Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
— Noël Regney, Do You Hear What I Hear?
October 2, 1978
Sitting in his car, Father Ellis contemplated the Exodus.
According to the aptly-named Book of Numbers, there were 603,550 men among the Israelites who fled Egypt. Add women and children, and you got about two million people going the same direction at the same time. If they’d all been in cars, it probably would have looked a lot like Interstate 25 did now.
Someone honked, apparently optimistic that it might affect the fifty-mile backup of cars that had been almost motionless for several hours. The priest sighed.
A knock on the passenger-side window. It was a little boy, eight or nine by the looks of him. You could never be too careful during times like these, but he rolled down the window anyway.
“Are you a priest?” the child asked.
Father Ellis was taken aback. He was dressed in perfectly ordinary clothes, and he was from up near Fort Collins, a hundred miles away.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” said the boy. “I’ve been knocking on every car here, looking for a priest. I need your help.”
Father Ellis looked the boy over. He looked foreign, maybe Indian, not the Native Americans who were so common around this part of Colorado, but Indian from India. But his hair was blond. In this light it even looked white. He’d never seen an Indian with blond hair. There were no Indians in his parish, but he’d heard some people from far southern India were Christian.
“How can I help you?” he asked warily.
The boy reached through the opened window, flicked the lock, opened the door, and sat down.
“I need your help with a plan. First we need to wait for my uncle. I am Jala. Hello.”
“No!” said the older man. “Get out!” He pushed the boy out as firmly as he could, but it was too late. The door had already closed. God. He’d heard of this scam. Now someone would be by to accuse him of kidnapping, and then threaten to take the case to court if he didn’t pay them hush money. All he had in the world was three hundred dollars he’d brought with him from Fort Collins for food and gas during the evacuation.
“You are afraid I am trying to scam you in some way. I promise I am not. I want to help you. I want to help everybody. But you would not believe me if I told you, so for now we wait for my uncle. Unless you want to fight me. Please do not try this. I have a weapon.”
Oh God. This got worse and worse.
Right on cue, an Indian man peered through the window of his car and saw the boy. He started banging on the window, shouting incomprehensible things, demanding Father Ellis open up. Before he got the chance, the boy opened the door.
“Hello, Uncle,” he said. “Get in the back seat. We are going to Silverthorne.”
“Look,” said Father Ellis, for whatever it was worth, “I swear, I didn’t do anything. The kid just banged on the window, then forced himself in, and wouldn’t go away. He said he…look, this isn’t what it looks like.”
The uncle stood outside the open door. “I’m sorry,” he told the priest, falling over himself to sound apologetic. “We are peaceful people. We do not want trouble. He is very strange. But…it is best to do what he says.”
“I’m sorry! He is not my son! He usually stays with his grandmother, but we had trouble fitting the whole family into two cars. But when he wants something, it’s no use arguing with him. My wife and I have tried so many times, and it has never…Jala, you tell him!”
“I am always right,” said the boy. “It is hard to explain.” He gestured again impatiently for his uncle to get in the car. The older man shot Father Ellis an apologetic look, then got into the back seat of his car.
“I’m so sorry,” said the uncle. “I swear on my life, we are peaceful people. Good Hindus! We do not want trouble.” To the child: “Jala, must we do this?”
“But the poor man – he doesn’t even know you. He wants to get to safety, just like – ”
Defeated, the older man slumped down in the back seat.
It was an evacuation. The police, if there were any left, were otherwise occupied. He was old, and the man in the back seat was young and spry. And if the child had a weapon…
At least he had some idea what to do about a kidnapping. This just didn’t make sense.
“God,” he whispered under his breath, “Help me get out of this one okay.”
Meanwhile, the other two were talking. “Jala, where were you? Your aunt and I have been looking for you for hours! I cannot believe you slipped out of the car without us hearing you. Do you realize how dangerous…”
“You still do not trust me, Uncle. Not completely. That was why I had to slip out. I knew you would look for me. Aunt Samira will be well. She and Uncle Pranav will go the rest of the way to Santa Fe without us. We have work to do.”
“We’re not going to make it to New Mexico? Jala, this is unsafe!”
“Yes, Uncle. We must make it safe.”
