“Help me!” I cried, turning my face up towards the Firebird; but my voice was lost amid the screams and shouts of the shipwrecked.
The water was up to my chest now. I craned my neck, twisting my head this way and that in an effort to take in my surroundings for what I feared might be the last time. The scene, which I had expected to be so glorious, had taken on an entirely disastrous aspect. Tongues of flame flickered on every side, licking the sulfurous air. Shafts of blood-red sunlight pierced the thick and gathering purple smokes. Despite the heat the wound in my heart grew cold and I remembered the word the Bird had used in answer to my question: ambiguous.
Then once again I heard his voice as if from inside my own head: “The book!”
Quickly I produced the little book and opened it. The first words that met my eye were fear not.
“Fear not,” I said, repeating them over to myself. “Fear not. Be not afraid.” With my mind and my mouth I tried desperately to quell my rising fears. But it was no use, for the dread was not in my mind. It had nothing to do with the words of my mouth. I felt it as if it were a dark thread in the very fiber of my being. My heart was floundering helplessly in an ocean of terror just as surely as my body was sinking into the waters of the sea. I clenched a fist and raised it to the sky.
“‘Fear not!’” I cried, my chin in the water. “What good does it do to tell me that? ‘Fear not!’ You might as well throw me into the sea and tell me not to sink! You might as well command a stone to float or a feather not to fly before the wind! What does it accomplish? How does it help?”
But no answer came, only a repetition of the command: fear not. Horror engulfed me and my head slipped beneath the water.
I don’t believe I remained below the surface for more than a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity, during which a flood of confused thoughts went spiraling ceaselessly through my brain. Foremost among them was this: To have come so far only to be drowned in sight of the goal. I wondered why this should be and what sense it could possibly make.
That’s when I felt a hand take hold of mine. It gripped me tightly and began to pull, and in the next instant I was rising up out of the water. I lifted my eyes as my head broke the surface and saw the sky, black with the smoke of burning ships and boats, and the wave-tips red with the lurid light of the dancing flames.
Then I turned and looked up into the face of my benefactor. What a surprise to find myself staring into the eyes of a boy a little larger than myself! He stood upon the water and drew me up to stand beside him. His clothes, which were far too big for him, were all in rags, but I paid little attention to that. What caught my eye was the cloak of heaven blue that he wore over everything else, the red clay lamp that he held in his hand, and the basket of golden apples that hung on his arm.
His smooth cheek glowed and his eyes danced bright in the firelight as he held out the basket of apples.
“Take and eat,” he said with a smile. “You’re hungry, and you’re going to need your strength.”