By Cheri Kamei
Nothing tears two women apart like the men who want and take indiscriminately. In this retelling of “The Crane Wife”, a makeup artist and her actress lover struggle to stay together as the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood transforms into a cruel and manipulative beast that threatens to pluck them apart.
Content warning: This story contains fictional depictions of domestic violence.
“Today,” she says, “we are women who are actually cranes.” Her hair is loose and her face is bare. Off to the side, her wedding dress lies strewn across an entire hotel room bed, train trickling down, a stream of white silk shot through with crimson ribbon. “Do you remember?” she asks.
You remember. You hated that story when you were younger: the molting feathers, the discovery, the betrayal, the abrupt, unsatisfactory conclusion.
“Hey,” she says. The engagement band on her delicate finger gleams in the light. “It’s only a story. And today we are cranes because I say we are beautiful, beautiful cranes.” She tips your chin and her kiss is a resolution, not a promise. You shouldn’t have agreed to see her before the nuptials, but she asked, and you can never say no.
“Okay,” you say. You unpack your bag, lay out the tools of your trade, the colors and powders and stains. While her face is still naked and true, you reach out, cup her cheek, whisper, “Marry me.” You will never tire of saying it.
Everything from the fading stars to the hotel Bible holds its breath. She beams. She breaks into helpless laughter. She gestures at the wedding gown and presses your hands to her tired face.
You nod and pull yourself together, stretch her arm out toward you, and begin to dream of wings.
Once upon a time, there lived a man who found a wounded crane upon his doorstep. Deep in the bird’s breast lay a fletched arrow. A slick spill of blood stained her feathers a furious shade of red, the exact shade of a poppy gone to rot. The man pressed his hands to the wound and, beneath the squelch and gore, he felt a heart that still fought, pounding back against his palm. He had no obligation to the crane, but its beauty, its tragic majesty, moved him. “I will care for you,” he told the crane. “I promise, I promise, I promise.”
It has always been the two of you, ever since you were both jam-handed and pulling the fat, flowered heads of roses off of the bushes in your front yard. You do everything together and never question it. In high school, when she stars as the lead in a few musicals, you attend every show. You fill sketchbooks and canvases with your waking dream: the same girl aging in real time, standing, singing, smiling, in repose; yours, kept pressed between the pages. When junior prom comes around, you get ready together in her bedroom, zipping up dresses, surrounded by tubes of lip gloss and a rainbow of eye tints. The night is perfect and she looks so lovely. She closes her eyes and tilts her head for the touch of a blending brush, and so you kiss her.
It is no surprise, then, that you follow her into the city for the auditions and part-time jobs, the two-bedroom shit apartment you share with one bed made up for show and the other rumpled from two bodies curled close. By day, you attend beauty school and ache with her absence. By night, you dream of the lives you could have together, all the scripts and wardrobe decisions, together, entangled. “Marry me,” you practice whispering as she sleeps. Anything feels possible with her body warm next to yours.
Neither of you feel the world shift the day she books a job, a shoot in the same city where you tear ticket stubs and buy your groceries and make love and exist. You do her makeup for her, at her insistence; for good luck, she says. She leaves in the morning and comes home at night and so you go on. Absolutely nothing changes until everything does.
The movie premieres. Her face is in subways tunnels and on billboards, lovely and large as the moon.
Suddenly everyone wants to stake their claim.
The night before her first televised interview, she sits in bed, breathing into a paper bag. She clings to you and you hold her together with your own two hands. “Come with me,” she insists. “Tomorrow. We’ll tell everyone that only you can do my makeup. It can’t be anyone else. Please.”
It’s how you end up backstage in a small dressing room, murmuring encouragement as you stain her eyelids purple and gold. Turning her face this way and that, you lift the apple of her cheeks with a blush soft as plum blossoms. You rouge her lips into a pink slick as a sliced peach. You hide away the little girl who used to scribble on sheet music and eat too many jam sandwiches and give her a mask to hide behind instead. When you watch her smiling and chatting nervously on the television monitor later, you know you are the only one who can peek behind this version of her. Only you have held her face between two hands and seen the truth of her, brilliant and terrified and beautiful. You think, I am going to marry that woman.
And then her costar walks out to thunderous applause. As he answers questions, he keeps touching her forearm, resting his hand on her thigh. Only you seem to be able to see the way her smile goes rigid. As they depart, he draws her close. She disappears into his embrace, cut from sight like a bird shot from the sky.
There is no question, then: The man takes the injured crane into his home and tends to it with great patience and care. The crane seems to understand his intent, and so allows the touch of his rough hands, the stink of wood smoke and musk that stings. She bears it as best she can. Eventually, she recovers.
There is no question, then: The man must release her. He has no use for a crane, no matter how beautiful. He takes her out of the woods. The sky stretches out. The crane flies far.
But that is not where this tale ends.
The very next evening, a woman appears at the man’s door, beautiful and majestic. She gives no indication that she is a changeling, once a crane. And what reason would the man have to believe in such magic? No version of the story will say.
In any case, it is always the same: The man falls in love.
(Does the woman?)
In any case, they marry.
“I don’t understand,” she says. Her manager has called her in for a discussion. They want photos and flirting and more, playing things up to build buzz for the film. The handsome lead and the beautiful ingénue: It is a story that writes itself.
She looks to you for an answer. You will not be the one to hold her back. You tell her, “I have an idea. Trust me.”
You get out your growing sprawl of cosmetics. For her first awards show, you send her out covered in shimmering camellias and barbed butterflies that spiral down her bare arms, fading into the faint lines of her blue, blue veins. You saturate those delicate petals and wings with all the venom in your heart. You line her eyes sharp as spears. You leave a giant golden flower, bulbous with poison, where her costar is most apt to smack wet kisses. If you cannot show that she is yours and you are hers, then you can at least make them all realize that their touches will be rebuffed, profane and unworthy.
He doesn’t lay a hand on her. (Not that night.)
From then on you give her everything in you: labyrinthine shapes like magic runes, drawn in neon for a fashion show; poetry that curls around the shells of her ear, creeping down her exposed neck, wrapping like a gauntlet round her elbow; a splash of cherry blossoms connected by branches that become swollen stitches, lines becoming giant centipedes, white and delicate as lace, curling protectively around her jaw, for a dinner out she cannot avoid.
You shield her from what you can, but her face is in every magazine and newspaper, and her costar is right there with her. You follow her dutifully and remind yourself that this was your dream. (Somewhere between the shifting planes of each transformation, you buy a ring, deep gold, diamonds and devotion.) But people can only reach out for so long and the barricades you build together stretch only so high. Their touches begin to land, and there is only flesh beneath the fantasies you sear into her skin.
The first time it happens, you are waiting to prep her for some industry event. She comes home and won’t look you in the eye. She is already crying and you don’t understand until she removes her coat and you see the ring of bruises around her biceps. “Don’t be mad.”
“Who did this?” you ask her—can’t look at it, start to reach out, think better of it.
“I told them I didn’t want to do it anymore.” She shakes her head. “They’re going to ruin everything if I tell. The things they said . . .”