I direct Zhang Jing to help set up new canvases for me to paint. I visualize the layout of the various pieces of the record and how I want to create my message. It is going to be a daunting task, and there is no time for any of the skill and fine detail I’ve been so painstakingly trained to use. I must get my message out, and the only thing that really matters is its truth.
I start with the words, drawing characters in big, bold calligraphy to tell my story. Zhang Jing stays nearby, watching as I work, ready to mix fresh ink when she sees I am running low. First, I tell how Li Wei and I climbed down the mountain. I gloss over the details, for time’s sake, emphasizing that it was dangerous but possible. If there’s a chance our village may be leaving this place, I want them to know it can be done without scaring them too badly—at least not about this. There are plenty of other things for them to be scared of.
When I reach the part about Nuan’s village, I include more detail, about the dead bodies and the records of a village in chaos—a village just like ours. It is a grim memory, one I don’t like repeating, but it too must be told. When I get to the point where Li Wei and I make it to the bottom and see the township for the first time, I pause. The artist in me, the one who sees the world and wants to capture it, wishes I could spare the time to truly describe the township. For all its evils, it is still a remarkable place, the closest thing to a real city any of us will ever get to. I want to paint pictures of those embellished buildings, list all the things for sale, convey the singing children . . . but there is no time. I simply describe it as a busy, vivid place—emphasizing that it has plenty of food—and then go on to Nuan’s tale.
This is the part I elaborate on in the greatest detail, pointing out the similarities between our peoples and how the mines destroyed them—and how the township gave up on them. I tell of their encampment and treatment by the others, how many have given up hope and are just as hungry as they were when they still lived on the plateau. Finally, I close my account with a brief recap of how the soldiers chased us, and how Li Wei and I split up. Although it is certainly a thrilling part of the tale, I again use brevity. My own hardships don’t matter at this point. It is Li Wei’s sacrifice and the township’s ruthlessness I want my village to know about.
When I step back, I am amazed at the amount of calligraphy I’ve painted. This much text normally would be the work of at least half a dozen apprentices. It would also have been painted with much more precision, each brushstroke placed with care and beauty. My work, though not entirely neat, is thorough and legible. I used big, broad strokes, ensuring it can be read from a distance.
Zhang Jing now supplies me with colored paints as I start the illustrations. My pictures are even more hurried than my text, but I’m a strong enough artist that my skills still shine through. For one picture, I depict the house in Nuan’s village, showing the room in disrepair and the bodies of the family that starved to death. It is a gruesome creation, but the shock in Zhang Jing’s face tells me it’s effective. For my second image, I paint where Nuan’s people live now: the dilapidated village of tents, its people thin and dirty. It is something else my people need to see.
I don’t know where I find the energy to do all this painting. The earlier harrowing climb has left me in a state far past exhaustion. It is Zhang Jing’s future—hers and others like her, I decide—that gives me the added rush of adrenaline and inspiration to complete this frantic, ominous masterpiece. And Li Wei, of course. Always, always he is in the back of my mind, urging me on. My sister keeps me supplied with paint, so I have no delays, save for pausing and dipping my brush or switching colors.
It is almost a shock when, at long last, I realize I’ve accomplished all I can possibly do in this time. Standing still after such frenetic work feels almost unnatural, but I force myself to take in all the pieces of canvas, my greatest and most terrible work.
We must take this to the village’s center , I tell Zhang Jing.
Her eyes are wide as she takes in the extent of my work. She has been watching the entire time, making no comment until now. It really is true, isn’t it? she asks at last. All of this. What happened to those people. What will happen to us.
Yes , I say.
You say nothing about your hearing , she points out. Isn’t that important?
I hesitate before answering. Not to our village’s fate. There will be time later to figure out what’s happening to me. For now, we must help the others.
Zhang Jing nods in acceptance. Tell me what you need me to do.
For a moment, the love and faith in her eyes overwhelms me so much that I fear I’ll break down and start crying. I hide my discomfort with a hug so that she is unable to see me blinking back tears. When I step away, I hope I look more confident than I feel about what is to come. Okay , I tell her. Now we need to carry these out to the center of the village.
The task is a bit more complicated than it might appear. Although most of the patrolling servants are staying near the kitchen to guard the food, there is still the chance one might wander into the wing where the workroom is. That requires extra caution as we smuggle the canvases outside. Equally challenging is handling the canvases themselves. Even when the apprentices do touch-ups to the record in the morning, most of the work has had time to dry overnight. Now Zhang Jing and I must manage still-wet paint, taking care not to ruin the words and images I have just labored over.
It also requires many trips. I never thought of that daily morning trek as particularly long or difficult, but now, doing it multiple times in my current state, my mind starts to think it’s almost as taxing as the climb down the mountain. Many beggars sleep in the town’s center, their bodies huddled together in piles for warmth. We are careful to step around and not disturb them, but the sight of them makes my insides twist when I think how it’s a very real possibility that others—including Zhang Jing—may share their fate if we don’t take action.