Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
There were also a few faintly visible ink marks on the back of the paper.
Wen Shi flipped the paper over and saw a large splotch of ink. The little young master, Shen Mansheng, had most likely written a response to Mr. Li’s comment in defense of himself. But for whatever reason, it had been blotted out again.
This patch of ink contained varying levels of darkness. When the paper was directed at a light source, the first few words could just barely be identified—
“I was…” Xia Qiao rotated the paper in various ways. Several attempts later, he said, “I tried my best, but I really can’t make out the rest. I can only recognize these two words.”
But, what came after “I was”?
I wasn’t copying? I wasn’t going to change? Or I was wrong?
After blotting out those words, Shen Mansheng had written a new sentence to the side, which served as his final answer for Mr. Li.
He wrote: Understood, Mister.
Xia Qiao stared at the paper with an extremely conscientious expression, caught between contemplation and bewilderment. “I’m very confused right now. I feel like we’re onto something, yet I’m still a little lost.”
Face crinkled, he muttered, “Let me get this straight… So this little young master from the Shen family—he purposefully copied Jun-ge’s handwriting?”
Children’s jokes were often unfathomable; it was even hard to distinguish whether they were harmless or malicious. When Xia Qiao was young, a little boy across the street had a stutter. As a result, scores of other children started to imitate him, causing seven or eight of them to actually develop a stutter as well. They were given a severe beating by their parents, and quite a while passed before their speech finally reverted back.
It was very hard to determine what the children’s original intentions were when they decided to imitate the stutter. Some must’ve found it interesting, while others must’ve genuinely been making fun of the other boy.
“If it was meant to tease Jun-ge, then it truly would’ve been a bit cruel. At the same time, the young master said that he understood rather obediently.” Xia Qiao kept feeling like Young Master Shen was a baffling mix of contradictions. “And we don’t know if he ended up changing his handwriting later—”
“It’s quite obvious that he either didn’t change it, or it was already too late for him to change.” Xie Wen said.
His tone left no room for doubt. Taken aback, Xia Qiao was extremely perplexed. “How do you know that?”
Xie Wen pointed at the chest and said, “All the assignments are there. Did you interpret them backwards?”
Xia Qiao was startled for a moment before his face suddenly flushed red. He realized that he had made an exceptionally rudimentary mistake—
The paper in the chest was piled sheet by sheet on top of each other, so the earliest ones were at the bottom. In other words, after Mr. Li told him to stop copying Ah Jun’s handwriting, there still wasn’t much change in Shen Mansheng’s penmanship. One day at a time, he filled an entire chest with assignments written on the foundation of “copying Ah Jun.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Li never commented on it again from that point onwards. His only note was a dab of ink. Perhaps he was at his wit’s end with this young master, or perhaps he simply decided he couldn’t care less.
No wonder Xie Wen said that.
After writing in such a manner for a prolonged period of time, it was probably beyond Shen Mansheng’s ability to change it, even if he wanted to do so. Regardless of the initial reason behind his mimicry, the handwriting that he copied had already gradually become his own.
Xia Qiao said slowly, “So it’s highly possible that Shen Mansheng and Jun-ge have the same handwriting?”
Wen Shi: “It wouldn’t be very different.”
Xia Qiao’s eyes widened. “If that’s the case…”
The diary entries suddenly gained a double meaning: that was both Shen Mansheng’s handwriting and Jun-ge’s handwriting.
It would be one thing if Shen Mansheng really was the person writing in the diary. But what if Ah Jun wrote part of it? Or what if… Ah Jun wrote all of it?
Prior to this, Wen Shi had never concluded that the little young master Shen Mansheng was wicked, just because of the bed in his bedroom, as well as that diary.
Shen Mansheng didn’t want someone else to sleep in a simple servant’s bed and shared half of his own bed in return—Wen Shi always felt that no matter what, such a child wouldn’t fold his older sister into a sofa purely because she was a bit loud and fond of laughing.
Meanwhile, that diary also constantly mentioned Jun-ge—Shen Manyi would often force Jun-ge to play games with her at inappropriate times, which was why she was annoying. Mr. Li would often nitpick Jun-ge over his writing, which was why he was harsh.
