The elder Magi were not the only ones to bestow a gift. (5513 words)
|The Last Gift of the Magi|
Johar woke to the sound of the camels growling and grunting as their handlers fed and watered them in preparation for the day's journey. The sun had yet to clear the dune tops. The night sky was beginning to give way to a brightening horizon. As he stood in the entranceway of his tent, he could hear his father consulting with the other travelers who had accompanied them on this journey west. Scrolls with ancient symbols were held open by a young scribe for the group to see. The elder from the lands of Persia studied the charts and then using the instruments he held in his hands, studied the sky. Returning his gaze to earth, he informed his peers from Sheba and Egypt they had approximately a week before they would lose sight of the Star.
“If we continue on our current pace, we will arrive in the lands of David in time to honor the Child. We know from the ancient prophecies that the family will be there until we have fulfilled the writings. After we depart, they will leave for the lands of the Pharaohs. You, Balthazar, will have the solemn task of providing for the safety of the family. You amongst all of us gathered here will be remembered for this most important task.”
Balthazar nodded to Melchior and said, “Let us have our morning meal and then begin our journey while the sun rides low in the sky. We will make the oasis shortly before the sun obscures the Star we follow.”
The three leaders turned to the other followers gathered together in the faint dawn light. That Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar were men of importance was not in dispute. They carried themselves with the assurance of knowledge and power. Their attendants and the leaders of other regions that had joined their trek were all schooled in the teaching of old and knew that these three were the chosen to reveal He who had been promised.
Johar, who had been listening to the elders speak and had been observing the Star himself, was brought back to the present by the presence of one of the guards assigned to protect him and his mother.
“Johar-Khan,” the guard Kamar said to him, “Your mother and your teacher request your presence at her tent for your morning meal. Your teacher told me to inform you that your lessons will take place at the same time. Before following his guard, he looked back at the group of travelers up at the dune top. He could hear that his father and the two other men, the Revered Ones the group called them, were discussing the wondrous sight in the sky, the Star of incredible brilliance.
It was only a short walk to his mother’s tent across the camp. He was glad his mother was able to travel with them. They had been traveling a long time. Not as long as those from the areas of Persia, India, and Sheba traveled. Balthazar and his retinue had come from the area surrounding Cairo and gone north to Damascus to study with some of the elders there. They met up with the rest of their group on the roads heading southwest into the lands of Judah. His mother was a quick study of the people who were their traveling companions. She was also fascinated by the sights and sounds of the regions they passed through.
As Johar approached his mother’s tent, the guard stationed at the entrance bowed and opened the tent flap for him. Setareh smiled as her son kissed her proffered cheek. She sat on the cushions surrounding a small table and studied her son’s expression. She could not help but notice the close resemblance to his father, right on down to his furrowed brow when pondering something of importance.
“I see questions in your eyes Johar,” she observed.
“Yes mother, many questions,” he replied. Before he could continue the arrival of his teacher was announced.
Salar Zadek approached them both and bowed to Setareh saying, “Good morning, Khutan Setareh.”
“Good morning Salar. Join us at the table please,” she said.
Johar and the teacher sat at the table and the three enjoyed a small breakfast of dried dates and figs, along with Khask, a type of yogurt, and some flatbreads and goat cheese. After they finished eating and the food was cleared by Setareh’s attendants, cups of pomegranate and honied tea were set out for each of them. Salar, placing his cup on the table after taking a sip, spoke directly to Johar.
“I could not help but overhear the Khutan say that she saw questions in your eyes. I would have to agree with her observation. Judging your silence during our meal, I would have to say that these are heavy questions for one so young. Ask your questions and I will try to impart as much wisdom as possible. Formal lessons can wait until another day. You must learn that the questions we ask are as important as the answers we seek. So, Johar al Balthazar, ask your questions.”
Johar fiddled with his teacup, taking a deep breath before proceeding.
