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Star Terror

Звездный ужас

It was a night of gold,
A night of gold, but moonless,
He ran across the plain,
Fell to his knees, reared up,
Rushed about like a gunshot hare,
And hot tears streamed down
His pitted furrowed cheeks
Into his old man’s billy-goat beard.
Behind him ran his children,
And behind them grandsons ran,
In the tent of unbleached fabric
An abandoned great-granddaughter squealed.

— Come back, — the children shouted after him,
And the grandsons clasped their palms together,
— Nothing bad has happened,
Sheep have not gorged on the euphorbia,2
Rain has not doused the sacred fire,
Neither shaggy lion nor the cruel Zend3
Have approached our tent. —

A steep black slope loomed up
But he did not see the looming slope
And smashed into it cracking his bones
Nearly knocking his breath right out.
He still tried to crawl
But the children had already grabbed him,
The grandsons lifting him from the ground
And to them he spoke these words:

— Woe! Woe! Dread the noose and dread the pit4
All who from the earth are born,
Because with his many eyes
The black one peers down from the sky
To seek out our secrets.
Tonight I fell asleep as usual
Wrapped in my pelts with face to the ground,
And dreamed of a splendid cow
With her swollen udder hanging down,
I crawled beneath her
Reaching up to suckle the fresh milk
When suddenly she kicked me
And I rolled over and woke up;
I was without my skin facing the sky.
It is well that a skunk had burnt
Only my right eye with its nasty juice
Because if I’d been looking with both eyes
I would have been left there dead.
Woe! Woe! Dread the noose and dread the pit
All ye who from the earth are born.

The children lowered their eyes to the ground,
The grandsons hid their faces in their elbows
As they all waited
For the oldest son to speak
And these are the words he spoke:
— As long as I have lived
No bad has come my way
And my heart believes
Nothing bad will fall to me,
So with both eyes I long to see
What it is that wanders in the sky. —

He finished speaking and at once lay on the ground,
Not prone down but on his back,
The others stood holding their breath.
They listened and waited a very long time.
Then shaking with terror, the old man asked:
— What do you see? — but no answer came
From the son with the gray beard.
And when his brothers bent down over him,
They saw he was not breathing,
His face was as dark as bronze,
It was distorted by the hands of death.

Oh how the women began to wail
And the children cried and howled,
While he pulled at his beard and hoarsely
Called down terrible curses.
The eight brothers leaped to their feet,
Strong men, seizing their bows,
— We will shoot, — they said — into the sky
And bring down the one who wanders there...
Why has this misfortune struck us? —
But the widow of the dead one shouted
— Let revenge be mine, not yours!
I want to see his face,
To tear at his face with my teeth
And scratch out his eyes with my claws. —

She screamed and fell to the ground,
But screwing up her eyes, for a long time
She whispered curses to herself,
Tore at her breasts and bit her fingers.
Finally she looked up grinning
And started to cuckoo like a cuckoo:

— Lin, why are you going to the lake? Linoya,5
Is the antelope liver good?
Children, the spout of the jug is broken off,
I’ll get you for that! Father, hurry and get up,
You see, the Zends are hauling off6
Reed baskets filled with mistletoe sprigs,
To barter not to fight.
How many fires are here, how many people!
The whole tribe... gathered for a fine festival!

The old man began to calm down,
Touching the lumps on his knees,
And the children put down their bows
The grandsons grew bolder and even smiled.
But when the prostrate one jumped
To her feet, everyone turned green
And in terror broke out in a sweat.
She was black but with white eyes,
She raced around furiously and wailed:
— Woe! Woe! Dread the noose and dread the pit!
Where am I? What has happened to me? The red swan
Chases me where the three-headed dragon...
Has sneaked near... Get away beasts, get!
Touch not, Cancer! Capricorn, stay away! —

And when still with the same wailing,
The wailing of a mad dog,
She rushed up to the mountain ridge to the abyss
No one ran after her.

