by Corrina Carter
Two cranes walk with adept, stilt-like care through the tea-blue marsh water. The youngest, clothed yet in the chestnut feathers of youth, raises her face to the wind, the slender head reptilian in its streamlined splendor. She pauses: her companion, his coat slick and white as prayer, flanks her. In the half-light of daybreak, the dark patches on their cheeks, below the dull-bright eyes, shatter the paleness of grey clouds and grey lakes. Beyond the birds, beyond the movement of yellow, yellow cattails, morning shifts in the sky, and splintered amber sun-glass warms the world. The red crane rustles her wings, arches her skinny neck, and seems to step from the water and walk upon it. It is an illusion, brief as a shadow on summer grass. These are earthly creatures, after all. Yet in the simple beauty of such an animal, myth and reality often merge, in grace, in elegance, in a wildness that no glory of civilization can ever achieve. The bird is no prophet, but there is a holiness in her sculptured movements nonetheless.
And that is why her suitor follows her like a silent wraith, hungrily, drinking in her loveliness with unquenchable vigor. She is young, very young, to be on the verge of taking a mate, but her admirer is undeterred. He sees only the sweeping curves of her body, the profound black eyes, the perennially windswept feathers. Her bugling cry is softer, deeper than most, a voice that sings of the haunted places of land and water.
“Foxtail,” the male addresses her at length, “can you feel the thaw in the air?”
Foxtail shivers. “Oh, Sedge, I can still feel winter in my bones. But, yes, I have noticed that spring is with us now.”
“Spring is a gentle time, Foxtail,” Sedge persists. “The time to choose mates. You will take a partner, won’t you?”
Foxtail glances over narrow shoulders coyly. “Maybe. But, you know, not unless I find the right bird.” Her eyes meet Sedge’s, and she notices, for the first time, how extraordinarily bright his red crown shines in the diluted morning light.
“Am I that bird?” Sedge asks.
Foxtail smiles, half-amused, half-tender. “I don’t know, Sedge. Are you?”
“Foxtail,” he begins, until longing strangles his words. An ancestral music stirs within him. Sedge bows, acknowledging his partner of choice, and flares his black-tipped wings. His neck arches; his head lifts to the sky, beak open, silently spilling his love. He spins, the turns, he dips, he dances. He is an actor, performing histrionics of blood and heart and instinct. The roiling marsh water ripples in his wake; the duckweed trembles under the half-muddied, half-looking-glass surface. Abruptly, he stops, panting. Foxtail looks at him with critical, appraising eyes.
Sedge sighs heavily. She is not impressed. But the, almost imperceptibly, Foxtail inclines her head and sinks into a curtsy. And she, too, is dancing, bending to the left, to the right, her wings thrust before her, stiffly yet seamlessly. Together, the cranes circle, trumpeting their joy, the strange and beautiful choreography of their love glorious in a grey universe of reeds and eddies.
Foxtail senses life stirring beneath her.
“Sedge,” she cries, musically as ever, “it’s hatching.”
In a moment, her mate is beside her, anticipation swimming in his gaze. Both husband and wife stare intently at the quivering, mud-colored egg, the result of months of bonding, of painstaking care. A hairline fissure traces the shell, and presently a tiny orange beak appears, hammering determinedly at the veneer. Sedge and Foxtail exchange breathless glances. Foxtail lowers he face to the egg, cooing encouragement to the chick within. Sedge notices with dull surprise, in the suspended manner of all great events, that the white feathers of maturity have almost completely encroached Foxtail’s once red frame; his partner has come of age in time to raise their offspring.
“Come, little one,” Foxtail groans, as if she is the one exerting an effort, “almost there.”
“One last push,” Sedge gasps.
In a ball of crimson down, the baby crane tumbles into the world. His tiny face automatically scrunches up in shock at the brightness of this new place. But his parents are there to adore him, their distinctive scents and voices programmed into his memory. His mother smells of fragrant, floating lilies. His father whispers of briny cattails and lonely winds. Both his parents, he knows innately, are part of him. Somehow, he senses, they possess him.
“He is beautiful,” Sedge smiles down at his son.
Foxtail agrees, “He is the loveliest child I have ever seen.”
“Because he is your son,: Sedge nuzzles his mate.
“No,” Foxtail returns the caress. “Because he is our son.”
Rush, as the baby would come to be called, snuggles closer to his parents. His name is perfect, because he was conceived in rushes, and because he is the product of the rush of emotion that brought his mother and father together.
If Rush had a firmer grasp of such emotions at this stage in his journey, he would call the joy he feels in the presence of his family love. For that is what it is. Animals, like people, care for one another, deeply. They think, they lust, they mourn. It is only a human inability to understand them that renders notions like this preposterous, and destroys everything.
Rush cuts through the water adroitly, scanning the marsh for frogs. Distantly he hears the laughter of his parents as they try to snap up elusive little minnows in the shallows. Rush is still small, and never strays too far from his mother and father’s sides, but he, like most young male cranes, occasionally senses migration in his blood, a restlessness that drives him from the nest perhaps for hours at a time. But he always comes back, relieved to find everything in its proper order. His mind does not yet have the capacity to imagine life without Foxtail and Sedge, and, for the time, he does not have to.
Back at the nesting grounds, Foxtail and Sedge are splashing happily along the banks. Although still young adults, they are far removed from childhood. Yet the dizzy warmth of the sun has induced in the pair the liveliness of youth, and they are playing, as they did in the heady days of courtship the previous spring. In their ecstasy, they fail to pick up the crackle of cattails, the acrid smell of polyester, the lingering cigarette air.
When the first BB-gun pellet crumples Sedge’s beak, Rush is almost a mile from the nesting ground, momentarily underwater, pursuing a tadpole. By the time he surfaces, shaking moisture from his feathers, fastidiously, like a cat, the second shot has worked its path through Foxtail’s beautiful reptilian head. The bodies tremble in the water, wings flapping spasmodically, epileptic, twitching even when the eyes have filmed over. There are no natural phenomena, heavenly signs, or sudden feelings of alarm to alert Rush to the enormity of the events. When, his hunger satisfied, he begins to swim homeward, he does so with no urgency. If he thinks, he thinks of frog spawn or tiny silver fish, or the way the wind is sighing in the fanwort.
Rush reaches the nesting ground, and, at last, he knows there is something wrong. It is the depth of the silence that chills him.
“Mother,” he starts, his voice tiny as the gnats now gathering over the dusk-ribbed waters. “Father?”
Rush finds them, in the shallows, broken, like forgotten trophies. Not killed for sustenance, nor even for sport. Foxtail and Sedge are victims to a whim, an arbitrary decision to kill, not because killing is fun, but because there is nothing else to do, and in such cases, why not take a shot at anything that moves?
Rush does not know what to do, feel, or think. He is blank. He is nothing. He is a tiny whooping crane without parents. In the bigness of things, he is not important, a stitch in nature’s tapestry. Only his parent’s deaths were not natural; metal tearing flesh is not natural. In a matter of weeks, without survival skills taught by a supervising mother and father, Rush will be dead. Except for the remnants of a soggy marshweed nest and an errant feather or two, it will be as if he was never here. In the coming spring, the cranes will dance once more on water, and they will think and lust and mourn, and they will not know about the small triangle of love and tragedy that lived and passed in their shadows.