After returning each abducted child one by one, A Fu brought the puppy, Fu Lan, and the black cat back home.
A Fu’s thatched cottage was at the village entrance. They walked to the end of the gravel road, turned onto a muddy dirt road, and then turned past a dilapidated wall with tall walls and diamond-shaped windows. The houses with tall walls and diamond-shaped windows became increasingly distant, gradually turning into brick and earth houses, and then into thatched huts. Finally, they crossed a field in the dark and came to a solitary little thatched hut at the foot of the eastern hill. There was a black locust tree growing beside the door, and its black leaves cast a dark shadow. That was where A Fu and her son lived.
As soon as they entered the door, A Fu knelt down with the puppy and said, “Thank you both for saving us. I have nothing to offer but live chickens and ducks. I hope you will accept them.”
The black cat licked its lips but couldn’t move even if it wanted to. It got so fat because of the food puppy shared with it every day. When it heard about the live chickens and ducks, the black cat cleared its throat and said, “Oh no, no, no, it was just a small favor to save a little child. But if you insist on showing your gratitude, we won’t refuse. That’s settled then. Boil the chicken and make the duck into salted duck. I have a light taste, so remember to add more onions.”
“So you are a demon who eats cooked food. What about this young master?”
“He eats and drinks the northwest wind. Don’t mind him. You just need to take care of me,” the black cat replied.
The puppy broke free from A Fu’s grasp and pounced on Fu Lan, saying, “Big brother!” Fu Lan was startled and pushed his head away. The puppy was persistent and stuck to Fu Lan. Fu Lan pushed him away again, and the puppy twisted his body and dived into his arms.
The puppy took out a packet of braised pork from his arms and opened it. He said, “It’s cold. There’s no meat to eat at home today, so I ran all over the village to find two pieces. I was going to give them to you, but I was caught by the strange old man on the way.”
Fu Lan patted him on the head.
A Fu was surprised and said with a smile, “So you are the new friends that the puppy mentioned. Before going to bed, he always talks about how he met a little boy and a cat. He used to talk about playmates he had met, but they turned out to be either mud dolls he had made himself or friends he had imagined. Once, he even took his own shadow as a friend. I thought this time was the same.” She reached out and touched the puppy’s little body and said, “This child has been playing alone since he was young. I am too busy to take care of him. Thank you both for accompanying him these past few days. I am deeply grateful.”
“No problem, no problem.” The black cat also smiled. “This old man is very happy to see this cute child.”
“But, puppy.” A Fu turned her head and smiled. “Weren’t you staying at Auntie Shen’s house? How did you meet Brother Cat and Young Master?”
She smiled with a slightly sinister expression, but at that time Fu Lan was naive and didn’t understand how to read people’s expressions. Fu Lan only found out later that this woman, A Fu, was not to be trifled with, and by then he was already her godson. When they ran out of oil at home, he took the puppy with him to buy soy sauce, and happened to see A Fu fighting in front of someone’s house. It seemed that the female owner had cheated A Fu out of her wages, and accused her of seducing men. A Fu beat the couple until they were disheveled and humiliated, and when she looked up, she saw her two sons standing in the crowd.
A Fu straightened her clothes and put two big coins in his palm, patting his head and saying, “Go buy some fruit to eat.”
When a woman goes crazy, even demons and monsters will keep their distance. That was the lesson Fu Lan learned at that time.
However, A Fu didn’t get angry when she found out that the puppy had been taken away by the black cat to become its food, and that he had stolen chicken and braised pork from Auntie Shen’s house. Perhaps because the black cat and Fu Lan were present, she just smiled and kindly told the puppy not to do it again, and that she would apologize to Auntie Shen tomorrow. The puppy knew his mother’s character well, and shook like a sieve. The black cat was surprised that this fearless child was acting like this.
A Fu poured two cups of tea, took Fu Lan’s hand, and asked about his background. Fu Lan answered all of her questions: he came from southern Xin Jiang, was picked up by a black cat, who was a cat demon, and had been looking for old temples all the way. He arrived at Wu Jiang a few days ago. Under the lamp light, the woman’s eyes were warm and gentle, and Fu Lan inexplicably felt that she looked like the goddess Nuwa in the temple. As long as he was under the dark eaves of a temple, it was like coming home.
Finally, she asked, “You have nowhere to go. Do you want to stay at my house? Auntie Shen doesn’t take good care of the puppy, and I don’t want to bother her anymore. If you help me take care of the puppy, as long as I can eat chicken butts, you will definitely have chicken legs to eat in the future.”
Only A Fu would dare to ask two demons to take care of her child. She was a bold and reckless woman, and this was not the most outrageous thing she had ever done in her life. The black cat agreed to everything just to get chicken, duck, and pork. Although taking care of the little puppy was actually left to Fu Lan.
