Monday was the new moon. That night Garnal's father saw the fire in the north pasture and sighed.
"Phoenix has come, and knowing my luck she'll stay." He chewed on the stem of his pipe and stared thoughtfully past Garnal into the fireplace. The light flickered, and his shadow on the back wall danced. Garnal looked out the window and saw the spot of light picked out brightly against the inky black of night.
"They say the phoenix is the most beautiful bird in the world," his father's gruff voice murmured behind him. "Few have ever seen her shed her old skin for the new up close. Once every new moon she'll come, now that she's found a safe place to renew herself. Still, a nuisance for us as she will spook all the sheep." Garnal watched as the speck of light faded to nothing.
The next new moon was on a Saturday. Garnal turned the clocks forward while his father was out, so a full hour earlier than usual that night the old man yawned like a bear and, scratching his back, clomped up the stairs to bed. Garnal put a piece of bread in his heaviest coat and left through the back door.
The evening fall air was cool, but had not yet turned bitter. Halfway up the hill Garnal pulled the piece of bread out of the coat and draped it over a bush. He ate half of the bread on the climb up, reaching the north pasture panting. With a sigh he lay down on the grass and to wait. He tried to hold still, but the grass found it's way through the gap in his shirt, tickling his stomach and the hard dirt pressed painfully into one hip.
Time crawled by and Garnal began to wonder if his father had been telling stories to trick him into hiding in the grass in the middle of the night. He was about to sit up when he saw a shadow of something move through the darkness and land in the grass a few feet past his head.
Maybe? He edged closer, hardly daring to hope. Couldn't be. He pulled one knee up under him and was about to push into a standing position when a crack like a firework startled him. The grass in front of him suddenly blazed up three feet into the air, flames crackling toward the sky. The bird, somewhere in the center of the pyre, screamed and rose, a dark silhouette against the bright fire. Then the shape fell apart, shattered into a dozen pieces which fluttered softly to the ground as the flames died down.
Mouth hanging open slightly in shock, Garnal moved forward very slowly towards the charred circle that was once lush grass. In the very center, a tiny bird of the most vivid shades of red and yellow and orange, her tail feathers reaching nearly the diameter of the circle. The creature let out a strangled squawk and tilted her head. Fumbling, Garnal pulled out the remains of the bread and crumbled a few bits onto the ground in front of him, then moved backwards slowly. The bird followed his movements until she reached the crumbs. With a frantic hunger she began to peck at them, oblivious to the boy crouched in the grass mere feet from her.
Garnal's loud whoop of joy startled her into the air as he leapt to his feet and raced down the hill toward home.
Garnal hardly slept that night, and bounded down the stairs the moment he heard the sounds of his father moving about the house.
"Papa! Guess what? Last night I snuck into the north pasture and saw the phoenix die and rise from the ashes!"
Garnal's father took no notice of the small boy leaping around him with joy and returned to stacking firewood by the hearth.
"Papa did you hear me? I saw the phoenix, I saw her!"
Garnal's father turned slowly and gazed at the boy, a log still held in his hands. "No small boy such as yourself could have ever seen the phoenix. That is a sight only for the very privileged. Now go get yourself some breakfast and leave me be."
Garnal's face fell at this pronouncement and he turned slowly away from his father. He wandered into the kitchen and stared at the stove and the flames crackling in it. Suddenly he was struck with an idea.
The phoenix's feathers were more beautiful and brightly colored than any I had ever seen, he thought. I will fetch one and bring it back. Then there is no chance that father will think I am making up stories.
It seemed a wait almost too long to bear until the next new moon, but Garnal bore the time in silence. When the night finally rolled around, he carefully reset the clocks so that they all read an hour earlier than was the proper time. He waited until his father yawned and stretched, and stomped up to bed scratching his back. Garnal packed a bag with bread once again, and crept out the back door.
