“It’s not always the bird in the cage that flutters. Sometimes it is the wailings of the soul.”
Rei finished folding her 992nd origami crane, only to realize that the tip of its wing was dotted with blood. The girl frowned, before reasoning that the crane would probably still count – despite the stain.
When she was a child, she thought she read a book which claimed that anyone would be granted a wish if only they folded one thousand origami cranes. So, she licked the small paper cut on her thumb, and began folding her 993rd crane.
After all, she desperately needed this wish.
Although she fumbled in the beginning, Rei no longer needed to watch her hands. Instead, she stared out the window as the body of the crane manifested at her fingertips. There would be seven more cranes after this.
Seven cranes before she would be free.
“Do you think he’s alright out there?” A voice cracked the eggshell silence. Rei flicked her eyes over to the small, thin child huddled on the bed. It was Sarah - a girl that could have once been described as “rosy” but now barely passed as “mousy.”
Rei slipped the neck of the crane out from its hiding place and glanced away from Sarah. She decided to let silence be her answer rather than speak the uncomfortable thoughts. It had been two months since Sarah’s brother had been adopted, and neither of them had heard from him since.
This wasn’t surprising. Despite the departing children swearing up and down that they would–once they were adopted, no one ever wrote or called.
Those who remained were left to assume that the outside world must be so wonderful, so fantastic, and so marvelous that it washed away all memories of the orphanage. That the adopted children forgot all about their suffering here, and in tandem with that – they forgot about the other orphans too.
Still, Sarah’s brother.
Had anyone been the exception, Rei thought it would have been him.
Sarah looked back down at her feet, taking the silence in for what it was – an honest answer free of harshness. He has to be doing well in the outside world since he has forgotten all about you.
Admittedly, the outside world didn’t look like the type of wonderful place it was believed to be. Through her opened window, Rei could only see a smattering of dark, gnarled trees. Each of the branches twisted up towards the moonlight like hands, hoping to fold origami out of the moon.
“Can you make anything besides birds?” Sarah asked. Rei tucked a strand of black hair behind her ear and began her 994th crane.
“Only cranes.” Rei reached for another sheet of paper, but Sarah’s palm snapped down onto the stack. Both girls seemed surprised by the reaction.
“The other kids said you used to make all sorts of things before they took Peter.”
Above them both, footsteps creaked across the ceiling. Sarah exhaled slowly. She lifted one of the sheets of paper from the stack and held it out to Rei. Another unspoken exchange – this time an apology.
The weight of the paper made Sarah’s hand teeter on her boney wrist, so Rei took it gently from her. She pinched the corners of the square, then paused.
“Did you want me to make you something?” Rei asked. Some of the dust seemed to be shaken out of Sarah’s irises, and for the first time, Rei realized that her friend’s eyes were blue instead of grey. She swallowed.
“I can make a doll,” Rei whispered. Sarah leaned forward, eyes widening.
Rei let her lips twitch ever closer to a smile. She would have to spare three sheets of paper for this one, but it would get Sarah to leave her alone. Rei thoroughly creased the paper before ripping it down to the correct size.
Rei thought that maybe her mother had taught her origami – but whenever she searched her mind for the memories, her mother’s face was as blank as the paper doll. She could swear that she heard her mother humming in her dreams, but when she woke up, she no longer remembered the tune. With every fold, Rei found herself grasping at these emptied memories, feeling closer than ever to remembering something that she had long ago forgotten.
Rei set down the doll’s kimono and began to fold her head. The head was the trickiest part – if she had scissors it would be easier, but after Peter was taken no one was allowed to have scissors anymore.
Rei held the doll’s head by its flat neck and examined it in the moonlight. Finding no (obvious) faults with it, she slid the neck into a pocket on the kimono and handed Sarah the completed figure.
“You can color her however you’d like,” Rei said. Sarah rubbed her thumb over one of the folds of the kimono. Her lips parted, but she didn’t say anything.
“Be gentle with her. I don’t have any glue or tape to secure her head in place, and if you lose her head, I’m not making you a new one,” Rei sighed. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was quite proud of the way the doll had turned out. It looked like the kind of thing her mother would have made.
She picked up another piece of paper and began to work on her 995th crane.
“Do you know what you’ll wish for already?” Sarah asked. Rei tried to hide the twinge of annoyance that her doll plan had failed to win over some peace and quiet.
“I’ve always known what I was going to wish for,” Rei said, “I want to be adopted.”
I want to leave.
