Paper Castles by Alycia Christine

I first met the origamist as winter’s icy claws finally retracted in favor of a cool Washington, D.C. spring. He was sitting near the river’s edge with his small white folding table perched over his lap like a stilt-legged bird. Buds of pink cherry blossoms had just begun to bloom around the National Mall and a pale haze of the flowers hung above his head like a floating crown. He was so absorbed in folding his paper sculpture that he didn’t seem to notice me—at least not until I greeted him.
Paper Castles
Paper Castles by Alycia Christine
“Hi,” I said, watching with fascination as his tan hands worked crisp creases into a square sheet of flower-print paper. The origamist’s deft fingers paused as he smiled up at me. “Hello,” he said in his quiet way. “Would you like me to create something for you today?” I stared at the different designs and their corresponding names listed on the battered poster taped to the front of his table. Most of the origami sculptures were animals, although there were several types of flowers and baskets to choose from as well. I’d always loved animals, but my apartment manager would never allow me to have any of my own. I smiled as an idea struck me. Surely she wouldn’t take offence to a pet made out of paper. “Could you make me a cat?” I asked him, even though it wasn’t on the poster. “What kind of cat?” he asked. “A house cat?” I nodded. “A beautiful, pure-white house cat like my grandmother once had, sleek-furred and regal.” He frowned. “I can certainly make you one, but not today since I only have my supply of colored paper with me right now. You’ll have to pick it up tomorrow.” “I can do that,” I said. “Would you mind paying me half of the money today and half of it tomorrow when you pick up the cat?” “Not at all,” I said as I pulled a few dollar bills from the depths of my designer handbag. He bowed as he accepted my cash and wrote a note about it in his pink-and-white receipt book. “Thank you. What name should I use for the order?” “Oh, my name’s Kate,” I said. “Kate Bennett.” “Jo Hitachi. Nice to meet you.” He smiled as he shook my outstretched hand. “I’ll have your order ready by noon tomorrow if you would like to pick it up then. I should be at this same spot.” “I don’t get off work until five.” “Then come see me after you’ve finished. I’ll be here until six or so.” “Okay. Sounds great.” “Good. See you tomorrow, then.” I waved and trekked down the winding sidewalk toward my office cubicle and its far less colorful stack of paper. * “Well, what do you think?” Jo asked when I arrived at his table the next evening. “It’s perfect!” I said, and I meant it. The white cat sat demurely on Jo’s table with its long, bushy tail wrapped around its paws. The details of its face and fur were so exquisite I wondered if Jo had molded it around a live model rather than folding it from a single piece of paper. I discovered it was indeed all paper as soon as I picked it up. It was so light I was surprised that the wind hadn’t toppled it off of his table. “I am so glad you like it!” he said. “Like it? I love it! It’s going on the very top of my bookshelf as soon as I get home!” The grin on Jo’s face was so wide it almost threatened to engulf his ears as I marveled at his craftsmanship. I paid him the rest of his money, and practically skipped down the sidewalk with my new origami pet cradled in my arms. * I saw Jo almost every day after that. If the sun was out and the skies were clear, I would find the paper artist sitting by the water below his pink canopy of cherry blossoms in the National Mall, selling his folded miracles to tourists and children. Most of his washi paper stock was patterned in these fantastic shades of oriental reds and royal purples, but he always kept a few sheets of snowy white on hand just in case I stopped by his table. “Good morning, Kate! What would you like me to make for you today?” he would always ask in his quiet way. I would always answer him with a request for an animal of some sort. “May I have a bear?” I’d ask; or I’d say, “Make me a paper crane, please!” And he would. His strong, tan hands would fold the warm white paper in a series of crisp-edged angles that would invariably become the very animal I sought. I would give him his money and then I would walk away cradling some new treasure. In one month, I must have collected thirty animals to place on my bookshelf at home beside Jo’s paper cat. By the end of April, I had run out of room on my bedroom bookshelf and had to add them to the top of my desk. May found me hanging all of the birds from my bedroom ceiling with golden thread—my own miniature flock in mock flight. Each bird would wheel and turn at the slightest breeze from my apartment’s second-story