This is the second part in The Stutterer, a fiction series by the author. Installments run on Sunday mornings. You can read Part One here.
That Pharaoh had sentenced thousands of unborn Jewish boys to death because of a nightmare couldn’t be proven, but there were rumors. He had dreamt one night of a lion with one eye and ugly teeth, so the story went.
This lion blazed through the Egyptian Empire, knocking down houses and eating the food of every inhabitant of every village he encountered, until he came to one small village in which there grew thousands of grapevines. The lion loved grapes, and he began shoveling them into his mouth by the pawful. The villagers protested. They had worked so hard to grow those grapes and now they could not enjoy the products of their labors. “Those are our grapes!” they cried, “Why do you eat them?” The lion roared and said, “I have come from the belly of the earth; I am king!” They tried to resist him, but he was too strong; those that fought him met his mangled teeth and purple stomach, and the lion threw their bones into the sea.
Pharaoh’s advisors reminded him that the lion, proud and noble, was the symbol of the Jews. The dream, they said, warned of a Jewish king soon to be born, from the belly of the earth, who would rise and destroy the grape-eating Egyptians and cast their bones into the sea.
The boy was born five months to the day of that dream.
His family tried to hide him from existence. For three months they muffled his cries and sheltered him in the shadows of their home. But the pressure eventually became too much to bear; so his mother bundled him up in a wicker basket, took him to the river, and sent him away. “He’s gone,” she said when she returned home. “Cast him out of your minds; he’s in God’s hands now.” But Miriam, the boy’s sister, rushed out of the house. She wouldn’t let him die alone.
She found him flowing with the river towards the glowing palace, into the evening bath of the queen and her handmaidens. From behind the wall of reeds on the riverbank, Miriam watched the bulbous women bathe and joke with each other, and she started to cry. They, who had all been alive for twenty years or more, could wallow in the bath, laughing and splashing their way through the night. Yet Miriam, who was only six, had that day already swept the floor of her family’s modest home, helped her mother feed four mouths on three plates of food, and sent her baby brother to his likely death.
What did those women know about death? Or responsibility? At that moment Miriam wasn’t thinking about her doomed brother; she wanted to scream at them that it wasn’t fair! That six-year-olds should be the ones playing games and splashing in the bath. It wasn’t fair; they were the adults!
“My dress is so beautiful,” said one maiden. Oh yes it is, they all agreed.
“What do you think of mine?” asked another.
“Sitre,” the queen said, “You look like a duck.”
They all laughed. Their laughs were full and unconscious. They sounded like ducks.
They talked some more about their dresses, and the upcoming palace ball, and other palace gossip that Miriam couldn’t understand, all while the boy and his basket continued on its collision course. Miriam didn’t want the boy to die, but she didn’t want him to live as an Egyptian either. Just imagining it squeezed her heart into a pit.
She saw the boy as an adult, walking past his brothers without noticing them—with that look that all Jews get when facing an Egyptian; the look that Miriam, a child, got from everyone. An Egyptian life was a shameful life, and no brother of hers would live so callously. But the other option was death, and she would sooner cover the basket with her own body than allow Pharaoh to slice it to pieces.
She could pluck him from the basket; take him far away where he could wear his own colorful robes. And he could always rest under the shade of a palm tree after a hard day’s work, if he so desired. And he could have all the food he wanted! He wouldn’t have to share with anybody. They could escape tonight; she just had to reach out and grab him.
But then she heard the queen: “Sitre, look! There’s a baby in that basket. Go and fetch him for me.”
Her handmaiden waded out to the edge of the bath, so close that her perfume stung Miriam’s nostrils, and retrieved the baby for the queen.
“Look at his cute little nose. And—oh!—his clothes are all wet. I should take him inside and clean him up.”
“But Queen, this might be a Jewish baby,” said one of her maids. “What will the Pharaoh say?”
“I will handle the Pharaoh,” the queen replied. “Maybe this was a Jewish baby, but he’s my baby now. I shall call him Moses—saved from the water.”
Miriam, emboldened by the tenderness with which the queen held the boy, emerged from her hiding place and approached the gander of women.
“Miss,” she said, embarrassed, looking at the queen’s reflection, “I see you found a Jewish boy in the water. You must be busy, being queen and all. I know a woman who could help raise the boy; if you’d like.”
“Yes,” said the queen. “I’d like that.”
So it came to be that the boy grew of age in the palace of the Pharaoh, alongside Egyptians, but raised by his mother and sister. He was Moses, saved from water, a Jew in the house of the Pharaoh.
(Photo: Tambako the Jaguar)