“I have three, teacher. We have been following the light in the sky for many days. Listening to the stories of the travelers from afar, they have been following it for much longer. They have traveled for months. How is this possible?”
“How is it they also know of the ancient prophecies? There seem to be slight differences in the stories passed down from their ancestors. Their cultures are different, as they are from far-flung lands. All of this, and yet our Mages treat them with respect, almost as equals. Why?”
“The last question is why are our dromedaries laden with gifts this young child will not be able to use until he reaches his destiny as a man?”
His mother picked up her teacup and hid a small smile behind the rim. Johar may have only been 9 years of age and already showing curiosity and wisdom far beyond his years, but there remained a bit of the mindset of a small boy. Salar seemed just as pleased with the line of questioning.
“Worthy questions, Johar-Khan. As far as the others following the movement of the star, future lessons in the study of the skies and the stars will explain how it is possible. Suffice it to say right now that the movement of our world through the heavens dictates the rise and set of the stars that we see.”
“As to the travelers from the East, they are kindred people. Some of our revered Mages are descendants of the peoples gathered here today. The prophecies they quote have been handed down for many generations. We all believe in the fulfillment of the coming of the One. All gathered here are just like us, seekers of Wisdom and the Divine.”
“As for the gifts laden on the camels. The Mages and the leaders are thinking ahead to what the new ruler will need in his lifetime. The gifts were chosen to be of help to him when he reaches adulthood. Why do you find that to be unsettling?”
Johar again paused before speaking. Looking Salar in the eyes he asked, “Could there not be gifts that would help the family now? Something that would be of use to the child and his parents? Something that would help the child bond with his father? Is that not just as important as seeing to his adult needs?”
Salar raised an eyebrow. This was not a question or observation that he expected to hear.
“The Mages and the leaders from afar look at these gifts as offerings of allegiance. They see the child as a future leader and as a result of that conclusion, they see that he will need followers and currency. My interpretations of the prophecies are much different than theirs. I take the writings at their word. He will be humble his whole life. For those in our group that are kings and rulers in their regions right now, they do not understand. Not that their gifts are to be disparaged. It is just that they give gifts that are important to them. In their lack of understanding, they give to the child that which he will not need and only give away to others.”
“Your last question I will answer with a question of my own. What would you, as a young child, give to the one we seek?”
Up until that point in the lessons, Johar and his mother listened closely to the teacher's words. Setareh smiled at the question posed by the teacher and addressed her son.
“It seems as if Salar has given you the assignment to ponder on the next leg of our journey.”
The conversation was interrupted when the tent flap was pulled back and the guards announced that it was time to depart. Salar bowed, taking leave of the mother and son. Setareh and Johar, wrapping themselves in cloaks to shield themselves from the sun and sand, went to find the camels that had been prepared for their ride.
Johar helped his mother take her place in the make-shift sedan chair on one of the smaller camels of their pack. Leaving her in the care of Hayat and the guards he went to the head of the line and joined his father.
"Good morning, Father," he said in greeting as one of the guards helped him to mount his ride. His father nodded at him and then mounted his camel. Rising from the kneeling positions, father and son rocked back and forth to counter the rise of their mounts' front and back legs. All of the dromedaries voiced their displeasure as the handlers readied them to start. As the group set out, father and son rode side by side.
"Have you seen to it that your mother is comfortable and cared for, Johar?" his father asked of him.
"Yes, father. She is well cared for by your commander Kamar and his wife, Hayat."
"Your teacher, Zadek, " his father continued, "Are your lessons progressing?"
"Yes," replied the boy. "The lessons of the history and cultures of those who travel with us are quite interesting." With that, Johar fell silent, gazing up at the light in the sky as they rode.
"The star rides lower in the sky these days, why is that? I overheard one of the other leaders say that we will lose sight of this light in a week. How does he know this? Where does this light in the sky lead us?" Johar fell silent after the outburst of curiosity.
