The I Ching and the Man of Papers

Published in Words Without Borders, 2010
Translation by Andrea G. Labinger

The man awakens with a start. His back feels numb. He had fallen asleep in the chair, and it takes him a moment to remember where he is, but it’s the second night, and the room with its row of beds and little heads hooked up to catheters is beginning to look familiar. There’s a dense odor of disinfectant and cologne, and from above comes the discreet hum of the blades of a fan. He has a cramp in one of his legs, and when he rubs his eyes he feels the roughness of his day-old beard on the palm of his hand. He tries to remember the nightmare that startled him awake, but the last traces escape his grasp and he thinks maybe it’s better that way. He stands and leans over the first bed in the darkness. Nothing has changed. The sheet drapes the small, thin body up to the neck; a tangle of blonde hair clings to the sweaty face, and the head remains still, at the same, slightly forced, angle, as though cruelly tugged upward by the tube emerging from the nose. Someone has replaced the IV bag during the night, as well as the damp cloth on her forehead. He, who had fallen asleep to the piercing cries of the little girl in the third bed and then, still half-asleep, had heard the loud, asthmatic snores of the boy on the respirator, like a swimmer about to go under, now wondered about the body’s different strategies against death, and whether his daughter’s deep torpor, that impenetrable stillness, was a kind of self-contained resistance or the sign of final surrender.

There’s a sound of footsteps in the corridor, and he looks at the clock: it’s his wife, coming to take over for him. The door opens and the wedge of light briefly allows him to see the other beds. The third one, the other little girl’s bed, is empty now. Falling asleep is dangerous, he thinks: during the night there are silent disappearances, unforeseeable substitutions. He feels his wife’s hand on his shoulder and the swift brush of her lips against his cheek. They stand there like two strangers, unmoving, gazing at an equally unmoving, strange spectacle.
“Nothing, right?” she says. She reaches out her arm to test the cloth on the child’s forehead. “It needs to be changed again.”
She leaves the room, and from across the corridor he hears the sound of a faucet running in the tiny kitchen where the nurses doze. When she returns and touches the child’s forehead, he sees something in her fear-widened eyes that neither of them has yet dared to say.
“When will the doctor be back?”
“In two hours.”
“Did he say anything else?”
He shakes his head.
“Just that we have to wait.”
“Something went wrong, didn’t it? She should have been out of the operating room in half an hour. That’s what they told us. Maybe it wasn’t appendicitis; maybe there was a complication.”
“I asked him, and he said no, but at night he came back to see her with another doctor. They said we’d have to wait twenty-four hours more.”
“Are you going to take a nap before your class?”
“Yeah, I’m going to lie down for a while.”
“Will you remember to look for the I Ching?”
Her voice echoes with an anguished, imploring tone, and in her eyes he sees the same despairing expression, like the raised arm of a shipwreck victim, that was there when they lost their first child, their son, as if everything around them had sunk and she didn’t care what he thought anymore. He tells her he’s already gone through the boxes one by one, but that he’ll look again.
“And the coins,” she says. “Don’t forget the coins. There needs to be a male image and a female one. I always used those English ten-pence coins, with the lion and the queen. They should be in the little red bank, in her collection.”
The man nods and leans over to kiss her. Unexpectedly, she embraces him and starts to cry, spasmodic, broken sobs punctuated by a hoarse, desperate moan. He feels the dampness of her tears on his face and neck. It’s been a long time since they’ve embraced.
She steps back, looks at him again, and automatically adjusts his shirt collar.
“Will you remember?”
The man turns the key and walks into the house. There’s a slightly different odor, the smell of an abandoned house. He hears nails scratching against the patio door and sees his dog’s wet snout pressed against the glass. His wife has left some toast and orange juice for him in the kitchen. The man opens the patio door and shares a piece of toast with the dog. It’s not yet dawn. He feels his way along the shadows of a hallway, enters his daughter’s room, and turns on one of the lamps. His wife, he notices, had been in there during the day. Everything’s tidy, as if she had picked up and touched each toy before replacing it on the shelves, and the bed from which they snatched their daughter in the middle of the night has been made again, with the Winnie-the-Pooh comforter carefully smoothed out. On the night table he sees a photo of his wife and himself, both smiling, deeply tanned and lying on the sand, a picture that his daughter took one summer at the beach when she was only four or five. He finds the bank inside a toy chest, a red tin mailbox that he brought her from one of his trips. He inverts it on the bed, and from the stash of coins from so many countries he separates three ten-pence pieces and puts them in his pocket. He turns out the light and climbs the stairs to his study.
