Arc Two: Wooden Boy
Xie Wen cupped the flower in his hand, but the instant the petals touched him, they curled up and wilted, turning into a brown-colored dead object in the blink of an eye. With a light touch from his fingers, the petals crumbled off the flower.
His gaze was cast downward as he stared at the lifeless object in his hand. It was unclear what he was thinking.
A moment later, he looked up and saw Wen Shi watching him, brows furrowed.
Xie Wen lowered his hand and hid it behind him. Separated by a distance of a few steps, with crisscrossing flower branches in between them, he asked, “What bad thing did I do, to make you look at me like that?”
Wen Shi pressed his lips together.
Actually, he was just simply glancing behind him. But with that question, he had no choice but to stiffen his face and say, “I wanted to ask you something.”
Xie Wen: “What is it?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Let me think a little.
Fortunately, his reaction speed was fast. With barely a pause, he thought of something. “Where’s your clothing?”
Xie Wen ducked his head and gave himself a serious once-over—shirt and pants, everything was present.
Wen Shi was speechless. “I was talking about the jacket you were holding earlier, the black one.”
Only then did Xie Wen appear to remember that article of clothing. “Oh, that one. I probably forgot it somewhere, with all the crowd and chaos.”
“You’re not going to search for it?”
“It’s fine.” Xie Wen said, not seeming to care much, “It wasn’t anything important. If I lost it, I can just buy another one.”
Wen Shi was currently poor, so he couldn’t understand Xie Wen’s easily yielded generosity.
Seeing Wen Shi’s eyebrows knit tighter and tighter together, Xie Wen suggested, “How about you come look for it with me on the mountain then? However, this mountain is a bit large.”
Keep on dreaming. This mountain was hardly ‘a bit large’?
Wen Shi turned on his heel and walked away.
Xie Wen laughed from behind him before he coughed a few times again. It sounded even more smothered than it had on the way here, as if his health had worsened.
Although the neighbors and friends who had come to send off Shen Qiao didn’t know Xie Wen, they still asked out of concern, “Are you sick? Pushing yourself to come to the mountain even though you’re sick, it’s quite cold on the mountain.”
Xie Wen waved his hand from a distance, indicating that he was fine.
Even though he was always joking around and truly seemed to be good-tempered, but…
As Wen Shi followed the curve of the mountain path, he couldn’t help but glance behind him again.
He saw Xie Wen press a hand against the tip of his nose as he gave several muffled coughs. When Xie Wen passed by a tree, he threw away the object in his hand. His expression was indifferent, his skin sickly pale; his face was unreadable, while appearing to be somewhat dull at the same time.
Wen Shi was startled for a moment before it came back to him: that object was most likely the flower that Xie Wen had caught earlier.
Since they had just come out of a cage, Wen Shi was actually both tired and hungry, making it difficult for him to gather his qi. But he still collected himself and concentrated, trying to take a look at Xie Wen’s soul.
The second he closed his eyes, he was met with the sight of boundless malevolent energy.
It was several times more plentiful now than it had been when they first met. It leaped and danced threateningly, giving off a heavy and intense feeling of monstrosity. Everywhere the black fog spread, the glowing flowers and trees would become dimmer, as if they were nearly at death’s door.
A buzz ran through Wen Shi’s mind, and his eyes shot open.
That scene disappeared once more. Like always, Xie Wen appeared to be amiable and good-natured as he headed down the mountain, gaze lowered.
The bus was parked at the foot of the mountain, and the crowd gradually made their way over.
Xia Qiao was no longer crying, but he didn’t say anything either. His eyes were severely swollen, and he just stood there, in a daze. The neighbors and elders couldn’t bear to see him like that, so they maneuvered him onto the bus, half-supporting him and half-dragging him, settling him down in his original seat.
A moment passed. His blank eyes peered around him once before he asked hoarsely, “Where’s Wen-ge?”
A neighbor, Aunt Liu, was sitting right behind him, and her heart went completely soft whenever she saw these half-grown members of the younger generation cry. She patted Xia Qiao’s shoulder and pointed outside the window. “He’s coming, look, he’s talking to someone over there.”
There was a delayed beat before Xia Qiao looked over.
He saw Wen Shi standing a few steps away from the road, talking to Xie Wen, who had just come down the mountain…
Xie Wen was the one doing most of the speaking. Wen Shi was listening.
