Authors: Susan Fish
Tags: #Wise Men, #Star, #Biblical Fiction, #Magi, #Journey, #Historical Fiction, #Astronomy, #Christmas
To Megan, whose birth started this journey,
Sheila, who showed it could be done,
and Dave—always, for everything.
This story began on a muggy summer morning in an ancient stone cottage. I was alone for the first time in years and had watched a rainbow pour directly onto the cottage after thunderstorms the night before. Anything could happen.
A young boy fascinated by stars walked into my mind, and I began to tell his story. I looked up four hours later to see my husband and three preschoolers arrive and realized I had only begun to scratch the surface of this story. Melchior and I traveled together for more than a year until his story was done. At first, I kept it all close to my chest, like a treasure, but I needed help to tell the story truly. There are many people to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude for making this book a reality.
To Don Pape, who has always championed this book and encouraged me: my thanks. To my first publisher, Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr: we were sure we had met before we actually did but have never traced a link; thank you for your faith in this tale. A trio of fine friends turned an editorial eye on early editions of the manuscript, eliminating awkward language and foolish errors—many thanks to Dr. Peter Erb, Carroll Klein, and Bruce Soderholm for your generosity. Dr. Joel Pauls-Wohlegemut, Dr. John Steele, Dr. Philip Harland, Dr. Roger Beck, and Dr. John Percy helped with accuracy in astronomy, medicine, and culture. Elvera Froese gave me a small assignment to write a drama for our church, which I tried to write and instead wrote this—thanks for setting me on my way. Valerie Diefenbacher, Erin Noteboom Bow, and Joanne Walton read excerpts and made helpful suggestions. Joanne Walton also looked after my children at times during the writing of this book, a practical reality for which I am grateful. My children—Matthew, John Aslan, and Megan—are the delights of my life and have inspired me to creativity. My parents, Bob and Carol Meredith, affirmed me as a writer from a young age and imagined I could write a book someday—here it is! Sheila Karrow is the artist of the original cover of this book and has been an inspiration to me in her painting while raising children; I am deeply grateful for her vision and her gentle pushes. And thank you to my husband, Dave. Like Reta in this story, Dave is a bit of a pomegranate—worth cracking. Dave is a lover of stars who has always encouraged me to follow my passions and makes it possible for me to do so. Many thanks to all of you and the other people in my life who cheer and console in quiet ways. I wish for continued joy in the journey we travel together.
~ 1 ~
As a little boy, I found the storms disorienting. My brother was thrilled by the coins they uncovered and the feathers they brought on the swirling sand. Once he even found a soldier’s boot, which became the prize of his collection stuffed in the cracks of the wall. For me, though, the sandstorms obstructed my beauties. Each clear night, I stole from my bed and onto the roof to admire the stars. My parents must have known, but they closed their eyes to my habits. As long as I learned my lessons in the morning, my mother did not object. One night I stayed up nearly till dawn, watching shooting stars pierce the summer sky. The second time I complained or poked my brother, my mother fixed me with a stern eye and warned me that my nocturnal choices were not permitted to interfere with my daily work. While Salvi begged to know what nocturnal meant, my mother asked me if that was clear. Desperate to continue my rapture, I agreed, stifling both a yawn and the impatience that comes with fatigue. Where my brother moaned over our mother’s insistence on our afternoon rest when the sun bleached the world diamond white, I learned to fall into deepest sleep the instant my head touched my bed. This way I found I gained an extra hour with my beauties.
“That one there, Melchi, is a lion. Can you see it?” Uncle Taz indicated the stars with his pipe. It took imagination to see the shapes he described, especially because for me it had been about the dance, the play of stars across the sky. The red one that came and went in the spring. The brightest one over the horizon. The unmoving one like a navel on the canopy. I could not quite see what he meant. So Uncle Taz went down to his room and lumbered back up with a stylus and a board. He was a merchant who traveled throughout the world, selling the rugs my father made. Several times a year he would return with his caravan empty—but he was always full of stories of the places he had seen, the exotic foods he had eaten, and the women he had known. At this point, my mother would glance at Salvi and me and quickly silence him. He also came with great bags of money. The first evening of his return, he and Father would sit up long into the night, sorting coins into their own kinds and calculating the profits and sales with the help of Uncle Taz’s stylus and board.
