Gentle Reader: The first chapter of this book sucks. It’s intended to. Please read on.
1. Fleas naughty dog/There’s fleas on your dad
José Feliciano, Feliz Navidad
The wind, unsettled and quarrelsome among dusty Bethlehem streets, blows down broken cobblestones as two hooded figures make their way. As they hurry, the taller whispers urgently to the other, who carries a small bundle. They turn down an alley, avoiding steaming piles of dung, toward the stable hewn into the rock behind an inn.
The pair step into the stable and the taller removes a cylinder from its pocket. It bends over the small bundle and sprays something from the cylinder. “There. Now he’s protected from the brain virus the Enforcers have infected this planet with. At least his intellect won’t be sapped, and he’ll have a better chance of surviving.”
The taller stands guard at the entrance, casting furtive glances toward the alley mouth as the other rushes deeper inside the stable, reappearing moments later without the burden. The two move quickly to cross to the other side, and hurry away, pressing close to the buildings like shadows.
A glow appears in the sky in the opposite direction. The rough beasts in the stable shift and mutter restlessly. Suddenly, a burning armored figure of light screams down the street, faster than the fastest horse. It pauses briefly by the alley, inches above the earth, then tears off after the figures, leaving a hole in the wind.
Moments later, the figures cower against the side of a carpenter’s shop in the brightness. With a gesture, the entity disrobes them, revealing dark skin that quickly changes to match the sandstone of the building. A gleaming rope snakes from the glinting gauntlet and encircles the two. With a flick, the alien enforcer binds them to his back and rockets off into the sky, becoming a bright fading star above the sleeping village.
In the stable, in a manger, the bundle squirms. A curious cow nudges the covers with her nose.
Meanwhile, on the road outside of town, a poor cabinet-maker and his wife encourage their exhausted mules toward Bethlehem. They have come for the census, but have made no plans for the night. Reaching the outskirts of the village, they stop at inn after inn with no luck. Trudging the deserted streets clutching their robes against the cold and leading their mules, they arrive at an inn by the alley and rouse the owner. Desperate, Joseph tells the man his wife is pregnant, ready to bear child. The wary innkeeper glances at Mary, but cannot make out her form in the folds of her cloak.
“Alright,” he says, “You can sleep out back in the stable. But don’t disturb my animals!”
“Bless you, sir!” croaks Joseph. “God will surely reward such kindness.”
“Bah! Begone by first light,” the innkeeper growls and slams the door.
The couple walks down the alley and enters the stable, a converted cave set into a rock face. The animal stench overwhelms them at first, being more accustomed to the dust of the carpenter’s bench. Joseph fumbles for a lantern and lights it with his flint. Mary crumples onto the hay and regards her husband.
“I told you we should have left yesterday,” she scolds.
“Enough, woman! Cease your infernal cackling. You know I had to finish the wagon for that Roman. He’d have my head otherwise.”
“Well, I just don’t know how I can sleep in such a filthy place as this! You could have sent word to your brother to expect us, at least.”
“You’re a riot, Mary . . . you’re a regular riot,” says Joseph, lowering his body to the straw. “One of these days, Mary, one of these days . . .”
“One of these days, what, Joseph? You’ll be able to afford a room at an inn?”
“One of these days, pow! Right to the moon!”
Mary folds her arms in front of her, snorts and turns away from Joseph toward the animals. “What’s that cow licking?” she asks, pointing into the shadows. Just out of the circle of light, the cow bends over something lying on the hay in the manger. Joseph gets the lantern and goes over.
“Why . . . it . . . it’s a sort of a baby!” He bends down to examine the infant. “But it has monstrous horns on its head!” Joseph leaps back almost tipping the lantern. “My God, it’s a little demon!”
Mary pulls at the blanket, rolling the infant towards her. “Oh, he’s adorable!” She reaches out for the baby, pulling him into her lap. “And these aren’t horns, you old fool,” she says, “They look more like bumps.” The baby opens his eyes and stares at Mary’s face. His skin darkens momentarily to the color of her clothes, then lightens to mimic her swarthy face.