Sarah stroked the hair of the doll, pondering this for a moment.
“But then I’ll never hear from you again.”
Rei flipped her paper over and folded it horizontally. She retreated back into her silence, letting Sarah flounder for meaning in the soft sounds of shuffling paper.
“There’s something strange about this place. Sometimes I hear bugs crawling in the floors, and footsteps on the ceiling. But no matter how many times I check, I never find anything.”
“Sarah, you shouldn’t –”
“And sometimes I wake up and I feel like I was dreaming about my brother, but then I think, and I think, and I realize that I can’t remember his face anymore. He’s only been gone for two months, and I’ve forgotten what his laugh sounds like. And at night, sometimes I want to make myself cry about it, but then I realize I don’t even know his name.”
Rei’s eyes shifted to the small space between her bed and the wall.
PETER. PETER. PETER.
Rei could recognize her own handwriting, but she could never put her finger on the reason she wanted to remember Peter. All she knew was that his adoption (no – removal) was the beginning of the origami cranes.
“Do you remember my brother’s name?” Sarah asked.
Rei said nothing. Maybe she had written it down, but she didn't know where she would have written it. Sarah placed the doll in her lap and leaned against the wall.
“Well, if you remember, will you write it on your wall? Next to Peter?”
Rei only nodded. Outside the moon seemed to linger just out of reach of the grasping trees. Rei thought she remembered once running through the forest, arms outstretched. She had also been reaching for something. That could have also been a dream, but dreams didn’t normally feel like wet faces and muddy shoes.
PETER. PETER. PETER.
Since that day, Rei had begun to write notes. She had a blue marker under her pillow, and the blue ink stained her arms, the wings of her cranes, the hem of her dress. Today, the message on her dress was too smudged to read, but the one on her arm read, “Don’t look her in the eyes.”
A set of footsteps strode across the ceiling diagonally. Then the sound curved down the wall, dripping down the side and stopping to knock on the door. Both girls froze. Rei nearly pinched the beak of her crane off.
The door creaked open, throwing a single yellow beam of light onto Sarah’s pale, freckled face. Rei slipped her 996th crane underneath the pale linen sheets and watched for Madam’s long arm to stretch outward into the room.
“Sarah, my dear,” Madam cooed through the doorway, “it looks as though you’ll be adopted after all. Will you grab your things and come with me?”
Sarah’s eyes flashed brighter than the moon. A breeze drifted in from the open window and fluttered some of the paper on the floor. A pang of guilt folded itself into Rei’s chest. If only she had already turned those pages into cranes. Maybe then the breeze could carry one of them away.
Sarah opened her nightstand drawer and stuffed its contents into an old pillowcase. She left her sheets unmade and tousled on the bed, but she made sure to grab the doll. The paper doll's head sagged to the right when it was lifted.
“Did Rei make that for you?” Madam asked. Sarah nodded and lifted the doll higher for Madam to see. The doll’s head toppled to the left.
“It’s beautiful,” Madam replied, her voice seeped through the door and crawled across the floor to Rei’s ears. Rei shuttered and looked back out the window.
Don’t look her in the eyes.
A cold silence blew through the window and settled onto the floorboards. Rei stiffened and blinked, realizing all at once that she was completely alone. She expected to hear her friend tell her goodbye before she left.
In the corner of the room, an empty bed looked freshly made. The white sheets were crisp and rigid. As Rei stood, something tumbled from her lap and hit the ground. Rei reached down towards the object but frowned when she realized the note on her arm was different now.
Don’t forget Sarah.
The blue marker rolled on the uneven floorboards by her feet. Rei picked it up and held it in her hands. She cracked the lid off of the marker and retraced the lettering. The motion felt familiar, and each loop of the text flowed naturally from her hand. She didn’t doubt that she was the one to write the note, but it was odd, nonetheless. She didn’t even know who Sarah was.
Rei clicked the lid of the marker back into place as another breeze tickled the edges of her skirt. She moved to close the offending window, but the pale light of the moon held her attention. Rei wanted nothing more than to leap out of the window and fly into the night sky. But instead of jumping, she let her gaze fall to the forest floor. Two white smudges peeked out from the forest floor. A paper doll’s head, separated from its body.
Rei frowned at the bundle of fresh, white creases. It looked like the kind of doll that her mother would have made.
Rei sat back down on her bed and began folding her 993rd paper crane.
Seven cranes before she would be free.
If you enjoyed this short story, I expanded the story into it's own novella!
You can find it here:
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme