Once, in a land between the sun and the moon, on a cliff high above the ocean, there lived a lonely sailmaker. He was a proud man, and therefore loathe to give in to his sadness; but in the spring when the cranes began their mating dance the sorrow became too much for his old heart. On those breezy afternoons, he wove his cloth and thought of how nice it would be to have someone there to help, or to admire how light and fine the sails were when they were done. He would be eating his bachelor’s supper and suddenly realize how much better it would be if he had someone to share his rice with.
One autumn night the old man lay awake in his bed, smelling the scent of leaves burning and of the snow that was soon to come. From a distance came the melancholy cries of the cranes, who were flying south for the winter. He padded barefoot to the front door and stood within its frame for a long while, watching the cranes form v-shaped patterns across the moon. Suddenly, he raised his arms out into the cool fall air, as if to plead for the cranes to come back, but something caught his attention: the long sleeves of his kimono were flapping in the wind, reminding him of the way the cranes fluttered their wings during their dances. Before he knew what he was doing, the weaver was dancing on his doorstep, turning in great circles, dipping up and down just as he had seen the great birds do.
The weaver danced so long into the night that he slept through half the next day and when he awoke he felt ashamed that he had wasted a day of work. He was supposed to deliver a sail the next day to a ship’s captain, but he had not even begun to work on it.
All of a sudden he heard the sound of the shuttle knocking against the loom in the weaving room. For a moment he thought he was dreaming but when he tried the door he found it locked. A voice from inside-a beautiful voice, a woman’s voice-called from inside.
“Please wait and all will be well.”
The weaver was confused, but he was also tired and hungry, so he boiled water for tea and waited. All through the night, the door remained locked and the sound of the shuttle knocking against the loom went on without a break.
‘Whoever is in there is the strongest weaver there ever was,’ the weaver thought. ‘Even if she is ugly, I will ask her to marry me.’
But in the morning, when the weaver awoke, he found the most amazingly beautiful woman kneeling by his side, holding the finished sail. Her skin was white as down, her eyes as black as the underside of a crow’s wing. She held out to him the bundle of white silk, which when he took it in his hands was so light it was as if it held the wind.
“This is my dowry,” the woman said to him,”if you’ll have me as your bride.”
Of course, the weaver was delighted to have this woman, who was not only beautiful but skilled and useful, as his bride. And when he delivered the sail to the ship’s captain he was paid twice what he had been paid before because the sail was so fine and light.
The weaver and his bride lived happily all that winter on the money from that sail, but in the spring the money was gone and the weaver knew he must make another. A messenger from the ship’s captain had come to ask for another sail like the one he had bought before, one that seemed to coax the wind out of the sky.
“Only you can make a sail like that,” the weaver told his bride. “Will you make me another?”
The weaver’s bride was slow to answer, which surprised the weaver because she had always been happy to do all that he had asked. Finally she answered, “I do not think you understand, my husband, what you ask of me. The work takes so much out of me. I was glad to do it as my dowry, as a gift from my heart, just as your dance was a gift from your heart. But if you want me to do this, I will do it for you this once.”
The weaver felt shame at her words, but, being the proud man that he was, he frowned magnificently and nodded at his wife to begin her work. After all, who was she to make him feel ashamed?
And so, his wife went into the weaving room and locked the door and for two days and two nights he heard the sound of the shuttle being knocked against the loom without stop or rest. Finally, his wife called to him that the work was done. When he went inside, however, he found his wife leaning against the loom, her poor hands still clutched around the shuttle like birds’ claws. On the floor at her side was the sail, as flawless and light as the last one.
The weaver sold the sail for twice again what he sold the last one for, and they were able to live for two years from the money, but at the end of those two years the money was gone again. When he went to his bride she knew what he was going to ask even before he spoke.
“Do not ask this of me, husband,” she said. “You ask me to give all of myself.”
Again the weaver felt ashamed, a feeling he despised. “As a good wife should,” he answered, and showed her to the loom.
This time she worked for three days and three nights without rest or stop. The weaver waited for her call to come inside, and when it did not come, he grew worried. Soon the worry gave over to fear, and then anger.
‘What is so hard about her weaving that she makes such a fuss?’ he asked himself, and forced the door open to see for himself.
Before him was a sight that he would never forget, no matter how hard he tried in the days to come.
Trapped inside the loom stood a huge crane, its claws wrapped around the shuttle. Its long neck bent down to pull a feather from its wing, and then the great bird used its beak to feed the feather to the shuttle, weaving the cloth out of the downy white feathers. The silk that fell from the loom shook with the rocking of the bird, trembling like frail flowers in the wind. As he stood in the doorway, his mouth wide open, the bird turned to him and he saw his wife’s black eyes looking at him. When she saw him, she dropped the shuttle and flew out the window.
The weaver called her name and followed her, but although she flew slowly and close to the ground, he could not keep up with her. Even after he lost sight of her, he followed the path of bloody feathers she left behind.
He never found her. At the end of the trail of carnage there were only rocks and sand.
The days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and then it was spring again. The old man sometimes thought he could smell her, the way her hair always seemed to hold the scent of the beach, and he would wake up expecting to see her bare shoulder, as smooth and pale as the underside of a lily, peeking out from beneath the blanket.
And when the cranes came back, the weaver heard their lonesome cries at night and wondered if she was with them, if perhaps she had forgiven him for taking advantage of the part of herself she had given so lovingly.
He wondered if her feathers would ever be the same.