A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter X

The Sacred Hunt

On that very jom the Kohen informed me that they were about to set forth on the “sacred hunt,” an event which always occurred toward the end of the season, and he kindly invited me to go. I, eager to find any relief from the horrible thoughts that had taken possession of me, and full of longing for active exertion, at once accepted the invitation. I was delighted to hear Almah say that she too was going; and I learned at the same time that in this strange land the women were as fond of hunting as the men, and that on such occasions their presence was expected.

The sacred hunt was certainly a strange one. I saw that it was to take place on the water; for a great crowd, numbering over a hundred, went down to the harbor and embarked on board a galley, on which there were a hundred others, who served as rowers. The hunters were all armed with long, light javelins and short swords. Some of these were offered to me, for as yet no one supposed that my rifle and pistol were instruments of destruction, or anything else than ornaments. My refusal to accept their weapons created some surprise, but with their usual civility they did not press their offers further. It was evident that this hunting expedition was only made in obedience to some hallowed custom; for the light of the sun pained their eyes, and all their movements were made with uncertainty and hesitation. With these a hunt by sunlight is the same as a hunt by night would be with us. There was the same confusion and awkwardness.

The Kohen was in command. At his word the galley started, and the rowers pulled out to sea with long, regular strokes. I was anxious to know what the expedition was aimed at, and what were the animals that we expected to get; but I could not make out Almah’s explanations. Her words suggested something of vague terror, vast proportions, and indescribable ferocity; but my ignorance of the language prevented me from learning anything more.

We went along the coast for a few miles, and then came to the mouth of a great river, which seemed to flow from among the mountains. The current was exceedingly swift, and as I looked back it seemed to me that it must be the very stream which had borne me here into this remote world. I afterward found out that this was so — that this stream emerges from among the mountains, flowing from an unknown source. It was over this that I had been borne in my sleep, after I had emerged from the subterranean darkness, and it was by this current that I had been carried into the open sea. As we crossed the estuary of this river I saw that the shores on either side were low, and covered with the rankest vegetation; giant trees of fern, vast reeds and grasses, all arose here in a dense growth impassable to man. Upon the shallow shores the surf was breaking; and here in the tide I saw objects which I at first supposed to be rocks, but afterward found out to be living things. They looked like alligators, but were far larger than the largest alligators known to us, besides being of far more terrific aspect. Toward these the galley was directed, and I now saw with surprise that these were the objects of the sacred hunt.

Suddenly, as the galley was moving along at half-speed, there arose out of the water a thing that looked like the folds of a giant hairy serpent, which, however, proved to be the long neck of an incredible monster, whose immense body soon afterward appeared above the water. With huge fins he propelled himself toward us; and his head, twenty feet in the air, was poised as though about to attack. The head was like that of an alligator, the open jaws showed a fearful array of sharp teeth, the eyes were fiercely glowing, the long neck was covered with a coarse, shaggy mane, while the top of the body, which was out of the water, was incased in an impenetrable cuirass of bone. Such a monster as this seemed unassailable, especially by men who had no missile weapons, and whose eyes were so dim and weak. I therefore expected that the galley would turn and fly from the attack, for the monster itself seemed as large as our vessel; but there was not the slightest thought of flight. On the contrary, every man was on the alert; some sprang to the bow and stood there, awaiting the first shock; others, amidship, stood waiting for the orders of the Kohen. Meanwhile the monster approached, and at length, with a sweep of his long neck, came down upon the dense crowd at the bows. A dozen frail lances were broken against his horny head, a half-dozen wretches were seized and terribly torn by those remorseless jaws. Still none fled. All rushed forward, and with lances, axes, knives, and ropes they sought to destroy the enemy. Numbers of them strove to seize his long neck. In the ardor of the fight the rowers dropped their oars and hurried to the scene, to take part in the struggle. The slaughter was sickening, but not a man quailed. Never had I dreamed of such blind and desperate courage as was now displayed before my horror-stricken eyes. Each sought to outdo the other. They had managed to throw ropes around the monster’s neck, by which he was held close to the galley. His fierce movements seemed likely to drag us all down under the water; and his long neck, free from restraint, writhed and twisted among the struggling crowd of fighting men, in the midst of whom was the Kohen, as desperate and as fearless as any.

