He loved these moments. Every morning, it was the exact same routine. He got out of bed. Left leg first, every time. He pulled on his sock. Then the right leg. And the other sock, every time… With his hair in a wild tangle, his face crumpled and his mind still foggy as it emerged from sleep, Jörge shambled from his bedroom to the kitchen like a drowsy Thirster.

"Thwip… Thwip, thwap. Thwip. Thwip. Thwap…"

Even his slippers seemed to be groaning at being dragged back to life after too short of a night. Fumbling about with half-closed eyes, the Enutrof got his hands on a mug and filled it with the sweet beverage that would clear the cobwebs from his mind. Starting the day with that dark, steaming brew and one lump of shushugar, every time. Up to that point, Jörge was nothing more than a machine, grinding through a series of movements with no real awareness.

As the hot, comforting liquid trickled down his throat, his first thought was of "her". Inevitably. When they had parted ways the night before, she wasn't ready yet. He would have to be patient a little while longer… Avoid rushing her. Give her time. All the time she needed. Jörge had been waiting patiently for 52 long years. And now the moment of truth was only a few hours away…

From his window, he could see her. Or imagine her, at least… Outside, frost had covered the place he liked to call his "secret garden". Not that it was much of a secret anymore… He had been talking to his neighbors non-stop these past few months about the obsession that occupied his mind all day and all night. He invited them to his home every evening at the same time, in hopes that they'd have a chance to meet her. And the best time for that was just after nightfall. At least, that's what the experts said…

Jörge pulled on a thick cardigan, a scarf and a fur cap made of Gobball wool. He pushed the porch door with his foot, and it swung open with a low creak that broke the early-morning silence. A fine layer of frost had covered his work of art. The thick climbing plants, the shrubs and the formidable Itzting that towered over all of them: they all stood frozen in the cold… looking more beautiful than ever. The gentle crunching of the ice under his feet was all he heard as he walked to the little alcove at the far end of the garden. Jörge delicately lifted the protective cover that concealed his most prized possession.

She was magnificent. He could barely imagine how much more gorgeous she'd look once her petals unfurled. As unfavorable as the conditions might seem, this was the time of year that the Titan Phoenix had chosen to bloom.

It was a perfectly ordinary day for Jörge. He trimmed his bamboos, made sure that the gears of his water mill were working properly, and checked for the thousandth time that the snappers in his pond had everything they needed. He was in a cheerful mood. Something in the air made him think that today would be the day. He decided to put on his finest suit. The last time he had worn it was for a candlelight dinner with Thalma on their emerald anniversary.

"Can I come in?"

His Enutrof wife stuck her little head through the half-open door before Jörge even had time to reply.

"You look marvelous…"

Thalma obviously didn't believe a word of what she was saying. Thanks to her delicious dishes, simmered in gobbutter, her husband's once-svelte figure was nothing but a distant memory. But it didn't matter. 40 years of love had made her blind. She admired the passion and devotion with which Jörge cared for his plants, and she looked at him with the same tender gaze as a mother's for her child. When the Enutrof was busy in his garden, he went into his own little bubble that no one could pull him out of until he was ready. Thalma was well aware of this, and tried not to disturb him. But their little neighbor Daniz, on the other hand, couldn't have possibly cared less… In fact, he patiently waited until Jörge was in his garden, then took a kind of sick pleasure in showing up to spoil his concentration.

"Hey! Get out of here! I don't want you under foot! You rotten little @!#%$ !"

Besides his general stress over the long-awaited moment that was now so near at hand, Jörge's biggest fear was that Daniz would barge in and ruin everything. Every time his little blond head appeared over the hedge between their houses, the Enutrof started wondering what fresh nonsense the little brat was up to now…

Four o'clock. The sky was already darkening. It was a full moon. Thalma lit the multi-colored lanterns to add a touch of garden-party atmosphere. Bliblis pedaled frantically to keep them working, along with the huge spotlight pointed straight at the niche where the Titan Phoenix stood, hidden under a bell cover.

