Crane Wife, Owl Lover by KB Baltz

I did not intend to marry a crane. I was a young man, just beginning to grow the softest of whiskers on my chin. I spent my summer days walking through the woods, along streams, and into the marsh, always with a rifle on my back and looking for game of some variety or another, but always coming back empty-handed. Instead, I sat among the reeds and enjoyed the sun on my face and the exotic tones of mindless songbirds.

It was one of these endless summer days that she first found me. I was sitting on a small rise in the marsh, watching a pair of beavers build their dam, peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my hand. She poked her head out from between a set of reeds. The blood-red cap on top of her head glimmered in the sunlight and her long lithe neck caused me to confuse her for a swan for a moment. It was the sharp hunter’s beak that gave her away for a crane. She was built for stalking unsuspecting frogs and fish through still waters. Why she took a second glance at me, I will never know. Take a glance she did, though.

As a young man, how could I ignore the glint in her eye or the naked beauty of her unnaturally long legs? She clacked her sharp beak at me as she rose from the reeds and walked toward me, her stilted gate between a dancer and a clown. Unsure what to do, I broke my meal in two and offered her half my sandwich with a shaking hand. She turned her graceful head to stare at me with one dark eye before she grabbed the sandwich and tossed it down her gullet in a single bite. She made eye contact with me again and I could not help but reach out to try to caress her graceful form. She trilled an anxious sound and took to the air. Her serpentine neck folded into an ‘s’ and her long bare legs trailed behind. I watched as she disappeared over the horizon.

Shaking myself from my rapture, I rose from the ground. I was as gangly as she but lacking her grace, all angles and elbows instead of soft curves. Retreating from the wildness, I returned home and let thoughts of her turn to dreams.

Each day after, I returned to the marsh and waited for her. My pockets full of seeds, grains, half-frozen white mice, and of course more sandwiches. For a week she did not return. I should have given up then, but the dreams of youth are hard to shake even in daylight hours.

At last, on a muggy late spring day, she lit upon me once more, staring me down with her singular dark stare. I struggled to my feet, nearly falling over them, and tossed the contents of my pockets on the ground before her. She leaned back on one leg as if to strike me, but instead leaned down to examine my offerings. The mice were the first to disappear into her maw, followed in short order by the seeds and grain.

I stood before her, my shoulders hunched and unsure of myself. She had no such misgivings and unfurled her great wings and bowed before me. Using my arms as a poor imitation I returned her bow. She looked at me with both eyes, then, asking in the language of birds if I was sure.

We danced. Arms and wings swooping and twisting, legs waltzing and kicking, leaps into the air and deep bows with our foreheads nearly pressed to the ground. With every step, my Crane shed her feathers until a perfectly sculpted naked woman danced before me.

After an eternity, we collapsed into exhaustion, nestled closely to each other as men and women do, borrowing each other’s warmth as the stars appeared.

In the morning, I awoke shivering in a heavy mist. I looked for my crane and found her hidden among the reeds, feathers back in place, sitting on a nest I had not seen the day before. She dipped her red-crested head at me before raising to her full height and showing me two perfect snow-white eggs.

I am not proud, but I ran. I was just a young man and not prepared for the trials of parenthood. How would I, a ground-locked wingless child, raise chicks that I did not agree to have?

Being of solid Catholic upbringing, my feet brought me quickly to a confessional.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”—I quickly crossed myself as I took a knee—“it has been two weeks since my last confession.

“I have taken a woman to bed of whom I am not wed. Our coupling has borne fruit.”

In halting breaths, I told him of the crane and our dance. Tears fell from my eyes.

“You have no reason to ask forgiveness,” said the priest. “No sin has been committed.  You took your wife to nest.”

“But how?”

“You wed in the way of birds. There may have been no white dress or long recitations, but you married in a way that honored God nonetheless. You are hardly the first man to take a crane as wife. Be glad you have wed such a loyal woman; she is yours alone for life.”

“I am barely a man? How can I keep a wife?”

“I’m sure you will figure that out. Let us pray.”

