Jul/Aug 2006  •   Fiction

The Master Who Painted Birds

by James Warner

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

There was a Master who specialized in painting birds.

In the mornings, to keep his hands steady, he practiced making brush strokes. In the afternoons he worked on wing-tip feathers, or on the appearance of birds, or on white pheasants, or on birds drawn with ink stored overnight. He worked without interruption at his villa high in the mountains. It was said his birds were so lifelike, they sometimes escaped from the scroll and flew away.

When news of this reached the court, the Emperor sent messengers requesting the Master to paint a rare bird that had appeared in the Imperial gardens. But the Master, despising the court painters for their cultivated eccentricities, drew a landscape on the side of a cliff and escaped into it.

At the altitudes where the messengers sought him, the relations between things were not what they were at court. Tea boiled more quickly, and thoughts developed more slowly. Men began to doubt their own substantiality. Occasionally the wind opened a curtain through the light rain, granting a fleeting glance of twisted rocks.

The messengers found many places where the Master had been before them: his pictures were everywhere visible alongside the slippery mountain trails, carved into the granite, easily identifiable by the impossible vastness of the chasms and summits depicted. But at length the messengers had to return to court and report they had been unable to find the Master.

There was also a young man who sought the Master. He had failed his civil service examinations many times, until he despaired of attaining high office.

Hearing of a natural man who followed the Tao, he hoped to become his student. He sought the Master from town to town, but the birds he saw were not the Master's, with the possible exception of one, in a vast emptiness, whose remoteness gave a conception of infinite space.

He climbed across expanses of rock, old green pines his only companions. The light in the trees made them seem painfully alive. The sky was the color of untouched silk, and in the distance the young man saw mountain and lake expressing reality as perfectly as a dream. He waded with difficulty through a tangle of brush strokes.

Among a group of birds in a copse, one stood out as different from the rest. What made it different?

After much contemplation, he knew the answer. Some parts of it were unnecessary or over-elaborated. It was imperfect. Just as he had done, it had mistakenly found its way into one of the Master's paintings.

Retracing his steps, he found the place where he had unwittingly entered the Master's scroll. A connoisseur was admiring the work when the young man stepped out of it, apologizing he had lost his way. During his absence there had been a brief rebellion, during which ten thousand books were lost.

In time this story became known as a tribute to the Master's skill. For among those who profess to be painters, how many have this kind of ability?

The man who sought the Master resumed his search, riding in fishermen's boats and staying in Buddhist temples. He watched all kinds of birds, learning to distinguish those made by men from those made by immortals, hoping to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy. He fed himself by loosing arrows from his quiver or by setting snares to catch wild pheasants. He attended to the concentration of buzzards when hares were jumping.

After many years he came to the bank of a wide river, near a place where ancient junipers, lashed into fantastic shapes by fierce gales, trembled on an outcrop. In the middle of the stream was an island. From the opposite bank, several trails meandered towards a far summit, through hills rippling upward in summer colors of blue and gold.

By the time he found the Master's retirement villa, it had become a ruin, surrounded by abrupt hills coated with forests. Owls moved in the treetops like blots slowly spreading. Dark pools mirrored knotted cypresses against a parchment-white sky, and he half suspected he had entered a painting by some even greater Master of ages long gone by—perhaps even from the age when the first hunters drew the first bird portraits.

With autumn the cold chilled him, but he found warmth in the wines the Master had abandoned in the villa. When drunk, he splashed ink onto mulberry paper. Always he listened to the ancient conversations of the birds.

He saw a magpie, which in no way resembled a magpie.

Despairing of ever being able to sketch the twisted forms of rocks responding to writhing saplings, or the tumbling stream echoing the shifting sky, he left the ruins and climbed a cliff decorated with calligraphy to make his home in a meditation cave. The caves were intricate, and whoever entered them received strange visions. Here he concentrated on his breath, sharpened his inkstone; his hair grew tangled, his sharp eyes appearing to have been added to him with a rabbit's-hair brush.

