The Firebird XXII

Basket 001


All this while I had been wondering what had happened to the gray bird with the burning blue eyes.  He was no longer on my shoulder, nor was he anywhere to be seen.  Has he too abandoned me, I asked myself, and just at the moment when I need his help most?

Yet though I hesitated, I felt sure that the steersman’s suggestion was not unreasonable:  my cloak to help a sick man in exchange for passage to land.  It seemed a fair trade.

“Yes,” I said at last.  “Of course, he may have the cloak.  He needs it more than I.”

“Take hold of the rope, then,” called the steersman, “and I’ll pull you aboard.”

Again I was hesitant, remembering the eyes of the dark lady who had given me the cloak, eyes like bright stars in a velvet sky.  And as I thought of her, it seemed to me that a dark shadow, like the wingspan of a great black bird, passed over me for a bare instant.

“Such a small child,” I heard one of the men mutter as they pulled me dripping from the water and onto the raft.  “She won’t take up much space at any rate.”

Once on board I proceeded to remove the cloak of heaven blue.  But I stopped short in surprise in reaching up to undo the silver brooch, for the sleeved seemed to have grown to twice their original length, and it required some trouble to free my hands for the task.

“What ails you now?” asked the steersman, for again I paused upon looking down and seeing the hem of the cloak lying piled in blue folds around my feet.  The men laughed as the hood fell forward over my face and covered my eyes.

“I – I don’t understand,” I stuttered.  “It fit perfectly when I first put it on!”

“Well, howsomever that may be,” said one of the raftsmen as he took the cloak, “it should be quite large enough to cover old John.”  And he threw the cloak over the sleeping figure.

Without my cloak I stood shivering on the deck, close to the place where the man called John lay.  I still held my little lamp of red clay.  In its light I saw the ring of hollow faces all around me, their eyes yellow in the glow, like the eyes of wolves or cats.

“What’s in the basket?” one of them wanted to know.

“Just apples,” I said, my voice quavering slightly – whether with fear or the cold I could not tell.

“Just apples!” cried the steersman.  “And here we are, all half starved to death.  How many apples, if you please?”

“Seven,” I answered, not bothering to look.

“Not enough to go around,” he growled.  “Still, we’ll have to divvy ‘em up as best we can.”

I handed him the basket without argument.  There would have been no point in protesting.  As in the matter of the cloak, I saw no harm in sharing my apples with them.  And yet also as before, I felt a cold shadow pass over me as I released the basket into his hand.

“You may be surprised,” I said.  “These apples are quite large.”

But when he reached into the basket and drew out a piece of the golden fruit I could only stand open-mouthed with shock.  In in hand, the it looked no larger than any ordinary apple.

“Seven, eh?” he mused with a wry laugh.  “Quite large, you say?  Well, we’ll just have to make do as best we can.”

He drew a knife out of his pocket and began cutting the apple into pieces.  The pieces were then shared all around by the men.  I myself got a piece – a very small piece, since, as the steersman explained, I was the smallest on board.  The fruit tasted as sweet to me as ever.  Even such a small bit of it warmed and refreshed me beyond all expectation.  But as the glow returned to the wound in my heart, I found that it was mixed with a sense of painful regret – whether over the smallness of my piece of apple or for some other reason, I did not know.

When the pieces of apple had all been shared out, the steersman passed the basket back to me.  “It’s yours to keep, I suppose,” he said grimly.  “Not much use to the rest of us now.”

I smiled a knowing smile as I took it from his hand.  But my smile faded when I looked inside.  The basket was completely empty.

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