The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“Bird Boy” by Emerson Kaufman, Churchill High School
Honorable Mention, High School Level, 2022
By Emerson Kaufman
Churchill High School
The winter I turned seven, my father left to hunt a phoenix. He’d be back by spring, he assured my mother and me. He’d return with unparalleled riches. We’d move to the city and live in a grand mansion with dozens of rooms and servants galore. Our hands would grow soft from lack of use. He left on the solstice. The sky was cloudless and soft blue. He kissed my mother and ruffled my hair. Then, he walked away down the road, his best bow slung over his shoulder. He didn’t come back.
We waited for months, my mother and I, long past when the rest of the village had declared him gone for good. My mother pulled us through by pure force of will. She did the washing and mending for half the town, scrubbing at clothes until her hands split open. I did my part, too, caring for the chickens and running her errands. In my free time, I could spend hours in the woods at the outskirts of town. I loved to climb trees and search for birds’ nests.
When I was nine, I found a fledgling that had fallen from its nest. I searched everywhere to put it back, but I couldn’t find the nest. I ended up taking it home and looking after it. I carried the little bird around in pockets that I’d poorly stitched onto my shirts. Eventually, I coaxed it into flying away, but not before people had taken notice. After that, they called me Bird Boy. Within a few years, I think most people had forgotten I had a name at all.
At fifteen, I still retained my childhood nickname. Even my mother used it, though she rarely spoke to me at all. The loss of my father had gradually closed her off from the rest of the world, to the point where she hardly ever noticed when I’d spend a night sleeping in a tree instead of at home. She didn’t like to look at me anymore. I think I reminded her too much of him.
I still thought of my father often, too, but my memories of him had faded rapidly. In my mind, he was a hulking giant, though I knew from what people told me that I was nearly as tall as he had been. I remembered him setting me on his knee and telling me folk tales, stories of the mountains and the forest and the creatures within. My favorite story was always of the phoenix. I was entranced by tales of an immortal bird that burst into flames and was reborn in the ashes. My father said they were beautiful creatures, with long tails like living fire.
Though I had only stories to remember him by, my mother had years of life. His loss ate her up from the inside, and as time went on, she slowly faded.
On the winter solstice nine years after my father had left, I decided to do something. “Mother,” I said to her that morning, “I’m going to go find him.”
She stared at me a moment, then rose. “You’ll be needing supplies.” Like a whirlwind, she began packing. Within ten minutes, she’d put together a bag for me and slung it over my shoulder. Then, she looked me dead in the eyes, something she hadn’t done for a very long time. “You bring him back, Bird Boy,” she said. “You bring him back for me.”
And so it happened that I found myself leaving my home behind with nothing but a hastily packed bag and my father’s second-best bow. From my father’s stories, I knew that when phoenix hunting, one went up. So up I would go. I entered the forest in the same place I always had, weaving through the familiar trees. Within an hour, though, I no longer recognized it. I’d never gone very deep into the woods, and there was something utterly wild and alien about the forest this far away from the village. The only familiar things were the pine scent and bird calls. I took to playing an old favorite game, mimicking the sounds of the birds above. Whistles and twitters made for good companionship—better, I’d always thought, than the chatter of people.
By the next morning, I’d tired of my game. The mountains for which I’d been aiming were impossible to see in the forest, and there was no knowing how much further I would need to travel. They hadn’t looked so far off in the village, but distant shapes could be deceiving. I spent nearly an hour searching for the perfect tree to look from, tall, but with plenty of knot holes and branches for climbing. It was far higher than I’d ever climbed before, but I was sure I could manage it.
Years of climbing had paid off, and I scrambled deftly up the trunk. It took me a few minutes to reach the top, and when I did, I was shocked by the view. From here, I could see over the other trees, an ocean of green stretching out on either side of me. The rest of the view confirmed my worst fears. The mountains looked as far off as they had back in the village. I seemed to have gotten no closer. Cautiously, I began my descent, moving far slower than I had on the way up. When I looked down, I very nearly let go of the trunk in shock.
At the base of the tree stood a girl with chin length brown hair. With one hand, she shielded her eyes from the sun, and with the other, she loosely clutched my father’s bow. I stopped dead in my tracks, years of tree climbing experience the only thing keeping my grip on the bark. Our eyes locked, and we both stayed still for at least a moment more, calculating our next moves. Eventually, I started climbing down once more, jumping the last six feet or so to land in front of her.
She raised the bow a little, no arrow notched. “I could shoot you,” she said. This close, I could see the freckles that dotted her nose and the wide gap between her front teeth.