Perhaps it was just his misperception, but Xia Qiao felt as if they were standing a bit far from each other. In any case, the distance was a little wider than it typically would be when two people were conversing, giving off a subtle sort of detached and evasive feeling.
Of course, Xia Qiao didn’t know why that would be the case; he only thought that it was strange.
Xie Wen kept the conversation short. He waved at Wen Shi before he started walking in the other direction, while Wen Shi headed towards the bus.
His legs were long, and he grabbed onto the handrail as he climbed four stairs in two steps. He sat down next to Xia Qiao, expressionless.
The driver drew his cigarette away from his mouth before he turned his head and asked, “You’re here? Are we still missing anybody?”
Wen Shi said, “No, let’s go.”
Xia Qiao was surprised. Aunt Liu and the rest were even more enthusiastic, and they pointed at Xie Wen’s back from afar. “What about him? That friend of yours, is he not getting on?”
“He isn’t coming.” Wen Shi said.
“He’s busy, so he’s leaving first.” Wen Shi said.
Xia Qiao peeked at Wen Shi. Even though his Wen-ge always wore the same poker face, and his words were stiff and harsh as well, Xia Qiao still got this feeling that Wen Shi currently wasn’t in a very good mood.
“Wen-ge, what’s the matter?” Xia Qiao asked, despite not having much energy himself.
Wen Shi raised his eyes, not understanding. “What?”
“Er…” Xia Qiao hesitated before asking slowly, “What did Xie Wen say? You seem unhappy.”
Wen Shi furrowed his brows very slightly, and he looked at Xia Qiao with an expression that read ‘what kind of nonsense are you talking about.’ “Ah?”
Xia Qiao shrank back and leaned against the window listlessly. “It’s nothing, I misinterpreted it, pretend like I didn’t say anything.”
Unexpectedly, Aunt Liu was the one who was unwilling to let it go.
On the way over, she had sat next to Xie Wen. The young man was extremely easy on the eyes and had quite the elegant demeanor, so who wouldn’t like him. She patted the back of Wen Shi’s seat and said, “He came here in this bus, so it’s best if he leaves in this bus too, or else it isn’t very auspicious.”
That kind of unluckiness felt rather far-fetched and irrelevant. Wen Shi had never heard of it before.
But he still cast a glance outside. He just happened to spot Xie Wen getting into a red car, so he sat back in his seat.
“Then this is everyone? Should we leave?” the driver asked.
Wen Shi: “Mn.”
The driver promptly stuck his head out the window and took two long drags on his cigarette before he put it out. Then, gripping the steering wheel, he drove the bus back towards the city.
The funeral tent in Minghua District’s garden had already been completely dismantled. This funeral rites, which had lasted for several days, could finally be considered finished.
Aunt Liu lived in one of the buildings in front of them, and she was notoriously warmhearted.
Even after disembarking, she continued to endlessly give them instructions, afraid that the two young folk didn’t understand the customs and would handle things arbitrarily. “Later after you step across the brazier, remember to eat some red dates and white cakes. And then once you two return home, shift the beds, couches, and so on, do some cleaning.”
Xia Qiao was still very spiritless. He nodded and said, “Thank you, Auntie.”
“If you two can’t handle it yourselves, then just come knock on my door. Auntie will go help you out, ah.” Aunt Liu took a few steps forward in the line to step across the brazier before she spoke again. “Once you clean everything, take a shower before you sleep. You must bathe first.”
Xia Qiao replied, “Okay.”
He vacantly obeyed each command given to him. Whatever someone stuffed in his hands, he accepted; whatever they told him to eat, he would shove it into his mouth.
When he snapped out of it at last, he discovered that the crowd had long since dispersed, and he was already back in his house.
The house was empty and desolate. He was also empty and desolate, as if he had lost his soul, and for a brief moment, he didn’t know what he should be doing.
All of a sudden, someone swatted his head, not too heavily or lightly.
Xia Qiao covered the back of his head and looked over to see Wen Shi walk past him. He was gently rubbing his left index finger and thumb together, but it wasn’t clear for what reason.
“Is there any leftover incense?” Wen Shi surveyed his surroundings.
Xia Qiao was startled. “Yes, do you need it?”
“Go get a stick and light it.” Wen Shi said.
Wen Shi always gave off an aura of ‘I’ll become hostile the moment I’m not satisfied.’ Xia Qiao very much wanted to get close to him, but he was also a little afraid of him, so he hastily went to carry out the order he was given.
Only once Xia Qiao returned with a stick of incense did he ask, “Why do you need to light incense, ge?”
