This week the Shaman/Lady of the Forest and I [see previous post] have been engaged in a long and deep conversation. Like all good conversations, once expectations & preconceptions have been released, this conversation has taken many interesting twists and turns, and needs to continue a bit longer.
The story I want to share with you today is based on an old Slavic tale. I first heard it several weeks ago from the storyteller, Audrey di Mola. I was enthralled and immediately thought: “This is the story we need to hear now, in these perilous times.” I’ve listened again and found other tellings — each unique. And, as I listened & read, I saw more and more shiny threads in the story’s tapestry — the same threads that are being woven into our on-going story today. So I offer it to you with gratitude to the Old Ones who first told the story and to Audrey and other storytellers that have kept it alive through the ages. It’s a long tale, so settle in comfortably and listen for what the story wants you — in all your uniqueness — to hear. This is my telling for this day. I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I know that it is true.
Once Upon a Time — yes, that time; or this time; or any time — Once upon a time, there lived a handsome hunter and his beloved horse, just at the edge of the deep dark forest. Every day the hunter and his companion would set off into the forest to look for deer or bears or even small creatures with which to sustain themselves by selling the extra meat and fur in the village market. And so it was that one day, like any other day, the hunter and his horse walked into the forest to follow the trails that animals had made. But this day, as they walked, the hunter saw something shining on the path — not a paw print, not a stray feather from a nearby bird, but a feather that glowed and seemed to burn in its own light. ….. It was a feather from the Firebird.
The hunter bent down and started to reach for it when his horse said firmly, “Do not pick up that feather. If you do, you will have great troubles.” The hunter heard his horse. He hesitated …. but he felt the call of the feather pulling him forward. “Oh,” thought the hunter, “if I take this precious feather to the Tsar, surely he will reward me with great riches.”
The hunter picked up the feather. He marveled at its flaming colors. He felt its warmth in his hand. … And so they set off to the great palace of the Tsar. It was a long journey, but the feather stayed bright & warm in the hunter’s hand, flickering with the brilliant light of its inner flame The horse walked beside him, shaking his head all the way.
After a time, they neared the palace, with its many stone turrets & gleaming golden domes. With some trepidation, the hunter knocked at the great gate. Once. Twice. Three times. …. And finally the gate — creaking slowly with almost a moan — opened before them.
When the guard saw the Firebird’s feather in the hunter’s hand, he stared for a long minute…. And then, after asking someone to take the horse to the stables, he led the hunter straight to the throne room.
The hunter paused a moment, taking in all the glitter & gold & rich brocades. He had never seen such wealth before. For a moment he longed to be back in his familiar forest, but he gathered his courage and spoke to the Tsar. “Your majesty,” he said, “I have come to give you this feather of the Firebird.”
The Tsar took the feather from the hunter’s hand. For a moment the Tsar’s face radiated wonder & delight. But soon his face changed and he spoke. “You are a great hunter to find such a treasure. Surely, next you can bring me the Firebird itself and I will reward you with riches beyond your dreams.” The hunter started to shake his head, but the Tsar, pulling his sword from its embroidered velvet-covered scabbard, continued. “But do you see this fine sharp blade on my sword? … If you fail, it will slice your head from your body.”
Trembling, the hunter left the throne room and sought his horse in the palace stables. He threw his arms around the horse’s solid warm neck & told him of the Tsar’s order. The horse nuzzled him and then said, “Fear not…The worst is still to come!”
The hunter began to weep, but his horse continued, “Ask the Tsar for oats & wheat & barley & rye from his great granaries — enough to fill a dozen large wagons. Then we will catch the Firebird.”
The hunter returned to the Tsar and made his request. “Of course,” said the Tsar. “This is a rich realm and I have grain to spare!”
That evening the hunter & his horse took the grain to a beautiful field and spread it all around, leaving enticing piles of grain here and there. They waited. Night fell. Their eyelids felt heavy. Still — with eyes wide open, they waited and waited until, at last, down from the sky swooped that Firebird in all his glory. The Firebird ruffled his feathers — sending sparks like stars into the dark — and he began to gobble the grain.
