They Rocked the Cradle that Rocked the World ~ chap. 7

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7—THE WISE MEN I

Celestial Secrets and Star Search

 

One God? Many gods? One God by one name? One god by many names? Who can tell?

God in one person? God in three persons? God in a thousand persons?

God in spirit? God in nature? Signs of God? What are the answers? Are answers even possible?

That light! Where is it coming from? A star exploding? A planet erupting? An angry god? More questions. Always more questions. Frightening questions.

  • BC 6
  • Ctesiphon, Parthia, the Orient

“Sir. Sir. Come look. Something’s happening in the heavens!” The young astrologer rushes down the steep steps from the roof and down the hall.

Kinta’s black hair is ruffled from being out in the wind half the night, part of it down in his eyes. His clothes are crumpled from lying on his back observing the stars on the rooftop observatory, watching for omens from the gods. His eyelids droop from forcing himself to stay awake when everyone else is sleeping. Everyone else except his boss, that is, who seems to never sleep.

He frantically bangs on the officium door of the senior magus, then enters without being invited.

“Young man, have you left your post?” Dushatra demands, towering above the young astrologer. It is not really a question.

“You have to see this,” The young apprentice explains, holding on to the door, partly in preparation for the dressing down he knows he will receive for his disrespectful interruption.

“I don’t have to do anything,” Dushatra replies sharply. His hazel eyes seemingly pierce through Kinta. “How long have you been on our staff, anyway?” He runs his hand down his oval face and salt and pepper beard.

“Sir, you may be missing it. Please, sir. The universe is exploding.”

Seeing that a little gruffness does not turn off the fairly new apprentice, Dushatra leaves his charts and follows the young man down the hall. As they go, the younger one speeds up almost to a run. Eventually, the older man catches up and climbs the stairs to the roof.

He does not have to be told where the amazing star is. He stares, wondering secretly if he should rejoice or cringe in terror. Something great and cataclysmic, like nothing he has ever seen before. Surely King Phraattes has seen it too. He will be demanding an explanation.

“The phenomenon, sir,” Kinta whispers. “What is it?”

“It is not for you to question,” Dushatra replies, trying to cover up his own confusion. He himself does not know.

Dushatra stares, trying to decide what his first strategy will be. Should he go to the king unsummoned? Or should he wait and give the impression he is ignorant of what is going on around him?

“Anything else happen before I got here?” Dushatra inquires.

“No, sir. Only in this one location in the western sky.”

“This bears further observation, young man. I want a constant watch on it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Amazing!” Dushatra repeats, heading back toward the steps.

“Sir, you know what it reminds me of?” the apprentice interrupts, hoping the elderly man is not angry at his brashness. Dushatra stops and looks back a Kinta, but says nothing, so he continues. “It reminds me of, well, of angel glow.”

“Angels?”

“You know, spirits.”

Dushatra turns and looks sternly at the younger man. “Or a god,” he adds, his eyes on the star, not Kinta. He turns to leave, then stops and turns back again. “I’ll be back later to check on the status of the new star.”

He never has that chance. For after only a few moments, the sky light is gone. No explanation. Just gone. How could it have been?

A few commoners, who work all night as watchmen and are outside during the heavenly event, stare in wonder too. What caused it? What is happening? Is the world about to end?

Their terror increases because of the ignorance they know they will be forced to remain in. The magi advise royalty. No one else is entitled to know. Will the world come to an end without warning?

Dushatra returns to his study to think. What shall I do? It is nearly midnight. Will the king wish to be awakened? He paces. Or was he up when the star light came? He paces. The king will demand an explanation.

Dushatra looks over his charts of the heavens. He calculates and broods. Never has there been a star in that location. What is happening with the gods? What can I tell the king temporarily to keep him placated until I can uncover its true celestial secret?

He pulls out the scrolls which refer to the teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. He turns hurriedly through the Maha Vagga but does not try to read it. He has nearly memorized it.

Once more he paces, interrupting himself only to look again at his zodiac charts. A knock on his door. He answers it, half dreading what it will lead to.

“King Phraattes wishes to see you immediately,” a military courier announces.

“And the others?” he asks.

The messenger is well aware Dushatra is referring to the other magi.

“They are being summoned also, sir.”

Dushatra dons the official court vestments which he keeps on hand in his study for such times as this. Then, wishing to look as important and knowledgeable as possible, he picks up his celestial charts and leaves his officium.

As he approaches the throne room, he hears angry shouting. He pauses at the doorway long enough to be recognized by the king, then proceeds to the front, bowing as he goes, to join the others.

“I don’t care what you think!” King Phraattes bellows. “I want answers, and I want them now!”

King Phraattes is taller than everyone else in the throne room with thick, wavy black hair down to the nape of his neck and covering his ears. Even at this hour, his black beard is trim. He wears a gold band around his head. Beneath his eyes are deep bags.

“But, Your Majesty, that is impossible so quickly,” one of the many magi present objects. It is Kumar.

“Then do the impossible,” the king shouts. “It is your job to keep me informed of the secrets of the gods.” The king stands. “What was it trying to warn me of? Is my kingdom safe?” he shouts, then sits back down on his throne, the gold band on his head slipping to the side.

In a calmer voice, “When the Roman senate appointed me king, I was promised security for the rest of my life. So what is going on? Augustus liked me enough to send me an Italian wife. Has Rome changed its mind after twenty-five years? I demand an answer.”

