The people who rode phoenixes had had a very hard year. The people who rode dragons had come and breathed their lives to the ground. They had burned everything. They had burned the houses and the corn and the fruit trees. They had burned the people. Every person left in the valley was puckered with blisters. And they had burned their steeds. There was nothing worse than the sound of a hundred dying phoenixes, shrieking with the lament of a falcon and the rage of a cat. Especially for a child.
Kina was one of the only children left in the valley, for how could a child survive the world when the world was a candle flame? She lived eternally in the moment when the dragon people had come. She had been on the ridge with her father and her mother and her mother’s phoenix Iola. The people who rode dragons had come from the opposite ridge and they had poured fire into the valley like milk into tea, and everything had swirled, like milk in tea, and smoke had scampered upward from the surface of the ground like a steaming drink on a cold day.
Being on the ridge did not mean they were safe. It meant that they watched. And then Kina’s father burned away, and her mother, and her mother’s phoenix Iola. The phoenix spread out her gigantic wings to protect them and the feathers on the underside of her wings were the last thing to go, melting with that tarry feather smell. It had burned Kina’s hair away. It had burned away her senses.
Kina lived on the ridge now. Her little calloused bare feet hung over the edge getting black on the bottom from the ashes that floated up from the valley. It had been one year less a day since the people who rode dragons had come breathing. Kina knew this because she counted. There was no life to live in the valley now, which meant there were no schools, no crops, no chores, so she sat on the ridge and she counted one day and then the next. And each day she remembered what had happened. It was the only thing worth remembering, because nothing else existed. She was seeing it right now: fire like milk and the valley like tea.
Rocks were slipping down the embankment, hissing like water. Kina did not look for a very long time because she was two busy remembering the end but when she did, she saw an old woman clawing her way up the ridge on her burned and festering leg. It was her aunt Meredith, her father’s oldest sister’s wife. There was no connection between them now, just an old woman and a little girl and a lot of ash. Meredith was breathing like all the sooty air in the world was not enough for her shriveled lungs. Her swollen leg was oozing and trembling.
“Kina,” she said. Kina could tell she wanted to sit down but her leg would not allow it. “Kina.” Kina had gone back to watching the past. Her brow was creased and her lips were tight. “Kina. It’s time to come down to the valley. It’s time to come down.” She did not say come home. Home was not a word that any of the people who used to ride phoenixes used anymore. “Look at me, child.” But Kina did not look because she knew she would only see Meredith’s swollen leg and the people who rode dragons gliding over the valley. Meredith sighed the sigh of someone who was very old and very practiced at sighing. “It’s time to accept. It’s time to settle.” And she grasped Kina’s shoulder with her fingers knobbly as the fruit tree boughs the valley had once had.
Kina screamed with the lament of a falcon and the rage of a cat. Meredith’s uneven purple lips stretched into a grimace of dismay. She looked at Kina as just one more disappointment out of many. And she went away without speaking anymore. She started the long sore trek down the embankment, and Kina went back to remembering the end. She looked down at the place that used to be the place she had grown up and was now milk and blood and ash. Sometimes, out of the corner of her eye, she watched Meredith shuffle the rocks and dirt with her feet to create little places to step. Watched the rocks skitter down the ridge and kick up bits of ash that had settled there and had once belonged to someone’s door or pillow or steed. Once the bits of black and grey were in the air the wind plucked them up and flicked them. A hot wind like the hot breath of dragons. The ash was born out in crests in the air, stretching across the valley, as though her aunt were a chimney. The specks could have been crows that were very far away. Kina didn’t remember crows as anything more than specks that could have been ash.
And then, soft as a sigh, more ash began to accumulate in the sky. It did not come from her aunt’s shuffling feet. It was not the black ash that had settled on the ridge, but the soft grey stuff from the valley floor. Kina pressed herself forward on her hands so that her weight was pitched forward over the ridge and she could see better what was down there. The down quilt of ash that snuggled the valley was rippling. It was inhaling, rising, cresting into waves, into wings, breaking into wingtips. And suddenly the valley floor lifted lifted off of itself, rose in a shining gust of white ash that flowered into a hundred phoenixes. And the ridge was lifting too, and her dusty thighs sunk down into the lifting ash, and then the ash produced that tarry feather smell.
Kina looked down over the incredible force of the phoenix’s wings and saw the ash mixing into the sky to create a violet dawn. She saw Meredith in her place between the earth and sky and she saw the end of the end. It was not the beginning, for that had already happened and was over. This was something new. Kina saw the pink baby skin of the new valley floor and the people who rode phoenixes back in the air. Iola screamed with the grace of a falcon and the vigor of a cat, and Kina screamed with her. Up above the damaged earth, with the wind plucking her new little hairs like blades of grass, they would all begin again.