Ning Ning’s eyes flashed, she asked, “…Can I still trust you?”
“Of course, why would I lie to you?” The village chief frantically took an oath and said a bunch of words to placate her, but Ning Ning was not waiting for his answer.
Her vision went over his shoulders as she looked at the green-clothed young man behind him.
“Of course you can trust me.” A gentle laughter rang out under the ferocious mask. “…After all, you are my only granddaughter.”
Although she had long guessed it, when she heard the answer, Ning Ning still could not help but feel surprised.
“In the first place, I should have doted on you more, taught you how to walk with my own hands, brought you to look at the canola flower field on my shoulders—it’s a pity I turned into a masked person too early.” The green-clothed young man laughed. “…But even after I turn into a masked person, I can’t let you all go.”
As he finished speaking, he walked to the front of the village chief.
The village chief was still none the wiser, Ning Qing suddenly held his beard—tugging it.
“Ah!” The village chief cried out in pain. The door behind him suddenly opened, his two sons rushed in. “Dad, what happened?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine.” The village chief pinched his own beard, then fell into a momentary daze.
Air blew on him. He didn’t know if it was the wind, or if someone had breathed on him.
A small tuft of facial hair was blown at his face, it was also blown at his sons’ faces. The two sons wiped their faces and thought that it was ridiculous, the village chief on the other hand had turned green.
He suddenly turned around and ran. His two sons behind him exchanged doubtful looks before frantically chasing after him, the last one to leave did not forget to lock the door.
They chased him to the living room and saw the village chief holding a fat teapot as he poured tea out.
The cup barely had a few drops of tea, the water was flowing onto the table instead, tea dripping down continuously from the corner of the table.
“Dad, what’s the matter?” His elder son took the teapot out of his hand and poured the tea for him.
The village chief was helped to a seat by his other son. He received the teacup with trembling hands, took two sips and said, “There’s an extra person in this house.”
The two sons exchanged looks, one of them laughed. “Dad, have you been too exhausted lately?”
The village chief wiped his face, then he looked down at the few strands of white beard in his palm, murmuring, “In the house just now, as I was speaking, someone suddenly plucked a handful of my beard…”
“Ning Ning did that?” The elder son frowned. “Isn’t that too much? You are her senior.”
“It’s not her.” The village chief continued to look at his palm, saying quietly, “But if it was not her, who else could it be?”
He suddenly looked up at his two sons, his eyes sparkled in a strange manner. “It’s Ning Qing.”
Just as his voice faded out, a cat outside the house cried out, the three of them shuddered at the same time, under the light, each of them turned pale.
“How can it be? He has been dead for so long, hahahaha…” The younger son forced out a laughter, trying to liven up the atmosphere.
The elder son interrupted his laughter with a sentence, “What if he has turned into a masked person?”
The laughter ceased abruptly, all of them fell silent.
“…It’s not possible,” the village chief suddenly said, “with a doorman around, the masked people cannot come out, moreover…”
He held the hand of his younger son as he stood up, trembling. He walked slowly to the window, pushed it open and looked out.
It was late at night, but it was not quiet. At this time, the village would usually be so quiet that even the dogs would not be barking. Today was different. Every house had their lights on, the streets were also full of people, it caused the dogs who smelt the scent of strangers to bark repeatedly. It was all because people couldn’t sleep due to the excitement of the ancestor worship ceremony tomorrow.
“…Even if he were to come back here as a masked person, do we not hold the ancestor worship ceremony?” The village chief murmured, “Then he wouldn’t even need to do anything, the crowd below would eat us alive…”
A night passed.
The next day, the weather was clear, there was neither wind nor cloud, it was a good day for the ancestor worship ceremony.
There were people from the door of the village chief’s house, there was no space to stand on the street at all. Everyone looked excited. A mother was touching her child’s head. “Don’t worry. This time, you will definitely be able to be admitted into Beijing University.”
A former-grand-lottery-winner-turned-poor-man was calling his ex-girlfriend, “Little Mei, if I were to win the grand lotto again, can you come back to me?”
A famous person who always appeared on television sat in the car alone. He took the time before the ancestor worship ceremony started to flip open a small book, in it was his life experiences for the past ten years. He flipped to a page and recited it.
He longed for change, longed to bounce back, longed for improvement… Countless people entrusted their hopes here, they entrusted it to what was behind the door in front of them.
The door opened with a creak.
The village chief walked out while holding his walking cane. He wore a new top with the word “bliss” sewn on and a mask of the longevity monkey. A wood-carven beard hung at the bottom of the mask, a white beard also hung below his chin. He looked at the people at the doorway slowly, suddenly turning his body sideways, revealing the mask behind him.
Fangs on all sides, ferocious and terrifying.
“Welcome, Owner!” The village chief shouted loudly.
“Welcome, Owner!” A mother held his son and shouted.
“Welcome, Owner!” The former grand lotto winner shouted.
