The people of this island believe that a crane can live for a thousand years. They believe cranes carry luck on their wings, their breasts painted in shades of loyalty.
I know this because my husband told me so, on one of those long, close nights when we were held together in the darkness, warm as two downy hatchlings in the nest.
One thousand years of life; of watching the seasons change, the lakes growing icy and still, the ground hard and bare and blanketed with cold; one thousand years to change, and return, and be between worlds.
For me, it must be one thousand years and one: the one I spent as human, flightless; the one I carved from my own hollow bones.
The year of my husband.
Such huge eyes humans have, so large and open, so vulnerable, for all that they see so little. Even by starlight they were obvious, gentle and warm as his hands soothing the wounds.
“Go then, lovely one,” he said, standing against the rising moonlight, stroking a finger over the patch of red at my crown, lightly.
I called out almost without meaning, but he did not flinch, or shy away, only curved his lips and waited, calm, as I studied him with first one eye, then the other, and wondered.
What would it be like, to have hands as those, and fingers to stroke his head as he had mine? What would it be like to have lips, to shape words as he did, to thank him for my life?
Snowflakes fell, glittering, from the bent boughs above, and I shook my feathers as though from a dream, and ascended, waiting for the currents of the air to cradle me.
Below, he cried out in farewell, and something in my breast stirred, and pulled; a tether to the ground.
When I finally slept, it was to dreams of skin, and calls like brief snatches of song, quick and bright and dancing.
My spirit, perhaps, longed to be other than it was; when I awoke with the sun in the morning and stretched out my wings, a cloud of feathers burst around me, and my kin filled the air with their cries and the beating of their wings as they fled from me, in my ungainly human form.
By nightfall I had arrived at the door where he lived, had watched him enter with fish and firewood.
Fish are a tempting thing to a crane in wintertime; then let that be my reason. Let curiosity of the smoke rising pale into the night, carried up into the currents I knew so well – let that be my reason. For I was hungry, and cold, and curious.
In truth it was memory, memory with a pull like instinct. How do humans stand it, this rushing tide coming on like the call of migration, inflexible, inescapable, inexorable? It went through me like a tempest, even as I stood motionless in the snow, a tether pulling through my blood. If I had wings, I thought, I would spread them and glide to safety; but arms work only to hold, not to free.
So, then, this was my reason. I remembered his eyes, and his voice, the kindness of his hands, and they guided me through moonlight to his door. I entered the cage willing, pinning my world down smaller and smaller until it fit in his hands, and I did not know enough to count the cost.
He asked few questions, that first night, and I gave fewer answers. I was lost, I said. The land is new to me and I was frightened, but you have saved me, I told him, working my tongue carefully around the words, touching my lips as though my fingers might help shape the unfamiliar calls, so quick, falling and chasing one after the other, like water from a melting stream in spring.
He looked at me with those huge eyes (how odd it was to see through them, to see a horizon so narrow but ever receding, the world springing out into a new kind of life) as though he understood, and told me I was lost no more, that I was welcome in his home for as long as I would like.
I thought then, as I let him weave his fingers through mine, let him bind me to the ground with the touch of his hand, that time would be seasons beyond counting.
In truth, it was feathers. The vaned and the down, the black and the white; I missed all my plumage, as I had missed my shell as a hatchling, exposed suddenly where I had always before been protected.
To have skin – to be completely open to the elements, only the top of my head safely covered, only the barest scattering of down across the vast expanse that I resided in now – was, in those first days, my greatest torment. I covered myself as best I could, wrapped from head to toe in his blankets, looking like a chick peering out from under her mother's breast.
He noticed this; he saw my fear and did not touch me, but watched me day by day as I fingered the rough cloth, as I studied the pattern of its threads and thought of my gleaming wings, how the feathers unfolded and grew and fit together.
On the third day, he showed me the loom that had once belonged to his mother, in a tiny room at the back of the house barely large enough to contain it.
Weaving came easily, as though my hands had come into being for this purpose, as though they had always known how, even when they were stretched into wings, far above the earth.
