‘Futures’ by Lara Zembekis was published in 'Spiral Anthology' in 2020.
I sat in the garden and tried to understand the answer to my question. I locked eyes with a stray black cat, his muzzle wide but his shanks thin. He had a question for me too. Could he eat some leftover cat food? With my glance I told him yes, but he would have to wait for me to leave. He licked his lips, saying he hoped he wouldn’t have to wait too long, and sauntered under the house. He had his answer, but what was mine?
I stepped into my little wooden house and went to my shelf and pulled out the I Ching again. I read the prologue about how it was once thought King Wen of the Zhou dynasty had devised the hexagrams while imprisoned. Then I flicked through its thin pages and came to a chapter heading—‘Hexagram 28 Great Exceeding’.
I sighed over the hexagram. How could this possibly be my future? What did the book mean by lake flooding the trees, or a ridgepole about to break? What even was a ridgepole? I looked dubiously at the ceiling, trying to imagine it. What was the pressure that could not be contained? The birds were singing in the eucalypts; the snails munched happily through the nasturtiums. Things were pretty good under a benign dictatorship.
* * *
King Wen sat in his cell and pondered the gift of the black cat. At first he was comforted by its presence but he knew enough of his jealous brother-in-law, King Shang, to realise something could be given, only to be taken away. Still, for now, he was glad of its sombre form.
King Wen was always hungry and sometimes he saw things that weren’t there. But sometimes he saw things clearly. He drew lines in the muck at his feet with a stick. Broken and unbroken lines—these were a symbol of yin and yang, dark and light—an endless cycle of change. Everything was made of these opposites that were always together.
He drew one broken line topped by two unbroken lines. Dark, light, light. This was the trigram Xun. King Wen shut his eyes and saw an image of woods at the end of springtime, gentle but persevering, like bamboo in a sunny breeze.
He sat in the stillness of the lines and suddenly drew another three lines above it—two unbroken lines topped with one broken line. Light, light, dark. He sat back. This was the trigram Dui. Now he saw a misty silver lake and the joy of an autumn harvest. Xun and Dui, the two sisters together: one gentle, one joyous. So innocuous, but combined they formed lake over wood; something with more power than it seemed.
The black walls, once yellow, that surrounded him disappeared and the king saw something rush towards him: a lake rising and rising, flooding the tallest trees. He saw the wooden ridgepole of a house, strong in the middle but weak at the ends, bending to the point of breaking. He saw pressure so great it could not be contained, a wooden house brimming with water.
His heart shook in his chest as he relived the troops of Shang storming his home.
* * *
I went to the mailbox, my pink dressing gown sweeping along the grass. I checked the box—nothing—then poked my head out and looked up and down the street. I drew back sharply. Three men in mustard–yellow uniforms were milling around on the corner. Yellow Jackets. Before, they had only been around public places—the main street, the library, in front of Coles.
Now, the Yellow Jackets had positioned themselves on street corners—to keep order, although it felt more like disorder. It was strange seeing them there. Not even two years ago everyone was in cars, unless they were walking their dogs or exercising. Definitely no-one in uniform. The Yellow Jackets were part of the RealAustraya political group. They had been a joke at first. I mean, RealAustraya? I couldn’t take bad spelling seriously. But it had become very serious, very quickly.
I scurried back inside; the rules kept changing so quickly I wasn’t sure pink dressing gowns were allowed anymore. Whenever my heart thudded, I knew the best thing to do was a bit of harmless online shopping.
* * *
King Wen was glad for dirt. He was glad the dirt on the walls of his cell was so thick he could draw his lines on it. He had tried to do them on the ground of the cell, but the room was too small to still have room for pacing. And the guards kept trudging their disrespectful feet over them. So King Wen had turned to the walls. He started in one corner and finally had all sixty-four line hexagrams up on the filthy stone wall. They hummed and danced before him: sixty-four permutations of light and dark ready for the curious, the wishful and the desperate to ask their questions.
One day, two drunken guards came in and noticed the lines. They laughed; they thought he was counting the days. ‘You’ve been here much longer than that, you fool!’ said one.
‘Here, let us help you remember!’ said the other. He pulled aside his skirt, untangled himself from his trouser front and let forth a stream of piss that he sprayed in gleeful arcs across the lines.
The first guard said, ‘I think I should help, too.’ And he followed suit, but without quite the volume of the first. ‘I don’t think I drank enough yellow wine. But luckily, I ate lots of rice!’ He squatted down with a blissful smile and after a few joyful grunts he stood and looked proudly at his steaming pile. ‘See, you won’t forget now, old man.’ The guards weren’t laughing anymore. ‘Don’t forget, you’re lucky to be alive.’
King Wen felt the ache in his bones from the last beating and knew this had been a good day.
