The Colors of Past Times: A Story



IT is commonly agreed among men that in times past winters were more grim and thus more – gay; that with their icy vapors and crystal beards they made the worthier enemies and thus the better friends; that the summers too, without doubt, once beat down on us more fiercely. The terraced gardens where we played were heavy with the scent of black currant; gooseberries, furry like caterpillars, burst open to reveal their festering sweetness; the lettuce had names — pighead or something of the sort; the flowers were love-in-amist, sweet william, and bleeding heart. When we think back on those summers and winters we tell ourselves that they were probably no different from our summers and winters of today, seasons of the calendar and no more, and that their color lives only in memory. We stick to this even when once in a while a real winter arrives which splits the trees in the forest and topples the birds from their branches, or a summer which seems likely to scorch the very marrow in our bones.

That is how it felt to us. For we had been in the war and when the war was over we sat behind the wire in prison camps and seasons were all the same to us; but at last, one after the other, as many as still lived came back and then there was a summer and no summer of long ago could have been fiercer than that. But we dared not give ourselves up to it, it held nothing for us, we could not cope with such a summer. We had no confidence left in ourselves. Hungry, exhausted, and with cracked lips, we sat by ihe roadside, people with no share in all this glory, people too spiritless and too distraught to take in such violent images. Day after day the same blue blazed overhead, slowly sucking out the rust-yellow from the corn, bleaching it into an arid, whispering white; in the zenith the blue was bottomless, sometimes a pale marbled moon hung in it. Lower on the horizon, where sky and corn touched in a shimmering line, the blue Was tinged with a smoky haze.

No, the earth withheld nothing, yet at that time no one could have painted this blue. For to the painter, as a craftsman, his material is at once his joy and his despair. A poet may compose a poem into the air and something real will have been created; but to paint into the air creates only an illusion. That is why the painter, the natural painter, often has the big hands or the clear, steady eyes of the mason, a craftsman who tests his work with square and plumb line and who knows that the wall will crumble if the mortar is skimped. He is in a very different case from the frantic poets, who see themselves as the signalmen of their time and who have to dash out for every train for fear of missing one. A poem, after all, can be scribbled on a cigarette packet or the margin of an old newspaper and it is the same poem still; it can survive in the head of a child and be saved with him from the cellar. But you cannot keep a Manet in your head or paint a water color on an old flour bag. True, something can be made out of anything, a small demon carved out of an old toothbrush, or a landscape painted on an old receipt out of rain water and soot; but that does not get the painter far. He may want to paint a particular blue that he has set his mind on, a blue, say, like that of the larkspur, shading over into turquoise. On hot days, those sultry days that make the head ache, there may be patches of it in the sky, sickening between low cirrus and the edges of cumulus, feverish, flaccid, and remote. He does not want to paint all this, neither the larkspur nor the threatening sky. It is only the blue that has bewitched him; and for that blue he must have a pure cobalt to work with, nothing else will do. Or maybe he wants an ultramarine, saturated with red, or an ochre flowing like gold, or perhaps a bone black; nor can he do without certain kinds of earth, Neapolitan or Cyprian or Sienese, or the burnt red earth from Pozzuoli. All must, be properly prepared, bound with resins, fragrant oils, and the right tinctures. The earth, I said, withheld nothing, it was the colors that failed us.

It is true that even in the old days we had no longer practiced the noble craft of grinding our own colors; we used to get them from the colorman. Our expeditions to his shop were business and pleasure combined. I remember Villach, for instance, where we had to go when we ran out of supplies.

“I say,” said Conrad Stabler, whom we called the Constable, “how long is it since we were in town last? My cadmium red is getting low; what about it? It’s time we went.”


