PRAYING FOR BIRDS
A Titan A.E short story
DISCLAIMER: Titan A.E belongs to Don Bluth and Fox Animation Studios. Several characters included in this story are the creative work of Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta
SPOILERS: For Akima's Story, the official prequel to Titan A.E, written by Anderson and Moesta
This fic would not have been possible without Tigrin's helpful comments & Specter06's challenge to keep the fandom going.
"Cranes over Hiroshima: white and red and gold -
flicker in the sunlight like a million vanished souls.
I will fold these cranes of paper to a thousand one by one
and I'll fly away when I'm done." (Fred Small, "Cranes over Hiroshima")
The smell of burning meat is so strong she has to cover her face when she works with the others. All day, as long as they can work, they pull bodies out from the shattered houses. Many are charred and faceless. Those with faces are identified. The helpers lay the bodies on the street, waiting for someone to claim them.
She works with Ishaq and the familiar men of the neighbourhood. She works until her nails have been carved out, smoothen by the lifting, the friction of carrying and digging deep into the crumbling remains of refugee houses. A shell of dust, metal and dried blood encrusts the spaces in between her fingers.
But when they break for the night, she does not wash away the dirt of the day's work. Instead, she goes back to her room, bids Ishaq goodnight and continues to fold paper cranes.
Four hundred and fifty-nine, she counts. She needs one thousand of them for Mohammed Bourain's funeral.
When she was still alive, her obaa-chan would lay down sheets of delicate rice paper around her room, like a second floor. She would fold, compress and tear with an almost mathematical skill squares of paper, and then fold them into origami cranes. When she had been old enough to make them, Akima had sat down beside her obaa-chan, folding, crafting, creating –
A thousand cranes, her obaa-chan would insist: the numbers are the same for every funeral. Old as she was, she could sculpt the cranes so fast, so carefully. At the end of each day, Akima would finish to have the entire floor littered with tiny paper birds, strung together by a single wire of cotton like a massive quivering necklace. While she assembled the lines of birds, her obaa-chan would spend the night making more rice paper, mixing dye to give them their hue.
Now, Akima has no rice paper. She has no cotton wire or strings to lace up the birds. But she has sacks, and scrap paper. She tears out the singed, black-stamped pages of precious books burned in the fire following the Drej attack and folds them. Her fingers bleed under her fingernail, chipped from the day's rescue work. But she doesn't bother, leaving faint crimson crescents on the wings, beaks, necks of the fluttering paper birds.
Ever since the Drej breached the artificial atmosphere of the New Marrakech drifter colony, strong winds and static lightning pound relentlessly on the survivors. No one in the colony knows how to repair the atmosphere. The winds blast metal dust and ash from a thousand funeral pyres back at the working men and women. Cackling lightning scar the sky above where the community has its first meeting since the attack.
It is been decided that since the only low-gravity funeral dome the colony has is too full, the funerals of those in the neighbourhood will be held in the ruined mosque in the centre of the souks. A collective funeral has to be conducted as soon as possible, they say: the bodies are already beginning to smell. All recovery work ends to prepare the bodies for a proper send-off. The identified bodies are sealed in their coffins and stacked inside. The ones still unspoken for are covered with white cloth and stacked alongside the minaret, tilting like loose tooth.
She watches these proceedings, sitting on a stone block, her hands working on her cranes. When Ishaq returns and the meeting ends, he sits with her. He asks what she is doing.
"You'll see," she says to him.
"Is this one of your traditions? Will you teach me? "
She sees Ishaq's calloused, wounded hands, skin peeling from burrowing through rubble. She holds one completed paper crane over his open palms and drops it. It bounces, but Ishaq quickly nips at it with his fingers until it settles, its wing bent, in the bowl of his palm.
"That was a good catch," he says.
Akima gives him a face: "Not good enough." She plucks the paper bird from his palm and lays it gently in her lap. "I'll teach you only if you can catch it without breaking any part of it."
Ishaq shakes his head. "You're too much," he says, grinning, and he gets up to join the men at the mosque. She thinks it is the first time Akima has seen him smiling his father died. She watches him from afar, and smoothens the bent wing till it's perfect again. With another square of paper she begins another. Six hundred and eighty-eight.
In the souks of New Marrakech, two streets and a cistern separate obaa-chan's house from those in Mohammed's neighbourhood. But there is no direct route across between the two points, so Akima remembers walking through the twisted alleys between the houses, crouching past low-lying lines of laundry like a floating cloud of fabric as she moves around the mess of humanity.
