The ring's previous owner had been his grandfather. He could not picture his grandfather's face, but he vividly remembered his hands, big, knotty, incredibly agile as he showed his little grandson how to rub a stick of ink on the inkstone and mix it with water, how to choose a brush suitable for dry or wet strokes, how to hold it and make the first bold mark on the clean paper. Miraculously, without hesitation, his grandfather's first mark became the back of a horse seen half from the rear, its right rump in the foreground, its great neck wrinkled as it twisted its head back to stare out of the paper. After that first line, Wang couldn't recall the many individual strokes which created the horse: his attention was focussed on his grandfather's left hand, holding down the paper, and the white jade ring at the base of the ring finger, looking as if it grew there, the flesh partly overlapping it. The ring, he believed then, was the source of the magic that conjured up the horse, and his belief was confirmed when the old magician paused momentarily to contemplate his work and say:
"Now you can see it's a horse, the principle of a horse. But which horse, which particular horse waiting to be mounted?"
And at that point he gave a little twist to the ring with his right thumb and forefinger and immediately laid his left hand down on the paper again, taking up more ink with the brush and finishing the drawing without another pause.
"Is the ring magic?" Wang asked, as his grandfather laid the brush on its rest and looked for approval.
"The ring? Of course. Do you think I could draw like that without it?" said his grandfather and then, seeing that he was being taken literally, laughed and added:
"But the funny thing is, you know, that I could draw like that before my father gave me the ring. So perhaps the magic is in my fingers and the ring helps to keep it there."
Wang must have looked bewildered. His grandfather stared at him for a moment, then suddenly took the little boy's right hand and held it in both of his.
"If there's magic in your fingers and you learn how to master it and bring it to the paper, you shall have this ring one day for your own."
So, from then on, he had the promise of the ring and often referred to it, even when he was some years older and began to understand that fingers can be taught to make magical drawings, but that magic rings are impossible except in stories.
"How soon can I have Grandfather's ring?" he would ask when his mother or grandmother praised one of his drawings with unusual enthusiasm.
His mother became irritated:
"Even if Grandfather decides to give it to you one day, you mustn't keep asking."
"But he promised."
"A gift must be given freely, not on demand."
"Besides," said his grandmother in a kinder voice, "he still needs it himself."
But Wang was not such an innocent by then as to think that, however well he drew, his grandfather would simply remove the ring one day and give it to him. He was just reminding them of his claim on it, being only too well aware that nearly every other member of the family was also an artist and afraid that the same promise had been made to them.
His fear seemed justified when his grandfather died and the ring still eluded him. His heart ached all through the week when the sealed coffin stood in the house, waiting for the funeral.
"Will it be buried with Grandfather?" he finally couldn't resist asking his mother in a whisper, as the cortege bearing the corpse and followed by a huge crowd of loudly mourning relatives, friends, servants and peasants left the house for the family tomb. His mother's grief immediately turned to anger:
"How dare you talk like that? Did you only love him for his ring?
Excerpted from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling. Copyright © 2014 by John Spurling. Excerpted by permission of Overlook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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