Ying Qiao dragged his feet to Jiang Lan’s home and saw the open door. Jiang Lan must have anticipated his arrival and opened the door for him.
In the living room, Jiang Lan was packing his suitcase. Jiang Lan and Jiao Tu’s suitcases were already packed with their iPad tucked inside.
Jiang Lan turned and saw Ying Qiao entering the door.” You are here, do you need to rest a bit?”
At this moment, Ying Qiao was so worried Jiang Lan might notice his untidy appearance that he didn’t intend to stay long, wanting to get back home as soon as possible. So he said.” No need, You have to get up early tomorrow. I will just pick them up and leave. You must go to bed early.”
Jiang Lan handed over his little brother’s suitcase to Ying Qiao, and Suan Ni came to sit on the top of the suitcase obediently.
“I have to focus on my work in the countryside this week, and please take care of them for me.” Jiang Lan explained to Ying Qiao his brother’s habits and specifically asked Ying Qiao.” Don’t let them play video games for too long, four hours a day is the maximum.”
Then he turned to Jiao Tu and Suan Ni.” I will visit you when I am free, please don’t cause trouble to Ying Qiao.”
His two little brothers agreed obediently.
After that, Jiang Lan put his brothers in the care of Ying Qiao.
Ying Qiao carefully maintained a distance from Jiang Lan and took a breath of relief after he was sure Jiang Lan didn’t notice his somewhat disheveled appearance. But he was still worried that Jiang Lan might notice it if he stayed long. After exchanging a few pleasantries in the doorway, he quickly left with Suan Ni in one arm and a suitcase in another.
Jiang Lan wanted to go downstairs with them, but Ying Qiao stopped him firmly.
Then Jiang Lan prepared his luggage for tomorrow’s trip and went to bed early.
At half-past five the next day, when the sky just turned grey, Jiang Lan got in Xue Meng’s car, and they set off for the Three Water Village.
With Xiao Xiaoyu’s carefully marked photos showing the intersections, their trip went smoothly without taking any wrong turns. They reached the village at a quarter past eight.
With an overcast sky, today’s Three Water Village appeared gloomy. At the village entrance stood a thin humpbacked man who waved to them. Judging by his appearance, he must be the village party secretaryTL’s note: Party secretary was in charge of the whole village Huang Youtian.
After Jiang Lan parked his car under a tall tree, Secretary Huang walked over to them but appeared surprised by their arrival.” The female comrade won’t come today?”
“We are her colleagues. Our superior has us come in rotation.” Jiang Lan was surprised that his first question was about Xiao Xiaoyu and checked him again.
This man’s skin had a darker tone and was very thin. His height just reached Jiang Lan’s shoulder. Jiang Lan was not clear about his age. But judging by his weather-beaten face, he must be in his fifties. He had a big farmer’s hand. His face had a look of simple-mindedness and honesty, typical of farmers.
“Is that so? Please come with me. The two comrades from yesterday have been a great help, they have offered to take care of our present difficulties.”
This seemed to be a casual question, and Secretary Huang didn’t mention them later. He warmly asked them to come to his home and asked them if they had their breakfast while requesting his wife to boil a few eggs for them.
Jiang Lan and Xue Meng had a few slices of bread on the way here. They refused this offer, saying they had eaten their breakfast.
The Three Water Village was visibly poor. Even if they didn’t eat breakfast, they would feel awkward to cost the village secretary a few eggs.
Secretary Huang didn’t insist on this. First, he walked with them around the village to introduce the situation here. There weren’t many inhabitants here in the Three Water Village. Jiang Lan counted only a little more than thirty families; this figure was not consistent with the record of around fifty families in the village file. Many houses were empty and dusted without people living inside.
Jiang Lan was puzzled and asked.” The people who lived in these houses have left the village?”
“Oh, yes, they are gone.” Looking at those empty houses, Secretary Huang seemed very old.
“There are only us left in the village, old men waiting to die.”
Xue Meng was very close to his grandpa and could bear to hear this kind of talk. He hurried to say.” Don’t talk like that. After the road is built here, and the village is upgraded with piped water, your life here will improve greatly.”
Secretary Huang let out a chuckle and rubbed his hands.” Yes.”
“We come here to understand your present difficulties. Later we will be followed by the comrades from the poverty alleviation office who will try to solve your problems….”
Xue Meng was very chatty as usual, forgetting the fear he had before he came here. While he was talking with Secretary Huang, Jiang Lan followed them and scanned the old houses nearby.
Those unlit houses appeared shadowy under the overcast sky. Jiang Lan then shifted his focus to the house where a funeral service was going on.
This village appeared deserted because all the villagers had gathered in front of this house.
A glance told him that most people here were middle-aged men with a few young people and kids mingling in the crowd.
They stood in two rows on both sides of the doorway. A black coffin was laid in the middle of the center room. Before the coffin, a middle-aged couple were kowtowing to the coffin.
The atmosphere here was very solemn.
After kowtowing, this middle-aged couple rose to their feet, leaning against each other, and said in a trembling voice.” Lift the coffin.”
Following this instruction, four burly men waiting at the side lifted the coffin’s corner and started to move the coffin to the burial site among the woods north of the village.
Jiang Lan and Xue Meng stood here, observing the service. At this point, Xue Meng thought he was very familiar with Secretary Huang and called him uncleTL’s note: to indicate his intimacy or friendship with an older man.” The ground burial is still in use here? Now the government is calling for the transition to cremation, which is more environmentally friendly.”
Hearing this, Secretary Huang turned to stare at him. His murky eyeballs barely moved.
