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The book of phoenii, p.1
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       The Book of Phoenii, p.1

           Joyce Chng
 
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The Book of Phoenii


  THE BOOK OF PHOENII

 

  The Firebird’s Tale

  The Firebird gazed sadly at the figure of the prince walking away with his beautiful bride, accompanied by his fiercely loyal wolf. The bride, a beautiful princess with sun-red hair and fair complexion, held a large glittering feather in her delicate hand. It glowed like a miniature star.

  The sadness grew in the Firebird’s chest. She would miss the prince. He was such a courageous young man and fortunate enough to have met the princess who was able to defeat the evil witch. They were meant for each other. And herself? She was only a secondary character in the story, the bringer of good hope and luck, the banisher of darkness and evil.

  In the end, she had only herself for comfort and for love. Her bloodline was rare. Most men would shy away from her brilliance. The prince did not. He was an exception. Her future looked bleak, un-bright like her feathers. She felt as if the sun was leaving her body. When she knew that the prince and his bride had already left the area, probably to a happy marriage, she changed.

  Where the glorious flame-feathered Firebird once stood was a woman, dark of hair and chiseled cheekbones. She hailed from the borderlands, between China and Russia. Self-consciously, she touched her robes, woven with her clan’s patterns. Perhaps, it was just a journey back to her clan village and face a silent night, alone.

  She began to pick her way through the forest. It was safe for her, because the animals knew what she was and dared not approach her. She sighed softly and sang:

  Alone, I walk-

  My wings clipped, my soul

  Gone.

  Alone, I walk-

  My eyes weep, my voice

  Gone.

  Alone, I walk-

  My steps drag, my joy

  Gone.

  A twig snapped, breaking her semi-trance. She raised her right hand now wreathed in a swirling ball of sun-fire. “Who goes there?” She snapped, feeling braver than she was inside.

  A handsome man, older than the prince, but still patrician in his features, appeared. He was dressed in hunting leathers and he held an elegant crossbow.

  “I am sorry, my lady. I seem to have startled you.” His voice was warm, like sun-warmed honey. Amber and rich. She savored it.

  “I am Prince Albard,” he introduced himself and bowed deep. The Firebird woman smiled warmly. She could look forward to the future now.

  The Phoenix Who Was A Chicken

  There is a story, a childhood story told to generations of children. It is about the Phoenix who was a chicken. The story talks about this barnyard cockerel who is a kind soul. He is helpful, kind-hearted and lends a wing to anyone who needs help, animal or human. But he wonders about his Life Purpose. One day, he finds himself staring at the sky and lo! there is a beautiful creature, a beautiful bird with opalescent flowing wings and feathers, gliding through the blue sky gracefully. The beauty of this bird calls out to the cockerel who feels a sense of affinity with it. But the chicken dismisses it as fanciful imagination...

  Then, one day, the cockerel has to help someone put out a huge fire. He runs into the burning house, looking for people trapped within the burning furnace... and he finds himself trapped by flaming beams. Closer and closer the fiery tongues draw near. The chicken feels himself burning up and he closes his eyes, praying for death...

  ... and he finds himself changing, his ordinary feathers turning a burnished gold... He is surprised...

  A beautiful bird emerges from the fire, his wings brilliant opalescence.

  The chicken has been transformed.

  Extremely surprised, the ex-chicken looks at his magnificent new body. Just then, the beautiful bird, one of the celestial phoenixes, the one he had seen earlier, appears. It is a 'she' and she greets him warmly. Together, they fly towards the sunrise.

  On Beds of Frankincense and Myrrh

  The woman peered anxiously at the sky, feeling the perspiration curl down her back in a delicate thread. Her cotton chemise felt damp. It was the hottest day. Everything was sun-baked, crackling. Even the Nile crocodiles – Dua Sobek! – were immobilized into a state of catatonia, their fanged jaws wide open while tiny birds picked at their teeth for scraps.

  She had prepared the beds of spices and herbs. Frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, willow. Lit with fire, they had begun burning and the intense fragrances wafted skywards.

  A bright flash of light, like the sun coming down to land. A bird-shape soared in the sky, gradually spiraling down in lazy circles, until it landed gracefully: a long-legged bird, like a purple heron, crowned with two long feathers. The eyes gleamed with a star-like quality. The feathers were tipped with sun-fire.

  “I am here,” the Bennu said in a sweet fluting voice. “Have you prepared the beds?”

  The woman bowed, touched by the Bennu’s beauty.