WE DIVED into our clean linen shirts, which our landlady, the chimney sweep’s widow, kept washed and bleached white on the grass, and Conrad put on his many-colored jacket for the benefit of the women of the town. Then we raced down the hill to catch the bus which was waiting with belching exhaust outside the inn. Along the road more and more passengers got in and soon they were standing between the seats. There was a stranger among them, two sisters in fact, but it is only the one that matters — a girl with sunburned face and hair like strands of brass. We would have made room for them but they said it was not worth it. The Constable did not take his eyes off the girl. Noticing this she bent her neck a little to peep under her arm as the bus roared across the iron bridge and we smelled the fiercely foaming waters. In the distance the mountains stood high and mysterious over their blue-tinged foundations. “Koje woda?” the sister, older than she, asked in a half whisper; and the beautiful one answered slowly, with a slight roughness in her voice and a drawl on the word: “Drava” They spoke to each other in a strange language and all at once the river seemed changed by the name which they had given it, an altogether different river, one that we had never seen before.

We stopped, the driver got out, thumped his rear wheel, and involuntarily our eyes followed him round. “God preserve us!” an elderly clergyman cried fearfully, “There’s only one nut holding the wheel.” “Aye, but we got here,” the driver said quite unconcerned; “two were already missing up in Hermagor.” Then we went shopping. The Constable would have liked to follow the girl but they both disappeared into a house and were no more to be seen. Inside the shop we soon found that our needs were not really as great as they had seemed to be, but we did choose a few tubes and thrilling it was to sort over the different kinds, weigh them in the hand, sniff at them, try them out on a brush, and read off the glittering array of foreign names: Vert Paul Veronese, Green Cinnabar, Geranium Scarlet, Sang Dragon, Caput Mortuum. And the instructions like Caution, contains lead or Do not mix with yellow zinc and Schweinfurt green. Then we got them to show us fine papers, fingered them, and praised the watermark against the light, a cockerel in a ring, with the name Pordenone in block letters. At last we had done. Outside the streets lay scorching hot, the golden-haired damsel did not reappear, and so we passed on to the second and more circumstantial part of our enterprise. This took place in a shop kept by an Italian, the doorposts of which were hung with bundles of beautiful straw-covered bottles. In a back room wine was served, there was cheese and white bread to eat, and through the slatted shutters the afternoon light poured in confusedly while watery circles played over the ceiling. Whether they came from the water which the girl had bewitched with her strange name, I do not know. The wine went to our heads and excited us. We had great plans. We were just starting life and had our heads always full of new beginnings and violent change—it is different today, we are not so keen on new beginnings. Many had had enough before they had scarcely begun.

So supplied, we returned home and then there was nothing we wanted more than to set about using up our stocks. We worked at it quickly, almost fanatically; up there on the mountain there was no question of frittering away our time with gossip and wine. We lived on milk and polenta and cigarettes which we rolled from the longstranded pale tobacco of Bosna Seraj; I should not mind having some of that cool, fragrant tobacco between my fingers now. We worked, clambered about the mountains, and kissed girls. It did not come to any more than that, for restlessness drove us on. The girls would rather we had been a little less cursory about it, they were not very pleased with us. But Time, we thought, Time. So much of it seemed already used up; we were worried about not getting anywhere.

For it was already summer, early summer as yet, so that the blue and green predominated, the blue came down from above and sank into the immeasurable heaving green. Green and blue were locked in an embrace, each penetrating the other. The green glistened, crying out for red, the liberating red which would not come. Then one day the red was there, first spattered about like drops of blood, and then everywhere, welling up luxuriantly; the poppies were in flower.

The poppies bloomed, the lush ness of the meadows was spent, and the earth shone like potsherds through the scorched grass. The sky blazed and shadows fell, small, round, and purple; we had taken up positions in the river meadows, some distance apart from each other. The sweat ran down over our foreheads and horseflies clung to our shirts. It was crazy the way we behaved. The water colors dried almost under the brush and the splashes evaporated off the metal lids of our boxes. Every object gradually became edged with a blinding outline and occasionally the copses in the valley lifted and hung suspended and quivering. Suddenly, off to one side, I saw Stabler‘s things abandoned. Stabler himself was nowhere about and all I could see was a herd of horses like tiny dots in the distance. As I watched they took fright for no apparent reason and scattered. It was midday; and now I saw Stabler moving about in the bushes along the riverbank. Then I, too, ran with heavy limbs to the river and threw myself into the water, floppy as a dog.

