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September 25, 2023

Bumble Off To Bethlehem

By Pete McArdle

Three men huddled round a flickering fire as darkness fell on the Desert of Judea. Royalty in the land of Persia, the men had hurriedly left on a sacred quest, and now they were lost and alone. High above them, brilliant amidst the vast constellations spanning the sky, was the wondrous Star which had led them here. But tonight this Star, whose coming was foretold many centuries ago, offered neither comfort nor consolation as a cold keening wind stung the kings' cheeks, tugged at their robes, and tried to put out their fire.

"Khurl-ee, go find something to get this fire going," said King M'oh of Melchior, their puffy-eyed leader, "and make it snappy."

"I'll go when I'm good and ready," said Khurl-ee, King of Caspar. He folded his arms on his big, round belly and huffed indignantly.

M'oh glared at him and reached for his solid-gold scepter.

"I'm ready now," said Khurl-ee, jumping to his feet and skipping over to the supply dump. He was surprisingly agile, the way some big men are.

M'oh turned to the third king, Leh'ri of Balthazar, and said, "Leh'ri, go get the maps so I can figure out where we are."

"Go get them yourse --"

A loud Bong! interrupted Leh'ri, the sound of M'oh's scepter bouncing off his skull.

"Owww, that hurts," said Leh'ri, rubbing the top of his head. "Look!"

In his outstretched hand was a patch of frizzy hair but M'oh ignored him, he was staring in amazement at his scepter which now featured a dent the size and shape of a human head.

"I oughta moider you," muttered King M'oh, "now go get the maps before I change my mind."

Grumbling under his breath, Leh'ri got to his feet and headed for the supply dump, crossing paths with Khurl-ee who was returning with a burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He threw the sack on the fire, causing it to blaze magnificently and radiate great heat.

King M'oh held his palms to the fire and smiled, but he soon lost patience with Leh'ri who'd yet to return.

"Hey porcupine, what's taking so long?" he yelled.

"I can't find the maps," said Leh'ri.

M'oh made a face and was about to get up when a flash of color in the fire caught his eye. Leaning closer, he read "Baghdad and Its Southernmost Suburbs" on a piece of blue parchment, just moments before the fire consumed it.

M'oh sprang to his feet and started chasing Khurl-ee around the camp, King Khurl-ee howling, "No, M'oh, no!" and somehow managing to stay one step ahead of him. Suddenly, a stranger in flowing white robes appeared.

"Behold, I am the Angel Ian," he said, tossing back his long, blond hair, "and I shall lead you to thafety in Egypt."

"Oh good," said Khurl-ee, "I'd like to visit my mummy."

A punch in the stomach from M'oh doubled Khur-lee over, before a fist to the forehead straightened him up.

"Shaddup," growled M'oh, and to the angel, "Listen, pal, we're not going to Egypt, we're following a star that's gonna lead us to the Son of God."

"Hmm," said the angel, glancing at his watch and brushing back a stray lock of hair. "It theems I'm a little early."

Leh'ri, who'd been watching the entire proceedings, said, "An angel, huh? M'oh, you always said you were looking for an angel."

"Yeah, and this one's dumb and blond," said Khurl-ee, "Just the way you like 'em."

"Quiet, you numbskulls," snarled M'oh, slapping both their faces with one smooth swing. "Now listen, Ian, we're awfully hungry and thirsty. Can you help us out?"

"Thertainly," said the angel. He snapped his fingers and the fire flared briefly, then exploded in a huge cloud of smoke, sand, and glowing embers. As the dust slowly settled, the three kings coughed and spat, their faces covered in soot.

"Oopsie," said Ian, blowing his bangs off his forehead, "Leth try again." He clapped his hands and instantly a table and four chairs appeared. Spread out on the checkered tablecloth were bowls of pasta, meatballs, grated cheese, and salad, as well as a magnum of red wine and a basket of bread. A single candle gave off a gentle glow as the smell of marinara sauce filled the air.

"Oh, I-talian grub, my favorite," said Khurl-ee.

