I hold on to his gaze as long as I can, taking strength from it, even as the ache in my chest grows with the distance between us. Evening’s shadows wrap around him, making him a small, dark figure, his form blurry as tears sting my eyes. Soon he is out of sight altogether, and I feel terribly alone. But as I rise higher and higher, I know he is still with me and helping me. At first, the height isn’t that troublesome. I tell myself it’s not unlike climbing a tree. When I surpass even the tree heights, I remember that I survived the climb down from a much higher distance. Surely this should be no different.
Except that during the climb down, I at least felt some measure of control. I chose where I placed each hand and foot. Also, I had the partial security of knowing the rope I was using could hold my weight. Here, as I tremulously move up the line, I am acutely aware that I am testing the limits of what this zip line was built for. At any moment, the line could decide I am too much and snap, sending me to the depths below. I can’t see every detail of the ground anymore, not with night setting in, but I am well aware of how far the drop is. That black gulf looms ominously below me.
No , I tell myself sternly. You have nothing to fear with Li Wei at your back. As long as Li Wei is controlling the line, you will make it safely home. You just have to hang on.
Suddenly, without warning, I come to a teeth-rattling halt. The line stops moving, and I sway where I’m at in the wind. I twist my head to look back and gasp at what I see: small pinpricks of flickering light at the line keeper’s station. Torches. I can’t make out all the details from the distance, but there’s no mistaking the horde of men swarming around one single thing—or rather, person.
Li Wei is no longer in control of the line.
The soldiers have found and intercepted him. I watch in horror as that circle of torchlight moves, ushering away their prisoner. My heart cries out for Li Wei, and my lips want to cry out as well, but I keep my mouth firmly shut, lest I reveal myself.
Whatever is happening back there, they don’t realize I’m out on the line. It’s too dark for them to see me at this distance, and Li Wei’s purpose at the line’s terminus apparently hasn’t hit them yet. The torches flutter around a little bit, and I imagine they are probably carrying away the unconscious line worker as well. Soon the whole cluster begins getting smaller, moving away from me as the guards head down the road back toward the township—with Li Wei as their prisoner.
Panic fills me—panic and guilt. If we’d left together, we could have escaped. What will they do with him now? Leave him in the camp with Nuan? Send him somewhere worse? Torture him? Kill him? I’m desperate to know his fate . . . but it occurs to me that I have another fate of much more pressing concern to worry about.
I’m hanging here, in the darkness, suspended between heaven and earth with nothing propelling me forward anymore. Li Wei managed to send me a fair distance before his capture, moving me at a much faster rate than our painstaking climb down. But there is still a long way to go—and an even longer way behind me.
Acting against Li Wei’s earlier warnings, I dare a glance down to better assess my situation.
My eyes have adjusted enough to the darkness that I can make out faint details by moonlight. Mist has rolled in for the night in the land beneath me, but as it swirls and shifts, I can catch occasional glimpses of the terrain below. It is rocky and jagged, dotted with occasional evergreens that shoot up from the earth like spikes, ready to impale. They look tiny from this distance, like an illustration from a book, which only serves to remind me how precarious my situation is. I swallow and look away.
A blast of wind suddenly rocks my basket, and I sway from side to side. I grip the rope more tightly, gritting my teeth until the gust passes. As I rock, I notice the handles of the basket seem to be straining. They don’t appear to be in any danger of snapping—yet—but how long will that remain true? The basket wasn’t meant to hold someone of my weight. Right now, it gives me an extra level of protection, but I can’t count on it to last.
A wave of fear rolls over me, nearly as powerful as the wind. I can picture the basket snapping at any moment, and then how long will my hands—already wet with sweat—hold me?
How did I get out here anyway? Why didn’t I just stay in the safety of the art studio? If I hadn’t questioned things, if I’d just continued with the status quo, none of this would have happened. I’d be back at home with Zhang Jing. Li Wei would never have had to risk himself to get me back to our village. We’d be safe.
I would’ve continued being part of the township’s agenda. My loved ones are still unknowingly part of that agenda, risking their lives for it, and I am the only one capable of warning them now. That knowledge steadies me, allowing me to shift my gaze from the treacherous fall. Above me, the stars glitter with a cold beauty, and as I focus on them instead, I find a similar clarity settling over me. I think of Zhang Jing, waiting in the village above with no clue of the dangers she and the others are facing. I think of Li Wei, bravely risking his freedom below so that I could be up here. The distance I have to cover seems insurmountable . . . but there is no choice. A part of me longs to climb down and go after Li Wei, but I know what he would tell me to do: go forward and finish my task.
So, with a deep breath, I begin to climb.
Hand over hand, I inch my way up the zip line, wriggling out of the basket and the protection it offered. It’s hard, agonizing work, far more difficult than coming down. I still have the ropes loosely binding me to the line as an added safeguard, but the strength and stamina required to work my way up must all come from me. And much like the basket, I’m not sure if the ropes will indefinitely bear my weight. Every part of me aches, but I push through my exhaustion, climbing higher and higher. I take small breaks when I can, pausing to unkink my fingers and wipe my sweaty palms, but my rest is short-lived. I am driven by the sacrifice that Li Wei has made, compelled by the knowledge that it’s imperative I get back to my village.