By AJ Lyndon
It was not enough that they had enslaved us.
It was not enough that we toiled for them night and day.
It was not enough that our men came home exhausted, shaking, sweating, their bodies torn, if they came home at all.
It was not enough to keep us at death’s threshold. Now they thought to stamp our people out. But those like my mother resisted and I, who had seen more than nine summers, did my part.
“Mimi, Sara’s time has come. I must go to her. Mind your brother for me. When he is asleep, come to her house and find me. It may be that I will need you.”
“If the baby is a boy, Ima.”
“First pray for a blessing on the mother that she and the baby may live. The rest comes after.”
Our masters in the city of Waset had the finest physicians, but they were not for us. We had our own midwives, women like my mother Yocheved, skilled in the ways of women, strong and brave enough to bring new life into the world or to let it go when it could not be saved, even by the God of our fathers.
I sat cross-legged beside the fire until my brother slept. Then I pulled the rough woollen blanket over him and sat staring into the candle flame, swaying gently in the draught from the street. The pointed flame stretched, in my imagination, towards the heavens and a better future.
My eyelids grew heavy, and I shook myself awake. The baby might be coming. I covered my head with a shawl and wrapped a flat bread, a handful of dates and a hunk of the pungent cheese made from ewe’s milk in palm leaves. When helping a labouring woman, my mother rarely remembered that she, too, needed food.
My brother would come to no harm. Elohim would care for him. As a further precaution I had placed the household gods on the shelf behind where he slept.
I pushed aside the goatskin curtain covering the doorway of our mudbrick house and went out into the dusk. The warmth of day lingered. Distant chanting came from one of the temples near the palace. Our masters had many gods who demanded worship day and night. Ra, the sun god, at least brought light, or so they believed. It was Elohim, not Ra, who had separated night from day, but we must not say so. Our masters paid no heed to our one God. He had no temple and no priests, so why should they heed or fear him?
“The Hebrews’ god is a weakling god who dwells in the desert. If he were a strong god like Ra or Horus, we would not have the Hebrews beneath our heels.”
Thus, spoke our masters, but one day Elohim would show His power.
By the time I reached Sara’s house, my mother was too busy to eat. She muttered a distracted “Leave it there, Mimi,” tucking a damp lock of hair beneath her scarf. Sara was on hands and knees, panting. I placed the food on a stool and retreated to a corner, waiting, fascinated as always by the miracle of life.
The air vibrated with groans, screams and prayers until at last I heard the shrill, angry cry of the newborn. An older woman, Sara’s mother, clucked over the naked scrap of humanity, while my mother wiped away blood and shit.
“Ima?” I asked. She turned a weary face towards me. “Go home, Mimi and mind your brother. I will return before morning.”
“A girl, thanks be to the God of our fathers.” She finished wrapping the infant and placed her in Sara’s arms. I peeped at the closed eyes, at the tiny fist waving in the air, until Ima shooed me away.
“No need to conceal this birth,” she said in relief. Whether the baby lived or died was of no concern to our masters. Girl-children were not a threat. She swayed as she stood up. “Ima, are you ill?” I grabbed her arm, trying to support her, though my head came only to her shoulder.
“No, Mimi, just tired. Tonight, all is well.”
But it was more than tiredness. Six months later it was my mother who crouched, groaning, while Chana the other midwife chanted, cajoled, prayed, her hands busy wiping, stroking, kneading, pulling, pushing. Soothing and bullying by turns she urged my mother onward through her pains. Familiar though the sounds were from other women, hearing my mother grunting like an animal frightened me. I huddled in a corner, hugging my knees for comfort.
“Now,” Chana urged. My mother panted, then screamed. Chana cried out in exultation as the slippery head emerged between my mother’s blood-streaked thighs. But when the baby’s body followed, Chana was silent. For an eternity of a moment, I thought the baby was dead, or my mother.
Chana murmured something and my mother wailed. I let out a breath that I had not realised I was holding. She lived. Moments later a thread of sound, rising and growing, cut the air. Chana, her face a study in resignation, was busy.
“Here, child, make haste.” She thrust the infant at me. I gripped the tiny body as she cut the cord. I looked down. Between the baby’s legs his tiny member was red, swollen and very male.
“Oh,” I said.
“Oh indeed, Mimi. Now take the child and run.”
