Ten Thousand Cranes
by Julie Reeser
The whales had long ago sung their last song when humans discovered the mermaids washing up along the shores. Nothing could be done about one more White Rabbit decrying the late hour.
Salamander’s name had been drawn for the Screw, and like all world citizens, her trinkets were already packed for that possible lottery victory. She was allowed to take any number or size of item, as long as they remained under sixteen ounces total. She’d chosen a handful of photographs, along with jewelry passed down from her grandmother.
Her booklet of road vouchers was tattered, but she still had six coupons left. A beefy, blond woman drove the taxi to the airport. Her name, Parakeet, scrawled in black marker across the tag hanging from the mirror. Parakeets weren’t extinct exactly, but Salamander supposed technically all birds were extinct unless you saw them in a zoo. The trend to name your baby after an extinction had started as protest but was now eulogy.
The previous generations were great at slogans and gestures, but it amounted to emptiness. Even finding fables dying along the edges of the world wasn’t enough. Time had slipped away despite everyone’s best intentions.
The jazz on the taxi’s radio reminded her of her upcoming ride on the space elevator. Or, the Screw as it was known colloquially.
“Could you switch that?” she asked, and Parakeet nodded amicably.
“You don’t like jazz?”
“Oh, I like it well enough if it’s got a little ring of salt to hold it in a bit, but that was more like free-fall, and well … airplanes, you know?”
Parakeet laughed. She was the least bird-like woman Salamander had ever seen, and the irony made her smile a bit. Her smile faded as the news slipped in on cue wearing sneakers and talking in that orange voice of newscasters every-when. A tightness of the throat in an asynchronous cadence, an exhausted chord that never resolves.
“President Nguyen made the final decision to board the Starship this morning after meeting with several heads of the Union. While no immediate danger was identified, the increase in unspecified threats was enough to cause his team to conclude it was best for him to shelter in the safest location …”
Parakeet snorted. “I’m sure there were unspecified threats.” She let go of the wheel to make air quotes around threats with her fingers. “Poor man just wanted to get his seat on the Screw already. Wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Salamander shrugged. “The idea of leaving the planet? I’m not sure I could.” Her palms went damp, and she wiped them on her skirt.
When the lottery had started, there were a spate of murders, betrayals, and disappearances. Now, if you were chosen, you left a note. You kept it secret. There were no parties or long goodbyes. Cuddled in her girlfriend’s arms two weeks ago, watching another lottery group exit the planet, Sparrow had asked her, “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? I don’t think I could bear to just find a note.”
The fight had been without heat. In hindsight, Salamander should have just agreed. Reassurance as an obvious lie. She’d realized the next day that was the point.
The note she’d left this morning for Sparrow was in full view on the cluttered table where they propped their feet each night to eat dinner and watch movies. Sparrow wouldn’t be home until later in the morning. Her night shifts at the hospital often ended hours past when dayshift started. Salamander had left early on purpose. Just in case. She couldn’t bear to say goodbye.
Parakeet twisted her head around to stare at Salamander. “You serious? Shit. I’d take my ticket and be—” Before she could finish her thought, they both heard the thump and felt the impact. Parakeet slammed on the brakes.
“Damn it! Now what’d I hit?” She heaved herself out of the front seat to stand by the left bumper. Salamander watched her face drain of color, and decided she’d better get out and see for herself.
The duct-taped faux leather seat stuck to the backs of her knees as she slid over and popped open the door. She heard the creature before she saw it. It was a swan; that’s all it could be, even though they were long gone. Extinct.
“Oh my god. Ohmygod.” Parakeet remained frozen in place. Her mouth was the only part of her moving, repeating the same phrase over and over.
Salamander knelt, and the grit of the road dug into her knees. She barely felt it. She was repeating words, too, but they sounded far away.
“It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
But, it wasn’t going to be okay. There was blood. She was afraid to touch the bird, afraid of hurting it more. The three of them exposed on the road in the penetrating light of near-dawn woke her up a bit. Human interaction with animals was strictly regulated and enforced, and it was only a matter of time before another road voucher rolled past.
“We have to hide it. We have to get it in the car. It’s going to be okay, but we can’t be seen! My god.”
Her thoughts circled to the ticket hidden in her luggage. They couldn’t be seen. Losing her berth on the Starship would only be the first punishment.
The cab driver’s head snapped toward Salamander as if she’d been struck. “Yeah,” she whispered, “yeah, you’re right.”
