The Phoenix Speaks
Last night I poured gasoline over my feathers again and lit a match. I stood in front of the mirror and watched myself go. Watched myself turning into a good riddance,
a hill of cremation staring at its beauty.
This morning I cashed my tax refund. I’m saving up for some sparklers. Or the world’s biggest shipment of asbestos.
My history professor showed us slides of Tibetan monks lighting themselves on fire to protest Chinese hegemony. She called on me, but
each tooth was becoming a tiny flame and I couldn’t speak. Then the fire alarm went off.
The badness in the world makes every fever I’ve had come back all at once. I want to burn away the badness in the world, but I’m self-centered. I want to care more about self-immolating monks, but I’m stuck
hoovering my own ashes out of the carpet for hours.
The nature of my privilege: getting to wake up again. Getting to walk away from a pile of my bone dust and charred hair. The landlord might write me up for the scorch marks on my walls, but afterward he forgets me.
The nature of my problem: fashioning my ruin into a spectacle. I am afraid I have fallen in love with myself. But only the self going up in smoke, my body merging with
fire: agony-light, valentine.
I want instead to be the candles on a birthday cake. When the flames are blown out a child rises one year wiser, sugar on the tongue.
I want to stand in the wild and let a circle of travelers light their lamps off me. They’d fall away into the night, each a petal, and I, the flower’s glistering center.
I want to be kind
enough to deserve this fact: when fire burns, it casts no shadow.
The Ballad of Lan Caihe
Lan Caihe (蓝采和) is one of the Eight Immortals (八仙), deities from Chinese folk mythology. Lan is a gender-ambiguous figure and various interpretations exist of them as a man, a woman, or what we would now call a nonbinary or intersex person.
Lan Caihe doesn’t give a damn about the gender binary.
Shod in one boot and woozy with rice wine,
they are ejected from the tavern for screaming
about swans and the apocalypse and the askance
looks they get in every bathroom. The bouncer
lobs Lan into the alley and new snow breaks
their stumbling. Their gown, tattery blue and ambiguously
cut, falls open to a chest both flat and hairless.
From a window a sympathetic patron extends
Lan’s flower basket, taken back with a word of thanks
and a mouthful of melting ice. The chrysanthemums
within are still vibrant. The bamboo, unbroken.
Funny, they think, how most flowers, such sigils
of femininity, are hermaphroditic. Snails too,
frozen in their spirals for the winter. But in summer,
how often Lan would wake in the fields after a rain
and find a friend hefting its shell over the mound
of their ankle or fused to the weave of their overcoat.
(Said coat, woolen and down-stuffed, bundled
their body through the warm seasons. Only when
the cold came did they switch to cotton
and bare limbs.) Past the outskirts of town,
Lan climbs a hill of snow, strips naked, and sleeps.
Clouds of humid steam billow up from their body.
Lan Caihe is thought to be the least significant
of the Eight Immortals. Year after year, they surrendered
the coins they earned from busking, knotted in string
and trailed through dirt until they detached.
Year after year, trees dressed in drag, stripped off green
for crisp auburns kindling fire-tint through
hazy fields. The crowd would gather,
at a distance, then closer, around a figure rattling
castanets. Do my eyes deceive me? the elders would think.
I swear I saw them sing in my childhood, yet they’ve barely aged
a day. This is the ballad of Lan Caihe, born to confound:
how to love the world, sprightly and dying. How to grow
warmer with every inch of fallen snow. This is
their legend: in the end they ascended to heaven
because a swan chose them and not because they were killed.
Sheila Dong is the author of Moon Crumbs (Bottlecap Press, 2019). Their work has appeared in SOFTBLOW, Heavy Feather Review, Juke Joint, Stone of Madness, and Rogue Agent, among other places. Sheila holds an MFA from Oregon State University, and likes 80s music, desolate landscapes, and the pleading face emoji. They wouldn’t mind also being called Gideon. Learn more at sheiladong.carrd.co.