Under his stare, Xue Meng felt uneasy and let out a dry smile.
Withdrawing his stare, Secretary Huang let out a bizarre laugh.” Ground burial has been our custom since time immemorial. If we suddenly make changes, we might anger our ancestors and people will die.”
Xue Meng knew some villages still clung to the ground burial and regarded cremation as a taboo. So he changed the subject to ease the awkward atmosphere.” Yesterday Xiaoyu mentioned they haven’t finished fertilizing grandma Huang’s farmland. We can continue the work. After the funeral, may I ask you to convene a meeting? We will ask villagers whether they are willing to look for jobs outside the village and encourage them to sign up with us. After this is done, we will negotiate with nearby factories and other businesses to find employment on their behalf.”
Secretary Huang rubbed his hands.”Ok.”
He added.” I think there is no more work that needs to be done in Grandma Huang’s field. I am sorry for your traveling all the way here to run into a funeral service. You can have a rest in the morning. In the afternoon, when the people return from the funeral service, I will convene the meeting for you.”
Then he brought Jiang Lan and Xue Meng to his home. Secretary Huang’s wife brought them two bowls of tea. The bowls were the kind used to eat rice with. The black tea leaves were of questionable quality. Holding the bowls, they could even smell the bitterness. But it would be insulting to refuse it. So they took two sips before putting the bowls down.
Secretary Huang watched them drink tea and took his water pipeA Chinese water pipe made for smoking tobacco, used to be popular during the 19th and early 20th century..” I have to take a look at the burial ground. Please rest here.”
Then he left. After that, his wife went into the rooms in the back without exchanging a single word with them throughout, leaving them alone.
When they set off in the early morning, the sun made a brief appearance. But when they reached the village, the sky became overcast and turned everything gloomy.
Xue Meng grew bored after sitting for a while. He tried to chat with Xiao Xiaoyu, but his phone kept alerting him that messages failed to be sent. He proposed.” Let’s take a walk outside.”
Jiang Lan nodded and walked out with him, but he paused before an empty house and peeked inside.
There was no way of knowing how long this house had stayed empty. The windows and doors were shut tight, but a broken window gave them a glimpse inside.
Xue Meng also peeked inside.” This house is frightfully dark, what are you looking for?”
Glancing at him, Jiang Lan said.” Do you know there is something wrong with this house?”
“What is wrong?” Xue Meng took another look, and he began to grow fearful.” There is a ghost inside?”
Jiang said without expression.” Do you find it strange that these houses are fully furnished, not a single piece of furniture is missing?”
Except for a layer of dust, these houses didn’t look like their owners had abandoned them.
Xue Meng looked at the room carefully this time and agreed.” Yes, very strange.”
He could see a piece of clothing lying on a bamboo bed as if the owner had just left and would return anytime soon.
“But Secretary Huang told us the people who lived in these houses had moved away.”
Jiang Lan said without a trace of emotion.” Will people leave their belongings behind when moving away?”
“Besides, he said they were gone, not moved away.”
This phrase was very vague, open to many interpretations.
It could mean they moved away, or…. They were dead.
Xue Meng understood him and was shocked, but he still tried to find another explanation for this.” It is also possible that the owners planned to come back soon? So they didn’t move the furniture with them.”
Jiang Lan shook his head.” On the way here, I have already observed many houses, they were all like this.”
It might be a pure coincidence if they just found one house like this, but if they found many houses in a similar state, something was terribly wrong.
Xue Meng found it inexplicable.” There are more than a dozen houses like this. If every household has two people, then there are more than twenty people gone. It is impossible that they are all dead.”
They had read the file of this village and remembered the data collected last year, which said that there were around fifty households in this village. How come a dozen families perished in a single year? This was unbelievable.
“There are two possibilities. One is that those people have been long dead over the years, but their relatives didn’t bother to register their death. Another is that something happened to this village.
Jiang Lan appeared calm and turned to walk towards the woods in the north.” Let’s go take a look at the burial ground. We might find some clues there.”
Usually, every village has a burial ground. Judging by the way those four burly men went, Jiang Lan thought the place must be in that direction. But the view of this place was blocked by the woods. They couldn’t see it from the village.
Xue Meng was a little afraid, but Jiang Lan’s confident looks calmed him down, and he followed Jiang Lan closely. The weeds were allowed to flourish in the village. Following the weeds trodden on by the villagers, they quickly walked to the woods.
The woods were quite big. They estimated they needed ten minutes to walk through it. After walking for a while, they could see the vague shape of a towering black building outside the woods, three stories high and in the shape of a cylinder, but it was unclear what function it serves from the appearance.
When they quickened their pace to get a clear view of this building, they ran into Secretary Huang.
They were equally shocked by this encounter.
Secretary Huang’s look instantly turned nasty.” Why are you here?!”
Xue Meng was frightened by his twisted face and didn’t know what to say. Secretary Huang seemed to change into someone else.
Jiang Lan walked over to him and said calmly.” We were bored and the phone signal was not good. So we are here to get some fresh air.” He appeared confused.” We are not supposed to be here?”
Secretary Huang stared at them for a while. Then he switched to a strange tone.” Our burial ground is over there. Outsiders are not allowed to walk there since they might offend our ancestors.”
Jiang Lan seemed to understand and gave Xue Meng a push.” Sorry, we don’t know that. We will come back. Has the funeral service ended?”
Secretary Huang nodded grimly.” Please wait for a while. In an hour or two, they will come back. Then I will convene the meeting.”
Jiang Lan agreed with a smile. Then they turned to walk back.