[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
Aaron watched the exotic royal procession approach him on the dusty road. A great cloud was thrown up by their passage; he knew they were coming a half-hour before they arrived. He felt them before he saw them emerge from the dust; the tread of their enormous beasts of burden shook the ground. Aaron remained where he was, in the middle of the road, beating an occasional paradiddle on his drum.

The elephants stopped before they stepped on the boy. Swarthy attendants in rich crimson robes gesticulated at Aaron. "Move, boy!" they demanded.

"I cannot," Aaron answered. "I was called to this place by God."

There was a stir in the procession, and important figures dismounted from their howdahs. Three men stepped forward, each of them rajas, or kings, or some other exotic form of royalty.

"Called by God, you say?" one of them said in passable Aramaic. "Why for?"

"I do not know," Aaron answered. "I'm just a simple boy with a drum."

"Ah," said the kings, nodding sagely and muttering amongst themselves. Aaron waited.

One of the kings pointed up into the sky. A star burned there – a star so bright that it could be seen even by daylight. "God has commanded us to follow that, to seek out a new King of the Jews," he said. "Perhaps God has commanded you to this place to attend us, and celebrate the birth of the one whose coming has been prophesied."

"Perhaps," said Aaron, nodding. "I would play my drum for a king, if he would have me."

The three kings smiled. "Good!" said their spokesman. "Then follow along behind us. We are heading to Bethlehem; it is not far. Your drumming may give our humble arrival a little pageantry."

"Yes, Lords," said Aaron deferentially, and he fell into the back of the procession. All was going according to plan, exactly as he had been instructed by King Herod.


Only six hours earlier Aaron had been in the court of Herod. The kings of the Orient had only just departed. "I don't trust those savages," Herod grumbled to his advisors. "I just have a bad feeling about them, that's all. You can't trust astrologers and kooks."

"True, sire," said one of Herod's henchmen. "Nevertheless, it's their soothsaying ability that is allowing them to sniff out the prophesied traitor. We have to trust their talents there, at the very least."

"Naturally," agreed Herod, stroking his beard pensively. "Still, no reason not to have a little insurance. Bring me that scamp we collared earlier today." Aaron was jerked to his feet roughly by a guard and half-guided, half-dragged before the king's throne.

"All right, pickpocket," said Herod, his eyes hard. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't have you executed this very moment."

"I stole only because I was hungry," mumbled Aaron. "I fall entirely upon your mercy, Lord."

"Or, I might cut your hands off," mused Herod. "Difficult to drum, I imagine, with no hands." Aaron said nothing to that; he merely kept his gaze downcast and waited. With important people, it was usually best to wait and keep your mouth shut. Especially if they were angry.

Herod shifted on his throne. "However, I am feeling merciful today," he said breezily. "You're in luck, little thief; you'll be going free, provided you run an errand for me."

"Of course, Lord," said Aaron gratefully. "Name this errand and I shall do it."

"Good boy; clever boy!" beamed Herod. "Now, I don’t ask you to do work for me for free. Once the errand is performed, return here and claim a reward. I shall offer you – let's see now – perhaps five denarii?"

Aaron swallowed. He had hardly seen a silver denarius in his entire life, let alone touched or owned one. Since his parents had died, Aaron hadn't had much money, and what he had owned had been halves or quarters of copper coins too simple to be struck with an emperor's portrait. The notion of owning five whole denarii seemed an impossible dream, a dream of owning a fortune.

"M'Lord is too generous," stammered Aaron.

"Yes," agreed Herod, still smiling at the ragamuffin. "Now, here is the errand that you must run. My guards will put you on the back of a fast horse, and they shall take you quickly to a certain crossroads. There you must wait until some very strange kings come by. Tell them that God called you there. You must join their procession by any means necessary."

"All right," said Aaron. That sounded easy enough.

"Then," continued Herod, "you must accompany the foreigners. They are on… a kind of hunt, I would say is the best way to put it. You must join them on this hunt."

"What are they hunting?" asked Aaron.

"They seek a baby, nothing more," said Herod. "I want you to find this baby along with them. Then, when you have found the baby, I want you to play your drum."

"My drum?" asked Aaron, startled. His arms closed protectively around the simple instrument. It was the only way he had of earning a livelihood; sometimes barkers at marketplaces paid him to drum up a crowd, but mostly he played it to beg coins or food.

"Yes, exactly," said Herod, his patience wearing thin. "I want you to play your drum as loud as you can, like this: RAT-a-tat-TAT! Play that rhythm for me, if you please."

Confused, Aaron complied. "Again," commanded Herod, and Aaron repeated the pattern.

Herod turned to his guard captain. "There, do you hear that?" he said. "Think you can recognize that when you hear it?"

"Yes, my King," said the guard captain.

"Very good, boy," said Herod, all smiles again. "Now, boy; when you find the baby that the kings are looking for, you'll play that same pattern. You'll play it again and again. When you play it, my guards will come running. You won't stop playing it until they arrive. Is that clear?"

Aaron nodded. Herod clapped his hands.

