Category Archives: Stories

The Firebird L



I gazed after the three children as they climbed the green ascent above the beach.  As if under a spell, I watched as they gathered at the well’s stony rim.  Who should be there to greet them?  Who but the small gray bird?  I saw him myself, with my own two eyes, perched upon the mossy brink.  At his side lay a silver dipper at the end of a golden chain.  One by one the children took the dipper, lowered it into the well’s still depths, drew up the clear water from the heart of the earth, and drank deeply.  Then they ran – even the stumbling little red-head – ran with greater vigor and exuberance than I could have imagined any of them to possess, higher and farther up the green bank, disappearing at last among the thick green pines at its margin.

After this the auburn-haired lady resumed her roll-call, reading out name after name from the pages of the great gilt-edged volume.  And the children came, one following the other, presenting their gifts and taking it in turn to peek into the cradle as it lay gently rocking in the waves at the edge of the sea.

Long and long I listened and waited.  Ages upon ages seemed to pass, and still my name had not been called.  At another time I would surely have grown sick with paralyzing anxiety as the delay was extended.  But the longer I lay there in the boy’s arms, the clearer it became that fear and anxiety and uncertainty were among those parts of myself – my Old Self – that had not survived the burning of the sun-gate.  So I went on watching and waiting without words or thoughts as the names were read and the sun behind us lifted his head above the circling mists to cast a happy dappled light over the deep blue water and the green shore.

At last I became aware that my friend and I had been left alone.  Every child of that great murmuring crowd had gone on before us.  All of them had looked into the cradle and taken a drink from the well.  Each and every one had disappeared beneath the dark boughs of the wood at the edge of the world, leaving behind a silence that was thick and palpable.

The water lapped the boy’s bare feet.  Looking up into his face, I saw the breeze ruffle his dark hair.  Spots of shadow, cast by the clouds that sailed overhead, slid across the bay and up the wooded slope.  Little ripples glistened on the surface of the water and the trees flashed intermittently brighter and darker greens.  Time slowed to a stop.

We were no more than a few feet from the cradle.  Above it stood the three ladies, their smiles beaming down upon us, the warmth of their love mingling with the fragrance of the air.  She of the auburn hair dropped her eyes and slowly turned the page, the very last page of the great heavy book she held in her delicate white hands.

And then I heard it:  heard what I had waited so long to hear – not only since coming to this indescribable place beyond the sunset, but since looking out my smudged and frosted window into the rider’s open sack; since seeing my face in the tragic mirror; since splashing down into the endless sea beyond the blue mountains of the Valley of the Watchers; yes, even since – or so it seemed to me now – I had felt the first glimmers of the dawning of conscious thought.

In the rich and sonorous voice of the auburn-haired lady I heard my own name read out plainly on the breeze, and it came to me as a revelation – a revelation from beyond the farthest reaches of all that may be known.

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The Firebird XLIX



As I watched, one small-limbed, fair-haired boy stepped up to the cradle, knelt before the lady, and laid his small hand in hers.

“What gift do you bring?” she asked him.

In answer, he reached into the folds of his garment and produced a shining sword.  Holding it flat across his two upturned palms, he bowed his head and offered it up to her.  Even from a distance, I could see that the bright blade had been broken and re-forged.  The hilt glittered with gold and ebony and rubies as the lady, her red-gold hair flashing in the morning sun, bent to receive it from his hand.

“Well done,” she said, stooping to kiss his head.  “Well fought, well given, and well received.”

Laying the sword at the foot of the cradle, she leaned over the little bed and drew the curtain back just far enough to let the boy peek inside.

“Now go!” she said when he had looked his fill.  “Go to the well for a drink, then up the beach and into the forest.”

With that she turned again to the book and read out another name.

A berry-brown girl with raven hair, so black and glossy that it reflected the sun’s highlights in flashes of blue, waded up through the shallows to the side of the crib, lifting the hem of her robe out of the water as she came.

“What gift do you bring?” the lady said as the girl bowed and curtsied before her

In reply, the child reached into the folds of her gown, her dark eyes sparkling, her black brows arched upward, her mouth a perfect little circle.  When she withdrew her hand again, it held a tiny mustard flower — the kind that rise from the fields in a yellow mist after the early spring rains.

