Excerpt: Salman Rushdie's 'Luka and the Fire of Life'

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There were seven vultures flying down towards him, wearing ruffs around their neck, like European noblemen in old paintings, or like circus clowns. They were ugly, smelly and mean. The biggest, ugliest, smelliest and meanest vulture settled down on Luka's windowsill, right next to him, as if they were old friends, while the other six hovered just out of reach. Bear t he dog woke up and came to the window fast, growling and baring his teeth; Dog the bear leapt up a moment later and towered over Luka, looking as if he wanted to rip the vulture to pieces there and then. "Wait," Luka told them, because he had seen something that needed to be investigated. Hanging from the ruff around the Boss Vulture's neck was a little pouch. Luka reached for it; the vulture made no move. Inside the pouch was a scroll of paper, and on the scroll of paper was a message from Captain Aag.

"Dreadful black-tongued child," the message read, "Disgusting witch-boy, did you imagine I would do nothing in return for what you did to me? Did you think, vile warlock infant, that I could not damage you more grievously than you damaged me? Were you so vain, so foolish, feeble pint-sized maledictor, that you thought you were the only witch in town? Throw out a curse when you can't control it, O incompetent pygmy hexer, and it will come back to smack you in the face. Or, on this occasion, in perhaps an even more satisfying act of revenge, it poleaxes someone you love."

Luka began to shiver, even though the night was warm.

Was this the truth?

Had his burning curse against the circus boss been answered by a sleeping curse on his father? In which case, Luka thought with horror, the Big Sleep was his fault. Not even the arrival in his life of Dog the bear and Bear the dog could make up for the loss of his dad. But on the other hand he had noticed his father's slowness long before the night of the dancing stars, so maybe this note was just a hideous lie. At any rate he was determined not to let the Boss Vulture see that he was shaken, so in a loud, firm voice, like the one he used in school plays, he said, "I hate vultures, to be honest with you, and I'm not surprised that you are the only creatures who stayed loyal to that terrible Captain Aag. What an idea, anyway, to have a vulture act in a circus! Just shows you the type of guy he is. This, also," Luka added, and tore the note to bits under the vulture's cynical beak. "is the letter of a nasty man, trying to make out that he could make my father ill. He can't make anyone unwell, obviously, but he does make everyone sick." Then, summoning up all his courage, he shooed the big bird off his window sill and closed the window.

The vultures flew away in disarray, and Luka collapsed on to his bed, trembling. His dog and his bear nuzzled at him, but he could not be comforted. Rashid was Sleeping, and he, Luka, could not get rid of the notion that he - himself and he alone - was the one who had brought this curse down on his family.

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