The king spots Dushatra, prostrate on the floor in front of the throne waiting to be recognized.

“Yes, yes, Dushatra. Rise. You’ve always been a little saner than the other magi. Tell me what you know of this new star that suddenly appears and then just as suddenly disappears.”

Everyone knows that Dushatra is of the Magi Tribe which had been rebellious to Darius the Great some five hundred years earlier, but which proved later to be useful. They had long been a recognized priestly tribe since the time of the Greek invasion under Alexander the Great two centuries later, and have served succeeding kings faithfully.

Dushatra, buying time, opens his scrolls wherein he has charted the skies.

“Your Majesty,” he begins slowly, “the star appeared in the western sky.”

“Any idiot knows that,” the king says, putting down his goblet of wine. “Tell me something I don‘t know.”

“In the western sky we have the constellations of Leo the slaughtered lion on exhibit by the great hunter, Cancer the battle gates to heaven, Gemini the twin navigators, and Taurus the bull upon which the sun god rides.”

Somewhat calmed by this display of knowledge, even though every magus is expected to know this, the king lowers his voice. But now it is more sarcastic and impatient. “So, what secret are they trying to tell me?”

“Impending disaster on our enemies, Your Majesty,” one of the other magus, Kumar, interrupts, picking up an idea from the king’s own question.

King Phraattes turns in his direction. “You’re so predictable, I don’t know why I keep you around.”

He turns back to Dushatra. “Well, what is this star an omen of?”

“Your Majesty, I am dumbfounded by it.” Dushatra is one of the only magi in the royal court with the courage to make such an admission. The king likes and trusts him for that.

“No human has ever witnessed the birth of a star. The gods have been from eternity to eternity. And what makes this omen so difficult to interpret is that the god was born, and then died in its infancy, conceivably because it was so evil.”

At that thought, King Phraattes stands, walks a few paces from his throne in silence, then returns and sits back down. And shouts once more.

The veins in his neck stand out. “What if the gods believe my kingdom is evil?”

Something must be said to calm him.

“Or a second possibility,” Dushatra continues quickly, “is that the god apparently came into existence and then was immediately absorbed by the Essence of the Universe because it was so good.”

“Any other ideas?” the king says, turning toward the other magi gathered in the throne room.

“There are any number of possibilities, Your Majesty. We will need some time,” one of them responds. It is Anzan. He is a new magus.

“Well, since no one has an answer for me, I have no choice but to wait for the truth of the star’s secret, do I? I want this to receive priority. Drop everything else you are doing,” he sneers.

King Phraattes stands again and hits his scepter against the arm of his throne. “Incompetent! All of you!” he bellows. “I want my first report in the morning. Now leave me.”

He sits back on his throne and rubs his face with one hand.

Some of the magi leave in small groups forming investigative teams. Others leave in pairs. Still others alone, believing their best work is done solo.

Dushatra is joined only by Kumar. His interest had been piqued when his colleague mentioned the god being absorbed into the Essence of the Universe. Kumar being from Indus and a Hindu. Dushatra, a native Indo-Parthian, is Buddhist. They both believe in the Essence of the Universe, though from different points of view.

“It’s serious,” Kumar finally whispers, running his fingers through his straight black hair. “I’ve never seen the king so mad. Or scared.” They walk in silence a little farther.

“We’ve got to elicit more input from others. We’ve got to form a team of experts.” Dushatra has worked enough with Kumar to know both are in agreement on this.

“The entire kingdom—or even the world—may depend on us,” Kumar reflects aloud, rubbing his clean shaven face. “This star god’s influence may know no bounds nor boundaries. This god’s star has surely been seen worldwide.”

The two men stop walking. “This god must not be ignored. To do so may mean doom. Of the entire human race.”

Instead of exiting out the front gate, the two men rush to the captain of the guard.

“We need a chariot and escorts,” Dushatra demands.

Magi being the king’s closest advisors, the captain obeys.

As the two magi wait, they crouch on the floor and think.

“Your chariot is ready, sirs,” a soldier announces shortly. “I have also ordered a second chariot with men able to defend you, should you run into trouble on the way to your destination. There is no moon out tonight and it will be more dangerous for you.”

Without saying anything, the two magi enter their chariot and Dushatra tells the driver where they want to go. “Make it fast,” he adds.

They hold on to the sides to maintain their balance as their horse and chariot rush through the outer gates of the palace stronghold and into the city streets, followed close by the other chariot with two guards.

The driver expertly guides the horse around corners and down narrow streets to their destination.

“Here! Stop here!” Kumar shouts.

“Yasib. Open up.” Dushatra pounds on the door. “Get up, Yasib. Get up. It’s urgent. Open up. We must see you.” He shouts louder.

His knuckles become scraped by the rough wood of the door. The soldiers take over and pound on the door with the butt of their swords.

A light from above is in Yasib’s room overlooking the street. Holding a candle in the window, a disheveled man calls down to the men below. His voice is quaking, though not in fear. He has lived a long time and his voice is not as strong as in earlier years.

“Come on up. My gatekeeper should be there by now.” There is no mistaking his Median accent.

While the soldiers stand guard outside the gate, the two magi enter and follow their escort to the second floor bedroom. Yasib has made no effort to dress or even put on a robe. He is past the age of trying to impress people.

Time has colored Yasib’s black hair to mostly gray, and his height has diminished significantly from his youth. His slanted eyes are still bright.

