Outside, the rush of wings. The shadows of birds tessellated across my wall, a fraction of a second behind the flight. A flock of birds. An exaltation, a parliament, a murder.
Their chirps and chatter filled the sky. This much commotion, it must mean a soul’s migration, from death to life again. One of the birds in the flock would be carrying the soul, winging it on its way to rebirth. The others, a winged honor guard, drawn by the life that needed borrowed feathers to fly.
I had been carried on that flight myself; I wore the birds of my passage upon my skin.
One final cry, a great lonely thing, burned itself out against the sky, and the wings flew on into silence. For a moment, I thought I smelled cinnamon, amber, burning contrails in their wake, but surely that was just the scent of my own wishes, burning themselves to ash.
Lara slowly got to her feet in the embers and brushed the ashes from her skin. The air around her was thick and heavy with smoke from the bone fire, the cinnamon and amber scents that accompanied her resurrection already fading.
It had been harder, this time, to come back through the burning, and there had been moments that she wished the burning was the end of it, that there would be flame, ash, nothing.
She had felt herself growing heavy, tired, as she flew, and this person–shaped body she was in now felt strange, wrong, even though it was hers. Even though this had happened before, and before, and before.
She was the phoenix. Resurrection was her nature.
One last, bright pain, now that she had returned. The fallen feather, etching itself onto her skin. Thirteen feathers fell across the sky of Lara’s body. Thirteen souls she had carried with her, into the afterlife, into death permanent, the migration that was hers and hers alone.
Thirteen reminders of her own resurrections, in flame, and in fire of bone. It didn’t seem like a lot, like a long time—people died every day after all—but so few deaths required a phoenix. She had died and risen for over a thousand years.
It is a time longer even than it sounds.
Next to her, in the glowing coals of her ever–burning fire, a new egg. Her soul. Held and waiting. Safe as a prison. Even if she were to smash it, it would only reform once she was resurrected. She would die again and again, and remain deathless. The first time, it seemed a miracle. She had changed shapes, she had flown, she had returned even from death.
Then it happened again. Again. Eventually, even resurrection became a commonplace, an expected thing.
Now, Lara preferred the fire. If death was impossible, if she couldn’t keep her wings and fly, she would rather burn.
She shivered, hugging her arms to herself. It had gotten so cold in her rooms.
Outside of her window, birds more ordinary than what she was flocked back and forth. They scattered and returned, drawn by the heat of the phoenix, by the scorched fragments of her feathers and bones they could use to line their nests. Such discards were coveted, scraps of feathered luck. Lara watched them fly past and envy pinched beneath her skin.
I was dying. I knew it. It wasn’t as if this hadn’t happened before, again and again. Twice, my deaths had been sudden, but more often they were not, and I had learned to recognize the process.
I could feel my body as it began the process of closing down and turning off the lights. The way the breath dragged itself from my lungs, the ache that echoed my heartbeat. My blood moved slowly through veins that burned like fire.
I was dying, and this time, I did not want to come back.
When we die, our souls are carried by birds. They are our psychopomps. From sparrow to albatross, hummingbird to hawk. When we return, we are reborn with birds inked in shadows on our skin, marking the deaths that we have returned from.
But this time, I had no intention of returning. I did not wish to be reborn, soul renewed and returned. I wore thirteen birds on my skin. Not enough time for some, but too long for me. This life, I had felt the weight of all those years like iron shoes.
I was tired, I was done, and whatever, wherever eternity was, that was where I wanted to go. And so, I needed a phoenix to carry my soul. To die with me, and then resurrect itself, leaving all of what I had been in its ashes.
Chirping and flocking, the chaos of birds outside my windows took to the sky, red feathers falling like tiny flames in their wake. Too tired to walk outside to them, I stood at my window and watched from behind the glass.
In every life I can remember, which is not all of them, not any more, I have longed to fly. To feel the air slide through my feathers, to cast myself away from earth, from everything that binds me here.
I still want to fly. I no longer wish to land.
Lara paced through her house. She was wrong in her skin, couldn’t sit, couldn’t settle. Tiny feathers of flame sparked through the air in her wake, burning to ash before reaching the ground. Leftover bits of mortality and death sloughing off. She felt only partially alive, still half–ghost, almost–bird.
And cold. Too cold without the blaze of resurrection to warm her.
As she moved, she reminded her lungs to breathe, her legs to move and to hold her weight, reminded her skin that it needed to be person–shaped, not winged. It kept forgetting, this time, pulling and shivering as if it could return to its former shape.
She pulled the curtains over the windows, so she could not see the birds outside, their wings, their feathers, red like tiny flames, their so–easy flight.
