More than a month after the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that killed 69,172 people in China, memories of his wife, Shi Huaqiong, linger with Wu Jiafang, a peasant in the southwestern Sichuan Province.
So do the heartbreaking scenes he faced as he retrieved her body from the rubble, dressed her in her favorite winter coat and carried her home on his motorbike.
When the couple made their last trip home together on May 14, two days after she died in the devastating quake, his wife's arms tied around his waist and her legs dangling limply, passing vehicles stopped to make way for them. A reporter who tried to ask questions broke into tears herself.
Wu, 44, became famous after a news photo featuring his final ride home with his wife was published and moved millions in China. The photo was entitled "preserving dignity of his dead wife," although dignity was not even in Wu's lexicon.
Like most Chinese men of his age, Wu rarely told his wife he loved her. The peasant who eked out a living at construction sites only knew he had to take his wife home so that they would be together.
"I buried her in the grain field 20 meters from home. I hope she still feels close to me," Wu said on Tuesday in his temporary shelter close to his ramshackle home in Xinglong Town, Mianzhu City, one of the hardest hit areas in the May 12 quake.
A month since the couple was named one of the country's "most touching couples" by Chinese Internet users, the once muscular farmer is apparently thinner and older. His sunken cheeks, torn jacket and near-silence speak of his misery.
"If only she had stayed home that day," he murmured as he gazed at his wife's photos.
Wu and Shi married in 1986. He was 22 and she was 21.
They met at a construction site in Hanwang Town, the same place where she died. "I was poor but she said she admired my honesty."
Shi was not beautiful but was always attentive to her looks. On the early afternoon of May 12, she carefully fixed her hair and looked at herself for several minutes in the mirror before she left for Hanwang to buy a prepaid card for her mobile phone.
"She was different from other women in the village. She always made herself neat and presentable even at home."
Shi, a small bespectacled lady, taught for a few years but lacking a formal education, she was eventually dismissed.
The couple were poor but Wu insisted he should be the breadwinner. "I didn't want her to toil. Her parents used to dote on her and so did I."
A good housekeeper, Shi made their home clean and cozy and planted pear trees in the yard. She had prepared several dishes for him before she went to town. "Get back as early as you can," he had told her.
When the earth rocked and buildings collapsed at 2:28 p.m., Wu dashed out of the cement factory where he was working and rushed home, only to find their teenage son standing dumbfounded in the yard. Shi was not home.
Wu's motorbike bumped along the road to Hanwang, blocked here and there by the ruins of toppled homes and screaming crowds. Fighting against a crowd that was pushing to get out of the telecommunications office, he elbowed his way in. Shi was not there.
He hurried to a four-story teahouse she often frequented, but it was no longer there. He climbed atop the ruins and cried out her name, hoping she was somewhere waiting for his help.
"I searched everywhere and then saw her between two floor slabs. She was in her black T-shirt and blue jeans, with a red hairpin in her hair that was dyed yellow."
Wu squeezed into the space between the slabs and held her in his arms. She never responded. A nephew passed by and helped him pull her out. He ran to the nearest hospital for help but doctors told him she was dead. The slabs had hit her on the head, causing fatal injuries.
HOME AT LAST
Wu never remembered how he got home that day.
At night, he searched her wardrobe and took out her favorite winter coat, a rosy one he had bought her.
The downpour on May 13 trapped him and his son at home. They built a tent in the yard because they feared their ramshackle house could be toppled by aftershocks.
When it cleared up again on May 14, Wu and some relatives rode to Hanwang town to take his wife home. Their trip was halted by fears of a dam burst and flood. Everyone else left but he stayed, waiting until the alarm was called off in the afternoon and he was allowed into town.
He knelt next to his wife, lit candles, burned the "paper money" that Chinese offer up to help the deceased in the after life and set off firecrackers, according to custom.
He washed her face, dressed her and wrapped a scarf around her face. Rescuers, largely People's Liberation Army men and armed police officers, tearfully watched him but he never cried. "Come, let's go home," he told her.
Soldiers helped carry her to his motorbike and tied her to him with a rope.
For Wu, the 10-minute ride home was like a lifetime.
At home, he built a coffin with timber he had planned to use to build their new home.
Most of their neighbors had built two-story homes but they still lived in the same simple house built when they were married. She never complained but he felt sorry.
The subsequent wheat harvest and summer planting numbed Wu, who worked like a horse in the field.
He burned her belongings, hoping they, like the money, would follow her to the next world.
All he kept was her necklace, which he had bought for 300 yuan (43 U.S. dollars) as a gift for her 40th birthday. She had worn it until the day she died.