I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. They’ve all gone on with their mourning and Neshi goes on staring straight ahead like he’s been hit with a hammer, looking but not really seeing. His recovery was temporary and strictly practical: he’s so worried about keeping muti safe and protected in all this confusion that he wanted to check with Khushim and make sure that we were all still traveling together. I think he’s worried about me, too, but I don’t have hundreds of thousands of men stroking figurines that look just like me before they go to bed every night. Khushim was shocked that Neshi would even ask, but Neshi explained that he just wanted to make it official. “You think the girls would give us any choice?” Khushim asked. He still didn’t understand, but then he remembered that whatever Neshi was, his family were all Mitsrim (I got this from Meryt, who was right there). “Don’t you worry, Neshi. I’m sorry about your old man, it’s a real drag what happened. You go and do whatever you’ve got to do––it’ll be hours yet before we’re out of here––and don’t worry about the family for a while. I was looking out for Nye-Nye back when you were a fulltime Mits.”
I’m pretty sure that Neshi snuck off to deliver his letter to Menna’s tomb. It’s been ready for years now. People here start to build themselves tombs as soon as they can afford to, and they’ll spend years choosing furnishings and decorations. A lot of the people who commissioned tomb-paintings from Pedotser are still walking around a dozen years after he died. Menna’s tomb is definitely ready, even if Menna isn’t in it yet; he took me to see it dozens of times.
Meanwhile, my mother and our servants have turned their backsides into policemen. They’re sitting on the chests we’re taking with us, most of which are filled with gold, debens and debens of it, and all kinds of precious stones; I never realized how rich we really are. And just about all of it comes from muti’s fans and admirers, especially Ramesses. Bars, bracelets, necklaces and rings. And a lot of the rings are set with stones that are probably worth more than the gold. Nobody’s going to rob us if we’re traveling with Khushim––nobody’s going to be able to get near us; as long as we don’t have to trade it all for food, we’ll all be sitting pretty once we get to where we’re going.
The problem is, we’re going to Canaan, where there isn’t much but room. There are so many people leaving here, it’s going to take us about a week and a half to get there, and if what I’ve heard is true––that Canaan is basically a bigger and much less prosperous Goshen––we’re set: between what we’ve got and what Khushim’s got, not to mention his army of henchmen, all of whom––Ya’akovi or not––seem to be coming with, our parents will be able to take over the country and Meryt and I will turn into princesses.
Meryt doesn’t think so. “Why don’t we just sneak away now and stay here? I’ve got a couple of bracelets that’ll keep us going for months until we find husbands, and then we won’t need to worry.”
“And what about your tef? You think he wouldn’t come looking for us?”
“That’s not the same as finding us. And besides, people would recognize him and it wouldn’t be safe, not even for him.”
“So he’d get his Mitsri associates to find us. Anyway, I don’t think it’s safe for us to stay here. The Mitsrim are pretty mad, and a couple of girls like us on our own––they’d tear off our faces and rape us.”
“Yeah, but it’s true.”
“But I don’t wanna go.”
“Nobody wants to go, Meryt. At least nobody we know, but we don’t have any choice anymore. You think your tef would be leaving if he could see any way to stay?” She had to admit that he wouldn’t. “I don’t want to leave my mut and the step-tef, either. Maybe we’ll meet some nice boys on the way. After what happened yesterday, I don’t know if I want to get involved with any more Mitsrim.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“You’re sure you’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure I’m sure. What’s with you, anyway? You’re the one who kicked him in the crotch.”
“I know that. I’m trying to figure out if you want me to do it again, ‘cause here he comes.”
“What?” I’m pretty sure that I turned white. Either that or I blushed so brightly that I could have found work as a lantern. I turned around and sure enough, there was Snofru, with a pronounced limp, fighting his way against the tide of moving people and heading straight for us. I turned back around.
“Eppi, please. I need to talk to you.” The crowd fell silent at the sight of his uniform, or it might have been the sound of his Mitsri. He was attracting hostile looks. “Don’t go.”
“Screw you,” came a voice from the crowd in Goshenite Mitsri. “We’re going. We’re going back to Canaan and nobody’s going to stop us.”
The crowd started to cheer. Snofru ignored them and continued in our direction. “Eppi.”
Meryt asked if he wanted another kick in the coal sack.
“You keep away from me.” I started to laugh. I don’t know why, but the way he said it reminded me of an angry old lady. “I just wanna talk to Eppi. If you wouldn’t have knocked me off my horse, she wouldn’t be mad at me.”
“You hear that, Eppi? You’re mad at him because I knocked him off his horse. Makes sense to me.” Meryt took a quick look around to see who else could hear her. “Why don’t you just bugger off, you lousy Mits. We’ve got no more use for you.”