“See!” laughed the girl.  “It has come with me all this way – through fire and water and storms of the sea, all the way from the other side of the sun!”

The lady smiled.  “Something proud-masted ships and engines of steel have been unable to do,” she observed, taking the fragile blossom into her hand.  Drawing back the curtain, she stooped and laid the flower beneath the canopy while the brown girl stood on tiptoe, attempting to steal a glimpse inside the cradle.

“Now go!” whispered the auburn-haired lady.  “Follow your brother to the wood!”  And without a word the child stepped back, gaily tossing her black tresses, and went splashing up the white beach toward the well.

When the next name was read, I saw a freckle-faced, red-headed boy – hardly more than an infant – come staggering toward the cradle, sucking at the fingers of his left hand.  With the right hand he towed a golden harp which floated upon the surface of the water behind him at the end of a silver string.  Upon reaching the lady, he stumbled and splashed to his knees, from which position he looked up at her with doubtful eyes and a trembling lip.  But she, with one gracious movement of her arm, swept him up and held his ruddy head against her cheek.

“What gift do you bring, my child?” she softly said.  He responded by giving a tug at the silver cord.  With a nod, the lady set him down again and he took up the harp, playing upon it so skillfully and wonderfully that a deep sigh went up from the crowd of children.  When he had finished, she reached out and touched a finger to his tongue, at which he began to sing in clear childish tones, so pure and sweet that none has ever heard their like this side of the setting sun.

No sooner had the song ended than the harp strings snapped with a tinkling sound like the noise of shattering glass.  Then the harp itself burst in two, the pillar falling this way and the bow that.  Taking up the pieces, the lady laid them at the foot of the cradle before drawing the curtain aside and inviting the red-haired boy to look inside.  He gazed and laughed with joy at what he saw; and then, at the lady’s command, he clapped his hands and went toddling up the beach in the direction of the stone well.

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The Firebird XLVIII



Again the solemn stillness; and then with one voice the children cried out in response to the auburn-haired lady’s question:

“We have come to bring gifts to the Child in the cradle!”

“Come, then,” she replied.

Then, as I watched, great books were opened and the lady began to read the names that were written in them.  In her strong, sweet, musical voice she tolled them out one by one, calling the roll of all the children who were present in that impossibly beautiful place at the edge of the sea.  One by one the children came forward as their names were called and knelt at the foot of the cradle.  And as each knelt, the lady would smile and say, “What gift do you bring?”

For a long, long while I lay in the boy’s arms watching them approach the cradle one after the other, each at the sound of his or her name.  Name after name was called, and still I did not hear my own on the lady’s lips.  Time passed and I waited, ears cocked and eyes fixed upon the reader’s face, every little muscle in my tiny body tense with anticipation.  I was as taut as a bow-string, yet strangely free from even the slightest of anxious doubts.

More time passed, and I seemed to see myself in a dream.  As if out of another world or another age, a time only dimly recalled, a memory came to me:  a girl tensed upon the edge of her seat, leaning across her desk into the aisle, listening to the teacher calling out scores at the head of the class, fully confident of a good result, yet nearly sick with the strain of waiting, endlessly waiting.  I felt as if my entire existence, from the day I sat at that desk in that other world up to this very moment, had been nothing but one long spun-out strand of expectant longing, of wishing and hoping for something shortly to be revealed.

It was the voice of the auburn lady that roused me from my reverie.  “What gift do you bring?” I heard her say again.  Blinking, I opened my eyes and watched as the little pilgrims streamed forward, each in turn bowing and kneeling before the cradle.  Amazed, I saw what wondrous things they brought forth from the folds of their white robes in answer to the lady’s question.  Though I would be hard pressed to name a single one of those gifts now, I well recall that each and every one of them bespoke skills, possessions, wisdom, and experience out of all proportion with the size and appearance of the bearers.  I marveled that this should be so.  And I wondered what gift I would offer when my time came.

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The Firebird XLVII



As we neared the beach I perceived that the rest of the children were moving shoreward as well.  By scores, by hundreds, by thousands, perhaps, they converged upon a spot where the softly rippling water lapped the sparkling sands.  There at the water’s edge I saw a simple wooden cradle, rocked by the wind and the waves, draped in white silk and shaded by a canopy of the same delicate fabric.

