Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Xie Wen thought a bit and said, “Be safe.”
It would definitely be a lie to say that Wen Shi wasn’t disappointed at all. But he was an extremely calm person, almost to the point of indifference. From his viewpoint, even if the person in question was his hand-raised disciple—once that disciple reached adulthood, their shared encounters would consist mostly of seeing said disciple off and parting ways with each other. To lean against the door and watch for a little longer meant that the disciple was already quite spoiled. There was hardly a reason for them to be joined inseparably at the hip… That was a notion that would only occur to lovers.
As a result, Wen Shi let out a composed “oh” before he turned around and closed the bedroom door behind him.
He was actually controlling his strength, but the lock still made a clunk noise. In the silence of the night, the sound made it seem as if he was very displeased.
Xie Wen stood in the corner as his gaze landed on the tightly shut door. After remaining there for a while, he couldn’t help but let out a laugh.
He continued up the stairs towards the second floor. Moonlight filtered in through the window installed at the turn of the staircase, casting its glow on his tall figure from behind.
His fingers rested lightly against the wooden banister. A few steps later, the banister suddenly produced a crack, as if the dried out bark of a tree had exploded softly.
Xie Wen paused in place briefly before his fingers left the railing. In the area of the banister that he was originally touching, there was now a small splotch of wither and rot, as well as a long and narrow fissure.
He drew his hand behind his back. If someone was next to him at that moment, they would’ve seen dense black mist seeping out from his fingers, twisting together in thin tendrils… unable to be concealed by his physical form.
But it was as if he had long since known this. He didn’t spare a single look at it as he made his way up to the second floor.
There were two bedrooms on the upper level of the Shen villa with an open space between them, which contained a tea table for receiving guests. Ever since Xie Wen moved in, the withered tree, the little pond built from stone, and the vividly colorful flowers and plants came to occupy this space.
The two small turtles were also here in the pond, along with a little den located next to the tree roots, and a bird perch hanging from the branches.
The perch was currently occupied—a palm-sized rotund bird stood on it. It lifted its head from its downy feathers and stared at Xie Wen with its jet-black eyes.
It immediately spotted the black mist tangled around Xie Wen’s fingers, and it started flapping its wings in preparation to fly over.
Except then, Xie Wen raised his index finger and made a “keep silent” gesture. As if someone had hit a pause button, the bird froze abruptly as it gripped the horizontal bar with one foot, just barely maintaining its balance.
Eyes lowered, Xie Wen stood next to the banister, seemingly listening to the sounds coming from the first floor.
To the ordinary person, the soundproofing was pretty good downstairs, and it was almost completely quiet. However, he listened for a long time before he finally turned his head and nodded at the bird. “Asleep now. You can come down.”
Even so, his voice was still very soft when he spoke, and he hardly exerted any effort. He began coughing right after, as if he was going to let out an entire day’s worth of coughing then and there.
The bird didn’t dare to make too much noise either. With a light flutter of its wings, it landed on the floor and turned into Lao Mao. Two furry heads also poked out of the den next to the tree roots.
Soon enough, two vaguely cat-like creatures tumbled out and transformed into Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao.
They peered at Xie Wen’s hands and murmured quietly, “Why is this happening again?”
Lao Mao gestured hastily at them, and they swallowed their words back down.
If a puppet didn’t want to make any noise, they could truly become utterly silent. After all, they were considered to be spiritual beings, not real humans.
Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao quickly brought up the medicinal basin from downstairs. They placed it on the tea table and heated it up with a press of their hands on the exterior.
Xie Wen sat down next to the tea table and submerged his black mist-shrouded hands into the liquid.
Lao Mao went to fetch the gloves, while the twins settled next to the table to watch Xie Wen soak his hands. Although they tried to hold themselves back for quite some time, in the end they couldn’t help it. “Boss…”
They didn’t actually call Xie Wen that in the past. Like many other puppets, they addressed their masters deferentially; it was always either “Puppet Master” or “my lord.”
But in the modern times, they realized that people would treat them like lunatics if they continued using that style of address.
As a result, they forcibly switched to calling him “Boss,” which ultimately became a habit after a while.
Xie Wen cast a glance at the twins, indicating for the two of them to speak if they had something to say.
