Book of Changes (Eight Hexagrams)
It was a quiet morning in the Year of
the Rooster. The old fortune teller
Hiromi Shoju sat still in the doorway
of his house. The sun wasn’t up yet,
but dew gleamed faintly on the grass.
Venus and a sprinkling of lesser stars still burned. Soon the sun would come and they, like the dew, would vanish. The stars above my head, the dew beneath my feet, thought Hiromi, it is all one thing. He faced the east, awaiting the moment when the sun would rise and spill fresh golden light over Hiroshima.
A cold breeze blew in from the ocean. Hiromi tucked his knees under his chin. Shivering, he clutched his bundle of yarrow stalks. At dawn he would use them to consult the Oracle, according to the ancient Chinese method. He held them tight and remembered the Sage’s words:
“The nature of the yarrow stalks is round and spiritual. The nature of the hexagrams is square and wise.”
With the rising sun a red-orange tide
swept slowly across the grass, turning
the dew into rubies. Hiromi recalled
the Master wrote: “The small departs.
The great approaches.”
A bird fluttered from a nearby tree, took three quick steps down toward Hiromi’s house, cocked its head, and scrutinized the grass for worms. The grass was still, the bird was still, and Hiromi Shoju sat very still. He felt as if the universe itself ceased to struggle for just this moment; heaven and earth in balance.
The bird plunged its beak into the dirt and snatched out a long, glistening worm. It flew back to its tree. Hiromi sighed and gently placed fifty yarrow stalks on the silk cloth spread beside him. It was time to consult the oracle. He endeavored to clear his mind and open himself to the moment.
His old hands lightly touched the stalks, then pulled them apart in two piles. He deftly manipulated and counted them according to the ancient method. Their hidden Number was Seven. Seven means the Young Yang. The first line of Hiromi’s hexagram had been revealed to him. He had five more to go.
The enemy approached. Seen from Hiroshima,
the Enola Gay was only a shiny particle
floating through the blue morning sky.
No alarms sounded. Outside his house,
Hiromi Shoju consulted the Oracle.
Eighteen times the yarrow stalks joined and separated, coming together and moving apart like slender dancers. One by one, the six lines of his hexagram revealed themselves. Two yang, two yin, then two more yang — it was the hexagram of Inner Truth. Hiromi held his breath. He was an old man, and not easily surprised. But for him this was one of the rarest hexagrams in the Book of Changes. Hiromi had received it only once before, the day his eldest daughter was born.
This time he felt a chill of dread. Inner Truth. Something new was about to enter the world, and this time it wasn’t a baby girl. Why this strange fear? Hiromi picked up the yarrow stalks to query the Oracle again, when he heard the faint muttering of airplane engines.
He looked up and saw the enemy plane
move across the sky. It was already turning
around, heading back out to sea.
Our anti-aircraft guns must have chased it
away, he thought. Everything was still.
The departing airplane was the only sound. Hiromi felt a sudden urge to hold on to that moment, to stretch it out. But he was too tired to make a mighty effort. He remembered what Master Confucius said: “Clinging means resting on something. Sun and moon cling to heaven. Grain, plants, and trees cling to the soil.” What do I cling to? he wondered.
Burning, blinding fire engulfed everything. It was as if the Earth crashed into the sun. Hiromi was flung to the ground. The grass was burning. His house was burning.
Roaring like a thousand tigers, fire
exploded through the city, crushing buildings,
shattering windows, snapping trees.
It grabbed Hiromi Shoju, hurled him up to the
screaming sky, and flung him down on the hot
street. A swarm of insects was stinging him.
Abruptly, the torture stopped. Hiromi tried to sit up. All around him the street was littered with bits of glass and metal. Those were the “insects” he had felt. His arms and legs were bleeding from hundreds of small cuts. Absurdly, bitterly, he remembered:
“Winds follow one upon the other. Thus the superior man carries out his undertakings and spreads his commands abroad.”
Thunder upon thunder. The wind blew harder.
The ground shook. Then it staggered around a
corner, like some drunken animal, down at
the end of the street, a black cyclone.
Hiromi watched as the palsied tornado twisted
Suddenly, as if it really was an animal, as if it had seen Hiromi or caught his scent, it lurched toward him. He wanted to crawl away, out of the path of the wicked wind spirit. But when he tried, his body was wracked with pain. How stupid I am, he realized wearily. I must have broken every brittle bone in my body when I landed here. He looked back at the tornado. As it staggered down the street it picked up bits of wreckage and glass. Hiromi saw that there were bodies in its belly.
In the darkening street the wind giant stalked Hiromi Shoju, with its face of dizzying madness (but heart still with destruction). The corpses of its victims wheeled around on a thundering carousel, stalking closer.
The wind giant spun faster and faster,
drawing near, shouting and roaring, filled
with supernatural anger. Faster and faster,
screaming, enraged, too fast. It trembled,
then blew apart, spewing debris and people in
A small body arced through the air toward Hiromi, and smacked down on the pavement beside him. He didn’t want to look at it, but he did anyway. It had been a little girl once. A last roar of the wind giant echoed down the street.
It was growing dark. Black rain began to fall. It grew to a torrent, harder and fiercer. Like a judgment from the old, forgotten gods, thought Hiromi. He lay in the wet street, feeling very tired. The dead girl lay beside him in the rain. It was darker than night now. He closed his eyes. He was sinking into the abyss.
“Like the falling water, a sincere man reaches his goal.”
Hiromi was growing weak. The sound of the
rain seemed fainter, but he could still feel
it against his aching body. He was drifting
in a pool of water. Cool water. Sinking.
Then the rain stopped and the sun came out.
He opened his eyes.
He was sitting in the rushes beside a lake, at the foot of a snow-topped mountain. A breeze blew over the water, gently stirring the lilies. A crane was calling in the shade. Hiromi smiled. This was his inner truth. He had visited this place many times before. How could he forget?
The call of the mother crane came again, pregnant with sorrow. Above the willows hung a pale daylight moon, nearly full. Hiromi stood up. He knew he would climb the ancient mountain one more time. Yellow grasshoppers jumped through the rushes. Goldfish wandered sadly beneath the lilies. Hiromi heard his name in the lapping water. Light rippling into shadow. A crane calling in the shade. Come home, children. Time to end your playing. Come back home. Come home, come home.
“Now he beats the drum, now he stops, now he sobs, now he sings.”
Originally appeared in Plaza Journal in 1999