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

Chapter XIII

The Awful “Mista Kosek”

The terrible sacrifice marked the end of the light season. The dark season had now begun, which would last for half the coming year. No more sunlight would now be visible, save at first for a few joms, when at certain times the glare would be seen shooting up above the icy crests of the mountains. Now the people all moved out of the caverns into the stone houses on the opposite side of the terraces, and the busy throng transferred themselves and their occupations to the open air. This with them was the season of activity, when all their most important affairs were undertaken and carried out; the season, too, of enjoyment, when all the chief sports and festivals took place. Then the outer world all awoke to life; the streets were thronged, fleets of galleys came forth from their moorings, and the sounds of labor and of pleasure, of toil and revelry, arose into the darkened skies. Then the city was a city of the living, no longer silent, but full of bustle, and the caverns were frequented but little. This cavern life was only tolerable during the light season, when the sun-glare was over the land; but now, when the beneficent and grateful darkness pervaded all things, the outer world was infinitely more agreeable.

To me, however, the arrival of the dark season brought only additional gloom. I could not get rid of the thought that I was reserved for some horrible fate, in which Almah might also be involved. We were both aliens here, in a nation of kind-hearted and amiable miscreants — of generous, refined, and most self-denying fiends; of men who were highly civilized, yet utterly wrong-headed and irreclaimable in their blood-thirsty cruelty. The stain of blood-guiltiness was over all the land. What was I, that I could hope to be spared? The hope was madness, and I did not pretend to indulge it.

The only consolation was Almah. The manners of these people were such that we were still left as unconstrained as ever in our movements, and always, wherever we went, we encountered nothing but amiable smiles and courteous offices. Everyone was always eager to do anything for us — to give, to go, to act, to speak, as though we were the most honored of guests, the pride of the city. The Kohen was untiring in his efforts to please. He was in the habit of making presents every time he came to see me, and on each occasion the present was of a different kind; at one time it was a new robe of curiously wrought feathers, at another some beautiful gem, at another some rare fruit. He also made incessant efforts to render my situation pleasant, and was delighted at my rapid progress in acquiring the language.

On the jom following the sacrifice I accompanied Almah as she went to her daily task, and after it was over I asked when the new victims would be placed here. “How long does it take to embalm them?” I added.

Almah looked at me earnestly. “They will not bring them here; they will not embalm them,” said she.

“Why not?” I asked; “what will they do with them?”

“Do not ask,” said she. “It will pain you to know.”

In spite of repeated solicitation she refused to give me any satisfaction. I felt deeply moved at her words and her looks. What was it, I wondered, that could give me pain? or what could there still be that could excite fear in me, who had learned and seen so much? I could not imagine. It was evidently some disposal of the bodies of the victims — that was plain. Turning this over in my mind, with vague conjectures as to Almah’s meaning, I left her and walked along the terrace until I came to the next cavern. This had never been open before, and I now entered through curiosity to see what it might be. I saw a vast cavern, quite as large as the cheder nebilin, full of people, who seemed to be engaged in decorating it. Hundreds were at work, and they had brought immense tree-ferns, which were placed on either side in long rows, with their branches meeting and interlacing at the top. It looked like the interior of some great Gothic cathedral at night, and the few twinkling lights that were scattered here and there made the shadowy outline just visible to me.

I asked one of the bystanders what this might be, and he told me that it was the Mista Kosek, which means the “Feast of Darkness,” from which I gathered that they were about to celebrate the advent of the dark season with a feast. From what I knew of their character this seemed quite intelligible, and there was much beauty and taste in the arrangements. All were industrious and orderly, and each one seemed most eager to assist his neighbor. Indeed, there seemed to be a friendly rivalry in this which at times amounted to positive violence; for more than once when a man was seen carrying too large a burden, someone else would insist on taking it from him. At first these altercations seemed exactly like the quarrels of workmen at home, but a closer inspection showed that it was merely the persistent effort of one to help another.

