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Rise of the Phoenix
* * *
"Assemble your people in the Temple of Sky, Joss." He says. "Get them all. Young ones, old ones, women and men. Bring them all. Tell them nothing that I have told you. And do it by sunset tonight. Trust me. It's going to be really special."
"But Justin'Bennu." I say, and that is about all the chance I get to say anything, because really quick he breaks in telling me not to say anything beginning with the word 'but'. And I say what am I supposed to say then, and he says, maybe, something beginning with the word 'yes', and I say, Ho-kay, Bennu, will do, no problemmo, 'piece of cake.' All easy for him to ask. Easy enough for me to agree. The doing is a teeny bit harder, of course. The Bennu does not have to explain to a whole town's worth of people why it is vitally important for them to drop everything they're doing and follow silly little Jossu'wa down into his temple right when they should be doing a whole bunch of vitally important things with their beasts which I don't really understand because I have never been very good with k'tanik in the first place. Everyone is restless. The crowds mill, rumbling evenly, but with subtones of building annoyance. Enu'ivor and Lo'ivor are bickering lowly in one of the far corners, and their voices, one high and one deep, are bouncing all over the place and running into other people. Little ones are scampering in and around the pillars, weaving about and yipping. Mu'duar the rock-shaper is banging away right in the middle of everything; so perturbed was he at being called away from his work that only my exasperated promise that he could continue his daily labors within the very Sanctuary itself convinced him to (grudgingly) accompany us all. And right next to me, Chukku'ni, all cloth and bluster, is trying to be dangerous. The Place Where Weird Things Show Up, normally the focal point of the entire Temple, is not even being looked at, empty and distant along the far wall and a thousand days' walk from anything that could possibly be considered "special" here.
"Little one," sneers Chukku'ni, at my side, "I hope you realize how much I am enjoying all of this."
Chukku'ni speaks not in honor, and I choose not to honor him in speech.
"All you bring to us is chaos and upset, little one." He continues, caring little whether I speak or not. "No one now living amongst the People truly _wants_ you in the Hut of Words. Only Kawna'wa ever wished you there, and you know very well how the old one could get from week to week." He whuffles quietly. "Perhaps I may salvage my own opinion of Kawna'wa by attributing your selection to a particularly ugly wrestling match with the _Kaharis_ the night before."
"Kawna'wa was a great and wise man." I say, tightening my grip on my staff. "And were he here now, I daresay that he would be faring no better. He, like I, _would_ have occupied the assembly with prayer, had he not been prevented by certain Influential Figures present in the same room."
Chukku'ni glances at me, smugly. "Certainly we remember our Canon, little one. Does it not state that vast and public assemblies of prayer are looked upon as hybris by the gods? That such grandiose displays should be avoided in all but the most special of circumstances?"
"This _is_ a special circumstance." I say, quietly. "The Bennu has told me so."
Chukku'ni only laughs. "Special indeed. Look at what you and your Bennu have wrought, little one." He gestures grandiosely at the volatile crowd. "This will surely be a memorable day in the history of your office. You have bothered all of us on your own tiny agenda, disrupted the normal functioning of the village, and not least, you have forced us to leave our beasts untended. First, you leave us to our own devices by denying us your 'skills', and then, once we are left solely to our own devices to protect them from the devil-birds, you deny us our ability to watch over them ourselves!"
"You would prefer it if I invited the k'tanik in here too?" I mutter, my knuckles making kricking noises from my staff-clutching.
"Why not?" Says Chukku'ni, expansively. "You have already made a mockery of our sacred rituals, little one. You might just as well bring the beasts here to trample all over the sacred floors and shit on the fetishes. You cannot even execute the ceremony of Bennu's Return without transforming it into a grand farce."
"Awk." I say, under my breath.
Chukku'ni narrows his eyes, but says nothing. One of the little ones wanders too close to where grouchy Mu'duar is working and accidentally upsets a honing-rack, scattering chitinous knives across the floor with a bone-like sound. Quickly, this is drowned out by the snorting bellows of Mu'duar, as he swats at the young one, triggering more growls from the youth's father.
"You cannot hold them here for much longer, little one."
I round on him, my eyes flickering. "We are Kiri-ahn, Chukku ni Kiri-ahn-ni. We are the people of the Spire, and for lifetimes upon lifetimes, we have been a people dedicated to the words of the Sky-his-Father, and to those of his earthly voice, He of Brilliance and Bringer of Mist-Water-Arcs, the words of He Who is named Bennu. I have heard his voice, and I am knowing of his will. And You, you miserable porridge-stuffed filth bladder, are not."
