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The Wing Bone of a Crane

Archaeologists in China have found what is believed to be the world's oldest still-playable musical instrument—a 9,OOO-year-old flute carved from the wing bone of a crane.
                 —Associated Press

Maybe the crane offered up its bone
sensing death's wingless flight,
willing the relent of gravity's pull.

Maybe the crane bowed
its head, its scarlet skull cap
target for the hunter's arrow
that pierced the skull, scarlet
darkening to deep claret,
before assuming the hue
and brilliance of a prayer.

Or, maybe a court musician beating the red
ceremonial drums, weary of the thud
and thump of ritual, heard the antiphonal
call of male to female crane.

Isn't it possible the drummer imagined
their breath spiraling through coiled
windpipes fused to breastbones amplifying
entreaty and response, imagined
his breath entering a hollow space to emerge
pure as jasmine white
crane feathers counterpointed in sumi black?

Isn't it possible the cranes, male and female, committed
xunqing, surrendering
bone and spirit?

Or, maybe then, as now, killing those who fly
was sport and cranes were brought down
by royal falcons. Perhaps plump
breasts of crane were roasted over charcoal,
served on beds of emerald watercress under domes
of terra cotta engraved with the imperial crest,
and the wing bones left for servants to suck
clean, toss into the refuse heap to be purified
by scuttling carrion beetles,
cleansed by rain, burnished by sun.

Suppose the wing bone was seized
by a scavenging peasant, crafted, polished
drilled, then held to the lips.

Maybe then,
as now,
breath rippled
through the wing bone,
its sound
a reed reflected in water.

Note: The flute can be heard online at BBC News.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2002 issue of CLR

Susan Erickson

Susan Erickson lives in the City of Subdued Excitement, Bellingham, Washington. Her work has appeared in Bellowing Ark, Switched-on Gutenberg, Ravens Chronicles and The Lyric. She has watched cranes across the United States and has viewed the crane described in her poem, the Red-Crowned Crane (Grus japonensis), in captivity.

Published by Clackamas Literary Review, in print and on the web at,, and
Copyright 2001-2002, Clackamas Community College