Scattered on the floor, with their covers raised, exactly as he had left them the night before, are the dozens of cartons of books that had been shipped during the move. This house didn’t have bookshelves; at first there had always been some other more urgent task to attend to, and for a while now they had stopped thinking about it, as if they both knew it didn’t matter anymore, because in any case he was going to leave.
The man squats, opens the first box and empties it, stacking the books in tall piles. He tries to calculate the space that the books would occupy in the room. He’s determined to search all the boxes again. The book he’s looking for is black, very thick, with the title written in Chinese characters and the cover frayed at one corner. He’s sure he couldn’t have missed it. It was probably in one of the boxes that never arrived. He remembers her leaning over the book, in one of the early years of their marriage, when she couldn’t fall asleep at night. He remembers, too well, the gentle roll of the coins, waking in the darkness to find her side of the bed cold, walking downstairs guided by the sound of that rhythmic tumble, and seeing her in her negligée, her hair loose, the I Ching open on the kitchen table and beside it a piece of paper folded in half, with interminable successions of lines that looked like an SOS repeated in a strange Morse code. He recalls her talking at length, while he made coffee, about the man of the Red Samurai, the retreating armies, the chaste maiden and the old woman, the Duke of Chou, the care of the cow, the biting through tender meat, and the bloody tears that flow. He recalls the thousand little jokes he made at her expense and the answer she gave him, with an imperturbable smile, like a permanently winning card: the I Ching had predicted he would come into her life, the man of papers. That’s what she called him in her bursts of tenderness: my man of papers.
The man opens the second box, and a band of sunshine filters in through the window, like a hand, unexpectedly warm, on his face. A sharp pain rises from his middle up through his back. He tilts backward for a moment, then stretches out on the parquet floor and with half-opened eyes stares at the shifting cone of glittery dust suspended in the sunlight. He falls soundly asleep, not hearing his dog stealthily climb the stairs—breaking a household rule—and curl up in a ball beside him.
The phone rings downstairs. Once, twice. The man awakens and manages to reach the foot of the staircase before the answering machine picks up.
“I thought you might have fallen asleep,” his wife says. There’s background noise, as if she were in a public phone booth. “What time is your class?”
The man glances at his watch.
“I still have time for a shower. Any news?”
“They just took her into Radiology, and the doctor’s ordered more tests. He said we’d have to wait till the end of the day, but he wouldn’t tell me what they plan to do if she doesn’t respond . . .” Her voice seems to break and then, as if making an effort to compose herself, she asks him if he’ll come to the hospital directly from class.
“Yes, of course.”
“Then don’t forget to bring the I Ching to the University along with your other books.”
She always reminded him of the things he needed to do. He didn’t think his memory was as bad as she liked to claim, but in the beginning it had been a kind of game between the two of them, and he now realized it might be her only way to connect with him during their most turbulent times. True, there was something erratic about his memory, but there were also some firm, immutable recollections. He remembered each and every night of his son’s dying; he remembered her, still very young, muttering to herself as she tossed the coins, trapped in their hypnotic jingling, frantically trying to extract a different answer from the book. He remembered the day, sometime after the funeral, when the I Ching disappeared from the shelf in the dining room without his daring to ask her about it, and also the day when she started taking the pills that now allowed her to sleep through the night.
