Zhou was spattered with blood as Old Man Chen collapsed to the ground. Crying and cowering, she wiped the stickiness away with trembling fingertips and pleaded, “This has nothing to do with me! It has nothing to do with me… Don’t kill me!”
Zhou trembled in fear as she crawled towards Caoyu.
“I’m her aunt, aunt!” Zhou desperately pulled Caoyu into her arms. “We rely on each other! He’s usually the one… it’s him!” She involuntarily cried out as she pointed at Chen Ren. “He’s the one who beat and scolded her and planned everything! He also wanted to lay his hands on Caoyu. Caoyu, Caoyu is so young, I didn’t want to comply… I didn’t want to comply! Don’t kill me!”
Dong Lin’s hand was stained with blood. He moved the blade to his other hand and wiped the blood on his robe. The way he looked at Zhou was just like the kind of gaze you could encounter anywhere on the street. After wiping his hand clean, he beckoned to Zhou.
Zhou’s hair stood on end. She gripped Caoyu tightly and refused to go nearer. Caoyu struggled in her arms. The little girl had cried until her voice was hoarse. She shouted for him, “Uncle Dong.” Panic-stricken, Zhou held on to Caoyu as if she was hanging on to a lifebuoy. Caoyu could barely breathe from her tight hold.
“We are as close as a mother and daughter!” Zhou cried herself hoarse. “Please spare me… You can’t kill me! If you kill me, what will happen to the child? Caoyu will definitely be frightened. So… have mercy!” As she wept, she turned Caoyu’s head towards Dong Lin and urged her on. “You, you tell him. Tell him auntie treats you well! Caoyu, oh Caoyu, tell him… Tell him!”
Caoyu shook her head in defiance. Zhou clutched Caoyu’s arms and wailed. “Say it… Tell him, tell him!”
Dong Lin stepped forward. Zhou was startled and leaned against the wall. With nowhere to run, she pulled Caoyu in front of her to use as a shield. The woman with disheveled hair and reddened eyes held Caoyu by the neck and said, “Hero… please spare my life! I’ve never skimped on her meals and clothing! I’m good to her. I treat her well! “
But no matter how hard she wailed, Dong Lin was not the slightest bit moved. He did not even say a word. His shadow obscured the dim light, completely killing off Zhou’s last hope. On the verge of insanity, Zhou suddenly tightened her grip around Caoyu’s neck.
“Spare me, spare my life! Otherwise, I’ll strangle her to death! We will end it all! If I can’t live, then she can forget about living too!”
Caoyu burst into tears from the fright and pushed Zhou. She was choking and suffocating, but she could only pound on Zhou’s chest with all her might as she shouted, “Uncle Dong, save me!”
Dong Lin gave Zhou a violent kick, and Zhou rolled onto the ground and cried out. Dong Lin picked up Caoyu, and the small scissors in her palm fell to the ground with a clank. She hugged Dong Lin’s neck as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Uncle Dong… Uncle Dong…”
Zhou slumped to the ground. Her chest was bleeding, and the blood soaked her lapels. She yet had to breathe her last. Her throat gurgled as she clutched her chest in disbelief.
Qian Weishi slipped and fell on his backside at the threshold of the door. He was in a state of utter stupefaction; the pool of red all over the entire ground scared the living daylight out of him. “Murder… Murder…”
Chen Ren crawled with his arms and shouted, “Help me… Fuzi, help me! Both, both of them are killers…” He grabbed Qian Weishi’s leg and plead with him with his tears and mucus flowing profusely. “Fuzi, Fuzi, save me!”
Qian Weishi trembled as he moved back, but Chen Ren would not let go of his leg. Fumbling around the ground, he picked up a broken bowl, then slammed it down on Chen Ren’s face with all the force he could muster.
“Go to hell…” Qian Weishi said. “Beast!”
Chen Ren crumpled onto the ground. Qian Weishi panicked and threw away the shattered bowl. After stumbling a few times, he managed to climb up. He fearfully shifted over to Dong Lin. There were several times he almost fell when he slipped on the blood. Although he was scared out of his wits, he still held out his arms tentatively.
“Caoyu…” Tears were streaming down Qian Weishi’s face. “Caoyu…”
Out of breath from all the crying, Caoyu raised her head to look at him. Qian Weishi covered her eyes and said to Dong Lin, “Flee… Flee quickly, both of you…”
Dong Lin said, “The coroner will examine the corpses. Since the wounds aren’t the same, it will rouse the suspicions of the prefectural yamen. Even if I run, Gu Shen still wouldn’t believe that you were the one who did it.”
