There is ever, only one phoenix.
She's barren except in death, and she dies in excruciating agony, her flamelike plumage consumed by fire. Then and only then is she reborn from the ashes of herself -- without mother or father, without kith or kin, without mate. She is alone. Death and life and death -- she is the release of the spirit from earth's bondage, and she rises in glory. Percival's purity, guardian of the Grail, herald of the New Age. Her blood burns, her tears heal, yet she's always solitary in her splendor.
Resurrection isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Shivers of awareness flicker across her consciousness, and a filter of light streams in sheets of gold, scintillating but fuzzy, like the skin on a peach.
"You paid a drachma for a peach?"
"What's wrong with that? It's what? Fifty cents?"
She held up her fruit to show it off, perfect and golden, not a bruise or mar. "I saw it and couldn't resist." They stood beyond a market near the docks of Kavalla, where fishing boats of various sizes had been tied up at harbor. The boats were painted blue and white and red, looking small and old and sea-battered next to the one great cruise ship that sat off shore. Now and then, the ship's horn could be heard all through the town. On the horizon to the north, east, and west were pine-covered mountains enclosing this ancient town on the Via Egnatia -- the Roman road that had led from Italy through Greece into Constantinople . . . Istanbul, these days, but the Greeks refused to call it that. There was a sign not far from where they stood that read: Constantinople, followed by some number of kilometers. Scott had thought it funny, and had taken a picture while Warren had rattled off night spots and good restaurants to be found in Istanbul, and Hank had launched into an explanation of how 'Istanbul' was probably a corruption of the Greek phrase, "eis ten polein" (meaning "to the City"). "'The City' was never Athens," he'd concluded.
Jean had rolled her eyes at all of them. Never go sightseeing with men, she'd said.
They'd split up not long after, Hank and Warren heading for the old Norman fort on the acropolis above, and Scott and Jean meandering through the lower town, buying bread and cheese for lunch. And a peach.
"I'll share," Jean said now, and took a bite, then held out the peach to him, bright and enticing in the Greek sun. Not quite Atalanta's apple.
Gripping her hand, he pulled it closer, but not to bite into peach flesh. Instead, his mouth came down on her soft wrist, licking a trail of juice that had slid over her skin.
She sucked in breath, nearly choking on her bite, and he smiled while slapping her back. "You okay?" he asked. Butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth.
"Bastard," she said when she could speak, tears sliding down her cheeks from her coughing fit. She wiped them away with her free hand, so she didn't have to look at him.
"You offered to share."
She looked up. He was watching her, wearing that sardonic smile he had down to an art, but there was something else behind it, rising like Olympus in the distance across the Thermiac gulf, half shrouded in cloud. Daring, testing, she held up the peach again, level with his mouth.
Bending forward, he bit into it.
The water rocks her, tremulous, caressing. There is a song somewhere in the voices of fishes.
Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird,
and if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring,
and if that diamond ring turns to glass,
Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass,
and if that looking glass gets broke ...
Thousands of tons of water had shattered her. It had happened instantly, every bone in her body broken, her ribcage and pelvis and skull smashed like glass goblets, flattening her internal organs, puncturing and collapsing her lungs, and crushing her brain. Forget drowning. What had remained of Jean Grey had been human pulp, torn by the force of the water.
It had been too fast for more than an instant of pain, but that had been a horrible, piercing agony like nothing she'd imagined could exist, far worse than the racking pain she'd shared with Annie at her moment of death, oh so long ago.
Don't die, don't die, don't die ...
Don't die ...
Can't breathe anymore. Hurts ...
Don't die ...
Too tired, Jeannie. Hurts ...
Don't die. Please, don't die. Don't leave me all alone down here in this well.
I can't find my way out, Annie! Don't leave me here!
Being dead is a relief. She's been floating here in the water, like one of those translucent glass fish, barely visible, for she doesn't know how long. But the sun's so lovely, breaking apart through the water, and she loses herself in it. What meaning does time have, for the dead?
Divested of anything so cumbersome as a body, she rolls in the little lake waves, flitting about beneath the spring-cold water and awaiting the sun each morning. And each morning, it gets a little warmer, the light a little more green. All around her, life wakes from hibernation and reproduces itself. In her gossamer state, she reaches out to touch the infant flickers, brilliant, fleeting . . . beautiful like the sun. Life is beautiful because it will end. She understands that now. Who wants to live forever and taste joy grown cold on the tongue, enervated and senile? That isn't living. Better to die suddenly, burn richly, and end as ash.