“Come here.” Wen Shi tilted his head towards the backyard, indicating for Xia Qiao to open the door.
The Shen villa’s backyard was extremely large and bare. Before, Xia Qiao wanted to buy some flowers and plants to serve as decoration, but Shen Qiao would always say they needed to “leave some space.” Xia Qiao never knew what they needed to leave some space for.
When Wen Shi saw such an expanse of open land, he didn’t find it strange. Instead, understanding was written clearly across his face.
It caused Xia Qiao to suspect that when Shen Qiao spoke of “leaving some space” before, he meant that he was leaving it precisely for Wen Shi.
“Give me the incense.” Wen Shi beckoned with an empty hand, signaling for Xia Qiao to hand the incense to him.
Xia Qiao obediently complied.
Wen Shi crouched down and shook out the incense ash onto the fingers that he was rubbing lightly together.
Abruptly, as if some third eye had been opened, Xia Qiao saw the things that he was only able to see in a cage—those winding strands of black smoke that had been coiled around Shen Qiao’s body before Wen Shi had then dissolved them.
“Isn’t this…” Xia Qiao’s eyes widened.
Wen Shi was still rubbing his fingers together. There wasn’t much smoke left, and he pinched it out into a long strip that resembled a tree branch.
He reached out and closed his hand into a fist, causing the object to pierce upright into the soil.
A gust of wind came from nowhere. The scent of incense blew straight at Xia Qiao, assailing his nose to the point that tears sprung up in his eyes. He covered his face and coughed for quite a while.
Once he recovered from the scorching heat and opened his eyes again, he found that there was now a sapling standing in the ground before him, with slim and graceful branches.
Xia Qiao jumped in fright and couldn’t avoid plopping down onto the dirt. “What is this?”
“White plum tree.” Wen Shi said.
Xia Qiao thought, I wasn’t asking for its species. “Where did it come from?”
“Didn’t you see just now?” Wen Shi looked at him like he was an idiot.
“I know, I… I saw it. The black energy that you absorbed from Grandpa, you brought it out again, and then this tree appeared.”
Wen Shi: “Mn.”
Suddenly, Xia Qiao was at a loss for words.
A long time later, his eyes slowly widened, and he asked in disbelief, “So it’s…”
Wen Shi contemplated and said, “You can think of it as Shen Qiao, in a certain sense, or you can consider it as something Shen Qiao left behind for you.”
Xia Qiao stared fixedly at the sapling. Out of the blue, he recalled that there was also a small white plum grove near where he had lived as a child. It seemed to have sprung up between one moment and the next.
Now, he felt as if he abruptly understood where they had come from—Shen Qiao was also a panguan, and he had sent off many people as well, so he must’ve done this sort of thing before too.
“When someone…” Xia Qiao swallowed down the words “passes away” and said, “Will everyone become like this?”
Wen Shi said, “I prefer it this way.”
Xia Qiao wanted to say that he also liked it. All of a sudden, he didn’t feel so sad anymore; it was as if Shen Qiao was still watching him, gently and lovingly, from some nearby place.
Wen Shi stood up. He kneaded the knuckles of his fingers, which were lowered next to his side.
Xia Qiao also stumbled upright. He circled around the sapling numerous times, looking like he wanted to touch it but didn’t dare to.
“Does this tree need fertilizer?” Xia Qiao asked.
Wen Shi: “It’ll grow on its own.”
Xia Qiao let out an “oh” before he questioned, “Then can I water it?”
Wen Shi: “I’ve never watered it before, but you can try.”
Once again, Xia Qiao didn’t dare to touch it.
Wen Shi said irritably, “It rains outside all the time and they’ve never died from overwatering before.”
Finally, Xia Qiao’s worries were alleviated. He meandered off to find a watering can, and it seemed as if his soul had returned to him.
Wen Shi leaned against the doorway, watching as Xia Qiao bustled about, watering the sapling. Suddenly, he was struck with the thought that the person who originally made this puppet must have certainly been quite remarkable, or else how could they have created such a fool.
With this white plum sapling, Xia Qiao revived at last.
The first thing he did each morning was water and prune the sapling. Then he would follow Wen Shi and light a stick of incense, offering it to the honorable founder.
That day, after he finished with the incense, he glanced at the panguan name register mural as he passed by it. Abruptly, he froze in front of it and stopped moving.
Wen Shi asked him, puzzled, “What are you doing?”
