Pheth’s Aviary

Issue #133

Deep in the bowels of the queen’s palace, the kitchen was aflurry with demons preparing for tonight’s feast, and Pheth hated every minute of it.  He averted his eyes as Buldumech chopped off the heads of bleating imps, drained their blood, and sliced their green flesh into edible portions.  He cringed as Mardero dropped squirming slugs into a boiling broth of leek and radish.  And he nearly lost his gorge when Alath removed a tray of steaming cow eye sweets from the oven. 

Pheth wondered gravely, Am I the only demon in Sheol who sickens at the sight of flesh?

“Pheth!” Akton screamed.  The kitchen governess hopped from hoof to hoof as she scowled at him.  “By Sheol’s twin suns, quit your gaping and get to work, or shall I tell the queen herself how lazy you are?” 

Pheth lacked the courage to tell her that it was not laziness but revulsion that stymied him. “No, mistress,” he said as he wiped sweat from his brow.

“Then get to work!”

He nodded and fled her presence.

Behind the kitchen, he descended the dank stair in a fit of despair. How he longed for the old days!  Ever since Mashit had taken over the throne, a great many things had changed in the palace of Abbadon.  Afraid of enemies lurking behind every stone, she’d banished well-robed courtesans to sweat in the gold mines.  And she’d turned soiled stablehands into bedecked astrologers.  When well-known demons hadn’t shown for monthly convocations, it was said that Mashit had her magicians teleport a third of the inhabitants of Sheol into the Great Deep, to float forever in the Abyss as punishment for crimes even their victims couldn’t remember.

For the former king—Mighty Ashmedai—Pheth had painted a thousand colorful frescos across the palace walls.  But Mashit had turned Pheth into a slaughterer. And so for the past fifty dreadful days, he had been tasked with the worst possible job in all the myriad dimensions. Worst for him, at least.  

He hung his shoulders as he entered the subterranean corridor of animal pens.  Orange torchlight flickered furtively from the walls.  The straw floor quivered and quaked, like a shivering beast itself.  Years of accumulated dung befouled the air.  He staggered past drooling faun and goblin, intelligent beings drugged into stupefaction.  He tried to ignore the moans of black giraffe and feathered pig as he swept past their too-small cages.

The animals didn’t fear him as they feared the others.  For a demon, Pheth wasn’t very large or menacing.  His back was scaly yet smooth, like a snake’s, and tufts of white fur covered his chest and belly.  His face was small and churlish, with a curved beak for a nose and eyes spread too far apart.  Even though Pheth could recount his demon ancestry for forty-nine generations, the kitchen staff often joked that Pheth himself was a devolved bird. 

“I wish I were one,” he muttered. “So I could fly away.” 

The coop lay at far end of the corridor, where the light was most feeble. A small flock of birds huddled inside. 

Mashit had requested goose, and so at great magical expense she’d had the creatures portaled down from some realm called Canada.  Pheth had never seen their kind before, and he imagined Canada a magical land full of creatures like these, with their graceful necks, charcoal feathers, and delightfully plump bodies.  And their lovely webbed feet! He gazed into their eyes as he opened the gate.

The geese huddled quietly in the far corner and stared oddly at him.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said.  “Your lot is not fair, but what can I do?”

Then the birds did something curious.  They bowed their necks for him to break. 

“What is this?” he said.  “You wish to die? What strange birds you are! But why?”

Yet there was no time to indulge these thoughts, not with Akton’s ever-watchful eyes. So with a heavy heart he snapped each of their necks. And after, when he had stuffed all twenty-five flaccid bodies into his satchel, something tiny shuffled out from behind a bed of straw.  A gosling, fuzzy, featherless, waddled into the torchlight. 

“Oh my!” he said, letting slip a giggle.  “Look at you! How lovely!”  He covered his mouth to quiet himself.  “How soft you look,” he whispered. “How gentle.”

And yet, he realized, he had to kill this creature too. Or did he? He made sure that no one was watching and then slipped the gosling into his apron pocket.

