by E. Shan Correa
In the New Testament account of Christ’s infancy, the number of the Magi who journeyed from the East to worship the King was not mentioned. Eastern tradition holds that there were twelve. We in the West have settled upon three Magi, one for each of the gifts named in Matthew’s narrative. Were there three Wise Men? Indeed, were all who followed the star, men? Or was there, perhaps, a woman who traveled the long road to Bethlehem? A woman named Leylah.
My daughters, I rejoice that you are here with me. Though I am home but these few hours, weary in each of my aged bones, I am compelled to share with you the memory, the gift, of my journey with the Magi. For you, I must try to put into words what drew me to follow the great star. I must tell you of the Jewish babe, the child who is to become the King of all the Earth. Yes, King of the Medes, and Carthaginians, the Romans, and of our own Persia. Oh, and of his mother! I was granted this gift, and I must share it with you now. This very hour.
But I must start at the beginning. With the star. I still cannot believe that I was the first to see it. Before the Magi, who had much more right than I to watch it rise above the hills, I saw the great star and marveled at its glory. I confess to pride in this even today, yet I know I was unworthy. I believe the star appeared to me because I, alone, was there to see it.
Your father foresaw its coming long before it rose above the horizon. Although he inherited his priesthood, he did not inherit his respect among the Magi, as you know. Bagda earned it for his goodness and his years of accuracy reading the signs of the barsom. It is amazing, the power of those divining rods in the hands of a worthy Magi! That a bundle of sticks could predict the future—this still overwhelms me after all these years of sharing that part of your father’s life.
“Leylah,” he called to me one night, many months ago. “Tomorrow I will gather all of our priests to tell them what I now tell you. As I prayed this evening near the altar, its sacred flame fully lighted our temple and I saw in the positions of the barsom rods a wondrous prophecy! We are to watch the heavens, for the star which our astrology has taught us will appear to signal the birth of a god-king. It is coming soon, Leylah. Soon!”
“We are old, Bagda. Our daughters, and even their children, are growing old with us. Will we ourselves see the star?”
He shook his head. “We can only watch,” he said. “Watch, and hope.”
When the light first came, I was not keeping a vigil or searching the sky for that star. I had wandered beyond our gates because the sleeplessness I suffered kept me from my bed. I had taken to solitary walks in the open air to clear away the days’ frantic activities and worries.
You, Chandrizar, were ill then. I had hoped to puzzle out a remedy for your fever. And I hoped to formulate some wise advice for your dear son—you’ll remember he was still rebelling then against devoting his life to his grandfather’s Magian calling. I had many hopes, but I had forgotten to hope for the star.
Then, as I sat on the dewy grass, the curving swells of the two large hills outside of the east gate appeared in outline. I waited for the moon to rise, so bright was the light which glimmered behind the silhouetted brush and olive trees.
But wait! That was not to have been a full moon night. Moonlight could not be growing in the sky. As that realization struck me, I pushed myself up from the ground. I felt myself shaking, but I could not turn away. The light compelled me to stand, to gaze until I wondered if I might be blinded when the star had fully risen.
Oh, my daughters! You saw the star which we followed, saw its grandeur, felt the peace extending to the earth in its light. But that first night–and the night when we at last reached Bethlehem–are unlike any others I shall ever know. The star, my dear ones! How can I tell you? Its light held color, music, magic! All of the beauty of the desert after rain, all of the emotions you feel when your babes first rest safe in your arms, each of the tears shed in joy when a sacrifice reunites you with the Almighty . . . All were in that star!
The night of the star changed me forever.
You and your father have always been more worshipful than I. I have often questioned our religion, and the role of follower has never come easy to me. Yet the star drew me towards its light, physically, and with great force. I stumbled after it, falling more than once as I approached the hill. But as quickly as the star had arisen, it settled back to earth. My greatest fear was that it would never appear again.
