My mother was busy preparing dinner and answering questions my sister had while sitting at the big wooden table and doing her homework. This evening she was coloring and cutting out the states and gluing them in the right place on a map of the US. Both my sister and I hated coloring in worksheets and my mother had brought out her expensive Sennelier pastels to persuade my sister to employ some effort on the task. The map as far as it was completed looked like a beautiful velvet patchwork quilt. You can’t achieve that with your Crayolas. I wondered whether her teacher would be able to appreciate the difference.
Montana was already pasted in its proper place. It was colored in layers of gorgeous deep Indigo and now, with a vengeance, Phoebe was wasting pale Vermillion Orange on Idaho. I sat down at the table and watched her. There is something nice about a little kid coloring in even if she detests it. My mother walked past me and ruffled my hair in a distracted way. It was just as much part of her dinner routine as cleaning dishes right after using them. For a moment I was back in a comprehensible, friendly world. No opportunistic cannibalism, no aliens. Phoebe pasted Idaho on to her map and contemplated color choices for Washington State. “Why do they have to be different colors?” she complained but her heart wasn’t in it, you could see that she did enjoy choosing a new pastel stick. According to my mother you can never work with materials that are too good and you should always strive for beauty but I still felt a bit doubtful whether you actually needed art pastels to complete this kind of homework.
Phoebe still had the whole west coast and Alaska to color and paste and she grunted disapprovingly as she studied the worksheet after cutting out Washington State. Washington was going to be Cinnabar Green. I liked the way she held her tongue between her lips when she had to cut something out or color something in. She looked a lot like Plinius, our cat, after his dinner when he sits down on the table and probably contemplates dessert choices waiting outside in the dark beyond the kitchen door. Phoebe looked like that whenever she was focusing on something. Right now she smeared Cinnabar Green all over Washington. The pastel stick made a fat, smacking sound on the paper. At the kitchen bar behind us my mother cracked an egg. The splintering was very clear and pleasing to me. I thought that recently I had been much more perceptive to small sounds. Only this morning on my way to school I had stopped to listen to the sparrows hopping over the path to the front door of our school, their tiny claws scratching the bricks. How much does a sparrow weigh? 35 g?
Phoebe looked up. “Mommy?” she asked. My mother looked up from her mixing bowl. “Which language do they speak in California?”