A Short Story

Five Strong Colours

Longlisted entry in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize, 2019


Living off the land is hard, and Yan was only seventeen. The unceasing threat of drought weighted heavy on his heart. Each night the sky rose mauve above the thick walls of his tent, then faded to black before curdling to amber at dawn, and each night he dreamt of the great city three hundred miles below his home on the high plateau. In his mind's eye, its lights shone brighter than any star in the clear night sky, and its silky voice whispered the same mantra over and over. Here you will find adventure, the thrill of the forbidden, the chance of glory. Here you will find money. Here you will find life.

Yan listened carefully and knew it to be true. The city had wound the intricate map of its broad streets, gracious canals and twisting, turning alleys so tightly about him that he was snared more surely than any prince caught fast in a fairy-tale wood. So, at last, he told his mother and grandfather that he, like his brothers before him, would leave.

Yan was not, however, a heartless boy. Even at seventeen, with the world before him and the life of a nomad shimmering into unreality, he found it hard to stand and watch his mother prepare their final meal beneath a line of coloured flags that tore and snapped in the wind. It was a thin broth with dried meat and barley, and as he bent to help her, the wind wicked the tears away from his eyes. She did not look up, except to turn her face into that drying, chapping wind, but they talked, after a fashion, and her questions about the luggage and journey jarred at his brain, whilst the answers gutted in his throat as he absently regarded the repeating blue, white, red, green and yellow pattern of the flags.

A great part of him - the man - longed to set out, aim for the horizon, and put the pain of leaving behind him. The child in him wanted only to be free from the promise of greater things and the expectation of better things, and to sit contented whilst his mother cooked, washed, swept and mended, and the bells around the sheep's necks softly rang. But when the man comes up against the child, the man generally wins, so Yan shouldered his pack and left.

He did not look back more than once, but once was enough because he was not a hard-hearted boy, just ambitious. His mother waved, her arm swinging back and forth like a metronome whilst her face twisted in pain. His grandfather simply stood and watched him go. Enough. Yan closed his eyes and let the chapping wind burn across his cheeks as he bid them a silent goodbye, then pictured the city ahead. He promised himself that he would send money home: all the money he could earn if he worked hard, and Yan knew how to work hard - the high plateau could be an unforgiving place.

*

Many days passed. Yan walked until the familiar plains gave way to valleys lined with conifer and cut by tumbling water. Each night he lay down beneath the stars and pulled the folds of his blanket close. The world around him was changing, and his heart would quail if he let his thoughts run, but walking all day makes for a tired body, so Yan thought little and slept well.

With sore feet and a trembling heart, he eventually arrived on the outskirts of the city. It was not as he had expected. Straggling huts created a desultory line - the ragged hem of a great town - and green gave way to mud. There seemed nowhere to stop, so Yan kept walking. His mind was troubled by what he saw in the faces of the women and children - there was no welcome there, just the dullness that is conjured by drudgery - but he was young, and he pushed the images firmly aside. Ahead, the heart of the city shone slate grey, with the sun's rays beating out a heat that felt more relentless than the wind on the high ground.

Yan walked all day, and the mud eventually gave way to grey concrete, towering on either side of him like granite cliffs. Exhausted, he sat down at the crossroads of two long, straight streets. He had the address of his brothers, but he had no map, so he did not know how to find their street. He had been sitting for all of a minute when a man came towards him waving his hands. Angry. Yan could not understand the man's dialect, but the intent was clear. Move on. Yan looked down and suddenly realised how dirty he was, how roughly fashioned his clothes were and how soiled they were from the journey - how he smelt. He shuffled away, the man's high-pitched imperatives still ringing in his ears.

As Yan walked, rain began to fall. It was the first rain Yan had felt that summer, for the high plateau had become dry, as if the land itself wanted to push the people away and be left alone to quietly decay into desert. Yan turned his face to the sky and let the water run down his cheeks, washing off the dirt of the road. Then he licked the moisture from his chapped lips and went to find his brothers.