window. At night, I would watch them fly until their quiet rustling lulled me to sleep. One day in May I asked Jo if he could make my animals a zoo. It was better, I reasoned, to house my entire paper art collection all in one place rather than to sacrifice my bookshelves, desk, bedroom ceiling, and half of the kitchen table to display their scattered kind. Such beautiful works of art deserved a true home of their own after all, and I had a blank corner in the living room just waiting for the proper decor. Jo considered this latest request in serious silence for a moment before answering, “Tell me, Kate, have you gathered every origami figure that you desire?” I shook my head. “No, not yet.” “When you have all you want, I will build you a castle!” he declared. “Now, what shall I make for you today?” “A swan,” I said eagerly. Jo smiled. “Ah, the elegant swan. Even the ugliest of their ducklings becomes beautiful with enough maturity.” I smiled. “That’s my favorite Hans Christian Anderson story!” “Ah, you’re well-acquainted with fairy tales then. Good. I love fairy tales of all kinds, but I must admit that I like those with happy endings the best.” His hands moved like tan lightning across his little table and soon a snowy swan was born from the blank paper twisting between his deft fingers. “Why is the ‘The Ugly Duckling’ your favorite?” he asked as he finished shaping the bird’s graceful neck. I rubbed my hands up and down my suit-sleeved arms even though it wasn’t particularly cold. “Because I’m not a pretty woman,” I finally admitted. “Growing up I felt more than a little like that ugly duckling. Most days I still do. I still hope that maybe I’ll grow out of my awkward nose and bulldog cheeks and become a beautiful swan in my own way, even though I know it isn’t really possible anymore.” “The truest beauty is the one we carry in our minds, not in our bodies. Besides, you’re beautiful to me in both ways,” Jo said, his expression sincere. “Just like a queen—a swan queen.” He gazed at me a long moment before presenting the paper sculpture to me. “Tell me when she truly flies.” I blinked at him in astonishment and then nodded. I handed over my monetary thanks, which he refused, and hurried down the blossom-strewn lane so he wouldn’t see the blush overtaking my face or the tears stinging my eyes. * That night I rearranged all of my origami animals. I put the mammals together on the top two shelves of my book case, and then added the fish and other aquatic animals to the third shelf. The shellfish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and reptiles all dominated the fourth and fifth shelves. Everyone else—except the birds, of course—ended up back on my computer desk or atop the kitchen table. I sighed. I really had no room for any more of these marvelous sculptures, but I couldn’t stand the thought of parting with even one of the paper creatures. Nor could I cope with the idea of not buying any more of Jo’s precious creations. Jo liked me; I had known that for a while. And I found him handsome enough, even if he was a little odd. But what did it matter? I had a serious career; I was climbing the ladder to corporate success two rungs at a time. Jo was a simple artisan peddling his wares on a street corner. I couldn’t build a proper life together with a starving artist. If I was going to have the kind of financial comfort I’d always wanted, I needed a man who was monetarily successful in his career, too. Such men were lawyers and bankers and doctors and lobbyists, not paper folders. I sat on my bed and stared at the origami collection around me. Jo was everywhere—a constant comfort to me in times of frustration and confusion. I was tempted to ask him to build me his promised castle. But what if I did and he never built it? I could feel my heartbeat double in panic at the thought, but my brain was delighted by the idea. “If I ask and he never builds it, then I’ll know he doesn’t really love me,” I told myself. But what if I asked him to build me a castle and he did! What then? What would I do? That’d be the end of our time together forever! But why did that matter? If I didn’t really love him after he’d proved he loved me, could I really lead him on? I frowned. Was I leading him on or was my admiration something more? I shook my head abruptly and stood up. I couldn’t think about it anymore. I turned on the water in my bathroom sink and let the cool water run over my face. “You don’t have to decide anything right now, Kate,” I told my reflection firmly as I began to wash the makeup and tears away from my cheeks. “He told you that he would build you a castle only after you had all of the origami animals you wanted. He makes beautiful art; you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.” * Despite