Meili was an ordinary girl. Ordinary family, ordinary home, ordinary education, seemingly ordinary life. Every factor in her young life was ordinary, simple and plain. All except for one thing...
Living in the village of the Quin, one of the most famous and respected villages ever, life should have been easy for me. I should have been able to live a peaceful and happy life. My life should've been simple and plain, like the rest of me. Only... that's not how it went. Why? Well, that's the story for today.
I came home with shoulders slumped and my feet shuffling against the rough cobblestone pathway. Another failure today, I thought. For over a long time of three months, I had been trying to persuade the art teacher in town to allow me to take part in her lessons. But my family was extremely poor, as were most in this section of the neighborhood. Uptown held wonders for rich tourists, their pockets jangling with jade. They never wander to the poorer part of the village, with the people dressed in ragged fabrics and worn cloaks. Learning the arts were "only available" for richer folk, as the teacher had said. One look and she could easily tell I was not of noble birth. As her beady eyes took in my bare feet and my tattered clothing, her sharp nose began to wrinkle in disgust. Before I even finished my plea, she stopped me, saying "This art school is no place for shabby beggars like you. My teaching is prized among the highest rank of nobles. Where would you fit in?" her reproachful words stung, yet I had no defense. I quietly backed out of the school and walked back to my house, a tiny hovel made of mud and branches that me and my family call home.
As I entered our home, my mother exclaimed loudly "Where have you been?" As she stared at me with questioning eyes, I used the feeble excuse that had served me for the past few months, "I was with Loki" I said, naming my childhood friend. My mother nodded and went back to her work. Later, we ate our meager meal of the hard, plain rice that no one else wanted.
The next day, I woke as fresh as the morning dew. Just as an absentminded smile began to lift up the corners of my mouth, memories of the previous day flooded back to my mind. My spirits dropped, and I remembered how I had been turned away again from the art school. Yet I knew in my heart I would continue trying until my determinedness emptied.
I trudged across the room. My mother was already gone, since she would have to work all day in the rice fields. Slowly, I scraped the last few grains of rice that sat at the bottom of the pot. This small breakfast I ate on the way to the art school, hoping that my persistence would be enough to convince the teacher I was worthy enough to take her class.
So you can imagine my shock when I saw someone else in the room, holding herself with the authority of a teacher. Her expression seemed curious and questioning as I approached her.
"Are you Jin Lao Shi?" I asked timidly.
"No, little one. My name is Hui. Jin Lao Shi was in a terrible accident. Her spirit now walks the heavens." Hui smiled sadly at me.
"Oh", I whispered in a small voice. Although I had disliked her, I didn't wish her passing.
"What brings you here?" Hui asked kindly.
"I- its nothing," I murmured. A silence fell between us.
"You want to learn how to paint, don't you?" Hui questioned me gently.
"How did you know?"
"Before I took this job, Jin and I lived in the same area. She often complained loudly of a tiny, insignificant girl who crawled to her school to beg to be taught the arts."
I flushed indignantly and looked at my feet to cover my blush. "I do," I muttered, "Not that she ever gave me a chance."
"I'll teach you", Hui announced abruptly.
"What?" I was startled.
"I'll teach you", Hui repeated.
* * *
I'll admit it. I was shocked. I hadn't expected Hui to offer to teach me. Nonetheless, the next day after that, I began my lessons with Hui.
I lifted my brush, heavy with ink. I held it in the air, wondering what to do.
"Go ahead, Meili," Hui encouraged, "Paint." And so I did. Long sweeping strokes of the bristled brush filled my page. I painted randomly, allowing my spirit and instinct to move my hand. Several minutes later, a perfect impression of a bird in flight sat before me. I panted slightly, both pleased and surprised. I looked around for Hui, but she was with the other students' jobs. Looking around I saw a blank piece of paper, so I grabbed that and began painting another piece of paper, once again allowing my spirit and intuition to guide me.
"Those are some impressive paintings", I heard Hui murmur to me as I was finishing up my third drawing, "If I didn't know better, I would think that you have been already taught by a master."
"Thank you, Hui." I was pleased by her words, although I myself was mystified at how real my paintings looked.
"My students, it is time for you to return to your homes", Hui suddenly called out to the rest of the learners, then added in an undertone to me, "You better head home Meili, or else your mother might get worried about you." Silently, I agreed, and said my goodbyes to Hui. It was only when I was nearly home that I realized that I had never given my name to Hui.
The following day, I once again made my way to Hui's class. This time, Hui didn't even acknowledge me. She simply waved me to an empty easel and chair, and gestured for me to begin drawing. Once again, I picked the brush, dipped it in the ink, and began drawing. My brush flowed from side to side, covering my paper in dark ink strokes. This time, a delicate ju hua, or chrysanthemum flower, slowly appeared on my paper.
