Have you ever wondered where the colors of the world come from? Who makes grass so green, the sky so blue? Who paints the subtle, bold designs on a butterfly’s wings? Who captures the glitter of sunlight on water? Where does all that color come from?
Summer and Winter are married. Summer is a woman of surpassing beauty, her skin the black of rich earth, her eyes the green of oak leaves, her hair as golden as grain and sunlight. She makes the sun come out, causes the trees to put out leaves, entices the flowers to bloom, but she doesn’t make the colors.
Her husband, Winter, is a tall, craggy man. His hair is a wild snowstorm. His eyes are chips of ice. His skin is bluer than a glacier. Wherever he goes, cold follows. His footsteps leave traceries of frost on the ground. His laughter is snowstorms. His breath fells forests. But he doesn’t make the colors either, not even the smallest glint of sunlight on ice.
That’s Painter’s job.
Painter is the son of Summer and Winter. A laughing, happy, thoughtless boy, he lives only for his paintbrush and the billion shades and colors he creates with it. He paints in all the world. The golden-green stain of sunlight through grass stems? That’s Painter’s work. The blushing pink of a hibiscus? That’s Painter. The dappled hide of a fawn? Painter again.
All throughout the season of his mother, Painter travels the whole world. He paints in the shining blue of a barn swallow’s wing, he colors every flower petal. He rejoices in sunrises and sunsets, the million shades of green that he traces throughout the forests. The sky he paints bright blue in vast strokes of his brush. He delights in every bird, every rabbit. And his mother, Summer, rejoices in the colors too, the warmth, while his father sleeps deep beneath a holly tree.
Almost, almost, they forget about Painter’s other colors.
The other colors lurk in a shed at the back of the world. Winter locked them up there last year, and Painter promised, as he promises every year, never to touch them again. But they’re still there: gallons of red, orange, yellow, brown. Waiting.
At first, it’s easy for Painter to keep his promise. There’s such an abundance of other colors: blue, pink, yellow, purple, white, black and green, green, green. And then there are the million combinations and shades he can make as he travels the world, creating color.
But, as always, Painter gets tired of the same colors. Really, he thinks, painting in yet another green leaf, isn’t all this green a little…boring? Would it hurt his mother to grow a few trees with different color needs? A few are purple, it’s true, but still…
And all these flowers! Yes, they come in every color imaginable, but there just aren’t enough bright colors, really. And yet, not enough subtlety. How about a brown rose? That would be elegant.
But what Painter yearns most for, as the summer wears on, is red. Yes, he has some red in his summer paints, but not enough. He paints in sunsets, but the colors, however bold, always fade away. He colors in more roses. It’s not satisfying.
He remembers his locked-up paints. He remembers his promise. But the temptation is growing.
More flowers—but Painter is sick of flowers. He’s sick of sunsets. And he’s sick of the green, green, green.
He sneaks away from his mother’s sight. He slinks to the shed at the back of the world, where his father locked up his paints. He fiddles with the lock. Far away, his father rolls over in his sleep and sighs.
The cold breath of Winter washes over Painter, and away goes his hesitation. He breaks into the shed.
Just a little, he tells himself as he dips his brush into the first bottle of forbidden red paint. He’ll dab just a little red on a few leaves…But the color is so bright, so beautiful, against the green, that he can’t stop himself throwing around more, and more. Paint in some orange and yellow, why not! It looks glorious!
Before long, Painter is charging through the world, repainting every tree in sight. That rustle of leaves you hear in autumn, when it seems every tree raises its head in a breeze you can’t feel? That’s Painter, laughing as he runs, streaking the trees with brown, red, orange and yellow: streaks that grow brighter and wider, until all the forests are aflame.
Summer sees what her son has done, and she mourns, for green is her best-beloved color. She wanders, calling for Painter, but he doesn’t even hear her. He is in love with the fiery colors, intoxicated with them, heeding nothing else.
Summer misses her son. She misses the green. She begins to fail.
Summer walks, more and more slowly, drooping, hair shriveling. The trees mourn with her, dropping their offending leaves in shame, and the flowers wither. Even the sun, tied inextricably to Summer, visits less and less.
