A woman who fears she’s failing as a painter and as an artist seeks inspiration from one of her favorite poets and finds something even more wondrous, but also more impossible to capture on canvas…
Kay turns right when she reaches the cove shore, away from the wind; it’s nice not to have the howling December wind in her face for a while, each blast the stroke of a sandpaper palm across her cheeks. People sometimes forget how cold it can get in southeastern Connecticut; she certainly did when she decided to make this . . . expedition, outing, jaunt, peregrination—whatever this journey is—during Christmas break.
The cove is frozen over as far as the eye can see, and each of her steps makes a satisfying crunch in the calf-high snow. She stops to catch her breath, the steamy exhalation clouding her vision momentarily. She peers up ahead and to the right, over the tall strands of cattails and reeds, snow-heavy cotton swabs, searching for a two-story house with a steeply pitched roof whose profile, etched in charcoal on the cover of Chilton’s first chapbook, has been seared into her memory.
“Should be right around here,” she mutters to herself before trekking on.
Excitement wars with embarrassment. This is such a silly trip, something her friends would make fun of her for if they knew. What is the point of visiting the house where her favorite poet no longer lives? What is the point of walking around the cove where he no longer walks? What is the point of a pilgrimage to the once abode of an avowed atheist?
We reminisced late into the night—
Empty wine bottles rattling along the kitchen floor—
“Let it go, Freddy”—
Laughing like hyenas at this memory and that—
“Oh we were so young!”—
Until someone lit a cigarette and coughed.
Through the haze we looked at each other
Mesmerized by the void between
Our constituent atoms
Falling away from one another.
Why is this poem her favorite? Does she also fear there is nothing but the void between atoms and among stars, once her syllables have dissolved back to entropic sound? What does it say about her that at thirty-four she already thinks her career as an artist is over, or perhaps that it has never started? Does she love herself too much, or too little? Why won’t they love her paintings? Why?
She trudges forward; one step, then another. No firefly-festooned Fraser firs (like in Chilton’s last poem, “Spontaneous Ornaments”); no reflections of glowing cabin windows shimmering in water studded with moon jellies; no blinking buoys beckoning steadily to distant fishing boats; no nuclear submarines gliding through the waves, silent leviathans ready to enforce America’s promise of peace through strength, moonlight scintillating off metallic hulls like fish scales—around her she could see none of the things that F. R. Z. Chilton wrote about. Between the frozen sea and the snowbound earth, she’s a stick figure moving between white and white, leaving behind an extended ellipsis on a blank page, a Pollockian dribble against an empty canvas.
She peers through the darkening gloom, made hazier by swirling snow crystals riding fitful gusts. Still no sign of the house; she fiddles with her phone, but there is no reception and the map app leaves her in terra incognita. She’s not dressed properly for a seaside winter hike. The cold seeps down the collar and up the sleeves of her inadequate coat, intended for short trips between the car and the Fresh Food Basket. She shivers and tries to walk faster, trampling through the snow.
She imagines Chilton returning here every summer, leaving behind the fancy parties in New York, Frankfurt, Athens, Amsterdam; leaving behind the cacophony of tongues, vintages, awards, jealousies, friends, foes, and lovers, all clamoring for his attention, gaze, approval; she imagines him holed up in his quiet refuge by the sea here in rural Connecticut, a hermit surrounded by his volumes of Homer and Ovid (one of which he had translated himself), Dante and Chaucer, Keats and Hopkins, Eliot and Stein, Sappho and Spencer, emerging only to take walks in the morning and evening, perhaps even over the very same sliver of land she’s stumbling over now, penning the poems that would then be gathered into Veni Vidi, Dry Spells, Sixty-Three Awakenings, the books that will last long beyond the scattering of Chilton’s own ashes into his beloved Aegean.
There is nothing remotely similar about their lives. What does she hope to accomplish by seeing his house, by walking the same ground, by breathing the same air—albeit in a different season? What can a woman whose paintings have been seen by fewer than fifty people hope to learn from a ghost whose poems have been taught to millions? Is it envy or hope that propels her to visit the site of her artistic hero’s triumph?
What, after all, can she learn from Chilton? She cannot paint scenes of sun-dazzled beautiful young men in the Aegean, of the cry of a loon disappearing over a New England lake, of debating the finer points of Anglo-Saxon grammar with Seamus Heaney. What can she draw on but a tiny chain-link-enclosed backyard with dying grass; shadeless sidewalks dotted with bits of dried dog poop; the long checkout lines at the Fresh Food Basket, where she both wants and doesn’t want more shifts; the faces of people in the city rushing about, busy, depressed, sensual, and empty, worried about not having more money and so fearful of losing the little love they have that they cling to it, clutching so hard that they’ll kill it and they know it. She tries to paint these things but she cannot seem to find a way to make the others understand the love and apathy and pride and terror, all of it, none of it.
Though she has never lived Chilton’s life, she can feel the heat of his lusts, the cutting pain of his losses, the cool thrill of his dispassionate observations, the warm tingling of his moments of joy. But those who have gazed upon her paintings have not seen what she wanted them to see. When people say anything about her work at all, they use words like “quotidian,” “realist,” “sentimental,” “outdated,” “parochial,” “limited.” Chilton’s poems are deemed universal while her paintings are not. Is this difference between them due to a gap in skill and talent or a disparity in something else—something immutable, faceless, immovable, unjust, something she can never overcome? The question gnaws at her—perhaps it’s the question that lies behind this trip that she cannot even fully explain to herself.
As her shadow grows longer and her breath shorter, anxiety mounts in her heart, threatening to tip over into despair. She looks back: the footprints are already disappearing; she may not be able to find her way back to the parking lot.
Frustration makes her want to scream. To take the train down here and to rent a car and to take off time from work, just so that she can try to . . . find something here that will keep her going—and now to fail. It’s all so ridiculous. She is a failure. Her mother is right. She has failed as a painter, as an artist, as a productive member of society. She might as well sit down where she is and let the storm take her, become one with the snow-swabbed cattails, one of Pascal’s thinking reeds.
Everything falls silent. She hears nothing. Not the distant traffic on the highway she took, not the Christmas songs in the mall parking lot she passed, not the last-minute rush of commerce and commercialized good cheer she escaped. Not even the howling of the wind. Snow falls around her quietly, in large clumps that stick to her jacket, to her hair, to her long lashes.
Something begins to glow in the south, beyond and through the falling veil of evening. Puzzled, she squints through the snow at it.
Suddenly, the sky is lit up bright as noonday—no, brighter. Her hands shoot up to cover her eyes instinctively. The frigid air that has been hounding her all day is replaced by warm gusts that caress rather than whip.
