Obsessive

Jesus rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows. He looked steadily at Judas. ‘You want it clean?’ he said, ‘You want it super squeaky clean? I am not sure you will like it better that way. But here goes.
‘There was a bloke. A trader – a specialist. He dealt in pearls. Always seeking the most beautiful, perfect pearls for his customers. And he never minded selling. There was no risk. Each pear he sold gave him more money to buy new pearls. And he never needed to cheat, as such, Judas, because he would buy with just the usual haggling, and then sell at a premium price to the super rich, because they respected his expertise and his knowledge.
‘Then it happened. He found the super pearl. Huge. Its lustre unbroken. A perfect sphere. A wonderful colour, white, pure. He knew at once he would never see another pearl like it. The trouble was, it was in the hands of another merchant.
They haggled. It was good humoured, but ruthless. The price was agreed. The pearl merchant, our honest, shining example of a pearl merchant, sold everything. He sold all his pearls, every one. He sold his house. He sold his donkey. Everything he could realise, he did. The lot. Then he handed over the money and came away with the pearl.’
Judas nodded, shining approval.
Jesus sighed. ‘Yes but look at the dilemma. He now has the perfect pearl. What is he going to do? Do you imagine he can sell it? That he can let go the one thing he has been searching for all his life?’
Jesus had this power with his stories. He sucked you in. You lived them. We were all looking horrified, and none more than Judas. No, we all knew what obsessives were like. No real person in this position could let go of that pearl.
‘He has nothing but the pearl,; said Jesus quietly, ‘and he will need to start from the bottom again if he wants to rebuild his business. Maybe he can. Maybe he has enough credit with others to borrow enough to buy little inexpensive pearls. But will his customers really want them? It is a disaster, that is what it is. Once you have the most valuable thing, you give up everything for it, and it may not be the shining easy thing to do you all seem to think.’
Then he wrapped his cloak around him, as though he was cold, and sat staring into the distance as if he was seeing something we could not see.

Treasure to cheat for

The plough jolted, stopped. The oxen strained for a brief moment, then subsided into relaxation. At that distance, there was no making out the words the ploughman spoke, but we could make a very good guess. He heaved up his arms, flapped. He went to the front of the plough, backed up the oxen, and after some grubbing around and kneeling, scrabbling, tossed out a middle sized stone. With some difficulty he shoved and heaved it to the edge of the field and left it there. He flapped over the stone again, gave it a kick, then straightened himself, and loped back to the plough.
‘Supposing it had not been a stone.’ said Jesus, lazily, ‘suppose it had been treasure?’
‘Oooh, tricky one!’ said John.
‘Suppose it was a little box of treasure. I think – I think he would bury it again. I bet that bloke ploughing does not own the land.’
A small snort came from Matthew, ‘I bet he does not either. He is the son of my cousin’s first wife’s brother. He is a hired hand.’
‘Always a little behind hand with the world?’ asked Jesus, sympathetically.
‘Always.’
‘If it was treasure,’ said Jesus, ‘he would bury it. Carefully. Then he would go and convince his wife to sell up. That would take a lot of time, that would. She would bend his ear something terrible. But he would not tell her it was treasure, would he? For utter terror she let something slip. She would be furious, but he would somehow convince her, or just do it, her ringing a peal in his ears. Sell up. But he is only half way there. He still has to get the land owner to sell, and not just some land, just that piece of land. My word, the worry that somebody would find the treasure before he convinced the land owner to sell. The arguments he would have with the farmer as to why that field. Why such a crazy scheme. He would never make a living from one field.
Then going back, knowing if the treasure had gone he had lost everything. Oh think of that.Imagine if he had not hidden it well enough. Then putting the plough in the same furrow, and yes, yes, the treasure. Opening the box. Seeing the riches. Knowing he was a made man. Oh think of the joy.’
Judas sat up, and took the grass stem he was sucking out of his mouth. ‘He ought to have checked to see if it could be identified first,’ he said, always so horribly correct, ‘He ought to have seen if it had somebody’s name in it. You know that is the law.’
‘He ought,’ said Jesus, ‘but I do not think he would. Oh, being that poor, and suddenly having riches offered you? Could you really do it? No, I think he would just buy the field – break the law,’ Jesus twinkled at Judas, ‘I do not think the law would be observed. Because the treasure would so, so transform his life – he would cheerfully cheat a bit to get all that… and that is what the Kingdom is like. Something you would cheerful lie, cheat and steal to get a hold of.’
Poor Judas looked aghast.

Balthazar does not go home

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.

