We had done tens of miles on foot when we met him. He was a big man, a huge man, actually, with a lined face and grey hair. Even in the light of the young moon, one could see his clothes were brightly coloured, and that heavy chains lay round his neck, rings on his hands. They gave a dull expensive clink. Gold. He was black, like an Ethiopian, though something about the face suggested he might have been from further south.
I had watched him take out a bag, and from it some simple equipment. It was nothing like that Karima and I used, but he was focusing it on the same star. He turned a little, caught sight of me, turned away, began to re-pack the equipment. I had seconds to take the moment, or lose it and: ‘Do you think the child is about 18 months old by now?’ I asked.
He turned, slowly, and I thought he was buying thinking time. ‘I estimate so, yes,’ he said levelly, ‘or maybe a month or two younger. I allow for an element of prediction, I think.’ His Greek (the one language all educated people share) was heavily accented, but understandable. He paused. He wrapped his gorgeous clothes firmly round his big frame. He walked over to me.
I waited still and calm. My own clothes might show the marks of many months of hard travel, but the silk, the embroidery still stood scrutiny. He looked at me, then smiled a wide warm smile. ‘And how would you have back-tracked if I had not known what you spoke of?’ I smiled back. I had no idea.
His name was Balthazar. There were three of us now, to talk it out again and again. ‘So huge a star and so important in its placing; auspicious is not enough to describe it.’
‘Yes, ‘ Karima, ‘The moment I saw it, and how it was placed, I knew the King born to Judah was …’
‘Beyond great,’ said Balthazar.
‘Yes,’ I said, ’and yet see how it lies.’
‘It suggests death,’ admitted Karima.
‘More than that,’ I said, ‘It suggests something to do with poverty. Some great giving-away, or some impossibly humble place, or, dunno. Something.’
‘Royalty,’ said Balthazar, firmly. I let it drop, for now. I looked at the others. Karima had never show the slightest little crack of doubt. Balthazar was rich in all things, even the generosity he was showing to us. Camels for all again now, paid with just one of his rings. Neither Karima or Balthazar seemed to know anything of the doubt, the sorrow, the unease with one’s fellow men, which plagued me. If either had ever had an unbidden desire, or a fear of losing the respect of those around them, they showed nothing of it.
I went out again, while they slept. I triangulated the star against the planets again. I saw death, dereliction, triumph, a huge poverty. I saw doubt. I saw the sense of being a stranger. What something concerning God was doing mixed up in that lot, I had no idea. The others never mentioned that.
I took off my head cloth and sat down and ran my hands through my hair. I could make no sense of it at all, despite the absolute confidence I also had that the thing was incredibly important, and that my own stars called me to travel on towards the point it indicated, somewhere within a ten mile radius of Jerusalem, and therefore probably Jerusalem itself.