Zhan Cheng stared at him, not knowing how to feel. He had expected a lot but he hadn’t thought the truth would be so … complicated. He had thought that this was merely about Gongliang Ye’s parents themselves. To now have a third person involved …
He kept quiet for a moment and the witch didn’t explain any further, giving him time to digest what he had just heard.
Finally, Zhan Cheng furrowed his brows. “I assume this possession isn’t like when I was haunted, is it?”
“No. If you are haunted, then your sense of reality gets disturbed. You will hear or see or smell things that aren’t actually there but any reaction you have to that is your own. Possessions, on the other hand, are different.
“A spirit person — or at least some of them — are able to detach their souls from their bodies for a certain amount of time. The length mostly depends on their own strength and talent, although it is something that can also be practiced. Their soul, then, can move around and take possession of another body. Is there no soul in the body, then it is theirs to do with as they please. The same is true if that soul is weaker than them and unable to defeat the onslaught.
“That was the case with my mother. Her body was taken over and she could do nothing. She likely knew what was happening. She likely still saw through her own eyes and heard her own words and what happened around her but she wasn’t the one to do these things. She was merely a silent observer in her own body.”
Zhan Cheng still frowned. What Gongliang Ye described sounded horrible but he still didn’t quite understand. “Why though? Why would somebody do that?”
“Because not everybody deals with rejection as well as my father did. In his city, there was a man who had long been interested in him but my father had never requited that interest. When my mother appeared and rejected my father, that man saw an opportunity.
“In taking over her body, he felt like he would fulfill both their wishes: He could finally be with the man he liked, even if it could only happen in disguise, while my father would be able to live with my mother even if it was just a fantasy. In any case, my father never would have known and that man was clearly so far gone that he wouldn’t have minded assuming somebody else’s identity for the rest of his life to get what he wanted.
“Unfortunately, I was born. And as I said, he lost consciousness while in the process. My mother — or rather the woman who gave birth to me — thus suffered through the rest of childbirth, bringing a child into the world that she had never wanted for a man she had already rejected. And the worst of it all was that she was very much aware that she only had a few moments to herself before he would undoubtedly regain consciousness and continue that sick charade.”
Zhan Cheng’s mouth felt dry but it didn’t matter. He did not have any words to say. This situation, it was so bad that no words could help, wasn’t it? To actually know that there was this kind of story behind how you were born …
Gongliang Ye sighed. “Do you want to know what she did?”
“I hope she told your father?” Anyway, Gongliang Ye’s father sounded like he would have helped. After all, devastated as he might have been to know that she had never actually loved him and the past … months or however long it had been since their wedding had been nothing but a lie, he still should have wanted her to be safe, right?
Gongliang Ye shook his head though. “No. She didn’t. When he turned around to tell the people from his family who were waiting outside for news, she grabbed a hairpin that had been left beside the bed and slit her own throat. To her, what had happened and what was about to continue was bad enough that she rather ended her life.
“Now, tell me: Shouldn’t she have done that? Should she have been … grateful that she was given a better life at a man’s side whom she did not love? Because at the end of the day, my mother’s story is not that different from the one of the woman that ghost married once upon a time: They were both vulnerable and they both got taken advantage of by a man. As did my father, if you really think about it. It wasn’t like he was told the truth before it all ended either.
“And all of that just because one person thought he knew better and that he could fulfill everybody’s wishes. Save for my mother’s, of course, because what did she matter? But he and my father could have been happy or so he thought.
“In any case, your ghost’s story isn’t all that different. He thought he could make life better for both of them. He could give her and her family a better life and he could be with the woman he loved. He just neglected to think how the other side would feel just like that man of the spirit tribe neglected to think of how my father would feel if he actually found out what had happened.
“I guess in a sense, they both got what they bargained for: That man of the spirit tribe had some time in marriage with my father even though it came at the price of being banished once the truth came out. As for that ghost, he got himself the wife he wanted and whatever came with the promise of being his wife. I’m just afraid her heart wasn’t part of that contract just like my mother’s and my father’s weren’t.
“Well, in any case, gratefulness isn’t love so he made a mistake there. But love is such a fleeting thing anyway.”
Zhan Cheng lowered his head, nodding faintly. He still wasn’t sure if he would really equate these two things. After all, while Gongliang Ye’s had been possessed and actively forced in such a way, that woman had still agreed to marry the ghost. But then, maybe that also wasn’t true. Maybe her family had made that decision for her. He wouldn’t know and he didn’t think that he could find the answer even if he went looking for it.
