The cemetery was not far from Bai Town—closer than the mountain gate if one took another county road to get there. It consisted of two areas. The outer one was constructed earlier and not well-planned, giving the area a rather haphazard look. Among the stone tablets and white marble tombstones were some miserable-looking wooden boards that belonged to the poor families, who could only afford tiny burial spots in the corners of the cemetery.
The inner area was much better. Rows upon rows of graves were neatly arranged and all had identical square bases, which were left hollow for cinerary caskets. This area had been empty only a few years ago, but was now lined with tombstones.
Gu Yu arrived on a bicycle with a bamboo basket fastened to the backseat, containing some paper money and paper ingots. A plastic bag was dangling from the handlebar, filled with incense, candles, cigarettes and some wine. He parked his bike at the entrance and walked to the innermost area, carrying all things in his hand, stopping in front of one of the tombstones.
The white tablet was engraved with black text, which said: Tomb of Dear Grandfather, Gu Xiuye.
He took out three incense sticks and ignited them with an indifferent face, inserting them into a dainty censer. The sticks were of the usual type, only that he had put in all his effort into making them. There was nothing fancy or tricky about them and they smelled just right for this occasion.
He did not bring any flowers or fruit, for this place was full of scavengers. They would snatch anything without hesitation, from pretty flowers and small wine cups to even the fruit dedicated for the deceased.
Nowadays, even the cinerary caskets were being stolen, used as a new ruse for extortion.
Aside from the three sticks, he also lighted a cigarette and set it on the side, then moved on to burn the paper money. Despite the call from the authorities for a more civilized way to pay respect to the deceased, the tradition remained important for many Chinese people. Visiting a graveyard without burning some paper money would simply make the living people feel bad.
The two bundles of yellow paper and a bag of paper-made golden ingots were quite easy to burn. Streaks of black smoke rose up and faded away into the air.
Gu Yu picked up a twig to gather the ash and looked around casually. The cemetery was located at the foot of Phoenix Mountain and was separated from the outside with a brick wall. The eastern area of the mountain had not been developed. One could only find grotesque rocks, overgrown weeds and unkempt trees on the mountain, full of the rough and unrestrained aura of the wild world.
Qingming Festival had not arrived yet and so not many people were here at the cemetery today.
It was Gu Yu’s grandfather’s anniversary today. He stayed for quite some time and did not leave until all paper money was burnt to ashes. He then turned to the outer area where another tablet was, under which were the ashes of his parents.
His parents had been migrant workers since his early childhood and he had no idea what their jobs were. He could only recall that, one day, some fellow villager brought back a message that some accident had killed seven or eight people, among whom were his parents.
Since then, he had been living alone with his grandfather, until the latter passed away two years ago. He had little memories of his parents left, nor was there much emotional attachment he felt. However, he still couldn’t help but feel a bit sorrowful and lonely when thinking of them from time to time.
Gu Yu burned some more paper money for his parents, but did not go straight back home after that. He slung the bamboo basket over his shoulders and walked around the cemetery, trying to find some incense materials on the mountain.
Phoenix Mountain’s resources were quite abundant and many things that grew there were good for incense-making. What he was looking for was a fragrant round-leaf plant with white flowers. Because its leaves resembled dog paws, the locals called it "Dog Paw Grass".
Grandpa had studied this plant for years and discovered that it was somewhat sweet, with a mild nature. After being processed, it would exude an extremely diluted calming smell, making it a perfect ingredient for the Wake-up Incense.
Pinching his thumb and index finger together and sticking them to his mouth, he blew out a whistle, which reverberated exceptionally vividly in the deserted, quiet woods. He then walked for some distance and whistled again.
Gu Yu looked around, but Brother Fatty was nowhere to be found. He reckoned it was having fun somewhere, maybe even enjoying a postcoital tristesse in its little nest.
