Episode 123

Hanging Coffin
1 week ago
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Her daughter died, that’s all. That’s nothing to shout about. Even if the daughter were thrown away or lost, it wouldn’t bother the Mi family, would it…

These words from Madam Sun seemed pretty loaded, as though she was referring to something.

Before Wen Yuansi and Song Caitang could make any guesses, Mi Xiaoli shouted at her, “Shut up! If you have nothing good to say, then don’t speak at all! Nobody would think you’re mute if you don’t talk!”

Mi Xiaowen had an even nastier expression on his face. His displeasure was about to flood the room, “Number two, discipline your wife.”

Mi Xiaoli looked a little embarrassed, “I’m sorry, Eldest Brother, she doesn’t know how to behave. I’ll teach her properly.”

Mi Xiaowen scoffed, “Learn to be more like number three!”

What he really meant was for her to learn to be as quiet as Madam Liu and not talk if not asked, but Madam Sun got angrier and made a face, “Learn to be more like her in what way? Grow a mole like her? Or pretend to be dumb and obedient like her?”

Mi Xiaoli’s eyes bulged from his anger, “Madam Sun!”

Mi Xiaowen narrowed his eyes, “Enough. Stop embarrassing yourselves in front of the magistrate. Bring her back to your room!”

Mi Xiaoli had no choice but to take Madam Sun away.

Since number two had left, it didn’t seem necessary for number three to stay anymore.

Mi Xiaowen looked toward his youngest brother, Mi Xiaocheng, “Go back with Madam Liu too. I don’t want to scare our distinguished guest.”

Mi Xiaocheng looked a little embarrassed, “Yes, Eldest Brother.”

He waved at Madam Liu and she obediently followed him out of the room. She remained quiet and expressionless throughout, and did not protest at all.

Song Caitang shifted her gaze slightly to look curiously at Madam Wang.

As the wife of the eldest son, she was the steadiest. Her expression did not flinch at all and she did not demand any apology from her sisters-in-law. She also cooperated with her husband and listened to him, frowning a little only when Madam Sun spoke earlier.

Besides that, she did not react at all.

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Magistrate Wen,” Mi Xiaoli placed a palm over his other fist politely and apologized to Wen Yuansi, “The authorities have already asked us questions when my mother passed away, and I’m sure the statements given by my younger brothers and their wives are recorded in the files. If needed, you can talk to them individually after this. But the one who knows this whole case best is my wife, Madam Wang. If you have any questions, you can ask her and she will answer to the best of her abilities.”

“I see. Thank you, Mrs. Mi,” Wen Yuansi said politely.

Madam Wang bowed in return, “That’s the least I should do.”

Wen Yuansi continued to ask, “Did you have any suspicions surrounding your mother-in-law’s death? Did you immediately arrange for her funeral or did you do something else?”

Madam Wang remained steady as she paused to recollect briefly, then said, “When I discovered that y mother-in-law had passed away, I did panic a little. I quickly gathered the servants in charge of taking care of her to ask them what had happened, but nothing unusual had happened. She had already been ill for a long time and the doctor had told us to be prepared, so everyone in the family knew that this day would come. After a period of sadness, we reported it to the authorities as per the usual procedure, and the coroner came to take a look. The coroner checked everything carefully, as his job requires, and found a broken nail next to the bed. After making some comparisons, he confirmed it belonged to my mother-in-law.”

“My mother-in-law was no longer young and ill for a long time, so she had very little strength left in her. What would have made her use all the strength she had and cause her to break a nail? The coroner became suspicious and filed a report. The magistrate took a look and felt it was strange too, so he opened an investigation.”

Wen Yuansi asked, “So, when you left the room that night, she was still doing well and was breathing. You came back after sunrise and she had passed away.”

Madam Wang nodded, “That’s right.”

“Who was in the room during this time? Were they questioned?”

“Yes. Her trusted Auntie Huang and her head maid Lanping were inside.”

“What did they say?”

