The Firebird LXIII


His blue eyes flashed.  He cocked his head toward the hill.  Looking up, I saw the eight-legged horse grazing upon the green grass that grew around the base of the tree, just above the lintel of the great black door.  Nearby a bearded figure with a tall slouched hat on his head was plucking the golden apples and stowing them in a big sack that lay open-mouthed beside him.  Among the branches of the tree I caught a glimpse of the fleeting shapes of three birds:  a raven, a dove, and a sparrow.

The bird’s eyes flashed again.  I followed his gaze to the bottom of the hill.  There, beside the darkened door, lay a long wooden ladder.

“I will!” I cried.  “I will ascend!  I will pluck and eat the golden apples once more!”  But when I looked, the small gray bird had gone.

I ran, then, with all my might – ran to the foot of the hill and laid hold of the wooden ladder.  Its rails and rungs were rough with splinters and nails, but I seized it nonetheless and flung it up over the gaping doorway so that its head came to rest among the roots of the great tree.  Then, with my heart pounding in my ears, I began to climb, hand over bleeding hand, never taking my eyes off the golden fruit and the glossy green leaves of the tree.

I was reaching for the top rung when a great rusty nail pierced my palm.  With a cry, I released my hold and thrust my hand into my mouth.  As I did, the rung beneath my right foot gave way with a crack like the crack of doom.  The wood splintered and dropped away in pieces.  An instant later I was falling, down, down, down, faster and faster into the dark depths of the open door below.

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