How silent the night was.
Yet in spring, this silence held a trace of restlessness. Plants grew and bugs crawled around in the mud. This abundance of life was especially splendid in the mountain forests under the clear moon.
All of it was so serene and pleasant.
Yet at this time, there was the crack of a gun. It tore apart the tranquility of this paradise as everything was startled awake in the night.
Within the dense forest, the startled birds chirped frantically as they took off into the night. They blocked the moon, making the tiny village by the river valley seem filled with shadows, like a field of threatening darkness.
Lights turned on in succession within the houses following the inauspicious gunshot. These lights seemed like malicious glowing eyes, staring out towards the gloom of the mountain forest.
“Ah Wang’s dad has probably returned to the heavens, right?” The village chief’s wife saw her husband getting dressed and also got up.
The village chief sighed and didn’t speak.
Here, when the elderly were on their deathbeds, their children would wait beside them. As they took their last breath, their passing would be announced with a gunshot. Therefore, everyone in the village knew someone had just died.
The village chief’s wife got dressed and hurriedly ran downstairs to the rear hall’s fire pit and scooped a shovelful of ash. She turned on the anteroom’s lights and opened the front door, sprinkling a row of ash before it. “Be gone, new ghost. Don’t come in!” She chanted in a low tone. Under the shadow of the moon, the chant seemed very sinister and otherworldly, like it was summoning ghosts instead.
An inexplicable gust of chill wind swept over, scattering the ash in front of the door.
The chief’s wife was terrified, the metal shovel in her hand dropping with a clang. She didn’t dare cry out and merely stood there dumbly, looking at the space outside the door.
Under the bright moonlight, something seemed to be swaying in the trees across the way. A vague sound followed that seemed both like sobbing and prayers. The livestock around the wooden building seemed to be stimulated by something, crying out restlessly as they rammed against their enclosure. The chief’s wife sensed something flash by in the trees before vanishing again.
“Wa Zai’s dad!” She yelled without turning her head, her body unmoving.
“What are you yelling about!?” The village chief came downstairs and quietly scolded. “Go wake Wa Zai up, and we’ll go take a look at Ah Wang’s house together.”
At this time, everyone in the village would send over some help. As the village chief, he would have to offer more help than the others.
“Be gone, new ghost….” She chanted in a trembling voice once again.
“Go fetch some ash!” The chief said impatiently. However, when he approached he saw the disconnected line in front of the door, twisted like a snake.
“What happened here?”
“Wind…an evil wind scattered it!” His wife was still looking outside the door. “There’s something strange in the woods outside!”
The chief’s heart thumped but still scolded. “What evil wind, it’s just the night wind. Don’t speak nonsense or god will punish you. Hurry and sprinkle the ash once again!”
The chief’s wife finally moved, running back to the fire pit.
The chief glanced outside. The woods had quietened down, with only the breeze making the leaves swish.
“Don’t come back anymore. You have no more relation with this village!” He muttered to himself. “It’s useless even if you aren’t reconciled. It’s your own fault for being blind back then!”
There was no response. Footsteps sounded from behind him. The chief’s wife ran over and scattered another line of ash. She used twice as much as before, making the ghost-warding line extra thick. She even chanted the words twice.
She watched nervously for a while. Only after seeing nothing happen to the line did she feel some relief.
“Go wake Wa Zai. Such a sloth at such a young age, to sleep through such a ruckus!” The chief scolded.
“Why are we helping Ah Wang, that godforsaken thing!?” The village chief’s wife grew bold with her husband’s presence by her side.
“We aren’t helping that brat, we’re helping…ai.” The chief sighed again. “It’s also good he died. May the heavens help him reincarnate. Such a good person. Hopefully he won’t have such awful children in his next life!”
“That damn brat Ah Wang and those siblings of his. It’ll be good if they suffer retribution along with their wives!” The chief’s wife resentfully cursed before going upstairs to wake their son.
The chief’s house was closest to Ah Wang’s. By the time his son came down, not a single person had gone over to help yet. Even Ah Wang’s brothers weren’t present. Only a single light guided the village chief to the little shack by the pigpen.
There was nothing inside the little shack. Only the withered corpse of an old man was left on a wooden board atop some bricks. A bundle of messy grass was piled on the floor.
According to the rules here, a person’s face should be covered by white paper at the moment of death. But that wasn’t the case here. There was only the sound of quarreling from upstairs, mostly regarding the expenses of a funeral. The old man’s eyes had just barely closed but they were already arguing over whose problem it was going to be without even observing the proper customs.
However, the old man’s eyes weren’t actually closed. On the ashen face, a pair of sightless eyes were wide open. The mouth was slightly ajar, revealing the coin and several grains of rice inside.
The village chief stepped forward. “Rest well! It’s better to go, lest you continue to suffer in this realm! Go well, old buddy. I was powerless, unable to keep your disobedient children in check. Close your eyes!” He shed a few tears and brushed the old man’s eyelids. When he raised his hand, the eyes were shut but the mouth was still open.
The village chief felt another pang of sadness. He took a straw hat hanging from the worn wooden door and covered the deceased’s face.
At this time, the helpers started trickling over. The three brothers Ah Wang, Ah Mu and Ah Shui also came downstairs, putting on appearances of grief. However, the villagers all knew their true natures. The villagers were only here for the old man’s sake.
When the three of them were young, their mother had passed away. Their father went through a lot of hardship to raise them, and even got them wives to marry. For the sake of their happiness, he wore himself out. But after they grew up and their father could no longer work due to age, none of them bothered to provide for him. They lived in new houses while the old man barely had a roof over his head!
