The Wall of Time
by Camila Andrea Fernández
translated by Vilo Westwood
“Children, what is the significance of your name? Does it come from some ancestor, like a grandfather or grandmother?” the primary teacher asked the children. Yuan did not know why he was named, which made him curious. That Sunday afternoon, he asked his grandfather.
“One of our ancestors was named Chu Yuan-Chang. He was an emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty,” said his grandfather. When he saw Yuan’s excitment, he continued. “The Ming, in the 15th and 16th centuries, were those who erected the Wall of Ten Thousand Li.”
“Why did they decide to build the Wall?” asked Yuan. The story had captured his attention so much that his noodles were getting cold.
“Well, at that time, battles were so common and different states built walls to defend themselves. When the empire unified, the Ming dynasty made all the little walls into one, and thus they created the Great Wall.”
“Today in Primary they told us that we had to get to know our ancestors, that we needed to make a family tree,” said the boy with a distracted air while he ate his noodles.
His grandfather sat thinking a moment and then continued eating.
That night, Yuan got ready to go to bed and his grandfather went to see him in his room.
“Have you heard the legend of the Wall of Time?” the grandfather asked with the same tone of mystery he used when he was going to tell a story. Yuan immediately raised his eyes with the sparkle of a child full of curiosity.
Tian, his grandfather, started the tale: “A long time ago, when people still wrote their genealogies in enormous leather books, one man hid his genealogy between the rocks of the Great Wall with the intention of erasing his name from history and starting over. Nevertheless, his ancestors saw his actions and did not want to permit this, such that the Creators, the Gods, decided that from that moment, the Wall would be a place where they would keep records of all the ancestors of all people, including the man who had hidden his name there. Although the legend also says that you can’t see the change in the Wall of Time—as it had been called from that time forward—except when there is a planetary conjunction. Only then can the names of the ancestors of those who are present be seen, since it was on just such an occasion that the man hid his genealogy.”
“What’s a planetary conjunction?” Yuan asked.
“It’s when the planets align, so that they seem to be in a straight line in the sky.”
“And when do you think this will happen again?”
“According to some astronomers, the conjunction will happen within 30 days from tomorrow,” said Tian with the same sparkling eyes as his grandson. “We do not have a Book of Memory for our family, because it has been lost with time, so that I don’t know the complete genealogy of our family . . . but in the Wall of Time surely you will see it.”
“And how is it that we can see our ancestors?”
“Some say that they appear to us as spirits. Others say they are projected, like a movie, over the stones of the wall. But no one has ever told what they saw, and the rumors are stronger than the true stories.”
“We could go, right? For Christmas?” Yuan said excitedly.
“Of course we’re going to go! And on the way we’ll visit your aunt,” answered his grandfather.
For Yuan, the month flew past, and the trip to Peking was the longest he could have experienced: he slept, ate, and slept again, until at last they arrived. The city was larger than Yuan had imagined, although it seemed a little like the city where he lived. The buildings he could see were gigantic. With his aunt they went to visit the most famous places of Peking: The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, until it got dark and they returned to their house.
“We’re going to spend Christmas with Aunt and then go to see the wall, all right?” Tian said to his grandson, who smiled in response.
The aunt made all kinds of foods for Christmas dinner and they ate happily. After the food, they sang “Silent Night” next to the window, and afterward they went outside to see the artificial lights. They watched the stars until Yuan went to sleep, then Tian picked him up and took him to his room. The following morning, they ate breakfast and Tian expained to his grandson when they were going to the Great Wall.
“So, tomorrow morning we will go to the Wall of Ten Thousand Li, and at night we will wait to see what happens.” Yuan got very excited: all that day he was preparing things, packing and unpacking the bag he was going to take.
The day they were going to leave, they said goodbye to Yuan’s aunt and took the bus to the Wall of a Ten Thousand Li. When they arrived, both were surprised by how big it was. The staircase they were supposed to go up seemed to have no end, but still, they climbed. When they arrived at one of the towers, they looked and couldn’t see an end to the left or the right. They spent the whole day long exploring the Great Wall, until night fell, and then they sat in one of the towers to wait.
Tian had already been asleep for some time when Yuan heard a noise outside the tower. He stayed quiet, waiting, listening to the whispering of a breeze, when, through the shadows, an animal appeared: it had the body of a lion, skin of a fish, and horns of a stag. Yuan recognized him as the Qilin, one of the mythological beings of Chinese culture. The being came slowly closer and after smelling it, licked his hand. Suddenly everything was very confused: the stars began to whirl and the Wall moved along its length like a serpent. Yuan fell on his back, and with his sight fixed on the heavens, he saw the planets aligned, the conjunction, and then he fainted. When he woke he saw the same being, the Qilin, at his side, observing him fixedly.