Da Zhao said, “Won’t he notice, with you in this state?”
Xie Wen asked good-naturedly, “With me in what state?”
Da Zhao pointed at Xie Wen’s hands.
“He won’t.” Xie Wen said mildly, “It won’t get to this extent in front of him. Even if he looks at me with his spiritual eye, he’ll only see that I’m filled with karmic debt. It’ll seem like I have a bit more than the average person, and it’s a little more intense, but it fits my background, so there aren’t any issues.”
He watched as the liquid medicine was slowly dyed black, and he chuckled. “Hasn’t he tasted it before as well.”
At that, Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao swelled with unspoken scorn: Is this something that can be tasted so casually? One of them really dares to ask for it, and the other one really dares to give it.
But when they thought about it again, they realized that Xie Wen would definitely be restraining the black mist. No matter what, he wouldn’t let anything happen to that disciple of his.
“Alright, even if he doesn’t notice in that aspect”—Da Zhao still wasn’t entirely reassured—“what about everything else? He’s so strong.”
Xie Wen reminded her, “His soul isn’t complete yet.”
Da Zhao let out an “oh.”
“Exactly, an incomplete soul affects way too many things. Look, he didn’t even discover that we’re puppets.” Xiao Zhao said, “If this was the past, you could beat someone to death and they still wouldn’t realize anything, but he would become aware of it if he just looked at us closely for a bit.”
Da Zhao: “But right now, we’re also—”
As Lao Mao returned with the gloves, he interrupted her. “Also what, huh?”
Da Zhao pouted.
Lao Mao respectfully set the gloves down next to the basin before he said to Da Zhao, sincerely and earnestly, “It’s going to be okay.”
“Lao Mao,” Xie Wen suddenly said. He instructed, “Go get two talismans from the box.”
Lao Mao made a noise of assent and hurried off.
The moment he was gone, Da Zhao opened her mouth again, as if there was something she was hesitating to say.
Xie Wen said, a bit crossly, “Silly girl, did I glue your mouth shut?”
Da Zhao shook her head like a rattle-drum. Then she squeezed out: “I still have this feeling that he’s probably found out about something. Before he woke up, I think I heard him…”
Xie Wen: “Heard what?”
Da Zhao: “I heard him say something that sounded extremely similar to your name, Boss.”
Xie Wen finally displayed a hint of a reaction.
His eyes flicked up briefly before falling back down. He said evenly, “You misheard it.”
Da Zhao gave another “oh.” This time, her misgivings were assuaged at last.
“Oh right, Boss, will you be going out with Lao Mao tomorrow?” Xiao Zhao asked.
Da Zhao refused to give in. “Taking Lao Mao again… What about us?”
Xie Wen: “You two look after the house.”
When the twins’ faces wrinkled like they had swallowed a lemon, Xie Wen added, “It’s too far away, and it’ll be some time before we can return. If you two run off, who will I leave in charge of this area?”
These words were very effective on the twins, but they still asked, “Where are you guys going?”
Xie Wen lifted his chin towards one side of the tea table, where a folded piece of yellow joss paper was lying.
Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao recognized it. That was something sent back by a puppet that Xie Wen had released earlier; it had most likely unearthed some new information about Wen Shi’s soul. However, it took a little longer to find this time, so the location was probably indeed a bit far.
Xiao Zhao unfolded the paper. Written on it was: Gui Village.
“Gui Village? Where’s this?”
Xia Qiao woke up very early the next day. By seven o’clock, he was already sitting upright and proper on the sofa, directly facing Wen Shi’s bedroom door as he waited to give his phone an esteemed welcome home.
As a modern day person—regardless of whether he was a real human or not—he was already accustomed to the existence of his phone. He felt as if he was living without a soul, even though he was only separated from his phone for one night.
But his ge didn’t understand this kind of suffering. Maybe it was because of how late his ge’s tryst—er, how late he went to bed last night; Xia Qiao had to wait all the way until 8:30 before he finally emerged.
After washing up, Wen Shi rolled up his sleeves and walked over to the sofa. “Why are you up so early?”
Xia Qiao said, “I’m waiting for my soul.”
Wen Shi: “?”
