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Artwork by Wanda Orme

Read a Short Story about Pre-Atmosphere Earth, Selected by Björk

The Icelandic artist turned to the Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino for his futuristic legend, Without Colours

Lead ImageArtwork by Wanda Orme

For the latest issue of AnOther Magazine, we asked Björk to compile an anthology of texts that have inspired her. Drawing on the research undertaken for her upcoming show at The Shed, Björk’s Cornucopia, which premiers this month, the Icelandic artist gathers together the work of some of the most important post-feminist thinkers of the age and puts her own determinedly maverick and truthful stamp on the anthology. Björk has compiled an agenda for hope and reconnection, accompanied here by a dedicated series of imagery created by artist Wanda Orme

Each of the 12 stories in Italo Calvino’s ingenious sci-fi collection Cosmicomics twists a mathematical formula or scientific concept into a fantastical fable. The Italian author imaginatively traces the evolution of the universe from the big bang and on through millennia, witnessed by a shape-shifting figure known as ‘Qfwfq’, who appears as a dinosaur, a gatherer of moon-milk and a lovelorn mollusc among other guises. Without Colours imagines the world’s shift from flinty grey shadow into kaleidoscopic colour.

Before forming its atmosphere and its oceans, the Earth must have resembled a grey ball revolving in space. As the Moon does now; where the ultraviolet rays radiated by the Sun arrive directly, all colours are destroyed, which is why the cliffs of the lunar surface, instead of being coloured like Earth’s, are of a dead, uniform grey. If the Earth displays a varicoloured countenance, it is thanks to the atmosphere, which filters that murderous light.

A bit monotonous – Qfwfq confirmed – but restful, all the same. I could go for miles and miles at top speed, the way you can move where there isn’t any air about, and all I could see was grey upon grey. No sharp contrasts: the only really white white, if there was any, lay in the centre of the Sun and you couldn’t even begin to approach it with your eyes; and as far as really black black is concerned, there wasn’t even the darkness of night, because all the stars were constantly visible. Uninterrupted horizons opened before me with mountain chains just beginning to emerge, grey mountains, above grey rocky plains; and though I crossed continent after continent I never came to a shore, because oceans and lakes and rivers were still lying underground somewhere or other.

You rarely met anyone in those days: there were so few of us! To survive with that ultraviolet you couldn’t be too demanding. Above all the lack of atmosphere asserted itself in many ways; you take meteors for example: they fell like hail from all the points of space, because then we didn’t have the stratosphere where nowadays they strike, as if on a roof, and disintegrate. Then there was the silence: no use shouting! Without any air to vibrate, we were all deaf and dumb. The temperature? There was nothing around to retain the Sun’s heat: when night fell it was so cold you could freeze stiff. Fortunately, the Earth’s crust warmed us from below, with all those molten minerals which were being compressed in the bowels of the planet. The nights were short (like the days: the Earth turned around faster); I slept huddled up to a very warm rock; the dry cold all around was pleasant. In other words, as far as the climate went, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t so badly off.

Among the countless indispensable things we had to do without, the absence of colours – as you can imagine – was the least of our problems; even if we had known they existed, we would have considered them an unsuitable luxury. The only drawback was the strain on your eyes when you had to hunt for something or someone, because with everything equally colourless no form could be clearly distinguished from what was behind it or around it. You could barely make out a moving object: a meteor fragment as it rolled, or the serpentine yawning of a seismic chasm, or a lapillus being ejected from a volcano. 

That day I was running through a kind of amphitheatre of porous, spongy rocks, all pierced with arches beyond which other arches opened; a very uneven terrain where the absence of colour was streaked by distinguishable concave shadows. And among the pillars of these colourless arches I saw a kind of colourless flash running swiftly, disappearing, then reappearing further on: two flattened glows that appeared and disappeared abruptly; I still hadn’t realised what they were, but I was already in love and running, in pursuit of the eyes of Ayl. 

I went into a sandy wasteland: I proceeded, sinking down among dunes which were always somehow different and yet almost the same. Depending on the point from which you looked at them, the crests of the dunes seemed the outlines of reclining bodies. There you could almost make out the form of an arm folded over a tender breast, with the palm open under a resting cheek; farther on, a young foot with a slender big toe seemed to emerge. As I stopped to observe those possible analogies, a full minute went by before I realised that, before my eyes, I didn’t have a sandy ridge but the object of my pursuit.