An inviolable hush fell over the scene as, ankle-deep in the water, the children gathered in groups around the cradle.  Those nearest to it stood on tiptoe, leaning forward in great excitement, their faces filled with anticipation and an almost painful longing to draw back the veil and look inside.  But none dared.

Nearby, on a grassy slope between the sand and the edge of the forest, grazed the eight-legged horse.  Upon seeing him I started so violently that the boy almost dropped me.  But though I looked intently on every side, the horse’s rider was nowhere to be seen.

The boy wrapped the edge of his cloak around me, for the morning air was chill and damp.  As he did so, I glanced up to where the heaven-blue garment was fastened at his shoulder.  There, just above the silver brooch, sat the small gray bird with the burning blue eyes.

The bird bent down and held me in his gaze, and in that moment I understood – oh, so many things I understood!  Beyond all belief, I had passed through the sunset and washed up on this bright shore beyond the world’s edge.  From this place I could look back over my journey and see it in an entirely new light; and as I pondered each step and each stage, I realized that, for all my sad mistakes and bungled choices and unfounded fears, it could not have been otherwise – not in a million years.  All this I saw and grasped in a single moment.  And yet there was one thing that I did not understand.

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out but a musical cooing.  The bird, however, read the question in my eyes.

“He is here,” he answered, cocking his head toward the cradle.  “He has come to you in the appointed place, as promised, but He has done something more besides.  He also meets you here by becoming like you.”

From over the treetops above the beach three birds came flying:  the raven, the dove, and the sparrow.  The children clapped their hands with joy to see them descend and perch upon the canopy of the cradle.  There they sat for a few minutes, each of them eyeing the crowd first out of one eye and then out of the other.  At last the dove, who held a sprig of holly in her beak, took off towards the edge of the forest.

Within the grassy strip where the eight-legged horse was grazing stood a well of hewn stone.  To this well the dove flew swiftly, alighting briefly upon its gray brink before plunging into its depths.  A moment later she burst forth into the clear air, the holly branch bright and dripping, and soared in wide circles above the crowd of children, sprinkling them liberally with the water from the well.  The boy and I turned our faces upward and felt the cool drops upon our cheeks and foreheads.  We opened our mouths and caught them on our tongues, shouting and laughing for pure joy.

Her task completed, the dove returned to her companions.  An instant later all three birds were gone and in their place, at the margin of the land and sea, stood the three ladies I had known as the givers of the gifts.

A gentle breeze passed over the heads of the children, ruffling their tousled hair and bringing with it a hush.  A smile like the sunrise broke across the face of the lady with the auburn hair.  Stepping forward from between her two friends, she lifted her head, shook her ruddy locks, and called out in a loud voice:

“Children!  Why have you come?”

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The Firebird XLVI


I opened my eyes.

At first I could see nothing distinctly, but the general impression I had was one of coolness.  Deep blues and greens and aquas and ultramarines filled the space before me and penetrated deep into my consciousness.  I lay back and let the freshness of the colors wash over me.

At length my vision grew clearer.  I sat up and studied my surroundings intently.

It was morning:  a morning as fresh and fair as the first morning of the world.  Between bands of radiant white clouds the sky shone a clean and vivid blue.  Looking around, I realized that I had been lying on my back in clear, shallow water with little rippling waves lapping gently over me, not far from a beach of sparkling white sand.  Just beyond the narrow strand rose a forest of deep green pines.  Rank upon rank the trees marched down nearly to the water’s edge, their dark boughs stirring faintly in the breeze and flashing in the morning sun.

Turning my head at the sound of a happy cry, I noticed yet another curious thing about this lovely place.  It was filled with little children.  Some lay or sat in the shallow water, as I did, while others laughed and splashed and played along the shore.  Some floated on their backs out in the deeper water, while others walked or crawled in small groups up the sandy beach.  All wore robes of purest white, and the very hair of their heads seemed to glow with a rosy light.

Now there came a tug at my robe – for I, too, was clothed in the same bright raiment – and, looking up, I found myself staring into an oddly familiar face.