The year moved on, the pumpkins flowered with their transitory blooms, fleshy, voluptuous, and lantern-shaped. The corn had grown tall and tufts of hair shook out of its creamy white husks; steadily the yellow gained ground in the landscape. The nights grew longer, too, sharp, cool, and lit by a moon which made everything look frosty. On one occasion, after we had drunk too much coffee, we went off at about midnight and wandered the whole night through, our hearts beating loud and fast from the coffee we had drunk. It was a night of white walls and black pits. We stopped to rest and as the Constable went to shift a flat stone he was bitten by an adder which he had disturbed. It lay there squirming, a blunt worm with truncated tail and hideous cylindrical body. At once we cut open the wound and Stabler sucked out the blood, sucked and spat, and we killed the snake with stones. But Stabler was of the woodsman breed, with huge and horny hands; a little nip like that could not make much impression.

Toward morning we began to tire and dropped down into a valley in which pools of mist were floating, so sharply defined that cattle stood with their heads and bodies looming dark out of the mist, their legs invisible. The grass was sodden with dew and we began to shiver. We found ourselves approaching a farm, with smoke rising from its chimney. In the kitchen a girl was stirring the polenta in an iron pan; she was very young and was the first up. She stood at the sooty range, turned her head toward us, and said, “Would you like to cat?” Afterward we bathed in a cold lake and then slept like the dead until midday. That was the last time I went out with the Constable, for our stay there was nearly over, we had to get back to the towns.

Sometimes when I rummage about in the boxes in the loft and come across those old paintings, I have to smile at our fumbling attempts. We had passion enough, but little sense, and not much use for history. “We’ve been in Milan,” we boasted, “and didn’t go near the Brera once. And how do you think we spent our time in Venice? Truth to tell, spitting melon seeds in the Canal.” So it goes without saying that we did not work with artist‘s ink and subtle tones, that was not our way. Our pictures were full of abandon, scaring, carnal, and brutal, no, perhaps not brutal, but completely without restraint. Impudently we exploded lemon yellow into the bluest blue and cinnabar into the green; and we were anything but sparing with the red, the color of life’s splendor. As for the clouds we slapped into the sky, they were very queer. We loaded white on the palette knife and drove it into the blue like balls of butter, then we stirred the balls and spun them in circles so that they took on something of the blue. There they hung in the picture plane, lascivious, beatific, and impudent. They were not at all bad, those little clouds. Today we would not paint them like that; today we do not paint little clouds at all. And suddenly, as I pack them all up and once again cannot quite decide to throw them away — there is the landscape with pumpkins, the Belgrade market women, and the self-portrait of the Constable which he gave me as a present — as I am packing them all up again I suddenly have to finger one of the canvases, a piece of drill from the chimney sweep’s widows cupboard which we begged from her to paint on. Conrad Stabler comes into my mind, and now that it is all so far away and irretrievably gone, it suddenly looks to me not as foolish as it had first seemed. We have grown more circumspect, more indifferent to crossfire, to love and calamity; we have no great plans, yet lead better-planned lives; but the colors of those pictures, they are beyond us. We will never manage that again.


TIME passed; I met the Constable only once more, in a strange town which meant nothing to either of us; he had an exhibition there. We took advantage of the occasion to get together again, and when he had shown me his pictures, we found a tram to take us a little way out of town; he said it was easier to talk there. At once we seemed to have more in common. The Constable had married, but that touch of stodginess he had always had in him had now become more noticeable and made him heavier-going. He was just beginning to have some success but did not seem to me really well; he did not look happy. I remember that the path we were walking along came to an end in a little nook where the sage was blooming in the grass ridge. There were nut trees and the crickets were trilling.

