The Fire Bird
The Princess Vasilissa and The Horse of Power
A Russian tale
adapted by Eugene Marckx
Long ago in old Russia there lived horses of power. These horses were broad of chest with fiery eyes and hoofs of iron. And they could speak wisdom. None of those horses are above ground today. They sleep with the men who rode them until a time when Mother Russia will need them to sweep the earth of her enemies. For many years the old ones have told us this.
In those days lived a hunter who rode such a horse. One day he was riding in the forest. Trees were leafing out and flowers blooming. Yet the hunter couldn’t help but notice the silence all around. No birds were singing. The only sound came from his horse’s hoofs on the path.
He wondered at this when he saw on the ground before him a long feather—glittering as if burning in pure gold. The hunter then knew why everything was quiet. A firebird had passed over, and here was one of its feathers. He gazed on the feather. It looked quite valuable to him.
His horse of power spoke. “Do not pick up that feather. If you do, then you will find trouble and know the meaning of fear.”
The hunter had no wish for trouble and he already knew enough about fear. Yet it was such a beautiful feather. He was drawn to pick it up. His horse always spoke wisdom, but still he might take it to the king. And wouldn’t the king raise him in rank before the whole court? There might be gold in his purse, now so empty. The hunter hesitated, gazing at the long glittering feather. Then he jumped down, picked it up and rode straight to the palace. In front of all the nobles he knelt and held out the golden feather to the king on his throne.
The king looked down. All the court waited. “What is this? A feather, fallen from the great firebird? Young man, a feather is not a proper gift for a king. A proper gift, yes, would be the whole firebird brought to me in the presence of this court. What is more, I command you to bring me the firebird. Bring it here. Or by my sword your head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”
The hunter stood and bowed, and he walked out of the palace, shedding bitter tears down the broad steps out to his horse.
“Hunter,” said his horse, “why are you weeping?”
He looked up through his tears. “The king has ordered me to bring him the firebird, and no one has ever done this. And if I don’t I shall die. That is why I am weeping.”
“Enough of your weeping, Hunter, the trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back to the king and ask that a hundred sacks of golden maize be spread on yonder field outside the city. Ask for rope, and then we shall go to that field when it is midnight.”
The hunter had those hundred sacks of maize scattered in that field. A single broad tree grew there in the center. After midnight he climbed into its branches with the rope, and his horse began to nibble at the grain at the edge of the field.
But at the first red before dawn, there came a mighty wind from across the world—the firebird with its wings opening and luffing, settling into the field to eat the golden maize.
The horse of power wandered on one side and the firebird ate on the other side. Little by little the horse wandered just a bit closer, closer to the bird. After a while the horse didn’t seem at all that close, but a little later he was nearby, ever so close, and he stomped on the whole wing of the bird. He pinned it under his iron hoof.
The firebird struggled to get free, but the hunter jumped out of the branches and wrapped the great bird in ropes. Then on his horse he rode back to the palace with the firebird. He entered the great hall carrying it, the wings of the bird spreading over his shoulders. They seemed to be his own wings as he walked past the noblemen and placed the captured bird before the king.
The king honored him, raised him in rank and gave him gold. Then he said, “These many years I have wanted the firebird, and now I have it. But I am reminded of my greatest desire. And that is for the hand in marriage of the Princess Vasilissa. She lives away from the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia, in her little silver boat with golden oars, on the blue seas beyond the edge of the world. I will marry no one else. And so, Hunter, you brought me the firebird. I order you now to bring me my heart’s desire, the Princess Vasilissa. If you do not your head shall fall.”
The hunter left the palace. As he went down the broad stairs he began weeping bitter tears.
“Hunter, why are you weeping,” said his horse.
“The king has ordered me on pain of death to bring him the Princess Vasilissa for his bride, and this I know is impossible. I face certain death again.”
“Enough of your weeping. The trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back to the king and ask for his tent made of fine brocade, some sweetmeats and a bottle of the finest old wine. Then we will ride.”
