The Flight into Egypt
Far away, in a desert in the East, there grew, many years ago, a palm that was very, very old, and very, very tall. No one passing through the desert could help stopping to look at it, for it was much higher than other palms, and people said of it that it would surely grow to be higher than the Obelisks and Pyramids.
This great palm, standing in its loneliness, and looking over the desert, one day saw something which caused its huge crown of leaves to wave to and fro with surprise on its slender stem. On the outskirts of the desert two lonely persons were wandering. They were still so far away that even a camel would have looked no larger than an ant at that distance, but they were assuredly human beings, two who were strangers to the desert—for the palm knew the people of the desert—a man and a woman, who had neither guide, nor beasts of burden, nor tent, nor water-bag.
"Verily," said the palm to itself, "these two have come hither to die."
The palm looked quickly around.
"I am surprised," it said, "that the lions have not already gone out to seize their prey. But I do not see a single one about. Nor do I see any of the robbers of the desert. But they are sure to come.
"There awaits them a sevenfold death," thought the palm. "The lions will devour them, the serpents will sting them, thirst will consume them, the sand-storm will bury them, the robbers will kill them, the burning sun will overcome them, fear will destroy them."
The palm tried to think of something else; the fate of these two made it sad. But in the immeasurable desert around it there was not a single thing that the palm had not known and gazed at for thousands of years. Nothing could attract its attention. It was again obliged to think of the two wanderers.
"By the drought and the wind!" said the palm, invoking the two greatest enemies of life, "what is the woman carrying on her arm? I believe these mad people have a little child with them!"
The palm, which was long-sighted, as the aged generally are, saw aright. The woman carried in her arms a child, that had laid its head on her breast and was sleeping.
"The child has not even enough clothes on," said the palm. "I see that the mother has lifted up her skirt and thrown it over it. She has taken it out of its bed in great haste and hurried away with it. Now I understand: these people are fugitives.
"But they are mad, all the same," continued the palm. "If they have not an angel to protect them, they should rather have let their enemies do their worst than have taken refuge in the desert. I can imagine how it has all happened. The man is at work, the child sleeps in its cradle, the woman has gone to fetch water. When she has gone a few steps from the door she sees the enemy approaching. She rushes in, seizes the child, calls to the husband that he shall follow her, and runs away. Since then they have continued their flight the whole day; they have assuredly not rested a single moment. Yes, so it has all happened; but I say all the same, if no angel protects them—
"They are in such fear that they do not feel either fatigue or other sufferings, but I read thirst in their eyes. I think I should know the face of a thirsty man."
And when the palm began to think about thirst a fit of trembling went through its high stem, and the innumerable fronds of its long leaves curled up as if held over a fire.
"If I were a man," it said, "I would never venture into the desert. He is truly brave who ventures here without having roots reaching down to the inexhaustible water-veins. There can be danger even for palms, even for such a palm as I. Could I advise them, I would beg them to return. Their enemies could never be as cruel to them as the desert. They think perhaps that it is easy to live in the desert. But I know that even I at times have had difficulty in keeping alive. I remember once in my youth when a whirlwind threw a whole mountain of sand over me I was nearly choking. If I could die I should have died then."
The palm continued to think aloud, as lonely old people do.
"I hear a wonderful melodious murmur passing through my crown," it said; "all the fronds of my leaves must be moving. I do not know why the sight of these poor strangers moves me so. But this sorrowful woman is so beautiful! It reminds me of the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me."
And whilst its leaves continued their melodious rustle the palm remembered how once, long, long ago, a glorious human being had visited the oasis. It was the Queen of Sheba, accompanied by the wise King Solomon. The beautiful Queen was on her way back to her own country; the King had accompanied her part of the way, and now they were about to part. "In memory of this moment," said the Queen, "I now plant a date-kernel in the earth; and I ordain that from it shall grow a palm which shall live and grow until a King is born in Judaea greater than Solomon." And as she said this she placed the kernel in the ground, and her tears watered it.
