Though my family almost unanimously held me responsible for the havoc that occurred at our picnic (Mother being the exception), to this day I hold that the fault was actually Roger’s. And not merely because of what he did to precipitate the chaos, but because he, not I, was the finder of the extraordinary egg.
It was a beautiful night, with the full moon shimmering over the ocean waters. My family, Spiro, and Theodore had gathered for a picnic on a cliff overlooking the bay. We had lit a small bonfire and roasted some quail Leslie had shot, and baked fish in the embers. Having all eaten a great deal, we were lazily relaxing, trying to decide whether to go for a swim or have one more glass of wine, one more ripe fig, or one more handful of olives.
I was wandering along the cliff, ignoring Mother’s calls to be careful, inspecting the places where the edge had crumbled away to reveal striated bands of light and dark like a layer cake. Roger accompanied me, but had wandered off and was sniffing ahead of me. He suddenly gave a startled yelp, then backed off and stood staring at something at the edge of the cliff. I went to see what had caught his attention.
A gem the size and shape of a goose egg was embedded in the rough stone of the cliff, smooth and shiny and gleaming red-gold. Excitedly, I lay down to try to prise it out. But when I touched it, I too yelped in surprise. The gem was as hot as if it had been baking in the sun all day, though it had been hours since the sun had gone down.
I carefully rocked the jewel loose from its bed of stone. Once I had it free, I realized that it couldn’t be a rock: it wasn’t heavy enough, even for a hollow geode. I ran my fingers over it. The texture was familiar. It was an egg. A fossil egg, since it had been embedded in stone. I had to show Theodore my prize. He knew everything, and could undoubtedly tell me what sort of ancient bird had laid it and why it had stayed hot longer than the rock around it.
“Theodore!” I called excitedly, holding out the egg as I ran toward him. “Look what I—”
Just then, something stirred in the undergrowth. I had the briefest glimpse of the bright eyes and white tail of a rabbit before Roger, his hunting instincts aroused, rocketed for it. He slammed into my ankles as he passed by in a furry streak. I lost my balance and fell on my face in the soft sand. The egg flew from my hands and landed in the heart of the bonfire.
With a wail of dismay, I leaped to my feet and peered into the flames, hoping against hope that it hadn’t broken but knowing that even if in some miracle it hadn’t, it had surely been burned and blackened. But it had not. The egg lay atop the coals, perfectly intact. If anything, its brilliant color had become even more intense, glowing and coruscating, intensifying until it was almost too bright to look at.
A silence fell. I was aware of everyone standing to peer into the flames.
The color of the egg faded as its light brightened, until it became an oval of blinding white light. I shaded my eyes, but not before I saw a black crack zigzag across the egg like a bolt of lightning.
The egg burst open with a sound like a gunshot. Everyone jumped, and Margo let out a scream.
A bird rose from the flames. Its feathers were the rippling orange-red-gold-white of fire, and seemed to cast their own light. Its body and beak resembled that of a merlin, and its eyes were shiny and black as obsidian. It circled the fire, gliding like the falcon it resembled, then landed on a nearby boulder.
“What is it, Theodore?” I asked.
“There is a… er… that is to say a myth of a bird which hatches in fire,” he began.
For once, Larry identified an animal before Theodore could. “It’s a phoenix!”
I eagerly stepped toward the beautiful bird, but Theodore held me back. “I wouldn’t get too close.”
Larry strode over to the phoenix. “As an author, I am the spiritual heir to the myth-makers of the ancient world, whose craft enabled us to still remember the phoenix today. It will naturally be quite friendly to me.” He offered it his arm.
Theodore held up a warning hand. “I don’t think that is… er… advisable.”
“What, are you saying I can’t compare myself to Homer? To Ovid? Perhaps not yet, but I’m certainly closer than anyone else in this motley crew.” Graciously, Larry added, “With the possible exception of yourself, of course.”
“No,” Theodore said patiently. “I meant that it is very likely to be... er...”
Larry pushed his forearm into the legs of the phoenix. It took flight like a streak of molten gold, and Larry’s jacket burst into flames.
“...hot,” Theodore concluded.
Bellowing like a bull, Larry tried to rip off his jacket, but this only caused him to get his arms entangled in the sleeves.
“Drop and roll,” Leslie shouted. “Drop and roll!”
This wise advice went unheeded. Larry struggled frantically with his jacket, which continued to burn merrily. Roger leaped up and began to run in circles around him, barking madly.
“Margo!” Mother called. “Throw that on Larry!”
Mother pointed to a pitcher of lemonade which was out of her own reach, but close to Margo’s hand. But Margo, misunderstanding what Mother had indicated, snatched up a bottle of retsina and hurled that over Larry. It made contact just as he managed to rip off his jacket. The amber wave of liquid broke over his flaming jacket and became a spray of burning droplets. They fell over Larry, setting his pants and shirt ablaze. Larry dropped his jacket and began to yank down his pants.
As all of this was happening, the phoenix circled overhead, showering us with sparks and emitting a sound like a hissing tea-kettle. I was torn between observing its flight and watching the chaos all around me.
“Stand backs!” Spiro roared. “Everybodys stand backs! I’ll fixes this!”
He lunged forward just as Larry succeeded in tearing his pants off. Two pale moons were momentarily exposed, making Margo scream again, but only for a second. The next instant, Spiro had tackled him and hurtled with him off the cliff. Roger, overcome with excitement, leaped after them. There was a long yell, then a splash. Then silence.