Chukku'ni's jaw goes slightly slack. When he recovers his comfiture, he swallows once, and rasps at me.
"What did you say, _little one_?"
I swallow, nervously, and with an effort of will, I resist the urge to curl into my shell. "My apologies, Chuuku ni Kiri-ahn-ni." I say, my gaze suddenly refusing to meet his, but my voice remaining true. "Perhaps I should put it to you somewhat more concisely. Using words spoken to me by the Bennu himself, it is with some degree of pride that I state that I believe it would be best were you to go off and fuck yourself."
A blackness gathers around Chukku'ni.
"Honored One." I add.
My eyes manage to reach as far as his throat. It is bobbing up and down, but no sound is coming out.
The rumble of the crowd grows to a low roar. Separate and distinct tensions from a hundred and twenty different interactions not dissimilar to the one I am engaged in rise from the involved parties like cooksmoke and gather in the vaulted ceiling, where they begin to emulate stormclouds as hazy masses of dark possibility.
"Insolent whelp." Wheezes Chukku'ni, at last. He turns and strides away, towards the assembled crowds. "People of K'aliko!" He intones, his voice crackling. "Jossu ni Kiri-ahn-wa has nothing to show us here, nothing to teach us, and nothing to give us. The only thing that we might hope from this evening is to salvage some of the..."
"Joss!" Comes a voice at my ear. I turn.
A tall and willowy being stands narrowly in the deep and dark shadows near the wall of the colonnaded Temple, very much out of sight. Even in the gray-white illumination of the star-grubs, I can see the glory of his poise and the brilliance of his wings.
"Bennu!" I hiss, anxiously, treading over to him. I need not worry of being seen; all eyes are on the blathering Chukku'ni, who himself is heedless of anything but his own harangue.
"Hia, Joss." He says, a lopsided grin in his voice. "We're back."
"_We_?" I blurt out, over-anxiously, as feelings like crawling ants wash over my face and neck. "Did you succeed, then? Did it work? Did you really do what you believed that you thought you could?"
He nods in a satisfied fashion, and speaks, grinningly. "It's Miller Time, Joss."
I gaze at him, my nerves briefly forgotten, as I attempt to work out in my mind the reasons why the process of crushing tubers into flour is suddenly important to the Bennu's plan.
A moment passes.
"It's symbolic." He says.
"Oh." I say. And then a grin spreads across my face.
Somewhere very far away, Chukku'ni is finishing up his little speech. "People of K'aliko, I implore you to remember this day when one moon from now comes and goes. Remember, then, at our next assembly, the troubles and inconveniences that are paid to you, our people, when foolish pups unable to read the signs of the gods are given the robes of Kiri-ahn-wa. When we last gathered, not four days ago, we were all blinded by the gaudiness of Jossu ni Kiri-ahn-wa's little Bennu, and I will propose that we did not think clearly about the child himself, and his true fitness. I will raise this motion again, Citizens. And when I do, I beseech you, Remember This D-."
With a quiet ruffle that is even less than a sound, She appears.
I cannot describe. Words vanish from my mouth, my mind. She is more than I have ever thought. More awe-inspiring, more grand, more everything.
Chukku'ni's final syllable never leaves his mouth. For the longest of times, he does not even turn. He knows, of course, what he will see there. He has seen it in the eyes of his former audience. But he does not move.
There is a faint clunk as one of Mu'duar's stones falls to the floor of the Temple, presumably from his own nerveless fingers. His banging has long stopped.
I turn to Justin, my eyes wide. The Bennu stands there, happily clacking his beak to himself.
"Justin..." I say.
"Ssh." He says.
She stands there. No speech, no anything.
Ssayre Herself, greatest of foes, the enemy made flesh, once-wayward daughter of the Earth-her-Mother, reaches forward with one single reptilian limb and steps from the menhir. She seems almost to drive her claws into the rock of the mountains. And in that one gesture, the Mother is reunited with her estranged Daughter.
"It is done." She says, in a voice of music.
Slowly and silently, like an upended bag of feathers, my people move as one and, by some simultaneous shared thought, fall into low, quiet bows.
Chukku'ni alone stands, frozen, his audience gone, his jaw slack. I can see the blankness of his mind through the gaping flaps of his eyes.
"C'mon." Says Justin, ushering me forwards. Gathering my staff before me, I follow the gentle brush of his wings to the newly reestablished focal point of the room.
