The Drummer’s Call

By K. D. Norris

He walked away from the fire, toward a star.

He had no place to go, but, in truth, he knew could never go back.

The boy, who had no name that he knew of, risked all as he escaped the Roman camp. If the Roman soldiers found him, he would surely be punished, beaten if not killed. Yet he had to leave; the strange, gentle spirit who came to him in his dreams now guided him.

So the boy walked, into the evening chill of a mid-winter day in a year that for much of the world would later be known as the year 6 BC. He paused, for only a moment, just outside the perimeter of a Roman military encampment located a few miles outside Tyre, the great port city on the Great Sea that he would later beknow as the Mediterranean. The encampment was in the Galilean Mountains, on the border of Judea, and — unbeknownst to the boy as he walked — about three days hard march northwest of the village of Bethlehem.

With only the clothes he wore, a small pouch of food, and his prized drum, he slipped away from the camp at dusk. The Roman sentry on the perimeter knew him and let him pass, assuming the boy was on an errand for his master, the Centurion.

“Hurry on your task, little drummer boy,” the guard jokingly told him as he passed, “or the wild animals and the Jews will take you.” 

The “drummer boy” — the only name he had ever known — walked away that evening, determined to never look back. But after walking out of sight of the Roman camp, and unsure how far he had walked, he stopped, turned around and looked into a darkness lit only by stars. It was then he realized his life had changed forever. The boy then turned his back on the Roman camp, on the only life he had known, and fell into his marching stride.

The night was clear, and he was used to marching with the Romans. He could walk all day and night if he needed to. So he walked straight and with purpose. With the Romans, he had walked for more days, and nights, than he could count. It seemed his first memory was walking, trying to keep up with someone, knowing he could never fall back, never be left behind. It was his determination and ability to walk which had saved his life.

His mother had died on the trail, falling in dirt like a stray dog as they walked together. Their life together had been one of desperate, unrelenting motion: following the Roman army, following the unnamed, unknown, soldier who was his father. When she died, after several days of fighting a fever, the other followers of the Roman army hardly noticed and never hesitated. Only a couple slaves, whose job it was to bury the dead, noticed. The boy, somehow knowing that to fall behind was to die with her, paused to grieve for only a moment and left his tears behind as the only marker of his mother’s quickly-dug shallow grave.

He then followed the army by himself.

For many days he lived like an animal, finding food in scraps left behind by the soldiers, sneaking near to a fire to sleep each night.

But then the Centurion noticed him — a dark-skinned, fair-haired boy; dirty, rough-clothed but with soft eyes. He was beating out a clumsy beat on the crude drum he found discarded on the road. The Centurion taught him to drum out a marching pace, to help the troops as they walked. The boy’s reward was food, enough to walk another day, enough to live another day.

After a while, the Centurion taught him other things, and gave him other things: better clothes, both to walk in and to wear at night, when he went to the Centurion’s bed; scented soap to wash his body and an ivory comb for his hair; and a real drum, with a leather strap and carved wooden drum sticks, which he proudly used to set the pace for the Romans’ march. That was his life during the day, a drummer boy for the Roman Legion. At night, his life was to serve the Centurion, in any way the man desired. Those two duties were the only things that mattered in his life — until now.

The drummer boy left much behind when he walked away that first night. He put on his warmest clothes and left the others behind, grabbed his drum and a little food he had hoarded, all he could carry as he stole out of camp. He knew, however, that he had left the safety of the Centurion’s favor, and comfort of his bed, behind forever. As he walked, he knew the Centurion surely was angry: not only was his bed cold, but the man would have to find another drummer boy for the next day’s march.

But the drummer boy did not care about the Centurion, nor the man’s anger, now; the man was just a man, and the boy had a new master. The spirit that had come to him in a dream had told him so. The spirit, an angel with the face of a girl child and the wings of a dove and the voice of a harp, had told him to leave the Romans and to travel in the direction of a star he would see just after the sun set.

