Saturday, January 5, 2019

Mountain Over Fire, Earth Over Heaven

Earth over Mountain — Humility
You can face any obstacles if you remain modest
and perceive what is good and right 

Wong hefted the crates and as he shifted their weight to better his grip on his burden, a long splinter pricked his palm. The biting pinch startled him so much he nearly missed the bottom step and half-stumbled into the shop’s dark basement. Beads of sweat trickled from his temples and he blinked to detour them from his eyes, but the damaged nerves on the left side of his face betrayed him yet again and a salty drop pierced his vision.

“Almost eight years,” he muttered as he stacked the crates on top of the ones already lining the cellar wall. “Eight years working here in Mr. Hu’s shop.” He pulled the splinter from his palm and contemplated the hands that had once cured patients, the hands that now waited on customers, made deliveries and carried boxes to this basement. He brushed the sweat from his face with a shirtsleeve and stalked to the sink.

The water began bitter cold against his skin but soon warmed. As it streamed over his hands, his memories flowed back to a sunny afternoon long ago. He was showing a two year old Jian how to wash his hands. His little son had been so particular about the temperature of the water – he squealed and laughed when it was too cold, and when it got too warm, he flapped his tiny fingers away from the sink, drenching them both. Their laughter that day still echoed in his mind.

Wong turned the water off and stared down at his hands; in spite of the decades that had passed, he could still feel the weight of his newborn baby cradled in them.

Thunder over Wind — Persistence
A time of endurance; remain constant and unwavering

I wonder how many miles of tunnels we have here. I bet no one’s ever measured them. I bet I could do that!  Vincent’s shoulders sagged under the weight of the thought that came to him next. Devin would have measured them with me. 
Sudden tears stung his eyes, overflowed. Even though there was no one to witness this babyish transgression, he swiped them away as fast as he could.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
He mentally counted the months, weeks and days since Devin was last seen, since that morning when he’d woken to find Devin gone. He’d waited all day for him to come back before he reluctantly mentioned it to the grown-ups. Father was angry when he found out, certain that Devin was off sulking someplace, shirking his chores. When he hadn’t come back by the next morning, Father finally investigated.

Vincent watched Father rummage through Devin’s half of the armoire and together they realized that there was only one set of clothes missing.  From the bottom shelf behind their bed, Vincent retrieved a bent brass cup.  Devin used it to hold the nickels and pennies that were left over from his buying the knife – they were all still there. Father declared that Devin hadn’t run away because if he had, he’d have taken his clothes and money with him. Vincent couldn’t tell Father that Devin’s clasp knife – the one Father had confiscated after the carousel incident – the one that had been stolen back from Father’s desk by a certain dimpled boy —  was no longer in the secret nook behind a pipe where Vincent had seen Devin hide it.

The men and older boys spent weeks exploring the tunnels, the Maze, the Shattered Rooms, the closed-off forgotten dead ends and chambers of Below. No sign of Devin had been found, and eventually they’d abandoned the search. Just last week Vincent had watched Father open up the large leather-bound population ledger to the entry that read: “Devin, b. October 23, 1953.” After the birth entry - for which no last name had been recorded - Father wrote a dash, followed by the date: “May 19, 1968.” They’d had a solemn moment of silence in the dining hall that night. The chamber was a sea of bent heads as the community mourned the young life that had been lost.

The only head in the dining hall unbowed was Vincent’s.   

Water over Water - The Abyss
Even in the depths of despair, flow with the current
 of change in life instead of struggling against it.

Wong watched the last drops of water slip through his fingers, just as his dreams had. It had been twenty years since these hands had hugged his only son. Nine years had passed since these hands had caressed the face of his beloved wife for the last time. True, Jian’s new wife was expecting at last - that happy news had come in their last letter to him - but these hands would almost certainly never know the touch of his firstborn grandchild.

Wong clenched his hands into fists and hammered them against the sink. He choked on the pain, on the loss of the loved ones he would never see again. He gripped the edge of the sink, as if it could keep him from falling into the abyss of his anguish.

