The Firebird LXI


From this point forward everything began to change at an alarmingly rapid pace.  As we advanced, the gold-green of springtime quickly darkened into the broad-leafed shades of a slumbering summer woodland.  The heavy seed-heads of the grasses and reeds along the banks nodded in the breeze and brushed our hands as we passed.  The brook swelled and grew and became a green river.

At length we came to a pool off to one side of the stream.  Leaning over its still waters, I caught my breath at the sight of my own reflection.  As with my friend, so with me:  my appearance was drastically altered.  The likeness I now saw staring up at me was that of the princess I had seen so long ago in the mirror affixed to the inside cover of the little book.  It was exactly the same as that unforgettable image in every respect except for one thing:  the dark stain of imperfection was nowhere to be seen.

But even as I gazed a chill wind stirred the branches, causing me to shiver.  At its kiss the leaves of the trees turned instantly to red and gold.  A second gust sent them skittering over the ground.  I reached for my friend but stopped short at the touch of his hand – the skin of his fingers was dry and withered with age!  His face too, as I discovered upon turning to look at him, was deeply wrinkled, his hair long and grizzled, his beard scraggly and white.  I fell back a step, hand over mouth, uncertain what to do or say.

There was no time to ponder this new development, for the river, now a rushing torrent, suddenly rose and swept the two of us past the bare white trees and out into a broad open clearing.  Here the waters of the channel spread out and emptied into a much wider and deeper stream.  Across this great river, amid a grove of pines, I glimpsed a small round-topped hill of an oddly familiar shape.

“This is the last barrier,” cried my friend as a fresh snow began to fall.  “That hill is our goal, but we cannot reach it without crossing the river.  Follow me!  And whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand!”

I nodded and gripped it tightly.  Feeble though he seemed to all outward appearance, it was with the energy of a bounding stag that he dashed forward into the flood, pulling me stoutly behind him.  The water rose quickly, first to our waists, then to our chests, then to our armpits.  After about ten steps we lost our footing altogether and were compelled to swim.

“Head up!” he shouted as I flailed about with my one free arm, desperately trying to steady myself against the force of the stream.  But though I fought with all my might to stay afloat, it was of no use.  The current was too powerful for me.

I opened my mouth to cry out, but the swirling waters silenced me.  The undertow gripped me by the heels and dragged me under.  A blinding swarm of bubbles stung my eyes while, in vain, I kicked and groped and tried to scream.  I felt his fingers slip from my grasp.

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