There was a firebird in Bangkok, two days after Valentine’s Day.
The first sighting of the bird was at 4:57 pm: a woman selling fake iPhone cases on the street near the Tesco Lotus at On Nut called 191 and reported that she had seen wings in the sky, just above the Skytrain – wings bright red and orange and crackling with fire. By the time she got off the phone, the bird was gone.
The second sighting was at 5:27, near Ekamai. The third, at 5:46, was seen by a significantly larger crowd as the firebird swooped over Emporium Department Store, its wingtips brushing against the tops of the trees on the rooftop and the right ear of the giant teddy bear that was part of the Valentine’s Day decorations. By 6:15 pm, all residents had been ordered to remain indoors.
“Wherever you are at this moment in time,” said the newscaster on television, reading out the statement from the Prime Minister, “please remain there. Do not come out into the streets. Do not provoke the bird. This is a state of national emergency. We are doing all we can to capture this creature before further damage is caused. Again, please remain indoors.”
Gun was in a 7-Eleven on Sukhumvit Soi – or ‘side street’ – 15, the one closest to his school, pondering whether he should buy a cheese sausage or a salapao steamed bun. His scooter was parked outside. His day at school had ended much later than usual; after classes finished, he stayed behind working on his new project: a mini tuk-tuk that would run on solar energy (his teachers had labelled the whole endeavour as ‘too ambitious’).
He heard a commotion outside in the street. The worker behind the counter – a young girl with blond highlights – let out a terrified scream after reading something on her phone. A man in his fifties who had been browsing the ice cream section began yelling, “There’s a firebird! Bar the door! Bar the door!”
But before Gun could decide on the best course of action, the bell at the door rang, announcing a new arrival. He had been expecting her from the moment he heard about the firebird, but the sight of her a year after they last spoke still sent a jolt through him.
There she was: the girl whose heart he had broken. And the reason for the firebird in Bangkok.
Ploy could not remember the first time she and Gun had met, but she knew they both must have been very young; after all, his mother had worked as a maid and a cook for Ploy’s family ever since Ploy was a baby.
What she did remember was when they started becoming friends. True friends, that is.
It was a little after they both began high school. She had just been accepted to the expensive international school in Sukhumvit Soi 15 while he had decided to go to the trade school just opposite.
“You can always take a taxi,” her mother told her when they were discussing how she would get to school every morning. “Or Gun can give you a lift. Isn’t that right, Noon?” She directed this to Gun’s mother, who was at the stove, making dinner for the family.
Noon, a small woman in her mid-forties, nodded at Ploy’s mother. “I’m sure Gun won’t mind, Phi Orn.”
Ploy’s mother, Orn, had told Noon to call her Phi, or ‘older sister’, from the very beginning. “You must make the people who work for you feel like a part of your family,” she told Ploy once. “That way you get the best out of them.”
“See, Ploy?” said her mother, sipping the orange juice Noon had just poured for her. “Go out back and ask Gun if he can give you a lift. He has a scooter, doesn’t he?”
And so it was that on the following Monday morning, Gun brought his scooter to the front of the house. His school uniform – a white collared shirt, long grey trousers, and a deep maroon tie – was neatly ironed. The trainers boys wore in middle school were now gone; instead, he now wore proper black leather shoes that gleamed in the sunlight.
Ploy remembered a shift in his normally still expression when she came out in her new uniform: a collared light blue shirt tucked into a cute navy-coloured pleated skirt that cut off just above her knees. She was now the one wearing trainers – pure white with rainbow laces. Their eyes locked for a brief moment, neither having any idea what to say next. But right then, something stirred between them.
That evening, he gave her a lift home, and she walked with him to the little house he and his mother shared in the back of her family’s property, nestled among overgrown vines and banana trees.
Ploy handed him his helmet. “So I guess I’ll see you tomorrow – same time, same place?”
“I guess so,” he said, smiling a little.
And that’s when they both heard it: a weak, almost imperceptible squawk from a nearby bush.
That’s how they found the firebird.
Gun thought this must all be a dream.
Of course he had seen Ploy coming in and out of her house during the year that had passed. Sometimes he had seen her waiting for a taxi, either to go to school in the morning or to come home in the evening. But it was only in passing. His mother had only ever brought her up in conversation twice.
