Read an Exclusive Excerpt From Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband

“Mothers fly away like migrating birds. This is why farmers have daughters.”

We’re thrilled to share a bonus excerpt from Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband, forthcoming from Tordotcom Publishing on February 28th. In this contemporary retelling of “The Crane Wife”, one fiercely pragmatic teen forced to grow up faster than was fair will do whatever it takes to protect her family—and change the story. Jump into the story below, or head back to read our previous excerpt here.

A fifteen-year-old teenager is the backbone of her small Midwestern family, budgeting the household finances and raising her younger brother while her mom, a talented artist, weaves beautiful tapestries. For six years, it’s been just the three of them—her mom has brought home guests at times, but none have ever stayed.

Yet when her mom brings home a six-foot tall crane with a menacing air, the girl is powerless to prevent her mom letting the intruder into her heart, and her children’s lives. Utterly enchanted and numb to his sharp edges, her mom abandons the world around her to weave the masterpiece the crane demands.




The town where I grew up is one of those places in the Midwest that still mostly looks the same as it did a hundred years ago—not because of anyone’s particular effort, but rather because there wasn’t much reason to grow or change. Instead, from the time of its founding on forward, it has remained fixed in place, like a butterfly pinned to a board, left under glass for so long that eventually it be- comes no more than husk and faded color and collapsing dust. There were two historic inns that serviced the tourists who would arrive each spring to admire the blossoms adorning our crab apple and cherry and plum trees, and would return each fall to pay their respects to the elderly maples and oaks, with their yearly displays of vivid color. They admired the charming storefronts and the quaint gazebo in the adorable town square, never really noticing the peeling paint or the sagging roofs or the missing bricks in the walkways. They drove their cars too fast on the winding roads through the bluffs. Once a year, the suited executives from the farming conglomerate descended on the town and took up residence in the inns during their leadership meetings, when they would gaze out on the mono- cultured fields and pretend that they were still connected to the land. They imagined themselves in overalls and scuffed boots and wide-brimmed hats. They imagined sunburned necks and dirt under the fingernails and the caw of crows circling over the fields. Then they would gorge themselves on local beers and local cheeses and help themselves to lavish platters purported to be grown from local gardens—though, in truth, much of the produce was simply trucked in from greenhouses in the city. The beer, too, mostly.

There were a lot of executives at these meetings, all polished shoes and PowerPoints and loud guffaws. And they ate an astonishing amount. It was good for business in town, having rich strangers arrive regularly. They were hungry for authentic, transcendent experiences. And my mother was happy to provide.

My mother was known for a lot of things back then. Her art, for one. She wove tapestries using gathered fibers and found materials (along with the wool from our three sheep), stitching them into outlandish and multidimensional images and stories. They were massive, my mother’s tapestries, and beautiful. Even I could see that. Collectors came from all over to see what she had made. Every time, they stood, rooted to the ground, their mouths open, their hands on their hearts. Once, I saw a woman burst into song. Another time, a man pulled out his phone and apologized to every person he had ever wronged—including my mother, for the sins he had thought about but had not yet committed. Often, I saw collectors fall to their knees and weep. My mother took all of this in stride. She always found ways to make her admirers feel better, up in her studio in the loft of the old barn. Sometimes she made them feel better for hours. I didn’t ask any questions about that.

She was also known for her cheese, which she sold to local establishments, and at her stall at the farmers market, and sometimes to vendors far away in the city. She made small batches from carefully guarded recipes, never increasing the size of her operation. The cheese was a side hustle that kept food on the table in between art sales. She called her cheese local and put “100% local” on the label, but in truth there weren’t very many dairy farmers left in the county—a dying breed, as they say—and I’m sure by now they’re all wiped out. Instead, she bought her milk in bulk from brokers in Canada or California or Mexico, or even China—it arrived periodically in slushy barrels—which she then fortified with powder and amended with milk from our sheep. I fussed at her for the ethics of this but she shrugged it off. “Who cares if the milk’s not 100 percent local?” she told me. “I’m five generations local. That’s enough local for anyone. All people really care about is that it’s made in a barn. Or next to a barn. I don’t know why that matters, but it does.” There was nothing more to say, so I just helped her press the curds.

My mother was also known for taking in strays. Dogs. Cats. Red-tailed hawks. Fox kits and rabbits and wandering goats and, every once in a while, an extremely lost ferret. Once she took in a beautiful, multicolored, and grievously injured pheasant, who took up residence in the well of her lap, luxuriating in the smell of her and curling into her arms. My mother did her best to make the pheasant comfortable—dressing wounds and providing delicacies to nibble on and letting the bird rest his head on her chest.

The pheasant stayed in my mother’s arms for three days before he died, whereupon my mother took him out back, plucked him, gutted him, and baked him with onions. She was a farmer’s daughter, after all, and nothing if not ruthlessly practical. And anyway, the bird was delicious.

Her lovers were strays as well. A metalworker from two counties over, fired for drinking on the job, waiting for his buddy to roll into town so they could both look for work out west. A shrill soprano who sang show tunes at one of the inns during the tourist season. A street performer who had been grossly misinformed about the interest and generosity of the tourist population during the summertime. An actual vagabond with a tattoo of every town where he had slept rough (ink covered him). The philandering chef at one of the local restaurants who had been kicked out by her wife. Men, women, and those who had transcended those categories entirely, my mother took them all, and delighted in them all.

They didn’t stay.

My mother wasn’t one for settling down, since Dad died. Not anymore. Or so I thought.