It was not easy keeping the bird hidden while he prepared dinner.  From time to time, the gosling poked its head out to glimpse the world.  And what a brutal world it must have seen.  Its family julienned into strips, their defeathered flesh seasoned with sage, parsley, and rust, soaked in goblin milk and breaded thick.  Always, carefully, making sure that no one saw, Pheth gently pressed the gosling back into hiding.  

What a vile monster I must seem to it! he thought as the cleaver fell.

Their bodies were still warm as he removed organs and viscera. Where did your essence go? he wondered as he stared into one’s lifeless eyes.

He feared that their ghosts hovered near, waiting for the chance to spill boiling soup on his head or knock a knife off the wall-mounted rack onto his fingers.  But when he looked over his shoulder, he saw only the kitchen staff preparing tonight’s feast and Akton’s ever-watchful eyes burning into his.

He stuffed the geese with apples and tar, potatoes and slime, imp sausage and cuttlefish roe.  Then he roasted them in the kitchen’s towering brick oven for an hour, basting them in cetacean butter until their flesh turned a golden brown.  Though the savory smell sickened him, he laid the butter as carefully as he once had strokes of paint.  

Hours later, after the meal had been served and cleared, he and the kitchen staff smoked pipes of nightshade out back by the trash heaps, waiting for permission to leave. The black waters of Lake Hali lapped languorously at the shoreline, and a thousand ruddy stars, fat as goose-pimples, smoldered in the night sky.

Akton waddled into the humid air, clutching a jug of wine, and everyone rose from their stupor to greet her. 

“Word from above,” she said—she grabbed Mardero’s pipe and took a puff—”is that our queen enjoyed her dinner.”  A stream of yellow smoke flowed out from her nostrils like a dragon. “Her Highness sends her compliments on another fine meal.  If your cleaning duties are done, you may go home.”

Relieved, Pheth turned to go, but Akton stopped him.  “Not you, Birdface. The queen requested you.  Personally.”

A chill ruffled his white fur. “Me? What for?” 

“How in Sheol should I know? The queen’s whims are as predictable as the stars.” And even as she spoke, the ruddy lights trembled in their orbits.

Did I overspice? he thought. Were the birds undercooked? Did someone choke on a bone?

“She’s in the Karteek Lounge.  Take the servant’s stairs. What are you waiting for, Pheth? Go!”

She waved him away, and he bounded inside and leaped up the candlelit stairs.  But halfway there, he remembered with a start the gosling still in his apron pocket. He couldn’t return it to the coop. Most nights Akton hovered like a bat around the kitchen, sampling the queen’s wine.  And he couldn’t enter the queen’s presence with the bird.  If it were to pop its head out, she would have both of their heads for dinner.

He stared up the stony stairwell into the dim heights. “I am bound like Azazel, upside-down beyond the Mountains of Darkness.”

One of the crevices under the stairs looked just large enough to hide a gosling.  He pulled the bird out of his pocket. It blinked and awoke.  He peered into its black eyes, and the bird cocked his head and peered back. 

How could he leave this helpless creature here, where it might get discovered or fall to its death?  “Be still little one,” he said.  “For both our sakes, be as still and silent as the Great Deep!”  He kissed the bird and returned it to his apron. 

By the time he reached the Karteek Lounge, he was covered in sweat. Why hadn’t he thought to clean himself first? Change his shirt? What an oaf! A toad-faced guard eyed his grease-stained visage disapprovingly, but let him pass with a discourteous grunt. 

Pheth had forgotten how large the Karteek Lounge was.  Diaphanous curtains fluttered before giant windows that looked over the black waters of Lake Hali and the distant and madly flickering lights of the city of Alar. 

This must be what a bird feels like, he thought, when it soars above the ramparts.

He woke from his reverie at the sound of demons laughing.   

Spread about the room on soft purple couches, a curse of demons guffawed at someone’s joke.  In the center, Queen Mashit and her lover, Kokabiel, reclined on an enormous bed.  The giraffe-shaped Kokabiel, with his spiraling ram’s horns and vicious rat-like face, seemed less menacing now as he draped his hoof-arm around Mashit’s gold-belted waist.  And though Mashit took a human form and wore no clothes, Pheth could not glimpse her famous pale flesh under all her scintillating gold.

