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Fiction

Jed hastily bundled his belongings together. He was late. He was always late. As part of the Traveling Magi show, he needed to be more organised, but he couldn’t seem to get his act into gear. The others had left without him, admonishing him to catch up when he could and to not delay too long.


It hadn’t been his fault. The first set back happened as he piled his belongings onto the camel. The beautiful lead crystal bottle and rattle set had fallen off the other side and shattered over the pavement. Cas had just looked at him, dismay written loudly on his face.


“Jed, you are a clutz!” It was true. Most things that came to Jed’s hand ended broken and bent, lost or stolen. Jed was used to it, but he hated the fact that others judged him so harshly.


“You cannot show up without a gift, Jed. That would be rude,” Balti sighed.


“We can’t wait for you!” Mel informed him without compassion. Mel was very short of temper at the best of times. Jed had received the cutting edge of his anger constantly since he joined their traveling show. “Just follow the star and catch up. Your camel would move faster if you’d consider lightening the load. Do you need the roof mounted telescope? Surely you could leave it behind?”


Follow the star indeed! Mel considered himself to be the best of the bunch, the rising star, the main attraction, and nothing could dissuade him of that self image.


Jed watched the three mount their camels and begin their long journey together. He’d catch them up, he promised himself, but first a gift. He scurried to the marketplace. A gift. What to give a newborn? He preferred practical gifts. Mel had bought scent, Jed wasn’t sure of the reason. Perhaps it was cheap. Balti had bought ointment to alleviate the baby rashes caused by swaddling clothes, a necessity the young vendor, who had three children of her own, assured him. And Cas, ever practical but lacking in creativity and thoughtfulness, gave money in an envelope. Jed wanted to give that perfect gift, a balance of practicality and beauty. He had found it too… and promptly smashed it on the ground. Knowing his own shortcomings, perhaps crystal was not the best choice of a gift for him to give. Now he was back to square one.


He lifted his robes and scurried through the marketplace, scouring the stalls for that elusive gift, the best one ever, the perfect item that reflected his own desire to be perfect. Something that this time, he would not break!


“Cloth!”


“Jewels!”


“Lotions and potions!”


The vendors hawked their wares, hollering their products to all who would venture near. Nothing screamed the perfect item for a newborn.


It was the last stall on the street where he found what he was looking for. The craftsman was extraordinary! He had constructed the most beautiful crib ever seen, the design such that it would soothe and rock the babe to sleep. And best of all, the construction was so solid that not even Jed could break it. He paid the craftsman handsomely and hurried back to his camel, only to find the constabulary there before him, just about to issue a ticket and impound his camel.


“Oh, please!” Jed cried urgently. “I am leaving. I was only gone a moment.”


“This animal has been here at least forty-five minutes,” the public servant admonished.


“Surely it was not so long!” Jed looked about him, pleading with the locals to assist him to verify his claim. None was forthcoming.


“I’m afraid I will need to impound your camel until you pay the fine for illegal parking.” The servant was obdurate, an immovable object sticking to the letter of the law. “You may speak to the judge in the morning to pay your fine and free your animal,” he said as he began to lead the beast away.


“I can’t do that!” Jed cried. “Please, I can pay you the fine now!”


The public servant stopped and faced Jed with a furious scowl. “Did you just try to bribe me?”


“Oh, no!” Jed exclaimed, stepping back from the furious man in self preservation.


“I am Hazid, the honourable!” He boomed. “I will not be bribed.”


“Of course not, I would never…” Jed stumbled over his words in his haste to reassure the man that he would never insult his honour by offering the large man a bribe of any kind. But the end result was the same, Jed standing forlorn and alone in the middle of the road as his animal was led away.


And so it was not until mid-afternoon on the following day that Jed finally set out to follow his friends in the Traveling Magi show. It had taken most of the morning to grease the wheels of justice with gold, anoint the ears of those who serve justice with his petition and pay the penance for his transgressions, thereby freeing his animal from the clutches of a used camel salesman about to purchase the impounded animal. By the time he was ready to begin his journey, Jed was exhausted.


Fortunately, he didn’t have long to travel before he stopped. Or, to be more precise, perhaps it was unfortunate, because his camel came up lame. He noticed that odd sound and unusual gait somewhere between the last town and the first oasis. He had to limp the animal into the oasis and spent three days resting it to repair the swelling with liniment and wraps. So he was fairly sure he would not catch up with his friends any time soon.


