I know where I was when I heard. I can still picture in minute detail the goblet of wine, and its two unbroken bubbles. I can see the crack in the table top and I can feel the cold sense of horror filling me, and, even as it did, the thought ‘that may have been a sensible thing to do, politically’ ran through my mind, and, a second after, ‘that can never be justified.’
There was a terrible sorrow that something so marvellous as the birth of that Child was at once marked by death, and loss and deep tragedy. I could see their happy faces, because I had met some of those tiny boys, while I was searching for the Child. I could not but picture the fear that must have replaced it, and the shattering grief of their fathers and mothers.
I wondered about the men-at-arms who did it. Some would have been sickened – those old enough to be fathers, seeing their own children as they, as … They would have been cool, efficient, swift. But I knew for some there would be actual satisfaction in giving hurt, when anger filled the mind, and when one paid off old scores against the weak. I knew the faces of men who were doing such things. How they wound themselves up into acts others would later shudder at. The savage delight taken in anger against the wholly helpless, because their helplessness reminded the brute of his past helplessness, and so became an offence. I knew some had been turned monster by the need to keep obeying, and to stay alive, and by things they had seen which twisted in them.
Afterwards, there would have been much drinking, to celebrate, and to forget, and to wind down, so that they could go home to barracks and comrades or to trollop or wife as sots and buffoons, and not as torturers. I knew they had found some way to make a divide between their sisters and mothers and the poor broken women they left behind; a divide based on lies.
I knew these things, and I wished I did not. I wished I had the luxury of a simple recoil in horror, the thought ‘How could such a thing happen?’
And it was all a stupid waste, even politically, because my source assured me the Child had left within hours of our visit, and the massacre of those innocents was a week or more later.
But what filled me with the greatest horror was that my first conscious thought had been to weigh the act politically. That I could see why Herod had ordered such a thing. I remembered the words of the Mother; heated words against power.
Then, I also knew I could never go home. I was not Herod, but if I could even begin to imagine ordering the slaughter of tiny peasant children, it was time to turn my back on power
I have thought of myself as a courageous man, but it took all my strength to make that decision: to give up all chance of ever returning to what I had carefully wrought in my own kingdom, and, yes, my wives and my children. Yet in the moment I made that decision, as I turned to start a new life in a strange place, I found in myself an astonishing lightness of heart. A new life, a new mind, as I think the Greek has it.