Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
My Daughter of Many Colours - Tom Barlow
I had never been with a green man before. I thought his skin would be leathery and wet, like the frogs in our pond. When he grasped my breast, I placed a hand on his forearm. It felt silken, cool and gentle. He made love in the same way.
He returned often that spring, each time bringing me a small gift from off-world: a bit of jewelry, an exotic sweet, an ampoule of enticing aroma. At my suggestion, he usually came at the end of the evening, so that we could enjoy our pillow talk uninterrupted. We often watched the sunrise together before I walked him to our back door. I did not want my father to see him leave, as he would have demanded additional payment from my green man for my time.
With each visit I grew bolder with my questions. Most of what I know about life on other worlds, and about kindness, I learned from him. His gift was two-edged, though. Until then, I had not really understood that the universe was not an endless repetition of the squalor around me. The green man taught me to dream, and afterward I sometimes cursed him for it.
After he shipped out, I bought a copper statue of a green man, which I placed on the dresser of my boudoir. I often find my eyes drawn to the verdigris figurine as I pleasure my customer of the hour.
The green men were replaced by violet men. They came to me for next two years, mostly in pairs. During that time the rains failed, and my father refused to permit me to extinguish the lamp if there was even the slightest chance a gentleman might call.
The violet men were often uninterested in me except as a foil, the fulcrum around which they could play out their desire for one another. When they did involve me, they were anything but gentlemen. After the first week of their abuse, the bruising of my skin approached their coloration. I lived with bruises until the day they all shipped out.
As a child, my job was hostess of the parlor, keeping the soldiers supplied with whatever spirits were favored by their particular race. I fetched the military police when mother's gentlemen became rowdy, and straightened the room when our guests finally fell into their night trances.
When I reached menarche, though, and my hair began its change from gold to auburn, my father began to weigh me every week, eager for me to reach adequate heft to withstand the wear and tear of a working woman's life.
My first gentleman was one of the orange men. They were, for many years, my mother's most constant visitors. She often reminded us that our rice, meat, even the pot in which it was cooked, were purchased from them with pieces of her heart.
As my father wrapped the working gown about me for the first time, he reviewed my knowledge of our customs.
"I am the vessel of your desire," I recited. Mother handed me her flower oil. I did not realize as I rubbed it into my flanks that the aroma would permeate the rest of my life, that my mother would never again be any further from me than my own skin. "Your pleasure my pleasure. Your joy is mine."
She introduced me to her favorite orange man, positioned me, introduced me to his needs, and guided me through the coupling. That night I understood for the first time what was meant by the term, little death. I saw it in my mother's eyes.
For a time our family prospered, mother and I together bringing in enough money to lend us the illusion of prosperity. Too soon, however, my mother began to show her age and the wear of a lifetime of service. Her gentlemen began to abandon her in favor of me. I believe it was this transition that convinced my mother the time had come for her transition as well. Shortly after her favorite orange man, the harvester of my innocence, shipped out, Mother took her own life.
I found myself adept at elaborate rituals of the ochre men who replaced the orange, and even in my grief I was able to keep a busy parlor. My younger sister had taken over my job as hostess. By then, my father was forced to face the fact that my sister had not bred true. She was not alluring to his clientele. Her features were a bit coarse, her shape too irregular to be considered sensual. Her banter was unsubtle, and she spoke more than once about her own wishes.
Still, just as three rotten logs can together dam a clear stream, the three of us might have maintained our business for a long time had the war not intervened.
At first, we were unaware that war was taking place throughout the galaxy, but we did note the increasing variety and number of visitors. One evening, I was resting in the parlor, between clients, sharing a drink with a crimson man. I commented on the variety of those gathered there; a grey, a pair of purples, an olive man, and a vermilion woman who had become one of my favorite gentlemen.
The crimson man offered to explain the war to me. "Come with me," he said, pulling me onto our small balcony. He gently positioned my head toward the night sky, held my hand in his hand, and pointed them to a bright star in the west.
"The brightest star? Surrounded by six fainter stars?"
"I see it," I said.
"In eleven years, that star will disappear from your sky."
He swung our hands toward the south, coming to stop on the south star, the homing star for our village fishing fleet. "That star is called Abraham 5. It will disappear in less than five years."
"They will be destroyed by war?"
"They are already destroyed. What we see now is the light cast off by the star five years ago. Even though a star dies, its light continues radiating outward forever."
We lay still for a long time that night, matching breath for breath, pressing ourselves together until the sweat of our skins soaked the sheets.
"War is good business," became my father's mantra. He put away the family gods of peace and spent part of our savings on a large clay war god for our parlor. Each of its many arms held a different weapon, and warriors were clenched in the teeth of each visage.
Good business meant exhausting business for me. Puce men followed magenta men followed lime women followed lilac men until, in desperation, I abandoned subtlety for expediency, learning to compress each tryst to a frantic few minutes. Yet we were no better off than before. The people we paid for goods, services, and protection also intended to grow fat in the war economy.
I could not have chosen a worse time to become pregnant, but fertility seems to respond better to threats than kindness. I remained oblivious to my condition for some time, blaming my nausea on the diseases that accompanied the troops gathering on our world. The vermillion woman recognized my condition first.
"Your breasts are swollen," she said, caressing my nipple with her raspy tongue. "I'm guessing you'll have enough milk for twins."
