An Eastern Tale. By Vikenty Veresaev, 1903.
This happened long ago, in an unknown, faraway land.
An eternal, black night reigned over the land. Rotten fogs rose over the marshy earth and lingered in the air. People were born, grew up, loved and died in the damp darkness.
But at times, the breath of the wind would drive away the earth’s heavy vapors. When this happened, bright stars in the distant sky would gaze upon the people. There would be universal celebrations. The people, who had been sitting by themselves in their dark, coffin-like dwellings, would gather in the square and sing hymns to the sky. Fathers pointed out the stars to their children and taught them that the life and happiness of a human being consists in striving towards them. Young men and women greedily peered at the the sky and flew towards it with their souls, away from the darkness crushing the earth. The priests prayed to the stars. The poets sang their praises. The scientists studied the paths of the stars, their number and size, and they made a great discovery: it turned out that the stars are slowly but constantly approaching the earth. Ten thousand years ago—according to wholly reliable sources—it was difficult to make out a smile on a child’s face from one and half steps away. Now it was easily doable by anyone from a whole three steps. There wasn’t any doubt that in a few million years the sky will shine with bright lights, and the kingdom of eternally radiant light will come on earth. Everyone waited patiently for the blessed time and died hoping for it.
This was what people’s life was like for many years, quiet and calm, and it was kept warm by a meek faith in the distant stars.
One day the stars in the sky were burning especially brightly. The people crowded in the square and in mute reverence ascended in soul towards the eternal light.
Suddenly, a voice was heard from the crowd:
“Brothers! How light and wonderful it is up there in the heavenly plains! And down here it is so damp and dark! My soul languishes, it has no life and will in the eternal darkness. What good is it that in a million years the lives of our distant descendants will be illuminated by an everlasting light? It’s us, it’s us who need this light. We need it more than air and food, more than our mother and our beloved. Who knows, maybe there’s a path to the stars. Maybe we have the strength to tear them from the sky and hoist them here, among us, to the joy of the whole world. So let’s go look for the path, let’s find the light for life!”
The gathering was silent. In whispers, people asked each other:
“Who is that?”
“That’s Adeil, a reckless and rebellious youth.”
Again there was silence. And the old Tsur, the teacher of the clever ones, the light of science, bean to speak:
“Dear young man! All of us understand your yearning. Which one of us hasn’t experienced it? But it is impossible for a human being to tear a star from the sky. Deep chasms and abysses lie at land’s end. Beyond them lie sheer cliffs. And there is no way to get past them to the stars. So say experience and wisdom.”
And Adeil replied:
“It is not you, wise men, whom I am addressing. Your experience clouds your eyes, and your wisdom blinds you. I am appealing to you, young and brave of heart, to you who haven’t yet been crushed by the decrepit, old wisdom!”
And he waited for an answer.
“We’d love to go. But we are light and joy in the eyes of our parents and we cannot make them sad.”
“We’d love to go. But we have only just began building our homes, and we need to finish them.”
The third said:
“Hello Adeil! We are going with you!”
And many young men and women rose. And they went after Adeil. They went into the dark, menacing distance. And they were swallowed by darkness.
A long time had passed.
Of the departed there was no news. Mothers mourned their recklessly perished children, and life returned to normal. Again people were born, grew up, loved and died in the damp darkness, with the quiet hope that in thousands of centuries light will descend to earth.
But then one day, above land’s end, the sky was faintly illuminated by a flickering light. People crowded in the square and kept asking:
“What is that?”
The sky was growing lighter by the hour. Cyan rays slipped across the fogs, pierced the clouds and filled the heavenly plains with a broad light. The gloomy clouds curled up in fright, pushing one another, and fled into the distance. The triumphant rays spilled ever brighter over the sky. And a trembling of unprecedented joy rushed across the earth.
The old priest Satzoi was gazing fixedly into the distance. And he said pensively:
“Such light can only come from an eternal heavenly star.”
And Tsur, the teacher of the clever ones, the light of science, objected:
“But how could a star come down to earth? There is no path for us to the stars, and no path for the stars to us.”
But the sky kept growing lighter and lighter. And suddenly, a blindingly bright dot flashed over land’s end.
“A star! A star is coming!”
And, filled with a turbulent joy, the people rushed towards it.