I learned that the feast was to take place as soon as the hall was decorated, and that it would be attended by a great multitude. I felt a great interest in it. There seemed something of poetic beauty in this mode of welcoming the advent of a welcome season, and it served to mitigate the horrible remembrance of that other celebration, upon which I could not think without a shudder. I thought that it would be pleasant to join with them here, and resolved to ask Almah to come with me, so that she might explain the meaning of the ceremonies. Full of this thought, I went to her and told her my wish. She looked at me with a face full of amazement and misery. In great surprise I questioned her eagerly.

“Ask me nothing,” said she. “I will answer nothing; but do not think of it. Do not go near it. Stay in your room till the fearful repast is over.”

“Fearful? How is it fearful?” I asked.

“Everything here is fearful,” said Almah, with a sigh. “Every season it grows worse, and I shall grow at length to hate life and love death as these people do. They can never understand us, and we can never understand them. Oh, if I could but once more stand in my own dear native land but for one moment — to see once more the scenes and the faces that I love so well! Oh, how different is this land from mine! Here all is dark, all is terrible. There the people love the light and rejoice in the glorious sun, and when the dark season comes they wait, and have no other desire than long day. There we live under the sky, in the eye of the sun. We build our houses, and when the dark season comes we fill them with lamps that make a blaze like the sun itself.”

“We must try to escape,” I said, in a low voice.

“Escape!” said she. “That is easy enough. We might go now; but where?”

“Back,” said I, “to your own country. See, the sky is dotted with stars: I can find my way by them.”

“Yes,” said she, “if I could only tell you where to go; but I cannot. My country lies somewhere over the sea, but where, I know not. Over the sea there are many lands, and we might reach one even worse than this.”

“Perhaps,” said I, “the Kohen might allow us to go away to your country, and send us there. He is most generous and most amiable. He seems to spend most of his time in efforts to make us happy. There must be many seamen in this nation who know the way. It would be worth trying.”

Almah shook her head. “You do not understand these people,” said she. “Their ruling passion is the hatred of self, and therefore they are eager to confer benefits on others. The only hope of life that I have for you and for myself is in this, that if they kill us they will lose their most agreeable occupation. They value us most highly, because we take everything that is given us. You and I now possess as our own property all this city and all its buildings, and all the people have made themselves our slaves.”

At this I was utterly bewildered.

“I don’t understand,” said I.

“I suppose not,” said Almah; “but you will understand better after you have been here longer. At any rate, you can see for yourself that the ruling passion here is self-denial and the good of others. Everyone is intent upon this, from the Kohen up to the most squalid pauper.”

Up to the most squalid pauper?” said I. “I do not understand you. You mean down to the most squalid pauper.”

“No,” said Almah; “I mean what I say. In this country the paupers form the most honored and envied class.”

“This is beyond my comprehension,” said I. “But if this is really so, and if these people pretend to be our slaves, why may we not order out a galley and go?”

“Oh, well, with you in your land, if a master were to order his slaves to cut his throat and poison his children and burn his house, would the slaves obey?”

“Certainly not.”

“Well, our slaves here would not — in fact could not — obey a command that would be shocking to their natures. They think that we are in the best of all lands, and my request to be sent home would be utterly monstrous.”

“I suppose,” said I, “they would kill us if we asked them to do so?”

“Yes,” said Almah; “for they think death the greatest blessing.”

“And if at the point of death we should beg for life, would they spare us?”

“Certainly not,” said Almah. “Would you kill a man who asked for death? No more would these people spare a man who asked for life.”

All this was so utterly incomprehensible that I could pursue the subject no further. I saw, however, that Almah was wretched, dejected, and suffering greatly from home-sickness. Gladly would I have taken her and started off on a desperate flight by sea or land — gladly would I have dared every peril, although I well knew what tremendous perils there were; but she would not consent, and believed the attempt to be useless. I could only wait, therefore, and indulge the hope that at last a chance of escape might one day come, of which she would be willing to avail herself.

Almah utterly refused to go to the feast, and entreated me not to go; but this only served to increase my curiosity, and I determined to see it for myself, whatever it was. She had seen it, and why should not I? Whatever it might be, my nerves could surely stand the shock as well as hers. Besides, I was anxious to know the very worst; and if there was anything that could surpass in atrocity what I had already witnessed, it were better that I should not remain in ignorance of it.

