This is the third part in The Stutterer, a fiction series by the author. Installments run on Sunday mornings. You can find the first two parts here.
The Pharaoh was hard towards the Jews and hard towards his citizens, but if his daughter wanted so much as a cookie he would bend the world to find one. So when his daughter said to him, “Mother would’ve let me keep the baby,” he squirmed like mud but relented. Moses, therefore, grew up in the palace, safe from death, but not much else. Because as soon as the boy learned to talk, Pharaoh knew that Moses could not possibly be the strong and fearsome lion of his dream.
“Boy—” he never called Moses by his name—“Do you love your stepmother?”
“Y-y-y-yes sir. I d-d-d-do.”
“That’s good… You know I could have you killed at any moment,” he said, looking at his fingernails.
He seemed to enjoy tormenting young Moses: “You’re a model for your people, Boy. You cause trouble in the palace and I’ll have to punish the rest of them.”
“And when they ask why they’re being punished I’ll have to tell them.”
“I’ll say, ‘It’s because—’” a smirk creased his face—“‘your leader in the palace was caught running around and making a ruckus when he should’ve been sleeping.’ How do you think they’ll like that?”
“P-p-probably w-w-w-won’t, sir.”
“No, probably not,” Pharaoh said, his words trailing off as if he were considering doing it anyway, just to prove that he could. Moses detested the man; but the Pharaoh was the Pharaoh, and he, Moses, was just a Jew.
When he got angry he liked to go to the bath and listen to his stepmother gossip with her maids. Out of view, he’d sit and watch them laugh and joke as if he were watching some fairytale life, something too colorful to be real. The sounds of their voices, mixed with the smooth beat of the water, soothed him, the dreamy cadences taking him away. Because for all the years he lived in the palace, Moses never felt truly at home. His stepmother was embarrassed by his stutter—she never said so directly, but he could tell—and her handmaidens were embarrassed by her embarrassment. She called him her little lilipad, or her own Mr. Mustafa, after a popular nursery rhyme of the day. But she rarely talked with him; she didn’t have the patience.
His mother and sister had patience, but even though they came daily to the palace, they never seemed comfortable within its walls. Their movements were stiff and restrained, they tiptoed on delicate feet as they walked, and their eyes kept darting around the palace as if they expected at any second someone to pounce from the walls and drag them away. They grabbed him too brusquely, scolded him too jaggedly, and had the bad habit of jumping at every sudden noise.
He relished the games he played with Rameses, but those too eventually stopped. They used to run around the palace at night, when only the night drones roamed the corridors. Flaunting their curfew, they would pretend to be spies infiltrating the great Egyptian palace. Or they would be night racers—the famed athletes known only from myth, who could run like the wind on silent feet (because loud feet attracted the attention of day parents, who would lock them in the dungeon if caught).
But one day everything changed. Moses crept into Rameses’ bedroom for another night race, but Rameses had fallen asleep. The next day Moses snuck behind his stepbrother and pelted him with olives, but instead of chucking them back, Rameses kept his head down and pretended not to notice. The Pharaoh had apparently intervened. As Moses would learn later, Pharaoh had sat Rameses down and said, “As you know, Rameses, I was given no sons. Only your mother. And you being her only son—”
“What about Moses?” Rameses asked.
“Moses is a Jew, Rameses. He cannot take over our empire. That means you are my only heir. I’m getting older Rameses; it’s time for you to learn how to rule. No more childish games with the Jew. No more sneaking around at night. From now on you are to follow me and do what I say.”
So Moses lost his only friend in the palace. His stepmother, smiled when she passed, but few times during his childhood did she ever act as Moses felt a mother should. His actual mother, and his sister, smothered him with nervous affection; they treated him like a precious stolen jewel, something that needed constant attention lest it break or be discovered.
Their love became so suffocating that Moses spent more time running from them than being with them, until the day came when he told them not to come at all. Instead he went out to the front steps where he saw an Egyptian inflicting a beating that changed his life forever. He had lived in the palace of the wealthiest city on the map; he had slept on fine cotton sheets and eaten off of plates made of gold. He had been want of nothing, yet in need of everything.
But now, sitting by a dirty well in the middle of the desert, far away from home, he just needed more water. He drank, then closed his eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep.