Arc Two: Wooden Boy
Indeed, this was actually Shen Qiao’s cage.
Wen Shi thought.
No wonder Xia Qiao said that this house looked familiar, like the kind that he had lived in when he was young. It was also no surprise that Xia Qiao felt as if everything happening in here was similar to the dreams he used to have as a child.
This old man was Shen Qiao, but Wen Shi hadn’t recognized him at all this entire time.
Perhaps it was because the old man didn’t have any features on his face, only a vague outline, or perhaps it was because the Shen Qiao in Wen Shi’s memories was still frozen in the image of him from many, many years ago.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen an aged Shen Qiao before, but he kept thinking that this old man, with his shuffling footsteps and faint voice, had nothing to do with that delicate youth who wore a little skullcap all those years ago.
A sound suddenly came from the wardrobe. Wen Shi pulled himself together as he heard someone call out, quiet and low, from within it.
The voice was slightly rough, as if its owner was afraid of startling somebody. “Grandpa?”
A second later, the wardrobe door was pushed open; that soft, flabby doll had already collapsed to the side, utterly still. In its place was a small and thin boy—it was Xia Qiao himself.
His body was a phantasm, and he looked starkly pale under the room’s old-fashioned ceiling light, like a paper-cut figure amidst an expanse of silence. He stood blankly behind the old man, wanting to pat his shoulder, but not daring to bring his hand down.
“Grandpa… is that you?” he asked, hushed.
The old man sitting next to the bed froze, his fingers slowly tightening around the towel.
In that instant, it was as if time in the cage had stopped. Nobody knew how he would react upon hearing those words, if he would suddenly awaken and then violently erupt like many other cage masters did.
“Grandpa, I’m Xia Qiao.” Finally, the boy still ended up patting the old man’s shoulder and shaking it very lightly.
Ten years had passed in the blink of an eye. Xia Qiao had forgotten much of what had happened in his youth, and he had also learned many things that he couldn’t ever manage to learn as a child.
When acting spoiled, he now knew that he had to soften his voice.
He gripped the fabric covering the old man’s shoulder. The tip of his nose was red, and he shook the old man again as he repeated hoarsely, “Grandpa, I’m Xia Qiao, look at me.”
The old man’s silhouette abruptly wavered, like a drop of water falling into a calm lake. Immediately after, threads of coiling black smoke burst out from within his body.
This was… the cage master’s awakening.
Nearly every cage master acted aggressively in the moment that they woke up. The resentment, hatred, and envy that he had hidden and suppressed his entire life, the things he couldn’t bear to let go of or part with—they would all explode outwards in that instant. It was both a way of venting and, simultaneously, liberation.
As for the person undoing the cage: they were obligated to take on all of that in the cage master’s stead, and then help him to dissolve it.
The second the black smoke appeared, Wen Shi had already slipped out from within the mirror.
His long and slender fingers still carried some of the white mist from the mirror as they stretched straight towards the old man.
The eyes and the heart were the critical connecting points to the soul. As long as he touched those places and accepted everything from Shen Qiao, this cage would thoroughly collapse…
But he came to a halt just before he reached him.
Right as he was about to make contact with the old man’s soul, he suddenly drew back his hand and crossed his arms.
Meanwhile, Xia Qiao begged once more in a thick, nasally voice, “Grandpa, can you look back at me, please? Look at me again.”
The seething black smoke that was scattering everywhere grew much lighter and filmier, floating quietly and peacefully in the air. The old man set down the towel and gave a soft sigh before he finally turned his head around.
The moment he turned around, he regained his facial features at last, aged and gentle. There were deep wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and lips, the kind that only people who laughed often would have.
It was indeed Shen Qiao.
“Grandpa…” Instantly, Xia Qiao’s eyes reddened, and he clutched Shen Qiao’s shoulders.
“Xiao Qiao ah.” Shen Qiao called his name lightly before he let out a heavy chuckle, his voice still breathy and elderly. “My predecessor also called me Xiao Qiao.
