Later, in the autumn when the village’s wealthy Zhang family was marrying off their daughter, A Fu was called to help with the wedding. Fu Lan washed the clothes that the puppy had wet with urine and went to the edge of the field to collect dried cow dung, which he did every day. Dried cow dung could be used as fuel, and once he collected enough, he wouldn’t have to chop wood. Every noon, Fu Lan brought the puppy and the black cat to collect cow dung.
“Hey, little fool!” someone shouted at Fu Lan. Fu Lan turned his head and saw a farmer calling him. Some of these farmers called him the Meng family’s eldest son, and some called him a fool because he was very quiet, like a fool who didn’t know how to speak.
“Your foster mother is going to get married and won’t need you anymore.” The peasant man laughed.
After he finished speaking, other men and women also came around to tease him, “Yes, little fool, what about you and your younger brother? Come to my house and be my son, okay?”
Fu Lan asked in confusion, “Get married?”
“Of course, didn’t your foster mother go to Zhang’s house to work today?” A woman with a tanned face covered her mouth and laughed. “Zhang wants her to be his concubine. Poor child. The puppy is one thing; after all, he’s her own child. She’ll probably take him in and enjoy the benefits together. What about you?”
Someone laughed. “It’s simple. Just look at how this child does tasks so diligently. He’s kept the puppy fat and healthy. She’ll definitely bring him into the mansion as a servant. Marrying one gets you three. Zhang won’t lose out!”
The puppy was unusually well-behaved and timidly snuggled up to Fu Lan, looking up at him and reaching out his hand. “Big brother, hold me.”
Fu Lan picked up his basket and the puppy, the soft body of the child resting against his chest. The puppy buried his head and said, “I miss my mother.”
The men and women in the field muttered behind them. Some even shouted “little fool” with laughter. The idle chatter was like a fire, burning the field. Fu Lan didn’t turn back, and the two walked home, one step at a time.
Auntie Shen led A Fu into the Zhang mansion. Today, there was a celebration, and the mansion was adorned with red cloth and lanterns hanging from the beams.
Auntie Shen led A Fu in with a joyful face. She was one of the few people in the village that A Fu had befriended. After not taking care of the puppy properly, she came to apologize to A Fu yesterday and said she would make amends by helping her find work. The job was to help the bride dress up, and the work was light but well-paying.
The further they walked, the fewer people there were. The courtyard was made of green tiles and white walls, with blue-white stone slabs covering the ground, and damp moss growing out of the cracks. A Fu looked down at her toes, which were like small bamboo shoots, peeking out from under her skirt.
Without realizing it, they had already entered the inner courtyard. Auntie Shen pushed open the door to the room and pulled A Fu inside. The old woman had great strength. Her hand that was grasping A Fu’s wrist was rough and powerful, like a pair of pliers. A Fu felt that something was amiss. Auntie Shen had already lifted the beaded curtain, and several maids stood in front of a black lacquered dressing table. The stool was empty, as if waiting for its new bride.
A Fu asked Auntie Shen, “Where is the bride?”
Auntie Shen grinned and said, “The bride is you!”
A Fu was startled, and several maids rushed forward, pressing down on her shoulders and forcing her to sit in front of the dressing mirror.
“Big sister, what are you doing?!” A Fu asked.
Auntie Shen leaned her head next to A Fu’s face, and the dressing mirror reflected the faces of two women, one old and one young. Auntie Shen stroked A Fu’s shoulder and said, “Madam, please calm down. I’m only doing this for your own good. Look, Master Zhang’s family is wealthy and one of the richest in Wu Jiang. If you marry him, your future will be bright.”
A Fu sneered. “Auntie Shen, is this how you treat your friends?”
Auntie Shen was about to persuade her again when a man in a round-collared jacket pushed aside the curtain and walked in.
“Madam, why must you be like this?” The man had a fair complexion, slanted eyes, and a charming and handsome appearance. “Instead of being a widow, why not come with me? I have admired you for a long time, and I will treat your child as my own. In the future, your son will be my son, and I will pay for his education and examinations in Beijing.”
