Chuck’s challenge this week is the myth of the Phoenix.
This is a sort of return to form for me, as I’ve gone back to short stories which are ultimately pretty depressing and horrifying. So there’s that. That said, I enjoyed this one. It was inspired by equal parts Groundhog Day and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Final Destination thrown in.
Anyway, here are 1000 words. Exactly. I had to trim a bit when I got to the end.
This Time I’ll Drown
The whistling wind whips her coppery hair madly around her head, the rain flying in her face like a swarm of furious locusts, soaking her to the skin. She grips the railing , tension-whitened knuckles protruding as she gazes at the swirl of surf and pounding waves. Lightning explodes and thunder follows, smashing her eardrums, rattling the deck, tumbling around in the maelstrom like a herd of spooked cattle. It finally quiets just in time for the next crash of lightning just off the port side of the ship, a jagged lance crackling through the night.
This is as good a chance as she is likely to see in this life. With the relentless storm and the skeleton crew, she’ll vanish beneath the waves and never be found or heard from again. There won’t be any fire, so she won’t come back.
She steps up onto the first rail and her life begins to pass before her eyes. Her lives, rather. For most people, it takes an instant — the whole of their tribulation on this earth coursing through their cortex like a bolt through the mind of Frankenstein’s monster, all their loves and hates and triumphs and failures singing a bitter symphony in the space of a second. She, however, has lived more lives than most.
First she was Anna, the farmer’s girl, who loved a stableboy and bore him three children before marauders came in the night, raped her, killed her children and husband, and burned their cottage to the ground. Then she was Marie, the daughter of a princess, eating roasted ducklings and candied dates while the peasantry were murdering each other for scraps of bread. She had been fifteenth in line for the throne, but that didn’t stop the revolters from torching the mansion she and her royal family lived in. Then she was Elizabeth, a perfectly ordinary girl with a gift for knowing what people were feeling without having to hear them say it, for which her neighbors rewarded her by tying her to a stake and lighting a pile of pitch-soaked timber at her feet.
Her lives stretch out behind her like dominoes, some filled with joy, some with sorrow, all filled with suffering, all touched by the taint of human hate. And the fire, always the fire. Whether highborn or low, fair or plain, wealthy or impoverished, it always ended with fire, though she scorned to use words like “end” anymore. Each life brought with it more understanding, more pain, more disillusionment and distrust, and more fire, though she was blissfully ignorant every time she woke up, a new person in a new place and a new time.
Over a thousand years have passed for her in one body or another, scores of births and weddings and children and lovers and accomplishments and failures, and countless deaths by fire: smoke clogging her lungs, flames searing flesh from bone, embers charring the muscle, hot wind disintegrating her impossibly red hair. Whether she is blessed with her repeated incarnations or cursed with them, she does not know.
But this time is different. This time she remembers. She remembers countless lives lived in terror, in fear, lives ended in crimson and smoke. And she vows that this time will be different.
The captain shouts at her to get below deck, but his words float away in the squall. She wouldn’t have listened anyway. She feels a ping of conscience and regret for the crew; in all the lives she’s lived she’s never been a killer, never been directly responsible for the death of another. For the first time in centuries, thoughts of heaven and hell circle in her mind. She tries not to think about Billy, with his pregnant girlfriend back home, or Charlie, whose daughter graduates college next week. Tears spring to her eyes, immediately lost in the rain. A few innocent lives are worth it for a chance to break the cycle, a chance to not spring back onto this mortal coil, a chance to escape human cruelty and human suffering.
Time is wasting; she knows it, and she feels her resolve weakening as she stands on the rail with the rain pelting her face. She climbs a step higher, leaning out over the rail. This is not the moment for weakness, not the moment to trust to fate. She leans out over the black abyss.
The captain grabs her from behind and yanks her bodily to the deck, just as a monstrous wave smashes the boat sideways like a drunk man lurching into an empty dumpster. He loses his balance, cracks his head on the railing, and pitches over the side, gone in the blink of an eye. Her foot twists under her. She collapses back into a pile of uncoiled rope which suddenly goes taught as the anchor slides over the side. She is pinned, a rabbit in a trap, unable to move. She screams in pain and frustration, noiseless in the fury. Lightning strikes. Too close. It shatters her eardrums and sears her vision. For a long moment, she is senseless in the dark, and then she smells it. Smoke. Her vision comes back, slowly, flooded not with the black of the night and the storm, but with the orange and red of the burning ship. Her scream becomes one of terror, of rage, of a man cheated of his life’s work.
The roaring flames are a rising tide. She tries to brace herself for the pain, though she knows there is no bracing. She begins to burn and to scream, her flesh taking light as the doomed ship cruises its last minutes above the waves, her funeral pyre defying gravity just long enough for her to strangle in smoke and scorched air.
The darkness is momentary. Before she can forget the pain, there are monstrous gloved hands reaching for her, pulling her struggling and squirming into the light once again, fighting not for her last breath, but for her first.