Xia Qiao stared at the mural without responding, somewhat bewildered and uncertain—
Just a moment ago, he thought he saw Wen Shi’s name flash silently.
Also, their branch line seemed to have… shifted a tiny bit upwards.
But how could that be? The branch had already ended with Shen Qiao. Could a line that was completely dead still possibly climb up???
No no no, it was a hallucination.
Xia Qiao dithered for quite a while before he ended up shaking his head. “It’s nothing, I saw something wrong.”
Wen Shi stopped paying attention to him after that.
This house was on the larger side, so it was a little strenuous for two people who weren’t good at housework to tidy it up. Like hamsters relocating their food cache, Wen Shi and Xia Qiao took two and a half days to move around all the couches, tables, and chairs in the house, bit by bit.
The afternoon they finished sorting it all out, Xia Qiao planned to give everything another good cleaning. As a result, he pulled something out from the closet.
Wen Shi was in the middle of searching for a broom when he heard that disk-like object buzz its way towards him, pressed against the floor, before it coincidentally bumped against his foot.
“What is this?” Wen Shi looked down at it, the expression on his face hovering somewhere between “please get lost” and “I’ll smash it with my foot.”
Xia Qiao hurried over and kicked the noisy object away. He said soothingly, “This is a robot vacuum.”
“Do we still need a broom then?”
“No, no.” Xia Qiao flapped his hands.
Wen Shi gave an “oh,” easily and calmly accepting this thing’s existence.
Xia Qiao thought, As expected, Wen-ge is Wen-ge, unaffected by everything. From one glance you can tell that he’s someone who’s experienced the world.
But just as he finished sighing over it, he discovered Wen Shi pulling another box of biscuit sticks out from the fridge. Wen Shi then expressionlessly crunched on them for the next two hours, staring at the robot vacuum as it did its job.
“Wen-ge.” Xia Qiao sidled up to him. Pointing at the box, he asked, “Can you get full from eating that?”
Wen Shi didn’t even look at him. “No.”
Xia Qiao: “Then aren’t you really hungry right now?”
Wen Shi: “What do you think?”
“In that case, what do you have to eat to be full?” Xia Qiao asked again.
“Humans.” Wen Shi said shortly.
“…” Xia Qiao fled hastily.
Thanks to this idiot, the extreme hunger that Wen Shi had suppressed for a long time started to burn again. Right now, he had a problem: the moment he grew hungry, he would think of a certain someone…
Wen Shi told himself that in his head. After that, he went to open the fridge again.
Xia Qiao scooted over as well. When he peered inside, all the biscuit sticks were already gone. Wen Shi’s gaze landed on the row of drinks.
Xia Qiao was more proactive this time. “Er, Wen-ge, let me introduce these to you—”
Before he could finish, Wen Shi pulled out a can of soda from inside. With a pop, he opened the can and said coldly, “I died in 1995, not 1965.”
Xia Qiao: “…”
All right. He could tell, Wen Shi’s mood had gotten even worse.
Xia Qiao didn’t dare to say anything else, but he also didn’t have the guts to run off, so he huddled to the side and silently played on his phone.
A good while later, he heard his Wen-ge ask, as if he had to lower himself to even mention it, “Have you heard anything from Xie Wen?”
Xia Qiao: “Hm???”
Wen Shi frowned. “Didn’t he say that he was going to rent a room and move in?”
There had been no further news from Xie Wen since the day they came down the mountain, as if he had vanished from the face of the earth. He hadn’t pursued the matter of renting a room either. Something felt a little weird…
Of course, it was mostly Wen Shi who thought it was weird.
After all, to Xia Qiao, two and a half days were still fairly short, passing by in an instant. It wasn’t a problem at all to not contact someone for two and a half days.
But he didn’t dare to say that to Wen Shi, because he felt like his Wen-ge was most likely going crazy from hunger.
“Then I… can contact him?” Xia Qiao asked.
Wen Shi didn’t reply.
Right as Xia Qiao was searching for Xie Wen’s contact, Wen Shi suddenly spoke. “Where is Xiping Gallery? Do you know how to get there?”
Xia Qiao blinked. “Yup, I do.”
What? Are you gonna drop by and eat him?
Yan: In case you didn’t know, plum blossoms are highly regarded in Chinese culture! They can symbolize perseverance, hope, loyalty, and devotion, as the plum blossoms brave the chill of winter to await spring. They’re associated with the transience of life, which makes it a particularly fitting plant for Wen Shi to use as a final way of commemorating someone.