Zilk shaded his eyes and looked up at the vulture. It circled daily, now. He dug faster. No matter how long it took, this sand dune would yield its secrets. Hadn’t he hung glass beads on his headdress, and listened to their tinkle? By dromedary, yak and finally on foot, he’d followed their voices to this place. He’d find the buried city of Wu Ji, or die in the attempt.
Sand gave way to something smooth. Zilk drew in a sharp breath. He’d been right! His headdress shivered. Surely the glass beads yearned for places where they might hang, pretty baubles in the wind. Wu Ji had been such a place, for no glass had ever been fitted in its windows. Zilk flung away more sand and felt the unmistakable coolness of willow wood. Minutes later, he uncovered an empty frame and ran his fingers along it. The frame was embedded in a mud wall. Overwhelmed, Zilk prostrated himself and gave thanks to whatever god ruled here. He’d found a Wu Ji window!
His son’s life depended on what he did next.
With infinite care he pulled out his knife and started work on the mud wall. As he chipped away, his thoughts drifted towards home. Samira would be bending over their son. After the night beast had mauled him, little Samhi’s body had healed, but not his mind. In the past, Zilk knew, pilgrims who spent three days beside a Wu Ji window had their memories cleansed, for Wu Ji meant ‘don’t recall’. He would succeed in bringing this healing back for his beloved son.
An hour later he eased the wooden frame free of the wall. It hadn’t even been chipped. In gratitude, Zilk prostrated himself again. Frame in hand, he wriggled backwards and got to his feet. From his waist he removed his long sash, spread it out on the sand and wrapped it round the frame, then knotted and shouldered it. The sash ends he tied to his belt and rearranged his cloak to conceal the frame. As he straightened up, the sand gave way beneath his feet and Zilk fell into darkness. Shocked, he struggled upright. He’d landed on a mound of sand. With one cautious hand he checked the precious window frame and sighed with relief. It was intact.
Dim light shafted down from the hole above. He looked around. The small room he’d fallen into had been constructed entirely of mud, but densely packed sand filled one corner, along with fresh sand from above. With great care he got to his feet. In the gloom he spied an ancient fireplace, and a small, padded perch atop an upright, ornamented wooden stand. Underneath lay a leather thong and a single feather. He picked it up. A falconer had once lived here.
Fresh sand trickled from above. A shadow fell on Zilk, and he looked up. Perched on the edge of the hole, the vulture stared down at him. For several minutes they eyed each other. Many bones lie picked clean on the road to Wu Ji, he thought, but I will not die here: my son needs me. Vultures had kept him company on his long journey to Wu Ji. Was it his imagination, or did this one look thinner and hungrier than the others?
Zilk put his hand in his bag and fingered his last two sticks of dried flesh. He placed one stick on the long-departed falcon’s perch. I honour you. He held up the second. See. I am no animal. I offer you food. The vulture swooped, snatched it from his hand and rose on wings that created a strong downdraft of air. The roof shook. With a loud crack, a roof beam crashed down to the ground, just inches away. Dust filled the air. Zilk sneezed and rubbed his eyes. The falcon’s perch and the dried flesh had both gone, but the leather thong lay untouched on the ground. He picked it up and tied it round his wrist. He took my offering. I’m the falcon now. Watch me!
Light as air, he hoisted the frame over his shoulder and ran up the split roof beam. He reached the top just as the roof caved in. Flinging himself forward, he rolled onto the sand, scrambled to his feet and ran, not once looking back.
For a long time Zilk wandered, unable to find the way home. The glass beads on his headdress remained silent. His hunting skills increased sevenfold, and every night he slept well. Though he couldn’t recall why, he carried the precious Wu Ji window frame on his back. At length, when he emerged from the desert, he remembered his wife. Next, he found a road sign. By the time he trudged up to his home, he’d remembered everything: the Wu Ji window, his afflicted son, and his wife, waiting. Samira ran to the door and embraced him. For days she didn’t stop talking.
Not long afterwards, facing the Wu Ji window frame he’d nailed to his son’s bedroom wall, little Samhi smiled for the first time in years. Tears welled in Zilk’s eyes. He glanced at his wife beside him. She cried, covered her face and cried again. At last, healing had come.
One day father and son faced each other, as they prepared to go for a short trip.
“Father.” Samhi looked solemn. “What’s that funny rope round your wrist?”
Zilk looked up. What a question. He had no answer but somehow, this rope meant a lot. “Son …” A moment of panic almost overwhelmed him. Imagine not being able to answer a simple question. He fought back unexpected tears. No, he told himself. Emotions are for women, not men, and certainly not for hunters like himself. Yes, he almost remembered now. He’d brought back something for his son. So this rope must be important, too. He leaned forward and hugged his son. “I can’t remember but you can have it, if you like. I think I went on a long journey. Perhaps I brought it back for you. I think,” he searched for the right words, “I think you’ll be a great hunter, my son. You’ll see beyond this world.”
A glass bead on Zilk’s headdress tinkled.
His son smiled.
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