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Beloved

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And all the stars were crashing 'round

As I laid eyes on what I'd found

***

“Hi-yah!”

The stick hit the tree with a dull thwack. The impact nearly drove it out of Oak's hand; she scrambled to hold on to it with fingers so cold, they felt like a bundle of sticks themselves. Not long now, she told herself. The hunt was almost at an end. The squire and his guests were in the clearing, just past the snow-covered bushes ahead. Once past that line, the beaters would be allowed to rest and eat their fill, and warm up by the fires. Oak could smell the stew already. It made her mouth water.

She swung the stick again, as hard as she could. The rustling of the bushes was almost drowned out by her shrill yell, and the voices of the village men on her left and right, rising in near-perfect unison. The hunt was at an end. The work was done.

Then, faster than her shocked eye could see, a white shape sprung up from the ground before her. There was a flurry of snow – the beating of wings – a momentary flash of a large, dark eye––

––and then, a shot. And blood, blood on the snow. Oak staggered, certain for a moment that she had been hit.

But no. The blood was not hers. The bird – the crane – gave a great cry, seemingly suspended in the air. Then, with a heavy beat of its wings, it rose above her and flew off, deeper into the snowy woods. A drop of warmth fell on Oak's face. She wiped it off and shivered to see the red stain on her fingers.

“Blast! That sounded human. Damn these bushes. Girl, are you shot?”

Oak raised her head and saw the squire. His whiskers and jowls gave him the look of an old tomcat, albeit at the moment a rather worried one. The squire's guests milled about behind him, most of them visibly excited over this unexpected addition to the hunt.

“I say, girl, are you hurt?”

“Not I, sir. It was the bird.”

“A bird, eh?” The squire tugged at his whiskers. “Bagged it?”

“No, sir. It flew off.”

“Flew off, eh?” The squire looked disappointed, but made an effort to rally himself. “Shame. Well. Could've been worse, eh? Bad form to shoot one's beaters. Had a fright, eh? Tell the cook you're to have double the meat in your stew. All the best bits, I say.”

Oak doubted if that would do her much good, as she had boldly made the same claim after previous hunts (without any authorisation from the squire, it must be admitted) and never got anything extra, apart from a narrowly-avoided clout on the ear. Be that as it may, she still nodded and curtsied, and when she straightened up, the squire was on his way back to the clearing, with his guests in tow. They did not look quite as interested, now that it was clear the squire hadn't accidentally added a peasant to his trophy collection.

The guests gathered around the largest fire in the centre of the clearing. Oak and her fellow beaters made for the other ones to await their turn to be fed. There was talk and laughter all around the clearing, but Oak had very little part in it. She couldn't quite name the emotion that gripped her, but it weighted on her, heavy and cold. She could not stop thinking of the crane's eye on her, of that desperate effort with which it took to the air. It was dead or dying now, of that she was certain. The thought made her feel lesser somehow, as if she had watched something beautiful be torn down and destroyed.

The mood accompanied her as she waited for her bowl of stew, and didn't lift as she took it aside to eat. (The old cook was deeply affronted at her silence; for the first time ever he had given her more than her share of meat and sausage, and he was expecting thanks, not a distracted nod. Unfortunately, Oak never even noticed.) It stayed with her as she joined the men handing out cups of “something to warm a body up, right quick.” That particular “something” was known around the village as the Choker, since the aroma was likely to choke all but the most experienced drinkers. Oak held her breath, downed the thing in one gulp and shuddered as the heat leapt through her body like a flame.

The burn of alcohol didn't quite drive the chill of guilt from her stomach, but it did give her courage. She rose from her place by the fire and wordlessly made for the line of trees.

“Goin' to pick mushrooms, are you?” one of the village lads called after her. His name was Trout and, to Oak at least, he did look very much like a fish. “Can I go with you? I won't peek... much!”

There was a little laughter from the other youths, but it died down after Trout's uncle cuffed him on the ear with a loud, “Mind those manners, boy.” Oak didn't pay them any more heed. Men didn't bother her much when she was with them on the hunts. It was unusual, but people were willing to make allowances for a young woman out on her own. She walked ahead, spurred on by something she still did not understand. The snow was trampled where they had passed, but the red trail was sharp against the ground. The crane could hardly have flown far, not with the amount of blood that...

There! A white shape against the whiteness. A red stain on its –– arm?

