The Taste of Purple

by Steven C. Levi


Targor-Faced Harry was the kind of man no honest colonist would have anything to do with. He was not a man to be trusted. It wasn’t that he had a rude temperament or cared little for the natural rights of men, women or children; rather he had an unbelievable propensity for intoxicating elixirs. On Earth, he might have been called a drunk. On Cerebrus, he was called a drunk. Other words frequently used to describe him included sot, juicer, lush and sponge. There were other terms as well, but those could not be printed here or in the Cerebrus Chronicle, the infrequent publication of the English Petroleum Company that was more propaganda than news.

Targor-faced Harry wasn’t his real name, of course. He was just one of the many colonists who had come to Cerebrus “nameless.” This did not mean they had never had last names, it just meant that only the colonial service had their family name on file. Like the French Foreign Legion in the previous century, anyone who signed on the dotted line became a new person.

English Petroleum didn’t care who you were; they only wanted to know that you would be willing to make them a profit. Space may have been the last frontier, but the greed that was shaping the last frontier had been around since the first.

In Harry’s case, his nickname was actually a double-edged pun. First, he had an allegedly-ugly face which had not been seen in its entirety since he had emigrated to Cerebrus. Second, his face, had a remarkable resemblance to that of the targor, an indigenous species on Cerebrus that looked as though it was a cross between a horse and bear. The targor had hair which hung from its pate so heavily that any facial structure was obscured. Harry’s face was also hidden by a mat of hair, that of both the pate and face.

While it could never be said that Harry lacked for employment on Cerebrus, it could not be said that he was diligent in his trade either. He was, to all accounts, a drifter, a derelict who had somehow convinced the colonial organizers that he was of hale body and stout spirit and would thus be an asset to any colony to which he was assigned.

However, shortly after his arrival, it became apparent that what he had probably told the colony officials was that he was of “ale” body. It was also suggested that he had told no lie when he had further stated that he was of “stout” spirit as well. Indeed, he was of such stout spirit that he was always in search of any drink wherever he happened to be at the moment.

Harry, like a growing number of bachelors in the colonies scattered along the outer edge of the sulfur plain, took to being a drifter because there wasn’t much else he could do. While life inside the climate-controlled geodesic domes was pleasant, it was reserved for families first and single women second.

Bachelors were last on the list for a berth and usually ended up in barrack-style housing. Usually this didn’t last long. Every time a building went up and he looked like the bachelors would get their own quarters, a new ship load of settlers — with their families — would arrive leaving Harry and his brethren in cramped quarters. So the men drifted, from one geodesic camp to the next, looking work and a place to spend the night.

But the nomadic life did offer Harry foraging opportunities. He made his living, if that was what it could be called, by doing odd jobs that no one else wanted to do, and when times were particularly tough, by living off the land — which no one believed it was possible to do.

While winter might find him shoveling snow off the geodesic domes in one colony, the next summer he might be wandering in whatever direction he chose, from outpost to outpost in search of work and inebriating spirits, though not necessarily in that order.

But a change came over Targor-Faced Harry during his second year on Cerebrus. Once his propensity for alcohol became common knowledge, his sources went dry. This “dry,” however, was of the same sense that a watering hole becomes full of dust as opposed to the definition of the quality of a glass of wine which becomes dry when it has little sugar or sweetness. Further, because he was clearly not in control of his faculties when he was drinking, fewer and fewer colonists were willing to weather an evening of his antics once he began to tipple.

Thus, by the third year of his residence, Harry had been told in many more ways than one that he had best mend his lifestyle for there would be no more elixir from the colonists. Harry, in an understandable funk, was replete with remorse and promised to refrain from drinking, a pledge that lasted less than a dozen hours before he was going through the DTs and walking about in a sign sandwich which read “ One Last Beer for Old Time’s Sake.”

No one took him seriously as no one wanted to remember him for “old time’s sake.” They wanted him to reform and become a productive member of the colony. Wags among the sober were quick to point out that Harry, a punster of ingenious proportion, might very well have been referring to a vintage Japanese rice wine when he spoke of “old time’s sake.”

In any case, the colonists on Cerebrus, separately and in unison, refused to allow any elixir of intoxicating quality to be within the reach, sight or smelling range of Targor-Faced Harry. Firmly convinced that the only real cure for an alcoholic was to sweat the poison out of his soul and give his mind another vocation, everyone did their share. But any cure, alas, is only as a good as the individual. With Harry, everyone wondered just how long he could stay on the proverbial wagon.

