EXT. ROYAL ROAD—DAY
Three dusty magi, along with their small crew, camels, and baggage, lumber along a busy trade route toward the West.
MEL: Oof, those long security lines at the checkpoint! I can’t believe we got the camels through. Like stuffing them through the eye of a needle.
BALT: Good thing they don’t have baggage limits this time of year. Not that we have much baggage. And I’m beginning to regret not springing for business-class camels! How much is left in our budget from the Astronomical Study Grant funds?
CASSIE: Fellas, I told you. The grant barely covers basic expenses. We have to be frugal.
(She pats the neck of the camel she’s riding.) You girls need to stop eating so much! You’re not helping!
The camel turns her neck, giving CASSIE a baleful look before swaying on.
MEL: How much did that fake beard cost, Cassie? Was that in the budget?
CASSIE: For your information, no. I had this thing already. I use it to “pass” where necessary. You know that. I couldn’t have come along without a little cross-dressing. And you guys definitely need me. Anyway, we need to figure something out for those gifts.
BALT: What about those “onesie” things you brought along?
MEL: Such a girl thing to bring practical, homemade gifts!
CASSIE: If you knew anything about babies, Mel, you would understand the importance of practical gifts. But we can’t show up without something royalty-appropriate. And we can’t afford to buy anything suitable at these inflated trade-route prices. Not on our budget.
BALT: Well, I’m a wise man. And I’m Doing My Part. Isn’t that enough?
MEL: Doing your part? What does that even mean?
BALT: I have no idea.
MEL: A journey to who-knows-where to see who-knows-what without the proper supplies. We’re crazy.
CASSIE: We should have put that in the grant proposal.
The magi share a wry laugh as they pace along, the sun burning and the dust rising from the road.
EXT. ROYAL ROAD FURTHER WEST, JUST PAST A MARKET TOWN—EVENING
Several weeks have passed. The group is looking dustier—and grumpier.
BALT: How long till we can stop and set up camp? I’m tired.
MEL: You’re always tired!
CASSIE: Hey, what’s that up ahead?
Everyone halts and strains to see ahead into the growing dusk.
BALT: Looks like an accident. Should we stop? Or maybe just sneak on by? It might be a trap!
MEL: It looks like a wholesaler with all his goods in the ditch. Let’s stop and help.
BALT: IT’S A TRAP!
CASSIE: It is not a trap, Balty. C’mon.
They reach the merchant, whose giant carts of goods are all in the ditch, thanks to some recalcitrant donkeys who broke out of harness and have now trotted off into the desert.
MERCHANT: Strangers! Please help! Oh dear oh dear! I’m due at the market expo in three days! And now look at this mess!
CASSIE: Mel, you’re good with the camels. What do you think?
MEL: I got this. [To the merchant] Don’t worry, friend! Old Melwah here is going to help you out!
Melwah the camel chews her cud placidly, unperturbed by this development.
MERCHANT: Oh thank you thank you! What would I have done if you hadn’t come along?! I can pay you in cold, hard gold! I’m rather cash-rich at the moment. And hope to be richer after the expo!
MEL: Well, normally we’d say no to such an offer, because, you know, Ancient Near Eastern stranger-courtesy. But as it happens, we could really use some gold right now.
BALT: To buy supper? Oh wait. No! For a certain baby!
MEL: Exactly! Friend, if we get you out of this, we’ll accept your gold and pay it forward.
MEL proceeds to devise a pulley system using various items from the merchant’s goods along with tools from the magi’s astronomical supply packs. Melwah the camel obliges by using her strength—and the pulley system—to help drag all the heavy goods out of the ditch. Everyone helps repair and load up the carts. Finally, BALT performs a convincing impression of donkeys interested in mating, and within minutes all the donkeys are back on the road.
MEL: Aaaaaannnnnnnd there you go!
MERCHANT: Much obliged! Here’s your gold, friends. (He hands over a sizeable stash.) And I’ll throw in this handmade gift box, too. Very high quality. Did I mention it’s handmade? Of course, everything is handmade in this era. Anyway, I’m heading out tonight to make up for lost time. Say hello to the little king for me, OK?
MEL, BALT, CASSIE: Safe travels, friend! Bye!
EXT. ANOTHER MARKET TOWN, ROYAL ROAD EVEN FURTHER WEST—MORNING
Even more weeks have passed. The magi are buying supplies in the market, chatting up the locals.
POMEGRANATE SELLER: So, where y’all from?
BALT: Um. Afar.
POMEGRANATE SELLER: I figured that much. How far afar?
BALT: Faaaaaaarrr afar!
CASSIE: Balty, honestly! We’re Persian. From Persia. We’re court astrologers. We spotted a new star about a year ago, so we got a grant to go study what it means. Pretty sure it’s a birth star for a new king in the west? That’s our hypothesis. Anyway, it was the perfect excuse to get away from tiresome court politics for a while. We’re pretty much at-will employees over in Persia. So we’re susceptible to power plays! Gender bias! Racial prejudice! Corrupt back-room deals! The usual yada yada.
MEL: That’s enough, Cassi—uh, Caspar.
CASSIE subtly adjusts her fake beard.