For a few heartbeats Oak stood frozen, gaping in a way that would have done Trout proud. Then the girl in the snow opened her eyes and sighed, and Oak screamed for help as loud as her lungs would allow.

***

“Well. Well. Quite. Shot by accident, I'd wager. Unfortunate, hm.”

The men crowded around the wounded girl. She had come to, but did not speak, even as Oak was dressing her wound. Her breath came in quick, shallow puffs and her eyes darted around the circle of faces. Oak found herself wishing that everyone would move, give the girl some time to calm down, but she could hardly say this to the squire, especially when he was tugging on his whiskers with such force that they looked in danger of being separated from his body. In place of a better comfort, she quietly put her hand on the girl's good shoulder.

“Unfortunate, yes. You, girl! What is your name?”

The girl lowered her head and gave a quiet, throaty cry. Her long hair covered her face, hiding it from view. It was like a curtain of snow had fallen – the girl's hair was the lightest shade Oak had ever seen. It was almost white, but brighter somehow than the hair of old men and women in the village. Her dress was white, too, and very thin, not at all like something you'd wear for a winter walk through the woods. In spite of being tightly bundled up herself, Oak shivered.

“What is your name, I say? Where did you come from?”

“Touched in the head,” one of the guests supplied. “Just look at her – she's clearly a vagrant.”

“Quite. Quite. Ah.”

The squire appeared to be in an agony of indecision. It was obvious that he thought he might be responsible for the wound on the unknown girl. It was equally obvious that he did not particularly want to stop his hunt on account of a mute stranger. The effort of trying to reconcile the two was putting a serious strain on his mental faculties (and his whiskers).

“I'll take her in,” Oak said, surprising even herself. Feeling all eyes on her, she added, “For a few days. If Sir allows.”

Visibly relieved, the squire waved his hand. “Yes, yes. Good idea. Come by the manor tomorrow, eh? Get your pay for the hunt.”

That was it, Oak supposed. The squire clearly wanted to be rid of the distraction, but she most likely could not count on the company to lend her a cart to take the girl home. “Come on, you,” she said to the girl, wrapping an arm around her. “Up we go.”

They rose and stumbled at first, but Oak was strong enough for both of them, and the girl was light; very light, in fact, all skin and bones and air. Oak half-walked, half-carried her through the forest and out into the fields, where the chilly wind scattered powdery snow into their faces. Oak watched her silent companion out of the corner of her eye, and imagined she could see the warmth of life retreat from those pale cheeks with every step.

“Here, have my scarf at least. I'll put it round your head... Like this. This one for your shoulders. Alright, let's move. We're on the road now, or as near as. What sort of dress is this? Who goes out like this on a winter day?”

She was grumbling to herself, mostly – her companion was quiet, apart from a few gasps that escaped her half-open lips. But it felt good to speak out loud, to remind them both that someone was still alive in this world of white.

Finally, after too long a time, they stumbled across the threshold of Oak's hut. Oak let the girl drop onto the bed and rushed to get a fire going. She used more wood than she would have wanted to, but the house was so cold, and more importantly, the girl was so cold, too. They needed the warmth, needed to get her blood flowing through those frozen limbs.

“Here... up again. Yes, I know you're tired. I'm sorry. Sit here, see? By the fire. Can you sit in a chair?” It appeared to her that the girl nodded ever so slightly. Encouraged, Oak went on, “Put those legs towards the fire. I'll rub them for you. My ma did it when my pa fell into the river one winter. Burned like the devil's own piss, he said. Had a foul mouth on him, did my pa.”

She worked quickly as she spoke, willing life back into the girl's body. After a long while, she was relieved to see some pinkness seep back into those pale feet and calves. “There. Maybe you'll keep your toes yet.” She sat back on her haunches and looked up. “Have you got a ma and pa? I wonder what your name is. I can't keep calling you you, can I?”

And for the third time that day, her heart nearly stopped when the girl suddenly opened her eyes and said, “You have named me Beloved.”

***

“But... You can speak!” Oak exclaimed. It wasn't a question, but it was just a little too squeaky and surprised to be an accusation.

The girl nodded sleepily. She seemed more interested in her toes than in carrying on a conversation. She wiggled them experimentally, paused, as if to catalogue her discoveries, then wiggled them again.

“Why didn't you say a thing? I was going on and...”

