Jamal and the Three Challenges

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Jamal lay sleeping on the dirty straw bed in the hovel he shared with his mother, sister and two brothers. His lanky body was twisted as his little brother lay curled aside him. He was restless from the dream that was disturbing his sleep.

His eyes fluttered as he suddenly awoke. He listened carefully as he thought he heard an unusual rustling noise coming from outside. The bleating of the goats warned him that danger might be near. He cautiously unwrapped himself from around his brother's sleeping body and arose. The small room was dark. Only a small beam of light from the overhead moon shining through the dirty window provided him a path through the sleeping bodies.

He slipped his robe over his body and placed his sandals on his feet. He looked around to make sure that everyone was asleep and safe before making his way to the door. He carefully opened it as the hinges were old and worn and they tended to squeak from the dust that had accumulated on them over the years.

He crept outside and peered around the small shack that had been his home for sixteen years. He was the eldest son and it was his responsibility to protect his family. It was a duty he neither questioned nor objected.

The moon shone down as he made his way to the shed that housed the three goats, a cow and many chickens. They provided the food for his family. Without them, his younger brothers and sister would have no food for the morning meal.

He moved his way cautiously toward the dilapidated building. He could hear the animals stirring inside. As he approached the door, he could see the image of a tall man. He hid behind the door and waited for him to exit so he could pounce upon his back.

His knees trembled as he waited. He'd never had to deal with a thief before. It was not customary where he lived. If a neighbor needed something, they simply had to ask. It would generously be given to them.

He crouched down when he heard the shuffling of feet approaching the door. When the figure silhouetted the doorway, Jamal sprang, taking the figure to the ground.

"Wait!" The figure let out a shout. "I come to mean you no harm." Jamal arose from the body, but kept a tight grip on him.

"Who are you?" Jamal asked. The figure before him was an elderly man. His face was withered with age. He gasped for air as he lay upon the dirty ground.

"It's not important," answered the old gentleman as he sat up and brushed the straw from his tattered garment.

"But you are stealing our food," Jamal said. "My family will not be able to eat."

"I stole nothing," insisted the gentleman. "I was merely looking for a place to sleep for the night." He stood and shook his garment. "You see," he said. "I have taken nothing."

"Where are you going?" Jamal asked as he took the old man's arm and helped him to sit upon a bale of hay.

The old man looked into the sky at a star shining high overhead. Jamal was surprised he had not noticed it before. The old man pointed his gnarled finger upward. "I'm following that star," he answered. "Something wonderful will happen and I must go there."

"Why?" Jamal sat down before the man and crossed his legs. The old gentleman looked around as if to see if they were being watched. He then put his thin finger to his mouth, indicating he was about to whisper a secret. Jamal waited breathlessly for him to respond.

The man's eyes lit up as he spoke. "I am on my way to Bethlehem to witness a miracle."

"A miracle?" Jamal's eyes widened in disbelief. "Can I go with you to see it?"

The man smiled and then put his finger to his mouth. "Shhhh," he said. "It is not for everyone to see. Only the chosen."

Jamal's shoulders dropped in sadness. He had been told of miracles all his life and he finally thought he had his chance to see one. The elders talked of the dead rising to their feet. He had heard stories of lepers being healed in the marketplace. But to him, they were mere stories. He wanted to see one so he would know they did indeed happen.

The old man put his hand on his shoulder and smiled. "Did I tell you that you could not witness the miracle?" Jamal shook his head.

"But you said it was only for the chosen."

"It is," he old man replied. "But those who are chosen must first pass three challenges on their way to Bethlehem."

"Three challenges?" Jamal leaned nearer the man. "What are they?"

The old man laughed. "It is not for me to say. If you are chosen, then you will indeed see the miracle."

"What do I have to do?" Jamal asked worriedly. "How will I know?"

The man smiled. "You will know when you know."

"What does that mean?" Jamal asked. "It sounds like a riddle to me."

