Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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September 18, 2020

Adam R. Nettesheim


Very long ago, in a place quite far away, was a village on the edge of a lake where a little girl named Kaori lived with her family. Her father was a fisherman, her mother was a skilled painter, and her seven older brothers had all gone to serve in the army. But little Kaori was not alone. She had a very dear friend whom she loved very much. The two would play for hours and tell each other secrets and share each other’s hopes and giggle at each other’s jokes. But Kaori’s dear friend got sick. Kaori could not go and see her friend because it was too dangerous. Then, when it seemed she may have been getting better, her friend suddenly died. Kaori was so heartbroken. So much so that games did not seem fun anymore, jokes did not seem funny anymore, secrets did not seem worth telling anymore, and hopes seemed not worth having anymore. From that day, she refused to speak to anyone her own age. She also refused to go back to school, so her mother had to teach her at home.

When little Kaori was not learning from the lessons her mother would frantically assemble, she would go fishing with her father. They would push off and paddle out in a wooden boat that was beautifully painted by her mother, and on the edges of the boat were perched their four cormorant birds. Their family had used these large water birds for fishing for as long as the family had memory of what they were. Though other families had many more boats and many more birds to use, Kaori’s family only had one boat and only four birds. But their small catch was always enough for them now that the seven boys were being fed and clothed by the military. The other fisherman would laugh at her father for bringing a girl out onto the lake, but her father would wrap his arm around her tightly and speak words of love into her ear every time someone could be heard making a disrespectful remark. He would let her wear his hat and would try to make her laugh and would sing old songs to her about benevolent spirits that lived in the waters and trees. They would paddle out to their chosen fishing spot, and her father would begin carefully tying the throat snare on each of the birds, so that they would not swallow the fish they caught with their long hooked bills. But there was one cormorant that was Kaori’s favorite. The female cormorant had beautiful dark brown feathers, like the hair of her lost friend, and a beak with a band of yellow that wrapped down and around from under its eyes. When her father would tie the throat snare around this bird’s neck, and then turn to attend to the others, Kaori would sneak over and undo the snare so that this bird would be free to eat all of the fish it wanted. Her father saw what she had done the first time she did it, though he pretended not to see. If it made his daughter’s heart lighter, he would gladly trade it for the few fish lost. The cormorants were released to fish, and as they returned, beaks full or necks bulging, the father would carefully collect the fish and place them in the basket that sat between them. After the day’s catch was made, her father would carefully unbind the bird’s necks and give each of them one of the larger fishes from the day and thank each of them for their work. And even without the binding, Kaori’s beloved cormorant would always return with one fish in its beak, and it would place it in the lap of the little girl. Kaori would hold up the fish with pride and stroke the head of her bird. It was the only time she would truly smile.

One day, while they were on the other side of the lake, a storm quickly rolled in, and the fishermen desperately paddled their boats back to the village. However, as the waves became higher, and the men became more desperate to not lose their catch, their boats, and their lives, and as there were not nearly as many docks as there were boats, the boats began slamming into each other. Some men were thrown from their boats, some boats were broken, some catches lost, and in all the confusion and tumult, a little girl was flung into the air. When Kaori fell, she fell between two boats as their sides smashed together.

For hours the father paced the floor, tears streaming down his face, as the village physician attended to his broken daughter. When he could hold in his pain no more, he would run to the porch and bury his cries of agony beneath the claps of thunder. His wife sat in the corner of Kaori’s room and refused to move. The physician finally emerged, and the father came close. His reaction to the doctor’s report was a torrent of relief and grief. He ran into the little girl’s room to see her asleep in her bed as his wife was pulling her blankets up around her, but the shape of the blanket revealed that her left leg was gone.

Kaori slept for days. Her mother stayed by her side, cleaned her dressing, rubbed her with oils, and kept a warm bowl of soup ready by her bedside for the moment she would wake. Her father fell silent, walked to the hutch where they kept the cormorants, opened the door, and released them all. Then he went to the docks and sank his boat.

Three days later, sunlight on her face was the first thing to stir little Kaori. She scrunched her face together and then lifted her hand slowly up to shade herself. Her mother leapt up and called for the father, who ran in and quickly put down the window covering. They both doted on her until she was able to sit upright. Every night the father would come and hold her and sing old songs about the spirits in the water and the trees until she fell asleep. The mother would attend to their daughter’s healing body, but every time the father caught a glimpse of her residual limb, he was flooded with impossible feelings of failure. His heart was wrenched even more to see that the loss of her leg did not seem to affect the child any more than if she had lost a shoe. Though his wife would beckon him to return to their bed, he would lay on the porch until sunrise.

