When Bobby was very young, he stuck his hand in the fire. It burned quite badly before his mother rushed over and pulled it out; but it was only afterwards, when the fire had been doused and his hand was being tended to, that he began to cry. His mother shook her head for the longest time after.
"I swear," she said, "it was as if he saw something he wanted in those flames, and just wasn't going to let it go without playing with it first." Her friends shook their heads and muttered about burned hands teaching best. But Bobby's mother was very careful then to keep Bobby away from the flames, fearing that the burned hand might not have been lesson enough.
It was a long time after that - several years, in fact - when the Meir family moved to the country. They had a large house that they shared with Bobby's cousins and grandparents, and many trees and fields and even a small creek. In the summer, when it was hot enough to fry eggs on the stones, Bobby's cousins would go down to the creek and splash about in the cool water. Sometimes they would splash Bobby, who lay on the stones and stared at the sun until his eyes hurt, and he complained; but mostly they splashed each other, while Bobby stared into the heat until his green eyes watered. In the winter everyone came inside, and the large fireplace was set alight, and the children played at storytelling instead. They would call shapes from the flames, animals and dancers and faces and strange things that, having just come into the world for the first time, vanished again at a moment's notice. Then Bobby would play along, and tell fantastic stories of the places he saw.
And so the seasons turned, until Bobby was too old to go to a primary school, and the Meir family returned to the city.
By that time, Bobby's mother had quite forgotten about the time Bobby had put his hand in the fire.
Bobby had a secret friend. Like most secret friends, this friend was out of the ordinary, unusual, strange - in a word, fantastic. He did not know his friend's name, but he knew that the friend had a secret, too.
The friend's secret was that he could travel through fires, and appear anywhere that a fire was lit. But he couldn't get out of the fire, ever, even though he wanted to quite badly.
Bobby thought that his friend had been in the fire for a long, long time, even longer than Grandmother had been alive.
The other part of the secret was that adults couldn't see his friend. Only children, and most children thought that they imagined him and that he wasn't real. Bobby knew better. His friend said that there were other children in the world that knew better, too, but Bobby had never met one, and so he was special.
Bobby grew. They called him Rob, now, not Bobby, and he went to a high school with other teenagers. With them he learned and played and struggled to become an adult, except for the times when he struggled to remain a child. He excelled in a few of his classes, hid in the back for those that he hated, and mostly went through the rest with good enough grades to pass by. Once in a while he played in one of the impromptu games that sprang up amongst the more athletic students.
When he was fourteen, his parents presented him with a surprise: he was going to have a younger sister. Rob took this with good grace, and when baby Chelsea was born he spoiled her as much as any three uncles, even though he, like most brothers, avoided any mention of diapers. She was born in the fall; when winter came and the fireplace was set, he would sit before the flames with her and tell her stories. Sometimes, when he finished with a story, he would stare into the fire, and his face would bear a kind of wistful longing.
Once his mother asked him what he saw when he looked so far away.
"It's nothing," he said. Then he looked down at Chelsea, and shook his head. "Besides," he said, "I promised to help take care of her. And she likes the fire, see?"
True enough, baby Chelsea was stretching her arms out towards the spiring flames. Rob and his mother laughed at her, and that was the end of it.
It traveled in the flames, and lived in the flames, and was flame, the quintessence of fire and heat and light, and sometimes that was enough. It had been enough for many, many years, enough to dance in them and sing in them and watch the strange shapes that clustered about it. Sometimes the shapes would become real, if only for a moment, before the flames devoured them, and it learned that some of them had faces. In that moment when they entered the flame and before it consumed them, it saw them for the first time.
Over time it learned that some of them saw it, too. But only the small ones, and they did not often touch it, even when it sang and danced so beautifully for them. Come, it sang. Come and make me real, give me children. Come and let me fly. But they did not, and it could not force them.
One day, perhaps, it would fly.
Rob was sixteen when he began to keep a journal. No-one ever saw what was in that journal save for him, and he would not tell. Once, and only once, he said that he was writing it for Chelsea, to tell her stories for when he was not there. His parents wondered why a teenage boy would keep a journal for a baby sister, but since Rob was generally a good boy and stayed out of trouble they didn't press the matter.
Over that year, Rob slowly began to withdraw from the other people at his school. It was nothing sudden; he just began to leave earlier, claiming homework or chores or babysitting if anyone asked. He took his journal with him, and wrote in it during lunch, and he never seemed to have time to go out to any movies or games when out of school.