Right now, Zhan Cheng couldn’t focus on that anyway. He had felt his face growing hot when Gongliang Ye finished his story and he realized what he meant. Clearly, the witch didn’t hold feelings such as love in high regard.
Considering why he had come here, that really made his heart hurt and he couldn’t help but wonder if he was also like those two men. Was he also unwilling to give up something he desired, irrespective of what the other side wanted?
He didn’t want that to happen! Also, not even considering what the witch had just told him about his family, he also had no trouble realizing that Gongliang Ye had probably also made a few painful experiences himself. As a witch, it probably wasn’t easy to live either.
Love … maybe he had already been utterly disappointed in that. Which made it all the more likely that he wouldn’t be open to anything. He should really get that darned hint of hope out of his heart and mind. Gongliang Ye didn’t want him. He had to give it a rest already.
Gongliang Ye didn’t pay much attention to his inner turmoil. This kind of story was never nice to hear but he hated this narrative of owing somebody gratitude. If a person decided to help somebody, then that was their own decision. Why should the other side owe them? If you brought a new life into the world, wasn’t that your own selfish desire? How could you expect filial piety from them?
He knew he was alone with that thought process but there was only so much you could go through without becoming cynical toward the world. And he couldn’t even remember if his father had ever looked him in the eye. Not that it mattered. Witches like him … even if their story wasn’t such a sordid one, they still weren’t welcome.
Gongliang Ye glanced at the window when he reached that thought. It really was something he didn’t want to ponder further but the man in front of him had kept quiet, not offering anything to distract him. And yet, it seemed that he still didn’t want to leave.
The witch sighed. If Zhan Cheng didn’t want to speak, then it was better to fill this awkward silence with something else. “Well, it’s about time to eat. Why don’t you stay for breakfast?” He felt like this was becoming a habit. It was a strange one and he wasn’t quite sure what to think of it but he couldn’t deny that it was the case. He had fed this man more often than any other guest that came to him.
Not waiting for Zhan Cheng’s answer, he started to prepare, throwing in some of the ingredients that his guest had brought over before. In any case, since Zhan Cheng had given them, it didn’t matter if he gave some back.
Zhan Cheng watched him and then took a look around the hut, also looking at the place next to the fireplace where Gongliang Ye had been sleeping the other day. Come to think of it, that night had been a bit uncomfortable. It was a bit cold in the house at this time of the year and with just a thin blanket, he couldn’t really keep the cold outside. Just one night was still alright but it should be uncomfortable for Gongliang Ye if he always had to live like this.
Zhan Cheng averted his gaze, but he still couldn’t help but think to himself that it would be nice to do something about that. Not that he was having any kind of thoughts about that. Just … a gesture of his appreciation.
When Gongliang Ye came back to the table with a steaming bowl of food in his hands and put it down in front of Zhan Cheng, he realized that the man wasn’t really looking at him. After looking a bit too much the last time, it was quite obvious. Had he scared him off with that story before? That would be just as well. This matter was getting more and more suspicious after all.
He once again sat down opposite him, taking the other bowl of food, and started to eat while he continued to watch Zhan Cheng. Humans didn’t know much about spirits. They were naturally afraid of ghosts and also witches like him. Anything that was different from them was seen as dangerous, a threat that needed to be eliminated. He had seen that often enough. Not to be killed but just to be exiled was already quite good.
This man though … he didn’t really seem to get that principle. Could it be that he was afraid because of what had happened with the ghost? And now he was coming to the one person he knew was able to help him? That might actually be the case. At the very least, that was the only plausible explanation he could currently think of.
Having found something that he could attribute Zhan Cheng’s strange behavior to, he retracted his gaze and focused on his food. When he finished, he just got up and walked over to the shelf, starting to pick out a few of the things that stood there and bringing them over to his counter. He worked silently, not even looking up when Zhan Cheng finished, and turned to watch him. He just continued and then finally walked back to the table with another small satchel.
He sat down and then pushed it over to Zhan Cheng, looking directly into his eyes. “Well, I get that you are still worried about that ghost. As I said, it is unlikely that you will get in trouble with another one but if it does help, you can take this. Carry it around with you. This will lose its efficacy over time but it should keep you safe for at least another year or so.”
Zhan Cheng looked at him in a daze, not quite comprehending what Gongliang Ye was going on about. Then, it finally dawned on him that the nervousness he had felt because of his feelings for the witch had been completely mistaken for something else.