The night was black as obsidian when I hurried home to awaken your father. For the thousandth time, I knew that my Bagda was unlike any other husband in Persian-Parthia. He heard my breathless, outrageous tale—and he believed me without question! Who but your father would have trusted me, a mere woman? Who else would have held me that night, rejoicing with me, pressing me close until the light came into our window? Who would have called the Magi together that very morning to relate what I had seen?
The wise men were compelled to see the star with their own eyes, so they came with us at midnight to watch the hills. I recall that their white robes and high, conical hats were barely visible until the light could no longer be denied. Then even Gushnasaph, who is perhaps a century in age, fell to his knees. “Oh, that I could follow,” I heard him murmur. “Oh, that I could travel to see the prophecy fulfilled!”
I knew, from that moment, that I must become a follower of the star. Yet I anticipated that the Magi would scoff when I placed my formal request before the council. I was old. I was too often prideful. I was sometimes a troublemaker. I was a woman.
However, three weeks later, I delivered my petition to the assembled Magi, many of whom had already traveled far to sacrifice at the flame of our temple’s altar. They had been meeting for several days to study and read the signs which would result in their decisions. They had the power—and every good reason—to refuse me.
I faced them all. Clenched my fists to keep my fingers from trembling. In a quavering voice, I delivered my petition. Watching me were the eyes of the wisest and most holy men in all of Persia, and those eyes seemed to peer into my very soul.
As I waited in the outer courtyard for their decision, I felt my life might end before the messenger brought me word. Yet after only minutes, old Gushnasaph, himself, came to me and placed his hand on my sleeve. Tears flowed down the creases in his cheeks.
“In eleven days,” he said, “you shall go into Judaea with your husband, with nine other Magi and a cavalry for protection as you journey through Roman territory. You have my envy, Leylah. You also have my blessing.” I pressed my face against his hand, kissed it, and thanked him from my heart.
By some miracle, all was ready on the appointed morning. You saw our strange party leave, the Magi dressed in simple light clothing for the journey. But you could not have known that packed upon the camels which trailed us were robes worthy of any king. Indeed, these men held power equal to our Persian king, though I was not certain until then the extent of their power.
Did you realize that it was the Magi who instituted Phraates IV’s deposition, and that they were still maneuvering to choose his successor even then? You nod. You knew of that? I did not. My life has been more sheltered than yours, I should imagine.
This you could not have known: three of us carried bundles with us which were not entrusted to the camels carrying robes and provisions. These we placed before us—small packets, they were, encased in layers of silk, then strong hemp coverings with straps which bound them to our saddles.
Larvandad, the most senior in our procession, bore a container of frankincense, the most precious which the Magi could obtain. Your father, to his honor, carried heavy, gleaming bars of pure gold. And to my own amazement, I had been allowed to select and carry the third gift, a present to the infant king which the Magi determined had already been born somewhere in Judaea.
Each time my body rebelled against the punishment of my camel’s lurching, my fingers reached out to my bundle and I visualized the treasure it held. I was soothed, then, and glad once again of my calling.
I carried myrrh. True myrrh. Not that from the trees that grow here, but the precious perfume extracted from the resin of the thorny Arabian bushes. I had settled upon that gift because of a vision I had before our journey.
Although not a Magi, I sometimes dream of the future, and it was of myrrh, which I dreamt one warm night. I saw myself in a rough and simple room, extending myrrh as an offering to the small king. Its delicious scent came to me in that dream, familiar yet disturbing. Once, long ago, I had been allowed to add drops of rare myrrh to the anointing oils in the temple. I recalled that fragrance, and when I awoke from my dream, it seemed to linger in my hair and on our bedclothes until the night had faded.
Recalling that dream, I sensed that I should carry myrrh to the King. Was my decision a wise one? At the end of my story, you will know. Now, I must tell more of our journey.
It had been determined that the star which appeared to announce the coming of the god-king would also light our way. Each night, we slept with its radiance assuring us of the rightness of our course. By day, we followed maps which had been drawn to ascertain the safest routes, for our journey took us through regions reputed for bandits and marauding Roman soldiers. At last, after nearly six months, we saw ourselves approaching Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews.
