Early in the twenty first century, in a small house somewhere in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada's Yukon Territory, one of the few mostly undeveloped areas left, a very old woman sits with a group of children surrounding her. It is late in the evening, past the children's bedtimes, but they are begging for one more story. The woman has appointed herself the village storyteller, and she considers all the young people of the town her children, for she has none of her own, having never married. Their parents have gone somewhere for the evening, so they stay with her. "Please, Grandmother," they beg her, "tell us one more story, please! Just one more! Then we'll go to bed, we promise!" Her wrinkled face creases into a smile as she finally consents under such relentless arm-twisting. "Very well, my children," she tells them, "I will tell you a story from many years ago, back in the early twentieth century. You must listen closely and remember, for what I am about to tell you is true. When I die, whichever one of you becomes the next storyteller must tell it to their children, and their children's children, and so on down the line. It is a very special story that must never be forgotten." So saying, she leans back in her rocking chair and gazes into the fire. Almost as if she could see something there that no one else could; pictures from a long gone past. She begins.
Death of the Sun, Birth of the Dawn
In Canada, in the late nineteen twenties, the Yukon Territory was mostly wilderness with occasional scattered towns and solitary homes. The summers were warm but short, and the winters were cold, long, and hard. During one of the coldest winters of the decade, a widowed mother stood at the door of her log cabin giving last minute instructions to her two children, Claire, aged ten, and Kevin, aged twelve. She was getting ready to leave to go visit her sick mother in the town of Whitehorse. The town was twenty miles away, and although she was taking their fastest horse, it would take her all night to get there because of all the snow that had been building up over the past three weeks. She turned to her son, "Now remember, Kevin, the food cellar is fully stocked, so you shouldn't have any problem with that. Also, there is enough firewood to last until I get back. If, for some reason, you run out, the ax is in the shed, and you know what to do with it. Also, you and Claire need to keep up with your studies while I'm away. "
"Yes, Mother. Everything will be fine," he assured her, "How long do you plan on being gone?"
"I plan on being away for about three weeks, but if this snow keeps falling the way it has, I can't guarantee that I'll be back by then. But I'll try. I feel uncomfortable about leaving the two of you alone for so long in this weather, but your grandmother needs my help."
Claire piped up. "Really, Mom, we'll be fine!" She said cheerily, doing her best to ease her mother's discomfort. "Kevin and I will have lots of fun together!" Kevin merely turned and looked at his sister, blinked twice, then turned back around. He bent and picked up the rest of the things that his mother was taking with her, carried them to the tethered horse outside, and began fitting them into the saddlebags as his mother and sister looked on.
Mrs. Calmac turned to her daughter and said, "Now, Claire, you are to obey your brother. Do what he tells you, and don't contradict him…too much." That last comment with a twinkle in her eye, and a secret smile that the two of them shared.
Mrs. Calmac walked outside with Claire trailing at her heels. Turning around, she kissed both her children, hefted her lantern, mounted the horse, and waved good-bye. With a quick nudge to the horse, they were off into the Canadian sunset. Kevin and Claire stood at the door of the cabin waving until they could no longer see their mother's outline against the setting sun.
As they turned to go in, Claire's face twisted into a grimace and she doubled over, coughing spasmodically. Kevin patted her back with a look of utmost concern on his face. Looking off towards the horizon, he knew that in whatever problems laid ahead, they were on their own.
He waited for her to finish coughing, and then gently led her inside to her bed. She was starting to look pale was having trouble breathing. He brought her some warm broth, and then sat down to think. She had been showing mild symptoms of a cold for the past few days, but now it appeared as if it might be something more serious. For the time being, however, the most he could do was make her as comfortable as possible, and keep an eye on her in case she started to get worse.
Soon Claire fell asleep, but Kevin, being a devoted brother and an obedient son, decided to stand watch all night. Or, more accurately, sit watch. He grabbed a pillow and a blanket and curled up into a ball in the rocking chair by the fire. After half the night, he was having more than a little trouble keeping his eyes from shutting of their own accord. He soon had drifted off into a light sleep.
