After six hours of bus, Yani finally arrived at Red Temple Village. The road control department didn’t let her drive into the village. They claimed that the road from town had grown narrower in the past few years because of the government’s new suburban reconstruction project. Now only the local buses issued officially by the department could pass through.This was not the first time Yani had traveled to her ex-husband’s hometown, but it was the first time alone. The very first time she came here was four years ago when she got married to Jun. Surrounded by eighty strangers coming from nearby towns and villages, Yani had wished her wedding veil had stayed closed the whole time. Even with the veil down, she was trapped by unknown villagers lining up to take photos with her, a rare city girl in a white princess dress. It was said that the line started from the center of Red Temple and went all the way to Blue Mountain Village.
The second time happened one year ago, at Jun’s funeral, which was much better, with fewer people around, gladly. It was the last time for Yani to be in that village, at least, that was what she had thought back then.Two times here was enough torture already. Yani preferred to mourn her husband in a city apartment, not this unknown village in the middle of nowhere. She didn’t expect to come here again, that too alone, going through hours of sitting in a tiny van-like bus. But of course, neither did she expect that someone would knock on her door at eleven thirty at night. And that person, was Ling.
Ling was Jun’s elder sister. She had luckily escaped from the village for college and had been living in a town nearby. They weren’t far from each other, but Yani and Ling barely talked. The last time they saw each other was after Jun’s funeral when they shared the same car ride back to the city. Both of them slept through it.
Ling had arrived to tell Yani that last night, the crematory from the Red Temple village had discovered some volume of Jun’s remaining ash. Apparently a year ago, the crematory staff had forgotten to refill the coals while cremating Jun’s body, and had the remaining parts cremated only weeks afterwards. Luckily, they didn’t just throw it away. It was only recently, when the government’s reconstruction project had required them to clear the area, that they had found the remaining ash of Jun, left stored in the corner for almost a whole year.
“They need you to collect the ash personally, and it has to be tomorrow,” Ling spat out the words. It was clear that the reason for her unexpected visit left no room; Yani could not hesitate or think it over. Of course she had millions of questions to ask. Why did she have to be the one? Why tomorrow, so suddenly, so soon? Why did her dead husband’s sister just appear at her door now, in the middle of the night? Why not just call? Yani could only ask one question, and Ling answered right away, “I never had your phone number.” And just like that, Ling left. There was too much that Yani couldn’t understand. She promptly showered, packed her things, and booked a train to Jun’s hometown next morning.
So this was the third time for Yani, standing in the middle of the village. She stood beside a small, dusty temple covered in washed-out red paint. Most villagers had moved to the neighborhood with the newly built apartment block, financed by the government, and only an hour’s drive away. True, many of the households had been there for up to five generations – around two hundred years. But nobody could reject the chance to sit on butter-soft couches placed on glossy tiles, and watching magic shows on a 40-inch television. Yani looked around at the village center but no one came to crowd her. She only saw a few villagers cleaning up remaining furniture and some construction workers rushing back and forth, checking the floorplan of the upcoming project. Things had changed, moved forward. This was not what she had remembered.
So Yani just stood there. It didn’t occur to her at all that she could ask someone about the crematorium. She was always told by her grandmother that any road can lead to Rome. It was a small village anyway. She took the road with fewer people down the narrow pebble path next to a row of old wooden houses. There were some light sounds of something burning. Yani followed the clues, finally spotting something that could resemble the crematorium. A small lake revealed itself, where an old man was burning something. Next to him, two yellow, dirty ducks lay still. They were probably swimming somehow but the movements seemed too small, you could barely see them. The man heard Yani’s footsteps and turned around. His eyes stayed on her for a short period of time, and then turned back to his business. She couldn’t quite see what exactly this old man was burning. So she took a few more steps forward, trying to find out. He turned again.
“What do you need?” he asked with only the slightest of interests.
“Crematory? You know where it is?”
The old man heard Yani loud and clear, but he turned away, not responding. Yani wasn’t sure what to do, whether to ask again or not. No, she retracted that idea and continued walking, even more carefully and meticulously, so the old man would notice her even less.
“You collecting the ashes?” the sudden response startled Yani. She stopped, staring back at the old man.
“Did they tell you to come and collect the remains of the dead?”
Yani unknowingly murmured yes and the old man waved her away. Yani didn’t understand. She wasn’t in the state of trying to comprehend anything from this encounter.
“It’s a spam!” he raised his voice, sounding impatient, , “You never got any type of messages that tell you you won a million before? Same thing, just spam messages.”
Yani understood his message clearly. She proceeded to walk towards the other side of the lake. Turning back would certainly take more effort, and Yani was very conscious of that. She had probably been here before. Maybe this was where they held their dinner party… was it by this lake or by the red temple? She tried to reimagine her wedding day, and the same space at Jun’s funeral. Yes, the crowd’s dinner was held by the water, both times. She remembered debating with Jun on the location, because Jun’s family suggested the red temple would be better for holding events. But she persuaded him in the end, just like the second time, when she persuaded Jun’s father for the location of the funeral. The lake had a nicer breeze—that was her argument, and it worked, both times.
The next thing Yani knew, she could only see or hear was bubbles, water, bubbles. They were in her mouth, in her ear, in her lungs. She could barely open her eyes but it wasn’t necessary. It was a filthy, dirty lake. She couldn’t see anything anyway. So she stopped struggling and calmly closed her eyes. She thought about this small lake, which was really more like a pond with a narrow tunnel, connecting it to a larger water source, perhaps to a real lake. She could picture it very well: this little pond with the shape of a little rectangle, and at one of the four corners, two ducks staying still, meditating, and accompanying an old man, quietly burning something. An old man enjoying the light summer breeze by the lake, all by himself. And above the water, a gentle wind, playfully chasing after the ashes, traveling slowly, going further and further away from the depths of the pond.
Artwork by Andrey “Kiev Crematorium”