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The Firebird — a Ukrainian fairy tale
Once upon a time there lived a tsar who had three sons two of whom were clever and one, the youngest, was a fool. One day they went to their father and asked him to let them travel around the world and see what life was like in other kingdoms. The Tsar listened to their plea, and said, “All right, I’ll let you go. Go choose any horses you like from any of my herds (and the tsar, like any tsar should, had many fine horses) and ride to whatever lands you may have a wish to go.”
A great many horses were brought for the Tsareviches to see and choose from.
Two elder brothers chose the best horses and the younger one opted to choose the worst one. They were ready to go in a short time and off they went, riding along the same road all of them together.
They rode, rode, and rode till they came to a place where they saw three huge milestones with a different road beginning from each of the stones. One road led straight on, another one led to the right and the third to the left. There was an inscription on each of the stones. The brothers came closer and began to read what was written there. The inscription on one of the stones said, “Who goeth this way shall go sated and his horse shall go hungry.” The inscription on another stone said, “Who goeth this way shall go hungry and his horse shall go sated.” And the third inscription said, “Who goeth this way shall have his horse devoured by a wolf.” The eldest brother chose to go where he would be sated and his horse hungry; the middle brother chose to go where he would be hungry and his horse sated; and the youngest, the fool, rode along the road where his horse would be eaten by a wolf.
He rides but a short distance and there out of the blue comes a wolf. The wolf growls, “Get down from your horse, I’ll eat him.”
The fool did not argue. He climbed down from his horse, picked up the saddle and went on his way, leaving the horse behind. He walked only a short distance when the same wolf caught up with him. The wolf says, “Get on my back and tell me where you want me to take you to.”
And the fool replies “Take me anywhere you want.”
The fool clambers on to the wolf’s back and the wolf rode long way over hill, dale, through swamp till they came to a dense and dark forest, and right in the middle of it there was a little wooden house, and near the house stood a pole, and there was a cage fixed to the top of the pole, and in the cage there was a bird that shone like fire. The moment the fool saw the bird, he wanted to have it very much. Says he, “How can I get this bird?”
And the wolf replies, “Just climb the pole and take the cage but make sure you don’t touch the rope that hangs there.”
The fool climbs the pole, reaches out to grab hold of the cage and inadvertently touches the rope that hangs there. And as he touched the rope, “Ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” jingled a bell. Out from the hiding rush the guards, pull the fool down form the pole and ask him, “What did you climb this pole for?”
“I wanted to get that bird in the cage,” answers the fool.
“It’s a very special bird,” the guards say, “It’s the Firebird, and you can have it only if you give us a horse half of which will be silver and the other half will be gold.”
The fool goes back to the wolf who asks, “Where is the bird you wanted to have so much?”
“I don’t have it,” says the fool, and explains that he can have it only if he brings to the guards a horse half of which is silver and the other half is gold.
“All right,” says the wolf, “get on to my back.”
The moment he clambers on to the wolf’s back, they ride off. Up hill, down dale, over seven times seven mountains the wolf galloped, and at last they came to another forest and there the fool sees stone stables with horses in them. The horses begin to neigh.
The wolf says, “Go to that stable over there, get the first horse you see by the mane but don’t touch the halter, and lead him away.”
The fool did as he was told. He came up to the stable, reached out but instead of grabbing the horse’s mane, he got hold of the halter, and immediately the horse’s harness goes, “Ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling,” and out rush the guards from their hiding and seize the fool.
“What did you want to do?” they ask.
“I wanted to steal this horse,” says the fool.
“You can have the horse,” they say, “if you bring us a beautiful maiden who lives in the back of beyond in an oak grove.”
The fool returns to the waiting wolf who asks him,
“Where is the horse?”
“No horse,” says the man.
“All right, climb on to my back and we’ll go.”
Off they ride. Up hill, down dale, through seven times seven forests, the wolf galloped, and at last they see an oak grove on the top of a hill with a maiden walking in it. They come closer and the fool sees that the maiden has a little girl, her servant, walking by her side.
“Now,” says the wolf, “go over to that maiden and tell her that you are very thirsty. Ask her to send that girl servant to fetch some water for you, and the moment the servant leaves, take her up in your arms, carry her off and bring her here.”
The fool walks over to the maiden and says, “Dear lady, I’m very thirsty. Could you send this servant of yours to fetch some water for me?”
The maiden invited the fool to go with her to her house where he can slake his thirst, but the fool refuses to go saying it’s not fitting for him to do so. “Please send this little servant of yours for water.”
