“A MOMENT SIR, just a moment of your time, that is all I ask.”
The teacher paused. His companions, fearing that, once again, he would be overwhelmed by the crowd, urged him on. So many people, all of them demanding a moment of his precious time.
“Hurry away, Teacher, there are too many, and we have far to travel before the sun sets.”
“Just one question, Sir. For the peace of mind of an old soldier. You, who have so many answers. I beg you, Sir, spare one for me.
A wind off the sea blew the thin whisps of what remained of old man’s of hair across the deep lines of his face. His had not been an easy life, that much was plain. And his eyes spoke of horrors they could not un-see.
“Go on, brothers, I will catch you up!”
The teacher drew the old man down a narrow alleyway between two houses, emerging from the gloom into the bright sunlight of a walled garden. The teacher motioned for the old man to be seated on a stone bench, positioned in the shadow of a lofty cypress.
“Ask me your question, brother.”
“Did I kill him? That is the question that has dogged my waking hours, and haunted my terrible dreams, for more than thirty years.”
“You do not know?”
“No, Sir, I do not. We killed so many. Mere babes they were, Sir, still at their mothers’ breasts most of them. And, oh, how those mothers pleaded for their sons’ lives. On their knees, their up-turned faces wet with tears, their eyes alive with fear. How they begged and begged, and screamed and screamed, as we stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. It was the King’s orders, Sir. We were to kill all the boys born since the arrival of three Parthian wizards. Journeying far from the East, they said, to pay homage to the new-born King of Israel. Herod was beside himself with rage. The prophecy must be defeated – there was no other way. Every male child born in and around Bethlehem since the arrival of these doom sayers was to be killed. That was the King’s dreadful order, and, God forgive me, Sir, I obeyed it.”
The teacher stood in the cypress’s shadow, motionless, a single finger pressed hard against his lips.
“How many did you kill, brother?”
“Thirty-two, Sir. Thirty-two innocent babes. Twenty-six in Bethlehem, six in the nearby farms and villages. Herod was satisfied. His crown and line were safe – or so he thought.”
“My father told me the tale of the slaughtered children when I was myself a child. It weighed heavily upon him, a great burden of guilt, all his life. That he did nothing to save them – even though he was forewarned of Herod’s murderous intentions. He fled with his wife, my mother, carrying me, their new-born son, south into Egypt – and safety. They sent no warning to the mothers of Bethlehem. Did not look back.”
The old soldier rose slowly to his feet, took three steps towards the teacher, and fell upon his knees. His gnarled fingers clutched wildly at the other man’s cloak, drawing it to his lips.
“Then I did not kill the King,” the old soldier whispered hoarsely, “for here he stands before me, alive beneath the sun. The thirty-third child.”
“It was not my father, alone, who bore the weight of guilt, my brother,” said the teacher, helping the old soldier to his feet. “All my life, I have carried with me the knowledge that to keep me safe, my parents did nothing to deliver those innocent children from Herod’s evil.”
The old soldier placed his hands on the teacher’s shoulders, his face grim as death itself.
“There was nothing you could have done, Sir. There was no hiding-place that my men and I would not have found eventually. And if you and your parents had not escaped south, in the very nick of time, then Israel would not have its saviour king – it’s Messiah.”
“But I am no Herod, brother. And no Messiah, neither. The kingdom I proclaim is not a place of thrones and swords and crimes. And all that it requires is one last sacrifice. One final gift of innocence to open the gates of paradise. The life of the thirty-third child.”
This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 December 2022.