The Phoenix’s Song
Illustrations by the wonderful Jon Koetsier
(Please check out his Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/jonathankoetsier)
Howlspark School was a place of wonder situated just off the coast of Kent. Years ago magicians had summoned a rock out of the water and then created an Abbey upon it. Time went by and the magnificently crafted buildings were altered and added to. Tall towers topped with astronomy towers were built, thick walls were raised around the complex, and a beautiful garden grew, full of the rarest flowers that flickered like gentle flames or jingled when brushed by the sea wind. Over the years, the Abbey changed into Howlspark School and, still, the wonders grew. The lake on the island was given an island made of marble in its center, two tall hills jagged with black and silver rocks were dragged out of the earth, and a wood full of beautiful trees was planted and cared for. And it was this wood, despite all the other magnificent sites, that held the most wonder. For in the trees a Phoenix lived. His song was so ravishing that even the groundskeeper, who always had something to look after and maintain, stopped to listen on the nights he went out to sweep the dead leaves off the path.
‘It certainly sings beautifully,’ he said, but he had his work to attend to, and he would forget about it. But the next night, as he walked back from a spot of weeding on the other side of the woods, he would hear the song again and say, ‘How beautiful.’
All the students and teachers at the school marvelled at the buildings, feeling like they belonged somewhere, but they would only truly feel they belonged somewhere special when they heard the Phoenix song.
Those who visited the school would never forget the Phoenix. They praised her highest of all. The students would treat the Phoenix with like respect. Some would just talk about her, or try to capture her song on tape, others would write poems about how magnificently she sung. One of these poems managed to find its way into the school magazine and, soon, into the hands of the current headmaster, Mr Ruan Jing. He sat in his comfy chair in his office and read, nodding his head in delight over such glowing descriptions of the school and the garden. But what truly caught the headmaster was the description of the Phoenix’s singing.
‘What’s this?’ Mr Jing said, ‘Does this Phoenix exist? Does she live within the confines of this school, and I didn’t know about her? To think I should have to learn that from a student.’
Thereupon he called his deputy head, a man who was so full of himself that when anyone talked to him, he only answered ‘Pah.’
‘A poet here says there’s a most wonderful bird that can sing beautifully and harmoniously, and he calls her the Phoenix,’ said Mr Jing. ‘He says she’s the best thing in this school. Why haven’t I been informed?’
‘I’ve never heard of this Phoenix,’ said the deputy. ‘As for this poet, it’s only one student.’
‘Well, I dare say I ought to hear this Phoenix sing,’ said Mr Jing. ‘What better way to test if the boy’s poem is true?’
‘As I’ve said, I’ve never heard of the Phoenix before,’ said the deputy. ‘But I shall look for her and bring her to you.’
The deputy started to search throughout the school complex. He walked over to the tall hills with their jutting rocks and looked inside the numerous caverns. He strolled along the walls, looking this way and that, keeping his ears open for any singing Phoenix. He came to the ruined tower surrounded by thick vines and tall trees but didn’t find the Phoenix. So the deputy returned to Mr Jing, and said she must have been a story invented by the poet. ‘Sir, you would scarcely believe how much in the school magazine is merely fictitious: if not downright black art.’
‘But the poem was written by the finest student wordsmith, and he never lies or embellishes the truth,’ said Mr Jing. ‘She can’t be a pack of lies. I must hear this Phoenix. I insist on hearing her sing this evening. She has my high favour, and if she is not forthcoming I will have the student and teacher body sent to bed without any supper.’
‘Gracious, that doesn’t seem fair,’ said the deputy, quietly enough so Mr Jing didn’t hear, and scurried up all the stairs, through all the courtyards and cloisters. And numerous heads of department ran with him, for no one wanted to go to bed without having dinner.
There was much questioning as to the whereabouts of this remarkable Phoenix, which was so well known among the students, gardeners, school and care takers but not by the headmaster and the heads of department. At last they found a first-year student wandering around and looking slightly lost. Baffled at the crowd of teachers running towards her, she said: ‘The Phoenix? I know her. Yes, she can sing. Every evening I walk from the pier to the dormitories, as I help out there until fairly late. On my walk back, I get tired and rest in the woods. Its then I hear the Phoenix sing. Her song is certainly something; it makes me feel as if my dad’s engulfing me a warm embrace.’
‘If that is so,’ said the deputy, ‘I’ll make sure you’re justly rewarded. I’ll even get permission for you to choose which chores you’d prefer to do. That’s if you’ll take us to the Phoenix that is commanded to appear before Mr Jing this evening.’