Somewhere around four in the morning, he was awakened by an unpleasant sound. His sister was coughing again, but this time, the end of each cough was accompanied by a painful sounding whoop, whoop. "Oh, no!" Thought Kevin, "She has the Whooping Cough, and we're all alone. We don't have any medicine, and the closest doctor is fifteen miles away." He was pulled out of his contemplation by another whooping fit on the part of his sister. He stood up, and went to sit on the edge of the bed. As soon as he sat down, Claire turned over and grasped his hand. He patted her back until her cough subsided, and stayed sitting with her for the rest of the night. It was the first time in his life that he had slept sitting straight up.
His sister woke up first, let go of his hand, and proceeded to stretch. "Kevin," she said softly. And then, more loudly, "Kevin," and then very loudly, "Kevin!" Kevin's eyes popped open with a start. Unfortunately, that start was just enough to upset his balance, and he went toppling over the side of the bed, landing with a mighty thump on the floor below. His ever-sympathetic sister fell over on the bed in fits of hysteric laughter, made worse by the fact that he was still lying on the floor, and occasionally mumbling things to the effect of, "Drat," "Oh, pain," and, "That bed is far too high off the ground." However, her laughter was cut short by a new outbreak of whooping and coughing, worse than any of the previous ones. Kevin immediately forsook his own pain, and jumped up to help his sister. "I think I have the Whooping Cough," she told him very matter-of-factly.
"I know," he said, concern evident, "you were making that terrible sound all night. I know that this is not the best time to leave you alone, but I need to go get you something to help with your cough. The problem is, the only doctor is on the outskirts of the nearest town, which is—"
"Fifteen miles away," she interjected, "but that's not true. What about old lady McCormac? She used to be a nurse for the doctor in town, and she still keeps all kinds of medicine and stuff around her house. She's only a few miles away. If you left in an hour, you could be there and back before nightfall."
They discussed the details for a short while longer, and decided that he would have to go. He prepared their breakfasts, and ate with her. After the meal, he fixed two other simple meals for her to have while he was away, and got his supplies together. At twenty after seven, his snowshoes were on, he had a satchel on his back, and he was leaving. His sister waved at him and then went back inside. He called good-bye, and was off across the desolate white waste.
After around four hours of walking through frozen valleys and forests and tundra, Kevin finally reached the home of Mrs. McCormac. She, like his mother, was a widow. The combined effect of having been without a husband for twelve years and living several miles away from the nearest town had made her a very lonely woman. However, she was always willing to provide help for a person in need, if they ate at least one meal with her. As far as she was concerned, that was only polite, and it helped to ease her long periods of solitude.
By the time Kevin trudged up to her front step, he was exhausted from the non-stop walking, and the food that he had brought with him was gone. He knocked wearily on the heavy oaken door, and then leaned against the door post, watching his breath make frosty puffs in the frigid air. After thirty seconds or so, he heard scuffling coming from inside the house, and less than a minute after that, the door opened. Mrs. McCormac stood a good two heads taller than Kevin, who was tall for his age, and she was thickly built with strong hands and arms, and a large coil of silver hair adorned her head. The only feature about her that kept her from being menacing was the ear-to-ear grin that she always wore when greeting a guest.
"Come in, come in, Little One!" She boomed happily. "You're absolutely frozen. Come in and sit by the fire and I'll get you some hot tea. Then, once you've thawed," she continued jovially, "you can tell me what business you've come on."
It took about thirty minutes for Kevin to completely "thaw." As soon as he stopped shivering, he began telling her about his sister's condition, in the best detail he could manage. When he finished, Mrs. McCormac was no longer smiling. She was now shaking her head silently. Then she murmured, "Paroxysms."
"I'm sorry?" inquired Kevin. "I don't think I understood you."
"I said paroxysms. They're not called 'coughing fits,' they're called paroxysms."
