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The Dancing Fire-Maid

2006-07-13 23:38

  A party of prospectors were once sitting round a fire in the woods. Four were men grown, the fifth was a boy. About eight he was, not more. Fedyunka, they called him.

  It was long past the hour for sleep, but the talk was interesting. There was an old man in the artel, you see - Grandad Yefim. Ever since he was young he'd been getting grains of gold from the earth, and many's the strange thing he's seen and heard. So he told them this and that, and they all listened.

  Fedyunka's father kept saying: “You ought to go to bed.” But the boy wanted to hear more.

  “Just a bit longer, Father! I just want to stop a bit more!”

  Well…… Grandad Yefim finished the tale he was telling. The fire was only embers now and they all sat looking into them.

  Suddenly a tiny little maid jumped out of the very middle - just like a doll, she was, but alive. Her hair was red, her sarafan blue, and she held a blue kerchief in her hand.

  She looked round at them merrily and her teeth shone white. Then she put one hand on her hip, raised the blue kerchief with the other and began to dance. And how light and pretty it was, is more than I can tell you. The miners held their breath. They looked at her and felt they could never tire of looking. But they said no word, just as though they were in deep thought.

  First the maid circled on the embers, but that space was too small for her, she danced in a wider circle. The miners moved back to make room for her, and as she made another circle she grew a little bigger. The miners moved back again. She danced another circle and grew bigger yet. And when they were a long way back from the fire, she danced in between them and wove round them in loops. And then she went right outside and whirled round in a smooth circle again, and now she was as big as Fedyunka. She stopped by a tall fir tree, stamped her foot, her teeth shone, she flourished her kerchief and gave a shrill whistle: “Fi-i-it - iu-u-u!”

  Then an owl hooted and seemed to laugh, and the maid was gone.

  If it had been only grown men there, maybe that would have been the end of it. Each of them would have thought: “That's what comes of looking at the fire too long. You get dazed with it. Queer, the things you can see when you're tired.

  But Fedyunka didn't think that way, he asked his father: “Dad, who was that?”

  “An owl,” the man answered. “What d'ye think? Never heard an owl hoot before?”

  “I don't mean the owl, I know owl and I don't fear them a mite. But who was that maid?”

  “What maid?”

  “Why, the one that danced on the embers. You moved back to give her room and so did all the others.”

  Then Fedyunka's father and the other men started asking him what he'd seen, and the boy told them. One man even asked: “How big was she?”

  “At first she was only as big as my finger, but at the end she was nearly as big as I am.”

  Then the miner said: “I saw the same marvel as you, Fedyunka.” And the father and the others said the same. Only Grandad Yefim sucked at his pipe and said no word. So the miners started asking him.

  “And you, Grandad, what d'ye say about this?”

  “What I say is, I saw the same, and I thought it was all fancy. But it looks like the Dancing Fire-Maid's paid us a visit.”

  “What Fire-Maid?”

  Then Grandad Yefim told them all about it.

  “I once heard tell from old folks that it's a sign of gold - a tiny maid that dances. If the Dancer shows herself there's gold in that place. It's not big nuggets, and it's not veins, it's in nests, like horseradishers in the ground. They're wider at the top and as ye go down the gold gets less and less till there's no more of it. Dig out that radish of gold dust and then let the place alone for ye'll find no more there. They only thing is, I can't mind if ye have to look for it where the Dancer first appears or where she goes back into the ground.”

  “We'll soon settle that,” said the men. “We'll drive a shaft down in the morn where the fire is, and after that we'll try under that pine. Then we'll see if it's just tales you're telling us, or if there's truth in it.”

  After that they settled down to sleep. Fedyunka curled up too, but he kept thinking: What did the owl laugh at? He wanted to ask Grandad Yefim, but the old man was already snoring.

  Fedyunka woke up late the next morning and saw a big hole where the fire had been. The miners were standing under four big pines, all four saying the same thing - “She went down here!”

  “Nay, you're all wrong!” Fedyunka shouted. “You've forgotten! It was by this pine the Dancer stopped. And there was where she stamped her foot.”

  Well, that put the miners in real maze. “A fifth one's woken up and now there's a fifth place. And if there were ten of us, there'd be ten places. We're just wasting our time. Better let it alone.”

  All the same, they tried all five places but got naught from it. And Grandad Yefim said to Fedyunka: “Looks like we're out o'luck.”

  The boy didn't like that at all.

  “It's the owl spoiled everything,” he said. “He hooted and laughed out fortune away.”

  “Nay,” said Grandad Yefim, “the owl had naught to do with it.”

  “He had!”

  “Nay, not he.”

  “He had!”

  They went on that way till the others laughed at the two of them and at themselves to boot.

  “Old 'un and young 'un, neither knows, and here we are standing like fools, losing the whole day harkening to 'em!”

