Instead of going straight home to the cramped one-bedroom tenement she shared with her mom and younger brother, she veered from the familiar path and ducked into Columbus Park. The mostly concrete plaza was as busy as the main streets. Seniors huddled at various stone tables, many playing Chinese chess. Some sat on wooden benches, reading the Chinese paper, while others chatted animatedly in Cantonese and Mandarin, exchanging gossip and sharing pieces of cut fruit.
Hongyue managed to find an empty bench in the far corner of the park, underneath a large tree. Leaning back against the hard wooden slats, she absorbed the energetic hum around her, the mingling of voices and movement, how the barely-there summer breeze rustled the leaves overhead, stirring the straight, black bangs of a little girl intently eating an ice cream cone. A sharp trill from above caught Hongyue’s attention, and she lifted her head up. A small bird perched in the hollow of the tree spiraling above her bench. It had a bright yellow head, throat and chest, with gray wings highlighted in white lines — perfect for painting.
The bird continued to sing its song, alternately sticking its tail out so Hongyue got a clear view of it before turning and offering her an opportunity to study its head and chest. It had a thick beak and looked briefly down at her with black eyes. She enjoyed its singing for a few minutes before an old Chinese woman stopped nearby, following Hongyue’s gaze. “Ah, a warbler,” she said in a raspy voice. “I love listening to them.” She squinted at the bird, the corners of her eyes creasing with deep lines. “This one is female,” she went on. “Their color is not as bright.” The woman closed her eyes, obviously enjoying the warbler’s trilling song. “I love birds,” she said, opening her eyes and meeting Hongyue’s gaze. “Don’t you?”
Hongyue nodded. “They’re a classic brush painting subject.”
The old woman’s eyebrows lifted. “Indeed.” She smiled and dipped her chin as if she were a queen, then walked on.
Hongyue glanced at the bright warbler again, tucked in the small hollow, before heading home.
The apartment was empty when she let herself in.
She quickly gathered her brush painting supplies, wanting to capture the bird she still saw so clearly in her mind’s eye. Spreading sheets of the Chinese newspaper on the small, square kitchen table set against the window, Hongyue filled a ceramic bowl with water, then spooned a little into her ink stone. She ground fresh ink. When she was satisfied the ink was dark enough, she placed a new sheet of rice paper onto the table.
Usually, Hongyue painted slowly and with care, stopping often to gauge her progress. But today, she put brush to paper without hesitation, remembering the bird’s keen gaze as she started with its eye as Shen laoshi had instructed, the quick movements of its head, and the swish of its tail. She heard the clear notes of the warbler’s birdsong as she tinged its crown and nape in green, then painted delicate white lines on its wings. Astounded, she took a step back when she realized she had finished without pausing, as if compelled. The spirited yellow bird she had glimpsed less than an hour ago stared back at her from the page.