Jerusalem. It is a large city, daughters, and part of our excitement at seeing it that night came from the knowledge that the fortunes of the Jews have long been intertwined with our own. We have been friends, even allies in many battles. The fabric of our Medo-Persian history has been studded with Jewish ministers and counselors. In the great Achaemenid days, some of our kings carried Jewish blood, and Magi of various ranks sometimes served as advisers and interpreters of dreams in the Jewish court. Although not of Magian lineage, the Hebrew prophet Daniel was appointed by our king to the office of Master of the Magians for services he had rendered us.
Thus, it was that our own Magi saw in the coming of the star a remarkable opportunity for paying homage to a king who was destined to rule the entire world—a monarch who could be much more acceptable than the worldly alternatives in our Persian succession.
Yes, Chandrizar? Enough of history? Very well, then. Jerusalem. We approached that city and I remember, first, our excitement and joy. Then something disturbing happened. The star’s light dimmed so that it no longer provided us with a clear direction.
What if its guidance were to falter altogether? With a shudder, I breathed a prayer that our journey would not end like that. The Magi, too, looked at each other and slowed their camels. They spoke together and, after long minutes, determined that we must seek the help of other prophets. That meant that we must enter the city and confront a king who is despised by his subjects, a man called Herod.
What a stir we caused as we entered the gates of the great city! Throngs stared at us, hushing their children when the young ones marveled aloud at our strange appearance. Soon children and their elders joined us, those in front sounding goat horns as our procession was escorted to the courts of Herod. We had come seeking the King of the Jews. We were shown into the throne room of Herod, who had only recently persuaded Rome to grant him that very title.
Another time, I shall tell you more of Herod and of the change in our plans to return to him. Today, I shall only say that he greeted us with smiles. His face carried the pallor of a deadly illness, and I should have pitied him had I not glimpsed a look of cruelty in his eyes. Still, he treated us with courtesy and when we had told him of the star, he summoned his scribes and priests. He listened to the prophecy with eagerness as apparent as our own when the priest read:
“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”
We rested that night as Herod’s guests, and so comfortable were our quarters we might have stayed longer. Yet we knew our destination, Bethlehem, was near at hand. Larvandad carried our gratitude back to Herod in the morning.
“I agreed,” Larvandad told us as we remounted our camels, “to send back word when we found the child, so that he might also worship him. It seemed to bring him much contentment.”
Dressed in our finest robes, we entered Bethlehem during the night. The weather had turned a biting cold, but our spirits warmed with each step. The star had more than regained its brightness. It pulled us through the sleeping village with more urgency than we had ever felt before that night. Our path through the streets shimmered like the tops of sunlit waves.
Your father and I wondered aloud if the villagers in Bethlehem had fallen under a spell which kept them from waking to the brightness. Beams of starlight extended ahead of us illuminating one house, then another, until it lit a stable and we knew that at last, we had found our king.
The building at the end of our journey was simple and small. A man who called himself Joseph bid us welcome from its doorway. Though he motioned for us to enter, there was room for only a few inside his door. The three of us held back—Larvandad, your father, and I. We unbound the gifts from our saddles as the others filed inside. When they returned to us, their faces reflected reverence and joy.
I waited with little patience, pacing in the shimmering light until, at last, Joseph motioned me, the last of our procession, into the house. Outside, the light had been dazzling, but inside I blinked until my eyes became accustomed to a softer and warmer light. When I could fully see, I gasped at the scene before me, so true it was to my dream!
A woman, a very young mother, sat upon a pallet holding her sleeping child on her lap for us to see. The little one, his dark lashes shadowing his cheeks, looked much like any other dear, sleeping child—like you, my children, when you were small. It was not what I saw which caused me to fall to my knees, as your father and Larvandad had done before me. It was—how shall I tell you this?—what I felt. A feeling of holiness, of sureness, of eternity, which found a voice and commanded me, “Worship, Leylah. This is the one for whom the star has called you.”
