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Monday, December 5, 2016

The Stars of Bethlehem

It was me and Sam that night, just hanging out, listening to some tunes, drinkin' some wine I swiped from the house, and lighting off the fireworks Sam’s older brother, Benjamin, picked up at that fireworks shop just across the border in Perea. You can get everything there: Star of Davids, Roman Candles, Fire and Brimstones, Gomorrah Rockets, everything. Anyway, we were just lighting off some of the Gomorrah Rockets, watching them explode in the sky in a shower of golden sparks and laughing at the night.

Old Man Mordechai came out and yelled at us. “Heathen children!” he shouted as he shook his tiny fists. Sam just tossed a couple of Babylon Smoke Bombs at him – and you know those things smoke forever. Mordechai slammed his door shut, but kept shouting at us. Sam and I just laughed.

“Totally righteous!” Sam shouted as another round of Gomorrah rockets lit up the night sky.

That’s when the old dudes showed up. Two of them were dressed in long belted tunics and wore strange pointed caps. The third had yellow skin and folded eyes and a long, long white mustache. He didn’t say much but when he did it was all garbled – thick with a weird accent that I couldn’t recognize. The other two, the dudes wearing the pointy caps, did most of the conversing.

“Greetings, young ones” said the taller of the men in those caps. “I am Qosem Qesamim and my confederate is Menahes.” The two of them bowed low, their funny hats almost touched the ground. “We are magi, that is, astrologers from the court of King Prarates the Fourth, scholars and learned men trained in esoteric arts and occultic practices. And this,” he gestured to the wizened old man with the strange eyes, “is the renowned Doctor Zhou, one of our fellow scholars from further east, from the land of the rising sun, a servant of the Emperor Cheng.”

“We saw your colored lights and were drawn to them. They are fascinating, almost hypnotizing. We thought they were what we have been seeking, but now we see that our colleague, Doctor Zhou, was correct. They are what he calls ‘yanhou’ and not the star that we seek.” 

The old guy with the weird eyes laughed, his mustache bobbing back and forth. “Fire woks,” he said with his weird accent.

“We’ve come so very far,” said Qosem. “We are being guided by a light, by a star – just as Aeneas was guided to that place where the city of Rome should be founded. We’ve traveled over fields, through fountains, across moors and mountains…following a great and wonderful star, not to find a city. No. Nothing so ordinary as that. The star that we follow is the natal star of a newborn king.”

“A king?” Sam and I said together.

“Do you mean King Herod?” I asked.

“No, dear boy. Though we did stop at his palace to inquire about the birthplace of this king. We would have followed the star, but … it disappeared.” The old guy blushed. He was embarrassed to have lost his star. “Herod’s scribes said that we should travel to a place called Bethlehem. But we are lost without the star.”

“Bethlehem? That’s not far from here. Just a few miles,” I said. “We can take you there.”

Sam elbowed me in the ribs. “Dude! Are you nuts? We can’t go wandering off with these freaks!” I pushed him away with my elbow.

“We can take you to Bethlehem,” I repeated, “for a price. It’s no problem.” Then I turned to Sam, and said, “It’s no problem. I told my mom that I’d be at your place. And you told your mom that you’re at mine. So we can lead these guys down to Bethlehem and come back in the morning with a few coins in our purse.”

Turns out those funny hats are Phrygean Caps - a sort of uniform of their order. They told us all about them as we traveled south along the road to Bethlehem. Menahes and Qosem Qesamim were from Persia. Doctor Zhou was from much further away, but they all met up on the road, following a strange light in the sky.

“It’s a star,” said Menahes. “We saw its rising!”

“It is a strange star…” Qosem Qesamim interrupted. His tone suggested that this was a frequent argument between the two of them.

“Yes. A very strange star,” agreed Menahes, not seeing the trap to which he was being led. “This star differs from the other stars in the heavens, differs in nature, in orbit, in light, in position. It is not what you would call a fixed star, but a movable star, able to rise, and to descend, and to turn in any direction.”

“Indeed, such a variable star,” Qosem said drolly, “one wonders how you can name it a star at all…”

“No. No star,” Zhou interjected. “What star moves across sky? No star. It is hui hsing. It is kommet.” He balled up his fist and swung it through the air, making a whooshing noise to illustrate the comet’s flight through the heavens. “It guide. We follow.”

“I think they’re both wrong,” Qosem told me, whispering behind his hand. “It’s a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Venus – all regal signs, I assure you. This is a very rare occurrence,” he said. “Very rare.”

Just then the three of them gasped and pointed. There, on the other side of the next hill, a strange brilliant light began to glow.  “Brothers, look how the sky is burning,” Qosem said to the others.

“The Star! The Star! Shining in the night!” shouted Menahes.  

Something in their excitement, in their joyful, eagerness to find the source of this light – and the newly born king to which they believed it was guiding them – caught fire within in Sam and me. Before we knew it, we were running ahead of the three magi, racing up the hill on our young, strong legs and leaving the old men to choke on our dust. We laughed as we ran towards the crest of the hill but stopped suddenly at the top. It was no star that we saw.

“What is it?” huffed the breathless Qosem as the three scholars joined us, panting for air at the top of the hill. Then they saw it for themselves.

