THE THREE KINGS ARE hanging out by the pool just before Christmas at a get-together of kings, presidents, and the like about the future of the planet. There’s sand and oil money everywhere you look, and not too distant, the crashing of surf. The Three Kings, because they are kings, are much more used to being listened to than listening to others, and find the whole business tedious, so they’ve decided to have a seasonal cocktail and chat about family and travel and shopping just like ordinary people.
King One is idly considering invading King Two’s outlying provinces, but King Two isn’t particularly worried because he controls the airspace in the region with the generous assistance of the most powerful nation on earth—whoever that happens to be at the time—whoever has the best hardware is a reliable measure.
King Three could care less about his fellow kings’ pushing and shoving. He’s waiting to hear the results of a coup d’etat back home to know if he even has a kingdom. It’s not looking good. He’s not concerned about it personally. Life will go on. Like all the Three Kings he has amassed tremendous wealth, property all over the world. Still, to lose one’s kingdom can hurt a king’s feelings. Has he been that bad?
He looks up in the sky, as if the heavens will attest to his goodness, and he sees an angel descending upon them. “What the Hell is that?” he shrieks to the other two, pointing at the glorious angel plummeting earthward. He says this even though he knows what it is, just like they all do when they see it. That’s the way it is with angels. You know what they are. And you know who sent them. A collective chill goes up the Three Kings’ spines.
Not Him again.
The angel alights in a flutter of golden wings, and the Kings kneel. The angel acts like that’s not such a bad idea, so they stay that way.
The angel says, “I bring great tidings of joy!”
King One has always wondered whether angels talk that way, and apparently they do. He finds it quaint and charming. He’s sure he and the angel will get along just fine. King One doesn’t understand the first thing about angels.
King Two thinks Christmas is such a pretty holiday, all those songs and TV shows, a tremendous boon to business, all that runaway consumption. Doorbuster Specials! He loves to watch the spectacle of Black Friday. He’s heavily invested in retail.
All Three Kings love Christmas.
King Three hasn’t been listening because he’s still pondering his last text message: The Palace has fallen. It was such a lovely palace. Opulent was the word most often used to describe it. King Three struggles to conceal his feelings of overwhelming loss from the angel and look interested in the good news, whatever it is, but apparently he fails.
“Am I boring you?” the angel asks him.
“No,” squeaks King Three.
“Definitely not!” the other two potentates chime in, perhaps too enthusiastically.
Bored? Try terrified.
“As I was saying,” the angel continues sternly, “Great tidings of joy, got it?”
“Joy!” the Kings shout, grinning like jesters.
“That’s better,” the angel says. “You boys need to get to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They call themselves The Christmas City. There’s a star. You can’t miss it.”
“Where in Bethlehem?” King One inquires, taking out his iPhone. He invested heavily in Apple when everyone thought they were going under. King One trusts his instincts. It helps that he’s king so that no one ever tells him when his instincts are wrong.
“Put that thing away,” says the angel. “Where do you think? To a stable, where a couple on the run is giving birth to a child who will change your world.”
“You’re kidding,” says King Three.
“Angels don’t kid,” says the angel.
“Where do we look?” asks King One.
“On the outskirts I would imagine.”
“How do we find the stable?” asks King Two.
“Follow your nose,” says the angel, and beating his enormous wings, shoots into the sky like a superhero, ending that conversation.
King One is no longer considering invading King Two’s domain, King Two no longer believes he controls the airspace anywhere or ever did, and King Three’s glad he’s out of the King business because it might be time to lay low for a little bit.
Change, the angel said. Change generally doesn’t work out so well for kings, the Three Kings would agree, and their confidence that they can manage the situation has suffered a serious blow.
The Three Kings wonder what changes this kid has in mind and what it will cost them.
But they all know they need to get to Bethlehem, so each in his own jet, they traverse afar to the Bethlehem airport where they each employ a limo to go in search of livestock enclosures harboring fugitives.
They form a distinctive caravan headed for the boonies. Three white limos, with the back windows down, a king in each one sniffing the air like a dog. King Three seems to be enjoying it. King Two feels silly and perhaps a bit nervous. King One is intent upon finding the stable. He has a feeling about this baby, his fugitive parents. They could be huge. Global. He could help with that. He has gold lying around he doesn’t know what to do with, media holdings. Connections. He could make things happen for them. King One hasn’t a clue who this baby really is, won’t know until he meets him face to face and discovers it’s the other way about.
PRETTY SOON, IT’S POURING down rain, a record breaking seventy degrees. Clogged creeks are overflowing everywhere, roads and bridges washing out. No white Christmas in Bethlehem this year. The Three Kings’ limos criss-cross the countryside looking for the right stable. They split up to cover more territory, promising to text the others if they find the place.
