The Flight into Egypt by Selma Lagerlof
Far away, in a desert in the East, there grew, many years ago, a palm that
was very, very old, and very, very tall. No one passing through the desert
could help stopping to look at it, for it was much higher than other
palms, and people said of it that it would surely grow to be higher than
the Obelisks and Pyramids.
This great palm, standing in its loneliness, and looking over the desert,
one day saw something which caused its huge crown of leaves to wave to and
fro with surprise on its slender stem. On the outskirts of the desert two
lonely persons were wandering. They were still so far away that even a
camel would have looked no larger than an ant at that distance, but they
were assuredly human beings, two who were strangers to the desert—for the
palm knew the people of the desert—a man and a woman, who had neither
guide, nor beasts of burden, nor tent, nor water-bag.
"Verily," said the palm to itself, "these two have come hither to die."
The palm looked quickly around.
"I am surprised," it said, "that the lions have not already gone out to
seize their prey. But I do not see a single one about. Nor do I see any of
the robbers of the desert. But they are sure to come.
"There awaits them a sevenfold death," thought the palm. "The lions will
devour them, the serpents will sting them, thirst will consume them, the
sand-storm will bury them, the robbers will kill them, the burning sun
will overcome them, fear will destroy them."
The palm tried to think of something else; the fate of these two made it
sad. But in the immeasurable desert around it there was not a single thing
that the palm had not known and gazed at for thousands of years. Nothing
could attract its attention. It was again obliged to think of the two
"By the drought and the wind!" said the palm, invoking the two greatest
enemies of life, "what is the woman carrying on her arm? I believe these
mad people have a little child with them!"
The palm, which was long-sighted, as the aged generally are, saw aright.
The woman carried in her arms a child, that had laid its head on her
breast and was sleeping.
"The child has not even enough clothes on," said the palm. "I see that the
mother has lifted up her skirt and thrown it over it. She has taken it out
of its bed in great haste and hurried away with it. Now I understand:
these people are fugitives.
"But they are mad, all the same," continued the palm. "If they have not an
angel to protect them, they should rather have let their enemies do their
worst than have taken refuge in the desert. I can imagine how it has all
happened. The man is at work, the child sleeps in its cradle, the woman
has gone to fetch water. When she has gone a few steps from the door she
sees the enemy approaching. She rushes in, seizes the child, calls to the
husband that he shall follow her, and runs away. Since then they have
continued their flight the whole day; they have assuredly not rested a
single moment. Yes, so it has all happened; but I say all the same, if no
angel protects them—
"They are in such fear that they do not feel either fatigue or other
sufferings, but I read thirst in their eyes. I think I should know the
face of a thirsty man."
And when the palm began to think about thirst a fit of trembling went
through its high stem, and the innumerable fronds of its long leaves
curled up as if held over a fire.
"If I were a man," it said, "I would never venture into the desert. He is
truly brave who ventures here without having roots reaching down to the
inexhaustible water-veins. There can be danger even for palms, even for
such a palm as I. Could I advise them, I would beg them to return. Their
enemies could never be as cruel to them as the desert. They think perhaps
that it is easy to live in the desert. But I know that even I at times
have had difficulty in keeping alive. I remember once in my youth when a
whirlwind threw a whole mountain of sand over me I was nearly choking. If
I could die I should have died then."
The palm continued to think aloud, as lonely old people do.
"I hear a wonderful melodious murmur passing through my crown," it said;
"all the fronds of my leaves must be moving. I do not know why the sight
of these poor strangers moves me so. But this sorrowful woman is so
beautiful! It reminds me of the most wonderful thing that ever happened to
And whilst its leaves continued their melodious rustle the palm remembered
how once, long, long ago, a glorious human being had visited the oasis. It
was the Queen of Sheba, accompanied by the wise King Solomon. The
beautiful Queen was on her way back to her own country; the King had
accompanied her part of the way, and now they were about to part. "In
memory of this moment," said the Queen, "I now plant a date-kernel in the
earth; and I ordain that from it shall grow a palm which shall live and
grow until a King is born in Judaea greater than Solomon." And as she said
this she placed the kernel in the ground, and her tears watered it.
