Wu Daozi has syrup dreams until the emperor limns him into the wrong dynasty. He wakes up with sweetness fogging up his mouth.
The emperor has heard legends of a lush valley caught in its own echo. Someplace older than the mother goddess who yawned red pulp into mountains and oceans, but still blooming bright as birth. The emperor yearns to see such a paradox himself, but alas, he sits on a throne adorned with gold and jade. It weighs ten thousand jin and cannot be moved.
This is why he has conjured Wu Daozi, he says. The emperor has inherited a paintbrush made from light. Take my paintbrush and bring back eternity. He does not offer Wu Daozi morning perk-up tea. Simply sends him along his way.
Wu Daozi walks for eighty-eight suns and eighty-eight moons. He passes through farms salted with blood and villages boneless with smoke. Wades through dawns and rice paddies. Mornings spit snow and scorched earth in equal measures. Afternoons nip at his heels with mostly rain, sometimes bandits. The sky boils, then simmers black. When he sleeps, he dreams of nothing.
As the eighty-eighth sun crests the horizon, Wu Daozi ascends the ridge feathered with plum blossoms the tender color of blushing courtesans. Every tree appears the same: petal-strewn limbs sprawled open in invitation. The dirt-trodden path meanders lazily, then fades away. Among ten thousand nameless blossoms, it is too easy to lose oneself. He settles underneath a tree and drifts off into sleep. This time he dreams of a grotto brimming with blue.
When he awakes, the day is unraveling into darkness. He scrambles upwards. Onwards. And when the eighty-eighth moon is sinking into dawn, he finally dips down into the valley of legends.
He squats at the lip of the river, which aches with the slow, rich melody of an erhu. Drinks and drinks until he is made of water and song. Then he stands up and gazes upon the valley.
The flora and fauna burst in unfathomable colors. Warblers and sparrows mingle overhead in magnolia trees. The gleaming grotto from his dream nestles at the foot of the mountain.
It is eternal paradise, but Wu Daozi realizes he’s forgotten to bring silk to accompany the paintbrush made from light. He has no choice but to turn back.
When he arrives at the palace, the emperor admonishes him. How, exactly, does one forget the canvas on which to paint? He commissions a mural. You won’t sleep until you’ve replicated that valley.
And so Wu Daozi obliges. He blinks away drowsiness and takes up the paintbrush made from light. Spends eight days and eight nights in front of the same square of wall, with plum-bruised feet and trembling knuckles and an endless inkpot. Rivulets of ink and blood sing down his wrists. Thoughts of sleep devour him. And perhaps his dreams, too eager to see and be seen, sneak into the painting.
At sunrise on the tenth day, he calls the emperor over to admire his work. It’s a stunning masterpiece, a perfect replica of paradise. The emperor murmurs in appreciation.
Wu Daozi claps sharply and the painting falls away to reveal another realm--a valley pulsing with life. The blue, blue grotto. He steps inside, quick as silk.
The emperor tries to follow, but the mural has already vanished, leaving behind only a blank square of wall.
Nobody believes him. Your artist disappeared into a mural? You must’ve been dreaming. And as the years pass, the emperor begins to believe that he has, indeed, been victim to his own wicked imagination.
There are only an infinite number of endings. In one universe, Wu Daozi indulges in paradise, mouth bruised with sweet fruit and poetry. Snatches sunshine on his fingertips.
In another universe, he becomes restless but imprisoned within the borders of his own making. Madness slowly seeps into his bones. He hungers for something he cannot name. When he dreams, he dreams of the crescendo of an heirloom voice. A throne room and yellow light sluicing through the afternoon.
In his mind, he pictures himself as a dark speck among green hills. Rolling mist at dawn. The snow sun-struck. A village razed. Soil blooming with blood. He yearns for plum blossom petals rotting into the earth. Someplace more than himself. Anything ugly. He is giddy from silence. Behind his eyelids, he sees ink on a never-ending ream of fine silk, an endless mirage of everything he cannot touch.