Cautiously, she uncovers her eyes. The snow and ice are gone. She stares, mouth agape, at the verdant grass that stretches from her feet to the cove shore, at the gentle aquamarine waves undulating beyond, at the sunlight sparkling among them—or maybe glints from dancing jellyfish? Dotting the grass are blooming flowers and glorious bushes she has never seen, as well as a few clumps of colorful mushrooms glistening like handfuls of jewels. Farther away, trees gently sway in the breeze, their leaves whispering incessantly, carrying on in a dreamy language she wishes she knew.
She looks about in wonder. She’s clearly not on Long Island Sound anymore, and this is no Christmas Eve.
There, she sees it, coming over the horizon, beyond the waves, a great sinuous presence with outstretched wings that seem to curtain the gap between heaven and sea, whose every inhalation and exhalation is a storm in the sublunary realm, a creature so grand that language deserts her. She stares at it, unblinking, greedily drinking in the sight, unwilling to be parted from it for even a fraction of a second.
Moment by moment, the creature approaches. Its shadow blots out half the sky. Its call drowns out all other sound. It seems to have a thousand eyes and no eyes at all. Each wingbeat feels like a breath taken by the universal lung, the perpetual bellows that drives all Life in the Dao De Jing. The creature is the platonic ideal of Creature, the very Form of all consciousness. Nothing in her life has prepared her for this.
In that moment, she understands all the poems she has ever read; she grasps all the paintings and statues and photographs she has ever puzzled over; she sees the grace in every sidewalk crack, every wearily slumped shoulder, every tired face asking, What is this about? She understands it all, sees it all, accepts it all. Everyone is heroic, the protagonist of their story, the only story they’ll know from the inside out—true, unflinching, joyous in the face of the void. There is light in everything. It is all so beautiful. She’s so delighted that she begins to laugh, only then realizing that she has forgotten to breathe and she’s growing light-headed.
“I’m looking at a dragon!” she screams, not caring who hears her. “A dragon!”
The great dragon sweeps overhead and disappears among the clouds. She laughs; she cries; she babbles with tears streaming down her face.
Eventually, she notices around her the frigid darkness, the heavy snow, the biting gusts of wind, the silence that swallows her shouts of joy like a bottomless well.
It’s Christmas Eve again, and she’s back on the shore of southeastern Connecticut. The world has returned to the quotidian.
But how can it? She has seen a dragon. A dragon!
She stumbles through the snow back toward her car, guided by wild hope, the search for Chilton’s house forgotten; she knows what she must do.
She paints the dragon from every perspective: from above, as though gazing through the camera on a military satellite or the eye of God; from below, the way she remembers it, a mortal being peering up at transcendence; from the air, cinematically, as though the picture were a shot from a superhero film; from nowhere and everywhere at once, with the dragon fractured into a dozen perspectives all jumbled together in a prismatic collage.
She paints in a feverish state. No sleep, no food, no shifts at the Fresh Food Basket. She collapses to the floor, eyes still on the unfinished canvas, and slips into a dreamless slumber even as she tells herself she’ll be closing her eyes only for a second. She startles awake in the middle of the night, stumbles to the fridge to pick up the only thing she finds in it, a shriveled lemon, and starts to paint again as she sucks on it, having turned on every light in the apartment.
None of the paintings suit. No matter how many layers of paint she slathers onto the canvas, the dragon under her brush looks absurd, fake, insubstantial, like something copied from a video game box, or one of those calendars they sell at a discount at the dollar store: Unicorns and Dragons, Your Year in Magic, The Inner Druid. Instead of breathtaking, the dragons she paints are mere lifeless clichés, puppets with no soul, no presence, no transcendence.
Never has she felt so keenly her own inadequacy as an artist. She crawls into bed and clutches a thick pillow over the back of her head, sealing herself away, thinking she’ll never be able to face the world again.
Into her mind comes the poem where Chilton recounts the experience of going through the photographs of his father after his death.
A bearded bear in orange
Treks through Svalbard;
My sister and me, half-formed, one in each arm,
A progenitorial parenthetical;
Wedding, commencement, obligatory shots
From inside the airplane before he dove out of the sky;
Stiff poses with important men
Like logoed pens sticking out of a coffee mug;
I suppose I should cry, but I don’t can’t shan’t won’t.
Seven-and-seventy years in a shoebox,
The penciled dates fading, gone,
Scales of the dragon I can never know . . .
She wakes up, the seventh day after her return, and attacks the canvas anew. She paints what she saw on that New England winter shore: the preposterous grass, the impossible flowers, the lush, inconceivable trees, already fading. She paints the still-iridescent waves, the nevertheless-glowing sky, the yet-shimmering air, the wisps of clouds all pining after what was no longer there. She tries to paint the world not with the dragon in it, but the second after its passing.
Plato told his parable of dancing shadows of ideal forms, and Zhuangzi scoffed at the notion of capturing meaning with mere words. Because it is futile to apprehend the dragon with line and layer and color and shape, she tries to paint the trail left behind by the dragon, the echoes of its cry lingering over the trembling vegetation, the abating drift of clouds rearranged by its sky-rending wings, the way every speck of sea-foam, every fleeting shadow, every molecule of air cried out, It was here! Did you see it? Did you see it?
How can you not see the beauty in every moment of this world, the universality of every experience? The dragon is the Real, beyond mere Appearance, a realization of the Possible. Seeing the dragon and sharing it—this is her story. No one can see the dragon and be unmoved.
The brush drops from her hand, and paint spatters all over the floor—she’s been too busy to bother with laying down newspapers. She’ll lose her security deposit but she doesn’t care. Finally, she has created something that no one else could have—and it is absolutely, unconditionally universal.
Kay submits the painting to the spring show at ArtNow, her co-op. There are forty-six entries.
At the opening reception, like the other artists, she stands near her painting. Very few visitors stop. When they do, Kay avoids making eye contact, but she strains to catch snippets of their conversation.
“I don’t get it. Where’s the dragon?”
“What is that small thing in the corner? Is that it?”
“I think that’s a tree.”
“Why are there so many flowers if there’s snow around the edge? That’s weird.”
“Contemporary art is all weird.”
Why can’t you see the dragon?!? She bites down so hard that her jaw hurts. An artist craves an audience, but maybe not all audiences are crave-worthy. To calm her nerves, she sips from a glass of terrible wine.
In the end, “Best of Show” goes to Amondi’s photograph of plant specimens laid flat against a white background: milkweed pods resembling puffy green birds; a forsythia branch portraying a swarm of butterflies; a couple of young cactuses gently winding about one another in the manner of green caterpillars; a clump of mushrooms in the shape of a prairie dog, with earth still clinging to the stems. The title: “Vegan Menagerie.”
After the food is gone and most of the crowd has left, the artists mingle and move about the gallery, catching up with friends and checking out the other pieces.
“Happy spring!” says Olivia, probably the most successful member of the co-op, having sold at least a dozen paintings to people who weren’t related to her. She glances at Kay’s painting. “I see you went somewhere nice for Christmas break. Where did you go? Costa Rica? Belize? Oh!” The eyebrows circumflex as she listens to Kay’s response skeptically. “Connecticut? Huh.”