Uncle Taz was a good merchant. I could tell that. His brown eyes were warm, honest, and full of fun. Salvi worshipped Uncle Taz and was spellbound by the coins. Every time one fell off the table, Salvi would leap to collect it, then claim he could not find it, all the time concealing it in his robes. Uncle Taz always allowed him to have one and then would wrestle the others from the nephew whose delight knew no bounds at this play. Then our father would clear his throat and Taz would grunt as we pulled him to his feet again. I always held back from the tussle, but I liked it nonetheless.
On those first nights, Salvi and I were permitted to sleep on the floor by the fire, and we curled together warm and sleepy on our bedding, falling asleep to the clink of coin upon coin, the rasp of the stylus, and the rich laughter of Uncle Taz. On those nights, our mother seemed like a young girl sitting happily in the firelight. Everyone relaxed when Uncle Taz was there. Our father pulled our mother into his lap after she had brought them yet another cup of wine, and he kissed her right on the mouth.
“A good trip, Taz?” our mother asked, lovingly pushing our father’s hair behind his ears with her long brown fingers.
“Always, Daria, always,” he said with a laugh.
We watched our father and Uncle Taz at work over the table, our father methodically adding or showing Taz his latest design, Uncle Taz interrupting with stories of the man who offered his daughter for a small stack of rugs.
“Not that I wasn’t tempted.” Uncle Taz laughed, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face.
I could see my brother picturing Uncle Taz’s nomadic life. We knew that Uncle Taz and our father had taken over their father’s work and that our lessons now were to prepare us to follow someday.
“How will we choose?” Salvi whispered to me one firelit night when our backsides had gotten too hot and we had rolled to face the fire.
“Choose what?” I asked. My face had already warmed.
“Who will get to travel and sell, and who will have to make the rugs?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. But I did. I knew that Salvi was far better suited than I to the work of selling. I liked the beauty of the mathematics my mother taught me and the magic of the pungent dyes that turned the rugs saffron and blue, but to spend the rest of my days as my father did, dyeing wool until my hands were as dark and weathered as old camel skin bags and splintered from tying knots, then falling asleep in my supper at night, seemed worse than being smothered. My friend Omar was eager to begin work with his father, but I could wait, perhaps even forever. I stared into the depths of the fire. What drew me to Uncle Taz’s life was not the travel or the coins, but camping in the desert for the night. The stars were brilliant against the empty desert, he told me one night, and they seemed so low you could almost pluck one.
I had gasped, recalling my dream. For as long as I can remember, I have had a recurring dream of reaching for the unmoving star and grasping it. My body moves around the star in the glorious dance of the stars, while my hand receives tingles of light that run through my entire body. It is always my right hand and when I awake from such dreams, so real are they that I can still feel the tingle and I search that hand with my eyes for the imprint of the star or traces of starlight.
It was in the desert, Uncle Taz told me, that he learned of the star patterns, from the nomads whose camps he sometimes joined. Using a finger instead of a stylus, they drew patterns in the sand, showing Uncle Taz the shapes made by the stars. These Taz taught to me during our pipe sessions on the roof. The next time the sandstorm came, I did not sweep the roof clean but gathered the sand and drew the nomads’ star shapes.
The stars grew as familiar to me as my mother’s face—and as beautiful. Then one summer, as the stars shifted in their course, I began to see changes in my mother’s face. Dark circles formed under her eyes, and her body and face began to swell. Alarmed, I questioned her. She patted my arm reassuringly,
“My little observer,” she said with a smile. “Nothing passes you by. I am very well. How would you like a little brother?” This unsettled me. It had always been two: our father and Uncle Taz, Salvi and Melchi. It felt like a disturbance in the stars.
I was ten years old and Salvi was twelve when our mother gave birth to her last baby. In bringing this life into the world, our mother, our guiding star, died.
The child was a girl. There were never girls in our family. Our father was doubly grieved. He was lost, tangled in the cut threads of his life. He sat in the dark room beside our mother’s body, rigid and silent as she.
It fell to Salvi and me to make arrangements for our mother’s burial and for our new sister’s care. The women of our village did all the work, but we were the ones who chose the burial cloths, the wet nurse, and the name for our sister.
“Her name is Daria,” my brother announced as he handed the bundle to our mother’s youngest sister, who wept and soothed the child at her breast.
Within the moon, Uncle Taz appeared, stricken and sorrowful but capable. He lifted the mantle of responsibility from our shoulders, commended our actions, and persuaded our father to eat. Over our father’s protests, Uncle Taz stayed a full month, claiming he had always wanted to learn rug making, that it would help him sell better.
