Thursday, July 12, 2007

One Thousand Dragons

Master chao rushed forward like a tidal wave, heedless of what lay in his path. Like a tidal wave, he crashed into the shore. In this case the shore was a plaster wall. He fell with little "Oh!" as if surprised.

The old servant called Matron flew to him like a black crow landing on a helpless gray mouse. "Aiyeeeee!" she shrieked. "Aiyeeeee!"

Ling froze, paintbrush in midair, the tip of her tongue pressed against her upper lip in concentration.

Master Chao lay motionless on the ground. Slowly he opened his eyes. Did he shout or curse? He did not. He laughed.

Matron plucked him to his feet. She hovered about, brushing the courtyard's yellow dust from his silken robes. The more he laughed, the more she scowled.

Master Chao regarded the wall. On it was a mural of a beautiful garden: silvery green willows reflected in shiny, dark water--shapely rocks among pale purple flowers--a charming pavilion.

The artwork shivered with life. One could almost hear birdsong and smell a cool, green breeze. A bee buzzed toward the flowers. Was the bee real, or was it a clever dab of paint? It was real, and it hit the wall again and again in frustration.

The painting had fooled Master Chao, too. His mind on other things, he had tried to enter the painted garden smoothing depths.

"This looks like my prize student's work," the master said. "Ling, did you paint this?"

Matron cocked her head and gave Ling a sharp look.

"Yes, sir," Ling said, stepping forward. She bowed so low that the ends of her pigtails swept the ground:

"The student surpasses the teacher," Master Chao cried. Then he hugged Ling so hard she thought his brittle bones would break.

"You have sent your spirit into this painting and brought it to life," the master said. "I have taught you much, but this cannot be taught. It is a gift of the heavens. I am proud of you."

Master Chao was the finest artist in all of China and the emperor's favorite. Praise from him was like a rare pearl.

In pleasing him, Ling had done more than please a revered tutor. She had pleased her mother, father, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and holy ancestors, all in one.

For Ling had never known her real family. She had been left on Master Chao's doorstep as an infant ten years ago. The master had raised her, loved her, and turned her into an accomplished artist.

He taught her everything he knew--except how to paint the pupils in a subject's eyes. "Eyes are where the soul lives," he said. "You will learn to paint them when you are ready."

Ling's work was always remarkably lifelike. When she was five she painted a wasp that practically hummed. When she was six she painted a dog that almost growled,

When she was seven she painted a portrait of Matron, all sharp black angles and angry lines. She captured Matron's beaky nose, waxy skin, and lone chin hair.

Matron had never forgiven her.

Now Master Chao was doing a little dance, holding Ling by both hands. "The painted garden is your masterpiece. Let us celebrate!" he said, dancing her into the house.

Master's happiness stuck in Matron's craw, "So the little dabbler brought a painting to life?" she cawed. "What skill does it take to fool an old man?"

But Matron was worried. I suppose I will have to wait on Ling hand and foot from now on, she thought. And what if the emperor hears of her talent and likes her better than Master? If Old Chao loses favor at court, I lose, too. ..FT. Then Matron hatched a plan that would solve the problem of Ling for good.

"Ling's paintings trick and mislead," Matron cackled to anyone who would listen. "She is a danger to the emperor. His enemies may use her powers against him … unless he gets to her first."

Rumor flew to the emperor's ear as if on blue-black wings.

One day four imperial soldiers appeared at Master Chao's gate while the master was away. Matron knew why they were there.

"We have come for the girl called Ling," one of the officers proclaimed.

Matron plucked Ling by the sleeve and handed her over. "You are going to the emperor," Matron told her. "Do his bidding without complaint."

Ling cried out for help. Master Chao could not hear her.

The soldiers hurried Ling through town. They entered the imperial palace and passed through several chambers. Finally, they entered the imperial room and dropped to their knees, pulling Ling down with them.

Before them sat the emperor on a huge throne. He was a fearsome sight, until Ling looked closer. Here was a small, soft man in big, stiff clothes. The emperor's robes were padded. His shoulders were comically broad. His lavishly styled hair nearly doubled his height.

This mighty Son of Heaven looked like a little boy wearing his father's garments--a cruel little boy with a rattail mustache.

"I would not ordinarily trust an important task to a female, and certainly not to a child," the emperor said, "but only you have the necessary skill. You will paint one thousand dragons on the wall that surrounds the palace. You must make them so real that my friends will faint with awe, my enemies with dread."

"I am honored," Ling replied, choosing her words carefully, "but I still have much to learn from Master Chao. When will I see him again?"

"You may return to him when you have completed the thousandth dragon," the emperor said, "but that may take a long, long time, and Master Chao is a very old man."

Then to the soldiers he said, "Take her away."

I will never see Master Chao again, Ling thought. The emperor means to hold me prisoner forever.

The soldiers hauled Ling outside and chained her to the palace wall. Within her reach were paints, brushes, a ladder, a lantern, and a cloth to keep spatters off the stone pathways.

One soldier stayed to stand guard. He brought Ling a bowl of rice and sat on a stool nearby to eat his own supper. Soon he was snoring.

