“Try something new, today” Prentice read on the tiny slip of paper after he’d cracked open the fortune cookie that had been delivered with his lunch bill.
Valerie always turned up her nose at fortune cookies—a silly Americanism that had nothing to do with China, she insisted. A dictum she'd usually delivered in her bossiest tone of voice. That same tone of inarguable authority she'd used when mis-identifying wildflowers or birds. Of course, she sometimes had behaved as if she'd brought the whole Great Wall of China home in her back pocket on the strength of spending a single month there with her diplomat father when she was twenty-one. Her tendency to show off what she knew and could do had always annoyed him. Perhaps that was healthy though; he was remembering the whole woman, not just what he’d loved about her.
But she’d been right about eating in restaurants that Chinese people themselves patronized; this plain restaurant with all the elegance of a college cafeteria, had a real chef in charge of their kitchen. The expertly cooked and seasoned food served on plain, sturdy white china plates had absolutely outshone the beige and jade green décor of the dining room where he’d been the only Caucasian person he could see. The one concession made to the Lunar New Year festivities were the row of bright red paper lanterns strung across the top of the restaurant’s front window.
Back outside, Prentice paused to button his coat against the cold, slicing wind while he watched five young men standing in a tiny side alley, having a complicated but hilarious time trying to don their red and yellow lion dance costume and get their movements coordinated. Their jollity made Prentice smile despite himself. Since the funeral and until this morning, he’d been in a larval state of non-function. He supposed he must have eaten meals, but he remembered almost nothing about the first three weeks of this year.
This morning his daughter had come over to roust him out of bed; he’d meekly showered, shaved and dressed, then eaten the big breakfast she’d prepared before she turned him out of the house until five this afternoon. Lynnette had inherited Valerie’s bossiness, all right.
“It’s Willy’s birthday tomorrow,” she’d told him stuffing twenty dollar bills into his hand after helping him into his winter coat in his front hall. “Go buy your grandson a present. He likes Wii games.
“Life goes on, Dad,” she’d told him in a gentler voice, leaning in at the driver’s side window just before he’d driven off. “You kept your promise to Mom, it’s about time I kept mine. You’re still alive, and it’s time to get on with the job.”
Passing the apothecary shop next door to the restaurant, Prentice sniffed the musty odors and wondered if they shouldn’t have given Chinese herbs a try, not that it would make a difference now.
“All the healing herbs in China couldn’t work fast enough to knock out what you’ve got, Valerie,” Doctor Chao herself had insisted. “It’s the nastiest, most aggressive case of Hodgkins I’ve ever seen. You just can’t afford to mess around with alternative treatments.”
Prentice stepped aside to allow a young mother pushing a large baby carriage to pass and consulted his watch—still three hours to kill before he dared return home. Standing so close to the wall, a rectangular brass name plate bolted to the wall of a shabby little Victorian caught his eye. There were three vertical rows of Chinese characters above, but written in English below he saw Song Qingzhao: Feng Shui and I Ching Consultant, and a little glyph of a rooster etched beneath the writing.
He hesitated, then to his own surprise, he mounted the short flight of steps and rang the bell. Try something new, the fortune cookie had commanded. He was a born skeptic, but what was the harm? It was a good way to kill a little time.
Stepping into the dim, grimy little foyer, he hesitated. He, Prentice Duncan, the born skeptic, was now taking orders from a damn fortune cookie? Then he saw the same nameplate as outside, with an arrow pointing up the stairs, took a deep breath and and began to climb. After he felt the banister rail wiggle under his hand, Prentice stuck close to the wall as he climbed the narrow winding flight carpeted with a faded red runner. He hoped that if the San Andreas Fault were feeling restless today, the much-fabled Big One would not strike before he was finished and out of this flimsy little house.
Song Qingzhao herself, dressed in a scarlet silk robe, was standing in her open doorway waiting for him at the top of the second flight of stairs; a small, tidy woman of about seventy, Prentice guessed, her black hair beautifully striped with silver. She looked a little surprised to see a Westerner approaching her door and her smile was more tentative now, but she had a calm, kind face.
“Mrs. Song?” he asked. He had no idea what else to say, or even how to ask her about the services she offered.
“Have you come for a consultation?” she asked. Her voice was rather like a bird chirp.
“Yes please. If you have the time, Mrs Song.”
“Of course. Please come in.” Her smile became warmer and she opened her door wider to allow him entry inside.
The room inside was very clean, he was pleased to note after the dinginess of the rest of the building, and like the nest of a really large sparrow as to size.
“Please sit down, I will make some fresh tea,” she invited, hanging up his coat on a peg by the door before stepping into a closet-sized kitchen off to the right. A folding screen further up the hall also to the right partially concealed the entrance to a tiny bedroom.