His mother had left behind fine thread upon her death (some years ago, he had said soft, stroking the frame of the loom gently, so gently), and with this I began to work when he was out.
When the light began to fade I stopped to rest, and took a chance – for the room was closed, the windows high and small – to transform, to have a moment to stretch my wings (so large, I had nearly forgotten already; their tips brushed the walls on either side) and give myself a good shake and preen.
The next moment, I was a woman again, and laughing at my foolishness, for the air was filled with loose down, drifting in the dying light like snow. It settled on my human skin, fine and soft, like a new layer of life, the old blended to the new.
So I grasped it, and spun it out, and wove it through my cloth.
When he returned the following day, I had a cloak of white with black edging and a hood of red, and no longer went about trailing blankets.
“Very nice, lovely one,” he said, smiling at me in the glow of the twilight, his fingers lifting to brush at my hair (I did not flinch; I remembered those fingers, their deft kindness, and I did not pull away), coming away with a bit of me between them, all fine and white. “Make a wish,” he said, grinning, and let the wind take it, my tiny feather rising high and fast into the currents.
We were married the next day.
“No,” I said, trying to explain, groping with my hands as though they too could speak, as though he might understand through them my need. “I know you would never hurt me. You are gentle, and good.”
“Why then?” he whispered, and reached his hand out to touch mine, palm to palm, the tips of his longer fingers curling over mine, his thumb stroking light over my foremost finger.
“I feel so much,” I said back, lost already in the tickle of his thumb, of his fingers as they moved to stroke over my palm, his slightest motions raising prickles along my arms, my back. “When you touch me it is like wind, and the sun's heat, and blowing snow, all at once.”
“To feel is not a bad thing.” His fingers slid further, along the skin of my wrist, over the place where my heartbeat fluttered and jumped at his touch. My blood rushed, tingling, from the places he touched, through my arms to my head and heart, and I shivered, feeling my lips part though I could not have spoken in words for all the world.
“Do you want me to stop?” he asked. His fingers were stilled now, but waiting; a stillness I knew well from days spent hunting for fish. Anticipation.
“Your eyes are gold,” I told him, watching the light reflected in them, watching their corners crinkle, tender at my oddness of speech, even now. “Like the sun on the edge of setting.” I made a choice, and reached for the ties of my cloak, letting it fall to the bed beneath me. “Show me what it is to feel.”
We made a dance of it, each of us removing a piece of our covering bit by bit, until we were bare before one another.
I felt my feathers soft beneath me, cradling my fragile skin, and his heat above me, a blaze like fire kindled between us.
Perhaps skin was no bad thing at all, I thought later, drowsy, as I huddled myself into his, and felt his arms embrace me.
The snows receded, flocks of my smaller cousins came to roost and twitter above, flowers began to rise and bloom.
The currents of the air changed. I could feel them along my skin, feel them blowing my hair black about my face as they had once stirred the long feathers edging my wings.
I climbed because I could not fly; I had learned that if my bones were heavier, a weight to pin me to the earth, my limbs were still strong, arms powerful as wings to travel upwards, legs for thrust and steady support.
The smaller birds would burst in clouds from the trees when I came into their domain, their reproaches filling the air, but I did not call to them in return. I was too pleased to be free of the ground, to spread my arms and lift my face to the sun, to find center and balance in this body.
Always my husband would come, from the path to town or the shores of the lake, and always he would laugh up at me, white teeth flashing, eyes crinkling against the sun.
“Come down, lovely one,” he would call. “See, I have brought your favorite fish to eat!” Most nights it would be fish; sometimes a gift, a bit of thread or a string of pretty shells, or once, a wooden comb he had carved for the thick hair that tumbled, shining and wild, from my head. But mostly fish, which suited me well.
“But this is a good place to perch,” I would call back, teasing.
“As you please,” he would say. “If you prefer the company of birds to me,” and here there would always be a gesture, a pained clutching of that bit of chest where I knew his heart to lie, as I listened to its beating every night, “then I am a poor man indeed, and will be forever alone.”