"Yeah, let's eat!" said Leh'ri. As Leh'ri and Khurl-ee lunged towards the table, M'oh grabbed for their heads but his right hand slid off Khurl-ee's shiny dome and his left came away with a fistful of Leh'ri's hair.

"Remind me to kill you later," muttered M'oh, and then he plopped down in a chair and poured himself a generous glass of Chianti. He found the wine full-bodied and dense, much like King Khurl-ee.

Ian joined the kings at the table but as a pure spirit he required no nourishment. So while the three men stuffed their faces, the angel complained long and bitterly about what the sand-laden wind was doing to his skin. By the time the men had emptied the bowls and drained the bottle, it was late and their eyes were heavy. The Angel Ian wiggled his nose and a small wooden hut appeared.

The weary kings rose and trudged three abreast to the hut; arriving simultaneously, they got stuck in the doorway. M'oh grabbed his buddies by the ear and none-too-gently backed them out of the doorway.

"Spread out!" he snapped, and went inside. Rubbing their ears and yawning, Leh'ri and Khurl-ee followed and within minutes, the three men were fast asleep. As the kings snored loudly, the Angel Ian sat outside, running a silver hairbrush through his luxurious tresses and trying to recall the gesture for summoning skin cream. Overhead, the sacred Star slowly crept westward.

* * *

The next morning, Ian conjured up a big breakfast as the blinding desert sun cleared the horizon and began to bake the world. After filling up with flapjacks -- Khurl-ee alone devoured two dozen of them -- the men loaded up their donkeys, clambered on top, and headed out into the desert, led by the Angel Ian on foot.

Today the donkeys were lethargic and out of sorts, constantly stopping and trying to bite the kings and each other. Every few minutes, the angel had to stop and wait for the small caravan to catch up.

"Hey Ian," said M'oh, adjusting his oversized keffiyeh which kept slipping down over his eyes, "Can you turn these asses into something sleek and fast?"

"Maybe Leh'ri," said Ian, "but definitely not Khurl-ee. Even divine powers have their limits."

"I meant the donkeys," said M'oh.

"I knew that," said Ian defensively. "Hop off and I'll thee what I can do."

After the kings dismounted, the angel did a disco dance step and the donkeys suddenly morphed into armadillos, which quickly scurried away over a low rise and disappeared into a small subterranean chamber.

"Thorry about that," said Ian, instinctively sidling away from M'oh. As the merciless sun glared down upon the kings, the angel tried every animal spell he could recall, prancing about, flapping his wrists, grabbing his crotch, and even moon-walking.

He summoned mice, then cats which ate the mice, followed by wolves which devoured the cats, and then a great white shark which thrashed about mightily, all teeth and tail, for a minute or two before expiring. The wolves tentatively sniffed the dead shark, decided against seafood, and loped off into the desert having caught the scent of their favorite food: armadillo.

The Angel Ian was simply unable to bring forth any beasts of burden, and after producing an especially annoying pair of Pomeranians, he gave up.

The three kings shouldered as much of their provisions as they could and proceeded westward, stolidly dragging themselves up and down the shimmering dunes, sweat stinging their eyes and the small dogs nipping at their heels.

* * *

"Ian, you make a mean margarita," said Mo'h, sipping his drink on a lounge chair under a striped umbrella. It was lunch time and Ian had created a small oasis, complete with shade trees, a charcoal grill, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool in which Leh'ri and Khurl-ee were cavorting. The Pomeranians were running all over the place, barking and sniffing and peeing on every shrub, tree, and stone in sight.

"The trick is fresh lime juith," said Ian, wearing an apron with "World's Best Cook" on it. He was scooping out avocados into a bowl while keeping an eye on a batch of burgers. Although his basic angel skills were suspect at best, Ian sure knew how to throw a party. "Thave room for the guacamole," he advised.

