“The Color of Water” by Joshua Jones
Writing from a child’s point-of-view is difficult to do well. So often we need the adult retrospective voice to interject, to show what the adult now understands of the events from the past. This is complicated even further when the author uses the present tense, and when language is heightened and imagistic.
In “The Color of Water,” Joshua Jones tells the story of Rishi, a five-year-old on a trip with his mother. The events of the story unfold over one summer. Jones divides the story into sections which are titled, and where the title bleeds into the text. It’s all very impressionistic—much the way a child would interpret this new place and the world—and Jones relies on his readers to fill in the gaps between the sections, to bring to the piece an adult understanding. There are subtle echoes here to remind us of the relationship between fairy tales and the real world, and how children must navigate the space between.
i. The ocean below
is a slab of stone, stretching endlessly beyond the tips of the plane’s wings. Only dabs of cloud interrupt it, and Rishi is bored. His mother’s phone won’t come on. It’s still too hot. It always does this after he plays games on it for too long. You’ll ruin it, his mother complains, but she rarely takes it from him. Now she has one of her headaches again and is pretending to sleep, her head wedged against Rishi’s stuffed tiger, Budi, the floppy paws cradling her cheeks. She ignores Rishi’s whispered Mummy, Mummy until he gives up and tries the phone again. Maybe she is asleep. A drop of drool creeps from the corner of her mouth. The phone comes to life, and Rishi takes a picture.
ii. The phone
has seventeen games, only three that he still plays; Skype, for talking to Daddy; Facebook, for when Mummy is bored; hundreds of photos, from the last time he visited America. That was four years ago. He was just a baby then. Here he is with Mickey Mouse; here with Mummy and Daddy, the shadow of a stranger slanting into the frame. Ones of Aunt Jenny and Uncle Russ, of the twins when they were his age (they’re twelve now), of a shriveled woman with raisin eyes (your Nan—you remember her?), and Aunt Jenny’s monkeys, his favorite, with their sandy fur and wise eyes. More recent shots of him at preschool, at playgroup, at the chip shop, in the tub with a bubble beard. And here’s Mummy with her sunglasses on, standing in front of Trafalgar Square? It’s hard to say. Here she is again, now in their flat’s bathroom, showing off an outfit in the mirror, now with her shirt up, then off, then with nothing on at all. Here, some men, mostly white like her, some without shirts, sucking in bellies. One with an orange beard and splotched chest, not handsome like his father, but pale and puckered, a patch of ginger strands sprouting above his willie, which he holds lightly between thumb and forefinger. His eyes are a liquid blue, his smile is sharp and cutting.
iii. An underwater country
unfolds in gentle curves. It’s a land drowned in heat and sweat. The road shimmers at each dip and rise. Cows swim in fields alongside the pitted asphalt. Pine forests sway like kelp and give way to mucky flats. Uncle Russ says sometimes there are alligators in the ditches that border the road, but he drives too fast for Rishi to see any. A canopy of mossy oaks swallows the road, now just a rutted track of mud. Branches whip at the truck’s windscreen as if pulling the truck further into the heart of the swamp until at last they emerge into a clearing, a swollen expanse of marshland, and in the middle of it all a squat house. Their home for the summer, his mother tells him.
iv. Inside the house
everything is oversized, overstuffed: an entire wall dedicated to a television larger than Rishi, an L-shaped bulging sofa, a large trestle table topped with a bowl of plastic fruit, a refrigerator three times the size of the one back home. His aunt and cousins also spill out into the space. Aunt Jenny pulling him into the folds of her flesh, his cousins regarding him with suspicious eyes. Are you sure you don’t want him in with the boys, Aunt Jenny says and opens a door labeled Keep Out. Behind it, two beds and a rug covered with more toys than Rishi has ever seen. No, it’s fine, his mother says and follows Aunt Jenny to a room at the end of the hall, across from Nan’s bedroom. Nan sits like a nesting bird in a tattered chair. When she stands, Rishi sees how small and hunched she is. She hugs him and he wants to pull away. He’s tired of hugging. Besides, he wants to see the monkeys.
