“She tilts her head. Her black eye is a pool of ink. It is a bottomless pit. It is a collapsed star, all density and hunger and relentless gravity, pulling everything it can into its center- to be unraveled, unmade, undone, and unrecognizable. How can anyone survive that kind of love?”
The Crane Husband is an unsettling folk horror by World Fantasy Award-winning author Kelly Barnhill. This expertly written novella provides a frank depiction of domestic violence within a contemporary reimagining of the traditional Japanese folktale, Tsuru Nyōbō, or the Crane Wife.
There are many variations on the Crane Wife tale within Japanese folklore. A common version of the story involves a poor man who rescues an injured crane, nursing it to health before releasing it back into the wild. Soon afterwards, a beautiful woman appears at his doorstep. They fall in love and get married, but the couple are desperately poor. The wife is a talented weaver, and they build a business selling her handwoven clothing at the market. The weavings bring the couple prosperity, but the wife insists that her husband never watch her weave. The husband soon becomes greedy, forcing his wife to weave more and more, unsympathetic to her declining health. Unsatisfied with her progress, he spies on his wife and discovers that she is actually a crane plucking out her own feathers to weave into the loom. The crane wife sees him and feels betrayed by his broken promise. She flies away, never to return, and leaves her husband behind unable to earn a living on his own. The Japanese folktale has inspired a number of modern authors and artists, including a popular musical version by Portland-based indie rock band, the Decemberists.
Kelly Barnhill’s novella is narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl living in an old farmhouse in the American Midwest. Her father passed away when she was a young girl, leaving her widowed mother to care for her and her younger brother.
The Crane Husband takes place in a near future when the farmers’ jobs have been displaced by drones that work the cornfields. The family survives on income from the mother’s artistic weavings. However, the responsibility of caring for her children proves too much to bear, leaving the teenaged narrator to manage household finances and serve as primary caregiver for her younger brother.
Then one day the mother brings home a menacing six-foot-tall crane, with whom she has fallen in love. The bespectacled crane soon becomes violent toward the mother, who is constantly covered with cuts and bruises. Despite this abuse, the mother is unwaveringly devoted to her crane husband. She neglects her family and the world around her to focus on weaving her masterpiece, as demanded by the crane. Meanwhile, local social workers have become seriously concerned regarding the welfare of both children.
Although at first glance The Crane Husband may seem like a simple gender-swapped version of the traditional Japanese folktale, Kelly Barnhill’s story plunges deeper into violence and horror. The Crane Husband takes an unflinching look at the horrors of domestic violence, including both physical and emotional abuse. The cycle of cruelty extends to the children, who live in fear of the crane husband but are also afraid of being taken away to foster care.
The Crane Husband is the darkest work by Kelly Barnhill to date, her prose burning with increasing intensity as she immerses us in an all too realistic world of domestic violence and artistic obsession.