She stirred the first time since settling down to die with her eggs during the Autumn of 2012, the year as meaningless to her as the melting ice that had temporarily released her from the long torpor. Her eggs were crushed beneath her in the ice, the ashes she’d laid them in so many thousands of millennia before trapped between them, but still she could feel them, their brokenness.
She’d laid down with them then, so long ago, hoping her warm body, a body more bird than reptile, with warmth that might somehow sustain them through the dark times that had consumed so much life. They’d be small, there were still small prey items to be had, insects and the small furred ground dwellers. Not enough for one her size, but perhaps her young would have a chance. They could feed on her own flesh as hatchlings.
She had little concept of time. She knew of seasonal cues, daily ones, too. At least she did before the sun became hidden behind the great clouds of ash.
One day the world was one way, and in an instant, it had changed.
Her sorrow at the loss of her young did nothing to inspire her to rise up, and so she did not. Not that year. She fell back into her sad slumber, mourned the end of her kind as she’d mourned the end of so much of life when the ashes filled the sky and the plants started to die and the giants who had dominated the earth’s surface for so long could no longer feed themselves.
It became clear very quickly after that day that brought the darkness that the small ones had a much greater chance of survival. Her smaller cousins, those like her with wings and feathers, they would make it. The same was true of the small ground dwellers, and many of those in the waters of the world.
But not so for the giants. Those whose needs were beyond the ability of the earth to supply under the hard times that came with the ashes of darkness were doomed to extinction. That she herself had survived was a simple twist of fate, having been caught in an ice storm brought on by the sudden change and caught in a mountain crevice, slowly frozen into an ice sheet that would later fall into the sea.
Every year thereafter, her brief respite from the long sleep grew longer as summer temperatures in the Arctic increased. Her attention shifted from the bodies of her young momentarily and settled on her crop. She had the gravel needed for digestion there, but she’d not had anything for it to work on for a very, very long time.
Her hunger first made itself felt quite clearly during the Autumn of 2014. Still, she was trapped by the ice. Perhaps she’d starve before she froze again, no concept of before, unaware of what it meant to freeze, but intimately acquainted with cold and hungry. And grief. Every mother who loses an offspring knows grief.
It was during the Autumn of 2016 that the methanogens which occupied her gut finally joined the renaissance with an explosion of reproductive activity. As they feasted on the dead cells lining their habitat, a mass of gases accumulated there until they could accumulate no more.
The pressure of the ice on the great winged one’s body left only one direction for the gas to flow, that direction it normally flowed, up through the stones of the crop where its pressure would throw those stones together, producing the spark that was needed to light the flame that was her unique evolutionary attribute.
The first burst of her flame to break the surface ice was not much more than a belch. But it was enough. She could move her head and open her eyes and see the sun above. She was a creature of the sun.
As soon as she saw it, sixty five million years worth of sleep and sorrow and hunger were behind her, and she drew every bit of fuel she had left from her gut and let her fiery call fill the cool clear dusky sky of an Arctic Autumn above her. It lit up the night for miles around.
The Phoenix was rising. Not up out of the ashes where she’d laid down, but up out of the ice.
The return of the beasts of myth had begun.
The break in the surface ice did not free her, but it freed the ice mass that held her from the no longer permanent portion of the sea that had kept her in place for so long. Or perhaps it had kept her out of place. As far as the world she was about to reenter was concerned, she was, if not a myth, at least extinct.
But she’d risen before and she’d rise again. It wasn’t a rational thought she had as the floe that held her rose and fell in the current that carried her south. Perhaps it was instinct, some kind of genetic memory. Whatever the case, that first cue that had come with seeing the sun set the first of a series of metabolic pathways into motion.
The Phoenix was a transitional form, with characteristics of both her reptilian dinosaur cousins and her more modern avian reptile kin, the birds. She had thermoregulatory flexibility. During states of dormancy, she could go into state of torpor, allowing her body to cool to near freezing via super dehydration and metabolic shut down. Slow diffusion of oxygen stored in the spaces of her massive feathered wings through her dermis keep her tissues sustained during periods of dormancy. As fate would have it, the crevice in which she’d been frozen had maintained an air space around her as the ice storm that trapped her had covered her body.
She had reptilian thermoregulatory ability, but when she was active, she had the needs of a bird. Contrary to human simile, birds are voracious eaters. Flight consumes a lot of energy, even the kinds of soaring flight the Phoenix so loved. Stuck there in the ice she was weak, but her body was warming. As it warmed, her hunger grew. As her hunger grew, so did the need for flight, and freedom.