Empty-eyed servants waited in the shadows holding bowls of fruit.  Bronze censers perfumed the air with the dense smoke of apple peel and locust wing. Pheth sneezed, and the demons’ laughter abruptly stopped.

“What is this?” Mashit said.  Her voice was as smooth as nightshade smoke.  As she shifted out of Kokabiel’s grasp, her raven hair flickered azure in the candlelight.

“Fet, your highness,” the guard said, “from down the kitchens.” His tone implied all the filth that such a station entailed.

“Actually, it’s Pheth,” he said; then he added with a bow, “Your Highness.” 

Her hazel eyes flashed like a distant thunderstorm. He’d heard never to look directly into them; that those who did became consumed with lust for her and would meet not her wrath but that of her many jealous lovers.  It took great effort to turn away, as mesmerizing as she was. 

“Ah!” she said.  She smiled and sat up, and Kokabiel grumbled as he was pushed aside.  “Are you the cook who has delighted our palates with your avian delights?”  Her golden belt shimmered as she gestured to a table, where three-quarters of his geese lay untouched. 

It was much easier to avert his eyes from that atrocity. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“Pheth, I’ve never tasted a roast as succulent as yours.  Where did you learn your craft?”

“From none, Your Highness. I used to be a painter.”

“A painter of what?”

He was more than happy to speak of the old days.  “On these very walls I painted a mural of Dumah splitting graves with her rod and ferrying souls down to meet their punishment in Gehenna. It was a favorite of King Ashme—”  His breath caught.  One did not mention the deposed king in Abbadon, especially not to the new queen!

She paused, and he felt the thread of his life grow thin.

“Well, Pheth, I dare say you’re a better cook than a painter!”

The demons’ sycophantic laughter echoed from the walls, and Pheth, shivering with relief, let out a silent but particularly odorous fart.  The guard cringed. 

“Your former king had hideous taste,” she said.  “How gruesome was Dumah’s face! How crooked her rod!  I had these walls repainted with the deep serenity of Earth’s sky.  I much prefer it.”

“So do I, Your Highness,” he said.  And it was true.

A demon snickered but stopped when Mashit eyed him. “Have you been to Earth, Pheth?” she said.

“No, Your Highness.”

“Then how do you know the hue of its sky?”

Blood pumped in his ears, and he knew his fate had not yet been decided.  “From stories, Your Highness.  And pictures.  They say the blue of Earth’s skies can make even the most brutal demon weep.”

She smiled.  “Ah, I see the poet within you.” She stared at him, and in her eyes he felt his desire for her grow until he forced himself to turn away.  “Perhaps this explains your uncanny artistry with food,” she said.

“Pheth, I have a task for you.  I desire to taste one of every bird, from every planet, in every dimension, across the entire Cosmos, wherever birds fly, walk, swim, or teleport.  And I want you to prepare them for me, in the way only your poetry can.  Will you see to it, Pheth?”

The gosling moved in his hand.  He had forgotten it! “An-anything for my queen,” he stuttered as he pressed the bird still.

The joy departed from her face.  “Pheth, why does your hand linger in your pocket? What do you hide there?”

He removed his hand and showed her his empty palm.  “I’m sorry, Your Highness. A rude habit from years hiding painter’s stains.  I shan’t do it in your presence again.”

Please, little bird, he thought, please stay still!

“Very well, Pheth,” Mashit said as she strode over to the table and picked at a goose leg.  “I’ll arrange for the birds to be portaled in. That is all.”

He bowed and fled the Karteek Lounge.  In the dank stairwell, he removed the gosling, hoping he hadn’t smothered it. It lifted its small head, and he sighed.

“Little one,” he whispered, “to slaughter one of every bird in the whole Cosmos? How many thousands would that be?  How many millions?”

The gosling opened its little mouth and closed it again. 

“It is impossible. I cannot do it.”  He hung his head. “If only, little one, we could fly away to Canada.  Alas, neither of us have wings. And I don’t even know where Canada is.”

