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.
* * * * * * * * * *