“Lovely. You have such an eye for color!” says Weiwei. Her eyes are so wide with delight and appreciation that Kay desperately wants to believe her—until she remembers Weiwei saying the exact same thing about her three-year-old daughter’s Halloween drawing, with that same expression.
“I’m reminded of this guy in Hokkaido who makes sculptures out of the bark ripped from trees by bears,” says Jack, who experiments with mixed media. “You should look up his work. You’ll love it.” The work shown at ArtNow always reminds him of other work by artists far away. She suspects this is Jack’s way to avoid ever giving an opinion—which is also an opinion.
As the evening goes on, Kay’s mood sours. These are people who have struggled alongside her for years—they’ve complained about the same public apathy, the lack of recognition, the unpredictable whims of the “art market.” They ought to understand her better than anyone else. Yet, no one seems to get what she’s doing. This painting, this thing she’s so proud of, isn’t connecting with others the way she hoped.
“The Passing of the Dragon,” Solana, her best friend, reads the title under her breath. Then she squints at the picture. “What prompted this sudden turn to allegory? I thought you were going to do more street portraits.”
“It’s not allegory.”
“Ah,” Solana says. She peers closer at the painting. “I’m not very good with the fantastic, so take everything I say with salt blocks the size of ice cubes—sounds like something Jack would make, doesn’t it? Cocktails served with salt cubes to challenge your tastebuds. ‘On the Rocks! For Realz!’ Sorry. I’m being unkind. He’s not that bad.”
“You were going to tell me your thoughts on my new painting,” Kay prompts.
Solana pauses. Kay can see she’s trying to find the best phrasing. “I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to have snow around a tropical forest. But what do I know? With magic, anything is possible.”
“No, it’s not ‘magic’ either.” Kay struggles to explain. “Magic” seems too small a word for what she saw, too close to a trick. Weeks later, she’s not even sure what she saw. Was it real or a vision? While the details of the incident are fading, the memory of that feeling of transcendence, of the world finally making sense, has only grown sharper. She knows that is real. She tries to hold on to it.
But as she imagines herself telling Solana about her Christmas Eve, she cringes inside. It’s too absurd. Solana takes pictures of old computer chips through a microscope, zoomed in so far that the etched circuits and components look like cityscapes. Her day job is designing chips for machine learning. Kay can’t see how Solana can relate to dragons, even if there weren’t any unicorns. “It’s . . . based on an experience I had. But I’m not painting literally what I saw. More the feeling of it . . .” Her voice trails off weakly.
Solana waits a beat. “Well, I think it’s very cool. If you do more in this style, you could consider bringing pieces to a sci-fi/fantasy convention. I bet they’ll get it. Honestly, I think we can all try to think more about untapped markets and being shown outside galleries—art is a business too, you know?”
Kay wants to say that she’s not doing this to pander to some “untapped market,” but she knows Solana means well, so she nods.
“Do you feel anything when you look at my painting?” she tries again, struggling to keep the pleading desperation out of her voice.
“Tropical plants in the middle of a snowstorm make me feel cozy,” Solana says. “I can see that working in a corporate office or a hotel lobby. Liv knows a developer who’s interested in supporting local artists.”
Suddenly, Kay feels very tired. Color seems to have drained out of the world. “I think I’m going to call it a night.”
Kay opens a link forwarded to her by Solana.
Celebrate the centennial of our favorite poet’s birth this summer! Submit your Chilton-inspired artwork today!
“Y link?” she texts Solana.
“Thought you liked Chilton,” Solana texts back.
She presses the call button. “I do. But I don’t have any paintings based on his poems.”
“Oh, don’t be so literal. Anything can be ‘inspired’ by something else if you squint hard enough and write a convincing cover letter.”
“But why should I?”
“You didn’t read the whole page, did you? The Chilton Society got a huge grant from some billionaire who loves Chilton’s poetry, so they’re holding a big festival at his estate: writers, musicians, politicians, actors, all kinds of big names. If you get into this art show, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, will see your painting. Liv will be so jealous. Can you imagine her face when she finds out you got in?”
Kay ponders the idea. Her eyes sweep over The Passing of the Dragon, leaning against the wall in a corner, bathed in the golden afternoon sun. A rush of excitement replaces her initial skepticism. An artist craves an audience, right? She imagines crowds thronging an opulent mansion turned into an art gallery for the week, everyone pausing before her painting, exclaiming in admiration.
She knows she shouldn’t be daydreaming like this. She knows she should trust only internal, not external, validation. She knows that seeking the approval of “the market,” pining for popularity, reaching for recognition—that way lies madness. These rules have been drilled into her since the day she told her high school art teacher that she wanted to be an artist.
But she can’t help it.
This is the best thing I’ve ever done.
She borrows Amondi’s camera to take a picture of her painting, taking her time on the computer to tweak the colors to be as true as possible. She agonizes over the submission email, in the end omitting the sighting of the dragon, knowing that telling such a story would mark herself in the eyes of whoever picks paintings for the show as a person to be avoided at all costs. Besides, she tells herself, surely they’ll see the dragon themselves from the painting. How can they miss it?
No, the painting isn’t about any of Chilton’s poems. But both Chilton and she are dragon-seers. Not literally, of course—she doubts that Chilton actually saw the same dragon she did, otherwise he would’ve written about it. However, in his poems she can discern the same sense of light, of transcendence, of connectedness with the world that she felt when she saw the dragon. There’s something universal that lies behind the work done by both of them—surely people can see that?
She takes care to tell the story of her Christmas Eve journey in such a way that “inspiration” can be read into it if one were so inclined.
Dear Centennial Committee,
The idea for this painting came to me when I was on a trip to visit Chilton’s summer house in Waterley, Connecticut . . .
“So which Chilton poem inspired The Passing of the Dragon?” asks the interviewer, a man with thick-rimmed glasses and almost no hair. He’s wearing a festival volunteer shirt: Words sting. Kay seems to remember him introducing himself as a retired professor.
“Well, it’s not inspired-inspired by any of them,” she says.
The man looks at her. Through the bulging lenses his eyes appear extra large and dark, like the eyes of some exotic deep-sea creature from a nature documentary. He points to the sign over the entrance of the tent they’re sitting in: Fan Art Contest.
Winning turns out to be quite a thrill. No, millions haven’t thronged to see her painting, not even tens of thousands. After all, who’s going to come for art done by no-name randos when they could be attending a concert from Kid Ika-Russ, who claims to be the “biggest Chilton nerd”? But, on the other hand, according to the RFID logs, over one thousand nine hundred and sixty-two visitors have passed through the tent housing the art contest finalists—that’s an order of magnitude more than any show she’s been part of—and they even voted her “Best in Show,” which means that her painting will be on display at the Chilton Society’s main gallery for a month. She’s never won any art prize before, not even in grade school. Sure, she did have to pay for her own flight and hotel to get here, but a win is a win.
