This story is by Kathleen Morley and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
There was a Firebird perched on the electrical wire that ran above Main Street.
She knew it was a Firebird because she’d invented them herself, years ago when she had first learned to draw. The bird was red and gold, bearing a heavy resemblance to a phoenix; but it had the elegant, slender tail of a peacock, long, fine feathers, tipped with rich gold rings at the ends. There were exactly ninety-nine feathers, which, of course, she knew without having to count.
What she didn’t know was why it was perched on a wire, casually overseeing her daily walk to work in the Orange Line, the restaurant in which she was a waitress downtown.
It was rather a mystery.
She detested mysteries.
She decided to ignore the Firebird. What good could it possibly do her to acknowledge it? Firebirds granted only one permanent wish, and she wanted no part of it, at all, whatsoever.
So she continued her route home, scuffing her shoes on the sidewalk, kicking pebbles, distracting herself as she neared the bird, glorious and sun-stricken and achingly beautiful. She knew that the call of the Firebird was dangerously alluring—like a Siren’s call, it could not be ignored. But it spoke of the greatest truths of the heart, rather than showing its deepest desires.
She knocked a pebble to the edge of the sidewalk, the rubber of her sneaker scraping against the cement. She watched the pebble as it rolled in to the street, tumbling towards the Firebird—she had almost reached it. The street was deserted, and the asphalt shimmered in the heat of the August afternoon. A tree with sharp, deep green leaves and thin branches waved feebly in the heavy breeze.
The pebble she had kicked stopped under the Firebird, whose tail, like the tree’s branches, swayed gently in the breeze. She stopped as well, staring out at her childhood creation from across the road. It was not singing yet, and she found herself drawn to its eyes, a deep and burning blue, electrifying and somehow wild.
What was so disconcerting about the bird—aside from the fact that it was not supposed to be real—was that it met her gaze, tilting its head delicately, as if it recognized her. She continued to stare at it under the bright yellow-white glare of the sun, until someone—she didn’t know who—bumped into her, breaking her gaze.
“Hey, sorry,” said the man who’d run into her. He frowned as she turned to him. “But what are you doing, standing in the middle of the sidewalk like that? What if someone knocked you into traffic while you were standing there?”
She flicked her gaze back to the Firebird, still blazoning and brilliant on the electrical wire, then back to the stranger. “I was looking at the bird. Right there, on the wire.”
The man followed her gaze, then shook his head. “I don’t see any birds. But maybe try looking for them somewhere safer, okay?”
She nodded, her eyes already fixed back on the Firebird. It did not appear to have moved, and blinked at her twice before taking flight, sunlight sparking on the golden tail-feathers as it streaked across the clear blue sky.
Later she lay in bed, restless. Every time she closed her eyes she pictured the Firebird, its sleek, crimson body and the vibrant red-orange tail, embossed with gold. She sighed and threw her covers back, readying herself to go in search of paper—sketching used to calm her as a child, though she hadn’t drawn since college—and paused, steadying her breath as she heard, whispering through the dark, the song of the Firebird.
It was unlike any song she had heard, and yet had in it every melody she had ever loved. It reminded her of her childhood, of mint-chip ice-cream sweet on her tongue and sticky on her fingers, of rainy Saturdays in blanket-forts, of stretching out across the carpet, sketching. The Firebird’s song reminded her of herself as she used to be when she was an artist—as she was in college, when her dreams were still made of starlight and wishing.
She moved to the window, pushing aside the curtains to look out at the bird she knew would be there, resting on a branch of the birch tree that stood outside her apartment window. The silver-white moonlight masked the brilliance of the Firebird, subdued it and draped it in shadow. But still, the tail winked at her, gold-eyed feathers bright and watchful.
She returned to bed, letting the curtains fall shut on the Firebird and the twinkling gaze of its tail. She could not block out the haunting melody of its song, and spent the night staring at the ceiling, listening.
She gave up staring at the ceiling near the break of day; the Firebird’s song was incessant, and, if possible, louder than it had been all night. She fled to the kitchen, hoping to put space between her and the song, only to find the bird perched on one of the dining table chairs.
“I know,” she said, the sound of her voice whispering the birdsong into silence. “One wish, irreversible.”
She had always wanted to be an artist, and she had tried. She had majored in Fine Arts in college, had been in various art shows, had even illustrated a children’s book. And yet there she was, waitressing in the Orange Line and nowhere nearer being an artist than a swallow was to becoming a swan.
In the soft, cool light of the dawn that peeked through her kitchen window, the Firebird was all heat and vibrancy, crimson and gold and flashing with beauty as light bounced off its long, lovely tail.
“Take it, then,” she whispered to the Firebird, and she sighed as the bird shimmered in the light of a new day, its graceful tail blooming with one more feather, and herself newly dream-less.