  The Bennu stepped elegantly to the beds of spices still smoldering away with ruby-red embers. Without a sound, she hopped onto the beds and promptly sat down, as if to roost. The smoke grew thick, the fragrances stronger. The feathers sparked and soon, the Bennu was engulfed in a fast-burning white fire. The woman shielded her eyes and when she opened them again, the Bennu was gone. In its place was a young woman, smooth of skin, bright eyes like stars at night. She wore only a plain chemise and was already dusting the ashes off her body fastidiously with a look of gentle distaste on her sharp face.

  “And we repeat this every year,” the young woman said dryly when the other woman approached her with a cotton veil. She wore it quietly, draping it around her head. The piles of spices sent puffs of aromatic smoke. She sneezed.

  “The people demand it,” the other woman explained matter-of-factly, helping the young woman up to her feet. “They want the continuity of legends.”

  “Ah, I see, I see.”

  The two women walked away from the funerary pyre. The young woman, the former Bennu, glanced at her companion and said archly, “Next time you do it.”

 

  A Kimono of Peacock Feathers

  Hitomi knelt neatly on the rush tatami, a picture of serene beauty. Her hair had been brushed into a lustrous shine, a river of black ink curling down her back. Her face was powdered white, with a dab of crimson on her lips.

  It was her kimono that had attracted envious glances. Crafted by the finest Heian kimono maker, it shimmered in many colors, like the tail feathers of the peacock. Her long sleeves flared out, arranged beautifully by her maids. Beneath the rich garment were the layers of inner kimonos, subtler in shade and bringing the vividness of the peacock feather hues most startlingly.

  “Oh look, a wonder in the sky!” One of the maids exclaimed, manicured hand on trembling lips. Hitomi craned her neck slightly, catching sight of something bright and flying in the spring sky.

  “A Ho-Ho!” Another maid joined in the exultation. The appearance of a Ho-Ho was an auspicious omen. It was the harbinger of good news. Soon, the news arrived on running feet: the birth of the Emperor’s son.

  Hitomi cringed inwardly. She did not want to be a concubine. Her father, a minor samurai, had sent her to the palace in the hope that she – and her family – would win favor with the Emperor. No. She did not want to spend her youth bearing children, year after year. She was above such drudgery.

  “I want to go to the gardens,” she declared and the maids obeyed, helping her up to her feet because the kimono was heavy. Her heart, however, was light.

  Once there, in the garden and surrounded by the pink cherry-blossom trees, she dismissed the maids. They went away, muttering about “that strange concubine”.

  She laughed merrily and spread her arms, the peacock feather colors flashing in the sun. She would fly away, like her sister the Ho-Ho.

 


  Full Circle

  Ting watched her pining away for her husband. Her sister. The pride of their family. Her best friend and confidante.

  She had been the clever one. A poet, a talented zither player, a dancer. Then she met him during Mid-Autumn and fell in love with him, even though they were match-made.

  The grandaunts and aunts all claimed that it was a match made in Heaven. In their family, things always came in pairs. Feng. Huang. Feng Huang. Complete. Full circle.

  He went off, like any wandering scholar, to seek intellectual enlightenment. His departure dimmed her feathers and turned her into a morose woman, waiting by the door. Waiting for him.

  “This should not continue!” Ting stormed one day to her mother. “Even the sparkle in her eyes is gone!”

  “Oh, young Ting,” her mother shook her head. “You do not understand.”

  “I do!” Ting’s bright silk sleeves glittered, morning clouds tinged with the sun. “Will my fate be the same?” She recoiled unhappily.

  “If you find the right mate, the right half.”

  “No.”

  Ting’s refusal was cold and curt. She fled to the place where the streams ran crystal-clear. There she cried and stared at the reflection wavering in the water.

  Feng Huang. Was she content being incomplete? Or was her path different?

 

  Thunder Bird Woman

  She danced like thunder,

  Her feet the deep drums from Sky Father,

  Her hands wings from Earth Mother.

  She danced like thunder,

  Over the mesas, waking Coyote

  And Eagle, lightning her shawl.

  She danced like thunder,

  Her song rolling across the sky,

  Joining the rest of her family.

  She danced like thunder,

  Her feet the deep drums from Sky Father,

  Her hands wings from Earth Mother.

  The Jeweled Tree

  Darius climbs, panting, eyeing the

  Jeweled Tree, guarded by the fabulous Phoenix

  Who is thought to smell of spices and gleam with

  Gold that he wants, he wants.

