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Fiction: Crane, contd

A journey through the sky and the mind, part 2

06·28·2015

Fiction: Crane, contd

A journey through the sky and the mind, part 2

06·28·2015

“Crane, contd” is the second part of the short story by Chinese author Ma Er. You can find the first part here.

But still, its body couldn’t avoid making violent tremors and so the wings were required to act as a stabilizing mechanism. They looked like two kites doing their best to maintain relative stability as the crane rocked to the left and to the right, allowing it to sail, ever soaring through the air. This beautiful flight looked just like a dance, but one that involved tremendous risk.

He understood that flying at this height was necessary—the crane was approaching a blockade constructed of many mountains. Only by catching the rising air currents could it make it over the rows of summits. But by instinct he preferred flying at low altitudes. That was when he could free himself from the fetters of angst and lean out of the window into the screaming winds to scan the distance. He could see plains, rivers, ponds, and low hills and never grew tired of looking at these things.

Once in a while there were people on the hills, standing there like statues—always a lone figure. That moved him and reminded him of him. So he stretched out of the window as far as he could to get a closer look, but he never saw more than a fuzzy silhouette. He couldn’t tell if that person could see him—this spectacle of a huge bird carrying a house. It was likely that nobody could miss it.

But that was not certain. Even as the crane flew lower it was still far from the ground and the people on the hills still only looked like little black and white spots. They would not be able to tell what kind of bird this was; much less perceive the house it carried. There were moments when he felt strange. He could not understand what he had become—a cartoon character, or some pitiful creature living in a real dream world. He might not be any better than a parasitic lice lodged in bird feathers; even though his senses were cognizant of far more than those of a louse.

The crane’s occasional landings were bland. Most of the time it landed in barren swamplands. Sometimes he didn’t even dare leave the house. He was afraid that the ants crawling out of the swamps would bite him to death. Some of the better landings, on waterfronts, were nonetheless lifeless scenes. The shores and water were strewn with the white bones of animal carcasses. The landing he remembered best was on the edge of a clear stream. He caught a shiny, silver fish in his hands and played with it. The crane walked over, stretched out its neck and pecked the fish out of his palms. It put the fish on the ground and pecked it a few more times. It kept pecking it until it was bloody and raw, but didn’t even eat it.

When they took flight, he stayed in the window to watch the fish. It had long died, but it appeared to him to have transformed into another kind of animal—a kind of nameless, immortal life form. What he saw transpire was evidence of this: When the crane had just taken off, he saw it was a bloody fish with its tangled entrails showing. As the crane climbed, the scene gradually changed. A new form emerged from within the dead fish. It was no longer a repulsive red and black carcass. It appeared as an abstract black and red shape. The crane created a new kind of life. His anger toward the bird quickly dissipated.

At night, in the dark, he would often wonder: had he become the crane’s prisoner? The slave image lingered in his thoughts, causing his sleep to become restless. The crane never opened its mouth or said a word, but from its black, opaque eyes he could discern that it was thinking. What it thought—he couldn’t know.

One evening, they landed in a patch of weeds. Deep in the night, he heard the crane crying in pain. He woke to it rocking violently and in the confusion he leapt out of the window.

Just then, the commotion stopped. He saw the crane trembling and slanted to the ground with a mangled lump of bloody flesh at its rear end.

At daybreak, he saw that it was a bird with a build similar to that of the crane. But its body was much smaller and it did not appear to be the product of birth, as it did not have the form of a newly hatched chick, even though there was blood spattered all over the crane’s backside.

This time they rested for a few days. The crane needed time to regain its strength. It was the longest he had spent on land since they had first taken flight and he was thrilled. He scoured a nearby piece of land and climbed every hill he could reach. He discovered a maze of narrow trails that crisscrossed through the hills and wilderness but never found out where they led. Every time he followed a trail for a certain distance, a powerful force would grip him and urge him to go back from where he came. Perhaps he was afraid to leave any signs of the crane too far behind.

When the crane finally flew again, he noticed that the small trails formed the huge image of a bird. They were actually one trail, with no beginning or end that meandered through the hills and wilderness, continually crossing and parting as if it was some kind of disorganized game.

So, all that searching had been in vain. He had to be pleased that he hadn’t explored the trails any further, even if he felt a faint regret. He wondered if perhaps things on the ground were a different rendition.

During this flight, the crane changed. It shrunk a little. This opened up even more room in his house and obviously that was a good thing, but he began to question it. Their journey continued, but now covered in a shadow of uncertainty. He needed to think hard about this.

He truly desired to know where the crane was flying, but of the things he could learn, that was the least likely. Of all his options, the best choice was to lean out of the window and watch the crane for long periods of time. The crane rarely lowered its head to look at him and he did his best not to alarm it. But he would study its every movement with more care: every flap of its wings and the gentle turning of its long neck.

It was getting smaller and smaller now. After a month it was only two thirds of its previous size. That slowed its speed and tamed its movements. He sat in the room and could feel his chest swelling. It felt like there was something that was going to burst from inside him.

One day, as his chest ballooned, tremors shook the house. He ran to the window and looked outside anxiously. The room was approaching the ground. The crane was preparing to land. It was only noon. The crane had never landed at this time of day before.

Outside, uneven shadows swayed over his window. A few days earlier, he had experienced a vague premonition and covered his window with a piece of translucent bamboo paper in order to keep out any outside rays or scenery.

