THE BIRDS AND THE WIND
A kitchen chair sits on a tightrope five feet above the ground, one front and one back leg balanced on the rope, the others hanging in the air. On that chair sits a young girl, eight or nine years old. She holds a metal pole balanced lightly in her hands. As I watch, she rises—slowly, with her eyes focused on the horizon and her toes pointed, slightly above the rope—and taking the chair in one hand, she moves backward and forward on the rope in a dance over two thousand years old.
I arrived in the Chinese frontier, the Silk Road of Xinjiang, seeking adventure and escape. When I signed on to teach English at a local school, it was about as far away as I could go from my home in Kentucky, both physically and emotionally.
It was there I met the tightroper.
My first day teaching was difficult. The children knew little English and I knew little Uyghur. “My name is Grace,” I told them, pointing to myself. “Grace.” But when I pointed to a little boy on the front row and asked him what his name was, the word that came out of his mouth didn’t sound like any Uyghur name I’d heard. The other children’s laughter confirmed my suspicions, and I was afraid the class was about to get out of control. Then, a little girl with braided pigtails, sitting near the back of the room, raised her hand slowly and halfway. When I nodded at her through the continuing laughter, she pointed to the little boy in question and said, “Aijamal.” Then she pointed to herself and said, “Urzigul.” She flashed a wide smile and I saw a front tooth was missing. Her cooperation quieted the other students down and before long, they were all participating in a rousing session of “My name is…” The little girl won my gratitude and my heart.
Later on my first day of school, I heard about the tightroping team. It had turned living at the orphanage from something the other students made fun of to something that caused the orphans to hold their heads high. When the students wrote their first essays, tightroping, or dawaz, was all anyone wanted to write about. “I love to skywalk,” one little boy on the team said; another boy not on the team explained his desire to be an orphan so he could learn tightroping: “Though I would miss my parents, it would be worth it to learn to dance in the sky.”
Urzigul was the youngest of the children learning tightroping at the orphanage. She was small, even for her age, and the team’s former coach, a cruel man who beat the children when they made mistakes, had considered her too weak to master the ancient Uyghur tradition. But Urzigul had flourished under the new coach. He was a former street performer himself, the father and coach of a famous tightroper who had been killed in a car accident. And he was determined to prove the former coach wrong.
Urzigul was a quiet child, shy, but with that ready smile. Her devotion to tightroping reminded me of my own childhood obsession with horses. I would escape my mother’s illness and my father’s worries by going to the barn and getting on my horse. Riding lent me a sense of freedom, a feeling that my life wasn’t more complicated than my classmates’. And I could cry into my horse’s mane without burdening anyone else with my problems.
That the same was true for Urzigul, I found out in the girl’s first composition. “When I rope walk, the world goes away. I have a mother and father again. I am not lonely. The birds and wind are my friends.”
It only took a few weeks before I asked Urzigul if I could go watch a practice at the orphanage. I’d seen children hold hands to indicate friendship, so I was thrilled when Urzigul hesitantly laced her fingers through mine and led me out of the school.
The orphanage was housed in a squat concrete building with red Arabic writing lining the walls. In the courtyard where there would be a playground in America stood the tightrope. It was about six feet tall, not the thirty feet that would be used in performances, but there was no net. Professional tightropers didn’t use safety equipment to perform, but I hadn’t thought the rule applied to children.
I voiced my concerns to the coach by way of the English-speaking caretaker. The coach, an older, thin man with arms that looked impossibly long for his body, was adamant that I had nothing to worry about: “Having a net encourages the children to think about falling,” he explained. “And we want them to be so comfortable there they can’t tell the difference between the rope and the ground.”
Working without a net was also the only way, the coach told me, to make sure they respected the rope, that they didn’t become careless and start to believe falling would be acceptable. The last thing a dawaz performer wanted to be was careless. The coach’s head nodded almost imperceptibly with each word, as if they came from the most settled part of his mind.
The children always had a net in performances, but never in practice, since the rope was “so low.” It looked impossibly high to me, raised as I was on the ground, but I watched Urzigul and the other children scamper up the tightrope as if they had always lived with wire between their toes.
Urzigul was practicing ways to stand up from a position seated on the rope. She sat down, gently and gracefully and then rose again, always with the same precision. After watching the other children, I could tell that Urzigul was the star. Her movements were more natural, more graceful, than any of the others. Her toes had a natural point to them like a ballet dancer with each step she took, and the heavy pole she carried appeared to have no weight at all. To my eye, the child’s performance was flawless, but the coach called out instructions after every move. Urzigul listened intently and then nodded to show she understood; a foot here, a head position there would be adjusted to look even more impossibly perfect than they had before.
With a little boy draped over his shoulders and all the other children gathered around, the coach told me through the interpreter, “Love is the way to help the children progress. If they aren’t afraid of you and know you love them, they feel confident in trying new things, learning new skills. They fall when they are afraid, but love keeps the fear away.”
His words, so close to the Bible verse I’d heard my father preach on, “Perfect love casts out fear,” made me feel just a little closer to home. The children clamored for the coach’s attention and he turned away from me and my questions to show them the love he’d spoken about.
