“Xiao Zhuang, listen to your brother and sister okay? Don’t cause trouble for them. I’ll buy you sugar cakes once we reach the town tomorrow.” Gu Qiao was afraid that his youngest son might say something to provoke the Gu siblings, so he hurriedly coax him for now.
Gu Ming’s gaze dimmed. His father only revealed his fatherly love to his youngest son. Were he and his sister not his children?
It might be because it was an unfamiliar environment and Xiao Zhuang didn’t have his parents or that Gu Qiao’s promise took effect, he allowed his big brother to hold his hands and behaved as they walked inside the room. Gu Li’er held Gu Ye’s hands and the two followed.
They entered to see a huge kang that took over the entire room. There were already seven to eight people on the bed, either lying or sitting. They were chatting softly with their friends or family. They faintly glanced at the door, seeing the door opening before shifting their gazes. Many families living in the mountain were all poverty-stricken. They didn’t want to sleep on the kang, instead saving money to let their children sleep here. It was a common occurrence.
Gu Ming picked a side against the wall. Though he may be young, he was quite considerate. Gu Li’er was about thirteen. Gu Ming wanted her to sleep on the side leaning against the wall. Gu Ye was next to her and Xiao Zhuang slept between the siblings.
An elderly woman was beside Gu Ming. The woman watched him consider his sisters before him. She opened her mouth to reveal her missing teeth as she praised, “You are a considerate young man. Are you engaged yet? If not, I can help you look for a woman.”
Gu Li’er and Gu Ye’s shoulders trembled from laughter. Gu Ming’s face flushed. Ever since they went to Gu Xiao’s home, they had a better diet. They had lots of grains and would even have beef stew at times. This twelve years old man grew taller as a result. Even more, because he practiced his martial arts every morning, he had become much sturdier too. He seemed to be older than his actual age. People within the mountains usually start talking about marriage at an earlier age. There were many who got married when they were only fifteen or sixteen. No wonder the elderly woman wanted to matchmake him.
After finding out Gu Ming’s actual age, the elderly woman thought it was a little unfortunate. However, she replied, “It’s ok. I will be able to matchmake you in about two years. Which village do you live in? I can keep an eye for you…”
Gu Ye watched her brother’s face turn red to the point it was warm enough to boil an egg. She hurriedly helped him out, “Granny, you’re a great person! We’re from the Qingshan Village. There are three thatched rooms that have just been constructed…”
The granny stopped talking about matchmaking when she heard about Qingshan Village. That village was deep within the mountains and known for its poverty. People were poor to the point they could only afford one coat for the family during winter. It was for whoever got off the kang. The others had to stay on there. There were also many families that couldn’t afford food. Apparently, some villagers were mothers reaching their old ages, yet they’ve barely been to the town. Who would want to marry their daughter to the mountains to suffer?
Afraid that Gu Ye will press about matchmaking, the granny yawned and turned around, pretending to be asleep. Gu Ming finally sighed in relief and took out a pile of scallion pancakes from her basket. She walked to the kang and said, “I’m going to warm the pancakes up and then ask the owner for some warm water.”
The scallion pancakes were baked with lard. Although Gu Ye’s culinary skills were alright, she was still able to make delicious scallion pancakes. The two sides were golden and it emitted a delicious fragrance. Thankfully, it was all adults in the room. They sniffed the air and swallowed their salivas quietly before closing their eyes to pretend to sleep.
Xiao Zhuang was getting drowsy lying on the warm kang when he sniffed the savory fragrance of the scallion pancakes from the air. He immediately woke up and made a fuss about eating pancakes.
Gu Ming ripped a piece of the pancake and shoved it in Xiao Zhuang’s hands. Then, he gave his sister and Gu Li’er each a pancake. Gu Li’er refused and said that she had her own food. Gu Ming knew that his Ninth Uncle only brought dry coarse grains, so he said, “You can eat our pancakes. There won’t be warm pancakes tomorrow afternoon anymore. We’re more likely to get stomach pains if we eat cold food. You can eat our pancakes tonight and tomorrow, we’ll eat the coarse grains you brought. Sister Li’er, our two families are close friends. We don’t need to be so formal.”
Gu Li’er heard this and recalled how Gu Ming would always share whatever his family obtained like wild boar meat, pastries, and even the tiger meat from a few days ago...It was all because her parents had helped the siblings when life was hard for them. However, her family couldn’t keep taking advantage of them.
While hesitating, a pancake was shoved in her hands. She looked up to see Little Ye’er pouting and widening her eyes, threatening, “Sister Li, if you refuse, then that means you don’t view me as your sister!”
Seeing that there was no way out and the fragrance of the pancake was too appealing, Gu Li’er finally received the scallion pancake and took small bites. The layers of the scallion pancakes were clear and distinct, tasty and crispy. She thought it tasted better than the pancakes in town.
Gu Ye baked large pancakes, so eating one was enough. Xiao Zhuang ate half a pancake and was full. He laid on the kang and fell into a deep slumber. He curled his legs up and extended his arms like a toad. Although he fell asleep, he clutched a corner of a scallion pancake in his chubby hands.
