Thank you to Sara for the Ko-fi!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
The opera performers crooning shrilly on the television were truly a bit eerie. Xia Qiao couldn’t take it any longer, so he picked up the remote and switched the channel.
He thought that Lu Wenjuan was just saying that there were different channels for the sake of saying it. After all, no matter how you looked at it, that television didn’t seem to be very normal—yet he really did manage to switch the channel.
However, there was a flare of crackling static occupying the space between the channels, and the unexpected noise attracted the other people’s attention.
“I just wanted to test it out,” Xia Qiao explained in embarrassment, feeling a little stupid for doing such a thing.
Instead of an opera, the new channel was showing a drama. The characters’ faces remained indiscernible, as they were a shade of overexposed white. It was still quite creepy, but at least it was a bit more ordinary than the opera.
The drama itself was actually rather lively. All the silhouettes and movements were visible, even though the faces were blurry and indistinct.
It was most likely a family drama. Several people sat around a dining table chatting with each other, while another person walked over carrying two plates. He laughed and announced loudly, “Here come the steaming hot dumplings!”
“Dumplings?” Someone next to the table took the plates from him. “So sorry for all the trouble.”
“No need to be polite, it’s not like I was the one who made them. Uncle Wu sent them over.” That person wiped his hands and also took a seat at the table. Pointing at the two plates, he said, “Here, give it a try. There are some lucky ones.”
“Lucky in what way?” Two people each picked up a dumpling with their chopsticks.
“You might come across one with a coin inside.”
Both people bit into their dumplings.
“What a pity. Mine is fennel-flavored, no coins. What about you?”
“It’s okay, there are two whole plates here. Plenty for everyone,” the person who brought the dumplings over said with a smile. Then he turned to look at the other side of the table, where a girl with long hair seemed to be sitting in an aloof and elegant manner. She never once touched her chopsticks.
“What’s wrong? Is it not to your liking? Go ahead and eat.” He enthusiastically pushed a bowl and a pair of chopsticks towards the girl.
She waved her hand and declined gracefully with a laugh. “I had some snacks in the afternoon, so I’m not hungry yet.”
“Snacks are snacks. How could you not eat a proper meal?”
“I’m really full,” the girl said.
“Just have one dumpling.” That person continued attempting to persuade her.
But no matter what he said, the girl didn’t pick up her chopsticks.
“Well, alright then.” In the end, that person sighed and said regretfully, “These dumplings are extremely fragrant, and Uncle Shu is excellent at cooking. It’s a pity if you don’t eat one.”
He smacked his lips and shook his head briefly before he repeated, “It’s truly such a pity if you don’t eat one.”
It wasn’t clear what the drama was about. Even though the dining table was energetic and high-spirited, it was permeated by an aura of unexplainable strangeness.
Xia Qiao originally wanted to just switch the channel and ignore it afterwards, but he kept being distracted by the conversation on the show. He couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the TV, and he eventually ended up actually watching it for a while.
The group went to bed after finishing the dumplings, and the screen swiftly faded to black.
Right as Xia Qiao was about to look away, the screen suddenly flickered a few times before the setting switched to a bedroom.
The long-haired girl was curled under a blanket, fast asleep, when a shadow noiselessly approached the side of her bed. The girl flipped over, completely unaware of the presence. Then, the shadow next to the bed lifted its hands high in the air—and shockingly, it was holding an axe.
The shadow swung the axe viciously down towards the girl’s neck.
“What the hell!” Xia Qiao jolted in fright and nearly sprang up from his armchair.
Wen Shi had also witnessed that scene, and he furrowed his brows. The TV screen was quickly covered by splatters of blood, completely obscuring the characters underneath. All they could hear was the dull sound of the axe chopping something over and over.
“Change the channel if you can’t bear to watch,” Xie Wen reminded Xia Qiao.
Only then did Xia Qiao scramble for the remote. He hastily hit the button to switch to the next channel, but this time, nothing else was displayed on the screen except for a large expanse of noisy, crackling static.
He cycled through quite a few channels in a row and was met with the same result each time. It was as if the TV only had two channels: one featuring an opera, the other featuring a horror show.