Winter senses the change, even in his deepest sleep. He stirs more and more, sending blasts of cold into the sky, which only weakens Summer further. He frowns, muttering angrily, as the changes prompt him ever closer to wakening. He already knows what must have happened, even unconscious, and he is far from pleased.
Summer weakens still more. At last she lies down, drawing the earth over her like a blanket, at the roots of an oak tree. Its painted leaves rain down over her, leaving the branches bare.
At this, Winter leaps from his holly tree. He’s furious, for he loves his wife and hates to see her distress. His angry shout lets loose the first storm of his season.
The storm winds shake free the final leaves, the forests heaving around Painter, who finally looks up. He shakes, realizing at last what he’s done, and what has happened. Dropping his paint and brush, he runs.
Painter runs and runs, dead leaves crunching under his feet, but there’s no escaping Winter. Painter’s father roars over him in a tide of frozen wind. He seizes Painter, smacking him, making him see what he’s done to his mother, to the world. For there are no leaves left, no flowers, and Painter’s colors are all withering away to gray.
Winter marches his son to the shed at the back of the world. Painter stands by, miserably, while Winter locks up his paintbrush and all his colors, especially the colors of autumn, which Winter makes Painter promise never to touch again.
Painter’s unhappiness touches Winter’s heart, a little. He gives Painter sticks of charcoal to draw with, and a little blue paint. But nothing else. Winter storms away, leaving his son standing by the shed, with his wretched new coloring set, alone in the cold.
All winter, Painter makes do with what his father has allowed. He draws intricate snowflakes, traces ferns of frost on windows. The pale blue he uses as much as he can, to paint the sky and the ice. But it’s a pitiful palette for such an artist. Painter’s misery fills the world, dragging down what little color there is. And all the while, Winter rages, moving restlessly, lonely beyond belief for his wife, Summer.
At last, Painter can stand it no longer. He goes to his father and apologizes. He promises he will never touch the autumn colors again, if Winter will just unlock the shed and let him retrieve his other paints.
Winter pays no heed at first. He is slow to forgive. But at last he relents, for he loves his son, and he wants his wife back.
Together, Winter and Painter go to the shed at the back of the world. Winter unlocks the door, and Painter retrieves the gold and green of springtime.
Beneath her tree, Summer stirs in her sleep, letting forth the first warm breeze.
Painter travels again, painting the grass back to life, adding luster to the sunbeams. The sun, delighted at the brightness of its new gold, comes to stay more frequently. Among the roots of the oak, Summer’s sleep grows restless as she senses the change, and the warmth builds. The first birds sing, and the trees put out hard new buds. Then, at last, Summer opens her lovely eyes.
She emerges from the earth, blinking in wonder at what Painter has already done to color in the first flowers, the newborn buds of leaves. And her husband and son are there to greet her.
Summer opens her arms, and Winter rushes in to embrace her. And with that embrace, Summer glows as brightly as a star, and all the leaf buds unfurl in sudden glory.
For all of spring, the family travels together: Painter leaping ahead, painting as much green as he can for his mother’s delight; Summer calling forth the buds, the grains, the infant animals; and Winter, happy at last at his wife’s side, even as he fades away with every step and his power lessens. Behind them, the animals follow, the birds sing and the breezes blow ever warmer.
At last, beneath a holly tree, Winter can go no further. He kisses Summer one last time and gives Painter another admonishment not to touch the autumn colors. Gravely, sincerely, Painter promises he never will, and his parents exchange amused, exasperated looks.
Winter folds himself back into the earth, hoping that this time he will not have to come out again, but knowing that he will. Summer and Painter leave him to be guarded by the holly tree, knowing he is safe and they will see him again, as they progress into the light and warmth and colors of the turning year.
Rose Strickman is a fantasy, sci-fi and horror writer living in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in anthologies such as Sword and Sorceress 32 and Earth: Giants, Golems, & Gargoyles, as well as online e-zines such as Tell-Tale Press and Luna Station Quarterly.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AMANDABERGLOFF