* * *
I spied the stray black cat under the lucky mandarin tree. He looked intently at me—could he come in? This time I had the answer he’d been waiting for: leftover hamburger. I broke a piece off and set it down. I watched him as he ate, then I stepped closer. He didn’t even look up, so I bent over and carefully stroked his back. I felt the sharpness of his bones and his dirty pelt and I thought yes, I can keep you if you want. He finished eating, sat back under the mandarin tree and shone his yellow eyes at me. Yes, he said, you can keep me if you want.
* * *
King Wen waggled his broken tooth with his tongue. He had stopped drawing the hexagrams because he had memorised them. He chanted them, starting from the first hexagram. He went through the trigrams and elements, the image and the judgement of each one in turn. He imagined a day when he could write it all down.
Although his teeth didn’t hurt much anymore, he was going blind. It was a strange blindness that puzzled King Wen. He couldn’t see the cell or the guards or his rotting food, but he could still see the black cat. It purred beside him and he enjoyed the feel of its soft, matted fur. Its yellow eyes shone like little lamps. Strangely, the guards never once threatened to kill it. Or feed it to him.
* * *
A long time ago, I had put my name down for another group, the GreenCollars, but I was too much of a hypocrite for it. I secretly loved plastic—it was so useful, if disgusting. And I liked throwing things out and buying new stuff. I ate meat too, although I did enjoy going along to their vegetarian potlucks.
There had been an invisible, internal war between the GreenCollars and RealAustraya, and RealAustraya had won. We were told that everything was okay and things would go on as before, but there had been so many disappearances. I consoled myself with the fact that something like that couldn’t happen to someone as shallow and meaningless as me.
* * *
A sob caught in King Wen’s throat when he thought of his eldest son. That day King Shang had come to his cell. King Wen thought it was so he could gloat over him. Instead, King Shang had food set out on a low table—normally King Wen ate off the ground. There was a bowl of gleaming rice, a plate of steaming spicy meat with vegetables, and a jug of yellow wine. It smelled so good that King Wen swayed in silent ecstasy. He knew the food was probably poisoned, but they had starved him for three days—now he knew why—and he started eating. He waited to feel sick, but nothing happened. He looked up and noticed everyone, except the slave who served him, smiling. He ignored it all and ate while he could. He still didn’t feel sick—it must be a slow-acting poison. Finally he finished and King Shang had the biggest smile on his face King Wen had seen in all the years he’d known him.
‘You know, your eldest son came to visit us,’ said King Shang. Fear leapt into King Wen’s throat. He couldn’t speak.
‘We gave him a grand welcome. We even let him say his piece before we killed him. He wanted to get you out, of course.’ King Shang inspected the fine silk of his robe as though contemplating a new one, then looked down at King Wen’s silent, stricken face.
‘We gave his body to the dogs, if you’re wondering. Oh,’ King Shang tapped King Wen’s full stomach with his staff, ‘except for the bit we gave to you.’
* * *
My mind drifted to my heaving bookshelf. I had made a home library for myself since our local library became a ‘learning centre’ and got rid of their books. The Yellow Jackets had taken over and installed a coffee machine. They served free coffee and struck up ‘conversations’ with anyone who entered, more harmless recruitment. However, I didn’t want to think about them anymore; another GreenCollar family had vanished from the street. But not me, not me.
I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a new I Ching book, but I still couldn’t understand hexagram twenty-eight. The story of the kings and the troops, the lake rising over wood, the broken ridgepole, didn’t mesh with my denial-filled, shop-happy suburban life.
* * *
Two years passed and King Wen, blind and toothless, his mind full of lines, sat with his black cat. He heard noises and screaming, and someone rushed into his room.
‘Father, it’s me, we’re taking you home.’ His younger son, the Duke of Zhou, was shocked by his father’s appearance.
‘Son?’ King Wen put out his hand.
‘Yes, Father, we need to go now.’
‘Please, don’t forget the black cat.’
The Duke of Zhou looked around the empty, squalid cell and said, ‘Of course, Father. I have him here with me.’
* * *
The door of my little wooden house crashed open and a tidal wave of Yellow Jackets rushed in and I was lifted up and borne along as if by a tsunami. My body wasn’t my own any more. I couldn’t feel it; all I could feel was the pounding of waves in my heart. The waves pounded while the house was torn apart, they pounded while being carried into the woodland and to the lake, they pounded while being bound and weighted, they pounded while being thrown off the bridge into the rushing water.
I finally saw the lake rising over the trees and the pounding stopped.
* * *
I sat with my black cat, invisible to the world. Now he was the only one who could see me.
Lara Zembekis lives in the sunny northern suburbs with her husband and too many plants. She completed one year of the RMIT Advanced Diploma of Screenwriting before crossing over to the RMIT Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing. She is working on her first novel.