“Then what should we do?” Qian Weishi shrieked. He looked at Zhou; she was about to breathe her last. He could not help but say out of fear. “What would they do to Caoyu? I’ll tell, tell them that Chen Ren…”
Dong Lin turned around and interrupted him. “What’s your relationship to this girl?”
Qian Weishi cowered and stuttered, “I… I am…”
He cut even more of a sorry figure as he uttered a word. Dong Lin looked at him steadily after hearing it. He had already relaxed his grip on Caoyu. Caoyu held on to Dong Lin’s hand as Qian Weishi took her into his arms. With her eyes covered, she could only hold on to Dong Lin’s hand as she asked over and over again. “Uncle Dong… Isn’t Uncle Dong coming with me…? I want to be with Uncle Dong!”
Dong Lin raised his hand to stroke her head for a mere moment. He turned his head away and said, “Take her away first. Go to Tong Ming Bank on Wuliu Street in the East Market. I’ll be there later.”
Qian Weishi asked, “Hero, what are you going to do?”
“Hero.” Dong Lin mouthed the word and replied, “Just cleaning up the mess. You two go ahead. Also.”
He flipped the blade behind his arms and turned his back to Qian Weishi.1
“I’m not a hero, but an outlaw.”
The old widow’s mutterings woke Ah Hong up. Rubbing his eyes, he got up and mumbled to the old widow. “I want to pee.”
The old widow put her arms around him and whispered, “My good grandson, you can’t now. Let’s wait…”
“I want to pee!” Ah Hong kicked his legs and pushed the old widow away. He slipped out of bed and ran outside holding up his trousers with his hands.
The old widow draped her clothes around her, felt for her crutch, and ran after him. She nagged, “Hong-er, slow down! Come back as soon as you are done peeing. It’s cold outside! Don’t look next door. Everyone in that house is rotten. Tomorrow, when you go with grandma to pick vegetables, don’t play with that little whore. She’s dirty.”
Ah Hong dropped his trousers in puzzlement and stared at the corner of the wall as he listened to his grandmother’s trite remarks.
“A whore gives birth to a whore. My precious grandson, you must not touch her! She’ll contaminate you. That girl has so many schemes up her sleeve. Every day, she coaxed that Qian Fuzi until he’s so mesmerized he gives her everything. But how many sweets has he given you? He gave it all to her! Look at that Chen Ren. He’s nothing good either. Such disgusting filth. He even lays his hands on his niece! Bah! Hong-er, oh Hong-er, you mustn’t learn from them and strip your clothes. It’s dirty! Despicable to the bones!”
Ah-Hong yawned and lifted his trousers. He looked down at the blood trickling down the wall. The warm and sticky blood seeped past the bottom of his soles and converged with the yellow puddle he had left behind. He stepped on the stone, climbed up the wall, and looked over.
The lamp in the Chen’s house was still lit, casting a dim yellow light into the courtyard. Second Uncle Chen was gagged as he was dragged out of the inner chamber with his eyes wide open. He was still alive; his chest was still heaving.
There was a man with his back to him, picking up the bar that was used to bolt the door.2
“I’ve told you before.” Dong Lin squatted and gripped Chen Ren’s face. “What did I tell you?”
With the gag in his mouth, Chen Ren shook his head furiously.
“You remembered.” Dong Lin looked down at him and whispered, “I made you remember.”
Chen Ren made an “uh, uh” sound as he looked at Dong Lin in despair.
Dong Lin breathed hot air into his palms and said. “There’s no oil in your house, so you’ve escaped a calamity. But I’m concerned that you wouldn’t remember the pain on the way to the Underworld, so I still must give you a warning.”
Chen Ren watched as that wooden bar was held high above him and came bearing down on him. As it drew nearer, he struggled to move away. A muffled, blood-curdling scream escaped his mouth. The sound of the blow made Ah Hong’s nose sour. He covered his face in fear. At the very last moment he fell off the stone, he saw the man turned back. The gaze was so much like the penetrating stare of a ferocious ghost that he cried.
The old widow quickly hobbled towards him. He threw himself into his grandmother’s arms. He was so afraid that he could not stop shivering. The old widow’s repeated ramblings continued in his ears.
“Qian Fuzi despises us orphan and widow… Don’t look for him anymore in the future! He can continue on with that little whore… They are all unclean… Who knows where else they have been secretly hugging each other?! Hong-er… Hong-er, have you bear it in mind? My good grandson, don’t follow Qian Fuzi anymore…”
Ah Hong gave a perfunctory nod and repeated after her, “Qian Fuzi… Qian Fuzi…”
It was not until the middle of the night that Dong Lin finally washed his hands clean. He carefully folded his waistbelt and stepped through the door. Qian Weishi was the first to be startled awake. Chen Caoyu had already fallen asleep in his arms with her eyes swollen.
