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Rise of the Phoenix
* * * * * * * * * * *
I am not entirely surprised when the phone call is from Justin. I am not entirely pleased, either, but I am not entirely surprised.
"Millie, Jesus CHRIST, Millie! You are _not_ going to believe this!"
"Justin." I say, sourly, trying to clear tonight's sticky sleep-residue from my mouth and lips. If I were in a '50's sitcom, I would be in curlers right now. "I suppose it would be trite of me to ask you if you know what time it is."
"It's like, what. I dunno. Later there than it is here, I bet."
I clear my throat. Mouth done, I start work on my eyes. "Where the hell are you?"
"Las Vegas, Millie. Christ! It's just like the Oasis was! Colors everywhere! Noise!" He laughs, spontaneously. "The whole thing makes such weird fucking sense! But not!"
"Listen, Justin. I don't know if it's just me being all muzzy, but you're not making a hell of a lot of sense right now. All I know is that _you_, mah friend, have got a _lot_ to answer for, and let's leave it at that until we can talk face to face." A pause. "You mind giving me a semi-brief explanation, here?"
"Mille." Says the tired-sounding voice on the other end of the line. "It's _way_ more than we can cover in just this one phone call."
"Great." I say, without much enthusiasm, blinking the last of the gummy sleep from my eyes. "Mind telling me why exactly you called, then?"
There is a hedging pause.
"Could you... er... wire me some money?"
* * *
"'Bennu.'" I read. "'Sacred bird of Heliopolis, usually depicted as a heron, with a long straight back and head adorned at the back with two erect feathers, but also as a peacock or an eagle. Brilliantly plumed. The Bennu was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians of Heliopolis alongside Ra and Osiris. The sun rose in the form of the Bennu each morning, and in the evening, it burned itself to cinders. As a result, the symbological domain of Rebirth belonged to the Bennu as well, rising as it did from its own ashes each dawn just as the new sun rises from the old. See also: Phoenix.'" I look up from _Maplethorpe's Bestiary of the Legendary World_ with a quizzical expression on my face.
"That... looks like it." Says my mad friend, Justin, staring at the picture plate opposing. "That's almost exactly right. I mean, you can't see the colors with it being stamped in gold like that, but otherwise, that's it."
I blink at him.
I point at the plate with a disbelieving finger. I'm not exactly sure how a finger can be disbelieving, but I manage it.
"This is you."
"_Was_ me, Millie. Now I'm not. See?"
"No." I say. "It says here that you were worshipped from your perch atop the Ben-ben stone in the Temple of Heliopolis and that you were responsible for the Morning. You been responsible for the Morning lately, Justin?"
"No," says Justin.
"You been responsible for _anything_, lately, Justin?"
"No, Millie, but what I'm-"
"It says here that you create yourself anew each morning from the fire that burns atop the Sacred Persea Tree. Ringing any bells?"
"Millie, I'm not _saying_ that I'm exactly a-preciso an ancient Egyptian deity, de facto, et cetera. That was just what the Kiri-ahn called me."
"The... armadillo-people." I say.
"Right." Says Justin, earnestly. "_Man_, was that weird!"
"I can imagine." I say, mildly.
"Look here." Says Justin, stabbing excitedly at a different paragraph. "Quotes from the Book of the Dead. 'One of the many transformations the soul of a deceased had to undergo before achieving final rest was the transformation into the Greater Bennu. Here, the deceased says, "I am the Bennu, the soul of Ra, and the guide of the gods in the Duat."'" He pauses. "What the hell is the Duat?" He muses. Suddenly, he begins flipping pages again, presumably cross-referencing something. I take a chunk of pages and turn them over myself, in an attempt to stop his lunatic search, and the book lands open somewhere near the back. "And that's _her_!" He says, tapping the newly-exposed plate excitedly. "The Ssayre."
I peer closely at the detail-shot of an old Anglish-looking tapestry. "A 'Wyvern.'" I state. "'A heraldic beast, resembling a dragon, but traditionally depicted with winged forelimbs, like a bat, rather than the traditional Western notion of oblique membranes comprising separate appendages which sprout from the back.'"