Gu Ming wet the handkerchief and then wiped the boy’s hands before calling him up and feeding him some water. He made him use the bathroom before coaxing the boy back to sleep. The granny saw how attentive he was in taking care of his brother and praised him while feeling unfortunate at the same time. If only he wasn’t from the Qingshan Village.
The night was silent. Gu Ye was woken up by his brother the next morning. She was deep asleep as she carried dozens of pounds of medicine and walked the day. She rinsed her mouth with warm water before eating another scallion pancake. The siblings then followed the villagers on the journey.
They walked for another day, all letting out a sigh of relief as they saw the town’s silhouette during twilight. They quickened their tired paces.
The sky turned dark after they entered town. The villagers within Qingshan Village all walked towards the familiar tavern. It was time for them to rest after traveling for two days.
Gu Ye stopped her brother who wanted to follow them. She told Gu Mo, “Ninth Uncle, we’re going to bring the medicine to Landlord Ding first. We’ll catch up later.”
The tavern’s condition was about the same as last night. Gu Ye didn’t want to squeeze on a kang with a large group of people and listen to the elderlies snoring. The inn that she stayed in with her grandfather when she went to the town last time was pretty nice. It was clean and comfortable.
Gu Mo knew the kids had their own plans so he reminded them, “Be careful. Ignore strangers who want to talk to you. There are many beggars now that we’re approaching the end of the year. Especially Little Ye’er. They like beautiful girls ike you.”
From Gu Mo’s impression, Gu Ye was braver than adults. She wasn’t scared of going to the wild boar valley by herself and she even carried the tiger back alone. Last time as well. She climbed the tall cliff by herself. She would’ve been seriously injured if not for a master’s help. He specifically reminded her because he was scared the girl might cause trouble in town.
“Understood, Ninth Uncle. I will follow my brother closely and I won’t run around.” Kidnappers? Apparently, they would use knockout drops to knock out children. Heh! Speaking of medicine, she was the master of the master. She wondered who would actually be knocked out.
After bidding farewell to her Ninth uncle, the siblings carried the baskets full of medicinal ingredients and walked on the dim street shoulder to shoulder. Gu Ming asked, “Sister, where’s Landlord Ding’s family?”
“Eh? I forgot to ask. What do we do?” Gu Ye was confused.
It was rare to see his sister being muddle-headed. Gu Ming patted her head and smiled. “It’s fine. Landlord Ding from a well-known rich family within the town. We should be able to just ask around.”
He then looked around and held his sister’s hands, saying, “You must be hungry. There’s a store selling wontons there. Let’s fill our stomachs first.”
“Uncle, two bowls of wontons please!” Gu Ming helped put his sister’s basket of medicinal ingredients down first before his. The siblings sat on the crude long wooden bench, waiting for their late dinner.
The owners were a couple in their thirties. One made the wontons while the other placed them in the pot. Quickly, the wontons were ready.
“Two bowls of wontons with meat fillings are ready!” The uncle selling wontons carried a coarse bowl of wontons, one in each hand and the size bigger than Gu Ye’s head. He placed it in front of the siblings, saying, “This is the marinated appetizer my partner made. We’re about to close the store for the night so you guys can try this for free.”
“Thank you!” Gu Ming smiled sincerely and politely thanked him.
The round-faced aunt came out with a small dish of marinated carrots and placed it in front of Gu Ye. It was getting late and barely anyone was on the streets. She sat down and chatted with the siblings. Glancing at the bamboo basket with a layer of hay on top of it, she smiled. “You guys are from the mountain right? There’s still items to be sold at this time?”
Although Gu Ming wasn’t that old, he still stayed on alert. He swallowed the wontons and nodded. “We collected wild herbs during fall and dried them into dried vegetables. We plan on exchanging this for a few pounds of flour to be used for making dumplings at the end of the year.”
“Oh...dried vegetables? You can sell them to rich families in town. Besides carrots, Chinese cabbages, and potatoes, there aren’t many vegetables the families could eat in winter. The wild herbs from the mountain will be a fresh experience.” The round-face aunt continued to ask, “It’s just you two? Where are the adults?”
“My parents went to find some place to stay. This is my sister’s first time out and she never had wontons before. My father wanted me to bring her here to try out the wontons.” Saying this, Gu Ming placed a few more wontons in his sister’s bowl, acting like a role model brother.
Gu Ye was enjoying her brother’s nonsense. But when she lowered her head, she saw a few extra wontons in her bowls. She hurriedly covered the top and exclaimed, “Enough! It’s enough! There are lots of wontons. I can’t finish that much.”
The uncle revealed a sincere smile hearing this. “We make sure to give enough wontons for our customers. We can even fill a sturdy man’s stomach. Kid, your sister is still young. Don’t make her eat too much.”
True, the filling was abundant within the wontons and there were at least thirty or so wontons within the bowl. Gu Ye barely managed to eat twenty. She couldn’t eat anymore. Gu Ming finished his and as well as the leftovers from his sister’s bowl.