To Wen Shi, this was where the diary felt disjointed and strange—because the cause and effect underpinning every person and incident in the diary had absolutely nothing to do with the little young master.
Moreover, the contents of the diary contradicted each other again and again. In one entry, it read: “It’s one thing if she forces the girls to play dress-up with her, but she also frequently drags in Jun-ge.” In another entry, it said: “Shen Manyi still likes to make me guess ‘Real Bride, Fake Bride.’”
Before this, Wen Shi thought that the diary’s author just wasn’t in their right mind. The diary was laced with a stifled mad energy, so the entries were rather incoherent.
But now that all the points were gathered together, the line they formed abruptly grew bright and clear.
If Ah Jun was the one writing in the diary; if Ah Jun borrowed the little young master’s identity to complain about his own personal hardships; if the regularly mentioned “Jun-ge” and “I” sometimes referred to the same person, everything seemed to make sense.
Except there was still one problem…
Ah Jun was about the same age as Shen Mansheng, and they were both a bit younger than Shen Manyi. Why would Ah Jun be able to do something that Shen Mansheng couldn’t?
Wen Shi pondered deeply.
For a moment, he felt like he was onto something, but before he could grab ahold of the idea, his train of thought was interrupted by the sound of Mr. Li slicing apart his skin.
Mr. Li’s pen was fully dipped in old blood. Right as he was about to pit himself against the repeating “Shen” characters once more, Wen Shi blocked the tip of his pen.
“Hold on.” Wen Shi looked into his empty eye sockets and asked, “Did you say something in particular, or did you do something unusual?”
Or else why would the “young master” write “Mr. Li found out” in the diary and be in such a rush to kill him?
Mr. Li froze abruptly. The blood on the tip of his pen dripped onto the paper and dissolved into a puddle of rusty red. A good while later, he gripped his wrist and forcefully wrote three words onto the paper:
Come find me.
“Aren’t you right here?” Xia Qiao said blankly.
As soon as he asked that, he suddenly realized this was only the “Mr. Li” who returned in the middle of the night. Just like the Shen Manyi in the sofa, the real Mr. Li was still trapped in some recess, unable to see light or sky.
“Where are you then?” Xia Qiao quickly questioned.
“You won’t get an answer to that.” Xie Wen closed the chest and straightened upright. He picked up the character practice assignment from the table and folded it into a long strip before he pointed at the doorway and said to Wen Shi, “Come on, let’s go find him.”
They understood Mr. Li’s type of existence all too well. You could ask him many things, and in a situation where he was cooperating, he would always try to inform you of the answer. Only the location of his death was taboo.
Similar to Shen Manyi earlier—he didn’t want to see it, and it couldn’t be mentioned.
Sure enough, Xia Qiao saw Mr. Li grip his pen without saying a word. A second later, the tip of the fountain pen snapped off with a crack. Blood suddenly started to flow out endlessly and covered the entire surface of the desk in the blink of an eye.
Xia Qiao turned his head and discovered that his ge had long since vacated the room with Boss Xie following after him. Xia Qiao and the two “ghosts” were the only ones left in the room, and they stared at each other for a moment. Then, Xia Qiao bolted for the door; he couldn’t even spare the time to scream.
Except Shen Manyi and Mr. Li ended up running out even freaking faster than him.
Out in the corridor, Wen Shi tugged on his puppet strings once. Only after he was done did he realize that he had pulled on one string too many—
In the first place, Shen Manyi and Mr. Li were two lightweight puppets, and they instantly appeared in front of him. As for the third puppet…
The third one collided into him from behind and had to gently place a hand on Wen Shi’s shoulder to steady himself. Torn between laughing and crying, he asked, “Tugging so forcefully—did you forget that there’s still a person tied to your string?”
But would Wen Shi admit that?
He denied it flatly by saying in a low voice, “I had something to say.”
Xie Wen nodded before he let go of Wen Shi and put on the appearance of a respectful listener. “Whatever it is that can’t be said three to five steps away, let me hear it.”
