Time makes idiots of us all, he thought.
Cleave to reason, to rationality; devote your life to truth, above and beyond the Sunday-school fairy tales that life is steeped in; and still, you end up here. In the grip of madness. Or something damn similar.
Jaw set, he finished the last few creases on another, hands burning with age, and cast it to the floor. A zephyr, a draft of sorts, wandering through the stately old ballroom, took hold of it before it completed its fall, carrying it free of the hundreds and hundreds of others lying in drifts at his feet.
Dully, the old man regarded it. One of the white ones. He had run himself out of the colored paper that he promised himself he would only use to break the monotony, to alleviate the tedium, somewhere around the middle of day two. Now there were only white squares left — except, of course, the last one — and damn few of those. The old man was too tired even to feel relief.
He stared at it for a while. Without the tiny fold at the head, it could be a lily, or a crystal or something. But as soon as you added that one little fold, it became animate, a picture of a breathing thing, a water bird, a sitting crane. It was almost magic, in a way, which only served to depress the old man more. Just the human mind fooling itself. Recognizing patterns, arbitrarily assigning meaning. Superstition. Idiocy.
Time makes idiots of us all, he thought, again. Idiots and subjects of children’s books.
The silence of the ballroom was shattered by the noise of a digital watch alarm. His own. Six fifty-five. Five minutes before the room service people came. Five minutes to get himself presentable, or, as presentable as you can be when you’re a crazy old man who’s been sitting in the same hotel chair for the past seventy-two hours. It would be hard seeing the face of the hotel employee, of course, he thought, as he slowly, achingly stood so as to give himself a better leverage point with which to straighten his tuxedo jacket. He hoped that it wouldn’t be a new one, not some fresh young kid just starting on a shift, someone who had never seen the sight of the old man sitting alone in the cavernous old ballroom surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of paper cranes. He didn’t want those fresh questions. He just wanted his egg and Tabasco, damn it. He wanted his tapioca pudding. He wanted his little paper cup filled with anti-inflammatories. He didn’t want attitude.
The old man finished the only grooming he was capable of in three of his five minutes, meaning he had two left. It would probably take him a quarter of that to sit again, and half to rise, and in his book you greeted people on your feet, so it wasn’t really worth it to do anything but stay standing. Not that it was any more or less comfortable to stand or to sit now. Not after three days in the same damn chair.
Idly, he glanced at the stack of papers. Damn that, too. So short. So small. Did he really need another delivered meal for those last few sheets? They were charging him through the teeth for these, he just knew it, and–
–and, er, what else was he doing with his money, when you came right down to it? Besides, compared to the cost of booking the Palace Hotel’s grand ballroom for a week straight, twenty-four solid hours a day, he was fairly certain that one more meal would come across as nothing more than a parenthetical footnote.
Two minutes passed. Then a third. Late! Late, damn it! He had given them very specific instructions! Name of– well– not to cuss, but just Name of Somebody, he could have been sitting with this time! Had he known that it was going to be two extra minutes, he certainly would have stayed in his seat longer. And he’d raise a fuss at them, and they would look at him crosswise with their disrespectful piggy little eyes and you would be able to see the scoff in them, no matter how much they tried to slather company-mandated politeness over it. Three minutes! they’d be saying to themselves. The old bat is losing his grip over three little minutes! They! Who’d never had an aching joint in their lives!
He sighed to himself. No point in complaining, in the end. It was just youth; nothing more, nothing less.
At four and fiteen over mark, the ballroom doors swung open, letting both a wedge of light and, damn it, a new face into the room, carrying a service tray. A girl, a young one. Pretty. She also had the common decency to apologize for her lateness, and she seemed terribly flustered by the fact, and it made the man feel all the worse for having berated her, even if it had been only in his mind. Her nametag read “Brianna” and she assured him that she would be the one taking care of him tonight, and that if he needed anything, anything at all, that he should just click the little button on the little white box he’d been given and some sort of digital signal would be sent to the front desk and she’d know to come in and tend to him, and that, once again, she was terribly sorry for her lateness and if he didn’t need anything else she would be bringing his night-blanket in for him at ten o’clock, and he was about to protest that, no, he was very nearly done here, and what he really needed was for someone to call ElderCare or something and get him a shuttle back to his home, but she was so young and fresh and eager-to-please and he was distraught enough about having assumed the worst of her that he didn’t even protest. It meant one more night in the damn chair, one more night on his bill, but at this point, there wasn’t a place he could be that wouldn’t hurt, not even his own bed.