"How can it be that I should just happen to think of this to-day?" said
the palm. "Can it be possible that this woman is so beautiful that she
reminds me of the most beautiful of all queens, of her at whose bidding I
have lived and grown to this very day? I hear my leaves rustling stronger
and stronger," said the palm, "and it sounds sorrowful, like a death-song.
It is as if they prophesied that someone should soon pass away. It is well
to know that it is not meant for me, inasmuch that I cannot die."
The palm thought that the death-song in its leaves must be for the two
lonely wanderers. They themselves surely thought that their last hour was
drawing near. One could read it in their faces when they walked past one
of the skeletons of the camels that lay by the roadside. One saw it from
the glances with which they watched a couple of vultures flying past. It
could not be otherwise—they must perish.
They had now discovered the palm in the oasis, and hastened thither to
find water. But when they at last reached it they sank down in despair,
for the well was dried up. The woman, exhausted, laid down the child, and
sat down crying by the side of the well. The man threw himself down by her
side; he lay and beat the ground with his clenched hands. The palm heard
them say to each other that they must die. It also understood from their
conversation that King Herod had caused all children of two or three
years of age to be killed from fear that the great expected King in Judaea
had been born.
"It rustles stronger and stronger in my leaves," said the palm. "These
poor fugitives have soon come to their last moment."
It also heard that they were afraid of the desert. The man said it would
have been better to remain and fight the soldiers than to flee. He said
that it would have been an easier death.
"God will surely help us," said the woman.
"We are all alone amongst serpents and beasts of prey," said the man. "We
have no food and no water. How can God help us?"
He tore his clothes in despair and pressed his face against the earth. He
was hopeless, like a man with a mortal wound in his heart.
The woman sat upright, with her hands folded upon her knees. But the
glances she cast over the desert spoke of unutterable despair.
The palm heard the sorrowful rustling in its leaves grow still stronger.
The woman had evidently heard it too, for she looked up to the crown of
the tree, and in the same moment she involuntarily raised her arms.
"Dates, dates!" she cried.
There was such a longing in her voice, that the old palm wished it had not
been any higher than the gorse, and that its dates had been as easy to
reach as the red berries of the hawthorn. It knew that its crown was full
of clusters of dates, but how could man reach to such a dazzling height?
The man had already seen that, the dates being so high, it was impossible
to reach them. He did not even lift his head. He told his wife that she
must not wish for the impossible.
But the child, which had crawled about alone and was playing with sticks
and straws, heard the mother's exclamation. The little one could probably
not understand why his mother should not have everything she wished for.
As soon as he heard the word "dates," he began to look at the tree. He
wondered and pondered how he should get the dates. There came almost
wrinkles on his forehead under the fair locks. At last a smile passed over
his face. Now he knew what he would do. He went to the palm, stroked it
with his little hand, and said in his gentle, childish voice:
"Bend down, palm. Bend down, palm."
But what was this, what could this be? The palm-leaves rustled, as if a
hurricane rushed through them, and shudder upon shudder passed through the
tall stem. And the palm felt that the little one was the stronger. It
could not resist him.
And with its high stem it bowed down before the child, as men bow down
before princes. In a mighty arch it lowered itself towards earth, and at
last bowed so low that its great crown of trembling leaves swept the sand
of the desert.
The child did not seem to be either frightened or surprised, but with a
joyous exclamation it ran and plucked one cluster after another from the
crown of the old palm.
When the child had gathered enough, and the tree was still lying on the
earth, he again went to it, stroked it, and said in his gentlest voice:
"Arise, palm, arise."
And the great tree raised itself silently and obediently on its stem,
whilst the leaves played like harps.
"Now I know for whom they play the death-song," the old palm said to
itself, when it again stood erect. "It is not for any of these strangers."
But the man and woman knelt down on their knees and praised God.
"Thou hast seen our fear and taken it from us. Thou art the Mighty One,
that bends the stem of the palm like a reed. Of whom should we be afraid
when Thy strength protects us?"
Next time a caravan passed through the desert, one of the travellers saw
that the crown of the great palm had withered.
"How can that have happened?" said the traveller. "Have we not heard that
this palm should not die before it had seen a King greater than Solomon?"
"Perhaps it has seen Him," answered another wanderer of the desert.