Authors: Kate Thompson
HE WHITE RAT WATCHED
as the two golden birds rose up into the night sky and disappeared from view. A few minutes ago, one of them had been his owner, Tess. Then she had seen the other bird on the tree outside her window, and she had shimmered, changed, and flown away. For a moment or two the rat remained still, staring into the empty darkness in perplexity, then he twitched his whiskers, washed his nose with his paws and jumped back on to his exercise wheel.
As she soared up high above the park, Tess had no thought of what she had left behind her. In her young life, she had used her secret ability to Switch to experience many different forms of animal life, but she had never been a phoenix before. All her attention was absorbed by this new and exhilarating experience, and until she had become comfortable with it, she could think of nothing else.
She followed the other bird faithfully as he rose through the night sky, higher and higher. Each sweep of her golden wings seemed effortless, and propelled her so far that she felt almost weightless. Behind her, the long sweeping tail seemed to have no more substance than the tail of a comet. It was as though the nature of the bird was to rise upwards; gravity had scarcely any power over it at all.
Up and up the two of them flew, not slowing until they had risen well clear of the city's sulphurous halo and into the crisp, cool air beyond. Then the three-toed phoenix began to drift upwards in a more leisurely way and eventually came to a halt. Tess slowed down and began to hover beside her friend, using her wings to tread the air as a swimmer treads water. But when she looked at him, she noticed that he wasn't using his wings. He was merely sitting on the air, floating without any effort at all. With slight apprehension, she followed suit and stilled her wings. It worked. The two of them floated there, weightless as clouds, looking down on the city of Dublin below.
Back in Tess's bedroom, the white rat's wheel was spinning so fast that its bearings were getting hot. He didn't understand what had occurred when Tess had Switched and taken flight but it excited him, and the only way he had of expressing that excitement was in movement. So he ran and ran, the bars of the wheel becoming blurred as they passed beneath his racing feet, again and again and again.
A faint breeze moved the curtain and reached the rat's cage. He paused in his stride, then stopped so abruptly that the flying wheel carried him right round inside it three times before it fell to swinging him back and forth and finally came to rest. The white rat was frozen to the spot, every nerve on edge as he strained his senses to understand what that mysterious breeze had brought with it. He waited, and was just about to return to his futile travels when the message came again. There was no mistaking it this time. Somewhere in the city streets, someone or something was sending out a call which Algernon had no power to resist. He hurled himself against the side of the cage, scrabbling with his paws and biting the bars. When this failed he began to dig frantically against the metal floor, throwing food and sawdust and water in all directions in his desperation to escape. But the cage was too well made. The message grew weaker until at last the white rat resigned himself and curled up, exhausted, among the disordered bedding in the corner.
Once Tess had become accustomed to the strange sensation of floating, she turned her attention to her friend. Everything had happened so quickly that she hadn't even greeted him yet; not properly, anyway. There was so much she wanted to know, so much news to catch up on. There was no need for them to recount their adventures in the Arctic when they had fought the dreadful krools; nor was there any need to remember the awful moment when Kevin had Switched just a moment too late and got caught by the flying napalm. The last time she had seen him he had been a small bird, burning, tumbling into the flaming forest below, and there had seemed no possibility of hope.
She could understand the leap of imagination that had enabled him to escape by turning into a phoenix and rising again from his own ashes, but a lot of time had gone by since then and she was impatient to know where he had been and what he had done.
She turned to look at him, but when she caught sight of his golden eyes, all her questions suddenly seemed to be without meaning. Her mind stilled and became peaceful, merging into his in a kind of featureless calm. All at once, Tess felt that she knew all there was to know about the nature of the phoenix. It was ageless, timeless, the essence of all that was pure and beyond the reach of mortal concerns.
Far below, the life of the city continued despite the lateness of the hour. The last buses returned to the station and parked; taxis picked up party-goers and brought them home; lovers stretched the evening on into the small hours, strolling slowly home. Beneath the roofs, nurses worked night-shifts, presses rolled with the morning's newspapers, babies and small children woke and cried, bringing their parents groggily from bed. And still further down, in their own subsystem of homes and highways, hundreds of thousands of city rats were awake and going about their business. From her great height, Tess perceived it all happening. It was her city, her home, and yet she was so detached from it that she might as well have been looking down on an ants' nest. She sank into the ecstasy of the experience and all her cares melted away.
When Tess returned to her bedroom shortly before dawn and resumed her human form, the sense of joyousness remained with her. It was as though all the worries of the last few months had vanished and been replaced by a calm certainty that the future was assured. The choice of the final form that she would have to take when she reached her fifteenth birthday seemed to have been made for her. Nothing that she had ever been before could compare with the serene, weightless existence of the phoenix, and she could not imagine ever wanting to be anything else. Already she was beginning to miss it.
