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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