The inked tree that stands in the garden was drawn by my great-grandfather. He was an immigrant, trying to bring with him a hint of the country that birthed him, when he sat outside and painted it with wide brushstrokes, inking the very air in front of him. The sleekness of the black lines over a canvas of shivering air made each leaf tremble with the shifting weather.
He told a story about a king in ink black whose daughter had married an ancestor of ours. Or was it that the daughter had been of flesh and bone and her husband Ink-born? It was a long, long time ago. The reason for our blood being so sluggish in our veins, and our affinity for ink, goes back centuries. Why our eyes grow dark and flat with each new moon.
In summer, when the sun reached down with stiff, burnt fingers, the tree’s lines stretched even further: long and loose, like rivulets of water pressed down by heat until they evaporated. During those lengthened days, my great-grandfather would pull a wooden stool from the kitchen and sit nearby. To worship with ink as the king demanded, because the true name was too thick for our human tongues to utter.
First, the inkstick to inkstone—a circular movement mimicking the path of the heavens above. A drop of water, never in excess, or else the ink will not take to air. Then comes the brush—horsehair, with the family name carved on the handle. You see, it is all about tradition and the past, and without fail, the tree lived on under the meticulous artistry of my great-grandfather. I was not yet born when he passed, but my grandfather—whose memory of his birth country was even more tenuous—took up his brush.
My grandfather made the ink: incense and soot and animal glue. Rolled together, tightly packed and left to dry until the tree needed a touch up. Perhaps my great-grandfather had feared for the future, because he had obsessively outlined the edges with the darkest shade of black before passing. It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the garden with its solid greens and multi-coloured flowers visited by bees. It blinked and reality shivered under the light of the moon.
During spring, when the rains are heaviest, my grandfather would set out a flimsy plastic table to sit under. Then he would grind the ink with too much water and touch the roots. Black against brown leeching the stark contrast of the inked tree. He wanted it to blend in; he wanted it to fit into the endemic flora of the country that had embraced his arrival, where his children were now born. Inside each of them a piece of the Inked King slept.
None of his children inherited the art. Perhaps it had to be the soil you were birthed on, or something in the blood. Something you are bathed in from the moment you take your first breath. My father never learned the art; he knew not how to conjure ink and make it stain the very fabric of thin air that surrounds us. To pay tribute to our ancestor sleeping between worlds. But I always caught him looking at the inked tree in fall, muttering about how the fading leaves resisted the pull of the seasons and refused the call. Inked trees are not like evergreens; they are meant to shift and change and grow. But maybe this tree knew that if it shed its leaves, there would be no one to repaint them.
And so when I was born in this country, like my father (but unlike my grandfather and great-grandfather), the tree was simply something that was. A flag planted in our yard to remind everyone else that we were not like them, that our roots had been carried across the sea and were less sturdy for it. I knew nothing of ink and incense, I had never even seen the brush my great-grandfather carried like a treasure from his homeland.
Because my grandfather had long passed and my father had no affinity for it, I resigned myself to ignorance for many years, to solitude, as I looked out the window at the inked tree.
Arthritis had set in when my time came. The inked tree faded and bent under the weight of the sun, only visible against the bone-white snow, then obscured by the blizzards of an increasingly capricious weather. It’s your turn now, the inked tree says, voice crashing in like waves along the shore. The Inked King shows me how, rising like the sun as he shimmers, the black turning liquid and the crown ground into dust, pouring through the skin, a slow osmosis between his world and mine. He whispers and flattens my eyes like river stones, smooth and wet.
I see: a ship crossing from port to port; a brush with chipped wood; a long, smooth stone at the bottom of a box; incense and glue and soot. How to grind. How to dip. How the repetition of each stroke brings forth life stained in black. I see until I empty. Nothing but the tree matters. During winter, I wrap myself and kneel outdoors, retracing the lines first inked by my great-grandfather.
And when the tree is finished, I turn my eyes upwards. I imagine the shape and texture of the ships that sail across the sky. I pick up my brush and watch the strokes turn from silk to metal, the vastness above illuminated by the turning of stars, a crown over our ink-stained firmament.