Painting with Jur
There were fifty-one names for the many shades of grey in the city of Kangbas. As a young child I began to collect samples to create a palette, I needed every color I could find. When I close my eyes I can still visualize my room. The walls around me with a thin layer of silt, the wall near my bed painted with jur. I really wanted cobalt grey but the blue pigments made it too expensive. Yet I found blues elsewhere in the shifting azure of day and the dusky cerulean of evening. Ma would tell me that I was a collector of colors.
My clan allowed members to decorate their units. The jar of jur, while cheaper than the cobalt grey, was still a luxury. It cost ten tuks, but it was absolutely worth it. Jur was a fascinating color. I made a brush from scraps tied to a piece of wire to daub the thick, lavish jur onto the flat dull surface. I liked the texture the brush created; I would run my fingers over the uneven ridges, sensing microcosms just beneath my fingertips – imaginary cities made up of dust particles. I spent every night watching that wall, my biggest canvas. Sometimes when the sunlight streamed through I could see glints of something not grey, not dull, but animated and if I squinted the wall seemed to shimmer. As the sun would dip below the ground the jur began to retreat into the shadows, and I would fall into a slumber, my eyes closing upon my metamorphic canvas.
The people were not grey and I noticed the subtle hues of skin, hair, and eyes. My younger brother Samil and I have blue eyes, like an early sky, although now I think of our eyes as a seafoam tone. Our hair and skin are dark like wet ground. When I laugh, cry or run, my face turns a warm pink, and I can still feel the sensation of Ma stroking my face “Sanuk, you are my little rose”. I never knew what that was, but it made Ma happy so I knew it was a good thing. I did not know much about where Ma was from. I did know she had not been born into the clan where she met my Pa and relocated to Kangbas – and I would wonder why anyone would voluntarily move to such a dreary place. When we asked about Pa we were simply told that he had moved away, but I know he ran away to avoid imprisonment. I heard Ma talk to the clan’s scout who brought undercover messages to families with missing fathers. Pa was anti-clan, he had joined a rebel group that opposed the régime. All I know of Pa is the bracelet Ma wore, intricate, and made of various unusual materials. Ma never responded to my queries on how Pa made it, but let me inspect the fascinating object.
Every few days we had grand meetings in the Basdome. My clan of over two hundred individuals streamed from our sector into the arena every time. Usually, I found my closest friend Moya at the arena steps circling the Basdome. I saw her every day at the galley where we worked. She loaded the mush with me into the large tubes of the cuber that formed the mush into different foods – vitals, auxiliaries, and lushes. The advanced technicians then inspected the cubes as they came out, they sometimes halted one tube line, but usually most cubes passed the inspection and were transported to the sectors. Most sectors could not afford lushes, each lush cost about forty tuks, some lush even sold for sixty tuks. Only three sectors acquired a large number of the lushes, Ayers, Voorhies, and Vanke.
I visited Ayers once, Ma had to deliver some items to a family there. I was young so I do not remember much, other than the waterway. We walked over small bridges that connect each dome to the main spiraling path. Ayers was one large spiral, the smallest dome was at the start of the spiral and the largest at the center of the spiral where the Ayeran clan chief lived. I wanted to go back, but without a valid reason I was never granted an Ayeran pass. Each sector had a gateway and droid perimeter. The richer the sector the greater the gateway; we lived where the gateway was so insignificant it might as well not have existed.
Our sector, Tinar, was one of the poorest. My neighbor Jon worked in the construction zone, spending all day in the tunnels. He started at age ten, and at nineteen was assigned harder work. He wanted to be a designer and begged his father to have him transferred, but only the inaccessible senior solons could grant that. They governed from the highest central sector of Vanke, students there train till their thirties to be designers, teachers, solons, and even droid engineers.
I always thought I would have become an engineer, I wanted to make droids that scanned colors to print paint, and scanned objects to fabricate textures for artists to use. I never became an engineer. Tinar’s inhabitants begin work as children. As a member of the Tal-clan, we had the option of working the galley, the laboratory or the compactor zones. I was grateful I was in the galley. I wanted to work in the lab, there I could learn how everything is made, but at least I didn’t spend any time in the compactor. I heard so many terrifying stories, all the zapping and disintegrating of materials, I was so clumsy I knew I would get injured. I had to start work in the galley when I was twelve, and was there for the next two years. Moya started even younger. We became friends instantly and she showed me what to do. Loading mush was not easy at first, but I enjoyed the time with Moya; when we talked I forgot much my hands hurt.