  From that time folks nicknamed the old man Yefim Gold Radish and the boy Fedyunka Fire-Dancer.

  The village children got to know and gave the boy no peace.

  “Fedyunka Fire-Dancer! Fedyunka Fire-Dancer! Tell us about the Fire-Maid!”

  Little the old man cared what they called him. They could call him kettle so long as they didn't put him on the fire. But Fedyunka was a boy, he didn't like them making mock of him. He quarreled and he fought, and more than once he cried, but the children only jeered the more, he'd no peace or rest. He hated going home. And then something else happened. His father wed again. And the stepmother was as savage as a she-bear. So he'd no home you could call home at all.

  Grandad Yefim didn't often come back from the gold-fields either. He'd be tired after the week's work, he'd no wish to make his old legs do more. And he'd no one awaiting him, he lived alone. So when Saturday came and the others went to the village, the old man and the boy used to stop there together.

  What did they do with themselves? Well, they'd talk about this and that. Grandad Yefim told Fedyunka about all he'd seen and heard, and taught him the signs that show gold - things of that sort. They'd remember the Fire-Maid too. All as nice and friendly as you please. There was only one thing they couldn't agree on. Fedyunka said it was the owl's fault they'd found no gold, and Grandad Yefim said the owl had naught to do with it.

  One time they got to arguing about it again. It was a still day, the sun was in the sky, but they'd made a fire by the hut - not so much a fire as a smudge to keep the mosquitoes off. Just a tiny bit of flame but plenty of smoke. Well, as they looked at it, a tiny little maid appeared in the smoke. Just like the one they'd seen that other time, only her sarafan was darker and her kerchief too. She looked at them with merry eyes. Her teeth gleamed, she flourished her kerchief and began to dance.

  First she made a small circle, then it got bigger and bigger and she began to grow too. The hut was in her way but it didn't hinder her. She danced right through it as though it wasn't there at all. Round and round she went, and when she got as big as Fedyunka she stopped under a big pine. She laughed, stamped her foot, flourished her kerchief and gave a whistle: “Fi-i-it - iu-u-u!”

  And at once an owl hooted and laughed. Granddad Yefim was amazed.

  “What's an owl doing here, with the sun still high?”

  “You'll see! That owl's frightened our luck away again. Mebbe it's that owl the Dancer ran from.”

  “Why, did you see the Dancer?”

  “Why, didn't you see her?”

  They started asking each other what they'd seen and they found it was just the same, except for the place where the Fire-Maid had stamped, and there they'd seen her under different pines.

  When they got to that, Grandad Yefim sighed.

  “Eh-heh-heh! Seems like it was naught after all. Just our fancy.”

  Almost before he'd said it, smoke came curling out under the turf that roofed the hut. They dashed in and found the pole that supported it all smouldering. By good fortune they'd got water near. So they soon put it out. There was nothing damaged save Grandad's mittens, they were burned a bit. And when Fedyunka picked them up he found the holes burned in them were just the shape of tiny feet. He showed this marvel to Grandad Yefim.

  “Mebbe ye'll say that's just fancy too?”

  Well, Yefim could find no word to say against that.

  “Ye're right, Fedyunka. It's a true token - the Fire-Maid was here. We'll have to dig in the morn, try our luck.”

  They spent Sunday on that work. They dug three holes but not a sign of gold did they find. Grandad Yefim complained: “Our fortune's but a mockery.”

  Fedyunka blamed the owl again.

  “That pop-eye hooted and laughed our luck away. I wish I could get at him with a stick!”

  On Monday morning the miners came back from the village and saw fresh-dug holes right by the hut. They guessed the case at once, and laughed at the old man.

  “Our Radish has been digging radishes!”

  Then they saw there'd been the beginning of a fire in the hut and changed over to storming at the two. Fedyunka's father rushed at the boy like a bear and was just going to beat him, but Grandad Yefim held his hand.

  “Shame on ye, to beat a boy! As it is he's afeard to go home, for he's jeered at and hounded right and left. And is the fault his? I stopped here, blame me if ye've lost aught. I must ha' knocked out my pipe before it was dead, and that started the fire. The fault was mine, let the blame he mine too.”

  Aye, he chided Fedyunka's father. But later, when none were by, he said to the boy: “Eh, Fedyunka lad, she's laughing at us, that Dancer. If we see her again we'd best just spit in her face. Why must she lead folks astray and make them a laughing-stock!”

  But Fedyunka still kept stubbornly to his way. “She doesn't do it a-purpose, Grandad. It's the owl hinders her.”

  “Have it your own way.” Yefim growled, “I'm not digging any more holes. I'm done wi' that foolishness. I'm not a lad to go chasing after your dancer.”

