e felt as old as the hill he climbed. The vaunted, once-strategic, and impossibly high Hill of Vaws challenged him daily to climb its height and worship at the temple atop its craggy summit. The mound in the desert had once been relevant; now it looked out over a wide, empty and sere desert. Atop the hill’s scrub-covered crust, an equally ancient temple clung barely to live, kept going only by the priest and his four apprentices. A joint popped and he reflected again on retiring. But a glance at the gilded star atop the shrine, its glittering outline, and the shadow it cast upon the hill reminded him of his purpose here. Chapped lips creaked open in a half smile.
The golden star was a beacon of sorts, a thing by which to herald the Liberator, Savior, Redeemer, or Protector as He was wont to be named. Though the star reflected light, it was said that it would glow like the sun should the Liberator come. The priest, the star, the pillar, the chapel, and even the hill itself waited patiently for the son of
“Glow like the sun,” the priest panted. Man.
At one time there were twelve wise men who had kept constant vigil inside the chapel; they had long since passed on, leaving the old priest and his apprentices. Finding young men to devote their lives to a run-down building atop a barren hillside in the middle of nowhere was almost impossible—and he wasn’t sure how long these men would remain. The perils of youth.
The ancient priest put his head down and trudged up the remaining feet to the top of the hill. He was bent over with exhaustion and sore, tired muscles... it took an effort to straighten his frame, and with it a chorus of pops and snaps. The priest grimaced and gazed out at the brown and dusty desert that stretched on in seemingly endless directions all around the hill.
A few scrubby trees near the chapel provided shade and aromatic herb bushes imparted the area with a sweet and heady fragrance. Being the highest point in the area, the vantage provided a vast overview of... nothing. Far beyond his vision, behind a cloud of dust, the large city of
hulked in its teeming of humanity. Jerusalem ... the old priest sniffed at that word—he called it by another name entirely, Urušalimum, an ancient name for an ancient settlement. Jerusalem
The scholars from
Chaldea and Inde had talked of a real star that would come and replace the gilt one that rotated slowly before him, though he himself was convinced that the prophecies and texts they relied upon were only meant to be allegorical. Deep in his soul, however, he hoped that the true Liberator would come, and that the star upon this hill would glow.
Previous failed prophecies had darkened their hearts and hopes of a hum
an savior were long abandoned. Yet the priest remained vigilant. Sighing, he made his way into the small chapel and sat upon a bench.
“Where are you now, oh
Chaldea and Inde?” he wondered with a grating whisper. “Perhaps you will come when you see...”
Inside, the chapel was a mirror of its outside: Stone walls inlaid with thick timbers, three small windowless opening carved from the stone, a lightly peaked roof, and a small statue with a star atop it. The star inside the chapel did not spin and was dull with age. The old priest sat on a bench, his old knees long since retired from kneeling on the hard surface. Heaving another tired sigh, he gazed at the star on the altar, his lids soon became heavy, fluttered briefly, and finally closed.
He dreamed of one of the failed prophecies: Of Greeks and Chaldeans, convinced that the star prophesied the coming of the Messiah, of the true King of the world. Ezekias was the king’s name—he had made some outrageous claims about making the sun spin and move backward across the sky. Whether out of heat exhaustion or blind devotion, the Chaldeans and Greeks in his entourage saw something in the so-called miracle, lay before him numerous gifts, and prostrated themselves most obscenely before him. God was surely not happy at this turn of events, and in his dream of reminiscence, the priest saw the king racing with all haste to
Babylonia, as if Hell itself was on his heels. Furthermore, the Chaldean and Greek astronomers had stated clearly that—
He awoke with a start and stared around the room. Night had fallen and the chapel was cloaked in darkness, the only light coming from a bare crescent of a moon. Every few seconds a tiny glimmer of light would reflect through the small openings in the chapel—moonbeams bouncing off the gilded star outside. But night could not have awoken him.
There had been a bright burst of light in his dream, and as he opened his eyes, he felt warmth on his lids. He closed them again, when an even brighter radiance lit up the backs of his eyelids and he snapped them open.
His head whipped around, aged and worn tendons creaking in agony. He stared at the once-dull statuette as it lit up with a bright white glow. The star! The star on the altar!