Since I’d arrived in Kashgar, the last town on the famed Silk Road, I hadn’t ventured far from my small apartment with its institutionally standard cream and green walls. For meals, I ate the food provided at school (usually mutton, bread, rice, and noodles), and only stopped at the street vendors outside the nearby hotel to buy melons, bread, and bottled water. The currency confused me: I relied on the honesty of the street vendors to point to which bill I was supposed to give them. From the laughter and pointing I hoped was good natured, I was sure I’d been taken several times, but I could also see pity on their faces and I trusted in that enough to keep coming back. How hard it must be for her, I wanted to believe they were thinking.
One woman, who sold bottled water out of a cart in front of her one-room home, seemed particularly sympathetic. She would smile politely whenever I stopped at her cart, her severely lined face creasing even more with the effort. No matter what bill I tried to pay her with, the woman shook her head and pointed to another one in my hand. I found the denominations of the yuan so strange that I could never tell whether the vendor was asking for more or less money. But the gentle smile on her face and the way she never seemed to be making fun of my ignorance helped me feel comfortable. I tried out my few words of Uyghur on her: Yaxshimusiz, hello; Rakhmat, thank you; and the woman’s smile grew even larger, showing a missing tooth on the right side of her mouth.
I would have stayed in my apartment even more if it hadn’t been for Wanderline Andrews, my boss at the school. An American by birth, she could speak Uyghur like a native and had been part of the local community for twenty years. On a Saturday that I felt particularly homesick and was sitting in my room crying, there was a knock at the door.
Wanderline took one look at me and said I needed to get out more. She listened to my protests with a curt nod. “Bring your purse,” she ordered, and the sheer power of her will stunned me out of my lethargy.
At the open air market, I tried to follow the path the older woman was making, Red Sea like, but it was impossible. The people, animals, and carts closed in the second I tried to push my way through, and I fought a wave of dizziness that pushed against me just as surely as the crush of people. “Wanderline!” I called out, but I was sure no one heard me over the cacophony of voices. I forced myself to breathe slowly, ignore the panic that was rising up . . .
“Follow me.” Wanderline’s authoritative voice was accompanied by her hand grabbing my upper arm. “You need to stay closer than that.”
I didn’t bother to protest. Ever since I’d been swooped up at the airport by Wanderline and her Uyghur boyfriend, Abduali, I’d realized that arguing with her would be impossible. She led/dragged me to a stall selling brightly colored knives and began negotiating with the man on the other side of the table. At least I assumed they were negotiating. They might have been having a fight, based on the loud words and dramatic hand gestures coming from both parties. Finally, my arm still firmly in her grasp, Wanderline turned to me: “Which one do you want?”
Startled, I shook my head, “I don’t need a knife.”
Wanderline gave me a look of studied patience. “You’re standing in front of the finest knifemaker in town,” she said. “And this is a town known for its fine knifemaking skills. Everyone carries a knife.”
I considered the selection. “This one’s pretty,” I conceded, pointing to a knife with a pink jeweled handle and a brightly colored sheath.
Wanderline huffed, “Pretty! We’re not going for pretty.” But I noticed that when she indicated a more severe looking knife to the man, she chose one with several simple pink jewels in the handle and a decorative sheath.
Encouraged by the consideration, I felt brave enough to ask why I needed a knife. “Is it for protection?”
Wanderline turned around and looked directly into my eyes. “So you don’t feel safe here, do you?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. “Not yet.”
Wanderline’s face was beautiful when she smiled. “That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since you arrived.” And she turned around, leaving me, stunned, to nod a thank you to the man holding out a knife. I hadn’t seen any money change hands.
For the first time, I fully understood the word "alien." As uncomfortable as I was, I might as well have been from another planet. I’d expected some of the differences, of course, and had read as much on the culture and the language of the local people as I could find. What I hadn’t expected was the feeling of complete isolation. Isolation which gave me far too much time to think about how the man I loved had married another woman, about how I’d run half a world away from the places we’d known together.
He’d been with me every step of the journey so far. I’d imagine his face in the crowd, think of him when I wanted to tell someone about my new experiences. It wasn’t just that I missed him; it was more that I felt the pain of his presence with me all the time, like a phantom limb. I was going crazy from the haunting.
The students at school gave me the best distraction. When I spoke Uyghur, they giggled. I couldn’t tell if it was from pleasure or amusement, but I felt safe to try out new things. At lunch, all the children and staff ate with chopsticks, but I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how to use them. I carried around a fork and knife, much to the children’s amazement. It was only Urzigul who seemed to understand my dilemma. She gently took the cutlery out of my hand and without saying a word, put the chopsticks between my fingers, showing me how to move them to pick up food. She left her friends and sat beside me every day for a week, helping me practice.
All the students were excited about the community’s fall festival. When I learned that the orphanage’s tightrope team would be performing, I became excited, too. I couldn’t wait to see Urzigul and the other children doing what they loved to do.
