I was born on a dark and stormy night. Okay, reborn then. You see, I am a phoenix. I know I look more human than bird but trust me on this. Also, trust that you don’t want to see me in bird form because that can be bad for your health. All those myths that say we are birds who can control fire and burst into flames, well they aren’t exactly right, but they aren’t exactly wrong either. Okay, I’m jumping all around, let me start with a little about what we are, and aren’t.
Phoenixes are generally human-like with a magical form. Think of us as werewolves. Yeah. That’s a good analogy, only we are way cooler. Generally, we look like most humans, act like most humans, and live among humans mostly undetected. We do tend to have fair or ruddy skin with red hair. Eye color varies between clans so there is variety in that. We are so closely related to humans that we can even have children with them; so most science thinks we’re human. Blood work even shows that we are which has helped us greatly through the years.
So what makes us different? For starters, how we are born. As I said, I was born on a dark and stormy night…from a bed of ashes…phoenix ashes to be precise. I was born from the ashes of phoenixes in one of our sacred locations. It’s pretty common knowledge that phoenixes immolate upon death. That is the truth. We do. Unlike humans, we generally know when our end is coming and we make our way to one of our sacred spaces and allow the end in the ashes of our kinsmen. That is the fitting end.
As the myth goes, we are born from the ashes of our old selves. Unlike the myth though, we are not reborn immediately. No one knows when it will happen, but it does, and only from the ashes of a phoenix.
As near as I can figure it, you humans reincarnate also, just a bit differently. Whereas we are literally reborn with all of the memories of our previous selves, and to science a clone, you are reborn in parts and pieces, a laugh here, a gesture there. I think it has to be about souls. For some reason, ours hold together, and yours splinter into pieces and are reassembled into a whole again from a variety of parts. It would explain how we sometimes recognize things about someone we knew when we have only just met you. But I digress.
When we are reborn, our souls are intact as I said, and our bodies are those of children. Just like you, we need to be cared for and helped along the way until we can join society. Obviously, this would look very strange to humans. I mean a five-year-old discussing philosophy or reminiscing about what it was like in ancient Egypt? So we are raised in secluded enclaves of phoenixes until we are 18 and your society feels that we are mature enough to be adults. Kind of silly I know, but even after the magic returned we followed the old ways.
Oh, yes, our way of life continued while the magic was gone. True, no children were born, but we kept the sacred funeral pyres burning and we kept the old ways believing that magic, and our friends, would be reborn. Luckily we have lifespans that are generally far longer than humans, and with a reason to do so, we can live for an indefinite period of time. Each of our sacred areas maintained at least a few caretakers who were able to preserve tradition. We also agreed at that time that we would all take turns in that caretaker position in order to preserve the old ways. Accidents do happen and we couldn’t afford to lose the knowledge. We managed to hold our population mostly stable during the dark time.
Anyway, I was born again on a dark and stormy night when the winds were whipping through the burning grounds, and lightning was striking all around. The night watch was present, as always, to welcome a new birth should it happen. Char, the watch during that time, was shocked to see me sitting in the ashes, and she dashed out to grab me and bring me into the shelter. Once brought in and dried, she found me to be quite small. I was also extremely quiet for a newborn. Our souls may be old, but we do have to grow into our bodies, and it does take some amount of time to remember our past selves.
Char wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about my arrival. She had signed up for the watch, yes. She felt it was her duty to our race to take her year-long turn on the watch and to raise any child who happened to arrive. She had been on duty for eleven months now and her time had almost passed. She had already been considering what she would do after her year was up, and this small, quiet, child threw all of that into disarray.
She took it well though. As I said, she brought me back to the shelter where the watch keeps an eye on the ashes. She courteously welcomed me back to the physical plane and allowed my body to rest. When it was time for the shift change, Kai arrived and was surprised to see me as well. He thanked Char for her service and said he hoped to see her again in this lifetime. She took me back to the enclave and the current curator. Her presence was duly noted and the gears were put in motion to replace her at the watch and to ready a small house for us to share until I could attend to my own physical needs.