He thought, for a moment, of requesting a proper room. But he had paid for the ballroom, damn it. He might as well play the eccentric for one more night.
“Brianna” asked if there was anything else. He grunted in the negatory, she said something pleasant to him, and she was gone, taking with her his luncheon tray from this afternoon and leaving him alone again. Alone with the cranes.
He finished his perfunctory supper without gusto, tipped his pain pills into his mouth and chased them with his last swallow of water, patted his mouth and hands clean with the delicacy of the ancient, then set his tray aside.
With trembling hands, then, he removed another sheet of white paper from the stack and began folding.
A thousand cranes, they said. An ancient Japanese custom that he had learned about during his tour of duty in the South Pacific. Later popularized in some smarmy kids’ book. Fold a thousand cranes, they said, and the Shinto gods would come to you and grant your heart’s desire.
The old man didn’t believe in gods, Shinto or otherwise. But it was the single most concrete religious concept he had ever experienced, and ludicrous as it was, there was something in the simplicity of it, both the action and its reward. No vague promises of dedication and love and worship. No forgiveness of sins, whatever the hell that meant. No “becoming one with the universe.” The old man had experienced a tiny sliver of the universe here on Earth, and if it was in any way indicative of the whole rest of it, the old man didn’t particularly want to become one with it, thanks all the same.
No, none of that. Action: Fold one thousand cranes. Reaction: Heart’s desire. Simple. Wouldn’t be so simple for some people. The thousand cranes, yes, all very clear-cut, but the moment you got into “heart’s desire” territory, many people would start getting a little muddled. But to the old man, the question of his heart’s desire was as clear and precise as one thousand folded paper birds.
Fold. Fold fold fold. Crease here, push there. Crane number nine hundred seventy something, to judge by the dwindling pile of new paper. He had counted the sheets exactly, three or four times, before starting in. This meant there was no room for error, and to date, there hadn’t been one. Certainly, some of the cranes had been a tad malformed in the end, but each one had turned out recognizable, at least. He might have kept some sheets in spare, but he had decided against it. It might have been a safety net, yes, but it was also something of a hedge, and in his admittedly limited understanding of the nature of gods, they didn’t much care for hedging.
He had started with exactly one thousand and one sheets.
One thousand sheets for the task. Most white, and decently-sized. Some smaller colored ones, blue and red and yellow. Bright, clean papers. Paper that that gods would approve of, if any were watching.
And beneath it all, lurking and biding its time, was the thousand and first sheet.
The last sheet was different from the others. It was small, and sturdy, and black. When the silly project failed, as it naturally would, and the thousand paper cranes lay dead and stiff on the floor about him, there would still be that one last sheet left to put a cap on the whole experience. One last–ha–nail in the coffin, as it were.
He hadn’t decided what to do with the last sheet, yet. Another crane, a tiny one, perhaps, had been his original thought, but the pain in his hands was rapidly becoming unbearable, and he had started wondering if it would even be in him to crumple the thing and toss it away by the end of things. He was running out of time to decide, not that it really mattered, anyway.
Another two cranes fluttered to the floor in silence. Then two more. One. Two. Two. Minutes ticked away into the evening. All was quiet, save for the soft fwip-fwip-fwip of folding paper.
And then, when the old man’s hand brushed against the stack, there was no more stack to be seen. One last white sheet of paper. He lifted it up and moved it to the tray in front of him, and it was quite ridiculous, but even though he knew that it was there, knew that it would be there, and had quite frankly hardly forgot about the fact that it was there for all of the past several days, the sudden appearance of the thousand and first sheet almost startled him a bit.
For a while, he stared at it, ignoring for the moment the sheet on the tray in front of him. The black square sat there like a crisp, precise hole in the surface of the table, only, the thing was, it wasn’t a hole to anywhere. It didn’t contain anything and it led nowhere. It was just a hole; an absolute hole, as it were, uncorrupted by the question of what might be within or beyond it. It was almost as though it was pulling him in even to look at it.
A distressing thought. He shook his gaze free of the thousand and first sheet, steeled himself, and turned his attention to sheet number one thousand, white and pure as the Colorado mornings he and Carol used to enjoy…
No. Less memory. More folding. Almost done now, after all.
It came into shape slower than the others had, this one. Less… mechanically. The end of the task had cast an air of solemnity and importance about the process, or perhaps it was merely the screaming arthritis. No. Too cynical. It was important. For the briefest of moments, it didn’t matter if the Shinto gods even existed, much less cared about one old, lonely fool and his attempt to catch their eye with his fool’s errand. For that moment, it was all about the task, the satisfaction of a job well done.
