The Old Man and the Phoenix5 min read
The old man stared out the window at the sky streaked with burnt oranges and sizzling yellows. A few white stars winked. Magentas hung suspended in the mist. Sherbet, he thought. I bet the dawn tastes like rainbow sherbet. If the old man had a spoon big enough, he would have scooped it all.
“Sherbet,” he rasped.
The phoenix perked up. It was sitting on a perch in the old man’s bedroom at his bedside. It cocked its head, staring at him with a single, blue eye. The bird shuffled closer, golden claws scraping against the wood. “What was that?”
The old man cleared his throat. “I would like sherbet served at my funeral.”
“Oh.” It ducked its head. The old man knew the phoenix was terrible at saying goodbyes. “Right. Of course. I will tell your brother.”
“Do not forget.”
“I would never.”
There was a pause. The heart monitor clicked and sighed. A cool breeze tumbled in from the open window, twirling and puffing the old man’s blue curtains. The phoenix’s feathers glowed softly in the shadows, redder than the skin of cherries. It nodded its head to the wooden staff in the corner. A sapphire was jammed on top of it, where silver constellations twinkled within. “What of that?”
The old man scraped out a cough. “Bah,” he said, waving his hand. “Whatever you do, do not give it to my brother. He is an idiot.” His forehead wrinkled in thought. “Give it to Tom.”
“Tom? The baker?”
“Yes.” Another cough. This one cleaved his lungs. The old man jackknifed, gasping into his hands. Tears pricked his eyes. Bucking and heaving, he reached for a glass of water on the nightstand. It was hard to drink because of his trembling hands. Water flowed out, trickling into his mouth and splattering his neck. The phoenix’s wings twitched, as though it desperately wished it had thumbs. The old man sputtered and coughed. Sipped again. Finally, he placed the glass down. “Tom,” he said, “bakes the finest croissants in town. Nice boy. Cats, they love Tom. This is a good sign.”
His neck was drenched, and yet, his mouth felt bone dry. The air around the bird seemed to shimmer. It seemed to warm the old man’s skin. He closed his eyes.
“I want my ashes scattered over the daffodil field. At night,” he added, peeking out one, hazel green eye. “So there are fireflies.”
To the old man’s surprise, tears splashed off the tip of the phoenix’s beak. They plopped onto his quilt, near his fingers. The skin on his hands was tissue paper thin, bones and veins pronounced. He stuffed them under the covers. “Be careful. If you heal me, I will never see my Jeanie.”
The phoenix’s head was low. It said nothing. Only a tiny, pathetic chirp.
The green line of the heart monitor blinked into tiny hills. The bird’s eyes glittered. The old man felt his heart give a slight twist. He smiled, just barely. “Now, now, my friend. There will be no tears. Only singing and dancing.”
At this, his friend fluttered off its perch and onto his bed. Claws scratched and tickled as the phoenix crawled across his stomach. The blankets rustled, and the phoenix’s solid, soft body pressed against him. The old man felt his throat swell up. The phoenix tucked its head beneath his chin. Its feathers smelled of childhood and old sun.
For years, the old man had remembered his youth, longing for the days when he was a kaleidoscope of energy. Days when there were bursts of warriors, magic, and gold. Now, he realized, he would miss peace. He would miss tucking into his green frog slippers every morning. He would miss warm cups of coffee pressed into his hand before dawn. He would miss cinnamon croissants with the phoenix on Tuesdays and Tom’s burly, loud laugh, a gong that reverberated over everything. He would miss the daffodil fields, swaying in the breeze. He would miss the phoenix’s songs.
The old man’s cheeks felt wet. He tasted salt. A seed of fear took root and bloomed in his chest, and quite suddenly, he wished that someone could go with him. “My friend,” the old man whispered. “Should I be afraid?”
The phoenix nuzzled closer into his ribs. “Not at all. I have been above the stars many times.”
“What is it like?” The old man flushed. He felt small. Naïve. He blinked at the ceiling. “When it happens, I mean.”
There was a pause. Then, “Like a gasp,” it said. “There is a light. Small, like an ember, at first… But then it splashes into sunlight that flickers, burns, and then cools into rainbows. After that, I don’t know. I’ve never been able to stay.”
The words flattened his chest like an anvil. Soon, the old man would be with his wife again. He would see his parents for the first time in years. But never again would he see the phoenix.
The old man’s shaking hands came around the phoenix’s body. Its feathers felt like silk. He sucked in a shuddering breath. He felt so weak. So tired. “My dear friend,” he wept, “I will miss you the most.”
The phoenix curled as close to the old man as it could get. It rested its head on the old man’s chest until his sobs stopped quivering his body. Together, they stayed this way, listening to the fear flutter from the old man’s heart.
The sun rose and gleamed through the window, splaying bars of refined gold into the room. Peace fell over the old man like a thick quilt. Then, a gasp. The low, steady flat line of the monitor. A warm, brilliant light. A splash of rainbows.
The phoenix never left his side.
At the old man’s funeral, there was sherbet ice cream. There were daffodils and puddles of moonlight. The flowers covered the hills and waved in the breeze. The phoenix perched on top of the old man’s staff. Tom, the baker, clutched it with both hands. His eyes were bright with tears.
“It’s warm out,” he said.
“Yes.” The phoenix agreed. “Just like him.”
Tom wiped his face.
The phoenix wondered what the old man had seen beyond the flickering rainbows. It wondered if Jeanie was the first person he ran to. It wondered if heaven had a bakery.
When the old man’s brother tossed his ashes, they puffed out across the rolling, yellow hills in a large cloud. The fireflies blinked like wishing stars. Crickets chorused softly. Tom’s shoulders trembled, and the heartbreak was not just in the phoenix’s chest, but in every corner of its body. It kicked off into the sky, thinking of the old man’s passion and gentleness, thinking of how he wanted no tears, only song and dance. So, the phoenix streaked across the full moon, its scarlet tail streaming behind it like a banner. It dipped close to the daffodils and then twirled across the night air, singing about the old man’s life. It sang about their friendship in a language only spoken by birds, and yet, somehow, the old man’s brother and the baker seemed to understand every word.
The phoenix sang long after Tom and the brother left the field, and the phoenix wondered, deep down, if it sang loud enough, if the old man could somehow still hear it.