Desert Phoenix

A setting sun peeks through lacy clouds, silhouetting the raised feather scars ridging my skin in blood-orange light.  I peer down at the sharp lines, the harsh slope of my brow humped above the bridge of my nose.  The breeze whispers, catching at the rumble of my empty stomach.  It’s been days since I was banished to this hellish play at “being human”–I expected it to be more fantastic.  Chipmunks and rattlesnakes won’t sustain me for long, and I don’t dare take on bigger game.  Not that I’ve seen any–the land is bone dry and crowded with tumbleweeds.  Despite the day scorching the soles of my bare feet, I shiver.  I miss the lush tropics of home.  Perhaps I should have learned obedience.  Perhaps I should have begged.  Perhaps…

but no matter now.  The Council is steadfast in their decisions, especially when wrong.

Sighing, I slip long-nails beneath the neckline of my tank and trace my punishment.  To remind me of my sins, the Council left the hole they tore my heart through seeping and unhealed.  Two fingertips come away stained with the fires I can no longer call forward.  My chained feathers shriek, agony shifting across my skin before settling into mourning.  I purse my lips.  They’re going to need to come to terms with this new life.  Without a heart, my body is a prison.

“Wicked ink!”

Startled, I whirl.  Caught up in pity, I missed his approach.  He jostles in his saddle, the long strands of the creature’s white hair tangling across his fingers.  I squint, eyeing the animal warily.  It’s shorter than a camel, shoulders reaching just above my head.  The lack of a hump concerns me.  In this dry heat, where does this mutant keep water?  I frown, puzzled, before realizing the stranger expects an answer.

“Thank you.”  My voice is hard caramel, the melody of a phoenix turned to gravel and dust.  I cough and start again.  “So, your… Um…”  The beast’s name alludes me, so I gesture at it instead.

“Oh, you mean Sabah, my horse!”  He says, bobbing his head and crooning under his breath.

“Of course.  I knew that.  Horse.”  Except I didn’t.  Horses are creatures of myth where I come from, strange four-legged slaves of man.  I grew up hearing the tales:  Black Beauty, Flicka, Seabiscuit.  All doomed to a life of grueling labor and terrible treatment.  Their names flitter through my thoughts, a rapid fire succession of sound, and I cringe.  According to legend, horses died out mere months before humans.  I narrow my eyes, studying the pair.

Close-shaven, his dirty blonde hair grows like prickly weeds across his head.  His skin is sun-rough but smooth, no discernible sign of family heirlooms or magical curses.  His gaze is steady and unnerving, the color of his irises akin to that of pine trees in late fall.  I blink, and his aura comes into focus:  moss green center, a haze of gray around the edges.  For a higher being, nothing about him screams special apart from the black flakes floating around his head.  There’s something cruel lurking beneath his skin, a monster needing chained.  I toss a grin his way, slipping the tip of my tongue across my lips.  “And you…?”

“Wallace,” he says.  “Wallace Balkerson.”

He thrusts his hand toward me, palm flat and fingers open.  I wrack my brain, but the greeting customs I learned in my youth don’t tell me how to proceed.  A funny niggling pushes at the back of my neck; I swat at the spot, chewing on my lip, and ignore his gesture.  He has the skin of a forest nymph, the eyes of a mermaid, and the name of nothing I’ve ever come across.  Confused, I try again.  “Wallace.  Right.  So…where are we, again?”

He half-turns in his seat, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, to gape at me.  “You mean you don’t know?  Didjer boyfriend boot you out the car and leave you stranded, darlin’?”  He chuckles, a different glint stealing across the gaze he roves over my white scars, my bare feet, my low-cut shirt.  None of his words make sense to me.  His actions, on the other hand, speak loudly.  A faint flush steals across his cheeks; I can hear his heart pounding against the cage of his ribs.  It strikes an off-balance beat with his steed’s hooves.  I ignore his question, scooping my long white hair from my shoulders and balling it above the nape of my neck.  “Right.  What’d you say yer name was?”

“Opal,” I purr, reaching the stroke the horse that should not exist.  It’s beginning to dawn on me that the lessons set by the Council are not strictly facts.  Perhaps the Council lied–and not just about the crime I was supposed to have committed.  I glance again at the guy:  chin peppered with stubble, sunburn callusing his arms, flat eyes and erratic aura.  For all I know, he’s a master of disguise–a rogue djinn, or a well-crafted golem.  But that niggling at my skin says he’s something different.  Something evil.

“That’s a pretty name,” he murmurs.  His voice is deeper, a dark and seedy desire leaching over his tongue.  I imagine the circles his thoughts are racing in.  I can almost see the number of young, impressionable women destroyed and bleeding at his feet–a heap of savagery and ugly violence.  This guy is a beast of a different nature–the kind with a penchant for pretty words and cruel fists.  My stomach rumbles again–a loud, angry mewling.  “You sound hungry, siren eyes.”

I wonder if it’s time for me to forge my own path; I’ve been banished to a world that’s no longer supposed to exist, after all.  I might as well make the most of it, right?  I grin, sliding my tongue across my sharp, pointed teeth.  I wonder if the demon running rampant through this man’s veins flavors the flesh.  “Yes.  Yes, I guess I am.”

As night falls across Wyoming, his screams remain unheard.

***copyright Elizabeth Mathis, 2015***