Quality Checker: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria.
I was instantly amused by him, the abrupt wariness I felt just a moment ago having been laid to rest. As I scolded him, “Who are you calling a wife?!”, I followed after Shi Yitong with great difficulty.
After making a turn through a narrow alley, we didn’t walk long until Shi Yitong voiced out that we had arrived. I halted to take in the building before me. There really wasn’t anything special about it. It was just an ordinary village bungalow, an earthen house built using tiles and bricks. But when we proceeded to walk into the yard, it finally occurred to me what Shi Yitong actually meant earlier.
The yard wasn’t big and the ground was made of solid earth. In the direct center was a thick willow tree. Near the willow tree was a large storehouse where many coffins were placed neatly and tidily inside. Whereas in the corner of the yard, worn-out paper dolls, paper money, as well as other funeral goods were stacked up in a pile.
Only then did realization dawn on me as to why Shi Yitong was asking me odd questions prior, as well as why he told me to prepare myself mentally. Turns out that my childhood friend’s family runs funeral services for a living.
Seeing that I had come to a realization, Shi Yitong scratched his head and said in embarrassment, “It’s because I was afraid that you will find it to be bad luck so I didn’t dare to tell you in the beginning. Our family’s ancestry from my great-grandfather’s generation has always been in funeral service. Then, it was passed on to my grandfather and he has continued doing this. As for my dad and mom, they work outside and rarely come home. Ever since I was in middle school, I have been living with my grandpa and grandma. You see those bundles of paper dolls and paper clothes? They were all handcrafted by my grandfather. Isn’t he amazing?”
“I see.” I let out a sigh of relief from deep down and grumbled, “Then why were you trying to freak me out with that strange behavior earlier on? You made me extremely nervous.”
Shi Yitong revealed a look of delight at my discomfiture. “Aye, Big Brother. This is all your fault. You’re the one with no guts and you dare to shove the blame on me!”
I opened my mouth and was just about to rebuke him when I caught sight of a chuckling old woman walking out from the house. Shi Yitong instantly ran up to welcome her.
“Grandma! I’m back! This is my friend, Gu Yu. He foolishly remembered the uni’s registration wrongly so he’s bunking over at our house for a night.”
I angrily elbowed Shi Yitong. He should have just introduced me properly. Why the hell was he telling my embarrassing incident to an elder?
But the elder didn’t seem to pay it any heed. She smiled at me amicably and heartwarmingly welcomed me into the house.
“Come in! Come in! It’s blazing outside. Come into the house and have a slice of watermelon.”
Shi Yitong’s grandmother was very kind and enthusiastic. Perhaps it was because they didn’t receive many guests, so the moment she saw me, she was exceptionally warm-hearted. She clung to me and chatted a lot, even going as far to blurt out stories of when Shi Yitong was young. Her face full of wrinkles blossomed into a smile. At night, the old woman made us a feast to dig in. There were dumplings, fermented tofu as well as rice noodles. The elder kept incessantly piling food onto my plate until I felt embarrassed.
The only thing I found to be quite strange was that I had yet to see the grandfather who Shi Yitong had been incessantly blabbering on about from the moment we entered the house. They said he wasn’t home but there was an extra set of bowls and chopsticks placed isolatedly on the dining table as though it was of no interest to anyone. Shi Yitong also appeared to be absent-minded. He didn’t help himself much to the food.
When we were almost done eating, Shi Yitong abruptly stood up. He placed some servings of food in the empty bowl, muttering, “I’ll send this to grandpa.” I also quickly stood up, wiping my mouth in a hurried manner. I smiled apologetically at the old woman. “Uhm, I’m done too. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Shi Yitong didn’t seem to be in a good mood. He frowned, looking restless. I gave chase after him and in the end, I was unable to restrain my already piqued curiosity. “Why didn’t your grandpa come out to eat?”
“He’s in the house. Grandpa usually forgets the time whenever he reads his book alone in the house. It’s normal.”
Although Shi Yitong said so, the worried look on his face made it seem that it wasn’t as simple as that. I was just wondering whether the old man was ill when a door in front of me suddenly flew open and out walked a hunchbacked old man.
The old man, dressed in a buttoned-up mandarin jacket with a rounded collar, looked like he was more than seventy years old. His beard was quite long, giving the impression as though he was sage-like. He seemed to have a healthy complexion and didn’t seem unwell.
When Shi Yitong saw him, he heaved a sigh of relief first before grumbling, “Grandpa, you didn’t eat again.” Then, he extended his arms to give the bowl and chopsticks to the old man. However, the old man had his hands clasped behind his back, with no intention of accepting them. Instead, his hale and hearty eyes were fixated on me relentlessly.
The expression wasn’t ill-intended, but on the contrary, it was good-natured and advocating, giving me a false impression that this old man could see something right through me. Afterwards, the old man said in earnest,
“Please treasure it.”
Caught off guard, I turned to stare at Shi Yitong. He didn’t look like he understood it either, so I could only implicitly ask the old man, “Uh… Pardon?”
“Please treasure the encounter that hasn’t happened yet.” After uttering these inexplicable words, the old man walked away smiling with his hands behind his back, leaving behind a puzzled me as well as Shi Yitong, who was awkwardly rooted to the spot with the bowl and chopsticks in hand.
I intended to pursue him to ask but was pulled back by Shi Yitong. He shot me a meaningful glance, dragging me to the deepest room in the house.
“Was that your grandpa just now?” I asked.
Shi Yitong sat on the bed and nodded.
“Is he…uh, always like that?” I surmised carefully. “It feels…”
“Strangely terrifying?” Shi Yitong said what I couldn’t bring myself to say. He sighed, “Sigh! As matters stand, I can’t hide this from you anymore. Honestly, the reason why I called you here is that recently for the past few days, I’m just really…scared.”
“Scared?” I was perplexed.
”Let me explain everything to you in detail from start to end.” Shi Yitong anxiously scratched his hair and began to explain tirelessly.
“I’ve told you this before that our family has always been in the funeral service. It’s a coordinated process. Regardless of whoever passed away, people would come to my grandpa for funeral arrangements. My grandpa handles everything from putting the dead body in the coffin, announcing their deaths, to casketing as well as the funeral procession. The numerous coffins in the yard were all made personally by my grandpa. You can head out to ask any household in the village. There wouldn’t be a soul who doesn’t know my grandpa’s craft. Although you said you don’t believe in ghosts, there are still many things in this world that cannot be explained and understood.” Shi Yitong drank the cup of water he grabbed from the table. He continued, “When we entered just now, I don’t know whether you noticed it or not, but one building of our residence is for us to stay in while the other one is for ghosts. I’m not saying there really are ghosts inside but when the funeral procession and burial ongoing, all the equipment are placed there in a pile.”
I thought about it for a brief moment and was quick to agree. “I remember. Just now when I entered, I seemed to have caught sight of a large storehouse.”