He sat down in one of the mismatched wooden chairs drawn up to the round table set by the bay window. It offered an unexpectedly good view of the city skyline, the blue sky almost blotted out by gray and white thunderheads. The little room had a color scheme of robin’s egg blue and white, and he noted little statuettes of all the creatures of the Chinese Zodiac lined up along the white painted window sill within easy reach of the table. Six round brass coins with square holes in the middle had been strung onto a scarlet silk cord and hung from a hook on the window frame. Up here, the noise of the street was reduced to a hum although a large Chinese dragon kite swooped past outside nearly at his eye level. A large stringed wooden instrument hung in a place of honor on the wall facing his chair, along with a calendar and some framed old photos and artwork. The dark, polished wooden floor was covered by a blue and white braided rag rug. A small room, but a pretty one.
“Now then,” Mrs Song said, placing her tea tray down on the table and taking out a lined notebook. “May I ask your birthdate and the time of your birth if you know it?”
“March 19, 1952,” he replied. “I think I was born around eleven thirty in the morning.”
“Very good,” Mrs. Song murmured as she wrote this down, then poured out the tea. It was green-gold in color and gave off a delicious steam.
“In the western horoscope, you are right on the cusp of the end of Picses, the twelfth sign, and the start of Aries, the first. In the Chinese horoscope, you were born in the year of the Dragon.”
“I know we’re about to start the year of the Dragon,” Prentice said. “Is that a good sign?”
“It might be, but I cannot know for sure, yet. Have you any particular question you wish to answer about the year to come?”
“I—well, I had a very difficult time last year, Mrs. Song,” Prentice admitted. “I’m recently widowed after a very hard year of my wife’s fighting cancer. She died a few days after Christmas. I suppose I want to know if this year is going to get any better.”
“I am sorry,” she murmured, raising a sympathetic face to his. “I am a widow too—I know how hard it is, at first.” She rose and went to a black lacquer wall cabinet and pulled out a silk wrapped-bundle of what looked like bamboo sticks, about as long as her forearm, all of them thin, and there were a great many of them.
“I was originally taught to use yarrow stalks for the I Ching,” she told him. “It takes a little longer than the coins, but I find the results more satisfactory and accurate. Completing the hexagram this way is almost a mediation in itself. I can use the coins however, if you are short of time?” She arched her feathery brows at him in question.
“I’m in no rush, Mrs. Song.”
“You may call me Qingzhao, if you wish,” she smiled at him. “This will take about fifteen minutes. All I ask is that you watch quietly and wait until I am finished before asking any questions.”
"All right." Prentice nodded, watching as she with drew a single stalk and laid it horizontally on the white table cloth before her. Then she divided the rest into two piles to the right and left. Her face was serene but intent, as she passed the stalks between her right and left hands tucking them between her ring and little fingers, then her ring and middle fingers before laying them on the table cloth in patterns he did not understand. There was nothing in her manner of trying to impress him with mysterious rituals which would have diminished his trust in her. It was clear that to Qingzhao, this was a familiar, well understood procedure. She repeated the counting out of the stalks five more times after the first, making a note of the results each time in her notebook, her face growing more serene and focused with each repetition while Prentice watched in fascinated bewilderment, sipping the excellent jasmine tea.
“Now then,” she looked up and smiled, taking a sip of her own tea last. “The hexagram is complete. I will consult the book as to the meaning.”
He glanced at what she’d written, or really drawn on the pad, although it told him nothing. Two broken lines, a solid line, three more broken lines below, then a final solid line. I Ching, the Book of Changes, he read on the cover before she laid the book flat and began flipping through it to find the assortment of broken and unbroken lines.
“Your hexagram is Water over Thunder, which means ‘difficult beginnings,’” Qingzhao told him at last. “You are on the cusp of something new and probably something good, but it will be difficult, at first. Things will improve in the year to come; but patience is needed, as progress will be slow, especially to begin with.” She shut the book and poured more tea.
“I see,” Prentice murmured. He hadn’t known what to expect by coming up here; but fortune telling, oracle reading, or hexagram completing did not seem to have told him anything he couldn’t have guessed himself. He did not regret it, though. Qingzhao had impressed him with her calm competence.
“I am sorry it is not more encouraging. I can guess that you have had a very hard time,” Qingzhao ventured, looking him in the eyes at last. “You want encouragement and solace after what you’ve endured. But that is how life is, yes?
"If it will help, I know that after my husband died, I didn’t know how to get on by myself, and I missed him dreadfully. A year after he died, I realized I could manage it on my own because I already had, day by day, even though at the start of that year, I never thought it would be possible. But to recover from that kind of loss is never fast or easy.”
“No, it isn’t. But had you promised me riches and love, and excitement, I’d have figured you were a charlatan,” he told her with a rueful smile. “This feels…genuine.”
She smiled and patted the book. “Sometimes, this gives people better results than you received. But I have never known it to give empty promises.”