Black Is The Brightest Colour by Sean Chou
by Sean Chou.
A cold winter’s day like this reminds me of another many years ago. It feels distant, but I live with it in the present every day.
I was 17 years old that year, in my second year of sixth form college, applying for university and whatnot. I can’t say much about what it was like to live those years - just a regular routine, of studying for exams, seeing friends after class and maybe quiet moments in the week contemplating about what I wanted to do once I got to university and joined the big adult world that seemed to be waiting for me then.
I reflect about what it was like to be me, in those days. I felt like one of those people who shrink into the background. I wanted to pick up and play the roles of people who were forgotten about but often did important work. It reminds me of when I watched anime in my free time and my eyes would latch onto the nondescript faces of people drawn in the crowd, often just blurred colours and bare outlines of their shapes. And I would think to myself, hey, that’s me. Who ever writes a story about one of these guys.
Often, I walked around school then with friends and asked them, hey, do you ever wonder why you’re you… and I’m me? I was reading Sartre then, and Nietzsche, the whole lot of those great, existential minds. And my friends, if I trusted them enough to be honest about their emotions, would stare back at me with a hollowness, like a space I could rest my feelings in. But meanwhile, in my mind, I wanted to invade their minds and compel them to stare back at me, so that their stares could essentialise and fix the indescribable sadness that often gripped me in those naked moments.
I was good at pretending though, being between things, and while I taunted society by pretending being someone I wasn’t and turning out to be really good at it, I stopped one day when I was in a particularly stroppy mood.
I was royally peeved off that day. My teacher had given me a low grade on my English mock because I failed to engage adequately with feminist theory. I cared so much about feminist theory.
I was walking home then from school through the park I usually went through. But this time was not the same, because between some bushes I found a hole that led somewhere else to a secluded spot.
Alone, I felt like my own warden, and that feeling of being watched but alone heightened as I continued to walk. I brushed away some overhanging leaves and it looked like I had stumbled into a hidden garden, with a pond and a bench placed next to it. And on the bench, I walked over to find a person sitting there.
He was a young man and he looked about the same age I was, except he was smaller. He wore black clothes, everything black all the way down from his collar to his toe. The only thing white about him was the paper pad he rested on his lap, and he was leaning over it, switching his sight between the view of the pond in front of him and back to his lap.
‘What’s that?’ I said.
I was only curious, but he looked up, without looking startled. Which felt strange, almost like he was expecting me. He looked at me with carved eyes and I felt something then, the meaning of which has only grown over time.
He said nothing, but showed me his work. I stopped breathing then, and I knew because the vapour of my breath ceased to undulate from my lips. It was black, and he had drawn it using a single black stroke that, once I followed it with my eye, became indistinguishable but so constitutive of the rest of the piece. Too quickly, and you would see nothing but a mass of confused, entangled lines. Too slowly, and you would get lost in the traps and arifices of the combobulated thing. But just right, and you were seeing it - it was the garden, alright, but it became something separate from it in the end, and that was what made it beautiful to behold. Unique but separate.
I was in love with it instantly. I looked at him, then, and I could have murdered him, I was so delighted and yet so threatened by what I saw. That something exterior could cut me into awe and wonder like that, I wanted to control it somehow.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked. Then, I made to grab the drawing from him.
He flinched and recoiled instantly. I tutted, but heard him say his name. Shin.
‘Shin, right?’ He nodded. He talked, alright, but I don’t include his voice because I remember him as speechless.
I was so captivated by him, I sat down on the ground in front of him where there was snow, I didn’t care. I wanted him to see me. And I wanted him to draw things.
Every day afterwards, or whenever I could, I would come after school and find him there. He was waiting for me, but then I felt powerless to stay away. I asked him to draw things from my life, like people I knew and places I had been. I showed him pictures of friends or places I had been to on holiday. And he would draw with terrifying beauty, with the same brush strokes, and their blackness struck at my heart.