“The idea of the painting came to me while I was on a trip to visit Chilton’s house in Waterley, Connecticut. But it’s not based on any of his poems,” she says. “I put this in the submission letter.”
“So you want to withdraw your entry?” the man asks. He puts the cap back on his pen and closes his notebook. He takes off his glasses and folds them away. His phone is still there on the folding table next to them, recording, but he’s going to get to that in a second.
“No!” she blurts. “Not at all.”
The man looks at her again. Without his glasses, his eyes look too small, almost like he’s squinting at her. “Tell you what,” he says after a pause. “Tell me the last poem you were thinking of before the idea for the painting came to you.”
The memory is already hazy, so she has to think about it for a bit before the title comes back to her. “‘A Visit.’”
“‘We reminisced late into the night’?”
“Yes. That one.”
The man puts on his glasses, flips open his notebook, uncaps his pen.
She lets out a sigh of relief. This seems a good compromise. She’s telling the truth and acknowledging the totality of her inspirations. She was thinking of that poem before the dragon appeared in the sky. Even if the two aren’t directly connected, maybe there’s some kind of sympathetic magic at work. What do people mean when they said that something is “inspired” by something else anyway? Can she really be sure that nothing in the train of thoughts that led to her painting involved one of Chilton’s poems? Didn’t Solana tell her that human artists aren’t any different from the machine-learning networks built by her customers? In both cases, the learning mechanism, mechanical or biological, absorbs and absorbs and absorbs examples of art like a sponge until you give it a squeeze, and out comes the juicy mash-up-fusion-origimitations? (She’s not sure she’s got that entirely right; Solana was talking very fast.) Can she really be certain that the aesthetic of Chilton’s poems, poems that she’s read dozens of times, hasn’t altered her own style in some way that’s hard to pin down? Isn’t all art derivative, copies of imitations of homages of allusions of retellings of yet more copies? All art is fan art. She’s sure she read some essay that argued that back in college.
“Tell me how ‘A Visit’ inspired your painting,” the man says.
An artist craves an audience. She’s seen a dragon and wants to share that vision, that feeling with the world. This is the best thing I’ve ever done. And this is her best shot at getting that break, putting her work in front of an untapped audience, people who otherwise would never see her painting. People who love Chilton as much as she does are the best possible candidates to see the dragon beyond the edge of the canvas, aren’t they?
She takes a deep breath. “It was Christmas Eve, very cold. I was in Waterley, Connecticut, on a pilgrimage, I suppose . . .”
Kay looks at her phone in confusion. Who are these people?
She just got back from a two-hour walk. She likes taking long walks along the river, where the elevated highway is only a distant hum over the wetlands preserve, and the shoreline path is filled with bikers and joggers and dogs and children. She likes watching their headphone-insulated faces as they pass her, their expressions intent, their minds far away. She wants to paint these faces, this feeling of being in one place but also another, of being embodied and disembodied at once. Now that she’s seen the dragon, she thinks she can finally capture them the way they deserve, give them the light that will make them glow. She doesn’t take her phone on these walks because she wants to stay in the moment. Stay here.
The message app shows 671 notifications. She’s not sure she can name that many people.
Her walks have grown longer lately, a way to keep herself away from her computer. For a while, after winning the art contest at the Chilton centennial, she had checked the forum hosted by the Chilton Society obsessively. Her interview had been published on the website, along with a high-res photo of the painting.
A few threads sprang up to discuss her painting. One evolved from a debate over which part of “A Visit” inspired the picture (“The mushrooms in the bottom-right corner must represent ‘constituent atoms falling apart from one another.’” “That is so literal!” “What do you expect from fan art by a middle-aged wannabe?” “People will do anything to get a little attention these days.”) to a political flame war before moderators shut it down. In another, posters searched for Mediterranean plants in her painting and reminisced about European vacations. A third was full of memes mocking her and her painting. A fourth, created in response to the third, was filled with messages intended to be positive: “She must have worked so hard on that. Look at how much detail is in every flower!” “It’s so creative! I’ve read ‘A Visit’ so many times, but never interpreted it as a poem about an angelic visitation.” “Bad fan art would render this scene of a visit from Chilton’s old friends from France into some Norman Rockwell schlock. But the genius artist behind The Passing of the Dragon depicted it as a surreal mythical dreamscape of lush plants blooming in the middle of a kingdom of ice and snow—Persephone in Tartarus. It captures perfectly the emotional tone of Chilton’s masterpiece, in which the magic of connectedness, the bond between old friends, weaves memory into a bulwark against the cold dying light of mortality.”
Even as she holds the phone, she can see more notifications pinging in, scrolling down from the top. The number on the badge in the corner of the app icon ticks up. She doesn’t want to open it. Instinctively, she thinks the notifications are related to the painting. She doesn’t know why or how. So far, she’s had to seek out the comments about her—borrowing trouble, as her mother would have put it. What has changed?
She thought that fourth thread in the forum would make her happy. In fact, she had printed it out so that she could savor the praise. But it depressed her more than the thread of mocking memes. They were praising her for her hard work, for her dedication, for her willingness to devote her creative energy to the celebration of Chilton’s poem. Whatever was good in the painting was derived from Chilton’s artistry; whatever wasn’t to their taste, on the other hand, was left at Kay’s feet.
Having an audience, she has learned, can be a terrible thing.
The painting isn’t fan art—she had made that clear, she thought, in the interview. Yet, no one seemed to have read what she said in it—or, if they did, they got out of her words only what they wanted to. All that mattered to them was that her painting was the winning entry in an art show devoted to works “inspired” by Chilton’s poems, and the last poem she was thinking of before painting her picture was “A Visit.” She had thought it obvious that “inspiration” was a complicated thing, a matter of degrees and shades and types and indirection, but they have reduced her nuanced answer to: “fan art.”
This hurt more than the mockery, than the made-up “facts” about her life, than the comments on her appearance, dress, technique. The subtleties of inspiration, influence, originality didn’t matter. Her ideas were irrelevant. The painting had simply ceased to be hers. Context had overwhelmed the text.
The pain, the pain that aches in her chest, that sucks the pleasure out of every thought, that makes it hard for her to get out of bed in the morning, is knowing that she is responsible for her own loss because she chose to enter the painting, to put herself next to Chilton, to find an audience.
She can’t even bear to read Chilton anymore. These fans have soured for her the words of her favorite poet. She knows it’s unfair, but she can’t help it. No artist wants to be subsumed by another, not even by a hero.
And worst of all. No one is talking about the dragon. They don’t see it.
Her phone buzzes again, vibrating in her hand, insistent, relentless, a little demonic, really.