We all rushed to the cliff-edge, momentarily forgetting the phoenix, and peered over. To our relief, we saw three figures bob up in a burst of green phosphorescence, then begin swimming strongly for shore.
There was another tea-kettle shriek. The phoenix, perhaps annoyed at no longer being the center of attention, swooped low. Blazing like a comet, it swept across the picnic blanket. The blanket and everything on it burst into flames in its wake.
“Sand!” Leslie barked. “Smother it with sand!”
As he and Mother and Margo began scooping and flinging sand, the phoenix rose again, circling and diving in trails of fire across the black night sky.
“How does it do that?” I asked Theodore, far too fascinated by the phoenix to help with the firefighting. “How does it burn?”
Theodore, standing back happily to observe both the phoenix and the commotion, rubbed his finger across his beard. “It’s difficult to surmise without more…er… direct study. Perhaps a similar phenomenon to electricity in eels. But this is a new…um…well, new appearance, that is, of a creature that existed before modern zoology. It doesn’t even have a scientific name, let alone a body of study.”
"Why don't you name it now?" I excitedly suggested.
“You understand that it wouldn’t be an… um… official name. We should know more about it for that. What it eats, for instance. But as a… um… nickname, so to speak, one might call it avis ignea, the bird of fire.”
By then Spiro, Roger, and Larry had emerged from the ocean and stalked up the slope to our picnic area, Larry complaining bitterly all the way. “The boy’s a menace! You can’t even drink a bottle of wine in peace without being attacked by creatures from mythology. Just look what it did to our picnic!”
He pointed a trembling finger at the remains of the picnic. Sea water dripped from his hand and hissed into the flames.
“Or, perhaps, avis leti,” Theodore remarked thoughtfully. “From letum, meaning ruin in reference to…er… inanimate objects.”
He bent over to neatly empty his glass of lemonade over a small fire that had sprung up on a discarded plate of mezze.
“It takes an exceptional degree of heat to set olives on fire. They are quite… um… wet. And see, Gerry?” He pointed downward with his cane. “There the sand has turned to glass. And yet, as you can see, nobody has been burned. Not even Larry.”
It was true. In the bright white light of the moon and the brighter yellow brilliance cast by the circling, hissing phoenix, I could see that while Larry’s clothes had been burned, Larry himself had not. But that did not pacify my brother in the slightest.
“You’d think one could have a peaceful picnic under the moon, free of chaos and ruin, just once,” he said. “But no! Bring Gerry, and now look at our picnic! I don’t know whether the boy belongs behind bars in a zoo with his friends the animals, or in a sanitarium for youthful pyromaniacs.”
“It was hardly his fault,” Mother said. “He didn't mean to hatch the egg in the fire.”
“Can’t you put your pants on, Larry?” Margo suggested. "Everyone's always saying I don't wear enough. But look at you! It's six of one and a dozen of the other."
Larry gestured bitterly at the scorched remnants of his pants. "Look at me? Look at my pants! I feel like the librarian of Alexandria."
"Takes this, Master Larrys." Spiro scooped up the charred remains of the picnic blanket and handed it to him. In wounded silence, Larry wrapped it around his hips like a mange-stricken sarong.
“I don’t think the phoenix liked you comparing yourself to Homer,” Leslie said.
At that, the phoenix let out a hissing shriek, perhaps in agreement. Then it arrowed upward and out to sea, glowing so bright that it left a dazzled trail across our eyes. It sliced the night sky like a burning sword. And then it reached the far horizon, and was gone.
A speck of light fell from the sky, gentle as a curl of snow. Instinctively, I opened my hands and caught it. A red-gold feather the length of my little finger settled into the hollow of my palm. It was hot, almost too hot to hold. But I was too fascinated by the rippling light along the vanes and the liquid fire that seemed to burn inside the shaft to let it go, and the longer I held it, the less painful (though no less hot) the feather became. After a few minutes, the sensation became pleasant in the slightly shocking manner of a very hot bath.
“That boy will be the death of us all,” said Larry with conviction. “Scorpions! Magpies! And a phoenix! What next? A minotaur? A hydra?”
I hastened to explain to Larry that he had nothing to fear from hydras. They might look alarming, with their many waving tentacles, but they fed only on water fleas and were far too small to sting a human.
Larry rolled his eyes heavenward. “Theodore! I thought you were giving the boy an education! He won’t survive a day if he thinks sea monsters can be fobbed off with water fleas!”
“The modern hydra…er…that is to say, the invertebrate, was named after the mythological Hydra of Lerna, a many-headed serpent large enough to sink ships,” Theodore explained to me. Casting a glance across the wine-dark sea, he added, “Though perhaps it’s less…er…mythological than one might have previously assumed.”
Back at our snow-white villa, I laid the phoenix feather on a small metal plate I stole from the kitchen, unceremoniously evicted some moths from a glass bell jar, and set that over the plate. And there it stayed, alongside my other most prized possessions, which at that time included a heart-shaped sea urchin, a jet-black scorpion floating in a vial of olive oil, and the carefully wired and posed skeleton of a Crete spiny mouse.
Most of that collection has been lost or broken over the years, but a few precious items remain: a golden pebble shaped like a maple leaf, the polished tooth of a jackal, and the phoenix feather. On a day like today, when the rain comes down in stinging sheets and all of England seems determined to remind its inhabitants why its most sensible citizens long since fled for sunnier climes, I take the phoenix feather from its Lucite case and lay it on the palm of my hand. Its fire is burning still.