“Tired.” The girl slumped in the chair a little. Her hair fell forward like an icy wave. “Tired... then lost. I was resting. Then – shot. I was scared.”

“You were lost?”

“Yes. My family... they left. Gone until the spring.” Her fingers scratched the wood of the chair. “I must follow.” Before Oak knew it, the girl was scrambling to her feet, but she was weak – too weak. Oak barely managed to catch her as she fell.

“Come now,” she said, less gruffly than she intended. “You get some rest first. You can stay here until...” Until when? she thought. Until the spring? Until the food ran out? “...A while,” she finished awkwardly.

“Rest,” the girl whispered. Her breath tickled the small hairs on Oak's neck. “Yes. Thank you. A while.”

Oak put her into bed and took the now-vacant seat by the fire. She watched the flames without truly seeing them. Behind her she felt that porcelain presence, as if each breath the girl took reverberated across the house.

A stranger. A second mouth to feed. And the winter was long, so long. How long would her food stores last?

I can't do this, she thought. I must send her away soon. She is nothing to me, that I should risk starving because of her – not now, no, but in the traitor days at winter's end, when the sun is bright in the sky, and people eat nettles and grass because nothing else grows yet. I didn't gather enough for two. She is nothing to me, she is...

...a girl, frail like a bird. Wounded like the crane.

Oak moved in her chair as if stung, then smiled. Being kind suited her nature better than being reasonable. She rose and filled a bowl with milk, then dropped in a handful of crumbled bread and set it aside to soak. Beloved would need to eat after she had rested. No harm done today – Oak herself had already eaten at the hunt, and she was almost not hungry at all. Tomorrow... they could worry about it later.

Beloved, she thought. A beautiful name.

***

Some days passed, quiet at first, then more and more comfortable. Outside, icicles festooned the roof and frost painted flowers on the window panes. Inside, there was warmth and companionship that surprised Oak with its charm. How lonely she must have been – more lonely than she had suspected. And how good, not to have to bear the burden of loneliness anymore! How good, to have someone to talk to, to share her food, to share her smiles. Beloved liked to smile, she discovered. Even when she was tired, and still too weak to leave the bed, her dark eyes sparkled whenever she spoke.

She did like to speak, too, only not about herself. Oak was beginning to notice that in a few days Beloved had learned quite a lot about her, while she still knew very little about her new companion. Beloved preferred to answer a question with another question of her own – a a trait that Oak found intolerable in other people, but strangely appealing in her friend. When asked who her family were and what they did, for instance, Beloved would answer, “Oh, we go here and there. How about you? Where would you go, if you could go anywhere?” And she would smile, and look at Oak intently, as if the answer truly mattered to her.

Oak pondered this particular question one afternoon, as she walked to pick up some work from the manor. She had never really thought about it before. The people from her village never went anywhere much; to the next village, maybe, when there was a fair, but not much further than that. She had almost gone with her father to the nearest town, once, to sell their fruit and vegetables at the market, and she still remembered the preparations as a solemn, portentous occasion – but she had fallen ill on the eve of the departure, and her father had to leave her behind. They had a few bad harvest years after that, and then her mother died, and they never had a good year again.

She didn't know what it would feel like, to be able to go anywhere. She didn't even know what it would feel like to want to go somewhere, or how one somewhere could be different from another. But thinking about it woke up a low ache in her chest. It was like missing something she had never had, and she couldn't tell if the pain was a sign of misery or happiness.

She raised her face to the wind and waited for it to cool her cheeks. The wind had a bite to it, but the day was bright. Above her, the sky was wide open – an endless blue rarely seen in winter. A spring sky, Oak thought, and remembered that Beloved had said she would leave in the spring. She shivered. All of a sudden happiness felt far away.

***

When Oak came home later that day, she had a large sack on her shoulder and a smile on her face. The smile grew wider when she saw Beloved out of bed, dressed in her borrowed Sunday best.

“Hallo, how goes it? Feeling much better, then?”

As was her habit, Beloved answered with a smile and a question. “What is it you have there? It looks heavy. Is it the work?”

“It is,” laughed Oak, effortlessly dropping the sack onto the table. “But it's not heavy at all. These are feathers!”

Impossibly, Beloved's smile grew even brighter, and she gave a quiet gasp of delight. “Feathers! Why, what will you do with them?”

“Why, child, we will pluck them,” answered a voice from the doorway. “What else would we want them for?”

