Quality Checker: Tezuka
Special thanks to Kleepart and Sakhyu for helping with the poem. \o/
First Published on Chaleuria.
That evening, Shi Yitong and I changed clothes for the deceased old man and laid his body in the coffin. Mr. Wen stayed by the distraught Grandmother Shi’s side all this time as they planned the funeral together.
Shi Yitong had been quiet the whole time, he neither spoke nor cried. The fine Chinese cedar nested coffin unexpectedly suited grandfather well.
“One, two, three!” The strong men counted in unison as they lifted the coffin up. Actually, the coffin should not be very heavy for eight people to carry together, but even if so, they still wanted to do it for the sake of appearances.
On the day of the funeral, all of us wore entirely black clothes, but Mr. Wen was still in his black Daoist robe with its flowing sleeves fluttering in the wind. A lot of villagers came, just like what Shi Yitong had said, his grandfather was quite famous in the village.
“What a misfortune!” I heard a villager on the side say as he shook his head. “Old Grandfather Shi has seen off numerous people in his life, but unexpectedly now it’s our turn to see him off.”
Shi Yitong stood on one side of the coffin. I didn’t know whether it was some sort of a social custom at a funeral, but he just stood there motionlessly, simply staring blankly at the nested coffin.
Then Mr. Wen walked up, clad in his black robe. Facing the mourning hall, he held a match in his hand and lit it with a ‘swish’. Amidst the flickering flame, I saw him lighting a sedan chair made of paper. The burning flame shot high up in the air. Grandmother Shi tottered to the front of the coffin and lit up an oil lamp placed before the feet of grandfather’s remains and another one above his head. Then she offered a bowl of rice in front of the light and lit an incense stick.
Mr. Wen was mumbling with his palms together.
“The empty dream of life.
What can you do with an empty dream?
In this world,
You may take nothing with you.
A pair of arms.
And you see the face of Yama.
From here you must go,
And waste not life anymore.
Recite Buddha’s name,
Cross that river of desire.
This world has endless pains,
And samsara goes on forever.
Toss you into the waves,
Trap you in cages,
Listen, wandering soul,
Why not turn back,
To leave is to return.”
Mr. Wen’s voice was light yet powerful, speaking at a pace neither too fast nor too slow, with each word reverberating in my heart. No one spoke in front of the mourning hall, and only the scripture Mr. Wen recited echoed in the room.
Grandfather Shi’s funeral lasted the entire day. Afterwards, headed by the ‘Eight Immortals’ who were carrying the coffin, the long line of people attending the burial extended all the way to the entrance of the village. Shi Yitong and I didn’t go, Grandmother Shi didn’t let us, repeating that it would bring us bad luck if us children followed the burial team. Even though I really wanted to explain that both Shi Yitong and I had reached the age of eighteen a long time ago, I couldn’t reject the special care and concern of this old woman.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Shi Yitong scratched his nose. “Well… This is the sort of thing we can’t do anything about. I’m sorry, I was too emotional yesterday and said some unreasonable words.”
I shook my head, indicating that I didn’t mind. It was hard for someone like me with that kind of a family to understand Shi Yitong’s feelings for his grandfather. But even so, I still clearly knew what an important position his grandfather occupied in Shi Yitong’s life.
Being separated by death from someone you love, that must be a pain that can tear you apart.
“I always thought there was some evil thing that tried to kill grandpa.” Shi Yitong slowly opened his mouth, “After suspecting this and that, I didn’t expect to be told in the end that this was fate, something unchangeable.”
I could only try and comfort him, “Mortality is the fate of humankind. Every one of us will eventually come to this. Besides, I believe your grandfather will do just fine on ‘that side’.”
Shi Yitong sniffed a couple times, then forced out a smile. “Yeah, you’re right.”
The funeral ended that night. Shi Yitong’s grandfather was buried in the village cemetery. It was not far from Shi Yitong’s home, and he could visit his grandfather whenever he wanted. After a tiring day, everyone was exhausted and slept early, especially Shi Yitong. It seemed like the weight on his shoulders was finally lifted, as he snored loudly next to me, which actually left me unable to fall asleep.
In the moonlight outside the window, I saw a figure standing under the willow tree in the yard.
I threw a jacket over my shoulder and walked out. As I expected, it was Mr. Wen.
Mr. Wen had already taken off the Daoist robe he was wearing during the funeral and changed into a casual hoodie and jeans, instead of the dark robe he had on when we first met. He was leaning against the tree, his arms crossed. One of his feet was even kicking backward at the tree trunk — an action that made him seem like a little kid.
“You… Why haven’t you left yet?” I asked, rubbing my drowsy eyes. “Isn’t the funeral already over?”
“Who do you think I am for you to discard right after using me?” Mr. Wen raised his eyebrows. “Of course I came for you.”
“Ah, that.” I scratched my head, feeling embarrassed. “Well, thanks a lot this time. I apologize that I once thought you were a swindler… ”
Mr. Wen stood there and didn’t make any comment.
