Fortuna and the Scapegrace
Book 2 of The Epic of Didier Rain
I looked first this way, then that way.
That backstreet was filled with naught but smoke and fog.
One felt himself to be the sole occupant of an otherwise uninhabited city.
To my surprise, a Chinese man sprang from the nearby shadows, gave me a meaningful nod, and scurried down the sodden lane, skipping puddles, dodging raindrops. He wore a braided ponytail swinging across his back like a bullwhip and carried a dead salmon in one hand by its tail. The fish’s head bumped in the mud as, at last, the man sashayed around a corner and disappeared.
And that is when my eyes fell upon the makeshift building behind which the fish-toting apparition had so fortuitously vanished. It was most unusual.
A veritable anomaly.
A mislaid dream.
I walked over for a closer look.
Through no small effort, some team had hauled a defunct whaling ship up from the bay and placed it between two buildings, like a skiff in a slip. The vessel’s masts were sawn off, and it was buttressed by a number of stout timbers angling out from its sides to keep it balanced on its keel in the oozing earth. A half dozen windows had been placed into the ship’s lower gunwales toward the bow, and a single door at ground level. A white light emanated from these various portals.
The light itself was inviting enough. The rain that poured down on my head right then was late winter cold and it seized me with an exaggerated discomfort. I trembled. The thought of warming my fingers over the source of said light struck me as immensely pleasing. However, it was the dripping sign hanging from the bowsprit that proved most provocative and full of promise. I craned up at it and read the words aloud to the rain.
Now prudence and I had a long and turbulent history. In fact, one could truly say that most of my life’s more monumental decisions had been made with the malevolent purpose of thumbing my nose at that particular virtue. Recently, however, I had become determined to change. My pell-mell wisdomless ways had too often led me to ruin and were in sore need of reassessment. A more responsible charting of my life’s course was in the offing. Surely it was. And yet, as I peered up at that sign, I felt my weakened self slipping, slipping ever so slightly backward into my more habitual mode of philosophication.
I scratched my chin.
I regarded the coin in my palm.
“Of course,” I muttered, “there are a number of more sensible purchases I could make with this money. That would doubtless be the responsible thing to do.”
But then I asked myself, from where had this magical coin materialized? If it had indeed been bestowed upon me by a good-hearted pixie, then what was that pixie’s intention? And with whom was the pixie in league? A benevolent deity was certainly the most obvious answer. And anyway, what man – no matter how consistently delusional – would not choose to believe he is being guided by Providence toward his sunlit destiny? It would surely be a kick to the collective groins of the gods to ignore such blatant signs and prayer answers.
I looked into the darkling sky above the sign. “And why, pray tell, did you not have me find this coin while in front of a food store, or a bathhouse?”
Again, the answer seemed clear. I was meant to find the price of an oracle’s services when in the proximity of an oracle. Still, I am proud to say, I questioned this likelihood with all the incredulity of a man sponsoring the more righteous traits of a bona fide skeptic.
I waffled responsibly.
I wavered with a calculated reticence.
Then I was struck with an idea that would transfer any responsibility for my decision to the heaven-born winds blowing my life’s boat on its seemingly fickle way.
“Why!” I told myself. “You are holding the very key to the answer in your own hand.”
I stepped over to the ship’s doorway, out of the rain, to a place that was better illuminated for my purposes. Carefully positioning the coin on my thumbnail, I poised my hand to launch it into the air. “We will now let the Fates decide for themselves. If it lands heads up, then we will be off to a dining hall for a bite of much-needed supper.” I nodded. “But if it is tails… Well, then, it is undeniable. We should go and have our fortune told.”
I nodded once more, then flipped the coin.
It twirled in an arc through the white light.
It twizzled toward my open palm.
And then it glanced off my wrist bone, tumbling to the step at my feet before rolling through a sizeable crack beneath the door.
In this way, the matter was decided.
A LITTLE BELL TINKLED when I opened the door.
I hovered sheepishly, leaning in.
“Hello?” I called, but no one immediately appeared to greet me, and so I dropped to my knees and began searching for my misplaced money. The floor was covered with an Oriental rug, and it seemed unlikely that the coin could have rolled far over its plush weave. Even so, its whereabouts eluded me. I crawled with my face near to the floor, like a grazing goat, searching. I peered under a bookcase, and then a chair. I had traveled a ways into the room, patting the floor with my palms, when I was surprised to come across a pair of slippers. When the toes inside the slippers wiggled, I sat back on my heels and blinked up into the face of the person wearing them.
It was the very man I had seen in the rainy street, minus the salmon. He had changed his clothes and was now wearing a long silken robe heavily embroidered with Chinese-style designs of lilies and swirling carp.
“Oh,” I said. “Good evening.”