When she was strong enough, Kaori would be carried to the porch by her father, where she would sit until supper time. Sometimes her father would sit next to her, but he spoke much less to her than he did before. Often, her mother would come and paint on the porch next to her. But in the late afternoon, when her father took a pole to the shore to fish since he had no boat, or when her mother had to prepare dinner, the little girl would sit alone, and that is when her beloved cormorant returned.

The cormorant had not flown far when it was freed, and it stayed close to the house most of the day – unless it went out to fish. When the cormorant saw Kaori sitting on the porch, it flapped its wings and sailed off for the lake. When it returned, it returned holding a silvery fish in its beak. It flapped down onto the porch, making little wet footprints as it waddled towards her, and then dropped a little fish into the Kaori’s lap. She had not responded to much until this moment, but when that fish landed in her lap, and she saw her companion had brought it to her, a smile returned to her lips once again. Every day the beloved bird would bring a fish to the beloved little girl. Her parents did not know about this until the day she giggled. This was the first noise she had made in weeks, so they both rushed out to see what was wrong. There they found her, wrapped in her blanket with a fish on her lap and the cormorant craning its neck upwards as she stroked the soft feathers on its head. They saw their little daughter smiling for the first time since the day she was hurt, and for the first time since that day, her father smiled, too.

As Kaori continued to recover, she was able to do more than just sit. Her father had taken one of the paddles from his boat and carved a crutch for her, which she took to quickly. Almost as if she knew what it was like to have to get along missing a piece of herself already. This accustomedness to brokenness hurt the father’s heart, too. But every evening, he would make sure she was out on that porch in her chair for her evening visit with her beloved friend, the cormorant.

Years went by, and the cormorant and young Kaori kept their evening meetings. Kaori, now fully capable and adept to her new reality, would leave the house and walk along the lake in the mornings, while her father would fish from the shore. In the afternoons, she would read. By this time, she was beyond what her mother could teach her so her mother would get her a new book to read every week. She often finished by the third day but would read it again so that her mother would not need to get her a new one until the next week. Kaori now did not avoid children her own age, however, she simply did not pay attention to them at all. Children would play. But though she had all the time in the world, she never had time to play. Well, that is, not with any other children. When her cormorant would return in the evenings she could be heard laughing from across the water. She would often play fetch with the fish it would bring or hide it under one of three bowls, trying to get the bird to guess which one it was under. The bird would always choose correctly, even when she elevated the game to as high as six bowls. Her father began leaving the house earlier and stayed out later each day. Fish were not as abundant from the shore, but he always came home with just enough.

But even very special, well-loved birds do not live forever. And one day the cormorant did not return. Kaori waited many days on her porch, but there would be no more fish dropped in her lap. No more games with her beloved bird. No more wet cormorant footprints on her porch. But her faithful friend had given this young woman more than just a fish every afternoon all these years. This feathered companion had removed the binding from around her heart. She grieved, as all must, but this grief was different. Sorrow over loss blended into gratitude for the gift. Then, on the day when she could feel that her heart was now made stronger by this final gift of grace, Kaori stood up, hugged her mother, kissed her father, grabbed her crutch, and walked out towards the village. And in her hand, she carried a single fish.

As she walked into town she was passed by a group of laughing young people. They ran by without taking notice of her, but then Kaori noticed a young woman, just a little younger than she, sitting by the fountain all alone. The young woman was not looking at anything in particular, but she had that long stare of loneliness that Kaori knew all too well. Just then, a silvery fish dropped from above the young woman and fell into her lap. She startled and looked at the fish, and then looked befuddlingly up at the sky. She heard a giggling next to her and turned to see Kaori standing on her one leg, with one arm extended for balance and the other covering her mouth as she laughed. The young woman looked at her, not knowing what to say. Then, from the edge of the fountain, Kaori sat down next to her, laid her crutch aside, and, since the death of her friend bound her own heart with grief all those years ago, Kaori spoke to someone close to her own age for the first time.

And thus, another heart began to unbind.

The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden and used with his kind permission. 


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  1. Denise Armstrong says:

    Ummm. So good; your story “reaches down into the inward parts”… Your children are so blessed to have parents who are wise enough to not only set suffering before them, but also to beautifully illustrate its purpose.
    Blessings on you and Sarah.

  2. Adam Nettesheim says:

    Oh Denise thank you so much for the kind message! (I’m sorry I’m late seeing this.)

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