In Tanggu 塘沽区, the port district of the Tianjin municipality, 48 kilometres downriver from Tianjin, on the Hai River, where it enters the Bohai Sea, I lived alone, upstairs, above a long abandoned commercial enterprise of unknown description, in one of the few pre-revolutionary – pre-1949 – buildings then still remaining.
The walls had once been white. They were now a dirty cream colour, burnished with coal soot. The ceilings were four metres high. The rooms were spacious. Out of long-neglected windows, through bars, permanently installed, I could look down upon the street, and beyond into a blur of featureless, indeterminate greyness.
For furniture, I had a simple metal bed frame with a natural fibre-filled mattress of cotton canvas, a coarsely woven matt on that; a desk, and three wooden boxes, one large, two small, all with yellow clasps and accompanying locks, all handmade locally of native wood; a simple lamp with a flexible neck, painted a dull green; and a writer’s chest 文件柜 of Nanmu 楠木, a cherished possession, still with me. I had a large electric floor fan, too; and a crude, dangerous-looking, thick fabric-bound, kinked-corded electric burner with a coil the colour of grey-brown clay. I had no fridge.
I was working for the French – a Chinese-French mediator, interpreter, translator, intercultural trouble shooter, problem solver, jack-of-all-trades – in offshore petroleum exploration. At the beck and call of both the Chinese and the French, fluent in both languages, I preferred Tanggu to Tianjin. A writer, first and foremost, solitude was precious. There, there was little else.
Another more-than-pastime, as writing, too long an essential in my life to recall when it began – Tarot, and, or, any cards, numbers, hands, faces, fortunes read and told. At times, it had been my living, often in the secluded corners of late-night taverns, pubs, and bars. Here, in Tanggu, for both the Chinese and the French, with Chinese and Western astrology thrown in to qualify even further, at my desk at home, I read, first palms, then Tarot, and then I interpreted.
I told it straight. I pulled no punches. I didn’t charge much; so the good news and the bad news were worth the same. I could tell the nature of any threat, and the direction of its coming. Betrayals before they were felt, betrayals before they were committed…good karma coming back to reward, bad karma coming back to bite…deception, infidelity, addiction…benefactors, blessings, second chances…I could see them all.
To the French, I was Morgan Morgan; to the Chinese, Zhou Simo 周思墨. As a seer, a diviner of fortune, a bit of a reputation grew. A had no idea how far ’til one day, returning from the port, I found a middle-aged Chinese woman sitting on the stairfoot leading up to my place. She said she hadn’t been waiting long, but the opposite was apparent. She had come from Beijing to have her fortune told. Not knowing how to contact me, except through my name, she took a risk, and came.
I invited her up, tried to make her comfortable, though there were no stage props, no theatrical property, to fulfil that need. It was as it was, and that only. Even if I had anticipated her arrival, it would have made no difference.
I made some tea, pu’er tuocha 普洱沱茶. I had gotten it myself in Yunnan. While I was preparing the tea, I asked her name.
‘I am Xiangxin 向心. I know you are Simo 思墨. That is more the name of a writer than a fortuneteller. Do you write, too?’
‘Yes, I write. The writing came first. The reading of palms, cards, numbers, astrology, though a devotion, is perhaps not a destiny.’
‘I heard about you in Beijing. People say that you’re honest, that you tell the truth. Maybe because your Chinese is so good, they forgot to mention that you were foreign. I heard Zhou Simo; so I could only imagine that you were Chinese. That’s why and how you can be honest. Chinese can’t tell the truth without fear that any truth will have repercussions somewhere down the line. Better to pretend that the common lie is the truth. Safer that way. You don’t have to obey those rules.’
‘When I’m on the floors of trains with peasants, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, having purchased only no-seat tickets just like them, because, like them, I can’t afford a seat, they don’t think I’m a foreigner. Sure, they are curious what part of China I am from that my skin is fair, my eyes slate blue, my hair long and walnut brown; but because we speak the same language, they are fully willing to believe that I, too, am Chinese. You come from the city, you have your cushy seat, your private berth; you don’t even see us on the floor, or care that we will be there still seventy-two hours later.’
‘That’s why you’re such a good teller of fortunes. You see into people’s hearts. Will you look into mine? I should be happy, but I’m not. I have everything I need, but nothing I want.’
‘When you want everything, you are perilously close to wanting nothing. Indifference, apathy, ennui – slow death by self-pity.’
‘Is that what’s happening?’
‘I don’t know yet. Let me see your palm. Before I do, though, close your eyes, and without thinking about it, bring your palms together, lacing your fingers. Do that several times.’
‘Okay. Good. Now I know which hand to read first. The hand that cradles comes first; it is the hand you were born with. The hand that is cradled is the hand that you have made with with life. They are often very different.’
‘You’re right handed. I can see both the ease of your life, and the anguish. I know why you’re here.’
