In the depths of darkness, halfway between midnight and dawn, a little girl awakens. She hears the grumble of the ocean tossing pebbles at the shore ... the drone of long-haul trucks on the highway down the hill ... the snores of her parents across the hall ... the whispers of the trees as they wave their branches at the wind. Light from the moon draws a diagonal across her bedroom wall.
It is cold. Lonely. The hour of fear. The child shivers and pulls the blankets closer around her. She listens to her own breathing for a few minutes, and tries to fall back to sleep. She fails, and frets, as a clock ticks.
Then from everywhere comes a rush, a sigh, a flicker --- and as she opens her eyes she sees a black shape begin to unfold above her. She catches her breath, shrinks, hears her heart pound in her ears as the dark thing expands.
Against the shadows before her there grows an angular form, darker even than the night. Its feathers rustle as it stretches its wings. Then it moves its head, and the faint light glints off an onyx eye and an obsidian-sharp beak. As the young girl watches a glow quickens around its edges and she sees it, dim but clear: a gigantic bird, perched on the foot of her bed, looming. She recognizes it and trembles.
"Black Crane," she whispers, "have you come for me?"
"Yes," the creature answers, as it shifts its position and folds its wings. "I am here to tell you my story." It tips its head to examine her, first with one eye, then the other. It begins:
Like you, one night I shivered --- all afraid, all alone. I was on an island. My island. My parents had carried me there the day before. They left me. They saw that my wings were too weak, would always be too weak, for me to fly on my own.
They knew that they could not forever tend me and feed me and carry me along with them, not as I grew. They knew that I could not live in a place with other birds, for among the others were those who would hurt me. I did not know then what it was to be a black crane, but they knew. My parents cried ... and then they left me.
I cried that night too. I was so small, so alone, so scared. The stars were so far away. I knew that they could not hear me or help me. No one could.
As the little girl listens to the story, her fears start to recede. Now her eyes widen and begin to fill with tears.
"How could they...?" she asks.
"They loved me," the Black Crane says.
That was the longest night of all time. Finally, as dawn came, I slept.
When I awoke it was mid-day, and I was hungry. I looked near the nest that my parents had made for me, and found nothing. I searched harder, and discovered food that they had left, concealed nearby.
As the days and weeks and months passed, I had to explore in an ever-widening circle. My parents had put many things there for me to find, things that I needed to survive --- each cache farther away and more cleverly hidden than the one before. They must have spent a long time preparing the island for me to live on before they brought me there.
Sometimes I despaired. But I knew that they loved me. And so I searched, and learned, and grew. But though I tried my wings again and again, they were never strong enough to lift me. I knew that they never would be.
After a great while I was able to live without the help of the gifts my parents had hidden. I figured out how to make and use new things from what was on the island. But I was always lonely, terribly lonely. I longed for something that I could not name.
One day the sky changed color. It became darker than I had ever seen it, and there came a storm --- but not with the ordinary rains and winds that I had known before. This was a great-grandmother of a storm that split the sky with lightning and tore trees from the ground and cast them on the ocean and vomited them back upon the land. This was a tempest that thundered its rage at the world, a cataclysm to drown all hope.
I was afraid, but suddenly my loneliness was greater than my fear. I climbed to the top of the highest hill on my island and unfolded my crippled wings.
"And you flew!" says the girl.
"No," replies the Black Crane.
With all the power of the wind, my wings were still too small and broken to carry me. I folded them over myself and lay there. I gave up, as I had never before done in all my years.
Finally, as all must, the storm passed. And finally, as all must, I got up. My island was in ruins. Nothing was left of the things I had gathered and built and arranged.
And then it was that, amidst the wreckage and the sodden mess, I saw a white feather, muddy and bent and broken.
My heart leaped inside me. I looked farther and harder, again and again, just as I had done so long ago when my parents had left me alone there to find what they had hidden. I found another feather. And then, as the red sun set, I found him, muddy and bent and broken.
All the force of the storm could not lift me --- and it could not help but lift him. His wings could not resist. Here was the White Crane that I had dreamt of in my loneliness, the one that I did not know and could never name. Here was my hope.
Since I could never go to find him, he had come to me.
And now he was almost dead. So I cleaned him. I warmed him. I covered him with my body, spread my feeble wings over him, and kept him alive with the strength of my spirit that night. It was a longer night even than the first I had spent on the island, and I was more afraid.
As the sun rose from the sea, he stirred.
The little girl has been holding her breath, and suddenly finds that she can move again. "Oh ..." she whispers.
"Yes," says the Black Crane.
I fed him and cared for him and watched over him as, day by day, he grew stronger. And we talked together, and watched the stars together, and opened our minds to one another.
He knew me and loved me and gave me all that he had, and all that I had I gave to him. We lived there in joy for years beyond numbering. And so did our children, and theirs.
And though still my wings could never lift me, yet every day I soared.
The Black Crane pauses in her story. Now as the girl wipes away tears of happiness and looks again, she suddenly sees that the great bird is changed. Instead of huge and terrible, her aspect is delicate. Her wings hang frail, like spiderwebs in the moonlight. Stars shine in her eyes, and she speaks again.
My White Crane and I grew old together. Finally, the time came for him to die. He left me then, not alone, but forever with his love. I go now to join him.
The Black Crane stands still, for a moment that seems to last an age. Then she continues, so softly that the girl must strain to hear, "On my way to him, I have come here for you. I bring you a gift."
The child's eyes open wider. She waits.
"My gift to you," the Black Crane says, "is only this: that you too shall find, beyond all hope, the joy that you have not yet dared to dream. Like me, you will pass through fear and pain and sorrow --- to discover love. This, I promise."
The little girl closes her eyes.
Moonbeams creep across her room. They gleam for a time on the wheelchair by her bedside, then move to caress the machines that keep her alive. Bellows rustle, like the wings of a bird. Motors mumble, like distant voices. Starlight scatters from glass-covered dials.
And outside her window, far above the boundless ocean, a pair of cranes fly together toward the dawn.
Thank you for this.