By the Waters of Babylon
by Stephen Vincent Benét
The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the man and the metal must be purified. These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods -- this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name. It is there that spirits live, and demons -- it is there that there are the ashes of the Great Burning. These things are forbidden -- they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.
My father is a priest; I am the son of a priest. I have been in the Dead Places near us, with my father -- at first, I was afraid. When my father went into the house to search for the metal, I stood by the door and my heart felt small and weak. It was a dead man's house, a spirit house. It did not have the smell of man, though there were old bones in a corner. But it is not fitting that a priest's son should show fear. I looked at the bones in the shadow and kept my voice still.
Then my father came out with the metal -- good, strong piece. He looked at me with both eyes but I had not run away. He gave me the metal to hold -- I took it and did not die. So he knew that I was truly his son and would be a priest in my time. That was when I was very young -- nevertheless, my brothers would not have done it, though they are good hunters. After that, they gave me the good piece of meat and the warm corner of the fire. My father watched over me -- he was glad that I should be a priest. But when I boasted or wept without a reason, he punished me more strictly than my brothers. That was right.
After a time, I myself was allowed to go into the dead houses and search for metal. So I learned the ways of those houses -- and if I saw bones, I was no longer afraid. The bones are light and old -- sometimes they will fall into dust if you touch them. But that is a great sin.
I was taught the chants and the spells -- l was taught how to stop the running of blood from a wound and many secrets. A priest must know many secrets -- that was what my father said.
If the hunters think we do all things by chants and spells, they may believe so -- it does not hurt them. I was taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings -- that was hard and took a long time. My knowledge made me happy -- it was like a fire in my heart. Most of all, I liked to hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods. I asked myself many questions that I could not answer, but it was good to ask them. At night, I would lie awake and listen to the wind -- it seemed to me that it was the voice of the gods as they flew through the air.
We are not ignorant like the Forest People -- our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the trees, we have not forgotten the old writings, although they are hard to understand. Nevertheless, my knowledge and my lack of knowledge burned in me -- I wished to know more. When I was a man at last, I came to my father and said, "It is time for me to go on my journey. Give me your leave."
He looked at me for a long time, stroking his beard, then he said at last, "Yes. It is time." That night, in the house of the priesthood, I asked for and received purification. My body hurt but my spirit was a cool stone. It was my father himself who questioned me about my dreams.
He bade me look into the smoke of the fire and see -- I saw and told what I saw. It was what I have always seen -- a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Place and in it the gods walking. I have always thought about that. His eyes were stern when I told him he was no longer my father but a priest. He said, "This is a strong dream."
"It is mine," I said, while the smoke waved and my head felt light. They were singing the Star song in the outer chamber and it was like the buzzing of bees in my head.
He asked me how the gods were dressed and I told him how they were dressed. We know how they were dressed from the book, but I saw them as if they were before me. When I had finished, he threw the sticks three times and studied them as they fell.
"This is a very strong dream," he said." It may eat you up."
"I am not afraid," I said and looked at him with both eyes. My voice sounded thin in my ears but that was because of the smoke.
He touched me on the breast and the forehead. He gave me the bow and the three arrows.
"Take them," he said. "It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. All these things are forbidden. "
"All these things are forbidden," I said, but it was my voice that spoke and not my spirit. He looked at me again.
"My son," he said. "Once I had young dreams. If your dreams do not eat you up, you may be a great priest. If they eat you, you are still my son. Now go on your journey."
I went fasting, as is the law. My body hurt but not my heart. When the dawn came, I was out of sight of the village. I prayed and purified myself, waiting for a sign. The sign was an eagle. It flew east.
Sometimes signs are sent by bad spirits. I waited again on the flat rock, fasting, taking no food. I was very still -- I could feel the sky above me and the earth beneath. I waited till the sun was beginning to sink. Then three deer passed in the valley going east -- they did not mind me or see me. There was a white fawn with them -- a very great sign.
I followed them, at a distance, waiting for what would happen. My heart was troubled about going east, yet I knew that I must go. My head hummed with my fasting -- I did not even see the panther spring upon the white fawn. But, before I knew it, the bow was in my hand. I shouted and the panther lifted his head from the fawn. It is not easy to kill a panther with one arrow but the arrow went through his eye and into his brain. He died as he tried to spring -- he rolled over, tearing at the ground. Then I knew I was meant to go east -- I knew that was my journey. When the night came, I made my fire and roasted meat.
