Author’s note: Fables are not my strong suit. Nor is writing in the present tense. But sometimes breaking one’s mold is satisfying, and more than a little cathartic…
In all the world, there is none so graceful, so beautiful, or so powerful as the Phoenix.
The awe-inspiring bird of ancient myth soars high above his world, transcending even Time itself. He soars in, out, and through all the ages of men, carried aloft by wings be-feathered with incandescent flame. He turns his piercing eye toward the doings of mankind with open scorn, his plumed head un-bowed. Un-bowed… before man, beast, and even the Almighty Himself.
For who is greater than the Phoenix? He is the dragon-bird of the Heavens, the Watchman of the Ages.
Perhaps he had a beginning, or perhaps he never did. Perhaps someone plucked him from the pyre of his birth. Or perhaps he is simply timeless, without beginning and certainly incapable of ever coming to an end.
In his travels the Phoenix gazes often upon the mountain of the Almighty. He finds it in odd places sometimes, the mountain, and always unexpectedly. Sometimes it rises from the desert, overlooking the heathen hordes of the Middle East. Sometimes it appears on lush isles, surrounded by the resort cities of America, the modern Roman Empire. But always it seems to follow the glorious Phoenix, the mountain, and always the great dragon-bird turns and sails disdainfully away from it, flicking his crimson tail feathers in irritation.
For the Almighty is really just a crutch for the weak, is He not? His worshippers grovel at the feet of their deity, their praise mixed always with barely concealed terror. They are addicts to religion, those weak-minded mortals who must need cling to the idea of a Greater Being. But not so the Phoenix… The Phoenix has sailed through all the ages alone, dependant on none, and will continue to do so.
The immortal Phoenix has no need of either the Almighty or His mortal servants. Do they love their master, really… or do they simply desire release from the fear of death?
Either way, the Phoenix is his own being, an entity apart.
As the sun rises over Eden, hits its zenith over the half-built Sphinx, and sets behind the crumbling Mount Rushmore, the Phoenix flies effortlessly across the fluid eonic winds – ageless, changeless, and proud beyond all measure.
For who, in the end, can be greater than the Phoenix?
The mammoth trumpets loudly, calling out in anguish as golden claws tear into its hide.
Crimson wings beat about its head, forcing it to the earth in unwilling surrender. It thrashes like a fish, a massive hulk of struggling sinew, fur and tusk. Its piteous cries tear into the frigid Siberian air, mingling with the vicious snarling of the hungry Phoenix.
At last the great mammoth dies, as everything must in the end. It settles into the snow, spreading a scarlet stain upon the pristine white blanket.
The Phoenix throws his head up in triumph, his chilling victory scream piercing the still, frozen night as blood drips from his razor-sharp beak.
While the Phoenix hunts here often, he disdains to actually eat here… For what union can a creature of fire and flame have with the never-ending ice? Grasping his kill in his curved talons, the Phoenix takes wing toward another age, another place.
The Phoenix drops his prey atop a high, lonely mountain, one whose peak pierces the cloud barrier. Here mankind will hinder him not; here, he may continue to remain the stuff of mystery, of myth.
Of course, every boon has it price…
For where mankind is not, the celestial becomes more tangible. Here there be the guardians and warriors, the protectors and killers of mankind; they flock about the Phoenix curiously, cherubim, seraphim, and nephilim all. The winged, ethereal creatures – male and female both – flit about the Phoenix as he feeds, the ghost-like tendrils of their clothing just brushing the great dragon-bird, their touch as light as a whisper.
It is not long before their presence becomes odious; the Phoenix rises from his gorging, his tearing of flesh and cracking of bones, and snaps angrily at the celestial minions who come too close. This is his prey, his kill, and he is determined that they should hinder him not.
They eye him but coolly, completely unbothered by the rage of the mythical Phoenix. He is merely legend, their indifference seems to say… But they are the sort that pre-dates even legend. As such, they are beyond even the Phoenix’s reproach and retribution. They are as numb to his attempts at rebuttal as Death was to the mammoth’s frantic trumpeting.
The Phoenix will later tell himself that he’d eaten enough, that he was about to leave anyway. He takes wing furiously, leaving his gory, dismembered meal to sully the mountain’s craggy peak, and leaves this hell of angelic torment.
He’d eaten enough… really, and truly, and the celestials mattered no. They had nothing whatsoever to do with his leaving.