By the summer before his last year of high school he had become a loner. Rob did not seem to care. In place of the friends he'd had, he cared for Chelsea and wrote in his journal - and watched any fires that he came across. Once he lit one in the fireplace. His mother, when she found him sitting before it with Chelsea in his lap, was quite upset. The heat, she said, would give Chelsea a fever and make her ill. Rob quietly apologized.
After that he watched the sun, instead.
Fall came, and Rob returned to school, which is not to say that he returned to his former friends. The journal he'd had in the summer had been filled up, and he carried a new one. This one, instead of being black, had stylized flames on the cover, and he wrote in it feverishly whenever he was not with Chelsea. Only when he was with his baby sister did he set it down; then he would set her on his lap and tell her fantastic stories. Most of them involved fire.
Now Rob began to grow apart from his parents as well as his schoolmates. They worried over it, but eventually convinced themselves that it was a natural progression for a teenager and the only unusual thing was that it hadn't shown before. He'd grow out of it soon enough, they said to each other.
When his grades slowly dropped and he showed no interest in applying to a university - then, they worried. But they did not know what to do.
Rob had a secret friend. Like most secret friends, this friend was out of the ordinary, unusual, strange - in a word, fantastic. He thought he knew, now, what his friend was, having searched the school and county libraries. He did not know why he could see his friend, but he was thrilled that he could. His parents could not. His cousins could not. The only other person who knew that his friend was there was Chelsea, and Chelsea would never tell.
Rob knew that his friend had a secret, for his friend was older than the city they lived in, older than some countries, older than the tallest sequoia in California. How much older Rob did not know. But old, old, and longing to fly free of the fire.
Rob had never known what it was to fly. He had never been on a plane. But he watched the songbirds by his house, and the falcons that passed in the winter times.
He thought he might like to try.
It swam and flew and moved through the heart of a bonfire, the kiss of a white candle, the hissing bite of illegal fireworks. Soon. It would fly soon, the first flight it would ever make, and out of the flight would come offspring, the continuation of its race. Then the first flight would be the last flight, as it died and gave birth in the last ecstatic caress of searing magma. The Other would die with it, and live with it in the memory-dance of its young, and it would be good.
That winter Chelsea took sick.
It started as a sniffling cold that only stopped when she was with Rob before the fire. He chalked it down to winter sneezes and thought nothing of it, and did not mention it to his parents, who were quite busy at the time with a cousin's wedding. Soon, however, it developed into a progressive cough that sounded unhealthy, and he told his parents. When she began to run a high fever they took her to the hospital for a check-up. The tests ran longer than they had thought they might, and their hands tapped restlessly against their legs before they were called back.
It was pneumonia, the doctors said, very serious, and they thought it might be a symptom of something else. Once all of the tests were run they told her parents that there was very little that could be done, since she was so young. Many of the treatments were too harsh for such a delicate body to withstand.
Chelsea was hospitalized the next day.
For the first time in a long time, Rob skipped school, going directly to the hospital to be with his baby sister. His mother told him to go back, but he ignored her. Rob picked Chelsea up and cuddled her, then settled in to tell her a story. At one point, between stories, the little girl cried out for a fire; apparently she was chilly. Her brother held her closer and whispered in her ear for a long time before she subsided.
When Rob went home that night (the doctors would not let him stay), he set a fire and sat up for a very long time. In the morning his face was tunneled deep with weariness and fear, and his mother saw that his hands were red, as if from too much sun, but his green eyes were set and hard as emeralds. His mother did not know what he might have thought or done last night, and she could not tell whether his expression was more unsettling than the relief that it brought. Troubled, she did not try to send him to school.
Four days passed in this fashion. As they fled, so did Chelsea's strength; and it seemed that Rob was linked to his sister, for he grew pale and weary even as she did. Finally Chelsea slept and would not wake, and the doctor, his face long and pale in the antiseptic light, told Rob and his father and mother that the waiting game had begun. If she woke from this sleep, then she would recover. But he did not think that she would.
Rob left then. His face was very strange, nearly alien, and his burned hands clutched at the air like claws. His parents watched him go, and went to keep vigil for their daughter.
He drove away from the city until he reached green growing land, and trees nearby. There he stopped. First he dug a pit in the grass; then he went to the trees and gathered broken branches, twigs, dead leaves. By the time he finished bringing them to the pit his burned hands were raw. Blood ran down them and fell upon the ground like rain. He did not care.
Rob made a bonfire.
It began very small, sparks, a minute flare. For a moment he was afraid that the wood was too wet from the recent rains to catch on more than the kindling. As he worried, the fire touched the blood that had fallen from his hands and mottled the bark and leaves, and hissed. Suddenly Rob felt an inhuman attention turn towards him, and a quiet shudder passed from his neck to his knees.
