The I-Ching Told Me about You: Excerpt from “Grey Tropic” by Fernando Sdrigotti and Martin Dean

zouave_du_pont_de_l'alma,_février_1924

Photo Meurisse, 1924. Source: Wikipedia

I bump into Henry just outside Belleville’s Metro. He is already there when I arrive. He has a large blue umbrella with white dots — there’s something written on it but I can’t read it. I find his umbrella funny. He laughs at my transparent umbrella, or about the “Victoria’s Secret” written on it. We don’t shake hands or say anything. He starts walking and I follow him.After more or less two or three blocks under the rain it occurs to me that I don’t know where we’re heading.

“Where are we going?” I shout.

“Neva’s,” he shouts back and I feel that’s all the information I need to know. I mean, I should probably ask who Neva is, but I feel Henry is being cryptic so that I will ask him who Neva is so that he can play mysterious so that he can feel a bit better about himself, somehow more in control, less pathetic, powerless and useless. So I just keep on walking, confident that in due time I’ll find out what’s going on, what this is about, who this Neva is. But more importantly, confident that it won’t really matter, that soon I’ll be boarding the Eurostar back to London.

Soon we stop in front of a large wooden door. Henry keys in a code — 6831, I see his right index finger hammer the keys — and we walk into the building. There’s a narrow wooden set of stairs to the right and some doors to the left, a garden towards the back of the building, a round fountain in the garden, rain. We shut our umbrellas — Henry’s is a Credit Suisse one, I find out then and there — and place them against the wall by the doors, where I count at least ten umbrellas of different colours, sizes, and makes, from all sorts of brands. We take the stairs and climb, one, two, three, four, five floors over creaking wet wood, surprisingly quickly and without complaints.Then we walk towards a door with a huge sticker on it — I think it’s Yukio Mishima with a sword — and Henry opens the door and we walk in without announcing ourselves. It smells like weed and fried onion.

Bonjour,” says a female voice.

“Hi,” says Henry. I nod with my head, a pointless act, for Neva — it is Neva, as I’ll soon learn — is with her back towards us, watching a laptop screen closely. Then she turns around — I can’t see her features very well due to the smoke but she looks around thirty, with large eyes, and a thin face.

“Capricorn!” she says and turns around back again.

“What?” says Henry.

“He’s a Capricorn,” she says and coughs. “Aren’t you a Capricorn?” she asks me.

“Ariel, nice to meet you,” I say.

“Are you a Capricorn, or not?” asks Henry.

“Yes, I’m a Capricorn, I guess,” I say.

Neva smiles. She turns around back towards the screen.

“I knew it. Have a seat,” she says and I look around and I can’t see a sofa or chairs or anything to sit on, save for some round cushions. They are arranged around a low coffee table, and I see Henry motioning towards them, so I do the same and soon we’re sitting over there, where it smells like cat piss, watching the world from a strange angle, me thinking that there aren’t any other signs of cats, so it could very well be human piss. “I sensed your energy, Capricorn,” says Neva turning around. “I sensed it for a while. You got off at Goncourt, am I right?”

“No, I got off at Belleville,” I say.

“Strange,” she says. “I sensed your energy at Goncourt. It must be the rain.” Henry takes his index finger to his right temple and knocks a few times and winks — I find this minimal act of betrayal appalling and telling of his weakness, his constant need to seek for reassurance. “Do you guys want to smoke? I’ll finish with this in a minute,” she says.

“I’m fine,” says Henry.

“I’ll pass,” I say.

“As you wish,” she says.

“What you working on?” asks Henry. There’s a long silence. “What you working on, Neva?” he asks again.

“Editing a very very very drafty chapter,” she answers.

“Neva is a writer,” says Henry rather seriously, now reeling back from his suggestion that Neva might be crazy. “Oh, yeah? What do you write?” I ask, as it’s mandatory to feign interest in the things so-called writers waste their time on. She turns around once more. Yes, big eyes, rather pretty, a bit wasted, mid 30s or younger.

“What do you mean what do I write?” she asks. There’s something tense in her voice.

“Yes. Fiction? You know…”

“Everything is fiction…” she answers.

“I guess so,” I say. “Sorry for asking.” This conversation is going nowhere.

“But I’m working on a historical novel about the Paris Commune,” she says.

“She’s a journalist,” says Henry.

“I thought she was a writer,” I say.

“I sense your pain, Capricorn,” she says and I don’t know what to answer.

“I don’t know what to say to that,” I say.

“Don’t say anything,” says Neva.

“Yes, mate, don’t say anything,” says Henry with a huge grin on his face.

