See the Colors

Inspired by David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

Once, people came to me with questions, because I knew all the answers. Except one. So I went back to where I’d learned all my answers: the little girl in her red dress, filthy and standing in the middle of a field of garbage. I asked her my question and then waited. Finally she said:

“To find your answer, first you must learn the colors of war. Come walk with me; I will show you.” She took my hand, and everything disappeared.

We reappeared by the side of a road with flat desert stretching out to either side unimpeded. Crouching down, the girl took a handful of dirt. Some of it drained out the bottom of her closed fist as she stood, scattering in the wind.

“First you must see the color of hate,” she said. She opened her hand and held it out. A small mound of brown dirt was left in her palm.

“Meet the color of hate.”

I rubbed a pinch of the dirt between my thumb and forefinger, learning its texture. She nodded as I dusted off my hand.

“Next you must see the color of fear. Walk with me.”

Once again she took my hand, and the desert disappeared. Then we were on a different road, surrounded by pandemonium. Bullets flying, explosions, men screaming—and partially buried in the dirt by the side of the road: a red wire. Time stopped.

There was silence as she led me over to it. She knelt, pulling me down next to her and placing the end of it in my hand.

“Meet the color of fear,” she said.

I stared at it, fascinated by the places where its red coating touched my skin. Then I put it back, my eyes fixed on it as I stood.

“Walk with me,” the little girl said. “Next you must see the color of desperation.”

I took her hand, and the road disappeared as time resumed its natural pace.

We reappeared on a flat rooftop, looking down at a road between two rows of bombed-out buildings. A series of explosions began and smoke billowed up, obscuring a convoy of Humvees. When it stopped, the smoke drifted in silence against the blue backdrop of the sky. It was not quite white, mixed with dust and dirt. I looked down at the little girl, meeting her eyes as she looked up at me, still holding my hand.

“Meet the color of desperation,” she said.

I looked again at the not-white smoke as it curled high over my head, then I closed my eyes for a moment before I looked back down at her.

“Please, no more,” I said. The little girl simply shrugged.

“You asked me a question,” she said. “You should not have asked if you did not truly want to know the answer. Walk with me. Next you must see the color of pain.”

The rooftop disappeared, and I closed my eyes. But then the little girl tugged on my hand, and when I opened my eyes, we were in the dimly-lit Mortuary Affairs room of a U.S. Army camp. On the metal table were the remains of a soldier. Both legs, his left arm and most of his right arm were gone, his body burned beyond recognition—except his face. Something had protected the upper half of his face leaving his eyes untouched, wide open and staring into death. The little girl led me up to the table and pointed to them. They were the same empty blue as the sky behind the smoke had been.

“Meet the color of pain,” she said.

I looked into his eyes for a moment before reaching out and closing them gently. Holding back tears, I wondered what his name had been. Then I knew the girl was right. I could not leave until I had seen all the colors of war. Otherwise I would never know the answer to my question. So I took a deep breath and stepped back, closing my eyes as I took her hand again.

This time we reappeared on a street, surrounded on all sides by sad, empty buildings.

“Walk with me,” the little girl said. “Next you must see the color of belief.”

She led me to a crossroads, the site of a recent firefight. Nine pools of blood and one body had been left behind. She let go of my hand and pushed me toward the body, so I knelt next to it, trying not to look at its eyes.

“What color do you see in his heart?” she asked from behind me. I gave her a confused look over my shoulder. She sighed, shaking her head.

“You do not understand,” she said.

I shook my head, standing. The little girl shrugged.

“Perhaps I can show you another way,” she said.

Warily, I took the hand she offered and we reappeared in the fields of trash. A convoy of Humvees was limping past us on a nearby road. A man in army fatigues stared out the back window of the third one, and I could practically hear the disparaging thoughts going through his head. Beside me, the little girl waved at the convoy. As I watched, the man in the Humvee slowly raised his hand—and waved back.

That’s when I saw it. In his eyes was a glimmer of something so brief I wasn’t quite sure I’d actually seen it. But after the convoy had passed, I looked down at the little girl.

“What color was that?” I asked.

“That,” she said as she looked up at me, “was the color of belief. It has been present this entire time; you simply did not see it because you did not know how. It is no one color; it finds its color in the hearts of those who have it. What does that tell you?”

I thought about it for a moment; about the not-white smoke of desperation, the hate-colored dirt, fear-colored wire and a little girl’s dress.

“It tells me…” I said slowly, “that there is more to war than words spoken in politics…and that belief is called belief for a reason. It implies that not only are there different truths available, but also that people have the freedom to choose which one applies to them.”

“Very good,” the little girl said, but I was still a bit confused.

“What about innocence, what about hope and love?” I asked, looking around.

“What about them?” the little girl replied.

“Those exist too, in war. See here.” I took her hand, kneeling next to a pile of garbage and pointing to a tiny unopened flower bud. “Meet the color of love, of innocence. Of hope.”

“But there’s no way of telling what color the flower will be,” the little girl pointed out.

“Exactly,” I said, smiling.

She smiled back with eyes that held a wisdom older than she was.

“Then you have your answer, don’t you?” she said. I nodded, and suddenly I found myself flat on my back on my neatly-mown lawn. High above, the sun shone down from the arched bowl of a sky that was the same painful, beautiful blue as a dead man’s eyes.

My name is Rachel Worrell, and I am currently a third year student studying English at Kalamazoo College. I live in Grand Haven, Michigan, with my parents, my older sister, and my younger brother. I speak a bit of French and a very small bit of Gaelic. My favorite color is green, I grow miniature roses, and I hope to write novels someday.