HAITA THE SHEPHERD
by Ambrose Bierce
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 pausing 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 whither.
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 favor of Hastur, who never
disclosed himself, Haita most valued the
friendly interest of his neighbors, 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 punished for
his sins and the world saved from destruction.
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 torrents; but the rest of the world
thou must thyself deliver in some way that
I know not of, or I will no longer worship
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
some time 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
intrusted with them? And what contentment
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 pasturage, for
he would not seek it for them, but conducted
them day after day to the same spot, through
mere abstraction, while puzzling about life
and death--of immortality he knew not.
One day while indulging in the gloomiest
reflections 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
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 objects 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
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
darkened 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 again."
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
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
"Because," she said, "thou didst thy duty by
the flock, and didst not forget to thank
Hastur for staying the wolves of the night,
I am come to thee again. Wilt thou have me
for a companion?"
"Who would not have thee forever?" 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
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
garments, 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
Haita threw himself at her feet. "Beautiful
being," he cried, "if thou wilt but deign to
accept all the devotion of my heart and
soul--after Hastur be served--it is thine
forever. 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
"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
moment 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 fulfill, and delinquency is
punished by desertion. 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."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~