"It is a riddle," smiled the man. "As old as mankind itself." He sat back down on the hay. "I am thirsty. Can you fetch some water for this old man?" Jamal told him to wait while he picked up a bucket that was hanging nearby and ran to the well. He looked into the sky and peered at the shining star above. It seemed to be twinkling brighter than any he had ever seen before.

"What is the miracle this old man speaks of?" He wondered. When the bucket was filled, he raced back to the shed. The old man was gone. He ran outside and looked down the deserted road. He ran to the back of the shed but there was no sign of him. Jamal shrugged his shoulders and headed wearily back to the dilapidated hovel.

When he awoke in the morning, he couldn't get the words of the old man out of his mind. What was the miracle he spoke of, and what were the challenges a person must endure to witness the miracle? Surely a poor boy like him would be unworthy of such a feat, but his soul burned with curiosity.

His mother was gathering eggs from the hens' nest when he walked outside. "Jamal," she hollered. "Come milk the goats." He got his small stool and bucket and began his morning chore.

"Mother?" He said as he milked the largest goat. His mother was tossing hay before the goats.

"Yes, Jamal." Her voice was soft and smooth, much like her appearance. She was a small woman. Jamal towered over her. His teen body had grown a foot over the past year.

"Do you believe in miracles?" She stopped before him.

"Why do you ask? Did you have a dream?"

"No," he replied. She listened patiently while he explained his encounter with the stranger in the shed where they were now standing.

When he finished, she turned and shooed the chickens into the yard outside. "He was just a silly old man," she replied. "He was probably here to rob us."

Jamal jumped to his feet and stood before her. "No, Mother," he replied. "It was more than that. There was something about him. And the miracle he spoke of." Jamal began to become excited. "Something special is going to happen."

His mother clicked her tongue. "The words of an old fool." She turned to go outside, but Jamal stood before her and grabbed her thin shoulders.

"I want to go to Bethlehem," he announced. "I want to see the miracle."

"That's a three day journey!" She exclaimed. "A young boy like you can't travel by himself. The roads are filled with robbers."

"But I must go," he pleaded. "I want to see the miracle. If I go, then maybe the miracle will make our lives better." He held up the bucket. "The little ones won't have to go hungry."

"It's nonsense," she remarked. "I forbid this."

"But Mother," he took her hands and held them. "What if I go and witness the miracle. Just think how much better our lives can be." He looked at the ram shackled building in which they lived. "What if the miracle will give us a better home for you and the young ones."

"What if you get killed on the way?" His mother replied angrily. "What good will that do us?"

"I must try," he pleaded once again. "Please let me go." He squeezed her hands tighter.

"No!" She insisted. "You will not go to Bethlehem." She turned and stormed from the shed. Jamal sat on the stool and began milking the smaller goat.

His mind was filled with thoughts of the miracle and the effects it could have on his family. Since his father had died three years earlier from disease, he had watched his mother struggle to maintain the family. He was able to bring in food by working odd jobs for neighboring farms, but it was never enough. Too many times he listened as the young ones cried themselves to sleep from hungry stomachs.

He went about his daily chores with sadness. He wished his mother would change her mind. He would never disobey her and set out on the trek without her permission. The sun was setting as he sat under a large tree thinking about the miracle that now would never be.

He was startled when his mother walked up and awakened him from his reverie. She sat down and looked worriedly at him. "This means a lot to you?" He nodded his head.

"I know the miracle will happen," he said. "I don't know what it will be, but when it happens, I will ask it to do good for our family. I will ask for food so the little ones don't go hungry. I will ask for clothing, so our bodies will be clothed properly." He looked down at the tattered gown his mother was wearing. He looked at her with tears in his eyes.

"I'll ask that you be happy," he said softly. "I want to see you smile again."

She took his head and placed it in her lap. She wept as she ran her fingers through his long, black hair.

"You are so young," she cried. "You always think the world can be a better place. Someday you will grow old like me and realize that change never comes."

