I focus again on Li Wei, thinking about his words and his conviction. Did he mean what he said? Is he really going to attempt to leave and go down the mountain? Perhaps he was only speaking in anger . . . yet, as I study him closely, something tells me what he said wasn’t an impulse. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been planning his journey for a long time. He simply needed a strong enough reason to spur him on; his father’s death provided it.
My thoughts are suddenly, jarringly interrupted by a noise that nearly makes me jump out of my own skin. It’s a sign of both my internal struggles and my ability to adapt that in only a couple of days, I’ve learned to tune out many background noises. Noises that initially overwhelmed me. Now, in this short time, I find myself ignoring many common sounds and focusing on those that either directly affect me or are particularly noticeable.
This one sets my teeth on edge, and I search for its source. In the priest’s direction, one of his assistants has just struck a ceremonial gong. My eyes widen as I realize that monstrous noise was caused by a gesture I’d seen countless times at funerals and other rituals. I never realized that noise was the end result. I look around, desperate to see if anyone else reacted. But they’re all respectfully watching the priest—well, everyone except the older woman standing next to me who noticed when I flinched.
Do you know why they hit the gong? I ask.
The woman bows in acknowledgment to my station and then answers: It is to scare evil spirits who might delay the deceased’s journey. She pauses. That is what my grandmother told me, at least. I don’t know why hitting it scares them. Perhaps it is magical.
I thank her and turn back to the ceremony. Despite the grim circumstances, I almost want to smile. I’m not sure I believe in that kind of superstition, but I certainly understand how our ancestors thought the gong could frighten away evil spirits! All this time, I’d had no idea of its true purpose. No one did. For generations, the priests have just continued using the gong out of habit, long after anyone could hear it anymore. I wonder how many other things like this were lost to us when sound disappeared.
And why, I ask myself for the hundredth time, am I the only one who has had this sense restored?
When the funeral ends, Li Wei is surrounded by those wishing to offer condolences. A number of them are girls our age, and while they look legitimately sorry for his loss, part of me questions their motives. I can’t be the only one who goes weak-kneed around him, and I really don’t know how he’s spent his free time since I joined the artists. It’d be reasonable for him to turn his attentions to someone else. The thought troubles me more than it should, considering how Sheng and I were matched. When the last of Li Wei’s sympathizers leaves, I follow him as he walks alone from the village’s center. I pass a cluster of beggars as I do, their sad plight bringing Zhang Jing to mind. My resolve strengthens, and I tap Li Wei’s shoulder when he heads down a path that leads to a group of small houses. He turns, looking surprised to see me—and possibly a little exasperated, considering how we last left things.
What do you want? he asks. His harsh response is almost enough to make me flinch.
Mustering my courage, I bow and give the proper condolences offered in these situations. I am very sorry for the loss of your father. May his spirit live in immortality.
Thank you , Li Wei responds, but he is clearly suspicious that there is more to come.
I make sure no one else is around before dropping the formalities: Are you still planning on leaving?
His face hardens. Yes. Why? Are you going to tell someone? Try to get them to stop me?
No. He regards me expectantly, and I take a deep breath, summoning my strength. I . . . I want to come with you.
The words fly from my hands before I can stop them. The idea has been brewing in the back of my mind all evening, but until I said it, I hadn’t consciously realized that’s what I was going to do. Zhang Jing’s plight has made me realize that things will never change . . . unless someone makes them change.
Li Wei stares incredulously at me and then lets out a laugh with a harsh edge to it.
You? Pampered, prized apprentice? You aren’t that bold little girl anymore. Stop wasting my time. I have things to do. He shakes his head and starts to walk away, but I catch his sleeve. Remembering the effect touching him had on me last time, I’m careful to promptly let go and keep a respectful distance.
What bold little girl? I ask, puzzled.
He hesitates. The one who climbed the rotten shed even though she knew it was dangerous. Just to prove she could. I thought you were so brave back then. Brave and bold and beautiful. I always believed that over the years until . . . well, you’ve changed.
My heart lurches at all the misunderstandings that have arisen between us. I haven’t , I say. Look, I thought about what you said, about how it isn’t enough to just keep getting by day after day as we are. I saw my sister . . . and she’s exactly like that. Not happy with her life but convinced there’s nothing more. I can’t let her go on like that, with nothing else to hope for. I want to help you. I want to talk to the keeper too and see if there’s a way to change things.
It all comes out in a jumble, not nearly as eloquent as I’d hoped. Li Wei studies me for several long moments. The earlier rain clouds have passed. With the sun down and the moon still rising, torches light the paths around the village, casting flickering light and shadows, but I can see well enough to know he’s trying to decide if I’m speaking the truth. Unless I’m mistaken, I even see a flash of hope in his eyes, as though he too wonders if there might be a way to repair our past.