Authors: Glenn Beck
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To the children of the world, no matter their age, who still believe in the real meaning of Christmas
ometimes death is a simple thing. A slip of the foot, a shift in the wind, a fall.
Agios had faced death often in his thirty-three years. He had been an adventurer, a hunter, andâto tell the truthâsomething of a rogue. He had always expected to die by violence, his blood spilled and his body racked with agony.
After he married the gentle foreigner named Weala, though, he had begun to consider his ways of life and death. For her sake he hoped that when his time came he would die well, as a man, not crying like a child or pleading for mercy. When their son Philos was born, Agios wanted even more to be strong for him.
For years the boy had been begging to go with his father to the savagely dangerous land of bare sun-struck stone and rocky crags. Now they stood together, a muscular, broad-shouldered man with flowing midnight-black hair and long black beard, and beside him a thin-limbed lad of only ten. The previous winter Weala had died in premature childbirth, along with Philos's stillborn younger brother. The loss of his mother had left the boy pale and unsmiling and had left Agios feeling that his heart had turned to lead.
And so Philos's coming with him on this trip was not a gift, but a necessity, for Agios had no one to watch over the boy. It had hurt, though, that the first faint smile that Agios had seen on his son's face in months had flickered there for a moment when Agios said, “Let's go gather frankincense.”
Now they stood at the top of the cliffs where the trees grew, looking down the sheer rock face. Agios had already taken the resin from the first small grove of trees they had come to, and now they had reached the true orchard of wealth. “And you must pay close attention,” Agios told Philos, and the boy nodded solemnly. “You must take care. The resin is more valuable than gold because it is so hard to find and collect. We will sell it to traders on their way to Egypt, Greece, Rome, or even India. What we collect in one day lets us live for a whole year.”
Philos nodded impatiently. “I know, Father.”
“You've seen the dangers when you've watched me gather the resin. Remember how careful I've been and do the same things. You understand?”
Philos looked eager for the perilous work, and Agios well understood the intoxication of it. The resin offered rich reward at high risk. Of course his son was captivated. He had counted the days until he could follow in his father's steps.
The libanos trees, hunched and gnarled, clung to the cliff like weary climbers. At the pitch of noon, no wind stirred their branches. Many months earlier Agios had climbed down to make careful incisions in the flaking bark so that the golden tears would flow and dry. Anyone else who discovered this remote ravine with its precious trees might try to investigate, but they would soon hear the hiss of snakes twining among the branchesââor feel the fatal sting of their fangs. Agios had deliberately established this colony of adders, now guards of the precarious grove.
Knowing the serpents were there made all the difference. Together, father and son threw rocks at the snakes, forcing them to lower branches, to trees farther from the edge where Agios had marked Philos's first tree. Because of Weala's death, Agios had waited longer than usual to harvest, and the resin was nearly dry in the slash marks, golden and fragrant. That made the frankincense even more valuable.
Agios knelt beside his son and looped a coil of rope around the boy's waist. “When you gather the flakes, remember they're worth more than everything we own,” he said. “It's a great responsibility.”
“Be careful,” Agios said one last time. He tossed a few more rocks to make sure the snakes had retreated, then tugged the rope to test it and put his big hand on his son's neck. He bent the scruffy head and inhaled the warm, woody scent of Philos's hair.
Before they had set out, Agios had scattered the dust of his last harvest of frankincense over the coals in their cabin. Philos now carried the lingering aroma of it, like pine and lemon and earth. To Agios, frankincense smelled exactly like his son.
Philos drew back grinning, his excitement palpable. He edged toward the drop, his eagerness saying that this was not the time for affection, but for
Agios looped the free end of the rope around his own waist and took in the slack. Philos had grown up in the high mountains and he did not falter when he lowered himself over the rocky edge, rope tight, knees bent, feet braced on stone. A misstep sent a shower of stones and gravel tumbling down the escarpment, but Philos adjusted himself and made it safely to the tree.
Agios found his son's weight absurdly easy to bear, but just in case, he had doubled the rope around his own waist. Philos's life depended on its not slipping. He leaned back and watched his boy find and peel off the bubbled resin, the small sun-browned hands tucking each lump carefully away in a leather pouch at his waist before moving on to the next. Pride tightened Agios's throat, pride and the sort of love that reminded him that everything else he had loved in life now lived only in the boy.
Agios knew Philos was taking too long, but this was his first time. He did not urge the boy to hurry, because haste meant mistakes. He saw him brace his feet and reach deep into the heart of the gnarled branches.
Then Philos screamed and jerked.
He flung his arm wide. A snake clung to it for a half-heartbeat, then fell loose, tumbling, writhing.
Philos's agonized face arched back, and he shouted, “Father!”
Though it had happened in less than a second, Agios was already hauling on the rope, his hands strong and sure while his heart beat wildly in his chest.
The boy flailed in agony, blood from the bite spattering his arm and face as he spasmed. His twisting caught the rope between his body and the rugged cliff.
Agios, frantic to recover him, didn't realize that the knot was abrading until the rope snapped, with Philos not yet at the cliff top.
Agios screamed as he watched his son fall, his dark eyes locked on the child that was everything good, that held all the hope he had left in the world. He could do nothing.
Philos fell straight down to the lowest tree and smashed into it with an impact that surely ended his agony. His body hung there, broken and lifeless. After his first wail of pain he had not cried out again.
His son had died like a man.
It took Agios a day and part of a night to retrieve Philos's shattered body and take him back home. In their cabin Agios rested before leaving the warmth for the cool night. The wind, soft on the heels of the rain that had preceded it, filled the air with a scent so warm and rich, so full and verdant, that it seemed an affront, whispering slyly of living things, of flowers, leaves fresh and green. He held his breath.
From a lean-to shed behind the cabin, Agios took a homemade spade and pick and carried them to the top of a low rise not far away. All around the plateau the night lay soot-dark, but Agios had a hunter's vision and the stars sufficed for the work he had to do. A cairn of pale, smooth stones marked the grave of Philos's mother and stillborn younger brother. Near it Agios began to dig a second grave, difficult at first because of his weariness, and because he did not want to do this. His body was trying to refuse the errand. But Agios had no choice.
The rain had only slightly softened the soil and had not penetrated very far. Agios swung the pick, chipped into the solid earth, moved to the side, and did it again, gradually chopping the hard ground into solid chunks that, with effort, he could pry loose and stack on one side of the grave.
His shoulder muscles clenched and tightened, and Agios began to sweat from the exertion. The rhythm of the pick and the burn in his arms was a relief, a pain that he could lean into.
Here in this shallow bowl of a mountainside glen, the soil had accumulated over the centuries. Some washed on down the slopes into the lower forests, into the fertile river valleys, but much of it remained here. It lay rich and dark. In the spring and summer it had yielded fruits and vegetables to supplement the meat he brought home. Agios was part hunter, part trapper, part farmer, part collectorâall things he did well.
what was he?
He pushed himself, not pausing to rest. He didn't realize he had fallen until the rocks began to dig into his knees. He welcomed the pain, something sharp and insistent that drew a little of the agony from his chest. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't see, and he blinked against the dark night and the tears that clouded his vision. The mountain cabin was solitary, but Agios was past caring if anyone could hear his sobs, the racking cry of an animal dying, of a shattered man.