“No.” Weak as she was, my mother raised herself on an elbow. “Let me see him.” Chana stopped in the act of wrapping my brother in a tattered shawl. She sighed and passed him to my mother.
“I will not let them murder my son.” Her voice cracked and she clutched the bundle to her. The baby yelled.
“You know we will do what we can, Yocheved. Mimi must take the baby to the caves and remain with him until the guards have been here. We will say the baby died, as we have done before.”
“And if they demand to see the body?”
Concealing a birth was becoming increasingly difficult. Our masters posted spies to ensure the recent decree that all Hebrew baby boys were to die, and their births reported, was carried out. Many babies died at birth, mothers too, but the number of live mothers and dead babies had reached unusual heights, raising suspicions.
I looked from my mother’s tear-stained cheeks to the sad, resigned face of her fellow midwife.
“Mimi,” Chana said. “Take him.”
I bent and removed the baby from my weeping mother’s arms.
Dawn was coming up and the ceremonies for the sun god would soon begin. I ran, my bare feet slapping the hard ground. My brother whimpered.
“Hush,” I panted. I stopped, pulled a fold of the shawl closer around him, shielding his face. Comforted, perhaps, by the extra warmth, he fell asleep. I ran on, past lines of my people’s shacks, past yawning women carrying water jars on their shoulders. Here and there a man, face set, emerged from his family’s house tying on his sandals, hurrying towards one of the quarries or building sites before the overseers with their whips rousted them. My own father I had not seen in many weeks. He was working on a site beyond the Nile, carving pictures into tombs intended for lesser members of the royal family. I prayed that when he returned his back would be healed from the scars of the last beating.
I followed the path of the dried-out wadi to the edge of the valley where the cliffs began. My arms ached from the weight of their precious burden by the time I pushed aside the bush covering the entrance to the cave. The shawl snagged on a branch, pulling me up short with a jolt which woke my brother. He whimpered. I stuck my little finger in his mouth, and he began sucking. He was hungry. I had a clay feeding bottle in my pack, but it was useless until Chana sent Rachel with a goat.
As dawn became day, I saw Rachel’s dumpy figure approaching. A nanny goat ambled beside her, a piece of rope tied about her neck, her kid trotting at her heels. The cave was not large and by the time Rachel, the goat, the kid, the baby and I were all concealed within, there was a strong smell of goat.
“This is for you, Mimi.” I accepted the basket of food with thanks, tearing at the flat bread hungrily.
“The goat will remain with you, the kid too. I will come again tomorrow and bring you meat. Remain out of sight.”
I parted from her with reluctance. Daylight filtered through the bush, illuminating the centre of the cave, but the night would be dark. I dared not light a fire for warmth or to keep away wild animals, lest the glow be seen.
As the sun set it grew chill, and I felt very alone. I usually spent my days and nights surrounded by all the noise of the slave quarters, shouting, quarrelling, donkeys braying, dogs barking, women calling to each other, Ima singing. The silence of the desert was absolute and terrifying. I woke frequently during the night, imagining I heard the slithering of a snake or even a lion, padding towards the cave on velvet paws. Clutching at my courage, and the blanket I was wrapped in, I wriggled to the entrance and peered between the branches of the bush. There were more stars than I had ever seen before. I gaped at them in wonder until the desert chill sent me back to the comforting warmth and familiar odour of the goat and her kid.
For two days and nights we remained in the cave. I kept my knife close at hand but during that time, nothing disturbed the peace but the bleating of the kid, the crying of the baby and the pounding of my heart. Early one morning I heard the high-pitched cries of a distant camel train. On the third morning, I woke to find light streaming in. The bush had been pushed away from the cave mouth. I sat up with a jolt but, to my relief, it was my mother who stood there smiling at me. She was clutching at her belly and I knew that the heavy flow after the birth had not yet ceased. Her eyes swivelled from me to the swaddled bundle.
“Is he well?” She crouched beside me.
“I have been feeding him with the goat’s milk, Ima.”
The baby chose that moment to wake and cry.
“He is hungry.” I reached for the clay bottle, but Mother stayed me with a hand on my arm.
“I will feed him, my daughter.” She pulled down the neck of her tunic. Her breasts were red and swollen with milk.