"That's how Jossu'wa described the wayward daughter of the Earth Mother."
"Uh huh." I say.
"You really don't believe this." He says, looking at me.
"Well." I say, putting my M.A. in Psychology to good use, once again. "I have no doubt that you have seen what you have seen."
"Great. Now what I need you to do is-"
"_The important thing is_, however," I say, steamrolling ahead before he can regain control of the conversation, "for us to look at _why_ you have seen what you have seen."
"Millie, I _told_ you! I cut my finger on a piece of rock crystal. I went to suck on it, and I think I accidentally swallowed some of this _Pajome_ stuff in the process."
"The... juice that the armadillo-people make out of fruit trees found in... Las Vegas."
"Yes! No! I mean, it's not Las Vegas over there. It's this huge area of clearwater swampland sitting inexplicably right in the middle of the desert, full of these bright-colored frogs and... all sorts of stuff!"
"Okay." I say, nodding in what I hope is an ingratiating fashion. "So... for the past week, you've been in an oasis in the middle of the Nevada desert, filled with South American Poison-Arrow frogs or something."
"They weren't poisonous." He says. "I could eat them."
"Poison-Arrow frogs aren't poisonous to _everybody_, Justin. there are a select few creatures who can eat them safely, but... Jesus, why the hell am I talking about this? It's kind of beside the-"
Justin pays my interjection no heed. "My god." He ponders. "Oh, shit. Poisonous, you think?"
"Look, Justin, I don't _know_, okay, it's just that-"
"Christ." He says, soberly. "_That's_ why the Kiri-ahn couldn't eat them. They just _thought_ it was divine recompense." He blinks. "Jesus, I hope Jossu'wa didn't do anything stupid after I left..."
"Look!" I say, my training flying out the window. "Justin, we have a name for these things in the brain-shrinking business. They're called 'fugue episodes.' Person just one day up and wanders off. They show up a week, a month, whatever, later, in a strange place some godawful distance from where they started, with no memory of the intervening time."
"But I _do_ have memories of that time!"
"Well, then, I dunno!" I say, waving one hand helplessly. "Fugue episode compounded by psychotic delusion, then!"
"You think I'm crazy."
"Justin, you're kind of leaving me with little choice, here!" I say.
"Prove it to you." He says. He fishes around in his pack for a moment and comes up with an old plastic screw-top bottle about one-eighth full of a syrupy yellow fluid. "This is the last of the _Pajome_. I collected it from the crystal relic first thing when I got home. There was still some pooled in the end. One drink of this stuff, you'll believe me."
I just stare at him. "This is getting into a whole weird area, Justin. _What_ streetcorner bliss-pusher did you buy that stuff off of?"
"I _told_ you, it wasn't a-" He pauses. "Shit, why am I bothering to explain? I'll just show you." He screws the top off the bottle, then pauses again, this time, in thought.
"What." I say, looking at him with one eyebrow raised.
"If I drink this now... they're going to expect me to fulfill their prophecy for them..."
"Riiight." I say. "Listen, Justin, the _first_ thing I'm going to do right now is have you call your mother. She's been bugging the fuck out of me, and she's about to call the National Guard out on an APB. Directly after that, we are going to walk you home and get you put in for sleep, and after _that_, when you wake up in the morning, we're both going to take a nice trip over to the University Hospitals where you can talk to some of my good friends over in the Psychiatry Departm--"
"I'm not crazy." Says Justin, dangerously. "I saw what I saw."
"I'm not contesting that, Justin." I say, a bit too quickly. "All I'm saying is that you've been under a lot of stress lately, and--"
"_I saw what I saw._" Repeats Justin.
"Okay! Fine! Whatthefuckingever!" I say, throwing my hands up in exasperation. "All I know is that this _whole_ shit-faced affair sounds a hell of a lot like your brain going bonkers and retreating into symbology. I mean, lookat! The night before you wander off, you're bitching to me about how you're trapped in a world you can't escape from, in a menial track at the university, all het up about not amounting to anything in your life. Next day, you wander off West, the traditional seat of the American Frontier, and invent this story about how you became some kind of Phoenix-like bird, which is a notable symbol in and of _itself_, who is, further, a _GOD_ to a bunch of similarly deluded armadillo-people. You're _probably_ just a naturally psychiatrically unbalanced person who needs the comfort of symbolic perception in... order... to..."