It was never the resurrection that was the hardest thing. That was magic, that was ritual, and when you’re born in flame there’s a comfort in the burning down. No, the hard part was everything that happened after stepping out of the ashes. The steps it took to reclothe herself in humanity, to wear flesh instead of flame. To seem normal. To do laundry. To shop for groceries.
Remembering to be human, to walk and not to fly, was always the hard thing, but it had never been this hard.
Lara raked her fingers through the tangle of her hair, and a feather, crimson and liquid as fire, fell to the ground. The shedding would stop soon enough, once she remembered what she was. She would, she told herself, remember what she was. She always had before.
In the glowing coals of her fireplace, among the bones burned white, a hairline crack appeared in the egg that held her soul.
Because I desired death permanent, there were rituals. Procedures.
Death’s midwives walked quietly through my room. They moved like shadows in their feathered capes. Their voices were as soft as fog, their hands cool as evening. The weight of their collective gaze like judgment. I would have been surprised, had it been otherwise. Judgment was, after all, what they were here for.
In the usual set of circumstances, none of this fuss would be necessary. I would die and my soul would be gathered by a bird. It wouldn’t matter what kind—one of the many that nested outside of my windows would serve. Had I lived in a city, I would have bought a bird and caged it against my need. Though even there, the precaution would probably be unnecessary. The birds knew. Death called them.
If I had wanted to die as I always had, to die and then return, there would be no near–silent midwives gathered in my room, no need to answer questions or explain my choices. Death was as natural as wings, as flight, as a nest. Everyone knew the pattern of that migration.
Things were different when you hoped for a one–way journey. Feathers whispered against each other as the midwives checked and checked again the progression of my illness. They measured the quality of my tears and the color of my blood. They gathered my breath in three small vials of blue glass. They cut a lock of my hair and burnt it, tracing runes in the ashes.
My heart raced and fluttered in my chest, like a pair of broken wings. The weight of my body pulled against my bones. Fire raced beneath my skin. My breath tasted like cinnamon in my mouth.
Once they had established to their satisfaction what I already knew—that I was indeed dying and in a fairly imminent manner—they counted the birds left on my skin from the various transmigrations of my soul. Notes were made as to kind and position. I had never before wondered whether it mattered that the kestrel was over my heart, or that the magpie winged its way across my left wrist, rather than my right.
The birds were how you knew who you had been, if such things mattered to you. Their locations, once set, would stay the same, no matter how many bodies you were born into, no matter how many new birds inked themselves upon your skin. Some people bore entire flocks. I felt melancholy, grey, when I saw them. So many lives, yes, but still: The evidence of flight, with no memory of the motion.
The three midwives plucked a feather from each of their capes, and stabbed the quills into the nightingale marked on the palm of my right hand. It sang three notes that hung in the air long after the sound should have faded. Then the three women pulled out the feathers. They used my dripping blood to write something I could not see, folded the piece of paper seven times, then burned it. They drew together, conversing in whispers.
In an earlier version of this life, I would have asked questions. Would have made the flock of midwives explain to me all the pieces of the ritual, lingered with pleasure over discussions of the various esoteric details. Would have asked why it mattered that the birds were where they were as they flew across the sky of my body.
But I was tired. I had no space left inside myself for questions and even less for the answers that would inevitably follow. I could not walk the words past the gate of my mouth.
It wasn’t just every third thought that was of my death, but my every third heartbeat that echoed with it, my every third breath that exhaled the taste of ashes. I craved rest, quiet, peace. Oblivion, like a warm dark blanket.
Then they turned and, solemn–voiced, told me I could not have it.
Three days Lara had been back, had been human, and still burning feathers fell from her hair. Embers glowed in her footsteps. But even with these tangible memories of the flame, she felt her blood too cold beneath her skin. She was constantly chilled, and walked about wrapped in a now–scorch–marked blanket.
She was still not wholly herself. Either of her selves. It was as if some part of her had not come all the way back in her resurrection, or had perhaps gone on before.
Something had gone wrong.
Her shadow hung down her back in the shape of wings and the birds that had congregated outside of her house had become more aggressive in their desire to be close to her—flying in under the eaves and down the chimney. Nesting in her sheets and her sweaters. She let them stay—they only wanted warmth, after all, and she could understand that.
She searched the white bones and ashes in her fireplace for some portent she could interpret. Not easy, not scientific, but that is how questions are answered when there is only one of you in all the world, sole and resurrecting. You clutch at whatever you have to hand.
She found nothing.
