It’s just as I was hoping. There are records in there, almost like what we keep. It looks like this was where their elders resided. Can you get started going through those writings? They might be able to tell us what happened here, and you’re better at understanding that sort of thing than I am.
What are you going to do? I ask.
He gestures around. Continue searching the rest of the houses. I think those records will have most of our answers, but we need to rule everything out.
Be careful , I say.
He nods, heading off toward one of the houses.
I watch him a few moments and then turn toward the administrative building. It’s smaller than the art school at home or our magistrate’s center, but then, this village is also much smaller. The building is in a similar state as the house I was just in, smelling of dust and decay. But thankfully there are no skeletons or other signs of the dead to keep me company.
The room Li Wei referred to is similar to our library at the Peacock Court, and it has kept out the worst of the moisture and other damaging elements. Wall racks hold a neat collection of scrolls, and the rest of the room is dedicated to storing what looks like this village’s equivalent of daily records. They’re smaller than ours and not nearly as elaborate as the murals we create, nor do they show the artistic flair and precision that we are encouraged to put into our work. But they are factual and orderly and contain the information I need to unravel what has happened in this village. I make myself comfortable and begin reading scrolls by the dusty light filtering in from a high window.
What I discover is shocking. Numbing, even. I lose track of time and am only startled out of my study when I hear Li Wei’s steps in the adjacent hall. Did you find anything? I ask when he enters. I manage to appear calm, but inside, I’m reeling.
More than I wanted , he tells me. Most of the homes are empty, but others have bones as well. I don’t know what killed them.
I do , I say, setting down one of the records. Starvation and sickness. My attempts at control begin to falter. My hands are shaking, and I clasp them in my lap. It’s not fear that has unsettled me so much as shock.
Do you want to go outside to talk? Li Wei asks. It’s getting warmer.
I nod. I feel chilled in this place full of memories and ghosts. I need to be back out in the sun, back among living and growing things. We travel toward last night’s camp, but just as we are at the edge of the village, we encounter another gruesome sight: skeletons shackled to a stone block. My stomach turns at the thought of the terrible fate they must have endured there. Characters etched into the stone condemn them for their crime: food thieves.
With a shudder, I avert my gaze and see Li Wei scowling. I’m not surprised he’s upset, considering the way he protected the thief in our village. This is savage , he states. At least our people have never taken punishment to such an extreme.
They might , I say, thinking of what I learned. If our village ever has to face what this one did.
What do you mean? he asks.
We reach our camp, now enjoying the full force of morning sunlight. It helps chase away the gloom of what I uncovered in the library—but only a little. Li Wei looks at me expectantly once we are there.
They were like us , I tell him finally. Exactly like us. A mining town. They lost their hearing and became trapped up here, with no easy way to climb down, but they established a deal with the township. They had their own line and sent metals down the mountain in exchange for food. And just like us, they began to go blind.
Those similarities are still too shocking, too unbelievable, and that’s what makes it hard to keep going. This village’s history was so much like our own: Had I just taken a walk in my own future? Is this what’s in store for us in ten years? Five years? One year? Fear makes me lose track of my story—not for myself, but for those we left behind. What fate is waiting for Zhang Jing? For the masters and other students?
What happened? How did they die? Li Wei asks, his expression urgent. Fei, you said starvation?
I swallow and try to regain my composure. With blindness, their mining output depleted, and just like with us, the township started limiting their food. They weren’t exactly like us—they stopped feeding their beggars altogether. The blindness also resulted in more accidents, so some died that way too. Near the end, their water supply got contaminated. The record keepers believed some of the bodies weren’t disposed of properly and fouled the water. People grew sick and died before they discovered the problem. It was a couple of years ago, so it eventually cleared , I add, seeing him shoot a concerned look at our canteens. By then, there was hardly anyone left. The township stopped food shipments completely, and chaos broke out. Those that didn’t die of starvation attempted to climb down, but it’s unknown how many made it. The elevation is lower, but from what I’ve read, the stone on the cliffs below is softer—more prone to avalanches, less likely to hold ropes and body weight. Some may have escaped. Some didn’t. Some may have thrown themselves over purposefully.
I sink to the ground, unable to shake the thought of this happening to our village. Li Wei paces in front of me, his expression dark. He bravely investigated the ghost village, with all its horrors, but now I can tell his resolve is wavering. Or maybe he’s just losing hope.
Is this what it comes to then? he asks. Is this what our village can expect? Food disappearing altogether? Despair and hopelessness?
We can’t know that , I say. We can’t know anything until we speak to the line keeper. And our village isn’t like theirs . . . not yet.
Isn’t it? he asks angrily. It’s already happening! The blindness has started. The metals have decreased. The food has decreased. Just the other day, the township said they were sending less as “punishment.” How much longer until they stop the food? How long until our own people turn on each other in desperation? Is this what my father died for? How many other villages has the township done this to?