“Don’t mess with that,” his mother had said, before Gun gave Ploy a lift to school that very first morning, her eyes scrutinising him sharply. “You know better. She doesn’t. That girl doesn’t have a clue.”
The second time was a few months after he and Ploy stopped talking. They were having dinner, and his mother dropped Ploy’s name into the conversation, as casually as if she had just spilt a bowl of broth.
“I saw Ploy this morning when I went over to the big house,” Noon said. “She’s cut her hair.”
Gun felt his breathing quicken. “Hmm,” was all he could manage. And his mother knew him well enough not to pursue the subject.
Ploy’s hair was now a bit longer than it had been back then: it reached just past her shoulder blades, the ends tinted with gold. Something in her face was different, too. Her features seemed harsher, as though someone had accentuated the lines of her face with a sharp black pencil.
“Gun, can you give me a ride?” she asked, but her voice seemed very far away. “Gun?”
He shook himself awake. “A ride? Where to?”
“You know where,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s my fault.”
He went to her side and lowered his voice. “Ploy, don’t say that.”
She wiped away angry tears. “It was growing too big, so I let it go like we planned. On a mountain up north beyond Chiang Rai. That was eight months ago. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it missed me so it came back, maybe it’s hurt or lost or … I don’t know, I just know I have to get to it. You know I can’t drive a scooter; I need you to take me.”
“Ploy, there’s nothing we can do.”
She gave him a look full of anger. “We can at least try! They’re going to kill it, I know it. I can’t let that happen!”
“It’s not safe.”
“Gun, I have to do this. If you don’t know that, then you don’t know me at all.”
He fell silent: she was right, and he couldn’t deny it. So many things hung in the air between them, but neither wanted to pluck any of them down – to ask each other whether any of those unsaid words still rang true.
“Okay,” he said, after what felt like hours. He allowed his eyes to meet hers. “But you’re wearing the helmet.”
Ploy could not remember the moment she fell in love with Gun. It might have been during the rides he gave her on his scooter to and from school every day. Sometimes they had grabbed dinner at Terminal 21, the shopping mall close to their schools. And then there were nights they had stayed up until three in the morning talking on the phone.
Sometimes, when he felt comfortable, Gun would open up about his father, the man who had never been around and who died when Gun was just nine years old. Ploy also tried to get him to talk about the future. What did he want to do with his life? Where did he want to go? But his answers were usually short and to the point: he didn’t know. And whenever she said he could do more, it never seemed to reach Gun the way she hoped it would.
But he did like to ask her what she thought about things – from her friends at school, to her family, to what dreams she hoped to achieve. Those dreams were endless: travel the world, become a fashion designer, find a way to inspire kids in Thailand. Ploy enjoyed having such an attentive listener. At fifteen, she felt like this was the most intimate thing you could do with another person – tell them everything. And so she did.
But what they enjoyed doing the most was watching the firebird grow. After telling her mother and Noon that she would be cleaning her own room from now on, Ploy kept the bird in her closet and Gun helped build a cage and a perch for it. Some nights, she would sneak out of the house, the bird hidden in a blanket, and meet up with Gun. And they would go deeper and deeper into the banana forest behind his house, admiring the firebird as it learned to walk and then soar.
She showed him books about firebirds that she had found – huge leather-bound volumes with black and white photographs and drawings. “Did you know,” she’d ask him, “that they can be reborn from the ashes? Or that their tears have healing powers?”
He would listen, enraptured, smiling at the passion in her voice. “Tell me more,” he’d say, and she would grin in the dark, wanting to reach out for his hand. They would talk for hours on end about what they would do when the firebird grew too big, finding places on the map up north where it could fly far and free.
Maybe it was one of those nights when she fell in love. But perhaps the ‘when’ didn’t matter at all. Only that she did.
She came close to saying it many times, so that he would know. But the words died on her lips each time, even when it seemed he was close to saying the same thing. “I think you’re beautiful,” he said once. “I can’t talk to anyone else the way I can talk to you.” It wouldn’t be easy, she knew, with her parents or her friends. But she didn’t care.