Under Xia Qiao’s eager stare, he finally remembered about the phone. He pulled out the phone from the pocket of his pants, but before he handed it to Xia Qiao, he checked it one more time. Because of that, he discovered that Zhou Xu had sent over quite a few more messages last night.
With both hands raised, Xia Qiao waited deferentially for his phone. “Ge, why are you frowning?”
Wen Shi finished scanning through the flood of useless nonsense. He didn’t see the address that he was trying to find, so he handed the phone to Xia Qiao and said, “It’s nothing. He’s a little strange.”
Xia Qiao: “How so?”
Wen Shi: “He sent so many messages even after saying goodbye.”
Xia Qiao thought about it seriously. “…I suspect that his goodbye doesn’t have the same meaning as the one in your understanding.”
Wen Shi: “?”
He wasn’t particularly interested in Zhou Xu’s odd language habits, so he didn’t question it further. Instead, he instructed Xia Qiao, “If Zhou Xu sends any more messages, make sure to show them to me.”
Then he glanced towards the second floor. Feigning nonchalance, he asked, “What about the people upstairs?”
Just say Xie Wen if that’s who you really mean, what’s the point of “the people upstairs”?
Xia Qiao mused to himself in confusion before he answered, “They’re probably not awake yet, or at least I haven’t seen them come out. Oh right, ge, aren’t we going out today? That’s perfect, let’s buy you a phone.”
He didn’t want to be separated from his phone for an entire night again, so he did his very best to convince his ge of the idea. An old-timer from the 1900s most likely wouldn’t understand things like apps, nor would he appreciate flashy features. As a result, Xia Qiao dived straight in from the basics and touted, “With it, you can contact anyone, no matter where they are.”
For some reason, this was what persuaded Wen Shi. He looked up and asked, “Anywhere?”
Xia Qiao: “Yep! Anywhere in the whole world, as long as the other person also has one.”
Consequently, Wen Shi consented, and Xia Qiao cheerfully bounced off to go prepare what they needed for their trip. He had already checked the maps; Mr. Li’s home wasn’t very far from Ningzhou, and it only took two hours on the high-speed rail to get there. If they went in the morning and went about things swiftly, they could return in the afternoon, so all they needed to bring was a phone.
But the old-timer from the 1900s disagreed and made him bring two changes of clothes, just in case.
After everything was ready, Xia Qiao suddenly slapped his thigh and asked Wen Shi dumbly, “Ge, you don’t have an identity card, do you?”
It was such a pain to be without an identity card in modern society. In any case, there was no way Wen Shi could get on a train or airplane.
Unexpectedly, Wen Shi said, “I do. Shen Qiao was holding onto it.”
Xia Qiao was shocked.
He actually knew where Shen Qiao used to store things away. Important documents, like identity cards or passports, were all put in a special locked drawer.
And so Xia Qiao hastily ran over to it. Once he opened the drawer and rummaged through it, he really did end up finding his ge’s identity card…
Except it didn’t look very similar to his own ID.
Xia Qiao silently shot a glance at the date on the card. The year of issuance was 1985.
Pinching the card between his fingers, he whipped his head around and said to the person who followed him over, “Ge, this says that you were born in 1958…”
Wen Shi: “When we were applying, we counted backwards based on the assumption that I was twenty-seven that year.”
Xia Qiao: “If you calculate it, you should be sixty-two now…”
If they presented this at the security check, the officer would probably drag them straight to a public security bureau.
What to do.
Right as Xia Qiao’s face scrunched up in a troubled expression, he heard a door open and close upstairs, along with Lao Mao and the twins’ voices. Judging from that, the other party involved in yesterday’s tryst—er, the insomniac from last night had also emerged.
Such coincidental timing, Xia Qiao thought.
The sound of footsteps came from the staircase. Wen Shi, who was leaning against the door, shot a look behind him and saw Xie Wen walking down the stairs while pulling on those black gloves from before.
“Morning,” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi was caught a little off guard. “Morning.”
Upon spotting Lao Mao following behind Xie Wen with a small suitcase in hand, he asked, “You’re going out?”
Xie Wen glanced at the suitcase and nodded. “Yes, I have some business to take care of.”
Xia Qiao poked his head out and said curiously, “Boss Xie, are you also going on a trip? Are you taking the high-speed rail?”