Balthazar smiled at his son and said, "Join me for the evening meal tonight. We have not had much time together on our journey. I will try to answer all of your questions. I have seen you studying all that is happening when you think no one is paying attention. Your mother has told me that you have a penchant for seeing things missed by most of us. It pleases me to hear that. It does my heart good to know that you will one day take my place among the Mages."
Johar sat up a bit straighter on his camel. Praise from his father was rare indeed! He ducked his head but not before Balthazar caught a glimpse of his son's smile.
Balthazar continued, "After a few lessons and our evening meal, we will play a game of Senet. It has been a while since we have played together and I know how much you enjoy it."
Johar gave his father a broad smile. The rest of the trip to the oasis was passed in amiable silence, disturbed occasionally by the grunts of the camels. The silence gave Johar the time to ponder the assignment of his teacher: what would he, Johar, find to be a fitting gift for the infant king?
They arrived at the oasis near the borders of the lands of Judah and Palestine as the sun and the star seemed to become one object in the sky. The travelers were grateful to dismount their rides and stretch. The camels grunted as they were relieved of their burdens. Johar went to the middle of the caravan to check on his mother.
"Thank you, my son," she said. "If my bones had voices they would sound like the dromedaries over there. Don't fret, Johar," she said seeing the concern on his face. Putting her arm around his shoulder she continued, "I knew this would not be an easy journey. Yes, I am stiff and sore, but this is an adventure for me. Your father was gracious in indulging me and allowing me to accompany you both. It is so good to be free of our palace confines. I, too, feel the importance of this journey. It is important to me to be a part of this."
The stop at the oasis, the last on the borderlands of Judah offered a much-needed respite from the blazing sun and heat. They were so close to their destination and everyone was anxious to resume their travels. Johar seemed to be the only one not concerned about the stopover. He was looking forward to the time with his father, their conversations, and a couple of games of Senet. There was also a chance that his father would be able to teach him a new game called Mancala. The game was given to his father by Gaspar, the Mage prince from Sheba.
The time with his father passed far too quickly for Johar. It had been such an enjoyable evening. He impressed his father with his knowledge of their fellow caravan members. He surprised his father, even more, when he managed to best him in a game of Senet. His father was not one to indulge his son with a win. He wanted Johar to learn the importance of observing your opponent and understanding how they thought and acted. His father considered it a key part of his strategy in life. Johar did his best to think hard before he would execute a move. He was determined to prove himself to his father. So when he won one of the games, the praise from his father was effusive. When he failed to win, he took the suggestions on how to improve his game performance to heart.
Later that night, laying on the cushions in the corner of the tent they shared, Johar again thought about the question of a gift. His eyes were heavy with sleep and almost closed when the idea came to him. Senet. The game. That is what he would give the child and his family.
The game helped him connect with his father and maybe it would work for them too.
Johar rose from his bed and went over to his sack of belongings in the center of the tent. Opening the bag he pulled out a blue velvet bag that contained the game. Loosening the braided silk rope that secured the bag, He removed the narrow carved turquoise and obsidian box. A braided gold handle graced the drawer that housed the playing pieces, made of the same turquoise and obsidian. Small Egyptian glyphs covered the top of the box indicating the play of the game. Figures of the Pharaohs and the god Amon were carved on the sides.
Sliding the game back into its velvet casing, he set it gently back with his other belongings, making sure to have it cushioned for safekeeping. Satisfied that he had come to the right conclusion, Johar returned to his bed. He decided, that if asked if he had come up with an idea for a gift, he would tell them he had but not discuss just what the item would be. He preferred to keep that decision to himself.
The sounds of grumpy camels and their equally grumpy caretakers again roused members of the caravan. Rising from his bed, Johar saw that his father had already left to have his morning meeting with the other mages. Opening the flap of the tent, he saw that the Star was hanging a bit closer to the earth and glowing brighter than before. He had learned from his father, that the Star would lead them to the child they sought.
"Good morning, Johar-Khan," Kamar said in greeting. "The mages have said that another two days journey and we should be at the gates of Jerusalem. Our travels should be a bit easier from this point on."
