The marriage of Hilpa

Isaac Bickerstaff, astrologer, writes:

I came across the following in a curious old volume of astrological lore, bound in leather, and (according to the title page) “printed privately in Tremont Street in Boston” — the date unfortunately is obscured, but it appears to be an old book; what is printed here comes from the last chapter of the book:

Hilpa, fairer and wiser than any other woman on the Isle of Z—-, was the ruler of the Valleys, which lay in the center of the island, and ruler of all the groves therein. On one side of Hilpa’s realm stood Mount Tizrah, greatest of the mountains towering over the middle of the island, splitting it north to south from shore to the other; Mount Tizrah was ruled by Shalum. On the other side of Hilpa’s realm, just beyond a low range of hills, was a vast plain bisected by a river, and on that river stood a great City, at the farthest reaches of the tidewater inland. This City was ruled by Mishpach, who was a mighty man known throughout the surrounding countryside.

Now one day Hilpa took it into her head to marry, which was unheard of for the ruler of the Valleys; for Hilpa determined that she would like to have children of her own, rather than choose a child from among those who were brought to the sacred grove. For generation upon generation, into the distant and hazy past, rulers of the Valleys had always been women, women who lay, not with men, but with other women; thus the rulers of the Valleys chose their heirs from among the common people. Hilpa wanted offspring of her own flesh and blood, but she felt the old tradition strongly enough that she recoiled at the thought of lying with a man from her own realm.

Therefore she called upon her astrologers, and she asked them this: “Whereas I desire to have children of my own flesh and blood, and not chosen for or by me from among the children brought to the sacred grove, fruits of other women; so I desire to know where I might find a man who would be my equal, and who would be an adequate sire of my girlchild, a child who would one day rule the Valleys and the sacred groves therein.”

The astrologers heard her, nodded silently, and withdrew from her by walking backwards while keeping their eyes raised to hers, as was their custom from time immemorial. That night, as soon as the last glow from the red-gold sun had left the sky, the astrologers walked silently and in single file to the clearing in the middle of the sacred grove which stood hard by Hilpa’s dwelling place — or, more properly, her dwelling place stood hard by the principal sacred grove of the Valleys so that the ruler of the Valleys could always be near the source of guiding wisdom — each astrologer bearing that astrological instrument the use of which they had special knowledge, and of which they had special care. No other person could be allowed to accompany them, except for two young apprentices, a twin brother and sister, who were learning the lore of the heavens.

The next morning, the astrologers (and the two apprentices) appeared before Hilpa to tell what they had seen in the skies over the sacred grove; their eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep. They told Hilpa that she must chose between Shalum, the ruler of Mount Tizrah, and Mishpach, the ruler of the great City; but they could tell her no more than that; for whenever they had gotten to the point of seeing in the movement of the stars and planets which of these two great men Hilpa should chose, a shooting star would flash by obscuring the critical observation. The stars and planets instructed her to chose Shalum or Mishpach, but more than that they could not say.

Hilpa thanked them, and turned to her scribe, and dictated this letter: “Sir: As the ruler of the Valleys and the sacred groves therein, immediately adjacent to your own realm, I desire a child of my own. The astrologers tell me that I must chose between two men, and thou art one of them. Wilt thou then meet with me —- ”

— and here Hilpa told the scribe to insert a time and a place to meet each of the two men — and told the scribe to sign it with her name.

This letter was admired by some for its brevity and terseness; others whispered that this letter revealed that Hilpa did not truly want either man, was displeased with what the astrologers had seen in the heavens, and secretly hoped in her heart of hearts that neither man would deign to reply. The scribe having copied out the letter twice, Hilpa gave one copy to each of the twins who were apprentices to the astrologers. The boy ran off to deliver his letter to Mishpach in the great City, and the girl toiled up the steep slopes of Mount Tizrah to deliver her letter to Shalum.

[To be continued…]