The wind was icy. Karen was struggling against the wind and the cold. And her fear of heights. To her right, there was a steep rock wall with little to cling to. To her left - nothing. At least for the next four hundred or so feet. She had buried herself under so many layers of clothing she could barely move. Which did not make it any better, to be honest. But if she had the choice between freezing to death or getting smashed to pulp on the snow-covered rocks - freezing was a much slower, nastier death. In her backpack she felt Herbert move around anxiously. "Please, mother, don't let him burn me alive out here. The yellow press would love it." She took a deep breath and climbed on, following her instincts almost as much as the maps she had studied last night in her tiny apartment, sitting at her singed desk.
She had found Herbert in her back yard, lying helplessly at the foot of the old fir tree her her landlord would not have cut down. With every stormy night, the tree would shake and bend until Karen thought it would come down and crash the house - or at least break her windows - but up to now nothing had happened. It was almost a miracle. That special day, with more than six inches of snow covering the dead grass, she had gone there to put some food out for the birds. She had hung chains of peanuts and tiny planting pots filled with seeds and suet on the tree and put out some dried apples and nuts on a tiny platform she had made herself and cleaned regularly. Herbert had been sitting on the ground, naked, a tiny greenish-brown spot around him where the snow had melted away in the presence of his heat. He had been ugly, like all young birds, pink and with huge blueish closed eyes. Karen had backed off, watched him a while, and when it became apparent that no parents were going to show up to feed the little one, she had taken him inside with her.
Finding the information she needed proved to be difficult. She called an ornithologist she had dated for a while back in college, but although he asked her many questions and called her back after consulting several of his countless clever books, his information had been worthless. She then went on to check on the internet, but there was almost no information on firebirds (except for the car, of course), and virtually nothing on their diet. So she had to try. She offered Herbert everything she could think of - seeds, meat, bugs, worms she got from the pet shop, even wood and coal, following a hint in an old legend.
She soon found out that Herbert really liked cheese and toast. He sat in his box, filled with old rags and fireproof isolation material from the hardware store, nibbled his cheese (he preferred old Gouda and Cheddar) and scared Mr. Tomcat. The very first day, Karen's huge, terrifying cat had tried to catch (and probably eat) Herbert, but Karen had spent hours luring him out from behind the old bookshelf later, tail and ears thoroughly singed.
It had been a very cold and long winter. After work, Karen spent many hours sitting in her rocking chair, Herbert in her lap or on her feet for some extra warmth, reading a book. And he was content with this and ate his cheese and grew. Soon he developed gorgeous red and golden feathers, soft at first, but all the softness and gentleness soon disappeared behind his impressive proportions. Karen was astonished how fast he grew. Soon he would not fit in his box anymore, and he started leaving burn marks all over the apartment.
Karen went out to buy a fire extinguisher.
"Now, what am I supposed to do with you, hu? You can't stay with me forever, but as long as it's this cold outside..."
Finally, she realized the flaw in her logic. She did some more research, and on a clear and icy Sunday morning at the end of February they set out for their final journey. A four hour drive south, followed by three or more hours (she was not sure) of climbing. She had had to buy proper shoes and a new, weather-proof jacket. Herbert got to travel in a big shoe box in her backpack, with a final portion of his favorite cheese so he would not be too upset.
The view from the top of the mountain (or large hill, depending on what you were used to) was terrific. But Karen's hands and feet were frozen and started turning blue, and all she wanted to do was go home and curl up in her bed with a cup of hot chocolate. For the next three months. She was sad at the thought of losing Herbert. With stiff fingers, she pried the backpack open, took the box and carefully opened the lid.
"What have you been doing?"
Herbert looked at her with his huge, liquid gold eyes, and croaked softly. One corner of the box was black and smoking.
"Oh dear, I told you - no setting people on fire. That includes me!" Karen picked him up, and his heat hurt. While she looked at him with tears in her eyes, he seemed to grow, until he was almost as big as her torso. How had she gotten this beast up here? His beak looked dangerous, and he could probably break her spine with his huge, fire-colored wings. Her heart beat faster.
Herbert, unaware of the trouble he was causing his human, climbed up her arm and tried to settle on her shoulder - something for which he was by far too big meanwhile. Karen put her arm out so he wouldn't fall to the ground, and after some careful maneuvering Herbert sat on her outstretched arm, looking around curiously. She gave him the last bit of cheese. "Here you go, dear. Time to fly home."
He didn't look back. He took of and flew as if he had never done anything else. Karen watched him, feathers gleaming in the cold winter sunlight, almost as if Herbert was burning. Then she began her descend. Tomorrow would be a better day. Spring was coming.