Bright as day, its rays dispersed the rotten fogs before it. Torn, ruffled fogs darted about, clinging down to the earth. And the rays kept striking them, ripping them into shreds and driving them into the ground. The earth’s expanse was illuminated and cleansed. People saw how broad the expanse was, how much free space there was on earth and how many brothers were living all around them.
And, filled with a turbulent joy, they rushed towards the light.
Adeil was walking softly along the road, holding by a ray the star he had torn from the heavens. He was alone.
They asked him:
“Where are the others?”
He replied in a broken voice:
“All perished. They were paving the path to the heavens through chasms and abysses. And they died the death of the brave.”
The jubilant crowds surrounded the star-bearer. Girls showered him with flowers. Cries of rapture thundered:
“Glory to Adeil! Glory to the bringer of light!”
He entered the city and stopped in the square, and in his hand he held the shining star up high. And jubilation spread throughout the city.
The star continued shining brightly in Adeil’s raised hand. But for a while now there was no jubilation in the city. People walked around irate and gloomy, with downcast eyes, trying not to look at one another. Whenever they had to pass through the square, at the sight of Adeil a dark enmity would ignite in their eyes. There was no sound of song. No sound of prayer. In place of the rotten fogs driven away by the star, an invisible mist of black, sullen spite was thickening above the city. It was thickening, growing and becoming more intense. And its oppression made life impossible.
And then one day a screaming man ran into the square. His eyes were aflame, his face was distorted by an anger that was tearing his soul apart. In a frenzy of rage he cried out: “Down with the star! Down with the cursed star-bearer!… Brothers, are not all our souls screaming with my lips: down with the star, down with the light—it has deprived us of life and joy! We lived calmly in the darkness, we loved our nice dwellings, our quiet life. And look what happened now. The light has come—and there’s no joy in anything. Our houses are clusters of ugly, dirty masses. The leaves of trees are pale and slimy, like the skin on a frog’s belly. Take a look at the ground—it’s all covered in bloodied mud. Where did this blood come from? Who knows… but it sticks to your hands, its smell haunts us when we eat and sleep, it poisons and enfeebles our humble prayers to the stars. And there is nowhere to hide from this brazen, all-pervading light! It breaks into our houses, and we see that they’re all covered in dirt; the dirt has eaten into the walls, covered the windows and is growing in stinking piles in the corners. We cannot even kiss our beloved: the light of Adeil’s star has made them more repulsive than maggots; their eyes are pale, like woodlice, their soft bodies are musty and covered with stains. We can’t even look at each other anymore—it’s not a human being we see before us, but a mockery of a human being… Every day the relentless light illuminates our every secret step, our every hidden movement. It’s impossible to live! Down with the star-bearer, let the light perish!”
And others join in:
“Down with it! Long live the darkness! It’s only sorrow and damnation that brings the light of the stars to the people… Death to the star-bearer!”
And a menacing excitement took over the crowd. And it tried to intoxicate itself with a frenzied roar, to stifle the horror of its great blasphemy against the light. And it moved towards Adeil.
But the star shone deathly bright in the hand of the star-bearer, and the people could not approach him.
“Brothers, stop!” suddenly sounded the voice of the old priest Satzoi. “You are taking a heavy sin upon your souls by cursing the light. What do we pray to, what do we live by if not the light? But you too, my son,” he turned to Adeil, “you too have committed no lesser sin by bringing the star down to earth. True, the great Brahma said: “Blessed is the one who strives towards the stars.” But the people, bold in their wisdom, misunderstood the word of the World-Honored One. The students of his students have interpreted the true meaning of the All-Wise One’s enigmatic words: the human being should strive towards the stars only in thought, but on earth the darkness is as sacred as the light is in the heavens. And it is this truth that you have held in contempt by your exalted mind. Repent, my son, release the star, and let the former peace reign on earth!!”
“And you think that if I release it, peace on earth hasn’t already perished forever?”
And with horror the people sensed that what Adeil said was true, that the former peace will never return.
Then the old Tsur came forward, the teacher of the clever ones, the light of science.