  So he continues, climbing up sharp-rocked cliffs

  Cutting his hands, watched by swifts

  Who laugh and wonder why he wanted

  To go to the Jeweled Tree.

  Up he goes, determined, a stoic warrior –

  Nay, just a man who suddenly confronts a woman

  With a golden diadem like a queen, a queen

  Who stares at him with diamond eyes, her face

  Beautiful, cold and fierce.

  “Why are you here?” She sings and her diadem gleams.

  “Why are you taking my gold?”

  Darius gasps and almost loses his footing, scrambling.

  But the distant queen grabs him, her skin brazen hot

  And saves him from certain death.

  Oh how she saves him from certain death.

  Now Darius leaves the Jeweled Tree, holding

  Something close to his chest: a queen’s promise

  And her quiet vow to fiercely protect her precious nest.

  He never climbs again.

  A Tongue of Cinder and Spite

  She has a tongue of cinder and spite, a fire-tongue.

  When she speaks, things crackle, burn and incinerate into black ashes. Words emerge, spark into flame and then fizzle away, as the spite eats away like fire with fragile paper.

  Fire-tongue, flame-tongue.

  “You turn the sky to gold, but your tongue burns.”

  “Your songs are heavenly, but your words sting.”

  “Tame thy tongue, ol’ great bird of fire.”

  She tastes the cinder and the spite. Like cordite. Like ash. Like burnt paper ashes reduced to nothing. She knows that her words have power and spiteful as they are, they serve a purpose. There is Life. There is Death. Words are never honey sweet. Not all the time.

  She speaks and cities grow, only to fall and grow again.

  She speaks and great men rise to power, only to plummet down in shame.

  She speaks and funeral pyres burn, for the young and the old, only to send the bright spirits skywards.

  She has a tongue of cinder and spite, a fire-tongue.

  Swirls of Brown

  I can see her in the mirror, flexing her wings as I flex my shoulder blades.

  Her feather are swirls of brown,

  whorls of mahogany curling like peacock tail feather eyes.

  Under the lamp, she exists just as I exist – an ephemeral creature,

  a bird of myth,

  my heritage.

  I begin to scrap off the dry brown crusts and

  the phoenix is now fiery, vivid red-orange.

  Like tongues of flame,

  marking my body

  with ley lines of power.

  I begin to dance

  the dance taught to me by my teachers.

  I dance the dance of Garuda,

  with my fire swirls on my skin

  – protector, warrior, guardian.

  Embroidery of Feathers

  A stitch in cloth,

  A feather formed.

  Pink and red,

  The needle a silver tattoo.

  A stitch in cloth,

  A legend born.

  Stylized wings,

  Silent beating.

  A stitch in time,

  Joy awakes in song.

  Coupled in tandem,

  A Duet etched in gleaming thread.

  Remember Me

  Remember me when you burn my feathers, all three of them, in different times.

  Remember me when the feathers catch fire and pull me – siren-song – to your side.

  Remember me.

  Remember me when you burn my feathers, my gift to you, my eternal gratitude, when you smashed the snake’s head with your mallet and my children saved.

  Remember me when you go off adventuring, as heroes would do, in far-off distant lands.

  Remember me.

  Remember me when you burn my feathers, each a part of me, a piece of me.

  Remember me when you call for help and burn them with fire.

  Remember me when the debt is paid and everything else is even.

  Size Does Not Matter

  Am I too big for my size?

  She asks sweetly, delicate head watching her watcher who squirms uncomfortably in his pants, wishing that he were indeed elsewhere, enjoying a glass of cold sorbet with lithe houris. Anything away from those flaming mad eyes.

  Am I too big?

  She asks again, her voice still sweet, her demeanor still delicate, her eyes fixed on her watcher who fumbles for the right answer, couched in the right tone.

  I am hungry.

  She declares suddenly, no more sweet voice, no more delicate demeanor. She launches into the sky, a flurry of bronze feathers, clashing like lightning, like live sun-fire. Swoops down, delicate head now a cruel snarl with crooked raptor’s beak, and grabs an elephant firmly with two scimitar-sharp talons. The elephant struggles, streaming ribbons of blood, trumpeting in terror.

  Am I too big for my size?

  She asks sweetly once more, licking her lips clean of the iron-rich fluid, preening herself, all sated beauty reposed on her seat of glory. Ivory tusks frame her crimson settee, animal hides the carpets and the tapestries.

 
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