I have thanked Char many times for her courteous and understanding care. I was able to gain verbal skills and walk within a year. It was then that we discovered, after some conversation about my last corporeal life, that I had not been reborn in centuries, probably close to a millennium. I had to learn everything about the age in which I was now living. I had to learn history, and even basics like toiletry, computers, and social media. It made the time pass very quickly. I had enough motor control to care for myself by five. At that point, Char took her courteous leave of me. I availed myself of the communal resources and learned from Google and Youtube.
When I was eight I was allowed to begin contributing to the enclave. I did basic yard work and maintenance. I helped with the laundry and the physical care of the two phoenixes who were still too young to have full control. My favorite thing though was when I could help with kitchen duty. I talked the enclave curator into buying me specialized kitchen supplies, and ingredients from time to time. He was thrilled with the results. Before I knew it, kitchen duty was my sole responsibility. I adored it. Each meal, to me, was a work of art full of love and sensual pleasure.
Before I knew it I was approaching my eighteenth year. Soon, if I wanted, I could leave the enclave. While you can choose to leave, no one is forced to go. Those who opt to leave are given a generous stipend and can return at any time. We all tithe generously to keep the enclaves running smoothly because you never know when you might return or in what condition, so there isn’t a shortage of funds.
I opted to leave. I wanted to explore the world of gastronomy in this new age. I wanted to learn the new skills and ingredients and determine how to make them taste even better. I wanted to use my gifts and knowledge to bring pleasure. I decided to start at the Sorbonne in France.
After the full course of study, in which I excelled, of course, I decided to travel the world’s restaurants. I started in Europe and worked up the ranks in several of the top restaurants. That was fun for a bit but got rather boring, and as I aged, I decided to walk away before the very insular group grew suspicious. I think worked my way slowly through indigenous cultures learning their skills. That took longer because trust had to be built before I would be allowed into their inner circle. Once I learned about the herbs and their properties and felt that I had a proper grounding, I went to America and toured their various small dinners and dives. Guy Fieri left a great record of opportunities. Most welcomed a new chef or waiter or dishwasher. I did what it took, and I watched and learned.
I suppose that at any time I could have opened my own restaurant but that felt…small. I traveled. I learned. I honed my skill. I ended up in Nou Houston working at a small dinner that had opened up once the city had moved. I felt for the owners. The dinner had been in the family for four generations and the old, much-beloved location was now underwater. They were glad that they had been able to reopen in the new city. They had the same square footage and it was a better floorplan. They had all of the furnishings and decorations and had done their best to replicate the feel of ‘home’ the old place had. I hadn’t ever been to the old place, but they seemed happy. They were great and let me try out a ‘chef’s choice’ once a week.
One of the regulars was a short, stocky woman with wings. One of her wings appeared to have been damaged at some point and not healed correctly, an oddity for these magical times. Between that and the sheer force of her personality, she stood out. Week after week she would come in once a week and order the chef’s choice. After about six months of this, she came in twice in one week, and this time with another woman. This woman was taller and very refined looking. She was wearing expensive clothing and had her hair up in a chignon. I had thought the first woman had a commanding presence, but this new one put her to shame. They didn’t appear to be a couple per se, but more like a sovereign and her advisor. They ordered the chef’s choice, which was no surprise. I had outdone myself this week with a new burger. Neither of these ladies looked to be the burger type, but they both dug in with gusto. They didn’t even use the silverware, but adopted the Guy ‘hunch.’ I’d have laughed but I was too busy cooking to do more than keep an eye on the unusual pair.
Before I knew it they were gone. Lunch hour can be super hectic and we had been slammed. I helped to get the place back in order after the lunch rush and we set up for the dinner crowd. Dinners are full of long days, but we laughed and joked during the downtime, and I liked these humans. They were good people.
