Winter 2002/03

Colors / Sulphur

Moody, toxic, light, and tasty

Thomas Beller

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

There’s a butterfly called the Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme). It’s the color of a lemon drop. Another butterfly is called the Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). It’s the color of a creamsicle. These are lovely colors, light and tasty. But they’re the bright side of sulphur. They don’t address the feeling of unease that comes over me at the thought of it, something menacing and hidden beneath the surface. Sulphur is a substance, a color, a flavor, and a smell. For me sulphur is a smell first, then a substance, finally a color. Perhaps it’s a mood. What mood would be sulphuric? Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Walking Around,” as translated by W. S. Merwin, contains this stanza:

There are birds the color of sulphur,
and horrible intestines
hanging from the doors of the houses which I hate,
there are forgotten sets of teeth in the coffee pot,
there are mirrors
which should have wept with shame and horror,
there are umbrellas all over the place, and poisons,
and navels.

Dried splatter, non-toxic. Maybe even good for you.

There is a bird that is, at least partially, the color of sulphur—the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo. It has above-average talking ability, apparently, and at the top of its precocious head is a fringe the color of light mustard. The Neruda poem brought me closer to the sulphur I was looking for, but it was his mood, not mine. What did I think about the color of sulphur? It escaped me. So I resorted to the tactic of the indecisive, the eager to please: I took a poll. Among friends after a meal I said, “Sulphur! What comes to mind?”

“Stink bombs!”
“Something harsh and dangerous.”
“Smelly, but not toxic. Maybe even good for you.”
“Something lunar, spacey, airborne.”
“What’s the color of sulphur?”
“Sex and suffocation. You have sex and then there is the sad post-coital lighting of a match, which is a sulphur smell.”
“Why suffocation?”
“Because a flame takes up oxygen.”
“Why sad?”
“Because it’s post-coital.”

Moody sulphur. Sad sulphur. Asphyxiating toxic stink-bomb sulphur. Post-coital sulphur! Which was mine? Then it occurred to me that my first encounter with sulphur was happy. Almost ecstatic. It can be summed up in two words: Chemistry set. And within the chemistry set, test tubes. And within the test tubes, colored powders. The chemistry set was a gift from my father, who had come home from some far away place. Presents my father brought me were highly prized, even though the jigsaw puzzle he’d returned with from his last trip lay in a jumble on the floor, unsolved, untried. I never did the puzzle, but I loved getting the present, the exchange of kisses, the coldness on his coat, his sandpaper cheek against my smooth one when he lifted me off the ground.

The chemistry set felt more than just fun, though; it had the aura of progress and self-improvement. I was about eight years old. I imagined my room a laboratory filled with bubbling beakers, smoke rising in white puffs. My father was a doctor, and I knew this had some tangential relationship with chemistry. Both disciplines involved men in white smocks, experiments, charts. My father was a psychoanalyst. I sensed some abstract link between his profession and the chemistry set: the deeply embedded patterns, the interaction of potent substances, playing with fire in a controlled environment.

There is an abundance of sulphur in the earth’s crust. It’s especially abundant around volcanoes. Hot-springs smell of sulphur. Geysers. Sulphur forced to the surface. You could say sulphur is the fart of the earth. Perhaps sulphur is the unconscious of the earth. It lies unseen in the depths, but manifests itself in all sorts of day-to-day items.

I took out the test tubes. In each was a different chemical, a different color. Sulphur did not stand out at first. I was excited by the ambience of precision, but it was only an ambience. I had no discipline. I liked to throw things out of windows. I was a consumer of textures: the coarse, granulated texture of Nestlé chocolate milk mix, which I fed into my mouth in heaping portions on which I nearly choked. The melting, velvety texture of powdered sugar, which I fed into my mouth in heaping portions on which I nearly choked. The bland, super-fine powder of straight flour, which I fed into my mouth in heaping portions and nearly choked. I probably wasn’t the ideal kid for a chemistry set, not that I was going to eat it. But I was by then, also, a connoisseur of the dead silences of hallways and the little offices where schools keep the fixers and special helpers. Those were the days when I made the rounds of little offices at my school: the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the math tutor, the English tutor. I was given ink spots to stare at, blocks to play with. I was an expert at these interpretive games, but my handwriting was as legible as a Rorschach test. I needed a handwriting coach, and Mr. Murphy was that man.

They had let him hang around after retirement to work with some special cases. His eyes, on cold wintry days, watered like crazy. If it wasn’t for his smile I would have thought Mr. Murphy was crying. We met in a slightly musty boardroom with couches along the walls and a long polished table in the center where the trustees occasionally met and where disciplinary committees were often held. In later years, when appearing before various tribunals in that room, I would think it was lucky that Mr. Murphy wasn’t around to see me like this. The year after those quiet sessions, I was brought up on fireworks charges, a trace of sulphur popping into the narrative.

What do you do with a chemistry set? You sit there in your room, the box open, taking everything out gingerly. You have been instructed to follow the instructions. You make a brief attempt at the manual. But it isn’t long before you get around to the smelling, the handling, the tapping of little bits from the test tube into your palm, or perhaps into another test tube, for some random mixing of components. You open the test tube called “Sulphur” and smell it. Almost all the other smells exist in the mouth, the back of the throat, or behind the eyes. But sulphur goes straight to the gut, like that magic trick with the handkerchief that is a deep lustrous purple with a little loop in one corner. From that loop you can pull through a bright pink handkerchief, the whole thing turning inside out as it emerges from your fist. In it goes as purple, out it comes as pink! The smell of sulphur goes all the way down to the bottom of you, then pulls you through your own ass and turns you inside out and oh my God! Put that cork back in the test tube! Then stare with horror and wonder that something could smell so bad.

In other words, once you start fixating on a color, you remember it everywhere. It becomes a Zelig of colors. Sicily was the world’s provider of sulphur until the end of the nineteenth century, when a new method allowed for the mining of deposits in Louisiana and Texas. The most enduring image from a visit I made to Sicily a few years ago came late at the end of a day while driving along the southern coast, the sea to my left and open fields of cut hay to my right. Somewhere behind me was the island’s volcano, Etna, which I had visited that morning. It was not yet dusk, and the late afternoon sun slanted sharply across a field of hay and made it look enchanted. It glowed as though lit from below. The yellow orange light was, looking back on it, the color of sulphur. And then there was that reddish brown earth that sat, a few years after the era of the chemistry set, in a lumpy pile next to my father’s grave: Weren’t there streaks of light brown, bordering on orange? Sulphur making a cameo.

Thomas Beller is a writer and founding editor of Open City. He is based in New York.

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