Grey Heron Nights 2: Gathering the stories

If you creep out down to the river in the light of a full moon, you’ll see her there, Old Crane Woman. She’ll be standing on one leg, still as can be, and you’ll know her by her frayed grey and white dress and her long, thin arms with the sharp, sticking-out elbows. She’ll be staring into the river, for Old Crane Woman knows that inspiration comes always at the side of the water, there on the edge, in that troubling threshold place between one element and another.

Don’t startle her: she’ll be gone in a flash. If you wait there, just as still as she is, for as long as it takes, maybe you’ll hear her whispering a story. Old Crane Woman, she knows all the stories; she is gathering them in. She knows all the stories of her sisters; the same old stories, told through all the ages. She is tired of those stories. She has gathered them up and stored them safely away in her crane bag and she will not let them out again – no, she shrieks suddenly into the night sky, throwing back her head and shrieking it, no more stories like this. Her sisters need new stories now. And if you should question her, if you should doubt her, here is the tale she will tell you; here is the story she will scream into the long dark.

The Crane Wife

Once upon a time, in a land far away from this land in miles but not far enough away in culture, there lived a poor man. He was a lonely man as well as poor, for his wife had died in childbirth many years previously. No-one remembered exactly when, and it seemed to the people of his village that he’d always been alone. They’d see him sometimes, leaving his house at the very edge of the village, wandering off into the woods to hunt, or to fish in the river and the lake. He wore his loneliness like a hair shirt, and never joined in the village games, nor smiled at the children playing on the green. And yet there was no harm in him, they said. He kept himself to himself, and he left well enough alone.

One night, in the still heart of winter and at the cold dark of the moon, he opened his front door to fetch some more wood for his meagre fire. But there on his doorstep he found an injured crane, with an arrow protruding from the soft flesh on its breast. Overcome with sadness and pity, for the crane was a beautiful bird, the man reached down and gently lifted it up, and took it inside and placed it by the fire. He piled on more wood and built the fire up and carefully, so carefully, he removed the arrow from the crane’s breast. He gave it water and he gave it fish, and over the next days he slowly nursed it back to health. And on the morning when the crane stood straight and walked to the door for the first time and uttered its harsh, wailing cry, he opened the door and set it free.

The man mourned long and hard that day, for he had been without a companion for too long, and he had come to enjoy having the crane to care for. That night, his fire burned down low, and when he could no longer ignore the cold in the cabin (for he had eaten deep into his store of winter wood to build the fires which kept the crane warm) he opened the front door to fetch some fuel. And there on his doorstep he found a beautiful woman. Although her hair was grey, she was young, and she was dressed in a gown of grey and white made of the finest, most silken cloth. The man took her into his cabin, and made up the fire, and when the morning came he walked into the village and made arrangements for them to be married.

They were happy enough in the cabin on the edge of the village, but they were poor, and it was hard to make ends meet. Although the woods gave them food enough for the table and fuel enough for the fire, and his beautiful new wife smiled as she cooked and cleaned and cared for him, it seemed to the man that now he was married, they needed other things too. He wished for a horse so that he could sit his wife upon it and lead her into town and show her the fine shops and the fancy taverns. He wished for some fine pots for the table, so that when the village elders came calling (for everyone came to the cabin now; they loved to sit and drink tea with his beautiful wife) he could serve them from cups that were not cracked and chipped. He wished for some clothes that were not ragged around the edges, and some soft velvet curtains for the windows and doors. He wished for a feather mattress, so that his wife might be warmer and more comfortable in their bed. He worried and worried, and he would not let be, until one day the woman told her husband that she was a spinner and a weaver, and that if he would like, she could make some beautiful cloth which he could sell at the market in the nearby town. The cloth would be as fine as silk, white and grey, like the fabric of the beautiful gown that she had worn when first she came to him. But there was one condition, she said: he must never watch her while she was weaving the cloth.