“Look they’re almost gone now. Poor thing, he probably fell on his head.” Mary pulls the child close to her breast. “I wonder whose he is?”
“Probably some cursed slut, who dumped him here when he got in the way of business,” Joseph said cynically. “No proper mother would leave a child in a hell-hole such as this.” Joseph sweeps his arm to indicate the rotting timbers and leaking roof of the stable.
“Well we can’t leave him here, Joseph. What should we do?”
Joseph turns to tether the mules and drops a few handfuls of straw in front of them. “I don’t know, nor do I care what happens to that devil-child!” He spits on the straw. “I’m sure he’s abandoned because his whore of a mother was ashamed of consorting with the devil.”
Joseph comes over to regard the infant. “What happened to the thing’s horns?”
“He never had horns,” Mary says.” I told you, they were more like bumps. And they’re gone now, anyway. Look, Joseph, doesn’t he look like me.” Mary holds the baby up for Joseph to see.
“He’s a changeling demon! That’s what he is! And I want no part of him! Turn him out into the alley before he brings us evil.” Joseph angrily moves to the door and slides it open. “I mean it, woman! Remove him from my sight!”
“Oh, be quiet, you old man. And close the door, he’ll catch cold! We’ll keep him, that’s what we’ll do. You told that innkeeper I was pregnant. Well, here’s the baby you’ve been unable to give me these long years.”
Joseph slides the door shut with a slam. “I warn you woman! Don’t talk to me that way, or I’ll . . . I’ll . . .”
“You’ll nothing, you old blowhard. Come over here and see if you can get one of these mangy cows to give us some milk.”
Grumbling, Joseph hunts up a stool and a pail, and begins milking one of the cows. Mary swaddles the child in her head cloth, cooing and singing.
Twelve nights later, still imposing on their host’s hospitality for the sake of the newborn, Joseph watches three dark figures come down the alley toward the stable. Because of their strange clothing and their retinue of camels and donkeys, Joseph greets them warily.
One of the three, a short, wiry man with large eyes, says, “Good evening, my good man. We’ve come to see the baby, the Messiar—Messiar, I didn’t even kiss her!” The small man rolls his eyes, squats into a duck walk, and turns circles in the alley, fingering an invisible object that seemingly dangles from his mouth.
Joseph, wondering how this strange little man could know of the demon child, says, “What are you talking about?”
“Look, your excellency, we’re maguses. You know, wise guys from the East. Famed in song and story. We predict the future, follow the odd star, you know, like that.” Melchior frames his face with his hands and bats his eyelashes at Joseph.
“We’re Magi,” interjects Balthasar, a stooped old man with a perpetual smile on his face,
“Magi, schmagi. Look, chief, we know you’ve got a kid in there, and we just want to see Him for ourselves. Do you mind?”
“Well, yes, there is a baby, but,” Joseph feels a strange feeling pass over him, “You see, my wife’s a virgin.”
“Ah, oh!” Melchior raises his eyebrows and affects a conspiratorial leer. “Pull the other one, friend. Look, can we seem ‘im or have we come hundreds of miles, against great odds, and worse evenings, for nothing?”
Joseph scratches his head in confusion, but relents and ushers the three strangers into the stable. Melchior creeps on exaggerated tiptoes over to the manger and leans over to see the baby.
“It’s Him! It’s the son of God!” he exclaims.
“Wha? Now wait just a minute! That’s my son!” Joseph insists angrily.
“Your son, His son, let’s not quarrel. But he’s the real Messiar! Ride through every village and town! Wake every citizen uphill and down! Tell ‘em the King comes from afar—with a Hey-Nonny-Nonny and a Ha-Cha-Char!” Melchior dances a strange little dance in a circle and grabs Balthasar, spinning the old man around.
“King?” says Joseph, pushing away from the little man and worriedly starting to collect their meager possessions. “What king? Is Herod coming this way?” Joseph begins to untether one of the donkeys.
“No, no, no, Colonel. Not Herod.” Melchior leaps up on a haystack and crows, “The King of the Jews! The Messiar!”
