Chapter 4 – An Ancient Dinner

Ting Wei knocked on the door twice and stepped back. We waited awhile before hearing some footsteps inside coming toward the door. A woman in her mid-fifties opened the door for us. She also wore those ancient clothes, plus a heavy sweater in ancient style. Were they all so into their roles that they never changed back out to modern-slash-real life clothes or something? As I was pondering that over, I could hear Ting Wei talking to her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, could I ask you something?” Ting Wei began.
“Uh…I don’t understand what you’re saying,” The old woman said in ancient Chinese language. She began to use hand signals to communicate with us.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I spoke up in ancient Chinese language as well, playing along. “Could we ask you something?”
“Oh, you do speak our language,” The old woman said happily.
“Yes,” I said. “Could we ask you where this place is?”
The old woman gave us a glance over before answering.
“I’ve never seen you two before. Are you from another town?” She asked, still looking at us over carefully with her eyes.
“We’re lost,” I explained. “It’s so dark and snowing so we must’ve have made the wrong turn back there somewhere.”
“Oh. With the things you’re wearing, you must be cold. Come on in. I’ll prepare some tea for you and then we’ll talk.”
She looked so sincere I didn’t want to turn her down. But we were in the middle of nowhere after all – or it seemed like besides from this set of houses, so we must take precaution. I turned to Ting Wei. He nodded and smiled at me so I turned back to the old woman.
“That’ll be great,” I said, smiling. “But could our other friends come in also? We’re temporarily seeking shelter at a nearby house and it doesn’t have anything to stay warm.”
“That’s fine,” She answered.
She opened the door widely for us to step inside.
“I’ll be back,” I whispered to Ting Wei in English as I headed back to the little house the others were still in.
I walked back to find the others at the exact spot as before, except the light was getting dimmer in the room. It was a miracle that it could last so long since we’ve been there for a while now. Surprisingly, It was CJ who noticed me first.
“Angela!” CJ called out, standing up in the process. “Where is Ting Wei? What have you two found out?”
“A very interesting thing. We’re in the middle of nowhere but someone offered to take us into their warm house. Ting Wei is waiting over there for us.”
“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait,” I said, extending my hand out to stop him.
“What?” CJ stopped in his tracks, looking at me.
“This lady is kind of strange. She thinks that she’s in ancient time China or something, so don’t speak English to her. She pretends not to understand. So let’s play along. We need to ask her for information so we can find our way back home. Okay?”
“Are you serious?” He asked, his tone dripping with sarcasm.
I stared him down without flinching.
“I guess you are,” He said. “After all, you can’t be kidding with us in this cold weather, right?”
He smiled and turned back to the others. “Come on, guys!”
Roger put out what was left of the candle before following Jing Jing to the door. I stepped aside so they could walk past me. I could see Jing Jing turning pale again as she walked by.
“It’s a lot warmer over there. Don’t worry, “I said, trying to sound reassuring.
Jing Jing gave me a weak smile.
I shut the door to the little house before leading the way to the old woman’s house. I knocked on the door lightly and waited with the other three crowding behind me. The old woman came to the door seconds later. She smiled at all of us and stepped aside, opening the door wider for us to enter.
“Thank you so much, ma’am,” I said, switching back to ancient Chinese language once more.
“You’re welcome,” She said.
We spotted Ting Wei standing next to the fireplace, so we joined him there. The fireplace itself was also like any other objects we saw around there so far, hand-made ancient stuff.
“This place is sort of neat, you know,” CJ whispered to Ting Wei and Roger in English.
I turned to give them a look. CJ’s smile faded and he resumed his serious look again.
The old woman had disappeared to somewhere in the back, possibly the kitchen. I walked around the room, studying every spot of it.
The old woman came back at that time, carrying a bundle of something rolled up in chunks. I stepped forward to help her with it. She turned to the guys and Jing Jing, gesturing for them to come forward.