being in a suit and high heels, the next afternoon I found myself sprinting to Jo’s table. I’d missed him on the way to work this morning and so the afternoon would be my only chance to talk to him. With summer here, Jo sometimes closed his table early before the afternoon heat made life outside too muggy and miserable. I never understood how his origami creations survived D.C.’s ridiculous humidity, but they always did. He must have the best quality paper available. Jo was just closing up shop when I arrived panting and breathless. “You made it!” he said, smiling. “Barely,” I said, still amazed that I hadn’t broken an ankle while sprinting in my stupid stiletto pumps. His smile evaporated as he checked his watch. “I am so sorry, Kate, but I cannot stay and create for you today. I have an appointment that I must keep.” I nodded, feeling suddenly glum. “I’d love to walk with you a ways if you don’t mind,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. I inwardly cringed. So much for not leading the man on. He smiled. “I would like that.” We walked down the sidewalk under the bright-leafed trees—Jo with his foldup table and canvas bags of assorted paper and money on one side, me with my handbag and briefcase on the other. He had offered to carry my briefcase as well, but I politely declined. He had enough stuff to carry without the weight of my corporate world added to his slender frame. “A gentleman always offers to carry a lady’s things,” he said. I laughed. “Who says I’m a lady?” “I do.” He said it as if he had all the authority in the world to decide. I frowned at him. Try as I might I never could quite understand him. My not-so-pleasant childhood had taught me that men who offered to do “nice” things for women like open doors or carry something for us were just trying to trade favors and take advantage of us. But belittling and male chauvinism didn’t really fit Jo. His attitude toward others was always one of sincerity and deep respect. That made me like him even more. “Thanks for the walk,” I said as we stopped near the street. “Gladly. Will I be making something new for you?” he asked. I nodded. “I still need a paper crane from you.” He cocked an eyebrow at me. “But don’t you already have one?” “Yes, but lately I feel like I need an extra dose of peace and luck.” “I’ll have it ready tomorrow, then.” “Tomorrow? But you don’t work on Saturdays or Sundays, do you?” He shook his head. “No, I don’t, but I was hoping to see you anyway…perhaps for coffee or tea?” My mouth answered, “Yes!” before my brain could stop it. “Good. Do you want to meet there?” he pointed to the café across the street from us. When I nodded, his smile lit up his warm, brown eyes. I loved that smile. “Until tomorrow, then.” He waved and then hurried off in the general direction of the museums. I stared after him a moment, suddenly feeling the blisters my new shoes had rubbed into my toes and wondering what I had just gotten myself into. * Washington, D.C. surrendered to the full summer heat and Jo’s table was closed by noon each day. I wondered how financially difficult it was for him to cut his selling hours so short, but I never asked. I just bought extra—despite his vehement protests. A matching animal for every kind I owned plus a new collection of fantastical creatures like a pair of unicorns, sphinxes, and hippocampi. I had asked for a dragon and a phoenix, but for some reason Jo absolutely dreaded crafting those. I didn’t push the matter. I gave up finding new places to showcase all of my new art pieces and began hanging the origami animals from the ceilings of every room in my apartment. I knew I was postponing the inevitable, but I kept up my acquisitions anyway. Late on a Thursday night in early August, I picked up Jo’s first origami creation from my bookshelf and cradled the white cat gently against my chest—remembering the reassuring warmth of Jo’s fingers as they had interlaced with mine earlier that day. Somehow his gentle touch made me brave, but still I held back. Did I really, truly love this man? Or was it just my heart being foolish? I knew the answer, of course, but it took the shedding of every ounce of my pride to admit the truth to myself. Somehow, between the first folds of a paper feline and the release of blossoms from cherry trees, I had fallen in love with Jo. And, try as I might, I couldn’t convince my heart to stop loving the origamist, no matter how often my ever-logical brain told me I was being stupid. “Apparently, the heart really does want what the heart wants.” I sighed, put the cat on the night stand, and went into the bathroom. I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror and then up at the paper swan hanging above it. Jo had told me I was