M'oh was enjoying the cool shade and the cold drink, but he was worried they'd never find the Son of God at the rate they were going. It would be most embarrassing to finally arrive bearing gifts, only to find that the Son of God was away at school. What the kings needed was nothing short of miracle: a chance encounter with a traveler heading west, someone who just happened to have three extra camels, a willingness to help, and a tolerance for toy dogs. A good Samaritan, or for that matter, a good Sumerian, anyone who could deliver them from this arid waste --

M'oh's musings were interrupted by a tsunami of chlorinated water crashing over his head. It seems Khurl-ee had just executed a classic cannonball, tucking his knees to his chin and contacting the water with every inch of his ponderous posterior. The resultant splash had extinguished the barbecue, ruined the guacamole, and drenched King M'oh right down to the soles of his sandals. Worst of all, it missed the damn dogs.

A dripping M'oh knelt down by the side of the pool and motioned Khurl-ee over.

"How many fingers do you see?" said M'oh, holding up an index finger.

"One," said Khurl-ee, grinning.

"That's right," said M'oh. He made a 'V' with two fingers. "And how many now?"

"Do I get a prize if I get this right?" asked Khurl-ee.

"Oh, you most certainly do."

Khurl-ee scrunched up his face in concentration. "Three?"

M'oh smiled. "Is that your final answer?"

"Why soitanly, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk." said Khurl-ee, "Now give me my --"

Before Khurl-ee could say "prize," M'oh poked him in the eyes with an audible Boink!

"Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow," yowled Khurl-ee, his high-pitched ululation further enraging M'oh who grabbed a chunk of decorative coral and raised it over his head.

"Hey guys, look!" yelled Leh'ri, pointing off in the middle distance.

There was a thin rope of smoke rising up over a sand dune: somebody was out there. M'oh dropped the coral and ran off into the desert, followed by Leh'ri hollering "Hey M'oh, wait up!" and Khurl-ee shrieking "Wooh, wooh, wooh, wooh, wooh!" Heavy-legged and breathless, the three kings finally reached the top of the last rise and looked down at the source of the smoke.

Below them, a scruffy nomad and a black sheep sat around a huge glass hookah from which rose fluffy white cumuli, like a string of pearls. From above, the pipe looked like a malevolent octopus whose red eye glowed when the tall, bearded man sucked on a hose, and yet again as the sheep, tres chic in heels and bangle earrings, leaned in and took a puff. As waves of the pungent smoke washed over the kings, they became light-headed and hungry, even though they'd just gorged themselves on Ian's famous sirloin burgers with Gorgonzola.

"Hey pal," yelled King M'oh, leading his buddies down the slope, "Can you help us out?"

"Sure, man," said the grinning stranger, "Grab some sand and take a toke. This is some really good shit."

Fearful lest they offend the man, the three kings sat down and took turns puffing on the pipe as introductions were made. It turns out the stranger was a merchant from Kabul named Dey'v, and his sheep's name was Kardashian. Dey'v had been traveling to Bethlehem to deliver the ewe and the hookah -- wedding gifts for the local Roman centurion, Coitus Maximus -- and he'd stopped to catch a buzz when a sudden swarm of armadillos spooked his camels, who humped off into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

"I figure if I'm gonna fry out here," said Dey'v, blowing a big smoke ring, "I might as well get good and toasted."

Giggling like a harem girl her first day on the job, Khurl-ee flapped his hand in M'oh's face, making him flinch, and said, "What is this shit, anyway? Pot? Hashish? Wacky tobaccy?"

M'oh's slow-motion punch missed Khurl-ee by a mile but nailed Leh'ri right in the Adam's apple -- Doink! King Leh'ri keeled over and, clutching his throat, eagerly awaited his next breath.

"No, man, it's shit," said Dey'v, "sheep shit. Kardashian ate my stash."

An especially puffy-eyed M'oh glanced over at the sheep and seemed to see her for the first time: her sleek, black coat, long shapely legs, and dark smoldering eyes, the lashes laden with mascara. He licked his lips and had to admit, she was one fine piece of ewe. M'oh imagined coming home from a hard day's work to Kardashian: she'd be waiting by the harem door wearing a sheer negligee, her hoof-nails freshly painted and a tray of drinks balanced on her back. She'd look up at him and bleat seductively, her scent an intoxicating melange of timothy hay and gardenia, and then her precious, pink tongue would --

M'oh jumped when the Angel Ian suddenly appeared.

"Behold, I am the Angel Ian," he proclaimed, "and I will lead you to thafety . . . eventually."