In confusion the people went back to their tents
And sat around on the rocks in terror.
Midnight approached. A hyena
Was howling then abruptly stopped.
And the people said: — The one in the sky,
Whether god or beast, surely requires a sacrifice.
We must offer a calf,
A spotless maiden
Upon whom no man has yet
Looked with lust in his eyes.
Gar has died, Garaya has gone quite mad.7
Their daughter is but eight springs old,
Perhaps she will suffice. —

The women ran quickly
And dragged out young Garra.
The old man raised the flint ax
Thinking — It is best to strike her forehead.
Before she looks up to the sky.
After all she’s his granddaughter and he pities her. —
But the other did not allow it and said:
— What kind of sacrifice is it with forehead smashed?

They put the girl on a stone,
A flat black stone on which
The sacred fire burned until
It went out during all the turmoil.
After they placed her they turned away their faces,
Waiting for her to die, so they could get some sleep
Before the sun came up.

Except, the girl did not die,
She looked upwards then to the right
Where her brothers were, then upwards again
Longing to jump from the stone.
The old man jumped up and asked: What do you see? —
Greatly annoyed she answered:
— I see nothing. Only the sky,
Curved, black, empty,
And in the sky there are sparks everywhere
Like spring flowers in a marsh. —
The old man became thoughtful and said:
— Look again! — And once more Garra
Looked at the sky for a long, long while.
— No, — she said, — it is not little flowers,
It is simply golden fingers
Pointing us to the plain,
And the sea and the mountains of the Zends,
Revealing all that is happening,
Happening, happening. —

The people listened in amazement:
Not only children, but even men
Had never been able to say such things,
And Garra’s cheeks were burning,
Her eyes sparkled, her lips grew red,
And her hands were lifted to the sky
As if they wanted to fly up into the sky.
And suddenly she started to sing
Loudly like the wind in a thicket of reeds,
Or the wind from the mountains of Iran on the Euphrates.

Mella was eighteen springs old
But did not yet know a man,
She fell to the ground near Garra,
Peered at her and began to sing:
And following her lead, Akha, and after Akha,
Urr, her bridegroom, and then the whole tribe
Lay down and sang, sang, sang,
Like larks in the midday heat,
Or frogs in the confusion of evening.

Only the old man stepped to the side
Clamping his fists over his ears,
As a tear slipped down
From one eye.
He grieved for his fall
From the steep slope, for his bruised knees,
For both Gar and his widow, and the time
Gone by when the people gazed
On the plain where their herds grazed,
On the water where their sails ran,
On the grass where their children played,
But not at the black sky where unattainable
Alien stars were sparkling.
1. This is the final poem in Gumilev’s last published volume,
2. Euphorbia belongs to one of the largest and most diverse genera of plants, and includes the European spurges long used as purgatives. It is named after the ancient Greek physician Euporbus (c.25 BCE to c.25 AD) who cataloged and wrote about many varieties from the Mediterranean and North African regions. One variety was a cactus found in Egypt that was used throughout the ancient world as a laxative.
3. This is a particularly thorny reference. I have not been able to confirm McKane’s note that say the Zend were an Iranian tribe (Gumilev, Pillar, 240); in addition, the Zend-Avista is the tradition of how to read the Avista and other ancient Persians sacred texts. Many hermeneutic traditions (Hindu, Christian, Islam, etc.) for reading sacred texts are premised on the belief that such texts are the living word of god, the divine logos. Given Gumilev’s interest in religions and especially his attention to “the word” (see the poem of that name and relevant endnotes), a religious reference seems as likely here as a tribal one.
4. I quote McKane’s note in full:
‘Woe! Woe!...’: this powerful refrain, related to Isaiah 24.17 (‘Fear and the pit, and the snare are upon then, O inhabitant of earth’) on the authority of Akhmatova and Mandelstam’s widow, occurs also in Jeremiah 48.43, and is partially reiterated in another of Gumilyov’s [sic] persistent sources, Revelation (8.13). The cumulative contexts underscore the potential topical relevance to a time of cataclysmic political upheaval (qtd. in Gumilev, Pillar, 240).
5. This name does not seem to have any particular significance.
6. See earlier note regarding the word Zend.
7. These names do not seem to have any particular significance.

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