Condescendingly, he looks up from his seat as his two longtime friends enter.

“So what’s eating you in the middle of the night?” he says, taking a goblet of juice from a second servant in the room. At his age he is undisturbed by their presence.

“Yasib, it’s about the star,” Dushatra begins

“Which star is it this time?”

“Well, we don’t know,” Kumar explains while not explaining anything.

“That’s brilliant. You wake me in the middle of the night to tell me about a star you don’t know anything about.”

“It appeared, stayed several moments, and then disappeared. We both saw it,” Kumar continues.

“What sky was it in?” Yasib asks his friends of many years.

“Western. Does that mean anything in the Zoroastrian religion?” Dushatra asks.

“How easily could it be seen?” he continues, prying more information out of them.

“It overshadowed all the other stars around it,” says Dushatra.

“You mean it outshined all the others,” his friend, Kumar, corrects, lightening up what they know will be a very dreary and long night.

“The king is in an execution mood. He fears the doom of his kingdom. He is expecting answers by morning.” Dushatra looks earnestly at Yasib, with his always present smugness.

Yasib stands and walks over to his window where he looks up into the sky in silence. The others wait in hopeful expectation. Moments pass. He turns.

“Well, you know we must call in Michel.”

“But he’s Babylonian. Their magi are so far inferior of mind than the rest of us,” Dushatra objects.

“You may consider him a maverick, but so are the rest of us, you know,” Yasib reminds them. “If the leaders of our different religions knew we were in league, trying to find the best of each, they’d execute us before the king got a chance.”

“But Michel?” Dushatra continues.

“Personally, I never found much use for his Jewish religion. Never studied it much. Too many rules and regulations. Never liked anyone telling me what to do.” It is Kumar.

Yasib temporarily leaves the room and goes downstairs. The outside gate can be heard opening, then the clomping of horse hooves. Soon he reappears in his room on the second floor.

“Michel will be here in an hour. Now, where do we start?” Yasib asks, taking the lead that is rightfully his. “Kumar, your Hinduism is the oldest of our religions. We should start with it. We should search your scriptures for mention of all stars.”

“Do you have the copies I gave you?” Kumar replies.

“Yes, hidden behind my old scrolls in the cabinet over there. We will adjourn to my study. I’ll have three more tables and lamps brought in,”

He speaks to his attending servant, closes and bolts his door, then goes to the cabinet. He pulls out several scrolls, reaches to the back, and pulls out four that the other scrolls had hidden.

Just as the astrologers arrive at Yasib’s study, the other tables and lamps are brought in.

The men divide up the scrolls to scan through. Everyone lapses into silence.

“Gentlemen. I’ve been thinking about you.” Michel has arrived. He is of average height, has brown hair and eyes, olive skin, and a hook nose. His beard is long.

Yasib stands and welcomes him. “Oh, we didn’t hear the chariot arrive. I guess we were too absorbed. We’re searching for the meaning of a star Dushatra saw.”

“You mean the bright one in the western sky? I was praying, facing that direction when I, myself, saw the star. Amazing. Never saw anything like it. Been up half the night wondering if it had some special meaning.”

He takes his place at an empty table where a scroll is laid out.

“Here is a copy of the Hindu sacred writings. Search for any mention of a star,” Yasib explains.

Once more the silence. The dead silence.

Day dawns.

“Well, we’ve found two references to stars,” Yasib announces.

“We must be the first to appear before the king,” Dushatra, a real politician at heart, explains. “We cannot look hesitant.”

_____

The four are gradually joined by most of the other magi as they wait at the entrance to the throne room. All looking suspiciously at the others. Some taking peeks at notes they have brought with them. One by one they are recognized and given permission to enter.

King Phraattes’ eyes are bloodshot with dark circles under them. The interrogations begin. And the shouting of a king who is yet to be informed of the celestial secret

“Your Majesty, I think…” One magus begins

“Your Majesty, it seems to me…” Another magus interrupts

“Your Majesty, we need more time because…” Still another one wants to make a point.

“I haven’t slept all night,” the king bellows, “and you bring me this drivel.”

At last, their turn comes. Gray-haired Yasib approaches the throne, bowing as he goes, with the other three behind him.

“So far I haven’t heard anything that makes sense,” the king says, motioning for the four men to rise and come closer.

“I’m really disgusted with the rest of the magi. Even before they start, I know they have no answers for me.” He leans forward in his throne. “We’re running out of time. Dushatra, are you and your colleagues ready to save our kingdom this morning?”

Yasib steps aside, letting the younger, more alert men take over.

Kumar reads the passage he had found the night before. “It is in The Upanishads under ‘Chandogya.’ ‘Within the lotus of the heart are heaven and earth, the sun, the moon, the lightning and all the stars.’ This, Your Majesty, means that the star we saw is a manifestation of the heart of the great god Brahman. You have nothing to worry about. You are in harmony with Brahman.”

The king looks over at the other magi standing nearby. “What do you think of this?” he asks. “Do the rest of you believe in Hinduism?”

One man walks forward. He is one of the new magus and not well known. Anzan is trying to make a name for himself.

“Your Majesty, I am somewhat knowledgeable of Hinduism, but need time to read their writings. If it pleases Your Majesty, I will return tomorrow with an opinion.”

“Tomorrow?” the king shouts. “Tomorrow? What if there is no tomorrow?”

“Your Majesty, I cannot give it justice immediately,” the novice replies, not understanding how dangerous it is for him to object.