"That is good to hear, Commander, " replied the boy. "I think we will all be glad to see something other than sun and sand for a change!" Kamar nodded and smiled at him.
"Your father has sent me to ask you to ready yourself and your mother for today's journey." With that Kamar bowed and hurried away to see that the rest of the caravan was prepared to leave. Johar took one last look at the Star and hurried back to his tent to pack and then to see to the needs of his mother.
The rest of the journey through the lands of Israel and Palestine was uneventful. In each of the small towns they passed, they made inquiries as to the location of the new infant King. The appearance of the strangers and the questions they were asking made their way to the ears of King Herod. So it came as no surprise that as they neared the gates of the big city, they were met by the emissaries of the King. The three Mages and their most trusted guards were to present themselves to Herod at the palace. The representatives of the king assured them of the respect that he held for the men of knowledge and science. He just wanted to discuss the quest with them. The request deeply puzzled the travelers. Would not the current King know where the heir apparent was, if not at the palace? The whole situation deeply disturbed them. Balthazar instructed Johar to make sure that Kamar and Hayat did not leave the side of the Khutan. Johar was ordered to stay with them. To not break with protocol, the three leaders chose special gifts from each of their lands for Herod. The offer of hospitality and the possible access to the information necessary required an appropriate display of thanks. Preparations completed, the Magi and the king's men started to the palace in the city.
Arriving at the grand portico, Herod and his courtiers greeted his visitors. The Magi bowed and thanked him for his hospitality. They bestowed on him gifts of embroidered silk, jade, and spices. Murmurs of appreciation could be heard from the people in the courtyard. Herod himself could not help but appreciate the wealth displayed in these gifts. That these were men of wealth and knowledge was not lost on him. After the gifts were presented, they were invited to have a meal the Herod and discuss the information they sought. As they neared the table, the three men saw they would be joined by other scholars of the ancient texts, the High Priests of Jerusalem.
The talk started with news from their homelands. The trip of both Melchior and Gaspar had started well over a year ago. Balthazar had traveled to Syria and had been there studying when the caravans of Melchior and Gaspar arrived. They, too, had traveled to the western schools for information on the Star. All they had from their ancient texts was the rising of the Star would herald the birth of the King of the Jews. The High Priests nodded their agreement with their assessment of the ancient prophecies. Their research of the old writings had determined that Bethlehem was the place they needed to go. Their texts had predicted that the Messiah would be from the House of David and that the royal house was from that region.
While the High Priests delivered this information to them, Melchior was intently watching the expression on Herod's face. It was apparent that he was not pleased with the information that he heard. Melchior's distrust only deepened when Herod gave them instruction to find the child and return to the palace and inform him so that he could go and worship the child too.
After the meal, the mages were escorted by the guards to the edge of the palace compound. They rode in silence to their camp outside the walls.
Once they were back in their encampment, Melchior summoned all of the leaders from the regions of the east to meet in his tent.
"Tomorrow we break camp and leave for Bethlehem," he began. "By our calculations, the Star will be visible for one to possibly two more days. I rely on the words of the ancients that the Star will lead us to where the child resides, with the Star stopping directly overhead. We will not linger on our visit to the city, as I fear that Herold has ill feelings towards this child." Gaspar and Balthazar nodded in agreement.
"We will not return to Jerusalem as the King requested. We will all separate and return to our countries at different times and by different routes. This will allow the family the time to journey to Egypt to fulfill the ancient writings. Balthazar, you have all in readiness?"
"Kamar and Hayat will travel with the family. They will dress the same as the family so as not to attract undue attention. Once in Egypt, they will go to the house of a relative of mine. They will be safe," he said.
"Excellent,' Melchior replied. "After we meet with the family and present our offerings, we will consult with the child's father and tell him of the disposition of King Herod."
The arrival of dawn saw a flurry of activity in the camp. Now that everyone knew the final destination there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. Solar stood with Johar watching the breakdown of the camp.
