Cang Ji was rendered speechless as he watched Chen Caoyu. “She’s so tiny. She’s not even enough to fill the gaps between my teeth.”
Jing Lin sidestepped the table and approached the bed. He looked at the little maiden sleeping under the quilt. Her face was smaller than a palm, and she was so skinny she was just a bag of bones. His fingertips lightly brushed across the little girl’s eyebrows. As he noticed her black little plaits, the sound of a bell reverberated in his ears.
“I saw her before.” Jing Lin said. “In my dreams.”
The dense smoke gradually parted, revealing Chen Caoyu with her back to him as she played with the bell. She sprang forward in high spirits, often looking back to smile at Jing Lin with curved eyes. Everything around him suddenly reversed. Jing Lin heard the jingle of the copper bell before he heard Dong Lin say to Chen Caoyu.
“Watch your steps.”
“Uncle Dong.” Chen Caoyu beckoned to him The copper bell rang, and she shouted, “Are you going elsewhere again? I want to go too. Uncle Dong, will you take me too?”
Dong Lin’s hand fell upon her head. Jing Lin felt the strong affection in it. They seemed deeply entrenched in Dong Lin’s heart. Because he had lost the opportunity once, he gave it all to Chen Caoyu this time. The weight of this emotion was so heavy that Jing Lin subconsciously took a step back.
It was as if he had felt it once.
The copper bell rang noisily, leaving Jing Lin with a splitting headache. He saw Chen Caoyu’s face faded into another face he was familiar with. The little girl no longer called him “Uncle Dong” but “Jiu Ge” as she held onto the bell.
“Jing Lin?” A weight pressed down on him from his back. With his arm around him, Cang Ji waved a hand before him. “Why are you blanking out?”
Jing Lin felt as if he had woken up from a dream. He was sweating profusely. He paid no heed to Cang Ji’s close up face. As if in a daze, he said, “I get it now… Dong Lin was not the one who stole the copper bell. It was the copper bell that found Dong Lin.”
Cang Ji was surprised. “I never realized that. It grew legs too?”
Cang Ji was about to continue when he felt the man between his arms turned around and tightened his grip on his waist. Jing Lin had actually hugged him. Cang Ji nearly bit his tongue. Even though he spoke impudently, he had never been hugged. Under his conceit, he was still as pure as a blank piece of paper.
“I saw Dong Lin’s story.”
Right after Jing Lin said so, Cang Ji heard the copper bell. In a split second, the scene before him shattered into luminous light before it reconstructed into another image.
He saw it too.
It was on a snowy night one late autumn, with an incessant stream of cold rain.
Dragging legs that felt like lead, Dong Lin slid and fell along the edge of the bridge. He was disheveled, and his breathing was barely perceptible. The rain trickled down his back in streams, causing him to gasp intermittently. Dong Lin’s gaze gradually slackened and his consciousness drifted. He sprawled in this manner, with his hands and feet already white from the soaking.
Dong Lin clenched his teeth as cries rang out from his throat in succession. He buried his face in the filthy mud and icy water, as if he wanted to hide tears in it and mislead others into thinking it was just the noise of the rain. He cried so hard his exposed back in the rain heaved unceasingly in the endless, pelting rain.
The rain lasted a whole night. He cried the entire night.
It was morning when the rain cleared up. As a bullock cart ran over him, the bull lifted its tail and several lumps of fresh, wet objects broke off and splattered over half of his face. Dong Lin’s heart was dead, and he remained still. The bullock cart passed by, and the whistling faded into the distance as the first light of dawn broke through the sky, startling the entire town awake. Not once had Dong Lin closed his red and swollen eyes. He languished for death, placing no expectations on anyone who came and went.
A skinny dog came over to sniff Dong Lin, making its way up from his back to his head before licking the cow dung on his face. The warmth spread over his face, igniting a flicker of life within him. The thin dog bent over Dong Lin’s head and dragged him by his shoulder towards the archway under the bridge. Sludge and dirt were piled up on the ground. Several bones, which had been licked so clean that they shone, pressed up against Dong Lin’s face. This dog was about to treat him as its meal; it was about to gnaw him clean before casting his bones aside together with the other bones.