v. Mango and Mungo
live on the screened-in porch that leans off the back of the house. They are bigger than their photos, too big to ride on his shoulder. Mango scratches at a tawny arm. Mungo yawns a razored smile. Rishi edges closer to his mother. Hold out your hand, she says, but Rishi keeps the slices of strawberry clenched in his fist. Go on, she urges. Aunt Jenny laughs: Don’t be a baby, they won’t hurt you. The monkeys jump from their perch to the floor and let out rasping barks. They flare their nostrils and knuckle-walk toward him. Just put your hand out, Aunt Jenny says. They’re hungry. When the monkeys pounce, Rishi screams. Mango grabbing his hand; Mungo tugging at his arm. The pieces of strawberry scatter across the tile. Rishi hugs his mother’s legs, presses his face into her jeans. Your little Englishman, so sensitive, Aunt Jenny says.
vi. The night light
flickers like a moth’s beating wings. It is too dim, just a wan bulb behind a grille, casting amber stripes across the far wall. It’ll be just like at home, his mother tells him, smoothing his hair across his forehead. She nestles in beside him. It is true that the bed is the same size as the one they share at home, and Budi is here tight in Rishi’s arms. But Daddy isn’t down the hall, isn’t there to tell him fables of the jungle, of Lord Tiger and Chaturdanta and the terrible monkeys. Mummy doesn’t tell good stories, and she says she’s tired. She’s always tired.
vii. Behind the house
a patchy lawn stretches to a clump of trees. Empty fruit crates sit in a jumbled pile, and a broken trampoline lies upturned beneath a scattering of chestnuts. Beyond the trees, the ground slopes down to a shallow creek, and his cousins splash about barefoot, lift rocks, show him crawdads, pick them up and place them in his hands. They look disappointed that he isn’t scared of the black pincers. But they’re small, and besides, the claws don’t hurt, not really. They show him the willow tree, its branches spiraling over the water, its leaves trailing in the current. They help him climb up and point across the water. Wild Man lives there, they say, and then, in hushed voices, He has a tiger. They point to a fenced-in plot behind a scruffy house. Rishi strains to see anything beyond the wooden fence. I want to see it, he says, but they shake their heads. Nobody goes into Wild Man’s yard.
viii. Night sounds
pool beneath the door and fill the room. The chirring of insects, the gasps of the air conditioner, the garbled blare of the television followed by his aunt and uncle’s sharp laughs. At home, the telly stays off while his father is there. Their flat silent but for the sounds of his father eating a reheated dinner, his mother tapping on her phone, Rishi playing with Budi and his other stuffed animals down the hall. Now, as night deepens, so too his mother’s breathing, and Rishi pretends to sleep. His mother doesn’t stir, doesn’t take out her phone, doesn’t hold it close to her mouth whispering the words she said last week: I don’t love him anymore. I think I hate him. Paws from a great beast pad beneath the window. A low growl laps against the sill, grows louder, swallows the insects’ screams, swallows the breeze, swallows the moon.
ix. Paw prints
lead to the cage the monkeys fashioned from the vegetable crates. The bars are damp and moldering from the constant rains, green as the tiger’s eyes. The tiger paces about on all fours and snarls. The monkeys rock on their haunches, whispering, then resume their assault of chestnuts. The nuts mostly bounce off the wooden slats, only a few hitting the tiger’s flanks. The tiger growls. The monkeys whoop and jump atop the makeshift cage carrying willow branches, then poke the tiger in his ribs. Ow! he cries. Stop it! I’m telling! The monkeys hoot and howl. Sissy! Momma’s boy!
are grocery days, his mother riding with Aunt Jenny in her truck, Nan left in charge. She settles into Uncle Russ’s chair, sinks deep into its folds, the remote control in one hand, a flyswatter in the other. Don’t be noisy, she says to Rishi and his cousins. She slaps the flyswatter against the side of the chair and mutters, Hush, I can’t hear myself think. The twins retreat to their bedroom, and Rishi curls up on the couch. He watches The Price is Right with Nan until her head droops in sleep and the twins emerge, giggling, asking Rishi where his stupid tiger is. Not in his room, the kitchen, anywhere. Only when he looks on the porch does he see Budi lying at the foot of Mango’s perch. They must have kidnapped him, the twins say. When Rishi cries out, Nan! Nan! she calls him to her, calls the twins, eyes them all with annoyance as Rishi sputters out the crime. Then, with three quick whacks, she stings each of their thighs with the flat head of the flyswatter. The twins let out sharp yelps. Rishi sucks in his pain, refusing to cry. Nan fetches Budi and tosses him to Rishi, saying, Now quit your nonsense and go play.