The man held my coin pinched in his grasp. “Please remove shoes,” he said.
“Oh.” I smiled. “Of course.” I rolled awkwardly onto my rear end and shucked off my mucky footwear. I then quickly stood with my moccasins in my hands, finding myself made somewhat self-conscious by the startling cod-belly whiteness of my naked feet.
“Please wait,” said the man, and bowed before he stepped away behind a curtain.
I walked over and placed my shoes by the front door. Then I turned to assess the room.
This had been the ship’s forecastle in its working days. It had since been changed into a foyer, complete with framed pictures and bookshelves and a pair of comfortable velvet chairs. In spite of its extensive remodelment, one could still discern the squat room’s original purpose. Iron hooks protruded from the posts and ceiling – pinions from which to hang the sleeping crew’s hammocks. One could almost hear the time-traveling echoes of those long-gone sailors snoring and murmuring and farting in their swinging slumber. One wall had a multitude of little hash marks carved into it. I conjectured that this had been some lonely seaman’s calendar, a means of counting the days before he was returned to port and the doting embrace of either a much-missed mother or a sweetheart.
I stepped close and ran my fingers over the notched wood. In my weakened state of mind, I found it quaint and poignant. For some reason, the thought of that lonely stranger put an empathetic knot in my throat and an unwarranted mist in my eyes, causing me to gulp and wink.
Now, who does not, even within the more banal stretches of his life’s earthly sojourn, occasionally sense an ominous, leviathan-like mystery prowling beneath the murky surface of all existence? Such powerful vibrations override any glib dismissal of their presence as mere illusory hogwash. Nonetheless, most times it is necessary to grant such reverberations no more than a passing nod. We must put them away for future contemplation and get on with the more pressing, if mundane, business of the day. After all, the world needs met its worldly needs. And yet, the sensation gripping me right then was one too powerful to be put off for such someday Sunday morning musings.
I wiped an inexplicable tear from my eye. I steadied myself against a post. I was stunned by a premonitional vision combined with a backward dash of topsy-turvy déjà vu. I know no other way to describe it. I admit it is improbable, but I swear that in that instant I remembered quite vividly my fetal soul’s brief stopover in my own mother’s womb. That warmth and weightless comfort. That amniotic slosh and gurgle as I burst headlong into this chill world. And then in my next breath, I pre-remembered my own death as it would occur sometime in a future that had not yet transpired. That those two seminal moments should so closely resemble one another gave me a severe case of the soul shivers.
Perhaps it was the setting in which I then found myself. Was I not, after all, in the abode of an all-seer? Could it be that some of the prophetic powers of the yet-to-be-met soothsayer had infiltrated my being, giving me an unsavory glimpse of self-prophecy? I do not know. Of a sudden I felt myself poised on the brink of an irrevocable destiny. The floor pressed into my heels as if the ship were climbing up the stack of a tall wave. The timbers creaked with the strain. I grew woozy. I knew I needed either to abandon ship or risk the roughest of augury seas.
I looked at the front door.
I regarded my feet, calculating the distance and effort between them and their moccasins.
“Hmm,” I thought. “You will surely forfeit your precious coin, but…” I gripped the post before me. “But at least you will escape with your ignorance intact.”
I was wholly prepared to flee when the Chinese man reemerged from behind the curtain.
“This way,” he said, and gestured into the darkness.
I vacillated, but then stumbled helplessly toward him, taking hold of his outstretched hand the way a drowning man might take hold of a cork buoy.
A SINGLE LONESOME COIN had somehow found itself lodged in the darkest depths of my otherwise unoccupied pocket. How it got there is a happenchance I will forever marvel at as one of my life’s untold pivotal mysteries. For I was, to put it plainly, destitute. My stomach was empty. My clothes were in tatters. I was in desperate need of a big tub of hot water and a bar of soap – preferably perfumed. To rub salt in my well-numbered wounds, it looked as though I would likely be enduring yet another night shivering in a stable with no company but the occasional toe-nibbling rat, and the ghosts of my own troubled past.
Woe was I!
But more than all my physical gripes were my invisible sufferings. Nothing hurts so badly as soul pain, and I had what felt to be a terminal case of that particular infirmity. It appeared the gods – once my fun-loving allies – had abandoned me to a dismal fate. Whatever had I done to peeve them so?
Well, admittedly, there were a number of possibilities.
But now – hallelujah! – an unforeseen reprieve.
I held up the coin to inspect its value. The day was entering its dusk, rain was falling, and the light was poor, but I surmised by the coin’s golden glint that at least a few of my worries could be alleviated by way of its worldly worth. I squeezed the treasure in my fist and gazed around to gain my bearings. There is nothing like unexpected riches for giving a man a fresh compass point from which to navigate his next step.