Allow me to introduce myself. I am Death. Not what you expected, I’m sure. I never am. Denial is an interesting thing. I’ll give you a moment to consider the concept.
While you do, I’ll tell you a tale of clouds, and rain, and a little girl I met on my journey. desperately ill, she refused to lose hope. Her paper cranes a symbol of pain, loss, and devotion to life. Something close to my heart, despite what you think of me. without life, without hope, there is no death, and no stories to tell by the hearth in my lounge.
Paper Cranes is the first of eight stories in this collection, which touch on gun control, green energy, psychosis, loneliness, political correctness & a lonely gargoyle perched up high on Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The others, split equally between the more historic fiction leaning D J Meyers & the sci-fi and black humorist Oznonymous, include - The Creature from beyond the coffee cup, The Gargoyle Chronicles (I), Lost in Authonomy, The Maia Calendar, The Politically inCorrect Fishbowl, The gargoyle chronicles (II), Skeleton Coast – postcards from the dead, and the poem Ode to a Sardine
Life asked Death: “Why do people love me but hate you?”
Death responded: “Because you are a beautiful lie and I’m a painful truth.”
Part the first
Good evening readers. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Death. Not what you expected, I’m sure. I never am. Denial is an interesting thing. I’ll give you a moment for my presence to sink in.
Dum de dum…
While you do, I’ll go over the concept. This is what Time does to an entity such as me. It blurs the edges of form, until I am pictured in as many guises as I am seen by eyes.
Some imagine me in a cloak, with a scythe. Sound familiar? Bad old Death, creeping around with breath of putrid bile, cutting men and women down in their prime. I’ll have you know, I floss every day. Why wouldn’t I? There are so many people for me to greet, and you are so keen to invent new ways to deliver them to me.
Others are more merciful with my image. They see me as the Angel of Death. I don’t need wings to fly, by the way. Besides, they make too much noise. Didn’t you know? I like to sneak up on people. Careful you don’t close your eyes for too long. I might keep them that way.
The worst depictions of me flow from religious texts: the concept of Hell for the Damned, with a Devil to preside over proceedings in the Underworld. This bastardisation of the Scandinavian term Hel and other similar words annoys me. I do not take you, I receive you, and I do so as you prefer me to. The choice to fear death is yours, not mine. I’m more partial to a good chinwag over a spirit or two.
A life should be celebrated in death, and a good one makes for a tale worth telling. I like to sit about in my smoking jacket, perched on a comfy couch, reciting life cycles. The more inventive, the more often I retell it, and it’s not all about achievements or longevity. Sometimes those short, sweet existences fill my cup to over-flowing, while the over-bloated achievers bring on a yawn. How many goals did you kick? Where did you bend them from? Wouldn’t it be nice to give someone else a shot?
I find myself tearing out the middle page of my notebook and folding the paper, over and over, until it depicts a paper crane. For me it is an offering of hope, one made to me almost a century ago. Over time I have been seen to have refused this immolate. In fact, I accepted it with open arms.
Pull up a chair and sit for a while. Allow me to take you back to a century you call the Twentieth, even though it was marked with a nineteen, and there were thousands more before the first. ‘Twas the busiest of my existence: one that began with a war to end all wars, followed by eighty years where not a day passed without human conflict.
I admire mankind. You have the ability to surprise me with your inventiveness, but your penchant to invent new ways to dispose of your fellow men is a blight on humanity. Sigh… yet this tendency brings me back to my paper cranes.
Occasionally I’m drawn to a place. I don’t always know why, but once there I like to follow a life and its evolution. There is always a character who catches my eye, and amidst my usual duties, I take in the meanderings of the unassuming.
Picture a river delta, the confluence of six streams, rich in silt. Long ago embanked and abridged for the benefit of the citizens who inhabited the first castle here, built some four hundred years ago. Intrigued, I touched down in a narrow street cluttered with wood and paper houses: a silent warning unheeded as I took in the sites.
Three houses along, I came across an open window, and this is where my tale begins. I hope you’re listening. One wouldn’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of Death.
Resting my arms on the window sill, I peeked inside.
“Ohayō gozaimasu ,” said a little girl.
I looked about, expecting to see an adult out for a stroll, or perhaps another child searching for a playmate. Alone and aware of the girl’s name, as I am with you all, I shrugged and answered.
“Ohayō gozaimasu, Sadako.”
Unperplexed by my knowledge of her, she continued ploughing through her bowl of rice, the dexterity of her chopstick use a wonder. She held up her meal, lean on meat and vegetables — a sign of the times in Japan.
I’ll translate from this point on, as it is one of my skills, even if it’s not something I tend to bang on about, but you people do like to invent new languages every decade or so — right dude, wot eva!