Xie Wen: “I’m not, actually. I don’t like traveling on that, so Lao Mao’s driving.”
Lao Mao knows how to drive?
Xia Qiao felt like his powers of perception were failing him. After all, Lao Mao seemed to be the type who was extremely… old-fashioned and archaic.
He silently pulled his head back. This should more or less be the end of their conversation; it was crossing the line a bit to question him any further. Although, Xie Wen did remind him of one thing—even if they couldn’t take a train or a plane, they could still call a taxi!
Except the cost of that would be… alarming.
Despite having already answered Xia Qiao, Xie Wen still didn’t show any signs of leaving. He adjusted his gloves with one hand while he tapped away on his phone with the other one. Wen Shi watched him for a while before he turned around. After a few seconds of hesitation, he swiveled back around and asked, “Where are you headed?”
Xie Wen made a scrolling motion on his phone screen. “There’s a peach blossom river valley near Lianyungang.”
Lao Mao was dumbfounded. After all, right before coming downstairs, their destination was still Tianjin’s Gui Village, which couldn’t even be found on a map.
Xia Qiao was similarly dumbfounded, but he was only stunned for a moment before he rushed over. “Boss Xie, you’re also going to Lianyungang?”
Xie Wen looked up from his phone, but his gaze was directed at Wen Shi. “What, are you two headed there as well?”
Before Wen Shi could speak up, Xia Qiao nodded and said, “Yeah, but we’re not going to the river valley.”
They were going to two places: one was the old Banpu, the town where the Shen residence was actually located in the past; the other place was a bit farther from Banpu. It was called Xiao Li Village, and it was Mr. Li’s home.
Although these two places didn’t seem to be in the same area as the peach blossom river valley, the general direction was still approximately the same. As a result, the identity cardless old-timer from the 1900s and his foolish little brother logically and rationally secured themselves a free ride to their destination.
Xie Wen was fairly patient, and he even gave Xia Qiao time to go purchase a phone from the shops near the entrance of their neighborhood.
The street right outside their neighborhood wasn’t particularly lively, but it did contain several connected mobile phone stores. Operating as quickly as possible, Xia Qiao brought his own identity card and secured a phone and a SIM card for his ge.
Wen Shi and Xie Wen stood on the other side of the street as they waited for Lao Mao to drive the car out of the underground parking garage.
As Xia Qiao rushed out of the shop with a plastic bag, Wen Shi pulled open the door to the back seat. Before he bent down to get in, he rested his hand on the edge of the car door and suddenly asked Xie Wen, “Do you really have to go to Lianyungang?”
Xie Wen paused in the middle of getting into the front passenger seat and looked up at him. “Why would you think it’s a lie?”
If it was a lie, that would imply that Xie Wen told him this destination on purpose.
But why did Wen Shi think that Xie Wen would tell him that on purpose?
It was even more impossible to answer that question.
Fortunately, Xia Qiao just happened to dash over at that moment, and he showed off the bag that he was holding. Wen Shi let out a short “get in the car” before he lowered his head and climbed in.
Xia Qiao didn’t know what was going on. He curled up obediently in the back seat, hugging the bag in his arms.
He didn’t really notice anything at the beginning, but once all the doors were shut and they started to drive away, he finally detected a trace of something ambiguous in the tiny confined space.
If he had to describe it, it was a bit similar to the atmosphere that was permeating the living room at four in the morning.
He had no idea what it meant, nor did he dare to say something random and break the strange silence, so he simply ducked his head and began fiddling with the new phone.
It had been raining a lot lately. When they were almost out of Ningzhou, raindrops began to patter down again.
The person in the front passenger seat had his elbow propped up on the windowsill, and he was supporting his head with his hand. He seemed to be asleep, since he hadn’t moved in quite some time. As Wen Shi leaned against the back seat, a bit of sleepiness also swept over him.
He was about to close his eyes when someone poked him in the arm.
Wen Shi turned his head and saw Xia Qiao holding the phone out towards him. He said in a whisper, “Ge, record your fingerprint.”
At first, for the sake of Wen Shi’s convenience, Xia Qiao wasn’t going to set up a lock screen. But then, he ultimately decided to add a fingerprint lock in consideration of his ge’s many secrets.