“…She’s finally here.” The famous person sighed, closed the book and got out of the car.
The mask that was hanging down slowly looked up and revealed a pair of ice cold eyes.
That pair of eyes slowly looked at its surroundings from the left to the right, looking at the fanatical faces, then let out an exclamationt.
“Let’s go, Owner.” The village chief gestured for her to go ahead. Two masked women immediately walked up behind Ning Ning, holding her left and right hands. Ning Ning shook her shoulders and shook off their hands, she said, “I’ll walk by myself.”
She walked over the threshold, the golden bell on her ankle ringing, her scarlet dress dragging on the floor behind her. Step by step, she walked towards the direction of the ancestral hall like a prisoner.
The stage in front of the ancestral hall had long been ready.
The stage was empty, wood carved chairs were neatly placed in front of the stage.
The masked people were walking around in between the chairs, it looked surprisingly similar to Life Theater at a glance.
There was still some time before the play began. A group of people had arrived early at the ancestral hall to worship. Behind the ethereal white smoke were ancestral tablets, there were names on each, the village chief introduced them one by one from the side.
“This is the ancestor from my family, he was a third class official in the Qing dynasty, his daughter became a concubine in the palace.”
“This is the old master of the Wu family, he was a wealthy person in the Republic era.”
After they offered their joss sticks, the village chief led the people as they knelt down and prayed. “Ancestors, bless us. We, of the Ning Village, will never stop worshipping you. Bless us with talented people in every generation…”
Everyone prayed, Ning Ning was the only one who didn’t. The crowd looked at her strangely. She looked at her surroundings and asked, “Why don’t I see my ancestors?”
“It’s here, it’s here.” The village chief led her to a corner. At a place full of dust stood a few lonely tablets. The other tablets had incense in front of them, only these few tablets had empty censers.
“What did they do?” Ning Ning asked, “Were they an official or a concubine?”
“They didn’t.” The village chief said, “The people of the Ning family were indifferent and not competitive, every generation had stayed in the village till old age…”
“That’s strange.” Ning Ning interrupted him. She looked at the ill-fitting ancestor tablets beside her. “Everyone’s ancestors went out to the world before finally returning in glory, only my ancestors died in their hometown?”
“Everyone has their own ambitions.” The village chief explained, “Not everyone likes to go out to the world to make a living.”
Ning Ning looked at him for a moment before she blandly said, “They are all dead, you can say whatever you want.”
The village chief did not react to that on the spot. He waited for Ning Ning to leave before he signaled to his elder son, saying quietly to him, “Tell Ning Yu Ren, tell her to get prepared.”
The elder son said in surprise, “Ning Yu Ren? She is not qualified to be the owner at all, didn’t the person from the Li family say so? She has entered Life Theater long ago, besides, her body had already shown signs of deterioration. She would most probably be going to become a masked person soon. A person like her…can’t even be considered a living person, she’s already half dead.”
“At least she’s obedient.” The village chief said as he stared at Ning Ning’s back. “I have a bad premonition. It would be good if nothing goes wrong, if something does go wrong…at least we have a backup.”
The beat of drums and gongs, the sound of pipa and suona1.
After the ancestor worship was a banquet. It had long been ready, the best table was the one Ning Ning at. She did not even need to move her chopsticks, the people by her side were fighting to give her food, they even wanted to feed her.
Ning Ning waved her hand indicating that she did not need it, she shouted at one of the people instead, smiling, “You’re being so familiar with them, is it possible that your ancestor is a person from this village?”
Li Bo Yue looked back and smiled at her. “They might really be.”
A group of masked children laughed as they walked past him. Upon hearing their conversation, one of them stopped, looked up and said, “You are! I heard my father say that you are of the Li family, you are the exorcist.”
The other children shouted for the child. They left the two of them and ran away.
Ning Ning stared at Li Bo Yue. Li Bo Yue shrugged. “…My dad seems to be a person from this village. He has a friend named Pei Xuan. The two of them have been researching supernatural things all this time—things about Life Theater, Life Opera House, the doorman, masked people… At the end of the research, Pei Xuan stole a mask from my dad, came back to his hometown and impersonated him.”
This was when Ning Ning noticed that he was not wearing a mask.
In the midst of the masked people, he was sticking out like a sore thumb. Occasionally, someone would come over and remind him. He was so annoyed that he unwillingly took the mask out of his briefcase. He wore it askew, sticking out even more among the masked people who wore their masks properly.
“Do you believe that Life Theater exists?” Ning Ning asked.
“…Only my dad and Pei Xuan would believe in such a thing.” Li Bo Yue downplayed it. “Oh, that’s not right. It seems like there are quite a number of people who believe it now…including your mother.”
Ning Ning looked down, her eyes sparkled.
“Don’t you believe it?” She looked up and asked.
“I don’t.” Li Bo Yue flipped down the mask on his head, it covered his face as he mocked, “On the contrary, I want to see where the ghosts are. If they really exist, I, the ghost slayer, will take responsibility and slay them.”