By that point, I felt so drawn to him. Things had shifted completely since our first meeting. I used to see him as small, crouched over his drawings like he was hiding from the world. Now, he was the world, and I asked him to draw mine, but even before I spoke, he knew what I desired and his drawings would surpass what I dared to wish or ask for. I felt dependent on him then, asking for things and sometimes I fantasised about ripping up his drawings because they spun an allure or mystery that I couldn’t fathom or begin to deconstruct. But neither of us could stop then, because it would lead to the other’s annihilation - I saw my world in his drawings, and he saw his drawings in my world, and we danced then with a heat of the chase that felt as palpable as it was inexpressible.
The only time my anger threatened to break this relationship was when he refused one of my requests. I asked him to draw me, but he refused. He drew a circle instead, with small cresses around the edges which expressed a dancing, shifting movement.
‘You’re looking for a thing that looks for itself. There is no self. Only boundaries that separate one from others, like this line separates the interior from the exterior of this circle.’
I felt like getting angry at him, but then I couldn’t. I really couldn’t bring myself to, in the end.
But soon after, I started to date. A friend knew a girl, and we managed to hit it off. I did regular dates-y stuff with her, like take her on walks and go out to the movies together.
We weren’t super serious or anything like that. But I was definitely into her.
I wanted to bring her to the hidden garden spot. Before then, it hadn’t occurred to me because it felt like Shin and Emma belonged to different worlds.
But I changed my mind after I told Shin about Emma. I told him every delicate detail I could describe about Emma, and he leaned into each detail like he wished for them. He started drawing, in a cursive that I had never seen before, and the drawings came out more beautiful, and they dared me to love a version of Emma that felt more real than her in real life.
For a long time, I courted both in my head. I wanted both to exist, adjacent and touching each other, but never meeting. But what if I could have more, and combine the beauty I saw in both? If I brought Emma to Shin, he could draw her like nature’s form, and bring out the beauty I saw so naturally come out of her, but was now captured eternally in one of Shin’s black inked drawings.
And so, I brought Emma to the hidden garden, at least to the entrance to it. I told her to be quiet while I went inside first to see if Shin was there.
‘Shin! You’ve got a visitor, today.’
‘What?’ He looked confused, but also something else I couldn’t quite pin down.
‘Yes. I’ve brought Emma along with me.’
‘You didn’t.’ He didn’t so much speak it, but shoot the words into the air. ‘You can’t.’
‘What? But, Shin-’ I was beginning to protest, but I stopped when I saw something was wrong.
Shin had stood up, and he stood erect with his shoulders square and his eyes trained on me right in front of me. I felt at that moment, like I already knew, that I was going to see him for the last time like this in his full, resplendent form.
But I cut myself off this time. I moved in front of him and clasped his hands in mine.
But then, I felt myself grasping at nothing. He was disintegrating in front of me, into a shower which turned into a torrent of black ink. I jumped back as it poured into the pond, and I heard the sizzle and crack as the hot liquid spread through the water, killing all the plants and living creatures in it.
I was stunned into silence, and I couldn’t move. At the moment, Emma walked in and saw me.
And what could I say? Nothing, but hold my hands filled with black ink, as if to say, you’ve caught me black handed.
That evening, the truth hit me. Shin was gone, and there was no amount of wishing which could bring him back. I had washed the ink clean from my hands, but nothing could erase the memory of his holding, of his skin which had so quickly dissolved into black ink.
I went to touch Emma, too. But it was terrible. Every time I touched her, her skin would be stained with black ink, even though she swore she could not see it.
I fell into despair. I went away that night and stopped seeing Emma, and eventually I stopped talking to her altogether.
All I wanted to do was paint with black ink. Places and people, whatever it was, I couldn’t stop painting with it, and feeling like while my work was only an imitation of what went before, what went before was similarly irretrievable yet felt so lived through in the present again in my memories.
Sean Chou is a fourth-year BA Social Anthropology student at LSE, and Head of Partnerships at the Clare Market Review. "I enjoy reading in my free time and going out for runs. For me, writing is a tool of self expression and I intend my writing to explore issues which people feel strongly about, but choose not to discuss."
In this issue, he has also written the piece 'Mother and Daughter in the Garden' and 'More Loving: Intimate futures in a post-lockdown world'.