At noon, Auntie said that this was the first time the family had a reunion since Qi Yin woke up, and she wanted to prepare a lavish dinner. Auntie chased Xiao Yuan around, giving her various tasks. Qi Yin volunteered to cook. He heated up the oil, sautéed onion, ginger, and garlic first, then added the meat. Steam rose from the hot pot. A plate of well-cooked meat was taken out of the pot. Auntie praised it endlessly and personally carried the plate to the table.
When he was living with the Yao family, he was also responsible for cooking, but Auntie never praised him.
Qi Yin sat down, and the family gathered around the table with joy on their faces. Auntie was happy today, and Uncle didn’t get scolded. Qi Yin also laughed, and Uncle poured wine for him. Qi Yin drank cup after cup, and his face turned red. When the last pot of wine was almost empty, Qi Yin poured a cup of wine and stood up unsteadily. “Auntie, this cup is for you.”
“You child, how much have you had to drink?” Auntie grumbled at him.
Qi Yin walked up to her. The sunlight shone through the window and onto her face. Her features were beautiful, with a delicate and charming air. She and his mother were sisters, and they must have looked very similar, but usually, she was quick to anger, with fine lines around her eyes.
Qi Yin touched her wine glass, his voice hoarse. “Auntie, there’s something I need to confess to you. When we were young, you found a ladybug in your rouge box, and at that time, my cousin happened to have a big box of ladybugs hidden in the house. You thought it was my cousin who put it there, but it wasn’t, it was me. I caught it and blamed my cousin on purpose. You used the rouge powder on, and your face broke out in a rash for half a month. My cousin was also beaten by you and couldn’t get out of bed.”
Auntie was stunned for a moment and then smiled. “You child, you were mischievous and didn’t know any better when you were young. I let it go. Let bygones be bygones. Why bring up old memories now?”
Qi Yin lowered his head and looked at the wine glass. His bitter smile was reflected in the clear liquid. They didn’t know that he was actually a small-minded guy. His aunt thought he was obedient and compliant, but no one knew the twists and turns in his heart.
“Actually, you have treated me very well. I have food, shelter, and education. My family doesn’t have much money, and I’m not even your son. You are the Yao family’s daughter-in-law, and technically not a part of the Meng family anymore, but you still raised me. I now regret switching your beauty soup. If I hadn’t, at least you wouldn’t have gone to your grave hating Uncle.”
This string of words left his aunt speechless, and before she could react, Qi Yin hugged her tightly and said in a choked voice, “Auntie, I’m sorry.”
He then turned to his uncle and filled his glass with wine, downing it in one gulp. It burned his throat like a knife, but Qi Yin composed himself and said, “Uncle, do you remember when you went to the red-light district and were caught by Auntie? She dragged you home by the ear, and you were too embarrassed to leave the house for a month. Everyone in the street saw it, and you lost face.”
His uncle was embarrassed and confused, and he rubbed Qi Yin’s head. “You child, what are you talking about? Are you crazy?”
“That time, I told Auntie about it. As soon as you left, I intentionally woke her up when she was napping and mentioned you in front of her. She couldn’t find you and asked me where you went. I said I didn’t know, but I saw you taking a box of powder. Auntie guessed that you might have gone to the red-light district.” Qi Yin took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry, Uncle, I’m sorry. You didn’t really do anything to offend me, and sometimes you even defended me when Auntie scolded me. I just resented that you didn’t love me enough, I’m sorry.”
His uncle didn’t know what to say, and just stared at him. Qi Yin then turned to his grandmother, who was sitting on a stool, staring at him. She was very old, with a yellowish face that looked like old, dried paper that had been soaked in water and then dried again. She reached out and grabbed Qi Yin’s hand, murmuring, “Xiao Yin…”
“Grandmother.” Qi Yin crouched down.
A child like him always seemed to rely more on the elderly. Since he was young, he felt that the old lady in the Yao family was the kindest. At least she would take him to the market two li away to buy vegetables, and at least she would give him money to marry a wife, regardless of the purpose or motive. He felt pathetic, seeking warmth from false acting, but he was helpless.