“Somebody has to and no one else will.”
The man sighed, the sigh of someone who is thoroughly beaten and knows he always will be.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated to the priest. “My name is Vihaan and this is Jalaketu. I live over in Boulder. Jala lives with his grandmother in Colorado Springs, but he was staying with us for the summer. He’s always had problems. His mother died in childbirth. He’s a good kid, though, I swear. We just cannot control him. He just…I don’t know.” He sounded totally humiliated, which under the circumstances Father Ellis supposed was reasonable.
“Father John Ellis. I…How old are you, Jala? Eight?”
“I am almost two.”
“It’s true,” interjected Uncle Vihaan. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen his birth with my own eyes, but he’s only two years old. He has some kind of growth problem. He grows too much. That is why we cannot control him.”
“There wasn’t enough time,” said Jala, apologetically. “I should be older. But I’m growing as fast as I can.”
Father Ellis considered his options. He could try to fight them off – no good, not strong enough. He could escape and leave the car to them, but then he would have no way to evacuate. Or he could just give in and let them ride with him. Then they would all get to New Mexico, and the two of them would leave him alone. Maybe this was how people hitchiked in India, by crazy children breaking in and their guardians claiming implausibly low ages for them.
That was it. They were probably weird hitchhikers. Would he have picked them up if they had been standing by the side of the road? Probably not. He was an old man, and cautious. But if circumstances had forced him into doing a good deed, perhaps he should thank God for the opportunity. Yes. That was it. Just thank God for the opportunity to do a good deed at no cost to himself.
That lasted right until the child announced that they would be taking the exit to the 70 going West, which was insane.
Father Ellis turned to him, spoke clearly but not patronizingly. “Jala, I am sure your uncle has already told you this, but Colorado is being attacked. By demons from Siberia, who took over Canada and now are invading the United States. They already got most of Utah and they’re crossing the Rockies towards us. We need to go south, all the way to New Mexico, to get away from them. That’s why everyone is evacuating. Going west wouldn’t take us away from them. It would take us right towards their army.”
“Father,” said the boy, “do you remember the story of Sennacherib?”
A moment of surprise. “That’s a very old story for a boy like you to know.”
“King Sennacherib marched with an impossibly large army to destroy Jerusalem. King Hezekiah believed he was doomed, but the prophet Isaiah told him not to be afraid, for God was with him. And the angel of God destroyed the hosts of Sennacherib, and Jerusalem was saved. Do you know the poem, Father? The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, and his cohorts were streaming with purple and gold…”
“We are good Hindus,” said Uncle Vihaan, apologetically. “I don’t even know where he learns these things.”
But Father Ellis was intrigued. “I know the poem. It’s true that with God, any battle can be won,” he said. “But God doesn’t work to a human schedule. Remember, before God saved Jerusalem, he let Sennacherib destroy all of northern Israel. The prophet Isaiah told Hezekiah not to fear. But when we don’t have prophets with us, we have to do what we think is best. And sometimes that involves retreating.”
“I am…like a prophet,” said Jalaketu. “It’s complicated.”
“I’m sorry!” protested the uncle again. “We are good Hindus!”
“If you are a prophet,” said Father Ellis, “give me a sign.”
“It is written,” said Jalaketu, “that you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
“You are not the Lord,” said Father Ellis.
Jalaketu glared at him, as if about to challenge the assertion.
“We are good Hindus,” the uncle protested feebly. Then added “But I swear to Vishnu, Jala’s mother had never slept with a man when she gave birth to him.”
Then Jala sang. “KYA-RUN-ATEPH-NAHA-IALA-DEH-VAV-IO-ORAH”
The car’s gear stick turned into a snake. Father Ellis shrieked and jerked his hand back, actually jerked his whole body back and hit his head against the car door. If traffic had been moving they would have crashed for sure; as it was, they remained motionless in the gridlock. The snake looked around curiously, then coiled up onto the center console of the car and fell asleep.
“Oh!” said Jalaketu. “I’m sorry! I wasn’t expecting…I thought it would…I should have…I’m still kind of new at this. I’m growing as fast as I can, I promise. But you’ve got to help me.”
