little girl in a scarlet coat.