*

Years flowed by, as only years can. Yan worked, and the seventeen-year-old boy grew a beard and forgot to look up at the sky. He worked hard, willingly spending his strength each day, but his lips remained chapped and his pockets remained empty. What little he and his brothers could spare, they sent to their mother and grandfather. When it rained - and in the city it often rained - water ran away across the concrete as it sought a place to sink into the earth. It made Yan recall the rolling plains and the great sky that arced above them - the pale canvas that framed those endless miles. Could that be the same sky as this pinched expanse of grey that he saw through the tiny window pane of their shared room? Was this water that flushed down the foul streets the same water that sparkled in the great blue lake when the midday sun winked overhead? Yan was usually too weary to seek answers to these questions, and others, that troubled his heart.

One day the news came that Yan's grandfather had died. Old news already when it reached them. They were to expect his mother soon. Yan walking out into the narrow street and pulled a few dull coins from his pocket. He let them fall into the dirt at his feet. They were worth nothing now. His eyes sought out the meagre sky, framed by regiments of dirty bricks. He wanted to weep, but the tears would not come. At last he asked himself that final question: the one that had been crouching unformed for years in the hollowness that had grown inside him. Where is the love?

*

A year later, Yan sat beside his tent, squinting as the wind whipped across his face, even thought it was hidden deep within the fir trim of his hood. He thought of the city, with its tight grey streets and endless rain, then he thought of his grandfather and realised that he was glad that at least the old man had never seen that place or known that the drought would never end.

Three years had passed now on the high ground, and there had been no proper rain. The desert was coming, he mused, then started in surprise as a drop of water landed at his feet. It remained spherical for a moment, before flattening, then, with infinite slowness, sank away into the parched earth.

He watched the darkness of its imprint fade, then turned his face towards the sky; it was pale blue and near cloudless. Could it have been a raindrop? He wiped his eyes, and the dust from his hands made them sting. Perhaps it had been a tear? One single tear wrung out of him at last, after all these long years. He had not cried since that day he had walked away - seventeen years old, and with every thought and idea new and ready to unfurl inside him like the fronds of a fern in the springtime. He blinked, and small rivers of tears sprang forth and rolled down his cheeks, washing away the dirt.

Around him, the sheep huddled together, their thick coats matted with dust, and the bells around their necks ringing half-heartedly as their curled horns softly chinked. Gusts of wind buffeted the hide walls of his tent. Yan narrowed his eyes, blurring the high sandy plateau with its parched and faded grasses, and the sky that stretched across it, until, through his tears, he saw only earth and air. After a few minutes he dried his eyes and rose, patting the nearest sheep roughly on its head, and went inside.

Closing the tent flap carefully behind him, Yan went to the old wooden box that served him, and his mother and grandfather before him, as both table and treasure chest. He removed the cloth that covered it - folding it carefully and setting it to one side - then lifted the lid.

Inside the box many items of clothing, leather and fur jostled for space, but, peeping between the folds of a blanket, he saw primrose yellow, sharp green, then the blue that he loved - a deeper, richer shade than the sky colour. It was the blue that sparkled in the lake that was hidden away beyond the high plateau, amidst the mountains.

He held the first rectangle of cloth, running the fabric between his fingers, observing its newness. Next, he pulled the string attached to the cloth, and out came white - like the cumulus clouds - then red, next green, and finally yellow. A few moments later, Yan sat with a string of coloured flags stretched out on the cloth, and his chapped lips relaxing into an unfamiliar smile.

Humming quietly to himself, he closed the box, bundled up the flags, replaced the cloth and went back outside. Immediately the wind silenced him, scratching his face with grit. Watched by the sheep, he tied one end of the string to a pole adjacent to the tent, before draping the flags around its hide walls, and fastening the other end to its apex.

Then he sat down amongst the sheep, waiting for his mother and brothers to come home. As he waited, he listened to the new flags snapping in the wind. Blue, white, red, green, yellow. Peace began to fill the hollow he had carried inside himself for so long, and his sorrow rested on the back of the desert wind.

┬ęDonna Brown 2019