So the student led the deputy and heads of houses into the forest where the Phoenix usually sang. On the way to the forest, they passed the school goat that bleated.
‘Oh,’ said the head of history, ‘that must be it. What a powerful voice for such a delicate creature. I’m sure I’ve heard her sing before.’
‘No, that’s the school goat,’ said the student. ‘We still have a short way to go.’
Then the fire crickets in the long grass began to buzz with their own song.
‘Glorious!’ said the head of elemental magic. ‘Now I hear her like church bells ringing.’
‘No, that’s the crickets,’ said the student. ‘But I think we shall hear her soon.’
Then the Phoenix sang.
‘That’s the Phoenix,’ said the first-year student. ‘Listen, listen! There she is.’ She pointed to a beautiful bird with red, orange, blue, white and green feathers that perched high up in the branches. Little tongues of flame licked out and around the creature as if she was on fire.
‘Is it possible?’ said the deputy. ‘Well, I never would have thought that such a beautiful creature could hide itself away so well.’
‘Wonderful Phoenix,’ said the first year student, ‘our headmaster wants to hear you sing.’
‘Certainly,’ answered the Phoenix, and burst into song.
‘Sounds like glass bells,’ said the head of elemental transport.
‘No, no, sounds like rain splattering against a window whilst a hearth is crackling,’ said the head of magical music.
‘No, very similar to the sound of classical violins,’ said the deputy. ‘Just see her elegant throat, how busily it throbs. I’m astounded we’ve never heard her before. I’m sure she’ll be a great success with Mr Jing.’
‘Shall I sing to the headmaster again? Asked the Phoenix, for she thought that the headmaster was present.
‘My good Phoenix,’ said the deputy, ‘I have the honour to command your presence at the school dinner this evening, where you’ll delight the headmaster with your charming song.’
‘My song sounds best in the wood,’ said the Phoenix, but she went with them willingly when she heard it was the headmaster’s wish.
The dining hall had been especially prepared for the occasion. The dark oak walls and floors shone in the rays of many gold lamps. The flowers that flickered like flames and those that tinkled like bells had been placed in beautiful arrangement and dotted the tables in vases, and there was such a commotion of students entering and talking and leaving and returning that you could scarcely hear yourself talk. At the top end of the great dining hall, where the headmaster sat, was a golden perch for the Phoenix. The whole school was there, and they let the little first year sit on the table with the teachers. She kept very quiet and continued to glance back towards where her friends were sitting. Still, it was another way for the deputy to thank her. Everyone was dressed in their best suit or dress, and all stared at the Phoenix to which Mr Jing graciously nodded.
And the Phoenix sang so sweetly that tears came into Mr Jing’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks, along with the rest of the school including the most hardened of bullies. Then the Phoenix sang still more sweetly. Mr Jing was so touched that he wanted to reward the bird with a medal, but the Phoenix declined it with thanks. She had already been amply rewarded.
‘I have seen tears in the eyes of the headmaster,’ she said. ‘Nothing could surpass that. A headmaster’s tears are strangely beautiful. I have my reward.’ And she sang again, magnificently.
‘It’s the most charming flirting I’ve ever heard,’ said the head girl, and she took water in her mouth so that she could gurgle when anyone spoke to her, hoping to rival the Phoenix despite looking ridiculous. Even the nerds and the bullies found the Phoenix’s singing stunning, the fact they agreed on something said a great deal. Unquestionably the Phoenix was a success. She was to stay in the headmaster’s office, and have her own cage. She had permission to fly twice a day, and once at night. Seven students, handpicked for their eager eyes and quick reflexes, attended her, each one holding tight to a different colour ribbon tied to the Phoenix’s leg. There wasn’t much fun on such outings, even though when the Phoenix decided to fly the ribbons made it appear as if a rainbow was following her.
The whole town talked about the marvellous bird, and if two people met it was difficult for them not to talk about anything other than her. A couple of students decided to give themselves the nickname ‘Phoenix’ and magical music, very abruptly, became a popular subject.
One day the headmaster received a large package labelled ‘The Phoenix.’
‘This must be something to help me care for my celebrated bird,’ He said. But it wasn’t, it was neither an elegant cage, brushes to keep the Phoenix’s feathers in check or something along those lines. In the box was a work of art, a metal Phoenix most like the real one except that it was encrusted with expensive diamonds, rubies and sapphires. When wound up by a small key, the artificial bird could sing one of the Phoenix’s songs while wagging its glittering gold, silver and bronze tail. What made it particularly magnificent was that, just like the actual Phoenix, whoever listened to the mechanical bird would hear their favourite and most cherished sound whether that was a crackling hearth or a thunder storm through glass. Round its neck hung a ribbon with a label that read: ‘The Headmaster of Howlspark’s Phoenix is a poor thing compared with that of the Headmaster of Whistleblaze.’
