We liked the phoenix fine at first.
A small, delicate bird, that had a song like the wind.
We would sit on the porch as day melted into evening, the whole family. The phoenix liked to perch on the railing, ash-eyes on the fields, the town beyond the fields, the horizon beyond the town, the towns beyond the horizon, until finally its gaze circled back round to us.
We’d shiver a little, when it made us feel small like that.
Dad blamed it on the cold.
We would go inside, but inside wasn’t much warmer than outside. They were giving Dad fewer shifts at the factory. Ma said we’d been spoiling ourselves, setting the temperature at sixty, when fifty was just fine. And leaving windows open to boot, so all the warm air could get out! In her day, Grandma added, you didn’t have radiators or heaters. You gathered around the fireplace and kept warm and nobody complained about heating bills.
We had no fire place, so we shivered.
But the phoenix never got cold.
Whenever you would touch it, hold it in your hands, you felt the heat pouring out of it, like instead of a heart it had a star inside.
It made you feel colder, knowing that.
The factory closed—Dad lost his job, along with a lot of the other Dads. Cheaper labor overseas, places with names that brought a blank to mind. After school I skipped rocks with our friends, at the pond down the road from the diner Ma worked at. Robby said he’d fingered Sharon. I bummed a cigarette off Sam, inhaled and coughed. When we grew bored with skipping rocks, we started aiming at the ducks gliding along the pond. We kept throwing till we hit one.
Lots of places closed after the Dads lost their jobs. Shops and houses got boarded up. The diner didn’t close, but they had to cut back, and Ma wasn’t one of those waitresses that are pretty to look at. I’m not saying that’s why they let her go, just that they did. Grandma said it wasn’t proper anyway, a woman serving other folks food and leaving her kid to eat microwave pizza.
We didn’t have a lot of money, but at least we didn’t have to worry about feeding the Phoenix, like families with other pets. That was nice, not having that to worry about. The Jacksons had to let their dog go. Other families too.
It was okay though. The church set up these food-drives for needy families, that the local farmers could give food to. That was fine and nice, we looked forward to that once a week.
But then we had the rains, and the crops drowned.
The farmers didn’t have so much to give anymore.
Dinners for the needy families once every two weeks.
Dinners for the needy families once a month.
You get hungry enough to put anything in your mouth.
One day the schoolboys that were left stoned all the ducks at the pond. Then we hunted down the dogs and cats that neighbors had let go and we stoned them too.
I brought back a golden retriever for my family. My parents embraced me, but Grandma said in her day you didn’t eat pets. So Dad ate her share, as we watched the phoenix circle the sky through our kitchen window.
Stories cropped up, of local farms being raided. Jim Collins, who had a goat farm a few miles north of town, shot and killed a hungry fourteen year old boy. So we strung Jim Collins up and divided his goats.
Some weeks after we decided to eat the phoenix. It wouldn’t do much for our hunger, but we just didn’t think it was fair to leave it be, considering what we were going through.
Grandma said that in her day you didn’t eat myths, but Dad slapped her and told her to shut the hell up.
The phoenix tasted like its song.
We didn’t speak as we ate the phoenix. Grandma sat at the table with her empty plate.
Mom and Dad looked at me and asked me if I was still hungry, if I wanted something a little more substantial.
We looked at Grandma and she looked back at us, and I said I was still very hungry.
About the author:
Emil Ostrovski is represented by Laura Langlie of the Laura Langlie Literary Agency. He is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer, and has had several other short stories published in Word Riot. His debut novel, The Paradox of Vertical Flight, was released in 2013 by Greenwillow.