I trail off.
"Justin...?" I say.
It is as if a veil has been drawn over his eyes.
"Justin?" I say again.
"What day is it." He murmurs. The eccentric vivacity of his demeanor has vanished. At _least_ he's acting normally, now. Perhaps we _are_ getting somewhere.
I check my watch.
"We're past midnight, here." I say. "So it's tomorrow."
"Gotta get up for classes in the morning." He says.
"Goat chips." I oath. "You're going to the doc's tomorrow. Today. Whatever."
He nods, listlessly. "Okay." He says.
I look at him sternly. "No more of the noncompliant crap?"
"Guess not." He says.
I nod, uneasily. Sudden one-eighty-degree opinion shifts don't give me a lot of hope for truthful racontation. I lift his chin with my hand and stare deep down into his watery eyes.
"Justin." I say, firmly but compassionately.
He mutters something.
"You stick with me from now on, okay? You don't need to be a god-stork to mean something in my book, and you sure as hell don't need a primitive tribe of armadillos worshipping your every move, neither. And you don't _have_ to be the culmination of some weird prophecy in your delusional brainscape in order to get what you need out of life." I turn on my demeanor again, full force. "All you need, could ever need, _will_ ever need, can be found, right here, in the real, live, world. Understand?"
He mutters something again.
"Don't let us down."
This time, he doesn't even mutter.
* * *
I raise one eyebrow at Justin.
"No colorful speeches about fate and fortune, Justin, me boy?"
Silence, for a moment.
And then, in a voice like a millstone,
Justin hangs limply from his pool cue like a tetherball in August.
I look concernedly at him.
"Shall we pack up he-"
"PLAY." Intones Justin, with a sudden imprecatory fire.
"Okay, okay, sheesh. Kill me with that thing, willya?"
"You need some chalk?"
I shrug and go about my business, sizing up the state of the table.
"Red." Intones Justin.
"Red." Says Justin, flatly. "You've stared too long at the numbers, Millie. You can't even see the colors for colors anymore. You gotta relate them to the numbers, don'tcha."
I look quizzically at him.
"What color stripe did you just sink, Millie?"
"Red." I say, automatically. "The eleven."
"SEE?!?" Bellows Justin, suddenly, disturbing the shots of two or three nearby players.
"Justin, keep it the fuck quiet." I hiss.
He collapses into a sullen silence. I go back to playing.
There's a shot.
"Orange." Spits Justin, with an uneasy bitterness.
"Justin, just chill, okay..." Justin's been through a lot lately, and I don't want to piss him off further by blowing up, which is what I'd _prefer_ to do at this moment.
"You can't do it, can you." Says Justin. "You can't just say the colors. Try it once."
"_Try it once_."
"Look, dropit, okay? I'm just gonna make my shot here." I begin lining up again and brushing away the cobwebs of distraction.
"Orange." Says Justin, quietly.
I ignore him and begin looking for my next shot. "Justin," I begin, "I'm going to tell you something, and I mean this as a friend, but, what the _fuck_ is up with you lately?"
He ignores me. I press on.
"It's been _weeks_ now, Justin. I mean, you'd think with nothing physically wrong with your brain, and nothing seriously the matter with you psychiatrically, you'd be snapping out of things about now. You still seeing your counselor?"
"Yes." Says Justin. "I am, however, a difficult patient, very resistant to treatment. I am consistently convinced of the reality of the events that occurred during my delusional state. I am caught up in a series of escapist, stress-related, fantastical beliefs. My attestations and references to the mythical deity known as 'the Sky-his-Father' are likely due to a lack of a strong, consistent, masculine guidance in my formative years and represent some residual bitterness towards my own father and a lingering inability to accept his suicide. This void in my power-chart has left me sexually confused. I probably hold some Jocastine attraction towards my mother. I seem obsessed with trying to steal glances at my therapist's notes, and she is worried that some day I might actually go so far as to steal a copy for my own perusal."
