lastborn slugIn the Middle of the Night

It’s about two hours after midnight now, and I don’t think anybody in the country has gone to sleep. We did exactly what Joshua told us to. They wouldn’t sell Neshi a sheep––he isn’t really one of us––so muti bought one and got a really good price. So many people were trying to sell their sheep to the Ya’akovim who really live in Pi-Ramesse that we got one practically for free. Neshi cut its throat, we had buckets and bowls to catch the blood.

I got sent off to find hyssop, so I didn’t have to watch our sheep get killed. Instead, I went and got Meryt and the two of us went to look for hyssop plants in the shade. “This blood thing is really weird,” she said. “What’s it supposed to save us from?”

I had no more idea than she did. We knew that something was supposed to happen, something big, but nobody knew what it was. “I don’t know. Ehye’s supposed to do something to the Mitsrim for a change.”

“Something else, you mean?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Do you really think we’re gonna have to leave Mitsrayim?”

“I really don’t see how we can stay. They hate us so much now, I think that if we stayed here now, they’d just kill us all.”

“That’s what the tef says.”

“I know. Neshi and my mut, too. And those swamp creatures sure seem to think they’re going somewhere.”

“But what’s going to happen to us?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. What happened to Nefeg?”

“Happened? Nothing. There’s nowhere for him to go. But he’s keeping his distance from the rest of us. And he’s scared sick of the tef. After Joshua finished talking, he went––the tef, I mean––and picked out the fattest sheep that Nefeg had and just killed it. He cut its throat and never stopped staring at Nefeg. I loved it.”

“Did he pay for the sheep?”

Meryt laughed. “I think Nefeg was happy not to be the sheep.”

We’d picked the hyssop already and were nearly back home. “I wonder what’d happen if you didn’t use hyssop to smear the blood. If you used something else.”

“Probably the same thing if you did,” said Meryt. “’Cause we’re probably gonna end up dead. But I don’t wanna take chances, anyway.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I wasn’t really comfortable before, when all this stuff started, but now, since everything went dark, I’m really scared.”

I think I had good reason to be scared. Like I said, it’s a couple of hours past midnight and I don’t think anyone’s asleep. It’s completely silent. No insects chirping, no footsteps, not even a wind or a breeze. I don’t know what happened to all those Goshenites, but their flocks are completely quiet. I can’t hear the people rustling or snoring, either, the way I could last night or the night before.

Once in a while there’s a scream, a cry. I can hear someone wailing now, howling and running through the street. It’s like some kind of wake-up call. Another voice just joined in, louder and louder, then softer and softer, it must have run right by our house. I’m afraid to look out of the window. We didn’t get any orders about it, but muti and Neshi told me not to peek. It could be dangerous. There are more voices outside now, more footsteps. People are running, but I can’t figure out to where. People are screaming, they’re crying, but I don’t know why, except that they probably didn’t spread lamb’s blood over their doorways with hyssop. They’re calling on the gods; some of them are saying that Re, the sun god, has finally been conquered by the duat, that he won’t be resurfacing out of chaos as the rising sun, but that the world will stay dark like this forever. Last week was only the prelude. The sun will not rise, the crops will all die, and soon we’ll all be as dead as “they” are––I don’t know who “they” are or who they’re supposed to be––without anybody to tend our tombs or leave us offerings of any type so that we’ll have food and provisions in the West. No, we’ll all die twice, and twice is forever. Kemet––Mitsrayim––will crumble to dust, maybe the rest of the world, too. It’s better that way, for them, for us, for everyone. Better to die forever than live in a world, like this, where the rain turns to blood and the sun stays submerged for days on end and people drop dead for no reason at all. Not just people, either. Animals. Plants, for God’s sake. Not all of them, not everything, just some of them, here and there. Something or someone in almost every house, as if they were washed away by a wave of personal, non-contagious plagues.