Before the crane arrived, a man had appeared, briefly, in our home. It was late at night—midnight, I think, or maybe further into the wee hours—and Michael was asleep. Mom and I had gone outside to watch the Quadrantid meteor shower. It was January and weirdly warm. The whole world was warm. The deep freezes and wide snowfields that my mother remembered from her youth had transformed to winters that now oscillated between unsettlingly temperate damp and bitter cold.

That particular January consisted of miserable drizzle and wind during the day, and nights that were just cold enough to firm up the mud, each night making new ice crystals that scattered across the yard like stars. We wore wool sweaters and wool hats and our breath lingered in front of our mouths, like ghosts. We had only just spread out our blanket when we heard the sound of a man whimpering in the dark.

“Stay here,” my mother said as she stood, her voice terse and vigilant, but I didn’t. I followed her as she followed the voice. We found a man sprawled in the sheep pen, in- jured and groaning. He had deep gashes on his shoulders and on his left thigh and bruises nearly everywhere else. His swollen arm had a bulge where the bone had snapped. He was also entirely naked.

He didn’t seem to mind the cold. It didn’t look like he noticed it at all.

“Well,” he said, looking down at the whole of himself, a tiny smile buried in his mask of pain. “This is embarrassing.” He made no move to cover up.

My mother was unfazed. “Darling,” she said to me without so much as a turn of her gaze, “go get the blanket.” She didn’t take her eyes off the man.

His sheepish grin revealed two bloody gaps where his teeth no longer rooted. There were feathers strewn across his body. And feathers drifting across the yard. A pile of feathers in the sheep pen. The sheep wouldn’t go near them.

My mother didn’t notice the feathers.

“What happened to you?” my mother asked.

The man shrugged. “My own fault really. Had a run-in with one of those damn drones on that farm over there. Nasty buggers. And rude. But I suppose it does serve me right for swerving over those fields. I guess I should have known better.”

I frowned. The drones fly. Their purpose—in addition to warding off intruders with their electric eyes and facial recognition software—was to keep the crows out of the corn and send alerts when they detected that the moles had taken it into their heads to start digging. But they stay far above the height of a person—it’s one of their rules. So he couldn’t have meant a farm drone, could he? Maybe he meant the autopiloted tractors. But they weren’t even out this time of year. I folded my arms and pressed my skepticism into my face.

My mother had the opposite reaction.

“Oh!” she said. “You poor man!” She helped him to his feet and wrapped him in the blanket and let him drape his weight over her as she assisted him into the house. I followed, noting the trail of feathers he left in his wake. I had no idea where they were even coming from.

Inside the house, my mother, ever the seamstress, sterilized needles and stitched his wounds shut. Growing up on the farm (and with a drunk for a father), she knew a thing or two about the precision needed to neatly sew gaping skin, as well as how to properly set a bone. She gave him a large glass of whiskey and told him to close his eyes and relax. He buried his face in her abdomen and hooked his good arm around her hips and hung on tight. She gripped his wrist and steadied his bicep and pulled, sure and quick. The bone made a deep thumping sound as it righted itself. He howled with pain and relief and wept into her shirt. She went to the wood shop in the basement to fashion two paddles to make a splint. She sang to him as she wound the bandage around his arm and poured him another whiskey.

He had a wildness about him—a feral leer. He watched my mother like she was food and he hadn’t eaten in years. That night, he demonstrated his gratitude in my mother’s room. The whole house shook. I put headphones over my ears and listened to foreign broadcasts on my father’s old shortwave radio, trying to remind myself that there was a wider world outside of my mother’s yard.

There were five stray animals living in our house then. Two cats, a recuperating mourning dove, and a nesting pair of wood ducks. They made themselves scarce that night. This wasn’t entirely unusual—strays wander in and wander out, after all. But they never returned. Not a single one. Not after I set out their food on the stoop and left a window open for them to crawl back in. I had never seen our animal guests behave like that.

The next morning the house was filled with feathers and the man was gone. It wasn’t the first time one of my mother’s visitors left before the sun rose. Normally, she carried on with her day, still flushed from the thrill of the night before, and focused on the work ahead of her. But this was different. She was tearful and quiet. She stood at the window, her fingers wound up in yarn and busily making small figures out of knots. A man made of knots. A woman made of knots. A sigh rattled in the back of her throat. She kept her eyes on the sky. I cooked breakfast and did the dishes. I tried to get her to eat, but it was no use. Quietly, she swept the feathers into a bag and took them to the barn and into her studio. She didn’t come out for the rest of the day. Or the next. Or the next.

For a month, my mother made art from morning till night and from night till morning. I don’t think she slept. I brought her food. I tried to convince her to come in and shower. Instead she stitched and stitched a story that I couldn’t make out—the images were too unformed, too haphazard. She pulled the thread and knotted it tight. I couldn’t make sense of anything.

“It’s… nice, Mom,” I said as I rubbed her shoulders. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

My mother stared at her tapestry, her mouth forming and unforming silent words, something she did a lot when she worked. “It’s okay if you don’t understand it,” she said. “One day you will.”

“Are you coming in? You need to sleep, Mom. Also—and don’t take this the wrong way—but you really smell terrible. I think it’s time for a shower.”

She smiled. “Just a little bit longer, darling,” my mother said. “There’s something inside. Something that wants to be. But I can’t find it just yet.”

Four days after that conversation, we heard her cry for joy in the barn. I was making soup. Michael was sitting at the table. We looked at one another and smiled. Our mother would be coming to dinner. At last. And then she would sleep in her own bed. I set a place for her at the table and watched for the moment when she would arrive, for everything to go back to normal and for the world to be as it should.

The door opened. I held my breath.

And when my mother walked into the house, she brought that crane.


Excerpted from The Crane Husband, copyright © 2022 by Kelly Barnhill.


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