“What do you mean, Fifth Grandfather?”
Without answering, Grandfather pulled out a very worn leather case underneath his bed.
The paint on the case was peeling off, but Grandfather still looked lovingly at it.
When he carefully opened the lock on the box, I realized that inside was actually a set of red clothes.
Fifth Grandfather didn’t utter a word and sat on the bed, looking at me.
I nodded my head with no idea what to ask.
Only after a while, Fifth Grandfather smiled again. “I thought that this dress and these things would follow me to death and nobody in the world would know about this matter– since you’ve guessed it, I’ll tell you. Alas, boy, there is no Saffron Maiden! Or rather, I am the Saffron Maiden–”
I was not overly surprised and just nodded my head and looked at my fifth grandfather.
Instead, Fifth Grandfather laughed. “Xiao Xu, since when did you suspect it was me?”
“Since I went to college and started getting in touch with knowledge of this work field. I remembered the story of the Saffron Maiden that I heard as a child and from a professional point of view, there were many suspicions.”
”There are no ghosts in this world–”
“It’s not all about that, Grandfather There were a few parts that didn’t make sense at all.”
Fifth Grandfather immediately became stiff and asked me with great interest, “Really? Which parts?”
“The first one that comes to my mind is that when the maiden died, if she really wanted to hang herself, why not in her own home? But she went all the way to the Maiden’s Ridge. Wouldn’t that be superfluous?”
“Good, go on, child.”
“I always felt that Hua Liu Biao’s son died abnormally, and from your description, Hua Liu Biao was killed by a person, not a ghost.”
“I always thought before about what you said when Guo drowned in the water at that time, when he was struck with evil and had to go into the water.”
Grandfather nodded his head. “These ghosts and gods are a bit evil.”
“That’s not what I’m suspicious of.”
“Then, what did you suspect?”
“It’s your claim!”
“You said that Guo did not come up after going into the water, and you were afraid to go into the water to look for him. Halfway through, remembering that you do not know how to swim, you went back to the village to call out to people. When I was a kid, that’s what you said, right?”
“Last year, I went back to that old site and saw that the pond was just a hundred meters from our village, and I envisioned at the time that if I found someone drowning, surely I would first shout loudly at people so that the villagers could hear. There was no need to run back and shout again, moreover, the pond was only half a person high and would have been of the same level throughout.”
Fifth Grandfather frowned. “Yes, I did not think so well at the time.”
“And you said you were already halfway there before you remembered you couldn’t swim. This simply doesn’t make sense either.”
“So you started to suspect me?”
“Not yet. I thought that maybe since it was very long ago, you could not remember properly. But that day, when collecting the corpse for Xiao Fang, you suddenly said that I should go to see. I felt strange at the time, and only after thinking about it for two days did I understand that you have long known that there is no Saffron Maiden. Then, thinking of all the legends of the Saffron Maiden, they all started from you, so I thought of this possibility.”
Fifth Grandfather showed an approving gaze at me and then seemed to remember something heartbreaking from the past. His eyes obviously had some tears in them, and it took a while before he calmed down and asked me, “Xiao Xu, do you want to hear another story of the Saffron Maiden?”
“Mmm!” I sat a little straighter and listened attentively.
Fifth Grandfather appeared to be a little lost in thought and slowly spoke up, “It was forty-nine years ago, when I was only sixteen years old, that year, a family came to the village to escape the wars– Ai, that girl, really was so beautiful–”
Grandfather’s eyes looked straight ahead, as if he had gone back to those days.
“The boys in the village all liked her, including me– one day, I went up the mountain to hunt rabbits but happened to see the girl squatting on the ground, crying. It turned out, she was only thirteen years old and had to chop too much firewood, so she fell and twisted her ankle. Thank God for her fall, I had the opportunity to carry her firewood and help her home, and I had the opportunity to watch her smile…”
“You know, kid, I didn’t sleep for three days and three nights exactly, and I didn’t have the heart to eat. I was always at the place where she fell, hoping that she would come and smile at me again! After a few days, she did come and smile at me again…her smile was so beautiful– I couldn’t help but hug her and give her a kiss. Although she pushed me away, she did not get angry– I was thinking about her smile every day and met with her every day. Alas, she was so fragrant and sweet—”
Speaking of which, Fifth Grandfather’s eyes glowed as if he had already met the girl he loved.
“But then one day, she cried and told me that her mother wanted to marry her to Hua Liu Biao. I was shivering all over, but there was nothing I could do! Eh, who was the one who made my fate and didn’t give me grains, pigs, and sheep–”
Fifth Grandfather reached out and wiped his tears.
I also could not bear to disturb him.
After a while, he continued only to say, “Her parents wanted to marry her off. There was nothing I could do; I also dared not go to her again. I only hoped that she would be able to eat and wear and live a good life, and also hoped that I could slowly forget about her–”
“Who knew that less than a month later, she would actually die! Hua’s son also died! And I also heard the rumors in the village. At first, I thought that maybe they didn’t have the face to show, and that’s why they died. But one day, while I was sitting in the bushes, I overheard four people talking. They were talking about something, and their content made me very scared. It turned out to be that she had decided to run away with these people when Hua would not be at home, along with cloth bags–” While speaking, Grandfather swept bitterly. After crying for a while, he said, “The four people were afraid that after things were revealed, Hua Liu Biao certainly would not forgive them, so they simply hanged her, pretending that she had committed suicide. The four of them were discussing this matter that day, and it seems that Erzhu had felt that Hua Liu Biao had become suspicious, so the four of them decided to strike first and kill Hua Liu Biao directly. It was also Erzhu who remembered that when he collected the corpse, the Monk said that dead female ghosts, dressed in red were the most fierce and thought up this method of killing Hua Liu Biao by pretending to be a Saffron Maiden for revenge.”