It is the end of an age. It is the end of _all_ ages. For my entire life, I have learned and studied and prayed the Canon. Age upon age of my people have lived, died, and gone to the dust and the ashes. Age upon age they have looked to the Canon for their guidance. Age upon age everything has been... _constant._ The Ssayre sulked far away in her tower, pausing only to deal us death whenever she hungered for our bodies. The Bennu would return time and time again and do battle with her, to protect us and to satiate the Mother.
All the scrolls in the Hut of Words, every writing, every scrap of prayer and prophecy possessed by our people...
None of it reaches past _this very moment_.
For a moment, I feel, strangely, alone. As though all the collected papers and codices of my people and the weight and authority that accompanied them have suddenly been removed from me. But then, I decide differently. They are not valueless, and they are not gone. But their role has changed. Then, they showed us where we were. _Now_...
Well, now, they show us where we were.
But from this moment, and from every moment hereafter, they will also show us exactly how far we have come _since then._
Before us, Chukku'ni still stands. He fears to bow. He fears to move. His eyes gaze glassily upon the Ssayre, unwilling to even see. As for the rest, well, we will find out. Signs are encouraging, however.
We three stand, in silence.
"Feels good, doesn't it." Whispers Justin'Bennu, after a time.
I nod. "Yes." I say.
"Wanna celebrate?" He says, impishly, receiving a faint glare from the Ssayre, above. I smile at them both.
"Celebrate. Yes." I say.
I clear my throat.
"But then, we have _much_ work to do."
* * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * *
Kirby's is darkest at 3 A.M. Even with all the lamps turned up. These same lights, whose habitual dimness hides the residue from the shoddy cleaning-jobs that we are able to do during the open hours, are on full blast now. And I am polishing the brass.
Kirby didn't tell me to polish the brass. But it needed polishing. Smudges and fingerprints everywhere. Who gives a shit that I was here until five last night... or... morning... doing this exact same thing. It needs doing. And I do what needs doing, without being told. Kirby values that quality in his employees. He's a good guy. Lots of offers for support, which I never took him up on. He couldn't have known, of course, that it was the offering that was the important part. It's nice to have at least one supportive voice. Kirby was the one who had listened to me bitch following day after endless day of police grilling on the Missing Persons Case of my... acquaintance, Justin Nygaard. They kept calling me in, day after day after day, because I kept failing the polygraphs, and plus, they thought I looked like I was being sneaky. I was, of course. I never told them everything. That would have meant a good long Psych evaluation for little old me, and further police shit as they attempted to determine my reasons for fabricating such a positively ludicrous story.
I had followed Justin Nygaard when he fled from Kirby's that cold, rainy night in March, being naturally worried for his safety, but I had "lost sight of him" somewhere in the area of the intersection of Fifteenth and North Falkins Drive, near the Congregational Church. Absolutely true, of course, in word. But those damned polygraph machines didn't buy it. Of _course_ I was hiding something. I've always been a bad liar.
More swipes of the cloth on my last polishing task, the antique brass rail that fronts the bar. Removing all traces that anyone has ever been here. As it should be.
The police didn't deserve shit.
Neither did Kirby, unfortunately. I couldn't tell him the whole story. He was just a sympathetic listener to my own mundane troubles. Like Justin used to be. And me for him. Tit for tat.
Justin's mom deserved a bit more. He had given her a bit of a raw shaft, and it was left to me to do his cleanup work for him on that front. I told her that I didn't know where he was, but that he was _without a doubt,_ okay. That he had told me he needed to escape, and get away from _everything_. But that he was fine. I am still pissed at him for forcing _me_ to be the one who had to listen to her tears.
And this also left me with no one to tell the whole truth to.
So. Every time I invite someone over to share a couple cups of something, I have to invent a story about how and where exactly I got that beautiful, leather-and-bead-work sash, and is it Native American? Yes, it is. Jen-yoo-ine Cherokee. Found it in a little curio shop in the Wisconsin Dells. Pretty, isn't it? Look at the way the red ones catch the light. It's as though they're on _fire._
And they believe it.
And when Kirby goes with me down to the cellar of the bar that is named after him, and he jokingly asks me for the seventeenth time what exactly that foul-smelling swill that I keep in that old, hand-blown glass bottle in the "rare and unusual rack" actually _is_, I have to tell him that it's an unusual distillation of a rare mixture of a special blend of something-or-other, and that, furthermore, it's probably Cherokee. Kirby says I'm welcome to it.
