Coal stains my white shoes, black powder bellowing up into the murky air. Bones crunch under my feet, each with a sickening crack. The many golden charms on my bracelet jingle against each other, a constant reminder of what I have done.
One object for every life I have taken. I can still recall the face of every innocent person that fell at my feet, because of my curse. The charms don’t let me forget all that I am guilty of, and for that I am grateful. I owe it to my victims to remember, and to regret.
I hate that I am weak under the power of the curse. That all I am able to do is watch from deep inside my mind as I destroy everything beautiful. I wish I could stop myself, but instead I sit back and watch the nightmare unfold.
Another village burned to the ground. By me. These people didn’t deserve this, they were decent and kind. And yet I am the one standing above their lifeless bodies. It really is funny how things turned out.
As I crumple to my knees in the ashes, I see a flash of crimson. It stands out, a symbol of life amid all the death and destruction. I slowly lift my tear-stained face up to the sky, my eyes burning from the thick smoke.
Circling the dark clouds, far above the burning remains of buildings, is a bird the color of fire. It flies with the grace of flames licking the logs of a fire. A phoenix.
It caws once, a piercing sound, then flies down toward me. I flinch and raise my hands above me, preparing to fend off an attack. Assuming this bird wants me to pay for what I have done, like so many others.
Instead it lands on my shoulder, its long talons gripping my shirt. I reach up my hand, amused by the bird’s strange display of affection, and it nuzzles my burnt skin.
“I’ll name you Ember.”
The bird’s beady eyes flick from skeleton to skeleton, if he could speak I’m sure he would berate me for this mess. But the great thing is he can’t tell me how much he hates me, he can only sit upon my shoulder and watch me curiously.
“I did this,” I tell him, gesturing to the disaster spreading as far as we could both see, “I’m a killer, but the thing is, I never wanted any of this. I just wish I was born normal.”
Ember nudges my cheek gently. Showing me that he is listening intently, and that he cares.
“I watch as my own hands set fire to everything. I have no control, I don’t even feel like myself anymore.” I tell him. He nods his small head up and down like a cork in water.
I finger another charm on my bracelet, this one the shape of a teddy bear.
“I added this one after I murdered a child. I tried to fight the power of the curse, I really did, but I just wasn't strong enough.” A tear trails down my dusty cheek.
The bird just stares at me, not judging. Seeing me for who I am, and still choosing to stay.
“I killed a child.” I repeat. At least I am honest. But even with a friend, the weight of my bracelet is getting hard to bear.
Break the bonds. Isolate yourself. Caring is pathetic.
The voice of the curse haunts my thoughts and dreams relentlessly every hour. Demanding that I separate myself from Ember, telling me I will be stronger that way.
I ignore it. The curse has already ruined so many aspects of my life, destroyed everything I held close. I won’t let it hurt me any more. Ember is there for me, a spark burning beside me during my darkest hour.
However, despite how hard I resist, I feel less and less in control with every day that passes. Ember watches me with cautious concern, sensing the curse’s strong hold on me.
Five days after Ember first landed on my shoulder, I wake up to find that my entire right hand has turned black. The more I defy the voice in my head, the more pain I feel. The easy thing to do would be to give in, to get rid of the pain, but I can’t lose Ember. That bird is the only one who seems to understand me.
It happens on the darkest night of the month, when the moon is completely obscured by the impenetrable clouds. The midnight black is spreading up my arm now, making its way for my heart. If I continue to resist, I don’t have much time left.
But I don’t give in to the voice in my head, because I am stubborn. I don’t go willingly, so it takes me by force.
The voices in my head are now screaming, not whispering. I cannot move, I have no control over my body. My arms sweep in a wide circle around me, setting fire to the forest I have set up camp in. The blistering flames turn the trees as black as my hand.
They unfurl up the bark and into the canopy. The same canopy that Ember nested in tonight.
“No, please. Please stop.” I beg the voices, but they disregard me. Making me watch as the phoenix is consumed by the flames.
It looks like I’ll have to add another charm to my bracelet. This one in the shape of a bird.
I stare blankly at the chaos surrounding me, sinking to my knees in despair. All the color has been sucked out of the landscape, leaving only the dreary grays and blacks of death behind. I don’t move from the pile of ash. I just sit there, letting the silent sobs rack my body.
I wish I could go back in time, to when Ember was alive and flying energetically from tree to tree. To when I had one less death on my hands. But I can’t change what happened, I am forever stuck in the present.
Just as I am about to shut my eyes, for who knows how long, a flash of color catches my eyes. The feather floating toward me is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It is a rich, deep red. But most importantly, it looks alive.
I squint in the direction it came from, and I can clearly make out a flurry of feathers just like the one stuck to my grimy boot. They join together to form the shape of a bird. Not just any bird, a phoenix.
Ember rises from the ashes, flapping his vast, colorful wings as he flies over to me. I hold out my arm, letting him perch atop it.
Only seconds ago, I was convinced I had killed him. But now he rests in front of me, unharmed. I am shocked, weeping, and so very relieved that he is still alive.
A single tear falls from Ember’s eye onto my charred hand, it sizzles and boils against the burning skin. Another tear falls and part of the black on my hand fades. With every drop from the phoenix’s eye, the curse retreats back into the air. No longer claiming me as its own.
We have both changed for the better in each other’s company. We have become wiser, more accepting friends. Without the curse, I no longer have to be afraid of myself. Ember gave me the gift of rebirth.