“I am glad to see you,” said the small voice that came from the little mouth.  Had it not been for the lamp, the basket of apples, and the sky-blue cloak that partly covered his white gown, I might not have recognized him at all.  The boy was even smaller and younger than he had been on the other side of the sun-gate, and he had changed in other ways as well.  His face and hair and hands were all faintly radiant.  Behind him in the distance a gentle red sunrise was just peering over the horizon.

I stared down at my own hands – the hands that, when last I saw them, had been bathed in ribbons and streamers of flame.  They were now the hands of a newborn infant.  Raising them up before my face, I thrust the fingers into my mouth and sucked at them contentedly, marveling at their delicate softness.

“Do you see?” cried the boy, lifting me in his arms.  “We’ve arrived at last!  Christmas morning has come in – or rather, we’ve come into Christmas morning!”

Cradling me gently in the crook of one arm, he waded with me through the shallow water and up onto the glittering shore.

The Firebird XLV

Sun arch 001


Our little group pushed on, moving forward steadily until we were standing within the circle of the sun with the deafening rush and roar of its flaming arch straight above our heads.  It was as if we had stepped into the midst of a swirling, blistering firestorm.  Stunned, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my face with my hands.

When I opened them again, I found myself engulfed in a dazzling sea of light.  Its brightness pressed upon me relentlessly, almost as if it had weight and mass of its own; it pounded and pummeled me, body, brain, and soul, while the lady carried me deeper and deeper into the vortex of the blazing maelstrom.

The farther we went, the more slowly we seemed to progress.  Time at length ground to a standstill.  Squinting into the glare, I thought I could discern shapes of people and other indistinct forms, though only as shadows or patches of lesser light flitting to and fro against the churning background of searing white.  The flames and the heat whipped around us like tortured winds and waves.  I held my hands up before my face and saw my fingers streaming with wisps of fire like strands of white-hot cotton candy.  Meanwhile, the wound in my heart burned and stretched and swelled until it possessed me entirely, inside and out.

At last, not because of any pain I felt – indeed, it was all a strangely painless experience – but purely because of the overwhelming intensity of it all, I fainted dead away.  The light went out and I fell down into nothingness.

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The Firebird XLIV



And now, though the scene around me was so terrible and the air so thick with desperate cries, I felt myself slip into a state of inexpressible rest and peace.  So intense was the heat as we drew nearer the flaming gateway that it no longer registered on my senses.  The wound in my heart burned hotter than ever, and I began to feel as if I were melting, both inside and out.  It was an indescribably pleasant and soothing sensation.  Relaxed, supple, flexible, and yielding, my body sank deeply into the lady’s arms.  I closed my eyes and leaned my head against her breast.

When we were almost directly beneath the fiery arch itself, my repose was suddenly shaken by the strident sound of a powerful revving engine.  Raising my head to glance in the direction of the noise, I found that its source was none other than the elegant yacht manned by my old friends Ralph, Jack, and Dr. Roger.  All three were on the vessel’s bridge, wrestling frantically with the controls, striving with every ounce of their gas-powered might to break free of the force of the current which was drawing them inexorably into the sun’s open mouth.  On either side of the yacht hundreds of other craft, both large and small, were streaming through the bright portal surrounded by flaming bits of flotsam and jetsam.

As I watched, the laboring yacht nosed slowly around, gradually putting its stern toward the sunset.  Then, with a final surge of power, it inched its way out of the current and drew off slightly to the south.  But its struggle was far from over; for, as I have explained, the waters on either side of the sun – those not sucked through the fiery gateway – were pouring over the margin of the world in an endless cataract.  Any vessel coming this far had only two options:  either it must pass through the sun’s arch or fall over the edge.

Its engines screaming, its tailpipes shuddering and spewing black smoke, the yacht struggled to escape the irresistible pull of the falls.  But it was all to no avail.  Just as the prow began to turn to the east, the craft’s progress suddenly faltered, then halted altogether.  In the next instant the stern burst into flame.  Then came a terrific explosion as the fuel tanks were ignited and a shattering of glass as the cabin windows burst.