Galley supervisor Zonar was kind and started an initiative to open the top windows and let sunlight in. I would often stare at the patterns of bright shapes on the galley ceiling. The windows were near the curved ceiling and fumes from some of the cubers obscured my view – I would daydream about those shapes long after we left the galley. Moya and I walked together till she took a different trail, and I carried onwards to the cluster of units where I lived.
My family was given four small units that fit together through a giant stud-and-tube interface. Clan Chief Daru had bargained with the solons to get permission and enough tuks from Vanke to build the units for all of Tinar. Chief Daru had made a case for the better living conditions, and the solons only agreed because he promised greater efficiency across all galley, laboratory and compactor zones. We had to work harder and for longer but most of us were relieved to have better living arrangements. The units meant we no longer have to deal with the communal large domes. Back then families were only separated by thin dividers. I still shiver from the memory of being watched by some of the other clan members, mostly those who had no families of their own. Ma would invite them to join us for a meal or two. Samil was just born so he does not remember, but I recall how nervous Ma was, she tried to make the other clan members happy so they would not watch or ever harm us. Every time Ma made me put my things away when all I wanted to do was draw. In the new unit I kept my art things out for as long as I wanted.
With the added time and space my artwork began to get better and bigger. Zonar let me bring home scraps he got rid of from the galley. Ma was always eager to see what I would do with all the materials. Other families warned her to not indulge her children – a daughter who painted, a son who built, what was the point? The chief encouraged Ma and tried to preach to the clan “that although we may be stuck in Tinar, our minds can roam all over Kangbas and beyond.” He was like no one else in the clan. In so many ways he was the clan’s father. He taught us how to read, he gave us art kits, walked us to the Basdome where we learned about light and shadows.
Ma was happy that Chief Daru took an interest in the clan’s children but she did wonder if she too should have been wary as other clan parents were. They warned her that the chief was simply holding onto the wonder of his youth, back when he was not a chief and Kangbas was very different. Back then Daru was a fit, ambitious explorer. I thought Chief Daru was ambitious but not so fit, and the only thing he ever explored were the zones, especially for production and efficiency. When he inspected the zones he was the chief, but when he spoke to me at our home Chief Daru was like the teacher, the clan father.
Any time he was in our part of the sector, the chief made sure to visit, taking special interest in my artwork. When Ma first saw my recent art piece she did not say anything, her eyes just grew wide and she walked around it several times. There was something in her face that I had never noticed before. I told her that it was something I dreamt of, Ma smiled and seemed to want to say more, but only uttered “maybe the chief can tell you more about your structure.” A long piece with smaller elongated parts stretching out like bizarre shaped hands towards the sun. Ma’s friend couldn’t figure out why I used the scraps to make things that “just sit there and don’t do anything.” I told her that it did do something, it made me think.
Ma was happy to have the chief at our home, he had always listened to her concerns, and seemed to enjoy the conversation. She told the chief about my structure and how I had used scraps. “Sanuk, you saw this in your mind?” Chief Daru exclaimed as he touched my structure. It was never clear whether he was asking questions or making statements. “You shall visit with me. I will show you something. This something is the one thing you must see”. I remember nodding in shock at the chief’s invitation. Not many children had visited his unit, and this all happened as a result of my artwork. It was a visit that would mark the end of my naivety and propel me into adulthood.
Ma picked up Samil as Chief Daru led me into his home. Samil could walk, but Ma was afraid being so young he may knock something over as he had only been properly walking the last few months. The chief had four units, the first was his abode, the second was his command space the third was the hosting space, and the last he called his ‘library’ – a place I learned that held much knowledge. Chief Daru took me to into his library and explained that the word was a place for him to look over his collection. The chief beckoned me to the table “come, I want to show you the special thing.”
I remember this moment as clear as it happened a moment ago. The chief reached up to a concealed shelf, and I began to guess what it might be: a paintbrush, maybe a tub of cobalt blue, or some new art tool? He brought a small pale blue-grey box out to the table where I was seated, and he placed it in front of me. “Now, Sanuk this is something only a few have seen. Are you ready?” I nodded and he opened the box to reveal something wondrous sheathed in some kind of transparent sphere. I recognized the brown at the bottom, it was wet ground. The thing, the thing coming out of the brown was the most amazing thing I had ever seen… I could not name it, but it made me gasp. It was so distinctive and yet so familiar, the long wire like structure spread out into the brown. At the ends were little shapes, like pulled rain drops, curved in the middle with two points, one attached to the structure and the other reaching upwards. My eyes and my brain could not process the vivid bright and strange color, but my mind seemed to know something I could not express.