Then, under the fingertips of his left hand, Wong felt something move. He heard a soft click and the sink suddenly jumped away from the wall behind it. He stepped back and pulled the cabinet effortlessly toward him. Behind it, a roughly circular hole in the bricks gaped at him, a hazy light illuminating a passage.

Wong looked up the stairs toward the shop, and then back at the opening. He circled the sink and tentatively placed his head into the threshold. He looked down the tunnel as far as he could, but it bent to the left and out of sight.

While he wondered whether he should go into this strange place, he put his hands into his pockets. There he felt the cold, hard contours of a white jade disc. He ran his fingertips across its surface, feeling on its flat sides the bas-relief symbols of the Eight Trigrams, the eight elements of the universe: Heaven, Earth, Fire, Water, Wind, Thunder, Mountain and Lake. His thumbnail traced along the edge of the coin, and he could read there, Braille-like, each of the 64 hexagrams carved upon it. Stopping at one of the symbols, he contemplated its meaning, and made his choice.

He took a flashlight from the shelf above the sink, stooped down, and entered the tunnel. As he proceeded down the passageway and around the bend, he didn’t hear the cabinet slide back across the basement floor and re-latch as the hidden catch took hold.

Fire over Mountain — The Wanderer
Moving, restless. Transient. Go forward, follow your instincts. 

Vincent plodded down a seldom used tunnel leading southeast from the main communal hub. With every tunnel traveled, he looked for some sign that his brother had passed this way - a boot track in the dust, an object dropped unnoticed, a lingering scent of Devin that only he’d be able to detect. He hoped to find such a sign, yet in the same breath prayed that he would never come across anything at all – nightmares of stumbling upon Devin’s corpse had haunted his sleep these last months.

Just then a small breath of air caressed his cheek, seeping from the solid rock. That shouldn’t be there. What’s causing it?

He stepped closer until his nose almost touched the stone, feeling and looking all around the tiny crack where the air was whispering to him. Soon he realized he was looking at one of the false walls they used to redirect tunnels they didn’t want to use any more. There must be some kind of trigger to open it. He felt in all the cracks and fissures, and finally found a small latch. One tug and the rock wall opened. A thrill of triumph and hope raced through him. Maybe Devin found this, too, and went this way!

As Father always taught the children to do, he held up his small lantern and scanned the area for some distinguishing mark to guide him on his return. Not that there’d be much chance of me not recognizing this wall – it’s got this reddish streak shaped just like a Y in it here. Anyone would recognize that mark.

Vincent followed the tunnel, hope and trepidation battling in his heart.

Earth over Fire – Darkening of the Light
Engulfed by difficulties, keep your inner light bright to guide you.

Wong’s heart beat against his ribs as he felt his way through the blackness. It had to have been at least an hour, maybe more, since he first realized that he was hopelessly lost. He paused, breathed deeply, yet another attempt to calm himself. He turned the flashlight on again, and the pale yellowish beam was barely strong enough to illuminate a ruddy Y-shaped streak in the rock wall. Almost as soon as it was turned on, the flashlight dimmed again and the sickening flicker died before his eyes. Wong kept walking and his hands grew raw from groping along the rough stone walls.

Rivers of sweat ran down his back, and panic clawed at his skin. As the terror grew, he thought back to the only time he’d felt fear a fear close to this one –

He could still hear the shouts of Mao’s Red Guards as they tried to surround him. He crouched behind the huge crates on the docks of Shanghai, his lungs on fire and his legs so weak that they screamed and quivered beneath him. The left side of his face had almost stopped bleeding, but he still couldn’t see out of that eye yet. Some detached, clinical corner of his mind registered the symptoms of probable nerve damage there.  Not that it really mattered – he’d soon join the tens of millions of dead anyway, he was certain of that.

It had taken some while for the Great Famine to reach the cities, but soon even the urban areas had seen their meager rations reduced, and then reduced again. In the hospital where Wong worked, the doctors were forbidden to tell patients they were malnourished and it was declared illegal to record a death as being due to starvation. Wong had obeyed those rules - reluctantly, but he’d obeyed them. He had no choice if he wanted to keep receiving his own paltry allotment of rice. He dared not risk anything that would weaken his wife, Mei, any further.

