The ink on the silk showed a tortoise, green and withered. It stood reaching its neck out towards a low-hanging peach. The tree above was a galaxy of pinks; flowers in resplendent bloom, branches heavy with fruit. The tree and the tortoise are on a bend in some sort of cosmic river, portrayed in vast absence, with only a few strokes of ink to show its eddies and current. 

The scroll was 700 years old, hanging in perfect climate control, behind glass in a stately room of the museum. It was surrounded by paintings from the same general era, though it was the oldest. The rest had sages, or bamboo, or the odd emperor at leisure. This one, though, off in the corner, had a tortoise and a peach tree. 

The bilingual card next to the painting gave the artist as ‘unknown’ and condemned the work in gentle, if condescending terms. The brush strokes and artistry were superb, it conceded, offering that the hand that painted it was the finest from that era that survives to the present. The subject matter, though, was trite at best. The peach tree, symbolizing immortality, and the tortoise, symbolizing longevity, weren’t often painted together. Together they seemed redundant, belaboring the point, saying out loud what should be said in whisper and metaphor.

It seemed to hint, if not openly say, that the only reason it was hung in the museum at all was that it was one of the very few silk scrolls that survive to this day. I had never been in a prestigious collection, to begin with, judging from the previous owners’ stamps, so perhaps it was never important enough to be destroyed when its famous owner came into some sort of trouble. 

Being seen as a joke, albeit a well-painted one, seemed to relegate it to dusty trunks and obscurity, and preserve it in anonymity till the museum got it a few decades ago. 

I looked around and realized that I was the only person looking at it, or even interested in it. I hung off to the side at one point, even taking a seat on a bench leaving it wide open for a glance or gaze, but everyone seemed to walk right past it. The bright colors of its roommates seemed to draw the eye, though they were presented in chronological order, seeming to indicate to the curious that it was the oldest. That alone should provoke some interest- but it hung, forgotten, save my meager eyes. 

When waves of museum-goers ebbed I got as close to the glass as I could to inspect the painting. The window in front of my nose fogged as I stared at the tortoise’s face. It seems to smile as it reached for the peach. Not an elated grin, but a sly one. It seemed to be in on a joke everyone missed, it knew something we didn’t. I laughed too, in the empty gallery, that this fine work of delicate ink and ancient silk waited hundreds of years to deliver the punchline to a random passerby from the future. The artist painted a goofy turtle slowly reaching over the years and centuries to reach artistic immortality, on a painting that was slowly reaching over the years and centuries, closer to immortality than any other in the museum. 

Laughing and mirroring the smile of the fair tortoise, I swore it winked at me. 

You might also enjoy: