'A crane,' he said, softly. 'You're a crane.'
The crane turned, as if in answer to his naming of it, its eye still on his, and he could see that the wing the bird had kept behind it wasn't folded down like the nearside one. It was outstretched, awkwardly.
Because it was shot through with an arrow.
'Oh, shit,' the man whispered, the words appearing before his lips in a fruitless puff of steam. 'Oh, no.'
The arrow was long, extraordinarily so, at least four feet, and the more it resolved in the man's vision, the more he could see that it was some kind of terrifyingly proper arrow, too, with crisply cut feathers fletched up in three evenly spaced rows around one end and a glinting, shiny arrowhead easily the width of two of his fingers at the other. There was something weirdly ancient about it as well, something that hinted at its carving from authentically expensive wood, not balsa or bamboo or whatever chopsticks were made of, and it was a whole world more serious than the business- like rods you saw fired on the Olympics coverage of smaller nations.
This was an arrow for killing. An arrow for killingmen, even. An arrow over which a medieval archer might have prayed that the grace of God would bless its arc and send it straight into the rancid heart of the infidel. The man could see, too, now that he was looking for it, the dark stain at the crane's feet where its blood had dripped from the arrow's tip onto the frosted grass.
Who in the world would fire such a thing these days? And where? And, for God's sake, why?
He moved forward to help the crane, not knowing what he might do, feeling certain he would fail, but he was so surprised when it didn't back away from him that he stopped. He waited another moment, then found himself addressing it directly.
'Where have you come from?' he asked. 'You lost thing.'
The crane remained silent. The man remembered again the keening he'd heard, felt an echo of the mournful pressure of it in his chest, but no sound came now from the bird. No sound came from anywhere. The two of them could have been standing in a dream though the cold that shifted through his shoes and bit at his fingers suggested otherwise, and the quotidian leaking of a stray drop, despite his best efforts, onto the crotch of his underwear-less trousers told him definitively this was still real life, with all its disappointments.
But if it wasn't a dream, it was one of those special corners of what's real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life. Like when he lost his virginity to the girl with the eczema in his Honours English Class and it had been so intensely brief, so briefly intense, that it felt like both of them had left normal existence for an unleashed physical instant. Or that time on holiday in New Caledonia when he'd surfaced from snorkelling and for an oddly peaceful moment or two he'd been unable, due to the swells of the ocean, to even see the boat from which the divers had leapt, and then the angry voice of his wife had shouted 'There he is!' and he'd been sucked back into reality. Or not the birth of his daughter, which had been a panting, red tumult, but the first night after, when his exhausted wife had fallen asleep and it was just him and the little, little being and she opened her eyes at him, astonished to find him there, astonished to find herself there, and perhaps a little outraged, too, a state which, he was forced to admit, hadn't changed much for Amanda.
But this, this moment here, this moment was like those, and more so. The gravely injured bird and him in a frozen back garden that could have been the borders of the known universe for all he knew. It was in places like this that eternity happened.
Copyright © 2013 by Patrick Ness
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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