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“Go on, birdy, tweet for us!”
It always ended like this.
“Fly away, little birdy! Go on!”
“Aw, birdy can’t fly?”
These humans would kill me.
“Maybe we should fix your wings, then!”
And then I would come back.
“Come on, get those hedge cutters!”
I could feel them clipping at my feathers.
I gulped down a howl.
I would have to start over, again.
I’ll never make it past eighteen before they found out, will I?
They started ripping them off. The pain intensified.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I began to scream.
The glorious life of a phoenix named Amity.
My right wing came off. I could hear the cheers of the humans as they started on the left wing.
I felt myself blacking out. Everything was fuzzy.
What will I look like this time?
I thought myself above vanity. I looked for worth in souls, not features. But still, I was curious.
Everything burned, but I shivered. I felt so cold. So wet.
Everything went black.
Sixteen Years Later
The average phoenix loved the daylight, but I prefered the night. I could spread my feathery wings, red and orange against the inky sky, and fly over the forests of the dull town I lived in without fear of being seen. My hair and eyes became like fire itself when I shed my human disguise. And while mankind would think me beautiful, they would also fear me. Attempt to destroy me. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
But despite all the pain I endured, century after century, flying over treetops just a breath away from the sky made everything worth it. Night creatures and mortals might reject me, but isn’t this reward enough?
At the same time... The routine repeated every time I was reborn. “Keep to yourself and try not to get killed,” my grandpa would tell me every time I started over. I could hardly fight back against the humans who murdered me. They were under protection. Though there were times I saw them act more like monsters than any beast I had ever encountered.
In this new century, I thought it unlikely that I would ever live past high school, and that thought alone made me wish, at times, that death could be more permanent for a phoenix. But at night, the world rushing below and above me presented itself far too beautifully for me to wish for a darkness that deep.
With the summer stars shining bright above me, and the green of the forest beneath me blending into the black of the night, I liked to think that nothing in the world could make me cry.
Sometimes, I wonder why I always seem to be wrong.
This story begins, I believe, when I tried to sneak into my house by way of crawling through the kitchen window. I made it onto the counter just fine, but as I tried to set myself down on the floor, I slipped and found myself crashing to ground.
“Ow,” I grumbled as I got up.
“Don’t move,” I heard a man’s voice demand from the darkness.
I sighed, putting my arms up and slowly turning around. “I’m not a burglar.” I caught a glimpse of his face and panicked. “But you might be, oh goodness, oh no, don’t shoot me, I didn’t go through puberty again to get shot! For the love of my wings who are you?!”
The man seemed to relax. “Amity?”
I managed to squeak out, “Yes?”
“Sorry.” He turned the light on. He looked younger than his voice suggested - twenty-one, maybe? “I thought you might be something else. I am Apollo.”
I straightened up and frowned. “You’re the greek god of the sun?”
He laughed. It was sweet sounding. “No, though I do burn rather brightly.” I caught a hint of fire in his eyes.
A phoenix, like myself. But not one I had seen before.
“I’ll be living here with you and the old man until I slip up again. Hopefully I’ll get to know you a bit better before that happens,” he said.
Was he flirting?
He smiled a bit crookedly.
Oh no, what do you do when a boy flirts with you?
...Try to flirt back?
“Yeah, definitely,” I said, shuffling my feet.
Did that work?
Apollo chuckled a bit.
Aw, yeah. Nailed it.
“You’d better get to bed, Amity. From what I understand, despite being centuries old, you have school later today.”
I looked at the clock.
One in the morning. It was going to be a long day.
“Yeah. The glorious life of a phoenix, I suppose. I’ll see you around, Apollo.”
“I certainly hope so,” he said as I brushed past him and ran up the stairs. “I certainly hope so.”
Apollo insisted on tagging along on my next nighttime flight. There had never been another phoenix willing to have adventures with me. Out of curiosity, I let him come.
It felt as beautiful as I imagined it looked.
We were fiery angels, soaring through the darkness.
Or so we imagined.
I learned that Apollo was younger than he looked - barely eighteen.
I learned that orange was his favorite color, and that he called my grandfather “Old Man” because he couldn’t pronounce his name. I hardly blamed him - “Aeneas” wasn’t easy to say.
I learned that he once made it to 102 before choosing to be reborn.
Most importantly, I learned that he owned a beautiful soul.