"How can it be that I should just happen to think of this to-day?" said the palm. "Can it be possible that this woman is so beautiful that she reminds me of the most beautiful of all queens, of her at whose bidding I have lived and grown to this very day? I hear my leaves rustling stronger and stronger," said the palm, "and it sounds sorrowful, like a death-song. It is as if they prophesied that someone should soon pass away. It is well to know that it is not meant for me, inasmuch that I cannot die."
The palm thought that the death-song in its leaves must be for the two lonely wanderers. They themselves surely thought that their last hour was drawing near. One could read it in their faces when they walked past one of the skeletons of the camels that lay by the roadside. One saw it from the glances with which they watched a couple of vultures flying past. It could not be otherwise—they must perish.
They had now discovered the palm in the oasis, and hastened thither to find water. But when they at last reached it they sank down in despair, for the well was dried up. The woman, exhausted, laid down the child, and sat down crying by the side of the well. The man threw himself down by her side; he lay and beat the ground with his clenched hands. The palm heard them say to each other that they must die. It also understood from their conversation that King Herod had caused all children of two or three years of age to be killed from fear that the great expected King in Judaea had been born.
"It rustles stronger and stronger in my leaves," said the palm. "These poor fugitives have soon come to their last moment."
It also heard that they were afraid of the desert. The man said it would have been better to remain and fight the soldiers than to flee. He said that it would have been an easier death.
"God will surely help us," said the woman.
"We are all alone amongst serpents and beasts of prey," said the man. "We have no food and no water. How can God help us?"
He tore his clothes in despair and pressed his face against the earth. He was hopeless, like a man with a mortal wound in his heart.
The woman sat upright, with her hands folded upon her knees. But the glances she cast over the desert spoke of unutterable despair.
The palm heard the sorrowful rustling in its leaves grow still stronger. The woman had evidently heard it too, for she looked up to the crown of the tree, and in the same moment she involuntarily raised her arms.
"Dates, dates!" she cried.
There was such a longing in her voice, that the old palm wished it had not been any higher than the gorse, and that its dates had been as easy to reach as the red berries of the hawthorn. It knew that its crown was full of clusters of dates, but how could man reach to such a dazzling height?
The man had already seen that, the dates being so high, it was impossible to reach them. He did not even lift his head. He told his wife that she must not wish for the impossible.
But the child, which had crawled about alone and was playing with sticks and straws, heard the mother's exclamation. The little one could probably not understand why his mother should not have everything she wished for. As soon as he heard the word "dates," he began to look at the tree. He wondered and pondered how he should get the dates. There came almost wrinkles on his forehead under the fair locks. At last a smile passed over his face. Now he knew what he would do. He went to the palm, stroked it with his little hand, and said in his gentle, childish voice:
"Bend down, palm. Bend down, palm."
But what was this, what could this be? The palm-leaves rustled, as if a hurricane rushed through them, and shudder upon shudder passed through the tall stem. And the palm felt that the little one was the stronger. It could not resist him.
And with its high stem it bowed down before the child, as men bow down before princes. In a mighty arch it lowered itself towards earth, and at last bowed so low that its great crown of trembling leaves swept the sand of the desert.
The child did not seem to be either frightened or surprised, but with a joyous exclamation it ran and plucked one cluster after another from the crown of the old palm.
When the child had gathered enough, and the tree was still lying on the earth, he again went to it, stroked it, and said in his gentlest voice:
"Arise, palm, arise."
And the great tree raised itself silently and obediently on its stem, whilst the leaves played like harps.
"Now I know for whom they play the death-song," the old palm said to itself, when it again stood erect. "It is not for any of these strangers."
But the man and woman knelt down on their knees and praised God.
"Thou hast seen our fear and taken it from us. Thou art the Mighty One, that bends the stem of the palm like a reed. Of whom should we be afraid when Thy strength protects us?"
Next time a caravan passed through the desert, one of the travellers saw that the crown of the great palm had withered.
"How can that have happened?" said the traveller. "Have we not heard that this palm should not die before it had seen a King greater than Solomon?"
"Perhaps it has seen Him," answered another wanderer of the desert.