Things must be dying, Mitsrim and their animals, but there seem to be plenty of them still outside, running for the sake of running. The only place they want to go is away. I’m not taking any chances; I’m not even looking out a window. The screaming and crying keep getting louder. The sound of running never stops. There’s no space anymore between the cries. Whatever it is, it must be getting worse. My mother and Neshi are whispering in the next room. We can hear more and more bad things about Ya’akovim mixed in with the cries of terror and grief.

Suddenly, there’s a pounding at our door. My parents fall silent. The pounding goes on. “Nakhte! Nakhte! God damn you, open up!” The voice is hoarse and breathless; you can hear moisture and whooping sobs. “Nakhte!” This time in a different voice. I recognize them now; it’s Takharu and Kefi, Neshi’s mother and older sister.

“Grandma,” I yell.

“Go back to bed.” That’s my mother.

“Nakhte.” From the street. “Nakhte, for the love of the gods, please open the door. Your father is dead.”

I could hear the silence drop onto my parents’ room. “Eppi,” it was my grandmother, “open up.” I could hardly understand her through the tears. I went downstairs and unbolted the door, taking care to keep all of me inside. I noticed that our servants were still asleep. Takharu and Kefi were huddled in our doorway, dragging my pointless semi-cousin Megegi behind them. All three were pale and crying. They had a look in their eyes that I’d never seen; there was fear and terror in it, but those were only the beginning. It was a look that couldn’t stop staring, a kind of horrified amazement that was going to go on seeing whatever they had all just seen for the rest of their lives.

“Eppi.” They all pushed past me and the two grown-ups fell onto their knees in our front room and began to pound the floor with their fists. My mother and Neshi were already there. I was feeling very uncomfortable, like I’d woken up to find myself in a different house from the one I’d gone to sleep in, and I think my cousin Megegi was trying to remember his name.

Kefi spoke first, except that she was screaming. She didn’t look at anyone but Neshi. “Your father is dead, Amennakhte. My husband is dead. My son is still alive, but I don’t know why. I don’t know why muti and I are still here either, anymore than I know why my first son lived less than twenty-four hours. There’s hardly a house without a corpse anymore: a husband, a father, a child. And once in a while, nobody dies at all. No women, no girls are dying either, except for the ones who are killing themselves out of grief.”

“What about Havy?” asked Megegi. “Havy wasn’t a man.” He sounded like he was letting you know that you’d just lost the argument. “Havy was our dog.”

“Shut up, Megegi,” said Kefi. He started to cry.

“My father is dead?” Neshi sounded like he was trying to make sense of a message in a foreign language. “Muti.” His mother was sobbing uncontrollably. “Muti?” He reached his arms out to hug her. Instead of letting herself be embraced, though, Takharu drew back and slapped him across the face so hard that I thought I could see tears in his eyes.

“You and your stinking Hebrews,” she hissed. “They’ve been a pain in our backsides since they came to this country, and now they’ve destroyed it. And you chose to be one of them. You joined them, you’re going to leave with them, and the sooner the better for all I care. I only wanted to come by and let you know that you and your pals––the people you chose to be with because their way of life is so much better than ours––have killed your father and your brother-in-law and thousands of other people, some of whom were your friends and neighbors and even relatives.”

“But what happened, muti?” Neshi had gone white and was starting to shake. “You mean to say––”

“They just dropped dead.” His sister Kefi interrupted him. “They didn’t say anything. They didn’t do anything. There was no sign of anything––not an illness, not a struggle, not a complaint. They were alive one minute and dead the next. Kenena and I,” she glanced at me and Megegi and started to cry even harder, “we were…you know…and he just slumped on top of me. Didn’t even groan. Muti said that the beer mug dropped out of tefi’s hand and that his head hit the floor a few seconds later. Some people died and some people didn’t.” She slapped her thigh. “Megegi, why don’t you and Eppi go talk somewhere else. We’ve got serious things to discuss.”

I couldn’t imagine that they were going to be talking about sex, but I could see that there was no point in arguing. Megegi and I went into my room. He was still crying over the death of his dog. “You Ya’akovim killed my dog. Do you have a boyfriend?”