as beautiful as a swan queen, and I knew he meant it. I shook my head and sighed. The man was such a dreamer. I was many things, but beautiful wasn’t one of them. I splashed cold water on my face, and went to bed. * I dreamed that Jo’s paper cat had winked at me from her perch on the bedside table and then curled up beside me during the night to comfort me after I had cried myself to sleep. I had no chance to tell Jo about any of it, though, because I woke up late the next morning. Even with skipping my usual trip through the National Mall, I made it into work in time to catch the last thirty minutes of a meeting with one of my company’s biggest clients. So much for climbing corporate ladders. My mood was justifiably foul for the rest of my paper-pushing workday. To make things worse, I didn’t see Jo until that following Saturday. It was then that I finally asked the thing I’d been hoping, and dreading, of Jo. “Will you build me a castle?” I asked as we lay next to each other on a checkered blanket and watched autumn recolor the landscape around the Potomac River. It was our seventeenth official date and, even though our relationship so far had been practically perfect, I was getting antsy. Jo watched me for a long moment before asking. “Do you have all the origami that you want?” I sighed and sat up. “No, but I think it’s part of being human to want more without ever being truly satisfied. This city is full of it. People here always want more power, bigger houses, better prestige, nicer cars, more money, more junk. Even me. I took this job thinking I’d be happy if I made something of myself, you know? I’ve achieved a lot and it’s great and all, but…” “But?” I shook my head and laughed helplessly. “I’m not happy. Maybe I should be, but I’m not. I try to be content with what I have and remind myself of all that I’ve accomplished, but I can’t help wondering if I’m missing something. Something better than what I have. Something completely fulfilling. Something real.” I stared out at the shimmering river and sighed. “Am I stupid for wanting such a thing?” Jo sat up slowly. “No, I don’t think so. If anything, I think you’re very wise to recognize that personal achievement can’t fully satisfy you.” I said nothing for a while and then finally admitted, “I don’t even know if something so real actually exists.” “What about love?” His expression was tense. “That’s eternal, isn’t it?” I shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope so, but I’ve never really been satisfied in my love life. Usually my relationships last about as long as the hangover from too much tequila and a morning-after pill. You’re the first guy I’ve ever met who didn’t want to immediately sleep with me. It’s kind of weird.” Jo’s jaw clinched in anger. “Sounds like you’ve known too many of the wrong men, then. If I’m to have you, I’ll take you to have and hold for life, not just a night or two. That’s what true love is. It’s a constant commitment to prize someone else above yourself.” I nodded and we sat in silence again. Finally I asked, “You truly do love me then, don’t you?” “You know I do.” “Then why won’t you build me the castle that you promised?” He frowned at me for a moment. “Tell me, what will you do with a castle once you have it?” “Use it to house my origami animals just like I’d planned. There’s this blank, boring wall of my living room that I’ve been trying to decorate for a couple of years now. A castle scene for my paper pets would be so amazing there!” Jo sighed heavily and stood. “So you still haven’t figured it out, have you?” “Figured out what?” I snapped, suddenly angry. “Kate, do you know how much I love you? Do you know how beautiful you are to me? How precious? I would give you the world if I could, but you insist on trying to fit my adoration and my gifts to you in a tiny corner of your life. You talk about wanting something real, but you’re so afraid of that true reality that when it finally comes along, you automatically try to stuff it into a box! I don’t fit in a box, Kate, any more than my origami can fit in a corner. I’m all or nothing.” “Well, what am I supposed to do? Dive right into every relationship without an ounce of logic? I tried that when I was younger and got burned for my trouble. I’ve met so many ogres that honestly I wonder if my personal prince could even exist.” “What about me?” I sighed and rubbed the aching spot between my eyes. “Jo, you’re wonderful and our relationship is going far better than any of my previous ones, but we are so different. How long can we possibly last?” Jo shook his head, frowning. “Nothing in this world ever lasts forever. Everything physical blooms, shrivels, and dies just like the blossoms on a cherry tree. But let’s say for argument’s sake that