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The Tale Of A Camel

Children's Story
I was only just full-grown when we set out on the journey, but I was strong and eager for adventure. And by the time we returned to our own land after many years, I was older and wiser than my age might have you believe.

Don't get me wrong. I was happy in my home, living in the paddock with my brothers and sisters and the rest of the herd, for we were well looked after. We always had food and water, and the camel master almost never beat us, even when occasionally we'd spit at him, just for fun.

Sometimes we had camel races out on the dusty plains, and it was just after I won my first race that preparations for the journey began. I learned later that the preparations of King Balthasar our Master had been going on already for a long time. He was into stargazing, was the Master, and many regarded him with awe because he was so wise. He could tell almost anything from the stars. Just by gazing into the heavens, Balthasar could tell you all about the weather and the future and whether or not we'd have a good harvest ten years from now.

Balthasar watched me race that afternoon and he must have been impressed, because I was a couple of lengths ahead at the end, and barely even panting. When he came to see me later in the paddock, I lifted my head high and regarded him with disdain, because I knew I was the best. But he hadn't come to congratulate me. He'd come to instruct the camel master to make me ready for a long journey, and then I was so excited I couldn't keep from flinging up my hoofs and racing once more around the paddock. Balthasar smiled at my performance, but issued a warning as well.

"It's a long journey, young Ahmed," he said, "and you'll need to learn to obey, otherwise we'll never make it to the end. And the end of this journey is very important indeed." I didn't care what he said! I was going, and I was the youngest camel to be chosen out of the entire herd.

All of us camels were laden with tents and provisions and gifts, for when the provisions were all used up we would need the gifts to buy our food and a safe passage through dangerous terrain. I think I must have been the most important camel of the lot, for I had the responsibility of carrying the gifts, but the older camels looked down their long noses at me and told me to grow up. They said I'd been given the lightest load because I'd never survive carrying anything heavier.

We marched for many days, camping at night under the stars. Much of the land was desert, but we camels store water in our humps so it was no hardship for us. Even so, I began to wish we'd soon be arriving for I was getting tired of sand and rock. Imagine my surprise when Balthasar said, "We leave Ethiopia tomorrow, and should meet up with Melchior of Arabia within the next six months."

Leaving Ethiopia? I had no idea there was anything beyond Ethiopia. I'd never heard of any other country and I was so young and green that I thought Ethiopia was the whole world. And six more months! Was that then to be the journey's end, meeting up with this Melchior, whoever he might be?

The older camels snorted with derision at my naivety. They told me that Melchior was another stargazer just like the master, and that Melchior and Balthasar had been corresponding for years. Not only that, but these older camels seemed to know that we'd meet someone else too before we arrived at our final destination. Who? I asked. Who else? Another stargazer? And they told me they'd heard whispers that we'd eventually meet up with Caspar, king of Tarsus. I don't know where they heard these things, but over a year later they proved to be right.

Oh, our journey went on and on, until I almost forgot my paddock back in Ethiopia and felt as though I'd been on the journey for the whole of my life. My birthday came and went unremarked, and two of our oldest camels died, the way was so hazardous and hard. But I made new friends, for both Melchior and Caspar had camel trains and caravans of their own, and we camels soon got to know each other as our masters slept around the camp fire of a night.

All the camel trains bore gifts, and like me, it was always the youngest and most inexperienced camel that was trusted with the gifts. Gradually our gifts disappeared as they were exchanged for safe passage and a bit of decent food, until each of us had only one gift left. And still none of us really knew where we were going, even the three masters.

But it was clear we were following a star, for this particular star was so bright it lit the whole sky. We'd seen it in Ethiopia, and it soon turned out that they'd seen it in Arabia and Tarsus too. There were rumours we were going to visit a new prince, for that's the only time a star like that appears, when the birth of a really important prince is about to occur.

Once our wealth had all but gone, life became even harder. The camel masters had to hunt for food and we camels were expected to find water for the whole company. Fortunately we have an instinct for water, and can nose out an oasis from several miles away, but I couldn't understand why each of our masters kept back one gift and refused to use it for our well-being.

Melchior, King of Arabia, had brought a casket of gold in the form of a shrine. He could have fed us all for months with that gold, but he kept it to give to the new prince. Well, I suppose you can understand that. You have to have something decent to give to such an important person.

Caspar, King of Tarsus, had brought frankincense in a jar. Apparently this was no ordinary prince but one who was a High Priest too, so the frankincense would be needed to anoint him. I could understand that too, but that didn't stop me resenting this priest-prince. That frankincense was worth a lot of money.

The older camels could see I was getting upset ("uppity" they called it) from hunger and weariness, so they began to tell me more about the new prince. They said the masters thought he must be the most important person ever to be born, because there'd never been a star quite like this before. They talked of royal palaces and camel stables thick with straw. They talked of so much food and water that we camels would never again know hunger. They talked of the Lord God himself. And they said that once we'd found the prince and completed the journey, we'd be retired and live in luxury for the rest of our lives.

They asked me about the gift I was carrying and for the first time I nosed into the saddlebag and took a peek. But I was so embarrassed and upset by what I found that I couldn't bring myself to tell them. My master, King Balthasar of Ethiopia, had brought myrrh to welcome the new prince! Myrrh! Can you believe it? Everyone knows that myrrh is a burial spice. Oh, it might be expensive and used mostly at kings' burials for all I know, but fancy giving a gift of myrrh at a birth! I was so humiliated that it was my master who was offering myrrh, that I determined to do something about it.