Ning Ning looked away. She looked at the singing and dancing villagers, thinking, “Aren’t the ghosts here?”
Aren’t the ghosts in the heart of these people?
“It’s getting late.” The village chief raised his wine cup and stood up. “Everyone drink up, then let us go to the stage together!”
The crowd had been waiting for him to say this for a very long time. Those who were seated all stood up, finishing up the wine in their cups. Some of them put their cups down, some smashed their cups boldly. They left the leftover soup and wine behind as they walked towards the stage in front of them.
Wearing yin yang masks and holding musical instruments were the musicians for this play. They were standing and sitting around the sides of the stage.
Without masks were the patrons below the stage. One by one they were seated down, filling up all the seats. They turned their heads together.
A group of people wearing masks of various shapes and white clothes formed a long line, walked neatly by the sides of the seated people. One by one they went on stage. Dong. The drummer waved his hands and hit the drum with the pace of their footsteps. It sounded out like thunder—dong, dong, dong.
<<Life Opera House>> had begun.
Dong, dong, dong.
Ning Ning looked up at the sky, “Hey, it looks like it really is about to thunder.”
The weather was so good just now. But there were rising winds and scudding clouds now, big dark clouds swept over, covering up the sky. The elder son came up to the village chief’s ear and asked, “What do we do?”
The village chief looked up at the sky and shook his head. “Continue.”
Thus, amidst the raging winds, the drummer continued to hit the drum. Dong, dong, dong. Dong, dong, dong. Accompanied by the sound of the drum, twelve dancers knelt towards Ning Ning, slowly raising their hands to the air and slowly placing their foreheads to the ground. It was as if they were begging for their lives from Heaven, seeking mercy from Earth.
“Ah–” A woman suddenly straightened her head and looked up, singing an ancient and savage song from her throat.
Accompanied by the song, the twelve dancers were about to get up from the ground, but they were stunned when they finally looked up.
Clop, clop, clop…
A pair of feet walked towards them.
A mask looked down at them.
Fangs on all sides, ferocious and terrifying.
It was Ning Ning!
The singing stopped, the dancers looked at each other, whispers were murmured among the audience. The village chief had his brows interlocked, he told his elder son that was beside him, “What’s going on? They can’t even keep an eye on her! Quickly get her off the stage… Wait a minute.”
Ning Ning did not ruin the ancestor worship ceremony. She only stood on stage, one arm behind her back, the other hand making a gesture for the twelve dancers to come to her. She then turned around and left, not caring if they followed her or not, leaving the stage on her own and returning to her seat. She placed one hand on the cheek of her mask and continued to act again.
The elder son breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll go get someone to keep an eye on her so that she won’t go anywhere.”
A hand gripped his wrist firmly. He looked down and saw the village chief with his gaze fixed on stage.
“Who taught her that?” The village chief’s voice held a trace of fear. “How did she know this segment of the Nuo dance?”
The elder son was taken aback for a moment, he cast his eyes on Ning Ning.
Besides him, there were a lot of people who were not paying attention to the stage, but at Ning Ning instead, especially the old villagers. The younger villagers had never seen the complete version of the Nuo dance, they had at most only heard of it through their elders… They heard that the Ning family was still in that version of the Nuo dance—the country disintegrated, the people were forced to leave their homes, the twelve surnames begged the heavens and earth to no avail, only a young man who had walked past them pitied them, asking if they wanted to follow him.
This young man called himself the owner, the owner of Life Opera House.
At first, he did not care about the lives of these people. He was just casually extending a helping hand, just like tossing a piece of wood to the ants in the water or giving a mantou2 to a starving puppy.
Paying no care, just like Ning Ning at the moment.
Only appearing on stage for an instant before returning to her seat, supporting her cheek with a single hand, looking superior.
But she did not (actually) leave the ‘stage’.
The masked people on stage, the masked people off stage—the people on stage were part of the play, the people offstage were also part of the play. The outsiders didn’t know that the Nuo dance titled <<Life Opera House>> actually included everyone on and off stage.
The entire village was the stage.
“Who told her to act like that?” An old man looked at Ning Ning’s direction and asked quietly.
Ning Ning sat silently on the chair.
“Come.” An invisible man stood beside her. He smiled and told her, told the audience, “It started with the Ning family, it will end with the Ning family… Let us end <<Life Opera House>>.”
1The suona , also called laba or haidi, is a Chinese sorna (double-reeded horn). Soon as is originally from current Iran, called Surna. It appears in China around 3rd Century. It has a distinctively loud and high-pitched sound, and is used frequently in Chinese traditional music ensembles, particularly those that perform outdoors. Wiki article
2Mantou, often referred to as Chinese steamed bun, is a white and soft type of steamed bread or bun popular in Northern China. Wiki article
E/N: Hey, guys, apologies for the late release, all my fault 😡 Enjoy this one and next chapter tomorrow.