“Every Burning Bird Will Be Reborn”
by Timothy Mudie
“We have long travels ahead,” Grandmere says when she and Kella push off into the marsh before sunrise. “Will you remember the way and keep the strength to row back by yourself?”
Kella nods, as she always does when Grandmere asks her questions that aren’t really questions, and then neither speaks a word until the sun is past its zenith. The old woman rows steadily but weakly, oars clacking a soft rhythm in their locks, and the sound lulls Kella. Her eyelids droop.
Grandmere clucks loudly, and Kella’s eyes pop open.
“I wasn’t sleeping, Grandmere,” she says, though they sit facing each other. It’s a foolish defense, but not technically a lie.
“Seconds from it,” Grandmere sniffs. “All these years, you think I haven’t learned your breathing?”
Reeds brush the sides of the boat. Cypresses stretch over them. For hours they’ve wended through the marsh and lagoons, skirting so many islands that Kella truly understands for the first time why her home is called the Countless Archipelago. What beasts must be hidden in the foliage. Long-legged swamp antelope and thousand-tooth gar and spitting mantises. And, of course, the firebird. Things she’s only known in stories, in passed-down taxonomies from Mama and later from Grandmere when she assumed Kella’s training. Tales Grandmere learned from her mother who learned from her mother and on down.
“Tell me where we are going and why,” Grandmere snaps, as if reading Kella’s thoughts. If she can, it is a gift she hasn’t bequeathed her pupil.
“Today I will present myself to the firebird for judgment,” Kella recites. “If she finds me forthright, clever, and brave, I will take your place as story-spinner of the Countless Archipelago, and the firebird will immo—” she stumbles over the word; she is only twelve, after all—”immolate you so you can be reborn.” This is the litany Grandmere drilled into her head since she was tiny, and she almost does not add her secret hope, but she can’t help herself, she is so excited. “And I will see my mother again.”
A hitch in the oar’s rhythm. “What—why would you think such a thing?”
“Because Mama’s soul will be there. Waiting in the ember-heart of the firebird to be reborn. The firebird, I will ask it a boon. If she will make me story-spinner, I will ask to speak to Mama. She was supposed to be story-spinner too, when your time came. It isn’t her fault that she couldn’t become story-spinner, that I have to take her place before I’m old enough. She can still teach me so many things. Won’t the firebird grant us a moment?”
“Oh, heart,” Grandmere says softly. “Pay attention to everything around you. We are drawing close.”
Kella is no one’s fool. Reading the truth behind others’ words is an important skill for the story-spinner. “Grandmere, what must I do to see Mama again?”
Grandmere purses her lips and rows. “Forthright, clever, and brave.” Not the answer Kella wants, but Grandmere’s tone tells her it’s the only one she’ll get.
Grandmere angles the boat through a hanging fringe of moss into a hidden stone tunnel, barely large enough for their narrow boat. Flowers colored swirling orange and yellow and pink blanket the walls. Flitting birds of the same colors dart between them, heat radiating off their rapidly beating wings. The air smells of citrus and ash. Buzzing fills her ears, growing louder and clearer until it coalesces into scattered words. Kella strains to pluck Mama’s out of the cacophony of voices. Can’t do it.
“Grandmere. . .” she says, frustrated tears welling.
“Tell the firebirds what you would do, Kella,” Grandmere says. “Forthright, clever, and brave.”
This is the firebird? Not one great beast but this flock of tiny things, barely bigger than the songbirds the village’s men raise to eat wasps in the brine-apple orchards? Are these the souls reborn from the firebird’s blaze? Which one is Mama?
She lifts a palm for Mama to alight on. They will go home together. Even if Mama is a firebird now, she is still Kella’s Mama. She deserves to come home, shouldn’t have been taken so young. Old people are supposed to get sick, not young women with little daughters.
“Whatever it takes,” Kella says to the circling birds. “I’ll take Mama’s place. She can be the story-spinner, and I’ll be a firebird.” A trade, she thinks, and one where she has not promised not to fly away, to follow the reborn Mama home. That is clever, and sacrificing herself is brave. “I am afraid,” she admits, forthright. She looks at Grandmere. “I’m not ready to be the story-spinner. All by myself.”
Firebirds wheel closer, forming a vortex around Kella and Grandmere, cinching closed, leaving Kella outside. The voices grow louder, all of them women, the line of her family back through the dawn, but still Mama is not among them.
“You have always been forthright.” Grandmere’s voice cuts through the ones in Kella’s head, rises above the whirr of the firebirds’ wings. “Clever is finding your way home. Brave is hearing the truth, and spinning it into a story for the archipelago.” Through the whirling birds, Kella sees Grandmere’s skin blacken and burn, but she doesn’t sound in pain. “These are the firebird, and they are merely birds. I will burn, and they will capture my voice in their flames, but that’s all. There is no rebirth.”
“A lie. . .”
Smoke wisps from Grandmere’s hair. “A story. A sacred, secret tale our family is tasked with preserving, one that is true for the heart whether or not it is for the mind. There is no rebirth because there is no death. Your Mama is with you, heart, as I will be. As you will be with your daughter when you grow old enough for the firebirds to want your voice, your brittle bones.”
“Grandmere. . .” Hot tears pour down Kella’s face, tears of sorrow and truth. She cannot do what Grandmere asks, yet knows she will. “Mama. . .”
“Row home, heart,” Grandmere says. “Spin people the truth and comfort of the story. It’s yours now to tell.” The firebirds surround her. When they disperse all that remains is ash and a solitary feather the size of Kella’s thumbnail. She tucks it in her hair. Weeps. And rows home to tell a story.
Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction author and an editor of many genres. In addition to his story, “The Singularity Whales,” which was published by Abyss & Apex in June 2013, his fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and various other magazines, anthologies, and podcasts. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son.