She was lying, colourless, overcome with sleep, on the colourless sand. I sat down nearby. It was the season – as I know now – when the ultraviolet era was approaching its end on our planet; a way of life about to finish was displaying its supreme peak of beauty. Nothing so beautiful had ever run over the Earth, as the creature I had before my eyes.

Ayl opened her eyes. She saw me. At first I believe she couldn’t distinguish me – as had happened to me, with her – from the rest of that sandy world; then she seemed to recognise in me the unknown presence that had pursued her and she was frightened. But in the end she became aware of our common substance and there was a half-timid, half-smiling palpitation in the look she gave me, which caused me to emit a silent whimper of happiness.

I started conversing, all in gestures. “Sand. Not-sand,” I said, first pointing to our surroundings, then to the two of us.

She nodded yes, she had understood.

“Rock. Not-rock,” I said, to continue that line of reasoning. It was a period in which we didn’t have many concepts at our disposal: to indicate what we two were, for example, what we had in common and what was different, was not an easy undertaking.

“I. You-not-I.” I tried to explain, with gestures.

She was irked. “Yes. You-like-me, but only so much,” I corrected myself. 

She was a bit reassured, but still suspicious.

“I, you, together, run run,” I tried to say.

She burst out laughing and ran off.

We ran along the crest of the volcanoes. In the noon greyness Ayl’s flying hair and the tongues of flame that rose from the craters were mingled in a wan, identical fluttering of wings.

“Fire. Hair,” I said to her. “Fire same hair.”

She seemed convinced.

“Not beautiful?” I asked.

“Beautiful,” she answered.

The Sun was already sinking into a whitish sunset. On a crag of opaque rocks, the rays, striking sidelong, made some of the rocks shine.

“Stones there not same. Beautiful, eh?” I said.

“No,” she answered, and looked away.

“Stones there beautiful, eh?” I insisted, pointing to the shiny grey of the stones.

“No.” She refused to look.

“To you, I, stones there!” I offered her.

“No. Stones here!” Ayl answered and grasped a handful of the opaque ones. But I had already run ahead.

I came back with the glistening stones I had collected, but I had to force her to take them.

“Beautiful!” I tried to persuade her.

“No!” she protested, but she looked at them; removed now from the Sun’s reflections, they were opaque like the other stones; and only then did she say: “Beautiful!”

Night fell, the first I had spent not embracing a rock, and perhaps for this reason it seemed cruelly shorter to me. The light tended at every moment to erase Ayl, to cast a doubt on her presence, but the darkness restored my certainty she was there.

The day returned, to paint the Earth with grey; and my gaze moved around and didn’t see her. I let out a mute cry: “Ayl! Why have you run off?” But she was in front of me and was looking for me, too; she couldn’t see me and silently shouted: “Qfwfq! Where are you?” Until our eyesight darkened, examining that sooty luminosity and recognising the outline of an eyebrow, an elbow, a thigh.

Then I wanted to shower Ayl with presents, but nothing seemed to me worthy of her. I hunted for everything that was in some way detached from the uniform surface of the world, everything marked by a speckling, a stain. But I was soon forced to realise that Ayl and I had different tastes, if not downright opposite ones: I was seeking a new world beyond the pallid patina that imprisoned everything, I examined every sign, every crack (to tell the truth something was beginning to change: in certain points the colourlessness seemed shot through with variegated flashes); instead, Ayl was a happy inhabitant of the silence that reigns where all vibration is excluded; for her anything that looked likely to break the absolute visual neutrality was a harsh discord; beauty began for her only where the greyness had extinguished even the remotest desire to be anything other than grey.

How could we understand each other? No thing in the world that lay before our eyes was sufficient to express what we felt for each other, but while I was in a fury to wrest unknown vibrations from things, she wanted to reduce everything to the colourless beyond of their ultimate substance.

A meteorite crossed the sky, its trajectory passing in front of the Sun; its fluid and fiery envelope for an instant acted as a filter to the Sun’s rays, and all of a sudden the world was immersed in a light never seen before. Purple chasms gaped at the foot of orange cliffs, and my violet hands pointed to the flaming green meteor while a thought for which words did not yet exist tried to burst from my throat:

“This for you! From me this for you, yes, yes, beautiful!”

At the same time I wheeled around, eager to see the new way Ayl would surely shine in the general transfiguration; but I didn’t see her: as if in that sudden shattering of the colourless glaze, she had found a way to hide herself, to slip off among the crevices in the mosaic.