The eastern part of Phoenix Mountain was left in a rather primitive condition and the ground was hard to traverse. Thanks to Gu Yu’s agility though, he walked the slopes as easily as walking on a level road.
The Dog Paw Grass flourished in this area and he filled his bamboo basket to the rim in no time. While he was at it, he picked up some other incense materials as well. The air here was much fresher than on the north slope, so Gu Yu took his time taking a break. He found a limestone to sit on and immersed himself in the spiritual essence of heaven and earth again.
He was becoming very skilled in meditation now.
As the saying went, the true emptiness came from desiring nothing and the ultimate tranquility lay in a completely still mind. Gu Yu found the description of the state fitted himself to a tee, probably because of his disposition and what he had been through. He would wake up each time with a peaceful and concentrated mind, as if he had been rejuvenated.
Only, this time something felt different. Gu Yu opened his eyes sooner than usual with a doubtful look. That slight fluctuation might have strengthened a little bit, yet it might as well have stayed the same. The change, if there was any, was way too weak to say for sure.
He couldn’t help but frown. Ever since he swallowed that red fruit, nothing miraculous had happened. On the contrary, things were only getting more mysterious and chaotic. He actually missed the ordinary and carefree life from before all this happened.
This cultivation thing was becoming more and more of a laughing matter...
He sat sulking on the limestone, resting his head against his arm. Tree branches and leaves were swaying in the occasional breeze as the sunlight forced itself through the dense foliage. In the dim light, tall weeds thrived on the slope and butterflies floated among the flowers.
Not far from the limestone were branches some birds perched on. A small cloud of insects flew around them; they were called midges, or "small biting midges". They would show up in the summer and attack human beings, using every opportunity they got. One couldn’t even begin to tell how annoying these insects were.
He had noticed those little fellows for a while and could not be bothered to deal with them. However, the little black cloud was flying nearer and nearer. They were almost buzzing at his face when they took a sharp turn, bypassed him and flew away.
Gu Yu blinked and unknowingly felt inside his pocket. He did not forget them—the parasite-expelling pellets were indeed on him! Why weren’t they working these days?
He had had them tested before. For animals with an acute sense of smell such as rats, the pellet would repel them from five to six meters away. Even those with less sensitive noses would turn away within a two- to three-meter radius.
The insects had never gotten so close to him! He didn’t think there was something wrong with the incense itself, therefore the only explanation lay with the midges, whose incense resistance was growing stronger.
"Can those small biting midges eat precious materials of heaven and earth?"
Well, he didn’t even believe the conclusion himself. That just sounded ridiculous...
"So, this is Phoenix Fair. Why does it look like a gutter?"
"I didn’t think residential areas like this still existed in Shengtian. I guess this is what a small town looks like."
Towards evening, a Land Rover stopped at a crossing in Phoenix Residential District. The door opened and out came one man and two women, who were none other than the Zeng siblings and Li Meng.
They got a rough idea of where Gu Yu lived from the sanitation worker and hurried there to pay a visit. When they set eyes on the area, the siblings had finally agreed on something this time.
To say this was a less well-off neighborhood was an understatement. Even a Cavalier would attract a lot of attention here, let alone a Land Rover! They posed around for a bit and started to ask around for the actual address.
The neighbors here were quite familiar with one another and they got the address in no time. After turning and zigzagging in the labyrinth of alleys for a while, they finally saw an old courtyard—so old in fact that even the white tiles on the front gate were chipped.
The front gate was open. The three looked at one another and entered, calling out "is anyone home" as they walked in.
Gu Yu had just got back and was processing the Dog Paw Grass in the west wing.
The early-stage incense-making procedures were extremely tedious. Based on different characteristics of the spices, as many as a dozen procedures could be applied to them, including boiling, steaming, frying, cauterizing, soaking, etc. just to get rid of the unpleasant odors.
The Dog Paw Grass had a stenchy smell and therefore needed soaking for around two hours in the water with temperature of 30 degrees Celsius.