The Almighty is an elusive thing, easy to see, easy to identify but hard to follow, and impossible to pin down.
The Phoenix resents Him mightily for this.
Sometimes the Almighty is obvious but distant, a shining form that tops of the mountains from which he views the entirety of His creation. It is then that the Phoenix resents Him the most, for He is untouchable then, unfathomable and omnipotent; His very presence seems to scorn the mighty Phoenix.
The Almighty, in His untouchable, all-powerful form. How the Phoenix hates Him!
Often the Almighty becomes Spirit, the sentient, changeless phantom. This form, also, the Phoenix dislikes. But he is not so afraid of Him then; he cannot see the Spirit of the Almighty, after all. But he can sense Him, and he finds him frightening nonetheless. The Spirit is separate from the God upon the mountains – but yet He is the same singular, sovereign entity that is the Almighty.
Some days, though, for brief, passing moments, the Almighty becomes simply… mortal. A perishable vessel of flesh. A man, much like any other.
The Phoenix cannot say why he even recognizes this incarnation of the Almighty, this Son of Man. Perhaps he can sense the Spirit within Him, or perhaps the tangible Almighty simply shines even more brightly upon Him.
The Son of Man, too – like the mountaintop Almighty, or the Spirit – is also the Almighty Himself, yet the Phoenix grasps this not. One thing, however, is certain; the Phoenix does not fear the Son of Man. He follows Him daily, floating effortlessly on astral winds, watching as the human Almighty does very human things with His time.
Some days the Son of Man works at mundane tasks, wielding hammer and saw as lustily as any carpenter. He sweats, bleeds, laughs and grunts like any other man intent on building the buildings that house his world.
Yet sometimes the Son of Man pulls away, to pray, to connect with the Almighty upon His mountaintop – this Almighty who is also the Son of Man. Sometimes He wanders the known world with those He has chosen, His select followers. The Phoenix, if he would follow, is forced to fly far and wide, watching from a distance as the Son of Man spreads whatever news He carries to the far corners of His humble nation.
Sometimes the Phoenix lingers within the age of the Son of Man for a time, and sometimes he travels to another, leaving the Almighty-made-flesh to His own devices.
Today, however, the Phoenix is earthbound, watching lazily, preening his crimson feathers disdainfully as the Son of Man stands at the foot of a tall mountain, speaking quietly to his closest friends. The Phoenix cannot hear His words, nor does he care to. He is simply here to observe, to find some new reason to cast scorn upon God and Man both.
The Phoenix raises his plumed head, suddenly intrigued.
The Son of Man has risen above his followers, hands outspread, moving aloft as though pulled by unseen strings.
Now, thinks the Phoenix with macabre humor, Man has learned to fly?! Smiling with his hooked, cruel beak, the Phoenix lunges from beneath his shade tree.
Far, far above the awestruck assemblage, the Almighty shines from His mountain. The Son of Man sails toward Him, as though somehow drawn by the majesty of the Frightfully Eternal.
Determined suddenly not to be denied a privilege handed to a mortal – even a wholly Divine, Immortal Mortal – the Phoenix flies upward, determined to follow the Son of Man into whatever heaven might await Him atop the mountain.
And who truly knows what really waits at the top of the mountain of the Almighty? Only the Almighty Himself, and His Spirit… and the Son of Man.
But soon, the Phoenix vows silently to himself, he too will know.
Straining more with each flap of his thunderous wings, the Phoenix rises higher and higher, following the Son of Man as He ascends toward the mountaintop.
Flames lick at the tips of his wings the beat at the chilly air, but the Phoenix worries not. These are not the flames that consume, but the flames that illuminate, that the world may see the Phoenix and stand in awe.
The Phoenix breaks through the clouds and then through the atmosphere, breaking into the Eternal Night as he struggles to overtake the Son of Man. The Son looks serenely down at the Phoenix, shaking his head a little. Silly bird, He seems to be saying. You cannot seize my world for yourself, any more than you can seize the wind…
The Phoenix pays Him little heed. He merely redoubles his efforts, determined not to be outdone by anyone, divine or otherwise.
Still the Son of Man rises, moving past star and planet, through the Endless Nothing toward the mountaintop heaven.
The Phoenix begins to tremble more and more with each passing stroke of his wings. Tarnished feathers fall from his aching wings every now and again, drifting slowly toward the atmosphere, where they disappear in flashes of flame and puffs of smoke.