With that the nose swung swiftly around to the west and the entire craft went spinning over the precipice in a cloud of spray and smoke.

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The Firebird XLIII

Sun arch 001


I felt my head begin to swim as I looked first at the basket of apples and then up into the boy’s clear blue eyes.

“Is it possible …” I stammered.

“Say no more,” he interrupted.  “I am the man you met under the tarpaulin on the raft.  Oh, if only you could see yourself now!”  And he laughed as if he could not contain his joy.

Then I took one of the apples from the basket and ate it with great relish. No apple ever tasted sweeter.  It warmed my heart from within and dispersed the terrible sense of dread that had gripped me for so long.  I wiped my mouth and smiled up at the boy, a feeling of relief and inexplicable peace washing over me like a summer rain.  But in the next moment I was stricken with a feeling of sudden weakness.  My legs collapsed beneath me so that I fell down and lay upon the surface of the water at the boy’s feet.

“What is happening?” I whimpered in alarm.  “You said that eating the apple would give me strength.  Instead, I feel so weak that I cannot even stand.  How can I complete my journey now?”

“Take courage,” said a new voice.  “Your weakness is your strength.  You are now too young and small and feeble to stand or walk on your own.  You are happy and to be envied, for I am now going to carry you the rest of the way.

I turned my head in the direction of the voice.  There behind me stood the three ladies, Givers of the Gifts, who had the power of changing their shapes and taking on the form of birds.  It was the dark-haired one who had spoken to me, the one I understood to be the eldest, the wise raven of the night sky.  She was clad all in black and midnight blue, a diadem of white gold about her brow.

On her right stood the dove, the lady of the auburn hair.  She seemed larger and more majestic than I remembered her.  Her face and eyes glowed, her cloak of white feathers was thrown back over her shoulders, and her bare arms were resplendent with armlets and bracelets of silver.  Even her hair seemed to have changed its color to a fiery red, and it appeared like an aura of flame as the hot wind whipped it wildly to and fro.

On the left stood the youngest of the three — the sparrow, the girl with the circlet of spring flowers in her golden hair.  She looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back.

Then the dark-haired lady stooped down and lifted me in her arms.  Straightening up, she turned to face the sunset, the golden-haired girl taking her place beside us and holding me by the hand.  But the lady with the fiery red hair went on ahead, leading the way through the reefs and rocks, past the disastrous smokes and flames, over the flashing wave-tips, straight into the burning gateway of the setting sun.  The boy went beside us, holding his clay lamp aloft, its pale flame strangely visible even against the blinding background of the sun’s rays.  In the sky above me the Firebird reappeared.

Three Ladies 001

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The Firebird XLII

The Boy 001


“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.”

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The Firebird XLI


Sun arch 001


The dazzling half-circle on the horizon grew larger and larger as I sped forward, its great arch towering above me and filling half the sky.  The heat was beyond anything I had ever experienced.  I felt small and withered before it, like a tiny black raisin bobbing on the surface of the sea.  It seemed as if I must soon burn away or melt into nothingness beneath the fierceness of the relentless blaze.

Gradually I began to notice that there were other people all around me, some walking or standing on the current as I was, some swimming, some floating, many in boats and rafts and sea-going vessels of all kinds, all of them heading directly into the sun.

Next I heard a tremendous rushing sound which at first I took for the roar of the sunset’s flame, but soon recognized as the voice of many waters.  Squinting narrowly into the blinding brilliance, I could see that the sun was not a solid disc of fire, as I had supposed, but rather a ring, an arch, a flaming gateway through which the ocean was being sucked as if through a huge drain at the margin of the world.  This, as I now realized, was the source of the current’s pull.  Peering through the fiery portal, I thought I could make out bright pin-pricks of stars shining in a velvet purple sky on the other side.  At the same moment, I discovered the reason for the booming in my ears:  on either side of the bright arch the sea was thundering over the edge of the horizon into a dark, unknowable emptiness below.

Jagged reefs appeared on the right hand and the left as the current made its way straight on into the flaming gateway of the sun.  It became clear to me that if I simply stood upon the surface I was certain to reach my goal without the slightest exertion of effort on my part.  In spite of this, I felt oppressed as with a deep and growing sense of inward dread.