Wen Shi couldn’t come up with anything, so he decided to just give up entirely. He turned his head and said to Mr. Li, “Searching blindly is a waste of time, so…”
He plucked at the string attached to Mr. Li and lowered his gaze. “My apologies.”
Then, with one hand controlling the puppet string and the other gripping Mr. Li’s shoulder, Wen Shi pushed Mr. Li and made him take a step in each of the four cardinal directions.
Utterly confused, Mr. Li turned obligingly per Wen Shi’s guidance. He only hesitated briefly when he was facing east, as if he was a little opposed to that direction.
He wanted to back up, but the path to retreat was blocked by Wen Shi.
Wen Shi did the complete opposite: he pushed Mr. Li in the direction that he feared the most. Softly, Wen Shi said, “Keep going, don’t stop.”
By the time Xia Qiao caught up with them, he was greeted by the sight of his ge walking around and adjusting his direction according to Mr. Li’s reactions. It was exactly as if he was using a navigation app to search for the correct path while rotating the app’s compass.
“This is allowed???”
Xia Qiao was extremely speechless, but he still followed obediently after Wen Shi and Xie Wen. He surveyed their surroundings everywhere they went, from the ceiling to the edges of the carpet, not even sparing the glass or the walls.
“There’s no need to examine everything,” Xie Wen informed him mildly.
Xia Qiao asked in a hushed voice, “Then where should I be looking?”
“Places with a beam, places that a rope can be tied to, places with water,” Wen Shi responded without even glancing behind him. His objective was clearly defined, and his line of sight never dropped downwards, so he was able to scan everything very quickly.
“The bathrooms, the rafters, roof beams close to the windows, or—” Halfway through his sentence, he stopped abruptly in place and fell silent.
“What’s wrong?” Xia Qiao asked.
A second later, he realized why his ge had come to a stop. It was because when Mr. Li neared the door to the backyard, he suddenly shuddered in fear and made a furious attempt to backpedal.
It was all thanks to Wen Shi’s sharp eyes and nimble hands that he managed to wrap another string around Mr. Li just in time to steady him.
Wen Shi frowned.
He opened the door decisively and turned on the outdoor light in the backyard.
The moment he stepped out, he was met by a strong burnt smell. The entire garden was filled with flowers, and just as Shen Manyi had described, there was a big expanse of light yellow clustered around a hanging swing. Those flowers looked like pricked up rabbit ears, as well as elongated ties on a bow.
Out of nowhere, Wen Shi suddenly recalled that a large patch of these flowers had also once existed at the foot of Mount Songyun, except they were white and clean like the snow on the peak of the mountain. At the same time, they were a bit more lively and spirited than snow.
He remembered that this flower was called a cyclamen—also known as “the arrival of an immortal.”
“Bunny ear flowers!” Shen Manyi exclaimed, wanting to dash over. It had been much too long since she last saw this back garden, but the instant she took a step into it, she sharply pulled her foot back again like she had been burned.
After that, she crouched down next to the door and stopped talking.
Although the garden was filled with rich, bright colors, an unexplainable aura of death seemed to permeate it.
There was clearly a light breeze sweeping through the garden, since the swing was swaying gently. Yet the pale yellow flowers and long vines were motionless, not even producing the slightest quiver.
Wen Shi inspected their surroundings. Apart from the swing and the grape trellises, not a single place in the garden was taller than a human. Even the swing didn’t really have a suitable focus point if someone wanted to hang Mr. Li from it.
However, Mr. Li was already scared out of his mind.
At a complete loss of what to do, he didn’t know whether to cover his neck or his eyes first. In the end, he hugged his head with his arms and fled to a corner of the garden.
He grew a little more panicked with every step forward that Wen Shi took.
Amidst the uneasy, restless atmosphere, the creaking noise returned. It echoed through the darkness of the deathly quiet night, as if there was a hemp rope tied around a somewhat unsturdy wooden beam, bearing the weight of a heavy object that swung back and forth.
Huddled next to the wall, Mr. Li tilted his head back and stared up once more, seemingly looking at a nonexistent rope.