"You look very satisfied with yourself this morning, Johar-Khan," Solar said to his young charge. "I take it you have arrived at an answer to my question."
Johar nodded his assent and flashed his teacher a wide smile, but offered nothing else. Solar studied the young boy for a moment.
"I am sure that whatever you have decided, your gift will be well received." Johar's smile just widened.
The journey to Bethlehem took less than one full day to reach the walls of the small town. A camp was established in a wooded area near the start of the hill country. The arrival of the caravan sparked the interest of the locals. The Via Maris and The Shur were the known major trade routes in the area. That a caravan came to this little town could only mean one thing. Supplies were needed for the travelers and the townsfolk welcomed the possibility of some business.
The main concern of the Magi was the ability to purchase a pack of donkeys or mules. Riding the sometimes obstinate camels through the small streets of this town would be troublesome. After a round of lively negotiations, six mules, bread, cheeses, and an amphora of wine were purchased with a small portion of silk, spices, and some gold coins.
Back at the camp, the mules were saddled and packed. There was one for each of the three mages and one for Setareh, which would be led by Hayat and Kamar. Johar would lead the last two mules that were laden with gifts for the child. Johar slipped his gift in with the others. Packing done, they all set out for the city gates, making sure that the Star was directly in their sights. The Star seemed to sink lower to the horizon as they passed through the town. They continued to follow it past the mostly busy center of the town to where some small farms were situated. As they neared a small, rough two-story house on a small field, the Star seemed to halt its movement. It was so low in the sky at that point, that it seemed to touch the roof of the house. Kamar was sent to the entrance to announce their arrival to the members of the house.
The quiet, dignified man who greeted them seemed not at all surprised at the arrival of the Mages. He nodded to Kamar and extending his arm, invited the group into the small abode. The three Mages went to the upper floor to converse with the child's father. Johar and Setareh were shown to a small room by the front entryway. When his mother was comfortably seated, Johar went with Hayat and Kamar to see to the unpacking of the mules. That allowed him to slip his gift into a pocket in his traveling robes. Some of the items were taken upstairs to be left with the Mages and the rest were put in the small room occupied by Johar and his mother. The mules were then taken around to the back of the house to the stable to be fed and watered. Leaving Kamar and Hayat to attend to that chore, Johar returned to the house to wait with his mother.
"Johar, I have never seen you so excited," she remarked. "You have your gift ready?" His smile told her all she needed to know.
"I am sure they will be quite pleased," she said drawing her son close in a hug.
Hayat returned to the room and announced that they were requested to join the others.
"The learned ones have asked me to bring you and Johar-Khan to meet the family. Yosef and Maryam would like to meet you both." Johar jumped up and started to straighten his clothes, trying to make himself presentable to the family of a future king. Sehtareh drew her shawl up, partially covering her hair, and drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders.
"Lead the way, Hayat," she said and they followed her up the stairs and down a narrow hallway to the gathering room at the rear of the house.
The Mages had already offered their gifts to the family. The chests and coffers of coins, incense, and fragrant ointments were set in the corner of the room. There were also blankets of soft felted wool and fabrics of the softest white and brown cotton set on the edges of the cushions used by the young mother. Yosef was standing behind the bank of cushions smiling down at the mother and child. The infant was seated on her knee and seemed not at all fazed by the visitors in the room. Balthazar joined his wife and son.
"This is Setareh, my wife, and Johar, my son," he said presenting them to the family.
Yosef replied, "It is our honor to have the family of one of the wise ones in our home. I am Yosef, and this is Maryam and our son, Jesu." Johar was fascinated by the young child.
"He seems very small to be a King," he remarked. The adults in the room did their best to suppress their mirth despite the cheeky observation.
"Even the strongest of kings start out as one so small," said Melchior, a smile still playing about his lips.
Johar then reached inside his robes and drew out the dark blue velvet bag and pressed it into the hands of the young mother.
