“What night is it, Ibrahim?”
The sleepy voice of his little sister jolted him from his reverie. He tore his gaze from the undulating flames of their campfire and focused on Mariam. It took a moment for the confusion of the last few days to clear enough for him to determine the date.
“It is the eve of Epiphany,” he said flatly, all the force of a fifteen-year-old’s disillusionment in his voice.
Mariam brightened instantly, dark brown eyes sparkling. “Tell us the story! Please, Ibrahim, you must.”
The other children huddled close to the fire took up the plea. Ibrahim stared at them, indistinct brown faces in the dying firelight. Seven in all, from three families of Daraa, overrun when Israeli troops flooded the borders of Syria. They were all he had been able to find in the confusion of the bombing. If their parents lived, they would be reunited in Damascus. If not… they, at least, had escaped the death-trap of their city.
“It is not the time for legends,” he protested, shifting his gaze from their begging eyes to the horizon, where the occasional flash told him the invasion continued.
“You must!” Mariam was not to be denied, something her brother had learned long ago.
He hesitated only moments longer before relenting with a groan. “Hush yourselves for the story, then.”
They huddled together to catch the last warmth from the fire and each other, and waited.
“For many, many centuries, sages and prophets looked for a sign that God’s Messiah had come. Though the people of Israel believed the Deliverer would come only to them, wise men from many nations knew of the prophecies and hoped they, too, would share in the salvation to come.”
The explosions to the south intensified, sending spidery lines of fear through Ibrahim’s body. He focused on the story, trying to recall the way his father told it.
“When the wondrous Star of Bethlehem signaled the arrival of Christ, wise men from the eastern lands made ready to follow it, for they knew its meaning. They prepared a caravan – every camel in their stables was used.
“One of the camels was much smaller than the others. His hair never lightened to the pale tone of the privileged camels, and its drab brown shade made him look even smaller and weaker. For this little camel, the journey was frightening and grueling, but he knew he had to go. He had to seek this Christ Child.”
Mariam’s eyes were shining the way they did with Father told the story. Ibrahim did his best to ignore the pain that look brought, dropping his gaze to the sand at his feet.
“The Littlest Camel carried a pack just like the bigger camels, but it was hard for him to travel so far and so fast as this caravan. They traveled at night, following the star as it crossed the skies, leading them to the Christ. The Littlest Camel often lagged behind, and the servants cursed him for keeping them waiting. He endured their angry words in silence and meekly resolved to try harder. He knew he had been chosen for a special task, and his heart burned to complete it well. So he kept trudging forward even when his legs trembled and his back ached under the load. When it seemed like he couldn’t go another step, he would look at the star for strength.”
The faint sounds of explosions were growing louder. Ibrahim strained his eyes against the darkness, but he could not see if the troops were moving closer.
“When at last they reached Bethlehem, the Littlest Camel was granted a special gift. Because of his devotion to the Christ Child and his perseverance, he was granted immortality. And now, every year when we celebrate the coming of the Magi, the Littlest Camel visits the children who believe in the Christ and gives them presents so that they, too, will persevere in their faith.”
Three of the children were already asleep. Mariam drew her dusty umber-colored robe closer about her and curled up next to her brother.
“Should we leave water and straw for the Littlest Camel, even though we’re not at home?”
Ibrahim shoved a pile of sand onto the fire, smothering half of it, and gathered Mariam into his arms. “We have no straw, Little One.”
“Just water, then?”
Ibrahim bit his lips to keep back tears. “Of course, sister. He mustn’t think we have forgotten him.”
Author’s Note: According to legend in Syria, the Littlest Camel visits the homes of Christian children at Epiphany to distribute gifts to the faithful.
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