  The old man went on growling, but Fedyunka was sorry for the Fire-Maid.

  “Don't be angry with her, Grandad. Look how jimp and pretty she is. She'd show us our fortune if the owl didn't stop her.”

  Grandad Yefim said naught about the owl, but he kept growling about the Dancer.

  “A fine fortune she's given us! We're ashamed to go home, even.”

  However much Grandad growled, Fedyunka stuck to his own way.

  “But how pretty she is when she dances, Grandad!”

  “She dances pretty all right, but what good is that to us? I've no mind to look at her, even.”

  “Well, I'd watch her now if I could,” sighed Fedyunka, and then he asked: “An you, Grandad - would ye turn your back? Doesn't she gladden your eyes?”

  “Of course she does.” It just slipped out of the old man, but then he stopped himself and began scolding Fedyunka. “A stubborn lad ye are, real stubborn. Get something in your head, and there's no getting it out! Ye'll be the same as me, go chasing after fortune your whole life long, and mebbe it's just a will-o'-the-wisp, naught else.”

  “How could there be naught when I've seen her myself?”

  “Well, chase after it all ye want, but I stop quiet. I've chased enough. My legs ache wi' it.”

  They might argue all they would but they stayed good friends. At work Grandad Yefim taught Fedyunka, showed him all the ways of it, and when they were resting, told him stories of things he'd seen and done. Well, he just taught him how to live. And the best days were when they were alone at the gold-field.

  Winter drove the miners home. The bailiff gave them other work to do till spring, all but Fedyunka, he was still too young so he was left at home. But life at home wasn't honey. And then came fresh trouble - his father was hurt at the iron works, so they took him to the sick-house. He lay there like dead. And then the stepmother got worse than ever, she gave the boy no peace day or night. He bore it as long as he could, then he said: “I'm going to live with Grandad Yefim.”

  What did she care? “Get out, then! She screamed. ”Go to your Dancer if ye want!“

  So Fedyunka put on his felt boots and fastened his thin sheepskin tightly round him. He wanted to take his father's warm cap, but his stepmother wouldn't give it him, so he put on his own though it was much too small for him, and went.

  As soon as he showed his nose outside the children came running after him, mocking him.

  “Fedyunka Fire-Dancer! Fedyunka Fire-Dancer! Tell us about the Fire-Maid.”

  Fedyunka just went straight on. All he said was: “Eh, rattlepates!”

  Then the children got a bit ashamed, and they asked him, quite friendly: “Where are you going?”

  “To Grandad Yefim.”

  “Golden Radish?”

  “Some call him Radish. I call him Grandad.”

  “It's a long way. You'll get lost.”

  “I know the path.”

  “Then you'll freeze. It's cold and you've no mittens.”

  “I've no mittens but I've got hands and I've got sleeves. Push my hands up my sleeves and they'll be warm. Didn't think o'that, did ye?”

  The boys liked the way Fedyunka talked to them and they began asking him again, but without any mockery: “Fedyunka, did you really see that Dancer in the fire?”

  “I saw her in the fire and I saw her in the smoke,” said Fedyunka. “Mebbe I'll see her again somewhere, but I've no time to tell you about it all now.” And he went his way.

  Grandad Yefim used to live at Kossoi Brod, or maybe it was Severnaya. His hut was right at the edge of the hamlet, they say. And there was an old pine growing in front of the window. It was a long way, and bitter cold, the very middle of winter. Our Fedyunka was soon frozen to the bone. But he kept right on till he got there. He was just going to lift the latch when he suddenly heard: “Fi-i-it - iu-u-u!”

  He looked round and saw a little flurry of snow on the road, and a snowball in the middle of it; ad that snowball looked like the dancer. Fedyunka ran closer to take a look, but before he got to the spot it was far away. He ran after it, but it went farther. So he kept running after the snowball till he got to a place he didn't know at all. It was a sort of glade, with the forest thick all round. In the middle of the glade stood a birch tree, very old, it seemed quite dead. The snow had drifted high all round it. The snowball rolled up to that tree and started circling round it.

  Fedyunka was so eager he never noticed there was no path, he waded through the deep snow. I've gone so far, he thought, I'm not turning back now.

  He got to the birch tree and the snowball fell apart, filling his eyes with snowdust.

  Fedyunka could have cried with anger. But suddenly the snow melted round his feet and left a hollow. And at the bottom of that hollow he saw the Dancer. She gave him a merry look and kind smile, then she flourished her kerchief and began to dance, and the snow melted in front of her. Wherever her foot fell there was green grass and flowers.

  She danced round in a circle and Fedyunka felt quite warm; she kept making the circle wider and wider, and growing all the time, and the patch of grass and flowers grew too. Leaves were rustling in the birch tree. And the Fire-Maid danced all the faster and began to sing.

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