"I wanted to give a gift, as did my father and the other elders. My teacher said my gift should be something that means much to me. So I would like you to accept this gift for your son."
Maryam looked up a Johar and graced him with a smile. She opened the bag and drew out the small turquoise box. As she held it, the baby reached out and patted the box. The pieces rattled inside in the rhythm of his pats. The noise delighted the child and he patted it again and giggled. Johar laughed with him.
"He likes it!" he exclaimed, clearly pleased. "This was a gift to me from my father. I have always enjoyed the times we played this game together. I thought your little boy would do the same. The elders tell me that he will be an important man someday, and their gifts are for that time. The only thing I could give him was this little game, something for him to enjoy before he leaves his childhood behind." Maryam held her hand to Johar. He moved closer, grasping her slender fingers.
"As you can see, Johar, my son already enjoys your gift. Your father and the other wise ones have indeed seen to his needs. I am glad that you were able to understand that he is still a child and as such, needs to know the delights of a child. ThIs is a wonderful gift, indeed. Many thanks, Johar," she told him. Looking up at his parents she said, "You have raised him well."
Melchior cleared his throat and announced that it was time for them to depart. Hayat, Setareh, and Johar went back to the front room to retrieve their travel bags. Several of the guards that had traveled with them brought four of the mules to the front of the house.
"Were there not six mules?" asked Setareh.
"Yes, Khutan," answered Kamar as he came around the side of the house. "The wise ones have left orders for Hayat and me to travel with the family to Cairo. Two of the mules will stay with us. We leave at sunset." Setareh and Johar were stunned at the news.
"Don't worry, Khutan," said the commander. "We will meet again in the not too distant future. The wise ones will tell you the reasons soon." Going over and stooping to talk to her son he said, "Johar-Khan, you must look after your mother and protect her as I have protected you both. I will expect a report from you when we meet again." Setareh hugged Hayat before she was helped onto the mule. As the two waved their goodbyes, Johar led the mule over to where the other Mages were already seated and waiting for them.
The ride back to camp was silent, unasked questions hanging in the air around them. The night sky was darker than on previous evenings. The Star they had followed for so long was no longer visible above the horizon. Johar looked towards the west and then lowered his head to hide the sadness he felt. He had the feeling that he had lost a friend. He wondered if he would ever again see such a wonder in the heavens.
Back in the camp, the elders who had stayed behind, the three Mages, Johar and Setareh all gathered in Melchior's tent. A light repast had been prepared for them, so their questions would have to wait. The conversation revolved around the news of the region, gathered by those tasked with procuring provisions for all of the return journies. The news was sobering indeed. Melchior, in particular, was most concerned. The new gathered concerned the volatile nature of King Herod and of those who had suffered at his hand.
"I know now that we were justified in sending the family to Egypt. Balthazar, you and your family and the scholars who came with you will leave tonight. Herod's people will be watching as the sun rises tomorrow. Gaspar and I will leave tomorrow before dawn. Only a few trusted men will journey back to Jerusalem. Herod's people will think that we are set to return to the palace with news of the child. Once they reach the city, they will stop to get supplies, but in reality, they will disappear into the populace. By the time Herod realizes the deception, we will all be long gone from his jurisdiction."
Seeing the look of fear on Setareh's face, Melchior reassured her.
"Khutan, you and your family will be safe. The prophecies have so decreed. You all will be instrumental in seeing that the family is safe for the next few years until the earth is delivered of the menace that is Herod. Gaspar and I and the other scholars who have traversed the desert for the answers we sought, will be safe also. So pleasant travels and may the One protect you. Know his angels make safe your way."
Walking over to stand near Johar, Melchior said, "I have one more thing to say before we depart." Putting his hand on Johar's shoulder he told him, "You have displayed wisdom far beyond your years. When the time comes, your father will send you for further studies with us. It will be an honor to welcome you into our ranks. I look forward to those days. I may even play a game of Mancala with you when we meet again."