“Ayl! Don’t be frightened, Ayl! Show yourself and look!”

But already the meteorite’s arc had moved away from the Sun, and the Earth was reconquered by its perennial grey, now even greyer to my dazzled eyes, and indistinct, and opaque, and there was no Ayl.

She had really disappeared. I sought her through a long throbbing of days and nights. It was the era when the world was testing the forms it was later to assume: it tested them with the material it had available, even if it wasn’t the most suitable, since it was understood that there was nothing definitive about the trials. Trees of smoke-coloured lava stretched out twisted branches from which hung thin leaves of slate. Butterflies of ash flying over clay meadows hovered above opaque crystal daisies. Ayl might be the colourless shadow swinging from a branch of the colourless forest or bending to pick grey mushrooms under grey clumps of bushes. A hundred times I thought I glimpsed her and a hundred times I thought I lost her again. From the wastelands I moved to the inhabited localities. At that time, sensing the changes that would take place, obscure builders were shaping premature images of a remote, possible future. I crossed a piled-up metropolis of stones; I went through a mountain pierced with passageways like an anchorite’s retreat; I reached a port that opened upon a sea of mud; I entered a garden where, from sandy beds, tall menhirs rose into the sky. 

The grey stone of the menhirs was covered with a pattern of barely indicated grey veins. I stopped. In the centre of this park, Ayl was playing with her female companions. They were tossing a quartz ball into the air and catching it.

Someone threw it too hard, the ball came within my reach, and I caught it. The others scattered to look for it; when I saw Ayl alone, I threw the ball into the air and caught it again. Ayl ran over; hiding, I threw the quartz ball, drawing Ayl further and further away. Finally I showed myself; she scolded me, then laughed; and so we went on, playing, through strange regions.

At that time the strata of the planet were laboriously trying to establish an equilibrium through a series of earthquakes. Every now and then the ground was shaken by one, and between Ayl and me crevasses opened across which we threw the quartz ball back and forth. These chasms gave the elements compressed in the heart of the Earth an avenue of escape, and now we saw outcroppings of rock emerge, or fluid clouds, or boiling jets spurt up.

As I went on playing with Ayl, I noticed that a gassy layer had spread over the Earth’s crust, like a low fog slowly rising. A moment before it had reached our ankles, and now we were in it up to our knees, then to our hips … At that sight, a shadow of uncertainty and fear grew in Ayl’s eyes; I didn’t want to alarm her, and so, as if nothing were happening, I went on with our game; but I, too, was anxious.

It was something never seen before: an immense fluid bubble was swelling around the Earth and completely enfolding it; soon it would cover us from head to foot, and who could say what the consequences would be?

I threw the ball to Ayl beyond a crack opening in the ground, but my throw proved inexplicably shorter than I had intended and the ball fell into the gap;the ball must have become suddenly very heavy; no, it was the crack that had suddenly yawned enormously, and now Ayl was far away, beyond a liquid, wavy expanse that had opened between us and was foaming against the shore of rocks, and I leaned from this shore, shouting: “Ayl, Ayl!” and my voice, its sound, the very sound of my voice spread loudly, as I had never imagined it, and the waves rumbled still louder than my voice. In other words: it was all beyond understanding. 

I put my hands to my deafened ears, and at the same moment I also felt the need to cover my nose and mouth, so as not to breathe the heady blend of oxygen and nitrogen that surrounded me, but strongest of all was the impulse to cover my eyes, which seemed ready to explode.

The liquid mass spread out at my feet had suddenly turned a new colour, which blinded me, and I exploded in an articulate cry which, a little later, took on a specific meaning: “Ayl! The sea is blue!”

The great change so long awaited had finally taken place. On the Earth now there was air, and water. And over that newborn blue sea, the Sun – also coloured – was setting, an absolutely different and even more violent colour. So I was driven to go on with my senseless cries, like: “How red the Sun is, Ayl! Ayl! How red!”

Night fell. Even the darkness was different. I ran looking for Ayl, emitting cries without rhyme or reason, to express what I saw: “The stars are yellow, Ayl! Ayl!”

I didn’t find her that night or the days and nights that followed. All around, the world poured out colours, constantly new, pink clouds gathered in violet cumuli which unleashed gilded lightning; after the storms long rainbows announced hues that still hadn’t been seen, in all possible combinations. And chlorophyll was already beginning its progress: mosses and ferns grew green in the valleys where torrents ran. This was finally the setting worthy of Ayl’s beauty; but she wasn’t there! And without her all this varicoloured sumptuousness seemed useless to me, wasted.

