Chapter 6 - The Disappearance of Uncle Li
Shen Yu couldn’t believe her eyes. Her mother had clearly just walked back into the house, why did she suddenly appear on the other side of the road? A feeling of dread slowly creeped up, as if a spider was slowly spinning a web of unease into her heart.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought a quick walk would help,” Shen Yu replied, trying her best to act normal as her mother stopped right next to her. It was never good to startle to object of your suspicions. “Mom, where did you go?”
Mrs. Shen smiled. “I was at Aunt Wang’s for a little bit! She wanted to talk to me about introducing one of her nephews to you. This one does some business in the city.”
“Oh.” Shen Yu had nothing more to add and followed her mother back to the house. The front door squeaked open when she pushed on it. Shen Yu frowned. She had thought she heard the door being bolted shut just a couple of minutes ago. What was going on? Did she hallucinate everything that just happened? Her head started to feel dizzy as she questioned herself.
The next morning at dawn, she dragged herself out of bed and went over to her Aunt Wang’s. Although it was early in the day, none of the villagers had the habit of sleeping in, so the metal door to her aunt’s residence was already wide open when she got there. Her aunt was in the courtyard, cooing softly at the chickens as she scattered feed from a dried gourd. Next to her was Shen Yu’s Uncle Wang, holding a hoe. From the looks of it, he was just about to go out into the fields.
Uncle Wang smiled when he saw her. “Hey! Little Yu came over to visit us!”
“Good morning, Uncle Wang. My mother accidentally lost her keys last night, so I’m here to help her find them. Is that okay?” Shen Yu lied blithely as she walked into the residence.
“Sure, sure! Make yourself at home. Go ask your aunt to help you, I’m going to fields right now!” He walked out of the front door jauntily.
Shen Yu paused for a second when her uncle passed by her. Something about his tall figure reminded her of the mysterious shadow from last night.
“Little Yu, come inside!” Aunt Wang grabbed her wrist and lead her inside. Shen Yu quickly lost track of her thoughts as her aunt started chatting at her.
Aunt Wang cheerfully helped Shen Yu look for her mother’s so called “lost keys” as she jabbered nonstop. She mentioned that Shen Yu’s mother had come over last night to talk. Although that matched her mother’s story, Shen Yu’s vague feeling of discomfort increased. She wasn’t sure what to think when the information she sought didn’t give her any answers.
When she got back home, she found her father in the courtyard sharpening the head of his hoe, the tell-tale screech of the tool filling the air. On the side, her mother was adding more wood to the stove that heated up a gurgling pot. The savory smell of rice wafted through the air.
Shen Yu sat down at a nearby wooden bench and watched her parents silently as they did their chores. A strange sensation crept up her body as she slowly realized that, despite living with them for twenty plus years, she didn’t understand her parents at all. Panic settled into her as that thought became more concrete.
She continued to brood on those thoughts until her mother told her to get ready to eat breakfast. Shen Yu crossed the main courtyard and headed over the side courtyard where her Uncle Li lived.
Unlike the city, where space was at a premium, the countryside had enough space for larger residences. Most of the farmsteads had houses with a main courtyard and side courtyard. The side courtyard was usually used by the villages to either store junk or house some farm animals. In her family, the side courtyard was reserved for Uncle Li.
Mrs. Shen was a very diligent person and kept the side courtyard very clean and neat. A bamboo fence with a gate separated the two courtyards, and it was usually kept locked with an iron chain. There were only two, small rooms in the side courtyard. The rooms had lower ceilings compared to the main house but it was still habitable. Uncle Li usually lived in the inner room and was only let out for meals. Whenever someone came over to let Uncle Li out, he would run out and mumble continuously“I want to eat meat buns, I want to eat meat buns…”
When Shen Yu reached the side courtyard, she found that the gate was slightly ajar and the metal chain was draped uselessly over the fence. She had a sinking feeling that Uncle Li was not inside.
“Mom, you must have forgotten to lock the gate yesterday!”
Her mother rushed into the hallway, still holding a rice paddle.
“I must have forgotten when I came back late yesterday!” Mrs. Shen’s face was pale. She started to chatter, as if she was trying to comfort herself. “Your Uncle Li probably stayed inside, he’s been very obedient these past couple of years. He’s likely gotten used to staying in his rooms and wouldn’t have run out because the gate was open.” She pushed the gate open and quickly walked into the side courtyard.
Shen Yu followed her mother and they both entered the inner room. On the heated bed, other than some blankets were some half-gnawed cucumbers. There was no sign of Uncle Li.
