I would like to say I do not remember clearly. I am an old man and that was more than thirty years ago. But the teachers call it sin to lie and so I will say: I remember.
When we saw the flare of light we were in the hills above Bethlehem, Micah and Ishmael and I; it was early autumn, the air just becoming crisp, and the ewes we tended were fat and tempting. Micah had killed a wolf with a stone from his sling; I stood watch while he and Ishmael skinned it.
And the sky caught fire.
I can call it nothing else. A great curtain of green light, bright as the sun, licked up from horizon to zenith in an instant; and in the same instant it coalesced to a single point, sickly and flickering, hovering over the mouth of a cave. We stared, bloody wolf forgotten. Ishmael was young then, and trembled. I trembled; I will not lie.
Then we heard the wings.
There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, lanky black things with great tattered bat-like wings that blotted out the stars and the strange green light. They hovered over us, and spoke; and their speech was not the speech of men, but a low evil buzz that twisted up words in my mind.
The one you were promised has come. Come. See. We take you.
One of the creatures snatched me up in thin cold hands; it had claws that pierced my robe and pricked my flesh. Then I was lifted; and if others seized Micah and Ishmael I did not see. I saw the ground rush under me, and closed my eyes against the nausea of movement, against the sight of my bearer’s shallow, featureless face.
Then I was set down.
I opened my eyes. I was at the mouth of the cave. The pale green light streamed down, hanging over the opening like a door, made my skin appear leprous in its wake. Then the creature shoved my shoulder with one clawed freezing hand and pushed me through.
Passing through that green glow was like passing through stagnant water: I gagged and retched at its stinking viscosity, and stumbled beyond feeling coated with contagion. Inside was dark except for a far dimmer light; my eyes took a long moment to adjust to the simple oil lamps. I smelled copper, sweat, decay.
And I saw the woman and her child.
She was a young thing, at a closer look, and panting still; the straw between her feet was clotted with copious blood, as though her labor had been precipitous and difficult. An older man, perhaps her husband or her father, stood well back from her and raised wild eyes to me, his chin dripping saliva beneath his slack, working mouth. She had the glazed look of the exhausted unto death, and in the whiteness of her face I saw the clean stark lines of the skull beneath, yet through some strength she held the child to her.
Then the woman took the child and laid it in the manger: but the stone trough was lined with raw meat instead of clean straw, and flies buzzed over a butchered lamb in an empty stall. I saw then that the skin of her breast was flayed into fine strands, showing glistening red flesh underneath, and the liquid that dripped from her suckled nipple was not milk but blood.
She spoke in a croaky, breathless whisper: “Behold the son of God.”
Then the child moved: and for the first time I saw its slick black skin, tiny claw-tipped limbs, thin bat wings beginning to unfurl and fan. It gurgled, and its infant mouth showed needle teeth, ringed with tendrils like the barbels of a catfish. They spread out, twisting, tasting the air, perhaps sensing me, and I knew this was not my promised one.
Someone else came into the cave then, slipping effortlessly through the barrier of sick green light and wearing the shape of a man, if a man could be soot black and spider-thin. He was arrayed in tawny silks and bedecked in gold, his face covered below onyx eyes, and he trailed the fragrance of myrrh from the tips of long writhing fingers. He knelt: and as he knelt, his yellow silk veil slipped, and when I saw what lay beneath I ran from the cave screaming.
I screamed until I reached the top of the hill, and there I fell, breathing the sweet cool air, clutching fistfuls of long wholesome grass. Only when I came to myself did I see that the flock had scattered, and that of Ishmael and Micah and the dead wolf there was no sign, save a few tufts of gray fur and a patch of sticky crimson across the grass.
I left the hill country that night, and have not returned. In the thirty years since I have heard that the peculiar babe grew to manhood of a sort, gathered followers and wandered the countryside, preaching a new kingdom and performing strange miracles: giving the lame to walk on ropy tentacle legs, restoring sight to the blind to show them things no man should bear, raising men from the grave to show them crueler forms of death.
I was glad when I heard he had been crucified in Jerusalem. Such a blasphemy should only be put to death. But then I heard the tomb had been found empty three days later, its Roman guards devoured, and I could not be glad for that.
Those who followed him walk still, and they are much changed from men. One I met yesterday, on the road to Beersheba: he said his master had gone to his kingdom, under stone, under sea, to dream a new world and wait for stars to turn. The madman said his king will return to bring his glory.
May it be a glory I do not live to see.