I ran all over the Earth, I saw again the things I had once known grey, and I was still amazed at discovering fire was red, ice white, the sky pale blue, the earth brown, the rubies were ruby-coloured, and topazes the colour of topaz, and emeralds emerald. And Ayl? With all my imagination I couldn’t picture how she would appear to my eyes.

I found the menhir garden, now green with trees and grasses. In murmuring pools red and blue and yellow fish were swimming. Ayl’s friends were still leaping over the lawn, tossing the iridescent ball; but how changed they were! One was blonde with white skin, one brunette with olive skin, one brown-haired with pink skin, one had red hair and was dotted with countless, enchanting freckles.

“Ayl!” I cried. “Where is she? Where is Ayl? What does she look like? Why isn’t she with you?”

Her friends’ lips were red, their teeth white, and then: tongues and gums were pink. Pink, too, were the tips of their breasts. Their eyes were aquamarine blue, cherry-black, hazel and maroon. 

“Why… Ayl…” they answered. “She’s gone… we don’t know…” and they went back to their game.

I tried to imagine Ayl’s hair and her skin, in every possible colour, but I couldn’t picture her; and so, as I looked for her, I explored the surface of the globe.

“If she’s not up here,” I thought, “that means she must be below,” and at the first earthquake that came along, I flung myself into a chasm, down down into the bowels of the Earth.

“Ayl! Ayl!” I called in the darkness. “Ayl, come see how beautiful it is outside!”

Hoarse, I fell silent. And at that moment Ayl’s voice, soft, calm, answered me. “Sssh. I’m here. Why are you shouting so much? What do you want?”

I couldn’t see a thing. “Ayl! Come outside with me. If you only knew… Outside…” 

“I don’t like it, outside…”

“But you, before…”

“Before was before. Now it’s different. All that confusion has come.”

I lied. “No, no. It was just a passing change of light. Like that time with the meteorite! It’s over now. Everything is the way it used to be. Come, don’t be afraid…” If she comes out, I thought, after the first moment of bewilderment, she’ll become used to the colours, she’ll be happy, and she’ll understand that I lied for her own good.


“Why should I tell you stories? Come, let me take you outside.”

“No, you go ahead. I’ll follow you.”

“But I’m impatient to see you again.”

“You’ll see me only the way I like. Go ahead and don’t turn around.”

The telluric shocks cleared the way for us. The strata of rock opened fanwise and we advanced through the gaps. I heard Ayl’s light footsteps behind me. One more quake and we were outside. I ran along steps of basalt and granite which turned like the pages of a book: already, at the end, the breach that would lead us into the open air was tearing wide, already the Earth’s crust was appearing beyond the gap, sunny and green, already the light was forcing its way toward us. There: now I would see the colours brighten also on Ayl’s face… I turned to look at her.

I heard her scream as she drew back toward the darkness, my eyes still dazzled by the earlier light could make out nothing, then the rumble of the earthquake drowned everything, and a wall of rock suddenly rose, vertically, separating us.

“Ayl! Where are you? Try to come over to this side, quickly, before the rock settles!” And I ran along the wall looking for an opening, but the smooth, grey surface was compact, without a fissure.

An enormous chain of mountains had formed at that point. As I had been projected outward, into the open, Ayl had remained beyond the rock wall, closed in the bowels of the Earth.

“Ayl! Where are you? Why aren’t you out here?” and I looked around at the landscape that stretched away from my feet. Then, all of a sudden, those pea-green lawns where the first scarlet poppies were flowering, those canary-yellow fields which striped the tawny hills sloping down to a sea full of azure glints, all seemed so trivial to me, so banal, so false, so much in contrast with Ayl’s person, with Ayl’s world, with Ayl’s idea of beauty, that I realised her place could never have been out here. And I realised, with grief and fear, that I had remained out here, that I would never again be able to escape those gilded and silvered gleams, those little clouds that turned from pale blue to pink, those green leaves that yellowed every autumn, and that Ayl’s perfect world was lost forever, so lost I couldn’t even imagine it any more, and nothing was left that could remind me of it, even remotely, nothing except perhaps that cold wall of grey stone.

Without Colours by Italo Calvino was first published in 1965 as part of the author’s collection of short stories, Cosmicomics. Copyright the estate of Italo Calvino.

This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of AnOther Magazine which is on sale internationally now.