“Listen,” the Constable began, and then he blurted out suddenly; “Do you think, too, that we re done for?”

I said: “What d’you mean, done for?”

He waved his hand toward the silence, toward the gleaming grass, the nut trees, the sage on the ridge: “Look at it; that’s not what things are really like any more. We re done for.”

“Nonsense,” I said lightheartedly, for his face was making me feel nervous. “We’ve been that often enough. Don’t you remember the story of the one nut on the bus wheel? Two were missing up in Hermagor, remember? We’ve often been done for.”

We did not pursue the subject further but talked on the way back in a matter-of-fact way about our everyday lives. Not until the evening, when he saw me to the train — mine being the first to leave — did the Constable say anything more about his feelings. A shower had fallen and the air was sodden. The pavements and handrails shone as we crossed an iron footbridge over an industrial canal. Patches of oil and refuse lay glistening on the dirty water and the Constable stopped again and pointed downward with his chin. There were pools squirming with malevolent purples and cold greens, gangrenous colors, frightening in the midst of all that joyless gray.

“Look down there,” the Constable said. “That’s what our colors have become today.”

It was years later when I thought of this incident. The Constable was no longer alive, although I did not know this, for news had long since ceased. I remembered it, as so often in desperate moments something irrelevant comes into mind and yet does not come quite accidentally. The platoon was lying at the edge of a wartime airstrip, waiting for the end. Everything was gone and tanks were droning and spluttering here and there among the tall cornstalks. The mulberry trees were fractured and the vines between them hung riddled. Suddenly, in the ditch before us, I saw the sheen of the same oily film, those coppery, green and slimy blue discolorations. Now the fish must die, I thought, and the birds fall from the sky; those are colors of death.

But in the end we got back after all, though not the Constable. There were others, too, who were never heard of any more, while we, the survivors, went about looking for a beginning, rummaging for the remains and being afraid. As it happens I am living today in the same town as Stabier’s family; true, I cannot help them much. I cannot even tell Stabler’s children much about their father; how should they know what questions to ask? They hardly remember him. And I sometimes think, too, that the Constable whom I knew, and these children’s father, were two different people.

One of the children comes to see me now and again and pokes about among my things. The other day he found my box of old paints; he sniffed at it and played with the dried-up tubes. “Are these paints expensive? Do they cost a lot of money?”

“Some do and some don’t,” I said. “They are not all the same. There are expensive colors and cheap colors.”

“Then a color like this must have cost a lot of money.” The child had found a fat tube and held it up. It was a tube of Kremnitz white.

“Guessed wrong. That one cost least of all; and a good thing that was for us poor painters in the old days because we used more white than anything. Just think how much white we needed for the clouds.”

“Then which is an expensive color?”

“Well, there was one of the reds,” I said. “We called it cadmium red. That was a color, that was. I don’t even know whether it exists today, but your father had it in his box. A tiny tube not as long as your little finger, and that cost pretty well half a house. But such a fiery red it was, I can’t describe it. It had three stars on the tube. That showed it was the very best.”

There was silence for a time, only the child could be heard rummaging about in the box. Suddenly he found something and called out: “There, you’ve got some. You can see it on the outside, it’s got the three stars on top, too.”

The child put his find in my hand, and I looked down with a sudden pang on a small shriveled-up tube with thumbmarks and a yellowed label. There was no doubt about it, it really was the old cadmium red; and the white-red town of villach stood before my eyes—when, how long, whence? It had lasted a long time, that red, because it was so economical; I had not used it up. Not that I had wanted to be sparing with it even though it was so expensive, but it was not all that, easy to use. Was it still good? I unscrewed the cap and squeezed. There was a little whiff and a spurt of paint. Still good. But suddenly the Constable came into my mind, and I felt as if ashamed; it was diflicult to say why. I shall not use up the color in the few summers to come. It, makes no difference that there is some of it left, or that it is to be had in the shops again. I dare not use it now.

Translated by P. A. Findlay