Xie Wen was right next to him. He watched Mr. Li for a while, eyes lowered, before he also raised his head. Wen Shi thought that Xie Wen had figured something out, so he cast a glance at him, only to realize that Xie Wen was actually looking at the moon.
There was a full moon on the horizon. The outline of the moon wasn’t particularly distinct, and its light was shrouded by a layer of mist. The moon felt just as lifeless as the frozen flowers in the backyard, and it looked like something that a clumsy, unskilled craftsman had added to the sky—or a wide open hole.
Wen Shi stared at the “hole” for several seconds before the expression on his face changed abruptly.
He thought of a place.
It had a wooden beam that a hemp rope could be bound to; it didn’t require the murderer to be tall or have a lot of strength; and it was very easy to kill a person by hanging them here—
“It’s a well.”
As he spoke, he strode through the back garden. Not too far from the swing, he found a well.
The well had been abandoned for a long time. The horizontal beam that was originally propped on top of the well had snapped in two and was sprawled in pieces on the ground. There was also a stone slab blocking the opening, which was concealed by a chaotic jumble of overgrown weeds, rendering it completely unnoticeable unless you were paying attention.
Wen Shi half-knelt on the ground and reached out to lift up the stone slab, causing the thick scent of decay to assail his senses.
Xia Qiao was half a step slower than Xie Wen, and he hurried over hastily only to be instantly overwhelmed by the smell. He stumbled and collapsed next to the well before he held his breath and stretched his head out over the edge, sporting a bloodless complexion—
The well wasn’t actually dried up. Some leftover water was still accumulated at the bottom, and that was precisely where the short, slender tutor was.
He sat at the very bottom of the well with a rotting hemp rope looped around his neck. His face, which was swollen and pale from the water, had already lost its original appearance, and it was directed upwards at the sky. His hair drifted in the water like floating aquatic plants, blending in with the moss on the walls.
He inevitably wouldn’t be able to rest in peace, staring above him in such a manner. Who knew just how long he sat there and waited before someone finally came to find him.
Hands braced against the edge of the well, Wen Shi didn’t speak for quite a while.
His eyebrows were slightly furrowed, and his downcast gaze was deep and restrained, directed straight at the bottom of the well.
A long moment later, someone gently nudged the back of his head with their fingers. Wen Shi turned around and saw the person standing behind him. Xie Wen inclined his head and said, “I’m here to act as a shield, so he can’t see anything. You can guide him up now.”
He used the word “guide.” It was a very simple word, but that choice alone set him apart from many, many others.
The look in Wen Shi’s eyes shifted briefly as he gazed at Xie Wen. For a split second, it seemed like Wen Shi wanted to say something, but in the end, he only made a noise of agreement in his throat before he averted his gaze and stared back into the well.
He sent out his puppet string and fastened the thread around the cotton-like person at the bottom of the structure.
“Shield him securely,” he said without turning his head.
“Alright,” Xie Wen responded.
The body was placed lightly on the ground, hidden by overgrown weeds and a thicket of flowers and leaves. From a distance, nothing was visible at all, but because of the connection from the puppet string, Wen Shi could still sense that Mr. Li was shaking as he remained curled up next to the backyard door.
If this was anyone else with a slightly more unstable temper, their resentful energy would’ve overturned the entire backyard by now. But the black smoke was merely an endless stream that flowed out of Mr. Li’s body, turbulent but noiseless, just like the water that cascaded from his eye sockets.
“Ge, there seems to be something else in the well,” Xia Qiao suddenly said quietly.
Wen Shi glanced down—sure enough, he noticed something glinting red-green under the light of the moon, as if bearing traces of rust. The object was settled in the sludge at the bottom of the well.
It was a little copper chest. Although its walls were thin, it was sealed quite well; perhaps this was because the chest had been rusted firmly shut, or perhaps it was because it had been encased in sludge. After Wen Shi dredged it up and forced it open, he discovered that the items inside weren’t too damaged.
The chest contained a stack of letters.