our love is real. That it can outlast everything, even death itself. If that’s true, then what would you be willing to give to have something so rare and everlasting?” “Everything I have.” I meant every word. “There. That’s the answer I need.” A smile that seemed both sad and hopeful crept across Jo’s lips as he kissed my hand. “Yes, Kate, I’ll build you a castle.” * The Monday after Jo made his promise, I must have walked almost the entire Mall searching for him without success. Jo and his table were gone. When I finally asked a cop if he’d seen the origamist, the cop raised an eyebrow and asked me what in the world I was talking about. “Ma’am, vendors are strictly forbidden to sell their wares anywhere near here unless it’s part of a special celebration. Are you talking about a vendor affiliated with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival that was held back in March?” I shook my head and walked away in frustration. What was going on? Where was Jo? And how could that cop be so off his nut? I’d seen him stroll past Jo’s table more than once without giving him a second glance, but now he stood here telling me that Jo would never have been allowed to sell his origami in the first place. It made no sense! The other thing that made no sense was not being able to find Jo’s contact information anywhere! You would think that an artist as advanced as Jo would at least have a mention in someone’s blog article, but there wasn’t even that. Even though we’d dated for months, Jo had never given me his phone number, nor had he ever called mine. We’d simply agree to meet up at a time and place and he’d always be there. He’d been early for every single date or meeting we’d ever had. But now, after our first fight, he was simply gone—almost like he’d vanished off the face of the planet. “Typical male!” I muttered under my breath as I stomped home. * Despite being furious with him, I still looked for Jo every day before and after work for the rest of the week. On Sunday afternoon, I finally found him—sitting huddled under a bare-branched tree without his usual table and sign. He looked tired and cold and I was determined to make him even more miserable than he already appeared. “Where have you been!” I yelled as I stalked up to him. “You vanished without a word, a phone call, nothing! I’d started wondering if you’d died!” Jo winced at the tone of my voice. “Kate, I’m so sorry, but I was trying desperately to finish a project before time ran out. It took every spare moment I had. Besides, you know I don’t have a phone and I’m not the best at using modern technology anyway.” I rolled my eyes as he pushed himself up from the blanket he’d been sitting on and stepped onto the windswept concrete where I stood. “That’s no excuse! You could have done something to contact me!” Without another word Jo held out an ornate key made from gold-colored paper to me. “What’s this?” “The key to a promise,” he said. I stared at him a long time before grudgingly taking the origami key. “You finished the castle? Already? That was fast.” He heaved a weary sigh. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘fast,’ but, yes, it’s finished. I would really like to take you to see it. It’s a little bit of a hike though. Will you come with me?” His gentle, brown eyes were so earnest. “Please?” I slowly nodded. He folded up the grass-stained blanket and then offered me his hand. I hesitated and then finally took it—feeling the gentle strength of his grip as his fingers wrapped once again around my own. Together we walked hand in hand down the lane toward the museums. The trek seemed to take a lifetime, but we eventually reached the top of the stone steps of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jo opened the door for me and ushered me inside the cool building. The security guard nodded a hello at us as we walked past priceless paintings and sculptures to the service elevator. Jo produced a keycard from his worn coat pocket and waved it in front of the scanner next to the doors. In all of our talks, Jo had never mentioned working in the museum, so I was more than a little confused and intrigued as we entered the elevator. Jo punched the button to take us to a floor that I didn’t even know existed and we shot skyward. When the doors opened for us once again, we walked into an enormous white room with a two-story-tall glass roof. It was there that I started crying. A blue-roofed, Japanese-style castle almost as large as the room itself dominated my view. It was made of folded paper. Jo gently tugged on my fingers—pulling me past paper fountains toward the castle’s stairs. It was incredible how solid they felt beneath my feet once I stepped onto them! We passed underneath the main gate to stand in front