My December contribution to the NWTC Newsletter, “What’s Cooking.”
Futher comments follow the body of the article.
The three primary trunks of the tree twisted skywards like
arthritic arms from a common bulbous origin that welled up from a flattened
area in the rock notched into the side a ravine eight-hundred feet above the
sea. The old man rested in the shade, against the base of the tree, tired from
the climb, thinking that this trip would be his last. The tree had been in full
bloom three weeks earlier when he’d scraped away the dried resin of cloudy
amber and made the fourth and deepest vertical cut in each of the trunks.
He missed the smell of the small white flowers; five petals,
laid back, arrayed around an orangish-red center that sprouted bulbous stamens
waiting to be ravished by the birds and the bees. He rested his hand on the
scarred bark, where his father had helped him make his first cut in the tree a
lifetime ago, and settled his gaze on the far horizon. On a clear day, as most
where, he could see the tip of Sabthecha on the other side of the Gulf of Aden.
He’d never been there, but knew of it from the traders passing through in
endless caravans traveling north along the coast to Medina.
The tree was hundreds of years old, and his father had told
him how his father had taught him to harvest the yellowish clumps of levonah,
and how it would travel over land and over sea to all parts of the world, and
how the very finest, as was collected from the trunk of this very tree, would
be used by kings and queens in faraway places. He closed his eyes and saw his
mother burning the incense inside the courtyard to keep the insects away, and
then saving the ash from which she made Kohl to put around her eyes just like
the queen, Cleopatra.
The old man lifted his arm to the lowest branch and pulled
himself to his feet, grunting with the effort. He walked around to the side of
the tree where he’d deepened the long cuts in each of the three trunks weeks
earlier. He gasped, looking upwards at fist-sized tears of smoky yellowed
frankincense coating the trunks like irregular clumps of grapes; smooth,
hardened tears upon tears of a translucent gold dripping from each cut. Never,
in his forty years, had ever seen such a sight, and all through the day he
worked carefully, separating the tears of hardened resin from the tree. The
saddlebags on either side of his camel were so laden that he feared the
addition of his own weight would be too much for his old friend, and so he led
it down the trail. It was many hours into the night before he reached Moscha,
the road lit by a brilliant night sky, including a bright star just to the
north of west he’d not noticed before.
He had never traveled further than Moscha his entire life,
until then. He continued on to Shabwah the following day where his frankincense
was sorted, graded, and one fifth taken as a tax. Knowing that he would be
vulnerable to bandits, he joined a caravan of hundreds of camels. Each day he
traveled north, passing through towns that before had been only names of far
off places, and each night, the bright star seemed closer.
After many days the caravan met another from the west on the
great trade route known as the Silk Road. The two caravans stopped to trade;
the old man’s from the south of Arabia with frankincense and myrhh, cinnamon
and spice for the gold, silver, jewels and wine from the caravan out of the
The night star now lay to the east. On the second night, a
group of magi, sent by Herod, approached the old man because it was said that
he had the finest frankincense of all the caravan. They told him of the birth
of a new king, and that they would give him gold for all the frankincense that
he carried, but because of the weight, they asked him to join them as they
traveled east. The magi told him it would be only one or two days more.
The old man fell into the end of their procession, and on
the second night, under the star, by a stable, one of the magi came to him, and
filled an ornamental vessel with yellow tears. The magi smiled at him. “A King
is born,” he said.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with
Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened
their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and
For some reason, this month seemed harder than most to derive a suitable monthly topic after nearly three years of what I hope were suitable montly topics. At first, I thought about holiday nuts; walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and almonds piled high in glass bowls sitting on coffee tables with a nutcracker sticking up in the center like a spade in the dirt. And, I thought of writing about diverticulitis because it’s so common and I see it all the time; but, then I thought of the colon and the obvious involvement of stool in that particular discussion and abandoned it.
Then I thought of cinnamon, because I like it and because I figured there’d be something unusual and interesting about it, and for some reason, I thought that Sinbad might have had something to do with cinnamon, and I remembered Sinbad from when I was little. Unfortunately, when I looked up the seven adventures of Sinbad, I didn’t notice cinnamon in a one; although I did find that cinnamon was the inner bark of a tree.
Then, last weekend when we decorated for Christmas I was tasked with plugging in a light bar behind the nativity setting that Sue had set up on top of the entertainment center. As I was threading an extension cord down the hole in the shelf, way in the back, I noticed the magi off of Joseph’s left shoulder and wondered…frankincense? Hmmm…
Well, I slipped into the wormhole of Frankincense for a few days, which involved maps of ancient Egypt, zoroastrianism (which I didn’t use), Antony and Cleopatra, Herod, the Magi, and all sorts of stuff having to do with both frankincense and myrrh, it’s just that I only had 700 words to spend and so I focused on the former.
I started to write about all the facinating things about frankincense and what it was used for, and how it was harvested and etcetera, etcetera, and quickly became bored, like I was a sixth-grader writing a report from the “F” volume of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, flipping the sentences around so that I could claim them as mine own.
Anyway, I tackled the topic more like an exercise in historical fiction, which seemed a better way of disseminating the information.