“Never read reviews,” Solana said to her. “Never read internet comments.”
She knew Solana was right, but this wasn’t helpful. She felt awful already. She needed sympathy, understanding, grace, not a lecture about how she was wrong.
“Go paint something else,” Solana said. “Don’t obsess over what’s done. You’ll make something better next time.”
Kay was reminded that Solana hadn’t seen the dragon either. This is the best thing I’ve ever done!
Not even her best friend understands her, not really.
The number on the notification badge jumps up by ten, twenty. Who are they and what do they want?
She has already lost her painting to Chilton’s fans. Compared to that, what can be worse?
Resolutely, she taps the icon of the messaging app.
After days of obsessive research—it was the only way for her to feel she was making some progress, however illusory, toward getting her life back—this is her best reconstruction of what happened:
A group of activists in South America is trying to save a valley from commercial development, and lacking a charismatic bird or mammal or even flower to serve as an ambassador, they settle on a species of mushroom, the Splendid Soldier, a striking gilled fungus with a purple stem and a crimson cap. It’s critically endangered and exists nowhere else. They turn the mushroom into a mascot, make postcards and indigenous handicrafts, knit llama wool plushies of an anthropomorphized version (The Little Splendid Soldier) with big eyes and protest signs (not guns; never guns) and then try to get celebrities to post pictures with the plushies on social media.
They don’t have much success. It’s hard to get people to love a mushroom, even in the form of adorable plushies, and no celebrity takes up their cause. In fact, a popular singer who Kay has never heard of is caught on camera making disdainful remarks about the fuzzy oversized mushroom shoved in her face by an activist at one of her concerts. The obviously meme-able moment causes a minor ripple on social media before it’s forgotten.
Aaron H., a harried writer for a website fueled by “engagement,” stumbles across The Passing of the Dragon while randomly clicking around his browser. He has recently written an article about the minor commotion over the singer who cursed out the mushroom-hugging activist, so, his mind, like a neural network trained on cell phone photos of that moment at the concert, is primed to pick out the fungus. He notices the critically endangered mushroom in a corner of the painting.
“This is a picture of a poem by a famous poet?”
He’s on deadline. He has no time for research. He needs to write five hundred words and get them posted within the next thirty minutes to be paid fifteen dollars. He starts typing. “Famous Poet Supports Indigenous Claim to Valley.”
The article is so preposterous in its claim—the writer seems to have neither read the poem nor realized that Chilton died in the last century—that it goes viral. It fits perfectly into certain mass narratives that are always on the prowl for more confirmation. Some point out the absurdity of dragging a dead poet whose favorite subject consisted of the high-culture experiences made possible by being the heir to not one, not two, but three of the oldest family fortunes on Wall Street into a contemporary controversy over decolonization, as though Chilton could possibly have anything relevant to say on the topic. Others note that this particular article, high in opinion but low in facts, represents everything wrong with the “progressives,” ignorant of everything except their own righteousness.
In the incomprehensible logic of the internet, Chilton is soon forgotten but the mushroom becomes the latest social media sensation. Celebrities rush to take a stand, and the plushies now sell for hundreds of dollars online. The South American government with jurisdiction over the valley announces a halt in development plans pending further investigation (before quietly allowing work to resume a week later), and the activists celebrate a victory but warn that the work is not yet done.
Pundits and trolls continue to stir the discourse into a frenzy.
“Are we going to prioritize mushrooms over jobs?” “Indigenous voices must be heard.” “Capitalism needs to be saved from itself.” “Oh sure, American celebrities in private jets should definitely dictate policy in the Global South. Makes perfect sense, really.” “The development plan is backed by natives living in the valley.” “Are you seriously claiming there is a single monolithic ‘indigenous’ voice?” . . . It deteriorates into noise exactly the way you think it would, following the same little script you’ve seen play out hundreds of times.
Through it all, as Aaron H.’s original article is reshared, clapped, hashtagged, and memexed around the web, The Passing of the Dragon remains the hero image for the story, the icon for this latest outrage-hurricane to sweep through the attention economy.
Some hail the artist behind The Passing of the Dragon as a genius who boldly reinterpreted Chilton’s poem to politicize a revered figure of high American literary culture, thereby forcing the insular U.S. elite into engagement with the consequences of globalization and empire. Others denounce her as a manipulative third-rate propagandist who appropriated an indigenous cause and movement to further her own fame. The inevitable backlashes are followed by the unavoidable backlashes to the backlashes, as everyone scrambles for the moral high ground, with accusations of plants and useful idiots and counteraccusations of conspiracies and false consciousness. Buzzwords, devalued and bleached through overuse in the cultural wars, are cast about like clutched pearls. In the process of this debate that goes nowhere, keyboards clack, electrons zoom, servers grow overheated and are then cooled as the GDP ticks up yet another notch (after all, that fifteen dollars paid to Aaron H. must be accounted for) and our species further enlarges its carbon footprint and contributes to entropy in the universe.
Kay loses count of the unread messages in her inbox. Writers for sites fueled by various brands of fear or rage come to Kay. Some try to entice her by offering a chance to tell her story. Others try to make outrageous claims in the hopes that she’ll want to dispute them.
“Did you think people were too stupid to catch you when you deliberately altered a key element in a classic poem?”
“Be honest: when you painted the Splendid Soldier into Chilton’s poem, were you trying to troll the left?”
“Why did you mock the struggles of an indigenous people defending their own land by comparing them to a creature of European fantasy?”
“As a woman of color and a second-generation immigrant, do you identify with the struggles of the oppressed ‘mushroom people’?”
She tries to tell her story, the full story. She talks about Christmas Eve, about the search for Chilton’s house, about the moment when the world changed forever for her. She had painted that mushroom because it was on the ground, among all the wondrous flowers and shrubs and trees and waves and clouds and light, so much light, when she saw the dragon. It’s not a symbol, just one part of that vision of transcendence—though it’s difficult to recollect, much less to hold on to, that feeling of connectedness with the universe now, as she’s caught in a story she wants no part of.
She’s resentful that she even has to tell her story like this. It puts the focus on the personal, reduces her art to biography, to reportage, when what she’s really proud of is having figured out how to paint the unpaintable. She wonders if Chilton ever had to explain how he came to write “Che faceste dite su?” If Rodin ever had to explain how The Gates of Hell did or didn’t fit into some newspaper’s conspiracy theory. If Cézanne ever had to explain why he chose to paint apples instead of pears. Why do some artists have to explain and justify and defend their art and others don’t? Is it again about who is deemed universal and who isn’t? She hates this feeling of paranoia and bitterness, but how can she not be when they ask such questions?!?
Yes, yes. Their hands hover over the keyboards impatiently. But what about the mushrooms? What about the mushrooms?