For only the barest of seconds, the room filled with the light of a hundred suns, and the warmth of a midnight bonfire. Eyes lined with the wear of many years sparkled with vibrancy, knees that had long been ground down with age and decay suddenly fell painlessly to the floor in reverence, sagging ears perked, and wrinkled lips curved upward in a gap-toothed grin of ecstasy.
In the time it took his ancient eyelids to open and close in the heavenly glow, the light sniffed out and he was once again alone in the dark. But his smile did not waver, and his tired knees held out for a few more moments as he relished a sense of peace and fulfillment.
The Chaldeans were right, a star was coming... but more than a star, deep in his soul he could feel a presence, a great, overpowering, and peaceful presence. Warmth filled his cheeks and his eyes watered. A man, a man was coming with the star. The Redeemer! At last, the Savior of Man! He could almost hear the tiny heartbeat, far off near Urušalimum. A baby was going to be born, a new king, the King, the King of Man, the Redeemer...
A fallow and hoarse voice cried out: “He comes. He comes!”
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
aybe he’s just spending more time in meditation and prayer.”
“No, no, he would have come down by now. Surely he has heard of the great event.”
The two young apprentices sprinted up the dusty Hill of Vaws and arrived at the top in full spirits, neither seeming to display any sign of exertion. They gazed across the distance to
Jerusalem (its towers barely visible, even in the day), and then their eyes wandered to where would be. One of them bent down on one knee, adding a fresh splat of dust on his white robe. Bethlehem
“Come on then, let’s see if he’s in here.”
The kneeling man paused. “No, no, you go ahead. I-I’m sure he’s in there, either praying or sleeping. He’s probably a hundred years old, it takes him time to—”
“Something’s wrong here, I can feel it.”
At that the other stood. “Wrong? What could possibly be wrong?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, fidgeting. “It’s just that...” his gaze went from the countryside to the chapel, to the star—and he stumbled as if struck.
“What is it?”
“Look!” he pointed to the star.
The gilded star hung motionless in the bright sunlight. It should have been spinning lazily given the light breeze that whistled around them. Not bent or broken, or in any way deformed, it still hung there as if a giant finger had set upon it to still its motion.
Not waiting for his companion, the first man raced into the chapel while the other rose slowly from his kneeling position. He had made it to the entrance when his friend called out from within: “Go get a clean robe, a sheet anything...” the voice was full of a dark sadness.
Having returned with a fresh white robe, he entered the chapel, steeling himself for the sight. The ancient priest lay across a pew, his hands folded languidly over his stomach, eyes closed, and his lips set in a flat line of rictus.
As they reverently laid the robe over the body, tears flowed freely from each man’s eyes.
“Let us have a small service for him, shall we?” the second man asked, starting to kneel again. He began to recite a few prayers before his companion tapped him respectfully on the shoulder.
“Wait, did you hear that?” he whispered.
The other paused, bending an ear. At their height on the hill, they could hear the sound of hoof beats far off and approaching rapidly. Drumming, drumming against the hard ground, the roar of huge animals was unmistakable.
“Riders, coming fast! Sounds like three—yes, three camels. Who would be coming so fast...?”
They dashed out of the chapel and the sound of running hooves was thunder in their ears. Clearing the small entryway, each sprinted to the edge of the hill, scanning rapidly for any sign of the riders.
The field below was empty.
Yet the sound of racing camels filled their ears, growing in such a cacophony that each young scholar covered his ears, and ducked instinctively. Closer, closer, it seemed as if they were being run down by three riders, yet they could see nothing. A loud whoosh sounded loudly, bringing with it an invisible wind, as if some monstrous animal had flown by, trailing a strong wind in its wake. The gilded star spun wildly at the passing of the invisible force, then wound to a stop. A sudden silence exploded around them and they stared at each other wide-eyed, mouths agape.
When at last they recovered their senses, they returned to the chapel to complete the ceremony for the deceased. Mouths drooped open again when they took in the sight of the ancient priest: the robe had fallen away from his body; the leathery and chalk-white shell of the ancient priest’s face was no more. Instead, a tanned, smooth, yet still very dead man lay there—his lips stretched into a broad smile.