It is eight suns' journey to the east and a man passes by many Dead Places. The Forest People are afraid of them but I am not. Once I made my fire on the edge of a Dead Place at night and, next morning, in the dead house, I found a good knife, little rusted. That was small to what came afterward but it made my heart feel big. Always when I looked for game, it was in front of my arrow, and twice I passed hunting parties of the Forest People without their knowing. So I knew my magic was strong and my journey clean, in spite of the law.
Toward the setting of the eighth sun, I came to the banks of the great river. It was half-a-day's journey after I had left the god-road -- we do not use the god-roads now for they are falling apart into great blocks of stone, and the forest is safer going. A long way off, I had seen the water through trees but the trees were thick. At last, I came out upon an open place at the top of a cliff. There was the great river below, like a giant in the sun. It is very long, very wide. It could eat all the streams we know and still be thirsty. Its name is Ou-dis-sun, the Sacred, the Long. No man of my tribe had seen it, not even my father, the priest. It was magic and I prayed.
Then I raised my eyes and looked south. It was there, the Place of the Gods.
How can I tell what it was like -- you do not know. It was there, in the red light, and they were too big to be houses. It was there with the red light upon it, mighty and ruined. I knew that in another moment the gods would see me. I covered my eyes with my hands and crept back into the forest.
Surely, that was enough to do, and live. Surely it was enough to spend the night upon the cliff. The Forest People themselves do not come near. Yet, all through the night, I knew that I should have to cross the river and walk in the places of the gods, although the gods ate me up. My magic did not help me at all and yet there was a fire in my bowels, a fire in my mind. When the sun rose, I thought, "My journey has been clean. Now I will go home from my journey." But, even as I thought so, I knew I could not. If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.
Nevertheless, as I made the raft, the tears ran out of my eyes. The Forest People could have killed me without fight, if they had come upon me then, but they did not come.
When the raft was made, I said the sayings for the dead and painted myself for death. My heart was cold as a frog and my knees like water, but the burning in my mind would not let me have peace. As I pushed the raft from the shore, I began my death song -- I had the right. It was a fine song.
"I am John, son of John," I sang. "My people are the Hill People. They are the men.
I go into the Dead Places but I am not slain.
I take the metal from the Dead Places but I am not blasted.
I travel upon the god-roads and am not afraid. E-yah! I have killed the panther, I have killed the fawn!
E-yah! I have come to the great river. No man has come there before.
It is forbidden to go east, but I have gone, forbidden to go on the great river, but I am there.
Open your hearts, you spirits, and hear my song.
Now I go to the Place of the Gods, I shall not return.
My body is painted for death and my limbs weak, but my heart is big as I go to the Place of the Gods!"
All the same, when I came to the Place of the Gods, I was afraid, afraid. The current of the great river is very strong -- it gripped my raft with its hands. That was magic, for the river itself is wide and calm. I could feel evil spirits about me, I was swept down the stream. Never have I been so much alone -- I tried to think of my knowledge, but it was a squirrel's heap of winter nuts. There was no strength in my knowledge any more and I felt small and naked as a new-hatched bird -- alone upon the great river, the servant of the gods.
Yet, after a while, my eyes were opened and I saw. I saw both banks of the river -- I saw that once there had been god-roads across it, though now they were broken and fallen like broken vines. Very great they were, and wonderful and broken -- broken in the time of the Great Burning when the fire fell out of the sky. And always the current took me nearer to the Place of the Gods, and the huge ruins rose before my eyes.
I do not know the customs of rivers -- we are the People of the Hills. I tried to guide my raft with the pole but it spun around. I thought the river meant to take me past the Place of the Gods and out into the Bitter Water of the legends. I grew angry then -- my heart felt strong. I said aloud, "I am a priest and the son of a priest!" The gods heard me -- they showed me how to paddle with the pole on one side of the raft. The current changed itself -- I drew near to the Place of the Gods.
When I was very near, my raft struck and turned over. I can swim in our lakes -- I swam to the shore. There was a great spike of rusted metal sticking out into the river -- I hauled myself up upon it and sat there, panting. I had saved my bow and two arrows and the knife I found in the Dead Place but that was all. My raft went whirling downstream toward the Bitter Water. I looked after it, and thought if it had trod me under, at least I would be safely dead. Nevertheless, when I had dried my bowstring and re-strung it, I walked forward to the Place of the Gods.
|On to the Second Part.|