The Grateful Crane
by Sayuri Ayers
Photo: Linda Gould
As the television blares downstairs, I huddle in my office. Within the frame of my laptop screen, the red-crowned cranes dance. Pale beaked, they cry out into the Hokkaido sky. Their white breath rises from the pixelated glow-- the chill of their December day surges into my tiny room.
When I was seven, my father gave me a book of Japanese tales. It opened in his hands, whispering of his homeland. The ocean rasped between its pages, beckoning me to Wakayama’s shores.
Long after bedtime, I curled under blue-green flannel covers with a flashlight, reading the tale of “The Grateful Crane.” A farmer trudges through the snow, following the cries of a wounded animal. He finds a crane, its leg caught in a snare. As the crane thrashed, the farmer bends, slashing the taut strands. With a rush of wings, the crane soars over the bare fields.
Days later, a maiden appears at the farmer’s home. Her slim body, stark as winter stars. Garbed in a white kimono, she casts herself at his feet, begging to stay. Stunned, the farmer takes her into his arms.
When I met my husband, I was recovering from an abusive relationship. After a few dates, he held my hand, smiling as he ran his fingers over my knuckles. Later, as we lay in the darkness, he caressed the bloom of my face. I gazed at him, asking silently, Am I lovely?
His voice rung out from the shadows, “Beautiful, beautiful!”
Alone in my office, I continue to scroll through nature videos. As a pair of cranes leap into the air, the narrator wonders if they dance out of joy. In the glow of my computer screen, I wonder if their lifetime bond is formed from the desire to outlive winter.
In the Japanese story, frigid winds tear into the sides of the farmer’s house. His face tightens with worry as he measures the last rice into a lacquer bowl. “I’m sorry,” he tells the maiden. “I’m afraid we will starve.”
That night, as her husband sleeps, the maiden slips out of bed into a room containing an ancient loom. Under the moonlight, the maiden transforms--folds of her white kimono unfurl into the pinions of a crane. Kneeling, she tears feathers from her body, feeding them into the loom.
At daybreak, she emerges from the room as a maiden. She places the bolt of woven cloth at her husband’s feet. Ivory and crimson shimmer through the folds of fabric. “Dear husband, please take this cloth and sell it” she says. “We won’t be hungry again, but you must promise never to enter my weaving room.”
During our first year of marriage, my husband and I lived in a row house. To pay the rent, I taught at two different universities and my husband worked as an administrative aid. Each day, I returned home and swept the uneven wooden floors and scrubbed yellowing kitchen counters.
In late winter, I began filling our house with thrift store finds-- ceramic owl containers, yarn-embroidered pictures of windmills and mushroom cottages. Feeling more tired than usual, I took a pregnancy test.
Double pink lines flooded the plastic pane of the test strip. I shuddered remembering our nearly over-drafted bank account, instant macaroni dinners. What are we going to do? I thought.
In the video, a flute lilts in the background as a chick nestles in the feathers of its mother. The female crane reaches into her pinions, grooming the chick. The camera shifts to the river bank, the crane clasping a minnow in her beak. Bending, she offers it to her chick. The sun gleams off feathers, the dying minnow.
In some versions of the Japanese tale, the crane-wife bears a child. Under pale moonlight, she rocks her son. He glows under a moonbeam. His hair, dark as the tip of a crane’s wing. She croons in the voice of water lapping in the marshes, fish flitting among stones.
After the birth of our son, I was hospitalized for severe depression. My husband visited me each day. Once, he brought origami paper embossed with autumn leaves, swirls of crimson and pink cherry blossoms.
We sat at the bolted-down table and creased colored sheets in silence. At the end of his visit, we gathered our creations into piles: cranes, hearts, and nested boxes. I gazed at him wondering, Are you afraid, like me?
The video narrator’s voice breaks through my memories. As the cranes float through the falling snow, the narrator laments their near disappearance a century ago. Now, with the help of Hokkaido’s farmers, the number of cranes has risen to nearly a thousand. In the camera’s frame, a farmer lugs a bucket of corn to the edge of a flock. He tosses glinting kernels and the cranes gather. Grateful cries fill the air. The farmer’s sun-marked face reminds me of my father, his cheeks also tanned and lined by seasons spent in his backyard garden.
In the story, the crane’s husband and child fall asleep, as the crane labors in the other room. Pulling out feather after feather, she leans over her handiwork. Her tears mingle with the cloth, falling into the woven blossoms. The petals drift, hovering in the gleaming threads of salt and blood. Clack, clack, clack. She yanks out more of her pearly plumes.