POMEGRANATE SELLER: Um. I see. Well, too bad you’re not midwives—heh, heh. The regional governor’s wife—(he points to a palatial home at the end of the market road)—is in labor. She’s having difficulty and the local midwives are freaking out because they don’t know what to do.
MEL and BALT look meaningfully at CASSIE.
MEL: [To the pomegranate seller] You know, I think we might know someone who can help….
CASSIE grabs a pack from one of the camels and runs into a nearby alley.
EXT. CAMPSITE NEAR MARKET TOWN—LATER.
A whole day has passed. MEL and BALT sit around a fire. The camels casually gulp water from a trough. CASSIE comes running, wearing women’s robes and without the fake beard. She’s carrying a cloth-covered bundle.
CASSIE: You guy, you guys, you guys! Look what they gave me for helping with the baby!
She opens the bundle and shows them a pile of yellowish, globule-shaped chunks.
MEL: Gross! Did that come out of … the woman?
CASSIE: No, silly! It’s frankincense! Awesome anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties!
BALT: Of course! Oh and that’s a nice, quality batch you’ve got there. I fancy myself rather an expert at the products of the Burseraceae tree family.
CASSIE: Gummy tree resin of the gods, I tell you! Oh! They had all the medicines at this palace! And servants left and right! By the way, the baby was a boy. A breech birth. But everyone’s fine. Good thing I used to moonlight as a midwifery apprentice while I was in astrology school!
MEL and BALT give each other a look—they’re impressed and amused at once.
CASSIE: So that’s TWO great gifts for the king-baby. You know, I had no idea how this was all going to work out. But I think… I think the stars are watching out for us. Do you think the king-baby somehow wants us to come and visit him? Like, will-of-the-gods sort of thing?
MEL and BALT shrug.
BALT: The world is full of strange, impossible things. Who knows?
EXT. CAMPSITE OFF THE ROYAL ROAD EVEN FURTHER WEST—NIGHT
The group lounges around a fire, the remains of bread and wine scattered about. The camels are settled down dozing nearby. MEL alternates between peering into the sky and scribbling on a papyrus.
BALT: Guys, I’ve been having so many stress-dreams lately. How will we know when to take the exit from this highway to the next one?
MEL: (Peering at the sky and scribbling.) We’ll know. It’s another big trade route. We just keep heading west until we hit it. Then south toward Jerusalem. Then we just keep an eye on the stars and ask around.
BALT: So take a left at the giant intersection?
CASSIE: Ugh, we’ve been on the road for so long. I mean, it’s better than court. But at this point, I feel like the road is all there is, ever. Always the journey, never the destination. Oh but I dream of a bath! Maybe the royal family will have baths. I would I love a warm bath in aromatic oils! I’d feel like a new woman!
MEL: Yes, one wonders, occasionally, if this—(gestures broadly at the sky, the fire, the camels)—is all worth it.
BALT: I’m going to take a walk. Check out this temperate valley a bit.
A half hour passes. BALT comes running back to the campsite.
BALT: Commiphora! It’s a commiphora tree!
CASSIE and MEL: A wha?
BALT: (Breathless) Do you know what this means?!
MEL: We do not, my friend, know what this means. Perhaps, if you could possibly see your way clear, you might tell us what this means.
BALT: It means myrrh! We can make myrrh from this tree! We don’t have to buy it—we can harvest it.
CASSIE: You know how to do that?
BALT: Sure! You have to wound the tree, basically. Not too much—but enough. And the tree oozes resin to heal the wound. And then you thank the tree and let the sap dry and harvest it. The whole process only takes about two weeks.
CASSIE and MEL: TWO WEEKS?!?!
BALT: Yeah, it’s quick, especially in this dry climate.
CASSIE and MEL look decidedly dejected.
BALT: Hey, come on! We’ve been on the road so long already. What’s another two weeks?
MEL: This baby is going have his camel-driving-license by the time we get there.
CASSIE: (With a deep sigh.) I think we should do it.
MEL: You do?
CASSIE: Yes. Myrrh also has anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties. So that’s super practical. But it’s also… I don’t know. The whole association with burial. Birth and death—they’re bound together. I just have a feeling this baby’s family will understand that.
MEL: It’s true there’s something weird about this journey. We don’t really know what we’re doing, and yet I’ve felt this… longing… the whole time. And not just for a decent meat pie.
CASSIE: Like we’re being drawn into something important?
MEL: Exactly! Irresistibly drawn. We set out in a hurry, vague on directions, with nothing to give. In the vast scheme of things, we’re nobody. And yet…
BALT: We’ve been given everything we need along the way. Everything we need to give—we’ve been given.
CASSIE: It’s rather wonderful when you think about it. [Calling over to the camels] What do you think, Melwah?
Melwah the camel lifts her head and looks their way. Possibly, she winks.
MEL: I say we make the myrrh, then press on toward the goal. Meanwhile, we’ll camp here.
BALT: And dream.
CASSIE: And wonder who this baby could be.
MEL: And marvel at the stars.
If you are snowed in this weekend with a houseful of children, feel free to stage this little drama in your home. Good luck managing the camels. Also, extra points for you if you can identify all the barely appropriate literary/biblical/pop culture references. Merry Christmas! May we all trust that our long journeys, by grace, will end in joy.