“Why don’t you roll yourself a joint? Go on,” says Neva and without waiting for my reply throws a large metallic box towards me. I catch it before it hits me in the head.

“OK,” I say. I open the box on the table and search inside it. Lost in the tobacco there’s a huge rock of hashish, the size of a golf ball. “I hope you didn’t carry this in your arse,” I say. Neva finds this very funny, she laughs. Henry pretends to laugh.

“Not sure how that got here; but not in me,” she says. I surprise myself finding that part of her retort — “not in me” — rather enticing but I try not to make too much out of it. Instead I put some tobacco to the side and scan around for a lighter, to melt a bit of hash. Perhaps after reading my mind once more Neva throws the lighter in my direction and it falls on the floor by my side.

“What’s cooking?” asks Henry.

“I was cooking pasta… But I burnt the sauce,” she says. “When I’m writing I forget the world.”

“It can happen,” says Henry. “I have lost track of time, writing poems, a story, or just jotting down some ideas on paper.” I didn’t know Henry fancied himself a writer too but I’m too busy melting the hashish to say anything. And there are more urgent matters than Henry’s fancies. Who’s this Neva? What’s that accent? I can’t tell where her accent’s from. Sounds continental, but she’s not French, I can tell that. There’s no trace of the typical French sound, ze pasta, ze hashish, ze Capricorn, etc. And if she were French Henry would be speaking in French, just to write me out and score points against me.

“If you want we can go out and bring a pizza… Or some cheese and bread, and a nice bottle of red,” says Henry.

“Yes,” I say. I have already piled up a large amount of hashish, about the circumference of a two Euro coin, one centimetre tall.

“Ana is on her way with food,” says Neva. “That’s a lot!” she adds pointing towards my artwork with her head. I don’t listen and proceed to roll. Ana must be another one, another nutter.

“Ana is her flatmate,” says Henry.

“Oh, I see,” I reply. I look around: it’s a tiny studio flat. The room must be four by four. The cushions are around the short coffee table, by the wall. On the opposite wall is the desk. By the main door there’s a bunk bed. And then the door that leads to the kitchenette. No sign of a toilet, but there must be one, somewhere. Only now I realise how small the flat is. At least they have a window. I ignore how someone, let alone two someones, can live in such a small space, but here we are. “Where you guys from?” I ask, perhaps in order to come to some xenophobic conclusion about how people from x or y live.

“Oh, lots of different places,” says Neva and pops up from her chair and motions towards the main door and then leaves.

“Oh, well,” I say and I finish rolling my joint. Henry is acting all cocky. He wants me to ask him who the this fuck Neva is, where does he know her from. I won’t give in to this either. Instead I put the joint in my mouth, feeling a warm pride at its weight between my lips.

“Holy shit!” Henry shouts. “What the hell is that?”

“This is a joint Henry. I know you know that.”

“That is a big joint, man.”

“Yes, it is.”

Henry’s one of those guys who can’t get enough weed, but has always had too much weed. He’ll always be the first to inquire about it, but when it finally reaches him it’s too much and he falls slumped in the corner for hours like someone’s old coat. As a result, whenever weed appears he always begins a little nervous and fascinated conversation about it and everything takes on a sudden teenage turn — smoking with Henry feels like what bringing a porn mag to school used to feel like. I light up the joint — the hashish tastes sweet and strong.

Soon Neva reappears with Ana, who rolls in on a pair of rollerblades, carrying a shopping bag with some kind of food inside. She doesn’t really try to stop and runs into Henry — she grabs his shoulders to break a fall and then hangs onto the wall.“Yeah!” She says triumphant, staring at us.

“Hi Ana,” says Henry, “Still wearing those skates?”

“Hi Henry,” says Ana, extending one hand towards his face, fingers outstretched like a wizard. “Still wearing those SHOOOES?” She says “shoes” as if time has slowed down. As she says it she slowly lowers her rigid outstretched arm and extends one long finger to point at Henry’s brown brogues, as if casting a spell on them to magically turn them into something stylish. I’m quite sure this is really happening, that the shoes will turn into a nice new pair of Italian shoes, although it’s at this point I realise that this isn’t because things tonight will take on a fantastical turn but because I’ve become overwhelmingly high, very fast. To me it seems like some ancient conversation is occurring between two profoundly necessary parts of reality’s subtle weave — Anubis is greeting Osiris. Or even: two different drafts have overlapped and my existence is now a palimpsest.

“Yep, still wearing shoes,” Henry retorts, artlessly.

I smile, red-eyed, glad the important greeting ritual has been completed. Memories or fantasies of memories come back to me. And I recall Henry and Ana, Ana and Henry, in other places, other times, greeting one another just like this. We’ve been together for a while, I think. We might not remember but we are old friends and I’m off my fucking head. Ana pushes herself off the wall towards a round cushion and slumps down. Neva has come back with a pint glass of water. I pass the joint to her, and she looks at it.