"Angel, huh?" said Dey'v, "That's funny, man, I have a cousin named Angel. We used to hang out 'till he got his hands cut off for boosting burros."

Kardashian looked away and pretended like she wasn't with Dey'v.

"Wanna partake, angel dude?" said the shaggy merchant, offering the angel a hose.

"The pleasures of your world do not entithe me," said Ian, sitting down between Dey'v and Kardashian, "but as the thaying goes, when in Nome . . ." The angel took a prodigious hit, held it in for a full minute, and let it out through his ears just to show off.

King Leh'ri, who'd only now resumed breathing, coughed and hacked a few times, then sat up. "Guys, look!" he croaked, pointing at Ian who was floating cross-legged, a foot above the ground.

Grinning wickedly, the angel said, "Let'th party!"

* * *

The multicolored strobe lights were making M'oh dizzy, so he asked Ian to tone them down and put on more of that Beatles music. He ate the last of the treats Ian had conjured up and threw the empty Oreo box on the fire, a vigorous blaze made from good Norwegian wood. King Mo'h looked around at the other party-goers.

King Leh'ri, his hair in a frizzy ponytail, sat motionless and eyes closed in the lotus position. He was either meditating or fast asleep, it was hard to tell.

Ian and Dey'v were sharing a joint the size of a hero sandwich, a bone so robust they needed both hands to hold it. Ian had grown a Fu Manchu and tie-dyed his previously immaculate tunic. It now featured exploding universes of purple, green, and yellow, something the angel had actually witnessed.

King Khurl-ee and Kardashian were nose-to-snout in conversation, the angel Ian having unwisely given the ewe the power of speech.

"It was like, you know, the most em-baah-rassing thing ever," said the sheep, "I was like, Omigod, I'll never grow my coat baah-ck, you know?"

"You remind me of my cousin, the lesbian," said Khurl-ee, "She too is a cunning linguist." He slapped his own face hard, saving M'oh the trouble.

M'oh shook his head at all the silliness and lay back on the cool desert floor. His arms and legs felt leaden, so heavy they seemed to sink into the sand, like he was a staple. Directly overhead was the Star of legend and lore, a sign King M'oh'd spent his whole life looking for.

Despite his penchant for poking people in the eyes, M'oh was an enlightened and compassionate king. His heart ached at the vast repertoire of suffering his people, and all people, endured. And lurking always in the background, even for those living happy and comfortable lives, was the specter of Death. But it was written:

God will one day send down His Son to save mankind.
This divine Being, born of woman,
will walk among us bringing love and serenity to all, and the promise of life everlasting.
A glorious Star,
rising in the East, shall herald the Savior's birth
and lead the faithful to His side.

M'oh now gazed at this very Star, countless light years away yet so immense and incandescent it seemed close enough to touch. He yearned to follow it, to kneel before the infant Son of God and touch the hem of His blanket. But right now the King of Melchior was majorly wasted in the middle of nowhere, just a staple in the sand. As the old Imam would say, M'oh was up Shiite's creek without a camel.

Suddenly, two furry whirling dervishes came yipping and yapping down the nearest dune, tails wagging above their self-generated sandstorms. It was the Pomeranians. One of them went straight for Kardashian and by way of introduction, tried to conduct a colonoscopy with its snout while the other dog warily circled the hookah, then settled down and began gnawing on a hose.

"Bad doggie!" said the toasted angel, wagging his finger at the little pooch, and -- Wham! -- the dog was transformed into the stuff of nightmares, an immense winged dragon with the brain of a bond trader and the heart of a liberal Democrat. The dragon smelled its favorite food, toy dog, its brain said "buy," and it swallowed the other Pomeranian in a single gulp. Then, realizing what it had done, the dragon burst into tears and vowed in its heart to one day draft legislation protecting the rights of Pomeranians everywhere.

"That's okay, big fella," said Dey'v, patting a huge clawed foot. "I was gonna kill that little pendejo if you hadn't. Here, try some of this, man," he said and held the enormous joint up to the dragon's mouth. "Breathe in -- good, now hold it -- good."