“Yes, yes,” Auntie Shen chimed in. “A Fu, don’t be foolish. Your husband, the sword immortal, has long abandoned you. As a woman, you should marry a man.”
A Fu sneered at Zhang Luo Huai. “You look so unremarkable, but I never expected you to come up with such a vulgar scheme to deceive me into entering your mansion. I spit on you! You should take a look in the mirror and reflect on your despicable behavior. Even if I were to marry a pig, I would never marry you!”
Zhang Luo Huai made a gesture, and the others rushed forward to press down on her shoulders. However, A Fu was thin but strong. She easily overpowered them, pushing aside the maids and trying to run out. Zhang Luo Huai stepped forward to block her way, using the curtain to shield himself. A Fu grabbed a candlestick to threaten him to move away, but Zhang Luo Huai refused to budge and reached out to grab the candlestick.
“Get out of the way!” A Fu screamed. In the struggle, A Fu swung the candlestick, hitting Zhang Luo Huai’s face solidly and making his head jerk to the right.
The crowd was shocked, and A Fu was frightened too. She was strong, but if she killed someone, she would end up in jail. Seeing that he was standing steadily and seemingly unharmed, A Fu tentatively said, “I will compensate you. Please let me go.”
Auntie Shen stomped her foot and said, “Look at what you’ve done! How can we fix your victim’s face? Master Zhang, how are you feeling? Shall I call a doctor?”
Zhang Luo Huai gradually turned his face back, and Auntie Shen and A Fu’s faces changed slowly. His whole face was crooked, with his nose and mouth twisted to the left, the right side of his face sunken in a pit, and his left eye squeezed up to his forehead, forming a seam. He squirmed his mouth that had been punched crooked, and his voice became sharp and thin, “Madam, that hurt me so much.”
A Fu recognized his voice and suddenly remembered that he was the bald-headed old Daoist!
Everyone paled and couldn’t speak, and a few maids behind them screamed and fainted. Auntie Shen held A Fu’s arm tightly and managed not to faint. Zhang Luo Huai noticed their pale faces and glanced at himself in the mirror, seeing his twisted face.
His face was so twisted that no expression could be seen, but he said in a slightly deeper voice, “You’ve ruined my face.”
A Fu said with difficulty, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
Auntie Shen trembled and said, “Master Zhang, I have nothing to do with this. I’ll leave first.”
Zhang Luo Huai extended his five fingers and grabbed Auntie Shen’s face. She immediately froze like a puppet. Her blood and flesh evaporated in an instant. Her face withered quickly, revealing dry bones. A Fu watched as Zhang Luo Huai sucked her flesh and blood dry, leaving only a skeleton behind.
He looked at A Fu with his crooked mouth and said coldly, “Fix my face, or you’ll end up like her.”
A Fu’s heart was pounding, but she still had to force a smile and walk up to him, “Okay, okay, I’ll help you fix it.”
When she touched his face, it was cold and wet, not like a human face, but like a muddy lump soaked in water, sticky and disgusting. A Fu straightened his nose and moved her fingers to his half-closed eyes. With a sudden determination, she poked her two fingers into his eyes. Zhang Luo Huai screamed. A Fu pushed him away and ran out.
A faint ringing sound came from behind her, and suddenly her legs lost their strength. A Fu was surprised to find that she couldn’t move. The soul-capturing bell rang three times, and she stiffly turned around and walked step by step towards Zhang Luo Huai. He stood beside the floor lamp, his face a mess, a blur. A Fu screamed in her heart not to go, but she still couldn’t control herself and walked up to him.
“Has Fu Lan ever told you?” Zhang Luo Huai leaned in close to her face, just a hand’s span away, and his cold, hissing breath brushed against A Fu’s face. “Demons have elevated senses. Even if they have no eyes, they can still ‘see’. Be a good girl and stay here, and we’ll be reunited as a family tonight.”