The hunter hid behind the horse. Slowly, slowly, forward they crept. The horse proceeded step by step in a roundabout route, keeping his head low, pausing now & then to innocently eat of the golden grain, but always drawing nearer to the Bird.
After a time, they found themselves next to the Firebird, whose head was still bent to the grain. … And … in less than a blink of an eye … the horse raised his foot and — down it went! Right onto the tail of the Firebird! The hunter rushed in and bound the beautiful bird with ropes. He picked him up and felt flames leaping into his heart. He felt awe and wonder as he gazed upon the feathers of gold and crimson and shimmering copper. The Firebird did not thrash or call out, but just answered his gaze with a proud glare. Oh, it seemed wrong to bind such a free spirit! For a moment, the hunter hesitated.
But then he remembered the reward the Tsar had promised and, with his horse, hurried back to the palace.
When the Tsar saw the Firebird in the hunter’s arms, he gave the bird a fleeting glance of admiration. But then, stuffing the bird into a bejeweled cage of gold, the Tsar’s face changed. He looked from the bird to the hunter. “Oh, my boy,” said the Tsar. “You are a brave and clever hunter indeed. A man such as you can surely bring back the one thing I most desire. The beautiful Princess Vasilisa lives in a far kingdom. She shines like the sun, the most beautiful of all the women in the world. She must be mine! Bring back Vasilisa and I will give you riches — heaps of gold so high you will not see their top. ….. But if you fail, I will throw you into the moat. It is filled with ravenous beasts. And if you somehow survive their teeth, their tentacles, their claws, their ugly tusks — if you are able to lift your head out of the water –” The King paused and drew his sword. “There is still this blade to separate your head from your shoulders. Do you understand?”
The hunter trembled. He nodded once — then turned to go out to find his horse. When the horse saw the hunter’s face wet with tears, he asked “Now what?” And the hunter hung his head and replied, “Now I must bring back the Princess Vasilisa from a faraway kingdom. And if I fail, not only the blade, but teeth & tentacles, claws & tusks…. What shall I do? What shall I do?”
And the horse answered, “Fear not! … The worst is still to come! …. Go to the Tsar and ask for pack horses laden with gilded pavilions, ask for the best meats and wine, parquet tables and soft pillows for reclining. And tell the Tsar he must send with you his best singers and musicians.”
Still shaking, the hunter repeated this request to the Tsar. “Of course, my boy! Anything you want! But you must bring me the beautiful Vasilisa — or….”
And so it was. Early the next morning the hunter and his horse set off with all they had requested. It was a long, long journey. There were flooding rivers to cross, rocky cliffs to climb, deep dark valleys where wolves & thieves lurked.
I do not know how long they traveled or how many adventures they had along the way, but late one afternoon they reached a lake. Far out upon the still blue waters, a lady rowed a golden boat with silver oars. And even from such a distance, they could see her beauty, her proud straight back, her flowing ebony hair. Surely this was the Princess Vasilisa.
Quickly, they set up camp. They raised the pavilions and decorated them with fine rugs and soft pillows of silk and velvet. They spread out the meats & fruits & bread & wine upon fine silver trays and set them on the polished parquet tables.
Then, just as the sun was dipping low in the sky, sending its last rays to set the silvery flags and the golden tent tops ablaze in beauty, the musicians began to play and the lady reached the shore.
Gallantly the hunter held out his hand to help her up from the boat. He bowed low. “Princess Vasilisa, it is getting late. Will you join us for supper?”
Vasilisa smiled and nodded her head, and the hunter led her into grandest pavilion.
I do not know exactly what transpired, but I do know that the hunter and Vasilisa talked and ate and drank and laughed. They fell into a long conversation and their heads were close together and finally, in the dark, they fell asleep on plump pillows under quilts of embroidered silk.
In the morning, they rose and smiled at each other. “Will you come with me,” he asked, “to the court of the Tsar?”
Vasilisa agreed, so off they went. And it was a long, long journey. I do not know exactly what happened, but the hunter felt himself changing with each mile they traveled. And Vasilisa smiled.