A half-hour later, the dragon was extremely mellow, its soulful crimson eyes reduced to mere slits. It had consumed several hundred of Ian's Gorgonzola burgers and now lay back on a sand dune, grinning goofily and tapping its tail to some Allman Brothers. Although the dragon was mute, it clearly understood what the humans were saying, shaking its head no to more burgers and nodding yes to more Led Zeppelin. The group decided to name it Poof, which had been Ian's suggestion.

"Those are some wings you got there, Poof," said M'oh. "Can you fly with 'em?"

Poof sat up and tentatively flapped his wings a few times. Then he lunged forward and with a couple of powerful thrusts, soared high into the night sky. The dragon climbed and banked across the moon, did barrel rolls and loop-de-loops, then power dove at the group, making them scatter, before leveling out and executing a perfect four-point landing. Everyone cheered except Kardashian who muttered, "Stupid lizard," and then walked off by herself and sulked.

King M'oh called for a meeting around the campfire. Everyone was quickly seated except Ian who had donned extremely dark sunglasses and was traipsing around blindly until Dey'v hissed, "Over here, angel dude." Ian lurched towards the group, tripped over Khurl-ee and crash-landed on Leh'ri, kicking sand in M'oh's face. Furious, M'oh yanked the sunglasses off the angel's head and thought about slapping him but wisely refrained. Despite the sand in his eyes, nose, and mouth, M'oh had no desire to be turned into some sort of monster with the body of a scorpion and the head of a hair stylist.

M'oh spat a few times and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "First thing tomorrow," he announced, "We're flying that dragon to Bethlehem to drop off Dey'v and Kardashian. Then we'll get right back on Poof and follow the sacred Star. Now let's gather all our stuff in one place and get some shut-eye so we can wake up early."

"But I don't wanna go to bed," whined Khurl-ee, "I wanna rock 'n roll all night long!"

"Yeah, me too," chimed in Leh'ri.

"Oh, you wanna rock and roll, do you?" said M'oh, closing his hand around a half-buried piece of shale. "Well then, let's rock," he said, and -- Bam! -- the shale banged off Khurl-ee's skull and -- Crash! -- it smashed to pieces on Leh'ri's head.

"There. Now roll," said M'oh as Khurl-ee and Leh'ri did just that, groaning and holding their heads as they rolled around in the sand.

"Any other bright ideas?" asked M'oh.

Ian, Dey'v, and Kardashian quickly shook their heads.

"Good, let's get to work," said M'oh.

* * *

The voyageurs were awakened at sunrise by the smell of coffee and the sound of sizzling bacon. Ian had prepared a sumptuous spread of Eggs Benedict, hominy grits, and mixed-berry compote, and for the kings, a Persian delicacy, smoked badger noses on toast. The angel had also baked hash brownies with walnut bits, just the way Dey'v liked them.

Everyone was excited and upbeat except Kardashian, who had her panties in a bunch over the early wake-up call. Noticing this, Dey'v straightened out her panties so she'd be more comfortable and freshened her fuchsia lipstick. He wanted her to look her very best for Coitus Maximus, although rumor had it the centurion was totally indiscriminate, and had once been caught in flagrante with a three-legged llama.

After breakfast, they began loading their luggage and supplies onto the dragon. As he supervised the baggage handling, M'oh marveled at Poof's appearance in the daylight: his brilliant copper scales with glimmering veins of turquoise, his sharp mother-of-pearl teeth, and his huge, sad crimson eyes.

The fact is, Poof wasn't sad at all, he was conflicted. In his head, he felt the passengers should be charged a hefty fee for the flight, along with a baggage surcharge, while his heart argued they should pay only what they could afford and perhaps the locals could pay a small sales tax to make up the difference. But without words, Poof could express none of this, hence the sad eyes.

When the pre-flight preparations were complete, the passengers boarded the dragon. King M'oh and the angel sat next to each other on Poof's head, M'oh so he could direct the dragon, Ian so his lustrous locks would stream behind him to best effect. The sheep, the hookah, and the kings' carry-on's had all been lashed to dorsal scales and the other passengers sat close by gripping the ropes, all except Dey'v who straddled Poof's tail, figuring this would give him the maximum rush when the hash brownie kicked in.

