Haita the Shepherd

Ambrose Bierce

02 Apr, 2014 09:46 PM

IN the heart of Haita the illusions of youth had not been supplanted by
those of age and experience. His thoughts were pure and pleasant, for
his life was simple and his soul devoid of ambition. He rose with the
sun and went forth to pray at the shrine of Hastur, the god of
shepherds, who heard and was pleased. After performance of this pious
rite Haita unbarred the gate of the fold and with a cheerful mind drove
his flock afield, eating his morning meal of curds and oat cake as he
went, occasionally paus- ing to add a few berries, cold with dew, or to
drink of the waters that came away from the hills to join the stream in
the middle of the valley and be borne along with it, he knew not
During the long summer day, as his sheep cropped the good grass
which the gods had made to grow for them, or lay with their forelegs
doubled under their breasts and chewed the cud, Haita, reclining in the
shadow of a tree, or sitting upon a rock, played so sweet music upon his
reed pipe that sometimes from the corner of his eye he got accidental
glimpses of the minor sylvan deities, leaning forward out of the copse
to hear; but if he looked at them directly they vanished. From this--for
he must be thinking if he would not turn into one of his own sheep--he
drew the solemn inference that happiness may come if not sought, but if
looked for will never be seen; for next to the favour of Hastur, who
never disclosed himself, Haita most valued the friendly interest of his
neigh- bours, the shy immortals of the wood and stream. At nightfall he
drove his flock back to the fold, saw that the gate was secure and
retired to his cave for refreshment and for dreams.
So passed his life, one day like another, save when the storms
uttered the wrath of an offended god. Then Haita cowered in his cave,
his face hidden in his hands, and prayed that he alone might be pun-
ished for his sins and the world saved from destruc- tion. Sometimes
when there was a great rain, and the stream came out of its banks,
compelling him to urge his terrified flock to the uplands, he interceded
for the people in the cities which he had been told lay in the plain
beyond the two blue hills forming the gateway of his valley.
'It is kind of thee, O Hastur,' so he prayed, 'to give me mountains
so near to my dwelling and my fold that I and my sheep can escape the
angry tor- rents; but the rest of the world thou must thyself deliver in
some way that I know not of, or I will no longer worship thee.'
And Hastur, knowing that Haita was a youth who kept his word, spared
the cities and turned the waters into the sea.
So he had lived since he could remember. He could not rightly
conceive any other mode of existence. The holy hermit who dwelt at the
head of the valley, a full hour's journey away, from whom he had heard
the tale of the great cities where dwelt people--poor souls!--who had no
sheep, gave him no knowledge of that early time, when, so he reasoned,
he must have been small and helpless like a lamb.
It was through thinking on these mysteries and marvels, and on that
horrible change to silence and decay which he felt sure must sometime
come to him, as he had seen it come to so many of his flock --as it came
to all living things except the birds --that Haita first became
conscious how miserable and hopeless was his lot.
'It is necessary,' he said, 'that I know whence and how I came; for
how can one perform his duties unless able to judge what they are by the
way in which he was entrusted with them? And what con- tentment can I
have when I know not how long it is going to last? Perhaps before
another sun I may be changed, and then what will become of the sheep?
What, indeed, will have become of me?'
Pondering these things Haita became melancholy and morose. He no
longer spoke cheerfully to his flock, nor ran with alacrity to the
shrine of Hastur. In every breeze he heard whispers of malign deities
whose existence he now first observed. Every cloud was a portent
signifying disaster, and the darkness was full of terrors. His reed pipe
when applied to his lips gave out no melody, but a dismal wail; the
sylvan and riparian intelligences no longer thronged the thicket-side to
listen, but fled from the sound, as he knew by the stirred leaves and
bent flowers. He relaxed his vigilance and many of his sheep strayed
away into the hills and were lost. Those that remained became lean and
ill for lack of good pas- turage, for he would not seek it for them, but
con- ducted them day after day to the same spot, through mere
abstraction, while puzzling about life and death--of immortality he knew
One day while indulging in the gloomiest reflec- tions he suddenly
sprang from the rock upon which he sat, and with a determined gesture of
the right hand exclaimed: 'I will no longer be a suppliant for knowledge
which the gods withhold. Let them look to it that they do me no wrong. I
will do my duty as best I can and if I err upon their own heads be it!'
Suddenly, as he spoke, a great brightness fell about him, causing
him to look upward, thinking the sun had burst through a rift in the
clouds; but there were no clouds. No more than an arm's length away
stood a beautiful maiden. So beautiful she was that the flowers about
her feet folded their petals in despair and bent their heads in token of
submission; so sweet her look that the humming-birds thronged her eyes,
thrusting their thirsty bills almost into them, and the wild bees were
about her lips. And such was her brightness that the shadows of all ob-
jects lay divergent from her feet, turning as she moved.
Haita was entranced. Rising, he knelt before her in adoration, and
she laid her hand upon his head.
'Come,' she said in a voice that had the music of all the bells of
