Once there was a youth, an only child of a wealthy merchant, a CEO-prototype, whose spouse died at an early age. The youth was put in the hands of a tutor. After some years, the parent remarried as the youth came of age. The stepparent was not unaware of the youth who was quite fine to behold, magnetically attractive, and alluring as innocence calls to experience. The stepparent even began to long for this youth.
One day the youth went out fishing, accompanied by the tutor. While at sea, while trolling the deep waters, they were approached by a fleet of thirty boats. On one of the boats there was the ruler of another land. The ruler’s attendants summoned the youth and the tutor. When the youth came before the ruler, who was a perfect match for the youth, who was in fact all the youth could dream for in a lover, a breath-taking presence, that ruler declared to the youth, “I have traveled far to tell you of my love for you and, if you are willing, to pledge with you my intention to marry.” The youth was overwhelmed but managed to convey agreement. It was the dream come true! They made arrangements to meet the next day at the same time and the same place.
When the youth and tutor returned home, the youth wandered in a daze off to bed, too overwhelmed for dinner. The stepparent noticed this strange behavior, frowned at the lovesick look, and called the tutor. When in private, the stepparent demanded, “Tell me all that happened while you were fishing.” With the help of alcoholic beverages, the tutor complied. The stepparent gave these instructions: “Tomorrow when you see the boats approaching, stick this pin into my child’s tunic. Do not remove it until the boats have departed. If you fail, it will be your neck on a platter. Do you understand?” The tutor was not too drunk to comprehend and said, “As you wish.”
The next day, the youth and tutor went again to sea, looking eagerly for the fleet, for love. When the boats were dots on the horizon of sight, the tutor stuck the pin into the youth. The youth said, “I am suddenly so tired. I will take a little nap, but be sure to wake me when they’re here.”
The boats arrived and attendants tried to rouse the youth but were unsuccessful. The ruler instructed the tutor to tell the youth that they would return the next day at the same time. When they were almost out of sight, the tutor removed the pin and the youth awoke, expecting to see the boats approaching. But they were disappearing over the far rim of water and sky! The youth called “Come back!” but they were gone. The tutor consoled the youth that perhaps they could try again the next day.
When they arrived home, the youth disconsolately went to bed. The tutor reported to the stepparent. The stepparent nodded and said to do the same the next day. And so it was. And again the following day. But on that visit, the ruler having discovered what the tutor was doing, presented a sealed letter. Before departing from the sleeping youth, the ruler directed the tutor to give the letter to the youth upon awaking. Then the fleet sailed away. They sailed away. The beloved sailed away.
When the tutor removed the pin and the youth cried out, the tutor delivered the letter. The youth opened it and read, “I am sailing away to my home that is beyond the thrice ninth sea in the thrice tenth realm. If you love your betrothed, come for me there. And by the way, first, cut off your tutor’s head.”
Oh, what would you do? What should one do?
Well, the youth drew the saber, cut off the tutor’s head, sailed home, packed up, and set off without saying any farewells. The youth left all for the thrice tenth realm, having little or no idea where that lay.
Now the travels may have been long or they may have been short for slowly a work is done while speedily a tale is spun. One day the youth, the searcher, who is not quite so young as before, approached the edge of a woods where there was a clearing, the threshold kind of a place, the place where it’s good to pause and note the edge before going on. For the edge is where the shy—sometimes the fearsome—mostly invisible forms can sometimes be seen. By respecting this threshold, seen across the clearing stood a hut. The hut poised on one chicken leg and the door was facing away. The youth called out, “Little hut, little hut, turn the way you stood in the old days.”
And the hut hopped around on the one leg until the doorway opened before the youth. From the doorway came a cackling sort of voice, the kind that raises the hair on the back of your neck and makes your legs shake and every impulse in your body says to run the other way. And if it hadn’t been for the search for the beloved most surely the youth would have done so. The voice calls out “Fie! Fie! It’s long since I’ve had such a smell of a youth. Far too long. Yum. Yum. Tell me, my good youth, are you here because you have to or because you want to? Has someone made you do this? Or are you here by your own free will?”
And what do you suppose the youth must say if ever the beloved is to be found?
Might the youth say, “Oh, I’m here because I want to be . . .”? The lip-smacking hut-dweller loves to hear that for it’s license to gobble up the naïve youth. But through the vicissitudes of the journey, this traveler was no longer a naïve youth. Innocent youth had been sacrificed for the demands of love. This search for the beloved had required that living by desire had gradually burned away through the hard work of the journey. Through the suffering endured, the traveler had made connection with the soul of the world which demands discipline beyond immediate gratification, and willingness to sacrifice the personal for the good of the community.
A few times this traveler had, teeth-clenched, persisted on this trail, following work after work instead of work in pursuit of love. On that hard line, which was really off the true path, finally the traveler had looked ahead and seen where workers had just burned out. So the traveler had also learned the limits of that other absolute answer; the traveler learned that to say without qualification, “I’m here because I have to be” makes one prey to burn-out because it breaks contact with the personal soul, with the water of life that replenishes the losses from the work of the world.