Impatiently, Kay tells them that she doesn’t know why she saw the mushrooms; she saw lots of other wondrous things as well; she’s not sure if and where and when she had seen images of the Splendid Soldier before her vision on Christmas Eve. When pressed, she admits that she can’t rule out the possibility that she had perhaps seen the plushies somewhere on some tabloid site, perhaps in connection with that famous singer.
Even as she’s talking, she can see from her interlocutors’ bored eyes that they’re not listening. They aren’t interested in her story, in this strange, clueless, mad woman who claims to have seen a dragon. They already have the stories they want to tell; they already have the roles they want her to play. All she has to do is to drop the right keywords, and they will seize on them and apply the ready-to-wear labels onto her. No one cares about the dragon. All they want to talk about is the mushrooms. Why, why, oh why did she paint the mushrooms?
She stops talking. But it doesn’t matter; the conversation goes on without her.
“How a Failed Artist Rebooted Her Career As a Political Hack.”
“Of Mushrooms and Dragons: How to Be an Ethical Artist-Activist.”
“‘Mushroom Lady’ Blames Hallucination for Lies.”
“You Can Learn Everything about Bad Art from This One Painting.”
“She doesn’t even have the proportions right. The cap is much too large.”
“She needs to take basic drawing lessons. Those mushrooms look like the work of a drunk three-year-old. It’s sad how anyone can claim to be an ‘artist’ these days.”
“Do you think the tribe might have a trademark or copyright claim against her?”
“She’s trying to do something that L. G. Borhen had done so much better. But you know authentic activist artists never get any of the attention the poseurs do.”
An artist craves an audience. By that measure, she’s finally living the dream of every artist—her work is being talked about everywhere. Even her mother, who knows nothing about art and hasn’t bought a new phone in ten years, congratulates her on their monthly call. She hangs up and then drinks every last drop of alcohol she finds in the apartment.
Nothing in her experience prepared her for this. It would be one thing if they were critiquing her attempt to paint the dragon. She could live with that. She’s no stranger to withering commentary on technique, style, originality, execution. It’s the fashion among some “aspiring artists” at the co-op to formulate their critiques in the harshest terms possible in the belief that they are doing the victim a favor because a “thick skin” is necessary for artists. She’s never really understood their logic, however, since a thin skin, a vulnerability, a sensitivity toward the nuances of reality—a readiness to perceive dragons—is necessary to see the world’s beauty, to feel the tingling in the fabric of the cosmos that is at the foundation of all art.
But they’re not even talking about the dragon. In their eyes, her painting is only about the mushrooms. Mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms.
This painting is the best thing she’s ever done because it is the heart of her story, the clearest expression she has ever managed of the universality of the particular—and they aren’t even seeing it. She experienced a transcendent moment and tried to share it with the world, and the world then responded by kicking her in the teeth. This, this blindness is unbearable.
Kay can no longer paint. She reaches out to her co-op for support.
“If it were me, I’d take as many interviews as possible while people still care,” says Olivia. “You finally got your break. Strike while the iron is hot! You don’t have to talk about your fan art. Use the opportunity to sneak in your other paintings. Set up a Takuhatsu and get some patrons!”
The realization that Olivia is actually envious of her leaves her speechless. She finally blocks her when Olivia texts to ask for the contact info of bloggers who reached out to Kay.
“My neighbor was asking me this morning if I knew you,” says Weiwei. Her eyes are wide open, as though she’s sharing a compliment. “He’s very progressive. He thinks you’re amazing to have raised awareness for the people fighting for the mushroom.”
Kay opens her mouth, but then she sees that there’s nothing she can say in response. Nothing useful, at least. She closes her mouth and turns away.
“My advice: Don’t worry too much about sending a message,” said Jack. “You know, you remind me of that time when they asked Bob Dylan what his songs meant. ‘Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.’ Go Warhol. Trademark ‘The Passing of Mushrooms’ and sell your own stickers.”
It’s not about some “message,” damn it! It’s about not being turned into a prop in someone else’s story. It’s about believing that there is meaning in the universe, that you can see a dragon and tell people about it and not have them accuse you of having butchered mushrooms instead. She doesn’t say any of that, of course. Talking with Jack sometimes reminds her of trying to have a conversation with a pigeon. You think you’re making progress until the pigeon takes off, leaving a wet plop behind on the picnic table.
“You have to tune out the noise,” Solana tells her. They are having tea after dinner, while TJ, Solana’s husband, does the dishes. The swishing of the running water, the clanging silverware, the squeak as each clean dish is slotted into the drying rack, everything in its place, the chorus of domesticity polished smooth by time, even the garbage disposal’s deep drone serving as an occasional basso profundo, all of it makes her own depressed state seem unreal. She wonders if TJ, always practical and reliable, thinks of her as a whiner, someone with too much time and too little sense.
“You have to focus on the here and now, on things you can control,” says Solana.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? Art, especially art by someone like her, is always seen as frivolous, unnecessary, an indulgence. Even though she’s in hell, in more pain than she ever thought possible, an artist complaining about the reception of her work is never seen as worthy of sympathy. For those in the “real world,” the pain of artists is illusory, effete, a joke.
“Whenever I show my photos, some dudes will always come up to me and tell me how I got some technical detail wrong in the artist statement,” continues Solana. “They won’t even shut up after they find out what I do for a living. The world has never lacked fools.”
This should be comforting, but Kay doesn’t feel comforted. Unlike Solana’s microchip cityscapes, The Passing of the Dragon isn’t technical. She doesn’t have any objective expertise that she can lean on. She can’t dismiss the chatter as noise from idiots. Deep down, she can’t help feeling that the criticism is . . . somehow deserved. It is her fault. If only she had painted better; had given it a different title; had told her story better, earlier, more movingly; were someone other than who she is . . . if only. If only.
“The outrage-hurricane will move on if you give it fifteen minutes. It always does.”
Solana is right, but she’s also wrong. It’s true that for most people, fifteen minutes, maybe fifteen seconds, is all the attention and thought they’ll ever give Kay, enough time to scroll past a few memes featuring her picture, to tsk-tsk at The Passing of the Dragon and to laugh at how poorly she portrayed the famous mushroom, before being distracted by the next EyePunch video in their feed.
But while the internet has no attention span, it also never forgets. Kay is trapped in those fifteen seconds, in the memes, posts, screeching microblogs. Whenever someone looks up her name or The Passing of the Dragon, the top results will always be a snapshot of those fifteen seconds, a perpetual tempest from which there is no escape. This misunderstood painting, with those mushrooms that she hates, will be the capstone of her artistic career, the only thing she’ll ever be known for. She is the “Mushroom Lady.”
The grinding of the garbage disposal rattles her bones, becomes unbearable. She sets down the teacup. “I need to go.”
She stops searching for her name; she stops going to the co-op. She focuses on her job. No one at the Fresh Food Basket knows she paints; no one there has connected her to the “Mushroom Lady” (or, if they have, they haven’t said anything to her). She can just be an employee, playing a role, her own story as opaque to others as theirs are to her. They don’t know she’s drowning, and that can be strangely comforting.