of the large double doors. “Open them,” Jo said. I tested the key in the lock and it turned without hesitation. The paper doors opened wide as we stepped inside. Jo pulled the doors closed behind us once we were within the castle. I gazed up at the castle’s interior. The walls around us were lined with rows and rows of empty shelves. I looked down at the paper floor and marveled at the hundreds of origami flowers planted there. Yellow lilies and red roses nestled in woven brown baskets suspended from black paper lantern stands above my head and among sculpted blades of green grass under my feet. Outside light streamed through the openings of huge overhead panels to bathe the blossoms in sunshine. I stared past the panels to gaze at the underside of the blue-tiled roof. There were origami sculptures of animals of every size and kind decorating each of the huge buttresses supporting it. “Jo, you made all this?” I asked while he searched inside the origami chest sitting in the corner closest to us. “Yes,” he said as he pulled out three star-shaped boxes—one of which was very small and two that were almost the size of bowling balls. “The castle itself is made of one giant sheet of paper, while the chest, baskets, lamps, flowers, and such were all constructed separately. I had a couple of assistants to help me fold and shape the castle, but I did all of the other work on my own.” He grimaced a little. “Because of its sheer size, I had to cheat a little with the construction techniques so that the castle wouldn’t collapse on itself. The paper structure stays upright thanks to a bamboo skeleton.” “How long did this take you to make?” “Months and months. I had to design and construct the castle in miniature. Then I had to find all of the special materials required for the full-size project—although it’s not quite finished.” I was still staring around in astonishment, my eyes discovering more details with each new movement, when the realization hit me. “You were working on this before I even asked for it, weren’t you?” Jo’s gaze toward me was one of deepest longing. “Kate, I began working on this project the first day I met you. I knew from that day on that you should have a castle and that I should be the one to build it for you. The museum has been so generous to allow me the use of this space and their staff for my art installation, but only you can bring it to life.” I frowned at him. “Bring it to life? What do you mean?” His hand swept the room. “I built you shelves and shelves to display all of the paper animals that you love. I built you sturdy walls to protect you and beautiful gardens to delight you. I know that this castle is only made of paper, but it is the very best I can make. The castle is yours and so am I, if you’ll have me.” Tears seeped down my face as I realized the enormity of what he had done. Even before I had asked for a place to house my paper treasures, Jo had labored hours and hours building me a castle—a real castle. It didn’t matter if the castle was built of paper or stone. It was built with something far more significant than either material. It was built with love. Jo’s love! His devotion was evident in every nook and cranny of this colossal place. Suddenly I didn’t care that his gift to me would never fit in a convenient corner of my living room. Jo would never fit in a convenient corner of my life. His love was too big to stuff in a box even one that he had made himself. It was bigger than his life or mine. His love was more precious than my ambition, more important than my comfort, and more real than my paper-pushing world. My arms wrapped around his neck and my lips pressed into his before he could even react. “I don’t need the castle, Jo, or the animals, or any other treasures or trinkets you can give me. I just want you.” I kissed him again. “I need you.” Jo searched my face. “Do you love me?” I nodded. “I do. I first came to your table because I admired your work. Then I came because I admired you. But for weeks and weeks, I bought two pairs of every single animal you could make, because I fell in love with you, because I couldn’t bear the thought of living without you.” I shook my head. “But I was scared where we would go from here. I’m sorry. I should have trusted you more, I…” He put a finger to my lips. “You said you would give everything you had for the chance at something real.” “Yes.” “Am I it?” “Yes.” “Would you love me even if I hadn’t given you all of this?” “If I’m honest, it never was about the origami, as beautiful as it is. I love you for your dreams, your creativity, your chivalry, your nobility. I love you for you.” He nodded and let out a breath. “I know you said you don’t care about more trinkets, but will you trade the animals and the castle