Once upon a time very long ago there was an orphan girl named Maryushka. She was a quiet, modest, and gentle maiden. None could embroider as beautifully as she. She worked with colored silks and glass beads, making for one a shirt, for another a towel, or a pretty sash. And she was always content with the money she received, however small.
The fame of her skill reached the ears of merchants beyond the seas. From near and far they came to see her marvelous work. They gazed and were amazed, for they never thought to find anything so beautiful. One after another, they tried to persuade Maryushka to come away with them, promising her riches and glory. But she would only lower her eyes and reply modestly: “Riches I do not need and I shall never leave the village where I was born. But of course I will sell my work to all who find it beautiful.” And with that, although they were disappointed, the merchants had to be content. They left, spreading the story of her skill to the ends of the earth, until one day it reached the ear of the wicked sorcerer Kaschei the Immortal, who raged to learn that there was such beauty in the world which he had never seen.
So he took the form of a handsome youth and flew over the deep oceans, the tall mountains and the impassable forests until he came to Maryushka’s cottage.
He knocked at the door and bowed low to her, as was the custom. Then he asked to see the needlework she had completed. Maryushka set out shirts, towels, handkerchiefs and veils, each more beautiful than the other. “Kind sir,” said she, “whatever pleases you, you may take. If you have no money now, you may pay me later, when you have money to spare. And if my work should not find favor in your eyes, please counsel me and tell me what to do, and I shall try my best.”
Her kind words and the sight of all that beauty made Kaschei even angrier. How could it be that a simple country girl could fashion things finer than he, the great Kaschei the Immortal, himself possessed? And he took his most cunning tones and he said: “Come with me, Maryushka, and I will make you Queen. You will live in a palace built of precious jewels. You will eat off gold and sleep on eiderdown. You will walk in an orchard where birds of paradise sing sweet songs, and golden apples grow.”
“Do not speak so,” answered Maryushka. “I need neither your riches nor your strange marvels. There is nothing sweeter than the fields and woods where one was born. Never shall I leave this village where my parents lie buried and where live those to whom my needlework brings joy. I shall never embroider for you alone.”
Kaschei was furious at this answer. His face grew dark and he cried, “Because you are so loath to leave your kindred, a bird you shall be, and no more a maiden fair.”
And in an instant a Firebird flapped its wings where Maryushka had stood. Kaschei became a great black Falcon and soared into the skies to swoop down on the Firebird. Grasping her tight in his cruel talons, he carried her high above the clouds.
As soon as Maryushka felt the power in those steel claws and realized she was being taken away, she resolved to leave a last memory of herself.
She shed her brilliant plumage, and feather after feather floated down on meadow and forest. The mischievous wind covered the feathers with grass and leaves, but nothing could rob them of their glowing rainbow colors.
As the feathers fell, Maryushka’s strength ebbed. And although the firebird died in the black Falcon’s talons, her feathers continued to live, down on the ground. They were not ordinary feathers, but magic ones that only those who loved beauty and who sought to make beauty for others could see and admire.
This is one of my favorite stories from folklore because even though Maryushka dies, she beat Kaschei at his own game, he would never get her beautiful art, or her brilliant feathers. This is really a great story that, if you know anything about russian culture, highlights some of their cultural beliefs.