From then on I began to plot how I could get rid of the myrrh. I didn't know how I could substitute anything else in its place, but that was a minor detail. I just knew I had to "lose" that myrrh before we reached the birthplace. And by now we were near, I could feel it in my bones.

We entered Jerusalem a splendid if slightly bedraggled procession, but it was fine enough for all the people to come out and cheer us on. They followed us all the way to Herod's magnificent palace, and my heart began to race as I thought of those stables the old camels had promised, with the clean warm straw and all the food and water which was surely awaiting us.

As soon as we arrived, I managed to rub up against a sharp spur of wood just outside the stable, and to my delight my saddlebag fell off. I kicked it under some straw, but not quickly enough. The camel master was with me in no time, giving me a sharp thwack with his stick, ungrateful wretch. Within an hour he had the strap mended and the saddlebag was once again securely fixed, and to my dismay we were on the move again.

Where on earth were we going now? I thought for sure the new prince would have been in Herod's palace, but it seems not. I even heard that King Herod himself, King of the Jews, hadn't heard of the new baby. When we found the baby, he asked us to go back and tell him where the birth had taken place, so that he too could worship the new prince.

We trudged on for another day until it seemed that the star had stopped moving. But it was odd, for we entered not a great city like Jerusalem but a little town. Its name was Bethlehem, and I shall never forget it. Who'd have thought there'd be a palace in a one-camel town like this? And I began to worry even more, for it was now or never. I just had to get rid of that myrrh, and save our Ethiopian king from the biggest gaff of his life.

My chance came when we stopped for a rest and a drink. I edged along until I was under a tree overhanging the fast flowing river. Nobody saw me this time. Then I sawed the strap of the saddlebag back and forth, back and forth along the branch, until the strap loosened. Then I twisted my neck around and took the strap in my strong teeth. It was a wrench, I can tell you, but I managed it. The saddlebag fell into the river and was swept away, and it felt like a great burden was lifted from me. I sauntered back to the caravan and made sure I was well in the shadows, so that no-one would take much notice of me.

Night had fallen when we eventually reached the place where the star had stopped, and I couldn't believe my eyes, for it wasn't a grand palace but a dirty stable hewn out of the rock at the back of a cheap inn. This couldn't be the place for a new prince! It was filthy, not even fit for camels although I suppose it might have been alright for oxen or donkeys.

Then there was such a to do. The kings removed their travelling robes and dressed themselves in their finest clothes and took up their gifts. At least, two of them did. Melchior and Caspar went ahead with their gold and frankincense, and Balthasar came to me for his jar of myrrh. I braced myself for his anger, willing him to understand that I'd done it for his own good, but just then the most amazing sound came to us on the breeze and we all stopped to listen and look. Suddenly a glorious light shone all around the stable, and I swear to this day that I saw and heard angels. But what was even more amazing for me was that I could suddenly see inside that stable, even though that was impossible because I was some way off and the entrance was just a very low hole cut in the rock. Even the kings had to bend double to enter the stable.

Perhaps it was a vision just for me, but whatever it was, I could see the baby prince lying on a pile of straw in a stone feeding trough. His mother, exhausted, poor girl, was sitting beside him, stroking his little head gently with her hand, and his father was gathering wood for a fire to keep them all warm.

But that tiny baby, even though he was just new-born, looked straight at me as though I was the only camel who had ever existed and I'm certain he smiled. And I felt as if I was in heaven. It was the most incredible feeling, for I felt kind of loved. I'd never felt love like that before, not even from my own mother.

And it was as though the baby spoke inside my head. "Don't fear for me, Ahmed," he said. "I shall die when the time is right, but it will be something wonderful and amazing and incredible, just like this birth. Everyone will think it is a terrible ending, just as you thought this old stable was a terrible beginning, but they'll be wrong. It will be terrible, but it will also be a glorious new beginning even finer than this birth. I need the myrrh, for it will warn the world that I must die but it will also tell them that I will never die."

I felt tears prick behind my eyes. I didn't really understand, and I certainly hadn't understood about the myrrh! And now I'd lost the one precious gift the baby prince needed. But as I waited for my master's wrath to fall upon me, a miracle occurred. He reached over my hump - and there was the saddlebag just as it had ever been! It wasn't wet, it was intact, and the jar of myrrh was safely there! And I'm sure that new-born baby, tiny as he was, winked at me.

I fell on my knees then, and worshipped that new baby along with the rest of them. Such a sight, it was. All us camels and the oxen and the donkey and some sheep, all kneeling before the baby prince, along with our human masters. There'd never been anything like it before, nor since.

King Herod wasn't there, nor did he come, for our three kings took us back by a different route. It seems Herod wanted to kill the baby. Can you believe that? Wanting to kill the one baby who seemed to have both life and death within his grasp.

That was all a long time ago. Now I'm old and grey and have long since been put out to pasture. We never did find wonderful stables or a life of luxury, but somehow, I didn't want any of that after meeting that baby. I wait now for my own death. I never saw the baby again, but I'm told it all happened exactly as he had said it would when he spoke inside my head. He did die a horrible death, but he loved human beings and animals like me so much that he arose from death to a brilliant new life, and promised the same for all of us. And he's stayed alive ever since. What an amazing gift to us all!

So now I'm ready for my own death. In fact, I can hardly wait for I know I shall see Jesus again and I suspect he'll have a gift for me. It might just be a jar of myrrh!
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