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 favour of Hastur, who never disclosed himself,
Haita most valued the friendly interest of his neighbours,
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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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 staying
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
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
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 know.'
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 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
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 fulfil, 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