My grandson Henry called me on WhatsApp this morning. He stood in his blue pyjamas (No, he corrected his grandpa, it’s a sleeper!) in the hall of his house in Edmonton and I read him a story, then his grandpa told him a story. He didn’t want us to sing, though sometimes that’s exactly what he wants.
While I was reading Iron Hans to him, a Steller’s jay settled on the railing outside. Look, Henry, I said. The jay has come for his breakfast. I turned the phone towards the deck and Henry’s eyes opened wide. That bird is blue, he said excitedly.
And what blue. It’s a colour I dream of regularly, pure blue. It’s a colour I write about. Earlier this morning I was checking something in the manuscript of essays I am in the process of finding a publisher for and I read this passage, from an essay called “The Blue Etymologies”:
Careless about gloves, I am caught blue-handed. My thumbs make a blue mark on paper. I have plunged tied and clamped fabric, some of it heavy with bound stones, into a vat of indigo dye. Stirred the lengths. Removed them so they could oxidize on a summer morning. Dipped again, many times, my gloves either too hot, or not long enough (blue-wristed, I manipulate bundles of stone-tied linen), and inevitably torn by the cedar stick I am using to stir. The bundles come out of the vat the colour of swamp water but darken to the deepest blue over the course of the morning’s repeated dippings. While I stir, I watch Steller’s jays sail from trees to deck railings. They belong the genus Cyanocitta, gathering the North American jays together. Κυάνεος, or Kuaneos, meaning “deep blue”, combined with Kitta, or Kissa, meaning “jay”. In Homeric times, Kuaneos was the deep blue easing to black, exactly the colour of a Steller’s jay, and oh, the colour I hope for as I dip my bundles repeatedly into a vat of indigo.
Colour is subjective and others might not see what I see when I dry my cloth (stones and string and wooden blocks removed) on the clothesline, gloves abandoned, so that my hands are damp blue as I peg up the lengths. It’s not quite the blue of jays, or the blue of veiled Tuareg men, not the deep indigo of new Levis. I love it but know that I’ll have to try again for the blue I want, my thumb print whorled and ridged on the edges where I’ve gripped before hanging up the cloth to dry in the sun. And later, printed again, on paper, as I make a note after washing my hands, the dye renewed by water. Marked by blue, as the 12th century artist applying lapis lazuli to a manuscript, shaping her brush with her lips repeatedly as she worked, is known to us now by the residues of pigment in the tartar of her teeth.
So there’s the jay and the hope made possible in every vat of indigo dye. I have a basket of fabric prepared for dye and if these lovely Novembers hold on, there might be a window of time wide enough to mix the indigo powder and the other components on the log cedar bench by my vegetable garden. Almost certainly the jays will dart from tree to woodpile to deck railing, hungry for seeds but maybe curious too.