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Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Chílde Phoenix

Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Childe Phoenix by Marly Youmans (illustrated by Galen Dara)

Perhaps you’ve heard an anecdote about a child named Cresencio who was skipping barefoot between hills of corn when a shallow bowl in the field, long turbulent with mutterings, broke into pieces. Cresencio spied a tongue of smoke, like the mockings of a demon; he bent, staring into the jagged mouth that was about to spatter the nearby trees with sparks and set his childhood on fire. Liquid stone shouldered through streets, plugging everything but the bell tower of a church. In a last indignity, after obliterating the houses of Cresencio’s village with a relentless black confetti, the volcano stole its name: Paricutin, no longer home but a district of hell.

I like that story because it suggests that other children may be acquainted with metamorphosis.

The first memory that I can conjure quite clearly is one of lying on the glass box in the claustral living room, staring at the girl. She seemed to emanate a faint lunar glow, and I was fascinated by her perfection—the fine, long eyelashes, the smear of lavender on the eyelids, the curls that were as cursive and tendrilous as a line of embroidered calligraphy. She wore a white batiste dress, finely ruched, with pearl buttons and handmade buttonholes. The useless slippers had been crafted from tatting, and were tied with ribbons of white grosgrain. Because of those clothes, I know the words for the old-fashioned magics of stitchery and lace.

My mother had designed the gown and the slippers and was a marvelous needlewoman. Careful about how the girl was presented, she showed me at length how to clean and polish the glass so that it would not become marred by scratches. Once she caught me scattering purple violets and the paler ones they call Confederates on the lid of the chest.

“What are you—”

She rushed forward, gown trailing behind her. I saw that she had gone into the garden, something that she did only rarely; the hem of her robe was starred with seedheads. It was a terrible moment, not just because she had left the vicinity of the girl and gone out under the sky—something that felt forbidden to me then—but because of the disorder in her face. Afterward I was haunted by an inability to recapture her expression. Even now I cannot determine: Was it a scream without sound, a blankness of shock, an anger?

My mother dropped to her knees by the case. Her hand stretched out above the glass.

“What a good boy you are.” I heard the whisper before I saw any movement in her face, and I looked around as if to find some other source of judgment.

“Mother.” I could hardly speak. I felt as though violet stems had spired up in the confines of my throat and flowered there.

She covered her face with both hands and cried not as adults commonly cry in front of children, with a few parsimonious tears, but as a young girl might cry—with a cloudburst suddenly springing forth and suddenly ended.

As she dried her face on a sleeve, she repeated that I was “a good boy, the sweetest boy in the world.”

She embraced me, letting her weight fall more and more on my shoulders until I was pushing with all my might against her. As I pressed my cheek against her neck, I felt indignant. A drop of my mother’s perspiration splashed onto my arm. Why was it always kept so warm in the living room? It was stifling; as the minutes fell into—where? where did they go? into what crack in the earth’s crust?—the flowers writhed and shriveled into dark French knots.

When my pretty mother rose and left, my face and arms were damp. I didn’t know what to feel—or, I felt many things but didn’t know how to name them.

In childhood, it is impossible to appreciate the passionate heart and naiad youth of one’s mother. And when we are old enough to do so, she has grown worn and been diminished by the effort of bringing us into some uneasy compromise with the world—that, at the very least—and of helping us to adapt to this kingdom that we do not choose and will be later made to leave, generally in a way and at an hour not of our desiring. My mother’s library once whispered these things to me, and now, some years later, I begin to see their truth.

“Mama! Where are you?”

In this way, I often called and called for her and had no answer.

Mother would pass through the western doors of the chamber, and when I searched, I could not find her. It seemed as if she had access to other realms where I could not go—perhaps translunary orbs where she might be a mother to another boy, where there might be girls who were not sealed into glass cases, where fathers were not obsessive. Even after I was given a key to the courtyard and had the freedom of its walks and the companionship of its cold statues, I could not make out where my mother went in her absences.

“Mama! Are you here? Don’t hide from me—”

I forced open a door to an unfamiliar room, my steps slowing, my voice dying away. The syllables were eaten, I thought, by the plush curtains with heavy tassels, the flocked wallpaper, and the dense, deep carpets.

“Mama—”

My feet moved uncertainly on the carpet; it was like walking on moss. And on the wood in between, my heels made an unexpected tapping noise that frightened me and made me look around in terror.

“Is anybody there?”