Father Ellis’s mind went into high gear – no, scratch that, use literally any other metaphor – he started thinking quickly. He’d heard of such things. Kabbalistic Names. A few people had reported discovering them, old magic, returned to life after the sky had cracked. But none of them were public, and none of them as far as he knew turned things into snakes. The boy knew another Name, a Name nobody knew, he had independently discovered a new kabbalistic Name.
“I’m sorry,” said Jalaketu, “I should do something more impressive. But I swear to you. I want to help. I’m here to help. We can stop these demons. Save everybody. But you need to believe me. Somebody has to do it and nobody else will, so please listen to me and take the exit.” Exit 70 was right in front of them now. The traffic was beginning to move. “Please, Father, if you have any faith at all, get in the exit lane.”
“My gear stick is a snake,” said Father Ellis.
“Oh!” said Jalaketu, and he sang another word, and the snake was a gear stick again.
Father Ellis very gingerly put his hand to the gear stick, and when it didn’t bite him, he moved it forward. Then he sighed and got into the exit lane.
The trip to Silverthorne had been fast and without traffic. Nobody was going towards the approaching demonic army. Nobody except them.
Father Ellis sat with Jalaketu on a wall on the main street. The boy had sent Uncle Vihaan to find explosives. Sent wasn’t exactly the right word; the boy had said he was going to find explosives, and Vihaan had declared there was no way he was going to let the boy anywhere near explosives, and if they needed explosives for some reason, he was going to be the one to get them – which had clearly been Jala’s plan all along. Vihaan was some kind of mining engineer and apparently good at these things.
“So,” asked Father Ellis. “Who are you?”
“My mother died during childbirth,” said Jalaketu. “I killed her. I didn’t know. I was too big. I was growing as fast as I could, because I knew there wasn’t enough time, but I didn’t realize. I only barely remember. I remember that I was very sad, and that I decided I must be more careful from now on, and never let anybody die again.”
He didn’t say “anybody close to me.” He didn’t sound like he meant it.
“Comet West is my father,” said Jalaketu. “My mother told Uncle Vihaan so, before she died. It talks to me sometimes, in my dreams. It loves me and it wants me to be happy. Sometimes it scares me, though. I think it is an archangel.”
Father Ellis didn’t know what to say.
“It says I must be Moshiach. It tells me stories from the Torah as I fall asleep. And other stories, too, from a big book that it wrote a very long time ago. And I try to grow as fast as I can, so I can understand them, but it’s never fast enough. This body is too weak. I want to walk into a fire and burn my body away and stop being human, and then I can be a comet too, and it will all make sense.”
“You said you were looking for a priest,” said Father Ellis. “Are you a Christian?”
“No.” Jalaketu smiled. “My mother was a Hindu, but Hinduism passes through the paternal line. My father, perhaps if he teaches me Torah then he is Jewish. But Judaism passes through the maternal line. I am nothing.”
“Christianity doesn’t pass through any line,” said Father Ellis. “It’s open to anyone who wants it. And I mention it because it has a lot to say on the issue of incarnating as a human. It’s hard. Really hard sometimes. But definitely very important.”
“That’s what my father says too,” said Jalaketu. “He says that I had to be human. But it is…yes. It is hard.”
Vihaan chose that moment to come back in Ellis’s beat-up Chevy Nova. The trunk was open and packed with ominous-looking boxes.
“Okay,” he said, pulling up in front of the other two. “Now what?”
“This is the part where it gets complicated,” said Jalaketu.
“Something else your father told you in a dream?” asked Ellis.
“Not…exactly,” said Jalaketu. “It’s something that I…hope will work.”
Oh God, prayed Father Ellis. Have mercy on us, your poor servants….
Jala West stood alone in the middle of Interstate Highway 70, just outside Silverthorne. The mountains rose on either side of him like walls. This was the chokepoint. They would pass through here.
From the distance came a faint rumbling. An oppressive heat filled the air. The smell of sulfur. Hot winds began to blow. To the west of the valley, a red-black cloud came into view.
