Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wild Horses of Home

Sometimes you find yourself doing inexplicable things. Stopping in the middle of the road because a stray rain drop on a bright red flame of the forest glistened suddenly like a diamond, throwing a seductive wink back at the lavish sun.

Why? Because it reminds you of slow summer afternoons when he took you on walks, explained what a flame of the forest was and went home to teach you how to paint one.

You almost buy an antique wooden badminton racquet that is chipped and missing its strings. As you fondle the age-smoothened handle and savour its weight and grip, you contemplate not its valuation but the value it once played in a child's joy.

You remember the first person who bought you a wooden badminton racquet and a canister of shuttlecocks. The focus on how to grip it properly in your little hands. The unfamiliar weight and desire not to disappoint. The yelling you both receive when the shuttlecock toppled one of the porcelain ornaments and shattered the lesson. The sneaking off to the back hills to continue the lesson. And then the years spent in training and tournaments.

You contemplate those days and feel a faint sense of regret in abandoning that childhood play.

A Chinese ink painting of a herd of wild horses catches your eye. Simple in composition, sure in execution. The lines are fluid. The brush control is assured. The pressure is aggressive yet the strokes are light. The manes of the horses flow in the ghost wind and the prairie is suggested.

You almost buy it and then remember you will not be home for a long time to display it. Should it travel with you and accompany you as the sand clouds that hover nebulously behind the horse in the background of this painting? 

The urge comes not from yourself but from the memory of one for whom horses hold much significance. Born in the year of the Horse, painter of horses and nothing else, collector of figurines and statues, carvings and paintings all glorifying the freedom and wildness of the desert nomads. A remnant of home. A reminder of heritage.

The painting is wrapped lovingly and you carry it with you across the seas and clouds, farther from the desert sands and wide plains suggested in ink.

You find yourself caressing the cool, jade-coloured bottle of Chinese wine. Shaped like a gourd, with a red plastic seal. A small bottle of liquid fire that used to burn and glide across lips and throat that spoke of home. Where horses roamed free and the eye could see for miles into the sky and endless horizon.

A glass or two after dinner. Sitting in the darkened grotto under the warm amber glow of a garden sconce. Fanning himself gently as he drank his wine and smoked his pipe. Banished from the house which did not abide the pungent smell of tobacco, the only companion a skinny young child seated by his side.

Tall tales and short hugs. He was not a very physically demonstrative man but then again, none of us were. But he showed his affection in myriad ways. Usually in ways that got him banished from the house.

A little baby pipe so you could smoke by his side. When you were all of six. 

A tiny snifter so you could share his wine and whiskey. 

A set of rice paper and Chinese ink and brushes so he could teach you to paint bamboos and horses.

A badminton racquet and shuttlecocks so you could break things in the house. Which got both of you banished from it.

Much time was spent in that garden. Smoking. Drinking. Painting. Not the most wholesome activities, perhaps, for a young child. 

But he also taught the art of self defense, the love of Chinese literature, music and poetry from the motherland, how to play the violin (badly), ancient medicine, folklore, the art of war, honour, loyalty and sacrifice for your fellow comrades during these sessions in the garden.

You wonder sometimes if he realised you were not a boy as he never treated you differently and imparted lessons that seemed more appropriate for the oldest male child of the family instead of the tiniest female child.

Perhaps it is because you were so tiny and frail that he wanted to make sure you were strong enough to stand on your own two feet when he was not around.

Hit first. Ask questions later.

Never let anyone touch you without permission. And only give permission to those who will not use it to stab you.

Never harm the weak and helpless.

Always defend the weak and helpless.

Never hit a woman. 

Only fight when you need to. A gentleman learns to fight with words before fists. But when in doubt, deck the bugger.

Protect your own.

When overwhelmed, hit to stun, then run.

Never show your strength till the last moment. Then go for the kill.

The killing stroke can only be made once. If you miss, you lose.

Before delivering the killing stroke, remember that the enemy is someone's child and parent and think if it is still deserved.

Fight fair. Fight smart. If you have to fight dirty, make sure no one finds out.

To get rid of the problem, kill the root.

He loved his idioms and quotes. Old-school, old tales. Afternoons and quiet evenings spent listening to him spin stories. Favourite tales of long lost heroes sacrificing their lives for their home and hearth; heroines who infiltrated enemy lines at the risk of their virtue and lives; families who devoted their names in history to fighting to the last child in defense of their country.

He loved epics detailing the bravery of knights and warriors. Genies and djinns who beguiled, guided and misled. Princesses who did not wait for rescue but used their wiles to bedevil their captors.

You hold the newly-purchased bottle of wine and painting of his birth sign close to you. It is time to make a journey. Back to a quiet garden under the silent skies. A row of aged stone and plaster and grass. To place a painting and toast some wine across the slab where his name is inscribed.

To leave a note written in Chinese ink. On rice paper and sealed in red.

"Dear Grandpa

I come again to sit with you. To speak of tales of heroes past and admire a fine painting of the wild horses of home. 

I come again to drink some Chinese wine with you. To sprinkle some across your garden so you can enjoy it when I am gone.

As I have enjoyed every moment we had.

These I leave with you till I come back again. "

It is time to make a journey.

* The painting featured, is of course, not the one by my grandfather or the one I bought.  If only I could afford a Xu Beihong!  It is instead, one of the masterpieces of one of my most admired artists, entitled Liu Ma or Six Horses.  For a rather good article about Xu Beihong, you may check out 06/the_voracious_g.html.

Copyright reserved by Raised Eyebrow.  Please do not copy or republish without permission.


Kai said...

Greetings, Raised Eyebrow. I came here by way of trackback to my modest Xu Beihong post, and I'm glad I did because this is a wonderful, elevating, heartfelt piece which speaks deeply to me. I savored the straight-as-arrows martial arts precepts almost as much as the beautifully turned phrasing of descriptive imagery and the gracefully controlled emotions. Thank you for sharing this piece of yourself. Keep doing what you're doing. I think your grandfather would be proud.


RaisedEyeBrow said...

Hey Kai! Thanks so much for your lovely comment! Aw, I am so touched. I like your site as I have learnt a lot from it. Have a brilliant weekend!