“Shen Bi Ma Liang” by Amy Wang
This is the full version of “Shen Bi Ma Liang” by Amy Wang ’20, published in excerpted form in our Fall 2016 issue.
Shen Bi Ma Liang
In the story my father used to tell, Ma Liang was a hero. Of course, back then I was just a kid living in the Old Country. And the story was only a story, and made sense in my head.
For as far back as I can remember, he’d always tell it on my birthdays. We established a tradition. I’d finish my celebratory bowl of noodles, look at him across the table, clear my throat and ask: “Can you tell me the one about Shen Bi Ma Liang?” And he’d grin, exposing those crooked yellow peasant-teeth, and begin the tale.
The ending would always be the same: Ma Liang triumphant, the kingdom applauding his heroism. I’d fall asleep to dreams of golden mountains and animate paint, wishing for a magic brush of my own.
It’s a traditional tale, one my father knew by heart. A peasant boy aspires to be a painter but isn’t able to afford the supplies, so he practices drawing in the dirt with twigs and sticks instead. Though his family lacks money, he is kind-hearted, gracious and honest—and so the gods take pity. One day, a spirit approaches in the form of an old man and offers him a single, fine-haired brush. The boy thanks the man, takes the brush and proceeds on home.
How could he have foreseen the surprise that would await him there? That the very first swallow he’d paint, its inky wings spread out across the walls of the house, would lift so suddenly off the clay and take flight?
He couldn’t have known. But take flight it does. He watches it soar away, through the window and into the great blue strip of silk lying beyond.
When word gets out of his gift, first the village and then the whole world starts flocking to Ma Liang’s doorstep. He paints radishes and rice—lotus flowers—bright-eyed swans. With a dip and stroke of the enchanted brush, he brings a peacock to life for a little five-year-old girl, who shrieks with delight. Another dip, another stroke, and there’s a new summer robe for Mrs. Liu. Another and another, and a basket of plums materializes, piled high enough to feed the entirety of Ma Liang’s family.
The people who arrive from the city are amazed. The villagers, who have known the boy all his life, are overjoyed. No more unbearable winters, they decree. No more bad harvests. With his help, we will live like emperors.
The forms changed things for my father and me.
A month or so before my eighteenth birthday, I first began to notice the way his eyes kept meeting mine—just a quick glance, then they’d flicker away—over and over again as I traveled to and fro along the spindle of my schedule: eating, working, studying, sleeping.
That gaze of his was troubled, I could tell. It was distant, vague; he didn’t grin as much as he used to. When, at one or two in the morning, I finally clicked off the table lamp and heaved myself to bed, a sliver of blue-green light would still be shining from the crack underneath my door. I imagined my father at the kitchen table in his rubber sandals, or else logging hours on the bulky desktop computer, thinking about…what? But I’d fall asleep before I could wonder too long.
Later I would return to that day, that month, that year—scour each in my mind’s eye for signs of the oncoming flood. What had we eaten for dinner? When had I come home from work? Where had my father been the night before? Why hadn’t I take the time to unravel his mysterious ways, his hours on the Internet?
Later, in the dark of night, I would ask myself: what had I done to deserve this? What had my father thought I’d done to deserve this? And what had I done to deserve my father?
By summer, news of the magic brush has rippled throughout the kingdom. One day, Ma Liang receives an invitation from the emperor, who requests the boy’s presence at the royal palace in the far-flung capital across the sea. And so, emboldened by the promise of fame, Ma Liang boards the royal vessel and prepares to sail. The whole village gathers to see him off; all around the harbor, tears and shouted words mingle in the air.
Whether these cries should be attributed to exultation or grief—who can tell? The bottom line is they are giving him up. He is not leaving; they are giving him away. Gladly or sadly, they have come to say goodbye.
Ma Liang’s optimism is short-lived. Nearly as soon as he arrives at the capital, the emperor assails him with demands. “Paint me a mountain of gold,” he bellows. “Or I’ll have you executed tonight.”
And so Ma Liang lifts the brush from his jacket pocket.
A few weeks earlier, I remember, I had mentioned my upcoming birthday to my father, hoping to wheedle a gift out of him. Eighteen was a big year; I craved something grander than the usual fifty or sixty yuan.
“This is a special year,” I ventured over dinner. “My eighteenth, you know.”
“Of course I know,” he said, grinning at me. “I’m your father.”
“Will I be receiving anything special?”
A slight pause, and then—“You’ll be receiving the tale of Shen Bi Ma Liang.”
I dropped the topic, the pause he’d taken stifling my nerve. Perhaps I was asking too much, after all. I didn’t want to press him for something he couldn’t afford. And besides, I reminded myself, I was hardly a filial son; apart from fixing meals, I rarely ever gave him gifts for his own birthday.
And then, all of a sudden, came the forms: a hefty stack, piled on the table just where my bowl of noodles should have been.
Ma Liang lifts the brush from his jacket pocket. And paints a sea of frothing waves.
One by one the white-tipped crests emerge, roiling as if enraged. He paints each crest with the help of his own memory, reminding himself of the wind slapping his face at the harbor, the fishermen who abandoned their boats to see him off—to say goodbye to Him, Ma Liang, the boy who saved their town.
Above the first sea he paints another: this one of churning, smoke-gray clouds.
And only then does the golden mountain take shape, uncurling in long, loose lines with each dip and stroke of the artist’s hand, sandwiched between water and sky.
“What are you doing?” shrieks the emperor. “Stop this misbehavior. I want only the golden mountain!”