King Phraattes relents. “All right,” he sneers. “But you will be here first thing in the morning. If we have a morning. Next!”

Michel has said nothing. He follows Yasib’s group out to the anteroom, and attention is passed on to the next group of magi.

Yasib talks with the fifth magus, Anzan. He gives him a copy of the pertinent scroll.

_____

Michel goes home to sleep, but sleep cannot come. Not when he knows it is true what the king had said: The world may end tonight.

He turns over and over in his bed. “Jehovah, Creator of all things and all of mankind. You are the only God. Give me an opportunity to declare you before the king. If he believes in you, perhaps, just perhaps, many others will come to you and your glory.”

His wife, Meira, cannot sleep because of his restlessness. “Sweetheart, things will turn out okay,” she says, lifting herself up on her elbow next to him.

“If they would just give me a chance.”

“They will, Michel. Just be patient. Jehovah will make sure you have your turn.”

_____

Morning. Back in the palace and to the throne room, the four are called forward to hear rebuttals by Anzan, critic of the Hindu opinion of the star. They do not like what they hear.

“Your Majesty,” he begins, scroll in hand. “The same passage these men quoted yesterday about the star has some contradictory statements in it. It says that the great god Brahman thought to himself, ‘Let me be many.’ If Brahman, the great Self, the Essence of the Universe, voluntarily and happily divided himself up to be many, why do the Hindus consider themselves evil by being separated from Brahman, but good by becoming one with Brahman?”

The king takes a sip of wine from his silver chalice.

“Furthermore, Your Majesty, if a person must renounce all relationships and wealth, why does this passage say that being cows and horses, elephants and goats are poor existences? They have what the good Hindu wants: No wealth and relationships. Why would Hindus consider it punishment to be reincarnated as an animal?”

King Phraattes leans forward in his throne.

“In addition, this passage talks of a sage seeing the dead—his fathers, mothers and brothers of previous lives in the spirit world. How can this be possible since Hindu scriptures say everyone is continually reincarnated? The spirit world would be empty with everyone reincarnated or absorbed into the Essence of the Universe, Brahman.”

The king shifts, and leans on his arm.

“And finally, Your Majesty, it says that, when we move about in our dreams, we enjoy sensuous delights and are clothed in glory when we experience the Self, the Brahman. That, too, is contradictory. In order to be joined with the Self, one must renounce all desires and delights of the senses.”

Kumar shifts from one foot to the other and lowers his eyebrows, glaring at his antagonist.

“I do not see how Hinduism could have the answer for you. Therefore, the star being a manifestation of the great god Brahman’s heart could not be true.”

“Gentlemen,” King Phraattes replies, turning his attention to Yasib and his three colleagues, “Do you have a rebuttal?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” says Kumar. “In Brihadaranyaki, it says this: ‘Among the gods, he who awakened to the knowledge of the Self became Brahman. He it is who dwells in the sun, in the moon, in the stars.’ This is just further proof that the star is a good omen. An omen that your kingdom is in harmony with Brahman.”

Once more King Phraattes turns to the critic. “Any comments?”

Once more the contending magus requests the scroll and permission to return the next day with his reactions. The scroll and time are begrudgingly granted.

_____

Once again, Michel has said nothing. Again the sleepless night.

“Don’t they realize, Oh Jehovah, that the gods are not playing games on them? Don’t they realize those are no gods at all?”

He stares out his window. He paces. He climbs back into bed. Back up again.

He goes out into his courtyard so he does not disturb his wife. But she has awakened anyway and comes out to join him. She stands behind him, clasping him around his waist. He turns and looks at her.

“If Jehovah would only help me understand the meaning of the star.” He squeezes her hands.

“He will. Somehow he will,” she answers.

Michel looks up into the sky open above them. “If Jehovah would just explain it to me tonight, I could declare Jehovah to them in the morning.”

“If there is another morning,” she whispers low enough he cannot hear.

_____

Morning and once more to the palace. Once more a rebuttal by the young Anzan.

The throne room is now empty except for guards, personal servants, and the five magi.

“Your Majesty,” Anzan begins. “This passage quoted yesterday says we must live a life of renunciation of wealth, desire and relationships in order to lose our individuality and become one with the god Brahman. This is inconsistent with their teachings that, if we live bad lives, we are reincarnated as small animals or even unthinking objects such as rocks.”

The king says nothing.

Emboldened, the young magus continues. “Since rocks automatically have an existence of renunciation and no thoughts of their individuality, wouldn’t being a rock be considered a reward rather than a punishment? Wouldn’t a rock be closer to being one with Brahman, the Essence of the Universe, than a human?”

“Furthermore…”

King Phraattes interrupts. “I’ve heard enough. None of this reincarnation thing makes sense to me.”

“Your Majesty,” Dushatra interjects “If you will give us a little more time, we will search through the documents of the Buddhist religion. There are references to stars there.”

“Since when did you become Buddhist?” the king asks.

“Your Majesty, I’ve always been Buddhist. It is no disrespect to your Zoroaster religion. I was just born that way.”

“Very well. It looks like the gods have given us somewhat of a reprieve. But for how long? I will give you two days. No longer. After that, you will be executed or banished. I haven’t made up my mind yet.” The king is speaking in low tones.

“We are certain there is no imminent danger to you, sir,” Dushatra continues. “Therefore, we are asking for a week so we may be better prepared than previously.”