A sudden backward jolt, a powerful thrust forward, and off they flew, the dragon climbing effortlessly until they were high over the Desert of Judea, an unchanging vista of scattered desert palms on white, wavy sand, which from cruising altitude looked like raisins on vanilla icing. As morning turned to afternoon, the dragon riders ate peanuts and sipped Bloody Mary's, while Dey'v clung wild-eyed to the dragon's tail and cackled at odd intervals.

By mid-afternoon, most of the passengers were napping but M'oh was too excited to sleep -- they were traveling much faster than he could've hoped, ever closer to his lifelong dream. He glanced back at Kardashian who was leaning into the wind, eyes closed and her red silk panties billowing out behind her. Her ebony fleece was flat against her face and her lips were parted slightly, showing just a glimpse of her tiny ungulate teeth. He imagined running his fingers through her soft coat as she told him about her day's trials and tribulations, and he would murmur, "There, there, darling," and then he'd . . .

M'oh's romantic revery was cut short by Ian tapping him on the shoulder and pointing to the horizon. A smattering of small dots there gradually resolved into the little town of Bethlehem, clusters of low buildings interspersed among gentle hills, farm land, and pine trees. As the late afternoon sun painted the desert red, Poof began a gentle descent and veered south towards the the largest structure in sight, the walled fortress of the Roman centurion, Coitus Maximus.

After a somewhat bumpy landing just outside the walls of the Roman compound, the travelers deplaned, Dey'v requiring help to pry open his fingers. Some of the legionnaires who were standing guard came over and helped them unload the dragon. After everything had been taken off, one of the soldiers began harassing Poof, spewing anti-dragon rhetoric and poking the dragon in the nose with his lance.

If screaming at a twenty-ton dragon is mind-bogglingly stupid, jabbing a tired one in its exquisitely sensitive snout is downright suicidal. Poof reared up to his full majesty and roared, causing more than one Roman bladder to unexpectedly empty, and he would have bitten the soldier's head off had Ian not snapped his fingers and --Poof! -- the dragon was once again a tiny Pomeranian. The wee dog barked angrily at the stunned soldier before biting his ankle, hard, and running away into the compound. There goes our ride, thought M'oh.

Several soldiers helped the injured legionnaire into the fortress, seeking first-aid for their comrade and fresh drawers for themselves. Meanwhile, a short, swarthy Roman with a clipboard and an especially-large crest on his helmet came out and addressed the traveling party.

"Welcome to the Bethlehem branch of the Roman Empire, folks. I'm Phallus Flaccidus and I'll be your Quartermaster today."

King Khurl-ee giggled and Phallus glared at him for a moment, and then continued.

"Let's see," he said, consulting his clipboard, "We're expecting Dey'v from Kabul and one black Merino ewe." Phallus noted Dey'v holding his hand up, and the lovely Kardashian, silent for once. He put a check on his list and motioned for a soldier to escort them inside.

"Okey dokey. Next we have one dual carburetor, eight-port, water-cooled, high-performance hookah."

"Over here," said Ian, his arm around the hookah like they were old friends. Two powerfully-built soldiers picked up the pipe and carried it inside. The quartermaster stared distastefully at the angel with his long hair, Fu Manchu, and sunglasses, and said, "Follow them."

"Musicians," he groused as Ian disappeared into the compound. Phallus looked at the disheveled, sun-burnt kings, then ran his finger down the list.

"You circus people are a day early but you can take your stuff and sleep in the old stable."

"Now hold on, pal," said M'oh, "I'll have you know you're addressing the sovereign kings of Melchior, Caspar, and Bal --"

"Yes, yes, of course I am," Phallus interjected. "And you'll be happy to know, Your Highness, that the exterminator was just here, we've laid in a fresh supply of hay, and the bathrooms are as big as all outdoors." There was muffled laughter from the soldiers. "I can only assume, my Lord, that the accommodations will be satisfactory."

"Excuse me, Phally-Wally," said King Khurl-ee, "but do you know what happens when you 'assume' ?"

