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Death looks on us all. It seeks out the smallest ant and kisses the most powerful emperors. It cradles the field mouse to a final sleep and counts each breath of the whales in the ocean, knowing when it is the last. It looks after all of us alike. But there is one animal that death cannot look upon.
This bird is singular and solitary- it lays no eggs and has no young. It was here when the world began, it is still living today secluded in a desert oasis, and will live until the world is devoured by the sun. It is the phoenix, the bird of fire.
It is as it was at the beginning of the world. When the gods began the spin of the world on its axis among all the birds the phoenix was the most incredible. Larger than an eagle, with feathers of brilliant rich reds and purples the color of a deepening twilight and gold and eyes blue as sapphires.
The sun looked upon the beautiful bird, and at the beginning of the world the sun would still speak to those on the earth, and seeing the light reflected of the magnificent plumage the sun declared “Glorious Phoenix, you shall be my bird and you shall live forever!” To which the phoenix lifted its great wings and sang that it would praise the glorious sun, and would sing the songs for the sun alone.
Each morning as the sun rose the phoenix would lift it head and music would pour forth in joy at seeing the sun. There was no other bird song at that time for the other feathered creatures would sit in respectful silence for the glorious song.
All but one creature. The phoenix was so beautiful that it was not long until humans tried to capture it. Snares were set, and arrows fired. Men promised a feather for love or honor and it was not long until many hunted it. The beautiful bird was chased across countries until, weary of pursuit, it spread its beautiful wings and flew east seeking the land where the sun rose each morning. In the land it deserted, the small birds felt the silence and now each morning they sang and their songs were the prayer for the phoenix to return.
The phoenix flew across long oceans, deep green forests, lush jungles and mountains that brushed against the sky. It flew until it found a desert where men would not come, flew until it found an oasis. There in solitude, day after day, it sang songs and praises to the sun.
Now a phoenix does not count the days, but if you and I were to count how long the phoenix was in the desert some might say it was five hundred years, and others one-thousand. However, the phoenix only knew there was one day, after many brilliant days, it noticed how tired it felt. The song was not as strong. The flights not as high. The phoenix felt the wind blowing through its hollow bones and the sand scraping at its feathers.
So the phoenix lifted its sapphire eyes to the sun and sang a song of renewal. But day after day the sun sailed overhead without looking down or responding to the imploring cries.
Finally the phoenix lifted its beautiful wings and began to fly slowly back to where it was born. Over seas and mountains, deep forests and grassy plains it flew, stopping many times to rest. Each time it rested it smelled the new land and the beautiful trees and the spices. The phoenix searched out the sources of beautiful new smells finding cinnamon, licorice, thyme, mint, rosemary, and basil. It tucked sprigs and branches of the spices in its plumage. It scratched from dark earth ginger and turmeric, and held them in talon and beak as it flew on to its birthplace.
When it found the place it had been born, though somewhat worn over time, it built a nest woven strong and deep at the top of a tree upon a mountain. It lined the nest with the spices and herbs until it was surrounded by rich and vibrant smells. Then it flew to a tree, dug some myrrh out of the bark and from it made a hollow egg.
The next morning, as the first rays of sun came over the edge of the world, the phoenix lifted its head and sang with the last of its strength a prayer to the sun. The sun looked down and saw the bird, its own bird, and smiled. The rays of light shone on the feathers which grew brighter and glimmered until a spark leapt from the heart of the bird and the song soared up as the fire consumed the bird and scorched the herbs and spice, filling the air with sweet smells.
The black smoke rose like a signal in the air, and as the day progressed the smoke turned white and then drifted away. A slivery grey ash filled the burnt nest. As the sun touched the western horizon the ash trembled and from underneath pushed a small naked chick. As the sun set the chick swiftly matured, quickly growing new plumage in reds, purples and gold. When the sun disappeared behind the horizon the renewed phoenix took the silvery ashes and placed them in the egg of myrrh.
As the sun rose the next morning the birds across the mountain were silent as the renewed phoenix lifted its head and sang the sweetest song of praises to the sun. When it was done it lifted the egg of myrrh and began to fly and as it rose the birds around it began to fly with it as well, thousands of beating wings, racing hearts and brilliant colors, following the phoenix on a pilgrimage. The birds flew with the Phoenix to the temple that the Egyptians had built at Heliopolis, city of the sun. There the Phoenix placed the egg with the ashes inside on the sun’s altar. Then, while the other birds watched, it flew off toward the faraway desert to live in solitude and sing its praises to the sun.
The Phoenix lives there still. But every five hundred years or perhaps every thousand, when it begins to feel weak and old, it flies again to its birthplace. There it builds a fragrant nest on top of a mountain and there the sun once again burns it to ashes. And each time the Phoenix rises up from those ashes, new and young again.