His ears reddened again and he hurriedly reached out, taking the satchel before Gongliang Ye could figure out what was really going on. He definitely didn’t want to have that conversation right now. Or, well, maybe it would’ve been nice to have it. Even though he was telling himself over and over again that he shouldn’t expect anything back, he still would’ve liked to tell him.
Well, he wouldn’t dare to do so, especially after Gongliang Ye had told him about his past, so he could only accept this.
He held it in his hands, and looked at it, nodding faintly while there was a lump in his throat. “Thank you.” No matter what, this was also something that Gongliang Ye had made for him. No matter what the reason for that was, he would honor the sentiment.
The witch nodded when he saw him put away the satchel and then got up. “Well, in that case, you can go back now. The way to the city also isn’t that short.”
In fact, with how early it still was, it wouldn’t have been a problem at all for Zhan Cheng to go back but Gongliang Ye wasn’t interested in entertaining him any further. In his eyes, the other man’s purpose for coming here had already been achieved so there was no reason to linger.
Zhan Cheng felt a sense of panic when the witch was trying to throw him out though. He hurriedly got up and followed him through the hut. “That … since I’m already here, do you need help with something maybe?” The words came out a little hesitant as if he wasn’t sure if he was imposing or maybe as if he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to help him.
Gongliang Ye glanced back, not quite sure what to make of this either. He looked at Zhan Cheng for a while, and then glanced at his lapel where he had put away the satchel. “Is this another attempt at repaying me? You don’t need to do so. In any case, I did this of my own volition. And that satchel really wasn’t much. Didn’t you also bring over more ingredients for me than what was necessary? Don’t worry, I put all of them away so I’ve made quite the profit from this, actually.”
Zhan Cheng nodded, feeling that that was what the witch should do. “So … you don’t need help?” In any case, he wasn’t sure what there might be to do around the hut but there should probably be some things. In any case, even though he had brought over some ingredients, Gongliang Ye was still really thin. He could still see those bones as if they were right beneath his skin. He looked as if he might snap in half if there was half a breeze going out outside.
Gongliang Ye continued to look at him inquisitively but finally figured that he might as well just let him do something so this guy would finally give up. Apparently, that story still hadn’t caused him to wisen up. “Well, there might be one thing.”
Zhan Cheng immediately perked up. “What is it? I’m sure I can help!”
Seeing him so excited, Gongliang Ye actually felt helpless but he still motioned over to his fireplace. “Well, it’ll only be a few more weeks until winter arrives. I haven’t been able to stock up on much firewood so I will have to gather some more in the next few weeks. You could help me with that. In any case, it’s probably going to be a cold winter this year.”
Zhan Cheng immediately nodded excitedly and got up. “I’ll get some immediately!”
Gongliang Ye wanted to hold him back but the man had already rushed out of the door and was probably starting to look around for something that could be used as firewood.
The witch sighed, put away the used bowls, and then went to grab the ropes that he usually used to secure the firewood before he followed Zhan Cheng outside. Well, even if he didn’t really need help since he had always done everything himself, two people would be able to carry more than one. And if this guy wanted to repay him, he might as well let him help out a bit.
Zhan Cheng had thought that he would go outside and do Gongliang Ye a favor and then return in a few hours and maybe be able to have another meal with him before he had to return to the city. When he saw that, Gongliang Ye actually followed him outside and was intending to come along so that they could work together, he felt like he was bursting with happiness. He smiled, really not sure how to react, and then just faced forward again, hoping that this day would never end.
Gongliang Ye glanced at him but didn’t pay him too much heed, just focusing on trying to find some firewood. When he spotted something, he would walk over, Zhan Cheng right on his heels, and pick it up.
If it wasn’t anything big, he would carry it himself but if it seemed heavy, Zhan Cheng would always volunteer to take it for him. He had to say that this manner of gathering firewood was really quite relaxing. Also, it was true that this man was quite strong. Even after gathering wood for two hours, he still wasn’t tired. Indeed not that useless.
Gongliang Ye glanced at what they had gathered and then motioned back in the direction of the house. “This should be enough. We can go back.”
Zhan Cheng looked at the wood and felt that it definitely wasn’t enough. In any case, Gongliang Ye himself had said that this winter would probably be a hard one. Could this little bit of wood really be enough for him? He doubted it.
Even though he did, he also felt that he had no right to tell the witch what to do or not to do so he finally just nodded and followed him back home, helping him store the wood in the little shed behind the house that he hadn’t noticed before. There was a bit more wood inside but he still felt that it seemed quite little. Especially if he considered how cold it had seemed in the night he had spent here.
Still, he continued to keep silent and finally even bid his farewell from Gongliang Ye, returning to the city.