And then it was finished, and it was, he might dare say, perfect. An single, exquisite, white origami crane. He had gotten quite good at them.
He took a moment to admire it, holding it up to what little light the ballroom had to offer, and he actually felt himself smiling, for the first time in what seemed to him like forever.
Then he closed his eyes and cast it to the floor.
It couldn’t work. Obviously. If every man, woman and child could obtain his or her heart’s desire merely by folding a thousand cranes, you wouldn’t be able to get within a quarter-mile of any craft store in America. But to his chagrin, his heart had a habit of not listening to his reason, and despite himself, there actually arose in him a flicker of hope, as he set the final white crane free to tumble down into the drift of its fellows.
He paused. The world held its breath.
The old man’s smile faded, and he sunk back in the chair. Not that he had expected otherwise, but in a way, it was good to know that the Shinto gods were just as much a crowd of lying bastards as any other god or gods he had chanced to encounter the servants of.
The old man’s face twisted into a scowl and, as savagely as his pain would permit, he seized the thousand and first paper, crumpled it into a tiny ball and extended his hand to drop it on the worthless piles of scrap that surrounded him. Then, the clicker button, and he would ask for a proper bed after all, damn this ballroom, he never wanted to set foot in it nor see it again, and in the morning he would awaken and call the nice people in their large grey van to ferry him back to his home and then…
Nothing. Nothing at all.
He sighed and brought the thousand and first paper back above his tray. Working patiently and gently, he undid his careless crumples and, once it was squarish once more, started on what would be the last of the paper cranes. This one went quickly. It was ugly and misshapen, of course. Part of him could scarcely bear to look at it. He wanted to throw it far away but another part of him couldn’t abide the idea, and he compromised, absently brushing it onto the surrounding pile.
Slowly and shakily, then, he rose from his chair, and, kicking his way through cranes as if they were autumn leaves, he moved to the center of the room.
And then, he shouted. He wasn’t even sure why. Call it shouting at the dismal failure of gods, of legends, of the human body itself. A cry of pain from a man who, by his own estimation, had lived almost exacly three years too long. The old man didn’t know anymore.
Eventually the shout faded to echoes, caroming off the high ceiling of the ballroom, then to dim vibrations, and then to nothing.
He hung his head as though his neck had given out — which wasn’t far from being the case — and sighed.
And that was when the rustling started.
The old man’s eyes flew open, his head rising.
Wind. A draft from the air handlers. It had to be. His instincts told him to look, to confirm that there was nothing going on, but the flare in his heart wouldn’t let him. It couldn’t be. Of course it couldn’t be. It was nothing more than… than…
The rustling grew more pronounced. The noise of paper against paper. Building and collecting and colliding and…
Could you look? Could you look at the miracle and have it still take place? Was this bright and good, or something crushing, Orpheus-like, instead, where if you yielded to temptation and snuck a single glance, all would be lost? The old man’s mind raced. Best not to test it, he thought. Best just to wait. Best just to live with some ridiculous hope for just a few seconds longer before it was inevitably dashed and broken–
“You’re too impatient, John,” said the voice. “You always were.”
He was thunderstruck for a full fifteen seconds.
It couldn’t be. The voice. Sardonic yet warm, like some old film star, the kind of voice that suggested men’s vests and those cigarettes in the long holders. The voice he had missed more than anything, and no, wait, that was a lie, because every fresh second that passed he thought of the next thing that he missed more than anything, and he hadn’t had any of it for years and years, hadn’t heard, hadn’t smelled, touched, seen or tasted, oh, damn it, tasted, hadn’t… hadn’t…
“It takes time for the magic to happen, see,” said Carol.
Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes. “Can I look?” he hazarded, at last.
“Certainly,” she said. “It’s a little odd, though.”
John turned and looked. It was her, of course. The very image of her, as she had looked that day so many years ago, the day of the Pan-American Ballroom Dance Championships, when they had shared the greatest moment of their lives together in this very room. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Even when bent and turned and tuned just so, an agglomeration of paper cranes cannot shape itself into the seamless replica of a gown-clad human form. But the likeness was there, and strongly, and the old man’s heart melted to gaze upon her. Her eyes were the tiny blue cranes he had folded at midnight on day one, and her necklace was made of the fifty yellow ones. And the wings of two of the bright red ones recalled her painted lips so strongly that the old man scarcely knew how he could contain himself. He suddenly felt that he might keel over, stone dead, right on the spot, his frail old form simply unable to bear the emotions that were coursing through his body.