“Sure enough, after a few days, Hua Liu Biao also died, and the gentleman said that he was killed by the maiden’s vengeance.”
Although I knew that this matter must be unusual, I still didn’t expect it to be like this.
After saying this, the Fifth Grandfather calmed down, but on the contrary, his eyes revealed a resolute look. “At that time, I made up my mind that I must avenge her!”
“At first, I pretended that I didn’t know anything and thought about it for a long time before I came up with this plan: since they used the name of the Saffron Maiden to kill people, I will use the name of the Saffron Maiden to kill them too!”
“So you deliberately told others that you saw the Saffron Maiden?”
“Well, the monk had said that she may have become a severe ghost, so I simply went along with what he said and pretended to see the Saffron Maiden. That day, I ran down in one breath and threw my hoe and lost one of my shoes and pretended to be too scared to stand up. I just opened my mouth and said it was a red shadow, and they immediately said it was the Saffron Maiden, and as soon as I proposed to go up together to see, the village people were more convinced.”
“Then, what others saw later was you pretending to be her?”
“Not all. Only four or five times was it true that they saw me; the rest was either blackmail or not knowing what to do after seeing a little something that scared themselves, thinking it was the Saffron Maiden. However, the matter soon spread, sounding more and more genuine, just like the real thing.”
“So later, when I killed Erzhu, no one suspected at all.”
This was when it came to the lingering question in my mind. I immediately asked, “Grandfather, how did you kill him?”
“When he was washing his face in the pond, I used a stick to hit the back of his head, and he fell in the water and did not move. Perhaps he was not killed and probably just fainted but choked to death in the water later. I did not have much experience at the time and did not intend to make a fake scene, so I threw him in deep water and ran straight home. To be honest, I was really scared to death and afraid that others would see it.”
“So that’s how it is–”
“Xiao Xu, after more than 40 years, you can see the suspicion, but then, no one really suspected! No wonder, at that time, people were superstitious and did not learn to solve cases or anything else. Once they saw Erzhu in the half-meter high pond, drowned, they actually believed that it was the water spirit. Plus the Monk even said so, so they buried him and forgot about it. In fact, at that time, I did not think of it myself, but my pants and feet were muddy. Careful people could have seen, but at the time, I really just muddled through!”
“Grandfather, it may be that others simply could not think of this matter, but you had something to do with it, so didn’t anyone simply become suspicious of you?”
Fifth Grandfather shook his head. “No one knew about her and me until now.”
“Then, you killed Guo too?”
“When I killed him, I wasn’t so nervous. I also knocked him out when he wasn’t looking. That time, in order to make it look like it, I dragged him to the water pond. At that time, my pants were also wet. For fear of suspicion, I deliberately said that I wanted to go into the water to get him but remembered that I could not swim before going back ashore.” Saying that, Fifth Grandfather smiled. “You immediately sounded the loophole, but they all missed it at the time. I deliberately said that Guo acted as if he was possessed by an evil spirit and spoke of the gods. In fact, I was also weak-minded and afraid that others would see it. But it was dark, and no one noticed, plus the Monk also came. After pinching and counting for a while, he even declared that it was the work of spirits. Moreover, even I myself did not remember the coincidence that Erzhu and Guo had died on the same day just a year apart, so the Monk said directly that the Saffron Maiden killed him, and everyone actually believed it again!”
“By the way, Grandfather, was the Monk with you?”
“No, but he did help me a lot. When Erniu and Damin both died, the Monk pointed out that it was the two of them who touched the home of the Saffron Maiden, and the maiden took their lives! I didn’t even think of such a good reason!”
I also laughed. “Yes, they watch over these ghostly and godly things. What they say, naturally people will believe it. By the way, Grandfather, how did you kill them both again?”
“With a stone and by hanging a rope. Hey, forget it, don’t mention it.”
“From then on, you posed as the Saffron Maiden again, occasionally letting people see you. Has no one ever been suspicious of you? So you never married your whole life because you were afraid of letting out this secret?”
He sighed. “Not really. I impersonated her. Of course I wanted to be believed, but there were two more important reasons. One is that whenever I put on these clothes, I feel like I’m with her and I can still hold her hand and talk to her, and another is that I don’t want people to go around there and I don’t want people to disturb her because it’s a place for the two of us.”
“And, boy, actually, we were both married, so I can’t marry anyone else without her consent!”
There was only one last question left: “Grandfather, so when you pretended to be the Saffron Maiden all these years, weren’t you afraid of being seen by others in case you were exposed?”
Fifth Grandfather laughed out loud. “Silly child! Look at you, so smart, so how can you ask such a stupid question?”
“Do you still remember your own reaction when you saw me that time?”
“I remember! I was so desperate to escape that I didn’t even know how I got home!”
“That’s right! The general public, especially at night after seeing a ghost, must be scared immediately to run, so who dares to see if it is true or not?”
After a moment of silence, I stood up and said, “Grandfather, you rest; I’m leaving.”
“Go, child.” Fifth Grandfather took a long breath. “Will you still tell the story of the Saffron Maiden to others in the future?”
I nodded. “Yes, I will, and I will tell it to my classmates.”
Fifth Grandpa looked at me thoughtfully. “So, which one will you tell?”
I also let out a long breath. “The one from my childhood!”