“Holy shit,” she says, lighting it again. She puffs out a large smoke ring towards the ceiling — it hangs in the air over us like a grey halo.

Half an hour later I’ve begun to realise that the room is actually a fantasy — a fantasy within a fantasy — that’s being projected onto a two dimensional surface that surrounds me like a curtain in a hospital ward. It’s disconcerting, but it’s making me laugh. Henry is slumped in the corner, Ana sat to his side. She seems to be having an intense conversation with him, though Henry is quite clearly asleep. She keeps showing me her knickers, I think intentionally. They’re blue and very big and the insides of her legs are white and bony and fleshy and they are driving me insane. Rain falls against the windows and I enjoy the sensation of sitting inside this soothing rushing sound. The more I think of it, the more it starts to feel like the top of my head is rushing with it, rushing upwards, and the rest of my body rushing downwards into the earth and Ana’s knickers. Neva is in a meditative posture, eyes closed, breathing deeply.

Suddenly Neva starts saying Om quite loudly, a long continuous Om. She opens her eyes and looks at me and says Om more meaningfully, nodding with her head, encouraging me to join in with this thing. Ana is already saying Om. Neva is still looking at me so I start saying Om too. Henry is slumped in the corner.We sit there, the three of us, saying Om, until I stop to smoke a bit more of the joint. I feel blissful. However contrived, all of us saying Om has left a peaceful flavour in the air. The rain all around us and these two women who seem fragrant. For some moments I forget about all my worries and anxieties and I just sit, as if nothing else had ever existed.

“You know what…” Ana is speaking absentmindedly and rubbing her thighs together, moving her skates backwards and forwards across the floor.

“We know what,” Neva says proudly, smiling. It doesn’t make any sense, nothing does, but to make things even more incoherent I suddenly imagine Neva’s proud torso as the brightly painted figurehead on an old ship, forging through the waves. “The I-Ching tells us all,” she goes on, and reaching behind her, she pulls out a heavy book in a purple velvet bag.“The I-Ching told me about you, Capricorn,” she says, pointing at me with her big eyes.

“It’s Ariel,” I say, stupidly, and then giggle. Neva gives me a stern look.

“The… I… Ching…” Ana says, slowly, with reverence, like it’s an Indiana Jones movie and soon a beam of sunlight will shine through the window illuminating Neva’s beaten-up paperback I-Ching, and it alone. But it doesn’t happen outside of my imagination, half of which embarks on a quest with Ana, to bring the holy I-Ching back to the Dalai Lama, who rejects us with violence and effusive swearing for bringing him a Chinese oracle. I snap back to reality. Looking for the meaning. The meaning is somewhere in Ana’s mind, just not available to me, I decide.

Neva starts trying to describe my character with the help of the ancient Chinese oracle, reading from a random hexagram, and I happily nod and agree with all of her appraisals, content with the attention, however wrong or nonsensical, until she’s left looking satisfied and slightly horny.

“I knew it,” she says. I nod meekly, un-amazed by the miracle in which someone read from a random page of a book written to mean absolutely whatever one wants it to mean, and that what she read meant exactly whatever she wanted it to mean. I’m also un-amazed that she’s using a divination book that’s supposed to tell one the future as if it were a dictionary of spiritual characters. I wonder whether she was reading from the I-Ching at all or just inventing her own stuff. I can’t say.

Soon I forget about this and my mind moves to other curiosities and I find myself imagining how high up we are right now, on the top floor of a building, the rain rushing down around us, just a hollow column of stone standing against the weather and the cold. I think of Paris extending out from us, our legs stretching down and out to become the roads and alleys, our arms the walls and rooftops, my eyes this window I’m facing, a collage of rippling, watery impacts. I think of the tide of people passing below us, a moving line of varying intensity, moving out from the doorways and running, newspapers clutched above, or brandishing colourful umbrellas stolen from here or there, taken, borrowed. In another part of my mind I feel an arm around me, it’s warm — Neva seems to be snuggling up to me. Henry is still slumped in the corner. Ana has rolled over to the fridge — she’s moving things in the fridge, dropping things on the floor, cursing in some alien or ancient language I can’t recognise.

“So how do you like Paris… Capricorn?” Ana says, finally rolling back into view, holding a bottle of whisky and another spliff she must have pre-rolled and unearthed from its hiding place. Neva sits up, her heavy steel bracelets jangling as she takes the bottle to her mouth.

