A short story for Epiphany.

Trying something new around here: I had the following idea for a short story this morning. So I wrote it down. Happy Twelfth Night, everyone.


When the wise men set out on the dusty road after the audience with the infant king, their treasure chests were lighter. To their surprise, though, they were lighter only by one measure of gold, one of costly incense, and one of embalming resin. Why hadn’t they given the rest of the tapestries, the rare gems, the stoppered bottle of precious wine?

As it had happened, they disagreed sharply about giving the myrrh. It was in their trunks only because the worst could always happen when traveling. Thieves and murderers tended to lurk around every corner, especially in this restless corner of the western empire. The myrrh was not meant as a gift. It was meant to ensure that, if any of them were to be stabbed to death by ruffians, they would be ready to prepare the body for transport home. So at the solemn moment when they had bowed their heads and offered the gifts (gold first, then incense) to the cooing baby in his mother’s arms, they had shot sharp looks at the third among them.

“Wrong, simply wrong,” the first one hissed at the third one afterward, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”

“To a baby,” nodded the second, grimacing.

The third had merely shrugged. 

Annoying, essentially unbearable, that it was said that some back home knew him as the wisest of all.

But after they made their goodbyes, they had only the briefest of conversations about how full their treasure chests remained, still heaving back and forth with the donkeys’ every step. They hardly discussed what they would say when they returned the tapestries, the gems, the wine to the storerooms. They avoided agreeing on how they would explain the visit to the homebound many, anxiously awaiting tales of adventure in the hinterlands.

Words failed them, indeed, on all topics.

They could not discuss how they would explain that they had stopped following the star. Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia, even east of Persia, and the star had not failed them for a moment. But when they entered this country, they had thought the better of going straight to where it was taking them, which appeared to be the middle of nowhere. After all, they were united by an uncanny feeling that they were going to a king. It made good sense, then, to go to the palace, didn’t it? Which is when they met the governor-king. But each of them knew, through furtive, discomforted glances—this was not it. This old man, with that evil, thirsty, striving glint in his eye—he was not the one the star had been guiding them to. It had been too late, and too rude, not to answer his many questions. But none of them had liked his reaction to their answers.

And now that they had left the little family in their little house (a poorer house than they had seen in decades; more of a barn, truly, although they did not want to make uncharitable assumptions about the living standards out here) the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.

They ignored their unease. They did not stay.

They made camp among the kind shepherds, who had insisted on hospitality, and who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. That night, they spoke only in significant looks about the strange audience with the king. His parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace? Where were the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep only?

But he was unquestionably a king. Far more of a king, somehow, than the old man in the palace. An irrational, unavoidable, conclusion.

And they did not speak at all of the horrible dreams they all had that first night, sleeping rough among the good shepherds. Stomach-turning dreams for each of them, waking up in a sweat. The first saw rivers of blood. The second, an army of the dead chasing him, and his legs wouldn’t run. The third, darkness upon darkness, disorienting and alone, a void, full of screaming. They did not know this, of course, because they did not speak of it, and they did not know as each of them briskly filled his saddlebags the next morning that each had a firm, bone-deep conviction not to return to the governor-king with the directions he’d asked for—a conviction that would have inspired each to travel the hundreds of miles home alone if necessary to avoid that nauseating palace.

So it was with silent relief that they found themselves setting off together the long way, the perilously roundabout way, skirting Jerusalem by many weary miles, until they passed through somewhere called Nazareth, fumbling with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.

And when they arrived near home, they made their quiet goodbyes. Life on the road together had made them closer than family, but they were too wise for many parting words. Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they nearly collided on the road in their distraction at the wondrous new star in the west. 

After all, who is to say what will happen?

“Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his donkey shook his head as though in wry agreement.

But the star never troubled them again.

They went back to their studies, and to their magic tricks, the only way they knew how to show the masses a glimpse of the inexpressible. All the while the heavens remained silent and ordinary, moving exactly as they always had.

As they aged, and as their sons and daughters grew, in quiet moments they wondered often of the tiny king they had seen. They wondered what had become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father. 

Did they hear the news from Jerusalem nearly three dozen years later? 

Did they wonder if their gold had made his travels easy?

Did they wonder if their frankincense perfumed the space around him, as he taught those who were drawn to him, just as they themselves had been?

Did they wonder if his mother had unwrapped the myrrh, which she in her sad wisdom had saved all the while, and handed it to his friends when they took his body?

Story bias; also, the apocalypse.

I’ve been thinking about stories: how ubiquitous they are, and how terribly important to making it through the winter.

The flip side of this innate bias toward stories is that we turn everything into a story, don’t we? When we’re telling loved ones about our day, we try hard to turn it into a proper narrative with a rise and fall. And especially when we go further back, the episodes we recall the most from our deep pasts are those that have some great punchline or a deep emotional resonance, using the same language and tugging at the same feelings as a good fictional story do.

Is this why I am often fighting my own anxiety about the future? I’m seeing my own future in the same terms as I see the unread bulk of a novel I’m just beginning. In that novel, in those pages that fit in my hand, something is going to happen. Someone made it happen, and it’s only going to go one way. It’s going to turn out one way or another, and then it will be over.

Plus, any novel worth its salt will lay out all the threads of that story early on, and they will twist and braid until they come to an appropriate conclusion.