Although she wasn't particularly tired, Tess got into her pyjamas and snatched a couple of hours' sleep before breakfast. So it wasn't until her father woke her and she began to get into her school uniform that she noticed the state of the white rat's cage. There was always a certain amount of clearing up to be done there in the mornings, but Tess had never seen anything like this before. The water bowl had been knocked over and the floor was a mess of soggy food and sawdust. The top of the chest of drawers where the cage stood and the carpet underneath it were both littered with debris that the rat's scrabbling feet had thrown out, and the shredded paper of his bedding had been pulled out of the nest-box and slung over the wheel like festive streamers.
âWhat on earth have you been up to, Algernon?' said Tess.
In reply, the white rat hopped into the wheel for a morning stroll, but before he had done two turns the paper strips caught up in the axle and jammed it.
Tess tried to speak to him in the visual language of the rats that she had learnt during her adventures with Kevin.
âSunflower seeds and shavings all over the place, huh? White rat digging, huh? White rat angry, huh?'
Algernon twitched his nose in bewilderment. Tess finished dressing, then took him out of the cage and put him on the floor while she sorted out the mess.
He was his usual timid self, never straying far from Tess's feet and investigating her school bag with the utmost care, as though something large and aggressive might leap out of it and grab him. By the time she had emptied the contents of the cage into a plastic bag and replaced it with fresh food and bedding, he was standing up against Tess's shoe, sniffing the air above him and longing to get back home.
âTess!' came her mother's voice from the kitchen.
âI'm coming,' she called back, releasing the wheel from its bearings and starting to unwind the tangled paper. It broke in her fingers every time she tried to pull it clear of the wheel, and looked like taking a lot longer to unravel than she had expected.
âYour breakfast is ready!'
âAll right, all right, I'm coming!' Irritation was apparent in her voice, and she felt disgusted with herself, aware of how rapidly the righteous mood of a few hours ago had passed. She made one more attempt to free the wheel's axle, then threw it down in disgust.
âCage with no wheel in it,' she said to Algernon in Rat as she picked him up from the floor, a little roughly.
âHuh?' said Algernon. He loved his wheel. Apart from eating and sleeping, it was the only pleasure he had in life. But Tess had one eye on the racing clock and was growing angrier by the minute.
âWhite rat with no brain,' she said. âWhite rat with hairless baby rats in nest.' She shoved him into the cage and closed the door.
âHuh?' he said again. âHuh?'
Tess ignored him. She tied a knot in the top of the plastic bag and turned her mind to what she was likely to need in school that day. They would be playing camogie: that would mean helmet and hurley ...
âTess! You're going to be late!'
She ran downstairs and snatched a hasty breakfast, then raced for the bus. As it brought her through the streets of the city she looked up into the sky, hoping to catch a glint of gold; some sign that it hadn't all been a foolish dream. Clouds had gathered since the early hours, and from time to time a ray of sunshine broke through them, but she knew that it had nothing to do with the phoenix.
The phoenix. As she thought about him, and about the time they had spent up there above the city, Tess realised that, although the bird undoubtedly was Kevin, it wasn't the friend she had known. In all their previous adventures together, no matter what form they had taken, they would recognise each other instantly. Rats, goats, dolphins, even mammoths and dragons had not served to disguise the individuality of the person who dwelt within them. But the more Tess thought about it, the harder she found it to identify the Kevin she knew and loved with that lofty, ethereal bird. When she remembered the way it had felt to be with him, the sense of joyous detachment and freedom, she longed to be back there again, away from the smoggy trundling of the traffic and the dreary day ahead. But it was, she realised, because of the delight of the phoenix nature and not because of any sense of companionship. The joy of that experience ought to be sustaining her, but instead it was being nudged aside by doubt. Where was Kevin? Where was all the rest of him, the mischievousness and the moodiness and the flash of anger that came to his eyes? There was no sign of any of those things in the phoenix. It was like some kind of divine being, capable of nothing except existing; just radiating light and goodness.
Her mind wandered and returned to the problem of Algernon and his unusual behaviour. When she remembered how unkind she had been to him, she was sorry. Poor creature. He wasn't very smart, it was true, but he had the sweetest temperament imaginable. He was incapable of an unkind thought. How could she have been so cruel to him?
She closed her eyes and leant her head on the back of the seat. Taking a deep breath, she tried to think herself into the mood of perfect understanding that the form of the phoenix had given her the night before. But the only revelation she received was that she had, after all, forgotten her helmet and her hurley. She was going to be in big trouble.