And as he watched, the crane took a single step to the side, and stumbled.
He leapt forward to catch it, and like that, it was in his arms, the surprising weight of its upper body and its reaching neck (so like a swan's but so different, too), its good wing flapping and out.
And the smell! Of panic and shit. Of blood and fear. Of the impossible labour of flight that seeps through every atom of a bird. The smell, more than anything, convinced the man this wasn't a dream. Even in his worry about hurting the crane, even in the sudden calamity of flapping wings and flying feathers and the stabbing of a beak that looked as if it might well be able to go straight through his chest and into his heart, he knew that his brain likeable though it was was incapable of conjuring a scent this crowded, this peopled by so many different spices.
'Whoa, there,' he said, the bird twisting, fighting, perhaps realising too late that a separate, possibly predatory creature now had it in its grasp. The beak poked again, notching his cheek, drawing blood. 'Dammit!' he said. 'I'm trying to help you.'
At which the crane leaned back its neck, its head reaching to the sky, and it opened its beak to call.
But it didn't call. It gaped silently at the moon, as if breathing it out.
The crane's full weight suddenly pressed against the man's chest. That long neck fell forward like a ballerina's arm accepting applause, and it wrapped around him, its head hanging down his back, as if embracing him. Only the heaving of its narrow breast told the man that the bird was still alive, that in its exhaustion it had given itself into his keeping, that it would hand over its life to the man if that was what was required.
'Don't die,' the man whispered, urgently. 'Please don't die.'
He knelt down into the grass, the frost instantly wetting his knees, and with one arm still around the body of the crane, he used his free hand to gently grasp the arrow- pierced wing and unfurl it.
The span of a bird's wing is mostly feather; the meat of the muscle that regularly performs the casual miracle of self-activated flight is entirely in a long, narrow arm above the spray of feathers below. The arrow had pierced this length of sinew on the underside, catching quite a lot of white feather but still hitting more than enough muscle to have lodged, seemingly irrevocably, through the crane's wing.
The man wondered if he should call someone who'd be about eight million times more qualified to help than he was. But who? The RSPB? A vet? At this time of night? And what would they do? Would they 'put it down'? A crane so gravely injured?
'No,' whispered the man, though he was unaware of doing so. 'No.'
'I'll help you,' he said, more loudly. 'I'll try. But you have to hold still for me, okay?'
Foolishly, he found himself waiting for the bird's response. All it did was continue its desperate breathing against his neck. The arrow had to come out, and the man had no idea how he was going to do that, but that's what needed to be done and he could feel himself already manoeuvring the crane to do so.
'All righty then,' the man said, and then he said it again. 'All righty then.'
He cradled the bird's weight away from him, and with no small amount of awkwardness, he worked his way out of his jacket, gently moving the crane's head and neck to slip the cheap fabric from underneath. One-handed, he stretched the jacket out on the frost and laid the crane down onto it, folding its good wing beneath it. The crane acquiesced with an ease that terrified him, but he could still see it breathing, its chest rising and falling, more rapidly than seemed right but at least still alive.
Copyright © 2013 by Patrick Ness
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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