The day of the festival was beautiful, but windy. I was glad for the net the children would have. Wanderline met me outside my apartment and we made small talk until we reached the town square. I knew that the rope was to be thirty feet tall, still low by dawaz standards, which can reach seventy feet, but much higher than the six feet the children practiced on. There were crowds gathered, Uyghur dancers twirling about in brightly colored clothes, and local musicians playing on traditional instruments.
But there was no net.
When Wanderline asked, she was told that the only net in town was owned by the team’s former coach, who had refused to loan it out. Unlike the rest of the crowd, the current coach didn’t seem disgruntled or dismayed by this. “Allah wills our fate,” he shrugged. “We don’t go before our time.” Then he took a deep breath and said with the characteristic nod of his head, “I have prepared them well.”
The time for the performance had come. A girl I recognized from the practice came out and told the crowd the history of tightrope walking: “Thousands of years ago, performers say, a Xinjiang city was invaded by evil ghosts intent on stealing the souls of the townspeople. Uyghur warriors could not push past the city’s high wall and moat, so for a long time, the ghosts ruled unabated. But finally, one brave warrior fixed a rope between a tree and the city wall and walked across, using two heavy swords to keep his balance. Eventually, he scaled the wall, vanquished the ghosts, and liberated his people. This is the tradition we follow.”
Amid the clapping, I noticed that the wind had picked up. It didn’t seem to bother the performers, though, who took the rope with the same unconcerned bravery that I had seen in their practice. One after the other, they walked the tightrope, moving backward and forward, performing tricks and causing the crowd to gasp with disbelief.
Urzigul was at the end of the show. When she walked out onto the rope, she was the picture of concentration. Her steps were slow but steady. I could see her using the pole to check her balance, test the wind’s sway. I watched her, almost feeling the rope between her feet. The wind lifted Urzigul’s costume, blew it around her until it cloaked her body, but still, the child didn’t falter. In her blood-red outfit, she looked like an oversized bird, one of the cardinals my home was known for.
On one pass, Urzigul brought out a low stool with one centered leg, smaller and less sturdy looking than the chair she practiced in at home. I sensed people in the crowd poking one another, pointing at the tightroper, but I couldn’t look away to acknowledge them. Urzigul gracefully positioned the stool on the rope and held it in place with one foot. Then, she lowered herself onto it, sitting down as easily as if she were on solid ground. The crowd clapped.
After sitting for a moment balanced on the chair, Urzigul rose just as gracefully. This time, she held the stool in place with her foot and put her other foot in the place where she had just been sitting. With a swift motion, she stepped up onto the chair.
I could feel Wanderline tense beside her and something made me look away from Urzigul. “This isn’t part of the routine,” the older woman said. “This is something only the best dawaz artists perform. I know the coach hasn’t allowed her to practice this.”
I was still looking away when it happened. I didn’t see the wind beat against her body, putting her just a fraction off balance. I didn’t see her pole tilt ever so slightly to the right to compensate or the leg of the stool begin to slip off to the side. What I did see was Urzigul’s body falling through the air. She was graceful even in this, her arms going out to the side as if getting ready to take flight, her head raised to the sky.
She hit the ground flat on her stomach, her arms still outstretched, her head turned away from me. The crowd was silent for a moment, stunned, and then they rushed forward, blocking her from view. I could hear the coach wailing, “Allah, Allah!” and when I looked at Wanderline, her eyes were glazed over with tears. I couldn’t feel anything, nor believe what I’d just seen.
I knew without asking that there wouldn’t be any hope. The child fell too hard, with nothing breaking her fall. Her neck was surely broken. Still, I could hear the sounds of an ambulance in the distance.
When the EMTs arrived, they rushed toward the tiny body. I could tell by how quickly their movements slowed down that they saw no hope either. The driver, a large man overcome with emotion, took off his traditional Uyghur hat and held it against his chest as he knelt down beside the unnatural stillness that had been Urzigul.
Later, the news would call Urzigul’s death a tragic accident, showing how dangerous the tradition of tightroping was. The former coach was painted the villain, unwilling to share with his rival the net that would have saved her life. People talked about reforms, of letting the tradition die.
The school’s coach simply said that Allah knew our time to die and it had been hers. No one dared speculate, but in whispers it was said that it had been Urzigul’s way of cheating fate, of choosing her time instead of waiting for Allah to take her. For me, Urzigul will forever be dancing in the sky, doing what she lived to do. I liked to think that instead of angels, a flock of birds came on the wind to carry her away.
For her funeral, the men of the town carried her tiny casket down the streets of Kashgar, wailing, while the women and children stayed behind, cooking the feast that would celebrate her life. The tears were quieter here. Women I had never seen before came up to embrace me, thank me for caring about an orphan girl. Children from the tightrope team covered me with hugs and kisses.
For weeks, my dreams were about tightrope walking. I was dressed in Urzigul’s red costume, my head stretched to the sky. My steps were steady, certain, and I had no need of a safety net.
Elizabeth Burton lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband, two dogs, and a horse and works for a nonprofit. She lived in Northwest China, where "The Birds and the Wind" takes place, and sets many of her stories there; her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kentucky Review, Waypoints, and The Notebook anthology, among others.