"Anyway," she continued, "you were correct in thinking that it was the Whooping Cough. The noise infected people make is rather unmistakable. You see, Whooping Cough is caused by the bacteria Bordetella Pertussis, and the illness goes through three very distinct stages. The first stage, the 'catarrhal stage,' is characterized by mild to medium cold-like symptoms. You told me that your sister seemed to be suffering from a cold for about a week before she began coughing. That was the first stage. From what you've said, it seems clear to me that she is now in the second stage, the 'paroxysmal stage,' characterized by the distinctive whooping sound that patients make when they cough. In this stage, the disease is the hardest to treat. Whatever medication I give her will only be to help her breathe better, but she will have to recover on her own. The third stage, called the 'convalescent stage,' is the recovery period. The illness, when allowed to run its course, can last anywhere from two weeks to a few months."
Kevin interjected, "What are you going to give her?"
"A very recently discovered antibiotic," the woman told him consolingly. "It'll help her to cough less and breathe more easily. Since Whooping Cough can sometimes lead to pneumonia, we want to give her body the best chance at recovery."
"What's it called?"
"Penicillin. Also, since the disease is most contagious in the first stage, and you were exposed to it, you'll need to take it as well. Not as much or as frequently, but just to make sure you don't get sick, too."
Kevin made a typical twelve-year-old face. Taking medicine himself was not what he had had in mind. "How exactly do you take this stuff?"
"Orally," came the cheerful reply. "All you have to do is take a half-teaspoon every night before bed. Also, give your sister one whole teaspoon at every meal. Now, it's time to eat dinner. Won't you stay for a short meal before heading back?"
He decided that since he hadn't eaten anything but breakfast and a snack on the way, he might as well. Besides, he truly didn't want to disappoint her. As soon as they were finished eating, she packed the leftovers in his shoulder satchel, helped him bundle up again, and bid him a safe journey and a quick recovery for Claire. Once again, he set out against the frigid climate and frozen conditions, hoping to beat the night home.
Kevin was close to two-thirds of the way home when he looked up into the darkening sky and saw a flash of purple. It streamed through the approaching darkness and landed in the trees about a hundred yards to his left. A few seconds later, he heard a high pitched cry coming from just beyond the tree line of the forest. He decided that he would take five or so minutes to investigate, just in case someone was hurt. He trudged through the underbrush until he reached a snow covered clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a beautiful bird. Around the size of a large eagle, it had brilliant purple and reddish feathers, with streaks of gold interspersed here and there. In the middle of its tail was one unique feather. It was black at first sight, but if you looked at it long enough, it began to change colors, cycling through all the hues of the rainbow. Then, as you looked on, it would change back to black, leaving you to wonder if it had all been in your imagination. From his vantage point among the trees, Kevin could see its yellow eyes ablaze with life, yet at the same time, they looked so very old.
As he watched, the bird began hopping about the clearing, gathering as much dry wood and leaves and pinecones as it could find. Once it was satisfied with its haul, it began building something that looked like a nest. When it was finished, it sat down in the middle of the structure it had created. Kevin watched in mystified silence as the bird then proceeded to pluck the rainbow feather from its tail and place it on the nest. The feather stood on end, and began cycling through all the colors. Faster and faster it changed, until finally, it became a brilliant blur and then burst into red-golden flames. In a matter of seconds, the flames had engulfed the bird and its funeral pyre, for that is what it was, and had consumed them both. Kevin watched the smoldering ashes for a minute in awe and wonderment, and then cautiously walked into the clearing. Peering down into what was left of the pyre, he observed a small black feather like the one before, glowing, red-hot from the embers. As he looked on, the feather grew in size, and then something even more amazing happened. It began to sprout a body the way a plant sprouts a bud. Out of the body came a head, legs, and wings. The new, featherless bird grew to less than half the size of the previous one, and then, feather by feather, it began sprouting its own glorious plumage. Once it was finished, and fully formed though still smaller than the one before it, it curled up into a fluffy ball and began to sleep.
After about ten minutes, it uncurled itself and stood up. In his state of shock, it took Kevin a full three minutes to notice its deformity. Whereas the other bird had been upright and stately, this one was rather stooped, due to the fact that one leg was slightly shorter than the other. It tried to walk about, but only succeeded in falling over. Kevin knew that his sister, Claire had wanted a pet, but for one reason or another, it never worked out. Her kitten had died, her puppy ran away, and her ducklings had grown up so fast that she had never had enough fun with them. She was also fond of taking care of injured animals. As he watched the pathetic yet lovely bird hobble about on its uneven legs, he decided that she would never forgive him if he just left it there.