"To the crossroads, then!" he commanded. "And boy: not a word of this to the outlander kings, yes? This is a very important job I'm giving you, and blabbing would ruin it. Keep your mouth shut, and drum as I've told you, and you'll be very well off for your pains. Screw this up, however, and I may reconsider my lenience." He gestured, then, and the guards dragged Aaron away.

He was slung over a horse like a sack of potatoes, and he was bruised and battered by the fast ride to the crossroads. He arrived only just ahead of the Kings of the Orient, and he was grateful for the chance to walk off his discomfort as they marched on towards Bethlehem.

**

The only difficult part of the walk was dodging the elephant dung, which was odiferous and plentiful. The bearer train that brought up the rear of the procession was composed of slaves from foreign lands – persons who didn't speak Aramaic. Aaron fell into step with them, and played a march beat as they walked. The porters either didn't notice or didn't care.

Aaron sneaked peeks behind him as they walked. The dust cloud raised by the procession never fully dissipated, but Aaron could see well enough to see that a new, smaller cloud was trailing the Oriental kings. That must be Herod's guards, Aaron mused.

The boy knew exactly what was going on. Judea was not a happy place to live; the country suffered greatly under Roman occupation, and what little wealth there was had been sequestered by Herod and his family members. Everybody in Judea was poor, and as poor and oppressed people are often wont to do, they had invented their share of fanciful tales about their impending salvation. Various different stories abounded; the Romans would fall victim to some kind of plague, or Herod would be stung by a snake, or even that the foreigners to the east would invade and rid Judea of the vermin that passed for its rulers. But the most common legend by far was the notion that a new king of Judea would arise from the common people and rule his people wisely.

Aaron even knew that there was some kind of a prophecy about this king being born soon. So, he thought, Herod's fallen victim to superstition, has he? And he thinks these queer foreigners, with their thick accents and their oiled, perfumed beards, can find the predicted child-king? Aaron was skeptical.

But he knew the game that was being played. Living on the street had made Aaron wise before his time. He knew Herod wanted that baby dead, but he wouldn't want to offend the foreign kings, or tip his hand that he wanted the child for his own purposes. So he would have his guards keep their distance, and only have them close in when the signal had been given. It was, Aaron had to concede, a reasonable plan.

It also had the potential of being a profitable plan. Aaron knew there was a chance that Herod would decline to give him a reward, even if his drumming helped catch the baby. But even a small chance of having five denarii was better than living with no chance of it. Aaron had a chance to score a large amount of money for the first time in his life, and he wasn't about to pass on it.

And as for the baby? It didn't really matter to Aaron whether the kid was or wasn't the prophesied king. It was a hard world Aaron lived in, and everybody had to get by through whatever means was available to them. If that meant a baby had to die so he could live, so be it.

The procession passed into Bethlehem, a town so humble it had no wall and no gate. The people of the place were simple folk, none of whom had ever seen a mountainous elephant or people wearing colorful turbans and sharp scimitars. They stopped and stared as they watched the spectacle of the three kings' retinue pass by. Aaron began to feel as if he were part of a great and festive parade, and he played his drum gaily and waved at the crowds. Still, he was careful to ensure that he did not accidentally play the RAT-a-tat-TAT beat that Herod had taught him.

It seemed to Aaron that the star, still burning faintly, was dropping in the sky. But as the kings' procession wound its way through the crowded streets of town, the star shifted position in the sky too readily for it to be a celestial body. Aaron's heart beat faster; the star must truly be a sign from the heavens!

The procession slowed as it crept through the alleys of Bethlehem, then stopped entirely. From his position in the rear, Aaron craned his neck around the lines of porters to try to see what was going on. He had thought the procession might be headed to a higher quality inn, or perhaps the house of the village elder. As close as he could tell, however, the crazy kings had stopped in the absolute worst part of town. The houses were squalid here, and the people he could see were dressed in rags. Up ahead he thought he could see a boarding house, but it was of the most disreputable sort, and anyway the procession had stopped in the alley behind it. Aaron was confused. If the magi were looking for some kind of king, this was the absolute last place they ought to be poking around.

The procession paused for a long time. Aaron didn't know what was going on, and his patience was sorely tested. He finally couldn't take it anymore and began pushing his way past the porters towards the front of the line.

The elephants, he saw, were drawn up outside a dilapidated barn. A gathering throng of Bethlehamians clustered around the building, jockeying for position outside the one narrow doorway. The kings were nowhere in sight. Frightened that he might miss out on finding and signaling the position of the baby king, Aaron began to fight his way through the crowd.

It was difficult going; the people pressed closely and eagerly towards the door. "The child, the child king," moaned one person in the kind of delirious tones usually reserved for religious ecstasy. "At last, our salvation is upon us!" shouted another. The crowd was all very excited, and threading his way through them would have been impossible were it not for the fact that everybody in the throng had their hands full of goods.

Aaron paused to inspect some of these wares; opportunities for pickpocketing abounded here. One lady held a young lamb in her arms; two brothers lugged a big basket full of polished shell jewelry. Aaron saw a man emerge from the doorway, and as the fellow pushed outwards, those headed inwards mobbed him. Aaron moved closer to hear what was said.