I wish I could say that I took to fatherhood as quickly as I took to my Crane Wife, but I started out poorly. I was only a young man and had different priorities. It would often be days between my visits to the nest, and I often forgot food for my loyal wife. She sat the nest without complaint, even as her flesh sagged from her delicate bones and her stomach growled endlessly.

It is no surprise that our first brood turned out poorly. Two boys. One was born twisted with a neck that could barely bend and a leg that folded beneath his weight. She tossed him from the nest just moments after he hatched and I could not make her accept him no matter how many times I returned him to her. Tired of my human foibles, she broke his neck and tossed him from the nest for the last time. I took his crumpled body and buried him next to the many pets that my family had over the years. The next time I went to look upon his grave I found it violated by a fox or some other woodland creature.

Our remaining son grew with fits and starts, his body never quite matching neck and limbs. Still, he grew from a naked chick to speckled juvenile, and finally to a handsome boy in his full plumage. I had barely begun to know him when it was time for him and his mother to fly south for the winter. While I was my Crane Wife’s husband, I could no more deny her the nature of her migration than I could follow her to warmer climates.

I came into my own that winter. My shoulders broadened and my peach fuzz grew into a thick beard. The women in my town noticed, and I cannot say I didn’t preen under their flirtations. I was not the best husband. Their words, more than the act itself, left me feeling empty and guilty. They could never abandon me, they said, our children would stay with their father where they belonged if only I would leave my Crane Wife. There is no divorce in the world of birds, and none of the human women wanted to play house for only half the year.

Winter turned to spring, as it is wont to do, and every day I waited near the nesting site. As days slipped into weeks and ice turned first to mud and then dry soil, I began to lose hope of her return. My worries were for naught, as on the first warm day she soared down from the heavens. Again, we danced, reaffirming our love for each other. It was not until we collapsed into content exhaustion that I thought to ask after our son. She could not say if he fell to hunters, or disease, or exhaustion, simply that he fell. She was not the best mother in those early years.

We settled into our life together. In the summer, my life was full.

Always one or two chicks a season. Sometimes they made it, sometimes they didn’t. Of the ones who grew, only a few ever stopped by to say hello to their father, either to introduce mates, both crane and human, or to wish me a good life as their migrations took them further abroad. I like to believe I have many grandchildren.

The long winters took their toll. I had stopped my dalliances with local women years before. My guilt and their anger were not worth a moment’s ecstasy. I wore my loneliness like my wife wore her feathers.

It was cruel serendipity when Owl fell into my life. Literally. She crashed through my front window after a fight with a hawk over the carcass of a rabbit on Christmas Eve. I rushed to my front room as the sounds of her screams changed from ear-piercing squawks to the sounds of a woman swearing. She was naked and covered in glass when I found her. Her black and white mottled hair gave her away for what she was. She was transfixing.

“How about something to cover up with?”

“Of course,” I pulled a quilt from on top of the couch and tossed it to her.

She stood, cradling an injured arm.

“How about a ride to the hospital?”

“But you’re a bird.”

“Well, if we go to the vet they would put me down.”

“Oh.”

“Besides,” she hooted, “broken bones heal better in this form.”

I did not intend to bring an owl home with me, but she would not release my arm when we got to the hospital.

“I don’t get to sink my talons into a mouse until this heals, so I may as well sink them into you, for putting me in this position.”

She was the one who crashed through my window, but bird logic does not make sense to the human mind. Besides, it wasn’t wise to upset an already annoyed predator, even one so patient as a snowy owl. So she came home with me.

I boarded up the front window. She found every blanket in the house and turned it into a nest in the front room. She dug through my closet and found several shirts to cover herself with, although try as I might I could not talk her into wearing pants. We passed the winter months companionably, sharing laughs and dinner, albeit rarer than I was properly comfortable with. In the evenings I would read to her, and she would tell me stories of winter storms and the comedy of crows.

Her cast came off eight weeks later, but I did not ask her to leave and she did not volunteer. We continued our friendship, but she moved her nest into my bed and I could not find it in myself to say no. I did not realize how deeply alone I was until I was with my Owl. She filled the darkest days of the year with joy.