“You all must be unprepared while you were on your journey,” She said. “Take one. It will keep you warm.”
She personally handed a small bundle of what looked like some black towel to me. I felt the light material, thinking it wouldn’t help much, but seeing how sincere the lady looked, I gave her an appreciative smile. I unfolded it to discover that it was a cloak. One of those ancient cloaks that they used in those ancient serials also. I could see the others were putting it on themselves as well.
“Wow!” CJ exclaimend – in ancient Chinese language of course. “This is so warm!”
I must hand him a trophy for his excellent acting, I thought. I put mine on also, not wanting to disappoint the old woman. She helped me secure the little string around my neck. I smiled at her as she was done. She went back into the back part of the house again. I was not quite sure what she was going to take out this time around, but I wrestled silently with CJ in my head and took back the trophy I just gave him. I didn’t realize how warm this cloak was. I looked at it again, feeling the material in my hands. This was amazing. How could such a light-weighted cloak be so warm? I checked around carefully to see if some kind of heating pads of some sort was embedded into the cloak. After some senseless searching, I gave up and decided it was the type of material they used. The funniest thing was I couldn’t find a label on it at all. Clever group of people, hiding their talents.
“Shao Han,” I heard someone calling me.
I turned to see Ting Wei waving for me to come with him. The old woman had finally come back and was now standing at the corner of the door that led into the back of the house.
“What?” I asked Ting Wei.
“Granny Yang said we can go eat,” He said.
“Oh,” I said, only half alert.
I followed him silently, observing the surrounding. This place – although it looked ancient and rundown, but it was very spacious. When we finally reached our destination, I took a look to see it was sort of like the kitchen, except it had tables and all right next to it. So it was actually kitchen and dining room combined in one.
“My family especially set it up like this so we could use the fire from the stoves to warm ourselves,” She explained.
We were pretty much used to our surroundings by now, so we didn’t bother to ask about the ancient stoves either.
“Sit down,” She insisted. “I’m going to bring the food up soon.”
“Uh…let me help you,” I said.
“You’re guests,” She said.
“But I feel strange that we’re here to occupy your time and not do anything,” I said.
I guessed she could see how persistent I looked, so she nodded.
I followed her to the kitchen area and helped her with watching the stoves and carrying the food to the table.
When we were finally done, Granny Yang sat down to eat with us also, which we were glad. Since it would be too weird to see her waiting on us like we were royalty or something. I didn’t realize how hungry I’ve became these past hours until I took a bite into a piece of veggie.
“This is good,” Jing Jing said, smiling.
Jing Jing hadn’t said much since we stepped into the house. In fact, she hadn’t talked that much since we arrived at that weird place. I turned to see her colors returning to its normal state.
“Then eat some more,” Granny Yang said with a motherly voice.
I couldn’t describe the feeling. It was like we were actually having family dinner. Even though we were in that strange place, but I couldn’t help feeling all warm inside. I half wished that place was the real thing so we could enjoy this little happiness every day, not having to care about the cruel reality we lived in – fighting to stay alive every single day.
“Oh yeah, Granny,” CJ said. “Where is this place anyway?”
“This is Huang Tu City,” She replied.
All five of us looked at each other. Okay, so she was going to play this game forever? No, not forever. Maybe she just needed a little encouragement. I cleared my throat before speaking up.
“Granny Yang,” I began. “What do you do for a living?”
CJ looked at me from across the table like I was crazy. How did he want me to ask? Straight out? We shouldn’t upset her. After all, she rescued us out from the cold and invited us to dinner.
“My son is a woodsman,” She answered. “But it’s winter now, so it’s harder for him to do it. He’s coming home late tonight. I’ll introduce him to you all once he’s home.”
Great. Ask one question and you get a perfectly reasonable answer – except this wasn’t ancient time. I could see from the corner of my eyes that CJ was ready to laugh. I kicked him under the table, giving him the look, “Why don’t you ask then?”