The man turns on the shower and quickly undresses. He has a long, muscular body, which he’s maintained since his days on the University swim team. He can still effortlessly backstroke the hundred laps that once were his daily routine. In that secret pact with his body, the part he feels he’s fulfilled consists of never having paid it too much attention. He comes out of the bathroom and throws on a short-sleeved shirt, glances at his watch again and decides there’s no time to shave. He goes upstairs to his study once more, picks up a Statistics text and a few pages of notes and drags his dog downstairs by the collar to put him back out on the patio. He makes sure the three coins are still in his pocket and looks for the car keys on the hall table. He starts out for the University, but turns off on a side street and parks in front of a bookstore. The clerk hears him out patiently and slowly shakes his head no. All they have is an abridged edition of the I Ching. The thick book with black covers and a prologue by Jung that he’s talking about has been out of print for a long time. The clerk doubts he’ll find it in any bookstore in the city. The man walks back to his car. He looks at his watch and heads down the street, driving slightly over the speed limit. When he enters the classroom, his students are already seated, and he hears a quiet rumble of resignation. He’s never been late before. Maybe, he thinks, they were all hoping he wouldn’t show up. The man crosses the classroom with long strides, steps up to the platform and begins to speak of medical pathologies, strange diseases, monstrosities. Have you ever noticed, he asks, that the first examples were always described in China? Could it be that the Chinese are more subject to deformities, to aberrations? Or is it just that there are so many of them? What is a rare disease, after all? A disease that shows up once in ten million cases, let’s say. But there are more than a billion Chinese: a disease that would be rare in any ordinary country isn’t so rare in China. Now, says the man, let’s think about prophetic dreams. We’ve all dreamed at one point or another that a close relative has died. Let’s suppose each person has a dream like that at least once in his life.
He pauses, as if he’s lost the thread; he’s just recalled, with devastating clarity, the nightmare he had in the hospital at dawn. He turns to the blackboard for an instant, pretending to be looking for chalk, and turns around again to face the class. What’s not so common, he says, is for the relative to actually die the next day. But then again, what does “not so common” mean? Our close relative, like all human beings, one day must die.
The man writes a five-digit number on the board. This is the number of days in a person’s maximum lifespan. Our relative might die on any one of these days. The prophetic dream could also occur on any given night, on any one of these days. But then the probability that the prophetic dream will come true is the same as the probability that these two independent events will coincide: the night of the dream and the day of the death. And that number is one we know how to calculate.
The man writes an equation, stops for a moment at the equal sign, as if he were performing a long mental calculation, and jots down a second number, nearly twice as long as the first. It’s a large number, but not so very large, he says. In Tokyo, in Buenos Aires, in New York, every night, routinely, someone kills a loved one in his dreams. Of course this person will be absolutely astonished if we try to convince him by any rational means that there was no mystery, no premonition, just the trivial evidenceof a statistic, almost as inevitable as the fact that every lottery game has a winner.
He erases the board energetically, and gradually, in the same somewhat indifferent and ironic tone, demolishes astrology, the Tarot, the hope of roulette tricks. His students could hardly have noticed the difference between this and any other class session. He’s just a little more distracted than usual and he hasn’t yet tried out one of his subtle, almost secret, jokes. He calls for the first break but remains at his desk as the classroom slowly empties. One of his female students from the front row comes forward with a dubious smile.
“But everything you said—the law of large numbers and all that—it doesn’t apply to the I Ching, does it? The I Ching predicts future events . . . it’s on a different level; it can’t be reduced to a roll of the dice.”
Every quarter, when he reaches this class on chance, there’s always someone that approaches him with that same alarmed expression, as if he’s challenged an intimate faith, much more enshrined than any religion. It’s almost always astrology, and he has to listen to naïve, passionate defenses and long explanations of astronomical coordinates and astral houses. Other times it’s the Tarot. In general he’s unable to make them understand: Yes, I’m very sorry, but it’s all the same, the blind indeterminacy of things. But until now no one had ever mentioned the I Ching.
“Then your book is never wrong?” asks the man, and his student doesn’t seem to notice the trace of irony.
“Never,” she says earnestly. “Everything it’s predicted for me has always come true. But you should only consult it for really important things.”
“Maybe you have a miraculous copy.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?” asks the girl, wounded.
The man looks at her. The girl has a frank, open expression, and in her face there is something radiant and terribly young, as if she hasn’t yet been exposed to life. Yes, he realizes, just this once, he would like to believe.
