At the eastern rim of the world once lay a land that was swathed in gloom. Unmoving, oppressive curtains of cloud overhung its fields and hills, shutting out all sight of the sky. No breeze bent the branches of its trees or set the flowers nodding. No animals moved in the pastures or woods, no birds sang in the hedgerows. The place was caught in a web of night and sleep, deathīs second self.
At the center of this land, hidden by draperies of mist, stood a palace, silent and clothed in blackness. And in a courtyard of the palace, on a bed of flowers that were as stiffly ornamental as the flowers on a tapestry, lay a pale, fair woman, the ruler of the benighted country. She wore the embroidered robes and trailing headdress of a Russian princess. Her eyes were closed, and her breast rose and fell in the slow rhythm of the sleeper.
How long she had lain thus enspelled, no one could say, but all knew how she was freed. One night a ribbon of fire arched over the shadowy kingdom, scattering stars in its wake. It curved across the sky, burst through the clouds, then - slowing suddenly - touched down in the courtyard that held the Princess. Blazing light danced on the walls and sparked from a thousand surfaces. The woman opened her eyes: The ritual of awakening had begun.
The Firebird stood beside her, filling the courtyard with its coruscation, and on its back, among the shining feathers, a man rode. Summoned and aided by the Firebird, he had come to free the maiden - as had been prophesied at his birth.
When the man dismounted, the Firebird rose into the air, lifting ever higher in a roar of wings, tearing again through the veil of the clouds with its aura of heat and light, and passing out of view. A single shimmering feather drifted down into the flowers, but neither the man nor the woman paid it any heed. They had eyes only for each other, lovers at the beginning of their joy.
After the Firebird disappeared, the clouds began to part and melt away. Behind them, the sky was rosy. Somewhere in the garden of the palace, a bird caroled to greet the dawn.
The lovers had only a day together. Late in the afternoon, when darkness - natural darkness - made shadows in the garden, the young man fell. Caught in midsentence, he whitened, trembled, gasped once and dropped to the ground, where he lay still and pale as the dead.
The Princess long wept over him, then wandered distraught through the palace, stumbling against objects in the blackness, but caring nothing of pain. The courtyard seemed to call her back to her death-sleep, but before she lay on the bier of flowers, a gleam caught her eye. It was the Firebirdīs feather. She picked it up and warmed her hands on it.
After a time, wings flamed overhead, and the palace again filled with the Firebirdīs brilliance: The great bird had been summoned by the Princessīs hand on its feather. It alighted near her and, with an inclination of its head, indicated dumbly that she should mount.
As soon as the Princess had nestled among the warm feathers, she was aloft. The bird took her high, beating steadily through the night sky in its own envelope of radiance. Such was the dazzle that the Princess saw neither the stars above nor the land far below. Then she felt the wings slow their beating. The ground became visible and lifted up to them, a desolate landscape of scarps and canyons and boulder-strewn hillsides. The Firebird settled at the foot of a cliff, and the shadows that had been flung crazily across the rocky terrain by its flight now grew still. Then the bird bent its head toward an opening in the cliff - a cave.
The Princess peered in and saw that it was occupied. A gaunt woman, robed in black, was chanting incantations over a fire that seemed not to be a fire but a smoky heap of blackened ice. A bubbling cauldron rested on it.
As the Princess stared at the woman and her vessel, memories began to stir. She recalled herself as a girl in the palace, playing in halls that were filled with sunlight by day and that shimmered with firelight and candle flame by night. She recalled a dark sister who roamed those same halls, but who favored shadow and gloom. She recalled the sisterīs air of deepening hatred and the hours her sister spent studying dusty tomes and acquiring the lore of strange women and black-featured men who had somehow learned of her interests. She recalled the day that the sister gave herself to darkness, to become a night hag and cast the spell of sleep on the land. This was the author of her grief.
The Princess reacted at once and without thought. She ran into the cavern and kicked the caldron from the fire. From the splashing liquid sprang a ruby jewel, shaped in the form of a heart. The Princess caught and clasped it in her hands. (Some storytellers said that the object was a living heart.) At this, the night witch screamed once, then vanished.
Outside the cavern, the Firebird still waited. She settled between its wings once again, holding in her hand the ruby heart that the witch had used to cast a spell upon her lover.
So the sun-birdīs tale had a happy ending: The maiden found her Prince alive, she wed him, and high over their heads on their wedding day, the Firebird soared and tumbled, like a star or lesser sun.
The picture and the story can be found in the book "Magical Beasts", from the Time-Life Series "Enchanted World" © 1985, pages 84-87.