Curse that old man at the noodle stand, he thinks. The old man told him a village was within five miles and could be reached by dark. He was eager to get home after a month away from his family, so he took advantage of the sunlight and his strong legs.
Maybe he missed the turnoff. A fork taunted him a couple of miles ago. He followed the direction given to him to “keep going west” and now he’s not so sure. A sudden scream startles him and he jolts at the noise. A big bird dashes out of an elm tree, its dark wings flap a few times and disappears into the grey horizon. He exhales nervously.
A blister threatens him inside the hemp sole. Perhaps a night under a tree away from the element is the only way to sleep tonight. He surveys the landscape when he notices a vague shape in the dark. He focuses on it and a rush of joy washes all the anxiety away. It’s a small temple. He runs toward it with brave big steps.
He pushes the wooden door slowly. To his further delight it’s closed but not bolted. He calls out timidly, asking if he could spend the night, while crossing the foot-high thresh-hold carefully. A statue sitting behind an altar table greets him with wordless stern warning. The offering room appears endless in the dark air.
The cold incense burner and the empty tabletop tell him its abandoned state. He decides it’s a place safe enough to spend the night. He spreads out the cotton quilt he carries on his back and closes the door.
Few moments after he closes his eyes, it seems, a squeaky noise and a cold breeze on his face chase the slumber away. He sits up under the quilt with his heart pounding in his chest, his eyes searching wildly in the dark. The temple door is ajar. The pre-dawn moonlight casts a blurry streak on the floor. He must have slept through the night without bolting the door first. What a coward, he scolds himself, and stands up to close the door.
His hand freezes on the edge of the door. A group of people, their shapes can’t be made out with the moon hiding in the flowing clouds, are running toward him--toward the temple. The bobbing shadow alerts him he doesn’t have much time.
He had the misfortune of running into the bandits once, and he knows what will happen if they see him. With the fastest speed he wraps up his belongings and rolls under the altar table. The tables are covered with red table cover, a long table in the back and a short one in the front. To be safe he presses himself all the way to the back. The statue and the long altar table are set in an alcove and is the only safe place he could hide.
He stops breathing when they come inside.
Thud, thud, thud. Sounds like they jump in one by one. A man yells tiao, tiao...!
He doesn’t understand. As if the rest of them don’t know there is a thresh-hold and need instruction to jump over it. He listens on. The man chants for a while in words he couldn’t make sense of, with more of the thud, thud in the mix.
To his surprise, the noise quiets down shortly and the door is closed again. He could hear the man standing in front of the table praying to the god for a safe trip home, and the sound of the man putting his bedding down. Soon his snoring rattles the worship room. The rest of the group doesn’t make so much noise as breathing.
He slowly lifts a sliver of the table cover against his own warning. The man on the floor is sound asleep. He looks up slowly and could see a row of man-shaped objects lined up against the wall. They are wrapped in linen from head to toe, their eyes two black holes looking into the lifeless space in front of them.
It feels like a bomb exploded in his head and forced all the blood out. As he slowly slips to the floor and faints, he remembers the tale he once heard from the village elder.
The families of the traveling men died away from home sometimes didn’t have money to have their bodies shipped back home. They would pool their money together and hire a herder--a mysterious man with special and dark power to command the corps. They travel by night and sleep by day, and always by routes seldom traversed. The corps jump, not walk, while they travel. It was imperative, the elder said, not to disturb them if you bumped into them, or bad fortune would be upon you soon.
By the time Tu-er comes to, the herder and the corps are deep in their “sleep,” and the pearly grey outside is promising a good day ahead.
He doesn’t remember how he got out of the temple. Perhaps he crawled out, although his children and acquaintances will never hear that from him. He never risks traveling at night just to get more mileage in anymore.