“See, you and I are bound by fate.”
Xia Qiao couldn’t say anything at all as he continued to blink furiously.
Whenever he was afraid, he would always sob dramatically. It could be called crying, but in reality, he didn’t actually shed that many tears. But once his tears truly began to fall endlessly, drop after drop, he couldn’t make a single sound.
Shen Qiao merely watched him. Then, he patted Xia Qiao’s hand.
The scenery in the cage changed swiftly. The ’90s-style chest of drawers, windowsill, desk, and bed were all fading away, and the scent of incense ash grew faint and indistinct.
As if a dream that wasn’t actually that long or tedious had reached its end, everything vanished, leaving them standing amidst a boundless fog.
Shen Qiao looked at Wen Shi and smiled wryly as he greeted him, “Wen-ge.”
Wen Shi nodded. He couldn’t really describe what he was currently feeling, nor did he know what to say in response.
A beat later, he said, “I didn’t expect this to be your cage.”
“I didn’t expect it either.” Shen Qiao said, “I thought that I would be able to depart cleanly.”
He lowered his gaze, the folds of his eyelids drooping downward, pressing down heavily over his aged eyes.
A long time passed again before he smiled and said, “It’s too difficult to truly be without any attachments or hindrances. I am still reluctant, I still cannot let go.”
“What can you not let go of?” Wen Shi asked.
Shen Qiao glanced at Xia Qiao’s bowed head and said, “I often wondered if I should let him know who he really is. Before, I felt like I should just keep him in the dark, hide it from him for a lifetime. That way, he could be an ordinary person and traverse through the cycle of life, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“But later, I started worrying. If I didn’t tell him, and he accidentally found out once I was no longer there, then what? Just like that, I struggled with myself, over and over, for so many years. Yet I couldn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion.
“I’m still to blame.” Shen Qiao said, “I didn’t teach him enough things. This child seems to only have learned that he should cry when he’s feeling timid, like a fool. He was never able to understand any other emotions, who knows if it was due to some pathway being blocked.”
Upon hearing that, Wen Shi realized that ever since he entered the Shen household and learned that Shen Qiao had already passed, he had never once seen Xia Qiao cry due to grief, nor had Xia Qiao ever seemed particularly sad. He would joke around, hold conversations with various people, and even take care of renting out their rooms. It was as if he didn’t comprehend life and death, or what it meant to part ways with someone.
All the way until now, all the way until this very second…
Wen Shi looked at Xia Qiao’s red-rimmed eyes and said to Shen Qiao, “He should understand now.”
Using this kind of method to teach Xia Qiao something that he was unable to teach him while he was still alive—Shen Qiao didn’t know whether he should laugh or cry. He pondered for a long while, but in the end, he only felt his heart ache.
“Humans ah, they’re still greedy.” He spoke slowly, “At a time like this, I finally discovered that there are too many things I cannot let go of.”
Like a patient listener, Wen Shi asked, “What else?”
“I used to want to watch this child grow up. He didn’t have to be too old, just eighteen years old, an adult, would be enough. But once he actually turned eighteen, I then wanted to watch over him for a few more years, until he was a bit more mature, a bit stronger. Until there was someone to take care of him, or until he could take care of someone else, until he had a family.
“I was also thinking… many things have changed in these past few years, and they’re completely different from the way things were in the 20th century. I didn’t know how long it would take for you to adapt once you returned, if you would run into trouble, if you would struggle.
“And I was worried whether you would be able to take a liking to Xiao Qiao’s temperament. What if the two of you got into a conflict? Nobody could act as a mediator.” Shen Qiao said, as kindly and mildly as always.
“Thinking of all that, I would get this feeling: if only I were here, then everything would be okay. Wen-ge, when you get angry, you tend to keep it bottled inside. Xiao Qiao is too foolish, so he might not be able to tell. It’s no good if you end up getting hurt from all that fury later on.”
As he spoke, he smiled again, as if those things that he couldn’t bear to let go of or part with weren’t actually that sorrowful anymore.