Balthasar says, “He means Messiah. You know, King of the Jews? Savior of mankind? As Daniel prophesied?”
“So where are you kids from?” Melchior asks the startled Joseph.
“Nazareth,” Joseph replies in a daze.
“Ah, Nazareth. I spent a year in that town, one Sabbath,” Balthasar says.
“Well, go ahead, old-timer. Take a gander at the Messiar,” Melchior says.
Balthasar approaches the manger on unsteady legs and peers at the baby. He gasps, turns, and nods to Melchior. “This is wonderful, to see the Messiah. It’s good to be here. But let’s face it. At my age, it’s good to be anywhere.”
“C’mon, Caspar. You’re next,” says Melchior, sweeping his hand back and forth as if directing traffic.
Caspar takes his turn at the manger, and soberly nods to the other two.
“Well, sport, looks like you’ve got the real McCoy here, a gin-u-wine Messiar. So, say the secret woid and you’ll win a fabulous prize,” says Melchior.
“Close enough, close enough. Fellas, let’s go get our gifts.” The three men return to the alley. Melchior and Balthasar take packages from one of the carts and head back toward the stable.
Caspar hangs back as the other two men approach Joseph, who is standing at the doorway. Melchior turns around and says, “Come on, Caspar! It’s time to give our gifts.”
“Ah, just a minute,” Caspar says. “Oh, Rochester!” he calls to one of the porters. “Yassir, Mr. Ben—Caspar!” says Rochester.
“Now, Rochester, how much gold did we bring along?”
“Pretty much all of it, boss,” Rochester replies.
“ALL of it!” Caspar turns white. “Surely not my entire fortune!”
“Well, yassir, Mr. Caspar. You said you wanted to give the best gift to the newborn Messiah.”
“Well, sure,” says Caspar. “But surely we could give a quarter of this and still have a better gift than Melchior or Balthasar. They just picked up some lousy incense and oil at an oasis on the way here!”
“So, what do you want me to do, boss?”
“Look, let’s just pull a few coins out of that sack there, and one or two of those gold candlesticks and call it even.”
Melchior and Balthasar walk back and grab Caspar’s elbows from behind, pinning him between them. “Come on, you old skinflint! Time to give the gifts!” says Melchior. “We need to get back on the road before that idiot Herod figures out where we are.”
“Well!” sniffs Caspar. “I didn’t come here to be insulted!”
“That’s what you think,” replies Melchior.
“Well . . .” Caspar stammers. “Just a minute, just a doggone minute.” He tries to stuff a bag of gold under some baggage at the rear of the cart.
“What are you trying to pull, Caspar?” Melchior says, with narrowed eyes.
“Well, I was just thinking, you see, we’ll need plenty of gold to get home if we’re going the long way, you see, to throw Herod off the scent,” Caspar pleads. “So, I was thinking, a few coins, a candlestick or two, and we’ll get out of here.”
“Look, you cheapskate, are you going to give your entire gift now, or are you going to burn for all eternity?” Balthasar says.
The two stare menacingly at Caspar for a long minute. “Well?” says Melchior.
“I’m thinking it over!” cries Caspar.
“Come on, you old miser, let’s go!” snarls Melchior.
Caspar glares at Melchior, who rises to his full height and glares back. “Old? Me, old? I’ll have you know that on my last birthday I was 39.”
“You must mean the last birthday you celebrated, back when you had hair,” Balthasar says. “I always say, you can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old. Why, look at me. When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick. I’m at the age now where just putting a candlestick in its holder is a thrill. Why, at my age, I don’t even buy ripe dates!”
“Come on you joker, let’s gather up these bags of gold and give them to the Messiah,” says Melchior. While Melchior maintains a firm hold on Caspar’s arms, Balthasar and Rochester pile the bags onto a small cart and wheel it into the stable.
“Now cut that out!” screams Caspar.
“Hey,” says Melchior, holding up a stringed instrument. “Maybe we should throw in the old man’s fiddle, too?”
The three men brush past a goggling Joseph and enter the stable with their gifts.