“Are you willing to lay your life on the line like this? Are you willing to give your life for that star?” the king asks.

_____

Michel and the others return home. Michel’s wife, Meira, has dinner prepared for him.

“How did it go today?” she asks as she serves the stew.

“Bad. Real bad.”

He picks up his bread, dips it in the stew, lifts it half way to his mouth, and then puts it back in the bowl.

“I have to listen to those men tell how wonderful their gods are, and other men telling them their gods are better.”

Meira hands her husband some grapes, hoping he will at least eat something light.

“Around and around it goes,” she says, summing up the whole affair.

“The star. It is haunting me. It is haunting my colleagues too. Not many of us are left wanting to search for its meaning. There has to be a meaning. Jehovah, what is it?”

_____

A week later Yasib, Dushatra, Kumar, and Michel arrive at the throne room. They wait nervously in the growing crowd. Awaiting their turn, they listen to the low conversations of each magus near them, secretly hoping all the others will be wrong, and only they right. They can hear through the closed door as one by one the king shouts, impatient with each magus and his postulations.

“You’re an idiot! Do you expect me to believe that? Leave. And don’t come back. If I ever see you again, you will be thrown to the lions,” they hear as the door to the throne room is opened and the dejected magus rushes out.

King Phraattes’ anger grows with each interrogation. Eventually, it is their turn.

“Well, Yasib, I see you are back. What foolishness are you going to tell me?”

“Your Majesty, as you know, I am old. Though my mind is as sharp as it ever has been, my voice is weak. Therefore, once again I defer to my younger colleagues,” Yasib explains.

“Guard, bring a chair for Yasib,” the king calls out. Turning to Yasib, he adds, “You were a good friend to my father. Sit and rest while I listen to your friends. Perhaps, under your guidance, they will make sense.”

Dushatra steps forward. “I bring you the wisdom of the compassionate Buddha.”

“Compassionate? What does compassion have to do with anything?” King Phraattes is back to his old self.

“My kingdom is about to come to an end and you talk about compassion. Forget it. I don’t want to hear any of your foolishness. Leave me.” The king’s face grows red with anger.

In desperation, Dushatra hurriedly raises his arms heavenward. “Truth. I bring you truth,” he shouts. “Truth reveals all secrets. Truth is stronger than all things. Truth will bring us freedom from the threat of the star. Truth will bring our kingdom everlasting happiness.”

The king unexpectedly smiles at the expert politician and lets Dushatra continue.

“Your Majesty, from the Sutta Pitaka we found this statement in chapter fifteen called ‘Happiness.’ ‘One ought to follow such a good and wise man, as the moon follows the path of the stars.’ This means that you are a good and wise king as long as the moon follows the path of the stars.”

King Phraattes takes his chalice filled with wine on the table next to his throne, and throws it at the magus. “I am not a fool, Dushatra. Your explanation is no explanation at all.”

Ejo has been standing at the back of the group of four magi. He steps forward.

“Your Majesty, may I speak?”

Dushatra turns and stares at the stranger in disbelief. Must be a spy. He cannot admit someone came in with his team without anyone knowing it. He remains quiet.

“I have studied the Buddhist religion. It is full of flaws. I would like to study this passage and return later to explain the contradictions I am sure I will find.”

“I suppose you want your week. As though I have all the time in the world. Are the Medes rebelling again? How about the Babylonians? What is that star a sign of? I demand to know.” He stands and struts before his throne.

“Guards!” the king shouts. “Arrest Dushatra and his friends.”

Yasib stands. “Your Majesty. Please. They are doing better than any of your other magi. They are close. I know they are close. Under my guidance, Your Majesty, they will discover the secret of the star.”

Yasib still has much influence Dushatra thinks. with royalty and commoners both. The king cannot afford a coup.

Realizing Dushatra and his colleagues have slipped through his fingers, the king motions the guards back to their posts. He allows the five magi to leave unharmed and orders the next magus to enter and give his postulations as to the secret of the star.

_____

Home again. As Michel unlatches the gate into his home, he hears laughter. His wife’s laughter, and that of a second woman. When he enters, the other woman puts her shawl over her head, says goodbye to Meira, greets Michel respectfully, and rushes away.

“It is good to hear laughter again,” Michel says as he seats himself on a bench near the gate.”

Meira smiles, sits next to her husband, and takes his hand. “All day long, all I hear is arguing and blithering about gods that don’t exist. They think they make sense, but they don’t.”

“Wait right here, Michel. I have a surprise for you.”

Meira disappears, then returns with something behind her back.

“Remember that scripture scroll you used to have of the prophet Jeremiah, and which you lost?”

Michel looks at her, his eyebrows arched high and his lips pursed as though daring to smile.

“Here it is!” She lays it on his lap. “I was getting ready to pour more grain into one of my storage jars, and there it was. It had apparently been placed with the other storage jars last spring when I brought in help with my seasonal deep cleaning.”

“Michel places his hand over it silently, then looks up at his wife. “Perhaps I can find the meaning of the star in Jeremiah’s writings.”

That night, Michel sleeps soundly for the first time in many days.

_____

A week later, Yasib and his group show up again at the throne room. The king is astonished. Admiration for their courage and audacity makes him allow their entrance and an audience. The magus who had challenged the Buddhist interpretation of the star is there too. It is he who begins the discussion.

