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The Calligrapher


Ink clings to the bristles of Mihiro's brush, hovering over the parchment on top of her varnished heartwood desk. The kanji blossom like flowers in a midnight garden. Her penmanship is elegant, impeccable. She takes her time with each character, each word, each sentiment. Inhale, exhale; one brushstroke, one dip into the well of her inkstone.

People like to remind her shodō is only a hobby, but collectors and other art aficionados love her calligraphy, and she makes a modest living out of it.

After she's done, she holds the scroll in place with a brass paperweight and cleans her brushes and inkstone in her Brooklyn apartment's kitchen sink. The corners of her lips curve upward in an unconscious smile.

Mihiro shares a spacious studio apartment above a flower shop with her boyfriend of three years, Robert. Each morning, the subtly sweet fragrance of fresh-cut roses drifts through their window. Tucked snug and safe against Robert's side, Mihiro breathes the floral scent that turns her dreams pink-tinted and soft-focused.

Robert's hair is golden like sunny beaches, whereas hers is black like the pigment of her inkstick. Her hands, small and delicate, are meant to cradle a brush between them, while his large, strong ones are made for firm handshakes and document-signing.

His work takes him to the West Coast, where he closes deals and fattens his bank account. Mihiro's girlfriends tell her she's lucky—she has a handsome boyfriend with a lucrative job, and the leisure to work on her calligraphy when he's away.

Mihiro might have had faith in her luck once. She wakes up, Robert's side of the bed cold and vacant. He had an 8 a.m. flight to catch, and Mihiro has a 12 p.m. deadline, so she carries her cup of hibiscus tea to her desk. At the beginning of their relationship, Robert would have pinned a rose or maybe a letter on her slanted desktop.

Not anymore.

With her paper rolls and calligraphy kit arranged neatly before her, her fingers curl around a sturdy brush handle. She begins working on her commissions, only to halt when she glances at her right wrist. An inkblot that looks like a bruise, is her first breathless thought, but no.

A bruise that looks like an inkblot.

They fought last night. She complained about him going on too many business trips and not answering her calls while he's away. He must have grabbed her wrist in the middle of the fight, probably when she accused him of being unfaithful. An accident.

Mihiro retrieves a long-sleeved cardigan from her closet before returning to her desk. Her meticulous, cursive kanji—squiggles, Robert calls them—look a bit watery and wobbly. She should replace her brush set—she's had it for some time now, and the organic bristles are showing signs of wear. She could do with better quality rice paper as well, Mihiro tells herself.

Bruises form, slowly, this time on Mihiro's upper arms. Pitch-dark and splotchy like the marks she leaves on paper. Robert was sleep-deprived and jet-lagged, home between flights. She shouldn't have nagged at him. She shouldn't—

Mihiro's fingers cramp up; she looks down at the marred parchment and the splintered bamboo handle. She doesn't have the budget to replace the brush, and Robert has made it clear he won't indulge her "little hobby." Her eyes widen with primal fear. Nobody is going to want this scroll now, this ruined thing.

A groan claws its way up her throat as she grabs the piece of parchment and crumples it in both hands. She flings it toward the bin, but even at that, she fails. The scrunched-up washi roll lies among the dust bunnies in the corner.

The wet splotch of ink bleeds through each fold and crease. Bruise like inkblot, inkblot like bruise. She's starting to confuse the two.

Mihiro falls asleep on the sofa, waiting for Robert to return. Wishing that he won't. She's been neglecting her work lately. Maybe Robert is right. Shodō is only a silly hobby, after all. A dead art hailing from a culture she already feels alienated from despite all her efforts to feel closer to her roots. It's only a few squiggles on cheap rice paper.

She doesn't remember sleep dragging her eyelids shut, but when she wakes, she knows something is different.

Her hands—those fragile things Robert so likes to swallow in his own strong palms—are stained black and gray. Love, life, fate: every line on her palms stands in relief, so that her hands look like cracked earth, like something powerful and tectonic.

Scrambling to her feet, Mihiro takes in more of her body. She twists and turns round and round in a tail-chase sort of dance, and finds kanji inked across her light-beige skin, a palimpsest of bold and unapologetic brushstrokes in her own handwriting. She stands before the full-length mirror and tries to read all the characters, but the writing doesn't seem to have a beginning or end. The still-wet kanji overlap with each other and blend with the now-fading bruises. More words emerge right before her eyes, written in the sure swirls and swipes of an invisible calligraphy brush.

On her body is a story that Mihiro has yet to read. To her surprise, it's a story she wants to know.

Packing her brushes and paper rolls doesn't take long. She'll send someone for her books and clothes later. For now, she only dons a light summer dress that won't cover any of her marks—bruise or ink—and steps out through the apartment door.

Mihiro leaves behind only a few dark smudges on the cream carpet. The inky footprints aren't enough to give away her route, her new story. They're simply proof that Mihiro was once there.