A Russian tale
adapted by Eugene Marckx
In old Russia long ago there were horses of power. These horses were tall and broad chested with fiery eyes and iron hoofs. And they spoke 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 traitors out of her thrice-nine kingdoms. So our grandfathers have told us.
In those days there was a hunter riding such a horse. They were going through the forest. Trees were leafing out and flowers blooming. Yet there was silence all around them. No birds were singing. The only sound came from the horse’s hoofs.
The hunter wondered at this. Then he saw on the ground before him a long feather glittering on the path, as if it were burning in pure gold. The hunter knew why the whole forest was still. A firebird had passed over and had dropped one of its feathers. He gazed on the feather. In its fiery golden colors it looked quite valuable.
The horse of power spoke. “Do not pick up that feather. If you pick it up you will find trouble, and you will know the meaning of fear.”
The hunter did not want trouble, and he was familiar enough with fear. Yet the feather was so beautiful. He was drawn to pick it up. His horse always spoke wisdom, but still he might take the golden feather to the king. Wouldn’t the king raise him in rank before the whole court? There might be gold for his purse. The hunter hesitated, gazing at the glittering feather before him. Trouble? Fear? He jumped down, picked up the long feather and rode straight to the palace. There he dismounted and climbed the many steps and walked in with nobles arrayed on either side of the hall. The hunter knelt before the king on his throne and held out the fiery feather.
All the court watched, and the king looked down at this, this feather. “What? A feather? Fallen from the great firebird? Hunter, a feather is not a proper gift for a king. A proper gift, yes, would be the whole firebird itself brought to me in the presence of this court. What is more,” the king spoke aloud for all to hear, “I command you, hunter, to bring me the firebird. Bring it here. Or by my sword your head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”
The hunter stood, bowed to the king, and walked slowly out of the palace. Down the broad steps he staggered, shedding bitter tears.
“Hunter,” said his horse, “why are you weeping?”
He looked up through his tears. “The king has ordered me to capture and bring him the firebird. No one has ever done this. And if I don’t I shall die.”
“Enough of your weeping, Hunter, the trouble I spoke of is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back and ask the king that a hundred sacks of golden maize be spread on yonder field outside the city. Ask for rope, and you shall ride me to that field at midnight.”
The hunter had those hundred sacks of maize scattered over that field, where a single broad tree grew in the center. At midnight he rode his horse out there and climbed into the tree’s branches with the rope. The horse wandered to the edge of the field and nibbled at the grain.
But with the first red sky before dawn, a mighty wind came from across the world ‒ the firebird, its great wings luffing the air ‒ and it settled in the field to eat the golden maize.
The horse of power meandered 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, which looked up but then went on eating. The horse didn’t seem at that close, but a little later he wandered near, ever so close, but not so close. Suddenly he stomped on the wing of the firebird. He pinned it under his iron hoof.
The firebird struggled, but the hunter jumped from the branches and wrapped the great bird in ropes. On his horse he rode back to the palace with the firebird. He entered the great hall carrying it aloft, the golden wings of it spreading over his shoulders. Those wings seemed to be his own as the hunter walked past the noblemen and placed the captured bird before the king.
The king honored him, raised him in rank before the court, and gave him gold. Then he spoke his thoughts to the hunter.
“All these years I wanted the firebird. But now I am reminded of my greatest desire. That is for the hand of the Princess Vasilissa in marriage. She lives far from the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia, in her little silver boat, rowing with golden oars on the blue seas beyond the world. I must have her, and no one else. Hunter, you captured the firebird. I command you to bring me my heart’s desire, the Princess Vasilissa. If you fail, by my sword your head shall fall.”
The hunter left the palace and staggered down the broad stairs weeping bitter tears.
The horse of power looked up. “Hunter, why are you weeping.”
“The king has ordered me on pain of death to bring him the Princess Vasilissa for his bride, and this is impossible. I face certain death ‒ again.”
“Enough of your weeping. The trouble is not now. It lies before you. Ask the king for his tent of fine brocade, some sweetmeats, and a flask of the finest liqueur. Then we will ride.”
The hunter did so and packed these royal delicacies on his horse. They rode through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia, all the way to the edge of the world. Above the shore of the blue sea the hunter set up the tent with its brocade displaying heroic scenes. He sat inside at a small table where lay the sweetmeats on a crystal platter and two glasses filled with the finest liqueur.
The day passed and 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 on 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, then onto green grass along the shore.
She peered into the tent. The hunter’s eyes began all on their own conversing with her. She went inside and sat at his table. He offered her sweetmeats and poured her the finest liqueur. She sipped as his eyes spoke to her. The two conversed in this way for a while as she sipped and sipped. At last the liqueur had its way. The Princess Vasilissa’s eyes could not stay 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. There he presented the Princess Vasilissa to the king.
Overjoyed, the king called for wedding preparations. But the princess, quite awake now, looked around and spoke out. “I will not marry. I will never marry. How could I marry any man without my wedding dress? And it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the blue sea. And the one who carried me here should be the one to bring it to me.”
The king smiled to the hunter. “And if you fail, then by my sword you head shall fall.”
Once more the hunter staggered down the steps of the palace weeping bitterly.
“Hunter, why are you weeping?”
“The princess wants her wedding dress. It lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea, and I am sure to 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.”
Again they rode across the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia out to the edge of the world. The hunter dismounted, and the horse slowly ambled in the tidal shallows of the blue sea. All of a sudden his iron hoof stepped on an old crab.
The trapped crab cried out. “Spare me, O horse! I am the king of all crustaceans. My people will give you whatever you want if you but spare me.”
“Bring up the casket of the Princess Vasilissa.”
The crab called out, and all manner of creatures rose and roiled the sea. They heard his call and disappeared beneath the waves. After a time out of the sea the casket floated ashore. The horse released the crab. Then the hunter took up the casket, and they rode back to the palace.
The king was astonished. “Now we shall have a royal wedding!”
In her wedding dress the princess said to the king. “I will marry no one until that man who carried me here does penance. He shall be immersed in a cauldron of boiling water.”
The king smiled and ordered preparations. In the great hall a huge fire was begun, and a cauldron of water was set to boiling above it on blocks.
The hunter saw this, but the princess spoke to him with her eyes. And he was able to see love in them. But he still began weeping and asked the king if he could see his horse once more. The king nodded.
Outside on the palace the hunter wept bitterly. The horse of power spoke. “Trouble has come, but now stop your tears. You did not listen to me then. Will you listen now? Do not let them drag you to your death. Listen! Run up the ladder and dive into the boiling water. Dive right in.”
The hunter nodded. When the guards came for him he shook them off, ran up the palace steps, into the great hall and right up the ladder. At the rim of the cauldron he didn’t hesitate but dove in ‒ came up and went down ‒ up and then down ‒ and leaped out to balance on the rim. He stood before them glistening. 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. Teetering at the edge, he slipped into the boiling cauldron. He did not come up. The water kept boiling. After a long while the fire finally burned out. The dead king’s body was retrieved and buried him.
But Mother Russia must always have her king, and a wedding was already planned. 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. From that day on he listened to his wife ‒ and to his horse of power. And all of Russia thrived.