Shen lay very still, except when he coughed. His whole body quivered in pain, and blood came out of his mouth. He was small, even for a six-year-old, and it was hard to watch him in so much pain. But his father, Yongrui, would not have money for a doctor until next week. So Yongrui and his wife Huiliang could do nothing but watch their child. And pray.
“Tell me about the dragon painting,” Shen whispered, so quietly that the night threatened to eat his words whole.
“An artist painted a dragon, so big and so beautiful,” said Yongrui. “When he finished the dragon’s eyes, the dragon was so perfect that it crawled off the page and flew into the forest.”
“Tell me about the painting of the river.”
“There was a drought in a village, and all the people wept because of their thirst. A traveler visited the town, a brush painter with a magic brush. He painted a large, black river on the soil, from one end of the town to another. And then the river gave water to the people and their crops.”
“Tell me—” and then Shen coughed and would not stop coughing. Blood spattered onto the cloth in Yongrui’s hand. Huiliang wrapped Shen in her arms and held him until he calmed. A few hours before, Yongrui had given Shen a blessing for the sick, but the boy had not improved.
After several minutes Shen spoke again. His voice was like a broken reed. “Tell me about the painter who was very old.”
This was not a story Yongrui wanted to tell, for it was full of not only wonder, but also sadness. But he would not deny Shen a story. “There was a painter who was very old. And so he painted a magnificent landscape. And then he walked into the landscape and was never seen again.”
Shen gave a small smile and closed his eyes. “You should paint something for me.”
“No. A tree. I like your trees.”
And so Huiliang stayed with Shen while Yongrui went to the other room. Yongrui gathered his four treasures: a bamboo brush, an ink stick, an ink stone, and rice paper. He cleared the table, moving work papers, receipts, and toys onto the floor. He positioned a single piece of rice paper on the table and prepared his ink. Yongrui looked to the other room, where his son lay coughing. Then he picked up his brush and began to paint.
By trade, Yongrui was a chemical engineer, yet his true love was painting. He had recently reread the book of Genesis, and so for the past months, in the evenings after work, Yongrui had painted the trees of the Garden of Eden. Today he would paint the tree of life. For a moment he considered painting the other tree. But Yongrui had no reason to paint the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Shen knew plenty of sorrow, pain, and suffering. He needed the tree of life. He needed youth and health.
Sometimes Yongrui envied the artists of the West. Their painters could spend weeks playing with oils, adding layer upon layer, fixing and changing things. But you had only one chance in a brush painting. If the ink pooled in the wrong spot or the angle of a branch was wrong, it could not be fixed. The form did not allow for it. In brush painting, you would start and finish a painting in a handful of minutes. A large landscape painting could take longer, but Yongrui had not been trained to paint landscapes. He painted bamboo and magnolia blossoms, fish and other animals. And lately he painted trees.
Yongrui painted for hours, discarding piece after piece of rice paper, each containing a single, imperfect tree. His wife entered from the other room. Huiliang waited to speak until he finished the current tree. In this one the strokes were perfect, the ink controlled. The branches of the tree were slender yet strong. He had used a single stroke of paint for each piece of fruit, and managed to express fullness, ripeness. But something about the composition was wrong. Maybe it needed more white space. And there was still something about the fruit that he had not captured.
“Do not use all of your best Xuan paper,” said Huiliang.
“It is said to last for a thousand years.”
“Then why do you waste it? You have other, less expensive paper.”
Yongrui looked at the pile of painted papers, dozens of trees that he planned to discard. He wanted to say that perhaps he would paint something that would be worth saving for a thousand years. But instead he looked at his wife’s tired face.
“You should sleep for a few hours,” said Yongrui. “I will sit by Shen.”
Yongrui cleaned his brush and hung it to dry. Then he sat on a stool next to Shen’s bed. The boy looked so small. Yongrui held his hand, and when Shen coughed, he wiped the blood off his face. As the hours of the night passed, he prayed to God.