He talked for hours about the people he met on his journeys, the places he had travelled to, the stretches of sweet life in between the moments of darkness. He asked me questions about my thoughts on anything and everything, ruffled my feathers when I teased him, and did my homework for me just to be near me and escape boredom.
We had been born around the same time, when the greeks and romans ruled and avoiding humans wasn’t much of a problem for a phoenix. We talked about books we had read in the past two millennia, our favorite centuries, the way the world changed constantly, and what it meant to be the creatures that we were.
“Don’t you ever get tired of it, though?” I asked him one day as we sat across from each other on the kitchen floor, eating ice cream.
Apollo seemed to think about this for a moment. Then he shoved a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth and shrugged.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s the same thing decade after decade. You try to go unnoticed, you slip up, you die, and then you start all over again. I swear, sometimes I would give up everything just to be human. Just long enough to make it to twenty.”
“Humanity wouldn’t suit you, Amity. You’re too kind.”
I nearly dumped my ice cream all over the floor.
“What?” Apollo asked innocently.
“I think you’re wrong,” I said. “I’m not kind. I’m just a failure.”
It sounded a lot harsher when I said it aloud, but I meant it. A phoenix was supposed to be wise and powerful. But I always made mistakes. Got too close to the wrong people. Submitted to an end when I could fight back.
Apollo stared at me with something between empathy and pity. “Amity,” he said softly, trailing off.
“Apollo,” I said the same way, mocking him. He chuckled.
“You see what I mean? You’re always lighting up the room. And that’s something, coming from me. You mistook me for a greek god when we first met.” He grinned. I smiled sheepishly. “Come on,” he said, setting down his bowl and scooting closer to me. “Give me your hands.” I did so. They looked tiny and pale in his. He looked into my eyes and took a deep breath. “Out of every girl I’ve met in the past two millennia, you are the most interesting, intelligent, beautiful-minded creature I have ever had the pleasure of acquainting myself with.
“And you are kind. I have seen you pay attention to the smallest details about me. I have seen the wonder in your eyes when you experience beauty firsthand. And so what if it’s been centuries since you’ve made it to twenty? That doesn’t define you. In the past few months, Amity, I like to think I’ve gotten to know you pretty well. And I hope to know you for a very, very long time to come.”
Something hot and wet slipped down my cheek. Was I crying?
Apollo guided my hand and wiped the wetness away.
I was crying.
And suddenly I began to sob.
Apollo pulled me closer. “No one,” - sob - “Has ever,” - sob - “Said anything like that to,” - sob - “Me. Thank,” - sob - “You.”
He simply held me and rubbed my back.
It took me far too long to calm down.
“This is what I mean,” he said.
I sniffled. “What?”
“You are far too kind and soft for humanity. We may be creatures of myth, but they are the monsters.”
I wiped at my nose. “They’re not all that bad.”
“Amity, you can’t honestly believe that.”
“Yes, I can!” I insisted. “Every human is entirely unique, same as every phoenix. And some are terrible, but there are a lot that are absolutely amazing and creative and kind, and I believe there is goodness in those ones. Not every werewolf kills. Not every human does, either.”
Apollo sighed. “Alright, alright. Maybe one day I’ll believe you,” he said with a wink.
“Come on,” he said, offering me a hand as he stood up. “It’s almost nighttime.”
We flew side by side, our wings brushing against each other. The full moon lit up the forest, the stars seemed as if they were only inches away, and the only color in the dark came from us - fiery angels, floating above all life on earth.
The air felt crisp and clean, and Apollo and I loved each other.
I knew this with a certainty that I could feel burning in my cheeks and belly, right down to the center of my soul. I wondered at how, after so many centuries of lovelessness, it happened so quickly. One moment, I was falling out of a window, and the next, I was falling for him.
Throughout all the centuries I lived through, I rarely felt loved. But I couldn’t possibly mistake the feeling.
Below us, I heard werewolves crying to the full moon. Foolishly, I thought they were nothing to be afraid of.
The howling grew louder. The wolves craved blood when the moon waxed full.
Apollo flipped around and hovered above the forest, and I skidded to a stop beside him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
He frowned. “The werewolves. I don’t like the sound of them. They’re not this violent when there’s nothing around for them to kill.” A shriek sounded from deep within the forest.
Our eyes went wide. “Did that sound...?”
“Human,” he confirmed.
We plummeted toward the forest floor - firebolts shooting into a clearing in the midst of the moonlit trees. The wolves surrounded us within seconds.
