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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Volunteer (11/23/06)

TITLE: The Dung Beetle's Story
By Jan Ackerson


A slave is always a slave, even if he volunteers to do his master’s bidding. A dung beetle may choose to alight on a flower, but no one will think it a butterfly.

I have volunteered to accompany my master on this journey. Let the other slaves remain behind to empty slop jars and scratch leeks out of the soil. Sanjar is pleased with me and he feeds me well in return, but I do not call myself anything but a slave. I bow, and kiss his ring, and carry those items I am bidden to carry. But I will not flick the tiniest speck of dust from his sandals unless he tells me to.

And I will find a way to be free one day.

Our journey will take many months. We left Persia a fortnight ago, and our caravan will trudge through the Syrian desert. One we have crossed those sands—who can say? The masters say they are following a star eastward. I have no use for their astronomy, nor for their other wise arts: philosophy, politics, the interpretation of dreams. Such follies are pastimes for men who blow their noses in silk.

Sanjar prefers to ride apart from the other travelers. He is a solitary man, given to daydreaming. So we ride ahead, and he tells me of his longings, using my name as if I were his friend. He tells me that we travel to pay tribute to a king of mercy and grace. He does not say if this king’s mercy extends to those enslaved by pampered philosophers.

I have as much use for kings as I have for the study of stars.


We rode today against a hot and bitter wind. When we camped for the night, I took it upon myself to give the animals some extra care. Dirt had crusted their eyes and mouths—despite my vow never to volunteer the work of my hands, I groomed them out of pity for their servitude. They did not choose to take this journey, nor to bear the burden of the masters’ gifts to this mythical king of justice.

And such gifts!

The other slaves have whispered to me of richly scented oils, of precious incense drawn from Persia’s resin-bearing trees. What will a king do with such perfumery? My master brings a gift finer still—so much gold that I feel certain he will not miss the coins that have found their way into the folds of my robe. Gold is a language spoken in every country. These coins may one day buy my freedom.

After I had seen to the comfort of the animals, I lay outside Sanjar’s tent, gazing at the night sky. All was still, save for the horses’ shuffling and the light snoring from within. I allowed myself to dream of freedom, of home, of family. Emboldened by the night, I began a plan for escape that I would set in motion when next the caravan passed near a city. Surely among the unknown gods who inhabit the stars, there was one who would listen to the petitions of a slave.

Covered as I was in a blanket of longing, I did not hear my master slip out of the tent until he addressed me.

“Do you see the star we follow, Hassan?”

I jumped to my feet and obediently followed his pointing finger. Low on the eastern horizon, one star pulsed with unusual radiance. Sanjar spoke with quiet intensity.

“It will be wonderful! There will be no more wars, no more evil, no more disease. Just think of it, Hassan! A kingdom of mercy and peace!”

I was silent. This pretty kingdom he spoke of was not for slaves. But my heart raced at his next words.

“Would you not give your last piece of gold, Hassan, to kiss the feet of such a king?” He touched the sleeve of my garment, where I had hidden a large coin.

Sanjar knew that I had stolen from him. He could kill me immediately, and not a person under the heavens would fault him. One less dung beetle, that is all. Yet in the moonlight, his face showed only compassion.

Has the kingdom of mercy arrived already, in my master’s heart?

And now I must decide—do I put my faith in stolen gold, or in an unknown king? My answer is in the stars.

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This article has been read 1654 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Joanne Sher 11/30/06
You did a SUPERB job of characterization on Hassan. He was so, so real to me, and human. I also love getting a completely new perspective on the maji - a story I certainly know, but had never given much thought to.
Helen Paynter11/30/06
Beautiful fragrant piece - I can't find a better word for it. I experienced the warm desert journey with Hassan - you painted it in 5 senses. Beautiful, powerful, evocative piece. And I know who you are!
Lynda Schultz 11/30/06
The ending kind of rushed at me, but this is a wonderful piece of work. I absolutely loved this beautiful bit of prose: "Such follies are pastimes for men who blow their noses in silk. " Great!
Jen Davis11/30/06
Master writing at its best. The introduction to this story is superb, and the story is very well crafted. “And I will find a way to be free one day.” I loved the ending, concluding as strongly as it began.
Pat Guy 12/01/06
If only for more of a word count! I wanted this story to continue! To address his response to the Christ Child and the stolen gold in his pocket! What a scene!

Ah well, we can only imagine along with such a fine wonderful story as this.

Loved it!
Debbie Sickler12/04/06
There were a lot of good parts to this, but some of my favorites were when the master touched his sleeve where the gold was hidden and the line: "Covered as I was in a blanket of longing". I really liked the picture that created. Great job with creating an interesting and vivid entry. :)
Stephen Paynter12/04/06
Bravo! Bravo! More! More! A super entry. At my request, Helen always reads your entry aloud to me whenever she finds it - then when I finally get round to reading and commentating on it later in the week it is like coming home to an old friend. Super! I loved it. And Christmas-y too!
Donna Haug12/04/06
LOL - I kept looking for a real dung beetle! Terrific story. A little typo here: "One we have crossed" - should read 'once'. I liked the silk hanky too! ;)
Melanie Kerr 12/04/06
"A dung beetle may choose to alight on a flower, but no one will think it a butterfly."

I love that line! I thought the whole story was wonderful.
Cheri Hardaway 12/04/06
What a masterful piece of writing! Beautiful. Wonderful. Thank you. Blessings, Cheri
Donna Powers 12/05/06
Wow! This is absolutely amazing. I love this unique perspective. What an incredible story. My favorite so far. Thanks so much for sharing this.
Ruth Neilson12/05/06
I can see why you are in the Masters level. wow...that was amazing. I enjoyed the story.
Shanti Singh12/05/06
This is excellent! I can only hope that I'll write like you when I grow up!
Amy Michelle Wiley 12/06/06
Wow, this was awesome. I felt the second-to-last line was lacking something, but can't say what. Otherwise powerful story!
william price12/06/06
Well, let me be the 17th commenter to step out on a limb (lol) and say this is excellent. As always, inspiring, Jan. God bless.
william price12/06/06
Oh yes. I loved the opening paragraph. Very well done.
God bless again.
Sara Harricharan 12/06/06
wow! This was great reading. quite a different look on this topic. Good job!
Debbie OConnor12/06/06
This is a masterpiece. I love everything about it. Particularly the line about Sanjar touching the sleeve where the slave had hidden his gold...one less dung beetle...and then the perfect question to end on: Has the kingdom of mercy already arrived in my master's heart. I could see everything, feel everything.
Jan, you are a pro!
Catrina Bradley 12/08/06
What a beautifully written story - so real, so powerful. I was captivated. And LOVED the ending.