Dong Lin half-kneeled on the ground and watched the little girl for a moment. Qian Weishi motioned for him to hug her, but he shook his head without taking her.
“My…” Dong Lin said, “My hands are dirty.”
He just stayed there and looked at her blankly for a long time, then he suddenly leaned over and touched Caoyu’s forehead with his own.
Caoyu woke up in a daze and uttered, “Uncle Dong…”
“This is how it is.” Dong Lin said, “Uncle actually doesn’t know how to fly and burrow through the earth. I shouldn’t have lied to you like this.”
Caoyu’s eyes were right before him. The little maiden’s eyes were clear and bright, cleansing Dong Lin of his uncleanness.
“Have you found her?” Caoyu asked in concern.
Dong Lin said. “I’ve found her. I’m going somewhere else with her. I won’t be able to see you again.”
Tears slowly filled Caoyu’s eyes. She wiped them away. “Uncle Dong, can’t you take me with you this time?”
“She won’t be happy.” Dong Lin answered, “She and her mother have been waiting for me for too many years.”
Caoyu persisted. “Then I won’t go with you. I’ll just look at you, can’t I?”
“Zhongdu is so vast.” Dong Lin said, “You won’t find me. So why waste your effort? Now that the bad guys have been eliminated, all you have to do is live happily and you would have repaid my kindness. From now on, there is no need for you to remember the day I fished you out from the water.”
“Are you going to abandon me?”
“… I’ll never abandon you.” Dong Lin’s Adam’s apple throbbed. It was hard for him to reply. “Don’t cry…”
He looked at Caoyu’s weeping face, but all he heard was that late Autumn rain.
“My Nan-nan3 had gotten into the carriage heading North. Where is she? Tell me, I’ll look for her myself.”
“Dong Lin, there is no need for you to go.”
“How can I not go?!”
“… Dong Lin.” His old friend avoided his eyes. “They encountered heavy snow along the way that year. All the girls in that carriage… froze to death.”
Froze to death, huh…
Dong Lin could barely control himself as he trembled and lowered his head. Tears tumbled off his eyes. Several times, he opened his mouth, then closed it, unable to get the words out. He raised his head despondently and tried his best to smile at Caoyu.
“How could I abandon you?” Dong Lin said in a hoarse voice. “But I’ve stayed too long. I’m a creature of the winter night. Leaving is a kind of temptation to me. Uncle wants…” His eyes met Caoyu’s teary eyes, and his voice broke. Yet he persisted in completing his sentence. “… I want to be free from it all.”
Caoyu reached out to touch Dong Lin’s cheek. She asked, “Did I…” She choked on her sobs. “… make Uncle sad?”
Dong Lin gently placed his cheek in her little palm and answered. “You have made me braver than I have been over the past few decades.”
Caoyu whispered, “But I don’t want to be separated from Uncle.”
“We have different paths to walk.” Dong Lin told her. “You go on ahead, and we’ll say goodbye here.”
Caoyu was unusually stubborn. She pressed against Dong Lin’s cheek and shook her head desperately, sobbing as she said, “I don’t want to be separated from Uncle.”
Dong Lin stood up and retreated. Caoyu started to struggle, wanting to break away from Qian Weishi. However, Qian Weishi held on tightly to her. As she watched Dong Lin turn to leave, she could not help but cried out, “Uncle Dong… Uncle Dong!”
It was as if she wanted to take every drop of tears she had from the past and in the future and shed them all now. She bit her mouth until the skin broke and hit Qian Weishi’s arms. Caoyu was inconsolable. She lowered her head to bite Qian Weishi’s arm, choking on her sobs. Qian Weishi hugged her tightly. All Caoyu could do was to watch on as Dong Lin opened the door and turned sideways to look back at her.
“Uncle is leaving.”
Caoyu felt as if that door was not a wooden plank separating them, but a chasm. Even though she wailed and pounded on Qian Weishi’s arm, Dong Lin would only look at her from afar. He had left her in a place he could never go near, just like he would never reach the place where his daughter still lives.
With teary eyes, Caoyu took a last look at him as his figure gradually vanished into the pitch-black night. And then, light broke through the eaves as the rays of a new morning shone through.
Winter was over.
Something like this.
门闩杖 it’s a bolt in the shape of a horizontal bar, or rod, that’s used to hold a door closed in ancient days. Could be long or short. Something like the above.
- 囡囡 Nan-nan. The words itself actually meant “little darling” or “baby” although Dong Lin apparently used it for his daughter’s name. Whenever he says “my Nannan” he’s also saying “my little baby”, etc.