It took him fifteen minutes to catch the bird: three tries, four trips, and two counts of falling face down in the snow because he overestimated his leaping range. In the end, however, he finally caught it, and wrapped it up in his satchel, as it was only the size of a chicken. In this manner, he took it back home with him, arriving just as the last sliver of sunlight slipped beyond the Canadian horizon.
"Claire!" Kevin called as he walked through the door, "I'm home." He found her curled up in the rocking chair, next to the fire. She looked pale, and tired, but she smiled when she saw him.
"How did it go?" She asked sleepily. "I was waiting for you."
"Fine. I got your medicine. It's called Penicillin. You can take it now." He took his half-teaspoon, and gave her a whole teaspoon. She screwed her face up at its taste, but swallowed without complaint. "You need to go to bed now, Claire," her brother told her, "but when you get up in the morning, I have something special to show you."
"Alright," she murmured, too tired to argue.
He helped her into bed, tucked her in, and then went to make a bed for the bird. He used an old packing crate, some rag strips, and some cotton fluff. He put some corn in the crate, gently placed the bird in it, and then covered it with a few cloth scraps. After he finished, he crawled into his own bed and was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow. Both he and his sister slept peacefully that night. Claire only had one coughing bout, and it was short and not at all severe. She dreamt all night about what her brother might have brought her.
The first thing that Kevin realized when he woke up was that he had been able to sleep the whole night without hearing Claire's whooping cough once. He hoped that meant she was feeling better. He rolled out of bed and went to check on his sister. She was sleeping peacefully, and he decided not to wake her yet. Instead, he got dressed and began to make breakfast.
Claire woke to the smell of burning bacon, sat up in bed, and stretched. As soon as she was fully awake, she remembered what her brother had said the night before. "I have something special to show you," he had promised. She was looking forward to her surprise more than ever. She climbed out of bed and bounced over to the stove where Kevin was cooking.
"Good morning!" She sang out cheerfully. "How did you sleep?"
Kevin, who had been off in his own little world trying to keep the bacon from catching on fire, jumped. He turned around and gave her a mildly annoyed look. "Claire, you shouldn't try to scare people like that," he admonished. "I could have hurt myself." Claire, with a rather impish smirk, just rolled her eyes.
"So, what did you bring me?" She prodded expectantly.
"Really?!" She almost squealed. "What is it?"
"Well, actually," he began slowly, "I'm not exactly sure."
"How can you not know what kind of animal it is?" She asked incredulously.
He tried his best to explain. "That's not quite what I meant. I know that it's some kind of bird, but it's like no kind I've ever seen."
"What does it look like?" Claire inquired.
"Here," said Kevin, "I'll show you." So saying, he proceeded to walk over to the crate where he had placed the bird. Turning around to look at Claire, who had been tagging along at his heels with exuberant anticipation, he said seriously, "Now Claire, this bird has a slight problem. One of its legs is slightly shorter than the other, so it's going to have some trouble walking, but I thought that you would enjoy taking care of it anyway."
"Oh, yes! Thank you so much!" She clasped her hands together with delight. "I've wanted a pet for a long time."
Kevin bent down and pulled off a few of the scraps of cloth he had put on the crate the night before. Once the bird inside saw light, it poked its crested purple head up through the exposed space. Claire gasped with delight when she first saw it pop up and begin looking around the room with sparkling yellow eyes. She bent down, removed the rest of the cloth covering, and then tried to pick it up. It took her only two tries. The first time she reached into the crate, the bird shied away from her outstretched hands. So, she sat down beside the crate and talked soothingly to it as Kevin looked on. After five or so minutes of this, she tried once more to pick it up, and this time, it allowed itself to be moved.
She cuddled the bird and stroked its soft feathers, all the while murmuring things like, "you are so sweet," "I'm going to take good care of you," and "you're going to like it here." The bird sat contentedly in her lap, and accepted cracked corn kernels from her fingers. Kevin, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly curious about what kind of bird it might be. After all, normal birds didn't fall out of the night sky in a streak of purple light, burn themselves on a funeral pyre, have feathers that change colors, or sprout from ashes, either. He watched Claire and the bird for another minute of so, then went over to the bookcase, and pulled out the new encyclopædia. For the next two hours, he poured over any and all articles he could find on birds, but didn't find anything that looked even remotely like the bird he had found.
