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    THE MOON OVER WATERMELON LEAVES by Rob Preece, July 2006

    According to my father, there is an ancient Chinese legend that when God, or maybe the gods (our family migrated to California during the railroad building boom of the 1860s and we're no longer clear on all of our Chinese traditions) decided to create the world, he/they did so simply in order to create one perfect moment.

    That moment, according to the legend, would come when the moon shined over watermelon leaves at just the right angle, at just the right time, and created a thing of true and perfect beauty.

    My father was full of half-remembered Chinese legends, but the watermelon story touched a chord in me that the others didn't. The idea that the entirety of creation, or of at least one life, could be devoted to creating a single moment of beauty struck me as impossibly sad. Looking back, I know that the idea of the unbearably sad is a favorite concept of the teenager, but that was what I was at the time.

    At seventeen, I left my home in Los Angeles's faded Chinatown to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz. I justified my decision in all sorts of ways-the school was close to San Francisco, which was the center of California's art world, but not too close. A couple of my friends from High School were also going there. The real reason, a reason I could hardly admit to myself, let alone to my parents, was that the student farm included a vast field of watermelon plants. When the light was just right, and when you stood in exactly the right spot at the University's Merrill College, looking down and to the west, it looked as if the field extended all the way into the Pacific Ocean.

    I was there to study art, I frequently told myself. And certainly there was a vast history of artists creating rural scenes, scenes with fruit, even scenes with the moon.

    Although I painted dozens of subjects, I kept coming back to the watermelon fields. The paintings I managed were a long way from perfect, of course. I'd taken college level painting classes all through high school, but I was still a long way from the talent of a Van Gogh or Picasso. Still, I liked to think that I caught something in the watermelon leaves that hadn't been seen before.

    Late in my first year at the college, I saw a flyer about a group of Chinese mystics coming to the school. Included in their number were practitioners of traditional Chinese medicines, martial artists who claimed to be able to break bricks without actually touching them, and story-tellers. Naturally I went. It was free and, while I worked part time in the art department, my paycheck went for books and art supplies, leaving very little for entertainment.

    I enjoyed the brickbreaking, completely unable to see the trick, if there was one. Skeptics from the audience were allowed to go up and smack at bricks with hammers to prove that they really were solid bricks. And the martial artists put thin sheets of rice paper between their hands and the bricks, demonstrating that they didn't actually make surface contact since the rice paper was undamaged. But the folktales really intrigued me.

    One master story-teller, who couldn't have been more than thirty but seemed to have a wealth of knowledge that should have taken centuries to learn, started telling the stories my father had told us growing up. Wonderful stories of wise Chinese judges, clever peasants, unscrupulous government officials, and beautiful princesses. I hung around afterwards, as they unrolled sleeping mats and prepared to bed down in the cafeteria. It took me an hour to get up the nerve, but I finally approached the story-teller.

    “I thought you would tell the story of the creation of the world and the moon over the watermelon patch.” It had been the only one of my father's stories he hadn't gone through in the hours that he'd talked.

    He shrugged. “Tell me.”

    I did as he'd asked, giving him the story first in English, then, at his request, in my broken version of Cantonese. After four generations, even living in Chinatown, my spoken Chinese was nothing to calligraphy home about. My reading was only a little better. Only my writing showed much promise at all, but that was more due to my art training than to anything I'd learned from the older members of the Chinese diaspora. But he was able to make sense of it, barely wincing at the way Los Angeles Chinese had intermingled bits of Mandarin with its Cantonese, even picking up a dash of Vietnamese from the great influx of collaborators who'd made it to America after South Viet Nam's defeat and had settled into Chinatowns across California.

    He looked at me sadly. “Lee Ken, that is not a Chinese story.”

    “Of course it is. My father told it to me.”

    “Yet, it is not. Oddly enough, China is the world's leading producer of watermelon, but we have no myths involving it. I believe that watermelon is native to the Kalahari Desert of Africa rather than to China at all. It may have arrived too late in the historical record to feature in any of the creation myths.

    But where would my father have learned an African myth?

    The story-teller patted me on the head as if I were a young boy rather than an eighteen-year-old man.

    I pulled away, halfway knocking my glasses down my nose as I did so, but he just laughed.

    “America is the melting pot, is it not? Perhaps he came across a bushman somewhere. Perhaps he made up the story himself. The Chinese you spoke it in, while bad, had a rhythm that could only come from someone more comfortable in the language than yourself. It sounds Chinese, but it isn't. It's a fake.”

    If I hadn't been tired, I never would have done what I did next. I was barely eighteen and horribly concerned about being seen as cool, worried that my Chinese blood would doom me to being perceived as a nerdy and mathematical sort rather than the artist I felt certain I held inside of myself. But I was tired. Tired enough that I didn't hold back. “But what if that one moment with the moon over watermelon leaves really is the purpose of the universe?”

