The Arctic Phoenix
The one-armed veteran in the park selling race tips for fifteen bucks a pop told my sister (who takes chances) what he learned when he was young.
“Then we rode horses into battle, out of battle, anywhere. Patroling a canyon, we found a cave beneath a cliff, and in the cave we found a parchment, squashed under a rock. The script was hard, but I could piece it out.
“‘Remember, you live in dried-out times. These, all these thirsty wastes were lagoons once, and jungle islands bright with cockatoos. You who find these scratchings, if you can read at ...’
“The rock had scraped some lines away. The next part began:
“‘...‘rished her and tended her. She had lost her sight; she had wandered blind for many months. Her story tells you why.
“‘“I had been tracking reindeer. They were staggering through the taiga, while the red and white mushrooms, the fly-killers, danced inside their heads. Peeking over a drumlin, just when the new moon rose, I saw a great bird, taller than a dozen skis on end, fanning a blaze with steady wings. It was the Arctic Phoenix, forging a crib. And from the middle of that pyre, the Phoenix sang in Yakut, which I speak:
Green the moss, grey the stone, amber the lake
Tamaracks are dun, are jade
Water limbers up and stiffens
Oblivion waits beyond the flames
So far away, so close.
“‘“The burning scorched me, even crouching, as I was, so far away.”
“‘You, discoverer or scavenger, would you dare to come so close?’
“We wanted to salvage the parchment, but our captain drew his sword and stopped us. We must take nothing. That was orders. On we rode, another mile of canyon, then the plateau, where we got no mercy from a wind strong enough to flay our faces. Safety and comfort seemed so far away.”
Reeking of scallions, cheddar cheese, and embrocation, he sat staring at my sister, his good arm pointing down, himself so close, the mighty bird so far away.