She heard her parents talking one night: “I could get her a driver,” her father told her mother. “I don’t know how I feel about this boy driving her around. Is it even safe?” So, the next morning at breakfast, Ploy made a point of telling her father that she did not want her own driver, that if he got her one, she would never use him.
Her best friend at school, Kai, asked about Gun just once after she spotted him dropping Ploy off one morning. When Ploy told her who he was, Kai touched her hand. “Be careful,” she said. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Stung, Ploy pulled away. “How would I get hurt? Don’t be silly, Kai.”
For Ploy, it was simple: the future could be what they chose to make it. If she and Gun wanted it enough, anything was possible, right? After all, firebirds were supposed to be extinct, but they had found one right by his house.
Her classes finished earlier than expected one Friday afternoon, so she arrived at their usual meeting spot at 4:15 instead of 5:15. From where she stood, reading as she patiently waited, she could see the front gates of his school. At 4:30 pm, those gates opened and students began filing out. She looked up to catch a glimpse of him. But he was not alone.
“For how long?” she asked him a few hours later in front of her house as she handed him her helmet.
He could only look at the ground. “Six months.”
“Is she in your class?”
“Yes. She was, um … she went to my old school.”
“So you moved to this one together?”
“Not together, but yes, we’ve known each other for a while.”
She had never imagined anything could hurt this badly.
“Ploy,” he said, trying to catch her eye. “With us, it can never be – ”
“Thank you for the ride home,” she said, cutting him off. All she wanted was to go up to her room and weep. “I’ll call a taxi tomorrow. You needn’t bother anymore.”
“What about the firebird?”
“Like I said, you needn’t bother anymore.”
After that, they did not speak to each other for a year.
Gun handed Ploy the helmet. It was a new one, deep orange. The old bright pink one had gone with Jai when she and Gun broke up around eight months earlier.
Ploy put on the orange helmet and sat behind Gun on the scooter. It was easy for them to leave the store: both the 7-Eleven worker and the other customer were too preoccupied with their own panic to notice two teenagers sneaking out the back door.
“So, how are we doing this?” Gun asked. “Do we just drive around and hope we don’t get caught by the police?”
“Yes.” She said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. “You drive and I’ll check the news.” She put her feet on the footpegs and her grip on the back of his shirt tightened. “Let’s go.”
The city was empty and silent, a ghost town. It was as if some alien thing had swept in and taken the people with it, leaving behind the things they had been doing, unresolved like overturned glasses of milk. Gun’s lights were turned off, the engine humming gently beneath him and Ploy’s skin against his, only fabric between them. He made sure not to drive along any main roads, only up and down sois and alleyways. Above, they heard the chucking of a helicopter. Occasionally, they caught sight of a spotlight revolving at the top of a skyscraper.
At around 11:36, when they were near Chulalongkorn University, a terrible sound ripped through the air: a gunshot.
Gun brought the scooter to a screeching halt and Ploy’s head swiveled around, her eyes wide with panic. “What was that?”
“They’re shooting it out of the sky.”
“Look!” Ploy cried, pointing upwards. And what Gun saw was something he would never forget until the day he died: the clouds and darkness splitting open as if someone had taken an axe to the sky. A trail of fiery red ran along the crack. His gaze followed it until it reached a plume of bright orange: the firebird much bigger and more ablaze than he had ever remembered it.
The bird’s wings twisted in mid-air as its body flipped. It looked like it was drowning, plummeting towards the earth. The wail it made pierced through Gun’s entire body, as sharp as his mother’s cutting knife. So this is how it feels, he thought, to have your heart torn out of you. The bird was blazing so brightly, he thought his eyes must be on fire. But still he could not look away.
He felt Ploy’s touch on his shoulder, light and warm. “Gun, we have to go.”
A few minutes later, they pulled up at the university’s football pitch. The firebird was lying on the ground, the flame and bright colours dimming from its feathers. There was a gash along its right side, leaking black blood. Ploy jumped off the scooter before Gun could even bring it to a complete stop.
He had spotted the army trucks pulling up, soldiers standing in the back, their guns aimed at the injured creature. The helicopter arrived at the scene, whirling overhead as if suspended from a giant child’s mobile.
