(Jeffery Archer's famous children story of the very first Christmas Eve in Year Zero.)
His mother was still angry with him, and he had to admit that he’d been naughty that day, even by the standards of a normal thirteen-year-old. He hadn’t meant to drop the pitcher when she had sent him to the well for water. He had tried to explain to her that it wasn’t his fault he had tripped over a stone—that bit at least was true. What he hadn’t told her was that he had been chasing a stray dog at the time. And then there was that pomegranate: How was he to know that it was the last one, and that his father had taken a liking to them?
The young Roman was now dreading his father’s return and the possibility that he might be given another leathering. He could still recall the last one: He hadn’t been able to sit down for two days without being reminded of the pain, and the thin red scars hadn’t completely disappeared for three weeks.
He sat on the window ledge in a shaded corner of his room, trying to think of some way he could redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He had spilled cooking oil all over his tunic and she had thrown him out of the kitchen. “Go and play outside,” she had snapped, but playing outside wasn’t much fun if you were only allowed to play by yourself. Pater had forbidden him to mix with the local boys.
The door swung open and his mother bustled into the room. She was dressed in the thin black garments favored by locals: it was the only way to keep cool, she had explained to her husband when he had seen her wearing them for the first time. He had grunted his disapproval, so now she always changed back into imperial dress before he returned in the evening.
“Can’t you find anything useful to do?” she asked, addressing the sulking figure of her son.
The boy’s face reddened at the mention of the pomegranates. He stared down at the stone floor, hoping she might have forgotten. His mother put her hand into the leather purse that hung from her waist and removed two small coins, but before she handed them over she made her son repeat her instructions.
“One chicken, some raisins, figs, dates, and two pomegranates,” he recited, as he might the modern poet Virgil.
The boy smiled and, clutching the two small silver coins tightly in his fist, ran out of the house into the compound.
The guard who stood on duty at the gate removed a great wedge of wood and allowed the massive door to swing open. The boy jumped through, and grinned back at him.
“I hear you’re in trouble again,” the guard shouted after him.
He waved happily to the guard and started walking briskly in the direction of the village, reciting some verses from Virgil’s Aeneid, which reminded him of home. He kept to the center of the dusty, winding path that the locals had the impudence to call a road. It seemed as if he spent half his time removing small stones from inside his sandals. If his father had been posted here for any length of time he would have made some changes; then they would have had a real road, straight and wide enough to allow two chariots to pass.
And Mater would have told the serving girls a thing or two. Not one of them knew how to set a table, or even to prepare food so that it was at least clean. Since they had been stationed in Judaea, he had seen his mother in a kitchen for the first time in his life. He was confident it would also be the last. Soon his father would be coming to the end of his tour of duty, and they could all return to Rome.
He had learned many things during the past year, but in particular he was now certain that when he grew up he wasn’t going to be a tax collector, or work in the census office.
The village to which his mother had sent him was a few stades from the compound, and the evening sun shone down on him as he walked. It was a large, red sun, the same deep red as his father’s tunic, and it was still giving out enough heat to make him sweat and long for something to drink. Perhaps there would be enough money left over to buy himself a pomegranate. He couldn’t wait to take one home to show his friends how large they grew in this barbaric land. Marcus, his best friend, would probably have seen one as big, because his father had commanded a whole army in Asia Minor, but the rest of the class would be impressed.
When he reached the village, he found the narrow twisting lanes that ran between the little white houses swarming with people. They had all come from the surrounding area at his father’s command to be registered for the census, so that each of them might be taxed according to their rank. His father’s authority had been vested in him by the emperor himself, and once the boy had reached his sixteenth birthday, he too would serve the emperor.
Marcus wanted to be a soldier and to conquer the rest of the world, but the boy was more interested in the law, and in teaching his country’s customs to all the barbarians who dwelled in strange lands.
“A sensible division between brains and brawn,” he had replied.
