“There Was A Bird”
Jimmy Fu stopped walking and stared at it. There was something familiar about it. He felt the weight of his sack, pressing through the staff on his shoulder. Approaching overhead was a gray cloud. Far to the west, hovering over the desert horizon, was another. From its distance, he guessed it hung over the Gulf of Costilla. From where the bird had likely fled.
Jimmy Fu stepped across the tracks and felt his skin grow cold and tight. He was stepping into a holy scene.
He fell into a cross-legged seat and scrambled to untie his sack. The staff lay across his lap. He withdrew his embroidery hoop and a scrap of paper.
The bird adjusted its feet on the branch. Jimmy Fu fastened the paper in the hoop and reached into his sack for the bag of Sparrow tiles. He untied its mouth and reached in let his fingers count a dozen tiles into his palm. It was almost more than he could hold. Staring up into the cloud so he would not see their faces, he arranged them on the paper with backs up.
He held the hoop out and reached into the open sack for his canteen. The bird let out a single cry. The desert hummed as rain began to fall. Jimmy Fu glanced toward the cloud on the horizon. A brushed shadow beneath it told of a second downpour, over the sea.
There was a wet slap against the dry dust under the embroidery frame. Jimmy Fu set the frame on the ground beside him. A single tile had fallen through the paper. He pinched it with two fingers and lifted it to his face.
An honors tile. The Star.
He stared at it. A slab of bone, two inches high, one inch wide. On it was painted a nude lady pouring water from two jugs, one onto land and the other into a pool of water. Over her shoulder was a red ibis standing in a tree. Overhead, a great yellow star among seven smaller stars. Just like the Torch Star, the wandering bat of Huobu, among its seven companions.
After the rain let up and Jimmy Fu slung his sack back on his staff, the bird followed him north along the tracks, picking at insects struggling among the shrubs in the wet sand.
He was living the Sparrow tiles. As a low-ranking monk, he had only heard of such things from his superiors. Even the current abbot of the order, the Huobu Fangzhang who lived in a transient camp outside of Preston, had never received such an honor.
Jimmy Fu felt he should feed the bird, but it was feeding itself from the water-blessed earth.
Perhaps he had misinterpreted the divination. He summoned humility and stepped outside himself to eye his conclusion cynically. Why had he assumed that the red ibis standing in a tree was a sign of the Star? Because such an image featured on the tile? Surely, wading birds often came to rest in the branches of trees this close to the Gulf of Costilla. It may have been a flattering coincidence.
His trembling skin as he stepped over the twin rails of the Great Sword could have been an expectation. A physical phenomenon born of false hope. Of arrogance.
There was a lady on the tile, nude as no monk should ever see a woman. There had been no lady. He had imagined her into the scene.
On the tile, the lady held two jars, pouring water on the earth with one and into a pool with the other. The twin clouds matched that imagery, but surely there must be many trains of storms sweeping over the Chayan deserts of Léxico from the Gulf of Costilla. Storms that drove water birds inland seeking shelter in the branches of scrubland trees.
The ibis rushed forward to peck at a tiny herd of beetles floating and flailing in a puddle of rainwater.
Why had this bird made Jimmy Fu his traveling companion? The monk stifled the significance. The red ibis was a social bird. Its instincts desired company.
The tile had a final feature. The eponymous Star among a constellation of seven others. As the Torch Star glowed bright among its seven companions. Even so, it was daytime. The wandering bat of Fu was overhead, but invisible.
The Star was the seventeenth honors tile. He thought back to his misadventures as a monk and could not square them against the sixteen preceding tiles. His journey as a Huobu had certainly begun with an idiot, himself, but there had been no Abbess, no Lovers, no Hanged Man. The Sparrow tiles had not shown themselves plainly.
His vision at the tree had been false. The tiles did not mislead. They had merely revealed to him his narcissistic prejudice. He felt his inner self settle into this new humility.
With a squeak, the red ibis leapt into the air and flew off toward the coast. He was alone with his decision, under the hot Chayano sun, trodding the damp but drying desert hardpack alongside the rails of the Great Sword.
He switched the sack-staff from his right shoulder to his left. Felt the meager weight of it against his muscle.
Jimmy Fu walked on northward, toward the cross-tracks of La Torre just across the border in the Flag Republic, where the state of Costilla met the territory of New Léxico. Provincial distinctions that the Huobu ignored in their wanderings.
Two generations before, Fu Long had seen the railroad nailed whole in La Torre. The line from Preston met the line from San Caniche. Another line reached south toward Rio de Cabra, and a fourth toward a planned port on the Gulf of Costilla. Corona del Golfo, a failed project of the Republic of Chayan, now just a fisherman’s village with a rusted line feeding their catch to more prosperous cities.
Fu Long had retained the divinatory practice he had learned from the princess Shou Yan. The Huobu were forbidden from using their tiles for gambling, but the Princess’s Sparrow prediction had proven true. Lu Long had thrust his sword into stone and, as Fu Long, had founded a great family among the dispossessed railroad laborers who had been left with no work after the transcontinental project had been completed. The Huobu Order itself, spread throughout the Flag Republic and Chayan.
The current Fanzhang outside of Preston was the second heir to Fu Long. The founder of Huobu had seen many true Sparrow fallings. His disciples, including the Abbots, had seen none. None proven.
Fu Long’s last prophecy had seen two great peoples falling from the ancient pueblo tower for which La Torre was named. The honors tile known as The Tower. The Huobu interpreted this as the Flag Republic and Chayan driven together by the Great Sword, their individual fates lost to some common destiny. The Founder himself was silent on the meaning, and died meditating in the desert days later.
Two generations of monks later, the two countries were still thriving and distinct.
Jimmy Fu heard a distant whistle. He followed the rails north with his eyes and saw the tell-tale arc of smoke. The southbound train.
Hopping the train would allow him to continue his original trek to the southern coast. But, her wanted to continue walking to La Torre. He had not conducted a proper pilgrimage when he had been in the town before, and felt it proper penance for his arrogance.
He stood and watched as the train passed, passengers staring and pointing at him from the windows. As the train rumble south into Chayan, he started off again toward La Torre under the hot desert sun.
The Tower was the tile preceding The Star. But so much had happened since he had passed through La Torre. In the gap between tiles?
The monk stopped in his tracks. Despite the oppressive sun, his skin felt cold and tight. The muscles of his shoulders pressed against the staff holding up his sack. Holding up the bag of Sparrow tiles.
Since he had last seen La Torre, he had felt the presence of Lu Long and the four warriors from the corners of the Shou world. As depicted on the last tile. The twenty-first tile, The World.
He had drawn the kitchen staff from their grave after the trumpet of the exploding engine. As depicted on the twentieth tile, The Judgement. He had confronted assassins in red cloth atop white horses, mimicking the child on the nineteenth tile, The Sun. And, he had seen a dog and a desert wolf between two stone pillars, as depicted on the eighteenth tile, The Moon.
Ahead of him lay La Torre, the tower, from which the crown of the Chayan port had tumbled in failure. As depicted on the sixteenth tile, The Tower.
He felt the world’s eyes on him. He was moving through the honors tiles in reverse.
His cynical investigation had betrayed him. He thought back to his joke about giving up the role of monk to become a detective in vengeance for his fallen sword. He knew, he must abandon his jestful taking on of the detective’s clothes and be who he was, who he had trained to be.
A true monk of the Huobu.