An instant after Dennis Wing uttered the words zōng yù to the check-in clerk at Heathrow Airport, a hush like a tidal wave of silence washed over the whole of the departure lounge, reducing the bustling character of the international terminal to the stillness of a crypt. A few more moments passed before Dennis registered that everything around him had slowed to a snail’s pace. He looked around warily to see strangers averting their gazes from his direction. Hands shielding children’s eyes as parents guided them away. Dennis returned his attention to the clerk whose eyes were locked on his, unblinking.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” the clerk said.
“I’m supposed to say zōng yù before you issue my ticket.” Dennis mumbled.
“One moment, sir.” The clerk pressed a button hidden under the counter and within seconds, a senior colleague appeared from somewhere, previously unseen.
“Mr Wing, how nice to meet you.” the superior welcomed. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you directly to your flight.”
“But I haven’t paid for my ticket yet.” Dennis protested.
“There’ll be no need for that, Mr Wing, all has been arranged.”
“Arranged?” Dennis was sure this was a mistake. And most likely, a mistake of his own doing. “By who?”
“Your plane, Sir.” the colleague directed.
Dennis balked at the invitation.
“I insist, Sir. A porter will see to your luggage.”
“But I think I’m over the weight limit,” Dennis declared, certain of the mounting inaccuracy.
“It’s being seen to, Mr Wing. You’ll be boarding momentarily. Please, Sir,” an urgency rose in the colleague's voice, “we’ve been expecting you.”
“You have?” Dennis returned, again mumbling.
“This way, Sir.”
When Dennis and his escort exited the terminal, the sounds of bustling returned to their traditional volumes.
The upgrade to what Dennis was expecting came to him as a continuation of the perceived error. The sprawling first-class seats of the Boeing 737-800 couldn’t possibly be right.
“Will Sir have a beverage?” the attendant asked.
“No, no thanks. I think I’m just gonna sleep. It’s been a bastard of a day and these seats look dead comfy. Bigger than my bed at home, these are!”
“Very good, Sir. I’ll post instructions to not disturb you unless you call.”
“Thanks for that, I’m well knackered.”
“Sleep well, Sir. We’re scheduled to land in Beijing in twelve hours.” The attendant smiled broadly before retreating to the galley.
As Dennis courted slumber, listening to the soothing clatter of the Rolls Royce engines suspended somewhere behind him, he began to accept that what he was experiencing was intentional and decided to let himself enjoy what was on offer. He ran again through the events of the past few days that had led to him sitting in the over-sized, soft-as-a-baby’s-bottom leather seat he now occupied; the mysterious letter - hand-written throughout in traditional characters, describing the house he’d inherited. His initial indecision and the ultimate booking of flights. His boss being uncharacteristically accommodating towards his request for time away to oversee the sale of said house. The anti-drama at the check-in and refusal of any payment for his ticket, and now this; first class. He couldn’t believe his luck. In his last vestiges of consciousness, Dennis mused over what his new acquisition could possibly look like.
The meter square sign held by the old man with the crooked tooth at the gate had only five letters printed on it and gave no indication that the first letter was an initial.
“I’m Dennis Wing.” he announced.
The old man’s leathered face flashed an almost imperceptible smile as he turned and made towards the VIP parking strip just outside the entrance to Beijing Capital International Airport.
Dennis supposed that he should follow the septuagenarian as he still held in his weathered hand above his head the sign reading DWING.
The following four-hour limousine ride was no less eventful than Dennis’ reception at the arrival gate. It was no more eventful either.
As the old man hastened to God knows where in the middle of what his passenger presumed to be some rural area outside Beijing proper, Dennis didn’t expect to see much scenery on the journey. As fate would have it, he saw less than that. With no lights illuminating the road they travelled, Dennis quipped to his driver, who was barrelling along at a nauseating speed, that for all that he could see, they may as well be in the Channel Tunnel.
The old man didn’t laugh either.
The house was cloaked in darkness as they came up the drive. The limousine's headlights caught only flashes of the three-storey building's sweeping roofs and awnings, its stark grey façades, and its tall, narrow windows adorned with crested gables. When the old man stopped the car, the house again fell into shadow.
“Zhuāngyuán, Zōng yù. Mén shì kāizhe de.” the old man announced to Dennis.
"Manor? Did you say manor?" Dennis caught only one word.
"Shi." The driver said, indicating that yes, he indeed did say manor.
"Wow. And what was the second bit?" Dennis struggled.
The old man gunned the engine inferring his desire for Denis to disembark.
"Ok, ok, I get it.” Dennis deferred. “Thanks for the ride." he said as he stepped out. "Xièxiè." He added for good measure.
The old man snorted and drove off before he gave in to the desire to correct Dennis' mangling of the colloquial word used for expressing gratitude.
Dennis stood there, on the side of the drive in the dark, with the red from the limo’s taillights fading on the side of his face.