back to me?” I frowned. “Trade them? For what?” “For this.” He slid onto one knee and held up the tiny box still in his hand. I opened its star-shaped lid and peered inside. Sitting on a silk cushion was an origami ring complete with a crafted paper diamond. “Will you marry me?” Jo asked softly. My breath caught in my throat. “Yes!” I couldn’t stop smiling as he placed the ring on my finger. It was a perfect fit. Joy overwhelmed me and the intensity of the feeling dizzied me. I watched bemused as some of my tears landed on some of the lilies scattered at my feet. Their damp petals softened and I swear that I could actually smell the flowers’ sweet fragrance! Jo’s warm lips found mine then and I smiled into his kiss. He bent to reveal the contents of the two larger boxes at our feet. He pulled a small, ornate paper crown from the depths of one and placed it on my head. “Be my queen?” His smile was mischievous. I laughed. “Only if you’re my king!” I placed the larger paper crown on his head with a flourish and kissed him again. I no longer cared about the tears streaming down my face. I felt silly and giddy and more wonderful than I’d felt in my life as we laughed and hugged each other. Then something really strange happened. The weight of the engagement ring on my finger tripled and I looked down at my hand in confusion. There was a real gold band complete with a genuine diamond sitting where my golden paper ring had been moments ago. I stared at my hand in shock. “Wha—What happened?” Jo caressed my face. “I have searched for someone like you a long time, Kate.” I stared down at the flowers now. I hadn’t imagined their scent after all! The lilies and roses were just as real now as the ring on my hand, and the circlet now adorning my head, and the stone-and-wood walls of the castle now surrounding us. “I don’t understand. This can’t be happening!” “True love—yours and mine—makes everything I create true in its purpose, Kate. It makes it real. Out in what people call the ‘real world’, I’m simply a smalltime street peddler barely worth the time of ‘important’ people. But you…to you, I’m a king and so I’ve become one. But a king needs a queen, Kate, and together they need a castle. Now I’ve built us one.” I reached out to stroke the now wooden wall next to me. Then I stared at Jo’s crown. It had become just as real as my own. “Come, come see,” Jo said, pulling me back toward the massive front doors. He pushed them open and led me onto the front stairs once more. This time, though, my shoes touched stone and inlaid tile instead of paper. The whitewashed splendor of the museum was nowhere to be found. Nor was the rest of autumn-touched Washington, D.C. Instead, Jo and I stood in the middle of a tree-lined garden full of clear fountains and blooming flowers! From somewhere behind me, I heard the faint rustle of wings. “Ah, we have company,” said Jo as our feet touched the lush green grass beyond the bottom step. I turned to see a line of origami birds flying low over the tops of the distant cherry trees—each one carrying a different animal in its talons. Those were my animals and those were my birds now landing in the garden! I watched as each animal landed on the grass—the white angles of their bodies smoothing into strong, curved muscles as they touched the ground. Their white paper skin became scales or fur or feathers. Although still white in color, these animals were just as real as any I had ever seen in a zoo. It made me more than a little nervous to see lions and wolves and snakes mingling freely with elephants and rabbits and mice, but all of the animals seemed strangely at peace with one another and with us. In fact, each of them actually bowed to us once they had transformed. “Now I know why you didn’t want to make me a phoenix or a dragon. They would burn the castle down,” I told Jo, laughing. He nodded and grinned as we walked the garden to pet the animals together. “Well, Kate, does my true home please you?” “Very much,” I said as we stopped beside a fountain. I felt a soft body brush against my shin then, and looked down to discover my beautiful white cat purring against my leg. I picked her up and cuddled her before letting her chase after one of the wolves. It seemed all of Jo’s origami creations had joined us in this strange, magical place. All except one. “Where is my swan?” I finally asked. Jo pointed to a speck high in the distant blue sky. We watched as my beautiful swan glided gently toward us on the warm evening breeze. She landed next to me, transformed, and then touched our clasped hands with her pale pink beak in homage. I smiled as Jo brushed the last of my tears from my eyes. Finally, I had seen my swan truly fly.

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