A STUDY IN PURPLE AND RED

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 07, 2009
STUDY IN PURPLE AND RED
Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

Non-purple story from the newspaper:

This happened a hundred years ago. It was told to a journalist by a man who was very old but remembering being on a trail ride bringing cattle up from Texas. The story in the newspaper was only bare bones.

Many of the hands were just boys: pushouts, throwaways, runaways, and so on. The storyteller had left his family with permission — searching for adventure. It was a life with a lot of exposure, not much sleep, hard work in the saddle all day, and monotonous food but a lot of it. That’s the way people ate in those days anyway: beans, biscuits, and beef. Lucky to have so much fresh beef.

A boy became ill on the trip. He had come West because he had tuberculosis (the AIDS of the times) and the doctor had told him he’d have a chance to heal up if he could get where it was high and dry. But he didn’t heal. He fell out of his saddle.

The trail boss took him into town and got him a hotel room. The town doc looked and said he would die soon. The trail boss went back to the herd and said, “Someone has got to stay with this boy while he dies.” And he looked right at the man telling the story. So he went to the hotel room and the sick boy couldn’t sleep unless he lay down beside him and let the sick boy put his head on the storyteller’s arm. So he did that.

In a day or so the sick boy began to hemorrhage from his lungs badly. The storyteller said he got newspapers and put them all over the bed and the floor next to the bed because there was so much blood it was on everything. Then a man from the town came and said the storytelling boy had not slept for days and he would watch for a while. So the storytelling boy went into the next room and slept until the man from town came and said, “It won’t be long now.”

The dying boy asked the storyteller to lie down with him so he could put his head on the storyteller’s arm again. So that’s what they did. In few hours the boy died. The man from town put his coat and hat on the story-telling boy and sent him out with a dollar to get himself a drink.

That was the whole story. It happened in Montana.
* * * * * * *

The bare bones are very effective. Now I’ll try a purple version.

* * * * * * *

When the big herds of cattle began to come up from Texas, trekking across the land so recently haunted by Indian warriors on horseback, the country was only beginning to heal from the great breaking that was the War Between the States. Families had been shattered, the fathers never returning, so that boys had to become the head of the family for a mourning mother and lost little children. Some just lit out for the territories, imagining space under the stars, an infinite possibility, a future that could not be predicted, unlike remaining yoked to the drudgery of small farms or machinery-ridden towns, a pall of coal smoke draping over the roofs and stinking streets.

I was one of those boys.

There was another, about my age. We were assigned the “drag” which meant riding behind the herd behind the dung-besmirched rumps of the cranky cows. It wasn’t bad on wet or grassy days, but when we were raising a dust the other boy would fall to coughing. We shared the night hawk job, so didn’t have much chance to talk — just a few words when one rose from his bedroll and the other sank into his. But I gathered that he’d left his damp tenement home where people were crowded so tightly that they shared the air they breathed, because he had developed trouble with his lungs. They said that out West the air was thin and dry so that the wind could cure his chest.

I figured he had the consumption. And I was right.

One day he fell off his horse. I went to him but he wasn’t really conscious. His face was white as milk and each cheek had a red spot on the boss of the bone, as though a hot coin had lain there long enough to burn.

When the chuckwagon caught up, we loaded him in. That evening the trail boss said, “We’ll take him into town.” So he put that boy in front of him on the saddle, since he was still barely conscious and not able to hang on. “Someone’s got to come along and see him to the Other Side,” he said and looked straight at me.

I knew what he meant. When we got him to a small hotel and the trail boss paid for the room, he also arranged for food to be brought up, mostly for me. The bed was a big brass one with a lot of bounce. I didn’t ask questions. I just lay down by my friend and he rolled over to put his tousled head on my dusty shoulder. Our faces were empearled with tears, but the jewel on his lips was ruby. He was coughing up blood.

For two more days I lay there, only getting up for the necessary, like food. No one from the herd came back again. I thought I might not see them again. But I didn’t quite have the heart to leave this boy my age alone to die there in that bouncy brass bed. Then he began to truly hemorrhage and the blood spilled out of him in sheets. I went down to the front and asked for newspapers and luckily there were lots because there was a newspaper office in town, even though everyone already knew everything that happened. I spread the papers over the bed and even the floor but the bedding and my shirts were soaked with scarlet which dried and caked to brown.

Then a man from the town came. Just an ordinary man. He said, “Son, you’ve not had sleep for days. Go in the next room and sleep. I’ll wake you later.”

All my dreams were sad and full of sunsets, as red and streaked as the room next door, as red as the lungs of a butchered beef. When the man came back to wake me up, he said, “It won’t be long now.” And it wasn’t.

He spoke at the end. He said, “Could you put your arm under my head again? It’s such a comfort to me to be held that way.” I felt a bit uncomfortable about acting as his mother, but how could I refuse? The town man, who had no blood on him, said, “Soon he’ll be in the arms of Jesus.”

I didn’t stay for the burial since I didn’t think it would be much anyway. It took me a few days to catch up with the herd, but cows don’t move all that fast. There was a new boy riding drag and night-hawking. He looked to be in the pink of health and I decided right off that I liked him. It was years before I could enjoy those bright red Western sunsets again.

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