"The door is open, he said? Unlocked? Seething?" Dennis muttered. He wasn't certain, but he thought he'd try the front door's handle and see what happened.
The inside of the house was as dark as out. Dennis opened the glaring light app on his phone. Spying the foyer, he was disappointed to find no dust nor cobwebs like in the horror films that sprang to mind on entering.
"Is there a live-in maid, ya think?" he asked no one. A box of matches had been placed on top the bureau in the entrance hall next to four candles, the only items on the sizeable cupboard, presumably for lighting the abundance of candles placed throughout the house. He struck a match and managed to light the four wicks before the flames bit at his fingertips. "Ow, ya bastard!" He discarded the spent match on to the floor. He went through two more matches like this before he realised that it was probably better to use one of the candles to light the others. More efficient. There seemed to be only candles rather than lamps. “Brilliant.” He said, “The dark ages.” Dennis decided to only light the candles in one of the rooms on the ground floor and save the rest of the house to view in tomorrow’s sunlight. He planned to camp in this room till daybreak.
“02.37." he read from his phone. "02.37, and I feel like I haven't slept in days.”
Dennis listened to the silence of the house. The outside world was beyond notice. He could hear nothing from without and felt pleasantly cut off from it all. No draughts either. Unexpected for a house as old as this one was purported to be. Each of the flames on the candles about him was motionless except for a gentle sway that moved ever so slightly with the air pressure in the room as Dennis roamed about. He inspected a few portraits on the walls, books on shelves and a record player that must have been at least a hundred years old. A strange lack of mirrors, Dennis thought. He began to inspect the coving and the architrave in what was quickly becoming his favourite room of the house. In what he first thought to be geometrical patterns and shapes carved into the woodwork, he began to pick out figures of animals and people, trees and vehicles. "What a random thing." he evaluated. Even in the hand-crafted frames of the furniture he could see horses and dogs, men and women, soldiers and civilians, the living and the-
"Is someone there?" Dennis called out to no response. He stood from scrutinising the armrest of the large sofa. "Hello?" Still nothing in return. He tilted his head, raising his good ear to the ceiling. He was certain he could hear the soft patting of small, slow-moving feet on carpet coming from the floor above him. The patting seemed to be drifting towards the stairs on the upper level. Through the open door to the entrance hall, Dennis eased out and peered towards the sounds. The four candles by the front door lit only the side of the hall opposite the bottom of the staircase. Dennis strained to see into the darkness at the top of the stairs but his vision just wouldn't penetrate into the gloom.
The thumping started without warning and descended faster and faster towards Dennis as it came down the stairs. He dashed back into his what had recently become his favourite room and slammed the door shut between him and whatever was approaching. A final, fleshy crash at the foot of the stairs and all was quiet except for a faint, almost inaudible whimpering that succeeded the thumps. All seemed still the other side of the door. Only the whimper continued and didn't alter.
Dennis was tempted but he daren't do it. He daren't even think of looking out again. He'd left his bag in the corridor so there was no chance of retrieving anything from it that he could use for a weapon. Not that he had anything like a weapon in his bag anyway. He glanced around the room and found that unless he began smashing up the furniture in order to fashion spikes, he had nothing at his disposal to craft any sort of armament. Dennis stared at the closed door for what felt like a thousand years. He felt the temptation to call out as he did before but greater was his reluctance to not do so. The whimpering eventually stopped. It faded away into the darkness that danced towards the top of the stairs. He could hear the footfalls again. The soft patting of timid steps. Nearing the stairs as before. Dennis couldn't feel himself breathing. He listened to the pat-thump-whimper cycle another three times before he decided to make a break for the front door. When he heard the patting start a fifth time on the floor above, he vaulted from the side room and froze when he saw the woman on the floor in front of him. A young woman. In the throes of childbirth. Her screams of pain pierced his senses as the thumping on the stairs crescendoed behind him. The pregnant woman reached out to Dennis as her pain stretched to agony. A pool of blood spread on the floor beneath her. Dennis backed away from the spectacle and against his better judgment, mounted the stairs when the fleshy crash sounded right at his feet. On the landing, Dennis scanned for someplace to run. There were so many rooms! And none looked any less horrifying than another. In the silences between the screams, he could hear the pat pat pat approaching. Dennis backed away in the opposite direction and found himself in a room that caught none of the light from the candles downstairs. That's when the mewing started. The faint moonlight only just painted the room slightly brighter than the darkness of the landing. He willed his pupils to expand. Surrounding him, advancing from the edges of this new room, were feeble, terrified, tear-soaked children. More than Dennis could count in his mounting panic. He evaded their grasps, staying a stride out of reach of their small hands. Back on to the landing, deafened by the pregnant woman’s screams resounding from below, the thumping began again, tumbling down the stairs in its harrowing cycle. And the cries, pitiful cries following him as he fled.
