It’s blithe, seductive, yet innocent. The color of soulfulness, it has been chosen for its ability to give people hope.
It is neither the so-called real color, nor the conventional color that truly colors the object . . . Life itself creates contrasts, without which art is unimaginable and incomplete. —Marc Chagall
why here, how now, what next, where to.
I’ll take it.
From the first time they met, what has struck him most about her is how unafraid she is of anything.
When the valet fetches his black Ferrari, she thinks they are going to his place. The car accelerates in an explosion of speed, growling lustily. Leo changes gears and turns up the music, finding sensorial pleasure from manipulating the machine to his liking. When it is finally just so, he thrums his fingers on the wheel and cracks a smile in her direction. To their right is the glistening black sea, breaking up the moonlight into tiny gold shards. A hillside park appears to their left. He stops the car near the entrance that says Grotte du Lazaret, jumps out of the driver’s seat, and motions for her to follow him to a locked gate.
“This place is closed,” she whispers. “We should go back.”
“Where’s the fun in that? Besides, I have a key given to me by a friend who works here.”
He opens the gate and guides her inside, his hand resting on the small of her back. They walk for a while on a garden path leading up the hill. The outdoor sculptures of animals seem to be gazing eerily at them.
“Where are you taking me?” she asks.
“You said the world is ending. I’m going to show you that it’s not.” They stop at an entrance to a cave, also gated and bolted. “We’re here.”
Another key opens the lock, and mercifully the first thing he does is turn on the lights. He motions for her to follow him to the mouth of the cave, which is flooded by orange light.
In front of the stalactite walls, there are some pointy rocks that hardly look like anything—but video projections recreate how they were once used to kill and skin reindeer and woolly rhinoceros. Holograms of the earliest bipeds rise in Africa seven million years ago and follow the animals into Europe. The sun burns orange over the Alps, its slopes covered in a fine down of savannah grass. The grotto is right on the Mediterranean and fills with water as sea level rises. The Ice Age comes and the water goes down, exposing the grotto to the humanoids that shelter in it between hunting for elephants, hippos, and giant deer. In a snowstorm, the lions, the leopards, the spotted hyenas, the wolves and the bears eye their human prey—but humans are dangerous; they have fire. The snow recedes again and the conifers are replaced by oak and palm. The water level rises and deposits another layer of sediment inside the grotto. The stalactite drips down over the bones of animals and humans, entombing them for more than a hundred thousand years. And on and on.
“So you see,” Leo says, turning her to face him. “The South of France has been as hot as Africa and as cold as the Arctic over the millions of years. Yes, all those Paleolithic humans have gone extinct, and so have the animals. But the Earth is separate from what lives on it. No matter what happens to us, it will regenerate.”
“So you do think we will all die.”
She steps closer to him. He pulls her in by the waist and slides his hand underneath her T-shirt in one motion—there is no tenderness nor urgency in that touch, only the feeling that they both know what they are doing and are watching from above. Since she offered him her painting, weren’t they both in complete understanding?
“Death is what makes life interesting,” he says, just before covering her mouth with his.
It’s almost ten o’clock when she wakes up in her apartment. She makes coffee and sinks back in bed, replaying the scenes from last night in the cave. It was the kind of curiosity-based sex that she used to have in her early twenties when she knew, going in, that she wouldn’t come. He didn’t seem to care, either. But for what it was worth, they both performed the hell out of it, as if the millennia of fossilized sediment weren’t shredding their backs black and blue. It’s always nice to get out there and have some unusual sex, she reasons.
She wonders if she should text Leo and realizes they haven’t exchanged their contact information. Instead, she sees that Benoit has sent her messages late last night, asking how she’s enjoying Nice. She decides to wait to respond.
She puts on a newish bikini and a flattering dress and heads down to the Cape, but Leo is not there. She cuts off swimming early and goes down to the flower market instead. The mimosas are in season, and people are walking around with a bouquet of sunny yellow blossoms tucked under their arms or sticking out of their bags. Next to the flower vendor, she sees the Senegalese wood sculptor on his knees, picking up his elephants and rhinos. Around him, three policemen are standing and gesturing bureaucratically at the wood shavings tossing around in the wind. The sculptor doesn’t protest or show any emotion as he gathers his animals inside a garbage bag. No one seems to remark on his departure, not the flower vendors nor the fishmonger next to whom the sculptor had positioned himself.
She thinks that even her sadness is cheap, believes that she should at least be decent enough to not buy her way out with casual sympathy. Still, all the holding in of emotions makes her feel like a scuba diver taking measured breaths out of an oxygen tank. She can almost hear her own heart beating hard against the pressure.