With a tin sword lashed to my belt, I wandered room after room, each lined with books, each with ladders spiraling into remote recesses of the ceiling—I simply assumed that there was a ceiling, somewhere past the weather that inhabited the heights and sometimes seemed to be shadows and at other moments, clouds. Once or twice I glimpsed faces peeping down at me: angels, perhaps, or demons. One evening I saw evenly spaced snowflakes twirl from the canopy, to lie unmelting on the antique Persian carpet.

“Mother, I want to show you something! Come here!”

My voice echoed and died. I remembered how my mother had made me promise never to lie down in the snow and go to sleep, though there seemed no danger; I never went outside to play. She had made me promise many things, all of them for my own good and hers. “I can’t bear for anything to happen,” she had said, again and again. Did she mean, to me? Nevertheless, I fell asleep, curled on the rug. When I woke all the crystal stars had vanished, and my toy sword glinted with an edge made of sunlight.

Occasionally I discovered my mother in the shelter of a window seat, reading or musing or embroidering a scene from the woods—ferns and wildflowers and beasts. Once I found her dozing, arm flung across a cushion. “Mama! There you are—”

Her eyes flew open, and she laughed.

Of course I raced to her side, leaning against her warmth and softness. I suppose every child likes to pillow his head against a mother’s breast.

“You found me! You clever boy—”

“Mama, why can’t I always find you?” I slid my fingers along one of her long curls, watching it twist and gleam.

“Can’t you always? You’ll have to look harder.” Her words were teasing, but to my child’s eye, her face appeared sad. “I’m glad that you found my hiding place.”

“Why?” When I persisted, she shrugged, smiling as she cupped my face with her hand.

“Let me read you a story.”

“All right.”

She knew the library well, and it was no trouble for her to fetch me some storybook with entrancing pictures. I pored over the scenes of a boy and girl kneeling on the floor of the Snow Queen’s palace to work a puzzle of ice, Baba Yaga’s hut dashing forward just as the teeth of a magical comb bit earth and became trees, or the just-broken isinglass coffin of Snow White, with dwarves and weeping candles all around and the prince’s kiss hovering above her lips. But I could never kiss and awaken the girl in the case; my mother had told me so, long before.

“This one.” I pointed to a picture of the wild boy, Orson, in his furs and wreath of leaves and berries.

“All right.” She glanced at me and gave a shake of the head. “You’re growing taller, aren’t you? I hadn’t noticed until now.”

I looked down. An inch of skin shone between the cuffs of the velvet pants that she liked me to wear and my socks. I wanted to apologize but did not.

“Never mind. I’ll make you some new ones.” She bent her head and flipped through the book, looking for the start of the story.

We were companionable for an hour, me turning the pages of the storybook while she read aloud. I felt a profound sense of comfort that moved me close to tears. Her attention fastened on me and the book, she took only an occasional stitch. Whenever she did so, the thread dragged at the fabric and made a protracted rushing noise that pleased me; I was happier than I had been in a long time.

“Mama, couldn’t we—”

The sharp clang! of a bell jangled the atmosphere and stopped the needle’s tug and flow: My mother flew up and was gone like an apparition. Perhaps I had glimpsed the train of her garment vanishing through the door; I wasn’t sure.

Where had she gone?

My father, too, had his private quarters, where he ruled his alchemical laboratories and consulted his library of abstruse books. He remained ensconced in his rooms, where I was not often allowed to visit. I vividly remember the first time I was permitted to go in.

“Don’t touch.”

His hand clamped onto my shoulder and turned me from his glass and metal edifice of vials, tubing, and retorts. I craned to look behind me at the towers of scaffolding that bubbled and steamed—with what? Mystery was all I knew. Like a bad castle, its glitter allured me.

“Take the boy away.” He sounded irritable.

I had come alone, and there was no one to make me go. I lingered, creeping as slowly as I dared, scanning the work tables strewn with papers and references. Arcane, unreadable symbols dazzled my eyes whenever I glanced into an open volume. These large, leather-bound entities struck my imagination as a form of curious taxidermy that, when propped open, exhibited a spine and wings and nothing else save for the mystic signs that were their whole reason for being. I expected that, like a golem, they could be brought to life by the correct symbol.

About such things I was well versed. My paternal grandmother lived with us but was seldom seen; when she was well and in good temper, she told me terrible stories about the machinations of demons and the tricks of sprites governed by the damned angel, Baal Zevul.

“Noo, noo,” she would say, lowering her voice. “It’s best to be careful, careful. The works of the little bodgy devils are many, many.” Her fingers twitched as she crossed herself. “Never name them, no.”