After another violent tremor, the house landed on the ground. The shadows outside grew more distinct. A few of them gathered on the glass, effusing a red-white hue. Familiar sounds and voices entered the room. Even if he had long forgotten them, the last thing he wanted to hear at that moment was those sounds and voices. Still, they crept in through every crack in the house. He could almost see their faces: small, tapered faces with sparse white beards on the edges. When a wind blew they floated around his room, floating into every corner. He sulked in his room for the rest of the day. In the evening, the sounds and voices drifted away and everything fell silent.

He slowly opened the window and saw an avenue of cold light that was wide and as straight as a pen. It had a mirror—like surface made of glossy stone tiles that stretched into the distance. On either side there were countless low houses in a build similar to his. They all had their lights out, only allowing clean moon rays to sprinkle the edges of their roofs.

He jumped from the window as softly as he could and climbed up the crane’s belly, slowly making his way onto its back. He then followed its curved neck all the way to its long, sharp beak.

The crane opened its eyes. From atop the beak, he looked into them and saw a plain stretching infinitely. The crane stood up. Towering above the road and houses, it began to gently beat its wings. He saw two dried leaves starting to whirl around its body. They were huge, solid, and looked as though if they were to strike him it would be fatal. He gripped the crane’s beak firmly.

The crane slowly rose. A whirlwind pounded against him and shattered the two dry leaves. He could see the shinning road start to narrow. The outlines of a city appeared underneath him, and then gradually dissolved from his sight.

On this flight, he was deathly cold and saw high mountains up close for the first time. As they passed over them, the crane tilted its wings and looked like an arrow flying at an upward angle shooting past the jagged peaks. Terrified and thrilled he crawled onto the crane’s back and lowered himself into its feathers for warmth. He heard loud blasts ringing around his ears, as if there was a giant foot kicking him over and over. Eventually he slid down the crane’s feathers like a drop of water and returned into the house.

After that, the crane continued shrinking. Its flying became increasingly unsteady. Every so often it would drop vertically from the air and land in a bustling neighborhood or at the mouth of a tall chimney. He also endured the shadows endlessly returning to sway on his window, the blaring city sounds and frightening gloom. The farther ahead they flew, the denser the city became. It was also getting larger.

He felt as though he had reached the end of a road. The boundary was the closed window that would either open to a straight passageway or a deep chasm. Actually, the passage and the chasm were the same. The passage was a level trap, the chasm a vertical road.

There was a problem. He couldn’t open the window. As long as the shadows remained he was like a mouse backed into the corner of the room who could only slip out late in the night. The city blocks they landed in were always filled with a maze of roads running in all directions and chasms surrounded the chimney mouths. The strange thing was that no matter where they were, daytime was constantly filled with shadows. It was as though they existed in every corner the sunlight reached. It was only by flying into the sky that their presence could be escaped.

The torment lingered, and the crane continued shrinking. Eventually, one day he discovered it had returned to its original size. It could only fly around in the room. Having lost the crane’s support, the house dropped and shaved the dense crowns of a few trees before it made a smooth landing.

At first, everything was a quiet and that brought him some relief. But soon he started to see the many long and short shadows on his window. Their familiar sounds and voices seeped into the room, attacking him from all directions.

Feeling wretched, he was determined not to leave the room. Even at nightfall he wouldn’t open the window. He imagined it would be a grisly, hellish world. All he hoped was for the crane to return to its giant form and rise off with the room once more. But the crane had resumed its old habits. It fluttered around the room, showing no trace of its transformation.

So, they were each other’s prisoner. The crane could not take him flying and he could not let it fly away. He sat dumbstruck on his bed, gaping at the wall, when the crane leapt up beside him. Now it was the crane that made the effort to observe him. It tilted its head, locking one glossy black eye with his. It suffused a small cold light that filled his field of vision and then transformed into a glittering gem. He could now only see the layer of gleam on the eye’s surface and was no longer able to look into it. The two were left to face one another in silence. He closed his eyes and everything went black. He opened them and his big eyes met with its little eye. Occasionally, the crane would take off mischievously, causing the house to jump off the ground and send him a jolt of surprise. Once the excitement passed, the days felt longer and even more miserable.

Seeing the crane standing at the head of his bed entranced in stillness, he was able to relax and return to his own thoughts. He watched the shadows outside his window slanting and getting longer by the day. He knew that some unavoidable changes had taken place. The shifting outside and stagnation inside piled together, deepening his anxiety. He worried that in the days ahead that critical point would be reached and he would be forced to open the window.

He sat in distress, with much time passing until his thoughts had hardened. He noticed a long, hard beak sticking out beneath his eyes. He barely sensed it. The change felt natural. It was not until his neck and body had grown thick plumage that he was startled. But by then the process was irreversible. He stood in front of the dressing mirror day after day, watching the transformation in hysteria, stretching his unfledged wings into the room and flapping them. At the other end, the crane stood at the head of the bed watching him with its glossy black eyes. It had a pure yet arrogant air as it observed this person who resembled it more by the day.

In the end, he transformed into a crane. And one day he used his inflated body to take the house flying. The first time he went up he had climbed high, for he rushed to pass every cloud he saw. Some time later, he was picked up by a rising air current and soared even higher. He saw a mountain towering before him.

The current rushed him along. High ground flew towards him. Only now did he perceive the danger. But it was too late. The current thrust him at the wall of the mountain. The house shattered. He saw a swarm of debris and furniture plunging to the ground behind him. Within the mass he saw the large dressing mirror and his reflection diving to the ground behind him. Inside the reflection he saw the large dressing mirror and his reflection inside it—one distraught, tumbling man.

As he fell, he was thinking:

What happened to that crane?

 – Translated by Nicholas Richards (芮尼克)


“Crane” is a story from our latest issue, “Startup Kingdom”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.