Qi Yin said in a hoarse voice, “You, an old person with white hair, had to bury your son and daughter-in-law, and send your grandson to the immortal mountain, leaving yourself alone in Wu Tang. I should have kowtowed to you before leaving.”
Uncle and Auntie looked at each other. Auntie panicked and twisted her handkerchief. “Is this child crazy? What nonsense is he talking about?”
“And also, Yao Xiao Shan.” Qi Yin looked at Fu Lan, the calm young man sitting in the corner, staring at him. “I don’t know why, but my cousin became Fu Lan. I feel sorry for my cousin. We went to school together, and I was there when he fell in love with Miss Zhang, the teacher’s daughter. He stayed home every day writing love poems. One day I cleaned his room and saw his love poems, so I secretly inserted those poems into his essays. When the teacher was grading assignments, he saw them and scolded my cousin in front of the whole class. After that incident, our classmates teased my cousin for a whole year.”
“Xiao Yin! Stop talking. You’ve gone mad. Let your uncle find a doctor to check on you later. Go rest in your room now.” Auntie couldn’t sit still and came to pull Qi Yin.
Qi Yin shook his head, broke free from her grip, walked out of the hall, and knelt outside the doorstep. Tears he had been holding back for a long time finally fell. His heart was like a burst dam, and years of resentment and sadness came rushing out at this moment. He hung his head and said, “The old lady is right. I am an untamable wolf cub with a hard and cruel heart. You shouldn’t have taken me in. Because of me, there will never be peace in this family. I am sorry, everyone.”
Everyone looked at him in silence. Qi Yin bowed his head, making a loud thud each time his head hit the ground, and drops of blood flowed down his forehead. Qi Yin rested his head on the edge of the doorstep and closed his eyes.
The wind was quiet, and the sparse shadows of the Chinese sweetgum tree in the courtyard swayed over him. Auntie, Uncle, Yao Xiao Shan…one face after another flashed before his eyes. This was the first time he had opened up his heart and faced the pent-up resentment and sadness he had held for years.
He was such a bad person. His aunt’s family had never liked him, and he didn’t like them either. He had a thousand ways to make them miserable, carrying out his childish and petty revenge. But he never would have thought that a disaster caused by a demon bird would destroy his aunt’s family and take away what little blood relatives he had left in this world.
From now on, Auntie would never hate him again, but she would never be able to like him either.
The deceased were gone for good. The grudges and hatred that seemed larger than life to him were now as fleeting as a shadow in the mirror and water in the moon. Like a joke, it was muddled by fate and disappeared in an instant. Looking back, the road behind him was empty and desolate. Suddenly, his past and the enmities of the past ten years in Wu Tang dissipated like smoke.
“Auntie, Uncle,” Qi Yin whispered softly, “goodbye.”
In a daze, he seemed to hear someone sigh, like a wisp of smoke dissipating into the wind, brushing against his hair. His aunt, uncle, grandmother, and Xiao Yuan gradually became blurry and disappeared from his sight. They seemed like ghosts sneaking out from the cracks of time, and now that their time was up, they had to go back.
Silence enveloped him like a body of water. The cicadas of summer were gone, and the rustling of fallen leaves in the wind had disappeared. The nagging of his aunt and uncle were all gone. All was quiet. In the darkness, he seemed to have fallen into an indescribable time and space.
Slowly he stood up and lifted his eyes. Everyone was gone; even Fu Lan had disappeared. The hall in his memory was gone, replaced by a small thatched cottage. He saw a familiar figure sitting on a stool, with a sword in his arms and a black glove on his right hand.
“Junior brother, you’re awake?” Yun Zhi still had that cunning smile on his face. “Why are you bowing like that? You’re making your senior brother feel embarrassed.”
Qi Yin: “…”
Yun Zhi bent down, patted his shoulder and said, “Not bad. You actually managed to come out of the dream on your own.”
Qi Yin got up from the ground, sat next to him, and remained silent.
