Verse > Rudyard Kipling > Verse: 1885–1918
Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936).  Verse: 1885–1918.  1922.
The Sacrifice of Er-Heb

ER-HEB beyond the Hills of Ao-Safai
Bears witness to the truth, and Ao-Safai
Hath told the men of Gorukh. Thence the tale
Comes westward o’er the peaks to India.
The story of Bisesa, Armod’s child,—        5
A maiden plighted to the Chief in War,
The Man of Sixty Spears, who held the Pass
That leads to Thibet, but to-day is gone
To seek his comfort of the God called Budh
The Silent—showing how the Sickness ceased        10
Because of her who died to save the tribe.
Taman is One and greater than us all,
Taman is One and greater than all Gods:
Taman is Two in One and rides the sky,
Curved like a stallion’s croup, from dusk to dawn,        15
And drums upon it with his heels, by which
Is bred the neighing thunder in the hills.
This is Taman, the God of all Er-Heb,
Who was before all Gods, and made all Gods,
And presently will break the Gods he made,        20
And step upon the Earth to govern men
Who give him milk-dry ewes and cheat his Priests,
Or leave his shrine unlighted—as Er-Heb
Left it unlighted and forgot Taman,
When all the Valley followed after Kysh        25
And Yabosh, little Gods but very wise,
And from the sky Taman beheld their sin.
He sent the Sickness out upon the hills
The Red Horse Sickness with the iron hooves,
To turn the Valley to Taman again.        30
And the Red Horse snuffed thrice into the wind,
The naked wind that had no fear of him;
And the Red Horse stamped thrice upon the snow,
The naked snows that had no fear of him;
And the Red Horse went out across the rocks,        35
The ringing rocks that had no fear of him;
And downward, where the lean birch meets the snow,
And downward, where the grey pine meets the birch,
And downward, where the dwarf oak meets the pine,
Till at his feet our cup-like pastures lay.        40
That night, the slow mists of the evening dropped,
Dropped as a cloth upon a dead man’s face,
And weltered in the valley, bluish-white
Like water very silent—spread abroad,
Like water very silent, from the Shrine        45
Unlighted of Taman to where the stream
Is dammed to fill our cattle-troughs—sent up
White waves that rocked and heaved and stilled themselves,
Till all the Valley glittered like a marsh,
Beneath the moonlight, filled with sluggish mist        50
Knee-deep, so that men waded as they walked.
That night, the Red Horse grazed above the Dam,
Beyond the cattle-troughs. Men heard him feed,
And those that heard him sickened where they lay.
Thus came the sickness to Er-Heb, and slew        55
Ten men, strong men, and of the women four;
And the Red Horse went hillward with the dawn,
But near the cattle-troughs his hoof-print lay.
That night, the slow mists of the evening dropped,
Dropped as a cloth upon the dead, but rose        60
A little higher, to a young girl’s height;
Till all the valley glittered like a lake,
Beneath the moonlight, filled with sluggish mist.
That night, the Red Horse grazed beyond the Dam
A stone’s-throw from the troughs. Men heard him feed,        65
And those that heard him sickened where they lay.
Thus came the sickness to Er-Heb, and slew
Of men a score, and of the women eight,
And of the children two.

                        Because the road
To Gorukh was a road of enemies,        70
And Ao-Safai was blocked with early snows,
We could not flee from out the Valley. Death
Smote at us in a slaughter-pen, and Kysh
Was mute as Yabosh, though the goats were slain;
And the Red Horse grazed nightly by the stream,        75
And later, outward, towards the Unlighted Shrine,
And those that heard him sickened where they lay.
Then said Bisesa to the Priests at dusk,
When the white mist rose up breast-high, and choked
The voices in the houses of the dead:—        80
“Yabosh and Kysh avail not. If the Horse
“Reach the Unlighted Shrine we surely die.
“Ye have forgotten of all Gods the chief,
“Taman!” Here rolled the thunder through the Hill.
And Yabosh shook upon his pedestal.        85
“Ye have forgotten of all Gods the chief
“Too long.” And all were dumb save one, who cried
On Yabosh with the Sapphire ’twixt His knees,
But found no answer in the smoky roof,
And, being smitten of the sickness, died        90
Before the altar of the Sapphire Shrine.
Then said Bisesa:—“I am near to Death,
“And have the Wisdom of the Grave for gift
“To bear me on the path my feet must tread.
“If there be wealth on earth, then I am rich,        95
“For Armod is the first of all Er-Heb;
“If there be beauty on the earth,”—her eyes
Dropped for a moment to the temple floor,—
“Ye know that I am fair. If there be Love,
“Ye know that love is mine.” The Chief in War,        100
The Man of Sixty Spears, broke from the press,
And would have clasped her, but the Priests withstood,
Saying:—“She has a message from Taman.”
Then said Bisesa:—“By my wealth and love
“And beauty, I am chosen of the God        105
“Taman.” Here rolled the thunder through the Hills
And Kysh fell forward on the Mound of Skulls.
In darkness, and before our Priests, the maid
Between the altars cast her bracelets down,
Therewith the heavy earrings Armod made,        110
When he was young, out of the water-gold
Of Gorukh—threw the breast-plate thick with jade
Upon the turquoise anklets—put aside
The bands of silver on her brow and neck;
And as the trinkets tinkled on the stones,        115
The thunder of Taman lowed like a bull.
Then said Bisesa, stretching out her hands,
As one in darkness fearing Devils:—“Help!
“O Priests, I am a woman very weak.
“And who am I to know the will of Gods?        120
“Taman hath called me—whither shall I go?”
The Chief in War, the Man of Sixty Spears,
Howled in his torment, fettered by the Priests,
But dared not come to her to drag her forth,
And dared not lift his spear against the Priests.        125
Then all men wept.