‘Isn’t that nice?’ everyone who saw it said, and the student who had brought the parcel to Mr Jing was permitted to choose that evening’s feast.
‘Now let’s have them sing together. What a duet that will be,’ suggested some of the heads of department.
So they had to sing together, but it didn’t go that well. The real Phoenix sang at whatever speed she fancied, while the imitation bird continued to sing at the same pace.
‘That’s not the newcomer’s fault,’ said the head of music. ‘It keeps perfect time and there’s not a single duff note.’
Then they had the mechanical bird sing by itself. It met with the same success as the real Phoenix; besides it was much prettier with all the sparkling gemstones. Thirty-seven times it sang the self-same song without tiring. The teachers would gladly have heard it again, but Mr Jing said the real Phoenix should now have her turn. But where was she? No one had noticed her flying out the open window, back to her home in the green wood beside the south wall.
‘But what made her do that?’ said Mr Jing.
Some of the teachers could understand, but others called it a most ungrateful wretch. ‘Luckily we have the best bird,’ they said, and made the mechanical one sing again. And the head of music praised the artificial Phoenix beyond measure. Yes, he said that the contraption was much better than the real Phoenix, not only in its dress and many beautiful diamonds, but also in its mechanical interior.
‘You see, fellow teachers and above all yourself, headmaster sir, with a real Phoenix you can never know what to truly expect but with this intricately designed and crafted bird everything is always as intended. Nothing is left to chance. I can explain how it ticks and take it to pieces. I can show you how the mechanical wheels are exactly arranged and how they turn.’
‘Our sentiments exactly,’ said the deputy, and the head of music was commanded to organise a public concert where the mechanical Phoenix would be the main feature. After all, the headmaster said that the school should hear it. And hear it they did, with much pleasure. But the old groundskeeper who was very fond of the real Phoenix said, ‘This is very pretty, nearly the actual thing, but not quite. I can’t understand what’s lacking.’
The real Phoenix was banished from singing in the school hall and from the headmaster’s chambers. In its place, the mechanical bird sat on a cushion beside the headmaster’s bed. Numerous gifts of gold and jewels had been given to it, and it had been bestowed the title: ‘Grand Singer-of-the-Headmaster-to-Sleep.’
The head of music wrote a melody in honour of the mechanical bird and a one hundred thousand word thesis about the bird’s inner workings.
After a year Mr Jing, his teachers and all the students knew every twitter of the artificial song by heart. They liked it all the better now they could sing it from memory, which they did. And if a student didn’t know how the mechanical Phoenix sang, he was bullied and labelled ‘dumb’. That’s how popular the mechanical bird was.
But one night, while the mechanical bird was singing its best by Mr Jing’s bed, something inside the bird broke with a twang. Whir-r-r, the cogs came to a grinding halt and the music stopped. Mr Jing jumped out of bed and called for the head of music, but what could he do? He fussed over the broken bird, investigated every cog and patched up the bird as well as possible. But he had to say, eventually, that the mechanical Phoenix required rest. The inner workings were worn and the teeth of the cogs had become smooth. If he replaced them, the tune would surely be spoiled. This was dreadful. And, so, the headmaster only let the bird sing once a year and that was for the leaver’s assembly. Still, that was almost unbearable. It churned and struggled and managed to finish the annual song, but would slow down with a painful grinding each time it came to the end. New students wouldn’t understand what was so magnificent about this mechanical bird and why others made such a fuss about it. Those students who remembered the first Phoenix and what made the mechanical Phoenix so special slowly left the school. Five years passed and Mr Jing had to accept that the mechanical bird was no longer of any use. It was placed on the windowsill and, occasionally, dusted. This made him dreadfully sad and he fell seriously ill. The students and teachers loved their headmaster, and now became mournful as he fell sick. Sick unto death, it was rumoured. A new headmaster was chosen in readiness. Students and teachers walked the corridors in a somber mood and would ask the deputy how it went with Mr Jing.
‘Pah,’ said he, and shook his head.
