Chapter 30 – Night Vigil
From Tang Can she learned that the silver bracelet on her wrist was different from the ones available in the general market. The bracelet that she had was made by someone from the Miao ethnic group. The engraved design and the bell were all examples of fine Miao-style workmanship. Silversmiths who were not of the tribe would not be able to make something of that caliber. Furthermore, the metal in the bracelet was actually mostly copper and only a little bit of silver. This is a hallmark of Miao craftsmanship. Bells made out of different metals have distinctive types of tones. A copper bell would have a sharper and crisper tone compared to one made out of pure silver. That is why the bell on her bracelet always had a clear and sweet tone when it rang.
Tang Can asked Shen Yu if she could take off her bracelet again so he could show it the the branch secretary. The middle-aged man inspected it carefully. After Shen Yu put the bracelet back on her wrist, she found out from him that her silver bracelet was actually crafted by Song Geng. The decorative designs on it showed the Miao ethnic group’s signature totem butterflies. Embedded within the butterfly design was Song Geng’s family name in the Miao script.
The branch secretary explained to them that when Song Geng was still working as a silversmith, all of his creations contained that exact same name, to mark them as his. In fact, all of the people living in this village knew what it looked like. To prove that he was telling the truth, the branch secretary had his wife bring over a couple of silver bracelets and necklaces that were made by Song Geng. Shen Yu and Tang Can inspected those pieces and compared them to her bracelet. The same design showed up on all of the silver jewelry.
What did all of this mean? Shen Yu’s head started to spin but quickly settled down as she started to consider the impact of the new information. Her deductions quickly led her down new pathways. She now seemed to understand how her mom mysteriously knew about an “Old Longtan” in the southern part of the country. Other curious facts became clearer. Her mother had always claimed she didn’t have any living relatives, but perhaps that was not true. Shen Yu regarded her silver bracelet in a new light, it was no longer as ordinary as she used to think. This is the first good deed that Tang Can and his crew did for me. I might be able to find relatives that my family has lost touch with.
Unfortunately, things were not as simple as Shen Yu had thought. Even though the branch secretary was willing to help them, the old man Song Geng still refused to say anything. One of the villagers mentioned that being imprisoned for so long must have scattered the old man’s wits. Since he was released, the old man had never said a single word. Commander Jin and some people from the local public security bureau had actually visited this town earlier. It was supposed to be a simple trip, mostly to gather some information. However, the villagers all thought that they were there to lock up Song Geng again. Even the old man himself thought the same. When Song Geng saw the police officers he lost control of his bowels in terror. His trousers had gotten completely soiled with urine and feces.
In an attempt to find out if the old man knew where his daughter went, Tang Can tried to talk to Song Geng again. However, it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack! The old man just refused to say anything.
In the afternoon, Tang Can brought Shen Yu to visit the old man again. The young officer was not willing to give up. When they reached the house, they were greeted with a gruesome sight. Song Geng had hung himself on the pear tree in front of his house. Shen Yu noticed that that the old man had used a dirty, oil-covered cloth belt to do the deed. An old, lonely man had killed himself.
Shen Yu felt her heart drop into an abyss filled with darkness. Ribbons of fear and shock wrapped around her. This was the first time she had ever seen a dead person that was not at a funeral. That night, she and Tang Can kept vigil over the old man. Silvery, cold beams of moonlight covered the village. Shen Yu could see shadows cast by the nearby tree on the ground. After her initial fright of seeing a corpse passed, Shen Yu felt sympathy for the old man. In front of her was not just a dead body frozen in rigor mortis, to her, it was the remains of an elderly man filled with despair and suffering. Unfortunately, Song Geng’s premature death also meant that her link to her mother’s family had also snapped.
Tang Can blamed himself for what had happened. Had he not tried to push the old man to tell him the truth, Song Geng might not have committed suicide. It was clearly done out of despair, a last resort for the elderly man.
Shen Yu sat calmly on a small wooden stool and methodically burned paper money for the deceased old man. Her thoughts went back to what happened that day. In the morning, she had rolled tobacco for him. Then, in the afternoon, the old man had closed his eyes for the last time, his mouth open in death. Death and life were strokes away from each other. To live is to die, to die is to live. There could not be one without the other.
In the middle of the night, the branch secretary also came over to keep vigil. He talked to Shen Yu as he burned paper money for Song Geng. The middle-aged man thought that she was a kind-hearted and honest young woman. Shen Yu had to struggle before she could understand his heavily accented Mandarin. He told her that when people died, their souls were set free. Although the living could not see their spirits, their souls would wander wherever they wanted to go. He also said that the old man wouldn’t close his mouth because he was probably eating roast pork and white rice somewhere else. When Shen Yu heard that, she didn’t know if it was appropriate for her to laugh or not.
After finishing his shift, the branch secretary left. Commander Jin and Xiao Qiu came over to take the next shift. However, Tang Can refused to let them stay the whole time. He wanted them to go back to the villagers whose homes they were sleeping in and get a good rest. Command Jin tried to convince Shen Yu to also rest. Before she could say anything, Tang Can looked her in the eye and intervened on her behalf. He told the commander that he didn’t need to worry about her. Shen Yu smiled at him tiredly. It was startling that he understood what she wanted.
The night in the village passed calmly yet restlessly. Occasionally, the quiet of the night would be interrupted by some distant dogs barking or chickens clucking.
The house that Song Geng had lived in did not have any electric lights. Earlier that evening, the branch secretary had asked the local electrician to bring a power cord over from a neighboring house over and to install some electrical lights. The lights were hung from bamboo poles. When the wind blew, the lights swayed from side to side, causing their beams of light to also sway. The shifting lights made Shen Yu’s eyes water. She raised her head to look at the dangling light bulb and was suddenly afraid that the light would smash into a wall and break into pieces.
The room reeked of mold and dampness. As the night passed, Shen Yu could also detect the slight undertone of something rotting. She wasn’t sure where it was coming from but suspected it arose because it had been so hot during the day. The smell combined with her run-down surroundings made her feel slightly ill.
“Let’s go outside and walk a bit!” suggested Tang Can as he stood up. He offered a hand to Shen Yu to help her get up from her chair. Together, the two them brought out their wooden stools to the small garden.
The night wind was slightly chilly, so Tang Can took off his army jacket and wrapped it around Shen Yu’s shoulders. Although she tried to give it back, Tang Can stubbornly insisted she keep it on, and tied it tightly around her. Under the light from the stars and moon, she looked up at him. A smile slowly started to form on her face.
Neither of them said anything. There was nothing for them to say. At first, Shen Yu was able to appreciate the view of the rural village in the night, but she quickly became sleepy. She cushioned her head on her arm, placed her arm onto her leg and, before she knew it, she fell asleep. She was only half asleep as it was not a comfortable position for resting. Shen Yu soon felt Tang Can slowly lifting up her head to bring it up to his shoulder. In her dreams, she could remember talking to herself, telling herself to not use him as a pillow. Before she could act on those thoughts, she fell into a deeper sleep. When she woke up, her eyes opened to the first rays of the sun peeking out during dawn and Tang Can’s youthful face. Shen Yu could also feel the tell-tale signs of drool on the bottom of her chin.
Whoa he really is quite good-looking! Shen Yu suddenly felt a shock zip through her entire body.
“You’re awake now?” Tang Can had noticed that Shen Yu had woken up. He smiled, revealing a set of spotlessly white teeth.
Surprised and embarrassed, Shen Yu sat up in a flash, and a strangled sound came out of her throat. She lowered her head, too shy to look at him. But her efforts couldn’t prevent Tang Can from seeing a faint blush cross her pretty face.