"You are a bastard, Justin, you know that? Fourteen-corner."
"Green." Says Justin.
"Your mother's been worried about you."
"She told me she lost the pen while touring an old silver-mine on the outskirts of Calico, why, was that important? No, I said, it isn't really, anymore. Mm hm, she said. How is studying for the GMAT going? I'm not taking the GMAT, I replied. I withdrew my registration for it. What? She asked. How will you get your MBA without taking the GMAT? How are you going to be admitted to MSOBA? Have you changed your mind? Maybe you'll be taking the GRE, or the LCAT, or the-"
"Side." I finish.
"Get help, Justin."
He looks straight at me. "I'm _Trying_." He says.
I frown, wryly, at him, and go back to my game.
"Facing down your parents can be hard, Justin." I say, in the silence. "Hell, I should know. _My_ mom always wanted me to end up as a two-bit faded-glory Hollywood glamour-girl actress like she was. Said I had too much of a theatrical soul to be wasting my life on psychology. I said that maybe my pristine little 'theatrical soul' is what steered me _away_ from showbiz, so's I didn't have to end up playing Wicked Aunt Clara thirty-odd years down the road in 'Shattered Dreams: A Mother's Hope' on the goddamn Lifetime network. She freaked, of course, and brought up that time she understudied Cordelia with Larry Olivier like she always does, and... well..."
"Moms are hard people, Justin." I conclude.
There is no glowing flood of sympathos from Justin, not that I really expected any. The most deviation from his flat affect I am able to rouse is a slight look of pissed-off-ish-ness for having his litany interrupted. Fucking bullshit. I turn back to the table.
There is a silent pause, which is soon broken by the noise of me setting up another shot.
The next one looks tricky. Almost done.
"I had dropped out of college, I told her." Continues Justin, quietly, as though I had never spoken. "What are you going to do, she asks. I don't know, I told her. I'm returning my unused scholarships, I said. Scholarships aside, Justin, you need to pay off those other loans somehow, she said, and yes I did, I responded, but I didn't know where I was going next. And I had better get a job damn quick or else those loan payments would be coming due and me with nothing to show, not even a B.A. after _almost_ four years of work and couldn't I have stuck it out just three more months and no I couldn't, and how I had to make my own choices but how disappointing I had made all these decisions without talking to anyone, just like my father, ending up his life without ever having done a lick of importance for anyone, and damnit, Mom, I _tried_ to talk to you about it but you _wouldn't listen..._"
There is a tense, quiet pause. When Justin next speaks it is as from very, very far away.
"...and what was that about Dad? I asked. Oh, always hoping for better. Always seeking more and greater. Never being satisfied where he was. Never relaxing. Feeling pinned. Trapped. By the whole damned Earth, by the solidness of it all. He wanted to fly. Fly so high that even gravity couldn't touch him. And he kept flying, and flying, and flying, out until the skies turned from blue to black and he was surrounded everywhere by the vast, vast darkness. And no matter how high it was, it was never high enough."
"Justin..." I say, quietly.
"And... he had... a tremendous fear..."
He blinks, and swallows dryly...
"Of being confined... that when his flying days were done, that he would go back to a menial post, chair of some subcommittee in the Administration, a post with respect, and clout, and a good pension for us all... of being just another cog in the works, and damn me if she didn't say just that, another 'cog in the works.'"
My mouth softens a bit.
"And that two years after the heart attack which clipped his Mission Commander days short, he wrote a note to Mom, which said in its entirety, "I Love You", and proceeded to take a fatal dose of amphetamines and then went out and laid on the new-mown grass of our back yard and died that way, brain gone high as a comet, gazing up into the stars..."
"Justin..." I say.
"Play." He says, quietly.
I look at him for a moment. Then, silently, I shift my cue into position, slide my hand across the soft, muffling felt, and prepare to strike.
"Eight." I say, as I do.
"Black." Says Justin.
"Corner." I say.
Without a word, Justin reaches up and slides another bead across, his eyes suddenly blazing with a sullen internal light.
"I'm going tonight, Millie."
"Justin," I say, worriedly. "Don't talk like that."
