By Michelle Railey
The beginning of a little tale about a salamander raised by a phoenix.
Alexander was a salamander. But he didn’t know that.
His mom was Mama Phoenix. He just called her “Mom,” sometimes “mommy,” occasionally “mama.”
He didn’t know he was different from his brothers and sisters until one day, around the fountain in front of the school, his brothers and sisters started flying.
He couldn’t. He looked at his smart, spotted, shining skin and could find no wings, no sign of feathers. He tried to rise into the air. And he couldn’t.
He kept trying. And still couldn’t.
He tried when no one was looking. Nothing.
He looked in the mirror before school, checked his armpits, his tail: no feathers, nothing fluffy, no matter how hard he shook or tightly squeezed shut his eyes.
And eventually, one day, he stayed home sick from school and asked his mom, his sweet mom, his one and only mother:
“What’s the matter with me, Mom?”
There are sad sighs that can rattle window sashes. Moms are great at these. And Mama Phoenix gave one now.
The windows rattled. Alexander shivered.
Mama Phoenix told Alexander about a midsummer night, years ago, when the moonflowers bloomed at midnight, smelling like violets and honeysuckle. She described flying with lightning bugs above ponds and fountains and sweet-smelling things, green vines, sleeping people in crazy houses, fish jumping happily and, to their minds, unseen.
And she said she found Alexander, tiny and featherless, abandoned and alone.
Mama Phoenix had cradled him in her wings. They had shared a fire. Phoenixes and salamanders love fire; it’s a fact.
She brought him to her home and she raised him as her own.
She sighed again. The lace curtains fluttered in the cozy little home.
And Alexander heard the words he never imagined he would hear: “you will never fly, my sweet one. You are not a phoenix.”
And if a tear flowed down Mama Phoenix’ beak or down Alexander’s rounded snout, well, it would be best if we didn’t notice these things. We are not there to hug them right now. But it’s okay if we want to. Who wouldn’t?
The day continued, Alexander went to his tidy room. He lay on his bed and kicked the covers. He thought about his toys; he thought about dinner. He heard his brothers and sisters return from school and peeked out the door to see their shiny feathers in the sunlit hallway.
He didn’t want dinner so he pretended to be asleep. He kicked his toys. He turned this way. He turned that way. He loved Mama Phoenix. He loved his brothers and sisters. But he couldn’t fly, he wasn’t a phoenix. And he was mad about it.
He was curling his tail, his long, stupid, pointy tail, back and forth when he looked at it suspiciously.
How could he be so stupid? His brothers and sisters didn’t have a tail like that, long and pointy. Theirs were brilliant, fluffy, feathered, in multiples. His was sleek.
Mama Phoenix had a tail that went on forever: feathers and dots and sparks and, well, of course it didn’t end in a point (like his.) If it was covered with scales or skin, Alexander thought, well, you couldn’t see them.
Mama Phoenix, the brothers and sisters, they all had beaks.
Now Alexander was not just a little bit angry, he was embarrassed: how had he not seen these differences before?
For phoenix birthdays, as everyone knows, the birthday bird is consumed by flame and everyone claps. (Then they eat cake. Everyone gets cake for their birthday, even if they’re in ashes for the party.)
For Alexander’s birthday, the candles were lit, no one burst into flame, and Alexander crawled onto the cake, ate the candles, and then basked in the fire.
The whole family ate the cake after the fire was out.
But, and Alexander was kicking himself for not figuring out how this experience had always been so different, Alexander had never burst into flame, had never left a feather behind.
Alexander had never had a feather. He loved fire but couldn’t, himself, combust.
He thumped his tail extra hard, felt a moment of satisfaction, and did it again.
Who wanted feathers anyway? Flying was stupid. Feathers were, well, itchy and they had a tendency to shed and stick to things.
Alexander flicked his tail again, told himself he didn’t care much, and walked on his feet (“they don’t even have the same feet” he thought) to the window.
Alexander knew Mama Phoenix had been hovering outside his door.
But he was mad. Even at his mommy.
He looked out the window at the gold, dusty world below.
His brothers and sisters, his own mother, they could fly over that world. He struggled in its sand and its grit. He could climb quickly but he couldn’t take wing.
He had no wings.
Alexander realized he didn’t know what he was, only that he wasn’t a phoenix.
So…what could he be?
Where did he come from?
Where did he belong?
And if he couldn’t fly, then what were Alexanders like him good for?
And Alexander decided he’d better find these things out.
So Alexander ran away.
Dedicated to Todd Clevenger, Fang, Waldo, and Nymphie.