So at length, leaving Almah, I returned to the hall of the feast. I found there a vast multitude, which seemed to comprise the whole city — men, women, children, all were there. Long tables were laid out. The people were all standing an waiting. A choir was singing plaintive strains that sounded like the chant of the sacrifice. Those nearest me regarded me with their usual amiable smiles, and wished to conduct me to some place of honor; but I did not care about taking part in this feast. I wished to be a mere spectator, nothing more. I walked past and came to the next cavern. This seemed to be quite as large as the other. There was a crowd of people here also, and at one end there blazed an enormous fire. It was a furnace that seemed to be used for cooking the food of this banquet, and there was a thick steam rising from an immense cauldron, while the air was filled with an odor like that of a kitchen.

All this I took in at a glance, and at the same instant I saw something else. There were several very long tables, which stood at the sides of the cavern and in the middle, and upon each of these I saw lying certain things covered over with cloths. The shape of these was more than suggestive — it told me all. It was a sight of horror — awful, tremendous, unspeakable! For a moment I stood motionless staring; then all the cavern seemed to swim around me. I reeled, I fell, and sank into nothingness.

When I revived I was in the lighted grotto, lying on a couch, with Almah bending over me. Her face was full of tenderest anxiety, yet there was also apparent a certain solemn gloom that well accorded with my own feelings. As I looked at her she drew a long breath, and buried her face in her hands.

After a time my recollection returned, and all came back to me. I rose to a sitting posture.

“Do not rise yet,” said Almah, anxiously; “you are weak.”

“No,” said I; “I am as strong as ever; but I’m afraid that you are weaker.”

Almah shuddered.

“If you had told me exactly what it was, I would not have gone.”

“I could not tell you,” said she. “It is too terrible to name. Even the thought is intolerable. I told you not to go. Why did you go?”

She spoke in accents of tender reproach, and there were tears in her eyes.

“I did not think of anything so hideous as that,” said I. “I thought that there might be a sacrifice, but nothing worse.”

I now learned that when I fainted I had been raised most tenderly, and the Kohen himself came with me as I was carried back, and he thought that Almah would be my most agreeable nurse. The Kohen was most kind and sympathetic, and all the people vied with one another in their efforts to assist me — so much so that there was the greatest confusion. It was only by Almah’s express entreaty that they retired and left me with her.

Here was a new phase in the character of this mysterious people. Could I ever hope to understand them? Where other people are cruel to strangers, or at best indifferent, these are eager in their acts of kindness; they exhibit the most unbounded hospitality, the most lavish generosity, the most self-denying care and attention; where others would be offended at the intrusion of a stranger, and enraged at his unconquerable disgust, these people had no feeling save pity, sympathy, and a desire to alleviate his distress. And yet — oh, and yet! — oh, thought of horror! — what was this that I had seen? The abhorrent savages in the outer wilderness were surely of the same race as these. They too received us kindly, they too lavished upon us their hospitality, and yet there followed the horror of that frightful repast. Here there had been kindness and generosity and affectionate attention, to be succeeded by deeds without a name. Ah me! what an hour that was! And yet it was as nothing compared to what lay before me in the future.

But the subject was one of which I dared not speak — one from which I had to force my thoughts away. I took the violin and played “Lochaber” till Almah wept, and I had to put it away. Then I begged her to play or sing. She brought an instrument like a lute, and upon this she played some melancholy strains. At length the Kohen came in. His mild, benevolent face never exhibited more gentle and affectionate sympathy than now. He seated himself, and with eyes half closed, as usual, talked much; and yet, with a native delicacy which always distinguished this extraordinary man, he made no allusion to the awful Mista Kosek. For my own part, I could not speak. I was absent-minded, overwhelmed with gloom and despair, and at the same time full of aversion toward him and all his race. One question, however, I had to put.

“Who were the victims of the Mista Kosek?”

“They?” said he, with an agreeable smile. “Oh, they were the victims of the sacrifice.”

I sank back in my seat, and said no more. The Kohen then took Almah’s lute, played and sang in a very sweet voice, and at length, with his usual consideration, seeing that I looked weary, he retired.

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