For most of Yongrui’s life he had not known God, but then he attended university in the United States. He met the missionaries and joined the church. When he returned to mainland China he married Huiliang. A few years after their marriage, they took a trip to Hong Kong so the missionaries could teach her and she could be baptized. A year later they made a second trip to Hong Kong to be sealed in the temple.
Two years later, Shen was born. They had been saving money so that when Shen turned eight they could take him to Hong Kong to be baptized, but last week Yongrui had spent their entire savings on medicine for Shen. And now Shen was worse.
He knew that prayers were not always answered the way one desired, but still he pleaded with God to spare his son’s life.
After a few hours Huiliang woke and came to him. “I looked at your paintings. Your trees are getting much better. You should paint more.”
“But you should get more sleep.”
“No. I will sit with Shen. He needs you to paint him a tree.”
Yongrui returned to the table in the other room. He sat tall in his chair, setting his feet flat on the ground. He breathed deeply and cleared his mind. Brush painting required focus: seeing nothing in the world but your tools and the task at hand.
He took his black ink stick, the one with a gold dragon on the side. His ink stone had a cavity for water, and he put the end of the ink stick in the water to wet it, then lifted the stick to the main surface of the stone. He moved the stick in a circle, pressing it against the hard surface to grind the ink. You could buy liquid ink, and sometimes Yongrui did, but he preferred to grind his own. The best ink sticks had their own distinct smells and different qualities of blackness. And by controlling the amount of water, you could make the ink thick for a deep, glossy look, or thin to the point that it was almost translucent on the page.
He moved the ink stick in circle after circle, occasionally adding more water. He would start with a thick ink; he could thin it later. There was only the stone, the ink, his hand, and movement. After about twenty minutes he had the amount of ink he desired.
Yongrui set a paperweight on top of a sheet of Xuan paper. Perhaps if he hadn’t bought this paper he would have money for a doctor. But there was no use dwelling on that now. He chose a bamboo brush with an autumn rabbit’s hair and contemplated the tree of life.
While in the United States, Yongrui had taken a class in which he had read a legend about Adam, the father of man. When Adam was dying, his son Seth went back to the garden to seek the tree of life. But Seth was not allowed to approach the tree or bring back any life-saving fruit or oil. And eventually Adam died. But mankind was promised the delights of the tree at the end of time.
Yet when Yongrui read the scriptures it seemed that God had not saved the tree of life only for the end of time. In the New Testament it implied that people were allowed to approach the tree of life, not for the gift of life eternal, but for healing and renewed strength.
Yongrui dipped the rabbit hair in the ink and then moved his brush to the page. He painted his strokes with rapid movement, forming a trunk and branches and leaves. He thinned his ink with water and added more strokes to the page, then more water, and switched to a smaller brush. The bamboo brush danced from the ink in the stone to the paper, all four of the jewels working in perfect harmony.
Yongrui finished the last few strokes of the painting. He set down his brush and gazed upon the tree of life.
The tree felt balanced, poised. One of the branches seemed to reach to the viewer, offering a piece of fruit. The fruits in this painting were small, almost translucent, and ethereal. And the painting held extra space, an openness that made the composition complete and whole.
The tree was perfect. In the decades he had spent painting, he had never painted anything like it. This painting truly deserved the most expensive rice paper in China.
For the first time that night, Yongrui took out his chop: his seal with his name. He pressed the seal into his pot of vibrant red cinnabar paste, then pressed it onto the page. He set aside the seal and contemplated the picture.
“Yongrui!” called Huiliang from the other room.
Yongrui stood abruptly. His chair fell to the floor. He rushed to the other room.
Huiliang had a giant smile on her face. Shen was sitting up in his bed, on his own, without anyone’s help.
“Father! I’m better.” There was no scratch in his voice, no sign of the fierce cough that had plagued him just minutes before. His skin had lost its pallid look.
Shen stood. Yongrui embraced his son and his wife. As they held each other, Yongrui led the family in a prayer of joyful gratitude to their God.
In the other room, the branches of the tree of life swayed in the wind and the fruit of the tree ripened.