Grotto – a great #writephoto prompt from KL Caley at New2Writing.com. It took me less than five minutes to get the spark for the first line of this one, and I enjoyed writing it. I hope nobody is offended, though. It’s just over 1100 words.
“Well, it’s not exactly what I expected.”
Melchior put his head in the entrance of the grotto and looked around, then turned back to his companions. “We are in the right place, I take it?”
He had travelled for months, leaving home one night after a row with his queen over his star gazing. “It’s all nonsense!” she’d said. “If you’re not back in six months I’ll know I’m on my own.”
Melchior valued his wife, even if he didn’t want to call it love. Setting off to find what the star was guiding him to might be a fool’s errand, but it was his errand, or so he thought.
Three weeks into his trek across the rolling hills of Persia, he’d rested at a simple inn one night, and found someone else with the same idea. They nodded across the room, and felt that glimmer of instant friendship that happens on a quest.
“The star, right?” the stranger asked. He had a strange accent and a stranger name. Balthazar. What sort of name was that?
“Originally from Nubia, in case you wondered. There’s been this story in our tribes about a star in the east and the saviour we’ll find below it. I don’t know about east, I’ve done a fair bit of northing on this journey, but then, following the Nile for a while before turning east was probably a good idea.”
“I’m not familiar with the Nile,” Melchior said, but then as they talked he realised he knew of it, just had never seen it. “I must admit I’ve been travelling north west most of the time. I was hoping the ‘star in the east’ bit would be the last minute locator. Seen anyone else on your travels?”
“Only some haughty guy who thinks he’s too good to rough it on the desert sands or in inns like this. He’s got a caravan with him.”
Melchior smiled. He knew the type. “Maybe he’ll get bored and give up. It’s a great star, though.”
They talked stars for a bit, drawing diagrams of constellations in the dirt on the table, before moving outside to draw in the sand and look at the stars. It seemed that most of the names the Nubian knew were the same Arabic names he used. Those arabs got everywhere. Why not a nice Sanskrit name from time to time?
A week later they heard a bit of a disturbance coming from the caravan ahead of them.
“You were paid to take me all the way.”
“It’s a fool’s errand and you’re the fool. We’re off.”
“I won’t pay your final fee.”
“Who wants a final fee from a madman?”
A short while later five camels strode past them, heading south.
“Watch out for the madman ahead,” the lead camel rider called. “He’ll try to con you into his fool’s errand. His gold’s real, though.”
Balthazar and Melchior exchanged glances, and Balthazar waved to the rider, thanking him for his information.
“What do you think? We’re likely to catch him up, I think.”
“Let’s rest for now and continue on this evening. My wife called it a fool’s errand, too.” Melchior stared at the sand, then drew some patterns in it with his boot.
Balthazar let out a huge roar, which took Melchior by surprised until he saw the Nubian’s shoulders shaking, and tears streaming from his eyes. Laughter was different in Nubia, obviously.
“My wife said the same! We are two fools, even though I am usually accounted a wise man, because of my interest in the world.”
But as dusk fell, the bright star shone through the gloaming, not even needing the night to show them where it was. They started on, climbing up the side of a cliff which was now across their path.
“It smells sweeter up here.”
“More vegetation around.”
“Maybe we’re reaching some sort of community. What’s that over there?”
They steered off their path slightly to check on a bundle of rags, or so it seemed.
“Away! Robbers! Vandals, Varmints!”
“Easy now,” said Melchior, soothing the traveller they’d disturbed. “We just thought you might be in need.”
After exchanging introductions, Balthazar brought out a wineskin and the newcomer, Caspar, brought out some sausage. Melchior was unsurprised to find Caspar on the same errand as themselves.
“Well, the star is changing its position by my reckoning,” he said. “Its been more in the east since we came up into this more fertile land.”
“Has it?” Caspar started, then looked around to confirm. “That no-good scoundrel has been leading me in circles, obviously.”
“I wouldn’t blame him so much,” Balthazar said. “The star seems to have a mind of its own. But in the east now, that’s good. That fits our legends.”
It was only twelve more days until they came to the settlement, and started asking about any babies born recently. Sure enough, there had been one that had arrived during the census.
“Where is it now?”
“The grotto, yonder.”
So Melchior led the way to a strange grotto, not even a stable, which was surrounded by magical twinkling lights.
And there, rather than finding a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, as all three expected. They found an alien being made of white stuff, quite hard with a scratchy surface, that looked like it had been made out of three huge balls.
“Excuse me,” Melchior said when he’d got his breath back, “but we were expecting to find the king who is born to save us all from Satan’s power.”
The alien being went ‘pop’ and took the form of a local man, about thirty years old. “Ah yes, sorry. I just got a bit carried away with checking out different times here. You’re the real deal, I can tell.”
“We brought gifts from afar,“ Caspar said.
“That’s most kind of you. Some gold, frankincense and myrrh, right? I’ll make good use of those, I assure you.”
“But, where is the baby king?”
“Oh, sorry, yes.” Another ‘pop’, and a baby lay in the manger, gurgling at them.
A woman came out from behind some sheep and goats.
“He’s quite hard to keep up with, isn’t he? Thank you so much for coming. It’s so comforting to know that other people have fulfilled their part in the legends. Would you like something to eat before you return?”
So Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar settled down for a meal and a rest, watching the baby Jesus turning into various other shapes and forms, before he returned to his mother’s arms and had some lunch.
On the way home, they decided that while they may be accounted wise, nobody would believe them, so they’d better make up a safe story and corroborate each other. So nobody ever heard of the alien who changed shapes, but since the shape of the snowman has persisted in folk memory, maybe someone wasn’t wise enough keep it entirely secret.
© J M Pett 2023