When I finally got off work, around 10 pm, I waved to the owners and headed out the back. There in the alley was the short one I had been seeing for weeks. She seemed to be just standing there waiting. I raised an eyebrow. I mean, it’s kind of spooky finding a customer in the alley, but I didn’t get the feeling she meant any harm.
“Hello, Igneia,” she said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Salimanca Franklin, but you can call me Sals.”
“Hi Sals. Why are you stalking me in a dark alley? Should I be worried?”
“Hm. I guess I could be stalking. Should I have asked to speak with you during your work time? That seemed less prudent as you seem to take your cooking quite seriously.”
“No. This is okay. It doesn’t look as though you brought your gang.” I said with a straight face.
She chuckled a low, pleasant sound. “I just came to talk. I noticed that there is an all-night coffee shop a few blocks away. Will you sit with me and hear my offer?”
“I’m intrigued. Sure. Their coffee is awful though. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
She laughed heartily at that. “You haven’t tasted my coffee. I’m sure this is a step up, and I will get you whatever you’d like.”
We walked companionably to the coffee shop. One of the things I like about this time is that the races, for the most part, appear to have learned from past prejudices. There was still a learning curve, of course, and haters, but no one blinked an eye at the winged woman as she walked into the coffee shop with me. They even had a couple of booths that had open benches so that she could have a comfortable seat. We headed for the barista and placed our orders. She ordered a coffee with no cream and used honey for a sweetener, as she did at the dinner. I opted to try a smoothie with bananas, strawberries, and cocoa nibs. We stood to the side and waited for our order. We were the only people there but that was no reason to make the woman bring it out to the table. I was happy to see that Sals left a sizable tip in the jar as well; also as she has always done at the dinner. Wait staff are never paid enough for what they put up with in my opinion. We waited in a pleasant, companionable silence that oddly did not feel awkward given that we were essentially strangers.
We were handed out drinks and went to sit at one of the winger-friendly tables. She stirred her coffee for a bit and took a few sips with what appeared to be real pleasure before glancing up at me again.
“As I mentioned before, my name is Sals. I am the Manager at the Rookery. Are you familiar with the Rookery at all?” she queried.
“I have heard of it. It’s a winged messenger service, right?”
“At the highest level, yes, that is the consumer-facing part of the company. We deliver packages of all sizes, priorities, magical classes, etc. We also have a branch that transports cursed items as necessary, usually to remove them to safe locations, and a school that goes from initial winging to career. We also provide affordable housing for our students, employees, and winged families in need of refuge. In essence, we are like the old stories of Chinatown. A place where wingers can come to be with those who understand them and their challenges, and that provides a refuge or a jumping-off point for them in their lives.”
“Okay, that all sounds great. I am not a winger though, so why talk to me?”
“Let’s be clear, you are a form of winger. When I brought my supervisor, Ms. Koehler, to sample your offering, she indicated that you belonged with us. I have no idea what you are, but I trust her implicitly. You are not the human you appear to be.”
I started to comment, however, she made a motion to indicate that she wasn’t done talking so I sat back. “I also don’t care and I won’t tell anyone or pry into it. As one of us, you will find that you always have the space and time to share whatever you want or to never share.” I nodded my understanding.
“Ms. Koehler has authorized me to offer you the position of head chef with the Houston Rookery.” She did not pause to allow me to comment, which is probably good since I would have turned her down flat. “The Houston Rookery is far from complete. We have a full city block of buildings between the housing, the school, the business, and the parks. We expect that area to grow in the future. To date, we have no on-premises, winger-run eateries. We plan to build a variety of locations to feed the growing needs of our community. We intend to have a standard cafeteria-style location, with food that is actually edible which will be the free option for all who hold a Rookery ID. We also plan on having a variety of restaurants ranging in price from the pricing of the dinner where you currently work to a Michelin five-star level. My guess is that running all of that would be child’s play for you, and boring, so here is the hook; as wingers of a wide range and variety, we also have a wide range of dietary requirements.” At this point, she slid a small notebook across the table to me. “Please take a moment to review it.” she indicated to go ahead with a quick dip of her chin in its direction as well.