The youth, who may well be an older traveler by now, has probably been devoured enough times to have learned that such questions are traps. So this traveler says something like, “Ah, well, I’m here mostly because I have to be and about three times as much because I want to be.” The ravenous interrogator furrows its brow and shakes its head at such a response trying to make sense of what to do. So the traveler continues, “Tell me, do you know where the thrice tenth realm could be found?”
The hut-dweller mumbles, “No, I do not, but my next of kin might. Keep on in the way you were headed.”
So the traveler goes on and in the time it takes finds another hut similar to the one just left. Again, the hut is asked to turn and the voice crackles out, “Fie! Fie! It’s long since I’ve had such a smell of a youth. I have not seen or heard one of your kind here in a long, long time. What are you doing? Tell me, my good youth, are you here of compulsion or by your own desire?”
But the traveler knows this device and says, “Yes, 78.77% because I have to be and the square of pi because I want to be. Now where is the realm beyond the thrice ninth sea?”
Confused, or perhaps secretly pleased that such a one has indeed come this way, the hut-dweller says, “Don’t know but our youngest might. Now if you find that hut, you’ll be in special danger of being eaten and nothing that you say will suffice. So ask for three horns. Blow the first one normal, the next one harder, and the third with your best blast. Go on now before I change my mood.”
The traveler moves on and indeed finds that next hut in whatever time it takes, a blink of an eye or a long sojourn. The hut turns upon demand and the same greeting, more or less, comes out, electric in the air. The traveler responds much as before and the hut-dweller rushes to another chamber from which can be heard the sound of teeth being filed to a bone-severing sharpness. The traveler shouts, “Can I have the three horns?” They are immediately at hand. Each is blown according to the instructions.
And as the third horn sounds with the best blast, into the hut burst all manner of birds. Among them is the firebird. The firebird says to that horn blower, “Jump on my back and I’ll take you where you wish. No time. The razor-toothed one is rushing back.”
Do you get on? At times like this, courage and necessity are one. The traveler is on, of course. The firebird’s wings ignite and they’re off. But the razor-edged one leaps after and rips away a handful of tail feathers from the firebird. Yet the firebird tears free. Then there’s the firebird flight! Perhaps music tells that tale for it soars above the reach of words.
Until the firebird lands at the edge of a vast sea. “The thrice-tenth realm lies across this water and I’m not strong enough to carry you any further.” Such passion burns with the firebird, especially with a few tail feathers torn, yet that can only go so far. So the traveler has come so close; yet the beloved is still unattained, is still across the deep sea.
So the traveler wanders on the shore until a cottage comes in view. On knocking, the resonant question comes, “Who are you and where are you bound?”
With hard-earned clarity, “I’m in search of my beloved who lives across this sea.”
“Ah, I’ve heard of you. Well, your beloved no longer cares for you. In fact, your beloved has hidden that once-held love for you. Who knows where? And your long-ago beloved will now eat you up if given half a chance.”
“Oh, but what can I do? I’ve come so far.” The traveler weeps.
“Well, my youngest works at the court across the sea. I’m expecting a visit.” And with that, the host turns the traveler into a pin and puts it in the wall safely out of sight, completely quiet, but ready to hear all that may be said.
Soon enough, the visit is made and the host asks, “Do you know where your ruler has hidden the love for that once-beloved?” And the answer is that such is not known but discrete inquiries will be made.
Not too much later, or as long as it takes—maybe even seven years, maybe it’s the still devotion of remembrance, then another visit is paid. And then the quite attentive pin can now hear that the beloved’s love is on this side of the sea in an oak, in a box, a treasure-chest casket that’s in the tree, in a hare inside the box, in a duck inside the hare, in an egg inside the duck. Inside the egg is hidden the beloved’s love.
When the visitor has gone, the traveler is recovered from the pin. The traveler thanks the host and searches once more. The oak is found and inside the oak is the chest or coffin and inside the chest is the hare and inside the hare is the duck and inside the duck is the egg. The traveler takes the egg and goes back to the cottage.
The host says, “Ah, very good. In a few days is my birthday. The ruler and the thirty attendants will surely come.”
On that day, a fine feast is prepared. The traveler is dressed in fine array and hidden away. The guests, including, of course, the once-beloved ruler of the thrice-tenth realm, fly into the cottage and partake of the feast. Then for dessert, the host serves baked eggs. The one from the oak is served to the beloved ruler. After taking in what was within that egg, the ruler wipes away any crumbs and remembers, recovers that hot passionate fire, love.
The ruler asks “Where is that one I love?” The host summons the traveler who comes in, as we know, dressed in excellent attire.
Well, I hardly need tell you what comes next. They embrace, of course. It extends again well beyond the language of words. The whole room is almost ablaze. What a marriage comes next! What a king and queen are made! And the wedding feast!
Remember? Weren’t you there? I was. I think. But perhaps I had too much to eat. Or to drink. And I must’ve gotten kicked out. For there they are par excellent—and here I am without a cent.
Alexander Afanas’ev (Collected by). Norman Guterman, Trans., Russian Fairy Tales. NY: Pantheon Books, 1945. “The Maiden Tsar,” pp. 229-234.
Bly, R., & Woodman, M. The Maiden King:The Reunion of Masculine & Feminine. NY: Henry Holt, 1998.
Meade, M. Men and the Water of Life. “The Firebird,” p., 209-. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.