Xia Qiao almost hurled the remote.
“This TV is really something,” was Xie Wen’s assessment.
Wen Shi took the remote from Xia Qiao and directly turned off the ominous television set.
As the screen went dark, the room completely quieted down.
Wen Shi turned towards Xie Wen and said, “Let’s figure out what kind of cage this is first. Aren’t you acquainted with her parents?”
Xie Wen: “Are you talking about Lu Wenjuan?”
Wen Shi: “Mn. Did you really get her name from a grave?”
“No, her parents mentioned it before,” Xie Wen said.
“???” Xia Qiao looked at Lao Mao, indignant and aggrieved. But then Lao Mao said, “There isn’t actually much of a difference. It was basically the same thing.”
Xie Wen elaborated, “The parents said that their oldest daughter, Lu Wenjuan, passed away a long time ago.”
Wen Shi: “From what?”
Xie Wen: “Drowning, according to them. She made plans to go swim in a river with some friends during break. It wasn’t too clear what specific river, but it shouldn’t be a local one. Apparently, they went through quite a bit of effort to retrieve her.”
“Drowning…” Wen Shi contemplated for a moment.
It wasn’t a particularly uncommon way to die, and cages would often be left behind as a result. Either the person in question had things they couldn’t let go of, or the reason behind the drowning was too difficult to accept.
For people like that, something at least a little water-related would appear in the cage. But the current cage didn’t really contain anything related to water, apart from the persistent rain.
“Let’s wait and see,” Xie Wen said.
If the circumstances weren’t known beforehand, it was actually very hard to determine the size of a cage immediately upon entering.
Maybe the events leading up to the cage were simple, and they just had to locate the key point to resolve it easily and efficiently, like the cages for Shen Qiao and Wangquan Road. Or maybe it would end up being even more confusing than Shop Sanmi’s.
After a while, Lu Wenjuan finished up and came back. She opened the door and peered inside the room before she said in surprise, “Oh, the television is off? You didn’t want to watch anything?”
Who would dare to watch that! Xia Qiao thought with lingering trepidation.
Meanwhile, Xie Wen told her, “They were about to go help you out.”
That was an extremely absurd claim, but Lu Wenjuan actually believed it. She smiled and waved her hand. “You don’t have to do that. How could I make you all go into the kitchen? That’s just unreasonable.”
As she spoke, she pointed at the main gathering room and said, “The dining table’s out here. Since nobody wants to watch TV, you can come out now. The table is already set, and I’ll be done once I plate the food. It’ll be quick.”
To tell the truth, none of them were really looking forward to her hospitality. But Wen Shi and Xie Wen both stood up without hesitation and headed for the door, one after another.
Lu Wenjuan smiled brilliantly before she cast her gaze towards the other seats.
Xia Qiao promptly jumped up as well. Pushing Lao Mao in front of him, he hurriedly caught up to his ge and Boss Xie; he didn’t dare to stay there for a moment longer.
The dining table was in the gathering room. It was an old-fashioned square table, and it was obvious that it used to be a bright red color back when it was new, though its lacquer was now half-faded. There were also several high-backed wooden chairs that matched the table.
Four sets of bowls and chopsticks were placed neatly on the table. The bowls were circular and adorned with blue-edged patterns, whereas the chopsticks were painted half-red and made of rounded wood. A small mound of white rice filled each bowl, and the chopsticks were wedged vertically into the packed grains.
At first glance, it looked like four sacrificial offerings.
Any slightly faint-hearted person wouldn’t be able to sit down upon seeing this scene. But nobody in the room was faint-hearted at all, except for Xia Qiao, who wasn’t strictly a person.
And so everyone quickly took their seats before they pulled the chopsticks out of the rice and set them to the side.
Lu Wenjuan came out of the kitchen a moment later, carrying a round plate in each hand.
In that instant, all the people sitting around the table were struck by a feeling of deja vu. This was immediately followed by a line from Lu Wenjuan that sounded even more familiar—
She said, “Here come the steaming hot dumplings.”