The first month after my son’s birth was a blur of weeping and depression. I was admitted into the mental ward before he was even a week old. Each night, I tossed and turned, my arms aching to hold him. I will get better, I promised, imagining his small sleeping face. I will survive this, then return to you.
My parents helped care for our son while my husband worked and visited me at the hospital. I imagine my father rocking our drowsy infant, spinning Japanese tales: “Momotaro,” the Peach Boy, “Tanuki,” the Shape-shifting Badger. He would never tell my son the story of “The Grateful Crane.” “It’s too sad, especially for such young ears,” he would say.
In the videos, a crane eyes a red fox that prowls the edges of the flock. The crane leaps, pummeling the air with its dark wings. Cowering, the fox slinks away. Searching through the whirl of white and black, the crane seeks out its mate. It reaches for her, slender beak tracing the curve of her neck. Beautful, beautiful! he cries.
The crane-wife dreams of the loom, the clack of its gaping maw. Even as she sleeps, she tears at her arms and chest, reaching for her husband. The farmer wakes to his wife’s cries, feathers caught between his fingers. From the other room, the loom creaks. Its voice intertwines with the chorus of wind and ice tearing at the walls of the house.
One day, my husband stormed through the hospital, raging at the doctors. He cried out: “Why aren’t you doing anything? Why isn’t she better?” I imagine his clenched hands, his bloodied cuticles and scarred knuckles.
On the screen, the whirl of wings fills my office. The cranes glide across the frozen fields of Kushiro. Winter after winter, they gather, waiting for the farmers to scatter grain. Bound to the farmers, the narrator says, cranes remain in Hokkaido year-round. “If they had a choice,” I wondered, “would they leave?”
I remember the crane-maiden. Chanting, the loom demands more of her body. Peeling the last of her plumage from her bloodied back, the crane weaves white and red through the loom’s teeth. She admires the cloth the shades of sunset over the marshes. With a bang, the shoji doors slide open. Her intruding husband stands in the doorway, his mouth agape.
“You broke your promise!” the crane cries out, covering her bloodied body. The bolt of cloth tumbles to the floor, its unfinished edges fluttering.
“I’m sorry, but I must leave,” the crane tells her husband. In a flurry of battered wings, she soars above the farmer.
My husband, I’m sorry for what you had to bear. At work, your head buzzed with customers’ demands as you imagined me curled up on a plastic mattress. When you visited me at the hospital, you coaxed me to eat, bringing Thai food and ice cream. The origami boxes you folded for me contained tiny hearts and cranes-- gifts of light, a chorus of wings.
After each visit, you returned to an empty bed. I wonder about the nights when you woke to our son’s cries. Holding him in the darkness, did you call out for me? Did you wait for me to answer?
As my computer whirls, a crane leaps into the air, its dark wings brushing its mate. They sing into the darkness, hovering at its border together. Closing the screen, I sit in silence, tears gathering in my eyes.
Even as a child, I disliked the end of “The Grateful Crane:” the farmer and child crying into the night sky as the crane soared from them. How, I used to wonder, could you leave the ones you love?
After suffering through severe depression, the rending of my mind, I understand. Closing my eyes, I rebuild the tale. The farmer bundles himself and his son in his wife’s unfinished cloth. He trudges for miles, following the silhouette of a lone crane.
Finally, he collapses in a frozen field. In the waning moonlight, the farmer and son wake to the crane’s calls. The cloth draped over them transforms into gleaming feathers. Spreading newly-formed wings, they soar to meet her. “We love you,” they cry. “We love you!”
When I returned from the hospital, I held my son, watching him sleep. Smiling, I kissed his small nose and cheeks, and rocked him until my arms ached. That night, my husband held me close once I slipped into bed. Don’t leave me, he seemed to say. As we fell asleep, he grasped my hand, placing it on his chest. The steady drum of his heart thumped against my palms.
Now, I think of the book of Japanese tales my father gave me. Like many of my keepsakes, the book has vanished-- shuffled between the pages of my childhood and early twenties. Scouring the internet, I find a copy. I scroll through scanned images of the book, drawings of “Momotaro,” “Tanuki,” “The Grateful Crane.”
In one picture, the crane-wife kneels, offering her husband a bolt of cloth. In my mind, the silk unfurls, revealing a golden path, weaving through landscapes of ravines and shadows. The cloth gleams in my hands, unfinished strands intertwining with my fingers.