Once he had recovered from the DTs, however temporary that was, he was allowed to continue his peripatetic perambulations in search of work. But it was made clear by English Petroleum that anyone who provided Harry with so much as a thimbleful of any elixir other than water, coffee, tea or soft drink, would be subject to fine and imprisonment.

Somehow, even the Basin Riders got the message. Though they could have cared less what English Petroleum dictated, they understood that a reformed drunk was better than a stumbling one and Targor-Faced Harry, for the first time in four decades of alcohol-warped existence, was forced to face day-to-day life without a crutch that came in a bottle, can or plastic container.

It was not easy, it should be added, and Harry was a brute to be near. He cursed and stomped and yowled but no one was interested in setting him back on the path to self-degradation and themselves to the holding cell at Colony I. So Harry was left to his own devices, to wander and work without the benefit of spiritual sustenances — with the accent on the adjective in the phrase.

So it came to pass, to use a Biblical phrase, that on a fateful day Targor-Faced Harry met Bandersnatch George, another denizen of Cerebrus who eschewed a last name. Both men were refugees from Earth for different reasons, neither of them particularly honorable, and both men were content to be referred to by first name only.

While Cerebrus may have been a civilized planet — with the notable exception of Basin Riders which English Petroleum had sworn to eradicate — it was not unusual to find among its colonists those who felt more and more comfortable the further from the long arm of Earth’s law enforcement establishment they happened to be.

Sitting beside a camp fire in the pitch-black night, both men were gnawing on a cooked rabbit, proof as to the success of George’s snares and wrist slingshot. George, relaxing against his targor, happened to be talking of the Gelatin Sea, a large body of water that many of the English Petroleum bush pilots had seen. Few men had visited the Gelatin Sea; some Basin Riders and Bandersnatch George being the total.

“I tell you,” George said as he wiped his lips with his bandanna, “that the waters of that Sea taste purple.”

“What do you mean ‘purple?’ How can something taste purple?”

“Damned if I know. I don’t know how else to explain it. The water tastes purple.”

“You mean purple, like the color?”

“Yeah. You know another purple?”

“Naw. How can water taste purple?”

“Well, it does. You dip a cup into the Sea and drink it. Then you taste purple.”

“Purple?”

“Purple.” George got up and went into the darkness where Harry could hear him rummaging for more firewood.

“Now let me get this straight,” Harry was trying desperately to understand what George was saying and not sure that he wasn’t being joshed. “You put a cup into the Gelatin Sea and then you drink it and the water tastes purple?”

“That’s right. It tastes pretty sulfurous too. That’s because of all the rivers leaking sulfur into the ocean. That’s why they call it the Gelatin Sea by the way, near the shore the water is real thick with sulfur. That’s why they call it the Gelatin Sea.”

“How about further out?”

“Haven’t been further out. I waded in to my armpits and the water was quite a bit thinner there. Saw some big fish-type animals jumping out of the water so I assume further out it’s thinner still.”

“Purple?”

“Purple. Let me give you kind of an example. Remember when you were a kid in school...”

“I don’t ever remember being that young.”

“Neither do I. Remember when you had a science experiment in class and the teacher had you sniff an onion while she had you taste a pear.”

“Sort of.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t remember, OK? Why don’t you just tell me?”

“Well, you smelled the onion and ate the pear and you probably tasted onion even though you knew you were eating pear.”

“Sounds OK to me.”

“Well, the Gelatin Sea is like that. It tastes purple. You drink it and it tastes purple.”

“What happens when you look at the water in the sunlight, like in a clear glass? Does it look purple?”

“No. It tastes purple even if you boil it.”

“Purple?”

“Purple.”

“Now, George, seeing as I’ve got nothing special to do till snow time, I’ve a mind to walk to the Gelatin Sea just to check this out.”

“Well, if you think I’m joshing you, Harry, forget it. The Gelatin Sea tastes purple.”

“If it don’t, George, I’m going to come lookin’ to say nasty things about you for the next year.”

“You won’t have to, Harry, ’cause the water tastes purple.”

Harry wanted to see for himself so the next day he set out for the Gelatin Sea. It wasn’t an easy trip by any means. Summertime temperatures on Cerebrus hovered at 120 degrees and there was very little shade, most of the scrub on Cerebrus being no higher than six or seven feet and very scraggly. It was so hot that sweat was never seen on human skin. The instant the perspiration appeared, it evaporated.

Harry was on foot, which made travel much slower than by targor. But that was fine with Harry. Even though he was named after a targor, he would have nothing to do with the animals. They were too close in visual kinship to bear, a beast Harry had learned early in Alaska, on Earth, to avoid.