The maiden does so and the fool, without wasting any time, takes her up in his arms and carries her back to the wolf. The moment the fool clambers on to the wolf’s back with the maiden in his arms, the wolf starts running faster than fast. Up hill, down dale, over seven times seven mountains, through seven times seven forests, the wolf galloped, and at last they come to the place where the half-silver, half-gold horse is. The wolf tells the fool, “Now I shall turn myself into the likeness of a maiden, you take me by the hand and lead me to those guards who watch over the horse. When they let have the horse, leave and ride away taking this road that leads to the place where the Firebird is. Don’t worry about me — I’ll catch up with you later.”
The fool did as he was told. The wolf turned himself into a maiden; the fool led her to the guards and they let him have the horse in exchange for the maiden. Then the fool put the maiden that he had carried away from the grove on the horse, climbed behind her and off they went.
The guards, happy to have the girl which the wolf had turned himself into, brought apples, berries and other dainties and gave them to her to eat. When the girl-wolf has had her fill, he-she says, “Let me go for a walk, please.”
The guards let her go and no sooner had the maiden come out of the stable, she turned back into the wolf who made a break for it and headed for the hills. He ran so fast that the guards immediately lost sight of him, only the billows of dust could be seen in his wake.
The wolf catches up with the fool close to the place where the Firebird is and says to the fool, “Now I’ll turn myself into the likeness of a half-silver, half-gold horse and you exchange this horse for the Firebird. The moment you get the Firebird, return to your horse with the maiden on it, and ride back to the place where you parted with your brothers, and once there wait for me. But make sure you don’t fall asleep. If you do, your brothers will kill you.”
The fool did as he was told to do. The moment he got the Firebird, he ran back to his horse with the maiden on it and rode away like an arrow from a bow.
He comes to the place where the three milestones stand and three roads converge into one. He climbs down from the horse, takes down the maiden and lets the horse go to graze. The Firebird in the cage sings, the fool lies down on the grass and closes his eyes. The maiden begs him not to fall asleep, “If you do, your brothers will kill both me and you.”
But the fool cannot stay awake and falls into a deep slumber. At that moment, two men on horseback come into sight. The maiden tries to wake the fool up but he sleeps so fast she fails to rouse him from his slumber. The two riders come quite close. “Look,” says one of them, “isn’t it our brother the fool sleeping over there? Let’s kill him, take that beautiful maiden and that cage with the bird in it, and ride away with them!”
They killed their brother in his sleep, took away the cage with the bird in it, put the maiden on the horse and rode off. When the wolf comes at last to the place where the fool is lying on the ground, he sees that a magpie has already begun pecking at the dead fool, and a viper has begun sucking his blood. The wolf kills the viper, catches the magpie and says, “If you bring me some healing and resurrecting water, I won’t kill you.”
“I know where to find it but in what can I bring some of this water to you?”
The wolf used tree leaves to make two receptacles, tied them to the magpie’s feet and then let it go. On the noon of the next day the magpie returns with the water. The wolf poured the healing water over the fool’s wounds and the wounds healed; then he poured the resurrecting water over him and he came back to life.
“I’ve been sleeping for so long,” exclaims the fool as soon as he opens his eyes.
“If it were not for me, you’d be sleeping until the end of time,” says the wolf. “Climb on to my back fast and we’ll ride to the palace where your elder brother is going to take the beautiful maiden as wife.”
Off they rode and soon arrived at the palace. There stands a coach with the half-silver, half-gold horse harnessed to it right, in front of the main entrance. The moment the horse saw the fool, it rushed towards him pulling the coach behind itself. The moment it saw the fool the Firebird broke the window, flew out and perched on the fool’s shoulder.
The door opens and out comes the maiden, all in tears, the fool’s brother following her. They are on their way to be wed in church. The moment the maiden sees the fool she rushes over to him, crying, “Here’s the one who has kidnapped me and I shall marry only him.”
The Tsar, the fool’s father, is also there. He looks at what is going on and cannot make head or tail of it. The fool tells him the whole truth about what has happened. The Tsar says then, “You can do whatever you want with your brothers.” But the fool takes no vengeance on them and lets them be. He marries the beautiful maiden and orders to have a whole ram baked for the wolf.
That’s a tale for you and if you have liked it, you can give me a handful of bagels for me to munch on while I’m thinking of another story to tell you.
Art by Oleksandr Melnyk