Beloved gasped again and whirled around. Her smile evaporated as she saw the three women who had entered the hut after Oak. Each had her own sack and all were giving Beloved looks of unabashed curiosity. Birch, Oak's nearest neighbour, moved towards Beloved to clasp her in greeting, but the girl shook her head mutely and retreated onto the bed, where she sat with her knees pulled to her chest.

Old Mother Stoat, the oldest woman in the village, sighed and looked at Beloved with pitying eyes. “Peace be upon you, child. We'll not disturb you.”

Birch and Rosemary nodded, put their sacks on the table and began their work. Each woman before her her sack, from which she drew great handfuls of feathers, and a wooden trough, into which she deposited them as they were plucked. The down had to be separated from the hard quill; nobody wanted their pillows to prick them in the face as they slept, least of all the squire. Pulling the feathers apart was hard work, but it was work that Oak usually enjoyed, even though it made her fingers cramp and she could never match Mother Stoat or even Birch for speed. The joy lay in the company; no woman ever plucked feathers alone. Her neighbours would visit, bringing their own work, and sing or gossip with her to make the time pass more quickly. Oak had hoped that Beloved would enjoy the occasion, but now, as she worked in silence, she guiltily wondered if she should have asked the steward for some pots to mend instead.

Suddenly she felt a light touch on her arm. Startled, she looked up and saw Beloved standing next to her, watching her hands intently. At Oak's invitation, she sat down and tentatively reached for the sack. As her friend set to work on the feathers, Oak let out a sigh of relief. The other women were encouraged, too, and soon Birch started to hum a song under her breath. Rosemary, who had a good voice, picked up the melody, and soon all but Beloved were singing. They sang of the linden tree and of the unfaithful lover; they sang to the feathers, that they might let themselves be plucked easily; and it might have been the song, or it might have been Beloved's small, deft hands assisting her, but that night marked the first and only time when Oak managed to pluck her feathers faster than Mother Stoat.

The moon was bright in the sky by the time they were finished. Beloved had not spoken throughout the evening, but she had a little smile on her lips, and, just as the guests were about to leave, she whispered, “Peace be upon you all, as well.”

Oak walked the three women to her garden gate. When she came back into the house, she found Beloved still at the table, picking up handfuls of down from the trough and spreading it across the wooden surface.

“Now, put that back,” she cried out, laughing. “Ol' Whiskers will want it tomorrow, first thing in the morning.”

Beloved gave her a puzzled look. “Why? The geese don't need it anymore.”

“You ask strange questions sometimes. The squire needs it, I suppose.”

“But he must have so much of it. So much of everything. It doesn't seem fair.”

“That's just the way it is. And they'll weigh it, back at the manor. If I do a poor job, I won't get paid, or – or they'll say I stole some. Then I won't get work from the manor again.”

“Alright,” said Beloved, nodding resolutely. “But I wonder why he needs so much of it.”

Oak shrugged. “Who knows? The old man must really like his down pillows.”

Beloved was genuinely surprised. “Pillows! He wants to make pillows from this?”

Oak laughed again. “You are strange. Yes, pillows. What did you think it was for?”

But this question Beloved didn't answer, not even with a question of her own.

***

Snow fell heavily. It was the start of a new year, and the food stores were holding – for now. Oak had taken more work home, but hadn't invited her friends from the village this time. They had been pleasant company, but Beloved had looked tired after that last evening. In a few weeks, perhaps, once she was stronger... For now they would sit and work together; it would take them longer, but they could afford to spread the task over a few slow afternoons, rather than one busy night.

Oak tried to sing the feather song as they worked, but her voice was nowhere near as good as Rosemary's, and she faltered after a few lines. Beloved joined in; surprisingly, it turned out her singing was even worse than Oak's, and they dissolved into helpless giggles for a short while. They sang other village songs after that, until Oak asked Beloved to sing a song of her own.

Beloved seemed startled. “I don't know any I could sing at this time of the year,” she said. “Maybe I could tell you a story instead?” Without waiting for agreement, she went on, “Once, in the night, there was a great light in the sky. It almost looked like the sun had risen early. But it wasn't the sun at all – it was a grand city burning.”

Here she stopped. After a long moment of silence, Oak asked, “Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“It's not a very good story!”

“Well,” Beloved huffed, “it is a true story. Since when is that not good enough for you?”