They howled; we roared. A phoenix did not fear a creature of the darkness. We were creatures of light, masters of fire.
Apollo and I put our backs to each other, smoke pouring out of our nostrils.
I spotted a small, quaint tent on the far side of the clearing. “You will not hurt the human,” I said aloud to the wolves.
They growled in reply.
And then they attacked.
Fire shot out of my hands as sharp teeth raked across my wings. The smell of burning flesh poisoned the air and the sound of pained howling filled my head.
I focused my attention on any wolf that tried to break away and attack the tent. One after another, the werewolves succumbed to flame, and one after another they recovered and attacked once more.
The wolves scratched every inch of me, but I felt more alive than I had in decades. I fought with all the ferocity of the oldest phoenixes, fire pouring out of my mouth as I roared, making up what I lacked in strength with my anger.
Caught up in the battle, I noticed a lone werewolf stalking over to the tent half a second too late. “He’s too far away!” I screamed to Apollo, and I crossed the clearing with two flaps of my battered wings. Within seconds the wolf was drowning in fire, but so was the tent. The shrieking from inside intensified as the flames spread.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I ripped open the tent, wondering what horrible image the human woman saw hovering over her. I grabbed her and lifted the two of us above the ground, far enough away that the wolves and the fire couldn’t hurt the woman.
“Get her to safety!” Apollo yelled to me as he threw one of the wolves scratching at his chest. “I’ll hold them off!”
The last thing I wanted to do was leave him alone, but a human’s death was much more permanent than that of a phoenix’s. I took off, clearing the trees and soaring out of the woods.
I don’t know how I managed to fly as fast as I did with an adult held in my arms, but I saw the forest as a blur beneath me, my wings beating hard, the woman breathing fast.
I made it to the forest’s edge within minutes, and the second I set her on the ground, I shot off again, racing back towards the clearing. A flickering light was shining off in the distance, and as I got closer, I realized it was exactly what I had feared.
A fire roared in the clearing.
I was too late.
I dropped down in the midst of the flames, the scent of burning flesh and fur mixing in with the smoke. The fire surrounded me. I couldn’t see anything.
“Apollo?” I called out.
The howl of the werewolves, far away now.
The calls of birds and cries of foxes.
The flicker of the flames.
“Amity,” I heard from a few feet away. It sounded weak and broken.
“Oh, no.” I could barely look. “No, no, no, NO!” I screamed.
He sat in the flames, his wings torn and his feathers burning.
With a thought, I put the fires out.
All was calm, though in front of me I saw a world about to crumble.
The wolves had left my phoenix broken and tattered. “Apollo,” I said, holding back tears as I pulled him closer. “Apollo, stay with me, okay? Apollo, can you hear me?”
All that came from him were groans. Every part of him had been torn in some way. He was made of blood as red as my feathers.
He was closing his eyes.
“Apollo, stay with me. APOLLO!” He opened his eyes a little. “You can’t just make me feel the way I do and then go and get yourself killed, okay? I want to spend more time with you before we’re reborn. Apollo, look at me!”
But he couldn’t.
His eyes closed.
I looked up to the sky and roared with all the rage a phoenix could muster. It echoed into the night, and I heard it played back over and over - a howl of pain in the silence.
I began to cry. My tears came as freely. I would see him again, but I didn’t want him to go.
My tears fell on him, sizzling where they landed. They began their healing work, but it was too late.
It started with the wings. I had never known that before.
They crumbled, turning to ash, and my tears continued falling on him, trying desperately to stop the tragedy they landed on. But there is no cure for death. His body turned to ash in my hands, and my tears wet the black flakes slipping through my fingers.
I continued to cry as I picked up a small, sleeping baby from the ashes. I cradled the peaceful thing in my arms, my tears glowing as they landed on his skin.
“Hello, Apollo,” I whispered to the child. “Welcome back. I imagine I’ll be joining you soon.”
For once, I was glad to be right about my coming death.
Twenty Years (and two months) Later
The absent moon allowed the stars to shine more brightly than I had ever seen them. The air was thick, and it almost felt as if I were swimming through the sky.
My wings stretched out beside me, the wind rippling through my fiery red and orange feathers.
I turned to Apollo and smiled. “Guess what?”
Apollo looked over at me. “What?” He asked.
“It’s my twentieth birthday today.”
Flying had never felt more like something I was born to do.