“But the goat,” I protested. This was not the agreement. My mother lifted the baby to her breast, adjusting the position of his head with practised hand. Accustomed to the clay feeding bottle, he fussed but as the milk began to flow, he latched on and sucked. My mother gave a sigh of relief as the pressure eased. I could not help feeling jealous at the expression in her eyes. She must have gazed at Aaron thus when he was an infant, me too, but that adoration was not mine to remember. I watched in sulky silence as the baby sucked and then burped. I felt a nudge against my back. The nanny goat, her feelings hurt at this switch in loyalties, reminding me that she was there. The kid began suckling with easy efficiency. I giggled at the contrast between the nonchalant assurance of goat and kid with the fumbling incompetence of the human baby.
With her free hand, my mother twitched the cover off her basket.
“Break your fast, Mimi.”
We sat in companionable silence munching on bread and dates and taking it in turns to drink from a jug of beer. When we had finished eating, I leant my head against her shoulder.
“Can you be brave, Mimi?” she murmured. I stiffened. What more was she about to ask of me? With the bush covering the entrance, the light was dim, but my mother’s dark eyes glowed with love as she spoke. At least, that is how I remember it.
“Take the goat back to Rachel, Mimi and go home. Sara is caring for Aaron, but I told her you would fetch him today.”
“Why, what will you do?” I whispered.
“I will not give my son up to death, Mimi. But it is I who must tend to him now. Go home, my daughter, care for Aaron. Sara will help you, and I hope Abba may be permitted to visit before the next new moon. Rachel will bring me what is needful. When it is time, I will send for you.” She said no more.
“But Ima,” I was frightened, “How many new moons will you spend here? What if the Egyptians see your fire and find the cave?”
Ima hugged me. “Be strong, Mimi. Do not worry. Elohim will protect us.”
“When it is time for what?” I wondered as I trudged the distance back to the slave quarters of my people, tugging at the rope attached to the unwilling goat. She stopped at every weed, or so it seemed. The fresh parting from my mother was all the harder after those precious few hours. The goat and kid were poor compensation for her loss and that of the wriggling, sweet-smelling, baby.
Aaron ran to me for a hug when I arrived at Sara’s. A week later, my abba returned from his work on the tombs. He had only one night at home, but I brought water for his feet and fed him from our precious jar of salted fish from the Nile. There were fresh red wheals on his neck.
“They are not so bad, Mimi,” he said, tousling my hair. “The new overseer is not as harsh as Seti was. He likes the sound when he cracks the whip, but most of the time that is all he does.”
“I will fetch the salve, Abba.” It was what my mother would have done.
“You are a good girl, Mimi. I will rest for an hour and then you will tell me more of your new brother.” Pulling off his sandals, he collapsed on the pile of goatskin rugs he shared with us on his rare visits. By the time I had found the small jar of herbal ointment and removed the stopper, he was asleep. Aaron arrived a few minutes later from playing with his friends. I pointed to Abba and shushed him.
I was disappointed but not surprised when Abba’s exhausted sleep lasted until dawn and it was time for him to leave. I watched from the doorway until his tall, stooping figure was a distant speck.
Two weeks later, the guards came tramping through the narrow, dusty streets of the walled village where the Hebrew slaves lived. Somehow, I knew they were coming to our house. “Aaron, go.” I pushed him out the door. The decree of the Pharaoh had been made two years after Aaron’s birth, but I was afraid of what he might say. I returned to my task of kneading dough, making believe that I had nothing to hide.
“Girl, where is your mother?” The curtain had been pushed aside. The officer scowled at me. Two soldiers stood outside, their spears glinting in the sunlight.
“I do not know, Sir,” I stuttered. “She attends women in travail, wherever they need her.”
He turned to his men. “Search these quarters.”
I stood clutching my kneading bowl while they turned over our possessions, spilling barley on the ground and breaking a water jar. They shook their heads.
“No baby here, Sir, and nothing for an infant that we can see.”
He stared at me hard. In my fear my bladder felt as if it would burst. I pressed my thighs together under my linen tunic. Suddenly he pounced.
“What are these for, girl?” He was brandishing a handful of clean clouts.
“For cleaning babies, Sir and their mothers. As I told you, my mother tends to women as they birth their children. There is much blood when babies are born.”
“And when babies die,” he snarled. “There is much blood when babies die. We spit them on our swords and spears or beat their brains out. Their skulls are soft, the Hebrew spawn. Remember that, girl.”
He stormed out, his men following. My knees buckled and my bladder gave way. When Sara came by later, I was sitting on the ground in my soaked tunic, clutching the bowl, the dough dried into a stiff and crusted mass. She clucked.