“Not without an arrow,” I replied.
She glanced down at the bow, looking slightly sheepish now. “Yeah, s’pose not. . . .You knew I wasn’t going to, huh?”
“If you wanted to shoot me, you would have done it while I was up there and couldn’t get away.”
“I’m Lark.” She offered her free hand to shake.
“Bird Boy.” I took the offered hand. She had a firm grip.
She squinted at me. “That’s a strange name.”
“I’m a strange person.”
She laughed at that. “Sure are. What were you doing in that tree?”
“Seeing how far off the mountains are.”
“They’re pretty far.”
“Yeah. Yeah they are,” she frowned.
I tugged at the sleeve of my shirt. She looked at her feet. Silence stretched on.
“Where do you come from?” I finally asked her. “I didn’t think I’d see anyone else in the forest.”
“I’m from the forest. My ma’s been livin’ out here for trees know how long.” She took in the look of surprise on my face. “She’s a witch, my ma. And she’s not, I dunno, properly my ma. She just found me and took me in is all. When I was a baby.”
“Oh,” I said. I’d heard stories of witches, and how they came into possession of children. Somehow, I didn’t quite believe that Lark had simply been “found,” as she put it, but I wasn’t going to argue with her.
“Why’re you going to the mountains?” she asked. She looked towards the bow. “You a phoenix hunter?”
“No, I’m looking for my father.”
“He a phoenix hunter?”
“He’s a fool then.” She stopped herself. “Sorry, I know he’s your father and all. Just . . . I’ve seen plenty of folks headin’ up into those mountains looking for those birds, and I ain’t ever seen one come back.”
“Well, he’s going to,” I replied, with more confidence than I actually had.
“You know,” said Lark, “I’m bound for the mountains, too. If you want to travel together, I wouldn’t be opposed.”
“Okay,” I found myself nodding. “Do you know how to find food out here? I don’t think I have enough for the journey.”
She looked at me strangely. “Course I do. What else d’you think I’ve been learning my whole life, being raised in the forest by a witch?”
The journey became somewhat easier with Lark. True to her word, she was skilled at finding food in the forest, and she made for good company. At first, I found her annoying, but gradually, she grew on me. I’d been the quiet sort most of my life, but as I spent time with her, I began to realize that it wasn’t that I’d had nothing to say, but rather that I’d had no one to say it to.
We traveled together two and a half weeks before even beginning to head up the mountains. Over the course of that time, I told Lark everything about my father. I could see that she didn’t believe he would be found after so long, though she didn’t comment. As time went by, I began to tell her about myself, too, and my mother, and my home village. In turn, she told me of her life. It was completely foreign to me, so different from the small community I’d grown up in.
Lark’s mother had raised her in a small cabin a half day’s travel from a village at the edge of the woods whose people would occasionally come to them for aid. Lark had grown up on the outskirts of society: useful at times, but generally feared. Recently, her mother had fallen ill. She’d told Lark that the only thing that could cure her was a rare herb that grew only in the mountains. So Lark had set out, determined to save her.
On our eighteenth day of travel together, our path sloped upwards. The air had been chilly in the forest, but became downright frigid as we climbed higher. We’d both worn heavy furs, but even they weren’t enough to keep out the cold. Neither of us knew exactly where we were going, and so we wandered along the rocky slopes, Lark stopping to look at nearly every plant we passed, and me freezing at any sound.
Around noon on day four, Lark stopped me. “There’s something I need to tell you,” she said, “I haven’t exactly been honest.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well . . . I’m not really after an herb. And my ma’s not sick. She’s cursed. By another witch. And I’ve got to get a phoenix feather for her.”
“I thought you said phoenix hunters were all fools?”
“Yeah,” she laughed a little. “But I’ve always known I’m a fool.”
“It’s a good thing I’m a fool, too,” I grinned at her. “And you know, where a phoenix is my father can’t be too far behind. So if you want to travel together, I wouldn’t be opposed.”
Lark gave up the charade of looking at plants, and joined me in listening for any sign of life. That night, a flash of red in the corner of our vision had both of us swiveling around. For just a second, I could see it: a stream of red weaving through the air before it was gone. Without needing to say anything to each other, Lark and I broke into a run. We sprinted after the bird. It was Lark who spotted it next and pointed it out to me. We ran on for nearly ten minutes, only occasionally getting glimpses of it. Finally, we rounded a bend in the path and saw the phoenix in all its glory.
