The man was now naked from the waist up, kneeling in frozen grass, on a clear night in a cold season that could very well kill him if he stayed. He worked as quickly as he could, keeping the crane's injured wing unfurled in a vertical from the ground. He along with conceivably everyone else in the entire world had only ever seen arrow injuries in the movies. The rescuers always broke the arrow and pulled it out the other side. Was this even the right thing to do?
'Okay,' the man whispered, taking hold of the arrow's end in one hand and slowly letting go of the injured wing with the other, so that all that was holding up the crane's wing was the arrow itself, now in both his hands.
It felt shocking against his fingertips, even though they were quickly numbing in the cold. The wood was surprisingly light, as it would have to be for an arrow, but still signifying strength with every inch. He looked for a weak spot, found none, and felt increasingly sure of his inability to break it, certainly of his inability to break it without having to try several times and cause the creature unthinkable agony.
'Oh, no,' the man mumbled to himself again, starting to shiver uncontrollably now. 'Oh, shit.'
He glanced down. It looked back at him with that golden eye, unblinking, its neck curved against his coat like a question mark.
There was no solution then. It was too cold. He was too cold. The arrow obviously too thick and strong. It might as well have been made of iron. The crane was going to die. This reed made of stars was going to die right here, in his sad little back garden.
A tidal wave of failure washed over him. Was there another way? Was there any other way at all? He turned back to the door to his kitchen, still open, letting out every bit of meagre warmth from the house. Could he carry the crane back inside? Could he lift it and get it there without hurting it further?
The crane, for its part, seemed to have already given up on him, to have already judged him, as so many others had, as a pleasant enough man, but lacking that certain something, that extra little ingredient to be truly worth investing in. It was a mistake women often seemed to make. He had more female friends, including his ex-wife, than any straight man he knew. The trouble was they'd all started out as lovers, before realising that he was too amiable to take quite seriously. 'You're about sixty-five per cent,' his ex-wife had said, as she left him. 'And I think seventy is probably my minimum.' The trouble was, seventy per cent seemed to be every woman's minimum.
Seventy seemed to be the crane's minimum, too. It had made the same mistake as all the others, seeing a man when, upon closer inspection, he was only really a guy.
'I'm sorry,' he said to the crane, tears coming again. 'I'm so sorry.'
The arrow moved unexpectedly in his hands. The crane, seemingly in an involuntary shudder, nudged its wing forward and the arrow slid through the man's fingers.
The man felt something. A small crack in the wood of the arrow. He looked closer. It was hard to see in such dim light, but yes, definitely a crack, one big enough to follow even with frozen fingertips. It spliced through the shaft, no doubt broken there by the struggles of the crane's great wing. The man could even feel that the arrow was at slightly different angles on either side of it.
He looked back down at the crane. It regarded him, thinking who knew what.
An accident, surely. Absurd to think that the animal would have led his fingers to it.
But also absurd that a crane with an arrow through its wing had landed in his back garden.
He said, 'I'll try.'
He gripped the side of the arrow closest to the pierced wing and held it as steadily as he could. He took the other end in his fist near the crack. The cold was so fierce now that he was feeling actual pain in his hands. It would have to be now. It would have to be right now.
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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