The boy quickened his pace. He knew he had to be back in the compound before the sun disappeared behind the hills: His father had warned him many times that they must always be locked safely inside before sunset. He had told his son that he would be safe while it was light, as no one would dare to harm him while others could see what was going on, but that once it was dark, anything could happen. The boy was aware that his father was not a popular man with the locals, but he dismissed the plebs from his mind. (It was Marcus who had taught him to refer to all foreigners as plebs.)
When he reached the marketplace, he began to concentrate on the supplies his mother had requested. He mustn’t make any mistakes this time, or he would undoubtedly end up with another leathering from his father. He ran nimbly between the stands, checking the produce carefully. Some of the local people stared at the whiteskinned boy with the curly fair hair and a straight, strong nose. He displayed no imperfections or signs of disease, unlike the majority of them. Many lowered their eyes to the ground when they saw him; he had come, after all, from the land of the natural rulers. The boy did not concern himself with such thoughts. All he noticed was that their native skins were parched and lined from exposure to the sun. He knew that too much harsh light was bad for you: It made you old before your time, his tutor had warned him.
At the last stand, the boy watched an old woman haggling over an unusually plump live chicken. He marched toward her, and when she saw him she ran away in fright, leaving the fowl behind. He looked straight into the eyes of the standkeeper, refusing to bargain with such a peasant. He pointed to the chicken and handed the man one denarius. The vendor bit the silver coin, then peered at the head of Augustus Caesar, ruler of half the known world. (When his tutor had told the boy, during a history lesson, about the emperor’s achievements, he remembered saying, “Magister, I hope Caesar doesn’t conquer the whole world before I have a chance to join in.”)
“Come on, come on. I haven’t got all day,” the boy said, trying to sound like his father.
He passed the bleeding fowl over to the boy together with some local coins, which had stamped on them the image of the man the boy’s father had described so often as “that useless Herod.” The boy kept his hand held out, palm upward, and the man continued to place bronze talents in it until he had no more.
Once the boy had left the man talentless, he moved on to another stand, where he pointed to bags containing raisins, figs, and dates. The new standkeeper measured out a libra of each, for which he received five of the near-worthless Herod coins. The man was about to protest, but the boy stared him fixedly in the eyes, the way he had seen his father do so often. The man backed away and simply bowed his head.
Now, what else did his mother want? He racked his brains. A chicken, raisins, dates, figs, and … of course—two pomegranates. He walked into the next street, and searched among the stands of fresh fruit until he found the largest pomegranates on display. He selected three and immediately broke one open, dug his teeth into it, and savored the cool taste. He spat out the pips, nodded his approval to the standkeeper, and paid him with two of the three remaining bronze talents (he wanted to keep one to add to Marcus’s coin collection when he returned home).
He felt his mother would be pleased that he had carried out her wishes and only spent one silver denarius. Surely even Pater would be impressed by that. He finished his pomegranate and, with his arms laden, began heading slowly out of the market and back toward the compound, trying to avoid the stray dogs that continually ran into his path, barking and sometimes snapping at his ankles. They obviously didn’t realize who he was.
When the boy reached the edge of the village he noticed that the sun was already melting behind the highest hill, and, recalling his father’s words about being home before dusk, he quickened his pace. As he walked up the middle of the stony path, those still on their way down toward the village stood to one side, leaving him a clear path as far as his eye could see (which wasn’t all that far, because he was carrying so much in his arms).
But there was one sight he could not fail to notice. A little way ahead of him was a man with a beard—a dirty, lazy custom, his father had often told him—wearing the ragged clothing that signified that he was of the tribe of Jacob. He tugged at a reluctant donkey that was laden down with a very fat woman who was, as their custom demanded, covered from head to toe in black. The boy was about to order them out of his way when the man pulled the donkey over to the side of the road, tied it up to a post, and entered a house that, from its sign, claimed to be an inn.