All this had taken place in a very short space of time, and I had scarce been able to comprehend the full meaning of it all. As for Almah, she stood pale and trembling, with a face of horror. At last it seemed to me that every man of them would be destroyed, and that they were all throwing their lives away to no purpose whatever. Above all, my heart was wrung for the Kohen, who was there in the midst of his people, lifting his frail and puny arm against the monster. I could endure inaction no longer. I had brought my arms with me, as usual; and now, as the monster raised his head, I took aim at his eye and fired. The report rang out in thunder. Almah gave a shriek, and amid the smoke I saw the long, snake-like neck of the monster sweeping about madly among the men. In the water his vast tail was lashing the surface of the sea, and churning it into foam. Here I once more took aim immediately under the fore-fin, where there was no scaly covering. Once more I fired. This time it was with fatal effect; and after one or two convulsive movements the monster, with a low, deep bellow, let his head fall and gasped out his life.

I hurried forward. There lay the frightful head, with its long neck and shaggy mane, while all around was a hideous spectacle. The destruction of life had been awful. Nineteen were dead, and twenty-eight were wounded, writhing in every gradation of agony, some horribly mangled. The rest stood staring at me in astonishment, not understanding those peals of thunder that had laid the monster low. There was no terror or awe, however — nothing more than surprise; and the Kohen, whose clothes were torn into shreds and covered with blood, looked at me in bewilderment. I said to him, out of my small stock of words, that the wounded ought at once to be cared for. At this he turned away and made some remarks to his men.

I now stood ready to lend my own services, if needful. I expected to take a part in the tender attentions which were the due of these gallant souls, who had exhibited such matchless valor; these men who thought nothing of life, but flung it away at the command of their chief without dreaming of flight or of hesitation. Thus I stood looking on in an expectant attitude, when there came a moment in which I was simply petrified with horror; for the Kohen drew his knife, stooped over the wounded man nearest him, and then stabbed him to the heart with a mortal wound. The others all proceeded to do the same, and they did it in the coolest and most business-like manner, without any passion, without any feeling of any kind, and, indeed, with a certain air of gratification, as though they were performing some peculiarly high and sacred duty. The mildness and benevolence of their faces seemed actually heightened, and the perpetration of this unutterable atrocity seemed to affect these people in the same way in which the performance of acts of humanity might affect us.

For my own part, I stood for a few moments actually motionless from perplexity and horror; then, with a shriek, I rushed forward as if to prevent it; but I was too late. The unutterable deed was done, and the unfortunate wounded, without an exception, lay dead beside their slain companions. As for myself, I was only regarded with fresh wonder, and they all stood blinking at me with their half-closed eyes. Suddenly the Kohen fell prostrate on his knees before me, and bowing his head handed me his bloody knife.

“Atam-or,” said he, “give me also the blessing of darkness and death!”

At these strange words, following such actions, I could say nothing. I was more bewildered than ever, and horror and bewilderment made me dumb. I turned away and went aft to Almah, who had seen it all. She looked at me with an anxious gaze, as if to learn what the effect of all this had been on me. I could not speak a word, but with a vague sense of the necessity of self-preservation, I loaded my rifle, and tried in vain to make out what might be the meaning of this union of gentleness and kindness with atrocious cruelty. Meanwhile, the men all went to work upon various tasks. Some secured lines about the monster so as to tow it astern; others busied themselves with the corpses, collecting them and arranging them in rows. At length we returned, towing the monster astern.

I could not speak until I was back again in the lighted rooms and alone with Almah; then I told her, as well as I could, the horror that I felt.

“It was honor to those brave men,” said she.

“Honor!” said I. “What! to kill them?”

“Yes,” said she; “it is so with these people; with them death is the highest blessing. They all love death and seek after it. To die for another is immortal glory. To kill the wounded was to show that they had died for others. The wounded wished it themselves. You saw how they all sought after death. These people were too generous and kind-hearted to refuse to kill them after they had received wounds.”

At this my perplexity grew deeper than ever, for such an explanation as this only served to make the mystery greater.

“Here,” said she, “no one understands what it is to fear death. They all love it and long for it; but everyone wishes above all to die for others. This is their highest blessing. To die a natural death in bed is avoided if possible.”

All this was incomprehensible.

“Tell me, Almah,” I said — “you hate darkness as I do — do you not fear death?”

“I fear it above all things,” said Almah. “To me it is the horror of life; it is the chief of terrors.”

“So it is with me,” said I. “In my country we call death the King of Terrors.”

“Here,” said Almah, “they call death the Lord of Joy.”

Not long after, the Kohen came in, looking as quiet, as gentle, and as amiable as ever. He showed some curiosity about my rifle, which he called a sepet-ram, or “rod of thunder.” Almah also showed curiosity. I did not care to explain the process of loading it to the Kohen, though Almah had seen me load it in the galley, and I left him to suppose that it was used in some mysterious way. I cautioned him not to handle it carelessly, but found that this caution only made him the more eager to handle it, since the prospect of an accident found an irresistible attraction. I would not let it go out of my own hands, however; and the Kohen, whose self-denial was always most wonderful to me, at once checked his curiosity.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37