For the way he talked, the stutterer’s eyes were surprisingly steady. Up and down the rows of builders they went, watching the rise and fall of the hammers and the back and forth of the plaster, spreading like waves on stone dumped, one cart after another, at the feet of the builders. The great pyramids, their peaks so high that they blocked out the sun, could diminish even the tallest of men. The stutterer, therefore, stayed out of their shadow. He sat at the palace gates, with full access to the sun, as he watched the pyramids rise. Along with the clanks of hammers and the creeks of cart wheels, the stutterer often heard the screams of builders as they were whipped because they dared to rest their legs or wipe the sweat from their brows.
As his eyes went up one of the rows one day, the stutterer saw that familiar serpentine curl of a lash jump up and dive back down. The crack of the whip may have stung his ears, or he may have had a momentary flash of empathy with the poor man, or he may just have been restless, because the stutterer leaped down the palace steps and rushed to the source of the screams. The dust of the pyramids swarmed like bugs around him as he ran, blinding him, but the crack of the lash told him he had arrived at the scene of the whipping.
The soldier was merciless as he hailed lacerations down onto the fallen man’s back. The poor man kept trying to crawl away, but the soldier would kick him in the stomach, and he’d fall back down to the ground. This repeated until the poor man lay lifeless, like a sickly goat fallen in the pasture, and yet the soldier inflicted still more blows to the man’s back. “Stop b-b-b-beating that man,” the stutterer said. “He- he-he-he can’t stand up.”
“He should’ve thought of that before he sat down,” replied the soldier.
“I wwwon’t let this c-c-continue.”
The soldier just laughed, and with renewed vigor unleashed his venom on the poor man. The stutterer, his words rendered useless, charged at the soldier and knocked him to the ground. A tiny river of blood trickled out of the soldier’s nose as he lay motionless on the sandstone beneath him. Before the soldier could react, a melon-sized rock was in the stutterer’s hand and it smashed the soldier’s face into an unrecognizable stew. The soldier was dead—killed by the stutterer in defense of a slave.
He looked around; nobody seemed to have noticed. The builders, servants to an oppressive tyrant, kept their heads down and focused on their work. The stutterer, therefore, dragged the body behind a scaffold and threw it into a hurried grave. The hole was covered and the stutterer glided, as if small angels were pulling his feet, back into the sunlight. He kept walking toward the sun until he was back at the palace. Every head stayed down.
That night the dead soldier haunted the stutterer’s dreams. He scolded the stutterer for disobeying the will of the Pharaoh. He cried to the stutterer over the life left unlived. Behind him myriad builders stared at the stutterer with frog-like eyes; they had seen everything, their eyes told him; he had disappointed them. He awoke to a peculiar morning. Everyone he looked at looked back with curious stares. The stutterer tried to act normal but his eyes kept betraying him so he excused himself, saying he needed some air, and went to walk amongst his brethren in the worksites.
Heads stayed down, like the day before, but something was different. The blows of hammer to stone, a harmonious chorus just yesterday, now bit his ears in staccato slices. He heard the familiar cries of anger, but when he arrived he discovered that the fight was between two Israelites.
“B-b-brothers,” the stutterer said, “why do you ffffight?”
“Brothers?” the first man repeated. Turning to the man he was fighting he said, “Did you hear that Gideon? He thinks we’re b-b-brothers.”
“Tell me B-B-B-Brother,” said the man named Gideon, “Where do you sleep at night? On coarse straw like us? And tell me, Brother, where do you spend your days? Look, Brother, at your smooth hands. Now look at mine. You do not toil, like us, Brother, under the shadow of the pyramids. You are no more my brother than Pharaoh is my uncle,” he said, and spat at the feet of the stutterer.
“How dare you spit at my f-f-f-feet!” the stutterer yelled.
Gideon glared at him. “Are you going to kill me like you killed Ammun?”
They knew. Of course they knew. They all knew. Generations of living as slaves had taught them how to see without looking. If Pharaoh did not already know, he would know soon. A soldier of the empire can only stay missing for so long. There was only one thing to do: run.
He ran past rows of workers, neither stopping nor looking back. He ran out of the shadow of the pyramids, past the last Israelite shack on the outskirts of the city, over the mighty dunes of Egypt, and didn’t stop for four impatient days. He ran until his legs collapsed like ashes beneath him. He saw green dots on the horizon, and he crawled toward that eternal place until his hands touched a stone well. Oh sweet water well, sweet nectar of life! He drew water from its depths and drank—to the well, to his health, to that ethereal point on the horizon; to the poor, lacerated man lying at the feet of the dead soldier; to the life he hopefully saved; to the life he took; to the thousands of lives he could do nothing about; to the place he could never go back to, the city of his birth, the city of his exile; the city of gold and of sand; of wine and water; life and death; mothers and soldiers; Jews and Egyptians; Pharaohs and slaves; to all that, to the life he left behind, he drank.
To be continued… This is the first in a fiction series by the author. Installments will run on Sunday mornings.