Jamal lifted his head and stared into her eyes. "At least I have to try." He wiped her tears away with his finger. "May I, Mother?" He hugged her tightly when she nodded her head.

Jamal departed on his journey to see the miracle early the next morning. The roosters were beginning to crow as the sun appeared on the horizon. He tiptoed across the room so as not to awaken the young ones. He took the sack off the rickety table. It was filled with enough provisions to last him several days. He then walked over to the straw mattress his mother slept on. Her eyes were open and filled with tears.

He knelt down and kissed her softly on the cheek. "Goodbye, Mother," he whispered. She waved him away with her hand. Before leaving, he took one last look around the room and sighed. He closed the door and began his trek down the dusty road. He headed in the direction where he had seen the shining star the night before.

His journey was arduous. A storm appeared suddenly in the afternoon and he had to hide under a large tree until it passed. Wet and cold, he journeyed on. Several times he had to leave the road and hide in bushes for fear that advancing travelers may rob him.

When darkness fell, he found a comfortable spot in a small copse near the road. He felt he could safely sleep because fallen branches might warn him of impending danger. Through the trees he could see the bright star casting a warm glow on the ground below. He imagined the wonders of the miracle he hoped to witness. He fell asleep seeing the smiling faces of his mother, brothers and sister.

He awoke with the dawn. The star had disappeared, replaced by a warm sun. He continued his long journey in the direction of the star. The sun was high above him when he wandered upon a woman sitting beside the road. She was curled into a ball, moaning softly. He approached her cautiously.

"Are you alright?" He asked. She looked up. He was startled by her appearance. Her eyes were sunk into the sockets of her face. Her skin appeared rough and scaly. "Leprosy," he thought silently. He had seen it often in the withered bodies of villagers where he lived.

She held out her hand to him. "I'm hungry," she said weakly. "Do you have anything to eat?" He clutched the small sack he had over his shoulder tighter. He had been on the road two days and his provisions were rapidly disappearing. He had not rationed his food properly and he had eaten too much the first day. If his journey lasted many more days, he himself would be left hungry.

"I do not have enough food for you," he replied nervously.

She looked up at him pleadingly. "But you have food?" He nodded his head. "Please share it with me. I have not eaten in four days." She started to cough violently. He watched as she wretched out a small amount of spittle. She looked back up at him pleadingly. "Please?" She begged.

Jamal studied her for a few seconds and then sighed. He sat down beside her and opened his sack. He took out a small loaf of bread and broke it in half. He then handed it to her. She grabbed at it and started eating hungrily. Occasionally, she'd look over at him and smile slightly. He then reached into his sack and pulled out a few of the remaining dates he had. He handed them to her. Again, she ate them hungrily.

Jamal stood. "I must go now," he announced. She looked up and smiled.

"Bless you, My Son," she said weakly. "May your journey be filled with success." He looked at her questioningly. He had never mentioned to her that he was on a journey. For all she knew, he might have been a local returning to his home. She waved him off, and he turned and began back down the solitary road.

When night fell, he found solace in a small barn by the side of the road. He covered himself in straw in case the home's owner would come out and find him lying there. Once he was comfortable, he opened his sack. Little remained, just the half loaf of bread and a few dates. "I shouldn't have given the old woman my food," he thought. Then he remembered her withered body and the sad expression on her face. He pulled off a piece of the bread and took out two dates.

"This will have to do," he said softly to himself. "At least I won't go hungry tonight." After eating, he buried himself in the straw and fell asleep.

The sun was peeking over the horizon when Jamal left the barn. He stretched lazily and yawned. "I should reach the destination of the miracle tonight," he thought. From what some of his neighbors had told him, it would take him three days and two nights to reach the village of Bethlehem.

His feet were sore and blistered from his shoddy shoes as the sun began to set in the west. Ahead of him he could see the village of Bethlehem. Candles were flickering in the windows as he approached.

