About a year ago, I was in the backyard gardening when I heard my elderly neighbour, Kim, hacking and spluttering like only a ninety-one-year-old man can. Poking my head up over the fence, I saw him there, through his open kitchen window, doubled over and gagging. I yanked the gardening gloves from my hands, put the lid on my bucket of special-formula fertiliser (mostly manure and rotten fish), then jumped the fence and ran into Kim’s house through the back door. I found him in the kitchen, closing the window and waving his hand in front of his face. When I asked if he was all right, he just kept saying there was a “very bad smell”. I feared he may have been on the verge of a stroke.
I put the kettle on and suggested to Kim that he sit down. He seemed to revive and began telling me war stories. Kim was a veteran and had a thousand and one tales about his days in the army, all of them hilarious. It made me wonder—perhaps Kim never did any fighting, you know? Maybe he was a cook or drove trucks or did something far away from the action. Or maybe he did fight but used humour to block his horrific memories. I hoped so, because the alternative was that he killed a bunch of men and had a jolly old time doing it.
After our coffee I urged Kim to take care, and then returned home. I thought about him that afternoon. I wanted to do something for him. I remembered he told me once how much he liked dahlias—he said he used to grow them, but now he was allergic to flowers and couldn’t have them. I decided to paint him some.
I went in search of a floral model for my still life artwork. After the local florist evicted me from her store for trying to take photographs of her wares rather than purchasing them, I tried a supermarket and found their flower display much more reasonably priced, though limited in range. With no dahlias on the shelf, I went for a bunch of lilies at twelve dollars.
Two days later, I presented my finished piece to Kim. He stared at it, stunned, for five minutes. Finally he sighed, and without taking his eyes from the painting, said in his thick Korean accent, “This is a sad painting. Very sad.”
“Sad?” I said.
He raised a gnarled, shaky hand to his mouth. His eyes welled. “So small,” he said, pointing to the canvas. “The flowers are small, insignificant, hiding in the corner. They are full of shame.” (Actually, I had made the flowers small because I was low on white paint, which I was using to lighten the petals.) “The dark shadow there,” continued Kim, “is a door opening.” (I made the right side dark to cover where I had accidentally smeared a thick streak of orange paint.) “The flowers have been locked away. Now they are discovered and will be punished. ‘You are a disgrace, son! No one likes boy who dance! You join the army like a real man!’” I looked at the painting, and then at Kim. His trembling hand covered his mouth. “It makes no difference,” he whispered. “The flowers put on uniform, put on a proud show, but they are empty inside. Their soul is empty. See, they have no shadow.” (Kim was right: I had painted the vase’s shadow but had forgotten one for the flowers.) “So much pain in this painting.” Suddenly Kim’s face softened. “But look—there is hope. That red spot, at the top.” I squinted at the painting but saw no red spot. “Could it be?” said Kim. “Is that red spot… my father, looking down on me? ‘You are my son. I love you and I am proud to see you dance.’” Kim looked at me hopefully. “I finally have my father’s approval—is that what you are saying?”
I nodded and smiled. “…Yep. That’s exactly what I intended this painting to say.”
Kim clapped his hands as tears streamed down his beaming face. He hugged the painting to his chest.
The next day, when I got home from work, I saw a white car in Kim’s driveway and a woman carrying some of his belongings. I talked to the woman—Kim’s daughter—and found out Kim was in hospital. Apparently, he had fallen off a chair after standing on it to hang a painting, the silly bugger.
Kim never fully recovered from his fall and went to live with his son interstate. His daughter collected his things from his home; she returned the flower painting to me, explaining Kim had only enough room for a few possessions at his new place. I asked her to send Kim my best wishes. She was touched. I asked her to reimburse me for the canvas and paints I used for the painting. She seemed offended and said no.
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