True BlueNo true blue, only light’s illusions, its reflections and refractions through gases and molecules. Rayleigh scattering: sunlight passes through oxygen and nitrogen, scattering blue wavelengths. Blue, the last-named color after black, white, red, yellow, and green, doesn’t exist in ancient Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew texts. In The Odyssey, Homer refers to that iconic Aegean blue, that color named on paint swatches at Home Depot, that color I dove into each summer in Greece, my baptism in a blue so blue that I was a blue current underwater, like Amun, the blue-skinned Egyptian god in invisible flight through the sky, that blue? Homer calls the Aegean “a wine-dark sea.” Not blue.

But once the color entered our lexicon? Russian has no generic word: light blue is goluboy and dark blue is siniy. In the 12th century, the Vatican ruled that the Virgin Mary’s cloak had to be painted only with ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli mined in far off Afghanistan. In an 1888 letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh describes the sky and sea in exacting shades: “The dark blue sky is spotted with clouds of an even darker blue than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a lighter blue, like the bluish white of the Milky Way … the sea was very dark ultramarine…and on the dunes, a few bushes of Prussian blue.”

No true blue in nature. Blue jays, peacocks, snakes, herons, and frogs are only blue because light reflects and scatters across cellular nanolandscapes made of air sacs, fibers, matrices, coils, chemicals, and proteins. Iridescence, not pigment. The Blue Morpho butterfly, Morpho meneleus, is described by Vladimir Nabokov, novelist and lepidopterist, as a “shimmering light mirror.” Its wings, spanning six to eight inches, are its defense: the underside is dull brown, eye-spotted camouflage; the topside is covered in light reflecting scales for flight. When the Blue Morpho flies, flashing blue and brown? A blinding, invisible iridescence.

Sherwin Williams invents: Carefree, Aviary, Nautilus, Starry Night, Lupine, Liquid, Blue Mosque.

Blue note blue streak blue moon blue balls blue funk blue blazes blue blood.

Veins on my arms appear blue because blood absorbs red light, scattering blue light back to the surface of my skin. Once upon a blue moon, in the blackest of blues, I cut my veins with a gleaming, silver X-Acto knife. Pigment, not iridescence. Blue spills red.

Roosevelt drives his dilapidated red Ford F-150 onto my lawn and parks it near the oak tree that he is slowly cutting down, limb by limb by limb. Day four and still so much tree. He climbs up the twenty-foot extension ladder into the half-sheared, green canopy, a cigarette hanging from his lip, chainsaw under one arm. He leaves his truck radio on, full volume, one song on repeat for hours. Yesterday, Johnny Mathis crooning “Chances Are,” and today, Billie Holiday, oh sweet blessed Billie Holiday. I lie in the grass with my dog, HoneyBea, curled beside me, staring into Georgia’s wild blue yonder. Holiday’s voice is a blue wave of light moving through the pines and oaks. “Am I blue?” she sings. “Ain’t these tears, in these eyes telling you? How can you ask me, am I blue?” By the time Roosevelt ambles from the tree, Billie is quiet, the battery run down.

“The day is done when Billie’s done,” Roosevelt says, and asks me for a jump.

Photo used under CC.