Instead of heading straight home to the cramped one-bedroom apartment she shared with her mother and younger brother, she veered off the familiar path and wandered into Columbus Park. The mostly concrete square was as busy as the main streets. Elders huddled at various stone tables, many playing Chinese chess. Some sat on wooden benches, reading the Chinese newspaper, while others chatted animatedly in Cantonese and Mandarin, exchanging gossip and sharing pieces of cut fruit.
Hongyue managed to find an empty bench in the far corner of the park, under a large tree. Leaning against the hard wooden slats, she absorbed the energetic buzz around her, the mix of voices and movements, how the barely there summer breeze rustled the leaves above her head, stirring the right fringe image of a little girl intensely eating a cone ice cream. A high-pitched trill from above caught Hongyue’s attention, and she raised her head. A small bird perched in the hollow of the spiral tree above its bench. It had a bright yellow head, throat and chest, with gray wings outlined in white lines – perfect for painting.
The bird continued to sing its song, alternately tugging its tail so Hongyue had a clear view of it before turning around and offering him a chance to study its head and chest. He had a thick beak and looked at her briefly with dark eyes. She was enjoying his singing for a few minutes before an old Chinese woman stopped nearby, following Hongyue’s gaze. “Ah, a warbler,” she said hoarsely. “I love listening to them.” She squinted at the bird, the corners of her eyes crinkling with deep wrinkles. “This one is a woman,” she continued. “Their color is not as bright.” The woman closed her eyes, obviously enjoying the warbler’s trilling song. “I love birds,” she said, opening her eyes and meeting Hongyue’s gaze. ” Is not it ? »
Hongyue nodded. “They are a classic brush painting subject.”
The old woman’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed.” She smiled and lowered her chin like she was a queen, then continued on her way.
Hongyue once again glanced at the shiny warbler, nestled in the small hollow, before heading home.
The apartment was empty when she entered.
She quickly gathered her brush painting supplies, wanting to capture the bird she still saw so clearly in her mind. Spreading sheets of Chinese newspaper on the small square kitchen table against the window, Hongyue filled a ceramic bowl with water, then poured some into her inkstone. She grinded fresh ink. When she was satisfied that the ink was dark enough, she placed a new sheet of rice paper on the table.
Usually, Hongyue painted slowly and carefully, often stopping to assess his progress. But today, she put brush to paper without hesitation, remembering the bird’s piercing gaze as she started with her eye as Shen laoshi instructed, the rapid movements of her head and the rustle of its tail. She heard the clear notes of birdsong from the warbler as she dyed her crown and nape green, then painted delicate white lines on her wings. Stunned, she took a step back when she realized she had finished without stopping, as if forced. The fiery yellow bird she had seen less than an hour ago was staring at her from the page.