“Speaking of which, you and Shi Yitong’s grandmother actually know each other,” I asked with some curiosity. “How did you two meet?”
Mr. Wen just shrugged and casually said, “Nothing much, I just once saved a little girl by the water.”
What did that mean? I didn’t understand. But before I could clarify, Mr. Wen spoke again.
“That’s not important,” Mr. Wen suddenly stretched out his hand toward me. “Payment.”
Huh? I was taken aback. “Payment?”
“You didn’t think that I’m free labor did you, boy?” Mr. Wen looked at me haughtily.
“No, that…” I weakly replied as I subconsciously took half a step back, “How much do you want?”
Mr. Wen held up one finger towards me.
I had to force myself to venture a guess, “… A hundred?”
He shook his head.
“A thousand?” I guessed again.
But he shook his head again, looking at me as though I had said something funny.
“Then, then…” It can’t be…?
“Ten thousand.” Mr. Wen mercilessly smashed my illusion.
I was shocked. “Ten thousand? Are you a cannibal? Shi Yitong was right, you’re just a swindler!”
“I feel very wronged to hear you speak of me in this way.” But there was no trace of feeling wronged in Mr. Wen’s eyes at all, rather, he had a wide smile on his face. “Many people can’t get me to do rituals for them even with money, not to mention that I also helped to plan the funeral and accompanied the guests.”
“Even if that’s the case, you should go charge Shi Yitong for it.” I was making my last struggling case to get out of this.
“You’re kidding! You’re the one who entrusted the matter to me. Why would I demand payment from anyone besides my client?” Mr. Wen’s reply was forcefully just.
“B-but, I’m just a student.” I started to feel anxious. “Where can I get that much money!?”
“Hmm… that’s true.” Mr. Wen touched his chin and looked at me with a smile in his eyes, “And we can’t let your parents undertake such a ridiculous debt, right?”
I nodded violently like a chick pecking on grain.
“Then how about this?” Mr. Wen clapped his hands together and said, “My store is quite deserted right now. I’m the only one there, and I’m just so in need of a temp assistant. You can substitute payment for work. How about that? Interested?”
Wait a minute, why do I feel like I’ve fallen into this man’s trap? But looking at Mr. Wen’s narrowed eyes, I had no other choice for now but to agree.
I braced myself and asked, “Then how much do I get per day?”
“Umm…” Mr. Wen thought for a second, rubbing his chin. “10 yuan.”
“Oh, 10 yuan… Wait! Only 10 yuan?” My eyes nearly popped out. “Doesn’t that mean I have to work for you for 1000 days to clear my debt?”
“That’s right. Two years and seven months.” Mr. Wen replied, smiling.
“You’re indeed an exploiter!” I shouted resentfully.
“However, if you’re unwilling to do it, then I have no choice but to ask your parents to pay–” Mr. Wen maliciously dragged out the last word.
“No!” I blurted out, then agreed dispiritedly, “I-I’ll do it…”
Mr. Wen started to laugh, “Don’t make such a miserable face! I promise you it won’t be boring. You’re quite interested in this kind of thing yourself, aren’t you? Otherwise, you wouldn’t have even asked the school for leave just to stay at your friend’s home.”
I was silent for a moment and then decided to tell the truth. “I’m curious. After I came here, what I’ve seen is a world different from the one I knew, with a lot of unimaginable things. I want to see more, understand more, and I also want to know what is going on with this constitution that I have.”
Mr. Wen seemed to be very satisfied with my reply. He nodded, then suddenly said, “Jiubo.”
Surprised, I asked, “What?”
“Wen Jiubo. That is my name,” Mr. Wen said softly, smiling at me. “Gu Yu, I’m looking forward to seeing you there.”
On the last day I stayed over at Shi Yitong’s home, I had another dream.
It was still that same dark, bizarre space. I was drifting in the darkness, not knowing where I was.
At this moment, a bell rang. The sound drew closer, and as it did, it became sharper and clearer. Immediately afterward, a man appeared in front of me. He was tanned but had a very handsome face, wearing a green military coat and a pair of cotton-cloth shoes.
The pair of cotton-cloth shoes looked like they were hand-made, even the edges and corners were sewn meticulously.
“Thank you,” the man smiled at me. “I’ve sinned too much in my life. Now it’s finally time to pay for it.” I was about to tell him that he didn’t need to thank me but for some reason, no sound came out when I opened my mouth, so I had to listen in silence.
“Tong’er is quite a naughty boy, it must be tough on you being friends with him. If he picks up any bad habits, you don’t have to worry about anything, just thrash him.” The man raised his eyebrows and said with a serious look. I couldn’t help but smile.
“Thank you. Shi family will remember your kindness.” After he finished, the man smiled and waved at me, his voice becoming more and more distant, blending into the beautiful ringing of the bell, “This life of mine… I don’t regret it at all.”