“Buddhists…” Ejo begins. “Buddhists,” he repeats, “state the highest good is unity with Nirvana, personal annihilation, unity with the Essence of the Universe. On the other hand, Buddha said, ‘There is one sole Truth and apart from consciousness, no diverse truths exist. We must remain free from lusts and dogmas.’

“But then in Sutta-Nipata Buddha said he had preached the Truth. How can someone preach something that is only consciousness?”

Dushatra clenches his teeth.

“Furthermore,” the critic continues, “in his Sutta Pitaka Buddha says a wise man rejoices always in the law. Later he talks about the sinner following false doctrine. What law and doctrine can he refer to if there is only one truth, and that is consciousness?

“And one last comment, Your Majesty. In the Spirit of Theravada Buddhism in chapter eight, ‘Majjhima-Nikaya,’ it is said that Buddhism makes no claim to the exclusive possession truth. If there is no exclusive truth, then there is no truth. So how can anyone’s statement be known to be true?”

King Phraattes stands, then paces. He looks at Dushatra, Kumar, and Michel. Though Michel, once again, has said nothing, he is still part of the team.

“You are a bunch of idiots. You’re supposed to be telling me the secret of the gods, and you don’t even know what truth is.”

The king looks over at Yasib who he has allowed once again to be seated in his presence. “Are you sure you want to claim these men?” Then he looks back at the other three. “Get out of my sight!”

Dushatra and his colleagues, feeling grateful the king has seemingly forgotten his execution threat, bow to the floor then partially rise and back slowly away from the throne, heads bowed in submission until they reach the doorway. Yasib is the last to leave.

Hurrying out of the palace, they talk. “We must keep searching,” Yasib tells the others. “This time we will pursue my scriptures, the scriptures of Zoroaster. And this time we will do it right.” Yasib leads the way out of the palace.

“Come to my house and I will give each of you a different book of Zoroaster to study. We’ll meet at the end of two weeks and compare notes. We must be more thorough.”

_____

Two more weeks. Searching. Searching for a star that was and no longer is. Searching, perhaps, for a god that was and no longer is. Finally, they come back together. They compare notes. Each prays to his preferred god for the king’s good graces. They head for the palace.

“Your Majesty, Yasib, Dushatra, Kumar, and Michel wish an audience. They have found the secret of the star.”

Dushatra knows they are taking a chance. The emperor could turn them down if he is in another bad mood, and they could be executed for their impudence.

But King Phraattes’ fourteen-year-old son is on a smaller throne next to his proud father. They are laughing at something. The king looks up at the guard announcing the magi’s presence in the anteroom, and the purpose of their mission.

“Star? What star?” the king responds to the guard. “Oh, yes, the star. That was over a month ago. Well, these magi are harmless enough.”

He looks at his son. “It’ll give young Phraattees some experience in how to deal with the magi.” He pokes his son with his elbow. “Besides, I like them,” he says with a wink. “They’re the only ones with the nerve to stand up to me.”

To the guard, he waves and says, “Send them in.”

“Your majesties,” Yasib begins, “we believe we have found the secret of the star. It is found in the beliefs of the Zoroaster’s. I know you will be pleased because this is the religion of the Parthins and of Your Majesty.”

“Go ahead,” the king responds while his son hands him a cluster of grapes.

“In The Yasna 12,1 it says the Glorious Beings are clothed in the light of the stars. As you know, each of the gods is clothed with a star. The writer of this scripture said he was a praiser of the Bountiful Immortals and Ahura Mazda, and sacrifices to them.”

“I made a list of the Bountiful Immortals as I found them in The Yasna,” Michel interjects, not believing what he is about to say: “The sun god, the god of truth, the rain god, god of the earth, the god of metals, the god of best righteousness, the god of the air and the guardian god of dead souls.”

“I went through The Vendidad,” Kumar adds. “I found the god of good mind and guardian of sheep and cattle, the god of fire…”

The king begins whispering to his son and the two laugh. Things are not going well. Dushatra interrupts. “Your Majesty, Tishtrya, the rain god, is identified with the star Sirius. As you know, Sirius is the brightest star in the heavens. The new star we saw must have been the son of Tishtrya.”

“So, what you’re trying to tell me, gentlemen,” the king interjects, poking his son and giving him a wink, “is that the rain god had a son, but the son did not live. If the son did not live, that means you are predicting a drought this year.”

“No, Your Majesty. That is not the meaning at all. When the new star appeared, it…”

“What did I tell you, Son? These magi expect me to believe all this. Now, as you know I do believe in deity. I believe in as many gods as the next man. But there are only so many you can believe in.

“Gentlemen, you are lucky I am in a good mood. Today is my son’s birthday. You are thenceforth exiled from my kingdom.”

“Your Majesty,” Dushatra hurriedly interjects; convinced even their lives are on the line, “I must strongly object to your treatment. We are your priests. We are doing the best we can to watch for the welfare of both you and your kingdom. We are the only intercessors you have between yourself and the gods.”

Two powers have locked horns. The head of a kingdom on earth. The heads of kingdoms in the heavens. Who is stronger?

The king stands in fury. “Because you insist on pursuing that star, the only way you will be allowed back into my kingdom is that you present me an interpretation that is provable. Provable! Do you hear me? Provable!”

“But Your Majesty…”

He looks at Yasib. “I have had it with you and your so-called protégés. If I ever see any of you again, you will be executed immediately. Now out. Leave me. It’s my son’s birthday.” He motions for the guards to escort them from the palace.