The cloth was made and sold, and for a while the man was happy, for it had sold for a fine price, and now he was able to afford some of the things he had longed for. But after a few weeks, he began thinking again about all the things they could have, and all of the ways in which he might please her, if only his wife might make a little more cloth. And he asked her, and so she made some more, but first she made him promise that he would never watch her while she was weaving the cloth. And after a few weeks again the man wanted more, and then more, and as the months passed, the little cabin on the edge of the village began to change, and soon it was one of the finest houses in the village. There was a horse in the paddock behind the house, and fine new pots for the table, and soft velvet curtains for the windows and doors, and a fine new feather mattress rested upon the new brass bedstead. The man had a new fishing rod, and fine new clothes that were not frayed and ragged at the edges. His wife wove and wove and the cloth came and came, and though she had grown pale of late, he believed her to be happy enough. How could she not be happy, now that their lives were so fine?

As time passed, still the man urged his wife to make more cloth. If only they had more, he said, they could move away from this poor village and into the town. They could have a fine town house and all manner of fine books and furniture; they would have servants, so that she would not need to cook and clean any more; they could be people of substance, and walk the streets with pride. And when he spoke like this, his wife would look longingly out to the woods and think of the river and the lake where she spent what little free time she had, but he did not see, and so she would go into the tiny cubicle at the back of the cabin and she would begin again to weave. The man was so pleased with his new life and so full of his great plans for the future that he did not notice how she grew paler and thinner, sadder and ever more tired. When she fainted once in the early morning as she slipped out of bed to get to her work, he asked her coyly if she thought she might be expecting a child. She shook her head, and tears came into her eyes, but she wiped them away and went into the cubicle to weave.

It had taken a while, but the man became curious. The cloth was so fine, and so beautiful, and it fetched such a high price at the market. He began to wonder how she did it, and what she made it from. He began to wonder whether they might not be able to recruit others to spin the cloth as well, and then they would be rich and happy indeed! And so he crept out of bed, stepped slowly down the stairs, and peeked through the gap in the curtain which screened the little cubicle from the rest of the cabin.

There, at the loom, was a beautiful white and grey crane – the image of the crane that he had once taken in, and healed. The crane was plucking feathers from its breast, and where it plucked the skin was open and bleeding and raw, and the crane wept large bright tears with every feather that it plucked, but still the crane plucked, and wove the beautiful feathers into the finest, most silken grey and white cloth in the world. The man could hardly believe what he was seeing. He took a sudden step back, and trod on the curtain, and down it tumbled and crashed to the ground. Startled, the crane turned, and saw him, and for a moment the air flickered and flamed, and he thought that the figure that he saw there in the cubicle was the slender figure of his beautiful wife. But it was only for a moment, and as he stepped back from the doorway the crane flew out, out into the room and out through the open window and up into the skies. And as she vanished into the pink light of dawn, the man heard her harsh but fading call.

‘No More! No More!’

And if you are standing there still, at the end of Old Crane Woman’s story, you’ll see her turn. Slowly, she’ll turn, but before she turns fully, before you can see her face, she’ll straighten her crooked elbows and lift her long bony arms into the air and she’ll fly away. And if you listen carefully, very, very carefully, you’ll hear her fading shriek as she flies into the long, cold dark.

No more! No more!

6 thoughts on “Grey Heron Nights 2: Gathering the stories

  1. Many thanks Sharon for this wonderful and very moving story full of magic, wisdom and poetry. I’m still under its spell, like when I was a little girl and could not shut my book of fairy tales.

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  2. This is a moving tale, though I guessed how it would resolve in his not being satisfied and that he would not be able to overcome his curiosity and his transgression would be found out, the specifics of the ending still left me with tears in my eyes. Thank you.

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  3. So beautiful, just absolutely exquisite. I must confess, I realised a third of the way through that it was going to have an unhappy ending, and I dreaded it, but I loved the telling so much that I kept on reading. I’m so glad I did, it was sad but endlessly lovely.

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