Now I am alone, Ling thought, with an empty wall of many miles and the spirits of one thousand dragons waiting to be born.

Ling heard a noise. She spun around. There stood a beggar with a mud-caked face and tattered muslin robes. She knew at once it was Master Chao in disguise. He wrapped his arms around her.

"You say I have a gift from the heavens," Ling said. "Help me use it to satisfy the emperor and regain my freedom."

"The emperor forbids me to see you until you have finished," Master Chao whispered. "But I have a plan. By day, you will draw outlines of the dragons on the wall. By night, when the guard sleeps, I will help fill the outlines with paint. The work will go quickly. Then we shall open a few eyes."

Master Chao kissed Ling on the forehead. "Sleep now," he said. "Our work starts tomorrow. I will return tomorrow night."

He vanished, slipping into the shadows. Ling folded herself into the cloth and slept. Dragons slithered through her dreams.

The next morning, Ling began to draw. She drew dragons with camels' heads and snakes' necks, fishlike dragons, horned dragons, winged dragons, and the five-toed dragons said to be the emperor's ancestors.

That evening when the watchman fell asleep, Master Chao reappeared. "You have been busy, little artist," he said. "Now I will take over." The master tucked Ling safely into her makeshift bed. She gratefully fell asleep.

In the morning, Master Chao was gone but the dragons shone with color.

The days passed, and Ling's army of dragons grew. They looked so real, they caused a bandit to die of fright and sent a band of rebels screaming into the hills.

Ling and her secret helper, Master Chao, grew thin and pale from their toil. Only Matron grew fat on the emperor's gratitude. No longer welcome in Master Chao's home, Matron had moved to the palace. Now servants waited on her.

The emperor was amazed at Ling's progress. He would soon need another way to keep her busy and out of his enemies' hands.

The dragon mural would be finished on New Year's Day. There would be a grand celebration with music, food, and fireworks. Master Chao was invited to attend, along with all of the other royal artisans. Ling could not wait to be reunited with Master Chao, but also feared what might happen.

The night before, as always, he came to the wall in his beggar's disguise.

Ling confided her fears. "The emperor may not keep his word and set me free," she said.

"Do not worry," the master told her. "The dragons have a surprise in store for him … and for you. Sleep well. I will finish painting the thousandth dragon tonight and see you at the festivities tomorrow."

Ling awoke at dawn and walked as far as her chain would permit. Over the past months, she and Master Chao had painted their way around the palace wall. Their first dragon stood to the right of the main gate. Their last dragon stood to the left. The dragons were so real that their manes seemed to blow in the breeze, their tails seemed to snap like whips.

Even Ling was astonished by their work. What was that flapping noise? Was it a flag flying over the palace, or was it a dragon's wings? What was that burnt smell? Was it goose fat sizzling on a merchant's stove, or was it a dragon's hot breath?

A guard interrupted Ling's thoughts. He unchained her and took her to a small room inside the palace. After several hours, a servant entered.

"Come meet your admirers," the woman said and guided Ling to a platform near the dragon wall.

The emperor and his courtiers were already there. An excited crowd had gathered. Master Chao was there, too, calling Ling's name, arms open wide.

Ling walked toward him. The crowd cheered.

"Behold the dragons," Master Chao shouted. "Do they not seem real?"

"Real!" the crowd yelled. "So real!"

"They are more real than you imagine," Master Chao continued. "Ling has an eye-opening demonstration for you."

He turned to Ling. Quietly he murmured, "Look at the dragons, little artist. I did not paint their eyes. I left that for you. You are ready. Take this brush. Climb the ladder. Open the dragons' eyes."

Ling obeyed, putting a shiny black pupil in the first dragon's eye. The dragon blinked. The painting shimmered, and the dragon shook itself like a wet dog. Then, incredibly, it climbed down from the wall.

Master Chao moved the ladder to the next dragon. Shaking, Ling raised her paintbrush again. When she put dots in its eyes, it flapped its great leather wings and flew into the air.

Each dragon escaped the wall as Ling opened its eyes. Finally, one thousand dragons were gathered around the platform. All of the spectators had fled.

The cruel emperor looked for his courtiers, but they, too, had deserted him. There was only one thing left for him to do. He ran for his life. One thousand dragons gave chase.

If he had looked over his shoulder, the emperor would have seen a dragon flying away with something struggling in its jaws. Was it a fat black crow? Was it Matron, screaming, "Aiyeeeee"?

Master Chao and Ling stood alone. Dust and debris settled around them as the flapping of wings died down.

I am afraid, Ling said, clinging to the man who was her mother, father, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and holy ancestors, all in one.

"You have no need to be," the master said. "The emperor cannot harm you now, and the dragons are your friends."

"But, Master Chao," Ling said, "it is this power of mine that frightens me."

"You have power," the master said, "but you will also have the wisdom and strength to control it. I will guide you. Then one day you will guide me."

The air stirred with a blur of colorful wings. The thousandth dragon had returned for Ling and Master Chao. It landed and bowed at their feet. They climbed onto its back and flew home.

By Patricia Bridgman

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