I felt my forehead press onto the cool earthen floor. Tears grew behind my closed lids, then flowed back into my body, releasing the weight which held me prostrate. A burden which I had borne throughout all the years of my life was suddenly lifted from me. As I looked up I saw before me my silken-wrapped cask of myrrh, still clasped in my hands. Ahead, the two men offered their tributes. Without a word, they rose and left us.
The mother nodded for me to stand, then beckoned me towards her. As in my dream, I extended my gift. A calmness had filled me and I was able to whisper, “I am Leylah. I bring you myrrh.”
“It is a woman’s gift,” she said.
“Yes.” I looked down at the gold, gleaming with the radiance of crowns and sacred altars. Near the mother’s sandals, exotic frankincense, truly a gift worthy of a great king. Why had I chosen myrrh? A perfume? A woman’s gift? Was it my pride that had convinced me that myrrh was a proper offering for a god-king?
The mother smiled, and my doubts fled. “Come, Leylah,” she bid me. “My child is called Jesus. Open your myrrh and place a drop upon his forehead. It will not awaken him. I sense, though, that you might awaken, as I have, to what has been ordained for him.”
Dare I? Dare I touch him? I hesitated. But the woman’s look held tenderness which encompassed me, binding me together with her and with her child. I did as she had bidden, and as I touched the babe’s face, a rush of feelings came over me which caused me to remember why I was so glad to be alive!
I felt again the earth as I had sensed it and loved it as a girl. I felt the throbbing heart of a baby sparrow on the palm of my hand. I heard the lilting voice of my sister as she plunged her fat little toes into a sparkling, cold stream. For a moment then, I became small as a flower petal and was carried down that stream, floating on a green leaf-boat. Up, down, swept fast along its curves, wafted around glistening black stones, into bubbling eddies. I had no body. I was pure joy, floating and flowing. The stream slowed, and I became aware of the beauties on its banks. Dense Cyprus trees, ancient sheep-folds, and above me, a sapphire sun coloring the layered clouds.
Then, abruptly, I was a child again, so young that my mother was still alive, humming while she wove blue threads into a shawl. I felt her love for me. I caught the scent of her hair.
I smelled myrrh. Sensual, life-affirming.
My eyes opened. The baby’s mother—I know now that she is called Mary—placed her hand on mine. Her dark eyes conveyed a new feeling into my heart. Transferred a new image. It was still of living, but of the life of the child Jesus. I watched him play, somewhere in another village, with curls of wood from Joseph’s plane. Then he was lost somewhere frightening. Joseph and Mary calling. Safely back in their shelter, but then… the scent of myrrh returned to my consciousness. Bitter. A terrible, bitter sacrifice. Anointing.
I think I whimpered. I felt Mary place her cool hand on my neck. I bowed my head over the child, still but a babe. He must not suffer. Not die!
“You know,” Mary said.
“You know how we will use the myrrh.”
“Yet there is much else which we cannot know now. Leylah, do not grieve for him. For us. Love will overcome his dying.”
I gazed at her and my heart shared her certainty. I carried the reality of that truth home with me more proudly than I had carried the myrrh to Bethlehem.
This morning we arrived home, and I am now more weary than a new mother after long, long hours in labor. But it remains with me, that gift of certainty, of love. I reach out my hands to each of you to share the blessing of that gift. You are women. You will know its worth.
A former university professor and a professional freelance writer, E. Shan Correa pens fiction, non-fiction and poetry for children and adults. Her work appears in anthologies, magazines, newspapers, and literary journals and has been honored with multiple regional and national awards. Examples of fiction sales have been to Japanophile, Cricket and Bamboo Ridge; poetry to American Poets & Poetry, Toasts, and Time for Singing; and articles to Trade Winds, Honolulu, and ByLine magazines. Shan wrote features for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and edited The Japan-America Journal for 8 years. Her most recent book is the nationally-praised middle-grade novel, Gaff. She continues to write—and read—her work for audiences in Hawaii, where she has lived for over 50 years.
One thought on “Myrrh”