"Keep the Muss in Christmas." — Michael R. Singer
To this day I still don't know if it was just a coincidence or if for some arcane reason I'd been guided to this particular timeline and this particular era. I do know that at first I didn't think anything was amiss. The ancient Middle East? Oh yeah, I'd done that gig before, only in the Bronze Age, not the Iron Age. Hell, in one timeline I'd pretty much co-founded the nation I'd landed in this time, so really, no surprises here. Sure, the Romans were a pain, but that was par for the course in the era. I didn't bother them and they didn't bother me, and for the most part we both found that arrangement satisfactory.
I'd fallen in with the extended household of a wealthy farmer who lived a half-mile outside the small town of Beit Lechem, near the north edge of the Roman province of Judaea. I'd arrived in the late spring, and at that time of year the easiest job to get in an Iron Age culture was field hand; despite my odd looks I was taken on quickly. (A 173-cm blond in 1st-century Palestine? You betcha I looked like an alien creature to those folks — just like I did to the Midianites a thousand and some years earlier and oh-so-many timelines away.) Old Avram was a good and honest man who paid well for the time and place, and I did my best to earn my perutahs.
(What's a perutah? Oh, that's a little bronze coin that was the most common currency in Judaea while I was there, issued by whichever one of the Herods was on the throne at the time. Gods know I could never keep'em straight as a kid in Sunday School, let alone living under one.)
Anyway, I'm not averse to the kind of physical labor an Iron Age farm requires of its workers. I was in good shape and to be absolutely honest stronger than all but the burliest of Avram's sons and farmhands (the numbers of which overlapped by a large amount). I did my fair share and then some, and in return I had good food, a reasonably comfortable bedroll, and some rough but enjoyable company for as long as I wanted it.
Sure as hell beat living in a cave in a post-human wasteland, let me tell you.
Some months later, when the harvest ended, Avram took me aside and told me I was welcome to spend the winter with them. Lacking a pressing appointment elsewhere in the Roman Empire, and because I liked old Avram and his family, I took him up on the offer. I knew the combination of my very foreign looks plus the strange but recognizable strain of Judaism that I practiced in order to fit in (two millennia in the making!) puzzled and intrigued the old man, and he'd made half-serious jokes about me coming from one of the Lost Tribes. I suspected that in addition to keeping a good farmhand around for the next season, he planned on interrogating me thoroughly until he found out for sure one way or the other — and offering me room and board through the winter was the best way to ensure his research project didn't wander on down the road before he satisfied his curiosity.
So I ended up staying with Avram's family well past the time the other workers returned to theirs. I started out bunking in the barn as I had during the harvest proper, but that changed after I joined the family for Sukkoth. When the booth came down off the roof of the house my pallet was moved indoors with everyone else's and all my offers to return to the barn were rebuffed. Avram's wife Tova threatened me with an iron ladle when I suggested it one too many times, at which point I gave up and accepted my promotion to "family member" with a smile.
Winter with Avram's family passed quickly enough. Folks who've only lived in an industrial, technological civilization don't realize how much work went into living (let alone living well) in the Iron Age. We didn't lounge around looking at snow falling on the fields, drinking mulled wine — we toiled, doing almost as much work keeping the farm and family going through the winter as we did in the warmer months. Not that it got cold, or snowed, in our little corner of the Empire, but that just made the work a bit easier.
Another thing future folks don't quite grasp, either: just how slow communications traveled, too. We'd been noticing and commenting on the increase in traffic to and from Beit Lechem for something close to six weeks before we finally heard about some Roman decree about a census and taxes requiring Judaeans to register with officials in whatever town their family originally came from. Avram's line had been in the Beit Lechem vicinity for longer than anyone could remember, fortunately, and it took just a day's travel, round-trip, for him to take care of his obligations to Rome. And because I was basically an undocumented alien, he claimed me as one of his nephews and covered my obligations, as well. The man was a saint.
As winter transitioned into spring, the farm started gearing up for the planting season — and the lambing. A fair amount of Old Avram's wealth was in his massive flocks of sheep, and after taking special care of the pregnant ewes for the previous four or five months, it was finally coming up on the lambing. The weather had improved to the point where the nights were no longer particularly chilly, and that was the sign that we — by which I meant all the farmhands — had to start camping out in the fields overnight.
