MY SISTER IS IN TROUBLE, and I have only minutes to help her.
She doesn’t see it. She’s having difficulty seeing a lot of things lately, and that’s the problem.
Your brushstrokes are off , I sign to her. The lines are crooked, and you’ve misjudged some of the hues.
Zhang Jing steps back from her canvas. Surprise lights her features for only a moment before despair sets in. This isn’t the first time these mistakes have happened. A nagging instinct tells me it won’t be the last. I make a small gesture, urging her to hand me her brush and paints. She hesitates and glances around the workroom to make sure none of our peers is watching. They’re all deeply engrossed in their own canvases, spurred on by the knowledge that our masters will arrive at any moment to evaluate our work. Their sense of urgency is nearly palpable. I beckon again, more insistently this time, and Zhang Jing yields her tools, stepping away to let me work.
Quick as lightning, I begin going over her canvas, repairing her imperfections. I smooth out the unsteady brushstrokes, thicken lines that are too thin, and use sand to blot out places where the ink fell too heavily. This calligraphy consumes me, just as art always does. I lose track of the world around me and don’t even really notice what her work says. It’s only when I finish and step back to check my progress that I take in the news she was recording.
Death. Starvation. Blindness.
Another grim day in our village.
I can’t focus on that right now, not with our masters about to walk in. Thank you, Fei , Zhang Jing signs to me before taking her tools back. I give a quick nod and then hurry over to my own canvas across the room, just as a rumbling in the floor signifies the entrance of the elders. I take a deep breath, grateful that I have once again saved Zhang Jing from getting into trouble. With that relief comes a terrible knowledge that I can no longer deny: My sister’s sight is fading. Our village came to terms with silence when our ancestors lost their hearing generations ago for unknown reasons, but being plunged into darkness? That’s a fate that scares us all.
I must push those thoughts from my mind and put on a calm face as my master comes strolling down the rows of canvas. There are six elders in the village, and each one oversees at least two apprentices. In most cases, each elder knows who his or her replacement will be—but with the way accidents and sickness happen around here, training a backup is a necessary precaution. Some apprentices are still competing to be their elder’s replacement, but I have no worries about my position.
Elder Chen comes to me now, and I bow low. His dark eyes, sharp and alert despite his advanced years, look past me to the painting. He wears light blue like the rest of us, but the robe he has on over his pants is longer than the apprentices’. It nearly reaches his ankles and is trimmed in purple silk thread. I always study that embroidery while he’s doing his inspections, and I never grow tired of it. There’s very little color in our daily lives, and that silk thread is one bright, precious spot. Fabric of any kind is a luxury here, where my people struggle daily simply to get food. Studying Elder Chen’s purple thread now, I think of the old stories about kings and nobles who dressed in silk from head to toe. The image dazzles me for a moment, transporting me beyond this workroom until I blink and reluctantly return my focus back to my work.
Elder Chen is very still as he takes in my illustration, his expression unreadable. Whereas Zhang Jing painted dreary news today, my task was to depict our latest food shipment, which included a rare surprise of radishes. At last, he unclasps his hands from in front of him. You captured the imperfections of the radishes’ skin , he signs. Not many others would have noticed such detail.
From him, that is high praise. Thank you, master , I say before bowing again.
He moves on to examine the work of his other apprentice, a girl named Jin Luan. She shoots a look of envy in my direction before also bowing low to our master. There’s never been any question who his favorite student is, and I know it must frustrate her to feel that no matter what she does, she never grasps that top spot. I am one of the best artists in our group, and we all know it. I make no apologies for my success, especially since I’ve given up so much to achieve it.
I look to the far side of the room, where Elder Lian is examining Zhang Jing’s calligraphy. Elder Lian’s face is as unreadable as my master’s as she takes in every detail of my sister’s canvas. I find I’m holding my breath, far more nervous than I was for my own inspection. Beside her, Zhang Jing is pale, and I know my sister and I are both braced for the same thing: Elder Lian calling us out for deceiving them about Zhang Jing’s sight. Elder Lian lingers much longer than Elder Chen did, but at long last, she gives a cursory nod of acceptance and strolls on to her next apprentice. Zhang Jing sags in relief.
We have tricked them again, but I can’t feel bad about that either. Not when Zhang Jing’s future is at stake. If the elders discover her vision is failing, she will almost certainly lose her apprenticeship and be sent to the mines. The very thought makes my chest tighten. In our village, there are really only three jobs: artist, miner, and supplier. Our parents were miners. They died young.
When all the inspections are finished, it is time for our morning announcements. Elder Lian is giving them today, and she steps up on a platform in the room to allow her hands to be visible to all who are gathered.
Your work is satisfactory , she begins. It’s the usual acknowledgment, and we all bow. When we are looking up again, she continues. Never forget how important what we do here is. You are part of an ancient and exalted tradition. Soon we will go out into the village and begin our daily observations. I know things are hard right now. But remember that it is not our place to interfere with them.