Mel had the map with the directions marked upon it. He had studied the stars, the charts and the roads, both ancient and new, and had determined their course. Of course, Jed had left that technical side to the expert in the party and had never really paid much attention. By now, though, he realised the error of his ways. Heading west was such a vague reference for a direction, but it was all he had to go on. At night, he dragged the telescope from the back of his camel and attempted to recreate the route the others had plotted by mapping the stars. It was no good. His real interest in the stars was their patterns and astrological significance for fortune telling. He could read someone’s future by noting the position of the stars in relation to their birth position. He was good at ‘You might notice the big shift on Saturday when feisty Mars exits Gemini for the first time since…’ or ‘You’ve been hosting frenzied Mars in your fourth house of home and family for the last seven months…’ that kind of thing. He was less sure of plotting the future based on a birth that had not yet happened. That was where Cas had excelled. He had predicted the day, date, and time of this important birth, but neglected the where. It had taken a considerable amount of study and mathematical computation by all four of them to come up with ‘West’ as the best answer. West. Well, there was a heck of a lot of land west. Jed hoped the heavens might have more information to give.


As he was peering through the optical opening of the telescope, lazily sweeping the sky for patterns, he was nearly blinded by a bright light. He fell backward onto his rump. Low and behold, there in the night sky, streaking away to the west, was a new star, its tail radiant as it blazed a trail across the heavens. Buoyed by this sign, Jed felt reassured. He was going the right way. West was good.


For days and nights, he followed the star, and he was amazed by its brightness even in the daylight. It lead him through towns, into new countries he had never explored until finally, it vanished, as if it never was.

Jed looked about him. There was a sense of strange urgency among the people. He stopped near an inn and surveyed the comings and goings. It seemed as if many were going and few were coming. He parked his camel around the back of the inn and made his way inside.


“Good inn-keeper, tell me, what is amiss here? Has something occurred to have caused all your patrons to leave at once?” he asked after requesting a table and a midday meal to be served.


“King Herod called a bloody census,” the innkeeper explained as he wiped down a table so that Jed could have a place to sit. “Every man and his dog, his wife and all his children had to return to their place of birth to be counted. Why the old bugger couldn’t count ‘em where they were, I’ll never know. First, I was short staffed as all my staff returned to their hometown, then I was overwhelmed by an influx of people needing lodging for the census. I’ve never been so busy that I had to turn away clients. Now they’re all headed home, and hopefully things will return to normal.”


“For a man in your line of work, it must have been quite lucrative to have so many customers that you had to turn them away.”


“It didn’t feel good though, not when you’re turning away a heavily pregnant woman in the middle of the night. I can tell you that one didn’t feel so good.” The innkeeper set a meal and a jug of fine wine before Jed.


“A pregnant woman?” This information caught Jed’s interest. After all, he and his Magi friends were seeking a newborn babe.


“Yeah, I did take pity on the poor woman and her distraught husband. Sent them out the back to the stable, couldn’t have her sleep out on the streets in her condition. Good thing I did too, ‘cause she had the baby that very night. Strangest thing you’d ever see. A great star lit up the sky right overhead for three days and nights. Attracted all sorts too. Even saw some of your people pass through and stop for a look-see.”


“My people?”


“Yeah, Magi.”


Must have been Mel, Cas and Balti, Jed thought. Thank goodness he seemed to be on the right path and, with any luck, he would catch them up again soon. “Any idea which way they went, and how long ago were they here?”


“They visited with the young mother in my stable, then left quite abruptly, and in the middle of the night too. Just woke up the next morning and they were gone, as if they’d never been.”


“Visited with the mother, you said?” Jed was excited. Perhaps they had found the newborn they were looking for. “Can you direct me to this stable of yours?”


“It’s not much, just a little nook carved out of the hillside, but it keeps the animals warm each night and it’s dry. Your great camel won’t fit in there, though, so there is no need to try.”


“I understand, but I am interested in visiting with this mother and child.”


“Oh no, they left two nights ago. Skipped out on the bill and everything, even though I saw those Magi people gift them with enough gold to pay their way. I think Herod might be after them. They were mighty cagey about something, but it’s not in my nature to pry.”


Jed paled. “They left them gifts?”


“Sure did. Seemed quite relieved to have found the mother, actually. Though she must have been some kind of kin or something.”


Jed stared at the innkeeper without seeing him and let the rest of the man’s patter wash over him. He had missed it. The one thing he needed to do, the one big event and he had messed it up so badly that he never even got to give his gift. He stood abruptly, and left the innkeeper’s presence without a word.


He slipped outside and around the back of the inn towards the hillside. There Jed saw the cave-like structure that doubled as a stable. Inside was a small trough, a manger, filled with hay, and he spotted the remnants of cloth tucked beneath the hay. The mother had laid her child in this as his first bed. Jed thought of the beautiful crib strapped to the back of his camel.


