The girl followed close behind her Bhikkhu, climbing up the steep path that led to a small temple on top of the mountainside. The girl faltered occasionally still unused to the heavy cloak she wore around herself, the dark red contrasting greatly with her Bhikkhu’s lighter ochre robes.
Despite this challenge, she refused to show any sign of fatigue and reached the top shortly after her Bhikkhu. She briefly looked out on the mountainside. The mountain on which they stood was one of many surrounding the area. All were thickly covered with lush green trees, and occasionally thick fog, making the jungle look more like the sky than the deep valley they resided in.
She knew that if she looked down, she would not see the Monastery from which they had just come, but more fog which seemed to dampen the surrounding noise making everything feel still except for the young girl’s heavy breathing and the occasional whisper from the wind. Turning, the girl noticing her Bhikkhu had already entered the temple and hurried after him.
Entering the temple, she noticed how small it truly was with no walls. There stood only six pillars set in a circle to hold up the tiled roof. Only three things were in the room beside its newest occupants; two flattened cushions and a stack of paper between them. This did not surprise the girl.
Everything in the Monastery was like this; simple, empty, with only the essentials. Even after being here for six months, she was still surprised that a human could live on so little, in such contrast from where she had come.
Stepping forward, she knelt on one of the cushions facing her Bhikkhu. Looking up, she saw his closed eyes and deep breath; he was meditating.
This was not uncommon, as he often lapsed into periods of silence before starting their lesson. Maybe this was why he had chosen her as his pupil. They both felt no need to fill the silence.
This thought struck her suddenly, and she looked down the stack of papers. That wasn’t right. The papers weren’t moving at all. There was no weight on top of the stack to cause this effect. This did not make sense to the young girl; the paper should be fluttering slightly in the wind.
There were no walls to buffet the breeze that she knew was there. She had heard it outside the temple but thinking back she remembered that once she has stepped inside the temple, the air seemed to have become stilted, silent. She itched to stand up and test her theory but resisted only allowing herself to stare hard at the stack of papers as if willing them to move. But to no avail. They remained lifeless on the wooden floor.
Hearing a slight exhale, she looked up. Her Bhikkhu had reopened his eyes and was silently analyzing her. She tried not to fidget under the stare knowing that this was just another one of his many tests, ones that she knows neither the question nor answer to. Opening his mouth, he spoke in a deep voice that always surprised the girl coming from such a withered figure.
“It is time you learn control,” he said simply.
Reaching over to the stack, he took a single sheet of paper and placed it in front of her.
“Fold the paper.”
The girl reached out her hands to follow the instruction but stopped short at the sound of his voice.
“Not with your hands.”
The girl watched her Bhikkhu as he closed his eyes with a soft exhale. She watched transfixed as the paper rose into the air as if caught in an unfelt breeze. As the paper rose, it began to fold itself with practiced ease, so that when the paper had reached her eye level it had transformed into a delicate paper crane.
The crane flapped its paper wings and flew once around the room before returning to hover in front of the girl.
Amazed, she reached out her hand, and the crane lightly landed on her palm where it seemed to return to its previous unanimated state. Looking up in wonder, she noticed that her Bhikkhu had reopened his eyes and was again observing her, though his expression was unchanged she thought his gray eyes looked a little lighter.
“Time your breath. With each exhale, expand yourself outwards toward the paper and imagine the wind is your hands curling around the paper from all sides cradling it as you shape it. Use your breath to give it life.”
With that, he stood gracefully and exited the temple, heading back down the mountain towards the Monastery. The girl however remand seated knowing that this was her new task to complete like the many others.
She would stay here until she had succeeded. So delicately, she placed the completed crane down beside her and took another sheet from the stack. Staring at the sheet intensely she began her work.
For twelve days and nights, she remained in the temple. The only time she wasn’t alone was in the early dawn and late dusk when a samanera would climb up the mountain to deliver a bowl of congee in the morning and vegetables and rice at night. They would also leave a new stack of paper each morning to replace the ones she had destroyed, which was many.
On the first day, she nearly burned down the temple by using too much force and setting the paper alight. After smothering the flame with her cloak, she remembered why she wore it and hastily put it on again. Feeling like a child, she covered the burn mark with cushion, so she was not reminded of the failure.
On the second night, while she laid down to sleep on her makeshift bed of the two cushions, she gazed up at the sky and realized how much closer the stars were here than where she had grown up.
On the third day, the girl realized that she had never seen the same samanera twice. It was always a different boy who brought her food and paper. He always left quickly without saying anything. And she felt more alone than ever.
On the fourth day, as she laid curled up in a pile of crumpled paper and the harsh midday sun beat down on her, she remembered a legend she had heard long ago something about a thousand paper cranes and a wish that would always come true.
On the fifth day, she grew tired of the rice, but did not dare complain; where she grew up complaining led to hunger.
On the sixth day, she questioned why she was here if she still felt trapped, even though there was nothing that separated her from the heavens.
On the seventh day, she thought of a young boy with a chipped smile. His personality perfectly matching his bright yellow robes. She sat up determined to complete her task.
On the eighth day, she worked all night in the light of the full moon.
On the ninth day, she cut her hand on the sharp edge of the stiff paper.
On the tenth day, the girl created her first crane. It took hours to craft and was covered in blood.
On the eleventh day, she woke to the smell of congee, and looking, she saw placed on top of a new stack of papers was a roll of bandages. She ate silently savoring the sweet rice.
On the twelfth day, her Bhikkhu retuned. His withered form climbed hundreds of steps to the temple. Looking down, he saw, spread eagle on the floor surrounded by crumpled bits of paper, the girl.
She made no sign to acknowledge his appearance. She just continued to stare blankly up at the ceiling. He sighed; this was not unusual. The girl was a hard worker, always eager to learn and please, but would easily lose herself.
That is why they had chosen her, took her in, fed, and clothed her when they found her starving and cold. She could walk the line between the worlds better than even the greatest Bhikkhu of the monastery, who could only glimpse at the other sides. She, on the other hand, could step off the edge and fall. Her very presence here was proof of her abilities.
“Did you learn to control?” he questioned. He saw no completed cranes around her, but the girl was known for the unexpected.
Wordlessly, a wrapped hand pointed upwards. Ah yes, Sora had mentioned to him that she had cut her hand. Remembering his downcast expression, the man almost chuckled. It was so at odds with the boy’s normally happy smile. It was a wise decision to introduce them early. That bond would be needed later in life to help bring her back.
Looking up, he smiled to see a solid white cloud of cranes fluttering around the ceiling. There were hundreds of them. The slight beating of their wings he had mistaken for the wind, forgetting momentarily that the temple had enchantments carved into the pillars to keep out the wind.
A sudden movement brought his eyes back down. The girl was sitting, her dazed eyes now staring out onto the valley looking at something he couldn’t see. He watched her silently observing what would happen next.
The girl was ready with the sound of a thousand little wings beating above her, filling the silent room with sound. She stood up and ran out of the temple for the first time in twelve days.
She did not check behind her to see if the cranes were following; she knew that they were. The grass felt cool and wet underfoot, as she raced to the side of the cliff. Standing on the edge, she heard the roar of the wind louder then she remembered it, and with a great swing of her arm, the cloud of white burst from behind her riding the currents of the wind and traveling far out into the valley.
She stood there, her heavy cloak being buffeted back from her body by the wind as if in answer, and she knew that the gods had heard her wish. Turning, she hurried after her Bhikkhu ready for their next lesson.