The Phoenix is slowly overtaken by a dawning realization, the sinking feeling that he might actually be able to die.
Still the Son of Man rises serenely, paying the Phoenix little mind.
The ageless beast continues his ascent, but with increasing sluggishness. He hangs his head low, his plume all but gone now, diminished feather by missing feather until it is no more.
One… last… flap, one last desperate plunge toward the Son of Man – who is all but out of sight.
The bedraggled tail feathers that once pointed toward the earth point suddenly skyward, and the Phoenix begins to fall.
He resists, of course, managing a feeble movement of his twitching wings every now and then. But to no avail; he has reached the end of his strength, and he is utterly spent. There is no help for him now… For who would bother to aid him who has scorned all?
The Phoenix hits the atmosphere with a rush of searing pain, and a sudden stab of fear. Like the returning space capsules of the modern age, the force of re-entering the firmament causes massive heat.
As his body begins to simmer and scorch, the Phoenix realizes that this is not the sort of flame that illuminates…
This is the sort of flame that consumes.
The Phoenix stares downward with bulging eyes. Gone is the stunned crowd who watched the Son of Man ascend into heaven; gone is the lush valley of earlier, the tree beneath which the Phoenix preened his once-lovely feathers.
The earth opens up slowly, a hungry maw of flaming fissures, cracks that scar the face of the earth like veins on a dying man.
The Phoenix plunges down, down, exhausted beyond recovery. He looks upward painfully; the Son of Man is far beyond his gaze.
Gone is the crowd, the followers of the Son.
There is no one to listen, no one to hear as the Phoenix crashes into a fissure and begins to burn.
The Phoenix lifts his head wearily; exhausted, he lets it fall. The flames in which it lands are unbearably painful, yet he lacks the strength to fly away.
His wings crack ominously as he rolls over; his crimson feathers burn one by one, curling away from his blistering flesh in withering clumps of smoldering ash.
So this, then, is Death. To burn yet not be consumed, to suffer and yet not die.
Squawking weakly, the Phoenix struggles to his knees. His golden claws melt and drip away, and his toes dig into the softened earth. Looking skyward with smoke-blurred eyes, the Phoenix looks skyward at the stars, toward the sky that was once his playground.
The Son of Man is up there somewhere, while he – the great Phoenix, the timeless demon-bird – wallows here, in the flames of his own making. All that he ever knew, all that he ever wanted although he’d taken it for granted, is up there… nearly within the grasp of his twisted talons.
So close… and so far that it may as well be on another planet. Life, liberty and all that is good are just out reach but within easy eyeshot, tormenting, mocking.
The Phoenix flops painfully toward a shadow at the edge of the fissure, dragging his broken wings painfully behind them. Maybe it is cooler here; maybe, he thinks, the fire is not quite so hot.
He curls up in the crack, covering his de-plumed head with his spindly, tattered wings. Gone is the glorious creature of ages both past and future; gone is the Watchman of the Ages. Only this tormented beast remains, worse off than any creature who ever perished beneath his grasp.
The Phoenix lays his head down. Groaning, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps.
He feels something beneath his head, something that shouldn’t be here, something that should not have survived the flames.
Ever curious even in his agony, the Phoenix blinks the smoke from his eyes and peers through the darkness.
A scroll. He’d lain his head upon a scroll, something perishable, a creation forged of parchment and ink. Something easily destroyed by flame and heat… yet here it is.
Bits of his burnt and melted feathers cling to the scroll as he unfurls it, his need for distraction overcoming even his pain.
He reads the first few words aloud, mouthing the words with a smoke-blackened beak. In the beginning…
‘In the beginning’, here at the end of all that is worthwhile, the end of all joy…
But he can sit out there, wallowing in the flames… or he can hide here in this crack that barely hides him, where even the flames lick inward every once in a moment, and read.
In the beginning…
The Son of Man stands at the edge of the fissure, looking down upon the Phoenix.
The Phoenix looks up, knowing what he must do. He knows why the Son is here, and what he came to do. He knows for what purpose he has been given the scroll…
But such a loss of pride! Such a humiliation, to do what the Son expects of him!
The Phoenix groans as he looks around. He had once lived for his pride, valued it above all else. But now he knew better.
For as long as he clings to his pride… he will burn. It was not the Son of Man who threw him into this furnace, but he himself, and by virtue of his own pride, his own sin. And there was no help for him, by his own effort; he could only, by his own effort, do nothing but sit here and burn.
