“And later on, the climate in this region becomes more and more awful,” Wang adds a bit of water in the pot, “the population declines, and then around… hmmm, I’m not too sure, I guess around the Song and Yuan dynasties, there was a catastrophic disaster. Ever since, most of the people here have either died or migrated, and all that was left was a small clan of Hanga people who stayed in a cave.
The class captain asks, “are any of these recorded in written history?”
Wang shakes her head, “in ancient times these mountain ranges were not part of the Central Plain, so Han civilisation never reached these areas. Perhaps there are some geographical data, but this place is so secluded that the imperial government probably never knew it was inhabited. There are legends passed down by the natives though, they say that the snow became monsters and came down from the mountains, and white creatures emerged from cracks and the water, capturing humans and livestock, tearing their guts out and slicing their heads.”
The class captain ponders, and nods as though she understands, “so, it might have been an avalanche caused by an earthquake.”
Wang doesn’t move her head, “the Hanga people later moved into the deep mountains, somewhere near River Village. When you’re studying ethnic minorities in River Village, you’ll realise many of them bear similarities with the Hanga people. The Sky Burial Site was destroyed, but the Sky Burial Master’s hut remained, and later became a watch house of the Hanga people. Every month they would send a strong ping man to watch for signs of disaster. Eventually, the watcher became the most respected person in the clan and this hut became his place of residence.”
“And so the watch house became a sacred place for the Hanga people, and when the time comes for important rituals, the whole clan would come up to the mountaintop and gather round the watch house.”
The little spectacled boy asks, “why haven’t I heard of the Hanga people before?”
“Because their population was small, and they didn’t intermarry with other tribes. This tribe ceased to exist a long time ago, so nobody knows about it now.”
The students finally understand, and the slender bamboo guy concludes, “oh, I understand, it’s tribal extinction caused by centuries of close-kinship reproduction.”
Wang doesn’t comment, but only laughs softly; the person sitting closest to her shivers.
Any normal person would find it difficult to talk to Wang: although she doesn’t say or do anything creepy, her very existence oozes creepiness.
As their curiosity is satisfied, the students go to bed as Shen urges them. Wang doesn’t need sleep, and Da Qing is the most active at night, so the two stay awake.
Shen is the last to go to bed. He checks the door and windows, and takes some tape to seal all holes and gaps in the hut. He reminds the students to stay warm, and asks Wang if she needs more clothes. He puts out the fire so that the water wouldn’t spill.
As everything is taken care of, he quietly enters his sleeping bag.
Zhao fell asleep quite a while ago as the boring history lecture was going on. With his earphones still in his ears, his head is slightly tilted and his body is curled up.
His face is deeply and sharply contoured: he’s energetic when he’s awake, and still good-looking when he’s asleep, but his face is frozen and pale.
Shen gazes at him: Zhao’s sleeping face is tranquil and composed, it’s like even if the sky were falling, he would still find a corner and fall asleep. Shen’s eyes are fixated, he quietly watches Zhao. Shen’s face softens as he watches him, and he takes off the earphones and set them aside. Then he takes Zhao’s jacket and wraps it around him.
Guo is sound asleep. Wang is tidying up the cooking pot and stove; some soft clinging and clanging echo.
Shen takes a deep breath and lies sideways, turning away from the others. After awhile, it seems like he is asleep.
But where no-one can see, his eyes are wide open.
In the dim light of the night, he keeps watching Zhao quietly, like he wants to continue til sunrise. Shen has restrained himself for far too long. He can’t help but indulge in desire. He lays close to Zhao, and his thoughts come gushing out.
He wants to extend his hands and embrace that warm body; kiss his eyes, hair and lips, taste and devour him in whole, and possess his everything.
Shen’s breathing trembles; his desire and longing are that of a dying person longing for a hot bowl of soup in the freezing cold. But he doesn’t move, it’s as if… only thinking about it makes him satisfied.
Da Qing curls up into a ball next to Wang, it’s tail wiggling. When it’s almost midnight and everyone is presumably asleep, it whispers, “are those skulls or skeletons buried in the courtyard? Who were they?”
Wang’s plastic face hides behind the hoodie, and she says after hesitation, “just the skulls, the Hanga people had the tradition of beheading.”
Da Qing can’t help but wonder, “how did the Hanga people go extinct?”
“The student said it’s because of close-kinship reproduction.” Wang says.