Spring came late that year, or perhaps it came when it always did, but I was too deep in denial to recognize the melting snow and budding trees. In the early evenings, Owl would perch on the deck, yellow eyes fixed north. She would move her head as though listening to some siren song that I could not hear.

“Stay a little longer,” I would say.

She would shake off her feathers and smile at me with her predator’s grin.

“A little longer,” she would agree.

“I would marry you if I wasn’t already wed,” I said one night while curled in our nest of blankets and bones. I slowly preened her mottled hair between my fingers.

“I am honored,” she said, “but I would not marry you.”

My hand fell to my chest. Owl looked out the window to the north for several heartbeats before she turned her yellow gaze toward me. She brought her black clawed fingers to caress my face.

“Are you promised to another?” I asked.

“No, you are a wonderful man. I am an owl, not a man, or a crane, or any beast who takes a single lover for life. I have enjoyed our time together, but I have already stayed too long.”

“Will you return next winter?”

“No. I am an owl. We take lovers for a season, no longer. I will remember you fondly.  You are my first man.”

I felt my eyes fill with tears, but none spilled down my cheeks. I learned years before that birds can no more shed their nature than I could my skin. That night I tried to stay awake with her, but with my human failings I fell asleep before the sun peeked over the horizon. Owl was gone when I woke.

Such was my pain that I did not immediately see my wife standing at the foot of the nest. I had missed her arrival for the first time in our many years together, and she had searched me out. Her red hair was streaked with grey and her lips were pressed into a thin line. She did not invite me to dance. Instead, she coupled with me in the way of humans, leaving me with an edge of pain and guilt.

She kept her human form after and gathered Owl’s nest into her graceful arms and threw it out the door. The blankets and bones landed in a misshapen pile that kept small predators at my door for months to come.

Crane Wife looked at me, then, but did not speak. Instead, with an unsteady hand, she wrote me a list:

  • Blankets
  • Sheets
  • Seeds
  • Crib

After so many years of squawking, awkward chicks, she would finally gift me with children of my own to love and raise.

I rushed to embrace her, all thoughts of Owl excised from my mind. Instead, I found her foot planted firmly against my chest and her thin fingers pointing toward the door. Perhaps we would speak when I returned?

She did not utter a sound to me. I watched as her belly grew and the flesh fell from her bones. She crafted the nursery with as much care as she had our nests. Every morning I would wake to a list of items to be purchased or chores to be done, but every time I reached for her she turned me away.

When it was time, she cast me out of the birthing room with a look. I could hear her screams as human childbirth broke her bird bones. When, at last, she was silent, I could hear the quiet cooing cries of a child.

The midwife brought me twins. A boy and a girl. Red peach fuzz crowned their heads and they shared their mother’s dark gaze.

“She is not doing well,” said the midwife.

I pushed the babes back into her arms and went to my wife’s side. The skin hung from her frame and her flesh was paler than even Owl’s. After months of cold shoulders, she reached for me.

“We are mated for life,” she whispered, “and now I have given you mine.”

My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. What comfort could I offer her?

“I have a final request,” she said. “Help me back into my feathers.”

I could not refuse her, she who had stayed faithful and true to a man such as myself.

I carried her in crane form to the marsh where she first shared my peanut butter sandwich. She cooed sweet nothings to me in the language of cranes.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to her.

She buried her red-crested head into my chest. My hands became sticky from her blood. We both cried then. For what we had, what we did not, and for all the words left unsaid.

When the tears ran dry, she lifted her head toward the heavens. I tossed her toward the sky with red dripping from her long legs. As she took flight, she screamed out a single note and from all across the marsh, cranes joined her cry and took flight with her.

For the last time, I watched as she disappeared over the horizon, a flock following behind her. Covered in blood and love, I returned home and began to build a human life for my children and myself.


KB Baltz was born in a Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea a month early and sideways. She has been doing things backward ever since. When she isn’t writing she can be found screaming into the void while finishing her MS in GIS (fancy maps). Some of her other work can be found at New Feathers, Atlas and Alice, and Rogue Agent.