In spite of her offended manner, she was smiling a little. Oak laughed and, spurred on by a mischievous thought, blew a small handful of down into Beloved's face. The feathers settled in her white hair just like snow, and Oak was struck by how beautiful Beloved was, with her laughing eyes and half-open lips. Without hesitating, without really thinking about it at all, Oak kissed her.

Almost at once she drew back, uncertain and ashamed, afraid to look at Beloved for fear she would see her turn away. But then her friend (her love?) embraced her with a joyous cry, and that first kiss became only one of many.

***

The days raced on, and at first they brought nothing but happiness. The first month of the year ended and the second began – the one people called Harsh, and with good reason. The sky was heavy with snow-bearing clouds, the earth bare, the river frozen over. There was still a month of winter ahead of them – two months perhaps, if they were unlucky.

All feathers had been plucked and there was no more work to be had from the manor. The food grew scarcer, until Oak decided it was time to start thinning out their supply of flour with milled acorns and tree bark. One morning she took Beloved with her and went foraging in the woods. Her love walked on cheerfully and tried to hold up their spirits by talking, but the snow was too deep for her. Soon she was stumbling; she struggled to keep up and tried to hide it, and her tired bravery made Oak's stomach clench. She could not bear to see her love so grey and small, so helpless and fragile against the wind and hunger. She would have given a year of her own life, if she could spare Beloved one day of this miserable winter. After tasting the happiness, she had succumbed to fear – that great trap of loving hearts – and was beginning to pay the price we all incur when we dare love.

Some of her feelings must have reflected in her face, for Beloved fell quiet and looked intently into the sky, as if hoping to see through the leaden clouds. Her eyes were sad; perhaps she was already paying the price as well.

“Would you like to hear another story?” she asked quietly.

There was a note in her voice that struck at Oak's heart and made her shiver. It spoke of change, and right then and there, change scared her more than anything in the world. All she wanted was to hold on to what she had, now that she finally had something worth holding on to. She was silent for a long time, and when she finally spoke, it was only to say, “Come. It's time to go home.”

***

A cloud seemed to come over their house after that day. Beloved was quiet and pale, and thin – like a shadow, it seemed to Oak; but then again, Oak was also getting thinner, and they were both hungry more often than not. In the afternoons they sat together and sewed or mended things around the house to take their minds off the hunger, but more and more frequently, Beloved would just fall asleep at the table, leaving her work half-done. When Oak woke her up, there would be a strangely determined look on her face, as if she was bracing herself for some great task ahead.

“I have a way to help,” she said once, with her eyes still closed. “But it's not easy. I'll bear it, but it's not easy at all.” Oak pressed her to say more, and she seemed on the verge of answering, but then she shook her head. Later, she promised. Later. She would say all in the spring, and the spring was almost upon them.

Unbeknownst to herself, Oak was also changing. She was scared, and angry through her fear. She lived through each day in a haze of uncertainty, and at night, her dreams were dark and lonely. She awaited the spring almost as much as Beloved did, but she also dreaded its coming. Had Beloved not said that she would leave in the spring?

(“I will not leave you,” she assured Oak now, breathing promises into the crook of her neck. “You are my beloved as much as I am yours.” Once Oak would have believed her without question, but the long winter had taken a part of her courage, and she no longer had the strength to trust.)

Then one night Oak dreamt of her mother, not as she had been in those last desperate days of her illness, but hale and hearty once more. She saw her working at her spinning wheel; there was a smile on her lips, and she sang as she worked, a quiet song without words. Oak felt like a child again, safe and content, and she turned, reaching out for Beloved in her sleep.

Her hand found nothing, and she woke up with a sudden stab of anxiety. But even though she was no longer dreaming, the song and the spinning continued.

Beloved sat at the spinning wheel, bathed in starlight, beautiful and radiant. She was spinning a white thread; as white as her hair, Oak thought, but it wasn't hair she was spinning, it was...

“...Feathers?” she said hoarsely.

Beloved gasped, but then looked at Oak with a trusting smile. It was a smile that Oak would remember all too often in the days that followed, along with the way it crumbled when Beloved heard Oak's next words.

“Did you steal those from the work I did for the manor?”

It was a blow that cut to the quick. Oak knew it, deep down, and she might have been ashamed of herself, ashamed of how angry and miserable she had let herself become, except that she had been angry and miserable for such a long time – angry at the winter, at the hunger, at her own helplessness – and it felt good, in a twisted way, to finally have an outlet for it all.