I took the next fifteen or so minutes looking through the carefully detailed notes on the variety of wingers and what was currently known about their dietary requirements. it was pretty comprehensive and exhaustive. She quietly sipped her coffee while I read.
When I looked up, she said, “does that begin to peak your interest? If so, I must mention that it is not our intent to limit the visitors to the restaurants to only wingers. We do not condone prejudice. We aim to provide a safe space for wingers, and their families, and any who are accepting of us. When children come to our school, we do our best to bring their families as well and to see that they have the means to provide for themselves while their child is aided with their abilities and general education. So humans and a variety of other species also live in or visit the Rookery. You would be head chef over all of that and we would expect you to bring your top-level work to each of those facilities.”
I just stared at her, not sure what to say, or even how I was feeling.
“I believe that you are up to the challenge, Chef Igneia. If I didn’t think you would take excellent care of our people, I would not extend you this offer. That Ms. Koehler believes that you are one of us only adds to my desire to have you run this important branch of The Rookery. I am not asking for an answer tonight. I would expect this decision to need quite a bit of thought and consideration…” she started, but I interrupted.
“These experiences will be mine? No interference from you, or Ms. Koehler? I get to decide the theme, ambiance, menu, staff, and all other areas? I am in charge and these are my spaces to do with as I choose?”
“As long as our people, and when I say our I include you, as long as our people are well fed and happy, I will keep my nose out of your kitchen, and your space in general…well, other than, I hope, to eat your marvelous cuisine.” she chuckled a bit at that thought.
“And how many spaces will I have?”
“We intend to have one free cafeteria in each building and one additional dining facility that will be a paid service establishment as well. Our goal is to have enough places to dine and experience as our population would enjoy. If you need more space that can probably be arranged, and as new buildings are added, and they will be added, you can expect to create new experiences for those as well. There are existing spaces currently, that unfortunately, you did not design. We expect you to recreate those and put your personal touch on them. All we ask is that if you decide on a complete renovation for any space that you do keep that to one space at a time to ensure enough available space for all residents and employees. I should also mention that several spaces will need to be open at any given hour of the day or night. We are a 24 hour a day operation and everyone should have the same experiences available. That means fine dining at 4 am if that fits their schedule.”
“You are quite demanding.”
“Yes. I’m glad you realize that about me now. It will save time later. That said, I suspect I am not alone in that.” she said, giving me a pointed look.
I laughed, a great, deep belly laugh. “I like you Sals. I like you quite a bit. I accept your offer, though I will sign no contracts! You cannot hold Chef Igneia with a piece of paper!”
“I did not offer one. I intend to keep you with us through challenges, adventure, honesty, and affection.”
“My favorite currency!”
She laughed, and said, “Shall I offer you a salary?”
“Keep me in chef’s clothing and give me a place to live near my work. The biggest payment is going to be in ensuring that I have carte blanche on my ingredients and my experiences. If you make me settle for the second-best carrots, i will be gone before you can blink!”
“Then we are agreed. The details will be worked out as they arise, though you will also receive spending money. You need something to allow you freedom as you choose to travel to expand your culinary repertoire and you need some to donate to the enclave for your future self and your kin.”
She said it with a straight face and met my eyes. Once again I laughed deeply.
“Yes, Sals, I like you a great deal. I look forward to working with you in three weeks’ time. I will come by tomorrow at this time to begin inspecting the restaurants you already have and to select a living location. I will be by each night until I begin working exclusively with you. Until then, I expect you to eat my Chef’s special at least three times a week and recommend the dinner where I currently work to anyone and everyone. My leaving will be a blow and I don’t want them to suffer more than they need to for my departure.”
“Of course,” she said, standing and extending her hand. We shook on our deal.
And that is how I began my tenure at The Houston Rookery.