xi. The truck
smells of cypress and muck and rusty fishing lures. On days the cousins go to camp, Uncle Russ lets Rishi sit up front, the water sample kit between them. They drive all over the county, in and out of swampy canopies, stopping at culverts and drainage ditches, scum covered ponds and creeks. He lets Rishi fill the test tubes while he talks about pH levels, salinity, nitrogen runoff. Water shouldn’t be clear, he says. Clear water is dead water. He drops in chemicals and has Rishi shake the tubes until they shine like jewels. Topaz and citrine and emerald. Specks of sediment swirl about like miniature schools of fish, then disappear in the late morning light.
xii. His father
can only talk after dinner when it is still light out but night in London. When are you coming? Rishi asks, but he knows the answer. His father has another surgery, always and always. He’s very important, Mummy tells him, saves people’s lives, and that’s why he’s so busy. She once took Rishi to his hospital, let him sit in his father’s swivel chair and hold the plaster casts of human skulls. One was hinged and opened to reveal a plastic brain, rippled like pink cauliflower. Does Daddy see people’s thoughts? he had asked, and his mother laughed without sounding happy. Your father, she started, but didn’t finish. She took the skull from Rishi and clasped it shut.
xiii. Friday, again
and Nan’s asleep, the flyswatter across her lap. Better not wake her, the twins say. Rishi pretends not to hear. Waits for them to grow bored. Only when he hears their door shut does he count to one hundred before creeping to the porch. The monkeys appear to doze, barely opening their eyes as he slides open the door and touches a foot to the tile. One step, two steps, four. Mango lifts his head. Mungo rolls to his side and scratches his belly. Only one more step. Now his fingers on Budi, Budi in his arms, and he’s running, running, pulling the heavy slider shut behind him, not daring to look back.
xiv. Uncle’s kit
is lighter than he expected. He wears it slung about his neck and follows his uncle, this time past the truck and down the dirt lane. They take a right and head straight for a sagging house, Wild Man’s house. On the porch, a man sits in a rocker. A tangled beard wreathes his face. His chest is covered in scales. No, not scales, but inky lines that slither across his arms and chest in dizzying patterns. He waves and Uncle Russ waves back, tugging Rishi forward. The man plops his bare feet down from the porch’s railing and spits something dark and viscous into the grass. Uncle shakes his hand, introduces Rishi as his assistant with a tousle to his hair, and they follow Wild Man around the side of the house. The ground here is spongy. Their feet make sucking noises as they pick their way past the slatted fence, the chicken coops, a pen with four goats and a fat donkey. Rishi’s eyes are on Wild Man’s wavering tattoos of carp and snakes, an ornate cross, a twisting tree that climbs his spine. They walk until they reach a series of ponds that roil with thrashing catfish, and here they stop, Uncle motioning for the bag. Rishi doesn’t hand it over. He’s studying the striped tattoo that wraps about Wild Man’s ribs. Do you really have a tiger? Rishi finally asks, and Wild Man’s lips part in in a brown stained smile.
xv. The blind tiger
is old, he tells his father over Skype. One eye missing, and the other all, all— he tries to conjure the right word for its milky hue. His cousins don’t believe him when he said he saw it, that he stood only a foot away. They said he was too much of a sissy. He didn’t tell them it was collared and chained like an overgrown dog, that Wild Man said it had lost most of its teeth. His father freezes in a pixelated mosaic, his face blurred into an unreadable expression. Exhaustion? Boredom? Rishi can never tell. He unfreezes, his voice detached from his mouth as he asks how Rishi’s mother is. Tell him I have a headache, she’d instructed before the call. Now she’s sipping wine with Aunt Jenny. Rishi shrugs into the phone’s camera. The tigers at the zoo are better, he says. They’re not sad.
are wetted down, ties noosed about his cousins’ necks. Aunt Jenny tells them to tuck and retuck their shirts. When she sees a jam stain, she sighs in defeat. Rishi at the kitchen table, still in pajamas. He should come with us, Nan says to his mother. He’d like Sunday school. But his mother shakes her head. His father wouldn’t approve. She says that in her short dressing gown, the one the twins try to look up whenever she bends over to pull out pots or pans. Sundays she makes beans on toast for just the two of them. Sometimes a curry, though Nan complains it stinks up the kitchen. Nan, who makes ham casserole that’s drenched in salt; Nan, who says, Since when do you care what he approves of?