Her ability to move increased as the waters of the Gulf Stream moved into the North Atlantic Drift where the Labrador Current had dropped her off. The land mass of the Earth was much greater than in had been when she’d been trapped in the ice. Climate had been warmer, sea level higher, the plates in slightly different positions.
A lot had happened over the course of sixty five million years.
A Puffin landed on the floe and looked at her. They connected, briefly. The Phoenix blinked her black eyes, vision as keen as any of her avian cousins on earth, her hunger fueled further by the Puffin’s underlying fear of her. Had she not been trapped, their interaction would be very different, and both of them knew it.
The Puffin alit. The Phoenix closed its eyes and drifted.
They opened abruptly when the floe was thrown against the rocks of one of the tinier Outer Hebrides and she was suddenly freed. At least from the ice.
Suddenly the Phoenix found herself in the sea, being lifted, not up into the sky, but in anticipation of being dropped again against the rocky cliffs. She moved, the first effort of it almost overwhelming her. She blinked her eyes again and another belch erupted from her gut, the flames sending steam across the surface of the cold water and warming her upper body.
She spread her wings and threw them out behind her. She dove from the wave that held her into the next one, submersing her again. A primal fear filled her, then rage, and the fire within her raged as the lizard brain took over. She pushed herself through the water with her strong, scaled legs and let the flames rage from her raptor’s beak and warm the long dormant pectoralis muscles of her powerful breast as she screamed out of the water and into the nighttime sky in flight.
Within minutes, she spotted a shiny mass beneath the surface of the water below her. Food. She swept down, seeing that the glimmer represented many individual prey, moving together, fluidly. She took the first of many with little effort, their scaly bodies held easily in her powerful talons. These creatures were not used to her kind.
The only predators large enough to take them usually came from below, not above.
She headed back toward the rocky shore to eat. She’d find a place in the cliffs to feed and rest. For now, the sea held food. She knew it. The land mass was strange, but she must explore it. She could hunt in the sea and had always done so seasonally. But she was not a creature of the sea.
She was a creature of the sun.
Prey were as readily available on land as in the sea. Her dietary choices were quite different from the mostly scaled ones of her previous existence, those with the leathery skin. The sea creatures were the same, but on land, the warm furred ones were everywhere, and easy to take. Like those in the sea, none expected any threat from the sky.
Their meat was rich in protein, their blood warm. Many of them carried rich stores of fat. The Phoenix regained strength quickly.
It was too easy, and she was too far from the sun. While the sky here was worth her rebirth in itself relative to what she’d last known, the Phoenix sensed that if she was to find any of her kind, or her place, it would be where the sun was in all its full glory.
She had encountered one creature that intrigued her, the one that vocalized so clearly when they met. She’d made a nice catch, a fat little creature that squealed only once when she took it. Her kill was clean. She’d landed nearby with it to char the meat and make the fat more readily available for the methanogens in her gut. It also made it more palatable and digestible, and facilitated regurgitation of bones and skin.
Flight required that she watch her weight.
As she started tearing meat from the smoldering carcass, the strange young female with the two offspring nearby made a shrieking sound, and then vocalized directly at her.
“Please, don’t hurt us!” She was small, perhaps a quarter the mass of the Phoenix. She’d have made a good meal; her young were rather thin. Too much skin and bone for the effort relative to easier, more abundant prey; they were also clearly intelligent creatures, and quick. She’d seen them around. They lived in relationship with the furred tasty ones. More than one had paid attention as the Phoenix soared overhead.
Oddly, the Phoenix understood the creature perfectly. She wondered why the silly thing would think she’d hurt them. Clearly she had as much as she could eat in front of her already. She pulled a piece from the pig and left it for them before picking up the carcass and heading to her temporary home in the rocks above.
That was another thing about this place. The mountains were not nearly high enough for her. There was no aerie in this region that placed her close enough to the sun.
She flew south.
She followed the Canary Current past the coast of Portugal, guided by the sun and the spin of the earth, things she did not notice. The Sahara she did notice, and its vast, flat, and horrifically arid expanse shifted her course westward, back out over the sea.
It was not an easy choice. While there was food to be found in the sea, it was nothing like the old times. Then the sea teemed with life. This sea was ill, many of its creatures suffering. It reminded her of her own kind, and she grieved. Her sad certainty that she was the last of the Phoenix was growing.