                There was a Priest of Kysh
Bent with a hundred winters, hairless, blind,
And taloned as the great Snow-Eagle is.
His seat was nearest to the altar-fires,
And he was counted dumb among the Priests.        130
But, whether Kysh decreed, or from Taman
The impotent tongue found utterance we know
As little as the bats beneath the eaves.
He cried so that they heard who stood without:—
“To the Unlighted Shrine!” and crept aside        135
Into the shadow of his fallen God
And whimpered, and Bisesa went her way.
That night, the slow mists of the evening dropped,
Dropped as a cloth upon the dead, and rose
Above the roofs, and by the Unlighted Shrine        140
Lay as the slimy water of the troughs
When murrain thins the cattle of Er-Heb:
And through the mist men heard the Red Horse feed.
In Armod’s house they burned Bisesa’s dower,
And killed her black bull Tor, and broke her wheel,        145
And loosed her hair, as for the marriage-feast,
With cries more loud than mourning for the dead.
Across the fields, from Armod’s dwelling-place,
We heard Bisesa weeping where she passed
To seek the Unlighted Shrine; the Red Horse neighed        150
And followed her, and on the river-mint
His hooves struck dead and heavy in our ears.
Out of the mists of evening, as the star
Of Ao-Safai climbs through the black snow-blurs
To show the Pass is clear, Bisesa stepped        155
Upon the great grey slope of mortised stone,
The Causeway of Taman. The Red Horse neighed
Behind her to the Unlighted Shrine—then fled
North to the Mountain where his Stable lies.
They know who dared the anger of Taman,        160
And watched that night above the clinging mists,
Far up the hill, Bisesa’s passing in.
She set her hand upon the carven door,
Fouled by a myriad bats, and black with time,
Whereon is graved the Glory of Taman        165
In letters older than the Ao-Safai;
And twice she turned aside and twice she wept,
Cast down upon the threshold, clamouring
For him she loved—the Man of Sixty Spears,
And for her father,—and the black bull Tor,        170
Hers and her pride. Yea, twice she turned away
Before the awful darkness of the door,
And the great horror of the Wall of Man
Where Man is made the plaything of Taman,
An Eyeless Face that waits above and laughs.        175
But the third time she cried and put her palms
Against the hewn stone leaves, and prayed Taman
To spare Er-Heb and take her life for price.
They know who watched, the doors were rent apart
And closed upon Bisesa, and the rain        180
Broke like a flood across the Valley, washed
The mist away; but louder than the rain
The thunder of Taman filled men with fear.
Some say that from the Unlighted Shrine she cried
For succour, very pitifully, thrice,        185
And others that she sang and had no fear.
And some that there was neither song nor cry,
But only thunder and the lashing rain.
Howbeit, in the morning men rose up,
Perplexed with horror, crowding to the Shrine.        190
And when Er-Heb was gathered at the doors
The Priests made lamentation and passed in
To a strange Temple and a God they feared
But knew not.

                From the crevices the grass
Had thrust the altar-slabs apart, the walls        195
Were grey with stains unclean, the roof-beams swelled
With many-coloured growth of rottenness,
And lichen veiled the Image of Taman
In leprosy. The Basin of the Blood
Above the altar held the morning sun:        200
A winking ruby on its heart. Below,
Face hid in hands, the maid Bisesa lay.
Er-Heb beyond the Hills of Ao-Safai
Bears witness to the truth, and Ao-Safai
Hath told the men of Gorukh. Thence the tale        205
Comes westward o’er the peaks to India.

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