He looked upward at the star. It was shining brighter than it had the two previous nights. It lit up the village with its glowing beams. As he walked toward the town, his heart began to pound with the excitement of finally witnessing the miracle he had spent three days seeking.

As he approached, a beam came down from the sky and cast an eerie glow on a nearby structure. He walked slowly toward it. The silence of the night was disturbing to Jamal. It was as if the world had stopped existing around him. Then the silence was interrupted by the crying of a baby.

The star's beam glowed brightly on what he now recognized as a small barn. He neared it cautiously as the small child continued to cry. When he was just a few feet away, the old man who had been inside his shed appeared.

"You made it," he said with a warm smile. "I knew you would."

Jamal's eyes widened. "How did you know I would come?"

"Because you are one of the chosen ones."

Jamal fell to the old man's feet and started weeping. "I'm not one of the chosen," he cried. "You said the chosen had to face three challenges."

The old man stepped toward Jamal and patted him on his shoulder with his withered hand. "You have."

Jamal raised his head and looked through misty eyes at the elderly gentleman. "How?" He whispered almost inaudibly. "I did nothing."

The old man started laughing. "Oh, sweet innocent youth. How wonderful you are." He took Jamal by the shoulders and helped him to his feet.

"Your first challenge was hope." He said. "You looked into tomorrow and saw a brighter future for your family. You were able to change the mind of your doubting mother with your unselfish dreams." He smiled warmly at Jamal. "Not once did you ask for anything for yourself."

"And my second challenge?"

"Charity." The old man announced.

"I don't understand," replied Jamal.

"Of course you don't," said the older gentleman. "Giving freely without wanting is in your gentle nature." Jamal gave him a puzzled look. "The old woman," He stated. "You shared your food unselfishly with her when you knew it meant that you yourself would go hungry."

"But she was hungry," insisted the young boy.

Tears welled up in the old man's eyes. "If only everyone was as innocent as you. Time hardens men's hearts and turns them into cold shells."

"But that's only two challenges," said Jamal sadly. "There can't be any more remaining."

"You passed the hardest challenge of them all," replied the man.

"How?" Jamal asked. "What?"

The old gentleman pointed to a stone wall. "Have a seat," he said. They sat down and the man turned to him. "You believed a total stranger when he told you of a miraculous event that was about to take place. Not once did you question me or doubt what I was saying." He took Jamal's hands and held them face up. "You took hope," he raised his left hand, "and charity," he held his right. He then put them together. "And you kept your faith."

He looked sadly into Jamal's eyes. "What is a man if he doesn't have faith. What good is a tomorrow if he believes in nothing?" He pointed to the small barn. A ray from the star was shining brightly upon the door.

"Go witness your miracle, My Son." He pulled Jamal up to his feet. "You have faced your three challenges and earned your tomorrow."

Jamal walked to the door and pulled back the tattered curtain. Inside was a mother holding a child. A man was standing nearby keeping vigilant guard. The woman looked up and motioned for him to come closer. Jamal fell to his knees and crawled to the small baby she was holding. He wept when the child looked up at him and smiled. He had received the answer to the old man's riddle.

The miracle happened many years ago. Today Jamal is an old man. The passing of time is etched deeply in his face. He sits with his legs crossed on a thin blanket inside his house. His grandchildren play joyfully around him. Occasionally, a stranger will appear at his door and ask to hear about the miracle he witnessed as a boy.

He tells them in a soft voice about the small child who smiled up at him that night. They listen in amazement as he describes how the bright star lit up the evening sky and cast a glowing beam on the doorway of the old barn. And they sit in awe as he speaks of the old man and the three challenges he faced in seeking his miracle.

Before they depart, his words have remained unchanged throughout time. " You too can find your miracle. Follow steadfastly your hopes and your dreams. Give charitably to those who are less fortunate than you. And most importantly, keep in your heart always a resolute faith that there will be a brighter tomorrow. Go in peace."

The End