“Master didn’t tell you how to break the nightmare. How did you manage to get out?” Yun Zhi looked at him, and he saw that Qi Yin’s expression seemed to have a meaning that transcended life and death. Yun Zhi was startled and pinched Qi Yin’s face hard. “Are you okay, junior brother? Don’t ascend to heaven right where you are.”
Qi Yin pushed away his hand and said, “I heard from Sang Ya earlier that our master helped you get rid of nightmares by having them enter your dreams one by one and slay the monsters. Slaying monsters is easy for you, so why did they have to go? I suspect that the way nightmares trap people is through attachment. If you break the attachment, you can break the nightmare. When you were a child, you encountered monsters, and they ate your parents in front of you. Perhaps your attachment was fear. Your senior brothers and sisters are all poor, and only a few have swords. They must have gone in with hoes and rakes to help you fight the monsters. They are your own senior brothers and sisters, and when you see them swing their hoes and slay monsters, you naturally won’t be afraid anymore, and the nightmare will be broken.”
“Very clever!” Yun Zhi gave a thumbs up. “But when talking about someone else’s sad story, at least express some sympathy.”
This guy had a carefree look and didn’t need sympathy at all. Qi Yin said with a wooden face, “Senior brother, you’re so pitiful. Here’s a hug.”
Yun Zhi chuckled and crossed his legs. “You’re right, dreams come from the heart, and dreamscapes are reflections of the mind. Tapirs weave dreams; they can weave against your will, and the more you fear, the more they will want to scare you. Or they weave according to your wishes, and they will give you what you want. Once you’re trapped, you can’t get out. So, what did you see?”
“A few old acquaintances,” Qi Yin replied casually.
Seeing that he didn’t want to say more, Yun Zhi didn’t ask further. Qi Yin looked around and saw that the dilapidated house had nothing but a short-legged square table and two stools, standing alone on the mud floor. Qi Yin frowned and asked, “Where are we? Have you seen Dai Ge and Lord Cat? They came with me, but we got separated.”
“I haven’t seen them. They’re probably still in Lan Xian’er’s dream, struggling.” Yun Zhi shrugged. “This is my dream, the house I lived in when I was a child. My parents were eaten in the courtyard outside. You finally broke out of your dream, only to fall into my dream. Judging from the looks of it, Lan Xian’er doesn’t plan on letting us go.”
He said this with a bitter tone, but he still had that playful look on his face, and it was unclear if he was pretending or not. Qi Yin felt complicated and asked, “Are you still afraid?”
“Are you kidding me? Don’t underestimate your senior brother like that,” Yun Zhi helplessly said. “Let me tell you, ordinary dreams are like a box; you go in and come out when you wake up. The dreams of a tapir are different. She has locked us in. Your lock is easier to open because the key is hidden within yourself; you just have to find it. Mine, on the other hand, is impossible to open. I don’t have the key.”
Qi Yin felt puzzled. “What did you do to that girl? Did you force yourself on her? That’s why she’s so hostile towards you.”
“I didn’t do anything. I just escorted her down the mountain. When I turned around, she was gone. Chang Le Lane was also gone. I walked all the way and ended up in this forest and this room.” Yun Zhi thought for a moment and said, “Oh, she did ask me a few things about you.” He rubbed his chin and smiled. “It seems like she’s interested in you, junior brother.”
Qi Yin had no interest in relationships with demons, and now that he thought about it, Lan Xian’er’s initial target should have been him, but for some reason, she chose Yun Zhi instead. Qi Yin sighed and said, “I’m going out to take a look.”
Yun Zhi grabbed him. “Don’t.”
“What’s wrong?” Qi Yin asked, puzzled.
As soon as he finished speaking, there was a sudden knock on the door. The sound was abrupt and startled Qi Yin.
“Who’s knocking?” Qi Yin asked.
No one answered.
The knocking sound became more urgent, and suddenly the entire door was pounded on. The door shook violently, and dust fell. It sounded like many people were pounding on the door with all their might.
Qi Yin turned to look at Yun Zhi and leaned towards the door, peering through the crack.
No one was there.
There was nothing outside except for a forest.
“Who knows,” Yun Zhi lazily replied. “It’s definitely not human.”