“Say we manage somehow to survive as a species. There won’t be any beauty in it. I would like to see it all before the world ends.”
When she sees the black Ferrari in front of her apartment, she feels more buoyed than she would have guessed.
“What are you doing here?” she asks Leo, peering into the front seat.
“I thought I would say hi. And see your other works, if that’s possible,” he says, only just lifting his eyes from his phone—as if she has come to his house to bother him.
But once inside the apartment, he turns out to be an appreciative visitor. She hasn’t brought many tools and oil paints take too long to dry, so she’s been mostly doing watercolors. She has felt increasingly drawn to the idea of synesthesia, so on her canvas the sound of waves dragging on pebbles and the peal of church bells has become aquamarine concentric circles enclosed in a yellow pyramid, and the resinous aroma of mimosas is a squiggle of green-earth paint.
“And what does emerald green signify?” Leo asks, pausing in front of a large piece washed almost completely in the pigment and nothing else. There’s something in it that makes it impossible to look at anything else. It seems to exude its own radiance, even in the waning light.
“That one is a secret,” she says.
Leo smiles and re-crosses his arms. “You’re a mysterious woman. That’s fine, keep your secrets. But even if you don’t tell me what it means, I’d like to buy it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I want to buy this piece, and all the other pieces too if you are okay with it.”
“I haven’t named my price,” she says. “It could be very high.”
She digs in her memory for how her pieces sold at the last exhibit in Greenpoint. She decides on a number halfway between those prices and what she thinks he would pay for a first-class ticket to one of his side offices. He nods, and nods again when she names the prices of the smaller pieces, and calls his assistant, Myrta, who will arrange the wire transfer to her account.
“It’s probably not what I should say, but I’m still not really sure why you’re so interested in my work,” she says as she carries the tubes of rolled paintings out to his car.
“The short answer is that they inspire me. But it’s more complicated than that.” He dumps the tubes inside the trunk and slams it shut. “If you really want to know, come with me for a drive.”
Theirs is the only car on the road to Sophia Antipolis at six o’clock on a Friday evening. Sophia, meaning wisdom, and Antipolis, the Greek name for Antibes, explains Leo. And so the research park is now the center of technology, bioengineering, and entrepreneurship in France, attracting companies and talent from all over Europe. As they park the car, bats fly by, swirling like a windmill over the darkening trees. They walk along a concrete footpath, and it dawns on her that his office isn’t just a building, but a whole campus of white edifices tastefully arranged throughout the scrubby woodland.
In the last light of the dusk, she sees something cross their path and disappear into the bushes. She grabs ahold of his arm. “Did you see that, Leo? It looked like a fox.”
“Yes, they live in these woods,” he says, unfazed.
She shudders. It’s colder here in the woods than in Nice. “But it wasn’t red-brown, like the one I saw in the Alps.”
“Because it’s dark right now. Here we are—our lab.”
He hovers his knuckle-sized silver ring on the security scanner next to a glass door. It slides open as the interior lights up, revealing mid-century leather sofas and recliners positioned around a fireplace. Leo explains the rooms they pass through, each one sleekly furnished with monitors, wooden blinds, and Italian cantilever chairs. She doesn’t see anything even approaching a lab until they reach a concrete door, where he hovers his ring over a scanner again.
When the concrete door opens, they walk into a white room surrounded by glass. At first she thinks the walls give out to the forest outside. Then she realizes they are enclosures.
Leo smiles. “Sorry. I didn’t want to give it away when you saw the fox.”
In each enclosure, she sees an animal—a fox, a boar, a cat, a rat, an owl—sleeping or stirring restlessly. They are all the same color, which she has never seen before. It has never been seen before by anyone. If she had to describe it, she would say it falls halfway between green and pink. The beauty of the animals is terrifying.
“We’ve invented a completely new color in the history of humanity,” Leo says, his voice gleeful. “This is a color that can only be achieved by bioengineering on a living being. Just like something organic can’t be metallic, and acid green doesn’t exist in nature . . . ”
“So why didn’t you use insects, like carmine for red?”
The fox in its enclosure is pressing its snout against the glass—looking at her, she thinks. With irises of phantomic brilliance.
“We tried a lot of insects. And plants, too, as a matter of fact. But none of those worked.” He shakes his head, exasperated. “It appears that the pigment can only be created on beings with souls. That’s the element required for this chemical reaction—that, and warm blood. Like copper and arsenic.”
“We’ve invented a completely new color in the history of humanity.”
The owl has begun to flap around in its enclosure, and she feels sick to her stomach. “So what does this have to do with changing human consciousness?” she asks.