"He wouldn't take my gift!" said the man bitterly.

"What!" said several in the crowd. There were gasps of shock.

"Four sestercii," announced the man, shaking a thin pouch. "All the wealth my family and I have in the world. I tried to give it to the baby, but he began crying; nothing his mother could do would calm the babe down. What could I do? Obviously the Christ-King didn't want my gift. I don't know what to do."

"Well, at least you'll eat," said somebody standing nearby.

"How can that possibly matter?" demanded the man, and he pushed his way clear, still visibly upset.

"I have nothing to give," said a man mournfully. His rags were more tattered than most. "I hope I shan't be turned away."

"Hasn't happened yet," commented a woman. "Drunk old Eli went in empty-handed, having not a brass chit to his name, and sang a prayer over the child. They say the babe listened for five minutes to the old sot! Amazing what a child will pay attention to, then turn away perfectly good coin."

Now that's my idea of a king, Aaron thought to himself. A king shouldn't care for wealth. What a king ought to value, in an ideal world, was his people. This baby rose a notch in Aaron's estimation, even though he couldn't give him too much credit. Of course a baby wouldn't think much about coins if it couldn't understand what coinage was.

An old woman tottered out of the door in a daze. "Are you all right, mother?" asked some of the throng. Aaron pushed in closer to hear better.

"Yes," she said dreamily. "Yes, I'm fine. I gave the baby a knotted thong bracelet that my dear dead husband had owned. I laid it at the child's feet, thinking how terrible it was that poor Isaac couldn't be here with me today. The child kicked out, and his little foot struck me, just here." She cradled her arm and gave a little weary smile. "I don't know. I'm not lonely any longer. Oh, blessed child."

"How about that? A miracle, eh?" said one man to another. "I wonder if he can do healings? My ma's terribly sick…"

"Shame on you," said the other fellow. "We're here to give gifts, not ask for any in return."

Another score for the child, Aaron thought. A king shouldn't command obedience from his subjects; they should pay their respects freely, of their own volition and without expecting anything in return, because a having a wise ruler pays its own dividends. And any ruler that can comfort his subjects is worth having, too.

Aaron ducked between the legs of a man and squeezed through the doorway of the barn. The small structure seemed larger inside than it appeared form the outside. The animals were crowded against the back wall, and a man and a woman flanked a manger in the center of the room. The three foreign kings stood before them, with rich caskets at their feet.

"O King of Kings," one of the magi proclaimed, "We bring you these rich gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and we come to pay fealty to you, child-king foretold by the heavens!"

Aaron squeezed past one of the kings and looked down in the manger. There was a child inside, a tiny baby. The baby looked, Aaron thought, perfectly ordinary – possibly ugly, even. However, there was a curious intensity to the child's gaze – a steadiness that no newborn should have. Aaron thought babies were weak, helpless things that couldn’t even focus their eyes on anything. This baby, though tiny enough, locked its eyes on Aaron's and regarded him calmly.

The mother of the child was plain, but she was beautiful when she smiled. "Who do we have here?" she asked.

"This boy is a drummer," the spokesman for the kings said, a trifle put out that an urchin should steal his thunder. "He was called by God to join us, to come along on our expedition to seek out the Christ-child."

"I'm Mary," said the woman. "What's your name?" She seemed very kind.

"I'm Aaron," he answered, but he couldn't look away from the baby. The baby's solemn gaze held him entranced.

The magus nudged him. "It is commonplace, I believe," whispered the king, "to bestow a gift upon a new king. Have you some token which might be your gift?"

Aaron blinked. "I'm supposed to drum," he said woodenly.

Mary beamed. "I think Jesus would love for you to drum for him," she said. "That would be a wonderful gift. Thank you."

Aaron nodded. He shifted his drum off his hip and pulled out his drumsticks. The baby's eyes were very wide, very deep.

Aaron barely touched the sticks to the drum head. Rat. a tat. tat. It came out soft as a whisper.

"Louder, boy," urged the king from another land. "No need to be so quiet."

Rat, said the drum. A-tat-tat, it added, no louder than a man speaking.

"Come now!" said the magus. "This is the King of Kings; play your drum for him like you mean it!"

Something snapped inside Aaron. He bolted back out the door, playing his drum. RAT-a-tat-TAT! RAT-a-tat-TAT! Aaron pushed through the crowd and broke loose into the alley, then ran between the barn and the boarding house. At an intersection he spotted a guard wearing King Herod's livery, confusedly trying to find the source of the drumming. Aaron led him off towards the posher side of town: RAT-a-tat-TAT! RAT-a-tat-TAT!

The three kings stared in utter confusion in the drummer-boy's wake. "What got into that boy?" one of them wondered, and the crowd muttered angrily.

Peals of laughter rung out from the manger. The tiny baby was squealing with joy in his makeshift crib. Such a young child laughing was quite a spectacle, and the three magi marveled at it.

"It would seem," said Mary approvingly, "that Jesus enjoyed his gift of drumming quite a bit."

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hwrnmnbsol

September 2012

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