Though there wasn’t really any reason why, she was utterly fascinated by the woman in the painting.
She hung on the south wall of the hut on a scroll that had begun to yellow at the edges. It was the only thing in the room that was of high quality, and not anything one would expect to see in a mundane fishing village located at the ends of the earth. Who knew where it had come from or why it was there.
(She should have known. But she didn’t.)
The woman was, in simple terms, beautiful. Her features were delicate and refined, carrying an air of cultured elegance. There was a hint of a smile in the corners of her lips, and the owner of the painting often wondered if dimples would appear if her smile grew just a little wider.
But of course, the woman’s smile never changed.
When she asked her cousin Qi You about the portrait hanging on the wall, he looked at her in silence for a long while. It was the first time she had ever started a conversation with him, in the time that her memories were lost, at least. She observed as his eyes initially widened and then softened a little, a trace of sorrow lingering in them.
“When you were younger, you saw this woman in a dream,” he told her finally (and in a sense, it wasn’t a lie. It might as well have been a dream.)
She looked back at him blankly, but inwardly, she frowned. How could it have been a dream? She was sure she could never forget this face, and yet, she seemed to have no recollection of it whatsoever. “But I don’t remember this dream.”
He sighed. His tone was gentle but tired as he said, “There are a lot of things you don’t remember, Qi Yan.”
She didn’t like that name. She knew it was her own, but for whatever reason, it felt like her heart was burning a hole through her chest whenever she heard it. Implicitly, she longed to be called by another name, though she had the feeling she would never know what it was.
She would never know a lot of things, after the incident with the mountain bandits that left her in such a shock she could remember nothing about her past. Perhaps it was odd that she didn’t mind not knowing, but she had simply accepted it from the very beginning. The smoldering fire in her belly had turned to dust alongside her memories, leaving her empty and listless.
Her past didn’t matter to her. But when she looked at the woman in the painting, she could feel the dead heart trapped within her chest start to warm.
“I want to remember this dream,” she said softly.
Hearing that, Qi You’s eyebrows furrowed sadly and he reached for her hand, but as soon as his fingers grazed her skin, she immediately jerked it away. Though her face remained as still and undisturbed as ever, a hint of reproach lay in the depths of her eyes. She knew it was only meant to be a comforting gesture, but the thought of having any physical contact with anyone made her uneasy. Her skin prickled with discomfort even though it was only the briefest of touches.
For a moment, Qi You’s hand awkwardly stayed suspended in the air, and then they rested back on top of the table.
“Sometimes dreams should remain forgotten,” he said, his voice quiet and a little distant, as if it were lost in another time. “All remembering will do is bring you pain and suffering.”
She looked back at the painting. There was a sparkling warmth in the woman’s dark eyes, an almost moving tenderness to her gaze. For a long while, she lost herself in a dazed trance while looking at those eyes. Eventually, with her gaze still locked onto the painting, she said, “If this woman was in my dream, I don’t think I must have suffered all that much in it.”
Qi You, surprised and full of pity, said nothing.
From dawn until dusk, she would sit there and gaze at the woman in the painting. She liked the way the morning light fell on it the best, as it brought a golden luster to her warm ivory skin and accentuated the shadows of her long eyelashes. In those hours, the woman almost seemed to glow, like a beautiful phoenix rising before a red dawn.
Perhaps from an objective perspective, the painting would be seen as imperfect. A trained eye might even have said it was a bit crude. But she found a special intimacy in those strokes, as if the painter knew every line and curve of the woman’s face and tried to capture them all with as much tenderness and care as possible.
She didn’t know how she could have ever painted this. The painter was as much of a stranger to her as the one painted.
Yet, something still pulled her to it. There was something so achingly familiar and dear about the woman’s face. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from it.
It wasn’t like she was desperately trying to remember her. She had never cared about remembering anything. She just looked at her, beheld her, longed to understand why she felt so important.
Who are you?
There were only a few things she could discern from the painting alone. Her sophisticated look and air indicated she was of a higher status. The other detail was that her black hair was coiled up in the style of a married woman.
“Was she married?” she asked Qi You, despite not knowing if he would have the answer. She couldn’t help but ask anyway. He was the only source she had for any of the knowledge that had escaped from her mind.
She knew that Qi You would understand who she was referring to without having to name her. It was still the only thing she would initiate conversation with.
Silent, he looked up at the painting. He seemed to consider something for a long moment. “Yes, she was,” he said, turning back to face her.
A strange, uncomfortable sensation swirled in her chest. She tried to suppress it, but it stayed there, lingering unpleasantly. She fell silent, trying to comprehend the feeling. When she couldn’t, another question slipped out, “Was she happy?”
She must have been. That gentleness and brightness to her expression could only have been because of love.
She, on the other hand, had no such expression on her face. She didn’t think she’d ever been happily in love before. Otherwise, there would not be this emptiness in her hollow chest, nor would she be at peace with feeling it. Otherwise, she’d still be there beside the one she loved, wouldn’t she?
(It wasn’t a thought she truly believed in. But it was simpler to think of it this way. It left her empty. And emptiness was the only thing she found comfort in now.)
Qi You sighed in that way she recognized as him not knowing how to answer her. But despite his hesitance, he answered honestly, “I don’t know. You never really told me. But I think...I think she was happy. She loved y...yes, she loved and was loved. And there must have been some kind of happiness in that, even if...even if it was hard sometimes.”
She didn’t know how she felt about that answer. The uncomfortable feeling stayed.
The days slipped past her unnoticed.
In the hut, there was only herself and the woman in the painting. In looking upon her, there was comfort in loneliness and loneliness in comfort.
She had forgotten. She had forgotten something very, very important. Something that should never have been forgotten.
(And maybe could never fully be.)
As the last of the light faded, stealing the brightness from the eyes of the woman in the painting, she finally felt the sharp, stabbing pain in the reality of forgetting.
Perhaps it was just the shadows or her mind playing tricks on her, but she thought she could see something glistening in the woman’s eyes.
Slowly, as if in a trance, she stood up from where she was seated and shuffled over to the painting. With a trembling hand, she reached up to lightly touch the face of the woman in the painting.
A single tear rolled down her cheek and fell soundlessly to the ground.