“Well…” I search for something suitably poignant to tell her. “It’s pretty wet,” I say. “There’s so much rain it feels like the end of the world. But it feels that this the right place for the world to end.”

“The world isn’t ending” Neva scoffs.“Mars isn’t in Scorpio and the signs haven’t been picked up clear enough — I say we’ve got three more years to wait; three and a half at least.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” Ana says earnestly,“The world ending, I mean. How would that work? How would it be, this whole world ending thing? We can’t all drown, could we?”

“Well… No, not drowning. I don’t think so,” Neva says.“But the sun could go out and we could all freeze, or a meteor could hit the earth, or a supervolcano could erupt and everything would freeze when the ashes block the sun, or they could make a black hole in that CERN machine that would swallow the whole earth, or ISIS could release some deadly extraterrestrial bacteria and we’d all be dead in our sleep, or they could even hijack the CERN thing and fuck things up big time. Or it could be the Russians and their friends starting a nuclear war. You know: the possibilities are endless…”

“Hmm, and we’d never know what happened… When the end of the world comes… If it did, we’d never know what happened… ” Ana muses thoughtfully, lighting her spliff and taking a long drag.

I just look from one to the other as they speak, watching their lips move.

“How do you mean?” Neva asks

“Well say ISIS made a black hole with that giant underground machine. They wouldn’t have time to make a news report so we all knew it had happened. We’d just suddenly notice that everything was being sucked towards some black spot on the horizon while these guys celebrate shooting their AKs to the heavens — is that what happens with black holes?” Neva nods knowingly. “Or,” Ana goes on, “say there was a supervolcano, the sky would just go black from the ash and there’d be tidal waves. But whatever happened, if we were killed, we wouldn’t know what state the world was in afterwards. So we’d never know whether the world had really ended or not. We’d just know, in our last moments, that something had killed us. For all we knew it could just be some big storm that killed us, a bombing — as you say —, a gas explosion, maybe some old satellite falling on our apartment. But it might just be us who die. Then it wouldn’t be the end of the world but the end of the world for us. And even if it was a really big event, there might be survivors and we’d never know once we were dead. When the end of the world does really come, we’ll never know that’s what it is. No one ever knows anything, to be fair.” Neva looks a little troubled by this. I, too, had always somehow considered the end of the world to be some kind of final grand spectator event that I’d be able to witness, eating popcorn, pint in hand. I had never contemplated fundamentalists and extraterrestrial bacteria or apocalyptic machine-made black holes or varieties of all these. I take a swig of whisky.

“And anyway,” Ana goes on, “it wouldn’t be the world that was destroyed — it would just be the things that live here, society and stuff like that. There’d still be a big piece of rock floating through space, probably with tiny microbes on it that would eventually grow into new lifeforms. And everything would start again.”

“Cockroaches,” I offer, dredging up some nature documentary memory, realising she has moved from the bombings and politics to a more natural kind of catastrophe.

“It could be anything!” Ana says excitedly. “Maybe those weird deep-sea angler fish that look like alien monsters. Then people from other planets might eventually land here and be like, ‘this alien life is fucking weird and gross like in our alien comic books,’ but they’d just be seeing deep sea fish we’d known about for ages, and they’d never know we existed unless they found our bones, that’s if we weren’t all vaporised in the cataclysm!”

“I think,” Neva says cautiously, “that the end of the world will be more of a mental thing. As in, you suddenly realise that everything is an illusion and that your consciousness is actually the whole universe. Like waking up out of a dream.There are films already talking about this kind of awakening. Because this is what this is: an awakening. We aren’t really talking about the end of the world here but of the end of the world as we know it.” She gives us an authoritative look and sits up slightly. “In Tibet,” she says, apropos of nothing, “monks practice saying two sounds that release the soul from your body, up through the skull. Two syllables. So when you’re about to die, you release your soul and it can go freely on to another body.”

“What are the sounds!” Ana asks, excited.

“They’re like hoh then heee,” Neva says. The first sound is supposed to like open the top of your skull a bit, and the second sound is meant to disengage the soul from the body. The monks have to be careful practicing — usually they only practice the first syllable, because if they get them exactly right, they die!”

Hoh. Heeee,” Ana says, carefully.

Hoh. Heeee,” Neva says, smiling, living dangerously.

They stop and both look at me expectantly. “Hoh. Heeee,” I say, with poor conviction.

And then we sit there together, playing Tibetan roulette for a while. It occurs to me that this type of discussion is their bread and butter, and I am a privileged guest in their arena of mindless cosmic pondering.

At some point we all fall asleep.


grey tropic front and back

Grey Tropic, forthcoming 21 February, is a Dostoyevsky Wannabe publication