"I'm going tonight, Millie. I'm sorry for you, and I'm sorry for Mom. The next time she calls, just tell her that I love her but that I'm off to do a lick of importance for someone."
"Justin..." I say, warningly.
He carefully turns to the rack, shelves his cue, and then plucks his coat from the stand and smoothly slings it on.
"Justin!" I say.
"Seeya." He says.
And then, quite suddenly, he takes off running. The sudden motion leaves me momentarily disoriented, and all I can do for a moment is register the angry, confused and drunken mutters of the bar patrons as being evidence that Justin had recently passed, or indeed, had even been there at all.
"HEY!" I yell. And take off after him. Out the door. Into the cold, ashy streets. Into the darkness.
We chase. Industrial shadows from high above and mechanical garbage scattered at my feet below. I run in bounding leaps, catlike, only vaguely and slightly managing to keep the flapping grey coat of my quarry in sight. Justin, for Christ's sake, don't do anything stupid...
"JUSTIN!" I yell out. But there is no reply from him. He runs, wildly, stumblingly, his arms pinwheeling crazily. It is a horrible posture to run in, but somehow, his manic energy is more than enough to compensate, even with a trained runner like myself in pursuit. Another block, and the neon city lights suddenly blaze into being about me as we reach a major intersection, cars from three ways, or more. Careening madly, Justin darts into the street on the tail end of the opposite green, causing cars to squeal and lurch in a desperate attempt to avoid hitting him. I leap forward into the intersection as well, heedless of traffic, diving and weaving through the mass of suddenly-stopped vehicles, ever-keeping the flickering grey coat just barely in my sight.
Theatrically, the rain that the radio has been threatening all evening begins exactly, precisely, then. It is an icy rain, a nasty early-March thunderdrencher, and there is nothing gradual or subtle about it. I am soaked and breathless in an instant, and, grinding my teeth, I pour more strength into my burning muscles to keep Justin in sight through the growing haze of falling rain. My dress shoes skitter and slide, hydroplaning across the slick pavement, and it is all I can do to keep upright. Lightning seems to shatter the high, glass-and-steel sided structures around me into their component bits, and the thunder is nothing less than the roar of their subsequent demolition. It is a time of madness.
And then, there is light. White, piercing light. A church. A sculpture. Justin slows, and stops his breathless run, his hands already in rapid motion, searching through the pockets of his coat. In that instant I am nearly upon him; for whatever my intentions, noble or otherwise, in stopping Justin from doing whatever the hell it was he was planning on doing tonight, there is nothing left of _me_ anymore. There is only the hunter. I feel the leopardine wailing-growl in my throat, and I do not suppress it.
Justin stands, camera angle spinning crazily, before the huge, rusted angel that fronts the church. There is now a bottle in his hand, and its meager contents glow a bright gold, surpassing the luminescence of even the suddenly-omnipresent lightning.
My foot catches a crack in the pavement. My other foot skids wildly out from under me. I tumble to the ground, shredding my nylon stockings and bloodying my knees and elbows. My momentum carries me forward, tumbling end over end, my headlong rush cut short.
Leaving me five yards away when Justin tips the bottle to his lips and empties the remaining contents into his into his mouth.
The cheap plastic water-bottle tumbles heedlessly to the slick pavement with a hollow ponking sound that is lost in a roll of thunder.
Justin raises his arms above him and throws his head back.
He begins a bellow.
He never completes it.
* * *
It is evening on the final day of this exile that the flame of my faith flickers and gives out.
Not my faith in the Bennu, you understand. But my faith in myself.
I... do not know where it was that I went wrong. Perhaps I had spent too long with my prideful thoughts. All my thoughts of the glory with which I would return to K'aliko, thumbing my nose spitefully at my self-designated rival, Chukku'ni, the Bennu trailing behind me like some exotic pet. The Bennu would not be the important one in this procession, you understand. It would be Jossu'wa. Jossu ni Kiri-ahn-wa, child of Murna, son of Tu'ivor, proud apprentice to the Wisest of All in his youth, now well on his way to becoming Wisest of All himself.