I would laugh then, and climb carefully down. “You are a foolish one to think it. I have no feathers to fly, but hands and lips and tongue instead, and that makes you the better company.”
He would wait below, hands hovering to catch me, though my balance was sure; I never had need.
We had no money, he finally explained to me, though I did not understand, in truth. We had our home, and fish to eat, and one another for warmth; what more could there be? But the heaviness in his eyes told me this was a vital thing, that this money was a thing he could not do without, as I could not do without the wind and sunlight on my face.
“I will help,” I said, longing to aid him as he had aided me, to return the brightness to his glance. “How often have you praised my weaving, and told me it would fetch much of this money at the market?”
“You could make more?” he asked, doubtful, eying my cloak where it hung beside our bed, its colors blending grey in the dimness.
“If it will please you,” I said, covering his hand with mine, “and make you smile again, I will do so and be glad of it.”
He seemed then more himself, and wrapped my hand in his, letting his eyes fall to my lips, as he so often did when he was happy with me. “You always please me,” he said, and ran his free hand through my hair, settling firm at the back of my neck, sending prickles down my bones. “But it would take a weight from me, yes.”
“Then it shall be.” He set his lips to mine even as I smiled, and I pressed my hand to his chest, to feel the beat of his heart, insistent beneath my fingers.
My husband was stunned when I presented my work after only a few days spent weaving, but he asked me no questions, for I had extracted a promise, the only one I had asked for since we made our vows.
“I will do this thing for you, but you must swear never to look upon me when I am weaving,” I had told him, while we still lay together as one flesh that first night, my skin hot and sticky, my blood warm and shivering within.
“Why?” he had said, rolling over on his back, blowing at a bit of down that floated above his face, flicking at it impatiently with his fingers. “Are you afraid I will steal your secrets, and let them slip to the women of the town?” He smiled as he said it, so I would know he meant no harm, but I did not smile back.
“You must promise me,” I said. “All our lives long, I will never ask you for anything more, but this you must swear.”
The look in his eyes was suddenly wary, but in a moment it passed, and I let it go as a trick of the shifting moonlight.
“I promise,” he said, solemn and grave, and then he laughed, and was again the man I loved. “Do not worry, lovely one.” His arms surrounded me, and I nestled into him, curving the length of my body to fit his. “You will be safe with me.”
“I wish we might live for a thousand years,” he said to me one night, as we lay in our bed, in that dissolving bliss that comes of being joined. “Then we might always be this happy.”
I smiled against the skin of his shoulder and thought of the legends he had told me, that cranes lived on for years that were beyond my understanding of time, that they might grant wishes in paper form, that they brought good luck. Truthfully I thought these tales sweet, if foolish; cranes are made from feathers and flesh and bone, not paper, and no crane I had known had ever lived half so long, or granted a wish to anyone.
No crane, perhaps, but me.
I could not have said, then, if I had granted his wish or my own; nor could I have known that wishes do not last forever, and ours was already drawing to its end.
All the brightness had been leeched from my life, my horizon narrowed to the loom's frame, for however much I produced, there would always be a want for more.
“I am tired,” I whispered to my husband, the night after I had discovered my body could provide no more loose down, and only by painful tugging and plucking had I managed to gain enough. “I cannot weave so much. Surely it has been enough?”
“Enough?” he said, busy with his work, setting up a fine new screen in the corner of our rooms, painted bright with spring's cherry blossoms. “Of course. You have done wonderfully.” He brushed my cheek with an absent kiss as he passed, standing back and admiring the screen's effect. “Look at how beautiful our little house has become! No doubt it will be the envy of all before long. And you will be its greatest treasure.”
I smiled up at him, through no small effort; my eyes stung, and my bones felt heavy in my skin.
But he did not see; he passed me by into the main room, calling as he went, “Just another few lengths, my lovely one, I've already promised them. Surely you can manage that.”
“Yes,” I said, so soft he could not have heard, and twisted my hands together in my lap, feeling something warm and wet overflow my stinging eyes.