Wen Shi flipped through them quickly. The recipient and sender information was written properly on the envelopes, which had postage stamps pasted on them, as well as signature seals. Most were letters that Mr. Li had received, and they all came from the same person: someone named Xu Yarong.
But it was the opposite case for the letter on the very top of the pile. Mr. Li was the sender, and Xu Yarong was the recipient. There was also a stamp on the envelope, but for some unknown reason, the letter had been returned.
Evidently, this was Mr. Li’s personal letter box. It just wasn’t clear why the chest would be submerged at the bottom of the well with him.
Perhaps Mr. Li had discovered the truth behind Shen Manyi’s disappearance, so he either did something or was preparing to do something, after which he planned to leave the Shen residence with his letter box in tow?
Wen Shi’s intuition told him that there must be some information in the letters. Otherwise, Mr. Li wouldn’t have defied his instincts to write to him: Come find me.
He picked up the letter that Mr. Li wasn’t able to mail out successfully and opened it first.
The tutor’s refined, orthodox handwriting covered the entire surface of the paper. Unlike the warped “Shen” characters, it was obvious from first glance that he had been perfecting this handwriting since his youth, as it was suffused with a scholarly air.
My wife Yarong, we meet again through this letter.
In your last letter, you said that you caught a cold that had persisted for the larger part of the month. It worried me so much that I developed two sores on the side of my tongue. Perhaps you will be feeling better by the time you receive this letter, but if there have not been any obvious signs of improvement, be sure to go find Doctor Zeng in Nanfeng. Let him examine you and write you a prescription. Do not delay or worsen it by relying on some clueless traditional medicine practitioners.
I still cannot go back this month. The Shen family’s master and madam have yet to return, and our telegrams to them receive no response, so I truly cannot leave. The 19th is the anniversary of Cai-jie’s death, which is just around the corner. I cannot just desert and ignore this house filled with young children. As you may know, since I told you this before—the day Cai-jie left, Manyi fell ill from the shock. Her condition has not improved much over these past few years; I fear that she will throw a small fit again around the 19th.
Last time, you told me to mail a photograph to you along with the letter. A few days ago, I cut my hair and specially made a trip to the photo studio to earnestly capture my portrait, which I have attached to this letter. Maybe I appear to have aged, at least compared to last year.
I won’t be including a photograph of the others. Our last group photo at the Shen residence was taken back when Cai-jie was still here. My initial intent was to develop a copy and mail it to you so you may familiarize yourself, but that group photograph did not include everyone. The Shen family’s master and madam were not present, and the cook, Grandma Dou, continued to believe that photographs would shorten lives or steal souls, so she refused to enter the frame.
Speaking of Grandma Dou, when she saw that we were obstinately set on taking a photograph, she kindly lit an eternal flame candle for each of us, representing happiness and longevity. She frequently visited the candles to recite some sacred verses or to add oil to the flames, saying that we had to protect our souls and lifespans. But not long after, Cai-jie ended up hanging herself. Her eternal flame candle is still burning now.
Grandma Dou never removed it. When I passed by that little room the other day, I felt quite sorrowful.
As I was attaching the photograph earlier, Cai-jie’s son—Ah Jun—came to turn in his homework. I had to set the brush aside for a while, so the ink dried a bit. Please put up with it for the remainder of this letter.
As for Ah Jun… Allegedly, Cai-jie was once a young lady in an esteemed household. Later on, her family suffered significant financial setbacks; some died, some left, and survival became an issue. Thus, she came to the Shen family. It’s no wonder she was always depressed and gloomy.
This Ah Jun should have lived the life of a young master, yet here he is, just starting to learn some characters from me at this age. With some difficulty, he can read through an entire article. When I think about it at times, his life is also rather lamentable.
Except I cannot say that I am very fond of his temperament; he is much too narrow-minded.
After that, Mr. Li wrote a bit more about his everyday experiences. They were all trifling matters, and they didn’t have much to do with the Shen family. Wen Shi scanned rapidly through the rest of the letter until he reached the very end, where his gaze landed on the signature.
That was where Mr. Li had noted down the date of this letter—May 5, 1918.