“What are you doing here, child?” said a nearby voice. Yuan looked over and recognized a soldier. The man extended his hand and got up with a jump. “Get to the tower right now!” he said and pushed him toward the tower.
Yuan looked around right away and saw that he was surrounded by soldiers. A torrential rain was soaking his skin and he felt disoriented, which got worse when he arrived at the tower and didn’t see his grandfather laying there. He saw a rock extending over his head, which gave protection from the enemy army’s catapults, and saw various soldiers crouching on the wall shooting arrows. He snuggled into one of the corners of the tower and observed the same scene for hours until a man approached, bent down and gave him a plate of food.
“Hello, little one. I am Dalai. What’s your name?” he asked in a sweet voice.
“I am Yuan, sir.”
“I’m going to take you to the house,” the man—Dalai—responded. Dalai went away and, a few moments later, came back with a bag and signaled to Yuan to follow him. The Qilin was no longer there.
Yuan followed him through underground passageways, until they arrived at a street surrounded by pastures. They did not talk on the way, and when they had spent several hours and Yuan wanted to fall defeated onto the field, the man stopped. They slept a little and then continued the journey through another day. Then they arrived at an enormous complex, the Forbidden City—but were not stopped. Soon they entered a grand palace, called the Palace of Supreme Harmony. Dalai took Yuan through different hallways toward a big room.
“This is your room. You will stay here until I come to get you. You can bathe and sleep a little,” said Dalai, then he went away. Yuan bathed and fell exhausted on his bed.
The next day he was brought to a gigantic room, where there was a throne and, sitting on it, a man with a long, white mustache and beard. Dalai knelt down and bowed. Yuan copied the gesture and then was introduced.
“Emperor Hongwu, I present to you someone who appeared after the rain: Yuan.” The emperor, with the dignified posture of a king, was not disturbed during the presentation.
“How did you come to the Wall?” the Emperor asked Yuan.
“I arrived with the Qilin, Emperor.” The Emperor was surprised at this answer and asked him to tell more. Yuan told the story, and when he had finished, the Emperor sat stunned.
“You realize you have traveled through time, right, boy?” Dalai asked him when he took him back to his room. Yuan kept his gaze on the floor, absorbing what had happened.
“How am I going to get back?” he asked, confused.
“I know how you will go,” said a trembling voice from the door. It was an ancient woman next to the door. “You came with a purpose—to get to know your ancestors, right? Then what you will do is come to know them. You will start tomorrow morning in the library.”
“But we don’t have a book of genealogy,” said Yuan.
“You do here,” responded the old woman.
The next morning Yuan went to the library and found the old woman seated with an old, thick book in front of her. They began to read name by name, from the parents of the emperor and his forefathers, until they found blank pages.
“What are these pages?” asked Yuan.
“These pages are those that have not yet been written, they are the ones our descendants will write. They are those you will write.”
“But if we don’t have this book, who will remain to do it?”
“Don’t you wonder why you came to this time period?” asked the old woman. But when Yuan turned to look at her, she had vanished.
At lunch Yuan got to know the son of the Emperor, a serious and cold man. They spoke little and later the man got up and left. Afterward they saw him riding toward the Wall. Dalai took Yuan to the Wall and when they were about to arrive, the boy saw a man hiding a book in the tower where he had been with his grandfather. It was the man of the legend. Yuan called to him from afar, and the man turned, startled, and let the book drop. The man tried to find it, but it was in vain—in the darkness of the night he couldn’t see, so he got down from the wall and fled without Yuan being able to stop him.
When Yuan got to the tower, he looked until he found the book and saw it—without doubt, this was the book of his family. He took it between his hands with the intention of returning it, but then he said, “How will I go back to my house if not today?” He thought for some minutes, and at last decided that he thought it would be better to return to the palace to return the book of genealogies, although it would stay there forever.
When they returned, the old woman was waiting for them in the doorway, and with open arms and a smile, took the book and replaced it in the library. Later, they were in the interior garden of the palace, where they found the Qilin, who walked beside the old woman.
“Can you take me home?” Yuan asked the woman.
“I can’t, but he can,” said the woman, pointing to the animal.
“Thank you, for bringing us the Book of Memory. Don’t forget me. My name is Chen, and I am the mother of the Emperor.”
Then, the animal approached and licked the boy’s hand. The stars started to whirl and Yuan fainted. When he woke up he found himself in his house—as his grandfather was telling the legend.
“And thanks to this boy, who brought back the book, the Gods decided that since this time, the Wall would be a place where all the genealogies of all people would be recorded,” said Tian, finishing his tale.
“What was the boy called?”
“The legend names him He-who-appeared-after-the-rain,” but some call him “the angel of the Wall.”
Yuan laughed and went to sleep.