Stories and cautions had in turn been inflicted on her at an impressionable age by a nursery maid from Krakow, who had nattered endlessly about the black powers and the kings and queens at Wawel—particularly Prince Krakus, who had ascended the throne in the eighth century after killing a dragon that had an unhappy predilection for devouring virgins. I connected the dangerous creatures of the nursery maid’s tales with the winged books in my father’s laboratory, and wondered if his chemical experiments were related somehow to the study of dragons and demons. When I asked my grandmother, she didn’t tell me.

“It was a different world,” she said, heaving up a sigh that smelled of rot and peppermint. “We had to shovel goat dung all day, or else dig in the mines, even the children. None of this frolicking about the house with weapons, playing.”

“Pish, posh.” My whisper was too low for anyone to hear. I looked at my sword, thinking with indignation that it was not a toy but an essential defense against the unknown. And when did I ever play? Who was there to play with me? No playmates but books. Words were my toys—I clicked and shook them together to hear their music. That was as close to frolic as I ever came. But at least she had given me an answer, even if it was to the wrong question. Most of the time my grandmother was simply an offering to darkness and absence, sunk in a bog of stupor and attended by a nurse, but her tales of the black powers stayed with me.

As I grew older, I ventured more often into my father’s region; he, too, would often perceive me only vaguely, remarking my presence with a syllable of owl-like greeting like a call from a faraway grove. Not wishing to enflame him, I usually observed the state of his researches in silence and tiptoed away without a word. And that despite the fact that, as I grew more familiar with the library, I knew very interesting words indeed! I could have conversed with him well enough. But he was like my playmates, the books, and talked to me but seldom listened.

The speechless girl in glass was my only child companion. She always listened to me, and kept all my words stored in her heart, but never spoke.

Her name was Vesta. I couldn’t recall the time when she had been out of the box, when she had held me, laughed with joy, and called me by my name, Blaise. Later, for a brief time, we were the same age. Then I passed her by, and she dwindled. Yet I still daydreamed above her, polishing the lid with a chamois rag and puffs of my breath.

“When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come Vesta, cradle and all,” I sang. I rubbed the glass until the moonshine of her face blurred into reflected lamplight.

Because the chest had been inset into the floor, I could only view her from above; I wished that it had been otherwise. I would have liked to lie beside her, and to look across at her profile.

In my imaginings, she retained the same force as before. At night when I started awake, hearing raised voices, I thought about her, even prayed to her in a manner surely blasphemous—invoking her protection.

Vesta, remember me, your little Blaise. Be with me, take care of me, don’t forget me. Keep me safe.

I hadn’t yet reached the portion of the library devoted to holy saints and so knew nothing of them. Nevertheless, she was mine.

One morning I filled a blue vase with stems of snowdrops and set it above her crossed hands. From a certain angle, it appeared that she might be holding a bouquet. I had made similar attempts to share my sword, setting it straight down with the hilt at her hands so that, with the proper squint, she dimly resembled something I had seen in a picture book: the image of a Crusader lying on his tomb, pommel gripped in his fingers.

While admiring this arrangement, I noticed a miasma drifting across the nosegay of flowers. Already one or two had begun to wilt.

“Strange, Vesta,” I whispered.

When I knelt close to the glass, I saw that a slate tile had become separated from one of its neighbors. From this narrow cleft proceeded a wisp of smoke. I swept my fingers through it, and the cloudlet dissipated. I pressed my palm against the stones; they felt cool to the touch.

A bowl of earth and one of salt, symbols meaningful to my grandmother, stood near the glass pane; I tried poking crumbs of dirt and crystal through the gap. I couldn’t seal it up and, in fact, made no progress at all with my efforts.

“You thumble-pin fool! You imbecile—” Hearing my father shout angrily in the distance, I set off in search of him—or, rather, to spy on him and his latest assistant. This was a tactical error, as I was excited by what had just happened and unlikely to be hushed in my mission. How well I knew that my father hated “dross and petty stratagems,” as he denoted any attempts at spying. Dross was a favored word of his, as was gold; he loved the space for transformation between them.

Frequently I surprised myself with my own temerity . . .

He was angered by my actions in this instance. Hush! I do not have to tell everything. That much I have learned from the books, which often refuse to tell me the very thing that I want to know the most.

That night I dreamed my bedroom as an alchemical chamber with walls of glass, and I had been thrown alive into its bonfires. I shuddered in the heart of a star but could not die, though I shouted for the Black Man to come and reap me with his sickle.

“Come get me! Take me, take me, take me!” My screams went on, unavailing. My nightmare father strode outside, implacable.

The alchemist’s sun, trapped in a bottle, burned for freedom, its enormous spangled flames shooting up to the ceiling. An emptiness that dwelled inside the hood of night called me: Blaise, Blaise, Blaise . . .