On quieter days, she can determine the exact point where obaa-chan's quarter dissolves into the larger neighbourhoods of the souks. She will walk along houses with paper doors, and then suddenly past dwellings with prayers scrawled in chalk above the doorposts – into a haze of other scents, other memories. Singing women massaging rice into cakes give way to men sharing sisha. The scent of miso and steamed rice – breaking into black coffee brewing and camphor. Her own obaa-chan –then the elderly ojii-san in the keffiyeh with his prayer beads.
She sometimes thinks how two human cultures, divided by oceans, mountains and deserts on the old earth, just sharing the street in the souks.
But on most days the interlocking streets are filled, crowded with people. She rarely cuts through the invisible line from one quarter to the other anymore, having taken residence in Mohammed's house. She still knows the women who seem to be endlessly at the rice presses, the men who are always cutting away at some block of wood –
Now, the Drej attack has blitzed the souks. The fire has claimed whatever remains. The streets are only beginning to fill. As she stands on the threshold, there are no women at the rice press, no carpenters, no men with their pipes, no ojii-san in the keffiyeh. Wreckage spreads in all directions like the cratered surface of a foreign planet. Children play in the ruins. A man sells pita by a scorched plume of house.
As she passes them, back and forth, everyone asks about the paper cranes which are spilling out from her arms.
As the community rests, she transfers her load of cranes to the mosque, so she will not have to return to the house after funeral the following day. She finds a cleft in the wall where she can see both the crumbled entrance and the bodies: all wrapped individually in a long piece of unsewn cloth, all washed and prepared for the ceremony. All their feet face in the same direction, pointing to what the mourners believe is qibla, like a signpoint to a distant horizon.
Every thirty cranes or so she bathes her hands in salt water. She shakes them dry, undoes the strain building in her shoulders. She crackles her knuckles, feeling the bones of her fingers press against each other, the only noise which she can use to help her stay awake. Soon, she assembles a circle of cranes around her, a silent audience of red, white and char brown.
When she thinks she cannot fight back sleep, something from outside the entrance moves like a blur into her failing eyes. She turns towards it. She drapes her fingers in the bowl of salt water and runs them across her eyes. When she can see better, she sees Ishaq.
He sits himself down, takes the paper in his hands and begins to use his torn fingernails to make straight folds.
He asks again: "Why do you fold them?"
Akima is too tired to say anything. She cannot even remember what her obaa-chan told her, or the strength of her memory as this point. All she knows are the sheets of paper, the paper-thin birds and delivering them to the relatives of the deceased.
"You don't have to do this yourself you know," he says.
"Then don't make it seem like you're the only one suffering." His face is close, so deeply shadowed by the lack of light she cannot tell where his eyes are focused. "Teach me."
"Fine. I'm only going to say this once, you stubborn –"
So she does. Ishaq listens, makes folds and follows. The final product looks more like a flower than a bird. She blames his clumsy, big hands. But she doesn't complain as he continues, his every paper bird matching six of her own.
When she finally falls asleep, the last thing she sees is Ishaq, sitting among the birds, a blood-red crane she placed on his left ear out of boredom like a fatal wound, a colour too visible in her dreams.
Her hands move even before she opens her eyes. Ishaq is gone. She plucks the birds from the ground and lets her fingers operate on her own accord. She can't remember the last count: was it nine hundred and thirty?
Soon, the community readies itself for the funeral. It's the first collective funeral to be held on New Marrakech, ever. The colony has never had so many dead before.
For the rest of the morning, Akima lets her weary hands rest from folding. Instead she joins the younger girls as they cleanse floor of the mosque with rose water. She pours and scrubs and spreads the sweet-smelling water on the tiled floor, the only part of the building not salvaged from some damaged spacecraft. She makes her hands redder than they already are.
Ishaq tells her she smells of wildflowers. Neither of them know, really, what wildflowers actually are. But she hopes he's too tired to notice the flush she feels.
Before the ceremony even begins, there are problems. Who will lead the prayers? Where is the direction of the qibla now that there is no holy city, no Earth? How will the bodies be buried? All the religious teachers, Mohammed included, have been victims of the attack, and the belief that the bodies must face qibla to be accepted into the afterlife still runs strong among the elders. Akima watches them discuss, but her mind returns to the wings and necks of birds. She thinks, as her obaa-chan did, the afterlife could just be as frail as the birds she makes, or as fleeting as the translucent paper that holds the birds together.
The problems are solved: Ishaq will lead, since he is one of few who can remember the prayers by heart. The entire neighbourhood, almost a hundred people, gather in the wings of the mosque. There are people of all colours and beliefs. They surround a space in the middle, where fifty or more white shrouds lay lined, their faces cleaned, their eyes looking towards heaven. Ishaq stands with the dead.