The village people didn’t turn a blind eye. The village chief frequently tried to persuade them, but the three brothers were vicious in nature. No one dared to provoke them. The brothers agreed on the surface, but treated the old man even more harshly in secret. It ended up making his life even more difficult.
Their village was remote and in the mountains, and they didn’t really understand the concept of using the law. When they reported it to the county magistrate, someone was sent over to make a decision. The old man would live with Ah Wang while the other two brothers would provide some food.
The houses in their village were all two-storied wooden buildings. People lived on the second floor and kept livestock on the first. Ah Wang ended up putting together a simple wooden shack next to the livestock pen and didn’t allow the old man to live upstairs. Ah Mu and Ah Shui were even worse. They never sent the food over on time. Only with the villagers helping secretly did the old man not starve to death.
They were an impoverished village deep in the mountains. They had only just gotten electricity not too long ago. None of the households had extra wealth. Therefore, when the old man got seriously ill, he could only wait to die.
Death, for this old man, was perhaps a relief!
Under the instructions of the village chief, pomelo leaves were steeped in water, which was then used to purify the corpse. The hair was combed and the clothes changed. The three heartless sons hurriedly fished the coin and rice out from the old man’s mouth and separated them into clay pots, carefully putting them away.
This was also one of their traditions. Putting something into the deceased’s mouth and then storing it away. It was to signify leaving wealth for the deceased’s descendants.
The sons refused to support the old man, but still wanted him to bless them with a good future!
After a busy night, things started calming down. What remained was to follow the proceedings and bury the body.
Under urgent pleading and some generous gifts from the villagers, Ah Wang was finally willing to move the old man’s corpse into their main residence. According to tradition, they placed the old man on a straw mat facing the shrine. They used cloth to tightly bind his hands and feet before covering him in white cloth. Incense was placed at the head and feet along with a cooked chicken, a bowl of glutinous rice and a pair of chopsticks as offerings.
Ah Wang’s family didn’t have many relatives and the three brothers were also very impatient. Therefore, it only took about half a day before the village chief instructed everyone to put the corpse into the coffin. The old man’s belongings were supposed to be placed inside with him. However, everyone noticed that there was only the tattered clothing and hat he was wearing. The chief could only put a new set of his own clothing inside.
“Remember not to let the incense go out. Keep watch by the corpse, don’t eat any meat and don’t wear shoes, sit down or use water. Don’t let cats or dogs step over the corpse, or it’ll startle your old man.” The chief instructed, ill at ease.
“I know already.” Ah Wang replied. He spoke, as though recalling something. “The three of us don’t have enough money for the spirit-pacifying rites. How about just burying him first and discussing it later!?”
“If you can’t afford a shaman or a Daoist, it’s also fine to use a witch doctor.” The chief tried to compromise.
“Doing it after he’s buried tomorrow is the same thing.” Ah Wang replied insincerely. “Hopefully the chief can help with this tomorrow!”
The chief had no choice but to agree. In his mind, he thought the three brothers inhumane for not being willing to keep watch for another day. There was even less hope for the pacifying rites. But even if Ah Wang reneged on his promise later, it would be the same if the villagers pooled some money for a witch doctor.
During the watch, since other villagers had come to help, the three brothers had no choice but to stay. Because their reputations were extremely awful, none of the fellow watchers interacted with them. They merely sat on the floor silently. In the middle of the night, right when it was Ah Wang’s turn to stand watch, he heard a mournful cat’s cry.
He leapt up, startling the silent villagers.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“There was a cat’s cry. Get it out of here!” Ah Wang’s face was pale. It was said when cats or dogs pass under the coffin, the corpse would move. He knew very well how he had treated his old dad. His guilty conscience made him jumpy.
“What cat?” Someone else said. “You must have fallen asleep while sitting! Did anyone else hear anything?”
The others shook their heads. Ah Wang let out a breath, thinking he had just been too nervous. But before he could sit back down, another cat cry made him stand up again.
“There’s really a cat! Did you guys not hear it?” He said, hurriedly running and closing the door.
“We really didn’t hear anything!” Someone started getting a little impatient at Ah Wang’s weird actions.
Ah Wang saw they couldn’t be bothered with him and no longer said anything. The door was already shut anyway so he felt safe. He sat down in embarrassment. But after only a minute of silence, the cat cry sounded once again. This time it was right by his ear, scaring him into jumping up!
“What are you doing, Ah Wang? Are you imitating a Daoist and performing a ghost-mask dance?”
“There’s a cat! There’s a cat!” Ah Wang was terrified. “A cat has gotten inside!” He ran around like a headless fly, anxiously looking for the cat. The others were forced aside by him. He ended up tripping over his own feet and falling next to the coffin. He stared right at his father’s face.
The old man slowly opened his eyes and gave him a smile. However, the smile wasn’t loving or sorrowful. Instead, it was indescribably sinister and horrifying!
“Why don’t you come keep your dad company!?” The old man’s lips moved as he spoke to Ah Wang.
“The corpse is moving! The corpse is moving!” Ah Wang fell backwards in terror and was caught by someone.
This person couldn’t stand him normally, so he dragged him back beside the coffin. Ah Wang struggled but he was limp from fear. He couldn’t break free and was brought to the coffin again.
“Take a look. Your old man was so gentle. He could only get humiliated by heartless people. How could he harm his own children?!”
Ah Wang was forced to take a look, but saw the old man lying there peacefully. There were no weird movements!
“That’s why you shouldn’t do shameful things. You wouldn’t need to be so afraid if that were the case.” That person sneered coldly.
Ah Wang didn’t speak because there was nothing he could say. He merely decided that they had to bury the body tomorrow. Only then would he feel safe.