“I suppose it’ll have to do,” my mother announced, flinging her cape-covered arms to her sides and glaring at the three hundred-year old Swiss castle that was spread before us. I tried to hide from the cold behind the long sleeves that hung down, almost resting on the cold ground, but she rushed ahead of me, gliding on the snow-covered ground like the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, the novel I had just devoured on the long jet ride from New York. We had traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, Western Europe, and finally settling in Zurich, Switzerland, where we would be spending our winter vacation in an old castle nestled in the Swiss Alps.
My mother pulled open the heavy stone door and entered the frigid hallway, her heels clicking on the specked granite surface. The smell of must hung in the air, and I noticed an old-fashioned kitchen to our right. To our left sat a cozy living room, complete with four comfortable couches and a glass table.
“It’s quaint.” My mother spun on her toe and continued up the stone stairs, her chauffeur trailing after her, a blue essence bobbing behind him. His blue essence turned to yellow as he lugged the overflowing suitcase from stair to stair. “I have to say, Lars, when you said castle, I didn’t exactly picture this.”
I trailed behind them slowly, letting my feet pause on each red carpet-covered, gold-weighted stair. I found my room easily, a square-shaped box with a four-poster bed and white curtains which, when pulled back, revealed a stunning view of the Swiss Alps.
But I wasn’t thinking about the room, the view, or even the jaded vacation. I was thinking of what my mother had told Kirsten, the Swedish owner of the resort: “Briony was born special.” It wasn’t the words that did it, but her tone: “Briony was born special.” As If it was something I did, something I could help. But it wasn’t. It was just that everything and everyone had a color. People were followed around by blobs the color of their neutrals, which I had named their essences: my mother’s chauffer was navy blue, for example, but Emily, my best friend in the second grade, was the lightest shade of purple with a single yellow stripe through the middle. My teacher’s was a bright orange with specks of blue, and my father’s was solid light green. My own was brown, the exact shade of my hair, which was cut at my chin. The blobs seemed to grow from their backs, a smudge that followed each person around. They didn’t always stay the same, either. When Emily got angry, her purple faded to a dull shade of lavender and her yellow disappeared. When she was exuberant, her blob turned a plum-colored shade of purple, and the yellow turned golden, the prettiest saffron you’ve ever seen. Things that weren’t visually there were identified by colors also, but these were in my mind only. For numbers, one was sunflower yellow, two was pink, three was sky blue, four was navy blue, five was pale yellow, six was kelly green, seven was orange, eight was hunter green, nine was black, and ten was white. Every word was a different color or pattern, as was each letter. My name for example, Briony, was a cacophony of color: green for the B, red for the R, pink for the I, white for the O, teal for the N and pink for the Y. Words, also, were vivid in my mind, standing out like paint on a white canvas. Triangles, stars, stripes, and polka dots danced before my eyes, my own private movie.
My mother didn’t know the name of my condition, nor did she care. She relied on doctors and specialists to retain the information about me, and my father to keep it from my grandparents. But she knew her daughter was “born special,” and she didn’t like it at all.
She stopped in the doorway of my room to blow me a kiss good night. Her green eyes were as vivid as the Ocean at sunrise, and her raven black hair as deep and silky as night. Her lace nightgown hung awkwardly on her thin body, but her arms and legs were tanned and muscular. When she laughed, her teeth were big and white, but usually she used them for growling at people; before they divorced, my father used to say that she was like a pit bull. My mother was the only person on planet Earth who did not have a blob. The only color I could see in her was her voice. Her name, Celeste, did not have a color, and a blob did not follow her around. I never knew what she was thinking.
“Good night, Briony.” She said this in a hurry of a grey blizzard on a red background, before switching off the light and enclosing us in total darkness. “ We’ll go exploring tomorrow. I’ve asked Kirsten to show us around a bit up here.” Her voice changed to purple polka dots on three yellow squares, and I was reminded that my mother couldn’t see this. All she saw was black.
“Okay,” I replied sleepily in the color of a cloudy sky.
My mother closed the door firmly behind her, leaving me alone with only the sound of snow splattering against the windowpane, the color of a grey mouse. After a few moments, I heard the door to her bedroom close as well and the castle was silent.
I traveled the stone corridors in my mind, imagining living in a world with no color.
Kirsten arrived the next morning, as we were finishing breakfast. Her essence was a cheery pink, even at nine o’clock in the morning, whereas most peoples’ blobs were blurry in the morning and took hours to regain their vividness.