I felt a light tap on my shoulder “Sanuk, Sanuk”, Chief Daru scanned my face, “are you alright?” I turned to face him and I saw him beaming. “What is that thing called? I have never seen that color before” I ask looking back at the thing. “That is one of the last leaves I saved from a plant” the chief utters. “L-e-a-ves, pl-an-t?” I mumble.
The chief told me how my structure reminded him of a plant and that he saw in me a great potential as I had “a curiosity about the ways thing are, and an inspecting mind”. He asked if I wanted to see his specimen book. The first few pages had sketches of a variety of tree and plants – labeled and carefully drawn by the chief. There were hundreds of pages in that book, some pages displayed packets of seeds, and other pages presented a leaf preserved in what I now know to be a layer of resin. Other sections focused on creatures – with preserved feathers, hairs, and exoskeletons. The plethora of colors remapped my brain till I exploded with knowledge and a longing to know more. In time I felt like my wings grazed against the confines of my cocoon existence in Kangbas, I was ready to take flight like moths illustrated in the book.
Evenings were now spent with Chief Daru. Ma was happy to see me put my creative skills to use, “my collector of colors learning from the collector of nature”. I learned how to identify, classify and describe all the plants from the book, and in time had become familiar with the taxonomy of the insects, birds, and reptiles. I spent several happy sessions replicating the specimen details whether the veins of maples leaves and dragonfly wings, or the markings of finch feathers and gecko tails.
My coat was lined with supplies so I did not have to carry a bag. I had to keep my frame lithe to evade the heavily secured outer perimeter. I made my way through the last underground pipe that the chief claimed to have used many times. It led to the vast empty lands out in the darkness surrounding Kangbas where I was to meet the chief’s contact. The chief assured Ma it was safe and that this was my chance to leave clan life. He taught me everything he knew from training with the group known as ‘The Phytes’. I was primed to leave Kangbas, and his contact would take me to The Phytes, I would live and learn from them. I could still hear Chief Daru’s “her chance for a real life, there are risks, but she will learn and travel with them. They will find it, they will find it one day, and if not she will live a life of meaning”
I saw the double blink of the contact’s signal, and used my light to blink back. Before I jumped from the pipe, I sat for a moment at the edge. Were those plants real? Could there really be a forest far from Kangbas or was it just a myth?
I was uneasy and my mind began to flutter with conflicting questions. Why me? What if the chief truly was delusional? How did he find those specimens? Would I ever see Ma and Samil again? Would I really be able to return and find Ma again? Did Ma just want Samil and was getting rid of me? Why could Ma not come too? Was Samil really too young to leave Kangbas? What if The Phytes are a dangerous group? What if we never find the forest? Dazed and oblivious to how much time had passed, I was suddenly startled by the flashes of light. The contact was sending signals. I got down from the pipe, careful to land softly on the wet mush of the ground. I looked back over to the distant blur of Kangbas and walked towards the flickering light.
Then slipping my hand through my left inner pocket, I felt the letter Ma had given me to read once I reached safely; my fingers detected something cold and immediately the texture made me stop for just a moment. Ma must have slipped in the bracelet – I held it as the metal turned from cold to warm and I resumed my pace. The light began stronger, and the faint shape of a man crouching near the ground became clearer. I grasped the bracelet more tightly and thought of all that I had seen in the book, this is the path I was to take, this is my future. I would seek out the forest and I would return to Kangbas one day.
As I approached the contact, he held the light up. His eyes glistened, and crinkled at the edges as his face seemed to crumple around a huge smile. “Sanuk, you have grown so much, you look just like your Mother”.
About the Author
I am an artist, academic, and educator. Born and raised in London, Britain, I am of south Asian descent. I migrated to Los Angeles, USA, a few years ago. I founded the art-science publication based at Claremont Graduate University called The STEAM Journal scholarship.claremont.edu/steam. I like to apply both art and science to the project I am working on whether it be scholarly research, a large canvas, or fiction writing. I craft stories from observations of nature, human interactions and sometimes seemingly impossible scenarios. More about my projects and musings can be found at sara.kapadia.com