The two large circular plates were piled high with bulging white dumplings. They emitted a fragrant scent, a byproduct of boiled wheat flour, and were wreathed in steam from being freshly cooked.
The dumplings appeared to be scalding hot, yet they induced the sensation of plummeting into an ice cave.
“It’s a bit heavy, could someone lend me a hand?” Lu Wenjuan’s eyes and lips were curved in a smile, just like usual, but something about it was starting to look more and more odd.
As Wen Shi reached out to take a plate of dumplings from her, he suddenly realized why it felt so off-putting: it was because her eyes and lips always maintained the same exact curvature every time she smiled.
In other words, every single smile of hers seemed to be copy and pasted from the last one.
“Uncle Wu sent these dumplings over last night,” Lu Wenjuan explained. “By the way, Uncle Wu is the village chief around here. He’s quite good-natured, and his cooking is incredible, especially his dumplings. His homemade wrappers have the perfect thickness to them, so they feel really firm to the bite, and his filling is very savory as well. Each time he makes dumplings, he’ll deliver some to all the households. You guys really came at a good time!”
She put the plates in the middle of the table and said, “You have to give them a try. He even added some lucky dumplings, maybe you’ll come across one.”
Xia Qiao’s face turned a shade paler with every sentence that came out of her mouth. By the time she was done speaking, Xia Qiao’s complexion was completely colorless.
Perhaps he didn’t want to give up just yet. He asked Lu Wenjuan faintly, “Lucky in what way?”
Lu Wenjuan said, “One dumpling has a coin inside of it.”
Xia Qiao: “…”
For a moment, the entire gathering hall fell utterly silent.
“Dig in! You have to eat dumplings while they’re hot, or else the flavor won’t be right,” Lu Wenjuan urged warmly.
Wen Shi and Xie Wen shared a glance before they each picked up their chopsticks and selected a dumpling from the plates. As soon as they began moving, Lao Mao stopped holding himself back; he picked up one of the dumplings and bit into it immediately. Then he made a noise of surprise and said, “Fennel-flavored, no coins.”
Wen Shi also bit into a dumpling and scanned it afterwards. It was similarly fennel-flavored, and it didn’t contain any “lucky coins.”
“Looks like our luck isn’t too good,” Xie Wen said to Lu Wenjuan.
Although she seemed to be delighted by their prompt consumption of the food, there was a second where her shoulders slumped briefly, as if she was sighing in relief because of some unknown reason.
She pushed the plates forward a little more and said, “It’s alright, there are still plenty left. Who knows, the next one might just be the lucky dumpling.”
Wen Shi ate very little. Logically speaking, the fennel filling should’ve left an extremely strong flavor in his mouth, but the dumplings in front of them didn’t taste like fennel. To put it more accurately, they didn’t seem to taste like anything at all—they were as bland as candle wax.
Xie Wen also ate at a leisurely pace. Only Lao Mao was digging in with relish, gulping down dumpling after dumpling. Rather than being in a cage, it felt more like he was sitting on the second floor of Xiping Gallery, dipping meat into a hot pot.
He was incredibly fast, and he cleared an entire plate in a whirlwind before he began stretching his chopsticks towards the second plate.
Lu Wenjuan had probably never encountered someone like Lao Mao before, and she couldn’t help but stare at him in shock, though that only lasted for an instant. After snapping out of it, she turned to look at Xia Qiao. “Why aren’t you eating? Is it not to your liking?
“They’re such good dumplings, it’s truly a pity if you don’t eat one…” Lu Wenjuan recited the same lines from the TV show.
Upon hearing that, Xia Qiao narrowly avoided fainting on the spot.
He almost blurted out that he didn’t have an appetite, but he suddenly recalled the long-haired girl from the drama who didn’t eat any dumplings, as well as the dull chopping sound of the axe…
With an instantaneous quiver, he stabbed a dumpling with his chopsticks and stuffed it into his mouth.
It was then that they finally realized something: the drama playing on the TV wasn’t a horror show of some sort.
It was clearly meant to be a freaking threat.
As for the so-called lucky dumpling—by the time Lao Mao polished off the very last one, they still hadn’t seen a single trace of it.