Adele Means enjoyed the sixth of October as if it were a reasonably swell day. In fact it was, despite the biting late autumn wind. Indeed, in retrospect, with all the facts of the subsequent week laid bare, her revelry brings one a chill—an urge to reach between the lines of her story and shake her free of fate.
Adele had no way of knowing, but as reasonably swell days went, the sixth of October would be her last.
What follows is the story of the carer and the ones for whom she cared.
Adele still felt twenty-five years old. Not much younger than the middle-aged woman she saw in the mirror, and not much older than the adolescent voice at the back of her mind, who she secretly felt no wiser than. She had a firm grip on the capability and alertness of youth. Still, she struggled to keep up with her nonagenarian client, Mr. Tsunoda, as he weaved through the withering rows of the apple orchard, wrist in hand behind his back.
“Mr. Tsunoda!” she called after him, swiping bare branches out of her face as she plodded along.
A slight smile came to her lips before she was even aware why. She remembered the last time she spent a day in such an orchard, when she was a child. Then, the branches were green and full of life, extending enough bright red fruit for all to partake. Then, the skies were blue, not gray. Then, Adele had a sister.
She burst through a thicket and at last caught up to Mr. Tsunoda, but if she was being honest, she knew it was only because he had wanted to be caught. An obstinately youthful man, was Tsunoda. His rice-belly rose and fell in rhythm as he examined a nearby tree.
“Well,” said Adele, gasping for breath. “Look at that, you were right. There are some left.”
Tsunoda turned a big grin toward his carer, so large that it exposed his silver molars. “The wisdom of elders, all that.” He gestured to the fruit. “A great many treasures await you, if only you go a bit farther than anyone in their right mind ever would.”
Tsunoda wore a patch on the sleeve of his coat, proudly displaying proof of his service in the second World War. Adele had never broached the topic, primarily because the old man seemed reluctant to talk of the past in general. She couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for him, being a Japanese-American immigrant, serving the U.S. army despite everything.
“It’s a relief to hear that you know you’re not in your right mind, old man.”
The tree held two apples, each a bit past ripe. Adele moved in on the tree and felt one of them with her index finger and thumb, as Tsunoda did the same to the other. She could tell by looking that the old man’s apple was perfectly fine, somehow, despite the late stage of the season.
“Aw,” she sighed, feeling the soft mush of rot beneath her apple’s deep red skin. “That’s disappointing.”
These were her words, but they belied the depth of her despair, which was impossible for a man like Tsunoda to miss, and which had lingered in her long before the sixth of October. Meanwhile, Tsunoda’s smile did not leave. It rarely did, even if it had overstayed its welcome.
“Which one would you prefer?” he asked, his face wrinkled everywhere but around the eyes.
“Yours,” Adele said honestly, sensing Tsunoda was setting the stage for another one of his lessons.
“Oh, but I'm rather attached to mine. Let’s say it’s a matter of life and death. Would you eat yours then?”
“Oh… I don’t know.”
“Why did you begin with mine?”
“Because yours doesn’t have rot.”
Tsunoda smirked, reaching over and plucking Adele’s apple from the tree. He then retrieved a knife from the pocket of his slacks, one he surely wasn’t supposed to have, and methodically carved the rot out of the fruit. He bent stiffly and returned the rot to the earth, packing it away in the soil beneath the tree.
“How about now?” he asked.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter,” Adele said, nodding. “There’s no rot in mine anymore. It’s not ideal, but since it’s a matter of life and death—”
“Precisely. Life and death, apple and rot. It is senseless to throw the whole thing away, when all it asks of you is a bit of careful attention.”
Adele’s face flushed ripe red. She sensed that the old man knew her secret. The unspeakable thing she often thought of doing, on days when things weren’t reasonably swell. She’d hoped it wasn’t so transparent.
“I see what you mean,” she muttered softly.
“Neither apple is ideal. But you ought to consume one if you care for your health, and you can't expect to have someone else's. Value life. Find a way around the rot.”
On the seventh of October, Adele received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was her estranged sister, Sophia.
Sophia was sick. Dying, in fact. Dead within the week. She just thought Adele ought to know.
Adele hung up the phone and spent the rest of the day playing cards with Mr. Tsunoda, hopeful that her poker face would hold. She fluctuated with nauseating frequency between numbness, self-pity, and embarrassment. She wished she had at least attempted to say something comforting to Sophia over the phone. But it had been nearly twenty years, and words seemed inadequate for all that she wanted to express.
Just before retiring for the evening, she asked Mr. Tsunoda to teach her a bit of origami. As he deftly demonstrated his well-practiced technique, she watched and listened intently, more present than the old man had ever seen her.
Over the next few days, Adele lapsed into a less-than-swell carer. She left dishes in the sink, insisted on rescheduling appointments with the cardiologist, and most heinously in Tsunoda’s mind, altogether forgot to bring dinner on the ninth of October. That evening he rose from his meditation, stomach grumbling, and nimbly climbed the stairs to the guest bedroom, where Adele lived and had been spending countless hours recently.
Tsunoda understood pain and loss. He could easily forgive such a withdrawal. Nevertheless, he had to be sure that his friend was on the right path to recovery. He opened the door slowly, giving a polite musical knock the whole way.
Adele sat against the foot of the bed in the center of the room, surrounded in hundreds upon hundreds of red and white paper cranes.