“Vesta! Ves-ta! Vesta—”

I sobbed until the words blurred into nothingness. Eventually, I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed, legs dangling. The fire had receded to a safe distance. I listened hard to steps that echoed down a long hall, until they ended in silence.

I counted the minutes because I knew.

I did not raise my head to look but counted one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, like that. Because I knew the alchemical process was not complete. Such a blaze could not go out so easily. The remains smoldered, occasionally snapped with sparks. A rumor of steps: soon mounting in intensity and becoming slaps and then thunder in the infinite hallway as the fire increased, fed by noise, until it touched not just the glass floor but ceiling and four walls, and I was metamorphosing to gold and shrieking—Mama! Mama, save me!—though my mother was surely in the remotest district of the library and could not hear or help.

Immolation. Burnt sacrifice. I woke, trembling, moist with sweat, my skin smelling like lead. For some time my thoughts were confused; then I remembered the crack between the tiles. Although I wanted the blank of a dreamless sleep, I forced myself to get up and pad down the hall to the living room. Moonlight trickled across the stones. The chink seemed subtly larger than before. I lay on the pane that divided me from the girl and stared at her face, washed by moon glow. A long time had fled since I had been exactly the right size to fit on the case, yet I still pressed against its hard, slick surface.

“Vesta.” I yielded to drowsiness, and in the morning my cheek was stuck to the glass.

The breach in the floor aroused no fresh concern in my parents. They seemed, rather, to be relieved from an old dread and to have expected such an eventuality. By the end of the second day, the irregular slit was about seventeen inches long and nearly four inches wide at the widest point. Another day later, tiles began to shatter and tumble into the hole. I hung over the lip, craning to see bottom, but could detect only fog and flares of ruddy light. Nor could I tell when the fragments of clay struck any remote solidity.

Little by little, the room was tugged apart. Vapors poured from the damaged floor. In less than a month, a canyon some four feet wide and thirteen long gaped before me. The stench seemed to do me no harm, although a line of poetry from the library drifted into my mind and made me wonder if its influence might be subtle, a taint: “Internal difference / Where the meanings are.” Intermittently an edge would give way, collapsing in a shower of shards. Once I glimpsed lizards moving in mazy patterns a few feet below the brink. Though I assumed that their motions were senseless, later on I wondered if they could have had purpose. The sooty, red-eyed creatures inspired an instinctive revulsion.

Out of reluctance, I have failed to mention the most important features of this domestic cataclysm, having to do with the plan of the house and with Vesta. Because it had been designed to narrow down to a single chamber at the living room, the building was soon chopped in twain. This queer state of affairs went unacknowledged by any word from my parents, who resorted first to jumping and later to navigating via ladders laid across the opening and anchored to form bridges. Most of the time, however, they simply stayed in their own preferred regions on either side of the fissure. Although I, too, crawled on the ladders, I never failed to plumb the depths of an intense terror when peering down through the rungs at globes of fire, floating in the smoke.

Vesta was my mantra on these journeys.

My father took a certain professional interest in the gaseous exhalations emanating from the gulf and penetrating the two halves of the living room. Seldom did he make the crossing without collection devices—a jumble of beakers, rubber tubing, glass retorts, and other alchemical-looking paraphernalia. I believe this curiosity of his led to a number of the explosions in his laboratories.

“What’s happening?” I asked, thinking that his scientific knowledge might explain what I could not fathom.

He emitted a sharp laugh. “Don’t bother me.”

My mother looked helpless when I asked her in turn. “Your father and I,” she said hesitantly, but got no further.

A signal event associated with the opening of the chasm was the near-loss of the girl in glass. By the close of the fourth week, she jutted headfirst into the rift. For the first time, I could see her from a fresh angle, but I could no longer stretch out on the box without fear. Neither could I have done so without becoming dizzy and perhaps sickened and confused by the vapors from the pit, for their odor had become more acrid as the days passed. I would crawl as close as possible and lie down, my eyes on her profile. Occasional blossoms of fire rocketed from the depths, falling back harmlessly or landing like a kiss on the glass pane that shielded her face.

“Vesta, what if you fell?”

My whisper surprised me, and I was startled by a wish that the floor would crumble and release her. I imagined the box rocketing through the air. I saw a hurled flower, a red comet with a tail of shattered tiles, a queen bee chased by a swarm: kaleidoscopic flights and freedom. I reproached myself. The swirl of images had the nature of a sin embraced, or a blasphemy uttered while praying.