At last, Vasilisa and the hunter stood in the throne room and faced the Tsar. At once, the Tsar sprang from his throne and stood before the beautiful Princess Vasilisa. Seeing her dark eyes, her fine straight nose, her hair as black as a raven’s wing, & her shapely supple young body, the King crowed, “At last you are mine! I will marry you and you shall be mine forever.”
The Princess Vasilisa took a step back and, holding her head high, spoke to the King. Her voice was pure music, but her tone & her words were firm and strong.
“Your Highness,” she declared, “I cannot marry until I have my wedding dress.”
“Oh, never mind about that,” the Tsar said quickly. “I will give you a wedding dress of lace embroidered with gold and encrusted with jewels — far more elegant than any old dress you might have.”
“No.” Again Vasilisa spoke slowly and carefully. “I will not marry without my own wedding dress. Better than jewels or rich embroidery or lace, my wedding dress is covered with the words wisdom spoken by my mother & sisters & aunts, and by their mothers & sisters & aunts, and by their mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, and on back to the wisdom of the Old Woman of the World. This precious dress is under a granite rock deep, deep, at the bottom of the sea. I will not wed without it.”
In a flash, the Tsar turned to the hunter. “You heard her,” shouted the Tsar. “You must go and bring back her dress. And if you fail, I shall hang you high and then cut off your head and throw your meat into the moat so that the ravenous beasts can dine at their leisure.”
The hunter moved to the door and, sobbing, went out to find his horse. The horse listened patiently to the hunter’s woeful tale. Then, shaking his mane, the horse said, “Fear Not! The worst is still to come!” and said no more. The hunter, still weeping, asked what he should request from the Tsar. “Nothing. You need nothing the Tsar has to offer,” said the horse. So off they went together, seeking the sea at the edge of the world.
I do not know how far they journeyed. I do not know how many tall mountains they climbed, how many deep valleys they crossed, how many fierce wolves & thieves they met in the dark forests. But I do know that it was only after many days and twice as many adventures that they reached the sea at the edge of the world.
The wind blew and the sea tossed. White-crested waves rose above them. Still, pausing only to kiss his horse, the hunter stripped off his ragged clothes and plunged into the icy depths. Down he swam. And down and down until at last he could dimly see, far below, a gigantic granite boulder. Down he swam. Beneath the great rock, the hunter glimpsed what might be a corner of white fabric — but, push though he did, the hunter could not budge the boulder. His lungs were bursting, he had to breath…. The hunter struggled upward through the wild waters until, gasping & gurgling, his head rose into clear air and he swam to the shore.
The hunter was startled to see his horse talking to a large lumpy bumpy creature who appeared to wear a circlet of silver about his hard, shell-bound brow. His horse introduced the King of the Crabs. The hunter bowed and then told the tale of his dive into the deep. When he finished, he turned to the gigantic Crab King and asked, “Can you help me?”
The King of the Crabs replied haughtily, “Why should I help a two-legged one like you?” The hunter answered, “I shall give you…” he reached into his pack. Nothing. He shook it upside-down…once…twice…. On the third shake, a small crust of dry bread fell out of the very bottom of the pack.
Ashamed, the hunter hung his head. He held out the bit of bread. Without hope, he said, “Your majesty, I can give you this.”
The King of the Crabs raised his great claws and placed them on the hunter’s shoulders. The hunter’s heart thudded with fear. But the Crab King spoke gently. “My child,” he said. “It is enough. I will help you find that which you seek.”
The Crab King gave a shrill whistle and the waves seemed to calm. He whistled once more and the water began to churn not with wind or tide but with the motion unseen creatures. When he whistled a third time, all the crabs in the sea crawled up on the beach to listen to their King. “My beloved brothers & sisters,” said the King, “this hunter seeks a wedding dress hidden beneath the biggest boulder in the sea. I ask you please to roll the rock aside and bring him what he desires.” And so they did.
With the white linen dress folded carefully in his arms, the hunter and his horse set off once more — over hill and dale, through strange villages and dark forests — to reach the palace of the Tsar. Their adventures were too many to tell, but every mile the hunter felt a change within himself as what had been too soft grew firm & strong and what had been too hard softened & relaxed. And on they went to the gleaming palace of the Tsar.