“Find the bright star Kadmiel, the first evening star that rises in the south,” the angel said. “Follow it for four nights and it will lead you to the child that is the King of Kings. Go and praise the new King.”

So the boy stood facing southeast that first evening and found the star the spirit called “Kadmiel” and walked toward the horizon below where the star appeared.

The drummer boy walked until dawn when the star faded into the morning sky. As the sun rose, he found a place where he could hide and rest and, as the cautious dog does, lightly sleep. When he slept the spirit came to him and told him to again follow the star. So each night for three nights, he would walk, following a star which seemed to sit just above the horizon each evening and rise ever more brightly each night. Each day for three days he would eat a portion of his food, find a place to rest, to sleep a little, and then awake to await the star.

On the fourth night, just as he started to walk, three men ridding camels passed him on the trail. They were Magi, as some called the priests from the East. As the final man overtook him on the trail, the man stopped his camel. The Magus was the blackest man the boy had ever seen, and underneath a dark, dull-colored, weathered robe the boy could see the man’s clothes were of the finest cloth he had ever seen, finer even than the robes of the Roman commanders.

“Which way do you travel, boy?” the Magus said.

“I follow the star called Kadmiel — that star,” he said, pointing to the horizon, to the star the spirit in his dream told him to follow.

The Magus looked up at the star, and then back to the boy.

“You have had the dream? You have seen the angel?”

The boy nodded.

“That star leads to the Land of David, to Bethlehem. Who do you seek in that land?”

“I seek the baby the angel calls the King of Kings.”

The Magus nodded, and smiled with a wide smile filled with the whitest teeth the boy had ever seen. The man then held his open hand down, inviting the boy to ride with him. The boy had never ridden a camel before, or a horse. He had walked his whole life. But now, following the star to find the new king, he would ride like the Centurion. He joyfully reached his hand out to the man.

“My name is Gathaspa and I, too, have seen the angel in my dreams,” the man said, pulling the boy up. “I, too, follow that star. What did you call it? Kadmiel? A strange name for a strange star. My angel did not give it a name.”

So they traveled together, the Magus Gathaspa and the drummer boy with no name. And around midnight, together they came to Bethlehem. At the edge of the village, Gathaspa left the boy with the camel for a short while, saying he would return shortly, and when the man returned they walked together to a small stable on the outskirts of the village.

When they stopped, Gathaspa took off his dark robe to reveal his splendid clothing and pulled a small bag from a deep fold in the camel’s saddle.

“What is it you bring for the king?” the boy said.

“Gold. Gold enough for a man’s lifetime.”

As the man spoke, the drummer boy looked at his own clothes: the weathered and rough wool robe, the warm but common tunic, and the well-worn, peasant sandals.

When the Magus walked proudly into the stable, the boy followed a step or two behind, his head down. Inside, huddled around a manger which served as a simple wood cradle, a woman watched the baby within, a man watched over them both, and several other people stood in the shadows, standing around the family, watching the baby, watching the parents, and watching the people who had come to praise the child.

Gathaspa walked up the baby and knelt. The drummer boy stayed behind, lingering near the entrance. The Magus started to present the bag of gold, but the man standing beside the cradle spoke first.

“You have treasures to give?”

 “Gold. A gift for a future king.”

“This child, Jesus, will be a king who needs no gold to rule. Take the gold and give it to the poor, to the cripples. They have need for your gold.”

Gathaspa then bowed his head, nearly touching the ground, and in a soft voice said “The child is truly the King of Kings,” and then, in a language which the boy did not understand, the Magus spoke a few strange words, a prayer, the boy guessed. He then took a single gold coin out of his pouch and placed it on the ground before the king. After a moment, he rose to his feet and moved back toward the boy.

“Go and praise the King of Kings,” the Magus said. “Give him your gift.”