She has never seen him dressed like this: head covering, a robe slightly too big, an ornate, intricately designed book settled his arms. He is clothed in white from top to bottom. She thinks of wake angels. Then Ishaq starts to speak in a language Akima does not fully understand. Now, she thinks of his father.
He recites and recites, pausing as if to let the mourners know exactly what he will say, how we will say it. Akima only knows some words: Al-Fatehah. Yaasin. Al-Fatehah again. She watches him stand over every single white shroud, like a doctor looking deep into the face of a patient, and utter the necessary prayers. Those present know exactly when to respond.
Finally, Ishaq stops. He puts aside the book and looks at the crowd. He makes a movement with his arm, the crowd stirs and someone nudges her forward. Then, she understands Ishaq is asking for her. And he's standing over his father.
He holds a white cloth in his hands like he is carrying the most precious thing in the universe.
"We place it together," he almost orders.
She doesn't know what to do, but she follows. They put the cloth over the face. She has to look away. She cannot glance at him in the face. When she looks to Ishaq for help, he is turned away too. She knows he is trying to control himself.
A group of younger boys place a larger green cloth over the shroud, wrapping it completely. They carry the body on their shoulders as they crowd begins to move. Akima watches them: she lowers herself to the ground, something in her chest threatening to dismantle her, as Mohammed's body is bourne away, encased in a thousand prayers of Ishaq's language.
She feels Ishaq hand on her shoulder before she can leave. Some people are already looking their way.
"Will you be there?"
Akima can only think of a number – nine hundred and seventy-five – in the sacks by the minaret at the back of the mosque. But she knows what he wants.
"Yes. But you go first. There's something I need to do."
He nods, and they leave in opposite directions: he to bury the dead, she to finish her own one thousand prayers.
When she finishes the final crane, she lets it float to the ground where her swollen hands have stopped in mid-air. She takes the bags, laden with wishes, and goes to the heart of the souks where they will bury the bodies of New Marrakech's most honourable dead, sealing them within the structure of the colony, forever.
Akima is three turns away from the cistern at the centre of the souks when she pauses. The paper birds rustle, her hands beginning to feel the weight. She decides: get off the street. She moves into one of the alleys, fights past laundry and unrecovered wreckage.
She reaches the minaret at the deserted mosque, and clambers her away up the ladders leading to the top. Halfway up, she hears the groan of the old structure bearing her weight: it shifts, it creaks, but it holds. Akima hauls the sacks of birds to the very top, where the artificial wind is so strong it smacks into her face like an open palm.
From the balcony of the minaret she is high enough to see over the souks and towards the cistern, where the crowd huddles. Above, the atmosphere bristles with streaks of lightning, outlining the steel heaven that is upper limits of the colony. She is not sure where the winds are blowing, or why the electricity sweeps the air above her.
So she judges the distance, opens the sacks and throws one thousand paper cranes into the air.
The mass of paper cranes falls out into the air, sinking like a waterfall spilling from the her hands. But before Akima can blink, the next updraft catches them, and the cranes are everywhere. She has to throw up her hands as the wind hurls some of them directly at her.
The birds struggle to fly, falling everywhere. They dip and swirl in a rainbow of colours, tossed by the wind in a hundred different directions like an explosion. For a brief moment, Akima is surrounded by the birds, hours of all her faithful folding sweeping away into the air.
She thinks they are beautiful.
From below, people are shouting, and children are rushing to collect the birds. She knows she should go soon: already, she can imagine Ishaq turning, watching, wondering as the fog of shades and paper birds blossoms from the minaret – as the birds start to pour down all around while he recites the final Yaasin - as he and the others finally seal Mohammed into afterlife –
But now, Akima just watches. She lays her head on the wall behind her, and tucks herself into the small space on the balcony of the minaret. When she's tired of watching, she closes her eyes. She imagines the birds, drifting on the wind, like her prayers for hope and peace: there's a hundred of them, drizzling down in every home, into every person's lap, into every person's hands, in every corner of New Marrakech. There's the soft chorus of prayer, the friction of paper against skin.
And there's the beating of feet, and the sound of children.
As a Sociology student, I used my memory & knowledge of 2 different traditions - the practice of Senbazuru (a thousand paper cranes) and Malay-Muslim funeral rites - to write this story. The beauty of Titan A.E allows me to think of humanity as a cultural whole, with all its diversity.
Questions then, are: does the detail on rites and traditions blur the meaning of the story?
Also, I don't know who is left in the Titan A.E fandom. But I'm writing this because of a conversation Specter06 and I had about Titan A.E. One way to keep the the fandom going after 11 years is to write. And that's what I'm doing.