Well? Did you?”

Beloved shook her head and tried to speak, but Oak was faster. “I told you, didn't I? What do you think would've happened if they had noticed? We wouldn't've had the food to last till now!”

“I didn't steal them!” Beloved cried out. “These are mine!”

“Yours!” Oak laughed derisively to drown out the little voice in her head that was begging her to return to her senses. “Have a flock of geese, then, do you? Where do you keep them – underneath your pillow?”

“I tell you, these are mine!”

“Don't lie to me – you stole them!”

No!

Beloved's voice echoed around the hut. Oak froze, the last words still hanging on her lips. Beloved looked at her in silence for a few heartbeats. There was a new sadness in her eyes, but she was calm.

“They are my feathers,” she said. “I will show you.”

Then she raised her arms and threw her head back, and where the girl had stood, there was now a white crane with its wings spread wide.

Oak's blood thundered in her head. Before she knew it, she was out of the bed, past the table, past the threshold of their house, her own cry of surprise and disbelief still ringing in her ears.

She would remember little of the rest of that night. Dawn found her at the edge of the woods, shaking with cold but clear-headed again. The fear was gone, and a new certainty had taken its place. “I've nothing to be afraid of. That's just who she is. I knew it before she showed me, or as good as knew,” she told herself as she breathed deeply of the bright morning air, letting it carry off the cobwebs from her thoughts. “I have always known, and yet I have always loved her. I must go back – whatever else she is, she is my Beloved, and I have done her wrong.”

But when she returned, words of love and regret already on her lips, the house was quiet and empty. On the table there was a single white feather – the only thing of hers Beloved had left behind.

***

Oak spent many days searching high and low, and many nights waiting by the fire she lit to light Beloved's way home. As time passed and days turned to weeks, she stopped the searching, but never the waiting. She ate and slept and did her work. She helped Birch and her husband when their cow got sick, and plucked feathers at Mother Stoat's house to make pillows for her great-granddaughter's marriage bed. To anyone who saw her, she would appear to be living, but she knew better. She was merely waiting, as the earth awaits the sun to thaw it out after a harsh winter.

Some people asked about Beloved, some didn't. To those who did, Oak always said, “She will come back.” She had to believe it – her faith and the waiting were all she had now. There were times during her lonely evening vigils when she remembered that last night with Beloved particularly vividly – her own viciousness and cowardice most of all – and then she cried, unable to believe what she had done; but she never cried loudly, for fear she would not hear Beloved if she knocked on the door.

Spring came at last, too late to feel like a blessing. The first fields were tilled, and there was a heady smell of new earth in the air. Oak hardly noticed it at first, but as the sky grew brighter and the flowers bloomed, so did the hope in her heart. She went through her days with bated breath, drunk with longing and the promise of renewal.

And yet, when the day came, it still almost caught her unawares. She was working in her garden, on her knees in the dirt, her back and hands aching with the strain, when a strange cry reverberated on the wind. For a moment she could not place it, and then she suddenly knew, and jumped to her feet in spite of the pain.

It was the call of cranes returning.

When Oak turned around, Beloved was only a few paces behind her, a shy smile on her lips. Oak cried out, or perhaps she did not – all she knew was that suddenly she and Beloved were embracing, laughing and kissing and spinning one another in circles until they were too dizzy to breathe.

When the first moments of reunion passed, they looked at each other and said, “I'm sorry,” at the same time. Then they rushed to assure one another that all had been forgiven, or, indeed, that there had been nothing to forgive in the first place. Words turned to kisses, then to caresses and love-making, as warm and gentle as the spring itself. Afterwards, as they lay together in the grass, Beloved traced the shape of Oak's mouth with a curious finger and asked, “Where would you go – if you could go anywhere?”

Oak grinned and kissed Beloved's hand. “Anywhere,” she replied with absolute certainty. “Anywhere, as long as you're with me.”

Beloved smiled back and rose. She put on her white dress, then handed a similar one to Oak. “I made this one for you,” she said, “if you'd like it.”

Oak ran her fingers against the material, which shimmered like feathers in the sun. She did not hesitate.

Above them, the cranes were still calling. Oak pulled the dress over her head, spread her wings and let her own joyful voice rise to join the choir.

***

My crane wife