I was just completing the final touches of the curvy vines that surrounded the blossom when I noticed the eerie silence that filled the room. Turning, I saw 17 astonished faces gaping at me, their expressions everything from admiration to envy. Hui said in an urgent tone, "Alright, class. Time is up. Please gather all your possessions and prepare to leave." Mumbling and the scraping of chairs against the hard stone floor were heard as the students scrambled to collect their easels and bags.
"Meili, I would like you to stay just a little longer," Hui commented. "I would like to give you something." Wondering how she had figured out my name, I walked over to Hui until I faced her. She handed me a brush with delicate engravings on it. I stared at it in amazement. What nimble hands must have carved the wood! For the edge of the brush was covered in small cuts, a work of art in itself. I held it carefully in my two cupped hands, marveling at its simple beauty.
"This is for you, Meili. Know that it is no ordinary brush. For it has the ability to bring whatever you draw to life. Use this gift well, little one, for after these lessons I can no longer be at your side," With that last word, Hui began to change. Her cotton gray teacher's robes turned to a magnificent white and her hair was suddenly adorned with dark green jade. The simple black shoes she wore morphed into dainty slippers the color of the sky, each with a pearl at the tip. From her elegant arms now hung lovely silver bracelets and a shining pendant appeared at her throat. In her hand she held a glittering round object that sparkled in the sunlight. My eyes fastened onto her and in my awe-struck mind, a thought hit me. Hui must be a goddess, an immortal being who is as revered as the emperor. I gasped, and immediately dropped to the floor, pressing my forehead against the ground in a respected bow.
"Rise, my Meili," she commanded me gently. As I reluctantly rose, she beckoned me forward. She handed me the round object that she held in her hand. Up close, I could see that the object had a rather large dent in the center. It was an inkpot. "Ah, I see you are looking at my gift with uncertainty. This particular inkpot is part of the brush, as you can only paint art that comes to life using the ink or colors from this pot." Hui's eyes twinkled as she spoke to me.
Then she began to glow, a pulsing radiance that bathed the whole room with her dazzling light. "Good-bye, my little one; I can be with you no more. But do remember one thing; make sure you tell no one about this gift. If you want to paint a picture that will remain on the paper, paint an incomplete picture," her voice was beginning to fade, yet still held the urgent tone. Her whole body shimmered, as if it were merely a projection, and with a ripple, disappeared.
I stood there mesmerized by the wonder I had witnessed. Incredible, I thought, Hui really MUST be a goddess. I glanced at the brush in my hands; the only proof of what I saw had been real. I should try it, to see if it has the abilities that Hui claimed it would. So I grabbed a spare easel and ran home, my bare feet pressing into the hard stones with each step. I set down the easel in the middle of our "living room," and placed a few drops of precious black ink into the inkpot. Tentatively, I began using the brush to draw a long-tailed bird. As I finished drawing the last details, the thin rice paper began to ripple, slowly, but surely. Although Hui had already told me about the brush's abilities, it was still a shock to see the lovely green quetzal emerge from the flat surface and rise up into the air. After my amazement had lapsed, I opened the window to let it out. Then I sat back down and began drawing on another sheet of paper. This time, I drew a flower, a jasmine flower, to be precise. After I had finished the last petal on the jasmine, once again the paper began to ripple, and, as it had happened before, the jasmine flower began to slowly surface onto the table. When it had finished transpiring, I heard my mother opening the door.
Quickly, I hid the brush in a secure place. However, there was no time to hide the jasmine. So when my mother came in, she found me sitting on the chair, holding the jasmine flower.
"Oh, what a pretty jasmine you found, Meili", my mother said to me, "Where did you find it though?"
"Oh, well....." I was flustered, so I used my traditional lie:
"I was with Loki", I replied.
"Weren't you with her yesterday?" My mother was getting suspicious. "And what's that next to you, the brush thing?" I swung my head around. Dammit. The end of the brush still poked out from the stack of books I shoved it behind. I rubbed my forehead, trying to think of a reasonable excuse for my blunder.
"I- Well, I found it outside the art class in town. And it's pretty, so I didn't want to see it get thrown out,"
"Oh, alright. I suppose it's fine," my mother replied, still staring at me through slightly narrowed eyes when she left the room.
I breathed a sigh of relief. In truth... Well, you know the truth. Mother didn't look completely appeased, but it was good enough for now. I would have to think of a better excuse later. I put this on my mental to-do list.
"Meiii-liii", my mother called, drawing out the i's," It's time for dinner." She surprised me with a little red bean paste that when I asked her, she said her coworker in the field had given her some ingredients, so she whipped up a little bean paste when she got home.
