Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Night Wind - First Strokes

She was a walking fashion plate. Deep black hair that flowed in languid waves across the side of her face like brushed silk inviting the hand to caress and stroke. 

Pale, pale skin like the finest, untouched parchment. Luminously limpid eyes of the darkest allure. Lips a pale rosebud pink and silhouette of the willowy, first bloom of spring.

She was undeniably beautiful. And mod. She looked right out of a European magazine. Which was the artful result of many hours of scrutiny and planning.

She liked her fashion and it liked her back. Her clothes were from Paris and of the finest cut. She had had it imported, much to her father's dismay and protests but in the end she got what she wanted. As she always did. She was the apple of her father's eye and what the apple wanted, the apple got.

It was amazing how different her sister was from her. Born of the same womb, clawing their way out at the same time. They'd shared the same warm fluids and the same sharp, cold reality of birth. Yet they were as different as night and day.

Night Wind was a vibrant, sharp dash of colour on a moving canvas. Night Cloud was a gentle water-colour wash of muted, soft hues and uncertain lines.

Night Wind had somehow convinced their father to send her English and French tutors, to learn cordon bleu cooking and to equip her with all the modern contrivances from the West that was much frowned upon yet secretly coveted by the court.

In contrast, her twin sought the approval of the ladies of the court and her father's attention by being the tradition icon of womanliness. Quiet, obedient, educated only in the traditional arts of sewing, cooking, singing and dancing, Night Cloud wore the traditional court dresses and kept out of the public eye.

No amount of raucous and teasing persuasion could move the latter to abet in Night Wind's many unauthorised sojourns to the outside. So the younger-by-3-minutes twin would pout and badger the elder into keeping her silence instead.

The shopkeepers near the palace were used to seeing her jauntily prance through the streets in her tailored, pale blue two-piece suit, her white, beaded handbag, the white flower in her hair and her shiny, black, high-heels. They would shake their heads in disapproval but would keep their counsel. No one dared risk the ire of the Prince by being the messenger of bad tidings.

Her incandescent beauty and pure joy in her purloined hours of freedom drew many an eye. Her open-hearted friendliness and innocence lured the unsuspecting to converse with this unusual ingenue.

She certainly drew his eyes. 

In a strange country that was searingly hot yet miserably damp, full of strange smells and unfamiliar verbal cadences, he was the proverbial fish out of water.

It was bad enough that he was always the odd man out even within his own company. As a translator and interpreter for the vilest man of commerce he had ever had the misfortune of working under, he was just counting the days till he could return home. He was noticeably different from both sides of the fence.

His mixed heritage of European, Asian and Middle Eastern was obvious from his physical construct. Jet black hair and grayish-blue eyes. Pale complexion with ivory undertones. High cheekbones and handsome nose with full lips that smiled easily. Tall and muscular but with a languid grace beneath the strait-backed gait.

The women called him Silver Screen Star and there was much swooning even from the local girls who found his looks wonderfully appealing and dangerously different. The wives and daughters of the expatriates eyed him hungrily even as they knew he was out of bounds.

He was quiet but when he spoke, he wielded words like a gilded sword. Carving out his intentions. Fast slashes to disguise the sleight of hand. Dazzling reflections of light on a blade of smooth flattery. Chains of molten honey to bind your common sense to his whim.

Coupled with his startling good-looks, Bernard was a lethal weapon indeed. 

He was not unaware his charisma and charms. Fortunately, he was, at heart, a quiet man with fairly simple interests. One of which was art. As a child, his father had ruthlessly beaten any show of artistic inclination out of him. He had to secretly resort to painting on the sly. He taught himself how to mute and vary the shades of Indian black ink to simulate the colours denied him.

From his prolific reading, he recognised the style as reminiscent of the Chinese ink paintings and developed a lifelong obsession with that culture. When the opportunity opened to travel to the Far East, he jumped at it.

How he ended up on this little island was still a mystery to himself. It was not quite what he signed for. After the genteel and refined, on the surface at any rate, grandeur of China, this island of strong oils, spices, dark skin and somnolent days was a jarring wakeup call that he missed home.

He retreated into his books, research and revisited his love for ink paintings. His reticence just made him even more exotically attractive to the expatriate and local women alike. But he had decided to focus on learning and mastering the Chinese art of ink painting. And so he signed up for a course with a Chinese master who had found himself inexplicably stranded on the island as well.

It was a mish mesh of students and subjects. In a class of six, half were learning Chinese ink painting while the other half was starting out in Chinese calligraphy. All at the same time. And unusually, there was a local in the class. Typically, only the expatriates signed up for such classes as the locals were leery of the mixed company and afraid of the censure of being spotted learning anything Chinese.

She stood out even without being the token local. His eyes caught and snared on her brilliantly glossy hair, stylishly coiffed like one of the ladies from a cigarette advertisement. She was a glamourous bird of paradise in a nest of pale starlings. He could not pull his furtive glances fast enough from her and she caught his intense scrutiny.

They exchanged blushes even as a sudden heat of awareness infused the air between them. Even the half-blind Chinese master noticed. He harrumped loudly to interrupt this dangerous turn of affairs and prayed to his gods that it was not a sign that his comfortable days away form his family back in China were over.

It was the first lesson. He was dressed in his usual uniform of white shirt and black trousers and felt like a bedraggled coolie next to the immaculate beauty. They stood side by side at their desk, trying vehemently not to turn their heads to stare outrightly at the other.

They felt their shoulders tremble at the proximity of their object of increasingly smoldering attention. 

"Harrumph ..." came a quivering, querulous nasal interruption.

Bernard looked down to his left.

Night Wind looked up to her right.

The Chinese master looked to both sides and said. 

"No talking talking, OK? You take brush and dip dip in ink now. Not too much! Aiyoh! Zhan hai geh!"

Slowly, as if drowning in molasses of miasma, they pulled their distracted attention back to the blank white rice papers before them, their gaze as vacant and their cognizance as thin.

She started drawing her brush deliberately across once.

He started stroking his in soft lines diagonally across the blank slate.

By the end of the class, she had learnt how to write the Chinese numerals to 5. He had began to paint the mane of a horse.

But they still had not found out each other's name.

It was a terribly unproductive class for them.

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