Chapter 28 – The Old Man in the Countryside
Tang Can shook his head sheepishly, “I have no idea! Are rice sheep what they sound like? Sheep that are the color of rice?”
Shen Yu burst out laughing and praised the young officer. “Not bad! I’m sure you did very well in language and literature classes during elementary school!”
On the surface Shen Yu was praising him, but Tang Can personally did not hear anything complimentary. Seeing the amusement on her face, the young officer knew that she was teasing him. He didn’t take offense and quickly forgot the whole incident.
The young woman changed the subject without explaining “rice sheep” to him. “The weather in Changsha is kind of unbearable for me,” she complained. “It’s so damp and humid here. I want to go back north.”
Tang Can glanced at her and his lips quivered slightly as if he wanted to say something. After a moment, he decided to shelve his thoughts and merely smiled at her.
Shen Yu didn’t know why they were still staying in the military guest house as quite a few days had passed without any signs of moving. What were his plans?, she thought in frustration. A couple of days ago, Tang Can had been around. She had been actively avoiding him at that point but, at that time, it seemed like wherever she went, he was there. Now, she couldn’t even find his shadow. She even went to the parking lot to check on the off-road vehicle they were using earlier. But it hadn’t been touched. He must be in the vicinity somewhere, working on something. Just thinking about what he might be doing made her feel stuffy and irritated.
That night, Shen Yu tossed and turned but couldn’t fall asleep. Time seemed to have slowed down to a stop. She checked her cell phone several times in a row, but it was still around 10 pm.
There was no point in trying to sleep more. Her head pounded fiercely and she hoped that a walk outside would help relieve it. She crawled out of bed and started to change into her clothes. Suddenly, she could hear footsteps walking down the hallway. Shen Yu had ears like a fox and could quickly tell that the footsteps sounded like Tang Can’s. Soldiers walked differently compared to civilians, and Tang Can’s steps were different from regular servicemen. At least, Shen Yu had the ability to differentiate them.
As expected, in a couple of minutes, she could hear the footsteps stopping in front of the door to her room. It was Tang Can!
Tang Can escorted Shen Yu out of the guesthouse, and they entered a military vehicle. Inside the car were two other people but neither of them were Mazha or Zhang Fei. The driver of the car was a young soldier who looked to be in his early twenties. Next to the driver sat a man who was older, possibly in his thirties. A look at the older soldier’s collar revealed the insignia of a captain.
The captain greeted Shen Yu before Tang Can could introduce them to each other. Apparently, the captain had already been briefed on who she was.
“Comrade Shen, it’s nice to meet you!”
Shen Yu smiled back and said a brief greeting to him. Tang Can then explained that this man’s last name was “Jin” and that she could call him “Commander Jin” in the future. The soldier driving the car, he explained, was the youngest out of all of them and hadn’t even reached his twentieth birthday yet. Shen Yu was told to call him by “Xiao Qiu”. After she greeted him, Shen Yu kept quiet.
At first, the car traveled at a slow and smooth pace. As they traveled, Shen Yu noticed that the streetlamps had slowly disappeared. The only light they had to see the road was from the Jeep that they were sitting in. The car’s headlights shined a hazy yellow.
Steadily, the road that they were driving on got more rough. The car was soon jolting with every turn of the wheel and it felt like they were sitting on a boat and not a car. Shen Yu started to feel like there was something knocking against her throat. Finally she couldn’t hold back the urge anymore and hastily opened the car window with one hand with her other hand covering her mouth. Tang Can hastily asked Xiao Qiu to stop the vehicle. The car hadn’t stopped completely when Shen Yu pushed open the car door and ran out. She vomited violently.
Tang Can stepped out of the car and stood behind her, one hand gently patting her back. After she finished puking, he handed her a handkerchief to wipe her mouth.
Shen Yu felt embarrassed. She didn’t know she could get carsick because she never had an issue before. Back in the village, she traveled on oxcarts and donkey carts without problem. After thinking for a bit, she thought she might know the reason why she became nauseous today. She had eaten more food than usual that evening and the food had sat like a lump in her stomach. Being bumped around in the car made the feeling worse, so the food had to come up.
After wiping her face with Tang Can’s handkerchief, she held onto it. I can’t just give it back to him all dirty. I need to wash it clean before I return it.