They had fought a series of battles with the Canadians and their American allies. Outside Calgary, the alliance had lost decisevely. From there the hosts of Hell had split in two. Half, under the demon princes Adramelech, Asmodei, and Rahab, had gone east to complete the conquest of Ottawa, New York City, and the American East Coast. The other half, under the command of Thamiel himself, had gone south and west, to root out American resistance in California and the West. They had gone as far south as Ogden, but the Mormons in Salt Lake City had resisted tooth and nail, and now there was a siege. The siege was not going so well for the demons, because supplies and reinforcements kept coming in on Interstate 70 from Colorado. Blockading the Interstate had just redirected the supplies onto a hundred smaller mountain roads the demons couldn’t follow.
Thamiel was not used to being resisted. He decided to take things into his own hands. A sortie into Colorado. Fort Collins, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver – all the big cities, lined up nice in a row – were to be taken out, completing the desolation of America between the Rockies and the Mississippi. The Mormons’ supply route would be removed. Salt Lake would fall.
So onward went the Hosts of Hell, onward along Interstate 70. They burnt Grand Junction, they razed Glenwood Springs, they demolished Vail. At last, beside the highest peaks of the Rockies, they came to Silverthorne, and there in the middle of the highway was Jala West.
The demons themselves had not yet taken physical form; they buzzed and seethed like a thundercloud of darkness covering the plains. But Thamiel marched ahead of them, alone as a visible figure. His suit was impeccable and his steps were inhumanly fast, and the whole mass of darkness followed in a wedge behind him. When he saw the little boy standing in front of him, he stopped.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Jala West,” said the boy.
“Run away,” said Thamiel.
“Tell me,” said Jala, “if this were a story, and the Devil and all his demons were marching against a peaceful nation, and in their way was only one young boy, wielding a sword made from a falling star…”
“You don’t have a sword made from a fallen star,” Thamiel pointed out.
The roar of a meteor split the sky, a fireball that briefly surpassed the daylight with the brightness of its passage. It came closer and closer, aimed straight at them, and Jalaketu held out his hand and caught it. A huge black sword with a silver hilt, almost bigger than he was. It was still fiery hot, and far too big for him, but he held it without fear.
“I do so,” said Jala.
“If this were a story,” Jalaketu continued, “and you were challenged by just one boy, wielding a sword made from a fallen star, here because he wouldn’t abandon his homeland – do you think it would end well for you? For the demon?”
“Are you going to ask for my surrender?” snarled Thamiel.
“No,” said Jala. “There is no surrender I can accept. If you left Colorado, I would follow you. If you left America, I would hunt you down. Even if you left the world entirely and returned to Hell, I could not allow this. And I cannot allow you to keep this army. It is too dangerous. Everything about this is dangerous. I should not have come myself; I should have found some way to delay you from afar. But I had to come. The Bible says you are the adversary, the tempter, who takes the measure of Man. But who takes your measure? I came here to delay you, but also to take your measure. And also to get something I needed. And also because I am angry. This is my home. I would defend it even if it were not, but it is.”
He drew a signal gun from his pocket and fired a flare. It streaked through the sky, a little anticlimactic after the recent meteor strike. The mountains echoed with the sound, but there was no other answer.
Then the demon fell upon him, wielding a bident whose cuts and slices were almost too fast for the human eye to follow. Jalaketu parried easily with his sword, the great sword Sigh, the sword his father had made for him, the sword which would always answer the call of him and his descendants wherever they might be. The air sizzled with the speed of their battle; the earth trembled with the force of their blows.
Then Jalaketu drew blood. Just a tiny bit, a glancing blow on the demon’s stunted forearm. It sizzled on the blade, etching weird damascene patterns into the steel.
“All right,” said the Lord of Demons. “Let’s do this the easy way.”
He gave a signal to the vast cloud that hovered above them, and all the legions of Hell flew down into the valley at once. Jalaketu just watched them come, holding his sword out in front of him, as if they were no more than a few approaching wisps of cloud.
Then the roar of the oncoming demons before him was matched by a similar roar behind him. Something greyish-white and colossal, so big that at first it was hard to identify. As it came closer, it took on more features. Water. Rushing water. A whole reservoir’s worth.
Thamiel was not impressed. “That was your plan?” he asked. “Blowing up the dam? You do know that demons don’t drown, right?”