“Yeah,” said somebody I couldn’t see who didn’t know what we were talking about, “We’ve got no use for any Mitsrim.”
“That’s right.” Another one of my sisters-in-Israel decided to share her opinion. “No use for Mitsrim.”
“No use for Mitsrim.” The crowd picked up the chant and kept staring at Snofru. Meanwhile, he was looking desperately in my direction, mouthing the words “I need to talk to you” so exaggeratedly that you would have thought he was about to drown.
He was the biggest jerk on two feet, but it’s hard to resist a boy who looks like that. Some of Khushim’s people had formed a human fence between us; I told them to let him through.
“What do you want? You might not have noticed, but I’m about to leave the country.”
“That’s why I need to talk to you now. Eppi, you misunderstood everything I was saying. I was only half-way through it when Meryt cracked me in the eggs and ruined it all.”
I could feel my heart starting to beat again, but tried to look as stern as I could. I even ran my fingers through my stripe like a comb. “Uh-huh.”
“What I was going to say was that my father said that he was planning to have your mother and that I could have seconds,” I remembered that part real well, “but that I said that it didn’t matter whether he was my commanding officer or I was his son, the only way that he was gonna touch either of you would be over my dead body and that I wouldn’t hesitate to do anything I had to to protect you or your mother from any kind of harm, especially the kind of thing that he was talking about. He started laughing at me and wanted to know why I was so interested in your welfare all of a sudden and that’s when I told him that we’re engaged.”
My hand stopped moving. I think my heart stopped beating. “Say that again.”
“I told him that we’re engaged. I love you, Eppi, and I want to marry you.”
I knew that there were tears pouring out of my eyes. “Come back here,” I whispered as loudly as I dared and motioned to the enclosed part of Meryt’s verandah, a recessed portico where no one would be able to see us.
We started to kiss as soon as we got there. I forgot all about Menna and Neshi and Moses and Ehye; I was back to being the person I was a couple of days ago when I first started writing in this book. “Oh, Snofru.”
“I was so sad.”
“I was so scared.”
If you’re our children, you don’t need to know any more. We were on a porch, for God’s sake—we hugged and kissed and held hands. Mostly, though, we just looked at each other and cried. Snofru too. It was true love. We both thought we’d lost it and now we found that we’d found it. Thanks to El that even after Meryt kicked him in front of all those people, Snofru still had the balls to come back to me in public. For an officer in Pharaoh’s army to humble himself before a Ya’akovi girl on what had to be the saddest day in everybody’s history was proof of what love really means.
“But what are we gonna do, Snofru? We’re out of here in a few hours at the most, and then what?”
“Let me come with you.”
“How are you gonna come? You’re in the army, you’re on duty. They’ll cut your head off and put your family in prison.”
“No, they won’t. My father will cut my head off all by himself and no one will go to prison.”
“So then how are you gonna come?”
“There’s soldiers stationed all through town and for miles down the road. My father doesn’t want the Hebrews to do any more looting and he doesn’t want any Kemetis to come looking for vengeance. I love you so much, Eppi, but I really don’t know what I’d have done if my father had been a firstborn.”
I ran my hand along Snofru’s cheek. “Don’t worry, darling. As long as he isn’t.”
“I’ll just walk right alongside you, in uniform, like I’m a marshal or a roving sentry who’s there to keep order. We’ll figure out what to do from there once we find out where you’re really going and what’s really going on.”
I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him. That gave me an idea. “There’s another way we can do it,” I said. “Take a look out there at the people going past. Take a look at this neighborhood and the people who live here. You can even take a look at me.”
“Try and stop me,” he kissed.
“Look how many Ya’akovim are married to Kemetis, but they all seem to be coming with––the Kemetis, I mean––and nobody’s making a fuss, not the Kemeti authorities and not Moses-and-Aaron’s watchdogs.”
“Forget about husbands and wives, there’s all kinds of people going with you. Pharaoh has ordered the prisons to be emptied and he’s sending all the prisoners out with you. You’re lucky that the really dangerous guys in the mines are too far away to be shipped here in time. You’ll mostly get small-time thieves and pimps, tax-dodgers waiting for king-work sentencing, that sort of thing. Two-thirds of them probably work for her father,” he leaned around the edge of the portico and pointed to Meryt, who stuck her tongue out.
“Meryt, come here,” I whispered.
“Why’d you do that?” asked Snofru. He didn’t look happy.
“Snofru, she’s my best friend. So be careful what you say.”
“I guess this is what it’s like to be married,” he said.
“What’s going on back here?” Meryt’s whisper was strained. “What are you doing with this pig?”
Snofru didn’t say a word and I explained the effect of her kick to Meryt. “Really?” she asked.
