The Magic Brush | Teen Ink

The Magic Brush

January 9, 2023
By Anonymous

I work amongst rows and rows of desks and cubicles. The ceiling seems to bend inward, ever so slightly lower than before. My arms move automatically, with perfect precision. My left hand adjusts the pen settings as needed and clicks the side of my tablet in an endlessly rhythmic, albeit unmusical beat. The pen's plastic surface, once smooth, is now scratched and textured to the touch. My foot shuffles from time to time without purpose, and my pose is hunched, perhaps proof of my hard work or commitment to the craft. A cup of half-drank coffee sits near me, and I take a sip of it, feeling the caffeine push and rush me along with this tiresome, never-ending goal. After a while, my pen finally stops moving, and I look at my work: a tiger resting on a boulder. 


Then, a second later, the tiger begins to yawn and leaps off the boulder I had just drawn.      





I lived in a rural village with my grandpa ever since I was young, who, from the moment I picked up a stick and drew in the dirt, always said I had a knack for drawing. He said it was “difficult” to leave me alone with anything that could leave a mark. He likes to tell a story of how he once found me surrounded by moving blurs that he thought were mosquitoes. As he came closer, he realized that they were tiny birds flying and buzzing around me.      


I’d drawn them and they’d come to life. One by one, their flat ink forms peeled off the surface of the paper, leaving nothing but a blank sheet behind: my imagination actualized. I drew and drew. A rabbit with elongated ears dragged them along as it tried to hop away from a threat. A fish flopped on the ground, its googly eyes twitching at random. The tiger I drew with three legs on a piece of rice paper rose from the page and did his best to wander around the perimeter of my backyard, before inevitably tripping. And while all this happened, my grandpa could only stare as I scribbled more imperfect, but vigorous drawings which continued to animate themselves, all while I, oblivious to all this, focused on painting on the ground with my finger and a cup of muddy water that served as ink. I remember looking up at him and seeing something I couldn’t recognize then, but now I understand as awe. 




I am back in the office, and the village is behind me. I look down at my tablet and realize the tiger has already left the screen. Damn it, I forgot to save it. So I hastily draw up another tiger, press save before it can escape, and close the program. I pack my bags and rise from my cubicle to leave, but I’m stopped by my boss. An intimidating but sly man, he looks at me with a sense of self-fulfillment.


“Ma, right?” My boss coughs into his fist, then smiles. “How time flies… I remember finding you, hmm, two years ago-“ 


“Three years.” I reply.


“Has it really been that long? Either way, you have shown great work and contributed to the success of this company. Keep it up and you might get a raise.” He walks away with a prideful smile hanging on his lips. I sigh. He dangles a raise in front of me every few weeks, but we both know it’s never coming.       


And then what? Stepping out into the cool air, I call a cab from my phone. What will I do with the money? Get a better apartment. But why? Stepping off the cab again, I fumble through my bag for the key. So I can draw better? Work harder? What a joke. 


I’m home now, and I’m peering into my apartment. It’s as generic as they come. The wall is plain white and there are no decorations on them. One of the lightbulbs in the living room flickers constantly as if a ghost were playing with the plug, but since I don't stay at home that often I haven't bothered to fix it. Really, I only come back here to sleep. That’s all.      


Stepping into my bedroom, I collapse onto the bed, turning my head to stare at the only other thing in the room: a sticky note of a drawing of a scrunched-up mouse stuck above the headboard near my bed. It was made before my "talent" manifested, so it didn't move. For some reason, I've kept it until today. Even though the art is messy, rough, unfinished, and frankly funny looking, I feel like there's something in it that has slipped away since then. 




The next morning, my rest was disturbed by a call from my boss to come to the office “immediately,” since he had a customer who had requested my service specifically. This again.


I showed up as soon as I could, even skipping breakfast. The client, a man in a suit with a fake smile, greeted me. As usual, the company had sent an agent to come to negotiate with my boss over the work that I was going to do. In our conversations, I was addressed maybe two times. 


“Great then, your work will start this afternoon, it's an outdoor project. Hope you're prepared for then!"      


My boss turned to look at me. "You'll take it won't you? You know, maybe after this one, I'll finally give you that raise you always wanted."


I just sighed.


“Good. Let’s get to it.” my boss says, grinning at me with not one ounce of authenticity.      




I looked at my driver as the car started moving. He was older than me, maybe in his forties. His expressions were hard to read, but he definitely seemed focused on his job. I turned my head towards the window, expecting to stay that way until the driver suddenly spoke to me.


“Kid, how long have you been at this company?"


 "Oh uh, three years, sir." Awkward silence filled the air again. "What about you, sir?"


"Twenty years. And you don't have to call me sir." I heard him snicker a bit under his breath. "Sorry, just wanted to ask since the boss mentions you an awful lot when he's talking about business. Seems like you're a particularly valuable asset."


Asset. "Oh..."




He stops at a red light. "You ever thought about leaving?"


"No si-, sorry, not yet."


"Hmm. You might want to consider it while you can. I can tell ya, from working here for twenty years, it only gets harder to leave."