“Hello, you two!” Kirsten chirped happily in ballerina pink outlined in sunshine yellow as she burst through the door to my mother’s bedroom. Sandy yellow for the K, pink for the I, ruby red for the R, green for the S, sea foam green for the T, dark purple for the E, and fizzled teal for the N. Her pink blob buzzed with energy as she opened all of the shades in the huge master bedroom. She handed my mother and me both a sheet of white paper with font crammed into it. Color jumped out at me from the page, and I suddenly felt sorry for my mother and Kirsten, who saw the page in black and white.
“It’s a great day for a hike,” Kirsten told us, her voice a mixture of lime green triangles and snow-white circles. “Get ready and I’ll be waiting in the front hall.” The lime green triangles changed to sky blue because of the “ready” and “waiting.” Her blob shifted from neutral pink to her excitement of Clifford red as she rushed out of the room. My mother’s back stayed bare as she climbed out of bed and started to dress.
“Briony, go get ready,” she ordered me in navy blue squiggles on a huge, clean white square. “Wear your ski pants and down jacket. It’s going to be cold.” The squiggles were now white, and the white square was now navy.
I dressed quickly and met Kirsten in the foyer. My mother followed shortly after, wearing a light blue ski outfit and her hiking boots. I resembled a marshmallow in the white jacket and puffy pants, but Kirsten looked ready to hike up Mt. Everest, with her pink headband that pulled her blonde hair away from her face, black backpack, and chunky blue flashlight. My mother pointed at the flashlight.
“Why would you need it?” she asked in neon orange. She gestured to the open window, which was letting cold air flow into the castle as the white silk curtains rustled in the breeze. “It’s light out.”
“Avalanches,” she explained in black and white stripes. Her Swedish accent was accompanied by a pink rod. “You never know when you’ll need to see in front of you.” The taste of banana cream pie filled my mouth, and I swallowed quickly, surprised.
I could hear my mother swallow hard in maroon, but we followed Kirsten and her energized blob out the door.
The mountains stood before us, the whitest bright light that even my imagination couldn’t produce. My mother flipped her ski goggles over her green eyes, shielding her face from the glaring sun. Her tight black bun shone in the morning light.
“It’s magnificent,” she breathed in lavender stripes, her words visible in the chill. “Come on, Briony.” I trotted behind her, momentarily blinded by her words, as golden as the hen’s egg.
The mountains sloped and we walked with our legs straight in front of us, our hips bending with each step. Kirsten’s essence turned light blue and vibrated in the cold as the wind whipped against our faces, blowing my light brown hair around my face.
We reached the bottom of the mountain, the view spread out before us like a picture book. We were surrounded by whiteness—the ground, the sky, the tops of the mountains, the roofs of houses in the distance. Looking at the white light, I suddenly had the sensation that I was tasting blackberries. I shook my head. Only color, I reminded myself. But the sensation didn’t fade.
The sound of wind rushing through the mountains tasted like fresh philo dough from my Italian grandmother’s kitchen (although I had never tasted this) and I instantly saw the color of my grandmother’s name, violet for Lucia (although I had met her only twice, as she lived in a cottage in Torino). A red roof in the distance was the sound of violins playing, and I got a tickle on my left knee from my mother’s breathy words in the distance.
My mother was still admiring the view as Kirsten and I marched ahead, padding through the wonderland in a mixture of orange and yellow squiggles. A canvas painting hung on a wooden board from the edge of a twenty-foot high slope. Colors burst from the blank surface, flowers and shapes. I shook my head hard, and saw “Willkommen zum Schloss von Renibo.” Concentrating hard, I was able to eliminate all of the vibrant pictures, except for the color of the words and a small violet flower that sat by itself on the corner. I reached out to touch it, the realness exuding from the lonely bud. I could see the strokes of a brush on the canvas, the way the sun hit it just so that it glared.
“Do you see that?” Kristen whispered in my ear in pink. “Do you see the little violet flower?”
I looked back at my mother, whose arms were turned up to the sky, her face tilted to meet the sun. I tasted blackberries again.
“Yes,” I whispered in pale orange.
“Do you taste the air?” Kirsten’s essence vibrated with energy as she picked up a pile of snow with her bare hands and tossed it against the side of the mountain. “Like blackberries.” The taste entered my mouth again, and I imagined a ripe, purple berry sitting on my tongue, juice spilling from the plump balls.
“It’s all here,” she whispered. “All you have to do is listen.”