It took Pheth nearly an hour to walk home.  His stone cottage sat nestled between mountain and lake. The crimson sands shifted unpredictably each day, and tonight his cottage hovered by the water’s edge.  He placed the bird on the sand and scraped off the yellow fungus that grew each day on his walls. He tossed the clumps to the ground, and a school of walking fish crept out of the lake to snatch the fragments with their teeth and slink back into the dark waters.  When one approached the gosling, its green teeth glistening, Pheth shouted and kicked all the fish back into the lake.

Inside he set the bird on a chair and fed it morsels of soaked bread he’d stolen from the kitchen. He ate some too.  Out of rags and a bowl, he fashioned the gosling a nest. 

“There!” he said. “As good a bed as mine.” 

A growing wind tumbled down the mountain and carried his pipe smoke out the open door.  Fits of sand rattled against the windows, and a glowfly landed on the foot of the bed, perhaps to escape the gusts. It phosphoresced its delicate wings.  The gosling opened its eyes and waddled toward the insect. 

Does it recognize a kindred creature? Pheth wondered.

But before the bird got close, the glowfly darted away.  

Pheth sighed sulphurous smoke. “I’m sorry about your family,” he said. “I had a brother and sister too, once.  But the stars have taken them as well.”  He closed the door and extinguished the lantern.

Late in the night, a thunderstorm woke him from fitful dreams. Giant hailstones slammed into the roof, and lightning speared down from the sky to electrify the waters.  The mountain glowed like hot coals where lightning had struck, and schools of flying fish buzzed over the lake in ever-tightening circles.

Something stirred beside him.  The gosling had climbed out of its nest and now snuggled in the crook of his arm, fast asleep.

The next day, he arrived at the palace just as the second sun crested the horizon. Fans of fiery light spread over its thousand sculpted terraces. By night, the palace was dark and brooding, but the morning sun rekindled the glory of its vulgar spires and arabesque balustrades.

He wished he could fly above its ramparts to dive over standard and parapet, peering into its myriad rooms before darting gleefully into the sky.

He had left the gosling home with food and water behind a locked door, and though he had only just left, he missed it terribly. 

After lunch, the hairy archivist came down to the kitchens and led Pheth through many long and twisting halls into the palace library.  The cavernous room overflowed with codices, compendiums, grimoires, lexicons, and ordered shelves of dust.

“Here we find the spell to fetch your birds,” the archivist said in a voice as moldy as the book he was poring over.

Pheth glanced up at the towering stacks. They seemed to stretch forever. When he reached for a book entitled The Seven Easily Manipulated States of the Human Heart, the archivist smacked his hand.

“These are not for amateur eyes! Even a wrong glance could send you spiraling into a distant hell.”

“But weren’t you Ashmedai’s fruit-bearer before Mashit made you an archivist?” he said. 

“So?”

“So how much could you have learned in fifty-one days?”

The archivist frowned, squinting over his wrinkled nose. “Volumes,” he said, snapping the book closed. The dust made Pheth sneeze.

The archivist fled the library, and Pheth struggled to follow.  They weaved through the palace halls, down crooked stairs and across endless hallways. He grew dizzy with all the turns, and he wondered if the archivist was toying with him. 

At last they entered an enormous, empty chamber, its ceiling so high it vanished in shadow. Five warlocks in hooded robes huddled in the corner, murmuring, and the archivist walked over to instruct them on the spell. The warlocks drew sigils and zodiacs on the floor in white ash. They chanted an odd incantation, and Pheth’s chest tingled. Something wonderful was about to happen. And it was here, in vortices of smoke and light, where a door opened to another universe.

The warlocks reached inside and shook an enormous rattle.  And from a fetid swamp, startled birds flew up from behind a tangle of reeds.

“Stymphalian!” the archivist whispered to Pheth.  “With beaks of bronze and feathers of chrome. Quite rare. The queen will be pleased!”

The warlocks plucked the birds from a sky as green as wheat grass, and Pheth wondered what other marvels cavorted through those emerald skies? He longed to enter this new world, to explore its swampy mysteries.  He moved toward the portal, but the archivist waved an admonishing finger. 