‘Before we read your cards, is there anything you wish to tell me? You don’t have to tell me anything. It’s not like you’re going to give me a clue to anything that I won’t be able to see when I read. Confessions are not necessary here. Everything will be revealed. No secrets can be kept. Are you okay with that? Are you okay with opening your entire life to a stranger? I will know if you scream when making love. I will know your every feeling and thought, its origin and its person. Shall we continue?’
‘Yes. I came all this way. There must be a reason for it. I should be here, that’s why I’m here.’
‘Precisely. A window upon your destiny has been opened. You are about to take a look. I am but the reader, the interpreter. The cards are yours, devoid of any influence whatsoever from me. Are you ready?’
‘The cards are ‘cleansed’ and ready for you. Take them with your left hand, then hold them in both hands. You may shuffle them if you wish, but you need not. You may hold them simply. Speak to them with your heart. They will understand your heart more easily, more readily than your mind. The mind is a deceiver. The past creates, nurtures, and sustains fear. There is no fear that is not founded in the past. There can be no fear without submission to the past. There will be no fear once free of the past. The past resides alone in the mind.’
‘Disembroil yourself from the ravelled, choking maze of caution. Your fearless surrender to whatever befalls you, to whatever calls you, is your only guarantee of the fullness of the present.’
‘If it helps at all, whatever you are going through, why-ever you are here, it is all much less traumatic than you imagine. Remember, again, fear is an emotion, a contrivance of the mind. It is not a real response to a genuine stimulus. Instead of submitting to an illusory, hypothetical condition, feel all that is authentic around you, feel this place, this moment, feel me, feel the courage and the strength that is now between us, and within you. Feel only. Do not think. Impart to the cards that sense of purpose. Ask that the cards to express to you anything you need to know. I’m going to leave you alone for a few minutes, to give you some privacy. Let me know when you’re finished. I will be shuffling the cards again before we begin. That will ensure them that we are ready.’
Several minutes later, Xiangxin called me. We began.
‘First I will display a Celtic Cross, then a more exhaustive 21-card display. In both displays, all of the cards speak to the issue revealed at the centre of that display. In the Celtic Cross, at the centre, there is a card that represents the querent, you, and upon that card, two more, the first “covers”, the second “crosses”. The juxtaposition of those three cards, their meanings together, interwoven, indicate either conflict or concord. The four cards above, below, behind, and before the centre, and the four in the column to the right, all serve to define what lies at the heart of reading.’
‘With every encounter, there is a reason. Nothing is haphazard. I look to the centre, to the heart of the matter. When one awakens from a dream, it is not the details especially that one should hasten to remember, but the feeling. What is the feeling that lingers upon awakening? Again, I am not referring to emotions. Emotions are counterfeit feelings, fabricated by a mind which lacks the founts of feelings, the senses. Every fated encounter demands a fated response.’
(Readings are private, and cannot be disclosed. This one, as many, as most, took over two hours. It is as if a spell were cast upon me by the cards, that elucidation, clarity, might be granted to the querent. Though I interpret the cards as displayed, it is as if all vision, perception, understanding were through a third eye, an eye that sees while my consciousness mind is sightless.)
‘Have you any further questions of me, now that the cards have been put away?’
‘You have told me what’s going to happen. Do I have a choice as to how to respond, as to what I should do? Isn’t that why I’m here; so that I will know better what to do from here?’
‘I have shown you where imbalance lies, where vulnerability lies. I have shown you, too, wherein lie your greatest strengths. Your greatest strength will be to accept that which is yours to bear. Destiny, however, may not be coerced, cajoled, or counted on. You will not get extra points for enduring that which is not yours to bear. You know what you need to do. You’ve known all along. You coming here is merely confirmation of that.’
‘Courage is never easy. Courage is never cautious. The only test of courage is boldness. No leap of faith ever revealed its landing prior to the jump.’
‘What can a flame remember? If it remembers just a little less than is necessary, it goes out. If it remembers just a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.’
‘Between concealment and honesty, between invention and reality, between revelation and mystery, between artfulness and artifice, between standing still and moving forward, between knowing and feeling, there is courage. That is what the flame remembers. It remembers to be brave.’
The beginnings of bravery are as simple as this. A man, or a woman, awakened too early, in the darkness, while everyone else is still sleeping, instead of rolling over immediately, and falling back to sleep, resists this urge, resists it, because for him or her, it is important, it is crucial, to qualify that experience, to describe it to him or herself, to live it fully, before submitting again to sleep. Courage begins at that point, that moment, when resistance overcomes submission.’
‘You’ll have the trip back to decide what to do. Listen to your heart. Your name, Xiangxin, says it all, “Face your heart”. Believe, xiangxin 相信.’
‘I’ll take you to the station.’
‘No, just like I would do for any of the peasants on the train with whom I sat for hours, for days, becoming nearly family, all of us of every hue, Chinese to the heart if not the bone, I will send you off. That’s what we do here in China. To fail to do so just would not be right.’
‘You are right. In some ways, you’re more Chinese than I. In the good ways.’
‘Let’s go. For the time being, you know where I am should you need me again. You’ll be fine, though. Don’t face the shadows, the darkness of your mind. Turn around. Face your heart.’