A Deer Calling

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Hanging above my desk, just to the right of my north-facing window, is a watercolor painting of a deer. I received this painting from my brother’s friend Howie’s dad. 

The deer looks back across a small stretch of iridescent, scintillating water, right at you. It’s surrounded by a dark mass of tangled bramble and a faded rainbow of a shadowy forest just ahead. Howie’s dad painted it himself and it is very beautiful. 

In the top right corner of the painting, Howie’s dad wrote two lines from the 詩經, the oldest Chinese language poetry compilation in recorded history. The poem is called【鹿鳴】or “Call of the Deer,” or “Deer Calling,” or “Deer trying its hardest to do what we would call calling. Yelling, maybe? Not a bleat, surely.” Some might interpret it as “Deer Shouting Into the Void.” I translate the title, flatly, as “A Deer Calling.” The complete text that he wrote out in that painting is 「呦呦鹿鳴,食野之蘋」

The deer calls, ‘you, you’
Calling, eat this wild artemisia

When I first received this painting, I cried suddenly and briefly, like a squall. I didn’t understand the poem on my first read, to be honest with you. My dad helped me look it up. We found out what on God’s good and green earth artemisia was (a mildly medicinally flavored weed), and he told me what he thought Howie’s dad had meant by giving me the painting. 

The deer calls, ‘you, you’
Calling, eat this wild artemisia

“Howie’s dad is the deer,” my dad concluded. “You are being called to come eat the artemisia.” “He says, come read this poem. Read this poem and look at this painting I drew for you. Look at this deer looking back across the water. That’s me. And there you are. You’re welcome to come over and have a snack.” 

I think back to the first, and importantly, only time I ever met Howie’s dad. My family had been invited over for dinner. When I stepped through the front door, I realized that everything there was beautiful. Howie’s dad is a painter by hobby, cynical nihilist by choice. Those are the two main things I know about him. The first aspect was much more obvious than the second. Hand drawn, handpainted, finely watercolored, broadly calligraphed, and lovingly traced paintings hung delicately on every wall.

In Chinese, the phrase “人性險惡” means, again flatly, that humankind is selfish and evil by nature. Howie’s dad kept saying it, over and over again. He survived the Great Leap Forward, labor camps, immigrating to the U.S., raising a Chinese gamer son, and dinner with my parents. He worked on communes and planted crops and spent four years bending over the soil and rice shootlets. All of that and he came out on the other end like this. I think there are probably a lot of people like Howie’s dad, who came out on the other end like this. I think I would have, too.

As dinner progressed, and half a bottle of maotai liquor had disappeared into the night, he revealed to us that he loved art. He studied engineering in Germany but spent most of his time there sketching the rolling hills and wooded banks of serene rivers. His interest lay in documenting his natural surroundings: untouched bird’s nests high in trees, a troubled eddy moving around a wayward rock in a stream, the curve of a deer’s neck as it looks back from across a pool. He said he loved Chinese paintings, where usually the human figures are so small that they might as well not be there at all. 

He also mentioned that he liked to spend long swathes of time in the Yosemite Valley, where he owns a cabin. He grows giant garlic there, and sometimes my brother would come home from Howie’s house with a Ziploc bag full of garlic, Yosemite dirt still clinging to the bulbs. 

I like that he hates humans but still holds nature in such high regard, and that when he came out on the other end of being forced to tend to the earth, of breaking himself in the dirt, he kept tending to it. I like that he makes beautiful things, and I like that he gave me that painting. 

When I met Howie’s dad, he asked me what I wanted to study. I told him I was deciding between Comparative Literature and English (it has since turned out to be neither). I told him I wanted to probably study Chinese literature, and that I was mainly interested in poetry. 

Then he gave me that painting. What I think he meant to say, in the end, was that he thought we were cut from the same paper, so to speak. That maybe I could come to Yosemite some time. Maybe I could be an artist.

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