It’s ugly, the way these searing tendrils of heat claw up my arms, over my face, across the brittle surface of my hands—which are clenched into fists. I can feel it scratching my eyelids. My nostrils. My gums. Tearing through parts of my body I usually think about so little that I don’t even realise I’m not thinking about them.
But this searing heat isn’t even the worst part. It’s the smoke that gets you. That’s what the firefighters said when they came to my school back in the day. Stay low, stay low. Breathe through a wet sock.
I can see why. Every breath I’m breathing in pins and needles, tearing apart my lungs, my throat. How did I end up here?
A distraction, yes. Let me tell myself the story again.
There’s a time of year when the old powers stir from their slumber. When the light of summer dies and dark shadows rush into the vacuum. When the sweet smell of decay drifts through the air and leaves fall back to the earth, that’s when it starts to happen.
If you pay attention, you can feel something shift—clicking into place like a lego. In the blazing light of August the world feels stable.
But one night, as October’s tendrils slip into the earth, perhaps you see something. You think you see something, moving strangely, out beyond the pool of stark electric light in your living room. It’s human, you think, but the shape is hard to pin down. Its shadow morphs as it passes beneath a streetlight.
When it emerges from the glowing pool, it creeps on all fours. That’s the old world peeking through.
Homer and Ovid knew, and now you know as well. Change is always lurking beneath the surface.
Every year I’d felt it, the earth humming with change. I’d beg my parents to read me the old Greek myths. Arachne changed into a spider. Narcissus transformed to a flower. And the uglier stories, too.
How Scylla and Medusa became monsters. How Daphne, harassed by Apollo, could only escape by giving up her human form and changing into a laurel tree.
With each passing year I could feel smaller, subtler changes happening in my body. A metamorphosis of my own. My bones grew long, and my muscles and sinews stretched to accommodate them. My hair darkened, and it burst through my skin in new places, in ever shifting configurations.
Here, a scar appeared. Here, a constellation of freckles. Eventually, the changes slowed. But the turn of the seasons didn’t. I could still feel the throbbing undercurrent of change, and now it was growing louder, louder, reaching a fever pitch.
I remembered reading about this pine tree in California. The lodgepole pine. Its cones are so firmly stopped up with resin that nothing gets them out except fire. They wait, poised, coiled like a snake about to strike.
When conditions are just right, a forest fire breaks out. The intense heat turns the pine tree to ash, but the cone just melts, releasing its seeds. The pine is basically reborn from fire. And now, fire would do the same for me. I knew it.
I left my house at midnight on the fourth of November, and walked calmly toward the park. It was a cold night, without cloud cover, so the stars winked at me from above. In the hollow glow of streetlights my breath fogged out in front of me, smoke-like. Just beneath the quiet of the night I could still hear it. The hum of the season. The change waiting to happen.
I sped up my pace. It was 12.30 by the time I reached the park. I kept moving quickly, scanning left and right for any signs of life. It was crucial that no one saw me. I skirted the edge of a wooded area when suddenly a twig snapped behind me.
Spinning toward the source of the sound, heart racing, I opened my eyes as wide as I could and looked around. A pair of iridescent eyes greeted me from the darkness. Without being able to see the rest of the creature’s body, the eyes seemed to hover. I stared. They stared back.
Until suddenly the spell was broken. The eyes turned sideways and I could just make out the profile of a fox. It padded away into the trees and I watched it go, willing my breathing to return to normal.
Silence returned and I resumed my journey. First, I saw the hulking mass of it as a deep shadow, a darker shade of black in the landscape around me. Then I saw it as a large, shallow cone. Soon I could make out individual branches. The bonfire was ready.
I hopped over the fence that had been temporarily erected around it, gave the area a final scan for any signs of life, and approached. I crawled inside, nestling as deep into the pyre as I could. Sharp twigs scratched at my face, but that wouldn’t matter for long.
Finally confident I was out of sight, I curled into a position that could charitably be described as comfortable. And waited.
Time passed slowly until it didn’t. I must have been dozing, because the next thing I remember is a thrum, rising to a fever pitch. Then the cracking of dry logs, bursting open in the heat of the bonfire. Heat and light—with an intensity I’d never experienced before—engulfed me. The pain came, and here I am.
My mind’s racing so fast that it takes me a moment to realise the pain is receding.
Slowly, slowly, the heat shifts from burning to soothing. Now, the flames are a balm, the smoke is incense. I raise my head, try to unclench my fists—but they’re gone. I stretch out my—are these arms?
I’m afraid to open my eyes. Instead, I draw a deep breath, try to wriggle my toes. I still have toes. I can also feel knees, shoulders, and a neck. There’s a glorious sensation of weightlessness. There’s a deep urge to jump and stretch.
So I do it. I feel my powerful new limbs break through what’s left of the blazing logs, scattering embers in their wake. Finally, I open my eyes. Wings. I have two long, red wings.
Red isn’t quite enough to describe them. My feathers blaze. As I slowly ascend, I can see sparks drifting from them, trailing downward like autumn leaves.
I follow their trajectory. Children, holding sparklers, stare at me open-mouthed. Their parents look equally baffled, some frown, some grab their child’s hand and break into a panicked run. Others only seem confused. Maybe they think I’m part of the firework display. I laugh. Or, I try to laugh. What comes out is birdsong, piercing and clear.
One day, I’ll return to this place. When the stories of me bursting from the fire have faded into myth, when the children of the children below think I’m just a monster from a story I’ll come back.
As the year dies, and the old powers stir, I’ll glide in by night. No longer blazing. My wings will be barely-glowing embers by then. I’ll claw my way through the branches and splintered old pallets. I’ll settle in. Quietly, quietly. I’ll wait for the flames to lick away these feathers and skin and muscle and bone. The layers of my flesh will peel away like a cocoon revealing who knows what.
The air hums and crackles pleasantly around my broad wings as I soar away.