Even though he’d been giving Mei much of his own share, she withered before his eyes, a wasted shell of the beautiful girl he’d married. She’d always been a delicate woman, frail as gossamer, and she suffered more than him from the shortages. Her face became a pale mask of death, without flesh or life, covered only by fragile, nearly transparent skin. Her eyes, once so bright and intelligent, shed no more light than if they’d been made of stone. After she shuttered and breathed her last in his arms, he signed her death certificate himself. On the line for cause of death, he wrote: Starvation.

He never thought until that moment that he could be grateful his son had gone with Chiang Kai-shek’s troops into Taiwan, but at least Jian wouldn’t be vulnerable to Mao’s revenge there. If his son were still on the mainland, he could have been tortured and imprisoned or killed, even though his only crime was being related to Wong. That’s how Mao’s forces operated. With his wife dead and his only child cut off from him forever, Wong had nothing left to lose. He’d fled the city that very night intent on helping the peasants; he’d heard there was even more suffering in the country than in the cities.

As he hid among the crates, he wished that he could hide from the visions of the starving children he’d seen in the countryside. The roadsides were littered with holes dug in the soft soil, and the children that could no longer be fed had been abandoned there by their own families. The holes were just deep enough that the children couldn’t climb out, but their wails and whimpers were not so contained. The sounds clawed at his heart still. Worse yet were the holes that didn’t cry, where only the buzzing of flies could be heard. The maggots were the only ones in China with enough to eat …

He hadn’t been able to save them. Not one. He tried, but …

Wong stopped struggling in the dark tunnel and sat down on the dusty floor. He rested his head on his forearms. Perhaps it is my fate to die here in this hole in the ground… penance for my failure to help them…

Heaven over Wind – Meeting
With caution and awareness, follow the voice of your higher power

Vincent stared at the new copper pipe – the one he’d helped carry here with Devin and the men last winter when it needed repaired. This was the conduit that carried pipecode to their Helper in Chinatown. He hadn’t recognized the tunnel he’d been in because they’d rerouted it, but now that he’d reached this juncture, he knew where he was. This wasn’t somewhere Devin might have gone, or if he had, it had been searched long ago.

The copper pipe had been so bright and shiny when they helped to install it. He remembered Devin’s face distorted by it. “Like a funhouse mirror,” Devin had said as he stuck out his tongue and laughed at his reflection in its gleaming surface. “Someday we’ll go to a real funhouse, Vincent,” Devin had promised.


Wong’s head shot up as a dreadful scream echoed down the tunnel, seeming to come from everywhere at once. He tried the flashlight again, but it didn’t light at all. Despite that, he realized he could actually see something now – the darkness was not complete anymore. A faint light came from around the bend in the tunnel. He rose to his feet as a new sound reached his ears.

Sobs, soft and plaintive - not at all the sound from whatever monster roared before, surely - called to him from the darkness. He followed the pale light as quietly as he could, and as it grew brighter, he turned a corner to find something – no, someone – sitting on the floor of the tunnel next to a small oil lamp.  A mane of red-gold waves framed the tear-streaked fuzzy face of a mythical guardian lion come to life.

Wong called it by its proper name, “Shishi,” and the guardian lion’s eyes popped open. He looked into its startlingly blue and totally human eyes. 

Water over Lake - Restraint
Accept limitations; move forward when you can,
be still when you cannot. 

Vincent’s legs pounded the earth beneath him as he raced to the nearest pipes. He could hear the stranger’s voice call after him, shouting out unintelligible words. He never slowed although he could tell he had gained some distance from his pursuer. At the pipe junction, he tapped the emergency code he’d always known but never used: “Help! Stranger! Tunnel 27 near Mott Street Threshold. Help! Invader!”