"You seem to believe that I am unhappy here."


"Oh, I'm not assuming anything. It's just that your expression when you went onto the car didn't exactly strike me as that of an artist. Just more like a begrudging servant.”


We said nothing more for the rest of the ride. 




Opening up the door to the roof, the light shone in from the outside, eventually dimming down to reveal a large silhouette of a bottle of Coke. I realized that it wasn't just a flat print, but a full 3D model. There were little stairs on the sides for me to start working on it.


I put down my bag of spray paint and looked around. Aside from their logo, they haven't painted anything else on it, most likely counting on me to finish the rest. They had told me their mascot was an eagle, so of course, that was the easy answer. I finished drawing the last feather, and the eagle started moving. It looked around for a moment, then started flapping its feathery wings. It was a truly majestic sight, before it got stuck on top of the can. I realized that it was probably going to repeatedly try to fly out, which isn't really going to have much presentational value unless people are interested in seeing a bird repeatedly hit its head. Begrudgingly, I turned away and deemed this a "complete" job.




"Congratulations, you'll get that raise starting next week." The wicked grin reappeared on the boss's face. "You know what? Just for the work this afternoon, I'll let you leave early since I’m feeling generous today." 


He stepped into the elevator, leaving me alone on the first floor.


Well, I have it now. I looked around. It didn't seem like anything's changed.


I biked home in a trance, unsure about what was to happen next. Running into my apartment, I quickly went back to my room and opened up my tablet. But as usual, I couldn't draw a single thing. The problem started one year ago when I realized I couldn't think of anything to draw when I was outside of work. With the raise in mind, I thought that the mental pressure that may have been limiting me would have been eased, but...the tablet's blank canvas seemed to taunt me. I closed it shut with tense hands.




The next week arrived, and work resumed as usual. I did small commissions and I got the corresponding money. If anything, the burden only sunk harder into my chest. It wasn't until I couldn't even finish a commissioned project that I finally realized I needed to take a break.


Naturally, I went to the park. I appreciated it for being a place where I could simultaneously be myself and by myself, while still feeling the presence of others. Families sat on the ground and divulged in picnics, kids played games of soccer, and dogs caught frisbees, all while I sat dazed on a bench nearby. The wind blew through my hair, and I had completely forgotten I was here to get inspiration for my next project. 


Then suddenly, out of the corner of my eyes, I spotted an orange form. It was big and striped. I got up and looked more carefully, and it seemed to have disappeared around the corner of a huge patch of bushes. Curiously, I pursued it, chasing it around the bush, but the animal had vanished. In its stead stood a bearded man before an empty canvas. He seemed troubled, and it appeared spotting me had only confounded his confusion.


"I’ve been found.” he said, furrowing his brows.


"Uh, sorry, sir. Who are you?"


"Oh, you don't know me. Good, good! All you need to know is that I'm a renowned, but tortured artist, someone who's trying to escape the pestering of his agents to push him to produce another piece." He tapped his brush on the canvas, then looked around. "So, why don't you tell me why you're here?"


"Oh, uh, I thought I saw a tiger..." My voice trailed off as the ridiculousness of the statement settled in. 


"A tiger? Well, I sure haven't seen any, but I'll let you know if any turn-up." He released a hearty laugh.


Walking up to him, I noticed his peculiar appearance. He wore a lopsided Beret which was splotched with a colorful palette of paint. Inside his black coat, he donned a striped T-shirt, similarly splotched, which is strange since his coat appears to be spotless. He was slightly hunched over, a sign of a great artist. I noticed that his canvas was also spotless while he continued to tap his brush against the side of the frame.


“Right, right...umm, I see you've also been having some trouble with ideas."


"Yes. And I assume the same for you?"


"Kinda why I came here...but I got lost."


"Yes, yes, now why don't we talk a bit and help each other out? Maybe something will pop up."


I hadn't even considered that dialogue could be my salvation now. "I wouldn't mind."


For some reason, I found myself spewing everything out about my recent problems with art, my conundrums, work conditions, and all that. Meanwhile, the artist before me, Mr. Row, told me about how he had hit a big success once upon a time, and since then his agents had been nonstop trying to get him to create something of the caliber again. "Now, I'm very interested in your situation though." 


He had finally begun to paint something. "You’re telling me that your art moves when you paint it? But you can’t control where it goes? How does it work?”


"Well, they used to be able to make my creations move the way I wanted, but now..." I saw a blank piece of paper on the ground. "May I?"




I drew a simple goldfish. It was rough, but generally recognizable with a nice form. It didn't move whatsoever.


"I see. Now, why does the fact that it doesn't move disturb you so much?"


"I'm not sure, quite frankly." I stared at the goldfish. "It just feels like something's missing."


"Have you considered switching up your environments a bit?"


"Well, that's why I came here-"


"No, I mean, leaving your job." He colored in something.


"I CAN'T." I blurted out with more force than I intended. I tried again: "I can't. It's not a choice. What am I going to do, start over?"