He only managed to catch the hem of Ploy’s shirt. She paused for half a second, looking at him.
“Ploy, you can’t go,” he said.
“I have to save it,” she replied, then pulled herself away from his grasp.
For a moment, he could not move: he simply stared, horrified, as she ran towards the firebird. She reached the bird and kneeled next to its head. Her hand extended, her fingers almost touching the side of its face. Then, from what seemed like a very great distance, he heard gunshots, and before he knew it, he was running – running as fast as he could, his eyes on Ploy up ahead.
But he was too late. When he got to her, Ploy was on the ground, bleeding from her upper arm. Someone – it might have been him, he couldn’t tell – was screaming for them to stop shooting. To stay away.
Gun gathered her up in his arms. Her back arched as she twisted in pain, her eyes half-open.
“Gun, the firebird … ”
A voice boomed through a speaker: “Step away from the firebird. No one else needs to get hurt. Children, step away!”
“Gun,” Ploy whispered, “Save it. Save the firebird.”
“I have to get you out of here.”
The firebird seemed to hear her. It turned its giant head towards him, flexing its wings, looking at him with eyes that were as golden as the sun and filled with tears that did not fall. The look meant: Yes, I remember you. The look meant a permission, freely given.
Gun made a choice. He climbed onto the bird’s back, with Ploy cradled in his arms. He grabbed hold of the bird’s neck, feeling its warm feathers on his skin.
“Stop this now!” the amplified voice shouted again. “Get down from the bird! That’s an order!”
The bird let out a low, painful screech, but Gun put a comforting hand to its neck. “Let’s get out of here,” he whispered, and it opened its wings and lifted them off the ground.
He heard shouts from below, the helicopter thundering nearby. But the firebird regained its balance and continued soaring higher and higher and higher until the stars appeared as large as his fist.
Soon, there was only silence, except for the sound of wings. Ploy moved in Gun’s arms, her fingers grazing his chest. “We did it,” she said.
“I need to get you to a hospital, I need to get you help – I can’t … you can’t … ” Something clawed inside his throat, desperate to get out. “You have to stay with me. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry … ”
“This is not your fault,” she whispered, her eyes falling shut.
“But you’re doing all of this – ”
“I’m not doing this for you,” she said, an ironic smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “I’m doing this because someone has to. And because I’m tired. I’m so tired … ”
He pressed his hand to her forehead and felt it burn.
When they finally landed on an empty piece of land, the firebird collapsed onto the ground, the blood from its wound soaking into the grass.
Gun stumbled off the bird’s back, trying to hold Ploy up. Her arm looked worse, her skin much paler. “Bring me to the firebird,” she said.
“I have to get you to a hospital,” he stammered.
“No, take me to the firebird.”
“Ploy – ”
Ploy leant on him as they staggered over to the bird. It looked at them both, pain and sadness swirling in its eyes. She sank to her knees, gently caressing its head. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
The firebird nuzzled into her touch and then began to cry – pure, giant tears that rolled down its beak until they touched the upper part of Ploy’s arm where the bullet had grazed. Gun watched, stunned, as Ploy’s skin began to knit together. The blood dried and fell away until there was nothing there but smooth, pale skin.
Ploy, too, cried as she rested her forehead against the firebird’s. “Thank you,” she whispered. “For who I am.”
The bird began to glow under her touch. Gun wanted to cry out in warning, but before he could, the bird’s tail caught fire, then its wings and abdomen.
Ploy stepped back, a peaceful smile on her face. The firebird took one last loving look at her, then burst into flames.
Afterwards, among the ashes, they found a little baby bird, too weak to stand, its feathers tinged with orange and red. Gun picked it up as tenderly as he could. It flapped its wings a little and then settled into the palm of his right hand.
“Look,” said Ploy. “It still knows you.”
“Yeah, I guess it does.” He was surprised to realise he was smiling. “I’ll help you take care of it until it grows big again. This time you won’t have to do it alone. If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.”
Something in her voice let him know it was okay to take her hand. He had never done it before, but when her fingers slipped through his, everything in his world finally made sense.
“There are so many things I need to say,” he whispered. “So many things I want to tell you.”
“Where do you want to start?”
Gun put her hand to his lips. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”