What is God?
There were two owner candidates in the house, but there was only one mask.
Who would be the one to wear the mask in the end?
“It will have to do, although it doesn’t have the quality of the original.” The village chief flipped the mask over a few times. After nitpicking on it for a long while, he told Ning Ning, “I will get him to make some changes, take this time to get some practice in.”
As he said that, he looked behind Ning Ning. “You have to look somewhat like her.”
Ning Ning was taken aback, she turned around and looked behind her.
A ferocious and terrifying mask.
…No, not a mask.
“…Mama?” Ning Ning shouted in astonishment.
Standing in front of her was Ning Yu Ren. She had used a scarlet lipstick to draw on her face. She drew the ferocious mouth of a beast of prey, she drew fangs, she drew two lines of bloody tears under her eyes, she looked just like the mask in the village chief’s hands.
“I’m hungry.” She didn’t even look at Ning Ning. After she said those two words, she left everyone in the room and sat at the dining table, holding up her cheek with one hand as she dozed off as if there were no one else around.
Ning Ning felt it was ridiculous at first, then she came back to her senses.
Mama’s performance had begun.
She had started to perform as the owner she had envisioned, as for the results…Ning Ning took a peek at the village chief.
The village chief, who originally only had eyes for her alone, now had his attention snatched by Ning Yu Ren. He was stunned for an instant before he told the carpenter beside him, “Go get my daughter-in-law.”
His daughter-in-law arrived in no time. She directed a few peasant women behind her, they placed dishes in front of Ning Yu Ren.The covers were removed—roasted pork, fish head soup, eel segments, roasted duck and more—they billowed with white steam.
Upon smelling the aroma from the living room, Cui Hong Mei finally emerged from the bedroom. “Eh, meal is ready?”
She walked up to the table and was about to sit down. She abruptly looked back, asking with a weird expression, “Why are you all standing around?”
Ning Ning walked towards the table. Halfway through, she turned back and looked at the villagers.
Man and woman, old and young—the village chief included—they all watched them from afar. The dishes on the table were like offerings at a tombstone. Their expressions were that of people looking at the black and white photo of the deceased behind the offerings.
Ning Ning felt chills. She slowly turned back and finally knew why they had such an expression.
Unsmiling, aloof, not eating the food of common mortals, sitting expressionlessly in front of a pile of offerings—the Ning Yu Ren in this moment, didn’t she look just like a photo of the deceased?
Even Cui Hong Mei who usually had nerves of steel could not take it anymore. She took a few bites before she put her chopsticks down, saying with displeasure, “Can you stop making such an expression? You’re making the food taste bad.”
Ning Yu Ren stared straight at her for a while, then she picked up her chopsticks. She touched every dish with the tip of her chopsticks, seemingly only touched the surface of the soup, then put them in her mouth for a taste. She put down her chopsticks.
“Tastes bad, give me a new table of dishes.” She got up and left. The way she looked coldly at the onlookers made her look like another person.
“Hold up!” Cui Hong Mei slammed her chopsticks on the table, she got up as well. “Why are you copying your father for no reason?”
Ning Ning suddenly understood.
Mama’s acting, in reality, was an imitation. In the past, she had imitated people in the movies. Now, she imitated the previous owner—Grandfather.
Grandfather did not have a fixed image in Ning Ning’s heart, he was like a smoke that was floating about. Now, with Ning Yu Ren’s performance, an image was slowly forming.
Unsociable, egoistic, hard to get along with.
These characteristics were most probably developed from living with the villagers, because they actually responded with delight, “Yes, yes, yes, we will give you a new table of dishes immediately.”
The others were also willing to devote themselves without complaints—working hard to cook, and bring the dishes over. Many of them had their clothes drenched in sweat—a dark coloured mark had formed on the back of their clothes when you see them from the back—but even so, they were all smiles when they walked over, taking back the plates of untouched dishes.
The only one who got angry was Cui Hong Mei. She stamped her foot and said, “Why are you taking them away? Why are you taking them away? I have not eaten yet!”
No one responded to her at all, someone even mocked her. A fifty-year-old middle-aged woman said cynically, “Stop taking advantage of your seniority. Don’t think that you are part of the Ning family just because you married into their family. We have not forgotten where you were from, we have not forgotten the despicable methods you used to become their daughter-in-law.”
The group of them laughed out loud as they brought the plates back. They even discussed splitting the dishes up on the way back—it was as if the dishes that Ning Yu Ren had touched had a certain type of magic, where their children would be healthier and smarter if they were to feed them those.
