A beautiful sash, a shirt worked with fine patterns, a shawl, a headscarf: miracles of perfect embroidery that always seem to have the effect of making their wearers feel that in some way they are special. All these items and many others flow from the hands of a modest and gentle orphan named Maryushka. But there is more. Coloured silks and glass beads combine in intricate and constantly-varying designs as if to tell their own different and unique stories, and each story seems subtly to change with each retelling. The young girl could earn a comfortable living with her remarkable embroidery work, but always she is content with the money that others are prepared to give, however small the sum.
Inevitably, some of those who buy and wear Maryushka’s work go on their own travels, and so her work travels with them. Merchants far beyond her own small village notice her handiwork, and so her fame spreads. Some of the more enterprising merchants, eager in their turn to possess more of these miraculous items to resell at a tidy profit, undertake the journey to her village. Each has a similar message: that if she will work exclusively for them she will receive in her turn riches and fame. Maryushka’s response is always the same: that she will never leave her own village, for there her dear parents are buried, and she wishes always to be able to visit and to tend the place where they rest. And in any case, she has no need of riches and fame – although she will continue to sell her work to any who find it beautiful.
Each merchant in his turn leaves disappointed, resuming his own trading and travels. And in such a way Maryushka’s reputation spreads even farther afield: far enough eventually to reach the attention of the evil sorcerer Kaschei the Immortal. Evil abhors beauty, especially the true beauty which flows from the pure of heart. Kaschei rages. The sight of her beautiful work on those who wear it revolts him, and in those terrible moments a dark shadow seems to spread across his face, as if a heavy cloud were passing overhead. Such beauty, he decides, could not be allowed to exist, could not be allowed to cast its light on the world.
Darkness can change its form to become something other than itself. Kaschei’s cracked features, distorted by evil, become those of a handsome and radiant youth. In magical and unseen flight the youth journeys over towering mountains and impenetrable dark forests, arriving at last as an ordinary traveller at Maryushka’s cottage door. An obsequious bow is enough to gain him admittance, and shirts, scarves and other items are set out for his inspection, each more beautiful than the last. "Kind sir," says she, "whatever pleases you, you may take. If you have no money with you, you may pay me later, when you have money to spare. And if my work should not find favour in your eyes, please counsel me and tell me what to do, and I shall try my best to improve upon what I have made."
Surrounded by so much beauty and grace of spirit, Kaschei must now struggle to contain his revulsion. But resolute of purpose, and oiling his most radiant charm, he feigns admiration. “Come away with me, dear one, and I will give you a palace built of precious jewels.” assures the sorcerer in his most unctuous tones. “You will eat from golden plates and sleep on the softest eiderdown. You will walk in an orchard where birds sing sweet songs, and where golden apples may be plucked.”
"Please do not speak of such things," answers Maryushka "for I wish neither for your riches nor for your strange marvels. For me there is nothing sweeter than the woods and fields where I was born. Never shall I leave this village where my parents lie buried and where those kind folks live to whom my needlework brings joy. I shall never embroider for you alone."
At the young girl’s answer a shadow as dark as a thundercloud seems to pass across the face of the youth. “Since you spurn the freedoms which I offer you perhaps you will enjoy another sort of freedom: the freedom of the skies…” The words of the furious sorcerer have no sooner been uttered than Maryushka hunches forward in the agony of transformation. Her mouth becomes a bird’s beak, her arms reshape themselves into wings, and her whole body covers itself in glowing iridescent feathers: the feathers of a firebird.
Kaschei sweeps the beautiful creature up in his arms, bursts outside, and transforms himself into a great falcon, as black as the pocked dark face of a new moon. His cruel talons grip the firebird and carry her high into the clouds above. But Maryushka’s human soul resolves, even now, to do what she has always wished to do, and what she knows that she is intended to do: to give her beauty to the world, in whatever form that it is hers to give.
But Maryushka’s wondrous feathers continue even now to be discovered where they have fallen: an inspiration to unknown others to create something of beauty of their own, and to bring that beauty into the world. And it is said by those who are fortunate to have discovered one of Maryushka’s feathers, and who recognise – perhaps intuitively – something of her essence in the wondrous plumage, that the works which they have inspired seem more beautiful even than her remarkable embroidery, perhaps because it was the precious feathers which demanded the greater sacrifice.Retold from a Russian Folktale