With the moist drool on his face, Dong Lin closed his eyes. He felt the thin dog tearing away the cloth on his shoulder to gouge his flesh. Sharp fangs dug into his flesh, and the pain caused Dong Lin to bark out a stifled laugh. He coaxed in a hoarse voice. “Break my neck before you gouge my flesh…”
The skinny dog could not wait, but it was old and weak. Even if it could gnaw on the meat, it could not tear it off. It grunted and wagged its tail in anxiety. Dong Lin smacked it and crawled closer.
“Use more force.” Dong Lin grabbed the thin dog by the nape of its neck and pressed it towards himself. “Bite this spot. Open your mouth.”
With the back of its neck in a hold, the skinny dog cowered and did not dare to be impetuous again. It wagged its tail continuously and licked Dong Lin’s eyes and nose.
Dong Lin pushed it away. “Scram…”
He collapsed back into the filth and wiped away the remaining cow dung. He was waiting to die, but then he heard a “plop” as someone fell into the river. Dong Lin did not want to care; it had nothing to do with him. He heard the person submerged into the water. Other than the initial splash of water, there was no other reaction.
“She fell.” The passer-by with folded arms on the bridge looked around. “Or did she jump?”
“I didn’t get a clear look.” The vendor of the stall pulled his head back. “A seven or eight years old little maiden. How pitiful…”
They had yet to finish speaking when they heard the sound of water under the bridge. That filthy and stinky beggar had plunged into the water and dove in. Not a moment later, he hauled a little girl out.
Dong Lin carried the little girl ashore. He wiped his face and patted her cheeks. The girl’s face was even smaller than his palm. He only had to use a little more force to hurt her. Dong Lin hesitated for a moment, then gave her light taps with two of his fingers instead.
“Didn’t anyone tell you not to play with water?” Dong Lin gasped from the cold and hugged his shoulders. “It’s such a cold day. No one will bother about you the next time.”
Chen Caoyu shivered as she struggled to stand up. She was shockingly thin. She did not even weigh as much as a stray cat when Dong Lin had carried her. Dong Lin reached out to give her a hand, and she immediately covered her head and cowered. She was so frightened that she sobbed.
Dong Lin looked at her and retracted his hand. Both of them said nothing. The girl never put down her arms again.
Dong Lin asked, “Do you get beaten often?”
Chen Caoyu peered at him through a gap in her arms and shook her head vigorously.
Dong Lin’s eyes swept over her wrists and saw bruises and welts the result of a rod beating all over her arms. The spots where the beatings had been severe had already festered and were frostbitten. Even the thin dog earlier looked more presentable than she did. Dong Lin looked away and fell silent. Chen Caoyu was so cold her teeth chattered. Having lost a shoe, she stood in the mud with one foot bare. As long as Dong Lin said nothing, she dared not move.
Dong Lin fumbled in his pocket. His hand touched a few pearls. In the end, he could not help himself. He stood up to lift Chen Caoyu by her back collar and took the stumbling girl up the bridge to buy a hot steamed bun1 for her.
Chen Caoyu took the steamed bun in her hands and wolfed it down, stuffing her thin jaundice cheeks full. She sobbed as she gulped, all the while looking at Dong Lin with her big, protruding eyes. Dong Lin felt as if he was crumbling into dust under her gaze. He could not bear it. He only felt pain.
Dong Lin crudely stuffed the rest of the steamed buns into Chen Caoyu’s arms, then turned her around by her back collar to give her a gentle push.
Chen Caoyu looked up to stare at him, covering her mouth to prevent the steamed bun from falling out. She swallowed with all her might, unwilling to let go of that bit of minced meat. She took a few steps as Dong Lin shoved her. As if fearing him, she finally ran into the crowd.
Dong Lin watched for a moment, then scolded, “Ingrate.”
Unshaven, unkempt and smelly, he squeezed into the crowd and returned to the archway under the bridge to wait for death. The next morning, Dong Lin was clad in wet clothes and sleeping with his face to the wall when someone pushed him a few times in the back.
