October 22, 2009
I took off my shoes outside the studio, pushed the glass sliding door to the side, and entered. The chill of the floor traveled up my feet, and the subtle scent of pine resin lingered in the air. Wait, I remember. What was that smell? It starts with a T . . . turpentine. Yoon Hee used to pour it onto her palette whenever she tempered her colors from the tube, holding two or three brushes in one hand. She always smelled like turpentine, the scent clinging to her clothes and apron with its numerous colors. I picked up her palette. There still remained traces of her brush where it had smoothed out paint after she squeezed it onto the palette. I could see the traces of bristles. The hand holding the palette was trembling weakly, and I felt her touch. Her fingerprints were left on the squeezed paint tubes, their openings hardened with dried paint. I looked through the neatly stacked canvases in the corner, as if leafing through a book. At the bottom I found a small canvas and placed it on the empty easel. Two heads painted close to each other. The face on the left is mine. I am wearing a white short-sleeved shirt with a blue checked pattern. It was the last summer I spent outside. Everyone wore their hair long then, and the painted me has hair long enough to cover the collar of my shirt. There is a dark shadow around my eyes, and my hollowed cheek hints at the anguish of that time. The background is painted mainly in a dark red with dark cobalt blue stripes added lengthwise, emphasizing the melancholic tone. At first she painted a latticed door with rice paper next to my face, but Yoon Hee later painted over it with gray and put her own face in, as she wrote in a letter. After so long, I studied her face. Yoon Hee expressed herself with a rougher and thicker touch, layering paint, unlike how she painted me. There are gray patches on her head, and her eyes are only a few black lines, which made it hard to read their expression. Her cheekbones are emphasized, and slightly different hues of paint were applied to her cheeks, indicating both her disappearing youth and the richness of her soul. And there it is, that mysterious smile of hers that I always loved, perfectly captured in the lines of her lips and chin. She meets my eyes with a smile on her face. A young man of thirty-two years of age and a middle-aged woman are looking at me, each with a different colored background.
I remained in front of the easel long after the Soonchun lady brought me cleaning supplies. Feeling cold, I remembered the Soonchun lady telling me I should get briquettes from her if I wanted to light the stove. I got up from the chair and walked down the dirt path. The Soonchun lady looked toward me from her kitchen and gestured.
“These briquettes are already lit, take them.”
She showed me a tin pail that would fit two briquettes and a pair of tongs.
“Start with those two and put some wood in the hearth. It’ll be warm enough. I’ll tell my son to bring you more later.”
“No, that’s okay. I can just bring a couple at a time.”
“And you should have dinner with me.”
I put the two lit briquettes in the tin pail, picked up a new one with the tongs, and walked back. I returned to the kitchen, this time piling four briquettes into the tin pail. Little by little, I brought up a dozen briquettes to pile in the shed. I put two lit briquettes in the hearth and added a couple of unlit ones on top. The hearth still had plenty of space left, but I thought four would be enough. Soon, the house was warm. I searched through the kitchen cabinets to see what was in there. Maybe I wanted to find more remnants of Yoon Hee. I took out a kettle with a blackened bottom and filled it with water, to make use of the fact that the kitchen sink was now outfitted with running water. I put the kettle on the stove, then filled the sink with more water and wet a cloth. I bent down on the floor and pushed the wet cloth from one end of the room to the other, like I used to at school when I was a child. The cloth became black and dirty after only a few wipes. I gathered up canvases and palettes and brushes and dried tubes of paint and put them in one corner. I gathered sketch pads piled on a table, then stopped. I wanted to see the traces she left with pencils or crayons. There were quick sketches and writings, compositions being worked out. People or similar-looking objects were depicted with lines like spider webs, from different angles and in different positions, overlapping. Like a strange comic strip, there was a peculiar figure with only eyes and stick legs. Many scenes stood among various tools and instruments, its story a riddle waiting to be solved. A book filled with graffiti that went on for page after page. And sometimes gibberish was scribbled at the bottom of the page, like lines for a play.