his flock--'come, thou art not to worship me, who am no goddess, but if
thou art truthful and dutiful I will abide with thee.'
Haita seized her hand, and stammering his joy and gratitude arose,
and hand in hand they stood and smiled into each other's eyes. He gazed
on her with reverence and rapture. He said: 'I pray thee, lovely maid,
tell me thy name and whence and why thou comest.'
At this she laid a warning finger on her lip and began to withdraw.
Her beauty underwent a visible alteration that made him shudder, he knew
not why, for still she was beautiful. The landscape was dark- ened by a
giant shadow sweeping across the valley with the speed of a vulture. In
the obscurity the maiden's figure grew dim and indistinct and her voice
seemed to come from a distance, as she said, in a tone of sorrowful
reproach: 'Presumptuous and ungrateful youth! must I then so soon leave
thee? Would nothing do but thou must at once break the eternal compact?'
Inexpressibly grieved, Haita fell upon his knees and implored her to
remain--rose and sought her in the deepening darkness--ran in circles,
calling to her aloud, but all in vain. She was no longer visible, but
out of the gloom he heard her voice saying: 'Nay, thou shalt not have me
by seeking. Go to thy duty, faithless shepherd, or we shall never meet
Night had fallen; the wolves were howling in the hills and the
terrified sheep crowding about Haita's feet. In the demands of the hour
he forgot his disappointment, drove his sheep to the fold and repairing
to the place of worship poured out his heart in gratitude to Hastur for
permitting him to save his flock, then retired to his cave and slept.
When Haita awoke the sun was high and shone in at the cave,
illuminating it with a great glory. And there, beside him, sat the
maiden. She smiled upon him with a smile that seemed the visible music
of his pipe of reeds. He dared not speak, fearing to offend her as
before, for he knew not what he could venture to say.
'Because,' she said, 'thou didst thy duty by the flock, and didst
not forget to thank Hastur for stay- ing the wolves of the night, I am
come to thee again. Wilt thou have me for a companion?'
'Who would not have thee for ever?' replied Haita. 'Oh! never again
leave me until--until I-- change and become silent and motionless.'
Haita had no word for death.
'I wish, indeed,' he continued, 'that thou wert of my own sex, that
we might wrestle and run races and so never tire of being together.'
At these words the maiden arose and passed out of the cave, and
Haita, springing from his couch of fragrant boughs to overtake and
detain her, observed to his astonishment that the rain was falling and
the stream in the middle of the valley had come out of its banks. The
sheep were bleating in terror, for the rising waters had invaded their
fold. And there was danger for the unknown cities of the distant plain.
It was many days before Haita saw the maiden again. One day he was
returning from the head of the valley, where he had gone with ewe's milk
and oat cake and berries for the holy hermit, who was too old and feeble
to provide himself with food.
'Poor old man!' he said aloud, as he trudged along homeward. 'I will
return to-morrow and bear him on my back to my own dwelling, where I can
care for him. Doubtless it is for this that Hastur has reared me all
these many years, and gives me health and strength.'
As he spoke, the maiden, clad in glittering gar- ments, met him in
the path with a smile that took away his breath.
'I am come again,' she said, 'to dwell with thee if thou wilt now
have me, for none else will. Thou mayest have learned wisdom, and art
willing to take me as I am, nor care to know.'
Haita threw himself at her feet. 'Beautiful being,' he cried, 'if
thou wilt but deign to accept all the de- votion of my heart and
soul--after Hastur be served--it is thine for ever. But, alas! thou art
capricious and wayward. Before to-morrow's sun I may lose thee again.
Promise, I beseech thee, that however in my ignorance I may offend, thou
wilt forgive and remain always with me.'
Scarcely had he finished speaking when a troop of bears came out of
the hills, racing toward him with crimson mouths and fiery eyes. The
maiden again vanished, and he turned and fled for his life. Nor did he
stop until he was in the cot of the holy hermit, whence he had set out.
Hastily barring the door against the bears he cast himself upon the
ground and wept.
'My son,' said the hermit from his couch of straw, freshly gathered
that morning by Haita's hands, 'it is not like thee to weep for
bears--tell me what sorrow hath befallen thee, that age may minister to
the hurts of youth with such balms as it hath of its wisdom.'
Haita told him all: how thrice he had met the radiant maid and
thrice she had left him forlorn. He related minutely all that had passed
between them, omitting no word of what had been said.
When he had ended, the holy hermit was a mo- ment silent, then said:
'My son, I have attended to thy story, and I know the maiden. I have
myself seen her, as have many. Know, then, that her name, which she
would not even permit thee to inquire, is Happiness. Thou saidst the
truth to her, that she is capricious, for she imposeth conditions that
man cannot fulfil, and delinquency is punished by de- sertion. She
cometh only when unsought, and will not be questioned. One manifestation
of curiosity, one sign of doubt, one expression of misgiving, and she is
away! How long didst thou have her at any time before she fled?'
'Only a single instant,' answered Haita, blushing with shame at the
confession. 'Each time I drove her away in one moment.'
'Unfortunate youth!' said the holy hermit, 'but for thine
indiscretion thou mightst have had her for two.'

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