Claire began taking the bird all over with her. She brought it to breakfast and to lunch, and it sat on her shoulder while she studied. Meanwhile, in addition to his other chores and such, Kevin would spend part of each day trying to find out what kind of bird he had brought home for his sister.
Claire's cough was improving markedly. During the day, when she was active, she coughed very rarely and her paroxysms were short and not at all severe. During the night, she hardly coughed at all. Kevin and Claire's mother was due back in about a week and a half, and they were both looking forward to her return. Claire missed her mother, as did Kevin, but mostly they were both getting very sick of Kevin's cooking.
About ten days before their mother was to return, Kevin finally found what he was looking for, after he had all but given up. He was reading a book his mother had given him about Greek and Roman Mythology. He had just finished reading about the main deities, when he turned the page and happened upon a picture of a carving that showed a bird almost identical to what he had found. He read the caption under the picture: An early Greek carving of the Phoenix, a mythological bird symbolizing healing and rebirth; see pg. 240. He hurriedly turned to the page it gave, and found a smaller painting of the same bird along with two paragraphs describing it. It told him many things that he already knew, such as what it looked like, and the fact that it burned itself on a funeral pyre, and that a new bird would spring from the ashes. It also said that it lived to be five hundred years old before it did this, and full-grown, it would be about the size of a large eagle. He knew something that the book didn't, however. The Phoenix had a marked fondness for corn.
He quickly called his sister over to him, told her, "I know what kind of bird it is," and then proceeded to show her the pictures in the book, and tell her what he had seen that night. When he was finished, her jaw was hanging open, and there was a shocked look on her face. She stayed like that for a few more seconds before she regained her composure enough to say, "But those myths aren't real!"
"I know," said Kevin excitedly, "but many of them had to come from somewhere. What if somewhere back there, some Greek person saw a bird like this, and then made this legend around what he saw. I mean, after all, I did watch it burn itself. And then, that one kind of grew from the leftovers."
"So why hasn't anyone else ever seen one?" She challenged stubbornly.
"Well, the book also said that there can be only one bird at any given time. If that one bird doesn't wish to be seen, it would be pretty easy to go hide on the top of a mountain or something."
"Maybe," said Claire looking down at the bird dozing in her lap, "all I know is that I love my new pet, and it loves me. I'm happy with that."
"And I'm happy for you," the boy said, shutting the book. "By the way, have you named it yet?"
"Yes, its name is Lazarus."
Kevin smiled at his sister, then went to make breakfast.
The next night, Kevin went to give his sister her medicine and discovered that they were running out. "I'll have to go get more tomorrow," he thought. At dinner, he told his sister that he would have to go back to Mrs. McCormac the next day to get more medicine for her. She agreed, as long as he tried to bring her back "something yummy." He promised.
In the morning, however, there was a problem. The snow had risen higher during the night, and was now blocking the door, and all the windows. He would still be able to take care of the animals because his father had connected the barn to the house when it was built, but in regards to going for Claire's medicine, he was snowed in, with no way to get out.
Claire's medicine ran out that night, and for the next three days as the snow piled higher, Claire's condition began to degrade again. Kevin watched helplessly as his sister's cough came back in fits, and was again accompanied by the whooping noise. By the evening of the fourth day, she was practically bedridden with paroxysms, and was only getting worse. She could hardly take a breath between the coughs. Her bird was always sitting on her pillow trying to keep her company. When she finally went to sleep, she tossed and turned and coughed. Kevin sat on the edge of the bed. Around two in the morning, he couldn't keep it up any longer. He lay down on the floor next to her bed, and looking up at the bird said in his exhaustion, "You're supposed to represent healing, can't you do something?" The bird looked at him, cocked its head, and winked its eyes one after the other. Then Kevin fell asleep.
