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!
“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.”
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.