He swallowed, hard. His jaw trembled.
“Carol,” he managed, at last. “You look… wonderful.”
“Pish tosh,” said Carol, raising one patchwork arm to the light. “I do not. My skin is in the most horrible condition, don’t you agree?” She smiled. “Dry as paper, I’d say,” she finished, and the smile widened to a grin, exposing tiny white folded teeth.
“Carol!” said the old man, moving to her as fast as his bones would permit, his arms wide.
He stopped, then, three feet out, uncertainty clouding his features.
“May I–” he attempted, gesturing feebly with his hands. “That is, I mean… Can I–”
She opened her arms to him. “Of course you may,” she said. “Also, you can.”
And he put himself in her embrace. It was sharp and dry and insubstantial and smelled, moreover, of craft paper rather than her perfume — what else, he wondered to himself, had he expected? — but it was so powerfully, so overwhelmingly her that he found that none of the details mattered.
He held her for an eternity.
“I shouldn’t have lost you,” he said, after the eternity had passed. “People don’t die like that.”
She rustled quietly at him, holding him still.
“People do,” she said, at last, quietly. “People die from skin cancer all the time, John. If it goes deep enough. And if, like an idiot, you fail to notice it.”
John shook his head. “No,” he said.
“All right, granted,” said Carol. “It was cancer of some of the other squishy bits that eventually did it. But the skin was where it started, John. You can’t deny that. I had had that damnable ugly old mole for so long that I didn’t even notice that anything was going strange about it.”
“No, no, no,” said John. “No, you’re right, people die like that. But you don’t.”
“Oh really?” said Carol, her paper lips quriking in a signature, heartbreaking smile. “And how exactly do I die, John?”
“A train wreck,” said John. “A tragic mountain-climbing accident. Falling out of a biplane. Boiled alive by cannibals in deepest, darkest Africa. Not… wasting away in a hospital bed. Brought low by a god-damned mole on your skin. You were always bigger than that, Carol.”
“Disappointing or not, it’s still death, John. In the end that’s what matters.”
He nodded. “Yes,” he murmured, and with another complex rustle, he held her in his arms again.
Then his head shot up and he looked her in the eye. “Wait,” he said. “No! That’s not what matters!”
“Pardon?” said Carol.
“It doesn’t matter!” said John. “Death doesn’t matter at all anymore! Right?” He pushed off from her and held her at arm’s length. “You’re back!”
Her mouth softened. “Only for the night, John.”
John’s face turned at first incredulous, then red. “What?” he said, angrily, marveling even as he did so how fast the miracle had turned in his mind to entitlement. “One night? That’s it?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Carol, apologetically.
“But– I mean–”
John stopped to collect himself, tried again, and managed to get as far as “Why?”
Carol shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know the rules. Perhaps if you had merely laid down a thousand cranes, had stopped there, it might have lasted forever. Perhaps we’re all perfect and eternal until we try to take it just the one step too far, one last little bit more, and damn ourselves in the process.” She sighed. “Or, perhaps it’s just that sometimes even the gods have trouble holding things together for more than one night.”
“Not fair,” said John, limply making his way back over to his chair and falling into it. “It just isn’t fair. They told me that I could have my heart’s desire, and my heart’s desire most certainly was not to have you back for only one night!”
“And how would you deal with the question of me?” said Carol, her voice warm. “I am little more than scraps and tatters now, John. Surely my appearance would cause a fuss.”
“Damn it,” said John, “I don’t care. You could be a wildebeest for all it matters to me. I want you back, Carol. You never should have left.” He shook his head. “Skin cancer. For God’s sake, Carol, skin cancer. Killed by a damned mole.”
John put his face into his hands and lapsed into silence.
Eventually, Carol approached and laid one paper hand on his shoulder.
“I know you don’t want to believe this,” she said, “but our deaths are part of us. They’re worked into our very fabric.”
John laughed, bitterly, for a moment, but said nothing.
“For example,” said Carol, pressing on, “even here and now, in this… weird and abstract way I’m revealing myself to you, I’d bet you that that mole is still there. Don’t have a mirror, of course, so I can’t be certain…”
She turned her back to him. “John,” she said, “could you be a dear and resolve my tiny little existential curiosity for me?”
“Hmhuh?” said John, raising his head.
“The mole,” said Carol, gesturing at her back. “Could you see if it’s there?”
John’s eyes went up past the line of her ruffed paper gown, up to her smoothed crane-bottom shoulder, and–
And yes, of course, there it was. The tiny dark spot. The one that had claimed her life, in the end. The thousand and first paper crane.
