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To follow the light of a star

Nevie Peters  |  29 October 2019

Three Magi take to the road not knowing what they will find at the end of their journey.

There was not much for entertainment out here in the desert. The odd wisp of sand from atop a dune. A lone tree shivering by the side of the path. A camel’s snort. Before they were the Magi, they were only three men, and they had been walking along the dusty road to Bethlehem for months.

One of the camels sneezed again. Caspar wrapped his coat tighter around his chest. Dusk was setting in from the east. To his left, Melchior and Balthazar - both younger and faster than him - were trudging up the dune, feet slipping in the sand. He fought the urge to halt; he would not ask them to stop, not when they were this close.

The old man had travelled the furthest of the three. He still wasn’t sure what had possessed him to undertake the voyage. The glittering star had appeared one humid, steamy evening back home and simply demanded his attention. Although urged against doing so by his contemporaries, the king went and loaded his camel with food and riches and set out apprehensively along the Western road.

His money didn’t last long. Now, with his feet slipping in the sand, the man cast a thought to the small amount of gold stowed away on the camel’s back. It was useless now.

Sense of apprehension

It was not long before he had stumbled on Melchior and Balthazar, two kings sitting in the dirt by a tent not far from Babylon, passing a goat’s skin to and fro and babbling on about a star in the sky. The three men laughed and talked their way through Arabia, ducking through the hustle of each town and then passing again into the deep silence of the desert in between. Underlining all the joyous camaraderie of the early days, however, was a certain sense of apprehension and unease. Hunger and uncertainty caused the three to doubt themselves often.

When, one very cold night on the way to Judea, Melchior’s camel had simply knelt in the snow and died, a certain silence befell the group. They had been shuffling along faster since then.

Judea wasn’t supposed to have been an eventful stop. The men, whose robes had long since degenerated into faded rags and whose shoes were chipped and gaping at the soles, blended nicely into the hubbub of the old and anxious town. 

Nevertheless, the rumours spread, and before long the three men found themselves ushered into a quiet room and summoned before the King. In contrast to their exhaustion, he seemed excited, speaking fast and then listening with intent. The three kings hesitated to tell him about the star or where they hoped it might lead. The newborn king, it would appear, had been commodified, and King Herod was keen for a piece. Herod told them to send word as soon as they had located the child.

Closing in

That was only a week ago. The men knew now that they had to be close. Caspar’s energy was rapidly depleting and his willpower was fading quickly: the old man needed a rest.

It was then that they stumbled across Bethlehem. A few kilometres in the distance ahead, the desert trailed off and a track ran through to a small town. The star was positioned patiently on top of an old stone building with wooden shutters and birds perching on its edges. As the men arrived, panting at the doorstep, they noticed the low throb of light seeping out from inside the building. The faint sound of music drifted out to greet them in the cold. Melchior rapped on the door, politely at first, and then with passion. Balthazar began to yell.

Caspar walked slowly to a rock for a rest. The star was still blinking in the darkness above. Raising slowly to his feet, the old man made his way around the back of the inn and took a moment to regard his surroundings. He was in a garden of fig trees although at this time of year, of course, they bore no fruit. It was a few moments before he heard the baby cry.

Caspar called to the other men. The three kings, clutching their bags in their blistered hands, camels in tow, made their way to the door of what looked to be a cold and darkened barn.

Sleeping child

Straw was leaking out of a set of great wooden doors. There were animals, some pigs and a sheep, resting by the entrance. The men stepped gingerly inside. In the far corner were two uncertain shapes, one of which was singing softly to the beat of a pulsing candle. As the men approached the music trailed off. In her arms, the woman was holding a sleeping child. 

Caspar felt within him a sudden buoyancy, a rise of the heart. The old man managed to forget the weariness of his muscles, the aches in his joints; the physical had been left outside or somewhere far behind. Despite the season, the gentle piling of snow by the wooden doors, Caspar felt warm and welcome inside the barn.

To Caspar’s side he heard a rumbling: Melchior was rummaging through his bag. After a minute he retrieved a small package and placed it carefully by the haystack atop which the mother sat.

Frankincense, thought Caspar. A fitting gift for something so divine.

Balthazar was next. It would later be seen as ironic that the youngest of the three men was the one to hand Jesus a bottle of myrrh.

Caspar left the barn and located his bags on the camel. After a minute he returned, clutching the last of his gold in a little leather pouch, and placed it carefully in Mary’s hands. One piece at a time.

For a while the people sat, all of them staring somewhat blankly at the child. Crickets chirped outside and the wind howled gently over the barn. Finally, the kings lay back among the animals and drifted off to sleep.

A warning

That night, Caspar slept deeply among the pigs. It was then, curled in the safety of his dreams, that he was warned by the vision of an angel to not return the happy news to King Herod. He awoke the next morning and relayed this to the three men.

Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar packed their bags. Caspar stood for some time in the garden, thinking among the shadows of the figs. His rags buffeted slowly in the cold wind that rumbled across the desert. There really was nothing left to do. How could he return now to the sticky darkness of his kingdom in the East, perch himself on his lofty throne, wear his crown and rich robes, when now he had no wishes for such things?

Sitting under the fig trees, watching their tiger-striped shadows race each other through his dirty footprints on the ground, Caspar felt as if the baby’s pure goodness had unearthed all the things that hid in the shadows of the world. All the wickedness and grief had suddenly be made clear to him: it haunted the laughter of the men at the inn, it displayed itself on the faces of the other two kings, and, most harrowingly, Caspar saw it in his own reflection. The goodness expressed through the baby’s round little eyes had exposed all the fault and error he now understood existed within himself.

Caspar was jolted back to attention when Balthazar called out to him from the road. He was waving him over with a hand, smiling.

‘It’s going to snow’, said Caspar loudly, pointing to the clouds.

Balthazar frowned upwards. Then, in a moment, he looked back at his friend and grinned. ‘How beautiful!’ He yelled back. ‘Maybe tomorrow will be a brighter day.’

Then Caspar looked at the ground again and noticed that it had, indeed, begun to snow. Each snowflake pure and new like the baby in the barn.

‘We can hope’, he said, but the others could not hear him.

Silver lining

Because that was just it. What he returned with was hope. Hope for the day ahead. Hope for his kingdom, hope for the people in the inn, hope for his friends and hope for himself. Perhaps the star had led them thence, three kings, to give them hope for all the people. A silver lining to counteract the stormy clouds above.

Caspar looked up to where Balthazar was waving, faster now, urging him to move his old body in the direction of the road. The old man hurried to his camel, loaded it with what little possessions he had left, and, with an auspicious sigh, set about for his own beautiful and broken country which lay back along the eastern path. l

Nevie Peters is a member of our young writers' community.

 

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