The hunter did so and packed these on his horse. And they rode through all the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the edge of the world. There along the shore the hunter set up the beautiful tent that showed heroic scenes in its brocade. He sat inside at a small table where lay the sweetmeats on a crystal platter, two glasses and the bottle of finest wine.
The day passed and in the evening, just as the full moon rose out of the sea, a little silver boat came with the beautiful Princess Vasilissa rowing with golden oars. She saw the tent on the shore. She saw those heroic scenes in it from the past. And she grew curious. A man was inside. She grew more curious and rowed closer. Her silver boat touched the shore. She stepped onto sand, and then onto green grass along the shore.
She peered into the tent. The hunter’s eyes, all on their own, began conversing with her. She went in and sat at his table. He offered her bits of food and poured her the finest wine. She sipped as he spoke with his eyes. The two conversed this way for a while as she sipped and sipped. At last the wine had its way. The Princess Vasilissa could not keep her eyes open.
When she fell fast asleep the hunter pulled down the tent, packed everything up and rode away on the horse of power, the princess safely in his arms. Through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia he rode back to the palace of the king. There he presented the Princess Vasilissa to him.
Overjoyed, the king called for wedding preparations. But the princess, quite awake now, looked about her. “I will not marry. I will never marry. How could I ever marry any man without my wedding dress? I must have it. And it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea. And the one who carried me here should be the one to bring it to me.”
The king smiled and turned to the hunter. “And if you do not, then by my sword you head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”
Once more the hunter walked from the palace weeping bitterly down the steps to his horse.
“Hunter, why are you weeping?”
“The princess wants her wedding dress, and it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea, and I will certainly drown before I find it.”
“Enough of your weeping,” said the horse. “The trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. “Get on my back.”
The hunter rode again across the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the shore at the edge of the world. He dismounted, and the horse slowly ambled through the tidal shallows. All of a sudden his iron hoof stepped on an old crab, trapping it.
“Spare me!” the crab whispered. “I am the king of the crustaceans.. I promise you whatever you want if you only spare me.”
“Bring up the casket of the Princess Vasilissa.”
The crab called out from his trap, and then all manner of creatures roiled the sea. They heard him and disappeared beneath the waves. After a time the seas roiled again, and the casket floated ashore. The horse released the crab and thanked him. Then the hunter took up the casket and rode on his horse back through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the palace.
And the king said, “Now we shall have a royal wedding!”
But the princess, now in her wedding dress, turned to the king. “I will marry no one, not any man, until the man who carried me from my home does penance for his deed. His penance shall be immersion in a cauldron of boiling water.”
The king ordered preparations. Right there in the great hall a fire was built, and a cauldron of water was set to boiling above it on blocks.
The hunter saw it. But the princess spoke to him with her eyes. And he saw love in them. Yet he could not help weeping. So he asked the king if he could see his horse one more time before death. The king granted this.
Outside on the steps the hunter wept bitterly, and then his horse of power spoke. “You see the trouble now. You did not listen to me then. Will you listen now? I tell you, do not let them drag you to your death. Listen! Run up the ladder and dive into the boiling water. Just do it.”
The hunter nodded, and when the guards came to him, he shook them off and ran up the ladder, and from the rim of the cauldron he dove down—came up and went down—up and then down—and then leaped to the rim again. He stood glistening in power and beauty. No one could take their eyes off him.
The king stared. “This is astounding! If anyone should look like that—it should be me.”
He threw off his robes and crown and climbed the ladder. Tottering on the edge, he slipped and fell into the cauldron. He did not come up. The water kept boiling. After a long while the fire finally burned out. They retrieved the dead king and buried him.
But Mother Russia must have her king at all times, and a wedding was all ready. The Princess Vasilissa spoke to the noblemen. “Your hunter here has proven himself. He and I shall marry and so rule these lands for the good of everyone.”
And so the hunter became king of all the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia. But from that day on he listened to his wife—and to his horse of power. And so all of Russia thrived.