    He tried to rustle my hair again but this time I ducked away. “If the gods had a purpose to the universe, do you really think they would tell us? And if they did, could we understand them? No, your story is probably something out of Africa. There were many Chinese in Africa. Not as many as there were Indians, of course, but many. When the British wanted things done, they used the Chinese to make them happen. Perhaps you have learned a translation of an African myth.”

    I didn't know much about Africa back then. But I thought I knew something about China, and I thought I knew far more about the gods then than I know now. Even now, I know that he was wrong about that-and that he'd made a mistake a scientist might make, but a story-teller should never fall for.

    The gods might very well have created the universe to allow one perfect moment of the moon over watermelon leaves. There was nothing any more ridiculous about that notion than any other. Why shouldn't the gods see art as something higher, something holy? Humans, in China, India, Egypt, Byzantium, Venice, and a thousand other cities have exhausted their civilizations creating great art. Who were we to tell them that they had missed the message of the gods, that art was an accident of human evolution?

    But he turned away from me then.

    I'd missed dinner, but I wasn't hungry. Rather than seeing if I could get something at the Crown cafeteria, which stayed open after ours had closed, I returned to the small studio I shared with a dozen other art majors.

    As always, the stench of sweating artist mingled with those of linseed oil and acrylics. But, for once, I was alone in the studio. I pulled out a canvas I'd prepared weeks before, then held back while I waited for some special inspiration. Then I stared out the studio's wide picture window.

    The sun had just settled below the horizon, and Santa Cruz's usual glorious sunset had faded from pink, gold and red to a dusty purple that gradually faded into the midnight blue of the sky. Santa Cruz was still small enough, then, that its city lights didn't drown out all of the stars and they were popping out like movie theater popcorn, so fast it seemed that the entire sky would fill with them.

    I filled my brush and considered where to start when the moon slipped out from behind a cloud where it had been hiding.

    It lit a pathway across a sea even darker than the sky above. Each wave scattered back the moon's glow in a billion directions. Then, the faintest wind picked up and beneath me, the watermelon leaves swayed. And the moonlight reflected off the leaves.

    From the hillside where the college stood, the folds in the ground hid the city itself. The watermelon plants seemed to stretch forever. On the horizon, they blended with the moving waves of the sea, glistening, gleaming, the moon's reflected light seeming to carve a path so solid even a mere human might walk it, but that had to be designed for gods.

    I painted as quickly as I could, not wanting to miss a moment of what I knew was the perfect moment of my father's tale. It was frustratingly difficult to mix the right colors to pick the dark green of the moonlit leaves and the subtly different green-black of the Pacific. The green-black of the ocean against the blue-black of the sky. But what should have been the hardest to capture, the gleam of the moonlight, the refractions of that light across hundreds of millions of different points of reflection and absorption, turned out to be easy.

    I mixed the last color and stood, a few strokes from capturing the magic of that perfect moment when I saw the story-teller beneath me. He too was looking in the wrong direction, away from the perfect moment and I knew I needed to share it with him, allow him to capture it in story the way I had so nearly completed capturing it with my brushes and canvas. I hurried down to the cafeteria, carrying my paints and canvas, and shouted at him. “You're looking the wrong way. Turn around.”

    He didn't argue, something any eighteen-year-old appreciates in those rare moments when adults actually listen. Instead, he turned as I'd requested, and stared.

    “What is it?”

    “You don't see.” I was practically beside myself with excitement. “It's here-exactly what my father's story predicted.”

    “It's perfectly ordinary.”

    But it was anything other than ordinary. Because the pathway glowed even more brightly and all of a sudden I realized what it was. The gods had created this perfect moment for themselves, to make a pathway to an even higher reality than they normally achieved. I knew what I'd been waiting for, why I hadn't finished the painting before rushing down. I took the brush in my hands and waited for the magic moment to complete itself.

    The story-teller looked at my painting, then flicked the glasses from my eyes. “You shouldn't need these. I can help you.”

    “That's all right,” I said. “I've always worn glasses.” I'd been the only kid in my kindergarten class wearing glasses, and this in a school where just about everyone wore them by grade five.

    “I can help.” He did something with his hands-the same sort of move the martial artists had made when they'd broken bricks without touching them and something inside my head went bang even though, sure enough, his fingers hadn't come within an inch of my eyes.

    I jerked back, more in surprise than pain, and then reached for my glasses. But I didn't need them. Whatever he'd done had worked, changed the shape of my eyes so that I could see without them.

    I spun around and looked at the watermelon leaves-and the pathway was gone.

    I never finished that painting. I didn't know how the magic moment came out. Were the gods able to take the pathway higher? Or had the paint fumes brought me to a place where I saw what wasn't there, like some junkie strung out on the drug of his choice. I kept the unfinished painting, though, and look at it often. Because it does show the moment before the perfect moment, filled with potential.

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