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18 February 2011 @ 12:19 am
Fanfiction: Praying for Birds  
I wrote this after a short email conversation with Specter06, a writer on FF.net who is interested in reviving Titan A.E by sharing ideas and thoughts on Titan A.E. Whether or not that will be possible depends largely if there are writers, artists & an audience out there.

So I'm sharing this fic with the Titan A.E community on LJ (not sure if there's anyone left), before it goes on FF.net. Not technically the movie, but more of the prequel.

Title: Praying for Birds (Preliminary)
Rating: T
Spoilers: For Chapters 1-8 of Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta's Akima's Story 

Summary: A thousand prayers before evening. A thousand paper birds before sunrise - Akima & Ishaq may deal with death in separate ways, but they remain closer than ever.

Praying For Birds (Draft 1)

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 share a street in the souks, several feet spanning them. 

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 signpost 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.

“I know.”

“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 he 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 written 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 set of prayers - the Al-Fatehah and 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 hundreds 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.



If you're feeling in a good mood, you can help me to answer these questions:
  • Is there anything that you didn't understand?
  • Does the detail on tradition obscure the characters' intentions?
  • If possible, recommend an alternative title. 
Thanks for reading.
unspecified user: Titan A.E.tigrin on February 17th, 2011 09:26 pm (UTC)
There are actually people out there interested in Titan AE fanfiction besides the two of us? *Twilight Zone music*

That being said. Akima's Story was one of the novels that I read the least, mostly because her backstory is so heavy. But she also has the more interesting backstory, I think, because she spent so much time around people and is so much more familiar with culture than Cale is. So I like that you took that aspect and ran with it. You've always been really talented at painting images with the senses and this story has a lot of great images in it tied together with the paper crane motif.

To more specifically address your questions... I don't think there was anything I particularly didn't understand. I don't know much, if anything, about the funeral rites going on (I'm assuming they are Muslim but I don't know), but I don't feel like my unfamiliarity with it obscured the importance of what was going on or confused me. It made me wonder about a lot of different things about how humans might have had to adapt their religious beliefs after the Earth is destroyed, especially when there area lot of different cultures crammed together. The story brought up a lot of practical concerns for people struggling to continue tradition in such an difficult setting.

I really love the Japanese tradition of the paper cranes, I think a lot of people are familiar with it. Honestly I think this is something Akima would probably do in her grief; such a repetitive, manual task would help mask the intensity of what is going on, and the first scene of picking out the bodies shows just how intense things are. I like that she also chooses to share the cranes with everyone in the colony rather than keep it as a private symbol of grief. To me the whole thing is a lot more believable than if she were just moping around.

I tend to take titles from songs so I am no help, haha. I would default to a related Japanese saying/phrase/word that would fit the situation just because of the paper cranes, like maybe a yojijukugo phrase, but unless you kept it in Japanese that would be hard to translate, so maybe not. @_@ *useless*
Sylver: PuckSqueesylverlining on June 1st, 2011 08:13 am (UTC)
"There are actually people out there interested in Titan AE fanfiction besides the two of us? *Twilight Zone music*"

Oh, MY, yes. And I'm so glad to see you lovelies here. :3
YXsharikqah on February 18th, 2011 02:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you found the story readable despite the detail that I just crammed into the story. And yes, they are Muslim funeral rites. I wasn't sure if I should've mentioned it explicitly, because I didn't want to fall into the mistake of my earlier Titan A.E stories.

The theme of culture, its being appreciated & resolving it in a Titan A.e universe is supposed to be the central focus. Hence the detail.

I must confess, however, that I really don't know anything about the Japanese tradition of folding origami cranes. The folding & its completion is supposed to be the climax of the story, but I didn't know what Akima was supposed to do with them. And that led to an ending that I found quite difficult to write.

A possible title of the story was Senbazuru. But I'm not sure if that's the Japanese transliteration of the phrase "a thousand paper cranes".

unspecified user: film - Harriettigrin on February 20th, 2011 06:33 am (UTC)
千羽鶴 is kind of tough to transliterate... "senbadzuru" or "senbaduru" is probably a little closer. 千 "sen" is "thousand", 羽 "ba" is a bird counter, and 鶴 "tsuru" is a crane. Cranes are a symbol of long life in Japan and are usually used to wish someone a long life or good health. I haven't heard of the paper cranes being used at funerals, it seems a bit ironic, but apparently this is something that is starting to catch on. I know some people who are into origami who can pump out cranes and flowers without even thinking about it. I suck at it, haha, most complex thing I can fold is a paper airplane.
Sylver: MERTIL IS HAPPYsylverlining on June 1st, 2011 08:12 am (UTC)
Hey there - first of all, I can' even tell you how happy I am to see relatively new posts here. I just found this comm, and joined since it seems like the most active fanbase around... which isn't saying much, since the interwebs in general seem pretty dead when it comes to Titan AE. Sadly. Horribly.

But in any case... Thank you for being here, and thank you for writing. <3 Anything that keeps the fandom alive, I love. Now for the actual writing! :D Here are my thoughts as I've gone through and read:

* I LOVE the use of present tense. You so often see it done horribly, by writers who don't know what they're doing - but when it's done correctly it can be incredibly effective and convey a sense of intimacy and urgency that past just doesn't get across. Nice choice.

* Your details are flawless. Did you mean to have a recurring motif of the descriptions of hands and the damages they've endured? Because it was wonderful; memories of Akima's grandmother's nimble ones mingling with the cracked and broken fingertips of the present. Very powerful.

* This phrase gave me absolute shivers: "She makes her hands redder than they already are." Wonderful. Devastating in its simplicity and so effective, just - minimalist eloquence that kicks you right in the balls.

* This is almost like some kind of poetry, this incredibly artistic prose. I love it. Your descriptions take you there like a drug.

*My ONLY critique is that I'm not entirely sure "smoothens" is a word. xD Aside from that, word-perfect. (And I'm so happy you worked the word "minaret" into it. That's one of my favorite, often-ignored words.) Very, very well-done - I'm so HAPPY to find good writers in this fandom. Does my geeky little heart good!

I don't think you need an alternative title. I don't think you need to change a goddamn thing. I'm just glad I got the opportunity to read this. I've also read Akima's Story, and loved it... But frankly, and I do mean this - /you're a better writer./ At least from an atmospheric and artistic standpoint. I have a kind of verbal fetish for raw, unflinching descriptions, but it's true.

Can't even tell you how much I enjoyed this. You make me want to write more in the Titan AE universe - and that's not an easy feat, since I currently AM writing in it, ha!

Hope to see more from you. Thank you so much for sharing.