By Alyssa F.
“Ana, do you remember?”
“Remember what, Grandmother?” I thought she was asleep. She is ugly sleeping, her skin like old parchment, crumpled and brown in some places. Her mouth open, saliva blowing out in long streams with her sour breath. Green things like pile at the corners of her eyes. But she is awake now, and her mouth closes, her eyes open, and now she is beautiful. For her eyes and nothing else. Though she is old, her eyes are not blinded at all, not cloudy like my mother’s No, they are clear and like mine, a color that she calls the sea, though neither she nor I have ever seen it.
She struggles to sit up, and I put down my spinning to help her. My hands do what her bones cannot, and she settles into her pillows, fixing me with one eye as she pulls the rough blanket to her chin. “you know what I mean, girl. Tell me.”
I do know, and I don’t mind, but I sigh anyway. “They left when I was a child. Eight, maybe.”
“Girl, you cannot forget!” I did not think she had so much sharpness left in her. “You were seven that year. Who left?”
“The unicorns. Dragons. Centaurs. Druids.”
“And the phoenix.”
“Yes. The phoenix.”
“You saw one, once.” It was not a question, and I knew what she wanted.
“It was in the pinewood, a good two years back. I was eleven that year. Mother had sent me out scavenging, for anything I could find. The crop had failed again.”
“I fell asleep in the little clearing by the fields. With winter coming on, I should have woken up half frozen, but it was as warm as midsummer. The sun was half down behind me, and the stars were just starting to show. It was a new moon that night, and the ground was all blue and green in the shadows. That was why I saw it, all red and purple and copper as it was. Just sitting, like it was dead.
“It was like Jon’s hunting falcon, but bigger, and with the longest tail feathers I had ever seen. The air around it was shivering. I went to get a closer look, and it stirred, just before I could reach it. One eye opened- it was copper, Grandmother, all swirling and dizzy. I took another step; I had to Grandmother. I just couldn’t stop. And then I put out my hand. It bumped its head against my palm Just like a cat, Grandmother.
“The phoenix screamed then, and I screamed too. It swirled into ashes, swirling and swirling in the air. My sleeve was on fire, and I couldn’t move, just look at those ashes. And then the phoenix exploded from the ashes, flying up and up and leaving me staring with my dress on fire.
“I still have the marks, Grandmother. The phoenix burned me. It wasn’t a healer like you said. Can you hear me, Grandmother? It burned me!”
But she had already fallen aback into sleep.
- - - - - -
“Sleep, Grandmother.” I had been watching her for hours, to wake her if her breath wouldn’t come.
“No, Ana. Not now.”
“What, then?” My nerves had worn thin, with dawn still hovering hours away.
“I knew a unicorn, once.”
My breath hissed in. “Bringers of death, coming when the should leaves the body. I remember the lore.”
“Bringers of peace, Ana. The lore…” She dissolved into coughing. “The lore was wrong. They bring peace to those restless, and carry the should to the final sleep. He told me.
Shaggy like a mountain pony and red like clay. An amber horn, two feet long.”
“Where did they go? The unicorns. All of them.
“They faded… WE forget, Ana. It is our way. Pain and hardship, gone. But beauty also. Ana, they faded away once our eyes turned from them. But he unicorns, they are still here. Mine is near, now. Coming closer, all the time.”
“Grandmother, he won’t come,” I whisper, breaking my eyes away. “Sleep, Grandmother. I will keep him away.” Her eyes fluttering shut, my grandmother grips my wrist with one hand.
“I will welcome him, Ana.”
- - - - - - - - - - - -
“Ana, I can feel him…his breath on my should…”
“Shh…please, don’t…” There were others in the room now, my mother and aunts and all the boys that my father could spare from the fields, singing the songs that ease the sick into death.
“No. No.” She gasped for air. “He’s been here for so long, Ana. Red like clay. Amber horn. Please, let me finish. Remember.”
“Shh. Save your words,” is whisper, clenching her hands in my own, willing the life from my body to hers.
“Remember, Ana.” Her voice faltered, and she whispered, “Bringer of peace.”
Through eyes misty with tears, I watch her leave.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
“Jon, have you forgotten her already?” My fingers spin, twist, pull, feeding raw wool into my spindle, but the motions are routine, memorized. Looking up, I catch my brother’s eyes, dun colored and deep set. My mother’s eyes.
He shifts, uncomfortable. His hawk is out hunting; she will return to this place with her prey, or else he would be gone. “Remembrance hold her spirit to the earth.”
“She kept telling me to remember.”
“She was buried days ago, returned to the earth. It is our way to forget.”
“No marker,” I whisper, and stop spinning. “Just fresh turned earth.”
I stand suddenly, my yarn falling to pieces in my hand. “And the unicorns? The phoenixes? Do you remember them?”
“They are gone, Ana. To live in hopes of yesterday is to lose today.”
“They were beautiful. They are beautiful. And you would forget them,” I say with a violence that surprises me. Holding up my skirts, I run, going nowhere but away.
“Ana…” he calls to m y back.
I am gone.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Still clenching my skirts in my fist, I fall in the phoenix’s clearing. I clench my fists and fight to control myself, gathering in the shudder of my breath and stopping the shaking of my hands. The tears wouldn’t be controlled, and finally, I let them go, running in rivers and streams down my face.
Carefully, I climb to my feet, smoothing out my dress and turning my face upward.
“Hello?” My whisper is cautious and shaky. “Hello!” Nothing answer. Somehow, I had hoped for a miracle, a star to fall, a phoenix to rise. Throwing back my head, I scream and scream, a wordless roar that echoes endlessly through the trees.
And he answers. Just like Grandmother had said, a mountain pony, shaggy and dark, and amber horn glowing golden in the shadows of the wood. My scream cuts off in the stare of his brown eyes.
“Is it my time now?” I say, whispering again.
“The amber horn dips, and I know the choice is mine. Gathering myself, I walk to the creature and place a hand on its neck. In one sudden movement, I am on its back, clinging to that auburn man. Muscles ripple beneath me, and he takes a step, then another.