Story 3: The Constellation

After the marriage of the princess and the youngest son, I bade them farewell with my best wishes and continued my journey onward. Somewhere between itinerancy and nomadism lay the truth of my departure. I flew around the world and explored for the better part of a century, and I watched with amusement as the human maps were drawn and redrawn with fewer monsters and more lands within their borders. As I flew over the world, I revisited places I had once known in previous iterations, and I inspired sightings in more distant lands that had not seen a phoenix in generations.

One such observer, a first mate and navigator named Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser, caught sight of me near the rainforests of Madagascar in 1595 while on the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies. His crew had stopped to rest and gather provisions, and I happened to be flying overhead when he was observing the night sky on behalf of his friend, who had asked him to chart the stars in the southern sky for his maps. I felt not only his gaze but those of his sextant and his astrolabe, and I darted out of their view. I became interested in his instruments, so I swooped down and around and perched next to his drawings to have a better look. Once my curiosity was satisfied, as he stood there gaping, I looked him in the eyes and bowed my head slightly as a gesture of thanks. I then moved far enough away that I would not disturb his papers with my departure, and I flew away once more into the starry night.

The expedition continued from Madagascar onto Sumatra and Java, where my observer perished. However, his observations on the stars remained intact, and they made the voyage safely back to Holland, where the captain gave them to his friend who had commissioned his studies, Petrus Plancius. Tucked away among all the charts and sketches and papers was a letter containing the last recorded words of his friend Pieter. He unfolded it gently and began to read...

"Dearest Petrus, I hope this letter finds you safely in good stead. If you are reading these words, I have probably not yet returned home to Holland. It has been a long and arduous journey, but the skies are beautiful and clear here at night. There are so many new stars to see, so many new places to explore, and so many new adventures to report. I will spare you those stories for another letter, but there is one tale that I cannot wait to relate. Among all the astonishing flora and fauna of the islands, there is one creature I will never forget: it was the phoenix.

I have heard of the tales of its birth, when a spark from the flaming sword of the angel in the Garden of Eden ignited its nest, causing it to be consumed in the flames. But the Almighty showed his wisdom and benevolence, allowing it to rise again once more from the ashes. I have also heard the legend of how Venus painted its shape among the stars, but no one knows where that formation lies. At least in our part of the world, we had long assumed that it was either a mythical beast or many years extinct, but as we had not yet explored these new uncharted lands, anything was possible.

And then one night, when I was recording the stars, I saw him soaring through the night sky. I was unsure at first, thinking that it could be some strange island bird or the product of a tired mind and an overactive imagination. It disappeared rapidly, so I wrote it off as merely a trick of the eyes. I returned to my measurements, but then I saw it flying down to me, alighting on the ground and approaching me curiously. I stared at it in awe, mesmerized by what my eyes beheld. It seemed interested in my work, and I stood there dumbfounded as it peered at my charts and my drawings and investigated my tools. It seemed to gain an understanding of my work, and then it removed itself from the area so as not to ruffle my pages when it took flight. I have seen it, Petrus - I have seen the phoenix, and it is as the legends say. Its wings were bright, even at night, and it shone with the fiery radiance of the sun. What a majestic creature, and how fortunate a man am I to make its acquaintance!

I looked again at my charts once it had left. I had almost completed my mapping for the night, when I saw it in the sky - the phoenix constellation which the goddess Venus had arranged in the heavens. I have outlined it in my observations, and I beg of you to include it in on your maps - a constellation named with the same awe and reverence of the unknown that the name of the phoenix inspires. Born of an insatiable curiosity to explore the world and the worlds that lie beyond it, the phoenix constellation represents the unquenchable thirst of Tantalus: humanity's desire to know and to understand. And what better way to pay tribute to that creature which already has immortality? It is fitting indeed to memorialize it in the stars, for it shines as bright as any celestial being.

I hope that this expedition will return and that I will soon be in Holland once more. Would that you had seen such a sight as I, but for my sake, if nothing else, please consider my proposal. I hope to see you shortly, and I desire your company upon my return.

Best Regards,

Your friend Pieter"

Petrus somberly closed the note, knowing full well that his friend would not be returning. He named the constellation Phoenix, as a final monument in his honor.

Picture of Phoenix Constellation. Web Source: Starry Night Photography

Author's Note: At this point, I realize I am back to cobbling and smashing bits and pieces of references with my own invention to create a cohesive story. Apart from several variations of the Golden Bird story and the Firebird Suite (yet another takeoff), there really are no phoenix stories other than the basic birth/rebirth. I wanted to create a backstory for the constellation, and although I tried to include some of the most interesting tidbits I could find, I had to rearrange them historically a bit to include the Andersen quote. It comes from a piece he wrote about a phoenix, and I hoped the effect wouldn’t be too anachronistic. Shakespeare also wrote a poem about a phoenix and a turtle, but it didn't really connect naturally to this at all and I didn't want to clutter my story with another complicated allusion. There are approximately a zillion things on Wikipedia to which "phoenix" is related, but I thought the constellation deserved an interesting tale behind its name. This story has a completely original plot (which took a considerably longer amount of time to create than I expected), but I included a lot of pieces from other sources. Then, the funniest thing happened...

(Unofficial P.S.)
I was alluding to Tantalus, and I wikied him to check. I was right, but I also discovered that he founded the house of Atreus. Now, I remembered the Atreides from reading the Iliad in Greek. I recently watched Dune with a friend (while somewhat inebriated) and even in that state, I caught the reference. (He was suitably impressed.) So I texted him what I found, and then I clicked the Atreus link. All sorts of horrible depravity - you know, the usual. There's a guy who cooks his brother's kids (his nephews) and feeds them to him because his brother wanted the throne and was banging his wife, and I compared that to South Park when Cartman does something similar. Then I scrolled down and I found both allusions. I have officially connected Greek mythology, 1960s cult fiction, and South Park, and Wikipedia independently backs me up. I think my nerdiness has culminated at a peak.


The Phoenix Bird

Hans Christian Andersen

Phoenix Rising
Phoenix Rising

Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser
The Phoenix Shall Rise
Antoine G. Faddoul