“I see,” said Tsunoda, gingerly stepping around the origami and clearing himself a space on the chair to sit. “How many?”
Adele’s eyes were swollen, her hands criss-crossed with papercuts. “Six-hundred and forty-four,” she said, throwing her hands up helplessly, understandably overwhelmed.
Tsunoda nodded. “One-thousand is many. I’m sure your sister will appreciate the gesture.”
“She better,” said Adele, tying her hair back into a bun and resuming her work.
Tsunoda grabbed a sheet of paper. Seeing Adele suffer, his first instinct was to join in on the folding, but he thought better of it. Tradition said she had to do it on her own. After watching her complete five cranes or so, Tsunoda opened his mouth to speak.
“You know, after the war and in the years since, I’ve done this for every last member of my platoon.”
Adele nodded. “I know. You have a bit of a reputation for it, actually. It comes up whenever I mention this job to my friends.”
“Would I be right in assuming you were drawn to my mourning because you’ve lost somebody too?”
Adele began working more deliberately, attempting to keep her body and mind under control. “Our parents,” she finally admitted. “Our parents… passed when I was just fifteen, and Sophia was ten. We went into the foster care system. We still had each other, I suppose, but as time went on I became a bit of a… well, a bad apple,” she said, smiling morbidly. “Eventually she was adopted, but the family wouldn’t take both of us.”
Tsunoda nodded somberly.
“Then, either I was angry at her for being the good one, or she was angry at me for splitting us up, or we were both furious at the situation, but we never really talked after that. Have I told you she lives just half an hour south of here? To think, we couldn't get over ourselves and talk in all this time. Only this week, when it became inescapable.”
Adele sucked her teeth, recoiling from another paper cut. “Damn it.”
Tsunoda allowed a silence so lengthy that it attracted Adele’s undivided attention. “You want to know the thing about these cranes? We give them as gifts to the dying, but they’re really for the living. I realize this the more I lose.”
Adele stubbornly kept folding as she listened.
“At least as much as they’re an act of prayer, they’re a symbol of guilt. I laid those cranes on my brothers’ graves not to give them peace, but because of the debt I felt I owed them. Because figuratively and literally, they saved my life. Because they were my friends, and I loved them, and I couldn't very well stand idle.
“I’ve made over twenty-thousand origami cranes in my lifetime. I made them even as my hands and fingers cramped, and that tension lingers today... although the doctor insists on calling it arthritis," he winked, then scrunched his nose. "I’d fold until my hands turned to stone and crumbled if that meant I could have a moment to say goodbye to the people I've lost."
“I say this to urge you to save your hands, to spend this time with your sister while you have the chance. At day’s end, where only the truth remains, those cranes are as flimsy as the paper they’re made of.”
Then there was silence, as Tsunoda rose and strolled away. He paused for a moment at the door to turn back and say, “Take care of that rot before it spreads, Adele. Take care of the rot and have the apple. Life and death.”
Adele’s phone rang again in the early hours of the morning. This time it wasn’t Sophia, but the trembling voice of a nervous young nurse. “I’m sorry, Ms. Means. Sophia doesn’t have long. A few hours, if we’re lucky. You’ll want to get here as soon as you can.”
A few hours, Adele repeated to herself.
She finished the last of the cranes and packed them into a pair of black trash bags in the back of her car. Still, the piles were so tall as to rustle against the ceiling. She’d heard what Mr. Tsunoda had said, but as on the phone before, she couldn’t fathom a string of words adequate in its own right. She figured she ought to present the words and the cranes at once. Sophia deserved both.
Little did she know, there wouldn’t be time for either.
A few blocks from the hospital, Adele came to an intersection at the same time as a green sedan. The sedan was on the right-hand side, and Adele knew the rules, so she conceded the right of way despite her hurry. The man driving the sedan seemed to be in a similarly generous state of mind, so he waved her along. She waited for a moment, as if to ask are you sure, and eventually waved back gratefully, starting forward.
But as she started forward, so did the impatient driver of the sedan, mistaking her thanks for a go-ahead. Adele slammed her brakes, and a small flock of cranes came flying forward.
With the car at rest and her foot firmly on the brake, she leaned over to pluck a few of the fallen cranes out of the dash. As she did, she watched the sedan go by in a peripheral green flash. Once it was clear of her path, she started again.
Because she was busy dealing with the cranes, she didn’t see it coming.
An apple truck sped into the intersection. Screaming tires, crumpling metal, busting glass. Adele was completely blindsided.
The impact snapped her neck, killing her almost instantly at 8:12 AM on the tenth of October. Her final thoughts were of Sophia, and whether somebody would pass on the cranes, and whether they'd meet again soon.
Apples, red and yellow, spilled out over the truck’s bed. Hundreds of them thumped and rolled over the concrete, picking up bruises as they went. The overworked truck driver would survive to lament the loss of his payload, and the city's downtrodden homeless would rejoice at their unexpected feast.
As the apples rolled, a flurry of little origami cranes drifted on the wind, or tumbled down the street. Children would gather some of them, blissfully unaware of their significance. The rest would wilt in evening rain.
At 8:14 AM, Sophia Means heard a chorus of sirens converge a few blocks away from the hospital. She asked her nurse for a pen and paper, barely managing to explain that she wanted to write someone a letter. By the time the nurse returned, Sophia had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Before Akio Tsunoda died of natural causes at 97, he folded a final 2,000 cranes. He didn't have to, but he needed to.