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Lafcadio Hearn

Irish-Greek Writer



Narrated by Lloyd James

Download mp3 file: A Story of Divination

This file is 4.6 MB; running time is 10 minutes
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I once knew a fortune-teller who really believed in the science that he professed. He had learned, as a student of the old Chinese philosophy, to believe in divination long before he thought of practising it. During his youth he had been in the service of a wealthy daimyo, but subsequently, like thousands of other samurai, found himself reduced to desperate straits by the social and political changes of Meiji. It was then that he became a fortune-teller,—an itinerant uranaiya,—travelling on foot from town to town, and returning to his home rarely more than once a year with the proceeds of his journey. As a fortune-teller he was tolerably successful,—chiefly, I think, because of his perfect sincerity, and because of a peculiar gentle manner that invited confidence. His system was the old scholarly one: he used the book known to English readers as the Yi-King,—also a set of ebony blocks which could be so arranged as to form any of the Chinese hexagrams;—and he always began his divination with an earnest prayer to the gods.

The system itself he held to be infallible in the hands of a master. He confessed that he had made some erroneous predictions; but he said that these mistakes had been entirely due to his own miscomprehension of certain texts or diagrams. To do him justice I must mention that in my own case—(he told my fortune four times),—his predictions were fulfilled in such wise that I became afraid of them. You may disbelieve in fortune-telling,— intellectually scorn it; but something of inherited superstitious tendency lurks within most of us; and a few strange experiences can so appeal to that inheritance as to induce the most unreasoning hope or fear of the good or bad luck promised you by some diviner. Really to see our future would be a misery. Imagine the result of knowing that there must happen to you, within the next two months, some terrible misfortune which you cannot possibly provide against!

He was already an old man when I first saw him in Izumo,— certainly more than sixty years of age, but looking very much younger. Afterwards I met him in Osaka, in Kyoto, and in Kobe. More than once I tried to persuade him to pass the colder months of the winter-season under my roof,—for he possessed an extraordinary knowledge of traditions, and could have been of inestimable service to me in a literary way. But partly because the habit of wandering had become with him a second nature, and partly because of a love of independence as savage as a gipsy's, I was never able to keep him with me for more than two days at a time.

Every year he used to come to Tokyo,—usually in the latter part of autumn. Then, for several weeks, he would flit about the city, from district to district, and vanish again. But during these fugitive trips he never failed to visit me; bringing welcome news of Izumo people and places,—bringing also some queer little present, generally of a religious kind, from some famous place of pilgrimage. On these occasions I could get a few hours' chat with him. Sometimes the talk was of strange things seen or heard during his recent journey; sometimes it turned upon old legends or beliefs; sometimes it was about fortune-telling. The last time we met he told me of an exact Chinese science of divination which he regretted never having been able to learn.

"Any one learned in that science," he said, "would be able, for example, not only to tell you the exact time at which any post or beam of this house will yield to decay, but even to tell you the direction of the breaking, and all its results. I can best explain what I mean by relating a story.

"The story is about the famous Chinese fortune-teller whom we call in Japan Shoko Setsu, and it is written in the book Baikwa- Shin-Eki, which is a book of divination. While still a very young man, Shoko Setsu obtained a high position by reason of his learning and virtue; but he resigned it and went into solitude that he might give his whole time to study. For years thereafter he lived alone in a hut among the mountains; studying without a fire in winter, and without a fan in summer; writing his thoughts upon the wall of his room—for lack of paper;—and using only a tile for his pillow.

"One day, in the period of greatest summer heat, he found himself overcome by drowsiness; and he lay down to rest, with his tile under his head. Scarcely had he fallen asleep when a rat ran across his face and woke him with a start. Feeling angry, he seized his tile and flung it at the rat; but the rat escaped unhurt, and the tile was broken. Shoko Setsu looked sorrowfully at the fragments of his pillow, and reproached himself for his hastiness. Then suddenly he perceived, upon the freshly exposed clay of the broken tile, some Chinese characters—between the upper and lower surfaces. Thinking this very strange, he picked up the pieces, and carefully examined them. He found that along the line of fracture seventeen characters had been written within the clay before the tile had been baked; and the characters read thus: 'In the Year of the Hare, in the fourth month, on the seventeenth day, at the Hour of the Serpent, this tile, after serving as a pillow, will be thrown at a rat and broken.' Now the prediction had really been fulfilled at the Hour of the Serpent on the seventeenth day of the fourth month of the Year of the Hare. Greatly astonished, Shoko Setsu once again looked at the fragments, and discovered the seal and the name of the maker. At once he left his hut, and, taking with him the pieces of the tile, hurried to the neighboring town in search of the tilemaker. He found the tilemaker in the course of the day, showed him the broken tile, and asked him about its history.

"After having carefully examined the shards, the tilemaker said: —'This tile was made in my house; but the characters in the clay were written by an old man—a fortune-teller,—who asked permission to write upon the tile before it was baked.' 'Do you know where he lives?' asked Shoko Setsu. `He used to live,' the tilemaker answered, 'not very far from here; and I can show you the way to the house. But I do not know his name.'

"Having been guided to the house, Shoko Setsu presented himself at the entrance, and asked for permission to speak to the old man. A serving-student courteously invited him to enter, and ushered him into an apartment where several young men were at study. As Shoko Setsu took his seat, all the youths saluted him. Then the one who had first addressed him bowed and said: 'We are grieved to inform you that our master died a few days ago. But we have been waiting for you, because he predicted that you would come to-day to this house, at this very hour. Your name is Shoko Setsu. And our master told us to give you a book which he believed would be of service to you. Here is the book;—please to accept it.'

"Shoko Setsu was not less delighted than surprised; for the book was a manuscript of the rarest and most precious kind,— containing all the secrets of the science of divination. After having thanked the young men, and properly expressed his regret for the death of their teacher, he went back to his hut, and there immediately proceeded to test the worth of the book by consulting its pages in regard to his own fortune. The book suggested to him that on the south side of his dwelling, at a particular spot near one corner of the hut, great luck awaited him. He dug at the place indicated, and found a jar containing gold enough to make him a very wealthy man."

My old acquaintance left this world as lonesomely as he had lived in it. Last winter, while crossing a mountain-range, he was overtaken by a snowstorm, and lost his way. Many days later he was found standing erect at the foot of a pine, with his little pack strapped to his shoulders: a statue of ice—arms folded and eyes closed as in meditation. Probably, while waiting for the storm to pass, he had yielded to the drowsiness of cold, and the drift had risen over him as he slept. Hearing of this strange death I remembered the old Japanese saying,—Uranaiya minouye shiradzu: "The fortune-teller knows not his own fate."

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