The Witch Nichang– Chapter 55
Black and White
The first thing that came to me when I heard what she said wasn’t surprise but apprehension.
But the next moment, I dismissed the apprehensive feeling, not only because of rationality, but also because I didn’t think that she would repeat that brusque action she had done when she was a kid. Some deep-rooted things from childhood might continue to influence her throughout her life, but just a few. After all these years, her growth and change had been so obvious.
So after the feeling of apprehension had subsided, what came next was a faint hope.
“Why? Why didn’t you bury her?” Because of the rising hope, I pressed on, almost desperately. Talking with my head up was too uncomfortable, so I leaped on the tree with qi, but because I was too hasty and careless, the tip of a leaf grazed the corner of my eye.
Disconcerted, I squinted my right eye that was tearing out of reflex, but I had no time to pay any heed to it. I held on to the tree branch to keep myself still and crouched down. Then I laid my other hand on Lian’er’s shoulder and blurted, “Didn’t you say Master had passed away? Why didn’t you bury her? Why do you only bring it up now? Or there’s more to it?”
I was impatient, but she wasn’t. She sat reclining against the tree trunk, letting my hand rest on her, even reaching out her left hand to rub my sore eye. She said, grinning, “What’s the hurry? You were crying back then. That’s why I didn’t go into the details, and later, it didn’t occur to me to bring it up. I thought paying respect is just setting up a memorial tablet and burning some joss paper. I saw the people in the stronghold do that a lot. Who would have thought you wanted to visit the grave?”
My heart rippled when the soft hand grazed my face, but I quickly pulled myself together. Now I didn’t feel like explaining the difference between a memorial tablet and a grave and just let her go on with what she was doing. I looked at her with the other eye and said, “What are the details that you haven’t told me? Can you tell me now?”
She nodded, her hand kept on rubbing absent-mindedly when she said, “It’s nothing, actually. I can explain it in a few sentences. You’d asked me why I didn’t bury Master, but at that time, I didn’t even know where Master died. I couldn’t bury her even if I wanted to.”
My heart skipped at her words. The faint hope seemed to be getting closer. “I don’t know!” I continued after her, my voice unconsciously raising a few notches, “But you were so sure before. Or were you not with her when she died despite what you said?”
Lian’er first nodded and then shook her head. She looked at me and said with a frown, “I didn’t see her die with my own eyes, but she did die.”
“How could you just assume a person’s death like this if you didn’t see it yourself?”
The growing hope felt somewhat unreal, like light in the darkest of times. I couldn’t contain myself at the excitement and couldn’t help raising my voice. The words I blurted were loud and hasty, tinged with a hint of blame.
“You don’t believe me?” She retracted her hand, and her face darkened. Biting her lips, a tinge of frost gleamed in her eyes.
I was shocked by my own words that nearly sounded like blame as soon as they were out. My chest tensed, and I saw the hurt in Lian’er’s eyes. I immediately regretted it, loathing myself for getting too worked up and getting carried away. I quickly held her hand that was still mid-air. I lowered my voice, trying to soften my voice, and said apologetically, “Lian’er, Lian’er, don’t be angry. When have I ever not believed you? You know me, even if there’s just the slightest chance, I hope Master would still be alive…”
After she listened to my explanation, she blinked while looking at me, her face softened, and her eyebrows smoothed. “I understand what you’re saying. Actually, I wish Master was still alive too, but she’s really dead. I’m not just saying this. I’ll show you the evidence.”
After that, she turned to grab my hand and leaped off the tree with me. After we landed, we headed toward Yellow Dragon Cave.
I was being pulled along. It didn’t show on my face, but inside, I was nervous. I didn’t know whether I felt more excited or scared. Uneasily, I entered the cave with Lian’er. Then she let go of my hand and went to the left corner, rummaging for something.
There were only a few small wooden chests in that corner. It was the place where we put our books and papers. They were books that Master had bought us for practicing writing. Except for the few that had interested her that were brought into the small chamber, the rest were piled up there. Most of them had sat there for ages, but I saw Lian’er pick them up one by one and flip through them before throwing them aside, as if she was looking for something. After repeating this a few more times, she let out a cheer and pulled out a piece of paper from an old blue book.
“Found it! See.” She turned and hopped over, shoving the paper in my hand.
I looked at her before looking down. Taking a breath to compose myself, I laid my eyes on that thin sheet of paper. After taking a careful look, I realized that this wasn’t just a piece of paper, it was a short letter, with salutation and sign-off. That meticulous style, who else would that be if not our Master.
The content of the letter was clear and concise. The first two sentences reminded Lian’er that although she had made some progress, she had to remember that there was always someone stronger than her, and she should keep improving and not slack off. Then she changed tones and told us that this would be the final farewell, don’t go looking for her and don’t miss her; we only had to inform her death to Taoist Zhenqian in the temple located at Luoyan Peak and ask him to pass on the message to her husband Huo Tiandu three years later, on the day when the 20-year-promise was due.
“That night when I woke up, no one was in the cave anymore. I didn’t know what she did that let her leave at night without waking me up, but, by that time, her body had already been ruined. She couldn’t move her legs, and her upper body was far weaker than before. Mount Hua is full of dangers, and it was freezing outside then. What else could she have been doing other than seeking death? Plus after reading this letter, what else is there to doubt?”
Lian’er was explaining alongside me as I read the letter. The moment she was done, I finished the letter, but my eyes were still fixed on the words “death” and “farewell” for a while before I slumped beside the table. I put my hand to my forehead and tentatively mumbled, “Maybe—maybe Master just took a bet and ventured out, like a last-ditch effort. That’s why she left this farewell letter.”