The days fly, and the years . . . and yet I know nothing but books and the paths in the courtyard. I am a man, so my grandmother says, now that I am fifteen. On my birthday, she gave me a feather of red and gold, presented to her long ago by the nursery maid. Prince Krakus had snatched it from the wing of a firebird. How did a poor girl manage to obtain such a royal favor, I wonder? I’ll never know, unless the answer’s hidden in the library.

Stitching in the window seat, my mother has made me black mourning clothes, and when I look at myself in the mirror I am not displeased. The feather makes a dash of red in a buttonhole. Mama is grieving for the future, I suspect, just as she has done for the past. I close my eyes and picture a child, a boy in velvet pants and a white blouse frothy with lace. Back then I saw; I sensed. Yet I only stored what happened in memory. Perhaps I couldn’t bear to consider what anything meant. Perhaps the strife of attempting such a thing would have led to a spontaneous combustion, the invisible aura around my body catching fire and rendering me down to charred bone and teeth.

Taking up my toy sword, I whip the air.

Yesterday I ran from room to room, and when I found my mother, I told her the news.

“I am leaving home to seek my fortune!”

What else could it be? Long ago she had taught me, reading from the house’s treasure of storybooks, what a man does. He leaves his house and seeks adventure in the wild wideness, with its huts and caves and castles. When Mama laid her head on my shoulder, I could see how small she had grown.

Today my mother is in hiding and cannot be traced, but tomorrow I will take her hands once more before I run room by room through the world. I know that there will be times when I wonder if my story is not already complete, rather than about to begin. Some days I’ll fear—as I do now—that I was consumed entirely by fire, and that what I’m living now is a kind of afterlife. Perhaps I am a human phoenix, who in a dream was scorched to ash, or reduced to a mere egg waiting to hatch. Perhaps this life is not a real life but only a veil, torn asunder but still covering the face of the living world. So close, so close: Perhaps I have touched it with these fingertips that were once melted in flame and now have not so much as a whorl of maze to differentiate them. When I am fully a man, tested by adventure, I hope to know everything. The books I read in our library have told me that the years are worlds, and the lands, and the past is only a place one cannot reach.

I wonder what my father will say when he notices that I have gone.

Will he mutter to my grandmother that they both had a part in my metamorphosis?

I won’t—can’t bear to—consider my mother’s sorrow.

And what of Vesta, the perfect child in the glass box, jutting into the abyss, all that was she drawn inward? Long ago I rocked from side to side, sending forth prayers that were like kisses of fire rising from an abyss. Sybil and sibling, Vesta, my idol: I never felt a final conviction that you were dead to me and unreachable, and I still don’t.

At night when I dream, I see you face to face, though we are severed by a single pane, and I wake to cool drops of grief on my skin. The flame of those dreams is pale as moonshine.

My sister burns, snowy and purified, her lavender eyelids sealed. She may fall, a star, into the breach. The glass may melt in a lake of fire. I don’t know. I’ve never known how it is with Vesta. She may float down as softly as a snowflake sifting from a cloud. The glow from her face may turn the lake to a moonglade and the salamanders to silver.

Is she, too, a phoenix? What then, I wonder, will be the manner of her uprising?

The universe is bigger than anyone ever told me. Sky with its endless manifestations of cloud and spark tells me so. I stand in the courtyard and daydream about the kings and queens and the helping animals and unexpected friends that I will meet along the way. I wonder if I am to go traveling as the prince or as the foolish Hans, and whether gifts will be granted—or will I be chucked like a log into the witch’s fire? Eagles fly overhead, screaming messages from another world. I do not know if their cries spiral from the throats of demons or seraphim.

In sleep, when I stare into my sister’s open eyes, I realize that their blue is the color of mercy.

She is my vestal, and I, Blaise, am her fire.

Daydreaming of my fortune, I hear a voice and am surprised to find it my own, saying, Let Vesta be with me, every furlong and fathom of the way.

© 2007 by Marly Youmans.
Originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Marly Youmans

Marly Youmans

In 2012, Marly Youmans published three books: a novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, winner of The Ferrol Sams Award; The Foliate Head, a collection of formal poetry with “green man” art by major artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales; and Thaliad, her 11th book, a post-apocalyptic epic in blank verse, also with lavish art by Hicks-Jenkins. She was also on the judging panel for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature in 2012. Forthcoming are several books: Glimmerglass, a novel that includes a pursuit of the muse, failure, renewal, and murderous impulse, and Maze of Blood, a tale inspired by the pulpy life and Texas times of Robert Howard. Currently Marly is polishing a long sequence of poems called The Book of the Red King. Find her at thepalaceat2.blogspot.com.

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