That isn’t at all what life is. It’s not foreordained to turn out one way or another. It’s not even foreordained to turn out at all, except in the certainty of eventual death 💀 (Oh God, it’s turning dark, stay with me). But until then, there’s never a final word.

So this difference between real life and story life—the fact that one has an author and an arc and a tidy ending, and the other has—who knows what?—it makes it hard for me to remember that stories can actually taint our own view of our lives. It can make us overinterpret the past, picking through like story weavers for the threads that prove why the path we’re on now is the right one and always has been, or was never the right one from the start, or finding proof that so-and-so has always been trustworthy or has always been a rat.

And we overpredict the future, or at least I do: we get a thread going about how it’s set to work out, and then we just think all we have to do is follow that thread until we reach the end of the spool.

And we see signs everywhere along the way, like mystery readers looking for the keys planted by the author about whodunnit.

But life is episodic, not advancing toward anything in particular. It waxes and wanes, and some things happen for no apparent reason at all. To the extent there’s meaning, it’s earned through reflection and by applying lessons learned to our future behavior.


This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical year, for those who use the Christian Lectionary. At the end of the year, right before we go into advent, the readings get into the Apocalypse. They are the terrifying prophetic visions of the prophet Daniel, and a bit from Revelation.

The word “apocalypse” itself, in Greek, means something like “revealing” (and this is why the book “Revelation” is called that: in Greek, it’s “apokalipsis.”) It’s when the curtain is drawn back, and we can see the truth that has always been present, waiting for our attention. Apocalypses can happen in our own lives whenever our patterns are disrupted, whenever tragedies (large or small) strike and shake us. Whenever something forces us to reckon with truths we hadn’t wanted to face.

In ordinary speech, “The Apocalypse” is a single event that some people think will happen, just like an earthquake or a war may happen. But there’s another way to look at it, and it’s one that makes quite a lot of sense along with the fact that the lectionary has us read about it every year at the end of the church year: it’s episodic. It’s repeating. Like the seasons, it recurs regularly.

But recurrence isn’t enough to destroy surprise. Every winter we’re surprised by the cold and dark, and we remark about it in conversation: “I can’t believe how dark it is so early!” Every year, literally like clockwork it happens, and yet we never remember how it feels. It never loses the capacity to shock. It’s just like watching a show over and over. Even though we know the characters will eventually fall in love, say, some part of us can still be on the edge of our emotional seats not knowing if they will-or-won’t.

Likewise the Apocalypse is something we can feel in our own lives all the time. It would be one thing to wait for a single event, a cataclysm that will happen once in time, in someone else’s distant future. But don’t we all feel the rise and fall of our own story lines of our own expectations that are met or not met, or are met in surprising and possibly mindbending new ways? When thing are revealed, and the curtain is drawn back, and we can be so surprised by our own lives. That is apocalypse.

Our lives are all a craving for story, because we crave for it all to make sense. And the beautiful thing about stories is—they do make sense, more than basically anything else. They survive so long, long after the linear events are over. They thrive, and take on new meaning, and keep us warm even in the surprising dark of the longest nights of the year. They remind us of the promise of the recurrence of longer days, of spring, of rebirth, of respite. Of revelation.

More or less without comment…

The Lectionary is the daily set of Bible readings many Christian churches use: each day there’s a passage from the Old Testament, one from a Psalm, and one from the Gospels. On Sundays, there’s a reading from the epistles.

I read it most days, because it fascinates and inspires me. It also so often speaks directly to something I or the collective “we” are going through. Uncannily, sometimes.

Today, the Old Testament reading is from Judges. Speaking the first parable of the Bible, Jotham cries out on the mountaintop against the kingship of Abimelech:

All the citizens of Shechem and all Beth-millo came together and proceeded to make Abimelech king by the terebinth at the memorial pillar in Shechem.

When this was reported to him, Jotham went to the top of Mount Gerizim and, standing there, cried out to them in a loud voice:
“Hear me, citizens of Shechem, that God may then hear you!
Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’
But the olive tree answered them, ‘Must I give up my rich oil,
whereby men and gods are honored,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the fig tree answered them,
‘Must I give up my sweetness and my good fruit,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come you, and reign over us.’
But the vine answered them,
‘Must I give up my wine that cheers gods and men,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then all the trees said to the buckthorn, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the buckthorn replied to the trees,
‘If you wish to anoint me king over you in good faith,
come and take refuge in my shadow.
Otherwise, let fire come from the buckthorn
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’

For context, Abimelech was a power-hungry would-be king of Shechem, a city in Israel. He killed all of his brothers but one, Jotham, to seize the throne.

Stan Patterson writes:

A dominance orientation is always rooted in an exaggerated opinion of self and a marginalization of others. It opens the door for coercive behavior that engenders fear and force limited only in terms of what the character of the person will allow. In his bid for dominance, Abimelech’s character allowed the most extreme coercion–deception and murder. The reward was his coronation beside the “oak of the pillar which is at Shechem” and the title of king.

Does this remind you of anyone yet?

Jotham’s parable of the buckthorn (or “bramble”), which he shouted from the mountaintop, criticizes the people (the mighty Cedar of Lebanon) for choosing a scheming, parasitic bramble of a man to crawl all over them and declare himself king. How can a bramble, which is not even a tree, but which may constrict and suck the life from a tree, be king of the trees, by the trees’ own choosing? Woe to the trees. Woe to any of us who let ourselves be ruled by a bramble man.

And then…this happened:

Never say the lectionary isn’t relevant, kids.