After recording the fingerprint, Xia Qiao called himself from Wen Shi’s phone before he handed the device back to Wen Shi and said, “It’s best if you memorize your own phone number.”
Wen Shi: “What is it?”
Xia Qiao recited his ge’s number as he added it to a new contact in his own phone. “181xxxx3330. It’s pretty easy to remember.”
Afraid of disturbing Xie Wen, who was sleeping in the front, Xia Qiao told Wen Shi to check his texts and didn’t speak again after that. All of his explanations on how to use various things were sent to Wen Shi via text; this way, his ge could find it somewhere even if he forgot.
While Xia Qiao was writing his manual, Wen Shi navigated between the screens on his phone to familiarize himself with it. Then, he clicked on his contacts. It was completely empty, since nobody had been added to it yet.
Xia Qiao did, however, remember to add himself and Zhou Xu on the messaging app.
The person in the passenger seat shifted a little. He seemed to be in a very light slumber, and as he changed position, he also let out a few muffled coughs. Wen Shi glanced at him before switching back to his contacts. Right as he was about to ask Xia Qiao how to add a new entry, a call from an unfamiliar number popped up on his screen.
Wen Shi accepted the call and brought the phone up to his ear. He first said “hello” before he lowered his voice and asked, “Who is this?”
Then Xie Wen’s gentle, deep voice sounded both inside and outside his ears at the same time. “Me.”
It was very hard to describe what he felt in that instant.
Wen Shi was speechless for a long moment before he asked, “You weren’t asleep?”
“How did you know that I was sleeping.” Xie Wen inclined his head and extended his hand through the seats towards Wen Shi. “Give me your phone.”
Wen Shi handed it over. A beat later, he took it back from that person.
His empty contact list finally contained its very first name: Xie Wen.
Lao Mao’s driving was quite steady…
Extremely steady, in fact, so much so that Xia Qiao shot many furtive glances at him and eventually discovered that he wasn’t even really turning the steering wheel. But despite that, they still drove to Lianyungang swiftly and accurately.
Lao Mao stopped once at a highway rest area so they could all grab a bite to eat. Ever since Wen Shi started to digest the pieces of his soul, he hadn’t experienced hunger. He only ordered a cold beverage with the intention of getting by solely on water. But Xie Wen kept looking at him, and though Wen Shi resisted for a while, he ultimately caved and ended up eating two steamed dumplings and three cherry tomatoes.
Curiously enough, upon swallowing the third cherry tomato, he unexpectedly tasted a long-awaited hint of a new flavor.
It was a bit sour.
His right eye narrowed ever so slightly.
Then, he watched as Xie Wen sifted through the small scarlet tomatoes with clean fingers before he selected one and handed it to Wen Shi. “Try this one.”
“I’m full.” Despite his words, Wen Shi still took the cherry tomato from him and ate it.
The tomato was covered in droplets of water, a portion of which clung to Xie Wen’s fingers. He couldn’t find a napkin to wipe them off with, so he simply rubbed his fingers lightly together and lowered his hand. As for the rest of the water droplets…
They were consumed by Wen Shi.
“Did I make a decent choice?” Xie Wen asked.
Wen Shi let out a vague hum. There was a little bulge in his cheek, and as he chewed, the bone structure lining the outer edges of his face sharpened and faded in definition.
He ate it very slowly this time. Because of that, he really was able to taste something.
Sure enough, he still favored foods that were on the sweeter side.
Since it was quite uncomfortable for Mr. Li to forcibly remain in the world in his current state, they went to Xiao Li Village first.
Unlike Ningzhou, it wasn’t pouring rain here, but there was still a light drizzle. As a result, the entire rural settlement was blanketed in a hazy fog and a damp scent.
Lao Mao wasn’t sure of the exact destination, so he pulled over and parked near a crossroads.
The buildings sprawled along the side of the road and stretched into the settlement in clusters of varying sizes. No one was around, since they had arrived right after noon, which was when many people took their naps. The only thing they heard was the occasional sound of a dog barking somewhere deeper in the village.
Wen Shi took out the copper box from before and rapped on it three times. Immediately after, Mr. Li slid out through a crack in the small box and took shape upon landing on the ground. But he seemed to be very frail; even his silhouette flickered in the wind.
“Where’s your home?” Wen Shi asked.
