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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