“Come, Mimi. Bring Aaron. I will feed you tonight. You should not be alone.”
The soldiers did not return. For three moons I saw nothing of my mother, but Rachel visited her every few days with food and told me all was well.
“Your brother is strong, Mimi,” she smiled. “He is able to lift his head now.”
“What has Ima named him?” I had not thought to ask her in that precious day I had spent with them. Rachel sighed. “Mimi, your mother cannot keep him. What would be the purpose of naming him?”
A day later, Rachel visited me as it was getting dark and the gate to the village had closed.
“Mimi, your mother wants you to visit her in two days and bring…,” She named a strange list of items.
I was carrying them all as I approached the cave. The bundle on my back included materials used by fishermen to make their boats waterproof. I was so excited at the thought of seeing my mother that I scarcely felt the weight of the pack. I was 50 paces or more from the cave when she emerged from behind the bush, her arms held wide. She must have been watching out. I ran into them and she squeezed me tight, holding me to her while we both shed tears.
“Are you well, Mimi?” she said at last, pushing me away so she could see me. “Today is my last day in the cave. This is what I want you to do.”
It was early the next morning and the air was cool when I crouched in the reeds at the edge of the river. Ima had bidden me stay home with Aaron for there were harsh penalties for those who hid Hebrew baby boys. “Too dangerous, Mimi,” she had said. “If I do not return, you must be both mother and sister to Aaron.”
But I had to know my brother’s fate. Someone must be there when he went into the river in his tiny basket-boat. And so, I disobeyed.
Ima walked towards the Nile, the basket tucked under her arm. My brother did not like being shut in the dark. He whimpered. Following in the shadows, I watched Ima open the basket and soothe him. She walked swiftly, transferring the basket to her head as she drew near the wide expanse of water. Anyone seeing her might think she carried clothes to wash in the river.
Once or twice, she looked around, but I do not believe she either saw or thought of me. All her soul was bound up in that bundle which had so recently been a part of her own body. When she reached the riverbank, she hesitated, moving into the reeds and then out again, rejecting one spot after another.
I heard a shout. “Slave, what are you doing?” I peered between the reeds. Two of the palace eunuchs were coming our way and they had spotted my mother. She straightened up and ran. One of the eunuchs lumbered in pursuit.
There were places Ima could have hidden herself, trees, bushes, but she did not. She was drawing the pursuit away from the precious basket, for her arms were empty. The other eunuch had continued walking towards the river. Like his fellow, he was tall and broad-chested, bangles encircling his upper arms, a bronze khopesh in his belt.
I shuddered. It was said the palace eunuchs, lacking the power to lie with women, carried only hatred in their hearts, for men most of all. Crouching low, I pushed my way through the reeds until I heard a whimper. Lying half in and half out of the river, the basket had tipped upside down. Grasping the sides with both hands I wrenched, but it was stuck. I heard women’s voices. They were probably coming to wash themselves or their clothes. Sobbing, I tugged once more with all my strength. The glutinous mud released the basket with a great sucking noise, and I staggered backwards.
There was a little spit a short distance away at the edge of the mighty river. Slaves were forbidden to go there, but I sometimes watched Egyptian children splashing in the shallows. It might be a better place to leave my brother, where children might find him, take him home with them. I scuttled along, until I reached a place next to the spit where the reeds thinned out. The voices were drawing closer; and there was no time for words, not even a prayer. I rammed the basket right way up in a clump of reeds and fled.
The princess’s white tunic shimmered in the rays of the rising sun. She danced towards the water, laughing. Her body was lithe and smooth with flawless skin which had never known the calluses and scars of toil, the pinch of hunger, the lash of the whip. Clouds of spray flew into the air as she splashed.
A lusty wail cleaved the peace. Waist-deep in the Nile, the princess turned her head.
“A Hebrew boy-child, Madam,” the handmaid grumbled. “What effrontery, leaving it here at your bathing place.” She beckoned a eunuch guard. “Dispose of it.” He grinned, pulling the sickle-shaped khopesh from his belt with a flourish.
“No! He shall live,” the princess ordered. “I will not have this place I love defiled with blood. Bring the baby to me.”
She scooped the infant from his basket and extended a finger. He grasped it and gurgled. The princess smiled.
“I shall name you, Moses, for I drew you out from the water.”