After he was asleep, however, the bird did do something. It hopped across Claire's pillow, and lay down on her chest. Turning around, it plucked the black feather and set it on her. The feather began to cycle through the colors, as the other bird's had, but instead of bursting into flame, it simply glowed. The glow worked its way into Claire, and she stopped coughing, and fidgeting in her sleep. For the first time in four days, she slept peacefully. The Phoenix picked up its feather, which had stopped glowing, and put it back into its tail. It then hopped back onto her pillow and lay down beside her, but it slept that night with one eye open.
In the morning, Kevin woke up with a start, remembering the state his sister had been in the night before. He got up and looked in the bed. She was absolutely still. Kevin just about suffered a heart attack thinking that she was dead. He yelled in shock, and then began shaking her. Claire's eyes flew open, and she grabbed Kevin by the shoulders and started yelling at him to "stop shaking me, you're gonna make me puke!" Upon seeing that she was very alive, Kevin ceased the shaking, and sat down on the bed and stared at her. "How do you feel?" He asked.
"Not so good considering that I just had my brains rattled about in my skull!"
"I meant aside from that."
"Better than I've felt in weeks."
Kevin looked at her, and then looked at the bird, who was sitting on the pillow still. It looked up at Kevin with its bright, yellow eyes, and winked. Kevin shook his head, and then looked back at Claire. "How could you be doing so well?"
"Lazarus did it," she informed him sleepily, "I can feel it."
Kevin watched as she picked the bird up, rolled over, set it next to her on the bed, and went back to sleep. "Thank you," Kevin murmured to the bird. It made a soft squeaking sound, and then it, too, went to sleep.
When their mother came home, there was quite a bit of explaining to do, but in the end, it was decided that the bird could stay as long as it wanted to, and that it was very welcome to stay forever if it chose. It squawked happily, and fluttered up to Claire's shoulder.
In the years to come, the bird got bigger and bigger, until it reached the size the book had said it would. It was getting too big to stay in the small cabin, so Claire turned it loose to play outside. It would be gone all day, and then around sunset it would come home.
As the children grew, the bird would stay out for longer and longer periods. After their mother died, and they were both grown up, it would come only once every couple of days. Then, Kevin was married, and moved away. Claire and the bird moved up into the mountains, because she was having more trouble keeping it concealed as the neighbors moved in closer to one another and to her.
Finally, the day came, as Claire knew it would, when the bird came back the final time. She tearfully said good-bye, kissed its head, and ruffled its feathers. "Won't you come back someday?" The bird nuzzled her hand, winked its yellow eyes, and flew off into the Canadian sunset.
Kevin died when he was eighty-six, with a loving family around him. Claire grew older, but never married and never had children, and she always lived in the mountains.
Here, the old woman's story ends. The little children are all enjoying themselves far too much to go to bed. One little girl asks, "But grandmother, how do you know that it's true?"
"Because, little one, I know."
One by one, their parents come to get them. After the last child leaves, the old woman stands up, gets her cane, and walks out to the back porch, as she does every night. She can see the whole mountain range from where she stands, all the way off into the horizon. After several minutes, the full moon highlights a shape in the blackness. A lone bird cry echoes through the still night air. The old woman stares up at the sky with a faint smile on her face and waits. The shape glides closer.
Upon reaching her house, the shape becomes a bird that circles down and lands next to her. It stretches out its neck, and puts its head in her outstretched palm. "It's been so long," the old lady murmurs. The bird stands up, cocks its head, and winks its bright, yellow eyes, one after the other. "Come with me," it beckons without words, "I have such fascinating things to show you."
"I can't," she tells it sadly, her eyes downcast, "I am far too old to go."
A black feather on the bird's tail begins to cycle through the colors of the rainbow. Faster and faster, until it becomes a blur of shimmering light. The old woman watches lovingly, and in that moment, she becomes a little girl again. All her aches and pains cease. The stiffness and swelling in her joints creeps down to her toes, and then is gone all together. Her back straightens, and her hair regains its color. The bird bends down. Dropping her cane, the little girl jumps on the back of the bird with an elation she hasn't felt in years. The bird lifts off into the sky with the rushing whisper of wings. Together, Claire and her bird, her Phoenix, fly off into the velvety black night.