One night, when I was a child, the Red God walked into my dreams. He laid his burning hand on my shoulder and led me to the borderland where the world of men and beasts ends and the lush vale of his kingdom begins. Together, we stood beside the river of death – a mamba of swift, dark water scaled with countless stars, one for each soul who has crossed between the worlds.
Take your sandals and drum, he said. Gather three stones and a hollowed gourd. Walk east until the water roars and you weep from the scent of blossoms. There you will find a magician who intends the greatest of blasphemies. Face him and command him to turn from his path.
“But how can I? Why cannot you, my king?”
His eyes and ears are scabbed with unbelief. Now go.
Know, little ones, that many leaves of papyrus could barely retell my journey. But I am no chieftain’s scribe and can say only, without the gourd and sandals, I would have died before the fourth day. And without the pounding drum, I faced a slavery I will not describe.
On the thirteenth evening, I found a pool in the jungle’s heart. A waterfall roared like a lion’s great ghost, and the flowers beneath the trees were like those that brightened my mother’s hair – and the earth of her grave. The glade blurred into a dim, green cloud. Then through the cloud fell a guttering star.
The phoenix landed beside the pool. He bowed his withered head, and his wings trembled, the feathers glowing red and silver, hissing a sweet white smoke. Wisps of flame kindled on his wingtips, and he raised his beak and cried with such yearning I feared the sky would crack.
Suddenly the flames engulfed him, and the magician crept from the trees. He wore a loincloth of jackal fur and a cloak of woven vines. To his mouth he raised a flute of bone, and as he played, a cold wind parted the trees behind him, sweeping toward the mound of glowing ash.
I shouted and ran forward, throwing the three stones as one. One disappeared into the trees and one within his cloak, but one struck the flute from his lips, and the wind stopped. He laughed and raised it again. I leapt between him and the ash.
And I burned then as the phoenix screamed, reborn. But though the fire of the gods consumes, it does not destroy, and as the young phoenix perched on my shoulder like the Red God’s burning hand, I found I could command the magician even as I had been commanded. He fled into the jungle with blood trickling from his ears and eyes, and the phoenix soared, shining, into the night.
Bright little ones, remember – we, like the phoenix, are children of ash. Those who burn throughout the long, dark years will one day shine like the stars.
Like the stars of the river we should not fear.