“Scram.” Dong Lin felt weak all over. He was burning so hot he felt muddled. He half-opened his eyes and said, “I don’t have money to buy you buns again.”
Chen Caoyu kneeled behind him and stuffed a scalding hot sweet potato into his arms. This potato was the size of his finger; it was obviously something some family used to feed their livestock.
The sweet potato scorched Dong Lin’s chest. He stared at the wall of the bridge and murmured, “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Chen Caoyu hung back in a corner and blew at her potato before peeling it. Dong Lin turned over and sat with his legs crossed. He flipped the potato over to look at it, then raised his hand to throw it back into Chen Caoyu’s arms. Chen Caoyu looked at him in surprise and shrank back.
Dong Lin leaned against the wall and said, “I’m not eating.”
Chen Caoyu peeled it and stuffed it into her mouth. Dong Lin sized her up. She was wearing new clothes today, although it did not fit her well. The shoes were also too big; it looked like something a boy would wear.
“You have someone looking after you.” Dong Lin said. “Is that right?”
Chen Caoyu turned a deaf ear to him. She was so focused on eating that one might even find her dull-witted. Dong Lin shifted over and pulled her arm to lift her sleeve. Someone had applied medicine to her wounds from yesterday. She was still eating even with him pulling her arm.
“Since there’s someone caring for you, don’t come and look for me again.” Dong Lin released his hands and said. “Stay with your family.”
Chen Caoyu suddenly shook her head. Pulling her sleeve down, she looked at Dong Lin and shook her head with all her might.
“Are you a mute?” Dong Lin asked.
“No.” Chen Caoyu’s voice was as soft as that of a mosquito. “I’m not.”
“Then listen here.” Dong Lin said. “I’m a bad guy. Don’t stay with me. Scram back home. Don’t come here again.”
Chen Caoyu did not move. Dong Lin hauled her up and pushed her out. She desperately stepped back. Dong Lin lifted her and was about to throw her out when Chen Caoyu gave a shrill cry and grabbed Dong Lin’s hand. Shaking her head, she shouted, “Not going back! Not going back! Please!”
Dong Lin said nothing.
Chen Caoyu kicked off the shoes that were a size too big for her and leaned against Dong Lin’s body almost deliberately. Clinging on tightly to Dong Lin’s hand, she sobbed, “I beg you, please… don’t send me back…”
Dong Lin felt suffocated. He abruptly released his grip and Chen Caoyu slid to the ground. She swiftly crawled back to a corner and hugged herself as she clung close to the wall and sobbed incessantly. Dong Lin crouched over to pick the shoes and put them on for her.
“You…” Dong Lin buried his head into his arms despondently. “Why won’t you go home?”
Chen Caoyu wiped her tears. “It hurts…”
“What?” Dong Lin raised his eyes. “Did your parents hit you?”
How could there be parents who could bear to hit their child? Dong Lin thought, at least I won’t. If I find her, I will hold her in my palms and give her everything she wants. How I wish to give her everything in this world. I won’t bear to hurt even one of her fingers.
Chen Caoyu was unwilling to say more. She cried until her face was streaked like a cat. Dong Lin wanted to wipe her tears, but he realized he was too dirty. So he pulled up her sleeve for her to blow her nose. He wiped her nose until it turned red, while she put up with the pain.
Dong Lin could not chase her away, so she came every day. Dong Lin had been dragging out his feeble existence, but now he had another concern. At first, he thought Chen Caoyu had parents to care for her, and she was only merely throwing a tantrum. But then, he started to notice something wrong. This girl kept wearing new clothes, and she was clean every day. But once he lifted her sleeves, he could see various kinds of physical trauma caused by a rod. There were new injuries over old wounds. Even as someone applied medicine for her, there was also someone who would hit her even harder. It was as if by virtue of that layer of bright skin, they could do anything to their hearts’ desires.
Dong Lin squatted under the archway of the bridge and waited for Chen Caoyu to finish eating the cake. He asked, “Where is your house? You head back home.”
Chen Caoyu looked at him blankly.
He stood up and wrapped his stinky clothes around his head, transforming his appearance into that of a complete lunatic.
“You walk.” He said. “I’ll watch.”