His food was pollen and the seeds of pines. Each day after his evening meditation, he recorded the state of his mind with a few dry strokes. When he descended from the caves to gather food, the few people he met reverenced him as a sage.

A boy caught his sleeve and, calling him Master, begged him to draw a bird. To show the child the enormity of his mistake—and demonstrate his own unworthiness to be called Master—the painter sharpened a slate inkstone, calmly ground a stick of ink against it, and took up his brush.

He drew a bird with a few simple strokes, slightly misshapen, but giving it its proper spirit.

The scroll flapping in the wind, the bird detached itself with a sound like zithers flung from a high pavilion and flew away to the west.

It must be said, those who disbelieve this story are altogether ignorant about the men of those times.

The man climbed high enough that trees were only a faint memory. A few bright veins stood out in the stone. When he looked down, the valley below was unfathomable. The smudged peaks could be perceived were as scattered as thoughts. The mountain haze seemed thick enough to walk on, while the rocks appeared nebulous. Higher still there were only white snow, black fog, and gray rain. The rain made it impossible to distinguish land and sky. At night he heard the laughter of the jade-maidens.

He asked an obscure painter he met along the trail how the Master's reputation had fared recently, and he received the reply that painters everywhere were receiving commissions to produce forgeries of his famous works. These pathetic imitators worked day and night, filling yard after yard of scroll with fearsome promontories, serene pools and willows with delicate hanging branches seeming to have been drawn from nature, signing them with copies of the Master's seal.

Such men, content to record the exact appearance of things, added nothing that came from their own nature. Can this be any way to influence posterity?

As his wanderings continued, the painter came to know the nature of 360 kinds of bird. The toils of travel now habitual for him, his journey seemed easy as gliding through a painting, the way it is when the eye sweeps with ease across a scroll depicting the progression of the seasons. Whenever people offered him money for his work, he laughingly sent them away.

After fording a mountain stream one autumn, he leaned for a while on his dragon-headed staff, contemplating three paths leading to a still-remote peak. The eye could follow each path only a little way, but where they were invisible the figure of another wanderer sometimes chanced to mark their position.

The path the painter chose led back to the ruins of the Master's retirement villa, where the Master was waiting for him.

"I heard not long ago you were looking for me," the Master said sternly. "If you had looked harder, you would have found me here before."

The painter prostrated himself while ravens watched from the moldering stumps of chestnut trees. "They say you have shown traces of ability," the Master continued, "but you lack perseverance."

The painter asked the Master for his teachings, and was advised as follows:

The essence of each kind of bird can be learned by observing it and the paintings of whichever Master best understands its nature. However, in the greatest landscapes of all, the birds are hidden.

The male hawk is able to impregnate the female with a single glance.

Lacquer is useful for inserting the pupils of the eyes. Trees are useful for filling empty spaces on the canvas. Cranes and pines gain tremendously by being painted.

To wipe away misplaced ink, use the juice of an apricot seed.

Since any painting can also be used as a map, it is sensible it should include inaccuracies, lest it fall into barbarian hands.

It is a waste of time to do many paintings of bustards.

Cinnabar is more potent than gold, and aged ink superior to the finest wines. If you faithfully conjure up the contours of sacred summits vanishing into fine mist, you will be remembered long after your works themselves have perished.

Each time you unroll a landscape, birds escape.

Attacked by a tiger, the wise man does not poke it in the eye.

Disappointed by the elementary nature of this counsel, the painter asked for further teachings, and the Master laughed, unwrapped a scroll, and stepped into it. The painter followed him, and now both men are preserved as barely-seen figures against a spacious screen of hills, patterned with wind-ruffled foliage, drawing the mind toward the deep distance, beneath these words penned in immaculately formed characters:

Seeking to cross the faraway bridge
Where the mountains embrace