"It appears I have been vague with my wording. Allow me to try again: I mean stop working at these advertising companies. Hasn't there, once, been something you wanted to make?"


Something I wanted to make?


Why yes there was. But those days were long ago.           


Eighth grade. I’d just turned 13 and I’d entered an art competition, but I couldn't finish my piece because of my middle school entrance exam and grandpa’s broken leg.


Tenth grade. A man had come to our house, threatening to evict us if we couldn't pay off the bills. I skipped a few months of school to work at the local supermarket for some extra money.  I used to draw then, at the cashier’s desk, when I was bored and I remembered feeling proud of the doodles I made, even if they were just etched on the back of forgotten receipts. 


Twelfth grade. I’d been accepted into college. As I left at the airport, I could see the age in my grandpa’s wrinkles as he bid me goodbye with tears in his eyes. I knew from the bottom of my heart that my work from now on mustn’t fail. Must be true.     


"What I want to make doesn't matter, it's about what I need." I winced, turning back to the curious artist before me. "I suppose I did realize one thing though: it really doesn't matter if my art moves or not."


"There is no guaranteed success, but no success comes from any guaranteed choice." Mr. Row said.      


"Look sir, I can’t just leave my job – that's just not a risk I can take." I sighed, and sat down on the grassy ground, defeated. "I have to feed my family and myself. Maybe I don't need success, I just need to be able to live. " 


"I see.” Mr. Row said, peering at the goldfish again, his hand on his chin. “You need to be able to live.”      


"I...I don’t know." I held my face tight. 


"And I don't either. What works for one person isn't going to for someone else." He had packed his equipment and gingerly carried the canvas in his hand as he turned to leave.


By the time I had noticed, he was gone.





I went back home that night, and sat down in my chair, in the dark. It wasn't until after half an hour that I opened up the lights, and reopened an envelope I’d received two months ago. I tried teaching grandpa how to use email, but he was always more content with letters.


"Dear Xiaoma,


How are you over there in the big cities? I have received the check you sent me. The sum caught me by surprise! Things here haven't changed much since you left, in case you were worried (I hope you were!) The grandma that lived down the street still takes her dogs out every morning, and the pigeons nesting on the top of our roofs haven't moved either. I'm happy here, really, but if you ever feel tired, just remember there's always a home here for you.



Guangyi, your grandpa"


It wasn't a long piece. My grandpa always wasn't much for extraneous words, but every time I read it something twinged inside of me. With the recent events still inside of my head, I scrawled a small tiger in the corner of the letter. The little beast did not move, and I broke down right then and there.




The day after, I returned back on my regular schedule, working all the way into the darkness of the night. I stayed at the office so that I didn't fall asleep.


Near midnight, I pulled the drawing of my mouse from my pocket. I’d taken it with me from home today, and looking at it then, something inside me unlocked,  something that had been tied up for years. Through the loosening strings, I felt that first moment of bliss upon seeing those first creations, my first creations. Though now the drawings look scribbly and rough, they feel real to me right now, so real they could come off the paper and run circles around me, before disappearing off into the woods. The pride of creation thumped inside of me.


I snap out of it. I look around. Concrete walls stand all around me, and through the windows on the side, I can only see more pillars of concrete titans scratching the sky. With legs numb from sitting for too long, and the only light reaching me from the cold blue tablet before me, I rub my eyes, then frown at the clock which reads: 1:48 AM. I’m alone. But then I pick up the fallen pen beside my desk, and for a second, it appears foreign and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.


Suddenly, the mouse on the paper hopped off, leaving a mouse-shaped hole on the white paper.


I gasped as it wriggled on the ground, desperate to move. 


I draw, inky creations stretching, wiggling, bursting to life, flowing around the room: flies, rabbits, dogs, and chickens flooding past the page and swarming my cubicle into the room cautious about the unfamiliar closed space. Slowly, I grow more ambitious: large rocks knock over the tables like dominos, and vines began to droop down the ceiling like bead curtains unfurling. In one fell motion, a splashing waterfall floods out of the tablet, and a tiger jumps out of the current. It roams the floor, hopping from rock to rock. The sound of waterfalls filled the room with water. Somewhere in between, the creations begin to lose their inkiness and look more like the genuine creatures they were meant to be. The glass windows crack, and water floods out of my skyscraper in inky blue waves, while the large cliff growing inside breaks through the roofs above. Trees erupt from the ground below and the cliff, protecting the animals from falling debris. The clock from across the room crashes into the chasm, forever remaining at “11:59”, broken. Where a monument of dread once stood: a mountain of life and rebirth and authenticity and artistry. And standing on the top of the tallest cliff, I looked down at my tablet, adding final touches. I smile, and, a giant eagle burst out of the tablet; I climb on its great feathered back and together we escape, headed home. 

The author's comments:

The idea of a character who can make their drawings come to life is loosely based on those of Ma Liang, a fictional character created for a 20th-century children's book written in China, and I pay homage to this in both the title and the main character's name. The story is meant to be a more mature and contemporary take on the concept and is strongly inspired by my own views about art and the meaning behind creating art. 

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