The thumb of his woollen mitten is beginning to unravel, thumbnail poking out, half-blackened from where it slipped under his hammer as he boarded up the porch for winter. It's a small thing and nothing extraordinary, but it makes him sigh and slump his shoulders and reflect on a life that seems to be likewise unravelled.
He pulls the pair off, stuffing them into the pockets of his great fur coat, and lets the cold seep into his fingers as he walks on the crackling snow, up to the edge of the frozen lake that reflects the light of the rising moon.
The night is quiet and still, even the air unmoving, until there's a snap and a rustle in the underbrush, then a sudden, thin wail. He rubs his hands together briskly to warm them to usefulness, then pushes the dormant branches aside and there on the snow is a white crane, a raggedly-fletched arrow sticking out of her wing. He looks around, across the lake and back towards his cabin and in all directions including up the sky, but there's no sign of a hunter, only this bird who lies flightless on the snow.
The wound is shallow but the blood still seeps into those white feathers, staining them a crimson that looks black in the dim light. He coos at her and pets her soft feathers and when he pulls the arrow from her wing it does no more than make her tremble. He cleans it with the fresh-fallen snow till the feathers are no more than a faintly iridescent pink, then pulls the damaged mitten from his pocket and tugs on the loose thread until the whole thing unravels, leaving him a long string of wool with which he carefully binds the wound.
Then he holds the crane in his lap and soothes her trembling, and when the moon is high in the sky she finally stretches her wings, tests their strength, and pushes off into the sky.
The night is colder when she is gone.
His father was a fisherman, and his father's father was a fisherman, and long after most families moved on from this lakeshore, long after all the other sons and daughters sought more prosperous lives, he stays. In the summer, when the rivers run and his nets pull in enough to keep him fed and clothed and sheltered, it's a good life. But the winter cold freezes the shallow lake into a thick slab of ice, and his trap lines and occasional odd jobs are just barely enough to keep him going until the spring. More than once he's tried to find winter work in town, but they don't have much use for a young man with more dreams than skills.
This is just how it is, and how it has always been.
The first stars of evening bring a knock at his door, a rare and precious thing even after the summer residents return, the lake teeming and the days long and light. The woman standing there is hooded, her eyes shadowed and haunted, and she is still the most beautiful he's ever seen.
"I've lost my way," she says, "and I'm hungry and cold."
His cabin is nothing if not warm, and he has a pot of soup simmering for his dinner, so he lets her inside and takes her cloak and she stays. She stays the night in the tiny cold room that houses his tools and his potatoes and a narrow hard bed covered in layers of quilts. She stays the next day warming herself by the fire while he repairs the shingles on a distant neighbour's house. She stays the rest of the week, reading his books and mending his coat and taking walks along the lakeshore.
She just stays.
On a crisp, moonlit evening they marry on the shore of the lake, just the two of them and a preacher devoted enough to his calling to join them there. She wears a dress of linen and lace beneath a woollen coat; he wears his church pants beneath his fur. The narrow, hard bed in the potato room is empty once more.
When they return to the house, hand in hand, he finds on the table a pair of mittens of the softest, finest, warmest yarn.
"I saw you had none," she says. "It's my wedding gift to you."
"These are too fine for a fisherman's hands," he says, stroking them with rough fingertips. "They're too fine for a trapper and a handyman."
"They're not," she says, but all he can think of is how soiled they'll become, and how much they belong on wealthier people, people who don't make their living with their hands.
"Can you make more?"
She runs her long fingers through her long hair and smiles at him. "I thought it might help," she says. "To get us through the winter."
He's always had to count pennies in the wintertime, pennies and days, till the ice melts and he can once again take his boat out onto the water. He know she's noticed that the soup's been a little thinner, the pantry a little emptier; he's been trying to provide but he's not used to providing for two.
"People would pay a lot for these," he says, and she nods like she already knows that.
"I'll work in the potato room," she says, "when you're walking the trap lines. All I ask is that you leave me to work alone. Never watch."
It's a promise easily made, a task that doesn't interest him at a time when he'll be occupied with more mundane things.
And so it goes. She produces gloves and shawls and tiny baby booties of such exquisite beauty that he stops to marvel before bundling them up and carrying them into town and trading them for food and necessities and increasing amounts of money.
He buys her trinkets and dresses and grows used to the luxury of new boots and fresh vegetables, and thinks of all the other things they might have now that they have the means to prosper.
She's only ever asked one thing of him, but he's an imperfect man and, on a bright afternoon when there are only scattered patches of snow left on the wet yellow grass, when the branches on the trees seem a little less heavy, a little more ready to grow and bud and reach for the sun, he gives in to temptation.
The trap lines are in for the season and he's at loose ends, mending a cupboard door that doesn't need mending and chopping firewood they won't need for much longer. She's been in the potato room for hours and he wants to see. He wants to know where it comes from, and how they can make more.
He doesn't think to give her any warning, he doesn't think, he just gives in to his impulse and opens the door.
And there he sees the white crane, twisting her own downy feathers into yarn.
He blinks his eyes and blinks them again and there stands his wife, yarn unravelling beside her and looking at him with a profound sadness. She doesn't have to explain. He already knows.
She leaves her coat behind as she goes, leaves her warm boots and her knit cap and the linen dress she was married in. She leaves everything behind and opens the door and when she steps through it there's a white crane on his doorstep, the remnants of mitten wool in the feathers of her wing.
The last he sees of her, she's spreading her wings and soaring into the air, her path unwavering and her intent clear. For a moment she seems to hang precipitously in the air, suspended in time, then she swoops and glides and disappears across the lake.
That night he dreams of lying in the snow in the moonlight, blanketed and smothered by brilliant white feathers.
It's a beautiful dream.