Suddenly I heard cries and screams rising above the roar of the waters:  “Help!  We’re lost!  We’re ruined!”

I whipped my head around in the direction of the sound.  What I saw took my breath away.

It was a shipwreck.  There on a razor-sharp reef, its prow riven in, its cracked and creaking masts swaying and tipping crazily against the sky, lay the great golden-sterned galleon that had passed me by so long ago, the Sunrise.  I saw its passengers, all in their fine silks and velvets and laces, leaping by scores into the boiling foam, mad with terror, some with linen napkins still at their throats, others with silver forks and spoons in their hands.

An instant later the entire ship burst into flame, ignited by the sheer heat of the sun.  Flinching to one side, I saw that hundreds of other small craft – wooden skiffs and rafts and dinghies and boats of every description – had similarly caught fire, and that their crews, too, were leaping into the water on every side.

“This will surely be the end of me!” I cried to the Firebird, who was still soaring overhead.  “I’ll be burnt to a crisp!  How can I possibly go on?”

And as I my sense of dread grew ever stronger, I felt myself sinking slowly beneath the waves.

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The Firebird XL

Two Rocks 001


And so I rode the green sea current down the long corridor between the two great rocks, the small gray bird perched quietly and unobtrusively upon my shoulder.  When I was not reading in my little book I spent the time in talk with him.

“How wonderful it will be to see the sun again!” I babbled.  “I’ve been in the darkness for such a long time.  It’s not far now, is it?  What will it be like when we reach that place?”

“Ambiguous,” was his reply.

Ambiguous?  What could he possibly mean?  I had no idea, but I had long since ceased to expect clear answers from him.  So I kept quiet and restrained myself from questioning him further.  It was enough to know that I could trust him to be a true and faithful guide.

At length the channel widened out and the rocks fell away on either side.  The blue sky opened out in front of me, so bright to my eye as to be almost blinding.  I closed the book and stood upon the surface of the water, riding the swift ocean current, watching as sea and sky unfolded in a panorama of dazzling brilliance.  The last grim point of rock slipped away and the current flung me, staggering to keep my balance, out into the surging blue plain of the open sea.  Flinching, I squeezed my eyes shut and turned away; for there on the horizon was the edge of the setting sun itself, a radiant segment of a circle, an archway of flaming fire sitting at the edge of the world.

Covering my poor eyes, which had been weakened by such a long sojourn in the shadows, I turned to speak to the bird on my shoulder.  He was gone.  There was a flash of light, and I raised my head to see the Firebird, in all his glory, soaring ahead of me in the air.

All in an instant I was seized with an inexplicable sense of fear.  “What shall I do now?” I called to the flaming bird.

As if from within my own head his voice came to me, still and soft:  “Take one step and then another.  Go straight on into the sunset, through the blaze of the evening and out into the glory of the dawn.  There is no turning back now nor any turning aside.  The current is too strong.”

It was true.  The river in the ocean was picking up speed, flowing faster and faster every minute, drawing me irresistibly towards the fiery arch at the meeting place of sea and sky.  I knew that by my own efforts I might either speed or impede my progress, but with or without them I was sure to reach the place in due time.  And so I resolved to follow the Firebird’s instructions:  one step at a time, placing one foot before the other, I walked upon the surface of the stream in the midst of the swelling sea, faster and faster into the red blaze of the sunset.                            

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The Firebird XXXIX

Two Rocks 001


Even as he spoke the current gained strength, sweeping me swiftly away from that place and down the middle of the strait corridor between the two rocks.  I did nothing but stand upon the surface of its flow as it carried me rapidly along.  At the end of the channel, in the narrow gap between the dripping black walls where the rocks fell abruptly away on each side and the water spilled out into the open sea, I could see the horizon.  It was a very small piece of the horizon, but bright with clear colors and more than adequate to provide me with a powerful hint of the glory soon to be revealed.

Though profoundly thankful and filled with the joy of anticipation, I could not help turning to the small gray bird, who sat perched on my shoulder, and asking, “Why did you leave me?  And at such a terrible moment?”

“I never did,” he replied.

“How was I to know that?  I couldn’t see you!  When I followed the book’s instructions and looked up, you weren’t there.  What was I supposed to think?”