The birds flew around the chamber, agitated, confused. They flung metal feathers at the party. One impinged a warlock, and he fell, screaming.  But the warlocks eventually teleported all the birds down to the basement coop.  The portal closed, the chamber fell silent, and Pheth hung his head.  He knew he would never again glimpse that emerald world. 

“So,” the archivist said, and the warlocks, even the wounded one, leaned in to hear. “We have a little wager.  How’re you going to cook ‘em?”

Expertly, it seemed. Over the next few days, the queen was delighted with his avian delicacies. Gryphon kabobs powdered in honeybee pollen.  Stymphalian hearts wrapped in penguin bacon.  Raven tortellini in a tomato-base, with green peppers, eggplant, and vulture eggs.  The queen wrote sonnets about his phoenix paté and read them before adoring crowds.  And while she savored, Pheth slaughtered. 

From Laal the warlocks portaled in a family of woodcocks, and it wasn’t until the basement’s basalt columns had been split to pieces that Pheth discovered stone-eating shamir worms infesting their feathers. 

“Boil the woodcocks alive!” Akton demanded. 

What could he do?  The dead worms floated atop the water, smaller than mustard seeds, and he pitied the birds and worms alike.

From Gehenna they portaled in miniature sparrows that sung a song so sweetly melancholy that half the kitchen wept and hugged each other, until Akton, with dry eyes, shouted, “Get down there, Pheth, and lop off all their heads!”

What choice did he have?  He silenced their song.

They portaled in a ziz, which even immature still stood twenty stories tall.  He needed the help of fifty soldiers from the Legion to fell it and another ten strong demons to haul its purple liver to the oven.

They snickered at its size as he mourned its death.

From Dayan they brought in fire-winged phoenixes and giggling gryphons, both as mischievous as imps.  One phoenix slipped its cage and burned several palace chambers before Kokabiel trapped it and drowned it in the lake. He threw himself a parade (it was well-attended), but Pheth didn’t see the joy in snuffling out a life like a candle. 

Of all the birds on Mashit’s menu, most came from Earth.  Pheth longed for the brief glimpses he caught of Earth’s skies.  And to his surprise, its sky was not merely blue but apricot and crimson and jade. The warlocks portaled in penguins and peregrine falcons.  Cardinals and canaries.  Finches and flycatchers.  Hawks and hummingbirds. And Pheth cooked them all.

He cut sinew and viscera by the hundred-fold, quenched the phoenix’s dancing flames and stilled the laughter of the gryphons.  He stopped the hummingbirds’ racing hearts and forced the falcon’s last cry. On some days there were so many feathers underfoot he couldn’t see the kitchen floor. 

His hands shook, he needed a cup of hemlock wine to sleep each night, and his dreams were wild with blood and feather. 

But Pheth had a secret, one he dared not share with a soul.  Each day, after the warlocks dropped their catch in the basement coop and he ventured down to slaughter them, the strangest thing happened.  The birds would bow their necks for him to break.  And always, after, a fledgling waddled into the light.

“Why?” he asked a wake of bowing vultures. “Why do you do this? Do you think I’m your god, that this is heaven?”

And their answer was always a bowed neck.

For weeks he killed and cooked, and Mashit ate.  And in the evening, after the staff had left and Akton lay unconscious from too much toadstool wine, he snuck the baby birds home.  

His cottage proved too small for all his new guests.  Dung covered the floor, the mattress was in tatters, and the birds bickered, barked and squawked so loudly that he feared the palace would hear their cries.  The mourning dove loathed the gryphon and screeched whenever it was close.  The smoldering phoenix scalded the ziz whenever it snuggled up to it. The raven refused to eat grain, and the stymphalian kept trying to swallow the hummingbird. 

“I am thrice dumb for this,” Pheth admitted. “But if the idiot archivist can open portals to other universes, surely I can raise a few birds!”

One morning before first light, after having been up all night because of the cawing woodcock, he slinked into the palace through the servants’ tunnels. He knew the way to the library now (the archivist had indeed been toying with him).  He told the librarian, “I must research bird preparation for the queen. Lead me to your books on birds.”

