The Firebird flew on ahead of me, shedding a broken flicker of red-gold over the tops of the waves. I followed, reading in my book all the while. As I read, I discovered that the little volume contained, among other things, practical instructions for walking on the water. By heeding its precepts, I found that I could increase my pace and improve my surefootedness. My feet began to move faster, my steps grew lighter. In time I became convinced that the glow on the horizon was getting brighter. There could be no doubt about it now! I was drawing nearer to my goal!
After a while I looked up and saw a dim figure approaching at a great distance. It, too, was walking upon the waves, moving steadily towards me. As it moved closer I could see that it was wrapped in a white shroud. Nearer and nearer it came. A ghost! I thought. A ghost walking over the water to meet me! I stopped and stood still, frozen with dread.
At last its face began to emerge out of the dusk, horribly pale in the diffuse light. When I was able to discern its features, my mouth dropped open in surprise and dismay. For what I saw coming over the waves to meet me was myself: the self I had dragged out of the house at the beginning of my journey; the self I had cast away and sown in the ground as seed; the self I had seen lying cold and dead upon a stone slab in the cleft of the rock. Deathly pale it was, yet it came briskly up to meet me, took hold of my arm with one cold, white hand, and spoke.
“You fool!” it hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?” The mouth moved, but the rest of the face remained stiff and expressionless as a plaster mask. The eyes were set like glass in their sockets, unmoving and unseeing. Up from its chest came a throaty laugh, but the mouth showed not the slightest trace of a smile. Instead, it merely hung open in a kind of distorted half-frown, one side slightly lower than the other.
I stammered in its presence, groping for an answer, anxious somehow to justify and explain my actions.
“I’m travelling to the place of the rising sun,” I said, “in search of Christmas morning and the rider of the eight-legged horse.”
“I have travelled by a number of different means. At the moment I am walking.”
“Walking?” it replied in a shrill, irritated voice. “Walking on water? Who told you you could do that?”
“It says so right here in this little book.” I produced the book and turned to the passage I had just been reading.
“Ha!” laughed the ghost, half closing its staring eyes. “You haven’t changed a bit! You’ve always lived your life in books, haven’t you? You incurable romantic! You stupid idiot! You’re playing at being something you’re not! Just look at you! Don’t you think it’s time you grew up?”
“You don’t understand,” I countered. “This wasn’t my idea! The rider of the eight-legged horse invited me. He enticed me to follow him. The Firebird persuaded me to come out when I was unwilling. He pierced my heart and put his flame within me!”
“Did you read all that in your book?” scoffed the phantom. “And now I think you quite believe it!”
“It happened to me!” I protested.
“No!” screeched the ghost. “No it didn’t!” And suddenly its face and voice became so hideous that I stumbled three steps backward and sank up to my knees in the water.
“Give me that book!” it screamed. Once again it seized my arm with one of its cold, strong hands and tried to wrench the book from my grasp with the other.
It was then that I realized my disadvantage. This was, after all, my Old Self – the self I had been before I set out on my journey – before I began to grow gradually younger and smaller. I was no longer any match for it in size or strength.
The phantom grappled with me and threw me down upon my back in the water. I began to sink, but still I did not let go of the book. Then it flung itself on top of me. I saw its mouth, full of jackal’s teeth, open in a wild cry as it shoved my face beneath the surface of the waves. Through the rush and gurgle in my ears I heard it shouting, “Down! Down! Down!” Salt water choked me. It burned my eyes and throat.
Now I am down indeed, I thought, and I fear I may never rise again.