“Wasn’t the course clear to you?” he answered softly.  “Where else could you have gone?”

“But such a course!” I exclaimed.  “With monsters and blood-sucking predators on either hand!  It was like a death-trap!  Why did you lead me this way?”

“Have you or have you not be delivered?” he responded.

I, of course, had nothing to say in return.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Firebird XXXVIII

Monsters 001


Unable to think or move, I floundered in the water, awaiting the inevitable blow.  It never came – at least not from the quarter expected.  For as the monster shifted its weight and raised its arm, its gaggle of horrid eyes flashing red, something else seized me from behind.

I cried out in pain, for the Something was hard and sharp against the skin of my left arm.  Jerking my head to one side, I saw that it was a huge glossy-black pincer, like that of a crab or lobster.  The creature to which it was attached was shaped like a gigantic beetle or spider.  It was leaning down over me from the rocky ledge above, its ungainly body, encased in overlapping black plates or scales, creaking unsteadily on eight spindly multi-jointed legs.  From beneath its armor peered two green and glowing eyes.

My brain reeled.  Stars danced before my eyes.  The great pincer tightened, drawing the bright red blood.  Slowly the creature drew me, screaming, shouting, and pounding the iron-hard armor with my free hand, up to the mouth of its hole.  Here it would certainly have devoured me had not the first monster shot out an elastic limb and caught me by the waist.

Then began a tug o’ war that continued until the crab-like creature suddenly and deftly snipped off the other’s arm with its empty claw.  With a howl, the hundred-eyed beast flung three more snaky limbs across the channel, fastening them not upon me but around the body of the black crab.  Then both creatures splashed down into the churning green water with me tightly in their grasp.

By reason of its weight, the black crab sank immediately.  I held my breath until it seemed my lungs must burst.  At last, with a violent tug of its tentacles, the hundred-eyed monster, which was floating on the surface like a great bulbous jellyfish, drew both the crab and myself out of the water and straight towards its gaping red maw.

To my surprise, it was at this very moment that the words of the book came back to me once more:

Look up, for help is near.

Even in the midst of my terror and confusion I did look up.  Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the small gray bird sitting on a projecting ledge of rock above my head.  He winked at me before fluttering off into the air.

Strange to say, that wink changed everything.  My entire outlook was instantly altered.  Though bleeding, bruised, and nearly suffocated in the crush, I could not help laughing out loud as I gazed upon the two unsightly creatures, so ridiculous did they appear to me in the midst of their deadly struggle.  I laughed again as the black crab lunged with its claw, the other catching the pincer in its powerful teeth.  An instant later I was free, the crab having released me in an attempt to save its own life.  I sank, then surfaced, blowing and spluttering and trying desperately to swim.

“The book!  The book!” came a voice at my ear.  “Remember the words of the book!”

I raised my face to the zenith as the foam surged over my head, filling my nose and mouth.  Even as I went under I could see through the lens of shifting water bright bands of cloud floating in stripes of white and gold across a patch of clear blue sky between the black summits of the rocks.  I knew without seeing it that the sun was above the horizon and very near indeed.

And then I was rising slowly out of the water.  First my face, then my whole head broke the surface.  Gratefully I gulped the salty air as my shoulders, chest, arms, stomach, and legs all rose dripping from the sea.  At last I stood upon my feet above the waves once more.

Turning my head, I looked up to the mouth of the hundred-eyed monster’s cave.  There lay the two creatures, dead, each locked firmly in the other’s death-grip.

“You see how simple it is,” whispered a voice at my ear.  It was, of course, the small gray bird.

“They have destroyed each other,” he said.  “They have cancelled one another out.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Firebird XXXVII

Two Rocks 001


I continued walking for what might have been hours, days, or weeks.  How long this went on I had no way of knowing, for all sense of time seemed to have deserted me.  With every step I had the growing conviction that the light on the horizon was increasing, the glow encroaching further and further upon the darkness, black melting into blue, blue into violet, and violet into rosy red.  But though the stars were fading, the Firebird shone before me as brilliantly as ever.  Now at last my journey is taking me somewhere! I thought.

