By Melissa Banigan
The sky was filled with the chiringas families had bought at nearby stalls. They chased each other’s tails in the sky like parrots, and easily out-maneuvered the Puerto Rican, American, and old Spanish flags that flapped phlegmatically over the El Morro in old San Juan. At the base of the fort, the variegated blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashed against the rocks in an undulating mantra—ebb, flow…ebb, flow.
Standing atop the highest level of the fort, the wind whipped my hair around my shoulders as I looked over the San Juan Bay and out over the ocean. My boyfriend—no, my recent fiancé—placed his hand on the small of my back. I smiled at him, but in that moment, I knew: I did not want to be married to him.
“That’s so…wild,” I said, pointing down towards the white, foam-covered rocks. This wasn’t what I meant to say, but I didn’t have the language to describe the panic rising in my chest. The rough ocean below beckoned. I leaned gently over the wall of the fort and felt my heart dislodge itself from my chest and dive like a seabird into the roiling foam.
~ ~ ~
In the 1800s, future Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Gladstone, wrote that in the Odyssey, Homer had described a “wine-looking,” rather than blue, ocean. Some years later, a philologist named Lazarus Geiger examined ancient texts in a variety of languages and discovered that although the ancient Egyptians produced rich dyes using the blue woad plant, many ancient cultures didn’t have a word to describe the color blue.
What sort of feelings must she have had (for I’m certain it was a woman) when she looked down into the ocean to find that the water no longer appeared “wine-looking,” but had become an undefined color? Since she was without words to describe what she saw, I imagine was faced with a choice—remain silent and risk going mad, or give up everything she thought she knew in order to try to describe to others what only she could see.
Today we live beneath a blue sky and swim in cerulean seas, so it’s clear that she chose the second option. What, then, were the consequences? Was she tolerated as an eccentric? I doubt it. People are wont to accuse strange women of witchery, so I imagine she was dragged, bloodied and naked, and then burned beneath an ancient wine-colored sky. A consolation, of course, is the hope that the experience of seeing blue finally sparked to life in the imaginations of her fellow villagers as they watched the hottest zaffre flames coldly lick her tongue, lungs, and brains to ash. Continue Reading…