The oncoming wall of holy water crashed into the hosts of Hell with a bang and snuffed them out like sparks before a fire extinguisher. The whole massacre only lasted seconds. Jalaketu spoke the Ascending Name and hovered above the devastation, making sure that no demons were left, that not a single one had survived.
“I know,” said Jalaketu, to nobody in particular. And then, more solemnly: “And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail, and the idols are broke in the temple of Baal. And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword, hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.”
Then he descended back to ground level and waded through the wreckage until he reached town.
Father Ellis’s old Nova drove down route 24 into Colorado Springs. The traffic was more haphazard now. Some people were still trying to evacuate. Other people had heard rumors that something had changed, and were trying to go back home. A few people didn’t know which way they were going. The 24 was empty; the 25 was a mess. When Ellis reached the junction, he gave up, pulled over, and stopped the car. The three of them walked out onto the empty highway.
“Never been here before, actually,” the priest said.
“My hometown,” said Jalaketu. “This is where it has to start.”
“Where what has to start?” asked Vihaan. “Jala, be careful.”
Whatever had to start, this seemed as good a place as any. The city center rose before them, a few buildings that toyed with the idea of being skyscrapers; the slightest hint of a downtown. Then the long ribbon of cars stretching either direction, honking, all of Colorado on the road. On one side, the stunning rock formations that a nineteenth-century romantic had dubbed the Garden of the Gods. To the other, the looming massif of Cheyenne Mountain in whose bowels the United States kept the nerve center controlling its nuclear armament. Towering above all of it, the sharp snow-capped ridge of Pike’s Peak.
Jalaketu spoke the Ascending Name and rose into the air. Then another Name, and the sky seemed to dim, like all the sunlight was concentrated on him and him alone. People started to notice. The honking died down. A few brave souls left their cars to get a better view. The windows on some of the buildings peeked open.
Then he spoke. His voice wasn’t loud, but somehow it carried, carried down past all the cars frozen below, into the buildings downtown, over the ridges and rivulets of the Garden of the Gods, and all throughout the city.
“I am Jalaketu West,” he said, “son of Comet West. Colorado is safe for now. It’s safe because I saved it. But not for long. Demons don’t die forever, they just disintegrate and rebuild themselves. And it’s not just demons. The cracks in the sky are getting bigger. The world is falling apart. I don’t know if I can save all of you. But somebody has to, and no one else will. So I am going to try. I need all of your help. If you follow me, it won’t be easy. You’ll have to have faith. But I will be worthy of it. I promise. In the Name of God, in whose Name oaths must never be sworn in vain, I promise. This is how it has to be. I am the Comet King. Bow. Swear fealty. Now.”
At first everyone was quiet, too flabbergasted for any reaction, and then they all started talking to each other. “Holy God,” and “He thinks he…” and “He says we’re saved?” and “How is he floating there?” and a thousand other questions and worries and exclamations and fears.
In the end, they were Americans, and they didn’t bow. But finally one of them, an old Korean War vet, gave a salute. Then another man saluted, and another, and soon the whole city was saluting him.
And Jalaketu laughed, and said “It’ll do,” because there were parts of him that were very old and far away, and other parts that were as American as apple pie, and truth be told he wouldn’t have bowed down either. So he laughed and saluted back at them, and then he lowered himself back onto the highway.
“King?” asked Uncle Vihaan, with a miserable look on his face, like he had always known it would come to this but had hoped it wouldn’t happen quite so quickly.
“Yes,” said Jalaketu. “And I’ll need advisors I can trust. Once you find Aunt Samira and get her somewhere safe, come back here so we can talk at more length. And you – ” he said to Father Ellis.
“Yes?” asked the priest.
“I’ll need your advice too.”
“I am just about the least qualified person to advise anyone on anything.”
“I need you to teach me what you were talking about before. How to be human. How to bear it.”
Father Ellis swallowed. “I’ll try,” he said.
And then suddenly the boy was all smiles again. “Let’s go,” he said. “Get to city center. I’m sure there are a lot of people there who will want to talk to us.” He skipped forward, almost gaily, his comet-white hair trailing behind him in the wind.
Vihaan and Ellis looked at each other.
“I guess all we can do is follow,” the priest said, and the two of them started after him.