The Whooping Cranes

Ashley Mayne

In the late nineties I become a juvenile delinquent and spend the summer doing community service at a garden center. I drive around, those nights, in a top-down burnt Corolla older than me. Austin is a city of wildfires. Animals drink from swimming pools, and I clean houses for twenty dollars and continue to steal. Then it’s ten years later on the other side of the country, and I’m in love with another man old enough to be my father.

This man, Nic, has the eyes of a horse tied to a fence. He tells me he already knows what it’s like to die. He says his wife deserves better, and I can do better. I don’t know about that, but I do have a better car. So I drive back to Austin. It’s November now, and hot.

Back in my hometown again, Blue Dog and I sit in the Texas Star parking lot beside the cooling, ticking engine. He shares his water with me. Says, What would you like me to write you a poem about? He might be Jesus.

When I was seven, I saw a flock of whooping cranes with my father. We were standing in the dust behind the school. Recorders howled out of an upstairs window. When I die, I will remember this perfectly. It will cross my brain, a star of dust caught in a beam. A tiny, burning world just floating by.

I broke into swimming pools at night because we lived in the desert. At that time I was already doing it, and climbing water towers. The trick is to throw a car floor mat over the barbed wire fence and haul your body to the other side. We, my father and I, watched the cloud of white birds form, circle, and move out. They were twenty strong and their wings reached for the sky. They were a string, trembling. My father said they were the last left in the world.

His voice: They’ll fly back to the place where they were born. Sad like I had come to hear it more often in those days. Like I heard it when he and my mother ran out of love, and he found someone else. Like I heard it, withered with shame, after he hit me. A tiny little man trapped in a drain. It’s a slow extinction, he said. We did not touch. I was a bad kid even then. A seven-year-old outlaw. There are things he’ll never say to me as long as I’m alive.

The cranes keep flying. Then we can’t see them. Then it’s twenty years later. Just you and me, I say to the man I love. The stars are on our skins. Nic won’t come with me into the Adirondack lake. His eyes, so huge and wet, asking for mercy. Just us, I say, even though I know there’s no such thing. I see you. I always will. And I say to Blue Dog, Write me a poem about a wolf. And I give him twenty dollars for it in the Texas Star parking lot, even though I know he’ll spend the money on dope. I say, Maybe it will rain tomorrow. And I say and do all this before I learn that the trick is to go on as if we’ve always had, and always will have plenty. As if we’re going to wind up lapping those cool, dark waves again. As if we aren’t the last ones left dead or alive.

Ashley Mayne is the author of the novella Mankiller. Her work has appeared in Fence, Post Road, Juked, Blight Podcast, Peripheries, Metambesen, Malasana, and elsewhere. She edits fiction for Fence, curates the reading series Crystal Radio, and farms in the Hudson Valley.