Thus he beat feet the entire 250 miles to the Gelatin Sea, sustained by snared animals, primarily rabbits, and the occasional water hole which were both easy to find and pure in content. He was forced to live on snared rabbits rather than use a wrist sling, it is significant to add, because he was still recovering from his 40-year alcoholic binge and his hands were not steady enough guarantee a sure shot.

Additionally, after fighting the heat for three days in a row, it suddenly occurred to him that a shave and a haircut could certainly cool him down and one evening he hacked away at the stringy hair that fell across his face, expecting to do a better job when he returned to civilization.

Arriving at the Gelatin Sea, Harry felt none of the exhilaration that an explorer might experience in being the first to stand on a spot. To the contrary, Harry was only concerned with one thing: to taste the waters of the Gelatin Sea to ascertain if indeed the waters did taste “purple.”

Just importantly it should be added, though obvious considering Harry’s base desires, was to discover if there were any additional qualities of the water that made it inebriating. In the former he was pleased; in the latter he was disappointed.

In actual fact, Harry was a bit concerned as he stood armpit deep in the Gelatin Sea. The climb out of the pit of alcoholic inebriation had been so painful that he was not sure he wished to tumble back into the well. With great trepidation, he took a sip, half-hoping the water would be an inebriant, and half-praying it would not.

From his first sip of water it was clear that Bandersnatch George had not lied. The water did indeed taste purple. How it happened he didn’t know. It wasn’t as if a sudden curtain of deep purple descended over his eyes or sparks of that specific spread of the spectrum exploded from the back of his optic nerves. The water just tasted purple. There was no question about it. When he tasted the water it was unquestionably purple.

Of course it tasted sulfurous as well, but that could not be helped. Standing in the Gelatin Sea up to his waist in water of the same translucence he had always known the elixir to be and looking down, he could see the thick layers of sulfur wafting like clouds around his knees and ankles. He did see some smaller fish, fry would be a better word for them, darting in and out of the sulfur layers, but for the most part that was all he saw on the bottom.

He tasted the water a second time and again he tasted purple, a rich blend of deep purple with no other color intruding.

“No other color?” thought George suddenly. Five minutes earlier he would not have even had such a thought. Now it was a logical possibility. If the Gelatin Sea tasted purple, might not some of the rivers leading to the Sea taste, perhaps, red and others blue? After all, purple was a combination of red and blue. But would taste be the same as with color? Red and blue made purple with paint; did they do the same with the taste of water?

All the way back to Dome I, with a precious bottle of this new elixir, Targor-Faced Harry pondered the spectrum of possibilities. When he arrived, he suddenly discovered that there were other possibilities to consider as well. One of the colonists, who had been a soft-drink bottler in earthly life, tasted of the novelty and suggested that this could be a marketable commodity. Harry was unenthusiastic until the colonist suggested a joint partnership — and an equitable one at that. Harry was so stunned with the honesty that he immediately agreed.

Thereafter Harry settled into his duties soberly and conscientiously. His end of the business bargain was to drive a water-tank wagon to the Gelatin Sea during the summer and return with enough liquid to be bottled and transported on each October cargo flight to Earth. His partner made the marketing connections through his contacts on Earth.

To the shock of everyone on Cerebrus, Harry steadfastly avoided any further use of alcohol. The financial incentive offered by bottled purple turned out to be far more powerful than any drive for bottled elixirs.

Further, Harry took to bathing frequently — a change in hygiene his partner heartily applauded — and shaving on a daily basis. As it turned out, he was not targor-faced at all, but rather rugged and wrinkled in a distinguished sort of way. A punster unchanged, Harry, now known simply as “Harry,” credited his change of lifestyle to being “on the wagon,” which, in this case, was the “Purple Haze” as he had named the tank wagon he drove from Dome I to the Gelatin Sea four times during the summer months.

He also came to be known as the “Admiral of the Purple.” This pleased Harry to no end as it was also a pun. On Earth, an “Admiral of the Red” was the pleasant and humorous sobriquet for an individual of class who tippled more than his or her fair share of red wine. But, in the case of Harry, he was now an Admiral of a different color — and a different vintage.

Several months after Harry had formed his bottling company, he ran into Bandersnatch George. Harry was so excited about his miraculous cure that he almost forgot to thank George for telling him of the Gelatin Sea and the water that tasted purple. George just smiled.

“It’s good to know you’re ‘Admiral of the Purple’,” George said laughing. “I was once a slusher myself. I knew what you needed. Even if you didn’t make a dime on the purple water, I was betting you’d sweat out a lifetime of booze on the 250-mile hike to the Gelatin Sea.”


Copyright © 2006 by Steven C. Levi

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