“Auntie Huang had served my mother-in-law for many years and my mother-in-law trusted her a lot. If my mother-in-law wasn’t around, Auntie Huang could make decisions. Lan Ping…” Madam Wang lowered her gaze, “Number two had another wife, Madam Fan, but she had been repudiated and sent home. Lanping used to serve Madam Fan and was supposed to be sold away after Madam Fan was sent home, but for some reason, she caught my mother-in-law’s eye and she liked Lanping very much, and refused to let her out of her sight. Lanping has been very loyal too…”

“Aunctie Huang said that nothing unusual happened that night. There was a commotion in the front of the house, but it did not really reach her room. My mother-in-law slept throughout, and Auntie Huang had gotten up to check on her, adjusting her blanket and adding oil to the lamp because it had dimmed…”

“Lanping was sleeping on a small mattress behind the screen, but her sleep was not deep and she was alert all the time. When Auntie Huang got up, she had heard her but did not get up. She said that my mother-in-law had been sleeping the whole time. Nothing else happened later that night, so neither Lanping nor Auntie Huang got up. Neither has any idea exactly what time my mother-in-law passed on.”

“Did anybody else go in? Did they see anything?”

Madam Wang shook her head, “They did not hear any unusual noise or movement. They weren’t in a deep sleep, but they were sleeping after all, so…”

Even if they thought they heard or seen something, their statements were not reliable enough to be evidence.

Wen Yuansi nodded.

“Where are Auntie Huang and Lanping now? Can I call them in for questioning?”

“Of course,” said Madam Wang, “Auntie Huang is quite old now, so after my mother-in-law passed away, I couldn’t bear to make her continue working for the family anymore so I sent her to retire at one of our estates. Lanping served my mother-in-law together with Auntie Huang and they became close, and she had reached marriageable age too, so I made the decision to marry her off to the man in charge of the estate. That way, she could help take care of Auntie Huang too.”

“Since you would like to call on them, I’ll get someone to pass the message to ask them to come over and stay here for a while so that it will be convenient for you to summon them when needed.”

“Thank you.”

After so much time had passed, there were many scenarios that could not be re-enacted in its totality and memories were becoming hazy. Looking at the scene where everything happened and getting statements from the people connected to the case was no longer as meaningful as when the death occurred.

Wen Yuansi and Song Caitang had read through the case files before coming. What Madam Wang just said was no different from the statement she gave back then.

After asking a few more routine questions, Wen Yuansi felt that was quite enough and switched gears, “You were agreeable with letting us open your mother’s coffin for an autopsy. I would like to confirm the cause of death, so is it possible for us to inspect her body?”

Well, this…

This wasn’t a question Madam Wang could answer, so she turned toward her husband.

“You can, but it’s going to be a little difficult…” Mi Xiaowen had a slightly strange look on his face, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Wen Yuansi nodded, “Yes..”

Mi Xiaowen instructed his wife, “Tell the rest we’re going up the mountain.”

“Got it.”

“Bring some extra clothes too.”

“I will.” Madam Wang went to get everything prepared.

Song Caitang and Wen Yuansi exchanged glances. This body had been buried in the mountains?

“It’s pretty high up and the road up there is not easy, but it’s still quite early, so we’ll make it in time,” explained Mi Xiaowen, “My mother is from the kingdom of Shu, and while she managed to escape the calamity that befell her people, her ancestral land is nowhere to be found. But she misses the past, so she told us early on that she wanted to follow the traditions of her ancestors. She didn’t want to be buried and wanted her final resting place to be closer to the sky. My brothers and I respected this wish of hers and constructed a hanging coffin for her…”

A hanging coffin!

Song Caitang was stunned when she heard these words.

That was something that did belong to this culture. The cluster of hanging coffins on the side of cliff faces were still there in the era she came from.

There were many legends surrounding this practice. Some said it was out of respect for the ancestors, and the souls of the ancestors could watch over their descendants if they were placed in a high up; some said that tall mountains were very close to heaven, so their ancestor’s souls could rise to heaven and become immortals; there were even some who said that the Shu people lived a hard life transporting salt via water routes, which was very dangerous and a lot of people died as a result. All these people refused to be buried because they wanted to look at the waterways they used to transport the salt every day…

It was no longer possible to find out exactly why they practiced this, but this autopsy was going to be a tough one.

Song Caitang had realized that very quickly.

To put up such a coffin, you had to find a high and steep mountain. Getting to the cave dug into the mountainside wasn’t going to be easy either.