If only he had arrived on time.

March 26, 2023 15:49

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39 comments

Zatoichi Mifune
13:28 Jul 17, 2023

When the camel first appeared it jolted me a bit. When 'follow the star' came I finally understood. Interesting and creative.

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Michelle Oliver
13:44 Jul 17, 2023

I deliberately left it a bit obscure, allow some reader interpretation.

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Amanda Lieser
16:21 Apr 15, 2023

Hi Michelle, This was a very interesting take on not just the prompt, but the story of Christmas. I liked the way you built up the panic that this character felt and I also liked all the little details you managed to squeeze in. It was a vivid read and beautifully intricate. Nice work!

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Michelle Oliver
21:08 Apr 15, 2023

Thank you. I enjoyed writing about poor Jed.

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Zack Powell
22:15 Apr 04, 2023

Something subtle I like about this story is that it's tagged solely as "Fiction." Not "Christmas" or "Holiday" or "Christian." Instead, the reader goes into this blind, and (depending on their familiarity with the Bible) realizes what's going on sooner or later. And that's pretty cool, that this story can be its own standalone piece, with or without the supplemental religious context. Really enjoyed this take on the prompt. That's one hell of a special event to miss. Fun idea to have a fourth wise man to add to the original trio, and it mak...

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Michelle Oliver
22:26 Apr 04, 2023

Thanks for reading and responding. I know what you mean about the last line. I just couldn’t work out what to do with the ending. I’m still not happy with it, but maybe one day I will revisit it and work it out. It’s funny, but whenever you pick a favourite line, you always pick mine. I loved that line, it made me chuckle, kind of Monty python vibe going on… he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy. I’m thinking there maybe a story from the used camel salesmen perspective.

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Karel Fontaine
23:25 Apr 03, 2023

Hi Michelle, loved reading this witty, well told tale. A roof mounted telescope - delightful image on a camel😁. Others have highlighted my own observations, so ditto. The ending was fine for me but authors are rarely totally happy with their work, are they? Great, amusing read riffing on an old tale with a nice twist.🌟

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Michelle Oliver
08:10 Apr 04, 2023

Thank you. I did try to play about with the ending, but decided to stick with it as is. I’m happy it reads ok, and gives a sense of completion. I wanted to build more into it, but it got too weighty.

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Geir Westrul
18:24 Apr 02, 2023

That was very clever. I didn't catch on to the "fourth gift" meaning until the mention of King Herod in the last third of the story. Poor Jed, the tardy Magi. Great story, well told.

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Michelle Oliver
22:01 Apr 02, 2023

Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Rabab Zaidi
01:14 Apr 02, 2023

Beautiful.

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Michelle Oliver
01:33 Apr 02, 2023

Thank you

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Michał Przywara
01:01 Mar 31, 2023

Ha! Great take on the story :) I clued in when Balti mentioned "gifts". "Jed wasn’t sure of the reason. Perhaps it was cheap." :) "He noticed that odd sound and unusual gait somewhere between the last town and the first oasis." :) It's an amusing story, but while Jed's misadventures are funny, we do feel badly for him by the end. We can only hope he finds some clue that might lead him further on their trail. On the other hand, if he struggled with guilt and was later forgiven - well, that too would fit the theme.

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Michelle Oliver
13:31 Mar 31, 2023

Thanks Michal. I did write a few paragraphs about what came next, but felt that the details were bogging down the story… it’s hard to know where to end a story sometimes, especially as there is still more to tell. I hope this ending leaves the reader in the right place.

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Viga Boland
15:05 Mar 30, 2023

What an amazing variation on the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. Silly me didn’t even realize that this is what you were writing about. Then that bright shooting star lit up my old brain. Ah…I just read other comments on this. Seems I wasn’t the only one a bit slow to realize who this story was about. Just more credit to your considerable writing skills. Michelle, this is brilliant. More, it’s touching and beautiful, not to mention so well-written. Ah, your skill amazes me. Bravo 👏👏

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Michelle Oliver
13:25 Mar 31, 2023

Thanks Viga, I’m happy that you enjoyed it. I wasn’t convinced that the ending was quite right, but I’m glad it worked for you, so I have decided to leave it as is.

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Viga Boland
13:59 Mar 31, 2023

When i read in the comments that you weren’t sure about the ending, my first thought was “Why not? It’s excellent”. But that I finding is the one thing I might change 5 times or more before deciding “Yes, that’s it!” I wonder for how many other Reedsy writers is this a primary issue? 😉

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Michelle Oliver
14:12 Mar 31, 2023

We are our own harshest critics. You have a goal in mind, and your characters take you on a bit of a different journey or a roundabout route and you wonder if you hit the bullseye that you had aimed for in the beginning, or if you hit a totally different dart board!