The librarian, who had been Ashmedai’s foot scrubber before his new role, was eager to oblige and did not seem to suspect a thing.

That morning, and the mornings that followed, Pheth absorbed volumes under the flickering orange light of a lantern.  The phoenix, he read, needed to eat hot coals six times a day. The ziz preferred leviathan meat. And the stymphalian ate human flesh. But most of the birds ate various mixtures of grain, which was plentiful enough in the kitchen, though it took some patience and skill to sneak the food home each night.

In one of the musty volumes he found a drawing of many birds living happily inside a large glass enclosure.

“This is what I need!” he said, sneezing from dust.

There were still shamir larvae in the woodcock’s plumage; they had done horrors to his stone walls. But he captured one, and using trails of powdered granite and quartz powder, he guided it along the mountainside, freeing blocks of stone.  These became his bricks.  He placed four lodestones in the sand and uttered seven misshapen words, calling forth a bolt of lightning. The molten sheets of cooling sand became his glass.  He gathered plants that grew on the cliffs, and these became his landscape. 

The bricks were unevenly cut, the glass was bent and cloudy, the plants kept sneaking out the door, and yet he smiled.

“I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve built us an aviary.” The gosling, who had begun his first molt, seemed to nod in approval.

But then the ziz shrieked and shattered the glass.  And the phoenix set fire to the sneezing ferns.  And some shamirs must have escaped, because half the bricks had split to pieces.

Pheth took a deep breath and said, “I swear by the twin suns I’ll make this work.” He stepped outside and placed four lodestones in the sand and said, “This time, we will make the glass thicker.”

One dark morning, as acid rains poured down from bleak skies, he was poring over books in the library when he discovered something buried in an ancient text. 

“Using these nine forbidden words,” he read, “one may transform oneself into a winged creature and take to the sky.”

Overjoyed, Pheth said, “Can I truly become a bird? Can I fly away from this accursed place?”

The book was old and full of dust, and he sneezed.

Akton emerged from behind the stacks.  She reeked of wine and rotten things. “So this is where you hide.”

“Mistress!” Pheth said, standing. He slammed the book closed and sneezed again.

“You are a slau—slaughterer and a cook of birds,” she slurred. “Why research how to raise them?”

“So... so that I might prepare them better.”

“Lies,” she said. “You’re up to n—no good, and I’m going to inform the queen.”

Pheth imagined all of his baby birds plucked of their feathers, basted in butter, roasting on spits. 

“You’re done, Pheth,” she said and turned to leave.

“No!” he screamed and pushed her.

He didn’t shove her hard, but Akton was drunk and she stumbled into a shelf.  A thousand leather- and cloth-bound books fell onto her head, burying her under a great dusty pile. He heard the approaching footsteps of the librarian. 

Panicked, he ran.  He sped through fifty oversized halls, down a hundred twisting corridors, to the only place in the palace where he’d ever felt safe.  The basement coop.

“I am ashes!” he muttered as the basement’s candles hissed and spat at him from the walls.

He ran past weeping dryads and rainbow sprites, past dybbuks rattling inside jars and golems considering their heavy chains.  He sped past unicorns scratching graffiti into the walls with their horns and harpies tut-tutting and singing evil poems. 

All of these creatures would be eaten or tortured or kept in these pens until the stars burned out. “What madness!” he said.  “And I am complicit in these horrors!”

He reached the coop at the end of the corridor. It smelled of recent magic. Today’s catch was already here.  He stopped and gasped when he saw them.

Their breasts were as blue as Earth’s tropical seas. Black and white zebra stripes painted their eyes.  Their beaks were short, sharp, yellow. Crowning their heads, small blue feathers poked up like arrows from an archer’s target.  Its body was golden, thick as a goose.

One approached him, and with a little jig it spread its tail of feathers into a gargantuan fan.  On the tip of each plume, blue and bright, was a large unblinking eye.