She makes up games for herself: she memorizes the locations of the barcodes on items so that she can scan them without turning them this way and that; she devises methods to slide everything along the counter so that the motion feels smooth, rhythmic, efficient; she challenges herself to use as few or as many bags as possible; she makes the image of TJ concentrating on doing the dishes at the sink, oblivious to everything else, her mental ideal; she learns to still her mind so that working feels like dancing, a poem made from beeps of the register and strobes of the laser scanner. She finds solace in being busy and leaves art behind.
Solana comes for a visit. Kay feels awkward. She’s been avoiding her friend. She feels bad that Solana is working so hard to make her feel better, and it doesn’t work—it’s like Kay is failing her somehow.
Solana catches her up on the gossip at ArtNow. She talks about arguments with TJ and worries over her kids, about a new project she’s working on: zoomed-in photographs of the innards of old video game consoles, the thick circuits and leaking capacitors and corroded contacts like the abandoned houses and avenues of a ghost town, the lost Avalon of our collective youth, where dreams once roamed.
Until this moment, Kay hasn’t been able to admit to herself how lonely she’s felt. That’s the thing about depression. It oozes around you until all the color is drained and you think it’s normal, that the world has always been that way. But then a friend shows up and reminds you that that’s not true.
Kay listens. She’s comforted by the sound of Solana’s voice, by the aural and imagistic patterns in the everyday words, by the rooted presence of her friend. This connection, this solidarity—we may all be drowning, but we don’t have to drown alone.
Solana pauses and walks over to the painting, leaning against the wall, face hidden. She turns it around so that the canvas is once again bathed in the sunlight streaming in from the window. She gazes at it intently, studying it.
“I don’t see the dragon,” she says.
Kay’s heart convulses, but the pain isn’t bitter; it’s a sharp prick, cleansing.
“But I see someone trying very hard to share something beautiful, and I’m sorry that I can’t see it,” Solana says. “Please tell me what you see, what you want me to see.”
So Kay does. She tells her about the wings that drape from sky to sea, about the cry that lingers long after in the snowy air, about the overwhelming sense of oneness with the universe, about her own attempts to depict it, about Plato and Zhuangzi, about how she ended up making the painting she did, a painting of absences, penumbras, shed scales. She tells Solana about the mushrooms, about the flowers, about the trees and reeds, about the jellyfish in the waves. Solana listens, asking a question now and then, good questions.
The words are mere tracks and shadows and echoes; they can never be the dragon itself. But there is also a comfort in following the tracks, tracing the shadows, listening hard for the echoes. She doesn’t feel so alone anymore, and that helps.
“We’re all trying to tell our own story,” Solana says. “And we make other people parts of our own stories. We’re meant to bring our stories together, to speak and listen and know that the stories are real and they matter. I’m glad you are a part of my story, and I’m sorry I didn’t listen to your story as well as I should have. Thank you.”
Kay gets up to make the two of them some tea. It’s still early in spring, and the air is chilly. It’ll get better.
Because Kay can no longer paint, she reads.
She’s fascinated by the experiences of artists whose signature work was misunderstood, drafted into stories they didn’t agree to. Octavia Butler, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, even the curmudgeonly Robert Frost. She reads an interview with Chilton. Chilton! Who she never would have imagined in a thousand years lacked readers who loved and saw exactly what he wanted them to see.
“If I cared about being understood, I’d stop writing.”
I wonder if I ever saw what Chilton actually wanted me to see, Kay thinks. Maybe I’ve only been fitting his poems into my life, making his words part of my story, weaving his dragon scales into my armor. I won’t ever know what he saw and felt and meant when he wrote, “Someone lit a cigarette and coughed.” I don’t understand him either, not really.
Life is one long story we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, and in our quest for meaning, we make other people players in our own psychomachia. Sometimes the consequence of doing that can be terrible, like what happened to me. But it’s worth remembering that everyone is trying their best to look for their dragon, to find the heart of their story, and to then tell it as well as they are able: the activists trying to save their valley, the Chilton fans celebrating their favorite poet, even Aaron H., even the trolls who called me a plant and a hack.
It’s okay to take art that’s out there and make it part of your own story, to read into it what you want, desire, need—it’s inevitable, really. Maybe that is the only kind of universality possible.
But we should also try to remember that each artist has their own story. An artist doesn’t just crave an audience, but an audience who can hear that story, who can affirm that the story matters.
Everyone deserves that.
Although Kay can no longer paint, she starts a site to review the work of other artists.
She spends hours with Amondi, listening to her, before writing her post.
Kay writes of Amondi’s love of the capacity of the camera lens to flatten the world, to dissubstantiate flesh and bone. She writes about how whimsical and playful her vision is, how joy is at the heart of every photograph she creates. She writes about Amondi’s unfashionable belief that the eternal is also political, perhaps even more than the personal. She writes of Amondi’s ambivalence about the declaration that every photograph is a lie, about the nuances of shades of truth she sees in every black-and-white image. She makes no mention of Amondi’s family, background, personal history—Amondi hates how her work is always reduced to her biography, how people presume to understand her work when they know only a few facts about her. Kay listens hard and understands why sometimes a story is more complete when it doesn’t have all the parts.
The review doesn’t garner a lot of hits or views, but it is the only review that Amondi ends up linking on her website.
Kay follows Weiwei around, observing her at work. She coaxes Weiwei, who is reluctant to talk about her own work, with openness, with empathy. She makes tea for the two of them.
She writes about Weiwei’s watercolor technique: the use of layers of pigment and wash and shapes informed by complex mathematical formulae. She writes about Weiwei’s brush bringing to life ghosts and angels, the insides of things. Kay doesn’t make trite comparisons of Weiwei’s work to “Eastern” traditions or invoke “non-Western” philosophies, the sort of thing people like to do to Weiwei when they see her or her name and decide they know what box to put her into. Sure, brush painting influenced her, but so did her knowledge of the stars and her love of the Southwest, so why should Weiwei’s own story be subsumed into “grander” stories other people think are easier to tell? Kay tries to tell the story Weiwei wants to tell—she knows she’ll never get it 100 percent right, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try.
Weiwei cries when she reads Kay’s post. Her wife asks her what’s wrong but Weiwei shakes her head and says nothing. She prints out a copy of Kay’s review and keeps it in her studio, so that she can see it whenever she needs to.
Kay writes about Solana’s circuitscapes. Instead of describing her images as metaphors for Big Tech, for the surveillance state, for the convergence of the digital with the physical, she writes about the wonder of exploration, of seeing the mechanistic as indistinguishable from the naturalistic, of admiring the physical exuviations of our infinite-facultied mind. She writes about the yearning for the numinous in Solana’s exploratory photographs, a mysticism that Kay hadn’t understood until she really listened and looked. It’s not something that she’s ever seen anyone else talk about in her friend’s work. But it’s always been there.