Giving in at last, the Phoenix raises his voice and cries out to the Son of Man, begging for mercy, for redemption. Screeching, he recants his pride and his rebellion; he wails out a raucous song of repentance and supplication.
As though He had been waiting for just such a cry, the Son of Man readily raises His arm.
His sleeve falls down His arm, revealing a gaping hole in his wrist. Blood pours from the wound, as though the wound is yet fresh, and deliberately un-bandaged. The Phoenix stares in disbelief, wondering what on earth this has to do with his cries for mercy.
The blood gushes into the fissure like a flood, slowly beginning to fill it. The Phoenix thrashes about in alarm, frightened. He is burnt nearly beyond recognition, still in terrible agony… but what good is this blood going to do him?!
The blood pours in, filling the fissure, rising like a flood…
The Phoenix raises his beak above the rising tide, squawking in terror… But his cries are cut short by an abrupt gurgle. The blood covers even his head now, and there is utter silence.
There is only the Son of Man…
And the fissure full of blood, the sanguine pit that once held an eternally dying Phoenix.
The Phoenix stands up, flexing his golden claws… claws that, moments ago, had been melted beyond recognition.
He raises his head slowly, the head once crushed in defeat, the head whose plume had been burned to ash. He clicks his once-scorched beak and surveys the dusky-gray sky above with piercing eyes, eyes undimmed by neither smoke nor tears.
He looks to his left, to his right as he spreads his wings. His crimson feathers gleam wonderfully even beneath the slate-colored dawn, and his shoulders and breath ripple with fluid strength and renewed resilience.
The Phoenix looks over his shoulders and eyes his tail, a glorious thing meant to flow behind him like a trail from a comet.
Awed by his new being, the Phoenix looks around. The blood soaks the fissure yet, the Pit that had once been his Hell. The Pit in which he burned and died a death of sorts, the Pit in which he lay feeble and wounded and tormented by Death that refused to become something final, and clean.
The blood boils yet, but only a little as the heat dies; already it is cooler here. The Phoenix cocks his head, listening to the dead leaves scattering in the breeze above. They make a rasping sound, pleasantly reminiscent of trees limbs, scratching gently on a windowpane on a cold, windy night.
Smiling, the Phoenix crouches a little, holding his wings behind him…
Shrieking like a resurrected banshee, the triumphant Watchman of the Ages lunges from the Pit, soaring toward the clouds in a geyser of color and flame… The sort of flame that glorifies, that illuminates; the flame that consumes is dead now, extinguished once and for all by the outpouring of blood.
Ah, the Blood…
Confused – suddenly unsure of himself – the Phoenix looks downward, gliding for a moment upon a convenient breeze.
The Son of Man stands by the edge of the fissure yet, watching the Phoenix circle the sky, His wrists bleeding yet. Yet the Son of Man seems unconcerned about this, as though He doesn’t mind bleeding. As though He was so eager to watch the flames die that the blood bothers Him not; He seems in no rush to seek a bandage, or healing.
The Phoenix looks up, peering beyond the veil of time…
He looks out across the courtyard, toward the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The great works of man, from Colossus to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…
He stares across the golden bridge into the New Sodom, imagining it falling into the bay when the Father’s vengeance comes to the city at last…
He watches with growing hunger the migrating mammoth herds of Siberia, and the hustle and bustle of the glory that was once Rome…
And he suddenly realizes that none of it matters. Vanity, meaningless…
The Phoenix circles a little, and looks down upon the one thing in his life of arrogance, death, and re-birth that ever did matter.
Making his decision, the great dragon-bird abandons the skies that he once so loved, and plunges toward the earth.
The Son of Man raises his arms, smiling His gentle smile, as though He’d been waiting. His wrists bleed yet, but perhaps they must; perhaps there are other flames that need snuffed, other victims that need re-birth.
The Phoenix skids to the earth at the feet of the Son, bowing his head in a gesture never before known to him… And there he remains. He spreads his wings, lowering them humbly to the ground, waiting.
Come with me, the Phoenix seems to stay. Let me be your beast of burden; let me be that which bears through all time, to do the work which you came to do. Let me be that which carries you across the sky, in all your glory.
The Son of Man lays a gentle hand on the feathered head before Him, spilling a few more drops of blood as He does.
Let me do this for you, the Phoenix seems to say. Please, not because you need my help…
But because it would be my honor, for I love you.