The crack in her egg had grown deeper. It branched, lightning–struck, fractal. Lara stretched out her hand to the egg, then pulled it back. Holding it made her nauseated. She avoided doing so whenever possible. Better to keep the distance between self and soul.
Instead, she built up the ashes and the embers around the egg, and hoped that the warmth would be enough to mend the shell. She would light the fire again if she needed.
She smiled, a harsh baring of teeth. If flames kept falling from her hair, she wouldn’t even need matches.
“I don’t understand,” I said. I didn’t. I had thought their presence a little more than a formality. I had lived so many lives, and I was dying, and I had thought this was my decision. “Please.”
The midwives stood around my bed, one on each side, and the third at the foot. All three of their voices chorused in response, though only one of their mouths moved.
“Your journey has not ended. You have not flown far enough,” they said.
Nearly a millennium of years inked on my skin in feathered form. How far would enough be, I wondered. How could anyone bear the length of it?
“Why do you”—I paused, swallowed, searched for breath—“get to decide?”
“It was not our decision. We are only the wings of the message. Fly in peace.” They bowed their heads, and slid like shadows from my room.
Peace. Much easier to wish someone when you are walking free wearing wings than when you are lying in bed, feeling your bones burn from the inside out.
There are other places, where souls must be carried between one life and the next. They are brought on bees, on butterflies gold and black. Sung to their rest by flights of angels. But always, always wings. Not because a soul itself has wings, or is meant to fly, I think. But because death is like flight trapped beneath a skin not made for such things, and wings are its escape.
A cardinal flew past my window. I turned my head away from the blaze of red and spent my strength on weeping.
Birds and ashes. That was what Lara’s house was full of. She wasn’t even quite sure how it was that none of the birds had lit themselves on fire, as she was still shedding errant flames when she walked, or turned her head, or breathed. They seemed a side effect of her existence, now.
The crack in her egg had grown, lacelike, across the glowing, golden surface, and the air smelled of cinnamon and amber. These were the scents of resurrection, though she had not flown, not burned, and still, was too cold.
She was dying. She knew that now, knew it in her bones, the burning core of them cooling with every heartbeat.
She tried to shatter the egg herself, to speed the process and end the strangeness, but instead of cracking when she hurled it against the fireplace, it just rolled back into the embers. She stared, blankly.
Then shook her head. “This is ridiculous.”
Outside. In the air. It wouldn’t be like flying, not even close, but maybe outside the air would be light enough that she could breathe. She grabbed a jacket, huddled into it for warmth.
As Lara crossed the threshold, the egg shattered, releasing her soul to the wind.
Outside, the birds rose in a cacophony. Chirping and skittering and cawing, wings akimbo and everywhere. I longed for peace, for quiet, but they were impossible to ignore.
And the air reeked, cinnamon and burnt amber, and somehow, the starkness of bone.
I burnt too, beneath my skin, my pending death raging through me, but I hauled myself from bed and to the window. The effort careened my heart back and forth behind the cage of my breastbone, unsteady shaking. When I saw her, it flapped like a broken–winged bird.
She lay on the ground, crumpled, flame licking over her skin, but not burning, not consuming. The cinnamon scent of the air was so strong it burned my eyes. On her skin, not birds, but feathers were inked in ash.
Burning, dying, I ran. Exhausted and more than half dead when I got to her, I didn’t try to pick her up. I let go, and let myself fall into her flame.
Once I touched her, we burned together.
And then we flew.
Flight. Burning. And oh, the glorious heat of it. Forever. Always.
Eternity is dark, like deep blue velvet, and full of stars. Its air is cool inside my feathers and smells bitter–green, like myrrh. It does not seem strange to me that I am feathered, that I am winged, that the air burns as I pass through it, leaving a contrail of smoke in my wake. Death is only a migration, after all.
The burden of Lara’s soul, Lara who once was the phoenix, is not hard for me to carry. I fly until the light behind my eyes is ultraviolet, is silver, is smoke, and then I let her go. She flies without me then, and her flight is beautiful. At the apex of her path, there is a spark, and then a flare. One last flame, to mark her final passage. I could feel her soul as I carried her, and I know that there is joy in her burning.
Once I no longer see her, I too catch fire and I burn, until there is nothing left of me.
I resurrect standing in the embers of a bone fire, cinnamon and burnt amber on the air, brushing ashes from my skin. And though I have returned when I meant to go forever, I am content here in the warmth of the flame.
I am not as I was. I am wings. I am smoke.
One sharp, burning pain, and a feather appears, inked in ash on my skin.
Next to me, glowing softly, is an egg.
It holds the weight of my soul. Without it, I am light enough to fly forever.
© 2014 Kat Howard