[Short Story] Phoenix
What am I? Devil’s child, sunkissed.
Where am I? Eternal torment; windswept.
Why am I? Mistakes happen; earthly.
How am I? Unkempt mess; waterworks.
Who am I?
Who am I? Ashen start; a phoenix.
12 hours ago
“Morning, dear. The doctor wanted to speak to you, could you go wait in her office? She’ll come around in a few minutes.” Kindly directed by the nurse, I found myself inside a posh, yet sparse office. White walls, white table, white accents. Did I mention everything was white?
My flight response was on hyperdrive; I wanted nothing more than to flee the place. ‘Stop panicking, be aware, you can’t make a mess here’ I kept chanting internally. Hugging myself tightly to keep dirty hands off the whiteness, I resisted the urge to toss my dirty trainers into my bag.
A heavy blow swung across my right shoulder as the door to the office opened. “Oh no, are you okay? Why aren’t you sitting down?” asked the nice doctor, her face etched in concern. I sat down immediately, stalling her queries. A glass of cold water was placed before me with a stern command to take a sip. Observing me for a few moments, she proceeded: “How did you feel yesterday? I heard your mother was awake and talking to you.” No wonder she wanted me calm.
“Um, I, it was just like old times.”, I settled on the truth. If she was waiting for me to elaborate, well, she’d just have to keep waiting.
Evidently satisfied, she continued “I’m glad to hear that. But, I am sorry to say that those moments are not reflective of her current state, there’s-”
“When will she die?” I blurted out, my heart thumping so loud it was about to burst through my ribs. It took me a few seconds to realise how that must’ve sounded, but by then the nice doctor seemed to recover her senses. “I should have known better than to dally with this, but unfortunately, we’re looking at a few weeks at the very most. I would not be surprised if it was any day now...” she ended sympathetically, searching my face for any clues on how I was feeling.
How was I feeling? Did it even matter?
I tried to arrange my facial features to resemble a normal person; to reflect a mixture of distress and shock. There was nothing left to say, so I simply nodded at her. Walking the corridor in a daze, I tried to introspect. How was I really feeling?
22 hours ago
A familiar palm weakly swatted at my face, jolting me awake. The wan figure hooked to three separate IVs coughed.
“Wake up! When did you get here?” Take a bow, Mother.
Even stage 3 pancreatic cancer, apparently one of the most painful, could not soften her tone. “Sorry, ma. I have been waiting since 5, they told me not to wake you...”, I mumbled peeking at her face. It was much harder to look at when she was awake; the set expression reminded me of every mistake I’ve ever made, including having being born.
She coughed again. “Well, have you seen, then? Wanted to confirm that I’m really dying, didn’t you, wretch?”. Wretch; it’s what I've been called most of my life. At one point, I remember wondering if that was my name. Anyway, I knew better than to answer her. Head down, and hands to myself, I was just going to wait it out. Like always.
Growing up, this was the most effective way to reduce the punishment. I say ‘effective’ loosely because it rarely ever worked. Still haven’t figured out how to stop it, unfortunately. “Look at me, wretch.”, she hissed. “Are you happy now? You think you’ll be free now that I’m dying?!”
“No, ma’am. You’re not dying; the doctor hasn’t said anything like that.” I stammered out, unable to avert my eyes any longer. Her familiar gaze commanded my hands as her own, and I began slapping myself across the face. One, two, harder, faster. The stinging was beginning to numb when she laughed. “Good. Wash the snot away before the nurse comes.” When I got back, still trembling, she was fast asleep.
7 hours ago
Respiratory distress, they said. Please wait outside, they said. That was an hour ago, and I still don’t know how I feel. What would it be like without mother? I often pondered that as a child, even as she drilled into me an acute fear of orphanages and vicious caretakers. Anyone, anywhere, would have been better than you.
This time though, it felt real. Tiny specks of light dot my vision, but I don’t know if they’re fireflies or burning embers. No, scratch that. I don’t want to know. I’m too scared.
“Miss, you look tired. Please eat something. They will be a while.”, another kindly nurse said, passing by. Of course, I was hungry; ravenous, actually. But, it wasn’t mother’s dinner time yet, and I definitely couldn’t eat until she forgave me.
You’re an adult now, she has no power over you, I told myself. One step forward, and two steps back into the same seat I’ve occupied for the past hour. I survived into adulthood, and she’s still here. I must not let go now. I can’t, right?
6 hours ago
I stared at the wan figure lying on the bed, once hooked to three separate IVs. A part of me wanted to pry my hands apart and touch her face, to make sure she’s really gone. I stood there, staring, for so long that the nurses were starting to get worried. No, no, they couldn’t become suspicious. Everything in my house is normal, ordinary. Schooling my features again, I signed whatever they asked of me. The only thing that registered in my mind was, “We’ll release the body after you sign here.” The body.
3 hours ago
Things moved surprisingly quickly when I offered no resistance, asked no questions. Just like mother preferred. I was back inside my childhood home, with the corpse of my mother. Standing near the kitchen, I dazedly listened for a command to sit. A command that I would never hear again.
1 hour ago
Housing societies are really helpful when they want something from you, and getting rid of a dead person as fast as possible is pretty high on that list. The Society Manager argued with the crematorium for an hour until they agreed to allow me to perform mother's last rites. I cannot even recall asking to be present, but I didn’t protest. It was just me and her again.
30 minutes ago
My hand trembled so violently, they took the torch away. How did I feel? In a flash, I was 7 again, screaming in agony as the hot iron branded my flesh. 15, and nearly passed out from a belting session. 22, next to her hospital bed. And now, in front of her body.
I vaguely heard people in the background pointing and whispering. My eyes were on her, and her alone. In every sense of the word, I was alone. How did I feel? “Child, we will take the body to the incinerator. You wait...”
For the second time in two days, I was interrupting someone: “No. Please, just one moment.” It was evident they pitied me, thought I was mourning and lost. Maybe I was. Mourning all my losses so far, love, freedom and mother. “I’ll do it.”
It took exactly 23 minutes for the fire to completely die down. My eyes drank in every minute of that sight, not processing anything apart from the orange glow. The husk of my entire world melted steadily, enveloped in a fiery hug. When the pyre eventually collapsed on itself my hand dropped the torch.
A wisp rose from it, resembling.. a firefly.
An urn full of her ashes in hand, I slowly tread the street, pity greeting me all along the way. A nervous laugh swells up inside me, threatening to escape. I let it, and wait, picturing the orange glow inside my eyes. She’s really gone.
And, just like that, I’m in front of a McDonalds. Ravenous too. Faltering at the counter, I settled on coffee. Not an actual dinner, so mother won’t mind, I tell myself. The urn looks so threatening just now. Would I ever be free?
With every sip, the funeral fire flashes in front of my eyes. Burning her away, burning my past away. Perhaps, someday, I will be free.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Smriti Iyer. She is a creative writer and published poet based in Mumbai. An aspiring filmmaker weaving striking narratives through her words, she is deeply passionate about human behaviour, criminal psychology, and history. When she's not writing, she can be found roaming pet cafes or baking up storms.
Art by Yuko Shimizu.