“Impossible.” Lian’er cut off my wishful thinking without mercy and said resolutely, “Master even gave up on the 20-year-promise. Not to mention, with the state she was in, she couldn’t even get out of Mount Hua, where else could she have gone? If I were her, I would do the same—find a quiet place where nobody can find me and embrace my death with grace, also sparing my body from getting seen by anyone and tarnishing my image.”
She said it with determination and confidence, as if she knew what Master was thinking. Deep down, I believed her. The resolution and pride in Lian’er was extremely similar to that of Master. You could say she inherited them from Master. Every time we encountered an extreme situation, her judgment and understanding of Master’s thoughts was obviously better than mine. There was no doubt about it.
Besides, it wasn’t that I didn’t know, it’s just that…
I let out a soft sigh and read the letter once again, then I stood up, folded it, and gave it back to her. I watched her slip it back into the book and put it away in the corner before I spoke, “I know it may be a little inappropriate, and Master also told us to not look for her and not to miss her, but as the saying goes, I have to see her, dead or alive. We couldn’t just let things hang. Lian’er, let’s find some time and try to look around the mountain. Just to set our mind at ease, okay?”
As she gathered the books that had been tossed aside, she said casually without turning around, “Alright, anything is fine. I’ll look around with you if that’s what you want. Since we rarely come back, it’s fine if we stay a little longer. Let’s see who’s right.”
I knew she was still angry by the way she talked, so I walked over to the corner and asked carefully as I put away the books with her, “Then…is it alright to be away from your stronghold for so long?”
“You don’t have to worry about that. I have my ways. Besides, I normally go away once or twice every year. What could go wrong?” Perhaps she had noticed my deliberation, she straightened up and gazed at me. Then suddenly, she smiled and said, “Why are you acting funny today? It’s not like yourself at all. Am I that petty? What you said earlier didn’t bother me.”
Only now it doesn’t bother you. Of course, I didn’t say that out loud. Seeing her smile, I knew all her displeasure had dissipated. I breathed a sigh of relief. Things had settled. Although it was far from what I had planned to do while we were on the road, it was going in a positive direction—it might even be better than what I could hope for.
I had to see Master, dead or alive. Before that, there was still hope, no matter how small it was.
After we had discussed that, it was time to make plans for a longer stay. Mount Hua was huge. I said we were going to look around, but I had no clue where to start, so there was no need to rush. We would talk about it after we tidied up the cave and made sure it was cozy.
Good thing that we were familiar with the place. Lian’er went out after she was done with the books in the corner, and we came together and decided our tasks. In less than an hour, she was back with some game and forage. Meanwhile, I fired the stove, fetched some water, and cleaned the pots. Since we had stovewood and salt outside the cave, I cooked up something to fill ourselves up. Then we took a break before starting to do a thorough clean of the clutter in the cave.
Back then, we would do a cleaning like this every year. Washing, drying, mopping, sweeping, everyone did their job, and everything was in order. Everyone knew what to do without saying anything, so I didn’t check on Lian’er and went about my business at my own pace until I came to the small stone chamber at the furthest end. I hesitated.
According to our usual tasks, cleaning up this chamber was my responsibility. It was just that, this time around, I knowingly and unknowingly avoided coming close to here, let alone going in. It would just add to my grief.
At that moment, I stood in front of the stone wall, hesitated for a moment, and at last, made up my mind. I carefully moved the cover on both sides and entered.
Maybe it was all in my head, but as I stepped into the room, I felt it was darker than it was back then. I guessed Lian’er never went in here for the past two years because it was stuffy inside. There was a faint smell of mold in the air, and the room was covered in dust. Compared to outside, this actually felt like a place no one had lived in for a long time.
But everything was in the same place as before. Even a cloak was chucked on the bed like the owner had just taken it off.
I just looked at it, standing there for a while before touching my nose and going over. I took the wet cloth and was about to wipe off the thick dust on the furniture first, but just as the cloth touched the table, I heard Lian’er call for me outside.
She sounded urgent. I couldn’t make out the emotion in her voice. Before I could think, I chucked the cloth and rushed out, afraid that something might have happened. When I got out, I saw she was standing in front of the stone bench she slept on when she was little, facing a stack of clothes, holding something in her hand, her face beaming.
I settled down when I saw her smile but then wondered why she had called me so urgently, so I went to her in puzzlement, looked at her with my head tilted, and asked, “Lian’er, what’s wrong? Why did you call me over?”
She was looking at something in her hand, her face sparkling with delight. When she saw me walking over, she turned around but didn’t explain immediately, just grabbing my hand and saying gaily, “Right on time! Turn around. I have something nice for you!”
I didn’t know what she was up to but didn’t want to kill her joy either, so I turned around as she asked. Before I could speak my doubts, I felt my hair was gently parted. A lovely scent drew close, and I felt a warm touch, followed by a cold sensation on my neck. Something was clasped around my neck. A cold and smooth object fell against my collarbone. Its texture felt like jade but colder and harder.
Lian’er was right behind me, her body almost touching me. I could hear her voice beside my ear, chuckling, “I thought they’re gone. I never thought I could find them again after all these years. Well, we should make the best use of it. Now that Master is gone, we’ll take one each. Consider a sign of staying true to our promise.”
It was then I could look at it. I saw a red string around my neck. The middle of it was intricately woven into a net, holding a carved stone in it, pure white in color. At first glance, it was easy to mistake it for jade, but if you looked closely, it was just a small colored stone.
By the time I turned around, Lian’er had already taken a step back, her hand fiddling around her neck. When she put her hands down and saw me looking at her, she pointed to her neck with a smile. There was a similar piece of stone clasped around her neck. Only the color was different—it was black as ink.
“You’ll take the white one, and I’ll take the black one. How’s that?”