"You're a pyro, Warren. What is it about men and fire?"
"What do you mean?" He was playing with a lighter for no apparent reason beyond seeing the tiny burst of flame and hearing the click of the lid as he snuffed it out.
"Every guy I know has to play with fire. You. Hank and his Bunsen burners. The professor and the little fires in his suite fireplace. Scott running fingers through a candle flame. It's nuts."
Warren glanced up at that. "I think fire's fascinating -- beautiful. But Scott's playing with fire for a whole different reason."
"And what reason's that?"
Warren looked back at the copper lighter in his hand, engraved with the Worthington crest. He snapped it shut. "Scott wants to get burned so he knows he's alive."
She's not alive. Or at least, she died -- she knows that much. But why she's still hanging about here, she can't say. Shouldn't she have passed on somewhere else by now? Or was this the fate of all human spirits when they'd shuffled off their mortal coil, to flit about unseen but still anchored to this earth? Yet if so, where were the others? Surely she wasn't the only person to have died here in the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence? It's a puzzle.
She isn't sure just when rolling in the waves and following the lake creatures isn't enough, but she becomes fitful. The water is languid and cool, a pleasant place to rest, recover -- and to forget. For instance, she had a name once, but she's not too sure now what it was. She had a physical body, as well, but it's gone, eaten away and rotted by water. The bones remain fetched up against submerged concrete, clothed still in bits of leather and metal fasteners. She doesn't go to that part of the lake. She can barely remember what her body even looked like.
But she remembers him. She remembers the awful surge of terror and desperation that had rolled off him when he'd realized what she was up to, and what it would cost. And she remembers telling him goodbye. Feelings are easier for her to revive than details and events; they lie closer to the heart. She'd made a choice, but what the choice was, or why, she couldn't say. She knew only that, for a few minutes, she'd felt impossibly powerful. And she'd felt powerful regret, too, because she was leaving him. Leaving them.
She missed them.
It grew slowly, the missing -- like her discontent -- and by the time the full warmth of summer had hit the valley and her lake, the missing had become a fire that couldn't survive drowning any longer. She had to return, and she began to circle the place where she'd been standing when she'd died, rarely venturing far from the spot. She was gravid with something she couldn't quite diagnose.
Once, a stray camper told the locals in the Alkali Lake Store that he'd seen a red glow, like will-o'-the-wisps or fox lights, some way out in the lake, reflecting beneath the water. The surface there had seemed to boil. The owner told him he must have seen a big fish and phosphorescence. It had, the camper said, been mighty bright for phosphorescence. A few days later, a hiker said he'd seen a woman walking on the water. Laughing, the store owner had suggested mermaids, and the man had departed, disgruntled. There were more reports, as summer ground on, and the white locals took to calling the phenomenon the Lady of the Lake, while the Esketemc Nation said someone must have died there, and they left offerings of tobacco ties on the cedars around the new shore's edge, and little carvings of birds, hoping her spirit would get the message and fly away.
In a manner of speaking, her spirit did. On July thirtieth, the Lady of the Lake rose fully from the waters, exactly thirty-four years from the day she'd emerged from her mother's womb. She drew up the mists around herself in a swirling, pulsing robe, lit red from within, and then she walked across the water to the shore, setting one ephemeral foot on summer grass.
Mnemosyne sought to remember.
NOTES: The Lady of the Lake is often believed to be the Celtic water goddess Coventina, whom the Romans equated with Mnemosyne, or Memory, the mother of the Muses. There is, in fact, a little native reserve called the Alkali Lake Band, in British Columbia. Amusingly, one can read about the Esketemc via the 'Phoenix' engine.
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Title: Lady of the Lake (Grail prologue)
Series Name: GRAIL: a novel of resurrection
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | gen | 9k | 02/14/05
Summary: At Alkali Lake, Jean Grey gave her life to save her fellows. But if so, what's risen from the water?
Notes: This tale contains ADULT situations and imagery. It also, rather obviously, contains spoilers for X2. Because this story is mystery-suspense, I won't be coding it to death, or posting much in the way of warnings. Consider this my Big Fat Neon caution. :-)
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