One Thousand Cranes
A tale befitting the power and tragedy of the age of climate change.
At the beginning of the week, when the IPCC's latest climate report was published—and articulated that we have around 12 years to meaningfully draw down carbon emissions or face runaway global warming—it hit like a ton of bricks. Then, I read this story, and I was devastated all over again, on another, more human level. This is why we do Terraform, stories like these, that offer us a compass for the days ahead, that force us to internalize what they may feel like, to consider their weight. Stories like this, even, may yet inspire us to avoid the worst. -the ed
Today I will finish my thousandth paper crane. It has taken me nine months to fold them all. Its body is ice blue like the sky we painted in Jay’s room when he was old enough to reach for the clouds. Across the crane’s wings are shimmering waves of turquoise like the gems that were Malia’s eyes on our wedding day.
The air is crisper up here - high in the mountains, away from the smoke that blanket all that once was our city. It was only two months ago when I finished the 900th crane. I’ve slowed down considerably. My fingers are numb and cracked. My nails are beginning to fall off and it’s getting harder to create the intricate triangular flaps of the cranes’ wings.
Every morning I wake to clumps of my own hair scattered among the fallen twigs and dried leaves of my makeshift bed. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe. A pain sears through my chest. I can’t tell if it’s the altitude biting into my lungs, or the memories of Malia’s scent by my side and Jay’s hair against my cheek.
By day we climb, by night I fold until the light of the campfire dies - until there is only silence and the sound of my rough fingers against the soft fibers of the paper. I’ve been told that others in our camp set their watches to the distant shadow of my body, hunched over, diligently folding, each finished crane set in front of me in tiny rows separated by color. A miniature armada.
Two months before my 900th crane, I had finished 700 cranes. For those, I had chosen reds and oranges for the fires that had devoured our homes. I should have chosen blues, greens and whites for the cool air, the rain, the fog. Or even blacks and greys for darkness, some respite from the constant blazing heat. Something to swallow the flames.
But I wasn’t sure which colors would grant Jay’s wish. And I was out of black and grey origami anyway. I had used those all up in the two months prior when I was working toward my 500th crane. That was when I almost lost hope, when I didn’t care about all the other people climbing the mountain with me. Didn’t care about the elders, the babies, the men and women half bandaged, their skin blistering and their breaths shortened. Didn’t care if we ever made it to the top.
It was the cranes before those that marked when my heart had been broken, filled with black and grey. We fled, the three of us like so many others, to the mountains where the air might be cleaner and the smoke lighter. But with every step, Malia and Jay grew weaker. Malia could not see, blinded, she struggled on the rugged terrain. And Jay was so weak. I carried him on my back until one day his weight was so unusually light. That same day, Malia sputtered her last coughful of blood.
When nightfall came, the clouds that seemed to hang ceaselessly overhead hid the stars. It felt like the universe had disappeared and we were alone. Completely alone. I thought I’d never see the stars again. Like I’d never see Malia and Jay again. That night, when I finished my 400th crane, I folded two extra cranes and laid them on their graves - one black, one grey.
Two months before that, the three of us had folded the first crane together. A small packet of origami paper - that’s all we had left. It was in Jay’s backpack along with a half eaten bar of toffee chocolate. Bandages covered Malia’s eyes and it was only her fingers that remembered how to fold the soft paper into clean diagonal lines.
It was the first time Jay had ever seen a folded paper crane. I cried when I told him about a legend my grandmother once shared with me - about how in her home country, people believed that the folder of a thousand cranes would be granted one wish. And then I told him about a little girl named Sadako who had tried to fold a thousand cranes for Japan - for peace after Hiroshima. He wanted to understand.
“Are there bad things in the air now?” he had asked.
“Yes, Jay,” I said. Malia reached out and clutched my hand.
“Is that why we’re sick? Just like Sadako?”
“Yes, but it’s a little different. There are more bad things in the air now,” Malia said, her voice was steady where mine shook.
“Did Sadako get her wish? For peace?” Jay’s eyes were hopeful.
“Well, for Japan yes, for a long time there was peace. But for the world…” Malia’s voice trailed.
“There has always been war,” I completed.
“I want to fold a thousand cranes,” Jay said, “I want to make a wish too.”
Sadako had only made it to 644 cranes before the leukemia took her. But neither of us mentioned this to Jay. Instead I sat silent with Jay on my lap as Malia laid the first piece of origami paper in front of us. I remember it was purple, yellow, and red - the colors for hope. We were in the evacuation center and all around us was chaos. Outside thick plumes of smoke darkened the windows. Together we folded our first crane, our fingers pressing creases into the soft paper.
The day before we each folded our first crane, the wildfires that have been engulfing the neighboring county leaped across the bridge, flamed by the summer’s persistent hot winds, to the refinery.
The day before that was Jay’s seventh birthday.
And the day before Jay’s seventh birthday, Malia and I sat, our legs and arms intertwined in comfortable entanglement as we gift-wrapped a small packet of origami paper.