This is for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge.
It was one of those sleeps where your mind wakes up before your body does. I felt hot again. Considering I was now at the age when hot flashes began to taunt a woman daily, this might very well be my initiation into menopause, and boy howdy, it was making sure it started off with a bang.
I wailed. At least, I think I did. It was a weird, a half-asleep sound injected with the unique fury of a woman whose body felt like it was ablaze with violently perishing estrogen.
My eyes finally popped open, and the whole room was lit in a soft adobe glow.
Oh my God, is my house on fire?
I shoved the blankets, sweat-soaked and discomfortingly heavier than they should be, off my body, my legs kicking furiously as if the covers themselves were the culprit that burned my skin. Pushing my wet hair from my eyes, I sat up, and on the art-deco dresser across the room, there was a beautiful, old-fashioned birdcage.
It was on fire.
And I don’t have a bird.
I clutched my stomach. This wasn’t fair. No one had told me about the hallucinations! I had cramps, so maybe this was my body’s way of telling me hey, fuck you. Fuck you for never putting babies in me, or for never bothering to… I don’t know, honor me through that new-age period blood “art”. You ignored me, so I’ll go out in a blaze of glory and make you look nutso. I win.
What am I thinking?
I’m talking to my uterus. And apparently it’s a bitch.
I squinted, trying to discern what was causing the fire, but it was contained simply to the birdcage. Curious.
Then I saw the wings. They spread out slowly, like a lazy bird would do after a nap. I stretched too, feeling my nightgown clinging to my damp skin. Hey, I look sort of like I have wings in this gross old thing.
“Am I going nuts?” I asked, yawning. They say you’re only crazy when you start answering yourself, right?
“No, you’re just preparing,” came the voice from the birdcage. It sounded the way gold looks. Beautiful, shiny, enticing, maddening. It was altogether unearthly.
“Preparing for what?” I said, lowering my arms and crossing them over my pelvis. I didn’t trust it. The bird or my body.
Its wings lowered now, and the fire dulled to a flickering little candle flame. I could see it—a red bird with golden scales on its belly, eyes wide as golfballs and black as tar. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and to be honest, it wasn’t anything that I ever wanted to see again. If this was a nightmare, it was a damn bizarre one.
“For your journey,” it replied. When it spoke, its long downward-curving beak clacked like two shells rubbing together, and a blue serpentine tongue darted out and in again almost too quickly to notice. But my gaze didn’t linger on that; a silt-like material was sliding down the bird’s back and falling to the bottom of the cage, where it piled up like sand in an hourglass.
“What journey? What are you?” My voice came out sounding much smaller than I’d anticipated. I found myself clutching at my nightrobe now, feeling colder than I had a moment ago.
The bird turned its head to the side, spreading its wings again. It fixed its beady void of an eye on me. The hair on the back of my neck fought against my drenched locks to stand up. I felt a sense of bleakness, as if it had seeped unnoticed into the room, and I couldn’t stop it.
“Your journey to your new world,” it said, fluffing its wings a bit as if to emphasize its words. More sandy stuff fell from the feathers, piling higher around its scaly legs. “I’ve come to lead you there, when you’re ready.”
“You’re a bird that I’ve never seen, in a birdcage I’ve never owned, and you talk and you’re on fire,” I said shakily. My hands felt cold. I tried to wet my tongue but it seemed all the saliva had dried up in the heat. “I don’t know what’s happening to me—”
The bird flapped its wings, rising proudly from its perch. Its body passed through the bars as if they didn’t exist at all, like they were just a hologram. More sandy material cascaded to the surface below. Its feathers were sparse now, and I could see patches of scalded, red and black skin picked clean of any down whatsoever.
I realized then, that it wasn’t silt, or sand, or dust that fell from its body. Those were ashes.
The bird was dying.
My eyes stung as if tears were about to come, but they just weren’t there. I watched as the bird glided across the room, closing the gap between us swiftly, its flaming body casting a soft orange light against the wall like a lantern in the dark. I could see now that my bed was covered in blood; my nightgown stained red. I let out yelp, clawing at the fabric, trying to discern from where the fluid had originated. It was smeared across my thighs and down the insides of my knees.
I tried to scream, but I couldn’t. My voice was disappearing. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. The bird hovered over me, its ashes caking into my blood, its body withering to a husk of the glorious creature it was right before my eyes.
It opened its beak once more.
“The next life awaits you,” it said, its voice still enticing and smooth. “The cancer is gone. You’re safe now.”
At this, I relaxed. I leaned into my pillow. Black dots dabbed at the corners of my vision.
“Thank you,” I murmured. The unease melted into relaxation as a blanket of ashes covered me and eased me into a deep sleep.