He deserves a worse punishment than dismissal , Sheng says ominously. Along with his skill in art, Sheng has the kind of brash confidence that makes people follow him, so I’m not surprised to see a few others walking near us nod in agreement. He lifts his head proudly at their regard, showing off fine, high cheekbones. Most of the girls around here would also agree he’s the most attractive boy in the school, but he’s never had much of an effect on me.
I hope that changes soon, as we are expected to marry someday.
Boldly, knowing I’m probably making a mistake, I ask, You don’t think the circumstances played a role in his actions? Wanting to help his sick family?
That’s no excuse , Sheng states. Everyone earns what they deserve around here—no more, no less. That’s balance. If you can’t fulfill your duty, you shouldn’t expect to be fed for it. Don’t you agree?
My heart aches at his words. I can’t help but give a quick glance at Zhang Jing, walking on my other side, before turning back to Sheng. Yes , I say bleakly. Yes, of course, I agree.
We apprentices begin gathering up our canvases to take them out for the other villagers to view. Some are still wet and require extra caution. As we step outside, the sun is well above the horizon, promising a warm and clear day to come. It shines on the green leaves of the trees among our village. Their branches create a canopy that shades much of the walkway to the village’s center. I watch the patterns the light creates on the ground when it’s filtered through the trees. I’ve often thought about painting that dappled light, if only I had the opportunity. But I never do.
I’d love to paint the mountains too. We are surrounded by them, and our village sits on top of one of the highest. It creates breathtaking views but also a number of difficulties for us. This peak is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs. Our ancestors migrated here centuries ago along a pass on the mountain’s opposite side that was flanked by fertile valleys perfect for growing food. Around the time hearing disappeared, severe avalanches blocked the pass, filling it up with boulders and stones far taller than any man. It trapped our people up here and cut us off from growing crops anymore.
That was when our people worked out an arrangement with a township at the mountain’s base. Each day, most of our villagers work in the mines up here, hauling out loads of precious metals. Our suppliers send those metals to the township along a zip line that runs down the mountain. In return for the metal, the township sends us shipments of food since we can’t produce our own. The arrangement was working well until some of our miners began losing their sight and could no longer work. When the metals going down slowed, so did the food coming back up.
As my group moves closer to the center of the village, I see miners getting ready for the day’s work, dressed in their dull clothing with lines of weariness etched on their faces. Even children help out in the mines. They walk beside their parents and, in some cases, grandparents.
In the village’s heart, we find those who have lost their sight. Unable to see or hear, they have become beggars, huddled together and waiting for the day’s handouts. They sit immobile with their bowls, deprived of the ability to communicate, only able to wait for the feel of vibrations in the ground to let them know that people are approaching and that they might receive some kind of sustenance. I watch as a supplier comes by and puts half a bun in each beggar’s bowl. I remember reading about those buns in the record when they arrived a couple of days ago. They were already subpar then, most of them showing mold. But we can’t afford to throw away any food. That half bun is all the beggars will get until nightfall unless someone is kind enough to share from their own rations. The scene makes my stomach turn, and I avert my gaze from them as we walk toward the central stage where workers are already removing yesterday’s record.
A flash of bright color catches my eye, and I see a blue rock thrush land on the branch of a tree near the clearing. Much like Elder Chen’s silk trim, that brilliance draws me in. As I’m admiring the sheen of the bird’s azure feathers, he opens his mouth for a few seconds and then looks around expectantly. Not long after that, a duller female flies in and lands near him. I stare in wonder, trying to understand what just took place. How did he draw her to him? What could he have done that conveyed so much, even though she hadn’t seen him? I know from reading that something happened when he opened his mouth, that he “sang” to her and somehow brought her, even though she wasn’t nearby.
A nudge at my shoulder tells me it’s time to stop daydreaming. Our group has reached the dais in the village’s center, and most of the villagers have gathered to see our work. We climb the steps to the platform and hang our paintings. We’ve done this many times, and everyone knows their roles. What was a series of illustrations and calligraphy in the workshop now fits together as one coherent mural, presenting a thorough depiction of all that happened in the village yesterday to those gathered below. When I’ve hung my radishes, I shuffle back down with the other apprentices and watch the faces of the rest of the crowd as they read the record. I see furrowed brows and dark glances as they take in the latest reports of blindness and hunger. The radishes are no consolation. The art might be perfect, but it’s lost on my people in its bearing of such dreary news.
Some of them make the sign against evil, a gesture meant to chase away bad luck. It seems ineffectual to me, but the miners are extremely superstitious. They believe lost spirits roam the village at midnight, that the mist surrounding our mountain is the breath of the gods. One of their most popular stories is that our ancestors lost their hearing when magical creatures called pixius went into a deep slumber and wanted silence on the mountain. I grew up believing those tales too, but my education in the Peacock Court has given me a more practical view of the world.