— — —

Wong bent over, hands on knees, trying to find his breath again. He’d lost not only the lion-boy he’d been chasing, but now he was even more lost than before. There had been an odd tapping sound a little while ago, but that had ended now, replaced with an eerie silence.

Without warning, a large black man stepped in front of him, a hefty bo stick in his hands. “Stop!” Wong turned in fright, but there were two more men behind him, one with a club and the second with another staff. There was a renewal that strange tapping and more men appeared on both sides of him.

“Come along peaceable like, buddy, and nobody needs t’get hurt. My word on it.” The largest man stepped forward as he spoke, rapping the bo stick on his palm.

Wong could hear more people approaching from somewhere he couldn’t see. He held his hands up, palms toward the leader, and bowed with deference. “I will come with you.” From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the men take off his strange patchwork jacket. They placed it over his head and led him down the tunnel.

Lake over Earth – Gathering Together
The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts
with a leader’s right guidance

Vincent resisted the urge to lean over the banister to better see the stranger as he was brought into the study, where the council was assembled. Instead, when the man’s makeshift hood was removed and he looked around the chamber blinking, Vincent sunk deeper into the shadows under the table on the mezzanine.

Father cleared his throat and leaned heavily on his cane as stepped toward the man. “May I ask your name and how you came to be here?”

The intruder stopped examining the study and bowed to Father. “My name is Wong Peng, honorable sir. I work in the store of Hu Wen. I opened a door there today, and I followed the path, but became lost.”  

Father nodded and motioned toward a group of children near the chamber entrance. “Pascal.”  Vincent could have sworn he saw his young friend’s enormous ears actually twitch when Father called his name. “Run and send a message asking Mr. Hu to come here immediately. That’s a good lad.”

Father gestured for Wong to sit at the octagonal table. “Perhaps while we wait for Mr. Hu, you would like some tea, Mr. Wong?”

Wong looked at the large man still behind him with the staff, and accepted the offer. “Thank you, sir.” He bowed. “In truth, it is Dr. Wong.”

“Indeed?” Father sounded impressed as he sat on the opposite side of the table and poured them both some tea. “I’m called Father. Please, sit down and tell me about yourself, Dr. Wong.  If you’re a physician, how is it that you came to work in Hu’s shop?”

“It all began when the curse of Communism came to China.” Vincent noticed Father sit up straighter at that comment. “When Mao came to power, my son was a young soldier in Chaing Kai-shek’s army. We were separated when they retreated to Taipei, and I have not seen him since. My wife died in the Great Famine – You will not have heard of the Great Famine, I think.”

Father shook his head.  “No, I cannot say that I have, I’m afraid.”

“No, it is forbidden to speak of it. Those who do are killed by Mao’s forces. Ten years ago, Mao told us he would make China like the West. Peasants would live in skyscrapers and fly in airplanes. Year after year, he forced the peasants to build furnaces and to feed all the metal they could find into them – even their plows – as if you could make steel from cooking pots.  He made the farmers plant grains too deep to ever grow, forced them to ignore the ways they farmed for centuries. There were no harvests, but anyone who told this truth was tortured and killed. It cannot be spoken of in China, so the world does not know the story of the secret famine. Perhaps it never will. Only the hungry ghosts of the dead will ever know of this, and they can speak no more.”

Dr. Wong spoke of more horrors of his homeland, things so terrible they made Vincent want to cover his ears and scurry away, but he couldn’t.

“I tried to help, but I was beaten,” Wong gestured to his drooping eye, “and I fled. I snuck into a crate that was loaded onto a ship. They did not find me until it was half way across the ocean. I was given asylum but my medical degree is not valid here. So I work in Hu’s herb shop. He hired me because I know herbs and because I know English. I attended Tsinghua University where my father taught, and I learned English there.  Someday I hope to buy the herbal store from Hu Wen when he retires. That is, if you will allow me to return, of course.”