Karima and Melchior arrive home

We said good bye at a caravanserai. We how had become so deeply friends parted knowing we would never meet again.  It was strange, that. But we knew that travelling alone we would attract less attention. Each of us had had troubling dreams. Yet I went on with a light heart. The whole journey had changed me – seeing the Child, and the words of the Mother about my rightness … the Mother of such a Child must hold great wisdom. Her Greek was not that good,  but her words about rightness that been very clear to me.

I arrived home on the hired camel, tired, happy. I strode into the reception room, as the household gathered, and saw my lover at once. I grabbed him in my arms, for the first time kissing him in public, although he was an equal and a grown man. I would have no more shame and guilt. I heard the Mother’s voice in her stilted Greek again, and looking defiantly at the court saw only mild surprise. I realised that all I had done was to move a secret everybody knew, everybody spoke of and tittered over, into the open.

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What had changed? My husband, my lover from childhood, was still dead. The terrible loss was still there. Somewhere over the desert, I had made terms with the pain, and had travelled on with hope, that most painful of afflictions. Hope is something to be dashed, and although I had seen the child, I had come away knowing I could not do what I had longed to do, to share some of my learning with the Child.  The danger of the place, the language barrier, made all that impossible. I should have been even sadder, for I had lost my sense of purpose. Yet I was not. Irrationally, the journey back felt full of excitement. I felt as though there was a purpose, though it was hidden from me. When I got back to the palace, my daughter-in-law came at once to greet me, her little daughter clinging to her hand. I was still travel-stained, had been away for so long, especially to a child, yet the little one flew into my arms. I knew then that I would take all the time I could to teach her the best ways of life, and to do that, I would learn to live again.

Gifts are given

They were a different kind of strangeness. Nothing at all supernatural, just completely out of place, weird. I could see at once by their  dress they were rich, important. They had arrived in the little town the day before, and I had not really associated them with – with my son. Not the right kind of strange.

But they found us. I had not really taken on board that there was still TALK though not as bad as at Nazareth, or at least, in the main part different talk. Less about my honour. They came through the doorway, filling the room with, with…

I was, I was out of my depth. Of course I was older, rising seventeen, but still. One, the woman, had a pair of servants stood behind her, watchful. She laid down embalming spices at my son’s feet. I wish my Greek was better, not just a matter of formal sentences useful for speaking to the Occupying Force. She spoke to me of death, his death, and I tried to say to her that he was healthy, and that people should try hard to be healthy and happy while they are alive, not sad and guilty. At least, that is what I thought she said, and is what I think I tried to say. I have never believed in guilt.

The next was a Persian. His Greek was very good, very good indeed. He spoke of God’s favour being on my son, of him being appointed by God. This made some kind of sense, and somehow I managed to find words back, about his being right. I tried to speak of his being right and of his understanding of the world. He gave him incense. I hope I understood him to say that this was to be used in worship, though we are not a priestly family. It would never be right to worship a human being, surely.

The last was a huge Ethiopian. He laid glittering gold at my son’s feet. I struggled to decode his words, through the accent. I thought he spoke of kings. I thought he spoke of danger, and the need to escape. I know he spoke of Herod. The word chilled me. I think I spoke of the dangers of kings and power – well I guess I would, that sounds like me.

I hope what I said to them was enough, I hope what they found had made some kind of recompense for what … but I wished they had not spoken of Herod.They left a king’s ransom around my feet. Joseph came home and we talked in growing unease.

Balthazar’s wise gift

To arrive at the court of another man, to arrive without status, and unheralded and unexpected, was a strange thing. Also I had no contacts there. There could be no casual words in quiet corners over cups of wine which told much to the speakers and little to the eavesdroppers. No, different skills were needed.

In truth, my foot was hardly set down the first corridor before I saw fear everywhere.  Not the usual level of anxiety.  Faces sealed shut, eyes everywhere.  This was not what I had expected.  I had expected joy, for normally a King rejoices in the birth of a clear heir.

Of course I understood this people might not be able to read the skies as clearly as I could. I understood they might not see the importance of this child. It had not occurred to me that they might not know of him at all.

Audience (never had I used audacity and authority so compellingly).  An old man crumbling before me –  no, not the right image. Eaten as a parasite eats out a caterpillar. Dear knows if the real Herod was the parasite, or the caterpillar. Evil and power both taken to extremes. My own recoil in horror, from something too like the image of what I might, just possibly, become if my very worst instincts were fed and flattered.

Then, council taken with Karima and Melchior. She had seen the death, he the ignorance. Did I mention that? Herod’s total ignorance of all that is real wisdom? As well as his ignorance of any child. In the end,  his councillors plucked up the courage to tell us that if the child were born it might well be in Bethlehem, a small village well within the allowed margin of error we had plotted. Prophecy, they said, and precedent, their greatest king ever having been born there.

But I could have wished we had not aroused further fear in that terrible, terrified evil old king.

Melchior’s wise gift

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.