I tasted salt on my tongue, and crawled alone into our cold bed.
It would be unfair to claim he did not notice, for he did. The finest fish would appear on my plates (delicate porcelain now, translucent like a feather shaft), though I had barely the strength to eat; he would bring gifts of brightly colored slippers and shining ornaments for my hair and clothes, though I had never worn such things, or expressed any desire to.
And when these failed to cheer me, he would hold me, and stroke my brittle hair, and ask why I was not happy with all of our splendor, what would make me so.
I could say nothing; how could I, when the answer lay in telling him his happiness drained my own, that his desire was at the cost of mine, paid out in feathers and flesh and blood?
I would not tell, and so he discovered for himself.
Useless to speak of all but this:
“You have betrayed me,” I said, when I stood for the last time on swaying human feet, clutching at the threads dangling from the loom. “I am broken with it, and can stay here no more.”
“How was I so blind?” he said, speaking as to a ghost, for I had moved past him, and fled, into the cold winter light that promised release.
He called out other words as I flew; love was among them, and forgive; but the rush of the wind was loud, and I could no longer hear.
Neither did I return. Perhaps it is not so far from the truth, that a crane must be faithful, but so we must also expect faith in return.
I settled my battered body into the lee of a large tree, and built a nest to shelter in, to keep the winter winds from cutting through me where patches of skin showed through.
Certainly he knew I was there; he may have seen me in flight overhead, winging over the life that had once been mine.
My cloak appeared on the third day, hanging from the boughs when I returned from picking through the rice fields for gleanings.
I shredded it gladly with the sharp edges of my beak, and lined my nest well with it, and felt warm for the first time since summer.
The first paper crane appeared not long after that, nestled into the snow, looking damp and forlorn by the time I discovered it; I jabbed at it warily, wondering at its message.
In the end, I shredded it too, and made it part of my home.
Some things remain unchanged. His house is still there, small and lonely in its patch of woods, and my nest still lies between it and the shores of the lake.
He still leaves me paper cranes. Some days he brings other things – rice, or a fish or two – but mostly it is the cranes, small and fragile and at risk of blowing away if I fail to snatch them up quickly enough.
I cannot count so high as to know the number he has made; human things have slid from my mind as the seasons pass, and numbers always meant little to me, even then. There had been me, that was one, and he, and that was two, and all I had ever needed. Still, somewhere in the back of my mind, in the part that holds the human tether called memory, I think I know.
It is winter again now, and some days I stay in my nest, and wait for him to come. I do not fear him, and he is not shy of me, though he has changed, the hair on his head white as my feathers, his face lined and worn.
His eyes though, they are the same, still huge and dark and full of calm as he approaches, the snow creaking beneath his feet as it never does beneath mine. His fingers are the same too, even if they quiver a bit as he holds out what he has brought.
“It is the last,” he says, and sets the paper crane down at the edge of my nest, folded with care, with a spot of red at the top to match my own.
I cannot smile for him, not now, but I arch my neck and watch him carefully, and it seems enough.
He reaches out a hand then, slowly, so slowly, and strokes the top of my head with a trembling finger, and I shudder myself to find his touch is gentle still, and familiar, pulling at that tether in my mind, making my heart flutter and jump under my thick layer of down.
“I should have seen, lovely one,” he says, and sighs, and settles himself in the snow beside my nest, his back set to my tree.
I wonder at first if I should call out, if I should jab at him, beat him with my wings, anything to force him up and away, for I know well enough how ill suited humans are for a life beyond their walls.
But the wind blows, and shifts the paper bird, rustling soft against the remainders of its brothers in my nest, and the setting sun hits us, and turns his eyes to gold.
So instead I call out softly, and wait for those eyes to close, and settle myself in against the sharp winter winds.
In the morning, there is a ball of feathers where a man once sat; a ball that unfurls itself at my prodding, and stretches its wings, and calls to me in triumph.
We take wing together, and the thousandth paper crane flies with us, carried like down up into the vast currents of the air.