Parakeet knelt near the head while Salamander approached from the tail. The swan cried with the voice of a girl. Salamander was sure she heard words in the crying, but she was also sure swans couldn’t talk. She’d never seen a real swan. No one had for decades. Maybe the books were wrong? All the loop videos at the zoos had somehow failed to capture their plaintive pleas?
The two women looked at each other, and Salamander knew Parakeet was hearing it, too.
“Is it … is it talking?” Parakeet was crying now, a quiet leaking of tears.
“I think so,” Salamander answered.
They both paused in their attempts to touch the white feathered body. It was the size of a well-fed fourth-grader with small black eyes that shone in the early light. A triangle of smaller black feathers extended from the eyes to the beak. Her neck was sinuous, but held tension from the pain. One wing was injured, twisted in an odd way. Blood leaked from under a red mat of feathers to spread in a slow thread.
Salamander whispered to the wounded bird. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. We’re gonna get you some help, okay? Is it okay if we pick you up?” Nonsense strung together to sound soothing. More for herself than the bird.
All the while she talked, she and Parakeet moved in at a snail’s pace to get their hands under the warm body. The swan looked her right in the eyes as Salamander’s hands reached under her wing to brace it and at that moment, the swan … shifted.
Her beady eyes widened while the beak diminished and softened. Her feathers fused and darkened, and her legs lightened and expanded. Some of her feathers split apart to create tresses of silk-straight black hair. Salamander’s hands stuttered on skin sticky with blood, but she didn’t let go.
There was no sound other than the three of them panting, and then Parakeet blurred into action. She grabbed a thin blanket from the trunk. With a flourish, she wrapped it around the girl in Salamander’s arms and bundled her into the dilapidated backseat. With the weight of the girl gone, Salamander stood.
She wiped her hands on her skirt, trying to get the feel of wriggling flesh off her fingers. Her clothes were smeared with dirt and blood. Her suitcase only contained some old towels and sheets as a safety precaution to make it feel genuine. There was no change of clothes. Everything was provided on the Starship. The future felt farther away than ever.
“Come on. Get in the cab!” Parakeet waved her arms as if trying to direct the tide. “We’ve got to get off the road.”
Salamander grimaced and pointed at herself. Parakeet scrunched up her nose. “Aw, hell. We’ll have to stop at a gas station where you can change.”
“Um … yeah. Or, you could just drop me off and I’ll get another ride,” she said over the engine starting. As she sat down in the front passenger’s seat, she tried to think of an explanation for her lack of packed clothing, but her mind kept coming back to the swan transforming into a girl. They were both ignoring it, but it had happened.
Parakeet eased the car off the road onto the shoulder, and they both turned to look at the girl. She lay shivering and silent in the backseat of the car, her arm held against her chest. The taxi’s hazard lights blinked a steady tick tick as if counting down.
“What the hell just happened,” asked Salamander.
“I have no fucking idea,” Parakeet answered before signaling her return to the street. They drove in silence. The swan, or girl, seemed as stunned as they were. Salamander tried to decide if she should share her secret of the ticket. After all, the two of them were co-conspirators of a sort now, weren’t they? Before she could say anything to that effect, Parakeet cleared her throat.
“When I first hit her, I saw a swan. I know that sounds crazy. Maybe it was the adrenaline or something?” she spoke in low tones, whether out of embarrassment or to keep the girl from hearing, Salamander couldn’t tell.
“No, it wasn’t adrenaline. She was a swan. I saw it, too. Look, that’s what I wanted to say. I mean, it’s part of what I have to tell you. I can’t change my clothes. I didn’t pack any.”
Parakeet kept her eyes firmly on the road, but Salamander saw her body stiffen. “You running from someone?” she asked.
Of course, why hadn’t Salamander thought of that? “Yes! I mean, yeah. I owe some money. I figured if they saw me leaving with a suitcase, I could pretend to disappear a bit, then circle around back home until they lost the trail.”
It didn’t sound quite right when she said it, but gods, she was tired. “Anyway, I don’t have any clean clothes for me or the girl.”
“It’ll mean my license if we take her to the hospital, but she’s bleeding. Can we take her at all if we both saw what we think we saw?”
The question hung in the air. Salamander thought about her ticket and the waiting seat on the Screw. She thought about the note at home. Sparrow’s broken heart as she bent over to pick up the blue-lined stationery signed, Always Yours. She stopped thinking about Sparrow and how the ticket separated them like nothing else could. She took a deep breath.
