Altercation of the Magi
Illustration by Xene Cabahug
“We’ll set up camp here for the night,” Balthazar grunted, heaving his pack off the back of his donkey. He took stock of the area — sandy, gristly and just like every other stretch of desert they’d called home for the last five days — in short, perfect. In other words, the best they were getting. He pulled a flask of wine from his pouch and settled in between the warm desert sand and the cool night breeze.
“Give some of that over here,” said Caspar, as he unpacked his own bag.
He was a small, dark-skinned man with a strange ring to his speech, from some place out east.
“India,” Balthazar recalled, although they were all the same to him that far out.
“I would, friend, but I must make this last. Best drink this side of the Orient,” said the old Babylonian, brushing the droplets out of his scraggly beard and sucking them off his wrist.
“’Friend’, in case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been traveling this desert for the better part of a week and half of the traders, low-lives and villagers we’ve run into barely even know the general direction of… Beetle-hymn.” Caspar pulled his robe a little closer around him, took a sip of water from his canteen, and rested his head against a rock.
“Bethlehem,” Balthazar corrected him.
“Why would your Messiah ever turn up here in the ass end of the country?” Balthazar’s donkey brayed indignantly.
“Present company excluded,” Caspar said, rolling his eyes and then the rest of his body away from the animal.
“I’d much rather be home in India. The festivals are in high gear this season. The women are painted, the men hearty and hale, and the children’s laughter echoes through the forests.”
“I’ve been in your region before – far too humid for my tastes. My lungs practically shriveled. Try a holiday in Babylon one of these days. Our cities are the best in the world.” Balthazar wasn’t sure whether the twinge in his voice was tipsiness or homesickness.
“Well, I’d ask our friend over there, but he’s a trader. He may be from Persia, but his kind doesn’t have much of a home of their own, you catch my meaning?”
“Ineffable,” Melchior said.
“Come again?” the other two wise men said in unison.
“It’s ineffable,” repeated the Persian, his back turned to his two compatriots and towards the star that was guiding them. “We have to keep going. We’ll get there eventually.” He ceased talking and gave the floor to the crickets, the owls and the toads.
“… Right,” said Caspar. Then, hushed, he turned to Balthazar and said, “What’s he tinkering with?”
“It’s a compass, I think. I haven’t seen one up close myself, but it’s supposed to guide us. It must be quite rare, too. He had to barter quite viciously for it, I’m told.” Balthazar’s speech was slurring slightly.
“So much for ‘saving’ the ‘best drink this side of the Orient,” Caspar thought.
“Well, if it won’t get us lost like your ‘intuition’ did, he can keep fiddling.”
“We were not lost! I was- I was calibrating.”
“You were talking out your a-” the donkey huffed again. “You were talking out your rear.”
“We were low on supplies. I decided a detour might be in our best interests.”
“Of course. The one village you decide to pass through just happens to be the only one that actually knows where Bethlehem is, and of course it’s in the opposite direction!”
“At least we had directions!”
“We’ve had directions this whole time. From that fool Herod. ‘Find the Messiah, and tell me where he is so I may revere him.’ That doesn’t sound fishy to you?” Caspar raised an eyebrow.
“Fool is an insult to hard-working jesters and charlatans everywhere. Herod is a psychopath. But I’m interested in this Messiah, as well, and I suppose you are, to some extent, or you would not be here,” Balthazar said pointedly.
“I trust him as far as I can throw him,” said Melchior, having finished his calculating and tinkering and sat down to join the other two. He was a slim man, but something about him suggested to the others that he could probably throw Herod quite far if he wanted to.
“Well, at least we all agree on that,” Balthazar said, pulling an ornately-wrapped package from his pack. “Anyway. What did you all get for the Messiah?”
“Frankincense,” said Caspar.
“Myrrh,” said Melchior.
“Gold,” said Balthazar, finally. The three studied each other’s choices of gift curiously.
“What’s a baby going to do with frankincense?” asked Melchior. “The boy is days old and you figure frankincense is a good idea? I fear you’ll end up costing the child a perfectly good pair of lungs.”
“It’s for his mother. Kills nerves like nothing else. Have you ever held a conversation with a new mother? She’ll be grateful, trust me. But what’s a carpenter’s family going to do with gold? You know how those people out there are. I’ve picked up talk of Joseph of Bethlehem along our way. He’s an honest man — won’t spend a coin that he didn’t earn himself.”
“Well, perhaps his son will think differently. Maybe a hard-working father will teach the boy the importance of hard-earned gold! More importantly, I can’t even begin to question what on earth you—” he glanced at Melchior here “—think the child will do with myrrh!”
Melchior was silent for a long while. “… I picked it up on the road to Pataliputra. It’s been sitting on my shelf for… remind me when the last solar eclipse was?”
“He brings embalming oil for a baby. Doesn’t even buy it, mind you, it’s a hand-me-down. Embalming oil! Is that some kind of Persian humor that’s going over my head? And you can’t even remember how old it is! For all you know it’s going rancid as we speak. The boy will have to die before he turns forty for it to have any use!”
“Well, it’s the thought that counts.” Melchior turned up his nose and crossed his arms like a pouty child.
Balthazar laughed heartily and clapped a hand on each of his compatriots’ shoulders. “Ha-ha! Yes, it’s the thought that counts. I’m sure the little king-to-be will appreciate our gifts just fine as he grows. We’ll see when we get there, hmmm?”
The last sliver of sunlight was disappearing fast over the horizon, erasing the orange bits of sky and leaving blue-black in their place. “Will you join me for prayer?” asked Balthazar.
“I will pray in my tent. I appreciate the offer, though,” Melchior said.
“I’d just like to get through this journey without throttling the both of you,” Caspar sighed, although part of him realized that, if they made it to Bethlehem by the time they were supposed to, it would almost feel too soon. Balthazar was daft, Melchior was odd, but there was a reason they were called wise men, and Caspar had valued the time and intellect they had imparted to each other more than he let on.
Meanwhile, in Melchior’s little tent, he unfolded his hands from his meditation, lit a candle, and dipped his quill in ink to write.
We three kings of orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.