Entering the throne room, the hunter handed the dress to Vasilisa. “Here, as you asked, my lady, is your dress inscribed with the wisdom of all the women of the world.”
“Quick,” ordered the Tsar. “Prepare the wedding feast and the royal chamber, for tonight I sleep with my new wife, Vasilisa!”
Then Vasalisa held up her hand for him to stop. “No,” she said. “There is yet one more thing I require. I require this man to jump into a cauldron of boiling water.” She pointed to the hunter.
“No problem,” said the Tsar. Quickly he summoned his servants to build a huge hot fire, and soon a big cauldron of water was bubbling & the air above it was clouded with steam. “Now,” said the Tsar, turning to the hunter. “Do it!”
Once again the hunter trembled with fear and hot tears slid down his cheeks. He remembered all the journeys, all the trials & tests, all the adventures ….. and he remembered his horse.
“Sire,” he said. “May I first take a moment to say farewell to my faithful friend?”
“Oh, all right,” huffed the Tsar. “But make it quick! The sun is falling low in the sky. Vasilisa must be my wife before tonight’s feast begins.”
Yet again, the hunter went out and leaned his head against the horse’s warm neck. But even the soft comforting snorts of the horse &the tickling of his mane could not stop the hunter’s tears. “Goodbye, my dear friend,” the hunter said, and told of the fire, the cauldron, the boiling water.
The horse shook his head. “I will not say goodbye. Just remember our adventures & gather together all the pieces of yourself, all your changes over the miles. Remember what we did, but most of all look into your heart. Cherish what has grown bold & strong. Cherish what has softened & opened. Then run, as fast as you can, and jump into the cauldron.”
The hunter kissed his horse and returned to the throne room to be greeted by roaring blaze & bubbling cauldron. He looked around and saw the Tsar grinning from ear to ear. He saw Vasilisa, standing steadfast & calm. He saw all the courtiers that had gathered to witness the horrifying spectacle. Then the hunter paused and breathed deeply. He looked into his heart. He remembered his journeys. He remembered his changes. He gathered together all the pieces of himself. And he ran straight to the cauldron — and leaped in!
Amongst the crowd there were shocked gasps & nervous titters, but from the cauldron ……. only silence. The crowd waited. They waited for screams. They waited for bits of charred bone to rise to the top. They waited…..
The Tsar turned triumphantly toward Vasalisa and reached out his hungry hand. But … just at that very moment … a roar went up from the crowd — a roar that rattled the stained glass windows & shook the great timber beams above!
All eyes — even the eyes of the Tsar — turned toward the cauldron as — up & out — sprang the young hunter. Oh, he had been handsome before, but now he seemed to shine. His strong muscles rippled beneath his shirt & his eyes glowed with new fire. He turned towards Vasilisa. They both smiled.
Enraged, the Tsar screeched, “I am the Tsar! I am richer than the hunter, and I can become even more handsome than he!” And the Tsar turned to this servants and ordered, “Help me into the cauldron.” And so they did. And so the Tsar tumbled head over heels into the cauldron. ……. And he was never seen again, though a gray scum of fat rose to the surface briefly before sinking again.
The hunter and Vasilisa looked at each other and went to the golden cage that hung next to the throne. Together, they pulled open the jeweled door and freed the Firebird. With feathers flaming brightly once again, the Firebird rose and circled once, twice, thrice above them in gratitude & blessing before flying out the window and home to his nest, where he remains to this day.
Then the hunter and Vasilisa went out to the courtyard where the horse stood, and they bent their heads humbly, and they thanked thanked him.
So the hunter and Vasilisa were married and they lived, as we all do, day by day. And whether they ruled as King & Queen or whether they returned to the hunter’s hut or whether they set off on marvelous journeys I do not know…… But I do know that their adventures were many and the horse was always at their side…..
And so my tale ends. Make of it what you will.
"The truth about stories is that that's all we are." --- Thomas King