Thirty miles south of Dallas the air smells of ozone and water. Thunderheads on the horizon in shades of indigo. It’s a fifty-five-mile drive, we’ll be there in an hour. I wonder how these colors looked to the Kickapoo back then, to the wranglers and oil prospectors who’d suck two hundred million barrels of oil from this county, paying for wide-plank porches and soaring ceilings in mansions passed father to son, then to no one. Granite town halls built to last half a millennium. Kitchens pharmacy white, whiter than white, a drop of cream will mark the wainscoting or the weave of thread in linen drying on a clothesline—white against the green pines, green against the battered-tin sky, where buds turn so fragrantly open it’s hard to imagine the world is sick.
I arrive in a town called Corsicana. Named after a Texas patriot’s father’s home island in the Mediterranean, Corsica. Many of the homes were built when some farm kids were sewn into their clothes at first frost, then not cut out until spring. What did white look like to them? Did it haunt them, did it taste like that long winter fug? Did it make them think of twisters or other monsters of wind touching down and scooping up animals and precious clay and barns, anything that wasn’t nailed to the earth? None of us are, when we think of it—we’re all just barely touching ground: a piece of cotton stuck in a bush. A simple gust could carry most of us away. A puff of a storm’s half-breathed breath.
Maybe this is what I see in the brow of a woman standing in the back row of a women’s league group portrait, Corsicana, 1894. The sense of worry: None of her world was safe, none of it was made to last, even if the buildings couldn’t be budged with a locomotive. Pewter and gray; polished potbelly; base of an old bois d’arc; the nobility of limestone shot through with white; all the colors of her world more stable than her world. Richer, deeper. What did she see when, nights noisy with insects, she closed her eyes? Or in winter—the breath in her throat full of iron and wool? Blue comes first on the cool spectrum, especially below freezing. Had a trick of light ever turned the air around Chambers Creek turquoise? Was the air about a lover once glowing like bluebonnets? Did she ever see a red jacket worn against an inky sky? What sort of stain would that make on memory? In her short life?
In her day, for this woman in this portrait, her brow furrowed without a line, her eyes etched by concern, for her, pharmacies would have traveled by horse and wagon, clinking with bottles the color of honey holding powders the shade of pecan and buffalo grass. Stirred into well water, tasting of tin, they became elixirs. Transformative potions. Did she feel she was making herself anew when she drank them? Like when months after a tailor stuck a dress onto a mannequin in Paris, its design might appear in an issue of Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, the kind of magazine an enterprising beautician in a Texas town might put on oak end tables for customers who wanted to touch the clean glass mirror of self-creation.
What would that pharmacy look like, if it wasn’t a magazine but a tiny glowing little miniature apothecary you could rest on the edge of your bed? You could plug it in and keep it on all night. Light candles inside it. A little diorama, all to scale, full of tiny, bearded potion-sellers and golden bottles and pollen jars. Would it keep the darkness at bay? Make it possible to live under skies as awesome and frightening as the ones this woman might have faced? Would it have saved her worry, such a pharmacy? Or made of it—her fear—something she could roll in her palm each night until her hand tired of the motion, and at last she slept? Or until the blue light of dawn, light so thin it’s almost white, began to creep up the wall, and she rose to make coffee?
The Latin word curitas means cherish, not cure. Here’s what colors are telling us—what we want to cure ourselves of, or at least tame, is what we need to see more clearly. Siberian squill with its steel-blue pollen, creosote leaves and their hidden water. Sloping blacklands and mile after mile of mesquite. All of it continues and persists and then dies. This in a color-starved part of the world. Maybe that’s what she was looking at, this woman, trapped forever in 1894, squinting not out at a world of worry, but perhaps at a world printed on the back of her eye, one full of colors. Maybe she was wondering when it would be that they would exist outside her head, when they’d be painted onto a body, or the sides of buildings, or the face you see around a face when you take it all in.