"Man, who had so eagerly and innocently explored their worlds, no longer looked up."
|At the very edge of Time, where the waters spill over the side of the world and fall into Infinity, sat a garden of light. There, phoenix nested in the World Tree, eating nothing but nectar and drinking nothing but dew.
Now, phoenix were firebirds, and by their very nature, they had to move, traveling and shedding their light in the worlds. A young phoenix, like all phoenix before him, would leave the garden for a time, and return wiser and ready to make their first nest in the World Tree with a mate and chicks.
This went on for thousands upon thousands of years, generation upon generation, as firebird flew out and firebird flew home. But after many millennia had passed, silent tragedy creeped into the garden of light: the phoenix no longer returned from the outside worlds. The young ones flew out, yes, but no matter how much time passed, they never came back. Mates sang their sorrow and flew now to search for their lost halves, but even they failed to return to the garden.
The light of the garden dimmed as each phoenix left to find the others, but lost themselves. Soon, there was only one phoenix left in the garden. His wife had been among the first of the phoenix to go missing in the outer worlds, but he had stayed behind the others, content to wait and tend their nest while others searched the skies. With all the firebirds gone, however, the precious eggs in the nests turned to cold stone.
His eggs were among the last to fade, and as he watched their glowing lives grow black with death, he felt his own breast flare with impatience. He was the last left who could look for the others, and what was left for him in this garden-tomb? The garden itself was still hauntingly lovely, with glowflowers shining in the verdant lawns and the wind in the World Tree whistling sweet lullabies. The phoenix, however, could no longer see such beauty with his beloved family gone away.
And when he flew away from the World Tree at last to look for the missing phoenix, the garden at the edge of Time lost the last of its light as even the glowflowers dimmed and died and the World Tree moaned a death-dirge.
The journey was difficult, harder than any of those before. It seemed to the phoenix that he had left life back in the World Tree with his dead chicks, and color, too. The worlds had grown dull and grey since he had last made this flight, eons ago. He travelled unnoticed, for Man, who had so eagerly and innocently explored their worlds and imaginations, now no longer looked up. They did not see the sole firebird searching for a sign of his wife and family.
The phoenix searched the skies for a year and a day, listening for any news. While he learned nothing of his family, he learned that magic had long since been leached from the worlds, and he might be mistaken for a pretty bird instead of the phoenix he was. He became more cautious. Before, he could have questioned the people personally; now, he flew low only when the setting sun would mask his brilliance, and then only to quietly listen to conversations between drunkards, or idiots, or gap-toothed beggar boys.
One day, the sky boiled over, and a storm struck the phoenix. Lightening pounded on his wings, and the rain became like leaden weights on his feathers, smothering his fire. The thunder drowned his desperate, fluting cries as his strength gave out and he fell to earth in a flurry of flame and feathers. He lay smoldering in the crater, his heart crying out in pain and loneliness. He had not found the other phoenix, and he would die in this colorless and lifeless wasteland of world, far from the World Tree and the garden of light.
But one small boy, watching the lightening twist and writhe through the sky, watched the phoenix fall. Once the rain had slackened, he slipped out of the house while his mother wasn’t looking so he could see what had come with the storm. He found the crater, and the phoenix, and immediately recognized him. (He was not old enough to think of legends as lies.) The phoenix had cooled enough that the boy could touch the feathers of the firebird without burning, and the boy marveled at the glossy sheen of the wings and breast and neck. The phoenix’s eyes were closed, but whether in pain or sleep or death, the boy could not say.
Carefully, he gathered the massive bird in his arms, cradling the phoenix like his sister might her favorite doll. The head of the phoenix curled to rest underneath his chin, and its great feather-crest tickled his neck, making him smile as he made his way back home to a small abandoned shed behind the house. The boy laid the phoenix down on a bed of rags before he found a ripped towel and wiped away every drop of moisture from the phoenix’s body. He worked quickly and quietly, not wishing to rouse the curiosity of his family, and when his mother called him inside for supper, he dared not linger at the phoenix’s side, save to leave a small dish of cool rainwater near the phoenix’s beak, should he awaken during the night.
The next morning, the boy woke to shouting in the backyard. His thoughts turned to the phoenix, and sure enough, the men of the town were gathered around the shed that housed the fallen firebird. When the boy drew closer, he saw that black smoke was leaking through the roof, as if a great fire had been lit within but had yet to catch on the walls. The black smoke had drawn the boy’s father to investigate, and his shouts of fire sent the others scurrying for pails of water with which to douse the flames. As he watched, he heard the phoenix’s mournful cry each time the water sloshed through the one window.
The sound plucked at his heart and tossed out his common sense. Heedless of his family’s dismay, he dashed beneath the legs of the men and darted into the shed to save the phoenix.
At first, all he could see was darkness, except for two white-hot lights glowing in the corner farthest from the window. He did not smell smoke, or hear the men’s shouts. Instead, the room was filled with a scent like cinnamon, and incense, and his mother’s Sunday bread, and a soft hiss, like rain falling on a hot stone. The boy sighed, and the lights grew brighter. Not lights, the boy realized—eyes. The eyes of a phoenix.
With trembling hands, the boy reached out to touch the phoenix he had saved, but at that moment, the men threw another bucket of water in, soaking the floor in an instant. The phoenix flared its wings, flame shooting through its feathers, and it sang its rage against Man who had somehow, in some way, stolen all that was precious and now sought to steal him, as well. The shed caught fire in truth to burn with the phoenix’s fury. The boy, still standing inside, felt his hair burn away in an instant, and when he closed his eyes, he could still see the fire-shadow of the phoenix against his lids, wings spread wide in the cramped room. He whimpered with fear and cowered from the awesome sight before him.
The phoenix turned towards the boy once more, and saw that this man was young, a chick yet, and had done no wrong towards him or his. In fact, the phoenix realized, this boy had rescued him and sheltered him, when the other men might have done him further harm. He lowered his wings, and the boy felt the intense heat recede.
But the men wanted the boy in the shed, and so they began to break down the door with axes. While the latch had melted and locked, the wood itself was now weak from the phoenix fire, and a few strokes were all that were needed to gain entry. A fresh billow of black smoke spurted from the door, and it was a moment before it blew away so the men might look inside for the boy.
What they saw, instead, was a huge red bird holding the boy by the neck in its beak. The boy was curled up like a kitten in its mother’s mouth, and his gaze was completely trusting when he looked at the bird through half-burnt lashes. No one had ever seen a bird this big before, but when the boy’s father saw that it had his son, he raised his axe to destroy this thing which he had never seen but held his child.
And the bird looked into the father’s blue eyes with his own ever-white ones, and the father thought saw a sad sort of understanding and empathy and apology burning in their depths. And he was not surprised when, a moment later, the great red bird beat its wings once, twice, and rose out of the shed through the smoke-blackened roof, his son still firmly grasped in its beak. It flew up, up on the draft of the smoke, on the new sunlight of the day, on the heat of the fear and admiration of the crowd far below, on the love of a man for his son. It flew until it found the other phoenix, high above the sorrow and misery of the worlds, where they had found new roosts in the night sky so that they might give light and hope and inspiration to life-weary worlds, where there might be all the room a boy could ever need to shine with his greatest light.
And the stars still shine today.
Inspired by “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle
(I wrote this as a Christmas present to a young friend of mine. It's alright, but I'm hoping for some feedback to make it better. Your thoughts? :) )