“Look, I can’t go back home, yet. I can’t go anywhere the way I look. I need to get cleaned up and think.”
Parakeet risked a glance at her before returning her focus to the road. “I live on the other side of town. We could go there. You can get clean, and we can figure out a plan. Sound good?”
• • •
Parakeet lived in the dirtier part of town. The yards grew mud, cigarette butts, and bottle caps. The power lines strung low and slack invited shoes and wayward plastic. Each building possessed a narrow, dank space with a pocket of water that dripped from the window units to collect stale beer and cat piss. The few kids were scrawny, the lone tree was deformed, and bits of bicycles were strewn in cracks and corners.
It had been ten years since Salamander lived in an apartment where the walls were as thin as the groceries; buildings that warehoused single parents and alcoholic elderly. She remembered the inexorable sounds of televisions and arguments, the long climb up the stairs every day, and the unrelenting smells of someone else’s dinner. She’d found her escape in the form of a two-year degree and the luck of a smile that could land her a job before the interview was over. The smile no longer worked on anyone but Sparrow, but it no longer needed to. She had everything.
Parakeet put the girl down on the couch. The cushions were stained and thinner on the edges where visitors would perch. The girl showed no qualms about its lazy comfort and pulled her feet under a blanket unfolded from the couch’s spine.
Parakeet went straight to the freezer and grabbed a bag of frosty green beans to put on the girl’s arm, while Salamander hovered uncomfortably on the edge of the room. She thought about the beans thawing, and Parakeet subsequently being short a serving of valuable vegetables. She felt a stab of guilt but couldn’t locate the source. She hadn’t caused the accident. She wasn’t responsible.
“The bath’s down the hall. Looks like the bleeding’s stopped. I’ll rummage up some clothes while you get cleaned up.” Parakeet didn’t look at her to see if she moved, but simply marched forward and through.
Salamander walked past the girl watching her silently with mirroring black eyes. The guilt moved from a pang to a pulse. She tried to bury it. It was just anxiety about leaving her lover and abandoning the planet. What would this strange girl know of it?
In the dim of the narrow hall, a row of miniature shadowboxes full of thimbles lined the wall. A collection as fragile as Parakeet seemed strong. The bath was gray and worn. The floor peeled under the tub like dry skin, and there was no shower. The toilet was close enough to the sink that Salamander wondered how Parakeet managed it.
She stripped quickly as she filled the tub with an inch of cold water. Clean water was precious, no matter where you lived. There was a soft knock at the door as she finished rinsing off. The rust-colored knob spun, and Parakeet knelt to place a pile of clothes on the floor without looking into the room.
The clothes were too big for her, but she was glad for them. A misshapen T-shirt paired with shorts so old they were soft as fur. They were ridiculous with her black pumps, but there was no help for it. Better she arrive at the Screw looking slightly addled than not at all. At least the stench of flop sweat was gone.
She rummaged quietly in the medicine cabinet behind the hinged mirror for deodorant. She tried not to notice the private life stored there, but how could she not? A frayed toothbrush, toothpaste with fingerprints in the middle, aspirin, the ubiquitous birth control, nail clippers, and an assortment of half-used creams. The cabinet’s contents seemed as straight-forward as Parakeet herself.
When she emerged into the living room, Parakeet was seated next to the girl who was now dressed in similar fashion to Salamander. Her arm was wrapped tightly with a towel and tape. A bruise had unfurled like a black rose across her cheek.
“I was just telling her I can probably get her pain medicine without too much trouble, but she’s gonna need a cast. I can’t do that myself. Can you?”
Parakeet’s brusque efficiency had been replaced with worry lines and slumped shoulders. What would it cost her to admit she’d hit someone with her taxi?
Salamander did know someone who could set a broken arm – even scrounge up real pain meds, but that would mean saying goodbye.
She ignored Parakeet’s question for the moment, and directed her inquiry to the girl, “I don’t understand.” The guilt flipped over, and anger replaced it. “We saw you. You were a swan! A goddamn swan, for fuck’s sake. How is that possible? What are you? I don’t understand.”
Just as fast as the anger, weariness swamped her. “She was a swan,” she said to Parakeet helplessly.
“I know.” Salamander let Parakeet guide her to the couch, her hands were soft and firm. She wouldn’t cry, but the need tightened her throat. The girl watched them with a still face and body. Only her eyes moved, narrowing as Salamander tried to sit as far as possible from her graceful poise.
