Sunday, January 6, 2013

From The East

In 2011, I wrote a piece for Christmas. This one seemed more fitting for today.

About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem...

He wasn't sure what to think anymore.

It had been months since his boss had first mentioned the trip, entirely in passing. He and his colleagues had been watching the stars and saw a potential alignment, one that would rival previous events for rarity and brilliance. They had decided then to track it as far as they could, which would likely involve a few months' travel, and that was when his boss had approached him. Each man wanted to bring along a servant or apprentice -- a minimal crowd so they wouldn't lose speed but something commensurate with their standing -- and it was entirely optional. Months, maybe even years on the road, wouldn't be possible for all of them. In fact, one man who technically outranked him had passed on it as he had two children at home and another on the way.

And so it was when his boss approached him, he had to take a day to think it over. There was a girl in the village, one his parents wanted him to consider for marriage, and he knew leaving for several months would mean he'd probably have to start over with someone else when he returned. There was no way she would still be unmarried, given how many parents in the village were seeking mates for their children right then.

In the end, though, the lure of travel and loyalty to this man that had been teaching him for the last two years won, and he packed a few things and joined the other men.

He and the other apprentices mostly stuck together, occasionally taking watch shifts with the servant boys so that they could get some sleep. As far as they could tell, the sages rarely slept; they were charting courses when the group stopped moving, talking about what to expect and arguing over the customs in the lands they were passing through. They were learned men but that also meant they didn't always want to yield to each other's specialties.

Somehow, though, they'd traveled quite far without any major problems. It seemed the western nomads were not bothered by these strange eastern men as long as they took from the land only what they needed that night, and people seemed hospitable enough in the villages they crossed. There were very few questions about the trunks they carried, which was probably for the better -- some of the men they met would have been much more interested in their contents if they were more aware.

What had really confused him and the other apprentices, though, was when the sages announced that they would be seeing a king. Two, in fact -- one of current standing, one that they believed had just been born. And when they met the current king, he called for a meeting with the sages alone -- no advisors, no servants, no apprentices.

This was not the behavior of a king who had just had a son.

They sat in a side room to wait. There was a flutter of anxious activity around them, the king's servants just as uncomfortable as their visitors. The hurried Hebrew from the servants was complete gibberish to their ears and aside from miming for water, they couldn't communicate or explain their presence.

In the meantime, they tried to piece things together. From the bits they had gathered from the sages, they knew that they believed the alignment had indicated the birth of a new monarch. When they had arrived, the apprentices had all assumed they'd be meeting a prince -- but it was clear both from the king's reaction and the lack of festivities that no such person was in being. Had they really traveled all this way for no reason? Were the months they'd been on the road wasted?

When the sages emerged, they were subdued. It was late in the day; all enthusiasm they'd had over the trip seemed drained. The apprentices and servants gathered silently and followed them out to the square, careful to bring along the trunks and nod their thanks for the water and fruit that the king's servants had offered. It wasn't until they were a distance from the palace near an inn that one of the sages suggested they take shelter there for the night.

Over a cold dinner of fruit, bread, and dried meat, one of the sages relayed a story the innkeeper had told of the census a few months before and how his inn had been filled with the members of one family for two full weeks. "Overstayed their welcome, those people -- so much wine!"

After they'd eaten, one of the sages explained. Their stop had been one to pay the proper respect to a reigning king, but when they asked where to find his son, the king-to-be, he had been confused.

When the servants were sent away, he had asked them dozens of questions -- at first the simple whats and wheres of their trip, but then more about his own land's prophecy. They were baffled by this -- surely the king would know what was foretold for his own kingdom.

This, however, seemed to be a forgotten piece of Hebrew faith, and the sages found themselves sent away with instructions to return once they'd found the prince.

There was no rest that night.

He found himself reevaluating. The confusion of the previous months was nothing compared to what he felt now as he listened to the sages argue into the night. They had checked and rechecked their charts, fought about a new course of action, and were now on the inn's roof to watch the alignment again.

He and the other apprentices were arguing as well. While they had traveled most of those months in peace, they were now divided. Those that had been studying the longest were the most certain that the sages would find the right course of action and that they were there for a reason; the others thought they had wasted most of a year. He wasn't the only one that had left a girl behind and several of the others had even left wives.

The morning was a long time coming. A couple of them nodded off eventually, but the others were unable to relax and by dawn had already packed all the trunks again. They ate, and soon the sages appeared and with renewed energy led them away.

They were headed to a neighboring town. Somehow, they had restored peace among them and were in agreement -- they were certain of what they'd find that day.

Which is what brought him to his ultimate confusion.

The sages had gone on ahead -- and when they caught up, they found them with a young family. The mother was maybe the age of his little sister, the father older and looking strangely sad. The baby, a few months old with clear, bright eyes, was the calmest he'd ever seen -- and he had six younger siblings.

But most of all, they were ... ordinary. They were living in a tiny house and the baby's father was a carpenter. There were tools arranged on a bench to one side of the house with a half-finished table nearby. The baby's mother was nothing exceptional, except for her calm about how these men were gathered around her child.

When they departed, the eldest sage told them they would be taking a different route home. The king was not to be trusted.

He gave one final look back to see the baby's father watching them, that sad look still on his face.

He wasn't sure if he could ever explain this when they got home, whenever that was.

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