Why? Because lambing is a tricky business, and sometimes you can't just let nature take its course. If the birth goes badly, you can lose both the lamb and the ewe, and even if you don't look at it from an economic point of view, that's a loss you don't want to take. Those same ewes (and their lambs) were also primo targets for the various predators that prowled the countryside. So it was necessary to basically set up a camp right in the middle of the flocks and set up a series of watches so that someone would always be awake to hear the sounds of a distressed ewe (or five) — or a howling wolf — in the middle of the night.
Yeah. We were shepherds, out in the country, keeping watch over our flocks by night. If I hadn't already been working every other part of the farm for most of a year by that point, that would have been my first clue.
The light show one late April evening would have been another, but I don't think I'd've needed any more clues after that.
As I watched the sky grow dark once again, I pursed my lips for a moment. "Well," I muttered, "I wasn't expecting the accounts to have been quite so literal."
Yeah. Angels, host of, one each. Singing, lights, wings, halos, you name it — all there. The announcement was a little longer than the written record had it, though. Even allowing for the inevitable translation issues, it was pretty obvious the traditional rendering had paraphrased a fair bit.
It hadn't quite caught the attitude, either. This band of angels wasn't exactly doing a worshipful alleluia, solemnly informing the world (via two dozen sleep-deprived animal husbandry experts) of God's grace and glory and all that. Instead, it looked and sounded more like a band of celestial fratboys throwing a going-away party for a buddy who was already at the airport. It was, I reflected, perhaps the least dignified group of Celestial types I had seen since the night Urd and Bacchus decided to do a pub crawl through downtown Nekomi.
But to the degree that the incident had been documented in the Bible, the account was accurate.
Just ... incomplete.
All around me, my "cousins" and the odd temporary hand were getting up off the ground, where they had fallen to their knees (or, in some cases, faces) when things got really sparkly. I looked them over, stifled a chuckle, and said, "Off to Beit Lechem, I guess."
We decided to make the pilgrimage in several groups — Avram would have our hides if we lost any of the ewes or lambs because we'd deserted our posts en masse, after all. (And there was nothing I could spot in the sky which would fit the loose criteria for a "star" to lead the Wise Men, so I figured we had a few days at least before the happy family would head back to Nazareth.)
A half-dozen of us would head out to Beit Lechem right away, find the newly-incarnated savior and his family, pay our respects, and report back to the rest. Then, for the next few nights, another half-dozen at a time would trot into town, take a gander at the kid, and hightail it back to the fields before dawn.
I made sure I was in the first group, if only because I had inside info and I was the only one not completely dazed by the experience. (I don't know what those angels had been passing about, but it'd given my "cousins" a contact high like you wouldn't believe.)
Finding the inn wouldn't be hard. There was only one place that put up travelers in Beit Lechem. (It was that small — you could trade Beit Lechem for a one-horse town and have to give back a Shetland pony as change.) And sure enough, it was packed to the gills. I didn't even bother to check inside with the innkeeper, I just led our little group around back to the stables.
Another detail not in the "official" accounts: The stable was packed, too, and not just with animals. The Holy Family did have an entire stall to themselves, though. It had just enough room for two adults to lay down in, which explains why they used the manger as an improvised cradle — they would've crushed the kid if they'd laid him between them. (And unlike the floor of the stall, it was guaranteed to be clean — or at least cleanish — straw.)
Given the hour, Yosef was understandably a bit put out by the small band of weirdos who insisted on waking him and the missus up and looking at their newborn. But we mentioned the light show, and the winged fratboys, and Miriam's eyes got real wide for a moment before she laid her hand on her husband's arm and calmed him down. (Some of the other folks staying in the stable were also put out by our arrival, but I calmed them down through somewhat different methods.)
Miriam lifted the kid out of the manger. He was wrapped up in an old shawl, a colorful thing quite unlike the white mummy wrappings you see in any depiction of the Nativity. It made him look like a rainbow-colored caterpillar. What I could see of him was like any other newborn I'd ever seen — red, wrinkly and vaguely unfinished-looking; the only saving grace was that he wasn't crying or screaming. As little Yeshua blinked sleepily in the lantern light, Miriam unwrapped him enough to bare his arms, and I took the moment to slip into mage sight.
Yup. Triple helix in the soul. There was definitely Someone Celestial in there.
While my "cousins" muddled about I took the lead and approached the little family, after first taking Dawid out into the street and cuffing him in the ear to get him to behave. (You couldn't take Dawid anywhere.) I bowed to both mother and father, and then knelt down in front of where Miriam held the boy in her lap. Surprisingly, the baby had handled the entire parade with a strange, quiet dignity.