“Do you feel better now?” asked Tang Can, his voice was as warm and as gentle as the night breeze.
Shen Yu nodded. She wasn’t able to get a good look of their surroundings when she ran out of the car earlier but she took the time to look around her now. She was standing on an uneven dirt road that was scattered with potholes. Although it was very dark out with very little ambient light, she could vaguely see that they were currently in the rural countryside. Rice fields bordered the road on both sides and when the wind blew she could smell damp, fertile soil.
A feeling of unease and discomfort settled into her. Why did Tang Can bring her to this place in the middle of the night? Despite the questions that peppered her mind, she didn’t voice any of them and calmly went back into the car. She knew that it was useless to ask now. If he had wanted her to know, he would have told her earlier.
The car started moving again. Tang Can asked Xiao Qiu to drive more slowly as he was afraid that Shen Yu would start feeling nauseous again. Xiao Qiu agreed to his request and slowed the vehicle down significantly. At this speed, it was no faster than an oxcart! Shen Yu felt that the ride had gotten more comfortable and settled in. The car rocked gently, and it felt like she was in a baby cradle. Lulled by the swaying of the car, Shen Yu fell asleep. She slept for a long time. When she woke up, she found that she had twisted her body around such that her head was cushioned on Tang Can’s shoulder. Tang Can sat with a straight posture and barely moved. Shen Yu looked at him drowsily and her groggy mind almost thought that he had become a statue.
When she realized what had happened, a red blush colored her cheeks and stained her ears. She found it embarrassing that she used him casually like a pillow. Some things were better left unsaid, so she pretended that she had just woken up. She stretched her body lazily, like a cat, and let out a long yawn.
“Are we there yet?” she asked the driver.
Xiao Qiu laughed indulgently, “Almost there, almost there. We’ll be there soon!
Commander Jin had also been sleeping in his seat. The sounds of Shen Yu and Xiao Qiu talking evidently woke him up. The older man stretched his arms briefly and turned around to face her.
Smiling brightly, he said, “Comrade Shen, you must have been exhausted!”
Shen Yu smiled and shook her head shyly. She stole a quick look at Tang Can. The one who should be exhausted is him! But look at him, sitting so properly in the car. He hasn’t relaxed this entire time. Is he a robot or does he have metal in his bones and joints?
By the time the sky had lightened up to a light gray, they had reached their destination – a rustic little village. Judging by the looks of it, the town was not very big. There were only a couple of houses sprinkled around the area.
The roads inside the town were rough and not made for cars. After parking the vehicle right outside the village, they got out and proceeded by foot. Although it was a farming village, like the one Shen Yu grew up in, there were still distinct differences between villages in the north and those in the south. Shen Yu knew most of the obvious differences. Rain fell more frequently in the south, so the houses here were mostly tiled. Their roofs were almost more heavily sloped to help facilitate shedding water from the rooves.
The four of them walked until they reached a house made of light green brick. From the outside, it looked like the dwelling had two rooms and no courtyard wall. An elderly man with messy hair that had all gone white sat on an old wooden chair in front of the building. Next to him was a crude wooden table with papers used to roll cigarettes on it. The man had a very dark, wrinkled complexion. A closer look revealed caked mud in the folds of his wrinkles. Shen Yu could also see that the man had lost most of his teeth. With eyes that were half open, the old man seemed to be looking at the rising sun in the east. It appeared that he had not noticed the four of them.
Commander Jin gave Tang Can a look, and Tang Can squatted down next to the man. He smiled and lightly hollered, “Grandfather.”
The old man slowly moved his head until he was facing Tang Can. His eyes were dull and muddy as he looked at Tang Can’s face. He slowly looked at the young officer from head to toe.
Tang Can called out at the old man again, but the man didn’t respond. It could be that he’s deaf and he can’t hear Tang Can, thought Shen Yu, bemused. The elderly man stared blankly into the empty space in front of him. A breeze came by and scattered the papers from the desk. Shen Yu quickly ran around, gathering up the floating scraps. When she bent down to pick up the ones that were on the ground, the silver bell on her bracelet chimed gently.
The old man suddenly sat upright, as if he was frightened by something. He opened up his muddy eyes which no longer looked dull and emotionless. With eyes wide with shock, he stared at Shen Yu.