The four magi bow to the floor, then, standing stooped, make their ways backward until they reach the exit from the throne room. Soldiers escort them through the outer courtyard and out into the street.

“You should have listened to me in the first place,” Michel criticizes. It is finally time to speak up. I told you to investigate the Jewish religion.”

“That is out of the question,” Dushatra objects. “That religion makes no sense. We will systematically study the religions of all the nations west of us, the nations in the direction of the star.”

“In that case, we must go down to Babylon,” Michel replies with a sigh. “The greatest libraries in the world are there. Tello is the largest one. Over 60,000 writings there.” After a moment’s reflection, he resumes. “However, they are mostly governmental. We should go to Nippur, my home town where I was born. There are over 50,000 writings there, some governmental, but mostly religious.”

Only their closest relatives know where they disappear to.

  • Nippur, Babylon

 It has now been six weeks since the illusive star was spotted. The four magi have vowed to stay in Babylon until they find the explanation of the star. They must. Their only alternative is permanent exile from Parthia. Or execution if they return with the wrong answer to the celestial secret.

They stay in an inn and plan their strategy. Little do they know they will someday be in a similar inn far away, and the God of the star will actually speak to them. But for now, they do not know it, and need a little diversion before setting to work in the morning.

Dushatra, Kumar and Michel walk around town. Yasib stays back at the inn so he can nurse his aching joints and retire early.

The three sit by the river and walk through the market place.

Michel finds a silk scarf that would look perfect on his wife and buys it. The others pick up a few souvenirs themselves. There are some dates at one of the stalls and they all buy a few to eat as they walk.

Finally refreshed enough they think they can relax sufficiently to go to sleep, they return to the inn.

Morning comes and they go to the library.

“Okay,” Yasib tells the others. “We begin with the gods of the Babylonians, as inferior as they are. Spread out. Each one takes a scroll and search for mention of a star.”

They settle down to feed their obsession. Their families have tolerated them for over a month over a star that only half the men had even seen. But they know it has significance. If only they could figure out the meaning of the star. A week passes.

“We have found holy writings about Baal the god of the earth. No mention of a star,” Dushatra says.

Another week. Back and forth to the inn.

“We have found writings referring to Anu the god of heaven, and Ea the god of waters. Nothing to do with a star there either,” Kumar tells the others.

Another week. Will their money hold out? It has to. They cannot return home without declaring with absolute provable certainty they know the meaning of the star.

“We found Marduk, a more recent name of Baal,” Michel says. “No star. And I found writings on Sin, the god of the moon, and Shamash the god of the sun. Nothing about a star.”

A fourth week. They are growing discouraged. But, luckily, when one is discouraged, the others pull him out of it.

“Well, we found Nabu identified with Mercury, Nergal identified with Mars, Ninim identified with Saturn. But everyone knows these are planets and not stars,” Yasib explains.

Their money supply is growing low. They may have to find jobs. Perhaps they could tutor.

“We can’t give up. If we do, we’ll never see our families again. We can never give up. As long as there is breath in us,” Dushatra declares, “we cannot give up.”

Michel nods in agreement.

The next day at the library, Yasib announces, “Today we switch to another nation’s gods— that of the Grecians to the northwest. Persia conquered Greece. Later the Greeks reconquered Persia.”

Another week. Only now they are more careful with their funds.

“These Grecian gods are strictly over nature or general activities of mankind,” Kumar concludes one day. “They are identified with the planets and the sun, but not with the stars.”

“Then we shall check the gods of Rome, the benefactor of Persia, and most of the rest of the world,” Yasib tells them.

“I think you may be on to something,” Dushatra interjects. “Why didn’t we think of that in the first place?”

Once again they go back to the inn. They are now so mentally exhausted, it does not take them long, once they lie down, to fall asleep for the rest of the night.

“Wake up everyone. I’ve been to the market,” Michel explains, “and have brought everyone some rare fruit.”

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“Apricots”

“Oh, that. There’s nothing rare about apricots.”

“These are from Africa,” Michel announces proudly. If I can show them that something new isn’t bad, maybe they’ll be willing to examine the Jewish scriptures.

They return to the library and examine the Roman gods. But their gods are almost identical to the Grecian ones, only with different names. They read of the usual ceremonies of appeasement by the priests, but that is all.

Another month has passed. They have sent letters home to reassure their families they are safe.

“We’re out of money again,” Yasib announces.

“Whose turn is it to find a job?” Dushatra asks.

“I’ll take a turn,” Michel volunteers. “I met a family with young children I can teach for a while. I look like the people around here anyway, so I won’t draw any attention.”

“Yes, that’s important. We can never let Yasib teach.”

“True,” Kumar adds. “Number one, his eyes don’t look like anyone else’s, and number two, he’s too old.”

Yasib puts his hands on his hips and scowls with his mouth while his slant eyes twinkle.

The four laugh together.

So, every day when the four leave the inn, three head for the library while Michel goes to his new job. It will spare him reading about gods that are not gods.

Eventually, he earns enough for the four of them to live another couple weeks, and resumes his daily trek to the library with the others.

“There has to be an answer in here,” Kumar says, wandering among the rows of scrolls.

“We have no choice but to begin researching the gods to our southwest,” Yasib explains.

“No, we must study the nation directly west of us,” Michel objects. He has been patient long enough.

“You are determined to convince us to investigate the Jewish religion of Palestine, Michel,” Dushatra replies. “They only believe in one God. They are narrow minded and it would be a waste of time.”