The village chief left as well, someone had called him over to take a look at the situation of the stage. Before he left, he gave Ning Ning’s shoulder a pat, his tone was heavy, “You have to work harder, don’t laze around in the village. Learn from your mother, learning has its benefits…you don’t want to be replaced by your mother, right?”
“What does she know? What do they know?” After they left, Cui Hong Mei was left to stomp her feet in anger. “I married into the Ning family, of course I’m a Ning family member. I didn’t do anything despicable! When I first met Ah Qing, I didn’t know he was the owner, I just thought he looked especially good…so I stole some braised pork shoulder with soy sauce to gain his favour!”
Afterwards, the villagers laid out a table of new dishes. Like before, there was meat and vegetables, there was alcohol, there was also braised pork shoulder with soy sauce. Ning Yu Ren did not eat the braised pork shoulder with soy sauce, she barely touched the other dishes as well. But whichever dish she ate, the family that had prepared it cheered, they had that flushed look of someone who wished they could tell the world all about it, they simply looked like fanatical zealots.
“…Please taste it.” A frail voice rang out under Ning Ning’s legs. She looked down and saw a little girl who was no more than seven or eight years old. She was wearing scarlet clothes and a flower headdress, holding a bowl of braised pork in brown sauce with both hands, there was a pair of wooden chopsticks on the bowl. She looked at Ning Ning with uneasiness and expectations.
Ning Ning could not reject such an expression.
She picked up the chopsticks and grabbed a piece of braised pork in brown sauce, ate it then smiled at her. “It’s delicious, thank you.”
The little girl’s eyes widened, not from being overwhelmed by flattery or honour, but from astonishment and blame. She frowned and said, “How can you say thank you? You…”
Her mother walked over and covered her mouth, pulling her into her embrace then smiled at Ning Ning weirdly.
That bowl of braised pork in brown sauce was brought in front of Ning Yu Ren, Ning Yu Ren showed Ning Ning the correct way to eat it—she didn’t eat such oily food, her chopsticks immediately went over the top of the bowl. Not only did the mother and daughter not blame her, they had the expression of profound respect and humility instead, as if they were the ones who had made a mistake.
“Do I have to turn into that as well?” Ning Ning murmured to herself.
Was the owner supposed to be like that?
No one answered her question, because everyone’s attention was focused on Ning Yu Ren. There was fanaticism, there was nostalgia, there was also greed.
Ning Ning looked at them from afar, then turned around and walked out of the house. As she walked and walked, she unknowingly had walked to the field of canola flowers beside the village. She crossed her legs and sat down, watching a pair of white butterflies dancing around the flowers in a daze as she waited for Wen Yu.
She did not have lunch or dinner, her stomach started to grumble.
The sky gradually darkened, the two butterflies were long gone, the green mountains in the distance were now black, a few tired birds had returned to their nests.
Wen Yu had not returned.
Looking at the time, it had long been past six, it was going to be seven soon. After missing lunch and dinner, Ning Ning’s hunger worsened.
She looked down at the canola flowers on the ground…speaking of which, could canola flowers be eaten raw?
“To eat, not to eat, to eat, not to eat…” Ning Ning plucked a canola flower and started to pluck its petals— if the last petal was ‘to eat’ she would eat it, if the last petal was ‘not to eat’ she would not eat it.
Ning Ning looked back, a bowl of braised pork shoulder with soy sauce was in front of her.
The green-clothed young man stood bent over behind her, shaking the braised pork shoulder with soy sauce in his hands and laughed, “I just stole it, help me destroy the evidence?”
Ning Ning hugged the braised pork shoulder with soy sauce and devoured it as she stole glances at him.
His green clothes were stained with sauce, his fingers were oily, completely unbecoming of a deity, it was too grounded. Ning Ning started to suspect that he was her grandfather, but she then hesitated. After all, in terms of personality, he was too different from what Mama had portrayed and what the villagers had described of him.
“Your teeth are going to break if you continue to gnaw on it like that.” The green-clothed young man laughed as he asked, “Do you want me to go back and grab two more pieces?”
Ning Ning spat out the bone she had just cleaned off, then wiped her mouth and looked at him as if she wanted to say something.
As she looked at the mask on his face…
“What’s the matter?” The green-clothed young man touched the mask on his face, “What are you thinking of?”
If he was not her grandfather, how would one explain the mask?
You see, the mask on a masked person’s face was linked to that person’s life and personality. For example, the peach coloured eyes on Shi Zhong Tang’s mask and how Boss Qu’s mask was the last mask he bought with his daughter when they went shopping.