I cupped the child's face in my hand and looked into his eyes — eyes that very definitely were too wise for an ordinary newborn. "Hey there, kiddo," I said in twentieth-century English. "I don't know which one of you is in there, but I can't imagine that you'd be ignorant of the story you've just inserted yourself into. Every Earth I've visited it's played out pretty much the same, far as I can tell."
I shook my head. "So you've got to know already what you've set yourself up for, and even if you're just timesharing a typical avatar, it's still not going to be fun when you reach the end. And if you've put all of yourself inside that baby, well..." I trailed off and bit my lip. While I did so, the infant reached up and wrapped his chubby fingers around my thumb. "Either way, Whoever You Are, you've got my respect — especially if it's been you in all those other universes as well. I suppose that'll have to be my gift — damned few gods have my respect, so it ought to be worth something just for its rarity." I smiled to make it clear I was mocking myself and not him.
"Some advice, too, though I doubt you need it," I added. "Take the time to enjoy being a kid, for as long as you can get away with it. Try to complete a masterwork as a carpenter before you have to start your ministry. And see if you can't give Judas a break this time around. The poor schmuck gets set up and used every damned time you do this — can't you come up with a different way to move into the endgame that won't destroy him in the process?"
I furrowed my brow with a moment's thought. "I guess that's it. I should let the others have a look at you. Thanks for listening to me. Merry Christmas, kiddo, and happy birthday." I tried to pull away, but suddenly the baby's grip on my thumb was like iron, and I was frozen in place.
You are welcome, Douglas Sangnoir, once called Aharon the brother of Moses, and a thousand other names as well. The words formed in my mind without a sound being emitted by the unnaturally solemn child before me. And thank you for your wishes, and those of your companions.
"Um," I said, taken aback, and the baby smiled. Around us, the moment seemed to be frozen in time.
I will share a secret with you, Douglas Sangnoir. Judas is, like I, one of the Elohim. We have taken these roles in turns through the many universes; in this one I am Yeshua ben Yosef, but in the next I shall be Yehuda ben Avraham of the Sicarii and my brother shall be Yeshua. Fear not for the fate of Yehuda, then, for we both do these things of our free will and with a purpose. The baby's eyes twinkled. This is not to say we adhere slavishly to a set script, though.
I chuckled. "Maybe he can take the place of Paul this time around — have him repent betraying you, write a major gospel, and then travel the Middle East building the Church for you." I frowned as a thought struck me. "Just let him strip out the misogynism and the other stuff that's caused trouble over the centuries... If you're at all as beneficent as you want us to think you are, I'd think you'd want a better legacy than what's left by the end of the twentieth century."
A light seemed to flare in the child's eyes, and even though his placid expression didn't change a whit, I got the feeling that I'd finally annoyed him. You speak from your own biases, Douglas Sangnoir, he said, and the tone carried by his mental "voice" confirmed my suspicion — yup, I might not have actually angered him, but he was irritated at me. Oh, well... The time and place of your origin is not the goal, but a brief milepost flickering by on the long path to that goal. The actions that my brother and I take in each of these lifetimes bear fruit in eras so far distant that from their perspective, this time and yours are indistinguishable.
"Playing pool with history," I growled. "I suppose I can understand that. I just wish fewer people ended up behind the 8-ball."
The annoyance in the mental voice disappeared. Because you ask nothing for yourself, and cared for the fate of a man whom untold billions in untold timelines have reviled for centuries, my brother and I will see what we may do. Our goal is of immense importance, and we will not see it lost for anything, but... this time, perhaps, we will see how much we can change without threatening the outcome we must have.
"Sounds like this isn't some game for you, unlike the things I've seen so many gods doing with mortals," I offered thoughtfully.
Indeed, Douglas Sangnoir. Though the lives we live in these many worlds are for the most part good and enjoyable ones, we would not ceaselessly take on the pain and blood of their endings if it were not a matter of importance whose magnitude approaches the ineffable. We are not all the spoiled children you believe us to be, as you should well know by now, and our goal benefits mortals as much as the Elohim.
Then the world started moving again and, to Miriam's surprise, the baby smiled and shrugged. Still, I must admit, it's a hell of a way to make a living.
DRUNKARD'S WALK STEPLET:
THE FIRST... NO... WELL...
by Robert M. Schroeck
This work of fiction is copyright (C) 2013, Robert M. Schroeck, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.