“You have acted recklessly, Adeil, and you yourself can now see the fruits of your recklessness. According to the laws of nature, life develops slowly. Slowly, too, do the distant stars draw nearer in life. With their gradual approach, life is also gradually reformed. But you didn’t want to wait. At your own peril you have torn a star from the heavens and with its bright light illuminated life. And what happened? Here it is all around us—dirty, pitiful and hideous. But didn’t we already know that this is what it’s like? Was this really the goal? It’s no great wisdom to tear a star from the heavens and illuminate the ugliness of the earth. No, take up the black, arduous work of transforming life. Then you will see just what it takes to cleanse it of the dirt that had been accumulating for centuries, whether a whole sea of radiant light would be enough to wash this dirt away. How much childish naïveté there is in this! How much misunderstanding of the conditions and laws of life! And so, instead of joy you have brought sorrow to the earth, instead of peace—war. And you could have been, and could still be useful to life: break the star, take but a shard of it—and this shard will illuminate life just enough to let you to work on it fruitfully and sensibly.”
And Adeil replied:
“You’re right Tsur! The star did not bring joy here, but sorrow, not peace, but war. I did not expect this when I climbed sheer cliffs towards the stars, when all around me my comrades were slipping and falling into the abyss… I thought that at least one of us would reach the goal and bring a star down to earth. And in its bright light a bright life would come to earth. But when I stood in the square, when I saw your lives in the light of the heavenly star, I realized that my dreams were foolish. I understood that you need the light only in an unattainable heavens, so that you could bow before it in the solemn minutes of your lives. But what you value most on earth is darkness, so that you can hide from each other and, most of all, so that you can be pleased with yourselves, with your dark, mold-eaten lives. But I have also felt, more than before, that it is impossible to live such a life. It cries out incessantly to the heavens with every drop of its bloody dirt, with every stain of its damp mold… However, I can put your mind at rest: my star does not have long left to shine. There, in the distant heavens, stars hang and shine on their own. But a star torn from the heavens and taken down to earth can only shine by feeding on the blood of its bearer. I feel my life flowing up my body towards the star and, like a candle, burning up in it. Very soon the whole of my life will be consumed. And it is impossible to pass the star to anyone else: it is extinguished together with the life of its bearer, and everyone must obtain this star anew. And it is you who I am addressing, the brave and honest of heart. Having discovered the light, you will not want to live in the darkness again. Set off on the long journey and bring new stars here. The path is long and arduous, but still it will be easier for you than for us, the first to perish on it. The paths have been laid, the ways have been marked. And you will return with the stars, and their light will never again run out on earth. Their inextinguishable light will make life as it is at present impossible. The marshes will dry up. The black fogs will disappear. The trees will turn bright green. And those who are now throwing themselves in a frenzy at the star, whether they want to or not, will take up the work of transforming life. After all, the reason they are angry is that they feel that the light makes it impossible for them to live as they do now. And life will become great and pure. And it will be beautiful in the radiant light of the stars being nourished by your blood. And when the starry sky finally descends and illuminates life, it will find a people worthy of its light. And then our blood will no longer be needed to nourish this eternal, everlasting light…”
Adeil’s voice broke off. The last drops of blood departed from his pale face. The star-bearer’s knees buckled and he fell. And the star fell with him. It fell, hissed in the bloody dirt, and died.
Black darkness rushed in from every side and closed over the extinguished star. Rejuvenated fogs rose from the ground and began swirling in the air. And through them shone the timid little lights of the distant, feeble and harmless stars in the distant sky.
As before, people were born, grew up, loved and died in the damp darkness. As before, life seemed peaceful and calm. But a deep anxiety and dissatisfaction undermined it in the darkness. People tried but could not forget that which the bright star had illuminated with its fleeting light.
The former quiet joys were poisoned. Deceit permeated everything. People would pray reverently to a distant star and begin to think: “Perhaps there will be another crazy one and he will bring a star here, to us?” And their tongue would waver, and the reverent prayer would be replaced by a cowardly trembling. A father would teach his son that human happiness consisted in the striving towards the stars. And suddenly a thought would flash: “But what if a striving for starlight would actually ignite in my son and, like Adeil, he would go after a star and bring it back to earth!” And the father would rush to explain to his son that while the light is, of course, good, it is crazy to try and bring it down to earth. There were such crazy ones, and they perished ingloriously, without making life any better.
This too was what the priests taught the people. This too was what the scientists continued to prove. But the sermons were said in vain. Now and then word spread that some young man or young woman left their native nest. Where to? Could they have followed the path marked by Adeil? And with horror the people could sense that if the light were to again illuminate the world, then, whether they wanted to or not, they would have to finally take up the monumental work, and there would be no way to avoid it.
With a vague apprehension, they peered into the black distance. And it seemed to them that above land’s end a trembling reflection of approaching stars was already beginning to flicker.