She’d regained her full strength quickly, and she knew how to ride the atmospheric currents. She was a high altitude flier. Once in a soar, she could go into a state of semi torpor and access oxygen stored in the feather mass, so limits on her altitude were mostly a function of atmospheric fluid dynamics and environmental conditions.
She confused quite a few air traffic controllers along her journey, and several government agencies starting investigating the possibility of new drone technology. She was too small to be a UFO or jet, too high and too big to be a bird. Much too big to be a bird. She got written off in various ways for the most part. An echo of some kind, a stray satellite perhaps.
Something had caught her eye out in the open ocean. It was big, very big, and moving quickly. It spewed carbon compounds, the products of combustion, something she recognized, but it had no soul. As she approached it, her keen vision spotted many of the strange ones, apparently in relationship with the soulless one, just as the had been with the energy rich furred ones on the land.
Their vocalizations were very complex, and diverse, and the soulless one had components that made sounds as well. The sounds were pleasant to her, and the strange ones moved to it in ways that suggested mating. Their plumage was very colorful. The soulless one bothered the Phoenix, but the strange ones with pretty plumage did not. The female with the young had feared her, but that was natural, most potential prey feared her. That she had understood the female’s vocalization had peaked her interest, and made her a little less afraid of this strange place.
As that entered her consciousness and she got close to the cruise ship someone shouted and pointed at her, and suddenly she was very afraid indeed. An object flew from the soulless one, and one of the strange ones made a loud noise and it caused an explosion in the air and the Phoenix shrieked as did half a dozen very drunk skeet shooters.
She’d not felt the fear so deeply since the water had threatened to take her, but an underlying unease at her unfamiliarity with things had been present. The boom of the shotgun and the explosion of the skeet just a few meters below had been bad enough; the random bits of lead still flying through the sky were terrifying.
She swooped back up to the sound of those who’d seen her. It was that same vocalization of fear. Odd, given that they’d attacked her. While the prey she’d been taking had never had to deal with predators from above, the Phoenix had never had to deal with any predators at all.
It must be soulless one, she thought as she climbed toward the sun. The Phoenix learned well over the course of its lives and spent much of its time remembering. It was a valuable trait and contributed to her species’ resiliency. Unless she was the only one. Still, she would remember, for the next life, perhaps. The next generation of Phoenix.
The coast of South America was a welcome sight when it appeared on the curved edge of the horizon. The September sun following behind her sent waves of energy out ahead to guide her, and they twinkled off the mighty Amazon, pulling her in that direction. The dense jungle and tall trees of the upper canopy were not the kind of system she hunted easily in, but she could see the odd geometric patches of land where the odd ones lived with the furred fatty ones off in the distance as well.
She could replenish her energy reserves. She needed to. There was something else she had seen off in the distance. She’d not seen the details of the land, but she’d seen the sky, the patterns of the thermals, the movement of the air currents. The clouds shrouding what she knew was there, off to the west.
Mountains. A very tall and very long range of mountains, and their range spanned the equator, that line that the Phoenix had no name for or image or understanding of, but who knew where it was because the Phoenix knew the sun in ways that not all creatures do. There, to the west, was where she would find her kind, if she would find them at all.
The Andes beckoned.
She found her aerie quickly, high in the peaks, among the rocky cliffs where the atmosphere’s influence on the Sol’s energy occurs only in the clouds, up where she could view the world around her, up miles above the sea that had brought her here home, up where she could leap into the sky and soar.
The first of her suitors found her quite quickly. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.
He was handsome enough, and had a very nice smile. He wore a fine white collar, and his beak and brow were ornamented with a scaly ridge reminiscent of their kind of old. But he clearly was not a Phoenix.
He was quite small. That he had approached her so boldly definitely stood in his favor; he was not a coward and would make a fine defender of the nest. Even his diminutive stature was quite impressive, given the others of their kind she’d encountered. Perhaps some of the large ones had survived the dark times after all.
It was hard to judge his more refined qualities; he was in the throes of the lek from the moment he’d set eyes on her. His display was quite nice, the coloring of his puffed out wattle changing as he displayed his fine pectorals and tiny sternum, the body of a soarer. His dance was enthusiastic, but his vocalizations were so overwhelmed by his passions she’d made more sense of what the small strange female non-winged one with the offspring she’d encountered.
“BIG! BIG LEGS! BIG EGGS! BIG WINGS FLY HIGH! PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY PLEASE! BIG! BIG! BIG!
He didn’t seem very bright. Perhaps he was not a creature of the sun. Still, she’d be polite. She responded with a polite belch of flame. That really set him off.
FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! BIG! BIG! BIG! BIG! PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY PLEASE! BIG! BIG! BIG!
She waited for him to display his fire. While she understood his attraction to her size, and her potential to produce large offspring, the legs thing confused her. That was one of his characteristics she found quite attractive. His read end was much more aerodynamic than hers. His landing in front of her hand been quite impressive.
She stared at him, hoping for some non-lekking communication with this friendly visitor.
PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY PLEASE!
Apparently he lacked fire. Perhaps it was because he was a carrion eater, she could smell it on him. While the thought of eating the dead bothered her, she’d done it during the dark times. It was hard on her intestinal flora, often introducing competitors to those in the unique ecosystem of her species’ gut. Even that held an odd attraction for her, his grotesque diet, something her immune and reproductive systems told her might be good. Genetic recombination had been influencing mate choice in life since it began, another of those things the Phoenix knew but didn’t.
She jumped from the rocks, silently inviting him to join her in flight. They soared together, and indeed, he was more agile than she in the air. He had beautiful wings, with feathers widespread in flight, and his narrow tail feathers provided incredible maneuvering ability. He was a sight to behold. When several other males joined them and started showing off for her, it gave her great joy and she dropped behind and above them to watch.
She saw others of their kind, females, watching as well. They were smaller than their partners, perhaps that explained the males’ fascination with her size. She really couldn’t imagine it was her ungainly legs that attracted them.
She decided to return to her aerie and wait. Perhaps there were those of her kind here, or others more closely related to her at least. The condors’ reaction to her gave her doubt and grief to sit with. Perhaps these would be her new kind.
If they were to be, the suitors would return. The lizard brain carried evolution far. She could sense it in the odd ones, they were something different. While all of the warm furred ones were new to her, these had something odd that they seemed to share with her.
They were here, too. Not so many high in the mountains, and oddly different types. Some lived in soulless rocky cliffs, all massed together, moving in small, soulless fire-belching things. She knew they were not cousins, despite their fire. The Phoenix had a soul. Just as the Condor did, and the tasty little squealers, and the odd ones.
The fire breathers here were not her kind, and she feared them. She’d never known such fear.
She soared through the clear sky, revelling in the warmth of the sun on her body as she relaxed into it. Perhaps she’d mate with one of the males. Or all of them. Perhaps there would be no more Phoenix, or nothing that was only Phoenix.
Maybe she could leave behind a new kind of Phoenix. That was what rebirth was all about. She knew it well.
She liked to soar above the Big River; there were many interesting things to see there. She’d seen some of the strange ones along the river who seemed to be different from the others. They did not live among the soulless ones. Even the vessels that carried them in the water still had soul essence, even though they did not live.
One day she had another interesting interaction with the strange ones.
She’d heard the shrieks of a female, similar to the one in the north. As she descended to investigate, something else caught her eye. A scaled one, big and black, moving through the dark waters of the river. She’d not encountered many scaled ones in this time, and the one below seemed a familiar delicacy. The scaled one was distracted by its own pursuit of prey, one of the young of the shrieking strange one. It was unimportant to the Phoenix.
She took the Black Caiman with ease, a familiar target and easily carried, settling gently in a clearing along the river to char it. There were many of the strange ones in the clearing, scattered around their bowers. The shrieking of the female had stopped, and her offspring mewed as she clung to it. The strange ones were transfixed, staring at her, and she stared right back, impatiently. Her meal awaited.
An old female stepped forward and looked at her, intently, fearlessly. An elder. It wasn’t a species specific designation. Some trees were elders, most stones. Water, although there was some sickness in the water here, too. It seemed to be everywhere in this world, a sickness.
Somehow she knew it was about the soulless ones, the fire breathers, the sickness.
The woman didn’t speak, didn’t need to. They connected in the old way. She offered thanks for the life of the offspring and asked if Phoenix was Men. Eagle. Phoenix knew only Phoenix, and not that, really. She knew herself and her kind, and many others. She wondered if those of the mountains were called Men by the strange ones. She didn’t think so.
She was more sure than ever that none of these creatures had ever encountered Phoenix before. It made her sad, and she took her meal and took flight. She understood the gratitude of the strange ones as they cheered her departure, but could not accept it freely. The offspring had not been her concern and oddly, that made her sad as well.
The elder wasn’t sure of the messaged she’d received from the Phoenix, only the she’d received one. She’d gotten images mostly of Imix, it was what held the great bird’s attention. But she’d also gotten an image of Condor.
She must consult the spirits.