Colors of the Soul
Giacomo could see souls. He saw them as a halo of colors, a shimmering mist surrounding a living thing like the crown of the sun, although he did not always know what the colors meant. He had to stare at the person, or people, or creature, for a short amount of time until all that existed were the things that lived – not the old stone buildings or the cobble-stone streets, not the rickety wagons or belching steam wagons, not the brass gear horses nor the ticking delivery birds. And when he stared, the colors would come like the waves of heat from the cooking carts that smelled of bread and baked fish, flowing in the air fine as silk and beautiful as butterflies.
Except at the fishery. Most of the halos were overshadowed either by a sickly green or paltry blue nearly the same color as the gray sky. But souls would be sickly in a place where fish went to die and men earned a living ripping out innards.
Giacomo brought the meat cleaver down. The fish’s head flew from its body. He took the paring knife, slit its belly and removed its squelching, bloody insides before tossing the body into the barrel of brine. He took another fish from the basket next to him and offered it the same fate. When the basket was empty, Giacomo went to one of the many salt-crusted lean-tos by the dock where more baskets waited – great wicker things he hefted onto his thin shoulder by its leather straps, and stumbled under a weight that had only gotten heavier over the four years since he had first come to this place, when he was only sixteen summers old and without any prospects in life. He staggered back to his chopping table and resumed the rhythm of chop, slit and gut.
The brighter colors did not belong in a place like this.
The working day did not end until the sky was a pallid yellow. Then the steam whistle shrilled, and the men and women haloed in sickly colors dragged their weary bodies away from the fishery to whatever hovel they called home.
Giacomo hurried his way through the narrow streets of the city until he came to one of the many city fountains burbling clear water – this one a lion’s head carved into a stone wall. He cleaned the fish guts from his bare, thin arms tanned from spending most of his days outside. It was why he no longer wore shirtsleeves; bare skin was so much easier to clean, and the stink of fish wasn’t as tenacious with skin as it was with cloth. He washed his feet, splashing water onto the soles and scrubbing them free of the fish blood that slicked the ground at the fishery. He splashed water on the dark brown patches of his re-growing hair (he’d had to cut to rid it of lice). Then he smiled. He was ready.
Giacomo followed his mental map of the city and his private route through the cobbled, muddy streets until he reached the market square, where the congregation of a thousand voices was like the roar of the ocean waves. Men in silken wigs and pantaloons squeezed by men in ragged trousers and stained shirts. Girls in sweat-stained bodices sold flowers to women in the finest velvet, and men of learning tipped their top hats to the promenading Harlots. The square smelled wonderful, like flowers, sausages, and things baked with cinnamon. Giacomo bought a bit of bread and cheese from one of the steam-powered baking carts, then found a comfortable seat in the niche of a Greek goddess statue.
Giacomo ate his dinner, stared at the people, and watched the colors dance.
Giacomo had once heard it said - perhaps from one of the fathers at the orphanage, he wasn’t sure - that God was an artist. And if one wanted to see his brilliance then one had only to look to the birds in the sky and watch the sun as it rose (except to see the sun you first had to travel to distant lands, where the slate clouds couldn’t reach).
The father had been wrong. God’s art was here, in this square, in the shining aura of strawberry red fading to orange fading to gold of the hefty and happy barmaid, Elsa. It flickered in the green and violet of a man of learning from the witching school, in his top hat and tailed coat of midnight blue. The little flower girl with the blond curls was a rainbow of dancing light. The undertaker was a surprise, not bruised violet or somber indigo but spring green and gold like marigolds as he gave everyone a friendly smile even as they gave him a wide berth. There was a tabby cat the colors of fall, and a shaggy-haired mutt the colors of the sea.
Then there was the girl who sold iced cinnamon cakes, who smelled of cinnamon and walked glowing like the sun.
Today there was no gold.
There was nothing. No colors at all.
Giacomo stared at her nervously, his heart beating uncomfortably fast.
He had never seen that before.
The fishery’s cramped bunkhouse was quiet. The workers were far too exhausted to spare the energy to even snore. There was a lamp that remained lit so that people did not step on each other or relieve themselves on their neighbor’s head. Giacomo slept at the very end of the row in a pile of straw because he was always too late to claim a cot. A breeze was blowing, fanning the fish-stink that had soaked into the crusty gray wood, and making the rafters creak like old bones. The Lullaby for the dying – that’s what some people called it.
Giacomo lay on his back, one hand behind his head, the other raised up in the lamplight. He moved his fingers back and forth, and his halo shimmered like heat in cold air, clear as freshly made glass.
His aura’s transparency used to worry him to no end as a child. Here he was, surrounded by so much color, but all that surrounded him was nothing and it made him wonder more than once if that meant he was partly invisible. Which would certainly have explained why the fathers always startled whenever they came across Giacomo, as though suddenly remembering that he existed. Or why Broc, the fishery master, would hit Giacomo across the face for startling him whenever Broc made his rounds.
These days, Giacomo often wondered if his halo meant he barely existed - caught between visible and invisible - and should it fade until there was not even a shimmer, then he would be a ghost; there, but never seen.
Perhaps he would simply cease to exist.
Giacomo shivered, jerking his hand back down to his side as if burned.
Neither could he say that he had absolutely nothing at all, like the cake girl at the market square. His halo may be clear, but it was there, and that had to mean something more than not being there at all. And, sometimes, when he was outside and the clouds were thin and the day unusually bright, he thought he could see the faintest touch of gold, there, at the edge, where the halo hovered an inch from his skin.
But there had been nothing surrounding the cake girl.
Another shiver ran through Giacomo’s body as if he had been plunged in ice.
Everything had a halo. Every living thing with a beating heart and blood and a life that could be snuffed out like a candle always had something. Even the squids, even the fanged suckers with their clawed tentacles and gnashing teeth, or the gargoyles that skulked about the ledges at night looking for pigeons to eat had something. There was always a halo, always a color or a shimmer. Always, always, always.
Giacomo’s stomach tightened so deeply into its hollow cavity it seemed to knot itself, and he swallowed thickly, feeling cold and sick. He curled onto his side like a frightened child and shivered.
Everything had a halo.But not the things that were dead.