"No," said Phallus irritably, patting the hilt of his sword. "What happens?"

"Er . . . nothing," said Khurl-ee weakly, "Not a thing."

The quartermaster rolled his eyes. It was getting dark and his dinner was waiting. He turned to a scrawny lad with bad skin and an awful overbite and said, "Monty, help these fools with their luggage and make sure they get some table scraps."

And with that, Phallus Flaccidus and the rest of the legionnaires marched into the fortress, closing the door behind them. Young Monty, whose breath was worse than his bite, hoisted one of the kings' trunks onto his shoulder and set off for the stable, conveniently located on the far side of the compound. The kings hefted the rest of their belongings and followed.

"Wot you got in 'ere, Guv'nuh?" Monty asked M'oh.

"Gifts, for a newborn child."

"Hmm. If you asks me, this's bloody 'eavy for a stuffed bear and a rattle."

"Well it's not toys actually, the trunk contains gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

"Myrrh, eh?" Monty leaned forward as he trudged through the shifting sand. "Wot's myrrh?"

"It's an aromatic resin, a sacred incense," said M'oh.

"Incense? For a bay-bee?" Monty shook his head. "That stuff burns hot, Guv'nuh, it could burn 'is little fingers!"

"The baby doesn't play with it," said M'oh, exasperated. "It's a largely ceremonial gift, commonly given to royalty in Persia."

"Oh," said Monty, shifting the trunk to his other shoulder. "Y'know, Guv'nuh, the Egyptians commonly use snakes in their ceremonies. If 'n you was Egyptian, would you be bringin' the tyke a bloody python?"

M'oh regretted having packed away his solid-gold scepter. "Do yourself a favor, kid," he growled, "and shut your pie-hole before I pull your tongue out and add it to the gift list."

Monty heard the ring of authenticity in M'oh's voice and plowed onward in silence. Night had fallen and now the sacred Star shone directly above them -- it had never looked so brilliant or so close! M'oh felt exhilarated, all fatigue forgotten: the Savior must be near.

Monty was muttering that the bloody stable was just around the corner when an armadillo ran between his legs. It hurried on ahead, hugging the wall of the imperial compound, and then Leh'ri jumped as a wolf brushed his knee and trotted after the armadillo but with no real urgency. The animals reached the end of the wall, about fifty yards away, and disappeared around the corner.

Presently, the three kings and the boy turned the corner and there was the stable. It was a small, sagging structure, ancient and crude. Dim light leaked out a narrow archway without a door.

Suddenly, the Angel Ian appeared, straddling the peaked stable roof. His tunic was once again white, his 'stache and shades were history, and his flaxen mane fluttered behind him, tossed by an unseen breeze. Absolutely radiant on his worst day, the angel was now a blazing, self-contained sun, lighting up the surroundings as far as the eye could see. The angelic illumination revealed vast throngs of animals in every direction, standing side by side and head to tail. Deer stood motionless next to hyenas, rabbits lay beside bobcats, and cobras were curled up under camels, all in reverent silence. The stable roof was thick with hawks and sparrows, bats and rats, greybills and grouse. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

"Behold, all ye faithful," the Angel Ian sang out, "the Lord is born, bringing comfort and joy to all men, and peath on Earth. He lies within, a manger for His cradle. Come ye and adore Him."

M'oh's cold heart melted and his eyes welled up with tears. Inside this stable lay the object of his life's longing, the infant Savior: the Son of God! He rushed to the stable entrance, Leh'ri and Khurl-ee alongside; arriving simultaneously, they got stuck in the archway. M'oh gestured for his buddies to back up, then he stepped aside, smiled, and said, "After you."

Leh'ri and Khurl-ee looked at each other in amazement, shrugged, and ambled past M'oh, who rasped, "Consider this a special occasion, you nitwits. 'Cause next time I'm gonna moider you!" And then King M'oh followed them inside.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-12-26
1 Reader Comments
Lydia Manx
02:19:04 PM
Okay, that was a delight. Only problem I had was I kept picturing the entire tale in black and white (all the stooges I saw were in B&W). Looking forward to more!
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