First of all, I need to say that this was originally written in German for a call for submissions for an anthology around the phoenix myth. The deadline for the call is on New Year’s and I hope to get into that anthology. I translated the story and tried to stick to the style I had used in German, as much as possible. Comments would be very much appreciated 🙂
I am like the phoenix, who goes up in flames at the end of his life to raise himself up again from the ashes. But unlike me and others of my kind, you don’t notice the bird’s pain of his own decadence. He surrenders to his fate, with the knowledge that he will experience the sunrise with new eyes. Knowing that he will be able to carry himself into the young day on new wings, which have never before felt the various air currents, which have never before spiralled into the sky. And me? I am not even sure if I will survive the night, let alone, whether I will resurrect when I die in the flames, or if this time will be my last.
The chain tethered to my leg rattles, while I try to find a more comfortable position. My wrists and my ankle hurt from the shackles that hold me captive in my prison cell. The skin is torn, the metal cuts into my flesh with every movement that I dare to make. The blood that trickles out from the chafe marks, dries again in a heartbeat. Almost black stains on dark skin are everything I can see in the dim light from the naked light bulb out in the hallway in front of my cell. The blood stains are joined by brighter, perfectly rounded spots, which flash red and orange in sync with my own heartbeat. I know, my end is near and yet, I don’t want to give into this depressing fact. Even if I should rise up from the ashes, I am a prisoner and will be until I am freed. And I am afraid. I am afraid of the pain that accompanies the fire of every death and every rebirth.
Countless times I’ve tried to explain to my captors, that eternal life doesn’t look like they imagine it to be. The cycle of life and death, which has had me in its grasp for centuries now, knows no mercy and it is not transferrable onto other people. But that does not stop them to continuously treat me like a lab rat. That eternal life, for which they are feverishly searching and for whose search, many of my kind had to endure unspeakable cruelties, that eternal life does not give up its secrets so easily. But giving up is not in their nature. And I can sense that with each passing second I am in their grasp, I am pushed further toward my own death, towards the edge of not knowing, whether this end will be my last or if it will join the hundred others, if it will fit into the row of deaths that turned into new beginnings.
I can’t say with certainty, how long I have been sitting in this cell. The only routine that remains – the only one they grant me -, the thousands upon thousands of tests, for which they drag me out of cell and bring me back here afterwards. I remember the day, they caught me. It had been a cold day, the sky a clear, blue fabric that expanded towards and beyond the horizon. Winter had cloaked the world in a white, warm blanket of snow. Yes, it had been cold, but not as cold as here in my cell of concrete, where the cold makes me shiver and seeps out of the walls, floor and ceiling as if it wanted to suffocate me, if I dared to close my eyes and fall asleep.
The day, they had found me, I had been out and about without my constant companion for a change. Janardan. Actually a normal human being, but fate decided to play a cruel prank on us and link us together for some reason. When he dies, he does not burst into flames like me, but he always gets reborn. As long as I can die and be reborn – so can he. The centuries, we spent at each other’s side, brought us closer together, but also gradually tear us apart again. The knowledge, that, through me, he cannot die a natural death and has to live through everything again and again, weighs heavy on us, darkens our souls like a cloud of soot. And yet, Janardan thinks it his task to protect me. Then what good would it be to him, if I died a few years after being reborn and dragged him with me, he had answered when I had once asked him why he was still at my side and insisted on playing the noble protector.
While I sit shivering in my cell, I hope, he takes his role seriously this time. Although I usually mocked him for following me like a lost puppy. Had I not stolen out of the house on that clear winter day, while he was still fast asleep in his bed, I would have avoided the needles and could probably curl up in my own soft bed now. But I had to be so stupid and seek out a few lonely minutes all to myself.
At some point, I must have fallen asleep from exhaustion, otherwise I would have noticed the footsteps now nearing my cell, far sooner. I recede into the corner, try to dissolve into the darkness and make myself invisible. As much as I wished, not to be discovered or simply left alone for once, my wish is not granted – as usual. The two men stop in front of my cell. One of them adopts the role of lookout, while the other retrieves a jingling set of keys and unlocks the door.
The door creaks and opens up. The man with the keys comes closer and crouches down before me. He looks me over, nods to my shackled leg and waits for me to comply with his silent demand. Reluctantly I stretch out my foot towards him. Apparently my action is too slow for his taste, he grabs my foot, pulls me closer to him and out of my dark corner. He puts the key into the lock of my ankle’s shackle and unlocks it, letting the heavy chain fall off my leg.
For a short moment, I am able to catch his gaze. His green eyes lock with mine and I think, I can see a sliver of something like pity. But before I can use this to my advantage and silently beg him to let me go or at least spare me more pain, a smooth mask glides over his face, freezes his expression and the look in his green eyes grows back into stubbornness.
Without batting an eye, his hands close around my upper arms, drag me to my feet, which can hardly support my weight anymore, and he half carries, half drags me out of my cell. His hands are as cold as the concrete under my feet and as adamant as the chain that stretches between my wrists. I know exactly what awaits me at the end of the hallway, what horror skulks behind the heavy door. And once again I long for my loyal guard dog in form of Janardan. They can test and torture me as much as they want, but that little ember of hope for salvation and freedom that smoulders in my heart, is not easily extinguished. The hope for rescue will only die when I do. And I am not yet ready for that.
