The sand is hot beneath my feet this winter, and a traveler told my father that the southern mountains knew no rain.
Another bad year, people whisper. The water will run low again, they speculate. There won’t be any harvests come the spring, they fear.
My father says nothing, of course. He wouldn’t, not until the ceremony, not until He will walk with His priests up to the great arch of our forefathers, their robes trailing behind them in the hot, dry sand.
He took me once, when I was little. Little enough to hide between the dresses of my handmaidens, little enough to leave the palace grounds. The Nile rushed and gushed that year, terrifying me. It swept by the notches at the very top of the great arch, sending the priests to their knees and into trilling cries of thanks.
But this spring, there won’t be songs, not dances. The Nile will flow far below the notch that marks a blessed year.
The priests will declare three days of fasting, then, and prostrate themselves before the houses of the Gods. And my father will sit grim and stone-like on his throne and name those whom he claims guilty, and the people will mete out the punishment, for my father’s word is Truth and Law.
But other people, human people, assign blame without much ceremony. And I can hear their whispers spreading out already, even in my lonely, solemn rooms.
The Hebrews cursed us.
The Hebrews prayed for draught to avenge their slaughtered sons.
The Hebrews will watch us starve, and laugh.
Kill the Hebrews. Kill the Hebrews. Save our land.
Some may blame my father for his previous edicts, I suppose. Some may question wether murdering the infants was sagacious. But they won’t dare to say such things out loud, and most of them won’t dare to even think them. Perhaps they cannot contemplate a God in error, they who never saw my father laugh, and cry, and love.
He loves me, you see, underneath his hardness. And so I know he’s human, and can err.
The sand is hot beneath my feet this winter, and my father will accuse the Hebrews, and there shall be more death.
“I can’t save you,” I can hear my mother whispering, as my brother gurgles in her arms.
“I can’t give you life.”
Her voice is soft, but I can hear the screams that echo in it. We all heard them before, too many times: mothers shrieking as the soldiers tear their babies from their arms, and then the infants shrieking, all too briefly.
And then, the silence.
“I can’t save you,” my mother whispers, and the softness of her voice is as horrid as that silence.”So I shall leave it to our fathers’ God. He shall have to save you, if He wishes to.”
I won’t let Him hide behind the actions of His creatures, is what she means to say, but won’t.
If You don’t choose to save us, You are our killer, and we might as well bow to that tyrant on the throne.
My mother doesn’t know I hear the words she doesn’t say. She doesn’t know that I, too, sometimes yell them in my silence.
The sand is hot, but the water is pleasant, lapping, soft, against my naked feet. Too shallow, I think. Too shallow. There shall be death come spring.
My brother is quiet as we place him on the river. The water carries him away, far away, before he cries.
And that cry changes everything. And that cry makes me run.
I run between the reeds, across the mud, along the bank. I wade through shallow water, and fall, and run again. My mother thinks she can’t do more, but my brother is alive and well and crying, and I can’t give him up to the mercy of our God.
God isn’t too merciful in my experience.
My brother’s life is ours to save.
My handmaidens follow me into the shallow stream as I walk there.
They won’t come closer, not unbidden. Not closer to the daughter of a God, a king. My father’s word is law and punishment and death.
Come spring, the shallow water will mete out death as well.
But not today. Today I hear a cry across this deadly river. A wail, a sign of life, amidst the reeds.
A baby. A Hebrew woman’s baby, I know as soon as I remove his pretty clothes and hold him naked in my arms. For what other mother would place a son upon the waves? Almost-certain death can only appeal to those who would otherwise face certainty. The choppy surface is preferable only to the depths.
For a moment, I don’t know what to do. The baby is small, still, and red from crying. I never held an infant in my arms before.
And then he cries again, and now I know.
He is alive, and life is precious. There shall be death again come spring, but not today.
“Would you like me to find a wet nurse for him,” says a voice, and my handmaidens stir when she appears before us – a slight strange girl, and unmistakably a slave.
Her eyes are dark, and beautiful, and knowing.
She isn’t a gambler, this one. She isn’t guessing. She knows what I decided, and she’s here to help. My maidens hover – afraid to come near me, afraid to leave me unprotected. But my gaurds are less confused, and they march forth.
They don’t like her appearing like this, like an apparition out of the Nile. They don’t like her speaking to my father’s daughter. They don’t like how close she’s standing, how she doesn’t kneel.
But I do.
“The Nile granted us two gifts today,” I cry out, and they freeze and stop converging. “A living babe to raise before the gods of rain and harvest, and a girl to guide our way. Glory be to the Nile, the father of Egypt, He who gives us life!”
They pause, to trained to obey to contradict me. And this is enough. Enough to let me turn and say “yes” and see the girl smile a sliver of a smile, short and fleeting, before she disappears again into the reeds.
By the time I turn around again, my handmaidens are kneeling, and I can see how it will be now.
The Nile sent an omen, people will whisper.
It sent us a life to nurture, as it will nurture ours.
Perhaps the bad years are almost over, they will speculate.
Perhaps the water will flow high again, they’ll hope.
Life is too precious to entrust to mobs and kings, I think, and smile. Come spring, my father will mete out death again. He will say “kill,” and people shall.
But not today.
Not for a while yet.
“Prepare my rooms for the grandson of the king.”
The sand is hot beneath my feet as I am running, but I could run on coals today and feel no pain.
“The monster’s daughter saved my brother’s life,” I will tell mother. “Come, for we must nurture him under her care.”