Song Caitang looked solemnly at Wen Yuansi, “Magistrate Wen, I’m afraid you’ll have to get several people to help me with my tool boxes.”

She had two boxes. One was filled with things people in ancient times used for autopsies, like ginger, wine, vinegar, white plums, distillers grain, spring onions and so on. The other one contained her modern tools, like scalpels, scissors and forceps. Neither box was small, and neither one was light.

To climb the mountain with these…

Wen Yuansi understood her concern immediately and smiled, “That’s not hard. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure both you and your boxes reach the body with no problem.”

Easier said than done. Climbing a mountain required a lot of effort too.

The carriage could only reach the foot of the mountain, and they had to switch to sedans. And once they got halfway up, they had to walk on their own.

This was a famous, nearby tall mountain. It was the seventh month and the hottest part of summer. But the higher one went up the mountain, the colder it got. Walking alone did not produce enough heat and they needed to wear more clothing.

When she was almost out of breath, Song Caitang suddenly thought of Zhao Zhi.

He was so tall, so muscular and knew martial arts, so climbing a mountain would be nothing to him…

Wen Yuansi had a job that didn’t require him to move much, but he actually had quite a bit of stamina. He even had the energy to look out for Song Caitang and make sure she had a smooth climb.

Song Caitang did her best to regulate her breathing as she told herself to take this as a good chance to exercise and lose weight, especially after Guan Wan had fed her so much food…

As the temperature fell, the winds grew stronger. The warmth that came with a place that could live off seafood and rice could no longer be felt. Song Caitang felt like…it was as cold as winter in the north.

The path also became steeper and steeper, and more and more difficult to walk.

The Mis had placed the coffin at a very high and dangerous spot, but they did not do it in the exact same way as the Shu people.

The Shu people would cut steps into the cliff, then use pulleys and ropes to help place the coffin in the right spot, then destroy the steps and remove the ropes on their way out. That way, nobody else could get to the coffin and disturb the soul of the deceased.

But the Mis were from Luanze and wanted to be able to pay respects, so even though the way to Madam Liang’s tomb was a treacherous one, they had preserved it properly. It was also not as dangerous as the sort that the Shu people would have built. One just needed to tie a rope securely around their waist and they could walk to the cave in a safe manner.

The cave itself was huge.

It could fit everyone who had come along.

Madam Liang’s coffin looked expensive. It was made from nanmu wood, and had elegant carvings on the various panels that formed its trapezium shape. The cover had decorative edges, a very large word representing life carved into the front and artwork with auspicious meanings. The workmanship was pretty good.

Mi Xiaowen walked over, burned some joss paper, kowtowed and called out to his mother miserably before stating why they were here, then wiped his tears and stood up again, “Alright, my mother knows why we’re here, so we can open the coffin now.”

Wen Yuansi stepped forward with his group and bowed toward the coffin reverently before he gave the instruction, “Open the coffin.”

Everyone had made the tough journey here precisely to do this. The men immediately got their tools to pry the nails out of the wood and open the lid…

Creaaaak…

The coffin was opened and the corpse was plain for all to see.

Everyone was too stunned to speak. They stared at each other without saying anything, but deep inside…

Wen Yuansi came forward to take a look, then frowned as he asked Mi Xiaowen, “Did you use something on her body?”

Mi Xiaowen was puzzled too, “No, we didn’t…”

Song Caitang was now able to see the body and immediately understood why everyone seemed so surprised.

The body in the coffin still had skin and hair on it, and was not merely bones. Any liquid had already dried up and the body was dry, but her eyes and nose were all still intact and could be seen clearly.

Except that her skin was a little blackened.

This was a dry corpse and it looked like it had been preserved, but considering the environment here…

They were in the middle of summer, and the temperature here was already so low. It would be even lower during other times of the year. The winds here were strong, so the air was extremely dry. On top of that, there were no wild beasts along such steep and high cliffs.

Song Caitang felt that it was possible to preserve a body to this extent in such conditions.

She thought she would only get to see bones, but it turned out to be a dry corpse that still had skin.

As she thought through everything she knew about inspecting such corpses, she smiled.

As long as the body had skin, she could test for injuries!

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