xvii. Days between
rain they play hide and seek. Tag. Climb the willow tree. Throw chestnuts across the creek. At Rishi, who screams and runs. Pirates and prisoners. Zoo keepers and tigers, a sissy game. Build a fort. Build it higher. Stack the crates so they reach the bathroom window. Secret agents. Spy on Nan, on Aunt Jenny, on Mummy. Nan watching Judge Judy. Aunt Jenny stirring pasta. His mother in the shower, her bare backside pale beneath the soap. Rishi on the ground, now crying, now bleeding. You better not tell, better not tell, not tell.
xviii. Monsoon weather
his father would say, and the rain doesn’t let up. The twins play with their G.I. Joes, staging elaborate battles. Plastic corpses litter their floor. They point Rishi to the Keep Out sign on the door and say Go spy, and he obeys, crawling on his belly into the family room. There, Nan watches Guiding Light and shouts the plot twists into the kitchen: Paige saw J.J. and Bev kissing. At the kitchen table Aunt Jenny and his mother sit, ignoring her shouts. Aunt Jenny with her magazine, his mother on her phone. You’re not texting him again are you? Aunt Jenny asks. His mother shakes her head. I’m done with all that. She lays the phone on the table and turns it off, and Nan calls out, Oh my god, Ben just told Clyde about Abigail cheating. His mother rises, blinking her eyes. She announces she’s going to take a bath, and Rishi reports back to the twins. They push him aside and run out the back door, disappearing into the sheeting rain.
xix. A break
in the clouds and blue sky. It’s Sunday again, and the house is quiet. When the doorbell rings, Rishi runs to answer. Who is it? his mother asks. Wild Man, he calls back. He’s here for the fruit crates. Wild Man pushes a wheelbarrow, and Rishi pads after him, mud squishing between his toes. Behind the house the crates are still piled high. Wild Man spits. Toss them here. It takes three trips, Rishi carrying what he can as Wild Man carts the rest. When the last crate is stacked against Wild Man’s fence, Wild Man asks, Want to see the tiger? and Rishi nods. The spotted ears swivel at his approach. The tip of the tail lifts and falls. He likes you, Wild Man says. You can touch him if you want. Let him smell you first. The breath is hot and sudden against Rishi’s outstretched hand, but he doesn’t flinch. Not even when the tiger’s tongue slides out and laps his palm. It’s rough, Rishi says. Wild Man shows him where to scratch the tiger, how to place his fingers along its bony back. Rishi feels its spine and ribs and gives a worried look. Wild Man says, The old man doesn’t eat much anymore.
comes swiftly, with stinging chestnuts, with plastic bats. How will we play spies now? How will we see into the bathroom? There is no fort to hide in, nothing to do but run until he is caught and forced to the ground. Lock him in with Mango and Mungo, they agree, pressing his face against the cracked patio so he cannot cry out. Not that anyone would hear. Uncle Russ watching NASCAR. The women shopping in town. Mango and Mungo ravenous for his flesh. Only then does he remember the pictures on the phone. Without her shirt on? they ask, and Rishi nods, wipes tears on his shirt. Without her underwear on? Rishi nods and nods.
xxi. Shopping bags
fall to the floor beside Nan’s spindly legs. You should have let me buy you that suit, she says. Behind her, Aunt Jenny with more bags. His mother trailing, arms empty, saying, The color was wrong, and besides it was too stuffy. Aunt Jenny drops her bags by the kitchen table, and brightly colored cloth spills out toward Rishi’s hiding spot. Nan says, You can’t go interviewing in that. His mother doesn’t answer. She sits, her knees brushing Rishi. What are you doing under there? she asks. Come out. Your Nan and Aunt Jenny bought you some clothes. Rishi crawls out slowly and stands between his mother and the others. Aunt Jenny pulls out an orange shirt from one of the bags, flaps it open so he can see the picture of a dump truck on it, like something a baby might wear. They’re for school, his aunt says. For kindergarten. What do you think about that? Her smile is stretched tight across her face, the way grownups do when they’re about to tell a lie. His mother sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. He can try them on later, she says. Rishi reaches for her, takes her free hand, and she pulls him close.
xxii. The salt bath
shimmers in the candle light. His mother lies back, eyes closed, her breasts cresting the rose-colored water in ways that would surely fascinate his cousins. I hate them, he says to her. I want to go home. She doesn’t open her eyes. Doesn’t speak for a long while. You should never say hate, she tells him. Steam rises from the tub. Outside, the rains have begun again. Go play, she says, but he is already gone, her phone cupped in his palms.