He had just started soaking the grass in a bucket when he heard the voices of someone who entered the yard. He lifted the curtain to take a look and frowned. Slamming the door behind him, he walked out of the room and asked, "Who are you looking for?"
The couple did not react to Gu Yu’s appearance. Zeng Yuewei, on the other hand, was taken by surprise. She had come here with the intention to probe, question and incur some wrath. Now that she had met the guy, other things aside, his appearance alone seemed gentlemanly enough.
The guy stood there with a straightened back, having long legs and a flat belly. His lips were relatively thin, with a mild and unyielding quality to them. He wasn’t exactly a masculine guy, but there was something very pleasant with about his young body.
After all, females with a masculine quality were becoming more popular nowadays and it was getting harder to find a man with some machismo.
She fought back her emotion. Although her dislike cause her to be in a bad mood, granny’s affair was the pressing matter here.
Fearing that his elder sister might jeopardize the opportunity, Zeng Shufei seized the initiative and asked, "I bought your incense yesterday, don’t you remember me?"
"Yes I do. Why are you here?"
"May we go inside?"
"..." Gu Yu hesitated, but eventually stood aside and let them in. "Come in, please."
After that, they all entered the room. The siblings were smart people. They did not show any contempt for the primitive-looking shed, but were instead full of sincere interest.
Especially with that brick bed, onto which they sat and felt all over, as if knowing a thing or two about it.
Gu Yu did not have the time for pleasantries and asked bluntly, "What do you need me for?"
"Let me introduce myself first. My name is Zeng Shufei. This is my girlfriend Li Meng and this…"
"I’m Zeng Yuewei and he’s my younger brother!"
She needed no introduction from other people and asked with a smile, "What’s your name, hot stuff?"
"Um, it’s Gu Yu."
"Yu? As in fish?"
"No, as in ‘beautiful jade is carved out of raw stones’."
The two were immediately reassured. That expression could at least prove that the guy was not a dumb good-for-nothing.
Zeng Shufei decided to come straight to the point. He said with a smile, "Mr. Gu, I’ll be honest with you. Yesterday was my grandmother’s birthday. She is an incense lover so I showed her the sachets I bought from you and she liked them very much, and would like to meet with you. However, her age and health unfortunately doesn’t allow her to come in person, so I’m here today to invite you to our home to meet with my grandmother."
Gu Yu was somewhat surprised and picked his words carefully. "I’m glad and honored that she liked my incense, but surely the meeting in person is unnecessary? Plus, I have my own affairs to attend to."
"That's okay, we’ll wait for you. My granny is that type of person who would not let go of something easily once she sets her mind on it. We would fail our mission if you do not go back with us and she would keep asking for it. She might come here herself if she runs out of patience. After all, it's only a casual meeting to have some chat. It won't take up much of your time," Zeng Yuewei added.
"Exactly. We’ll drive you to and fro, meals included! Top notch customer service!" Zeng Shufei chimed in.
"You have no idea what we’ve been through. We were up on the mountain this afternoon and only found this place after talking to a sanitation worker. Please at least show some compassion?" Li Meng added the last straw.
Hearing all those speeches, he found it impossible to turn them down and could only reply, "Please wait here for a while. I have some materials that need processing."
"That's totally fine. Please don't mind us."
With that, Gu Yu brought out three glasses of water and some fruits for them before retreating to his room to continue with his work. He still found it rather baffling, though. What kind of granny was this that she had to see him in person?
While he was busying himself in the west wing, the other three were waiting in the east wing for the next two hours. Zeng Yuewei felt a splitting pain in her buttocks, for she had done nothing but sitting around today.
Just as she couldn't wait any longer and was about to go grab the guy, the door finally opened. Gu Yu walked out and washed his hands. He apologized, "Sorry, it took longer than I thought."
"That's ok. Ready to go now?"
The four of them then took off in the trio’s vehicle, heading directly towards the eastern town.