Cold, clammy and pale lay Mr Jing in his great bed. All the teachers thought he was dead and went to welcome the new headmaster. Banners and bunting were placed up for the entrance of the new headmaster. The younger students tried to spruce themselves up as much as possible and the older students were on best behaviour. Deep mats were laid in all the rooms and passageways, to muffle each footstep. It was so quiet in the school and the buzz for the new headmaster, a man called Meade, was muted as a part inside each student and teacher wasn’t ready for the old headmaster to pass away. But Mr Jing wasn’t yet dead. Stiff and pale he lay, in his grand bed with long, thick curtains. High in the wall was an open window, through which moonlight fell on him and the mechanical bird, which had collected dust and a couple of spiders’ webs.
Each breath the headmaster took was painful. It was as if something was pressing down on his chest. Opening his eyes he saw it was Death. Death had its skeletal hands placed on the headmaster’s ribcage. Its cowl was pulled back so Mr Jing could see its empty eye sockets and teeth gritted in an unpleasant smile. Among the folds of the long curtains surrounding the bed were strangely familiar faces. Some were wretched and unpleasant to look at; others were loving and kind. They were the students of the school that the Headmaster had awarded or punished, and the poor parents who couldn’t afford to send their children to Howlspark beside the rich ones who could. They came back to him now that Death was pressing down on him, quite literally.
‘Do you remember us?’ They whispered, one after the other. ‘Do you remember?’ They told him who they were and what Mr Jing had done for them, before they disappeared and were replaced by new faces.
‘No, I will not remember!’ said Mr Jing, through difficult breaths. ‘Music. Please, music. Where is the Phoenix?’ But they continued to whisper and Death nodded, sagely, at each word.
‘Music,’ Mr Jing said. ‘Sing, please. Precious Phoenix. I’ve…given you all. Sing, darn it, sing!’
But the mechanical bird didn’t open its beak to sing. It didn’t move its metal wings or turn to look at the headmaster. There was no one to wind it up, nothing to make it perform. Death kept staring through his empty eyes, and it was quiet.
Then, through the window came a song that Mr Jing hadn’t heard in a while. He turned his head and, there, perched on his window sill was the live Phoenix. The girl who had, all those years ago, led the deputy to the Phoenix had told the Phoenix of the headmaster’s illness. The Phoenix, having a warm and caring heart, had come to sing comfort and hope into the headmaster. As he sang, the phantoms grew pale. And as they became pale, blood re-entered and gave colour back to the old headmaster.
Even Death listened, and said, ‘Sing on, wonderful Phoenix, sing on.’
The Phoenix paused and said, ‘Will you give back the headmaster’s breath? If you do, I’ll give you a song.’
And Death took his hand off the Headmaster’s chest. Mr Jing took a deep, satisfying breath. The Phoenix sang on. And this time both Death and the headmaster heard the same melody. It sang of the quiet churchyard where black roses grew, she sang of the crumbling tower where the founders of the school were buried, she sang of the places where the flowers smelt sweet, the air was crisp and the grass was a rich green. Death longed for his garden. Out through the window drifted a cold grey mist, as Death left.
‘Thank you,’ the headmaster said. ‘Lovely bird of Sanctum’s flame, I know you of old. I sent you away and yet you sung back Death. How can I reward you?’
‘You already have,’ said the Phoenix. ‘I brought tears to your eyes when I first sang for you. To the heart of a singer that is treasure enough. But sleep now, and grow fresh and strong while I sing.’
She sang on until Mr Jing fell into a sweet and soothing slumber.
The sun was shining through his window when he awoke, restored and healthy. His deputy hadn’t returned for he thought Mr Jing had passed away. Still, the Phoenix sang.
‘You must stay with me, forever,’ said Mr Jing. ‘Sing to me only when you desire. I’ll break the mechanical bird into a million shards.’
‘No,’ said the Phoenix. ‘It did its best. Keep it near you. I can’t remain here; I desire to be among the trees. There I can enjoy the shade and sing with the other birds of the woods. However, I will return as I desire and sing you all sorts of tales. I shall be your singing Phoenix, informing you about the happy students and the sad ones, the tired teachers and the energised ones. Then you can govern this school with a gentle and firm fairness. A singing bird can see all sorts of things, some of which even you wouldn’t be privy to. I will come and sing to you, if you will promise me one thing.’
‘All I have is yours,’ said Mr Jing.
‘One thing only,’ the Phoenix said. ‘Remember me when you act justly and follow the news I give you. If you do that, all will go even better.’ And away she flew.
The deputy came in to prepare the dead headmaster for burial, where he found him standing in suit and gown. And Mr Jing said, with a grin, ‘Good morning.’
Based on Anderson’s ‘The Nightingale’