Chapter 10 - Popular Custom
Shen Yu stared at the night sky, her head cocked to the side as she sifted through her memories of the past couple of days. Her heart felt heavy as she tried to make sense of what happened recently.
Tang Can noticed that she seemed a bit off and smiled at her. “Are you feeling sad to leave your hometown?”
She glanced at him but remained silent. Everyone around her had secrets they weren’t willing to tell, even her own parents. Tang Can clearly had no desire to let her into the loop so she had to be more careful now and put the pieces together as best that she could.
As she stared off into space, she thought back to her childhood and all of the questions that her parents had dismissed or deflected. She suddenly realized that they never gave her any details about Uncle Li’s past. Shen Yu had always thought that the stories that the neighbors told her were just rumors but now she suspected that they held some truth. There was no smoke without a fire.
For as long as she could remember, her family had lived in Sanlitun in the Northern Jinshi district. The differences between the rural countryside and urban city life had slowly decreased at the start of the 1990s. The younger generations had quickly embraced the modern lifestyle but the older generation, especially those living in rural areas, still kept their traditional ways of living.
In the village, the Shen family was not considered a rich household and they were mostly able to make enough to keep their bellies full. Despite that, thieves loved to target their house. Break ins occurred every few days and the miscreants even dug holes in their courtyard. The local police was of no help and soon they didn’t even bother opening up cases when they were reported.
The thieves ended up stealing some household items, like chopsticks or bowls, because there was nothing else to steal. As a child, Shen Yu could never find enough implements to eat dinner with and often cried in frustration. She couldn’t understand just how poor those thieves had to be to steal ordinary household items.
At first, her mother had been worried about the thieves but later she got used to them. She even tried to comfort Shen Yu by saying, “No thief likes to leave empty handed. It’s just that our family’s too poor, so the only thing they can steal are our bowls and chopsticks. Huh, there’s nothing that we can do. Looks like being too poor can attract thieves too.”
Being too poor made one a target for thieves? Mrs. Shen’s attempt at comforting her daughter backfired as it only made her cry harder.
Later on Shen Yu had heard the villagers say that her family had gold stashed in the house because her Uncle Li had dug up gold. Their poor facade was just an act!
At her age, Shen Yu believed whatever other people told her. But she didn’t really know what gold was. To her, it had to be something that was worth a lot of money so she really wanted to find it. She had ransacked the house and even dug a couple of holes in the courtyard. When her mom found out, she received a beating on her butt from the broom. Her butt was so tender from the spanking that days after she could only lay on her stomach on the bed to go to sleep.
Their neighbor, Old Mrs. Li, visited Shen Yu after that and brought some eggs. When Mrs. Shen had stepped out, Old Mrs. Li secretly said to Shen Yu, “You poor thing! Grow up quickly! When you’re an adult you should go find your real parents and leave these cruel adoptive parents behind!”
Later on, when Shen Yu was mad at her mother, she yelled at her mother “I’m going to run away and find my real parents!”
When Mrs. Shen heard those words, she fainted. After she woke up, she grabbed onto Shen Yu and started bawling. In the heat of the moment, her mother went to find some rope to hang on the ceiling beam. Shen Yu was scared witless when she saw her mother’s actions and promised her mother that she would never say anything like that again.
After that, Shen Yu never mentioned what Old Mrs. Li said to her mother again. However, the villagers didn’t stop. A while later, a man who was called Big Mazi came over their house to make a fuss. He smashed up the house and threatened to air the Shen family’s dirty past. After hitting Mr. Shen and screaming at Mrs. Shen, he was surprisingly very gentle towards her and gave her a piece of candy. He observed her silently before saying, “This little girl looks a lot like Professor Yu…”
At that moment, Shen Yu’s mother threw herself over to Shen Yu’s side as she sobbed. “The offenses of the old should not be taken by the young! Please don’t make it hard for my daughter!”
Big Mazi immediately started scolding Mrs. Shen again. Exactly what else was said, Shen Yu no longer remembered as it had been too long since it happened. She did recall that Big Mazi accused her parents of “biting the hands that fed them” and that they had kidnapped a child to get some map...
Shen Yu’s head exploded in pain as her whole body rammed into the windshield. The Jeep had suddenly braked and she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Her eyes saw stars as she slowly picked herself up. All of the thoughts she had just painstakingly organized had just flown the roost, and she couldn’t even remember what she had been thinking about.
“It’s a rabbit!” exclaimed Tang Can, his heart still pounding after seeing that rabbit dart in front of the car.
Shen Yu’s expression changed suddenly. She asked Tang Can to hold on for a bit and he thought she needed to go to the restroom. He averted his gaze to give her privacy but was astonished when he saw her walk in front of the car and scatter some money on the road.
After she came back to the car, Tang Can couldn’t help but be curious. “What were you just doing?”
“Don’t ask. Drive on,” replied Shen Yu, her face taut with stress.
For someone like Tang Can, who likely grew up in the city, he likely didn’t understand the customs of the rural countryside. Shen Yu, however, was a born and bred farm girl. In the rural areas, there was a saying, “The rabbit does not go empty”. Having a rabbit cross one’s path at night was a bad omen and required one to throw some money to keep the bad luck away.
After having too many of her urban peers laugh at her for being a superstitious bumpkin, Shen Yu no longer tried to explain these customs to outsiders. Even though she was educated, she also knew there were some things that science could not explain. For her, the peace of mind was worth it.
She explained these thoughts when they arrived back at the army base. Contrary to what she expected, Tang Can did not mock her. He stated that he had met many travelers who also followed these rural superstitions. His tolerance and broad-mindedness improved her opinion of him.
Tang Can then talked to her about the superstitions and customs of other areas he was familiar with. Shen Yu suddenly thought of something similar to this topic.
“Have you ever heard of people shrinking after they die? For example, like a tall man shrinking ot the size of an average women?” She asked Tang Can.
Tang Can laughed and shook his head. “That's a bit of exaggeration, isn’t it? I don’t personally think that's true.”
Shen Yu nodded along and the familiar feelings of discomfort arose again. She had actually never believed that rumor either but she had clearly heard the villagers talking about what happened to Uncle Li’s body after he died. What was the cause of that?
Shen Yu’s expression suddenly changed as a thought a came to her mind. What if the body that was in Uncle Li’s coffin was not actually Uncle Li?
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