He winced and turned to Granny Yang. “Granny, how long have you been living here?”
“I’ve been living here my whole life now,” Granny Yang answered, still with that calm tone.
How many times had she recited that? It sounded so smooth and honest. Or maybe she managed to trick herself into this illusion too?
“What year is this then?” CJ asked, forgetting to re-phrase it to make it sound more polite.
“Don’t you kids know? It’s Ming Dynasty Year…”
We all stopped eating. I was not sure if the others had heard what year it was, but I had tuned it out already. Ming Dynasty? She was really high on something. I wanted to jump up and say, “That’s impossible!” But I was too numbed to do it. Then I gave myself a mental slap. I said it myself that she was mental, why was I worried that we might be in Ming Dynasty? Exactly. I calmly turned to Granny Yang again with a smile.
“Granny, so…”
Before I could finish, she spoke up instead.
“Which city are you all from? And what place did you seek shelter from before? Was it the one near the horse stables? No wonder you kids were cold. It’s not suitable for anyone to stay in, even a minute.”
“It didn’t look like a horse stable though,” CJ spoke up. He had somehow found his voice again, probably reassuring himself just like me.
“It’s the house across from yours. The dark black house,” I said.
Granny Yang froze her chopsticks in mid-air. She looked like she was going to drop the bowl and chopsticks in her hands. I placed mine set down and managed to rescue hers.
“Granny, what’s wrong?” I asked.
She turned to look at me once again with investigative eyes. Then at the others around me. She then reached out to touch my chin and felt my skin.
“What’s wrong?” I repeated. “Are you all right?”
She finally sighed out and returned to her normal state. I turned to look at the others once before returning my attention to her.
“Granny?” I prompted.
“I’m sorry,” She finally said. “Please forgive me. I was just being careful.”
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” CJ said.
I kicked him under the table again. Great. What a way to earn some points and trying to get on her good side, I thought.
“I…” She began again. She turned to stare at me in the eyes, looking worried. “Did you kids see anything in that house? I mean is there…”
“What?” I asked, feeling anxious myself.
“They say that the house is haunted,” She said.
That sent some chills around the room. Although I didn’t believe in those stuffs, but somehow I felt somewhat unease too. She was getting creepier by the minute, making up all these stories. What should we do now? Will we ever find the correct answer so we could get out of that place? It didn’t matter if I had to walk through that snow. I needed to know.
“Haunted?” I repeated.
She nodded, not showing any hint that she was kidding with us.
CJ had this expression on that said, “Great. Time for some ghost stories, everyone.”
“Oh, right,” Granny Yang said. Somehow she had managed to pick up her chopsticks and rice bowl again and was eating like normal. “I didn’t ask for your names.”
“I am Zhang Shao Han,” I began.
“I am Shi Jing Jing,” Jing Jing continued.
“I am Lu Ting Wei,” Ting Wei said.
Then it was Roger’s turn. We all looked at him, hoping he wouldn’t say his English name.
“Zhu Tian Qi,” He said.
“Zhao Jia Le,” CJ said.
Granny Yang’s eyes lit up at CJ’s name. “Are you a descendant of the royal Zhao family?”
He looked across the table at me. “What royal Zhao family?”
“He means Zhang,” I said, giving him a look to play along. “He’s actually my little brother. But he likes to joke. Please excuse him.”
I didn’t want Granny Yang to go around in circles anymore, so I had to take CJ in under my roof so she wouldn’t ask anymore in regard to that.
“What Zhang? You…” CJ began.
I kicked him under the table once more, shutting him up. “Stop fooling around, Little Bro. You’re being impolite in front of Granny Yang.” I turned my attention to Granny Yang again with an apologetic look.
“It’s all right,” Granny Yang said. “I understand how it is at that age. My son was once very…”
At that time, we heard some sounds coming our way so we turned around to see a man walking in. He was around our age, maybe a little older from the look of his dark features and beard. Granny Yang stood up and walked to him. “Ah Xiang, look who’s here for dinner. We have some guests from outside the city. Come here and let me introduce you.”