By the time that Dr. Wong finished telling Father and the council his story, Mr. Hu was walking through the entrance of the chamber. After he vouched for Dr. Wong, the Council began to debate and vote. Vincent ignored them and instead eavesdropped on Hu and Wong as they spoke Chinese. He’d learned a few words and phrases from Mr. Hu, but they spoke so quickly that he could only catch a few words here and there, and even then he couldn’t be certain if he understood them correctly. He did, however, feel confident that he’d heard the word shishi again, and he wondered when he’d have a chance to ask Mr. Hu what it meant.

The Council agreed that Wong could be trusted with the secret of the tunnels and he vowed to do so. “Please,” Wong bowed, “may I meet again the boy who I saw in the tunnel? Mr. Hu tells me he is your son.”

Father turned and looked at the upper level of the study. Vincent knew the choice was being given to him to make. When they’d first seen each other in the tunnel, Dr. Wong had obviously been surprised – very surprised – but not frightened. He stepped to the top of the stairs and swallowed, then he descended.

Nǐ hǎo.” Vincent bowed the way Mr. Hu had shown him. “My name’s Vincent.”

Nǐ hǎo ma, Vincent.”  The enigmatic smile that played on Dr. Wong’s face when he bowed confused Vincent.  “It is an honor to meet you.”

Father walked beside Vincent and placed his free hand on his son’s shoulder. Wong watched Father’s halting limp. “I can help you with your pain, honorable Father…”

Mountain over Fire - Grace

A person who does not try to be alluring but
cultivates devotion through his inner truth, grace and beauty.

A few weeks later, Vincent was sent to pick up more tea for Father from Dr. Wong in the shop. It was becoming a favorite errand for both of them. They shared some tea and conversation in the little basement, and Dr. Wong told him stories about happier times in his life.

Just before Vincent re-entered the threshold, he stopped and turned back to Dr. Wong. “You aren’t scared of me,” Vincent stated. “Even when we first met, you were surprised, but you weren’t scared. Why not? I don’t mean to sound rude, I’m glad you’re not, but … why? The last person from Up Top who saw me — ”  He looked down at the tops of his boots. “I made her cry.”

Dr. Wong thought a long moment. “Perhaps, Vincent, it is because you remind me of an ancient story. A monk had a dream, and in this dream, there were many sorrows and evils that plagued the land. The monk prayed and asked the gods how he could stop these evils from coming. The gods told him that a special creature would protect them and fight back the evils.  The monk combined all the lucky or magical beings he could think of and so made the shishi, the mystic guardian of sacred places. You remind me of the shishi, Vincent. I could not fear a person of such …” he struggled for the word in English, “… a person like you. You have great Pi.”

Vincent’s expression of horror made Wong laugh. “Not pee, Vincent! Pi. Pi is the Chinese name for one of the symbols in the I Ching, the symbol for Mountain over Fire. It stands for grace, for inner beauty. It is the mountain bathed in the light of the setting sun – the mountain does not try to be beautiful, it simply is. That is its grace. You are Mountain over Fire, Vincent. This is what I feel when I look at you, when I hear you speak. It was the message the I Ching sent to me when I first stepped into your world.”

Wong rubbed the I Ching coin in his pocket and felt the symbols there. He brought the coin out and showed it to Vincent. “Run your finger over its edge. Stop when you feel that it is right to stop. We will see what message the I Ching has for you, Vincent."

Vincent took the coin with a reverent demeanor. Wong watched the boy trace the trigrams and then brush his finger along its edge. At a specific place, he stopped and showed it to Wong.

“Ah. You have found T’ai. This is the symbol for Earth over Heaven. Peace, tranquility, harmony. New growth and prosperity. What does this say to you, Vincent?”

“Well, I guess that’s … home. Below. It’s peaceful there, most of the time. And for the people who find it, who need it, it’s like heaven … And the earth is over top of it. Earth over Heaven. Does that sound right, Dr. Wong?” Vincent extended his hand toward Wong, palm up, the white jade coin in the cup of his fingers.

Wong smiled until he could barely see Vincent through his weak eye. “Yes, Vincent,” Wong answered, closing the small hand back around the coin. 

Vincent grinned at the gift in his palm. “Yeah. That’s Below – Earth over Heaven.”

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