The Poem in Prose
Flight of the Phoenix by Gabriel Alighieri
Copyright 1978 Maurice Tuck
I stand on the desert sand, the stark moon overhead, gazing at the awesome spire of granite painted pale by the lunar light. The stones surge madly, desperately, before me, like the talons of some buried behemoth – only the ashen nails of its monstrous hand revealed by erosion, scraping the skies, grasping upward at earth’s satellite, pell-mell in flight. High they are – the summits – and haughty – unscalable, guarded by palisade and precipice. Those stone-faced summits sense my presence far below them on the level sands. They guess my mission and curse me, staring desolately down at me – all the while, pretending not to see me.
Tilting peaks – I have hunted you for decades, and knew you knew and cursed me. I have fallen into a ranting madness, born of the hunger that has sustained and driven me – a hunger so great that the very gods who wrought you fled before my craving. Slanting stones – you dread me, but in this quest, Dread has been my teacher. All your anger and passion will not deter me, nor will your threats break my resolve – I am unfeeling, unmoved by your fear and your malice. You are shaken by the craving which corrupts me, renders me pitiless. You quail at the callus which eats cancerously at my soul, which hardens my heart to your desperate pleading. Know now with certainty what it is that has driven me here, what I crave as I gaze on you, heedless of the sorrow I bring you.
Endless years of studies taught me that you are the guardians of a bird out of legend . Deep in your stone fastness you shelter the Phoenix – splendour of Providence, immune to time and age and the eroding seasons. For this task – to harbor the Phoenix – the gods made you, and to confound this task – to shatter your guardianship – I am come. For you are the final frontier that frustrates my quest. You are the terminus to which this sorrowful searcher has trekked after so many decades. Yield to me the treasure you shepherd, the jewel you nurture. Surrender to me your heart and soul.
Against all the resistance of those stone guardians I step forward. Like a pall, their wills resist me. A lesser hunger would be stayed. But my body moves forward of its own volition, like a zombie advancing in grotesque motions, distorted by a field of opposition. Bleakness and bitterness vie in my heart, yet I move forward into the dark shadow cast by the baleful, calamitous cliffs. Compelled by hunger, I enter that shadowy starkness.
Ignoring the perils to my soul, I touch the stone, I climb those cliffs. I climb though I know it is treason against nature. By dark cunning, my body scales the heights, though the crags themselves bite at my bones and hammer at my mind, in desperate defiance of my resolve. My mind and will nearly numb, yet I climb by compulsion, pulled upward, guided by the instincts of the hunter, led by sinister senses which only the hunter possesses. Twisting and grappling, grasping where there seems to be no hold, rising where others would fall, my coveting speeds me upward, my unholy thirst sustains me. I hunt out the way to the Phoenix’s nest though the mountains that mother him oppose me with all of their might. My body climbs unerringly, though the precipice casts my mind and senses into confusion. Upwards through madness until the cliffs loom inverted and the stone walls swirl about me. I seem to be clambering downwards, headfirst, sinking into an angry whirlwind. My mind is scorched and lost in the winds which twirl like hungry dervishes. Yet I climb.
Upward, until no reason or reasoning remains; my lust alone, worn and chapped, keeps me moving. Yet upward, until at length, just on the furthermost cliff, I see a shimmer, upheld and wrapped in stone fingers – the Phoenix’s nest, soul-searing sight in this dark night of my spirit, Upward I climb until indeed against all hope, despite all madness of the mind, I have found my quarry. Unhurried now, I stare in fulfillment, drink in victory, knowing that for the moment I am safe, even though I stand in the mighty light of the full moon of Scorpio. I bear the impotent malice of the crags, but am safe from the eye of the Phoenix, bathed though I am in the lunar radiance. In safe, measured paces I cross to my goal – the next of the Phoenix. On this one night, this night alone, I am safe, for tonight is the night of the Quest of the Phoenix.
Every five hundred years, the Phoenix must hunt for kindling of cassia bark. He must gather the resin of frankincense and other magical herbs that have grown in the desert while the allotted span of his life – one-half millennium – counts down to precious minutes. These herbs and dead wood must he gather and bring to his next in order to build a pyre, a funeral fire that will hallow and purify him. Twice a millennium he must pass through the celebration and ritual of the flames, be consumed in a conflagration of death and resurrection.
Reaching at length the untenanted nest, from which radiance spills, I am exhausted in body and weary in soul, yet buoyed by success I had not dared to dream. I kneel and gaze into the nest, and behold! – my quest is fulfilled – there as foretold by my laborious research, there rest three feathers – three feathers of undreamt-of perfection.
Never was a ravening hunger more fully fed, sated with greater repletion. Never was expectation more greatly surpassed in the fulfillment. Three feathers of divine crimson color and perfect fashioning bring to completion the decades of arduous study and auguries which first seeded the quest in my mind, birthed the lust which sent me searching through the scorching lands of Araby, hunting exactly these three noble, nearly impervious, crimson red pinions. Nearly impervious, indestructible – except only on this night of the full moon of Scorpio, once every five hundred years – on this night alone these feathers might be destroyed by burning by one who is sufficiently daring and ruthless to set them to the flames. Only a ruthless mind lost in darkness could set such brilliant perfection to the fire.
This feather, redder than the bright red blood of the purest hero’s heart, yet edged with gold – this feather, was ripped, with screeching and churning, from the Phoenix’s wing by a great Gryphon mad for the gold the feather reflected in the bright midday skies of Persia.
This plume, crimson, primordial, was plucked from the crest of the Phoenix’s collar by three ungentle, gold-eyed Arabian harpies, whose nature is ever to snatch that which is most needful. Such was their battle that the skies were filled with lightning and the harpies’ strident shrieks, which crack stones and the bones of men.