The fire caught. It grew swiftly, as if something had encouraged it to feast upon the wood and bark and blood. Rob stood before it and watched it grow until the flames leapt higher than his head. He was very close to it; the heat might have driven another person back - but he had known this heat for a long, long time, and he did not care.
He saw his friend dancing in the flames, preening, turning circles round and round and round again in utter delight. It touched on the places his blood had dropped, and its form became clearer, less fluid and impermanent.
Do we fly? it asked (begged, cajoled, demanded, wondered). Do we fly?
Let us fly, Rob answered, and it wheeled about on itself, turning and lifting the flames higher, far higher than the meager wood should have sustained it. He thought he saw the shape of great wings made of fire and smoke enveloping the stars, and the hiss and shriek of the fire filled his ears.
Very carefully Rob bent down and put his hands into the fire. He took a burning fragment of wood, a coal that glowed from the inside of the fire, and began to crumble and become ash when he withdrew it. His friend stilled its contortions and hung motionless within the leaping flames, watching. For a moment, Rob studied the dying coal, not even noticing the heat that blistered his hands and began to smolder along the edge of his sleeves. Then he looked back up at the flames. Let us fly, he said, and he placed the coal in his mouth.
The heat from the coal dashed throughout his body, and Rob's mind gave away as his friend leapt from the bonfire to the fire inside of him. Then, his body turning not of his own volition, he stepped into the bonfire, and ceased.
And the bonfire exploded into the sky.
He shrieked from the ground to the sky, turning and weaving upon himself, a comet that danced away from any kind of steady course. Gold and red and white and palest blue, he was fire, and flesh, and beauty. The sky was his playground, and he delighted in the wings that he had been given. Then he folded his wings, plummeting, for the gift of the Other, freely given, required a gift in turn, and he must repay it before the last dance (the birth-dance, the death-dance, the true dance that came but once in the time of each of his kind, and ended in the Heart of Fire and the creation of new lives - the final, the last of all dances.)
He sang as he went, and the people dwelling in the fragile homes of wood and brick and steel dreamed of fire and flight and song. The next morning they would rise and long for things they had never known, and their search would continue all their lives. Some who walked beneath the stars looked up and saw him, and felt a blazing wash of life crash over and into them. He danced for them, for those who would become dreamers and bear dreamers, but he did not stop on his way.
Chelsea was dying. Her parents sat by the toddler and waited. Bitterness and sorrow festered inside of them, for their son, almost an adult, had left his parents and younger sister, and they did not know where he had gone. Frustration came, too, and helplessness, for they could do nothing to save their daughter; and self-blame, for they told themselves that if they had brought her in when she had first developed the cough she might have been saved. But they could do nothing, now, save wait, and they did so in the shadowing silence of their wounded souls as Chelsea's breaths came harder and harder.
Then the windows of the small room exploded outward in a fountain of molten glass, and dancing Fire entered the room.
The fiery bird fell towards them, and they shrank back. Then it alighted on Chelsea's bed, and the sheets went up in flame. To their credit her parents attempted to reach through to snatch her away, but they discovered that this flame was impermeable, solid as diamond for all of its flickering motion and heat, and they were helpless.
Through the curtain of flame, Chelsea opened her eyes and smiled. "Obby!" she cried out, stretching her arms towards the bird. "Fire, Obby!"
It tilted its head, seeming to regard her carefully. Then, slow, tender, it settled upon Chelsea's chest, enfolding her in its burning wings and breast and tail. There was a fiery coal in its long beak, and when it bent its head the toddler opened her mouth to receive it. She swallowed it eagerly.
And it began to sing.
No-one could say, afterwards, how long it sang, or what, or whether there were words to it or not. But there were half-remembered images that would come to mind at times, visions of fire, of one day's worth of freedom before plunging into the searing magma of the earth's core, of young creatures with human eyes learning the fire-paths and how to dance - and then a long, long time of waiting for solidity, of waiting to be made real before the joining came, and the ecstasy of giving birth, of creation even at the last death-plunge of the first and last flight -
They grieved for Rob, but not long. They saw in his journals that he had anticipated this for a long, long time.
Three years later, when she was five years old, Chelsea saw a flickering bird in the fireplace. It swam clumsily, for it was very young, and when it blinked its eyes shone green.
They say that the sight
of a phoenix in flight
may give life to the sick and the dead;
and they say that the sound
of a phoenix will hound
you forever, and never be shed;
and the touch of its tears
will set flames to our fears
and cure all our madness and dread.