Mrs. Shen’s face dropped. “Oh no!” She turned to run out of the room but then quickly ran back in. She searched through the room frantically. “Don’t be naughty, Little Li, don’t hide from me…” The blankets were pulled off of the bed and when only a straw mattress appeared, Mrs. Shen sat down on the dirt floor in shock. Her eyes were huge as she stared into space with unfocused eyes.
Shen Yu knew then that Uncle Li was no longer to be found. The greatest responsibility lay on Mrs. Shen and she had an idea at the thoughts going through her mind. Her mother was likely worried about Uncle Li and was also worried about Mr. Shen becoming angry. Shen Yu bent down to support her mother up. “Don’t worry, mom. Uncle Li probably didn’t run off for too far. He might be just getting some fresh air. Let’s go find him right now!”
Mrs. Shen was left with no other option and followed her daughter out of the room to find Uncle LI, her face as white as a sheet.
Shen Yu was praying that Uncle Li had not fallen into any trouble while he was out free. If he did some minor damage to other people’s property, her family could afford to pay reparations. As long as they found him safe and sound, everything else didn’t really matter. Her prayer were in vain, however, as they were not able to find him even after searching for several days. Even the local police couldn’t find any sign of him.
During this time, Uncle and Aunt Wang also had problems. The neighbors told Shen Yu that Aunt Wang’s nephew was not a good person and Uncle Wang disapproved of her plan to introduce him to her. Aunt Wang rowed with Uncle Wang about this and even scratched his face raw with her fingers. After the fight, she even left the Wang residence to go back to her parents.
Aunt Wang’s reputation in the town was not good, and many villagers considered her to be a shrew. Because she came from a well-off family, she often used her family’s background to bully Uncle Wang. When they were young, they fought frequently and viciously. The only reason that they were able to stay together for so long was because Uncle Wang likely felt bad for her being unable to have children. Otherwise, they likely would have divorced twenty years ago.
The villagers viewed all of this with a calm eye. Some even hoped that Mrs. Wang would stay with her parents and never come back!
Shen Yu listened to the town gossip with limited interest. She had enough of her own issues to deal with and didn’t feel like meddling in the affairs of others. Although Uncle Li was insane, he was still a member of the Shen family and his disappearance gnawed at her.
Mrs. Shen became more and more depressed with every passing day. Although there were times she felt annoyed at her husband’s mentally unsound brother, she had never wished him ill and felt terrible about his disappearance.
Surprisingly, Shen Yu’s father never yelled at her mother for her mistake. His days fell into a simple pattern. Every day he would go out and search for Uncle Li and only come back when it was late. At home, he puffed on his tobacco, his silent figure betraying his worry. This pattern repeated until one morning Shen Yu and her mother discovered that her father could not be awakened from his slumber. Despite all of their efforts, Mr. Shen remained unconscious. Frightened, Shen Yu and her mother sent her father to the hospital. At the hospital, the doctors could not find out what was wrong with Mr. Shen so all they could say was that the stress about Uncle Li likely overtaxed his body. That night, Shen Yu’s father finally woke up. Seeing that he was doing okay, Mrs. Shen returned back to the village to make sure no one broke into the residence during their absence.
Shen Yu stayed at the hospital until her father was finally discharged. When they returned to the town, she noticed that there was a piece of white paper pasted onto their wall. It was the custom of the village to paste white paper on a residence when there was a family death.
They were quickly informed while Shen Yu’s father was recovering in the hospital, Uncle Li had been found. Except, he wasn’t alive when they found him. Apparently, Uncle Li had fallen into an old abandoned well and died from the impact. Because the weather had been so hot, by the time the villages had found him, his body had already started decomposing. The villagers had helped Mrs. Shen bring up his dead body and concealed the news from Mr. Shen as they were afraid his constitution could not take further stress. The police didn’t bother to conduct an autopsy on his body because everyone knew that Uncle Li was a madman, so no foul play was suspected.
The regrets of the living cannot resurrect the dead. Although Shen Yu felt sad about the whole situation, the case of Uncle Li’s disappearance could finally be closed.
Later on, Shen Yu accidentally overheard one of the townspeople discussing the situation. “...I once heard that when people died, their bodies will shrink in size. Back then I thought that person was just pulling my leg but now I know it as a true fact! The idiot Li was about 170 cm when he was alive but when they found his body, apparently it had shrunken quite a bit!”
That information shocked Shen Yu. What was going on?
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