And so they turn to Arabia in search of the star. Northern Arabia seems useless. The Bedouins stay too busy raiding each other and rich southern settlements to develop many gods. Their main god is born out of a stone. All the lesser deities are the daughters of this god.

Southern Arabia is much like Indus along its coast next to Indus, and much like Africa on its coast nearest Africa. Then there is Sheba, ever striving for an empire of its own carved from another part of Arabia.

“Yasib, how do you do it?” Michel asks.

“What do you mean?”

“Keep up with the rest of us? You’re old enough, well…”

“Old enough to be your father?” Yasib responds.

“Well, yes,” Michel admits. “How do you do it?”

“Yes, what with your arthritis and all,” Kumar interjects.

“Well, when my mind is off my pain, I feel no pain. Besides, all that goat milk you make fun of me for drinking…”

“Goat milk?” Dushatra says. “What’s goat milk have to do with it?”

“I don’t know. But my father and grandfather lived to be ninety and they drank it. Back to work, you children,” Yasib teases.

“These Sabaeans claim to be believers only of Ilmuqah, the moon god,” Kumar tells the others. “But they also worship the stars which they claim to be angels.”

“Then I say we investigate these stars,” Yasib suggests.

So they do. But, as usual, the magi end up with more questions than answers.

“There is no way we can prove any of these angel stars had anything to do with the birth and death of the star last year. They are angels, not gods.”

“Remember what the king said. It must be provable.”

“But you cannot prove religion. It is unprovable. It’s strictly what you want to believe. Strictly faith.” Kumar injects.

“You’re wrong, gentlemen,” Michel objects. “You can prove the Jewish religion to be of divine origin.”

“Michel, if we agree to study that religion later, will you keep your attention focused on the ones at hand from the larger and more important nations?”

Another week goes by. They have moved out of the inn. It has become too expensive. Michel has found a widower younger than Yasib but frailer.

“He could use some extra income,” Michel explains.

So they crowd into the old man’s little house. His name is Hozo.

Each man has his own bedroll and spreads it on the floor at night. They take up nearly all the floor space.

“It’s a roof over our head,” Dushatra says. “That’s all we need.”

Yasib spends a little extra time with Hozo. They talk old times. The others have not ever heard Yasib laugh so much. Sometimes the old men break out into an old song from their youth, and their voices croak out the tune in youthful glee. The younger men enjoy the entertainment.

Next, the magi turn their attention to the African kingdoms. Michel is quite aware of the fact that these kingdoms are usually smaller than Palestine, but he bides his time. He knows one day in their desperation, when they have no other alternatives, they will investigate Judaism.

The Kushites near Ethiopia along the Red Sea worship a lion god, and the other kingdoms are not much different. Each kingdom believes in a single high god but without personality. Below him are many lesser gods controlling nature.

Below the gods are the spirits of the ancestors. They are the ones who take an interest in the lives of their descendants on earth. They are the ones all Africans devote their time and attention to. After all, the gods don’t really care what happens to humans. They are busy manipulating nature.

_____

Michel’s wife writes him a letter. Nippur had been her girlhood home and, though her family had all moved away long ago, there are a few neighbors she had grown up around who would remember her. A caravan master delivers the message to the neighbor Meira had referred him to.

One morning at the library, they hear it. “Message for Michel! Anyone here named Michel?”

Unsure whether to reveal his identity, Michel finally tells the messenger who he is.

“I am an old neighbor of your wife, Meira,” the messenger explains. “We played together as children before she married you and moved away. She sent this letter to me along with a shorter message explaining where you could be found.”

The letter duly delivered, Michel gives him a tip. He nervously opens the scroll and is relieved to read the contents.

I am okay, my darling. But I miss you so. I am praying every day that the others have finally consented to read the Jewish scriptures so you can be exonerated and come home to me.

He slips the small scroll beneath his wide belt and returns to work.

_____

No answers are found in the African religions.

Another month passes. More days and weeks of research and analysis.

“We cannot give up,” Yasib announces. “There has to be a meaning to that star.”

“We shall now investigate the Egyptian gods,” Dushratra announces.

Michel shakes his head in frustration.

Among the Egyptians, the magi find and investigate the gods of the sun, earth, water, joy, love, learning, childbirth, the netherworld, craftsmen and on and on. But no specific star god, other than the Zodiacs which they got from the Babylonians.

Nothing new there.

Still no answers.

It has now been well over six months since the appearance and disappearance of the mighty, but strange star. The star that nags at them and tugs at them and refuses to let go. The star that controls their every waking moment by just the memory of it. The star that could have brought an end to the world, but didn’t. The star that has to be holding some great secret. But what?

The questions. Ever lingering. The unknowable. The unanswerable. But still the star glint. Star glint of hope.

“Michel, it looks like your religion is going to have a hearing after all,” Dushatra says. “Not that we’ll find any answers in it either. But we’ve exhausted all the others.”

“In that case, gentlemen,” Michel pronounces, “I suggest we return to Parthia to look through the royal archives.”

“How could government archives prove anything about the gods? And what if the king finds out we’re back?” Kumar says.

“The archives I have in mind are in Ecbatana, the capital when Media controlled Persia. We will go there and stay out of the king’s way until we find our answer.” Yasib informs them.

Do they not know it is impossible to prove religion? Do they not know they can never uncover the meaning of the star?

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