The glowing light was not coming from the sky above us, but from down in the next valley. The strange light was radiating from a glowing baby. Yeah. A glowing, baby boy, wrapped up in diaper cloths – and he was walking back and forth along the road on his fat baby legs, and he was carrying a golden cross above his head.

Sam called out, “Hey! Hey you!” and started running down the hill towards that bizarre baby. I was freaked out and tried to grab Sam, to stop him. But he pulled away from me, and ran down the hill, ignoring my shouts, and the calls of the old dudes. Before Sam reached the bottom of the hill, though, the cross carrying child was gone. Lights out, gone.

Doctor Zhou was the first to speak, but I couldn’t understand a word of what he whispered. Qosem must have understood him though. “Indeed. This is most strange.” 

As the lingering glow of the cross porting boy slowly faded, we made our way down the hill, catching up with Sam, who still stood staring off after the boy, looking for him, though he was really and truly gone. The dark had returned, with only the pin prick light of the normal night sky stars.

“This is very strange,” Qosem repeated.

“We go. We go on,” Doctor Zhou pointed toward Bethlehem, which wasn’t far off now.
Bethlehem is a little burg, a nowhere sheep town that would have been forgotten if it hadn’t been the birthplace of King David. “What are you expecting to find there? What is this star, or planetary convergence, or comet hsing thing supposed to show you?” I asked as we walked.

“Our hero,” Menahes explained, “a prophet of yours, in fact, Balaam, long ago spoke a prophecy…”

“He’s no prophet of ours,” Sam interrupted. “He was a wicked man with a wicked eye.”

“Truly?” quizzed Menahes. “We understood that your people revered him as one of the seven gentile prophets. We will have to reconsider his role. But his prophecy stands. ‘Word of Balaam, word of the man whose eye is true…'” Sam growled a little at this, but Menahes continued. “'What I see is not yet, what I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob…’  And it is a star, just as the prophecy said.”

And then it was a three way argument again: Star! Comet! Planetary Alignment!

Bethlehem may be hicksburg, but they do have a decent well just outside of town, deep with clear cold water. I led our bickering party to the well for a drink. Walking six miles is thirsty work; walking while debating must make one parched. But Qosem, Menahes and Doctor Zhou didn’t break from their argument even for a drink.

I shrugged my shoulders and leaned over the stone lip of the well to draw up the bucket. That’s when I was blinded by the light. A brilliant, white light reflecting on the surface of the water in the well. It must have been the light the magi were seeking. I screamed in pain and fell backward. “The star! The star!” I shouted as I pointed blindly into the sky. “It’s up there.”

“Where?” asked Menahes. “We do not see it. Where?”

“I saw it. I saw it reflected in the well.”

“Dude, there’s nothing up there,” Sam said to me.

“It’s true.” Qosem confirmed. “There is no light in the sky now except those that are usual. Our mysterious light is gone.”

“Look in the well!” I screamed.

The others crowded around the well, peering into its waters.  And then they saw it too – the star, or whatever it was, the light glimmering, glistening on the surface of the water- a reflection. But in the sky above the well, there was nothing. Nothing but the ordinary stars you see every night.

“I have maintained that the light we saw is a star, a strange variable star,” said Menahes. “But this is beyond my comprehension. A star that appears only as a watery reflection?”

We stood there, staring silently at the star in the well, at the empty sky, and back at the light in the well.

“Could the star have fallen?” Sam piped up.

“Could the star have fallen into the well?” Menahes repeated the question with wonder. Thinking. Puzzling.

“Not star.” Doctor Zhou said sullenly.

We were still staring at the star that was and wasn’t there in the well, when two strangers ran past us carrying some exotic form of torch. The redheaded woman called after her partner, who ran faster ahead of her swinging his flameless torch into the sky. “Mulder… Mulder, stop. You’re chasing aliens that aren’t there.”

He stopped and turned to her, his face twisted with passion and desire and desperation. “I saw them, Scully,” he said to her. “You saw them. Multicolored lights dancing above the mountain that can’t be explained away as atmospheric phenomenon or geological anomaly. There’s no scientific, credible explanation at all except …”

“Except what, Mulder? UFOs? Extraterrestrial visitors from billions of miles away with nothing better to do than to buzz the sky over some obscure Judean village?  What are we doing out here, Mulder?”

The man named Mulder slowly relaxed. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it, familiar with the weight of it on his shoulders. “When you say it like that… Maybe you’re right, Scully. Let’s go home. The two of them extinguished their curious lamps and walked away.

“This night is most strange,” Qosem said. “Most strange with so many unexplained lights.”

Just then the light reappeared over the city of Bethlehem, and the light of its beams isolated an individual house. It was indistinguishable from the other homes and houses around it, built in the same manner, of the same material, neither larger nor smaller than the others around it. An ordinary house in every way – except for the light that the star (or whatever it was) cast upon it.

“There! There!” Shouted Doctor Zhou. And suddenly he and Menahes were running towards the house. Leaving Sam and I, and their friend Qosem Qesamim standing with us. 

“Thank you, boys, for leading us here. But now it seems our ‘star’ has returned, and is directing us to the end of our journey.”  He fumbled in a purse tied around his waist and brought out a handful of coins for each of us. “Here. Take this with our thanks.” And then he turned and ran after his colleagues.

Sam and I pocketed the coins he gave us and turned back toward Jerusalem with enough money to buy a basket full of Gomorrah rockets next time Benjamin went across the border to Perea.

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