Leo is no longer smiling his concealing smile. His impatience shows. He has gambled years of his life to this sui generis endeavor; and the moment he shows anyone some animals in cages—a very nice plate-glass enclosure, by the way—they accuse him of barbarity.
But what he is doing is far more humane than creating a single hamburger patty. This painter, with her penchant for deadly pigment, seemed to understand the tradeoff between pain and beauty—that everything sublime has a price. He had found that sexy, along with her gameness.
Now he thinks she sounds just like an American.
“This is consciousness itself,” he says. “Don’t you understand?”
When Benoit realizes he is going to be in New York for his cousin’s wedding, he sends her a message. It makes him rather anxious—they haven’t seen or talked to each other in ages—but she readily replies. Would she like to see him for drinks one day? he asks. Yes, she would.
Now he is wandering around SoHo, in the rough vicinity of the hotel bar that she has suggested. There is something strange here, he thinks as he loses himself in the cobblestone streets slick with a tropical downpour. The hours seem to pass at a different pace. It feels as though he has just woken up in his hotel room, but it’s already late afternoon. This has happened every day of the trip, although he hasn’t overwhelmed his schedule and has stuck to his usual habits.
After a while, he stops thinking it’s the jet lag, this state of perpetual disorientation. To stave off the malaise, he had earlier made tea in his room and sipped it slowly, thinking of home. Despite the heat, he decides to order another one in a cafe buzzing with scents. Pu-erh-fect Purity is said to detoxify the brain of heavy metals. The young woman at the counter also suggests Peppermint Choco Chai-ngri-la, to help balance the chakras while celebrating Christmas.
As he holds a paper cup of steaming tea in his hand, sweat beading on his back from the humid air, Benoit realizes something. When the Americans shifted the months of the year—eliminated February and March, halved October and November and doubled June, July, and August—in accordance with climate savings, they had actually changed the way time runs. Here-and-now in New York is not the same here-and-now in France, separated by a nominal six-hour difference, but a totally unsynchronized place-and-time, dilated like a clock in outer space.
Twenty years ago, when Benoit visited London, he’d heard the birds start singing at exactly four a.m. In France, however, they start singing at precisely 5:00 a.m. Of course this is because, despite the two time zones with a difference of one hour, the birds of England and of France recognized the single right moment to start singing. They were simply side-by-side on the same merry-go-round.
Quantum theory suggests that now, birds and people of New York are living on an entirely different merry-go-round. But not just them—all these places of the world have fractured off into separate realities. This is only observable to an outsider, and no one else streaming through the fetid streets of New York appears disoriented or oppressed as he is.
He means to ask her about this. Perhaps this is why he is here, thinking of her—someone from his past—as though she is in his present. It finally dawns on him that he feels sorry for the way he treated her back then. He knew how she loved him, or could love him, and pretended he couldn’t see it. As if it weren’t perfectly visible—impossible to hide, like love always is.
A scorching twilight descends outside the cafe. He stops walking when his eyes get caught up by a strange, ineffably beautiful color filling a shop window like a fog. It’s displayed in the next boutique as well. Clothes, furniture, shoes, carpets, phones, and smart homes, all radiant in this ecstatic hue. In a chic ladies’ boutique, there is even a fur coat in the new color, although it would be far too warm to wear almost anywhere in the world.
Benoit shivers, wipes the sweat from his brow. He reads the block letters stenciled on the window:
Meet Knip, color of the year 2022. It’s blithe, seductive, yet innocent, symbolizing happiness and trust in the future. The color of soulfulness, it has been chosen for its ability to give people hope.
It’s now almost five o’clock, their appointed meeting hour. He imagines her waiting for him at the hotel bar, but somehow finds it difficult to turn away from the shop window. He has the most irrational desire to bury himself in that coat. It would fill him with something he has lost forever—and he has lost much over the years. If he could just keep looking at it, he might recover the man he used to be, the man he once wished to become. The few people he had truly loved without cynicism. Frosted fall mornings that had yawned slowly over the mountains, glaciers on Mont Blanc, snow on Christmas Eve.
But now he takes a deep breath and wrenches himself away, turning his back on his dreams. He runs and doesn’t stop until he’s standing by the gleaming glass windows of the hotel. He sees her at the corner table, checking her watch every minute, hiding her nervousness behind tiny sips of wine and hair like a waterfall at night. She’s been waiting for him for a very long time.
Juhea Kim's writing has been published or is forthcoming in Granta, Slice, Zyzzyva, and Sierra Magazine. Her translation of Lee Sang Award-winning author Choi In-Ho was published in Granta. She is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling, an online magazine covering sustainable lifestyle and ecological literature. She received the Katharine Bakeless Nason Scholarship to Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference and a BA from Princeton University.