Saturday, March 10, 2012

On Seeing Red

by Arinn Dembo

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived at the edge of the Wild Wood. She had a name, of course, but it has been forgotten, and nowadays we remember her by the cloak that her mother made for her, which was warm and woolen and red as blood.

All human languages have a word for “black” and “white”. In the beginning, quite literally, the Word divides the day from the night, the bright from the dark. But when those two words have been spoken, the first born child of creation and the first true color that will be named by always Red.

Red is the color that blossoms at the moment that heat evolves into light. It is the color of the eldest stars in the universe, suns that linger for billions of years, wreathed in a corona of fitful flame. Red dwarves are the most frequently occurring stars in the universe, over seventy percent of all the solar masses that exist. Glowing softly in the void, the vast majority are invisible to the human eye and cannot be detected by any but the most advanced telescopes. Millions of them are scattered in the heavens above us, hidden like rubies in the room without light.

The human eye has evolved to see red. It is a gift of our lineage, a trick that lets us find the bright flush of the one ripe fruit in a cluster of unripe green, and distinguish the tender newly sprouted red leaves from their less nutritious elders. In the same stroke, the enhanced primate eye unmasks the tiger and the leopard, and every other creature that depends on mere patterns of light and shadow to conceal itself from view.

Seeing red is an ancient and very useful trick--but not all of us can do it. 7-8% of all human males are unable to distinguish red from green. Without help they are doomed to bite into the bitter fruit and miserably chew the leathery green leaves of life. Perhaps this is one of many reasons that women are the dominant gatherers, in cultures all over the world; carrying two copies of the X chromosome, they are less likely to carry the chromosomal defect that makes every berry bush and cluster of leaves a potentially fatal guessing game.

You cannot give red to a person who lacks the equipment to perceive it. I have often compared the knowledge of red to other types of perception that cannot be shared, explained or gifted to another. You cannot put the taste of the food you are chewing into another human being’s mouth. You can only say “I love cherries”, even when your friend demands to know how you can bear to eat something that looks like so many dark clots of blood. In much the same way, you can only say “I love women” when someone demands to know how you can stand making love to them.

You cannot give another person your sensual joys and desires; you also cannot give them your pain and your rage. You can try, of course. You can describe that shocking splash of pain across your face that comes when hard knuckles crash into tender lips. You can try to convey the explosion of salt and copper that follows when your own flesh splits on the unyielding stone of your teeth. But no matter what you say and how well you say it, the pain and the rage will still be yours. And some people will never understand the way you feel.

They cannot grok violence. They cannot see red.

Red is the herald of new life and the harbinger of mortality. She is the handmaiden of fire and the high priestess of passion. Red is what we are inside, and quite rightly afraid to let out. Red is the secret that serial killers search for, bent over the ruptured bodies of their victims and peering into the carnage like the ancient haruspex trying to read the liver of his sacrificial lamb.

They are looking for a truth that they’ve just chased away. The living blood goes cold and black, loses its red and thus its magic. They penetrate with the wrong instrument, and the mystery of life flees from them screaming. In the end they are none the wiser; they cannot see red for what it is. And above them the heavens are filled with invisible stars, hiding their red hearts like rubies in the black night of eternity.

About the Author, Arinn Dembo:

Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer since 1991. Hundreds of her articles, interviews, essays and reviews of all popular media have appeared in print, web and broadcast formats over the past twenty years, in venues including The New York Review of Science Fiction, Cnet, Video Picks, On-line Music Review, Computer Gaming World, and Entertainment Tomorrow. Her award-winning short fiction and poetry have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Vancouver Courier, The Manitoba Humanist, H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, and many anthologies. She is currently the Lead Writer of Kerberos Productions, a video game development studio in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Dembo's full-length science fiction novel The Deacon's Tale was published by Kthonia Press in october 2011. Kthonia will also publish Monsoon, a collection of short fiction and poetry, in May 2012. Seeing Red, a collection of critical essays and fiction, will be released in June of the same year.


  1. Wow! What a great post. Thank you and welcome to the Grip, Arinn.

  2. Thank you for this, Arinn! Is it in your forthcoming red, Seeing Red?

  3. Actually, I wrote this specifically for this group, but I suppose it might make a nice forward to the book. Maybe I'll slip it in. :)

  4. We're honoured that you wrote this piece exclusively for the Grip. I look forward to seeing the book. Mixed-genre collections of fic and non-fic seem rare.

  5. Greetings, Arinn,

    Thank you so much for joining us with this gorgeous offering. You've rounded out our week perfectly.

    I'm off to put your novel on my "to-read" list. If this is they way you write, I want more.


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