'Masha and the Firebird'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Editor's note: An old witch forces a girl on a dangerous mission to recover a stolen egg.

On the edge of a deep, dark forest there once lived a young girl called Masha. One day at the market Masha saw a tiny box of paints for sale and, because her mother had sold all the eggs she had brought, she bought the paintbox for Masha.

Masha knew the forest around her home well, but one day she ventured farther than usual and found herself deep in the heart of the forest where the old trees grew and the air was dark and still. She sat down on a mossy stone and wondered which way to go. Suddenly, from high above her, she heard someone call her name.

Masha looked up. In the gloom of the forest, a flash of brilliant feathers blazed out of the darkness, as fiery sparks of light fell cascading to the ground.

"Masha," said the Firebird, for that was who it was, "I need your help. I am the guardian of the eggs of the Four Elements. Baba Yaga is trying to steal them, and if she does she will gain all the power for herself."

"But how can I help you?" asked Masha.

The bird showed Masha its nest -- four eggs lay nestled inside. "If you paint them, I can hide them from Baba Yaga."

Masha took the first egg, the egg of the Earth, and wrapped it carefully in her handkerchief. She started to paint the egg, covering its shell with mosses and lichen. When Baba Yaga was out collecting mushrooms, she passed close to the egg of Earth, but she did not see it. When the Firebird saw that the plan had worked, it gave Masha the egg of Water. This time, she painted the pale blue of streams and the deep azure of oceans. When Baba Yaga was out fishing for eels, she passed very close to the egg of Water, but, as before, she did not see it.

The third egg was the egg of Air. The Firebird flew into the sky and placed the egg deep in the clouds. When Baba Yaga was flying in the sky collecting cobwebs, she passed very close to the egg of Air, but, as before, she did not see it.

Now only the egg of Fire remained, This was the most precious of all -- the Firebird's own egg.

Masha held the egg. It was very beautiful, so beautiful that she wanted to keep it for herself -- why, the Firebird had three eggs already! Then, suddenly, the egg became too hot for her to hold and she felt ashamed. She was just about to take the egg back, when her mother called to her: "Masha, be a good girl and take this basket of food to your father."

Masha ran all the way there and all the way back. Then she went straight to the table where she had left the egg -- but the egg of Fire was gone!

Masha turned to her mother and asked in a trembling voice, "Mother, where's the painted egg I left on the table?"

"While you were out, an old woman came to buy some eggs," said her mother, "she saw your egg and admired it so much that I gave it to her. You have so many, you won't miss one."

Masha stared in dismay -- the old woman was Baba Yaga. She was very frightened, but she knew what she must do.

"Have you come to fetch the egg, little girl?" sneered Baba Yaga, "Here it is in this basket. Come and get it ... if you can!"

Masha called out, "Dear Firebird, Guardian of the eggs, come quickly to help me!"

From deep in the forest came a long answering cry and in a brilliant flash of light, the Firebird burst from the trees.

The laughter on Baba Yaga's lips died and she reached out with her powerful arms to catch the Firebird. The Firebird did not try to avoid her grasp and, as Baba Yaga's hands tightened around its neck, the Firebird became a blazing mass of flames.

Masha realized that this was her chance to rescue the egg. She ran to the basket and took the egg just as Baba Yaga threw the Firebird to the ground.

As the Firebird lay burning in its own flames, it called out the Masha, "Throw the egg into my flames!"

So Masha threw the egg deep into the heart of the fire, and as she did, the blazing flames engulfed everything around her. The fire grew hot and bright, and then came the sound of an egg cracking open. In a flurry of fire and feathers the Firebird was born anew from the flames!

Masha laughed and clapped as the Firebird flew round her head, its shimmering tail feathers brushing her cheek. Finally, the Firebird flew away into the morning sky, and at her feet Masha found a tiny box of paints ...

From MASHA AND THE FIREBIRD by Margaret Bateson-Hill. Text copyright c 1999 Margaret Bateson-Hill. Illustrations copyright c 1999 Anne Wilson. Reprinted by the permission of publisher Zero to Ten (distributed by IPG). Available in hardback Oct. 1.

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