Sadako possessed a talent I’d never mastered, so I passed through the wall cavity. The action failed to disturb the child, aged no more than three. Her response inspired me. I sat on the floor opposite, and she passed me the bowl.
“What’s your name, mister?”
“That is something you must guess, as I must the use of these curious eating sticks.”
I’d picked them up, but was flummoxed by their mechanics. Sadako held my hand and forged my fingers into the shape of a crane shadow puppet. She placed one stick along my thumb, the other between my index and middle fingers. Squeezing them together, she created a pincer movement, and offered a single word of instruction.
I dug the chopsticks into the rice and scooped up a dollop. This fell to the soft, rush tatami-matted floor before I could wrap my lips around it.
She giggled and pushed the bowl closer to my face.
“Eat, and I guess your name.”
The wonder of youth. An adult would have bartered for my name with an offer to teach me the skill of eating rice with sticks. I dipped into the bowl, successful in snatching up a clump of rice, which I rushed into my mouth.
She bounced up and down on her knees and clapped. Her joy as teacher was something older educators could use more of in this world. Raising her head to the ceiling, a sign of deep thought, her eyes gleamed with revelation. “Oniroku!”
I laughed. The name reminded me of the European tale Rumpelstiltskin. “Do you think I will take out your eyes if you guess incorrectly?” A silly question. Of course I would, eventually, but I would not prevent her from seeing this world or mine first. I adjusted to her nose of wrinkled confusion. “Shall I build you a bridge stronger than the Misasa that spans the Ota River there?” I pointed along the street.
She nodded, her precisely cut fringe reminiscent of a bobbing kokeshi doll. I handed her bowl back, wondering how I would conjure a bridge to span this wide river. Tricks such as this were not something I am known for, but the sleeves of my cloak are broad and mysterious.
I reached inside the first of these, pulled out my hand, and revealed it to be empty. A raise of my eyebrows preceded a forage into the other sleeve. I removed my hand to a blinding flash, accompanied by a boom that heralded the end of the world — for no angel would sound such a deadly blast.
The light settled long enough for me to catch the faint outline of Sadako’s skull through her flesh. Mouth open wide and eyelids screwed shut, she lifted her arm to shield her face — too late. I reached out to her, not for collection but for comfort. She was blown into my arms by the fierce, heated breath of the atomic dragon.
Together we crashed through the window and tumbled into the street. Flames engulfed the city, drowning the cries of the dead and injured. Their loved ones’ voices wisps of crackles in the furnace once known as Hiroshima.
Cloaked, Sadako survived, her curiosity alive. “Am I dead?”
I knew many were, their souls shrieking for a millisecond, then extinguished all around. Their plight pulled me hither, but I could do nothing for them. The sheer number lost in an instant was overwhelming, even for me. I sat in the street and held the girl instead of greeting the dead, yet not quite a president in the spotlight of twin burns.
I remembered a lullaby the Japanese crooned to their children and sung it to Sadako as I rocked her back and forth.
“Hushabye, Hushabye! My good Baby, Sleep! Where did my girl's baby-sitter go? Beyond that mountain, back to her home. As a souvenir from her home, what did you get? A toy drum and a shō flute. ”
The voice, shrill yet brimming with the joy of discovery, came from the girl’s mother. She swept Sadako out of my arms and held the girl up to the sun, now a figment of a ball, veiled by a mushroom cloud. The mother’s tears ran black, for the sky fell as dust. The air had fractured and wept as it collided with man’s latest folly.
Many would accuse me of pulling out a fiddle from beneath my cloak as the city burned, but I always preferred a harmonica in moments of bitter sadness.
An older woman joined the mother and daughter — Sadako’s grandmother. She spat at me, before embracing her kin. We both knew we would meet soon, as fate would have it. For now, the remnants of the Sasaki family staggered from the remains of their street by the Misasa Bridge. The houses of paper and wood, if not torn asunder by the fissure in the atmosphere, burned in a firestorm that created another ominous cloud over Hiroshima.
I wandered with them, unsure where to begin my work. The words I’d heard so often during the Black Death — bring out your dead — did not apply. They were everywhere. Burnt, crushed, irradiated, and obliterated. The souls of some remaining shadows were so scorched my hand passed through them, unable to lead them to the Underworld.
Tears, so often held back, seared my flesh: streaks of white through the remnants of man’s black rain. This devastation was the culmination of my ten years from hell — a curse laid on me seven hundred years before by a grieving Japanese princess. She had no idea of the sentence she would deliver the world, or how eager man would be to find new ways and places to deliver death — from the Japanese Nanking Massacre to the Nazi blitzkrieg over Spain and London, the factories of Jewish death camps to this single flashpoint in time when thousands died. I lost count, I admit, despite my freshly typed rolls, introduced amidst the devastation on Flanders Fields, where poppies waved blood-red in the morning breeze.
