I WAS ALWAYS the odd one out. The one they stared at. It was my colour, you see, the gift of my seafaring father. Black as the sluggish rivers of his homeland is my skin. Dark as its endless forests. He’d sailed the spice boats, riding the azure waters of the Gulf, exchanging their precious frankincense and myrrh for Persian gold at the white-walled city ports. That’s where I was begotten, and where my mother raised me, calling me by my father’s name: Balthasar.
She was a priestess of Astarte, worshipping the Goddess in the cool cloisters of the Temple, making an altar of her own lithe body. She and her sisters raised me as a son of the Temple. Quick to learn, they said, and wise beyond my years, I was the High Priestess’s choice to travel to the wizard’s city of Saba, where the sky-watchers would make of me a magus.
IT WAS IN SABA that I witnessed the birth. Shivering atop the narrow stone staircase, alone on the wide platform beneath the twinkling ceiling of the world, I saw it come into being. Light out of darkness – just as my masters had taught. A shimmering star, low in the sky, where only seconds before there had been no star at all.
I called Melchior, my master. He was loathe to rise from his bed, but when I described what I’d seen, he threw a cloak over his robe and followed me up the stairs. And there we stood, high above the sleeping city, staring in wonder at this new thing in the heavens.
"What is it?" I asked. "Where did it come from? And what does it portend?"
My master did not answer. For a long while Melchior remained silent, long fingers pulling fitfully at his beard, dark eyes drinking in the new star’s light.
"Go, boy", he whispered. "Rouse Gaspar. Bid him join us here."
When I returned with the High Priest of the Order, Melchior did not appear to have moved. Gaspar joined him. His long ebony staff scattering echoes off the smooth stones of the observation platform.
When he saw the star he sighed. I could not tell whether it was a sigh of joy, or of sorrow. He turned to me and smiled.
"Few indeed are privileged to witness the moment of a new star’s birth, Balthasar. Although, some among our order say that what we have witnessed tonight marks not the birth, but the death of stars."
"What does it mean, Master?"
"That something new has come into the world. That something old is passing away. That far to the West matters are coming to a head. For as you know, young Balthasar, the Age of the Ram is dying, and the Age of the Fishes about to be born."
"Or, is being born as we speak", muttered Melchior, his eyes still fixed on the star. "I would give much to witness the birth of an age that will last for two thousand years."
AND THAT IS how our journey began. And what a journey it has been. Riding off into the teeth of winter. Climbing the high passes. Traversing the empty deserts. And in every village, every city, the suspicious eyes of men who recognised us for what we were – the Magi.
"Wise Men"; "Priests of Zarathustra"; "Sky-watchers"; "The Reckoners of Darkness and Light": thus were we called by those whose minds were still open. "Wizards and Sorcerers": by those whose minds were closed.
And on me, especially, their gaze lingered; whose eyes are as dark as my skin.
And every night of our journey, burning brighter and brighter – till its rays pointed a path across the heavens like Gaspar’s upraised staff – blazed the star.
I listened as Gaspar and my master debated its meaning. At day’s end, seated on rugs before the fire, they pored over the scrolls they had brought with them. One in particular – the writings of a stiff-necked people locked into a narrow land between the desert and the sea.
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
"Immanuel, Masters? What does the word mean?"
Gaspar and Melchior, turned towards me, smiling.
"It’s Hebrew, Balthasar."
"It means: ‘God is with us’."
The short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times on Christmas Eve 2009.