In his own land such a building would never have passed the crutiny of the local citizens’ council as a place fit for paying guests, but the boy realized that for many people during this particular week, even a mat on which to lay their head would be a luxury. By the time he reached the house, the bearded man had reappeared at the door with a forlorn look on his tired face. There was obviously no room at the inn.
The boy could have told him that before he went in, and was puzzled as to what the man could possibly do next. Not that he was really all that interested: As long as they paid their taxes, both of them could sleep in the hills for all he cared. It was about all they looked fit for.
The man with the beard was telling the fat woman something, while pointing behind the inn. She nodded her agreement, and without another word he led the donkey off around the side of the building. The boy wondered what could possibly be at the back of the inn, and decided to follow them. As he turned the corner of the building, he saw the man coaxing the donkey through the open door of what looked like a barn. The boy followed, and when he came to the open door he stopped and stared inside.
The barn was covered in filthy straw. It was full of chickens, sheep, and oxen, and smelled not unlike the sewers in the side streets back home. He held his nose, beginning to feel sick. The man was clearing away some of the dirtiest of the straw from the center of the barn, trying to make a clean patch for them to rest on —a near hopeless task. When he had done the best he could, he lifted the fat woman down from the donkey and placed her gently in the straw. Then he went over to a trough on the far side of the barn from which one of the oxen was drinking. He cupped his hands, and having filled them with water, returned to the fat woman, trying to spill as little as possible.
The boy was growing bored. He was about to leave and continue on his journey home when the woman leaned forward to drink from the man’s hands. Her shawl fell from her head, and he saw her face for the first time.
He stood transfixed as he stared at her. He had never seen anyone more beautiful. Unlike the common members of her tribe, the woman’s skin was almost translucent, and her eyes shone brightly. But what most struck the boy was her manner and presence. Never had he felt so in awe of anyone, even during his one visit to the Senate House to hear a declamation by Augustus Caesar.
For a moment he remained mesmerized. But then he knew what he must do. He walked through the open door toward the woman, fell on his knees before her, stretched out his hands, and presented her with the chicken. She smiled but said nothing. He offered her the two pomegranates, and she smiled again. He then dropped the rest of the food at her feet. But she remained silent.
The man with the beard was returning with some more water. When he saw the young foreigner he fell on his knees, spilling the water onto the straw, then covered his face with his hands. The boy hardly noticed but remained kneeling, staring up at the woman. Eventually he rose and walked slowly toward the barn door. When he reached it, he turned back and stared once more into that serene face. She looked into his eyes for the first time.
The young Roman hesitated for a second and then bowed his head.
It was already dusk when he ran back out onto the winding path to resume his journey home, but he was not afraid. Rather, he felt he had done something good, and that therefore no harm could possibly come to him. He looked up into the sky and saw directly above him the first star, shining so brightly in the East that he wondered why he could see no others. But his father had told him that different stars were visible in different lands, so he dismissed the mystery from his mind.
The road was now empty, and he was able to quicken his pace towards the compound. He was not far from safety when he first heard the singing and shouting. He turned quickly and looked up into the hills, to see where the danger was coming from. To begin with, he couldn’t make any sense of what he saw. Then his eyes focused on one particular field, where some shepherds were leaping up and down, singing and shouting and clapping their hands.
He had been told by Marcus that sometimes the shepherds in this country made a lot of noise at night because they believed it kept away evil spirits. How could anyone be that stupid? the boy wondered. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning across the clear black sky, and the field was ablaze with light. The shepherds fell to their knees and stared silently up into the sky, as if they were listening intently to something.
Then, just as suddenly, all was darkness again.
The boy started running toward the compound, as fast as his legs would carry him: He wanted to be inside, to hear the great gate close safely behind him, and see the guard slide the wooden wedge firmly back into place.
He would have run all the way, had his path not been blocked by the strangest sight. His father had taught him never to show any fear when faced with danger. The boy tried to breathe regularly, in case they thought he was frightened. He was frightened, but he marched proudly on, determined that he would never be forced off the road by any foreigners, however magnificently attired.