The grandmother parted company with her daughter, returning to the ruins of their house. I bowed, and she spat in my direction, as she had earlier. I picked her out of the ashes later in the day. Despite her bile, she was still a daughter to be welcomed into my realm. She curled up in my arms, bitter yet grateful. The frightening image of a rancid Izanami-no-Mikoto was not her introduction into the afterlife.
Sadako never saw her ancestor alive again.
The streets were difficult to discern amidst the smoke and rubble, so I took the girl’s left hand, the other clutched by her mother, and we meandered through the ruins. Three ghosts covered in the ashen fallout of death, searching for a sunset in a place where none existed.
Part the second
I spent some time sweeping up after the Americans in Japan: Hiroshima followed by Nagasaki. One wonders about the benefits of self belief, so often transplanted for stubbornness. How devastated does a land and its people have to be before they tear off the red circle and raise a white flag?
The same cycle of revenge, betrayal, and retribution consumed my time after I finally released Sadako’s hand. I held her charm close to me; a promise of life that quelled the bile for mankind I held in the back of my throat. Ten years later, I felt a curious pull from a sensation not usually attributed to me — hope.
Drawn toward a hospital wing filled with the living, rather than the dead, I stepped into a room occupied by two teenage girls. They sat on either end of a single bed, although there was one for each.
I recognized the smaller girl instantly: Sadako Sasaki. She spoke with the same lilt of curiosity. “Tell me more about the paper cranes, big sister.”
Her companion, one Kiyo Okura, according to the chart at the foot of the bed, sat cross-legged, elbows on knees, and head on fists.
“It’s an ancient legend. My grandmother told me. Why didn’t yours?”
“She died in the fires after the bomb, before my third birthday.”
“Oh. Well, it is said that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish by the gods.”
I didn’t see any gods lurking about this ward handing out free passes.
The older girl continued, ignoring my pall of scepticism. “Others say the maker of these origami cranes will be granted eternal good luck with a long life, or recovery from illness.”
Sadako screwed up her nose, as she had once before in my presence. “Where are your cranes?”
“I don’t have any. Those cellophane ones sent from the school in Nagoya were meant only for children suffering from A-bomb diseases. I only have tuberculosis. Besides, my mother says it’s just a silly story, an old wives’ tale.”
“Yet your grandmother told you.”
“The adults closer to death like to give us hope.”
I sensed little in Kiyo compared to Sadako, who questioned her companion further. “Is hope such a bad thing? We survived the mushroom cloud, with its wind and fire. Why can’t we survive the lumps and blotches of cancer?”
The elder girl shrugged, lifted her head from her hands, and stared at me. “I don’t know. Who’s your friend? Perhaps he can tell us.”
Sadako turned toward me. Having leant against a gurney, it rolled from me as I stood up straight.
“I’m not sure who he is. I have met him before, in the cloud, but he wouldn’t tell me his name.”
The older girl shot up her arm, always eager in class. “I know who he is! He is D—”
I held up my hand. “Don’t be too aware, young lady. It might lead you to me before your time.”
“My apologies.” She cupped her hand over her mouth, attempting to shield the words of a whisper. “Is he here for you or me, Sadako?”
“Neither. He’s just hungry. I fed him rice and taught him to use chopsticks, but he never came back to watch me run the relay with Tomiko and the Bamboo Class. I think we should ignore an entity who forgets his scythe.”
I felt my form fade, my hands disappearing as I held them up to my face. Belief is a big thing with men. Without my shape and those of indolent gods, conviction wilted in favour of more fervent imaginations.
Sadako tugged a sheet of paper from beneath the tumbler of water on her bedside table. “Show me how to fold this into a crane, then I will have only nine hundred and ninety-nine more to make.”
Her roommate obliged by folding and ripping the page neatly in half along the seam created. Her actions were not those of a teacher as she created her crane with a dozen or so quick folds, but Sadako understood the technique and mimicked her within minutes. The girls giggled as they hopped off the bed and ran about the room with cranes held aloft, wings flapping in tandem with their fringes as they bounced along.
Sadako stopped short, out of breath. “I need… more… paper.”
A nurse stumbled in upon their game ready to scold. “What is this noise?”
Sadako held out her crane. “We need paper. We have nine hundred and ninety-nine more to fold — each!”
The nurse smiled; her overbite a friendlier sign. “You wish to call upon the gods of fortune and health. I will see what I can find.”
The girls paced in wait, their cranes set out on open hands. Two hospital staff returned five minutes later, forefingers to their lips, and a shoe box full of medical supply wrapping in their hands. “This is all we have. May it bring you both good health.”
Brown and coarse, yet malleable, Sadako accepted the gift — rare in times of rationing. “Arigatou gozaimasu. ”