They were all there, full of expectation, sitting patiently in their chairs as Thalma handed out sparkling beverages and finger sandwiches. Daniz had escaped from his parents' supervision once again. In just a few minutes, he had already uprooted a shrub, pulled two snappers out of the pond, and trampled a bed of young sprouts.

"Daaaniiiz, be nice, my little cutie Bow Meow! Don't you cause any trouble, now!"

It was obvious: Daniz's mother had no authority whatsoever over her son. As soon as she turned her back again, the boy made his nastiest face at Jörge. The Enutrof was boiling with rage. That damned kid… If only he could just grind him up into fertilizer for his plants!

Five o'clock. The time had come to start his speech.

"My dear friends. First of all, let me thank all you from the bottom of my heart for being here tonight. As you know, I've been waiting for this moment for many years now. In all that time, not once have I forgotten to tend to my lovely Titan Phoenix. I even spoil it a bit! Oh, yes! I've eaten my share of Thistle Broth and Humble Pie in my late nights out here! Just ask my wife!"

Jörge winked at his wife, who responded with a tender, knowing smile.

"The Titan Phoenix is a plant that blooms only once every 200 years, then wilts within 72 hours. Only one brief moment in our lovely world for this, the most sublime of all creatures… Besides Thalma, that is!"

The assembled guests burst out in an almost exaggerated gale of laughter. Caught up in the moment.

"Isn't it incredible to think that the last time she revealed her magnificent petals, we were all still in Incarnam?"

The crowd roared with laughter once more.

"The stars are aligned, the moon is full, and my keen instinct tells me that the hour is upon us. Don't miss one second of this experience, for I can assure you: You won't see anything like it for the rest of your lives!"

Thalma stood close to her husband, ready to pull the cord firmly attached to the bell cover that would soon reveal Jörge's pride and joy.

The Enutrof turned his back to the alcove. Behind him, a faint rustle. He could already imagine the petals opening and the pistils gracefully unfurling. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, feeling a strange blend of impatience and the desire to make this moment last. This was it. Jörge opened his eyes and gave the sign, signaling to his wife that the moment had come.

Thalma gave the cord a sharp yank. But the globe, made entirely of cast gold, was heavy. The elderly Enutrof woman had to ask a muscular Iop neighbor for help. The first thing they saw as it rose was an immense bulb, planted firmly in the earth. Then a series of razor-sharp thorns. That's strange, Thalma thought. Jörge had told her all about every detail of the Titan Phoenix's anatomy, and yet she didn't remember that detail… Maybe it had slipped his mind. As the bell slowly rose, a new part of the Phoenix was revealed to the transfixed crowd.

Jörge kept his eyes closed. He wanted to see his Phoenix all at once. As he waited, the old man listened to the astonished interjections of his guests. Savoring every moment.





"YAAAAA!!! It's horrible!"

"It's horrible"?! But… How could it be? How dare they?!

Jörge opened his eyes and spun around abruptly. What he saw there made him feel as though a paralyzing poison had been injected into his body. A thick stem covered with thorns rose before him. While the brownish leaves dotted with little blue spots that sprouted along its length were indeed sublime, they didn't make "it" any less dreadful to look upon. The grotesque fuchsia-colored frill that adorned the monster's head only made its predatory leer all the more terrifying.

"What on earth…?"

The old man couldn't believe his eyes. Where was the Phoenix that he had worked so long and so hard for? Another high-pitched scream cut through the general chaos. Daniz's mother was holding her hand to her mouth. Jörge could see the terror in her eyes, and her body was trembling. From the creature's gaping maw, dangling from one of its glittering fangs, there hung a bit of red velour fabric. It was from little Daniz's overalls…

The eyes of the thing that had taken the Phoenix's place swung around to meet Jörge's. He understood. And he realized he should have been more generous with the weed killer…