It was not something she could easily ask. Her attention shifted to the remnants of the braised pork shoulder with soy sauce in the corner of her eyes, Ning Ning looked back and said, “I’m thinking about my grandmother.”
“Oh? Let’s hear it.”
Ning Ning retold what happened at home in the afternoon, then flipped her eyelids and acted as the mean middle-aged woman, shaking her head and saying cynically, “Stop taking advantage of your seniority. Don’t think you are part of the Ning family just because you married into their family. We have not forgotten where you were from, we have not forgotten the despicable methods…”
“That’s not it,” the green-clothed young man interrupted her as he laughed, “your grandmother did not use any despicable methods.”
Ning Ning looked up at him.
“With the mask you are a god, without the mask you are a mortal.” The flowers on the mountain looked brilliant, he laughed amidst the grass, “Everyone loved his face with the mask, only your grandmother loved him without the mask. Even if she was hankering after his good looks, it was enough for him to feel gratified.”
“Who was he?”
“How do you know about my grandfather?”
“Haha, I know everything.”
Ning Ning’s eyes sparkled for a moment, as if unintentional she asked, “In your opinion, what should I do in order to become the owner?”
The green-clothed young man tilted his head to the side and took a look at her, he turned around and said, “Follow me.”
Ning Ning frantically got off from the ground and chased after him.
The two of them walked one after another for quite a while, the road became more and more rugged, it became harder and harder to walk. Ning Ning took a look back, the village and the canola flower field was no longer behind her.
“We’re here.” The green clothed young man’s voice rang out in front of her.
Ning Ning turned back and looked over, he was pointing at a place in front of him as he said, “It’s over there, go dig it up.”
Dig it up?
Ning Ning looked to the front. What was buried in the grass and fallen leaves? It couldn’t be the missing mask of the owner?
If she were to find the lost mask, she would be the owner?
With a trace of doubt and expectation, Ning Ning walked over.
“Ning Ning! Stop!!” Wen Yu’s voice suddenly rang out behind her.
But he was too late.
A pair of hands hugged Ning Ning from behind, in the end, the two of them slipped and slid down together.
As they were sliding down, Ning Ning’s back started to sweat—what grass? What fallen leaves? In front of her was clearly a dry well, she had been tricked!
A loud crash rang out from the bottom of the well, afterwards, it reverted back to silence.
“…Wen Yu, Wen Yu, are you alright?” After a long while, Ning Ning’s voice rang out first, she called out many times, but there was no answer.
A pair of green cloth shoes stepped on the fallen leaves on the ground. They walked to the side of the well slowly. The green-clothed young man had his hands behind his back, bending over and looking into the well.
The well was not very deep, but the people who fell in would never be able to climb out by themselves. There was no water in it, but there was a layer of fallen leaves. On top of them were two people in each other’s arms, the man was unconscious, the girl looked up and shouted at him, “Why are you doing this?!”
“The country has disintegrated, Emperor Chongzhen was hanged on Jingshan1, the people were forced to leave their homes, a portion of the people fled from the Qing army rebels into the barren mountains.” The green-clothed young man looked down at them, “The person who led this group of people was the ancestor of the Ning family, the owner of Life Opera House at that time.”
The bottom of the well was silent for a moment.
“What’s the biggest right of the owner? It’s that wherever he goes, he can bring Life Opera House along with him.” The green-clothed young man said, “Watching the refugees that escaped along with him die one by one, the owner started to think. He finally thought of a way, a way to enable people to survive, that way was—a sacrifice.”
Volunteers started appearing among the refugees. For the sake of letting more people survive, some of them volunteered to become a masked person, some of them volunteered to enter Life Opera House and watch plays, then through the plays changed the fate of the people.
It was a noble thing, it was also a dangerous thing.
Some succeeded, some failed, some advanced, some cowered. Until the end, the group of them—from the different corners of the country, the refugees with different surnames—relying on the power of Life Opera House, they finally arrived at their utopia and built the Ning Village.
“…Do you understand now? The Ning Village was built upon a sacrifice.” The moon was dark and gloomy, his expression behind the mask was even more dark and gloomy. The green-clothed young man stood by the well, rustling leaves swirled by him in the wind, he looked down at Ning Ning in the well and smiled gently. “Sacrifice him. I will pull you out, then personally teach you how to be the owner.”
Ning Ning was stunned, she looked down at Wen Yu who was in her arms.
…For the sake of guarding herself, and Wen Yu who was bleeding.
1Jingshan Park is an imperial park covering 23 hectares (57 acres) immediately north of the Forbidden City in the Imperial City area of Beijing, China. The focal point is the artificial hill Jingshan, literally “Prospect Hill”. Wiki article