His hut was built in a cleft of the mountain between the trees and the lava flow, where the hot springs steam and hiss, and mud forms a thin dry crust over the boiling, melted earth. His neighbours were the phoenix, the dragon and the salamander. His name was Fire, pronounced, in his tongue, like the flickering roar of a wall of flames. There is no sound like that in our speech anymore. Only the ancients would remember, and he was the last. He was human, though; an ancestor, in fact, of mine.
When he was young and his blood was hot, Fire left his village with the plan of doing what no-one else had done. He intended to live alone on the slopes of a volcano and to live up to his name by learning the secrets of the inferno. He spent the Summer building a hut out of stone, chosen so that he would not damage the walls once he learned to self-combust. The roof, unfortunately, had to be wood, but he reasoned that he could remove it when the time came.
First he needed to build his heat tolerance, and he planned to do this by swimming in hot pools. It was easy to float in the mineral rich water; the difficult part was convincing his skin not to burn. Weeks of scalding left him stiff and in pain, but he persisted, helped by the snow that piled in drifts where the ground had cooled; when he couldn’t stand the heat anymore, he would stumble and slide and roll in the soothing white while it burst into steam beneath him.
On the day he met his neighbours, Fire had started with the cooler water, the yellow pool and then the purple. Now, he was inching himself carefully down into the hottest orange pool, the one with the rounded boulders at its edge. As he stared into space, trying to ignore the signals from his body that told him he was burning, a large shadow under the water caught his eye. He paused half in and half out and watched until eventually a head broke the surface. The creature’s eyes were hooded and intelligent, its face-scales fine as sequins, its lashes tiny beads. When it spoke to him in the ancient language he was not surprised.
‘Your body is not built for the heat, young human. If you cook yourself, I will eat you.’
‘I am getting used to it, old salamander. I can do anything if I try hard enough.’
‘Getting used to it, or frying your flesh?’
‘If I persist, perhaps I will grow scales’
The salamander laughed at this, with a wheezing sound that echoed back from the rocks around them.
‘Little human, you are killing yourself. I cannot live in snow. You cannot live in boiling water. Go home.’
I would like to say that Fire respected the wisdom of the salamander and took his advice, but he did not. After this very short conversation, he simply fainted and fell into the water, and that was how he met the dragon.
The dragon and the salamander were not natural allies, but they moved in the same circles. That is to say, they both lived far from humans and close to fire. So it was that the dragon happened to be curled up on a slope above the pools, eves-dropping on the conversation with one lazy ear and one lazy eye while the rest of its senses were reserved for admiring its own smoke rings. It had crafted a magnificent cloud in the shape of a sailing ship when it heard the splash and turned its gaze to the pool just in time to see the salamander slide underneath the bright red human and lift him up to the surface. The dragon uncurled itself and loped down the slope, its long scaly tail making a sound like clinking coins as it moved over the rocks. It sniffed curiously at the man then scooped him out of the water and dumped him at the edge.
‘Good morning old salamander. I see you have found a human.’
‘A stupid one. I probably should have let him boil.’
‘Nonetheless, they are interesting creatures, don’t you think? So stupid and yet so busy. Like ants.’
‘You can have him.’
‘I think I might.’
The dragon nosed at Fire until he got him into the right position, then picked him up gently with his mouth and loped down to the snowline, where he dumped him in the nearest drift. When the human woke, the dragon stepped back politely and crouched down to watch, but Fire simply cried out with pain and passed out again. That was how the phoenix got involved.
The phoenix and the dragon were vague acquaintances. On the occasions when the dragon could be bothered to fly, they shared the sky together. They also knew, with a deep and ritual knowledge that did not need to be spoken, that when the phoenix died, the dragon would be there to light the fire through which she would be reborn. The phoenix had been flying over the pools when the salamander brought Fire to the surface and had wheeled back to watch the dragon collect him and bring him to the snow. She swooped down now and alighted on a snow-dusted shrub.
‘Good morning, bright dragon. I see you have a human.’
‘Meh. I think it’s dead.’
‘With respect, I know a little something about death and burning. I think it is alive but hurt. Should I intervene?’
‘As you wish, fine phoenix, but this one is very stupid.’
‘Aren’t they all? But they achieve such magnificent things. It has a hut, did you know? Built all of trees and stones’
‘I did not know.’
‘Humans are so stupid and yet so busy. Like ants.’
‘That’s just what I said.’
‘It is a well-known fact.’
Throughout this conversation, my ancestor had been lying unconscious and naked in the snow. He could have died while they ruminated but luckily the dragon became bored.
‘So, fine phoenix, should I carry him to this hut of his?’
The phoenix, with a graceful dip of her head, agreed.
The first thing that Fire became aware of when he woke was the cold. It had never bothered him before, but now he was lying on the stone floor of his hut and his body was shocked and shivering. The next thing he felt was the presence of a beautiful bird, sitting on a rafter just under the ceiling. Her feathers glowed a gentle orange, like the first burst of sunlight at dawn, and her long tail swooped nearly to the floor, soft, gorgeous layers of red and gold. He was unable to speak so he gazed at her blurrily through the pain and the shivering and the chattering of his teeth, until his body calmed and he lay there still, at one with the freezing ground. Unlike the salamander, the phoenix could not pronounce the ancient language but only spoke with winged creatures, so she simply gazed back.
I have heard it said that the tears of the phoenix can heal and that may well be true, but this phoenix did not cry. Instead, she glided around the room on her fragrant wings making a soothing breeze. She gathered plump green spears of aloe vera and squeezed the juice onto Fire’s burning skin. She brought fruit and berries from who knows where in her beak, and when the cold became too intense, she flew up to see the dragon and convinced it to come, grumbling, back down to the hut to light a fire. As the human became stronger and his skin less red, she harried and pecked at him until he stretched his tight scars, and called him outside to gather water so that he would move his limbs. And when, one day, all her work was done, she flew soundlessly out of his hut and to her perch in the forest where she slept for five whole days before coming back to check on him once again.
The salamander, meanwhile, lurked under the water in delicious warm peace.
The dragon caught and ate a goat.
Fire had some time to think. He was no philosopher, my ancestor, although he became one of the ancients, and thoughts did not come easily to him. He had nobody to talk to, either, since the loquacious salamander would not leave his pool. But eventually, with nothing else to do, he began to ponder, and his thoughts circled round and round between the salamander and the phoenix, finally landing on three surprising conclusions just as, incidentally, the dragon swooped down on its second goat.
He was not suited to the heat of mineral springs, lava, magma, or boiling mud.
His name was just a name.
And no amount of trying would change his skin.
It took him a while to come to these conclusions and a while more to heal, but when he had, he packed up his meagre belongings, barricaded the door of his hut with a large boulder, and strode back down the mountain without so much as a thank you or a backward glance. He would learn to live as other humans lived, and he would do it the best. The phoenix watched him leave and then followed him from high above the clouds, curious to see the results of her work.
And so Fire became a farmer, and later a father and then eventually an ancestor, one of the ancients. He worked hard but was not especially brilliant. His children and his grandchildren and his great grandchildren grew and changed and learned and forgot. Some of them did what no-one else had done and some of them did ordinary things in their own unique ways. Time passed.
The phoenix died and was reborn many times.
The dragon blew smoke rings through the centuries until it became weary, then settled down to become stone again.
The salamander, immortal, lives in his warm pool still. It was he who told me this story.