Brushstrokes | TeenInk


October 24, 2014
By Birdsong PLATINUM, Vancouver, Other
Birdsong PLATINUM, Vancouver, Other
38 articles 1 photo 7 comments

The first time my grandfather brought me into his study to write Chinese calligraphy, I immediately noticed the dust. Flecks of gray hovered, perfectly stagnant, in the amber beams of light slanting across the room. I felt a strange weight upon me, the weight of that stillness, knowing that every action would shatter the equilibrium into whirling movement. Even the floor varnish seemed to discourage unnecessary motion; every barefooted step left a dull blemish on the gleaming wood.

Nevertheless, I was made to sit down in the imposing leather chair that dominated the room. Surveying the room from this position was equally daunting. A row of chairs stared me down from against the left wall. Although the dark wood was carved to resemble cushions, I knew from experience that the seats were absolutely rigid. Above the empty chairs hung frames. Identically sized and arranged in precise rows and columns, they were as unappealing to the eye as a sheet of graph paper. Inside the frames were sun-faded certificates teeming with formalities, titles, and accomplishments written in spidery script.

The thick odour of the calligraphy ink clogged my throat like phlegm. It blended nauseatingly with the smell of my grandfather’s perspiration: sweet but slightly stomach-turning, like rotting fruit. His skin, too, felt as wrinkled and loose as the skin on an overripe apricot. A layer of sweat lingered, trapped between his palm and the back of my hand as he dragged my brushstrokes across the page. The heat in the room was stifling. Every breath seemed to take extra energy, as if the air was more viscous here. I longed to be free of that stale room and return to my tidy air-conditioned room upstairs.

Now, ten years later, I can’t bear to spend time in that sterile, frigid room. It is bare of smells. Not like my grandfather’s study, where the air is lush with the crisp smell of drying ink, the sharp scent of new paper, and the earthy odour emanating from the basket of golfballs in the corner. His backyard borders a golf course, so some mornings when her meanders around the garden, he’ll find a stray golf ball from some golfer’s overzealous stroke and add it to the basket. When I was younger, I presented him with a box of golf balls for Christmas. They sit on a shelf above the basket, still in their box. Pristine, but lacking the thrill of discovery associated with their grass-stained comrades.

My grandfather’s hand is atop mine, guiding my brush strokes. His skin is soft, and feels oddly fragile. His movements are deliberately slow and his eyelids are serenely half-closed. This is the kind of room that time has ceased intruding. The seats are empty; no one is waiting. The certificates on the walls are already earned, the wall space is already filled. There is no grating whir of the air conditioner to break the focussed silence. The air waits to be inhaled and exhaled. In front of me, pages are filled with just one character, over and over. I can see my that grandfather has made subtle changes between them: thickness, proportion, angle. Looking closely, I think I can even identify the feathery lines where his brush ran dry, and the dark speckles where droplets of ink fell on the way back from the inkwell.

When it’s time for me to leave, I turn back in the doorway. My grandfather’s chair sits at the head of the room like a father at the dinner table, patiently waiting for a wayward child to join him.

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