Before him stood three camels, and astride them three men, peering down at him. The first was clad in gold, and with one arm he protected something hidden beneath his cloak. By his side hung a large sword, its sheath covered in all manner of rare gems. The second man was dressed in white, and held a silver casket to his breast. The third wore red, and clung to a large wooden box.
The man in gold put up his hand and addressed the boy in a strange tongue he had never heard before, even from his tutor. Once it was clear that the boy had not understood what had been said to him, the second man tried Hebrew, and then the third yet another language.
The boy folded his arms across his chest, and stood his ground. He told them who he was and where he was going, and demanded to know where they might be bound. He hoped his piping voice did not reveal his fear. The man robed in gold replied, questioning the boy in his own tongue.
“Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.”
The boy looked up at the star, and indeed the village below it was now clearer to the eye than it had been in sunlight.
“That’s only Bethlehem,” said the boy, laughing. “You will find no King of Kings there.”
Mystified, the boy set out on the last stade of his journey home. Although the sky was now pitch black, whenever he turned his eyes toward Bethlehem the village was still clearly visible in the brilliant starlight.
When he reached the great wooden gate, he banged loudly and repeatedly until the guard, his sword drawn and holding a flaming torch, came to find out who it was that dared to disturb his watch. When he saw the boy, he frowned.
“The governor is very displeased with you. He returned at sunset, and is about to send out a search party for you.”
The governor turned when he saw his son. “Where have you been?” he said in an icily measured tone.
The boy looked helplessly toward his mother, then turned to follow his father into the study. The guard winked at the boy as he passed by, but he realized that nothing could save him now. His father strode ahead of him, and sat down on a wooden stool behind his table. His mother followed and stood silently drying her eyes just inside the door.
“Now, tell me exactly where you have been, and why it took you so long to return. And be sure to speak only the truth.”
He told how he had gone to the village and taken great care in choosing the food for their dinner, and how in so doing he had saved half the money his mother had given him; then how on the way back he had seen a fat lady on a donkey unable to find a place at the inn. He explained why he had followed her into the barn and parted with all their food; how the shepherds had shouted and beaten their breasts until there was a great light in the sky, when they had all fallen silent on their knees; and then finally how he had come to meet the three robed men who sat astride camels and were searching for the King of Kings.
The father grew more and more angry at his son’s words.
“Listen to me carefully, my son. We were born Romans, born to rule the world because our laws and customs are tried and tested and have always been based on complete integrity. Romans never lie; that is our strength and the weakness of our enemies. That is why we rule while others are willing to be ruled, and as long as that is so, the Roman Empire will never fall. Do you understand what I am saying to you, boy?”
The boy’s mother raised her hand, wanting to come to her son’s aid, but knew any protest would be useless. The governor rose from his chair, removed the leather belt from around his waist, and folded it double, with the heavy brass studs on the outside. He then ordered his son to bend down and touch his toes. The young boy obeyed without hesitation, and his father raised the belt above his head and brought it down on the child with all the strength he could muster. The boy didn’t once flinch or murmur as each stroke was administered, while his mother turned away and wept.
After the father had delivered the twelfth stroke he ordered his son to go to his room. The boy left without a word and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. His mother followed. As she passed the kitchen, she stepped in and took some olive oil and ointments from a drawer.
She carried the little jars up to the boy’s room, where she found him already in bed. She went over to his side, sat on the edge of the bed, and pulled the sheet back. She told him to turn onto his chest while she prepared the oils. Then she gently removed his night tunic, for fear of adding to his pain. She stared down at his naked body in disbelief.
The boy’s skin was unmasked.
She ran her fingers gently over her son’s unblemished body, and found it as smooth as if he had just bathed. She turned him over. There was no mark on him anywhere. Quickly she slipped his tunic back on and covered him with the sheet.
“Say nothing of this to your father,” she said, “and remove the memory of it from your mind forever.”
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