"Milk?" I said, sitting up so quickly I almost toppled her off the bed.
She must have informed our village seneschal as soon as she left my bed, because he was at our door before I had finished with my next gentleman. As I crossed the parlor, I saw him lecturing my father, who wore the stoic face I knew concealed rage.
Father unleashed it on me as soon as the seneschal left. "Pregnant? Do you understand what this will do to me? To your sister? We have no time for babies. The war won't last; already they talk of peace. Babies have no place in a war economy."
He raged for days, but we both knew his anger was purposeless. The baby was already property of our liege lord, and any measures we took to end the pregnancy would likely result in imprisonment or worse.
I continued to work, however, and to my father's delight, we found that many soldiers found pregnant women captivating. More than a few spent their hour caressing my round belly, pressing their ears against my skin to hear the child's movements.
Finally, as I grew to full term, the seneschal put a halt to my work, in order to safeguard the health of the unborn child. My father tried for a few days to offer my sister to the soldiers instead, but he found that only cruel men would accept her, and the days it took for her to heal made his business untenable.
My daughter was born early on a spring morning. I remember the scent of the air wafting through the window the midwife had opened, heavy with the fragrance of my mother's flowers. I named my daughter Spring Blossom.
The midwife worked by candlelight, since the power to our village was rationed to a few hours every afternoon. So, although I knew my child by the softness of her skin, her suckle and her squirm, it was only when dawn broke that I could see her.
Her skin was unlike any child I had ever seen, a riot of color: swirls, patches, and nuances of patterns, from her downy head to her pea-sized toes-- peach and teal, mint, salmon, orchid, turquoise, gold, indigo, copper, blue. I thought her the most beautiful being in the universe.
My father, to his everlasting damnation, thought only of his mercenary prayers.
"She's magical," he said. "She'll be worth a fortune."
I bundled my daughter deep in her blanket and nested her in my arms. "She's not for you," I said. "Never for you."
He said no more about it, and for a time I allowed myself to believe that our life might conform to my hopes. In due course I returned to work. Spring Blossom grew quickly, as though impelled by the war economy to make the most of the days before the stars started to disappear.
She was not yet four when I found my father beginning her education.
They were seated on our stoop, watching the crowd at the weekly market in the town square. "The yellow men are very poor," he told her, pointed toward one haggling over a fish whose eyes were already clouded. "Never waste your time on yellow men."
I grabbed my daughter by the scruff of her robe and pulled her to her feet. When my father swung his face to me, I could read the unchangeable intention in his eyes.
After that, I began spending every hour I could with Spring Blossom, teaching her what I knew of life that might apply beyond the boudoir. I passed along the many hints of other worlds that had been muttered to me by my gentlemen in the quiet of denouement. She listened attentively, only interrupting me a few times to ask me why, why are you telling me this now, mother?
I had no plan in mind, only the determination that Spring Blossom would not be trapped as my mother and I had been. Thanks to my green man, I knew that a better life was possible. Therefore, I took it as a sign when the green men returned to my world.
I studied each green man that called on me, until I found one that reminded me of my friend of so long before. My first goal was to inspire his return, and never had I worked so hard to pleasure a client. I cajoled him to confess those private desires he had never before allowed expression, then fulfilled them, and more. I provided delights he did not have the imagination to envision.
He returned the next day, and the next, and I drew out our pillow talk. I probed his nature, the path of his life, the possible avenues of his future. It was only after months of such intimacy that I could bring myself to introduce him to Spring Blossom.
As I lowered my daughter's robes for him, revealing her in her play clothes, I watched his face, ready at the first carnal twitch to bury the knife I held in my pocket in his ribcage. To my relief, he took on the expression of a father, one I had seen on the faces of other men in our village, though never in my own household.
Spring Blossom curtsied, then held up her hands asking that he lift her into his arms.
My green man was so entranced by Spring Blossom's multi-hued skin I was not sure he heard what I asked of him. But when I started to repeat myself, he raised his hand.
"I understand," he said. "You are offering me your daughter."
Spring Blossom looked at me. "What? Mother? Mother, no."
I was only able to ignore my daughter's words because I had envisioned this scene over many sleepless nights.
"I am offering you a magical daughter," I said to the green man. "My daughter shall be your daughter. But only as a daughter. If you are not true to that promise, I shall find a way to cut out your heart, even if we are separately by the width of the sky." An empty threat, but at that moment, I almost believed my words. I made him point out to me the star that would soon warm my daughter's beautiful skin.
The green man, to his everlasting credit, took my words as his vow. Within the hour, they were gone. A few days later, I found the blanket roll full of her toys in some nearby bushes. I knew at the time they left that the toys I pressed on him would be too much to carry, but I'd hoped he would discard them somewhere further away, somewhere I would not stumble upon them.
Since then, my father and sister and I have struggled on. The quality of my visitors has diminished in proportion to my inability to bring my heart into the bedroom. Like my mother, my heart seems to have been pieced out until my chest feels empty. Sometimes, when my client is pressing me into the bed, with each thrust I imagine I can hear that hollowness beating inside me like the air inside a small drum.
When morning's light returns each day, I am always a little disappointed. I long for the day I can walk my father out onto our balcony, point to the place in the sky where our sun used to reside, and watch him face his oblivion.
Until then, I stare at the stars that remain, and wonder which one is shining down on Spring Blossom, my daughter of many colours.
- END -