“And also…” Shen Qiao said, “We haven’t seen each other in over twenty years, but I didn’t even have time to drink a cup of tea with you, Wen-ge, the one we agreed upon last time when you left.”
Unexpectedly, that cup of tea ended up being postponed indefinitely.
He carefully scrutinized Xia Qiao and Wen Shi one more time, slowly, like he was trying to memorize their appearances. Then he sighed. “Oh well.”
At the root of it, after all was said and done, those were merely some scattered, trivial matters.
Throughout his life, he had fetched many people, and he had also seen off many people. It could be considered a full, successful life filled with virtuous achievements.
As a result, he said to Wen Shi, “What can be put off today cannot be escaped tomorrow. In the end, I’ll be troubling Wen-ge to send me on my way.
“That missing cup of tea… let’s drink it in the future, if fate so allows.” Shen Qiao said.
Wen Shi went silent for a long time before nodding. “Okay.”
He extended his hand and touched the center of the old man’s forehead with the back of his fingers.
In that instant, all the black smoke floating through the air suddenly started to churn. Even though it was clearly incorporeal and formless, when its edges swept across Xia Qiao’s hands, it still left behind a thin wound. The pain raced up his nerves, into his heart.
These were the things pulled out of Shen Qiao’s body. They congregated around Wen Shi, wrapping thickly and densely around him.
But it was as if Wen Shi couldn’t feel the pain. He continued to press his fingers against Shen Qiao as he closed his eyes calmly.
A strong wind blew directly at them, so fierce that it was almost enough to upset their footing.
After the wisps of smoke collided violently against each other, they finally stilled and grew docile, slowly dissolving and fading.
The bangs hanging over Wen Shi’s forehead were lifted up by the wind before falling again. In contrast, his skin seemed to lack all color, and it was quite a bit paler than before.
Xia Qiao still couldn’t make any noise as he wept mournfully. He was clutching Shen Qiao’s hand extremely tightly, but he felt his grip grow emptier and emptier.
Once the black smoke completely dissolved, the person he was holding onto dissipated entirely, along with the cage as a whole. Right before Shen Qiao disappeared, Xia Qiao heard him urge warmly, one last time, “When it gets cold, remember to wear more layers. When it’s hot, don’t eat too many cold things. Live well, ah.”
After the cage vanished, their real surroundings appeared in its place.
They were still sitting on that bus, and the people behind them were still chatting with each other, just like before.
Shen Qiao was buried in a place backed by the mountain, close to water. A large expanse of flowering trees and fields stretched out below him as well.
Xia Qiao placed the urn into the grave. According to tradition, the friends, relatives, and neighbors added in red dates and sugar cakes.
The mourning garments and hat were burned, the stone slab was placed on top, and this send-off could be considered complete.
As they were heading back down the mountain, sobs began welling up in Xia Qiao’s throat at last, hoarse and quiet; it was like a rusty jar that had been sealed away for quite some time was finally pried open a tiny bit. He kept starting and stopping as he walked. If someone wasn’t pushing him along, he would most likely have never descended this mountain.
Just as he was dragging his footsteps and was about to turn around, Wen Shi, who was following behind him, abruptly lifted his hand and swatted Xia Qiao across the back of his head. He said lowly, “Don’t look back.”
Don’t look back.
Let him come cleanly, and also depart cleanly.
The species of the trees blooming at the foot of the mountain was unknown. With a gust of wind, flower petals scattered all over the ground.
Wen Shi narrowed his eyes as a sprig of blossoms swept towards him. Upon reopening them, he suddenly felt like this scene was a little familiar.
As if once upon a time, there also existed a person who had patted him lightly on the back of his head, with a slender and thin palm that felt mildly cool to the touch, and pushed him a step forward before saying coaxingly: Don’t look back.
He stopped in his tracks. After being stunned for a few seconds, he subconsciously glanced behind him.
He saw Xie Wen lagging some distance behind them, strolling leisurely along the long and narrow path as he reached out with a hand to catch a flower that came tumbling down.