But it’s too late; ink is irreversible. So Ma Liang paints a ship, onto which the emperor, along with several of his most loyal officials, immediately climbs.
And they’re nearly three quarters of the way to the mountain when a spear of lightning forks down from the clouds and strikes the mast of the ship. A moment of illumination—the silhouette framed briefly by hot white light—and the whole thing pitches underwater.
And just like that, Ma Liang has single-handedly rid the kingdom of its tyrannical king. “Boom—and goodbye,” my father would say, clapping his hands together to emulate thunder. I used to love that part.
I asked: “Why?”
“You’re a good student and a hard worker,” he said, scrolling down the lines of text upon desktop screen. “I know you. You’re wasting your potential living here.”
“No,” I said. “No, no, no.”
“You can get a better job, provide for me.”
“But I’m already providing for you! How will I keep in touch, all the way across the ocean? I tell you, I’m not going.”
“Why not? Think of all the opportunities you’d have. They say you can do anything there. You could become a writer, or a doctor, or…whatever you want to be. Why turn that down?”
“Because I don’t want to leave you here alone!”
And it was mostly true.
I wanted to tell him no, because I loved him. And also—to be honest—I loved our little family, our little boxed-in life. Even if we had to work harder than most, we had what was ours. Here was home, and out there…well, who knows? The opportunities would eat me alive. I was afraid of the world.
But then he raised his hand and I stopped talking. His palm loomed over my face, big and calloused and unfamiliar. He had never hit me before. “You are leaving this God-forsaken place,” he shouted, his voice like thunder. “Or you’re going to end up dying here, like everyone else before you, like me.”
His irises were as black as ink. And for the first time, I could see the pain behind them. The price he would pay, trading tickets for a son. All the things he thought about in the middle of the night.
I don’t know, I just broke. “Fine,” I said, and he lowered his hand. And soon enough, boom—I was out of there: locked up in a plane, hundreds of miles from the Old Country, alone in an endless sea of sky.
What if Ma Liang isn’t all he seems to be? You know, what if he shares our everyday burdens: acne scars, unforgotten ex-boyfriends, tea eggs left to burn over the stove, a father who loves him too little and too much?
And what about the other burdens, less quotidian maybe, but heavy nonetheless: emperors’ last screams, lightning crackling, ship hulls splitting into the sea?
Later, after the farewell, does he wish he’d known much he was capable of? Raising mountains out of paint? Folding paper into thunder? Drowning human kings in watercolor tides?
Later, alone in his studio, does he spend hours staring at the canvas, that filmy void with so much potential for destruction? Is he afraid to hold the brush? Does he ever snatch it up and streak darkness across the page, watch as the layer of ink peels away and spreads across the walls?
Later, in his mansion across the sea, does he dream of his family, still grappling with disaster and disease in his country home? What does he think when they decline to move in with him, distrusting his newfound fame? How does it feel to visit them, back in the village of his youth, when all the peasants stare as if he’s a hero from some unfamiliar story?
Later, walking down the street, does he catch sight of a swallow circling in the distance and remember his first and last piece of art?
Does he live out the rest of his life with a mountain of blame lodged like a fish bone in the back of his throat?
My last trip back was almost eight years ago. The pollution had gotten worse, but the mosquitoes were just as vicious as I remembered. From late June through early August, I grinned and nodded and laughed emptily with friends with whom I’d long since grown apart.
To be honest, I had a pretty shitty time. But even after all those years, the memory of my father’s raised hand still lingered in my head. So I made sure to be nice, not to say anything that would upset him. I didn’t even mention Robert, who’d recently moved in with me, but I figured it didn’t really matter; my father wouldn’t understand, and I didn’t care to explain. And Robert took off three months later, so I guess we saved ourselves the trouble.
I keep a different version of the story tucked away in my head. In this version, Ma Liang moves to the city after the king’s ship sinks. Quits professional painting. Maybe he goes to school and becomes a doctor or a lawyer instead. Or maybe he can’t find another job, or just doesn’t feel like looking, and so he stays in his friend’s apartment on 17nd Street, helping wash the dishes after dinner and falling asleep on the living room couch to the faded scrabble of the late-night news. Works on some murals in his free time, but the pictures always peel off the walls and expose the brick and graffiti underneath, so he quits that too. Locks away his paintbrush in a small black box and keeps it under the couch, along with the plane ticket printouts and the photographs of his family.
Maybe he couldn’t figure out how to handle all that power. Maybe he’s tired of heroism, or maybe memories of the golden mountain still force him out of sleep.
Or, you know. Maybe he wants to keep something for himself, for once—craves lines that will stay still where he marks them, images that will sit quietly inside their frames.
Yesterday my father called. I picked up the phone, static crackling like lightning through the line. The walls of the apartment loomed yellow and crooked all around me and the receiver seemed to tremble in my hands, as if it might come alive and fly away.
I had been thinking about the story—I’m not sure why; I might have been dreaming about it the night before—and mentioned it to him for the first time in what felt like forever. He laughed, couldn’t believe I still remembered it so clearly. “You should come back and visit,” he said. “I’ll tell it to you again in person.”
The sky was so blue outside the window. I stared hard at that great blue canvas, thinking it looked like silk, imagining swallows. I wanted to tell him: “I can’t, I’m sorry, the tickets are too expensive.” I wanted to tell him: “That isn’t my home anymore.” I wanted to tell him: “I am not a hero.”
But instead I just chuckled and said, “Maybe next year.”
 “Ma Liang of the Magic Brush”