The limos reach a muddy, rutted crossroads, from three different directions at the same time, and roll to a stop. The fourth way is a sea of mud and livestock shit, for this is the way to the stable they’re seeking. The last ones to go down this road were the kids’ parents. You can see their abandoned old Saturn stalled out in the mire, a faint light from a structure a quarter mile away. Who would look for them here if an angel hadn’t told them?
The Three Kings are all sharp dressers. They share a passion for boots crafted from rare and exotic species. They travel to Texas to have them made. They wear hand tailored Italian suits so beautiful it makes you weep to see them wasted on these fat old men. The combined clothes on their backs would exceed in value the annual incomes of most of the people on the planet. They get out of their limos anyway and sink to their thighs in muck. Even in the rain the place stinks.
Each of the Three Kings wishes he was in better shape as they slog through the mud occasionally slipping and falling, pancaking in the slop. They help each other up, offer encouragement. As they get closer they can hear the sound of a tinny radio playing Christmas Carols. They’re everywhere this time of year, almost impossible to escape. It’s the one about the Three Kings. The Three Kings find this ironic as they trudge along looking like three losers in a mud wrestling contest dressed in once snappy suits, and manage a smile. They keep glancing nervously over their shoulders hoping the angel doesn’t show up with any more tidings of joy.
King Three has lost his left boot somewhere in the muck and wonders if he should just let go of the other one, return to the boy prince who loved to play barefoot in the mud to exasperate the queen. He tries to let it go—the other boot—but now it seems stuck, as he rocks back and forth in a hobbled gait. King Three is not a tall man. He likes his heels high.
King Two has lost his dignity and wonders if this is what it’s like to be tortured. Sometimes ordinary interrogations don’t work, and you have to enhance them. It’s like the latest hardware. It’s dangerous to fall behind, isn’t it? His heart, not used to such exertions, can’t seem to settle on a steady pace. He’s lost track of how many times he fallen. He can’t even control his own body. He looks up and lets the rain beat down on his face and wash away the shit.
King One has pretty much lost his mind, or rather it is racing in vicious circles as he comes ever closer to whatever’s in that stable, rendering it useless for anything else. When the angel said your world, King One took it personally—that he will be transformed. It’s hard to imagine that going well. Wasn’t it Paul who was struck blind? He’s done some pretty awful things. He tries not to think about them, but that only makes him think about them more. He’s a king. He thought he could get away with it. No one’s stopped him. Until now.
Finally the road slopes up out of the mire, and they make their way to a ramshackle wooden structure listing by the side of the road, the dim glow of a lantern visible through the many holes and cracks and missing boards. Inside it smells like billy goat and rat piss and rotting hay. There is a baby wrapped up in a wool scarf decorated with reindeer, lying in a car seat, resting on a bale of hay.
It’s the Baby Jesus.
Behold, each king says to himself. Behold.
Their six knees are trembling. Their three hearts are thumping. What have they gotten themselves into? The place looks like it could fall down on their heads in the driving rain. The metal roof sounds like the drums of heaven, and you have to shout a bit to be heard.
There are three farm workers who brought some takeout wrapped in greasy paper for the proud parents, more than they could possibly eat, and they offer to share it with the Kings. The Kings dig in, and of course there’s plenty for everyone.
King Three can’t help but notice that the kid seems to have his eye on him the whole time. King Two notices the same thing. King One is certain the Child is gazing upon him, his special one, the whole time.
The parents are young and beautiful as befits such a beautiful child. “Joe,” the father says, shaking the kings’ hands, not seeming to mind the mud and the shit and the grease. What are the chances? each King is thinking. That angel knew what he was talking about.
The mother smiles at them all. She is weary, exhausted from their desperate flight, from her labors, from all the endless sufferings of the world. Yet she smiles at them. They all gaze adoringly at her child.
“May I hold him?” King One inquires.
The parents exchange a troubled glance.
“He is no ordinary child. Are you sure you want to do that?” Joe asks King One, as if to say, It’s not too late to back out now.
And of course King One says “Absolutely,” when his true feeling are nothing of the sort.
Mary places the babe into his arms, its eyes still focused on what King One believes to be his soul, something he’s always doubted he possessed, but there it is, in this infant’s eyes, nestled in his arms. King One remembers his own grandson and his own son, imagines being a babe in his father’s arms, his grandfather holding him… but then his memories start going the other way. He holds the future in his hands, his grandson’s son, and his son’s son, but that is where it stops. The child can hardly breathe. The heat is unbearable. King One surveys a wasted world. All the palaces have fallen, the fortunes all made and lost. All of that is over.
To each of the Kings in turn the child is given.
This time there’s no brief life of miracles and healing, suffering and death. The sacrifice has been made. This child lives. This time, one miracle only, that instead of remembering their glories, the Kings cradle the future generations in their arms, gasping for life and say, “My God! What have I done?”
They vow to change, to act, to quit denying. They wish they’d asked the angel if it’s too late, but since the angel bothered to show up, perhaps it isn’t. If they try, there’s hope. If they don’t, there’s not.
Simple as that, simple enough even for kings to understand.