Soon the entire sky had grown pale.  Streaks of red, orange, and peach lay along the horizon.  When I looked up from my little book, I could not help thinking of the sky as I had seen it over the phosphorescent mountains surrounding the Valley of the Watchers – a Place on the Verge, as the Firebird had called it.  I trembled with anticipation, as if I, too, stood on the verge of something wonderful and altogether unexpected.  I sensed that the sun itself was now very near and marveled to think that it was not in fact rising but setting – that by this miracle of walking on the water, I was actually moving rapidly enough to catch it in its slow retreat and pass through its fiery eye.

After a long time the sharp silhouettes of two huge rocks rose up and blocked my view of the golden line on the horizon.  The current beneath my feet picked up speed as it was sucked into the space between them.  Before long the pull became so strong that, though I fought to stand still, I was drawn swiftly into the narrow gap.  Over my head the great cliffs glowered at one another, shutting out the light in the sky, and I began to be afraid.  But the Firebird flew straight on before me, very small and very bright against their black and glistening surfaces.  I clutched my book to my heart and strode forward.

Down the darkened corridor I sped, watching wide-eyed as the shadowy walls, dripping and green with moss and algae, flew past me on either side.  Here and there black holes stared like empty eye sockets out of the face of the rock.  On either hand the water boiled and foamed and the salt spray flew over me until I was soaked to the skin.  Looking up to where a thin ribbon of sky, bright with strips of red, showed between the summits, I suddenly realized that the Firebird was nowhere in sight.  At the same instant a horrible sound, half like a human cry and half the screech of a beast, broke out behind me.  I wheeled round to face it.

In the mouth of a cave not six feet from my elbow squatted a monster more hideous than anything I could ever have imagined.  Apart from its gaping, drooling mouth, which was filled with rows of sharp yellow teeth, its face was all eyes:  hundreds of eyes all fixed upon me and occasionally blinking in unison.  Its body was as shapeless and undefined as a huge slug’s.  From out of its slimy flanks grew long, snaky arms and legs like the tentacles of an octopus.

As I gaped upon it in terror, the creature sat up on its haunches and let out another scream.  Then, like the tongue of a frog when it shoots out after a fly, one of its arms darted out at me.  I leapt backwards, slamming against the opposite wall of rock so hard that the air burst from my lungs in a loud gasp.

Stunned and breathless, I slumped to the surface of the water and sat there gaping as the creature retracted its tentacle and prepared to strike again.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Firebird XXXVI

Mountains of Fire 001


In the next moment came unexpected relief; for during a momentary lull in the phantom’s assault, my face suddenly broke the surface of the water and I looked up to see the Firebird blazing in the sky directly above me.  At the sight I coughed up the water that filled my mouth and throat and cried out in despair.  “Firebird!” I screamed, “Firebird!  Help me!”

The great Bird descended like the sun itself falling from heaven.  At its approach the Old Self released its grip on me and looked up, dumb with terror.  I saw the red glow of the flames flickering over the ghost’s pale features and flashing in its glassy eyes.  Instantly the phantom rose and fled over the tips of the waves until I could see it no more.

Then the Firebird seized me in its huge talons.  Its flaming pinions whipped, snapped, and roared around me as it lifted me out of the water and set me on my feet once again.  For a while I stood there dripping and shaking and staring after my Old Self.  At length I heard the voice of the small gray bird at my ear.

“Well done,” it said.

I turned and looked fearfully into his deep blue eyes.  “Will it come back?” I asked.  “Why didn’t you destroy it?”

“It can always come back,” was his answer, “this side of the sunset.  “Once you have passed through the sun’s circle and arrived on the other side, then it will no longer be able to trouble you.  To that place the Old Self can never come.”

Again I looked off in the direction of the ghost’s flight.  “That’s some comfort, anyhow,” I said slowly.  “But I still don’t understand why you didn’t simply destroy it.”

To this he made no answer; and when I turned, he had gone.  A moment later the Firebird suddenly reappeared in the sky just ahead, leading me onward, straight into the sunset’s rosy red glow.  I shuffled my feet a little just below the surface of the water and found that my footing was still firm.  Then, book in hand, I set myself to trudge after him once more.