Grandmother Firebird should be back by now. She shed her last feather, erupted into a blossom of flame, and fell to ash three nights ago. Her next egg had reformed from the ashes by morning. But this is the longest it has ever taken her to come back.
The surface of her egg is chilly. I ask Mum if we should swaddle it or something. Mum doesn't know, and she doesn't have time for my questions. She's working all day in the apothecary shop until Grandmother comes back, so it's up to me to mind the egg.
While I wait, I look through the books around our apartment, above the shop that Grandmother has run for hundreds of years. You would think a firebird would have more books about her kind on hand. Maybe they just don't write things down, being creatures of myth and legend.
I'm only one-quarter firebird, but Grandmother tells me that it's enough to someday be reborn. She completes her cycles faster now than she did when I was younger. Someday, she'll go from egg to ash in the span of a day, young in the morning and old in the evening. She says that's when we'll know her time is finally coming.
She's never told us what it means when she doesn't come back after three days.
Mum hollers up from the shop that she needs more alum from the storeroom. When Grandmother needs something, she lets me mind the store. Mum just sends me for whatever she needs, like an errand girl.
I don't want to leave Grandmother's egg, but I can't take it with me. It has to stay in her nest. And I've nowhere to carry it with me.
I find one of her favorite scarves, crimson and pumpkin and goldenrod, like her feathers, and tuck it around her egg. If she hatches while I'm gone, at least there will be something comforting to remind her where she is, though her rebirth may singe it.
I hurry through the storeroom, find the alum, give it to Mum. We don't exchange two words. And then I'm upstairs again.
The scarf has fallen away on one side. Did the egg move while I was gone? Is she hatching? I watch with bated breath, but the egg doesn't budge now.
Mum's been reborn once, before I was born. In her first cycle, she didn't want to take the time for a family. In her second cycle, she wondered if she was missing something. She's told me that she realized that no, she wasn't missing anything.
Grandmother says Mum's lying.
I want Grandmother back now, to play the mediator between me and Mum, to run the shop so Mum doesn't have to work all the time and get cross and tell me things that she doesn't really mean. (Or at least things that Grandmother tells me Mum doesn't really mean.)
Her egg still isn't hatching. It's still cold beneath my hand, even the parts where I left the scarf wrapped round it.
I think of the other things Grandmother likes. Sweets, tea, a cozy fire when it's cold outside. I don't dare start a fire today. I'd never hear the end of that from Mum.
Music. Grandmother always hums. I love to hear her hum, even if I can't follow the melody. I try to hum like she does, but my song sounds too high-pitched and tuneless. I almost stop, but I see Grandmother's smile in my mind's eye, and even though she's still inside her egg, I know she wants me to go on.
So I hum my song, different from hers, different from Mum's, my very own. And the egg twitches, wiggles, rocks.
It's not too long before the first crack opens along the surface.
I pull Grandmother's scarf away from the egg, since I'm here to watch now. She'll want it when she's done.
I keep humming, my song descending into a pitch I can maintain, shaping itself into a tune. I'll never remember this song, but it will stay in my mind, snatches bubbling up from time to time, even if I can never replicate it again.
Grandmother hatches, a small, featherless bird, quickly growing larger, her flames forming into feathers, then flesh. I watch her closely to make sure she doesn't continue to age. It's midday, so I hope it isn't her time. I'm not sure whether she's just forming into her human semblance or if the growth of her hair and the filling out of her skin is abnormal. I haven't watched her often enough when she comes back.
But the changes stop. When she's done, she's somewhere of an age between me and Mum, both old and young enough to be one of our sisters, at least as far as the world can tell.
"Kenna," she says, stroking my cheek gently. "I heard your song."
I blush, having not realized Grandmother could hear me through her egg.
"Your Mum downstairs?"
I nod, the last of my voice gone into my song.
"I'd best get dressed and go help her out, then."
I throw my arms around Grandmother Firebird, draping her scarf over her shoulders. She's right, she still needs to get dressed, but I need to hug her, to know that she's come back.
She pats my arms, kisses my cheek, leaving a surprisingly warm kiss lingering there. "Don't worry, my sweet. I had things to attend to on the other side. This old firebird's got life in her yet."
Dawn Vogel's academic background is in history, so it's not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers.
Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is being published by Razorgirl Press. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.