In Russian folklore, The Firebird can see the future. The capture of the Firebird may be a blessing or a curse…
There were three 19th century houses, a block away from my own, which once belonged to the merchant Agafourov.
The first of these boasted an intricate wooden design; another – an oriental style with luminous, stained-glass windows; and the third one was low, with yellow shutters and a squeaking ancient gate, inviting you into the past.
A sculpture of a Firebird was rumoured to splash gold rays from its wings in one of those houses. But one day it had flown away in the bag of a robber.
In autumn, the yards of these houses were strewn with leaves and clothed with memory. In winter, they seemed crusted with diamonds, each snowflake sparking with a flame.
Playing in those yards and being new to the world, in which so much had risen and fallen, we seemed aware of the passing epochs – of Empires and Regimes – of the mystical ripples in time, which carrying all things away also carried us forward.
My companions and I were lucky children at the time. We hadn’t tasted loss, or horror, and weren’t yet intimate with grief.
As we sat on the porch of a house marvelling the moon, a new feeling joined us, and we suddenly grew quiet.
Someone invisible had tiptoed upon us, not yet letting itself known, but warning, “One day you will learn who I am. You will be scorched by pain and heartbreak; your bones will crack under old age. You will never be as carefree as you are now.”
We asked each other,
“Sasha – what do you think losing someone dear is like?”
“Nastya, have you ever cried for real?”
“Yanna, do you think that first love hurts – like when my sister cried after Vasyli gave her a slap and then a kiss?”
A chilly wind swept over us and seemed to open a new page of our collective destinies – intersecting at this moment, then scattering around the world. We cringed at what we saw there: the prologue of our adult lives.
We glanced up at the moon again, and I (Nastya) said, “Yesterday I tried to read Dostoyevsky. It was something about the Devil.”
Was that the presence which we felt?
Tolya remarked, “My mother says we won’t understand these books. You need some life experience to read Dostoyevsky; to have suffered a bit first.”
“Yes,” Sasha, who had a secret crush on Tolya, agreed, “Love stories are a load of baloney, until you’ve been in love yourself.”
There was a vast, suspenseful freedom in knowing, “We’re not at the age when Love or the Devil has any influence on us.”
Our minds weren’t yet littered with prejudice or skewed conceptions of the world, which would undermine our dreams.
Our hearts were unscarred with hatred or the fire of revenge.
We had just hatched into the world, and the flowing clouds above us were unblemished like our souls.
Indeed, it was the time when we thought that souls existed.
A few weeks later Sasha’s grandfather died.
Tolya had a nervous breakdown. He’d been beaten by a new classmate’s father – a bandit – who came in the middle of recess to threaten the boy whom his son disliked.
Yanna’s fate is unknown to me – dissolved into myriad possibilities at the mercy of statistics.
I’ve read most of Dostoyevsky.
That night near Agafourov houses, we were joined by Hope that our lives could be happy, and by a timeless mystery of whether Fate had the same plan.
What fearless children we were to laugh on that cold night!
Be also fearless for children – no matter their plight, background, or ethnicity.
You hold the wings of their fates – tender and trembling – in your hands.
May you guide their dreams to flight, dazzling as the Firebird.