Chapter 29 – The Old Man’s Past
Tang Can was astute and noticed immediately that the old man reacted. He smiled and hollered “Grandfather” again but was ignored again.
The old man continued to stare at Shen Yu. His cheeks puffed up and then went down.
Under his unrelenting gaze, Shen Yu felt the hair on the back of her arms rise. She had never seen a pair of eyes like his. They were a murky dark color and seemed to draw her in like a deep, dried up well. Involuntarily, she grasped onto her hands, as if she was trying to prevent herself from drowning.
Tang Can was not discouraged and continued to shout at the old man. He took a box of cigarettes from Commander Jin, picked out one cigarette, and offered it to the old man. The hand holding the cigarette was deliberately placed right in front of the man’s face to break his line of sight. The old man turned his attention away from Shen Yu. With hands that trembled, he carefully picked up the tobacco pouch which was on the wooden table and started to grab a bit of tobacco from it. His hands were shaking so hard that bits and pieces of tobacco and tobacco rolling paper fell to the ground.
Seeing the old man with his tobacco pouch reminded Shen Yu of her father. Without a sound, she walked up to the old man and picked up a piece of tobacco paper. She took the bag from the man’s hands and expertly poured some tobacco into the middle of the paper. After putting down the pouch, she slowly rolled up the paper with both hands until all of the tobacco was neatly wrapped into the paper. The two ends of the roll were pinched closed. With a twist of her fingers, she ripped the coarser end open and stuck it in front of the old man’s mouth with a smile.
The muscles on the old man’s face twitched and he cracked open his mouth by a sliver to hold the cigarette. Tang Can hurried over with a lighter and flicked it on to light the paper.
After the cigarette started burning, tears suddenly started to form at the corner of the old man’s wrinkled eyes. However, the hazy tobacco smoke clouded his view of the people around him. The old man wanted to say something but his throat was dry and nothing could come out. He lowered his head and inhaled from the cigarette. Leisurely, he slowly let out a stream of smoke from his mouth. The spicy scent of tobacco slightly choked Shen Yu but also brought her a sense of familiarity.
At this point, they suddenly heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Shen Yu and Tang Can both turned their heads toward the noise. A couple of middle-aged villagers hurriedly walked towards them as they talked to each other. The one in the front was man who looked to be around forty years of age and seemed to be the chief of the group. He wore a gray colored top and black trousers. One of the trouser legs was rolled up, showing a partly amputated leg. Within moments, the men reached their group. From the looks of it, all of them were familiar with Commander Jin. One of them quickly extended a hand to greet the commanding officer.
After Commander Jin and the head villager exchanged greetings, the man smiled at Tang Can and welcomed him. When he smiled, Shen Yu could see a speck of green stuck between his teeth.
Commander Jin introduced Tang Can to the villagers. The head villager was actually the government branch secretary, the highest ranking villager, of the town. When he found out Tang Can’s qualifications, he immediately started talking in the Hunan dialect1. The awe in his eyes could not be concealed. This was the first time someone of Tang Can’s rank had ever come to their village.
Unfortunately, Shen Yu could not understand the dialect of the townspeople. Xiao Qiu stood next to her and helped her translate. However, he only selectively chose sentences to translate and left others unsaid. When the villagers started pointing their fingers at her and Tang Can, Xiao Qiu didn’t tell her what they said.
The village branch secretary and Tang Can chattered to each other like old friends. After a long while, the secretary walked towards the old man who was smoking tobacco. The secretary started talking continuously at the old man in the Hunan dialect. It was like hearing a foreign language for Shen Yu.
Tang Can came over and saw that Shen Yu had no idea what was going on. He explained, “That old man was a miner that your Uncle Li hired all those years ago to mine gold. In fact, he actually saved your Uncle Li’s life once!”
Shen Yu eyes flickered with interest. As soon as Tang Can mentioned Uncle Li, she had to know more about the old man. When she heard he had saved her Uncle’s life, she instantly regarded him differently. He was no longer just a random stranger; he was now a lifesaving benefactor to someone in her family.
Unfortunately, that was all she knew about the old man. Before Tang Can could tell her more, the branch secretary came by to invite their whole group to the town center. The building was just another set of old, run-down rooms. Other than some tables and chairs, the building had no other furnishings, not even a door frame or doors.
Tang Can and the group sat around one of the tables. A couple of neighboring children came along, wanting to see the excitement. The villagers shooed them away as if they were annoying mosquitos. When the adults turned around, the children came scampering back like a swarm of bees.
Tang Can laughed in good humor and stopped the villagers from shooing the kids away again. From his pocket, he took out a bit of loose change and divided it between the kids. Gleefully, the kids scattered off with their bounty, screaming in pleasure. When Tang Can finally turned back to the room, a handsome smile still on his face, he saw Shen Yu looking at him with admiration in her eyes. Tang Can suddenly felt that, despite being stuck in a damp and dusky room, it was a light and refreshing day!
The whole group, soldiers and villagers, stayed in that worn room for a whole morning. Shen Yu gradually pieced together what was going on. All of the townspeople here were descendents of the Miao ethnic group but they had all sinicized and became proper citizens. The old man that they first saw in the village was called Song Geng. In Song Geng’s youth, he was a famous silversmith in town. In the 70s and 80s, this village had a series of floods. Many villagers had drowned and those who lived did whatever jobs were on hand to survive. No one had spare money for jewelry, so Song Geng could no longer make a living as a silversmith. He left the village to find some other work.
After he left, a long period of time passed before anyone got any communications from him. His remaining relatives still in the area thought he had died of starvation, far from home. Who would have thought that in a few years Song Geng would come back. When he came back, he was wearing clothes that hinted of prosperity and wealth. All of the villagers knew that he had found a way to survive and prosper. All it took were people who were willing to work hard to earn some gold. After a few days, Song Geng managed to recruit several other youngsters to go with him. Years passed again before any word came back. This time, when Song Geng came back, he came back alone. The people he had brought with him on the second trip did not come back.
When the relatives of the villagers he took found out that Song Geng came back alone, they were furious. They all went to his house, hounding him for answers. In an effort to make amends, Song Geng gave them all many pieces of gold. In those times, a piece of gold about the size of a chicken egg was enough to keep a family comfortable for a whole generation. After receiving gold for losing a son or husband, the villagers let him go. Unfortunately, news of Song Geng giving the villagers gold spread throughout town. The public security bureau finally caught wind of this and arrested Song Geng on charges of stealing gold from public mines. His crimes landed him in prison for more than ten years. In fact, he was only set free a few years ago.
In the years he spent in prison, Song Geng’s wife had passed away and his daughter had married out of town and no longer had any contact with anyone at home. All of his other relatives severed their relations with him. By the time he got out of prison, he was considered a ward of the state. The house that he lived in now was actually a house loaned to him by the village branch secretary.
All of this information was told to them by the branch secretary, with Xiao Qiu acting as translator for Shen Yu. At first, Shen Yu could not see any connection between her Uncle Li and this village. It was only after Tang Can started to explain things further did she start seeing the whole picture. When Tang Can and the group first brought Shen Yu to Old Mr. Yun, the old geezer refused to admit they had found the person he was looking for – the person with the silver bracelet. However, Tang Can was persistent. He continued to pester the old man every day until Old Mr. Yun finally let it slip that they needed to find Song Geng. That was the reason why Tang Can brought Shen Yu to this village.
Shen Yu finally realized an important fact – the bracelet on her wrist was not any old silver bracelet. It was special for some reason!
- Mountainous province in southern China, it was the home province of Mao Zedong ↩