“Don’t use that stupid reason to fool me, even horses can avoid that problem, are humans really too stupid to realise?” Da Wing impatiently quivers it’s whiskers, “besides, men in the past were all polygamous, this so-called ‘no intermarriages’ probably wasn’t strict on the concubines. And the clan must have had a few families, they wouldn’t all have been close kins.”
Wang looks down on the cat, and pats it on the head, “you’re just a cat, eat your cat food and dried fish. Why do you care about human problems?”
Anyone who just joined the SIU would think that Wang is probably younger than twenty. But as she is speaking, she seems experienced and weathered, like an old lady.
Da Qing lays on the ground, and comfortably closes its eyes as Wang strokes it like any cat would. But it’s eyes are not fully closed; it gazes out into space.
The small hut on the mountaintop is silent; all that can be heard is steady breathing and snoring.
Midnight just passed, and Zhao suddenly opens his eyes, staring right into Shen’s unspectacled and gentle gaze. Shen panics, and looks away in concealment. Zhao doesn’t mind the attention, and quietly sits up. He listens intently, and turns towards Shen, striking a ‘don’t make any sound’ gesture with his index finger.
Zhao comes out of the sleeping bag, grabs a torch, and heads outside.
Da Qing meows and scurries along. Shen hesitates; he is worried after all, and follows him.
Once Zhao is outside, he realises the torch is redundant.
The entire valley is in unworldly flames: on one side is a glacial mountain range, on the other a blazing inferno.
They stand a few thousand metres away on the mountaintop, but they can hear the crackling and screeching flames, and feel the acute pain of fire scorching one’s skin.
The entire sky is lit in sunset orange.
It’s as if they weren’t on earth anymore: the howling flames engulfing the valley strike misery into people’s minds; one forgets the time and the place in this moment.
The courtyard seems to have felt something, and the ground is trembling. The frozen soil cracks, and the skulls are exposed. They come in all shapes and sizes, and the eyeholes sparkle. Bones cackling sounds echo, and the skulls all face towards the same direction as if arranged by someone.
More and more skulls emerge from the ground: they all eerily look towards the scorching blaze as if worshipping. As the ground is shaking, the bones let out creepy crashing sounds.
Zhao extends an arm to block Shen behind him, and picks up the cat, “fatty, be careful!”
“That’s Hellfire.” Wang suddenly stands behind them, her hoodie is gone and the expressionless plastic face is clearly seen. Shen has yet to figure out what this plastic body is, and ‘Wang’ crumbles to the ground.
Shen instinctively gives her a hand, and the doll lets out an indecent moan. The startled gentleman Professor Shen retracts and drops the doll.
A girl in a white dress appears and says, “as sinners enter the Gates of Hell, Hellfire burns and flares to welcome them. It is said that when Hellfire comes from the underworld, it’s always to burn those who have sinned.”
Zhao says, “bullshit, shut up.”
Wang points with a finger, “see for yourself.”
The skulls have all turned around suddenly, and look back at them from the door. Their dark eyeholes send chills down your spine; they open their jaws and jump around as if they were laughing.
The people and the cat are all getting goosebumps, but Wang calmly says, “my people, they all want to peel off my skin, tear off my veins and suck up my blood.”
Zhao takes a gun, “Wang Zheng, get back into you’re body. Shen Wei, go inside the hut.”
Wang ignores him and sighs.
“But…” she says with misery and melancholy, “I’m already dead.”
“Are you entering menopause? Stop babbling and go inside!” Zhao grabs her spirit and violently stuffs her into the doll, and throws the doll to Zhu who was awakened by the commotion.
The skulls open their mouths and pounce towards them, Zhao holds the door latch, and fires three shots.
His gun is probably not firing bullets: the skulls scream and turn into white smoke as they are shot.
Zhao closes the door, but a skull is trapped in the gap. Zhao swiftly puts away the gun and takes out a dagger. He crushes the skull like eggshell and closes the door.
The skulls outside bash and bang at the door; they jump up and devilishly peek in from the window.
A few students are awakened. As they see what is happening, they are rather calm… any normal person would think they were just dreaming.
Even Guo is quite calm… in this small hut there is the invincible Chief Zhao, the brave talking cat, the fake monk who defeated the hungry ghost, the raw- meat-devouring snake woman, and the mysterious Chu who Guo still doesn’t dare talk to… Guo honestly believes that they are all very safe despite the situation.
This poor kid really blindly trusts to his colleagues.