The girl licked her lips with a black tongue. “There is nowhere safe left to fly. Even swan-maidens get lost in the ruin and stink. When you finally die, we will bathe in clear blue waters and fly the skies to celebrate. Those of us who survive. We just have to wait.”
The words were spoken in a sibilant hiss, and Salamander let the tears she’d been holding back go. At the very last, they were given fairy tales, and even the fairy tales wanted them dead.
Her generation knew they were doomed, had been raised hearing nothing but dire warnings competing for what would kill humans first: the air or the water or the heat or the lack of food or just each other; it was a toss-up, but one thing was always clear. They and their friends were the last. Not even the magic of fables dropping out of the sky was enough to make a difference.
They’d grown up in a world where at any moment, a chance at life on the Starship, not death, would shatter reality. Romance was fleeting, marriages scarce, money was spent with the understanding there would be no future. Nothing but luck. A lottery ticket.
There were ten thousand berths, and while some of these were taken by crew, most were left to be filled by the random cross-section of humanity who would still be under the age of thirty on the day of departure. If there was a departure. There was no announced destination. For all anyone knew, they would encircle the dying earth forever, but everyone preferred that over living in the stifling coffin of humanity’s grave.
Of the ten thousand spots, there were an estimated two hundred left. Time ticked down. Salamander had always known she’d be chosen. Not through any specific foreknowledge; it was more of a pull in her gut and a lightness of her mind that signaled her destiny. It was like the smile that used to open doors. The smile Sparrow loved.
For the first time, Salamander belonged to the future. But, she would be alone. Was this how it felt to go extinct?
Without a word, she pulled the suitcase toward her feet and clicked it open. The towels and sheets were a wrinkled mass. She unzipped the toiletries compartment and held up the lottery ticket for Parakeet and the swan-maiden to see.
“Oh my god, you have a ticket!” Parakeet breathed this revelation in one swift exhale. She took three steps to the couch and knelt, putting her hand on Salamander’s bare knee.
“You have a ticket,” she repeated.
“I do.” Salamander laughed and wiped at her eyes.
“Can I hold it?”
Salamander extended her hand in silent permission. The swan-maiden ignored them both, her back rigid with pain and disgust.
“That’s why I don’t have any clothes packed in my bag. That’s why I was going to the airport.” She sighed and sat back on the couch, relieved to speak it aloud.
Parakeet cradled the ticket as if it might break. A fragile future. She lifted her eyes to Salamander, and the hope shining there broke the last brick of Salamander’s doubt.
“Take it. I don’t want it anymore.”
“What? I don’t understand.” Parakeet held the ticket out toward her with a trembling hand. “I can’t take it. It’s yours!”
Salamander bent down to retrieve her photographs. She held them up to Parakeet one by one. “My girlfriend, Sparrow. This one was taken on our first date. We went to the Pier for ice cream. This one was when she had her final interview at the hospital. Look at her shoes!”
The shoes in question were the sexiest pair of heels Salamander had ever seen. She’d bought them for Sparrow as a surprise, and they’d made love while she wore them, and then laughed at themselves silly for an hour afterward. She’d nailed the interview, and they’d celebrated with champagne.
“I can’t leave her behind. I don’t want a future without her in it. Take me home, Parakeet. Us, I guess.” She jerked her head toward the swan-maiden. “If anyone can fix her arm, Sparrow can. And, you can have my ticket. Just promise me you’ll live. Really live up there. For all of us.”
• • •
Salamander and Sparrow watched the Screw on the big screen over dinner and drinks as it loaded the latest intake of winners. Confetti fluttered silver and blue. Music played, and people cheered. Another handful of humans saved.
The swan-maiden was tucked in their bed, medicated into a fitful sleep. She had taken Sparrow’s help as her due. Sullen and haughty. A queen biding her time.
Sparrow and Salamander hadn’t talked about the note yet. There’d been tears, and then the swan-maiden had needed attention. There just hadn’t been time. Salamander lifted Sparrow’s hand where their fingers were entwined to kiss her on the knuckles. They’d talk about it at some point. But for now, they were content. Together.
The Screw revolved. Point A to Point B, fold at line C - an origami crane. At the apex of the revolution, the winners would go from box to ship to Starship. A crescendo of space and an extension of time for Earth’s luckiest humans.
Copyright © 2023 by Julie Reeser