The dirt-scratchers, sheep-watchers, camel-shit shovelers — how easily I awed them. I’d slowly pull on a cloak, blinding in its whiteness compared to their filthy rags. Brandish scrolls. Unfurl astrological charts. By the time I was done, they’d be elbowing each other aside, impatient to learn what their stars foretold.
From their want, they paid in goods or a coin. How eagerly they’d tell me their hopes and dreams. Then, after pretending to consult my props, I proclaimed the good news: Their pitifully unambitious yearnings would come to pass.
A decent living. But after marrying and begetting a son, I wanted more. Especially for my son. I sought out nobles and merchants. My white cloak didn’t impress them. And, having seen astrologer-charlatans before, they refused to tell me their hopes.
Did they imagine themselves cunning? That I couldn’t guess they wanted more? More power. More wealth. Immortality in a bloodline stretching into eternity.
The rich dreamed bigger than the poor. But at the core, they shared the same weak-minded yearning: To believe that existence is no accident, but part of a great plan governed by Something Bigger.
The stars? Why not?
I set my sights higher still, making the rounds of royal courts. To stand out from solo astrologers, I threw in with two partners. That December my family, partners and I headed west.
A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year. Royal audiences required bribing calendar-keepers. And kings themselves turned out to be an impatient lot, often dismissing us quickly.
By the time we hit Jerusalem, our resources were nearly exhausted. An audience with Herod, the local king, cost everything we had except for a bit of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
When we were summoned to the throne room I put on my white cloak, leaving my wife and son just outside the door.
Herod yawned and absently chewed a fig as I told him that a new star had appeared, the sign a mighty ruler had been born. But he nearly choked on that fig when his holy man blathered about a prophecy and a town named Bethlehem. Seizing the moment, I went into my close. “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage!”
I didn’t know that Herod couldn’t — well, Herod hadn’t fathered a child for quite some time. My tidings, far from glad, were a threat to the king and his dynasty. He ordered my partners and me to Bethlehem to find this newborn king. “When you have found him, bring me word again that I also may come to — adore him.”
I knew what that murderous son-of-a-bitch intended, and didn’t want to be an accomplice. As I tried to talk my way out of it, Herod’s scowl grew more threatening. Then, from just beyond the door, the sound of a child crying. My son. Herod summoned my wife and the boy. The king, caressing the hilt of a dagger in his belt, said, “Find this newborn king, or I’ll adore this child.”
“Can my family come?” Once out of the city, we’d head away from Herod fast as we could. He shrugged approval and I thought I’d outsmarted him. But as we were leaving the king said, “I’ll send soldiers with you. Lest you lose your way.”
There was buzz in Bethlehem about a boy born around the time the star appeared, and shepherds claimed to have seen some very odd things. Reasons Herod would accept for fingering that particular child.
We went to see the boy. As he slept, I knelt beside him to get a good look. Adorable.
That night, I dreamed we didn’t return to Herod.
Impractical, of course, given our military escort. Wide awake, I got up. It was chilly, so I pulled on my white cloak. My partners were awake, too. They’d had similar dreams, shared my horror at what we were going to do. We decided to get drunk.
The victim’s father walked by. We invited him to join us and gave the rest of our gold, frankincense and myrrh to him. “For your son,” I told him. A blood-offering, paid in advance.
Then, an idea. I said, “Take your family and leave.”
My partners tried to interrupt, but I wouldn’t let them. “Go now.”
Maybe the father was drunk, or perhaps it was the way the full moon hit my cloak. He dropped to his knees and said, “Are you an angel, sent by He Who Is?”
“Yes. Take your family to Egypt.” Herod never would find them there.
The man left quickly. My partners, fearful and angry, warned that if Herod couldn’t find the boy we identified, he’d surely take it out on us. As if I hadn’t thought of that.
We drugged some wine and gave it to the soldiers. When they were asleep, we took a route skirting Jerusalem. Once safely away, my partners went in different directions and I never saw them again.
I gave up astrology and settled with my wife and son in a backwater — still in Judea, but far from Herod. I changed my name and opened a stable. Like some of my first clients, I ended up shoveling camel shit.
A nice bit of closing irony, if only the story ended there.
But Herod, still without a clue about which child to kill, murdered every male in Bethlehem under the age of two. Innocent blood still on my hands, I fashioned a noose and tied the rope to a roof beam. Just then my son wandered in. I decided to live. If I weren’t there to teach him how to be in the world, who would?
All this was a long time ago. Today, my son comes of age. I’m making him a partner. I’ve taught him to read, and can’t wait until he sees the new sign out front: Iscariot and Son.
Everyone has to be somewhere. Ted Lietz lives and writes in the Detroit area. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Flashquake and Every Day Fiction.