I don't tell Kirby where I got my bottle. I don't tell my houseguests where I got my sash. Because they sure as hell wouldn't believe that one, dreary, steel-colored April day in this city of angels, a huge, bright, rainbow-winged bird appeared at my window, perched on my perfunctory little balcony, and bade me take both the bottle and the sash from around its rose-feathered neck, and then gave me a picture, of the Polaroid Instamatic variety; a photographic image of a bird just like itself, and a great, red, winged reptile, standing before an old, weathered, wooden sign that could just be seen to read, "Calico, pop. 942". And then, it gave to me a note, written in blue-black ballpoint ink in a wiry vertical hand upon some kind of supple hide-paper, which read, and still reads, in its entirety, as follows:
I am sorry that I can't stay long because I shouldn't really be here, but I wanted to give you some stuff.
The sash is in honor of the Earth Mother.
The bottle is _Kaharis,_ it gives strength and courage.
The picture is of me and my friend Wilhelmina, who wrote this for me because I have forgotten how to write English, it's a long story.
But everything is fine, in fact, wonderful.
Tell everyone not to worry.
Thanks for everything, but especially, thanks for all the pool.
And then, with a brief nod, it departed as swiftly as it had arrived, spiraling up and away, a brief, swirling modicum of color soon lost in the endless grey of the sky, leaving me here, alone, in the city which bears my name.
With nothing to do but to polish the brass at three A.M.
I do not question what I have seen. I question why I have seen what I have seen.
And what I have seen is something that I cannot bear alone.
I have paged my mother.
Okay, it was a stupid, senseless, thoughtless thing to do. But Mom always keeps weird hours, and I need to talk to someone tonight. And she's the only one left.
The final swipe of the brass completes itself just as the phone rings.
Sighing, I walk to the phone and lift the handset. "Mom?" I say.
"Millie, darling, whatever _is_ it?" Comes the gaudy old drama-stricken voice of my mother.
I set my jaw. And then, plowing heedlessly ahead, careless of the stupidity of it all, fed up by endless hours of tearful, demanding, surly, shit-faced questions as to the events of that March night, utterly, finally in need of an ear to vent to, I spill. Everything. The sash. The bottle. The note. The picture. Everything. I can practically feel the looks of black incomprehension on my mother's face as I chatter on about mysterious rainbow birds and huge dragons and pagan earth-deities and the Cherokee and... everything. Every last detail. My mom already thinks I'm nuts. Concrete proof of same can't possibly strain our relationship any more than it already has been throughout all our years of nitpicking, guilt-ridden arguments on what the hell I should be doing with my life. On and on. For almost twenty minutes. A total brain-dump.
And when it is done, I sit, in embarrassed silence, on one end of a quietly-hissing phone line. Hearing, in that wonderful "what the fuck have I just said" lull, the very look on my mom's face.
It is because of all this presupposing that when my dear mother finally speaks, the result catches me completely prone.
"She figured it out." Murmurs my mother.
"_What_?" I say.
"Nothing. Nothing, Millie, child. Nothing that needs concern you. At the moment. The bottle. You still have it?"
"yyyess, but... I mean..." I trail off then, and start again. "Mom, what's gotten int-"
"Never you mind, child."
I hate it when she calls me 'child.' Shakespeare on the brain, as usual. "Would you mind telling me what's going on here?" I say, petulantly. "I'm supposed to be the one coming to you for support, here. What the hell is up?"
"Not now, child. Not now. It must be thought on. I will be contacting you again, shortly, however. Until then, farewell."
Jesus fucking Christ. And I thought _I_ was the loony one.
Maybe I caught her in the middle of a dream or something.
Yeah. She answered her pager in a dream.
It could happen.
I shake my head. I'll call her tomorrow. Anybody'll be weird in the head at 3 A.M. I mean, look at me.
Sighing, I give the place its third, wholly unnecessary sweep of the evening, then gather up my coat and prepare to go.
At the main switch, I turn around.
The brass has been polished. Damn well.
And from everywhere, from the cut-glass beer lights above the pool tables, from the red neon in the windows, from the cold, huddled traffic signals without, and, most of all, from the powerful lamplight reflected from the big old mirror behind the bar through a thousand bottles of strange and mundane liquors marching in brilliant rank and file across one's entire field of vision...
From _everywhere_, there is the reflection of color.
"Damn." I say.
I turn out the lights.