I was taught this from the beginning, when my fire was only a spark, a bean-sized flicker on the end of a match. Father folded me in his arms and said, “Daughter, someday you will save the world.”
Save the world. Burn the world. Cut out the rot from the world with my love’s ashes as the dagger. All the same thing.
Love. Do I have the right to call you that?
When the day comes, when the moons kiss and the stars spin and the skies crackle like-lightning but not-lightning, I’ll close my hands around your throat and shake you until your sixty thousand quadrillion leaves scatter onto paved roads, onto twisting skyscrapers and satellite dishes yawning at the sky like giant hollowed clams. Your leaves will rain onto forests piling with refuse, onto thinning ice where the last northern bear scrabbles, claws digging into seawater, fur streaked silver in the midnight sun.
Then I’ll fly over the world on phoenix wings that block the sky while despoilers bury their faces in their hands, shielding their eyes from my searing light. I’ll breathe my flame upon the world, onto the scattered leaves that are all that remain of you. I will burn every despoiler and all they’ve built, and the world will begin anew.
I knew this from the beginning. Still I couldn’t help reaching out to you.
I met you by the river bisecting the starflower forest. Your hair was a weave of leaves strung down your back, the maples’ sharp pen-nib tips just starting to turn red. Green vines crawled over your breasts like serpents. Your eyes, when you looked at me, held recognition. But you did not recoil. You did not ask what I—the renewing phoenix, the saviour, the end of the world—was doing in the sanctuary of the one I’d someday burn.
Instead, you said, “I’m so glad to meet you.”
I could have filled in the unsaid part. “I’m so glad to meet you before the end.” Or, “I’m so glad to meet you now, instead of when you’re burning my scattered pieces.”
River water sprayed across my arms, swift-moving and cold, but even it smelled of copper and arsenic, like some millennia-old beast had died there and still bled beneath the currents. “I shouldn’t be here,” I said. You only moved closer. “You should be afraid of me,” I said, but you only smiled and said, “Who would fear the saviour of the world?”
I came back, day after day, though I should not.
I spoke to you, though I should not. I whispered, worried that a strong puff of my breath would set you alight.
One evening I reached for you. We touched. Just our fingertips, no more. You didn’t burn and hope smouldered in my heart, though I knew we could not draw any closer.
I want … not to burn you. Not to stay like this forever either. But something in between. I want to embrace you but not consume you, or maybe consume you without erasing you, or maybe I don’t know what I want at all and Father really should’ve kept a better watch on me.
The promised day creeps closer. Despoilers should be marking down the date on their dead trees, except they plod on unaware. I feel sorry for them. But most of all I feel sorry for you. The flame always falls for her fuel. But once in love, does the flame still want to burn—
Father is combing my hair, and the brush goes up in flames.
I face you, the night before the promised day, my choice made. “Let’s not do this,” I say.
Your eyes widen and they are clear as lost rivers, dark as the night skies had been before light devoured them. “We must,” you say.
I sweep a hand to encompass the skinny, twisting buildings that claw for the heavens like diseased mountains, to encompass the canals and ships and the hum of an underground generator that seems as entrenched as the song of the world. “I want to give them a chance,” I say. I mean, “I want you to live.”
Your lip trembles. Your hand brushes my cheek, though I’m so near awakening that your skin peels off and drifts away like slips of translucent plastic.
“Can they?” you say. “Can they fix what they’ve caused?”
“We have to trust them,” I say.
I think, “I don’t want you to die because of them.”
It takes you an eternity to nod. I know what this means to you. Like me, you’ve been preparing for this moment your whole life. Like me, you know once the day passes we will not have another chance. It is the one day when your leaves reach their full growth, when my fire blazes at its very brightest, bright enough to burn-consume-save-destroy the world.
I am not prepared for what you do next.
You throw yourself against me, entwining your arms around mine like we are braided bamboo, laying your head on my shoulder so that my flesh brands your cheek autumn red. Your hair spills down my breastbone and begins to crisp away. “Burn me now,” you say. “Burn me now so we’ll both be gone. Burn me now so we can finally be …” Your breath hitches; you cannot bring yourself to finish that sentence.
I’m paralyzed. It’s what I’ve always wanted, you so close to me, but in panic I can barely process what it feels like. Then instinct takes over: not to savour this, but to protect you.
“No!” I shove you away. My hands leave burning prints over your collarbones. “I want you to live.”
Your tears water the dead leaves of your hair, the ruined skin of your torso. In places your skin has burned away completely, exposing streaks of yellow fat. I ache with want for you and pain at what I’ve done.
“Your scars will heal,” I say. “The world will survive. You will find someone who loves you.”
I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t believe what I’m saying. I just know I am fire and you are leaves and I can save neither love nor world without destroying them first. And it’s only a matter of time before Father realizes the promised day has come and gone without me carrying out my task.
So I flee. I fly to the sea and coalesce into myself, fold upon fold, like a many-layered origami flower or the collapsing pillars of a charred building. I throw myself into salt water, where I taste the sirens’ tears and the filth of despoiler waste. I burrow into the sand of the ocean floor. I am barnacle, I am crab, I am a scuttling creature with needles for legs scratching at the armour of the world. I tunnel through the crust and sink to where heated rock melts. Then I fall deeper, into liquid metal.
There I swim, ever burning and ever burned. Metal fills my ears and mouth, and I shape it into pearls on my tongue. I dream of your autumn-kissed leaves and the trust in your eyes, and I watch you as you watch the world. My voice weaves a harmony beneath the world’s song and the hum of the generator. I sing of the truth we share, of a choice made for the wrong reasons and the best reasons: the world wasn’t saved by mercy, but by love.
Copyright © 2019 Y. M. Pang.
Image credit: Depositphotos
Y. M. Pang spent her childhood pacing around her grandfather’s bedroom, telling him stories of magic, swords, and bears. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod, among other venues. She lives in Canada, where she dabbles in photography and often contemplates the merits of hermitism. Despite this, you can find her online at www.ympang.com and on Twitter as @YMPangWriter