Fu Lan became the most capable nanny in Wu Jiang. He learned how to make rice porridge, stir-fry vegetables, wrap dumplings, make fruit cakes, and help the puppy wash urine-stained sheets and clothes that were covered in mud and dirt. Sometimes he even had to clean the yard, although the house was not big, with only one thatched house as the main hall.
After Fu Lan arrived, A Fu slept in the main bedroom. Fu Lan, the puppy, and the black cat slept in the same room. To save money, the family did not often light a lamp. The main room was dark, with only two dim lamps on the ancestral tablet (1). A dripping red candle was placed on the altar. It wasn’t Fuxi or Nuwa who was enshrined, but A Fu’s man, whose name was written on it, “Daoist Shen Wei Ascends to Immortality.”
“This is my man.” A Fu wiped the plaque carefully with a wet cloth. The dim light reflected on her face, giving her a sinister smile. “When I was pregnant, he went south to the immortal mountain and never returned. I think he has become an immortal. You see, I’ve set up a plaque hoping he will bless us mother and son to be safe and healthy.”
The black cat felt a little cold and said, “This is not good. In all these years, I’ve never heard of anyone mastering Daoism and becoming immortal. By doing this, aren’t you cursing him to death?”
“Oh.” A Fu smiled, with her eyebrows and eyes curved. “If he doesn’t want to become my man, I’ll just treat him as dead.”
The black cat: “…”
The family also had trouble sometimes. The puppy was mischievous and once cut the black cat’s whiskers while it was asleep. When the black cat woke up and looked in the mirror, it felt ashamed and refused to come out from under the cabinet. A Fu was furious when she came back and shaved the puppy’s head with a razor.
The puppy cried so much that it felt like the sky had fallen. “I have no hair left!”
“You have no hair, and Lord Cat has no whiskers,” A Fu scolded, holding his ears. “What good is it to have you around? You only bring chaos! Tomorrow, I’ll chop off your hands.”
“I don’t want you as my mother!” The puppy wiped away his tears and rushed into the bedroom. He wrapped his bald head in a blue cloth with floral patterns, packed a small bundle, and pulled Fu Lan’s hand, ready to leave.
Fu Lan was at a loss, and A Fu pulled him over. “What are you doing? If you want to leave, then leave. Why are you holding your brother?”
“My brother is leaving with me!” the puppy shouted.
A Fu pulled Fu Lan over and scolded, “You’ve gone mad! You go by yourself! The farther away you go, the better! I shouldn’t have given birth to you in the first place!”
The little puppy had indeed run away from home, and Fu Lan stood there dumbfounded for a while before deciding to follow him. The puppy walked aimlessly with a small bundle on his back, and Fu Lan silently followed him. With a floral cloth wrapped around his head and the bundle on his back, the puppy looked like a mistreated young woman. Later, when the puppy’s stomach growled, Fu Lan took out two copper coins and bought him a steamed bun. The two boys, one big and one small, squatted on the roadside and watched the people passing by. Some passersby threw a few copper coins at their feet when they saw them.
At night, the puppy caught a cold and developed a high fever. Fu Lan carried him back home, and the black cat had already come out from under the cabinet, rubbing against the unconscious puppy. A Fu opened the puppy’s bundle and found that there was only his father’s ancestral tablet in it. This little kid had run away from home without taking anything but his father, whom he had never met.
That was the first time Fu Lan had seen A Fu cry.
A Fu once said that in this lifetime, people travel far and wide, covering thousands of miles, just to meet someone or reunite with someone. A Fu didn’t say who that person was, but the black cat secretly told Fu Lan that it was Qi Shen Wei. Sometimes, A Fu would stand under the eaves lost in thought. Fu Lan later learned that they had knelt and worshipped heaven and earth there and become husband and wife.
“Getting married is a promise, Fu Lan,” said A Fu, who was drinking under the eaves on a day when the leaves were falling all over the sky like withered butterflies. “Promise to treat your spouse well for the rest of your life and always keep them in your heart.”
Fu Lan’s heart was always still, like smoke and water, boundless. But at that moment, his heart suddenly stirred, as if he had a longing.
“Can I marry puppy?” Fu Lan said. “I will treat him well for the rest of my life and always keep him in my heart.” He thought for a moment and said, “A Fu, I traveled over many mountains and crossed many rivers from southern Xin Jiang to Wu Jiang, just as you said, to meet him. Is the puppy the person I’m supposed to meet?”
A Fu was stunned for a long time, looking at this black-haired, black-eyed boy in a daze. His eyes were calm, and every word he spoke was serious.
“Okay,” A Fu said with a smile, her face flushed from drinking too much. “If you haven’t changed your mind when you grow up, I’ll marry the puppy to you.”
1. Ancestral tablet – an object that is used in some cultures to honor and remember deceased ancestors. It is usually a rectangular piece of wood or other material that is inscribed with the names of ancestors or their photographs.