The room in which they do all the testing, is brighter than my cell or the hallway in front of it. Neon lamps on the ceiling emit their cold, blazing light and leave hardly any hiding places for shadows or the darkness. I surprise myself when I think that I would prefer the dim dark of my cell. The room where we are in, is primarily dominated by something similar to a dentist’s chair in the middle. Left of that chair is a table with various surgical instruments and needles, and on the right side are a microscope and other machinery that I now know from the hours I’ve spent in here, but I still don’t know what they’re called or what they’re actually for.
The guard with the green eyes pushes me forward, towards the chair with his adjustable armrests and the fetters attached to the armrests and the lower end where my feet would be. I know, resistance is futile, and yet I still struggle against the silent command to sit down in the chair. I brace myself against the man with all my might, and had I been in the possession of my full strength, I might have been able to fight back. The way things were now though, I simply got a slap in the face and the man drags me to the chair by my hair. He holds me down, while the second one unlocks the chains around my wrists to swap them for the leather shackles on the armrests.
After my feet have been secured, the two men leave me alone with my own fear. The knowledge of what is waiting for me, makes everything worse and I can feel tears stinging behind my eyes. I clench my jaw and try frantically to fight back the tears, but a few run over my cheeks, leave wet streaks on my face and drop from my chin into my lap. A sob tears up my throat, then another, until I am shaking from the crying fit.
I do not want to die. Not here, as a slave to these sadistic, selfish people, who will never get what they want. If Janardan were here, he would probably tell me that I am an idiot and should stop making a fuss about it. After all, we had undergone the same procedure so many times now that I knew exactly what to expect. Usually I would have told him that I’m not afraid of dying, but the never changing, intense pain. But this time it isn’t the pain of the fire that makes my heart beat faster. This time it is the uncertainty if I am still able to be reborn.
My whole body aches, my muscles tense while I try to fight the shackles. But the only result I get from that, is a strained shoulder and the scab on my wrists opening up again. Without help, I will never get out of here. Mentally I plead for Janardan to come and rescue me, knowing, he will never hear me, because telepathy is not part of a phoenix´s skillset. All we can do is die and be reborn and die again, for all eternity. Although I can faintly remember story talking about creatures that can break the cycle of rebirth of a phoenix. I never believed in those stories, but the thought of never having to suffer through a rebirth is illicitly tempting. I would give everything for quiet and peace. But fate seems to want me to die a cruel death, only to have to do the same thing again in my next life.
I lose myself in my pity and my thoughts when I hear noise from outside. I flinch when I hear shots ring out and the door is pushed open violently. In expectation of another guard, I begin to struggle against my shackles again. But instead of a tormentor, somebody stands in that doorway, who I never thought, would find me.
“Janardan!” I exclaim surprised. His eyes grow wide when he finds me chained to a chair, but he doesn’t waste any more time and runs towards me. His dark brown hair is shot through with ash coloured strands and gives me a hint at the look of my own. He opens the shackles, helps me off the chair and embraces me tightly for a short moment. We couldn’t have embraced for more than a few seconds, but to me it feels like eternity – and I welcome it.
“Khalida,” he sighs into my hair and holds me tighter. “I was afraid I would be too late. That I would die before I could reach you.”
I take a step back. His hands are warm and cautious on my shoulders, so different from those of my guard. “Now you’re here. Let’s go. Please. I want to go home.”
He nods, weaves an arm around my waist to support me and leads out of the sterile torture chamber into another hallway. My legs shake with every step I take and yet, I still try to run alongside him down the hallway. Three guards lie on the floor, blood pooling under their unmoving bodies. Under normal circumstances, I would have scolded Janardan for using violence, but this time I felt, it served them right.
We round a corner, scurry towards a door that suddenly opens inwards. The two men in the doorway train their pistols on us and don’t hesitate to open fire. I hear Janardan calling my name when I feel a sharp erupting in my belly and my chest and I fall to my knees. Janardan sinks down beside me. He pulls me close to him, bends over me when I fall backwards and holds me tightly in his arms.
More grey streaks run through his hair, tears and thousands of unspoken words stay in his eyes.
“Khalida,” he sobs, brushes a strand of hair from my face and leaves a red smear on my cheek. He wants to say something more, but I understand him nevertheless.
“I know,” I murmur and lift my hand to stroke his cheek. One last time. I love you too. And as soon as I admit my feelings for him to myself, I realize why fate has brought us together. He is my salvation and I am his.
Khalida. My name actually means immortal, but now I embrace death and surrender to my fate. Janardan. The liberator from the cycle of birth and death. He lived up to his name. I am free. We both are.
I close my eyes as I give into the flames and the pain for one last time. The fire tears at my flesh, at my hair and then passes over to Janardan, until we are both lit ablaze. I know there will be no next time. But now I am not afraid anymore. Because Janardan and I are together, together we will begin the last adventure, tread the path to whatever awaits us after death.
I am not afraid. I am ready.