The air was surprisingly cool despite the bright sun shining in the sky. Akio walked through his village with a basket slung over one shoulder and a sickle in his other hand. The harvest festival was the following day and it was important that he collect the remaining sheaths before sunset. As his bare feet plodded along those all too familiar paths, he mindlessly hummed a song which returned to his heart each autumn. He was surprised to feel an unusual crunch beneath his toes and stopped just short of his nearly barren paddy.
It did not feel like a dried maple leaf, like a dried bamboo husk nor like some wayward rice straw which had fallen from a neighbor’s load. Laying his basket aside and setting his sickle on a nearby rock, Akio leaned forward to investigate. It was a paper crane! Traveling monks and learned men had shown the villagers the art of origami on many occasions, but no such persons had visited in several moons. Perhaps a child had foolishly snatched it from the family shrine and then mindlessly dropped it as he played.
Although there was work to be done, Akio moved his sickle aside and sat atop the rock. Despite the cool air, the stone was warm with the afternoon sun. He held the crumpled crane in his palm. As he tried to straighten the poor creature’s neck and wings, the villager began to wonder. Who folded this crane? Where did he come from? How did he learn to make something so intricate, so precise and beautiful? How did the first person to fold the crane know how to do so without a teacher? Could I learn to fold a crane? Would my farmer’s hands blacken the clean white paper? Would my thick calloused fingers be nimble enough for the folding?
As he stared at the paper he visualized a scholar dressed in robes working intently at his desk. He conjured the image of a monk serenely folding the crane on the porch of a temple. Surely the one who folded the crane came from a higher, educated class. What farmer had time to waste on such hobbies? Who in Hinata Machi had paper to fold anyways? What must it be like to have a life which affords such pleasures? What pleasures did Akio have apart from a warm fire, the occasional festival and some home brewed sake to bring relief to his aching back?
Akio couldn’t help himself. He mumbled to himself as he fidgeted with the origami, How is the beak of the crane formed after all? Ah, it isn’t so hard! One only has to fold the tip down through the neck! And what of the neck? It seems quite similar to the tail. It is! They both emerge similar folds. Simple enough. Hmmm, doesn’t look like much anymore. Can’t be too much even for a simple villager like me. Let’s see here…
Before Akio knew it, a square of paper sat in his palm with an intricate pattern of creases across it. He studied it. He imagined how each line was related to the shape of the crane. He saw a unique fold on one side that must have been the beak he first unfolded… but apart from that everything blended together.
Suddenly, another thought flashed across his mind. Now that I’ve seen how the crane was folded, I wonder who made the paper and how?
Just as quickly, the thought of his sheaths returned to him.
Oh, I’ve spent enough time sitting here in the sun like a lazy dog. I’ll just refold the crane and finish the day’s work.
The process which had seemed so straight forward became muddled. Akio followed the creases, but couldn’t manage the folds in the correct order. It had seemed so simple. After a couple of attempts, the creases began to hide their original orientation. The paper became smudged with the years of soil embedded in the farmer’s hands. The delicate paper became worn along the edges, began to tear at the creases. In frustration he folded it into a small square and placed the paper inside the folds of his garment.
That evening Akio warmed himself next to the fire as his wife served him a small cup of sake. His eyes drifted up to the family shrine which was nestled in the corner of the kitchen. The farmer felt a pang of regret and wished he had a crane to place atop the altar. He poured the evening’s sake into his mouth in the same way that he poured the water offering every morning. The farmer sat silently in the warm flickering light as his wife finished mending his best kimono for the harvest festival.
Perhaps, he would try to fold the crane again… in the morning. Perhaps a traveling monk would visit for the harvest festival and teach him how.