A thousand eyes stared at him, angry, accusing.  These were the eyes of the all-seeing Accuser at the heart of creation.  The Accuser had witnessed every murderous act, and now, in this utterly magnificent form, he had come to mete judgment.

Pheth fell to his knees.  “I’m sorry!” he wept.  “I’m so sorry!”

A chick emerged from the huddle of birds.  The adults pushed it towards him, a small brown, delicate creature lacking their parents’ brilliance. And like those before, they bowed their necks for him to break. 

“Stop!” he said.  “Fools! I am no god.  I am no savior.  This is Sheol, and I am your executioner!”

From upstairs came the sounds of shuffling and a confusion of demon voices. “Who? Pheth? He just flew into the basement!”

Leather boots plodded and demon hooves clopped at the top of the stairwell as he opened the gate and grabbed the chick.  “To raise one, only to slaughter the rest?  No more,” he said. “No more.” 

He tucked the chick into his pocket and used his keys to free the golems from their chains.  The clumsy beasts slammed against the walls, cracking stone.  The floor shuddered, and dust fell from the ceiling. 

Pheth shattered the dybbuks’ jars.  The spirits giggled madly as they darted away.  He smashed wooden trunks, freeing thousands of dryads, and they filled the air like glowflies.  He set harpies free, and they cackled and walked up the walls.  The demons from upstairs entered the corridor and froze at the sight of all the freed creatures.

The unicorns stampeded, skewering three demons.  The rest screamed and ran. Pheth climbed over their bodies and sped upstairs, trailing four frightened demons.  He raced through the kitchen, past the stunned-looking Alath, Mardero, and Buldumech, and out into the night.

Acid rains poured from dismal skies, burning his skin.  An acrid fog choked the air, making him cough.  The bird cheeped in his pocket as he ran all the way home.

When he entered his aviary, the birds were cawing in a cacophony, as if they knew their day of reckoning had arrived.  He put the chick down on the sandy floor as the rain pounded on the glass roof. 

The gosling—now a plump and gray-feathered goose—waddled up to him.

“How quickly you’ve grown,” he said.  “But it’s all been for naught.  Our time is short.  Our judgment approaches.”

The goose pecked at the ground of the aviary, drawing an arc in the sand.  The shape reminded Pheth of the sigils and zodiacs the warlocks had drawn.

“Of course!” he said. “I have watched the warlocks open a portal a thousand times. And who were they before the queen’s shuffle but idiot stablehands?  There’s no reason why I can’t open one too.  Even to Earth!”

The goose seemed to nod.

“I can save us!” Pheth said.  “I will take us all to Earth!”

He stepped out into the burning rain.  He drew obscene angles in the sand and intoned harsh syllables, sticking his fingers up and down, as he’d seen the warlocks do, and then left at just the right moment.  As he worked the spell, the rain paused, as if curious, and the clouds parted to reveal crimson skies.

A vortex formed above the waters, growing. It was working!

Something soft rubbed his ankle.  The goose had come to watch.  He had left the aviary door open, and all the birds were pouring out. Finch and gryphon, woodcock and ziz, phoenix and dove, they all surrounded him.  In the center of the vortex glimmered a sliver of blue sky.

His heart ached at the sight of Earth.

The birds squealed, squawked and chirped.  And suddenly, as if they had been there for Eternity, Mashit, Kokabiel, Akton, and the Queen’s Legion stood beside his house.  Akton scowled and held a bloody rag to her scalp.

Kokabiel waved his hoof, and the sliver of Earth’s sky tumbled away like a feather in the wind.

“Look!” Kokabiel said. “Birdface has birds of his own!”

Mashit stepped forward, and in the sun her gold adornments seemed to writhe and burn. “Look at these creatures, Koko!” she said. “What a wonder!” The flock of birds parted as she stepped into Pheth’s aviary. She vanished inside, and when she emerged minutes later, she said, “What a stupendous idea!  Koko, you troll, why didn’t you build something like this for me?”

Kokabiel harrumphed.

“Your Highness,” Akton said, holding her bloody rag so all could see.  “This aviary was not meant for you.  Pheth snuck into the library.  He stole the birds from the palace.  And how did he feed them?  By stealing from my kitchen!”