The drummer boy, though, did not go forward. Shame swept over him. How could he praise a king without a gift befitting a king? The boy broke into tears, turned and ran from the stable.

A few moments later Gathaspa came out and found the boy alone and crying.

“Why do you hide from the king, boy?” the man said. “Why do you hold your gift from him?”

“I have no gift worthy.”

“You possess the greatest gift any man has to give, drummer boy,” the man said, touching first the boy’s head and then his chest. “This child will be a great king, and you possess all that a good king requires. Give the king the strength of your heart.” 

The drummer boy did not understand. He stood and cried and prayed for the sprit to guide him. The Magi then pointed to the drum the boy carried.

“Announce the coming of your king, drummer boy. Announce to the world the coming of the King of Kings.”

Finally, the boy understood.

The drummer boy rose and moved to an open area to one side of the stable. He set his drum properly, slung at the waist and to his side, facing forward and at an angle where he could see it easily, where he could strike it with no wasted effort. He then pulled his sticks from their pouch on the side of the drum. He readied himself, took a deep breath, and began to beat out a rhythm he had never heard before, yet somehow knew.

Again and again he beat out the rhythm: ‘bum … bum … ba-da-a-bum-bum … bum … bum.”

Again and again the drum called out to the night. Loud and clear and as strong as the heart of the drummer boy who played the call.

The boy continued drumming, ringing out his call to the new king. He drummed as the night passed and the stars traveled across the sky. He drummed as other visitors came to visit and praise the new king. He drummed longer and harder than he had ever drummed before. He never paused, never missed the rhythm, never wavered in his effort.

As dawn approached — as the star, now directly overhead, began to fade — the drummer boy’s arms tired, his legs began to shake, but still he continued. Then, as the first rays of the sun pierced the horizon, his strength left him, his arms grew too tired to continue, his legs shook so much that he could barely stand. He knew he could not continue for much longer, so he beat out one last series, as strong and as loud as he could muster.

“Bum … bum … ba-da-a-bum-bum … bum … bum.”

Then he stopped, and sank down to his knees, exhausted. He knelt there for a short time, his head to the ground, as if in prayer.

At that moment, the entrance to the stable became a flurry of activity as people crowded around its entrance stepped aside, and Mary walked out carrying the baby Jesus. She walked to the boy, knelt down, and held the baby so the two children were face-to-face. The boy’s eyes were filled with tears, tears of exhaustion, tears of joy. The baby’s eyes were crystal clear and the color of the dawn sky.

“My baby slept at peace through the night, all the while you played,” the woman said. “Only when you stopped drumming did he awake. I brought him to see the one who presented such a fine gift.”

Tears streamed from the boy’s face long after the women took the baby back inside the manger.

The Magus then stepped beside the drummer boy.

“Come, it is time for us to leave. It is time for us to go and tell the world of this new king.”

“I have no place to go,” the boy said. “I can’t return to the Romans. I have a new master.”

“As do I,” Gathaspa said. “You will come with me. You will be called Kadmiel. I am told by a man that the word is not the name of a star, but that it means ‘great musician’ and that it comes from the Levites. I have several fine musicians in my service. You may join them if you wish.”

“But I am not a musician, I know no music; I am but a drummer of marches … and now the call to the new king,” Kadmiel said.

“My musicians will teach you, Kadmiel,” the Magus said. “You will teach my musicians how to play from the heart.”

Gathaspa walked over to his camel, untied it from a post, and mounted. He looked back at Kadmiel. “I come from a land in the east, a land across the sand and at the foot of mountains that touch the sky, a land far away from the Romans. You will be safe there.”

Gathaspa reached his hand out toward Kadmiel.

Kadmiel looked at the hand offered, to the life offered. He looked back to the west, to where the Roman camp lay, then to the stable. Finally he looked to the Magus. He stood up, adjusted his drum to his side, walked up to the camel and took the hand.

And so they rode away. 

The End