Tears came to his eyes, once again.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it’s there.” And then all he could do was cry, and cry, and cry yet more, until he felt as though he had spent all the moisture he had inside him and still he wanted to cry more. And when the tears stopped coming, stopped soaking and rippling the thick paper fabric of her clothes, he still kept on coughing out angry dry sobs that went nowhere. And throughout, she held him close, rocked him like a mother might and waited for it all to end.
When he was silent, at last, she said, “You used to be so grateful for that mole, John. Do you remember?”
John nodded, his eyes quite shut.
“Our first dance. At the U.S.O. You couldn’t even tell your right hand from your left. There you were, all elbows and knees and I loved you from the moment I saw you, did you know that, John?”
John said nothing.
“And you kept getting it backwards and mixing it up and finally I put your hands in the right place and said, there, if you just remember to keep that one hand of yours right on top of the mole on my shoulder, everything will be just ducks. Do you remember that, John?”
John nodded and swallowed. “Must have done something right,” he said. “Twenty years later we were best of the Americas. Right in this room.”
Carol nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I remember.” She looked around for a moment. “Bit shabbier than I remember, of course, but, well, time does that to people and things, and who’s to talk, right? At least it’s still made of the same stuff they built it of originally.”
“It’s why I came here,” said John. “I figured if any place would convince you to come back, it’d be here.”
She laughed. “And why not the spot of our first dance, John?” she said. “Or our first kiss or our first…” she grinned, wickedly. “…you know.” Her grin became a smile again, and she shook her head. “Men,” she said, teasingly. “Always thinking of their triumphs.”
John rose from his chair suddenly, like a shot. “Dance with me, Carol,” he said.
“Hm?” said Carol.
“Dance with me,” he repeated. “You’re here. I’m here. We’re dressed for the part. We’re in a ballroom, for God’s sake. Dance with me, Carol.” He gazed at her, intently. “I have one night more with you,” he said, “and I can think of nothing I’d like better than to have this next dance.”
“Why, John,” she said. “I thought you’d never ask.”
And she gestured, and somehow the lights came up, and somehow the music began, and it didn’t matter why, or how, and it didn’t matter that there was no one at the light control and that there was no orchestra to speak of and that everything about this moment defied the reason and sense that he had held in such high regard for so long, and none of it mattered at all. And the lights were electric and gold and the music was a vibrant three-beat and the world finally, at last, was right again, damn it. And he took her into his steady ballroom embrace and raised his arm to the proper ninety-degree angle and rested his right hand where he always wanted it, right over the small dark mole on her left shoulder, and then…
…and then they were flying. Spinning and spinning to the beat. Conservative at first, he gradually opened up to the subtleties of her pace, her gait, her mass, and his confidence grew as he turned her again and again across the floor, in a waltz like no other he had ever danced. She twisted and bent in achingly beautiful ways that no flesh-and-blood partner could ever reduplicate, occasionally twirling herself directly into him only to vanish in a cloud of paper birds, reappearing on his other side and resuming the waltz without missing a beat. Faster and faster and faster and faster they turned, the pain in his joints fading into distant memories with every step that he took, every turn he made, and the light was bright and warm and the music exultant and… and…
…I could do this, he thought, for ever.
* * *
At ten o’clock, sharp this time, a wedge of light once again entered the darkened room, followed by Brianna, bearing night-blankets. So hurried was she, so unused to the dark and so intent on keeping the unwieldy bundle of blankets together, that she didn’t even look up until she had halfway crossed the room.
When she did, at last, she stopped.
The blankets tumbled from her hands.
The old man lay sprawled out on the floor, surrounded by piles and piles of folded paper cranes, one arm extended away from his body, the other cupped quite close in. The ballroom was deathly silent.
Brianna rushed over to him, did what people do in these circumstances. The old man failed to be roused. She then found the signal box, sitting unused on his chair-side table, gave it three or four good hard stabs with her finger, then thought better of this plan of action and went to go get help, herself.
Had the old man been there to witness it, he might have told her not to bother. There was no need for haste, not anymore, as the ambulance-men would very soon find out for themselves. And yes, there would be people and noise and all sorts of commotion soon. But for the moment, as Brianna hurried out of the room and off down the hall, all there was to see, all that the wedge of light from the slowly-closing door revealed, was the body of an old man resting quietly amidst exactly one thousand bright paper cranes.
And, cupped gently in his right hand as though it were the world’s most precious thing, was a small, dark and rumpled one, paper crane number one thousand and one.