xxiii. The twins’ room
is dark but for the light of the phone. They sit in the middle, surrounded by toy guns and cars and G.I. Joes. Where are they? they whisper, their breaths ragged against his neck. Rishi grins at their eagerness, delights in pretending he’s forgotten how to unlock the phone, forgotten how to find the photo album. Hurry up, they say and tug at his arm. They’re here, he says and swipes through the recent pictures. Of Rishi and Aunt Jenny, Nan and the twins. Uncle Russ with a monkey on each arm. The alligator they saw in the pond a few weeks ago. More pictures of Rishi—this time at home, with his classmates, with his mother’s friends, all clothed, all women. No pictures of men without shirts or with orange beards. Of his mother, no pictures at all.
xxiv. The willow switch
is no thicker than Uncle Russ’s thumb and sings through the air. Sings and cracks, sings and cracks. The twins howl as it stripes their thighs. Rishi cries, too, an act of sympathy perhaps. No switch for him. His mother stands between him and Aunt Jenny. Aunt Jenny with her raised hand. You baby him. I should spank him if I were you. Rishi wipes his tears. The cracking stops, the howling stops. The twins sniff and glare at Rishi, their eyes full of hate for the squealer, but what could he do? How else could he explain why they broke the phone, why they were looking at it in the first place? You make me ashamed, Uncle says, his voice almost a whisper.
xxv. Dog days
blow their stale breath over the flats, and the summer rains are no more. When Uncle Russ drives off each morning with his sample kit, dry dust clings to the air. It’s too hot to play in the creek, to climb the willow branches and crane for a glimpse of the tiger. Rishi no longer hears it padding at night. Instead, the shrill scream of locusts or his mother on her new phone, talking softly, the distant voice of his father answering in single syllables. When she passes the phone to Rishi, he says, Aunt Jenny showed me the school today. He tells his father about the old brick building in the middle of a scrubby field, the grass sere and yellowed in the heat. He starts to tell him about the empty classrooms that smelled of chalk dust and mold, about the principal, a bald man with damp half-moons beneath his arms. He’s going through a tough divorce too, Aunt Jenny whispered to Rishi’s mother, who looked about at the principal’s office and at the sweating man. He stuck out an oar of a hand for her to shake, but her hands didn’t leave her side. His father stops him before he gets to the principal, says, Let me speak to your mother, and his mother takes the phone and says, You don’t need to worry, and then, He misses you.
xxvi. The last Friday
Budi isn’t on the floor. Mango holds the limp body in a lightly curled paw. He runs a finger down each stripe as if counting them. There’s a tear in Budi’s ear; his glass eyes are smeared with saliva. Rishi shuffles forward, takes tentative half-steps, feels the seams of the tile with his bare feet. His hands shake, and he cannot breathe. Another step. Then another. Mango looks up. His brown eyes soft, almost human. He reaches out an arm, holds Budi over Rishi’s outstretched palm, and lets go.
xxvii. Teeth marks
cover the molded hair of the twins’ G.I. Joe. They have already left for school, and Rishi is sorry to miss their reaction to the broken plastic arms, the torn legs in a mangled pile at the base of the monkeys’ perch. It is his last morning. He gives a final goodbye to Mango and Mungo, feeds them each a wedge of watermelon the way Uncle showed him—hand low, palm up—then gets into the truck. By the time the plane is over the flat expanse of the Atlantic, he’s asleep, his head against Budi and the stuffed alligator Nan bought him. He shows the alligator to his father, tells him about the crawdads and frogs and herons and cowbirds. His father listens intently and says, You’ve gotten taller, his smile uncertain as he runs a hand across Rishi’s hair. His father takes his left hand, his mother takes his right, and together they exit the airport.
xxviii. The tiger child
lies by the fire, yawning. His uncle paces beneath the window outside. Rishi yawns, and his father turns the page and reads, Then the tiger child remembered. His uncle wanted fire! Rishi yawns again, his eyes are shutting. Mummy has already gone to bed. Her bed. You’re a big boy now, she’d said. You can sleep by yourself. His father lowers the book, and Rishi’s eyes flutter open. I want to hear the rest, he says, and his father reads on, pointing at pictures of the tiger child asleep by the hearth, at the old uncle, his stripes receding into the jungle until he disappears like the blind tiger. Rishi doesn’t tell his father about its illness, about how Wild Man had to put it to sleep. He still dreams about it, but it’s no longer sad, no longer blind. Its eyes are the color of water. It speaks with an American accent.
JOSHUA JONES lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, Juked, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.