We all stood up out of politeness. Granny Yang grabbed her son’s hand and walked back to us. “Sit down, sit down.” She gestured toward the chairs again, so we obeyed. “This is my son, Ah Xiang.”
We nodded politely, still looking at him. Was he whacked like his mother too? Or maybe he was just playing along with her? We would find out soon.
“So…” CJ began again as Ah Xiang sat down next to his mom and began eating. “Granny said that you’re a woodsman.”
“Yes,” Ah Xiang replied after having swallowed his food.
I must admit, everyone here were very good actors. No wonder they were hired to play these parts. Hopefully they were just practicing their parts on us right now and would be returning to their normal self like…soon.
“It’s late now,” Granny Yang said. “Stop chatting and let’s eat. We can continue the conversation afterward. Then we should all turn in.”
We had no other choice but continued our meal in silence. I could see CJ fidgeting and fighting with himself inside. That was the one thing CJ and I had in common. We couldn’t stop until we satisfied our curiosity to its max. And we both had the utmost reason to be anxious at that point. We had to find out how to get these people to behave normally again, so we could find our way back. If not tonight, then tomorrow. But somehow, we have to get home and find out where our parents were.
Just as we were about finished with our meal, CJ began to cough violently. He must have choked from fighting with himself to stay silent. I jumped up from my seat and rushed over to him. At a time like this, I didn’t care if we’re arch enemies in reality. And besides, I had to play out my big sister role.
“Jia Le, are you all right?” I thumbed him on the back, trying to help him.
He coughed some more and grabbed hold of my hand, drawing some characters into my hand. Sharp kid, faking it. I helped him to the corner of the room and continued to calm him down.
“What?” I whispered below his coughing fit.
“We can’t continue on with our questions,” He said before resuming his coughing fit again. “We might have to wait for tomorrow to check this town out ourselves.”
“That goes without saying,” I said.
“All right then,” He said.
Finally, he stopped coughing and stood up straight again.
“You’re okay now?” I asked with a concerned tone.
“Yes. Thanks, jie,” He said.
Did he have to put such a strong emphasis on the word “jie”?
“That’s good then. I think you had enough for tonight,” I said, pretending to be observing him closely.
“Yes,” He agreed. “I think so too.”
We walked back to the table together to see the others staring at us, especially Ting Wei. He must have wondered what in the world we were talking about. And why in the world must I be so close to CJ. Although CJ was really younger than me, but only by several months. Ting Wei did have to worry.
“I see that you’re better now,” Granny Yang said. “You kids should go to sleep. Let me and Ah Xiang take care of the dishes. You all look so worn out from your journey.”
“It’s fine,” I stepped forward. “I want to help.”
“Me too,” Jing Jing said, stepping forward also.
Granny Yang smiled at us.
“All right,” She said. Then she turned to Ah Xiang. “Ah Xiang, take these young gentlemen to the guest room.
“Yes, Mother,” Ah Xiang said.
Jing Jing and I helped Granny Yang wash dishes and clean up. We tried to ask her questions in the process, but still no luck in her trying to stop the “ancient” game anytime soon. We would have to find out on our own tomorrow, like CJ said. When we were done with the dishes, Granny Yang took us to the guest room also. It appeared that it was just a big room with different bunk beds and a separate bed in the far center of the room. No privacy, I thought. But better than nothing.
“I apologize for such setting, but we’re a common-folk family so we don’t have luxurious beds and separate rooms like the upper class people,” Granny Yang explained.
I turned to Granny Yang with a smile. “It’s fine. We’re very used to it anyway.”
Granny looked reassured again. “That’s good. You girls can go to sleep now.”
After that, she closed the door, leaving us with the guys.
© Monday, July 14th, 2008
Posted: Saturday, March 13th, 2010