This time Garnal waited for a much longer time, and by the time he heard the sound of wings in the darkness, his head was beginning to droop. Still he managed to catch a glimpse of the bird landing, and he took advantage of the noise the fire made to run in closer. He carefully laid out a path of breadcrumbs from the circle of fire out into the grass by the time the new bird let out its croaking call. He waited patiently for the phoenix to follow the trail out into the open grass, ran out to the burned out circle and started shifting through the ashes.
Before long he found what he was looking for. A long golden feather, trimmed with blue shimmered brightly in his hand, seeming to cast a glow all its own. Garnal smiled to himself and headed back towards the house.
That night Garnal lay awake in bed, turning the feather over in his hands, marveling at its beauty. He awoke to the sun peeking through his window, the feather lying on the bedclothes. Scarcely looking at it, Garnal leapt to his feet and raced down to where his father sat, eating breakfast in his slow, deliberate manner.
"Papa look! I saw the phoenix again, and this time she left me a feather!" Garnal called joyfully.
His father ate another bite of food, chewed and swallowed it down with a swig of milk, before patting his mouth with a napkin and turning towards Garnal. He lifted the feather up and examined it for a moment, holding it up to the light, then let it fall to the ground.
"A falcon must have dropped it on her flight overhead," he pronounced.
Stricken Garnal looked at the feather on the floor, now faded to a dull reddish brown. The only hint left of its former glory was a faint yellow tinge lining the edge.
I'll prove that phoenix exists if I have to capture her whole and bring her back here to show my father, Garnal thought angrily.
The wait until the next new moon went much more quickly. Every chance he found, Garnal hid in his room constructing a cage out of wires. He hid it beneath his bed during the day so that his father would not see it. Finally, the night before the new moon, he finished it. Filled with anticipation, Garnal changed all the clocks forward an hour and sat back and waited.
The walk up to the north pasture seemed a lot longer as Garnal tried to balance the cage and the loaf of bread that he'd brought. He wondered how heavy the phoenix would be. Would it be terribly difficult to carry her back? Would the wire cage hold her? Shivering with excitement and the cold winter air, Garnal quickened his steps.
This time Garnal's head was against the dirt and he was nearly sound asleep by the time he heard the bang that signified the start of the phoenix's change. He leapt to his feet and raced across the pasture towards the glow of the fire, cage clutched awkwardly in his hands. He laid it down several feet from where the flames reached challengingly towards the night sky, then crumbled the bread in a steady trail from the center of the cage to the circle of flames.
This night, like all the other nights, the phoenix followed the trail of breadcrumbs towards Garnal who lay hidden in the grass. When she finally found her way into the cage, he leapt to his feet and clanged the door of the cage shut. His heart beat fast in his chest as he leaned down to look through the bars, half expecting the tiny bird to burst into flames again and escape. But the phoenix only tilted her head to look and him and let out a soft whirring noise.
Garnal lifted the cage and began to walk slowly back towards his house, stopping every few minutes to feed the phoenix some bits of bread he still had in his pocket. She peered out at him with black eyes that shone in the moonlight. He thought he might have been imagining it, but he thought her eyes looked very sad. When he returned home, he clambered up the stairs to bed and sat watching her through the cage on the floor.
When sunlight finally shone through the window bright enough to see by, Garnal's head had slumped forward and he was snoring softly. He jerked awake as the phoenix let out a trilling noise. Disoriented, he leapt to his feet, spun around in a circle, the turned to look at the bird. She sat in the bottom of the cage, peering out with her black eyes, but to Garnal's horror he saw that all of her feathers had faded to the same red-brown as the feather had the month before. Rather than the radiant creature of the night, she more resembled a scrawny chicken.
Garnal could hear the sounds of his father getting out of bed and clambering down the stairs. Sadly he lifted the cage up to his face and peered at the bird.
"I guess you were always more beautiful from afar," he told her. Then he opened his window, and opened the cage. The phoenix hopped to the window sill, shook her feathers and glided off into the sunrise until she was nothing more than a dark silhouette, haloed in gold.
X X X
A fine tale, beautifully written, with a parable hidden inside it--this is one of my favorite stories during my tenure at Anotherealm. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Let me know on our BBS. - GM