“It borders the south side of the river, the third…” Mr. Li turned to face north, but he was greeted only by the sight of a muddy embankment.
He pointed at that empty area for quite a while before he finally lowered his hand slowly and murmured, “…Ah, it’s already gone.”
The house and the fields, which he had imagined countless times in his mind, which remained as vividly clear as if he just saw them yesterday, were long gone now. As for his wife and daughter, who used to gaze after him while leaning against the door—their souls had long since returned to the earth. Perhaps they had already undergone a cycle of reincarnation and had been reborn, slender and graceful, in the world of the living.
Books often contained idioms about the unpredictability of life and its vicissitudes, such as “dust scatters where the East Sea once roared.” He himself had read those idioms countless times before, and he had also taught others how to write them. However, he didn’t actually have much first-hand experience with it.
After all, the East Sea was so large; he couldn’t possibly live long enough to see it turn to land. Yet today, he had truly experienced the idiom in full…
Where azure seas once stood, fields of mulberry now stretched1: in the end, those dear and departed souls could not be met.
Wen Shi watched from the side. Even though the tutor clearly still had a youthful appearance, he seemed to have aged abruptly in the rain.
“I’m the only one left.” Mr. Li looked back as he told them that. Then, he slowly shifted his gaze and surveyed their surroundings.
He wavered back and forth in this completely unfamiliar place before he sighed and said hoarsely, “Oh well…
No matter what, he had finally made his way back home.
After assessing the river bank briefly, Mr. Li faced a certain direction and gave the formal, deep bow of a scholar, hands cupped straight out in front of him. At the lowest point of his bow, he said something quietly.
Wen Shi didn’t catch all of it, but it was likely… the hope that his next life would be graced by luck.
By the time Mr. Li stood upright again, his eyes were rimmed with red.
“Do you see that tree?” Xie Wen suddenly patted his shoulder. With his black glove-sheathed hand, he pointed distantly in the direction that Mr. Li had bowed in.
“Yes.” Mr. Li said in a raspy voice, “It also wasn’t there before, but it looks as if it has been growing for quite some time. What’s the matter with the tree?”
Xie Wen said, “Someone most likely left it there on purpose.”
He didn’t need to say anything else. Mr. Li was already staring fixedly at it.
That was a tree with a crooked trunk and branches. It stood tenderly in the rain, like a woman leaning against a doorway.
Perhaps it was merely wishful thinking… But the tree just so happened to be planted right where his house once existed, and it also just so happened to bear the reflection of the person in that house.
Before Mr. Li could process it fully, tears were flooding down his cheeks.
The world worked in mysterious ways at times. Even a faint, insignificant trace of something more was enough to give a wandering, displaced soul somewhere to go back to.
He was crying, but he was also happy.
It was as if—only at that moment did he finally, truly return home.
He buried the letter-filled copper box under the tree. After that, he bowed deeply to Wen Shi and Xie Wen. “I can leave now.”
As he spoke, he closed his eyes readily.
He could sense himself slowly dissipating and integrating into the mist-like rain. Right before he vanished entirely, he heard Wen Shi ask, “If you could leave something behind, what would you want it to be.”
With no hesitation, Mr. Li said, “A bird, then.”
He saw Wen Shi nod and say, “Okay.”
The tutor faded away completely. Not long after, Wen Shi conjured a bird from a leftover wisp of Mr. Li’s worldly bonds.
It looked no different from the other birds that wheeled and soared over the open fields, except it didn’t stop on any of the nearby roofs. Instead, it flew straight towards the curved tree and landed there.
May the next life be graced by luck, so as to chance upon a fateful encounter in this mortal world.
- Honestly, I usually don’t like to translate idioms literally, because I think what makes sense to a native Chinese speaker doesn’t always make sense in English. In this case, all these idioms (沧海桑田，东海扬尘，白云苍狗 – didn’t translate) relate to life and its inevitable ever-changing transformations. ^
Yan: 祝来生有幸，能在尘世间等到一场相遇。Sorry the chapters have been pretty slow in coming lately – unfortunately, it’s probably not going to get any better for a while because of travel plans. And PG always brings out the worst perfectionist tendencies in me lol. But we’re officially… halfway through !! hahaha (how did I even tl ICDI so fast…)