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Viga Boland
14:48 Mar 31, 2023

Exactly!

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Mary Bendickson
06:26 Mar 30, 2023

So unique. I suspected as soon as I saw 'camel' then realized there were supposed to be 4 in the caravan. Actually I don't think the actual number of wise ever was revealed in the original story. Only three gifts mentioned so history decided it was three. Now we know differently:) Bet the Christ child would have liked the rattle, all babies seem to. (Never saw the movie Kevin V mentioned either.) Good use of prompt. That would have been some event to witness!

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Michelle Oliver
10:01 Mar 30, 2023

Thanks Mary, I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to this one.

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Yeisha Lee
19:18 Mar 29, 2023

I loved the slow realization it took to find out what this story was really about!

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Michelle Oliver
21:57 Mar 29, 2023

Thanks for reading it.

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Stevie Burges
09:58 Mar 28, 2023

Another good story, Michelle. Kept my interest from the beginning, especially as I didn't get any of the references, to begin with, 'Duh!' but once I did, I so enjoyed watching it as the story slowly unwrapped. Good imaginative story.

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Michelle Oliver
10:22 Mar 28, 2023

Thanks Stevie. I’m not happy with the ending… I’m not sure what I want to do with it but it’s not quite right in my mind.

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Stevie Burges
10:26 Mar 28, 2023

We are often unhappy with what we produce. But as the reader I enjoyed it. I didn't feel that pang of 'oh shame about the ending' - no! felt perfectly satisfied with having just read a good read.

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Michelle Oliver
11:22 Mar 28, 2023

Thank you for your feedback. I will sit back for a few days and then look at again with fresh eyes I think.

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Stevie Burges
13:24 Mar 28, 2023

I hated the beginning of my story this week and had to get up in the middle of night and re-write it and in the end I thought it was a good idea. So yep have another look if you wish - but I was a satisfied customer.

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Kevin V
17:02 Mar 26, 2023

Hi Michelle! Shade of the movie 'The Fourth Wise Man' here. Not sure if you've seen it. Thankfully, you left out Herod's massacre of all the children near the age of the coming Messiah. I found the interaction between Mel, Balti and Cas with Jed pretty humorous, especially admonishing him for bringing the roof mounted telescope! Then everything worked against Jed, so he always missed catching his friends. I liked the 'Traveling Magi Show' reference. Creative. Certainly worthy of the prompt! Will be curious of the finished story.

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Michelle Oliver
22:10 Mar 26, 2023

Thanks Kevin. I have never seen that movie. The massacre certainly would be too traumatic to include. I’m not happy with the ending, Thus the draft status. Hopefully I get he time this week to work on it. Thanks for your feedback.

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Mary Jo Maguire
23:13 Apr 05, 2023

Original and clever. I knew immediately what you were referring to in 'The Fourth Gift.' It was fun to follow Jed's mishap's throughout the story. The names were great. I applaud you for the funny rewrite of the Nativity, which no one would consider irreverent. Jed was a smart shopper. It was too bad that he didn't have the opportunity to deliver his gift. Maybe he could sell it on eBay! Your well-written story made me smile.

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Michelle Oliver
09:32 Apr 06, 2023

Thanks for the feedback and I’m glad you enjoyed it

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Sarah Parker
15:16 Apr 05, 2023

This is a very well-written story, and very amusing. If I'm being honest, this story reminds me of the three wise men in the bible. Great job.

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3i Writer
09:23 Apr 03, 2023

Can this be considered a biblical parody?

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Michelle Oliver
10:01 Apr 03, 2023

Probably! Borrowing heavily from Monty python.

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Viga Boland
23:32 Apr 01, 2023

Hey Michelle! Question for you: when you were shortlisted, and later won, were you notified by email that you had been shortlisted? I ask because Lily Finch tells me I’ve been shortlisted this week. She says it show s under “stories” tab but I can’t find it! And I haven’t been notified either. I’m a doubting Thomas..need to see it to believe it. Help please.

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Michelle Oliver
00:41 Apr 02, 2023

No I was never notified. I’ve never seen this mythical shortlisting myself. The tab ‘stories’ just shows people I follow in order of most likes on recent submissions.

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Viga Boland
02:10 Apr 02, 2023

Likewise. That’s why I’m confused. Lily says she’s going to try to get me a screen shot with a link. I just don’t see how she can say it and I can’t. So you didn’t know you have been shortlisted let alone that you won?

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Michelle Oliver
02:12 Apr 02, 2023

Nope, no idea. But I’m not overly savvy with tech stuff.

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