That month the stars lost their luster. I sat under their silence, their fixity. There was no brilliance, no dance. Still I sat on the roof, hard rocks for eyes, and grieved alone for my mother, who had gone farther from my reach than the stars. I erased the star shapes in the sand and tried instead to capture a likeness of my beautiful mother. I could not, neither in the sand nor in my heart’s eye. Her hands I could remember, soft as olive oil, brown, warm, and strong, and I longed for their soothing touch as her face eluded me. I could almost see her, but I could not draw her. I put my head down in the sand and tasted its sour dryness.
Then I did feel a hand on my head, stroking my hair, soothing. It was Salvi. This was the first time he had touched me deliberately since we had fought as little boys. It was the first touch of genuine comfort I had had since our mother died. I clung to Salvi as I would hold tight to a tree in a storm, and we wept under the stars for our lost mother and the burden we shared together. At last my grief lightened, and I could breathe freely. Salvi and I talked that night for the first time. We talked of our mother—her meals, her hands, her laughter, how she eased our father’s moods. We talked of our father, how he had withdrawn into his grief, how he had refused to even see our sister. Salvi and I took food each day to our aunt and watched the red squalling bud of an infant unfold into a gurgling brown baby. This Daria did not know that she, too, had lost her mother. We talked of the girl who was making our food, how her lamb was not spiced as our mother’s was. We talked of our suspended studies. No one had mentioned lessons since our mother died. There were many holes in her absence, and we felt each one keenly. Periodically we wept a little, but the terrible knot of pain had unwoven and grief could now seep out as it would.
Salvi looked around at the sky above. “So these are your stars,” he said, as though looking at them for the first time. “Impressive treasures, Melchi!”
I did not know whether he could see what I saw, or whether he was indulging me, but I swept aside the failed likeness of our mother and drew several of the star shapes for Salvi.
He laughed. “Only you could find a hunter in all those stars. Look, there’s Leyla and there’s her—”
I punched him. Leyla was the most beautiful girl in our village, and Salvi was starting to see her as a man would. He rolled over my drawing, laughing. When his ribald laughter finally stopped, he lay back and grew serious.
“Uncle Taz is leaving soon,” he told me.
“Leaving? How do you know?”
“I heard him tell our father.”
Salvi shrugged. “They can’t agree. Taz wants me to go with him. To learn the ways, he said.”
I looked at him, my heart choked with secret disappointment. “That’s wonderful for you, Salvi,” I said. “Think of the sights you’ll see.”
He grinned again and winked at me.
“Will our father let you go?” I asked, remembering that Salvi had said the brothers couldn’t agree.
“Apparently he will,” said Salvi. “It’s you they can’t agree about.”
“Me?” Did Taz intend to take us both? It was a possibility Salvi and I had never considered. I realized Salvi was still speaking.
“—wants you to study with the astronomers, but our father says no, Melchi must learn more of the knots and dyes.”
I fell on my back, and the stars swirled above me. Our mother had told us about the astronomers, the magi whose work it was to study and understand the stars. Our father, passing through the kitchen where we studied, had dismissed such work as foolish and impractical with nothing to show for it, like the old aunts who occupied their days counting grains of sand.
The possibility of studying with the astronomers dazzled me like a clear night full of stars. Then I thought of our father and knew in an instant how he would react. A blinding, choking sandstorm swallowed my dream.
“It won’t happen,” I said.
“Taz is offering to pay, Melchi. And you know how he can be.”
“Not this. Not now. Who would help our father?”
“I could stay.” Salvi spoke quietly. I loved my brother for that offer. Our father might dismiss my passion as foolishness, but Salvi and Uncle Taz did not. I knew I would not accept Salvi’s sacrifice, but somehow his offer made me feel less trapped in the work I knew was my lot.
“You’ll go, Salvi,” I said. “But thank you, my brother, for understanding.”
Salvi looked around again at the sky. “Understanding?” he said. “No, I don’t understand, Melchi, what draws you to your stars. But when I see you, I think you are like those astronomers our mother told us about and that you should have your chance to learn.”
I shook my head, not wanting to be seduced again by the impossible. “I’ll learn here,” I said. As an idea occurred to me, I said, “Salvi, if you hear stories about the stars, could you remember them for me?”
Salvi agreed. Then, eyes twinkling, he asked me in return if I were ever to discover a new star that I should name it after him. I agreed to this. We laughed, yawned, and went to bed.
For many, I expect, the transition between child and man is gradual, but for Salvi and me, childhood ended that summer night of grief and talk when the moon hung in the sky like a sliver of hope.