He heard the fleshy crash and ran randomly through one of the other open doors away from the multitude of miscreants. Once he’d passed the threshold to what seemed to be a master bed chamber, all sounds ceased. No screaming. No cries. And no thumps. Dennis could only hear the sound of his own hot blood rushing through his ears. And the smacking sounds of his own tearing eyes blinking. Slowly, he felt himself breathe again. A quiet muttering rose from a corner of the darkened room. Words Dennis could not decipher. Bare feet shuffled towards him. The man from the darkness, clad in black, cupped his lacerated hands to Dennis as he neared, speaking in a long-forgotten dialect. The man’s face was horribly shredded. Pieces of flesh missing and spilling blood on to his black attire. “Sorry.” Dennis said instinctively as he retreated, “Sorry, I can’t …” His rearward gait was stopped short by what felt like a body. The body of a person stood at the door behind him, barring his egress. He felt a hand on his shoulder and all of his wits scattered in a heartbeat. Dennis never knew who or what had gripped his shoulder, as he was unconscious before his knees buckled.
Sunlight bounced everywhere when Dennis awoke. He laid motionless, listening intently, before attempting to stand. He could hear a scraping sound. Outside. But nothing in the house. And most importantly, nothing near him. When he decided to shift, his adrenaline kicked into overdrive. He moved like a boxer, ready to face his opponent. From the bedroom, to the landing, a glance around the rooms he missed last night, down the stairs and to the door to the room he vaulted from. Nothing. No one. To the entranceway, again nothing. No blood or woman or children or screaming or patting or thumping. Just, nothing. He dropped his fists and saw the cupboard with the matchbox and the four candles that must’ve burned out as he slept. Or maybe were blown out as he ran past, he wasn't sure.
He could still hear the scraping sounds coming from outside. Dennis held his breath and opened the front door. Courageously, he stepped out to face whatever was there. The old man with the crooked tooth stopped what he was doing, distracted, set down his tools and calmly observed Dennis.
"You’re joking!” Dennis said. “You're the wood carver?"
"Morning to you too." The old man greeted after a few seconds.
"You speak English?"
"Badly. But it’s still ... better than your Mandarin."
"Do you have any idea the kind of night I've had? Since you left me here? Alone. They were trying to kill me!"
"I'm sure it wasn't as bad as all that." The old man said.
“I shat myself!”
“Sure, you ran from the house at first light, something clearly scared you, but you weren’t screaming, not till now, anyway. So, compared to some of the others, you have done well.
“Yeah, well. All are tested.”
“That’s right, the ancestors test the worth of those who are to become Zōng yù, portals of life the house needs to survive.”
“Ancestors?!! You mean dead people?”
“Yes, people have died in this house. But more have lived because of it. And the house remembers them all. Even you.”
“Yes, you were born here.”
“Shi. Your real name isn’t Wing. It’s Wu Ng. And Zōng yù is your title. You’re practically royalty and don’t even know it.”
“Why don’t I know this?”
“I suppose your mother never told you. She wasn’t interested. Left your grandmother to break the circle, as she said it. But you, you’re different. More like those that raised your grandmother when she was a child. The story’s in there. Everything is in the woodwork. That’s what I do, as my ancestors did, record it all. The tales will never finish but the large sofa in the front lounge would be a good place to start. “
“Yes, tales of political prisoners that faced torture of the most horrendous kinds. They lived. Perhaps not as they’d expected but this house saved them from their fates. The children, consigned to death for their parentage, they too were smuggled here and hidden. They were given names of the dead to conceal their true lineage. The unsanctioned births by those deemed as not worthy of having heirs, those heirs were born in this house. Some of them alive to this day. It’s different now. Times have changed. But the ancestors remain. As they always have. This manor has survived more than most nations have ever seen; war, famine, communism. And there must always be a Zōng Yù here, to protect. To oversee. Your grandmother did, until the day she died. Horrible. The local villagers knew she had fallen down the stairs. And they knew she needed a doctor. But the guard at the door wouldn’t allow them. “Let her die.” He said, waving his rifle. “An extra bowl of rice for the rest of us.”
“Bullshit!” Dennis exclaimed. “Fuck this and fuck you! I’m going home.”
“You are home, Zōng Yù. The ancestors have brought you here, to be Jiāngōng; overseer. Over the manor. They have accepted you and will show you that they have.”
“No, I’m done.”
Dennis stormed into the house to collect his things and leave.
He tapped a number into his phone.
“Hi, I need a taxi to Beijing International.”
As he waited for confirmation, he spied an object that wasn’t there before, on the bureau. And all became clear. All became truth.
“Never mind.” He said when the dispatcher returned. Dennis disengaged.
He set his phone down and went to inspect the large sofa again.
He’d set his phone down, on the cupboard, next to a perfectly formed plum, the size of a walnut, crafted by hand … most likely ... from brown jade.