Kokabiel coughed, and she added, “I mean, Your Highness’s kitchen.”

“He must be punished!” Kokabiel added sheepishly.

Mashit turned to Pheth and sighed deeply.  “I will miss your avian delights, Pheth, but sparing you would set a foul example. I will feed your mind to Barsafael, where you will suffer his madness for all Eternity.  Koko, collect these birds and bring them to the palace.  I have a perfect place in mind for them.”

As the soldiers came for Pheth, he remembered the nine forbidden words he had read in that book, the ones that could turn him into a bird.

He turned to the goose and said, “Forgive me, little one.” Then he spoke the nine words. Except he was nervous and said only eight, and one of the words he had certainly mispronounced.  The world about him warped and shifted, and suddenly everyone was very large, and he was very small.

“Look,” Kokabiel said, and his voice shook the world.  “The idiot has turned himself into a dragonfly!” He raised his forehoof. “Let me turn him back before he flits away!”

“Wait!” Mashit said. “Better yet, fix him that way.  Let him live out his days as a fleeting insect.  It’s a fitting punishment, I think.” 

Kokabiel waved his hoof, and Pheth felt the world shift again, but this time his thoughts shrank too, so that soon all he wanted to do was find a nice rock to sun on, and maybe have a little something to eat every now and then.

The dragonfly flits from rock to lake, buzzing across the warm afternoon.  How huge and bulbous that mountain is, how glorious its ledges upon which to sun. 

The dragonfly soars around the mountain ten, twenty times, until he finds the familiar ledge, then lands.

Below, in an enormous valley of straight transparent cliffs that catch and hold the sun, colorful flying creatures, much larger than him, frolic on trees, wade in clear pools, and weave through the air.  They eat when they are hungry, sleep when tired, and no predators haunt their skies. How graceful they fly; how vibrant their colors. They call to mind ancient memories that flicker like suns on a puddle before they vanish.

Through an opening in the clear cliffside, a huge creature emerges and flies up to the dragonfly.  Its black beak, long sleek neck, and plump gray body make the dragonfly flutter his wings with excitement.

They soar together, diving over rock and ledge, climbing so high it becomes hard to breathe.  And the dragonfly thinks, How many days have I been flitting about with my friend?  The twin suns have come and gone many times, and I tire.

His wingbeats slow, stop.  Above him, his friend’s silhouette flaps against the sky.  She gently takes his wings in her beak and carries him far over black waters toward a distant shore.

They land on a crimson beach, where yellow clumps infest a rectangular pile of stones.  She sets him on the sand and pecks away at the clumps.  Creatures walk out of the water to eat them.  When a creature comes for him, she frightens them all away with a honk.  Her actions seem familiar, comforting. With her wing she pries open the heavy stone and carries him inside.

The interior is dark.  It smells of familiar things, and he longs for something he can’t quite remember.  She places him in a basin lined with soft moss, then sits across from him in the shadows.  But she’s too far away. He wants to be near. So he climbs out of the basin and moves toward her. And it is here, in the warm nook of her wing, with the sound of the lake lapping at the door, that he feels safe at last to close his eyes.


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Matthew Kressel's fiction has or will appear in Clarkesworld, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, Apex, as well as previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Naked City, The People of the Book, After, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and other markets. He edits the speculative fiction and poetry magazine Sybil's Garage, and alongside Ellen Datlow he runs the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series in New York. His website is www.matthewkressel.net.

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5 Comments on “Pheth's Aviary”

5 Responses to “Pheth’s Aviary”

  1. Very nice story, with an unexpected ending.

  2. […] “Pheth’s Aviary” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #133 […]

  3. […] setting, a wife stifled by her cruel husband, and an uprising of oppressed elves. Mesmerizing. “Pheth’s Aviary” by Matthew Kressel features a bad demon (he has a good heart). All he wants to do is save things, […]

  4. Eric Schwitzgebel says:

    Fun, funny, sweet, sad story! Thought I’d check it out since I’d enjoyed “Meeker” so much. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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