A Thousand Paper Cranes

A Japanese couple fall in love and steal away to the 'new world' where they find that the new world they've joined is not what they thought.

I’ll begin with how we got here. How we went from the lush landscapes of the exotic east, to the ‘New World.’ We’ll start in 1885, the day my grandmother set sail for the United States of America.

Aimi and Hiroki Kawahashi left their home in search for more prosperous lands: there was a downturn in Japanese agriculture and my grandfather looked for new horizons. She was wearing a kimono of fiery red, her chestnut hair pulled up into the traditional geisha style with a fountain of soft cherry blossoms framing her fragile features. Even as they sailed out into the open sea and the dimming sun dipped beneath the waves Hiroki was unable to tear himself away from her beauty for too long.

I was told that their love was a forbidden one and that they had stolen away in the middle of the night to the new world. They headed to California, where a produce farm had offered Hiroki a job, with room for him, her and my mother.

Hiroki came from a small village nestled in the hills to the north, beside the river where the herons flew. Apparently, at night, the river would reflect the heavens and become a stream of twilight and, in the morning, the temple bells would summon the Phoenix to rise from the hills and set the sky on fire. It was beneath that temple, under the cascading blossoms, that they would meet, drawn together by intangible strings of fate.

It was on the eve of their fourth meeting that he presented her with a lacquer hair comb featuring a carved heron taking flight over the rising sun: “Please, I am a simple, poor man but I wish for you to... fly away with me.” These words were recited to me perfectly. Grandfather said that he held no regrets over the decision, that even though he was an insignificant farmer and she was a geisha worth more than his life, he knew they both felt that something beyond convention and their control was unravelling.

They had only what they needed when they left; they knew that they had to leave for their love to survive. But as the ship pulled out of the dock, Aimi felt the original butterflies die down, leaving behind a sick feeling. Almost everybody had someone on the shore waving them off – everyone but them. Grandmother said she never forgot that day as she stood on the stern of the ship and watched the mystic mountains of Japan drift off into the horizon. She had felt like it was not her floating away, but Japan. It was then, as she felt she could no longer reach out to her homeland, she vowed to return at least once to see the blossoms fall again.

She never spent any time below the deck unless it was to sleep in her quarters. She felt uncomfortable not being able to feel the Japanese breeze embrace her and, as she gazed out into the vast expanse of water she felt as if she could no longer feel Japan at all. She had abandoned her; even the gulls had stopped flying beside them. Hiroki could see the sadness creep into her face and he slipped a piece of golden paper from his pocket with a shy smile.

He took her hand and kissed it softly, promising her everything would be okay; her weak smile did not grow. So, holding out her hand flat he placed upon it a golden paper crane. “We’ll cast it out together,” he smiled, placing his hand under hers, “and if it floats along, we’ll know the gods have approved our decision.”

The Crane did float; it was carried along into the distance until it merged with the golden hues of the sun – Aimi was still concerned.

California was desolate: a dry, dusty land where everyone seemed to cower from the sun. The heat relentlessly attacked everyone as they disembarked. But even though the sun scorched everything it gazed upon, the shadows still managed to stretch out from around every corner, ready to engulf naïve passers-by.

“Hiroki,” Aimi murmured, her voice as soft as a spring breeze, “I don’t like this place.”

Grandmother never grew to like California; apparently the land felt dead – a place that even the god’s had abandoned. The sun was too harsh, the town always seemed to stare at you, even when all the doors are closed and even the wind blew in an angry torrent, shaking the boughs of every tree. She saw nothing of Japan in California.  

Hiroki took her hand in his and squeezed it softly. “Don’t worry...everything will be fine,” he smiled but she was not convinced; his smile had faltered and she knew she was not the only one holding reservations. But they both decided to make the best of it; they knew they could not go back when the wounds of their deceit were so fresh. Grandfather told me that he was afraid of the foreign land, but as he looked into her eyes that late afternoon – and she looked back – he had hope.

She looked to the floor, pulling all the pins and ornaments from her hair, allowing the wind to blow through it as she looked up. Her lips graced his as he reached for her hand: the hand that held the fountain of cherry blossoms, and, as the sun began to set on them, they cast the cherry blossoms out into the burning ocean.

The End

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