Megegi was a little slow. “No,” I said. “No boyfriend.” I hadn’t even thought about Snofru, but now it was all I could do to hope that he had dropped dead, too. I wanted something positive to come out of all this.

“Want one?”

“One what?” I asked

“Boyfriend, stupid.” He reached over and put his hand on my left boob.

“Get your hand off of me.”

“Why?” he asked, and squeezed my nipple so hard that I yelped.

I leaned back and slapped him across the face as hard as I could, then leaned forward and moved my knee, the right one, straight into his groin. Meryt must have inspired me earlier. Megegi yelled and let go of me. I ran back out to where the adults were. “Megegi grabbed me,” I interrupted them. “Here,” and I showed them where. “When he wouldn’t let go,” I told them what I’d done and where.

“Where is he now?” his mother asked.

“Still in my room, I guess.”

“You should know better than to kick a young man there.”

“He should know better than to grab a young woman here.” I pointed. “And besides, I didn’t kick him,” but Kefi had already left the room.

“Sit down and keep quiet,” my mother said to me in Ivri. Takharu was berating Moses, Ya’akovim and her son Amennakhte. She seemed to feel that if it weren’t for him, none of this would ever have happened, or at least wouldn’t have happened to their family. She was crying and screaming and calling him all kinds of names: fool, traitor, lecher, housewife, Hebrew, and so on. Then she was howling for her husband Menna and even for Kenena, the son-in-law whom she’d never much liked.

Kefi came back, leading Megegi by the hand. She pointed to him and looked at me. “He has something to tell you.” I sat up straight to accept his apology. “Megegi?”

He stepped forward, hesitated a bit. “Say it!”

“Eppi, you’re a stupid Ya’akovi bitch and you look like a skunk. I wouldn’t put a walking stick into that filthy hole of yours if you were the only woman in the world. I hope you all leave Kemet and die. Now go to hell.”

Did the three of us sit there in silence? No, the four of us sat there in silence until Takharu stood up and walked over to where Kefi was standing with Megegi. “Idiots!” She slapped each of them across the face. “You had to remind me why we could only marry you to a soldier?” She slapped Kefi again. Megegi turned in her direction, and as soon as he did so Neshi jumped up and grabbed both his arms from behind. Takharu didn’t seem to notice a thing. “Using your half-wit that way! If your father were here, he’d have slapped you more than twice. My husband is dead and all the gods have left me is a fool and a bitch. And a numbskull with the mind of a nine year old. Eppi, you’re the only one here who can think.” I couldn’t understand why she was ignoring my mother, but she just kept going as if muti wasn’t even in the room. “Menna, your grandfather, was always crazy about you, and so was I. ‘That little girl,’ he used to say, ‘she’s got that stripe on her head for a reason­­––to show how different she is from everyone else. She’s sharper than any man I’ve ever met, but she’s also good-hearted and kind, or as kind as a kid her age can be. If she ever knew how much I look forward to her visits, she’d be too embarrassed to keep on coming.’ I feel the same, and we both knew that we would have died in the darkness if you hadn’t been there to look after us. It didn’t do Menna much good, in view of what just happened, but still…”

She stopped to blow her nose. “Nakhte,” she turned to Neshi now, “This is probably the last I’ll see of you, too. With any luck, I won’t wake up tomorrow. You know I didn’t mean what I said before. I’m mad at you, but only because you’ll be going. Don’t ever forget that I’m your mother and I love you like only a mother can love; whether you’re a Kemeti or a Hebrew or whatever else you decide that you are, you’re still my baby and I wish you’d be here to look after me once I die. And Nye-Nye, I was even starting to get used to you.” She sighed. “I won’t see Eppi grow up and I won’t see Nye-Nye lose her looks. Come on, Kefi, let’s get home while I can still walk. May Re bless all of us, and may I live to see you all again. Come, Kefi.” She strode out the door, with Kefi and Megegi trailing behind her. Neither of them said goodbye.