“The miraculous copy,” he hears himself say, “is like the miraculous coin, a very familiar case in Statistics. Imagine for a moment that all the inhabitants of this city toss a coin into the air twenty times in a row. It’s perfectly possible that one person’s coin, one out of all of them, might fall the same way all twenty times. Twenty heads in a row. That man will believe that his coin is miraculous, but of course it’s nothing inherent to the coin itself; it’s simply one of the possible configurations of chance. Now imagine all the people who have a copy of the I Ching. Imagine that after each consultation those who feel cheated by the oracle toss the book aside and only those for whom the oracle has predicted accurately remain in the game. Half, let’s say. And after the second consultation, half of that half, and so on. Even if the I Ching is as blind as a coin, in a big city it’s perfectly possible that there could be one copy that’s never wrong. That copy might be yours. What does your edition look like?” the man suddenly asks.
“The edition? But that’s got nothing to do with it, does it? It’s an ordinary edition, with a black cover.”
“With Chinese writing in gold?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“Could I borrow it? Just for today?”
“Today? But the book’s at my house.”
“I need it today. I could drive you home after class.”
An expression of unease with a touch of alarm spreads across the girl’s face, as though she’s had to readjust herself for a different sort of conversation or is beginning to wonder if she should intuit something else behind his words. But still she hesitates, undoubtedly because in his expression she sees none of the other indications, a sly smile, a change in tone, an insinuated intention in his gaze, something that would allow her to be sure of what he’s really offering. She sweeps a nervous hand through her hair and smiles feebly.
“But you don’t believe in the I Ching, do you?” Her smile lights up with a spark of playfulness. Or perhaps this is her way of inviting him to cross that invisible boundary, so that she might be sure exactly what she’s about to accept or reject. The man makes a weary gesture.
“No, in general I don’t, but it’s not for me. It’s . . .” He stops, as though he’s made a wrong turn. “It’s complicated to explain,” he says. “But it’s an important consultation, as you said before. I’d like to use your copy. Could I ask you for that small favor? I’ll get it back to you tomorrow.”
“Sure, of course,” the girl says, puzzled, and turns to go back to her seat.
“Thanks,” says the man. “So we’ll meet after class, then.”
Her residence is in the new student neighborhood, behind the park. During the brief journey they barely speak. He learns the girl’s name. From the toys on the back seat, the girl discovers that he has a daughter. When he parks in front of one of the apartment blocks, she timidly invites him up, and now, as she apologizes for the mess and searches for the book in a rattan bookcase, he stands in the doorway and for a moment feels like he’s returned to his student days, to his own chaotic room, and that he could know everything about her if he would only fix his gaze on each detail. The girl returns with the book and hands it to him. He runs a finger along the golden characters on the cover and feels its weight as he turns it over to look at the spine. He realizes it’s the first time he’s ever held the book in his hands.
“It’s an ordinary edition,” she says, as if it was something she’d warned him about before but was still afraid might disappoint him.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” the man says. “The miraculous copy is an ordinary copy of the ordinary edition.”
The man climbs the hospital stairs; the coins jingle in his pocket at every other step. He crosses a patio and searches the labyrinth of hallways for his daughter’s room. A nurse who knows him intercepts him in the corridor before he can open the door, placing her hand on his arm. Your daughter, she tells him, was taken to the operating room: they’re going to perform a second operation. Your wife is waiting for you there. The man walks to the end of a passageway and climbs another flight of stairs, worn marble stairs with jagged edges that lead to a little waiting room. His wife rises from her chair and embraces him. When they draw apart he sees tracks of tears on her face.
“She just went in,” she says. “She’s behind that door. They don’t know what’s wrong with her. They’re going to operate again, but they couldn’t tell me what’s wrong with her.” She fixes her lost gaze on the book that the man still holds in his hand, and when he gives it to her, she clutches it to her chest for a moment.
“So you found it.”
“It’s not yours,” the man says. “I looked for it again, but it wasn’t there. It’s one I borrowed.”
“And the coins? Did you remember the coins?”
They’re alone in the waiting room. The man takes the three coins from his pocket and gives them to her. The woman retreats to the first step with the book. He turns away toward the row of empty chairs: he doesn’t want to see her there, leaning over the book once more as if it were some dark, terrible god, as if the past had returned, intact. But their son and their daughter, he thinks, are independent events. He listens to the tinkle of the coins tossed onto the marble. Once, twice, three times. Four. Five. Six. The six throws that determine the number of the hexagram. He lifts his head, unable to stop himself, and, terrified, watches the hand open the infallible book to one of its pages.       

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