After I had finished eating the plain rice that was for dinner, I curled up on my mattress, and went to sleep, hoping that it wasn't all just a dream.
In the morning, the first thing I saw when I woke up was the jasmine flower.
At first, I stared uncomprehendingly at the flower, wondering how something so delicate and white had gotten inside our small hut. Then I remembered all that had happened only yesterday.
"The brush!" I exclaimed. Hoping that it was still there, I raced to my secret hiding spot behind the stack of books. The [blank] brush laid next to them seemed to give off a glow inside. I exhaled a sigh of contentment that my magic brush was safe.
* * *
Using the magic brush, I began to paint marvelous pictures. A snowy white doe.
A red-tailed fox. A rabbit with soft brown fur. I told my mother that I had secretly learned art at the school. At first, she was both stunned and shocked. When I showed her my paintings, however, she began to smile, and praised my work. I sold these paintings and word spread about the little peasant girl who painted works so magnificent they appeared to be real. Never did I paint a complete picture. The doe was missing a tail, the fox only had three legs, and the rabbit had one ear. Despite my incomplete pictures, the rich folk began to swarm around my house, asking for paintings and giving me good money in return. Soon my mother and I became quite rich. She no longer worked in the rice fields, but began establishing a skill in making fancy rugs. While she weaved, I painted.
In no time at all, word of my skill came to the emperor, and he demanded my presence. When the messenger came to our house, he told us in a rather pompous voice, "The Huan Di (meaning 'King' in our language) wishes to see you. You shall come tomorrow at noon." His task completed, the messenger bowed and ran back to the palace. Both my mother and I did not say a word. The stunned silence was only broken with my mother's high squeal of excitement, "Meili, my darling, you're going to see the Huan Di!"
Immediately, we began to discuss the visit. To see the emperor, I was to wear my finest clothes and softest shoes. I went to bed giddy and nervous, anticipating the next day.
* * *
"Are you Meili, the peasant painter?" asked the Huan Di's counselor. I replied with a nod and said, with a deep bow, "Yes."
"Please come with me, Meili," the counselor beckoned me closer with a hand.
We entered the throne room. The counselor bowed at the figure on the throne, then left me alone as he went to sit with the other counselors.
"Peasant Meili, come forward," boomed the emperor. I nervously stepped closer to him, my hands becoming ice cold. "Hmm..." the emperor looked at me from head to toe. "You shall paint me a dragon so that it can adorn my wall. I expect it to be finished by the end of the next moon."
"Yes, Huan Di." I bowed low and waited for his dismissal. As I left the hall, I was brimming with excitement. Using my magic brush, I would paint him a dragon that was better than any other. I was just contemplating which part of the dragon's body I would leave out when the chariot driver called a stop. I jumped off and after thanking the driver, hurried back to my mother to tell her the news.
Instantaneously, I rushed to my painter's table and dipping my magic brush in fresh black ink, began to paint the dragon I was to draw for the king of China.
Day after day, I worked on the dragon, adding scales and drawing its body flying over the clouds. I portrayed its body as lean and strong and added minuscule details. Finally, it was done. My painting was flawless, except for one thing. I left out the eye of the dragon. I did paint most of the eye; I only left out the tiny black dot that goes right in the center. I fell asleep happy with my work.
* * *
I handed in my drawing to the king, bowing low as I gave it to him. I could see his face change, from stern and stoic to admiring and fascinated. He muttered a small "Dismissed" without even looking at me. I quietly backed out of the hall, well aware of the people staring at me.
I later learned that the king was extremely impressed by my work and declared me to be his Royal Painter and live in the palace. My mother and I were overjoyed, and until the end of my days, I painted for the emperor, leaving parts of my paintings unpainted. At first, I thought the Huan Di would hate this defect in my paintings, and demand that I complete my paintings, but he didn't. Either he was old and blind, or he liked my paintings too much to risk losing me as an asset to his palace's interior design.
Yet my story is not finished. The missing eye of the dragon was not discovered until many generations had passed. A different emperor ruled, and I no longer was alive. But I know this part of the story from my spirit that still painted for the gods in heaven.
The young emperor who then ruled China discovered the missing eye and appointed one of his counselors to dot the center. After the spot of ink dried, the paper began to ripple. I watched through the eyes of my spirit with a heavy heart. I could understand what was about to happen. The dragon sprung out of the paper, and with a mighty roar, set fire to the palace. The emperor was eaten, and everyone else was burned to cinders. The great palace of China, which had stood for countless generations, slowly crumbled to the earth, blazing with hot red tendrils of flame.