And this – this precious and perilous scarlet plume was savagely wrested from the Phoenix’s chest in a cruel combat with the Sphinx, whose wisdom led it to a previous nest. There in the heights they contested until the Phoenix overthrew the Sphinx to crash on the rocks far below, no more to be seen.
The Phoenix, with infinite persistence, gathered, as it must, these three plumes and cached them in its new nest in these crags, the haven where they lay safe through the ages, until I, I the heartless and hungry, I am come and these feathers I pillage, imprisoning them in my fingers, most craven of cages. These feathers, now exposed to my lust, making me now the lord and master of the Phoenix, the Lord of this bower. These feathers I close in my hand, at the command of my merciless power. For at sunrise of this magical night, the Phoenix in its entirety, including without exception every feather it has ever grown, must burn in its funeral pyre. The Phoenix, born white, but growing red and ever redder through the ages, as it achieves timeworn perfect knowledge, must, after the passage of each five hundred years, enter the cleansing fire, burning to ashes in order to rise up renewed in sublime resurrection,
Quickly I strike a flame, for I can faintly here him approaching – the noise of his wings like a soughing and sighing, he comes dreadfully flying, until suddenly he arrives, breaching my solitude, and I stand face to face with my moment of fate. “Thief”, he cries out in a voice stronger and more deadly than I had thought to hear. “Who has crept to my nest to steal my pinions? To sever my fate and my doom?” It is clear he guesses at once my shameful quest, and I cringe at his voice – dire and full of majesty. Yet I dare to gaze directly upon him – his form is vast and radiant with its own internal luminance, though the last shreds of night still linger. Though he is red, he is a million shades of red and gold-red and of a shifting sheen. He shines with an incandescent grace, and I know I should bow in awe and crave forgiveness. But I do not.
I answer him tremblingly, “Phoenix, sell me your knowledge gathered over your long life and now reaching its end. I will trade you these feathers for answers to my questions. Three feathers, three questions, three answers. Otherwise I will cast your feathers into these embers I have lit and they will burn in these moonbeams which will bring your utter fiery destruction before sunrise can deliver you salvation. Three questions, and three times you must answer before morning shines its purifying light upon you.”
I feel the mind and eye of the Phoenix pierce my shallow being and behold my innermost self. He judges me and sighs, “You are driven by suborning, cancerous lusts, and their price has been your wretched and dreary life. Yet ask your questions. My life’s time has diminished, nearly reached its end. I hunted overlong these cassia branches and these desert herbs. The night is almost finished.”
“First, Phoenix, tell me how you came to be – what parents gave birth to you?”
“My sire was the fire, and my mother was the ashes. By the two of them I was consummated. First born of history, wrought of flame and primordial matter.” Little I understood, but the question was answered and time pressed, so I surrendered one feather to his deadly claw and moved forwards. “Second, dear mystery, tell me of your nature. What is your essence? Are you spirit or physical?” “I am the Sweet Song of the Morning, the Promise of Life Everlasting. By my own cycling immortality, I bring hope to the sorrowful. By my luminescence I lend light to darkness. By my death and resurrection, I am the sign and the wonder of what is and what will be.” His voice has become a roar, so great it threatens to tear me asunder, so swiftly I give him the second plume.
I pass to my third question – the heart and essence of my quest, my hunger for my own life everlasting, my escape from Death. “Finally, Phoenix, reveal to me the secret of immortality. Show me the door by which I can escape Death.” My blood pounds madly for this is my moment of moments, the culmination of all my efforts and studies and sins. For this I risk my soul, but I stand in mastery for the Phoenix must answer or die. “Answer or perish,” I threaten. But the Phoenix stares silently, sadly.
“No,” he refuses. “Indeed, you have the power to destroy me. Yet I cannot obey. You me set in peril, me who am a sanctity hallowed beyond your shallow and sterile understanding, but hallowed though it be, I have achieved my uttermost measure through uncountably many cycles. I grow vast and noble, but my majesty is limited. It then ends to begin anew. But this is not your nature. Craven though you are, you are a being of limitless potential. When you have grown to your wondrous great stature, you will have outgrown my uttermost measure. You are a child of infinity. One day your soul shall transcend the mind and body you now wear. You will then, by right, possess the divinity you must now steal. I recognize your power to ban me to Nonbeing, ever to wander as an unliving essence, a vision unseeing. But if I answer you, I would bind what is boundless. I would crucify your soul, chaining it eternally to a body too meager. I would deprive it of its glory infinite. Your flawed present self, would spread through the ages, like circles in waters that are troubled. All other imperfection will one day conclude, but you would tarry. A god who is cripppled.”
“Decide quickly before the dawning proclaims my freedom,” the Phoenix cries.
His warning comes too late – the first light of morning strikes the pyre and the cassia kindling bursts into flame. Its cleansing caresses touch lightly the Phoenix, who, exultantly, no longer heeding my threat, tears the last feather from my clutches. He laughs a great and joyous laugh, and embraces the flesh-searing flames, which rapidly engulf him in reverend, passionate fulfillment of its duty, feeding on his beauty which is beyond all beauty. All hint of the Phoenix is lost in a pillar of fire and ash, towering hugely. As the flames burn out, the heavy white ethers, the smoking ashes, grow into ribbons of vapor, weaving again the form of the Phoenix – grown yet greater, with no hint or taint of any color, except a faint shade of white alabaster. The vapors form until there hovers before, as chaste as the snows of tomorrow, the Phoenix, dazzling in pristine innocence, wrought through the anguish of the fire. Raised in primeval redemption, returned to his original perfection, to begin anew his journey to knowledge, he wafts his wings in his fabulous flight from the night newly ended, soaring effortlessly towards the new born sun. In this token of purity wrested from suffering, I find a pledge of my own forgiveness for a long life lived in madness.