The bird was perched on a rock, its body long and sleek, tapered off into a graceful neck and head at one end. Behind it there flowed a fiery tail, longer than the entirety of the bird’s body. Its feathers were mostly red, but tinted orange and gold and sometimes purple. In the light of the setting sun, the colors seemed to change like fire. Its beak was gold, and it had a plume of feathers rising from the top of its head. Its eyes were beady and black, like any bird’s, but when they locked on us, I could swear there was some humanity and intelligence in them.
Lark and I stood stock still in shock. The bird looked at us keenly, then lowered its head in what I could only assume was a bow. Before either of us could do anything, there came the sound of a voice, from no direction I could determine. “You came after me,” it said. The voice tugged at the deepest depths of my memory. It was rough and a little raspy, as familiar as my home.
“Father!” I said. I turned around to look for him, but there was nothing there. No one stood on the mountain side but Lark, the phoenix, and me.
“What?” Lark looked around too, then back at me. “What d’you mean, ‘father’?”
“That was my father’s voice.”
“The voice, just now. It was my father’s!”
“Bird Boy . . . I didn’t hear any voice.”
“You didn’t?” I stopped my search and turned back to her and the phoenix.
The bird stared at me, and I heard the voice again. “I am the phoenix,” it said, still in my father’s tone.
“Why are you using my father’s voice?” I asked it. Lark looked at me in confusion.
“I am using my voice,” the phoenix responded, still only in my head.
“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“Then let me show you.”
The phoenix opened its beak and let out a piercing shriek, the first sound Lark could hear, too. We watched in awe as dozens of phoenixes began to appear overhead, flying from every direction, answering this one’s call. They landed on rocks and the branches of trees, surrounding us completely. There were more than fifty of them, each with its head turned towards us.
“I am your father,” said the first phoenix, its voice still only an echo in my head. “And all of them,” it inclined its head towards the birds that had gathered, “are others who came hunting. This is our eternal punishment and reward for our efforts.”
“All this time and you’ve been alive?” I asked. “Do you know how hard it’s been? You left us! You could have come back.”
A tear slid down the face of the phoenix. “Don’t you think I tried? We are confined to the mountains. That is the greatest curse. We can only wait here and hope someday someone will come looking for us, only with the intent to find, not with the intent to kill.”
“Lark!” I turned to her, “You know how to break a curse, don’t you?” I quickly explained what had become of my father and the others.
She frowned, thinking. “Well, for curses on people, phoenix feathers are a cure-all. I dunno if they’d work on a phoenix though.” She turned to my father. “Maybe try eating a feather?”
He delicately plucked one off his wing and swallowed it down. We all waited in silence. Nothing happened. My father turned to me. “Phoenix,” I heard his voice, “your feathers.”
It took me a moment to understand what he’d meant, but once I did, I fed him a single hair from my head. I watched him swallow it, then stumbled back as he burst into flames. A puff of smoke obscured him from view. When it cleared, there was no longer a bird on the rock. Instead, I saw my father, looking exactly as I remembered him, as if not a day had passed since he left to go phoenix hunting.
“Father!” I ran towards him, and he pulled me into a hug.
“Phoenix,” he said, “Phoenix, my son.”
It had been so many years since I’d heard my real name. I’d so eagerly accepted anything but it, the name tainted by my father’s disappearance. Even my mother hadn’t wanted to hear that word.
“Your name’s Phoenix?” said Lark. “Why didn’t you say something? Magic’s a tricky thing, crazy literal sometimes. Bet your hair could cure every last one of these birds.”
As it turned out, she was right. Many of the phoenixes chose to stay in the mountains, having been there so long that anyone they remembered would be long dead, but others came with us. The birds were happy to give up several feathers for Lark, who stuffed her pockets with the offerings.
We stayed another night in the mountains, and in the morning began the trek homeward, now with around two dozen people in tow. Eventually, we came to the point where Lark would split off from our group.
“You’ll come visit, won’t you?” she asked.
“Definitely. You won’t be able to get rid of me so easily.”
“Good,” she grinned. “I’ll see you around, Phoenix.”
“You can count on it, Lark.”
The children cluster around me as I finish telling my story. I am old now, and the phoenix-people I brought home are all long gone. Soon, my stories will become just another tall tale.
“You really turned a phoenix into a person?” one little boy asks.
“Of course,” I say. “Or really, I turned him back into a person.”
A little girl frowns at me. She reminds me a bit of Lark with her small freckled face. But Lark is gone now, too. It was her time, she said, time to become a part of the forest like her mother did before her.
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?” the little girl asks.
“You can’t know for certain,” I smile at her. “But you’ll never find the magic in life if you don’t believe.”