Chen Peng’s eyes widened in horror and he violently gagged, then abruptly turned around, just in time to vomit all the contents of his stomach onto the ground. His mother’s face blanched at the thought of what her own son had consumed, and she covered her mouth to suppress her own nausea.
Wang Laowu chortled while hoisting the wooden stretcher to the riverbank. He had wished for a chance to teach that rude young man a lesson since a while back.
With their bare hands, the two body fishers wrapped Chen Xu’s body in the huge plastic tarp, until it was safely cocooned within layers of plastic. Then, they each grabbed one end of the body, and chanted, “One, two!” It took them great effort to finally heave the body onto the stretcher. Shitou stood at the front, bearing the heavier upper body weight of the corpse, whereas the old man supported him by holding up the back end of the stretcher.
Before they departed, Wang Laowu warned the party, “Listen carefully. There are customs to be obeyed anywhere you go. Here, if you do not wish to be targeted by vengeful spirits, keep this in mind, on our way back to the village—do not look back, ever, no matter what happens.” His tone was low and stern, a change from his previous taunting, gleeful tone, causing everyone else to be extra wary.
Chen Yunzhi asked, “What will happen if we do?”
The old man gave him a meaningful glance. “You wouldn’t want to know.”
Tang Tian went a few steps ahead of the others, as she knew Chen Xu wouldn’t want her to see his corpse. Thus, she walked ahead of everyone else, not worried about getting lost with only one path to and from the village. Following right behind her was the anxious mother-and-son pair who were immensely keen on returning to the village as soon as possible. They stayed close to each other while they trudged on, with Lin Luoyan at the back steadying Chen Peng most of the time, as the latter was rather sluggish due to his intense vomiting earlier. Chen Yunzhi and his secretary strode calmly behind them, whereas the two body fishers, carrying Chen Xu’s body, brought up the rear.
The group trekked through the forest in single file, keeping no more than five to six steps in between each of them.
The chatty Wang Laowu, who couldn’t stand the silence, decided to speak. “Hey, let me tell you about some local legends.”
Chen Peng grimaced, wishing he could holler at the old man to shut up, but the stench and taste of the vomit still remaining in his mouth were unbearable, so he was unwilling to speak.
Unfortunately, no one else reacted quickly enough to stop Wang Laowu either. He continued his storytelling in a low, mysterious tone. “Since ancient times, we have believed in the tradition of worshipping river deities. Of course, we also believe in a river deity that presides over the Dead Man’s Riverbend. The rotting corpses that pile up by the riverbend are important to the deity, as they are said to become the sustenance of the river deity as the bodies decompose. Some even say that the river deity was the mastermind behind the formation of this riverbend. According to my elders, we body fishers are loathed by the river deity for ‘stealing away’ the corpses that nourish and sustain it. That’s why it is forbidden for us to be in this area after dark. Those who break the rule never find their way back.”
Chen Peng retorted, “You’re just trying to get us to pity you by sharing your own superstitions. The price is fixed, I tell you. Don’t play dumb and try to raise the price.”
The old man ignored him. “Some of the bodies that floated down here are victims of murder cases back in the 1980s and 90s. Back in those days, some of those cases were exceptionally vile. You would find just mangled, bloody parts of a body floating down the river. It got better later on. Most of them now are people who killed themselves or accidentally drowned upstream. New bodies that float in will push the older ones further downstream, so there are always about two hundred bodies in the Dead Man’s Riverbend.”
The forest was silent, void of every sound except for Wang Laowu’s deep, raspy voice. It grated like sandpaper against the cold, hard ground, and fear pervaded deep within everyone’s minds as they listened to his stories. “As the years went by, vengeful spirits of all the dead people lingered there. They wanted to be properly buried, to finally rest in peace. So, they waited and waited, for the day their families would come and collect their bodies.
“Back then, the roads weren’t as convenient as they are now and communication was difficult. Information about our services could only spread through word of mouth, and of the people who came asking for a body to be fished out, only one out of ten bodies was successfully identified and reunited with their families. The other spirits stuck at the riverbend grew jealous as time went on. The bodies, they’re stiffs—their muscles don’t work, so it must be the ghostly hands of jealous spirits that tug at the bodies, preventing us from pulling them free.
“You people probably didn’t notice it earlier, but when we were down by the river with our boat, about 500 meters away from the bank, we saw the body you’re looking for completely entangled with the long, tattered clothes of three other corpses as if they were purposefully stopping him from being able to rest in peace.”
“My son and I took great pains to separate all of them, and finally pulled out the one you people wanted, despite knowing it would cost us time and effort. As I said, it was our ancestor’s advice for us to leave the mountain before nightfall, otherwise…”
The sky grew darker and the mountain path was soon shrouded in darkness. Tang Tian could barely see anything, so she had to turn on the flashlight on her phone. The bright white light instantly pierced through the dark and shone on the winding path ahead.
Abruptly, she halted her steps. Her grip on her phone tightened and her eyes widened in shock as if she had seen something terrifying.
Chen Peng and his mother had been following Tang Tian closely and when her abrupt stope almost made them collide against her back. “Why have you stopped moving?” they muttered angrily under their breath as they tried to see what had caused her reaction.
Suddenly, they screamed, and their frantic voices overlapped with the old man’s raspy voice from behind.
“The path! Why is there a forked path?”
“…otherwise we would experience the Ghost Snare1Ghost Snare originates from Chinese mythology and refers to the situation where one is trapped in an infinite loop or a maze created by ghosts. and be trapped here forever.”
- 1Ghost Snare originates from Chinese mythology and refers to the situation where one is trapped in an infinite loop or a maze created by ghosts.