“Thank you,” Solana says, after reading the post. An awkward pause follows—some feelings cannot be adequately expressed by words. “I suppose I have seen my dragon, too.”
She even writes about Olivia. It takes time for Olivia to let down her guard, to trust Kay to listen. Behind the abstract formalisms in her paintings, behind the modernist references and ironic postmodernist reconstructions, there is a loving, premodern, primordial celebration of the color blue. It’s true: you can’t mistake a painting by Olivia; she has invented her own visual language, as idiosyncratic as the way she always wears a sea-glass charm. She may allow labels of this contemporary movement and that to be applied to her work, but beyond the commercial compromises, she’s really trying to appeal to sentiment, creating paintings that are romantic in the oldest sense of the word.
Olivia doesn’t thank Kay or even acknowledge the post when it goes up. But on that day everyone can tell there’s a lightness to her movements, a smile that she tries hard to not show.
(Kay does not write about Jack. Some artists really don’t have a story they want to tell, and that is fine, too.)
She doesn’t like everything she reviews—who can?—but she strives to see what the artist was trying to show. It’s surprising how rarely people do that.
The words are never enough—art, as always, speaks for itself. But the artists she writes about are grateful to Kay for listening, for trying to see, for being the audience they didn’t even know they needed. She feels grateful, too, for she has also found a new story for herself, which is both a continuation and a revision of the old, a story about seeing the light in everyone, a story that connects, that roots her, that brings her joy.
Kay doesn’t get much respect as a reviewer and critic—what she does is seen as insufficiently ironic, lacking rigor or distance. But she doesn’t mind. She’s not writing for other critics and isn’t interested in their good opinion. (The critics are also trying to tell their own stories, like everyone else, and maybe they deserve their empathetic audience, too—it’s just not going to be her.)
We’re all doing our best to see the dragon and record its passing.
Kay brushes away the snow and sits down on the park bench. There’s nowhere to set down the bundle with the painting so she holds it next to her, resting on her bag. With the holidays here and everyone bundled up in thick coats, the buses are especially crowded. Unable to squeeze onto one, she’s already walked ten blocks with the painting, and she still has ten more blocks to go before getting home. Last-minute shoppers throng the street, passing in front of her like cattails seen from a coasting train.
Solana offered to have TJ drive her to pick up the painting since Kay doesn’t like to drive in the city in winter, but Kay refused, saying she likes taking long walks. She’s now regretting that choice, just a little.
So much depends on a good blade,
Gliding over without cutting
The vague promises we make about Christmas.
She smiles as she imagines the street emptied of cars, slick with ice like a frozen pond. How she would love to skate home now, like she used to do as a girl, as Chilton had done as a boy. (After a long hiatus, she’s able to enjoy Chilton again, and for that she’s grateful. His words have given her so much joy in her life that being able to read him again feels like recovering a part of herself.) She’s a little sad that she’ll never know what story Chilton was trying to tell with the poem. If the poet is to be believed in that interview, he’d be okay with other people taking his poems and fitting them into their own stories, even if they were about mushrooms and eyeballs and storms of outrage that he knew nothing about. Maybe that’s a kind of transcendence, too.
She notices that inside the plastic wrapping, the cardboard pieces sandwiching the painting to protect it are coming apart. She needs to retape them. She removes her gloves and carefully unwraps the plastic, takes off the cardboard pieces, and holds the painting up while searching for the roll of tape inside her purse. It’s not snowing and there’s a lull in the wind; not too bad.
She’s not sure how many people got to see the painting at the show that just closed. The gallery is small (it’s the back room of a coffee shop), and the theme—“Invisible”—isn’t very catchy. But Kay doesn’t mind. She picked it because she liked the people she met there. They were earnest and didn’t know her at all. (There are still a few people at ArtNow who call her “the mushroom lady”; she still struggles with tuning them out.) Nobody made any comments when she brought in The Passing of the Dragon. Maybe they never saw it, or maybe they didn’t care. (Solana is right that Kay overestimates the importance and power of the internet.) She hopes that at least a few people who saw the painting at the show found a positive and comforting way to make it part of their own pursuit of happiness.
She finds the roll of tape. She sits down, supporting the painting next to her on her purse so that it doesn’t get wet. She rips pieces of fresh tape and tacks them on the cardboard piece in the back.
She stops to take a break. She’s almost ready to add the front cardboard piece and secure it with the new pieces of tape. Then she’ll wrap it up and brave the slippery sidewalk home, joining the crowd of weary pedestrians, each absorbed in their own coat and story, all ready to be anywhere but here.
The fog of her exhalation clears, revealing a man stopped in front of her. He’s been walking for a long time, judging by the beard caked in flecks of ice. The red plaid trapper hat on his head is as ruddy as his cheeks. Annoyed pedestrians part around him like river water around a rock.
He’s staring at the painting she’s holding.
She tenses. He recognizes it. She readies herself for whatever stupid thing he’s about to say.
“That’s beautiful,” he says. He lets out a long breath, and the condensation immediately adds to the frost in his beard.
She doesn’t say anything, still unsure about him.
“We go through all this . . .” His voice falters as he gestures at the world around them. He tries again. “And then to know something like that exists in the universe, and we’re lucky enough to see it.”
“In the painting?” she asks.
“No, that’s not what I meant. Oh, I’m sorry, that . . . that’s rude.” His face turns even redder. “I meant that I see something impossibly grand and beautiful has just gone through there, and this is the best we can do to remember it.”
Her heart leaps. “The painting is called The Passing of the Dragon.”
“Ah.” He nods.
“Have you seen it?” she asks, not daring to believe.
“No, I’ve never seen a dragon,” he says. “But I did hear the most incredible music, the music of the stars, once. It made my heart sing. I’ve never been able to hear it again, no matter how many times I’ve tried to recapture it. All I can remember now are faint echoes. Your painting . . . it gives me the same feeling. You did an amazing job. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
For a moment, she’s transported back to that Christmas Eve on Long Island Sound, when she briefly was in the presence of the dragon.
“Thank you,” she tells him. It’s inadequate, but these are all the words she can muster.
“Thank you,” he tells her. “Keep on painting the pictures you want to paint.”
“I will,” she says. She strains hard to not make another sound. It’s difficult to swallow and her eyes sting.
“Merry Christmas,” he says, and leaves. She watches as he disappears into the crowd.
She doesn’t know when she’ll begin to paint again, not yet; she can imagine it though, and that already feels amazing.
She wraps up the painting, picks it up, and begins the long trek home, almost gliding along the ice, lifted by the light between her constituent atoms.
“The Passing of the Dragon” copyright © 2023 by Ken Liu
Art copyright © 2023 by Mary Haasdyk