One of the most precious titles in my library, David & the Phoenix was my brother, Ian’s, favorite book. It was published not long before Ian’s death, but one read & it immediately beat out the 1957 Wild Geese Flying for top honors in his heart.
It’s the story of a young boy – just around Ian’s age I always imagined – who seeks adventure & finds more than he could have dreamed in the form of a Phoenix, who lives on the mountain behind David’s new house. The Phoenix, a very eccentric sort, befriends the lad, swearing him to secrecy about his existence & filling him with a justifiable fear of the bird’s arch-nemesis ~ The Scientist. The very young boy & the very old (almost 500 years!) bird form a strong bond & embark on all sorts of dandy adventures just right up Ian’s alley – run-ins with a Banshee, an almost tragic encounter with a faun, doing a bit of business with the Sea Monster ~ ~ and always standing a wary watch for The Scientist.
Even writing about it fills my eyes with tears, knowing how short a time Ian had adventuring with David & the Phoenix, no more than a few months.
When I read the Phoenix beginning his preparations for he knows not what other than it’s a “magnificent destiny” toward which he is compelled by instinct rather than inspired by his magnificent intelligence, I think of Ian in those last months, of that last day, Easter Monday, the first day of our school vacation – still see him dashing out from the front door, across the “Top Lawn,” then dropping out of sight as he headed down Rose’s property to Alden Road & up to a friend’s house. Gone.
SPOILER ALERT! THE REST REVEALS THE END: My heart crumples, as David first fights his feathered mentor’s fate, finally coming to a poignant acceptance of his great-in-every-way friend’s destiny, saving the risen-from-the-ashes new incarnation from the returned deadly threat, The Scientist. A tender end that finishes off with a sense of more than renewal – of triumph of good over forces set on harm.
Even as a very little girl – I would have been around seven when Ian read it aloud to his baby sister – I equated Ian with the illustrations of David. With his death at 11, the book was immediately enshrined in our hearts.
But the tie goes beyond a much-missed brother’s favorite book. From the start, it showed that we find friends in the most unexpected places, that just because someone is an Expert & is seeking to do something “in the public interest” does not make it right, that sometimes things beckon yet it’s folly to follow.
As I grew older, the concept of having a “magnificent destiny” unfold only with years became a beloved theme, as did the Phoenix taking the steps that were laid out for him by his nature, culminating in his ultimate renewal, a new life emerging from the old.
The closing paragraph brings up memories of my young self, heartbroken for David but feeling triumphant for the glorious new creature risen from the “traditional cinnamon pyre of the Phoenix, celebrated in song & story” – – “Understanding dawned in the amber eyes at last. The bird, with one clear, defiant cry, leaped to an out-jutting boulder. The golden wings spread, the golden neck curved back, the golden talons pushed against the rock. The bird launched itself into the air and soared out over the valley, sparkling, flashing, shimmering; a flame, large as a sunburst, a meteor, a diamond, a star, diminishing at last to a speck of gold dust, which glimmered twice in the distance before it was gone altogether.”
As a child, that was my favorite passage, imprinting my heart soul mind with a still-powerful image of renewal, a bold new beginning born from the ashes of what was.
More even than The Bird’s Christmas Carol, Edward Ormondroyd’s David & the Phoenix taught my young self how to grieve, braving separation & loss, knowing that something new was born out of the ashes of sorrow. It helped during the shattered years, having David to hold onto – he knew my sadness.
For someone in a family that did not open up about what was felt most deeply, having that other – even if found in the pages of a book – helped keep me standing up.
Which brings me to my favorite passage, starting in my teens, is still enshrined in my heart & hopes -~ ~ “Besides, my boy, we shall see each other again. I do not know how or where, but I am positive of it.”