Or perhaps it was my noncomprehension. Perhaps my mind is not a right-thinker for understanding the Speeches of the Bennu. For example, all the many many times when he would say, "fuck." I had interpreted this in a _metaphorical_ fashion... but what if, indeed, when he spoke the word "fuck" to me, he was actually secretly venting his own displeasure at me... and me, so blind, unable to see his words for what they were...
There are a thousand reasons that are possible. And, of course, I cannot ask the Bennu where I have failed. Because... well, because he is not here, of course. If he were here, I would not have failed.
I have stretched my supplies to their limit, and beyond. Originally, I had intended to leave when I had just enough food left for a comfortable journey back. That was four nights ago. Every morning, I would hesitate upon turning my back on the Oasis... thinking, well, Jossu'wa, it couldn't possibly hurt to wait _one more day..._
I chastise myself, silently, for my thoughts. But it is too late.
Perhaps the Bennu is... not who I had thought he was...
I remember his last Speaking to me.
Tears again. I blink them away and curl deeper into my simultaneously meditative and physical shell.
Jossu'wa. I say to myself. Give it up. You have failed. The Bennu is not who he appears to be. You are not who you have thought that you were. And your people await you for guidance in the time of troubles that will almost certainly follow. Chukku'ni back home has probably _already_ convinced the rest of the Kiri-ahn, in his belligerent way, that you have failed. Why disappoint him? Give it up, Jossu'wa. Give it up.
And then, with an effort of will, I beat back these voices. I strike my flint and gold and send a spark back to the mouth of my fire. It takes all of my strength. Hold out, I pray to myself. Hold out this one more night. Keep your faith strong. This one, quiet voice still speaking for faith is laughed at and mocked by the dark voices on all sides, but try as they might, they cannot quench it.
By tomorrow, that one fragile little flame of a voice will be dead.
But tonight, it burns.
And, at the moment... I find myself in a sort of sad peace. I throw myself into my meditations with the last remnants of my will. Curling deep within my metaphorical shell. Finding... the center...
After a time, at last, I find it.
And, of course, it is only then that I am... roused.
"Hey. Hey. Joss! Is that you? Speak to me!"
And there is a sunrise in my brain. My eyes trembling, I uncoil myself from my shell.
To gaze upon...
I am ashamed to admit that I do begin to cry then. I throw myself at the elegant legs, head bowed very low, in supplication.
"Shit." Says the Bennu. "You had me scared for a moment with the curled-up-in-a-ball business there. Christ, Joss, I can't tell you how good it is to see you still here and alive and stuff..."
"I knew my faith was not misplaced!" I say, shakingly.
"Listen, Joss, please tell me you didn't eat any of those frogs while I was away."
I gaze upwards, in wonder. "I _KNEW_ you were testing me!" I say exuberantly. "No, Bennu! Not a one!" My eyes are proud.
"It wasn't a test, Joss..." Says the Bennu. "There's a very practical reason not to--"
He breaks off, then, immediately upon gazing into my face; almost as if something in my expression has sparked him to stop. I cannot figure for the life of me what it might be. I am simply staring at him with the awe and rapture he deserves as the one true son of the Sky-his-Father.
"What, Bennu?" I ask.
"I... was just asking... because... the frogs... are..."
He continues to stare blinkingly at me, lost in thought. I continue to just plain old stare.
"...because the frogs are sacred to me." He finishes. "And if it would damage your faith to eat that which your catechism has told you not to, then I am glad that you did not. For your sake."
"I am impure, Bennu." I say, contritely. "My thoughts have strayed to evil places. I have assigned to you all manner of nasty thoughts and accusations."
He looks at me for a moment, again.
"I forgive you." He says, quietly.
I am ashamed to admit that my tears come again.
We stay that way for some time, two figures beneath the silhouettes of the tall _Pajome_ trees against the dark, star-crystalled expanse of the Forever-Sky.
"Jossu'wa." He says. "You're my Speaker on Earth. What do we do now?"
"We wait here until the morning, Bennu. And then, we set out for K'aliko... and the Spire." I say.
"Is that... to your liking, Bennu?" I ask.
"Yeah." He says, gazing off into the West. "Very, very much."