“Really,” said Snofru. “What kind of jerk do you think I am?”
That’s the kind of question you should never ask a person like Meryt, so I jumped in before she could open her mouth again. “We’re engaged, you know. And have been for about three weeks. Ever since the locusts.”
“No!? Really? And you finally decided to tell me?” Meryt tried to slap my face, but Snofru got his arm in between us and took the blow.
“Easy,” he said. “We don’t want any more trouble.”
“All right, I’m sorry. There’s no reason to expect your best friend to tell you about something as boring as getting engaged––especially not after you’ve told her all about getting engaged yourself. You guys are right. I’m completely unrealistic. This whole ‘friends trust friends’ idea is silly isn’t it? Something else I can leave behind here when we leave the country forever today.”
That’s the most articulate thing that I’ve ever heard Meryt say. Usually, she just yells and curses. “Come on, Meryt,” I said. “This wasn’t anything like your engagement. Firstly, we both wanted it. Secondly, there was nothing much we could do about it. We all knew that our time in Kemet was coming to an end”––it was really weird talking to her in Mitsri for so long––“and I was afraid that talking about it to anybody could just end up causing us even more pain. You’re not the only person I didn’t tell; I didn’t tell anybody.”
“Neither did I,” said Snofru. “Until yesterday.”
“But I’m supposed to be your best friend.” She was really hurt.
“Yeah, but I was afraid of…remember Herya and the carpenter?”
Meryt started to blush. I haven’t told you much about Herya, my other best friend, the one who died, but she was the only person I’ve ever met who was more boy-crazy than Meryt. I don’t know what it is about me that I seem to be attracted to girls who are a little crazy––maybe that I like to hear about things that I’m too scared or too smart to do myself. Anyway, Herya was really nuts for boys, even for men, I mean like grown-ups, and she did a lot more than just talk about it. She first made natron when she was about eleven and by the time she was thirteen she looked like she was twenty. She was quite good-looking and men would approach her all the time; a woman of twenty who isn’t wearing any of the signs of having a man is generally considered to be some kind of courtesan or prostitute, so she was getting serious offers. About six months ago, she got an insane crush on this really beautiful boy who worked as a carpenter. Herya’s father had hired him to do something or other in their house, and Herya decided that she just had to have him. She knew exactly what she was doing; she had crocodile dung ready so she wouldn’t get pregnant, and when no one else was at home, she found him, she told him, and they did it.
She came looking for Meryt and me right afterwards. “Guess what?” We didn’t believe her at first, but she managed to convince us pretty quickly.
“What was it like?”
“Shorter than I would have thought. It only lasted a minute or two. It was his first time, too. It wasn’t awful, but I don’t know what the big deal is. It was actually more fun when he had his finger inside.”
There was no question of being sworn to secrecy; no one had the nerve to mention it. But two or three days later, while the three of us were at Herya’s, staring at the carpenter across the inner courtyard and giggling, Meryt happened to say, “Maybe you should go over there and screw him again,” just as Herya’s mother walked into the room.
It took a few minutes, but we finally managed to convince her that we were only fooling around and that Meryt was making a vulgar joke. You never have to work too hard to convince anybody that Meryt is being vulgar; faith in her daughter, based on Herya’s mother’s complete ignorance of what Herya was really like, did the rest.
Now that I’d reminded Meryt of what happened with Herya, she seemed to understand why I hadn’t told her about Snofru and me. “The thing is,” I said, “We’ve got to work out a way to be together.” I explained how Snofru was going to pretend to be here officially. “But that will only last for so long. He can only stay with us until we’ve got so far.”
“We were looking at all the half-Ya’kovi, half-Kemeti couples,” Snofru said, “and how they’re all staying together even when everybody’s leaving.”
Meryt pointed out that all those couples were married. “You guys could get married, too, I guess. I just don’t know how far you’d get before somebody’s parents killed at least one of you.” She paused for a minute and looked us up and down, then nodded. “I’d bet on Nye-Nye and Neshi. Yep. A declaration of marriage doesn’t take effect until the marriage has been consummated. And that’s gonna upset the girl’s family way more than the boy’s. I wouldn’t worry too much, though. I don’t think you could consummate anything out here on the street, especially not now. Look over there. Here comes Neshi.”
He was heading straight for us but didn’t know it. As far as he knew, he was on his way to tell Khushim that he was back. The three of us came out of the portico and back onto the street. Before Neshi could say anything, Meryt and I explained what had happened with Snofru, but without mentioning the engagement. “Can he come with us, Neshi, please?”
“I don’t see how that’s possible. To be quite honest, in view of who your father is, Snofru, and what he’s already shown himself capable of, I don’t really find it desirable. If it weren’t for his insane idea about the boy babies, none of this would be happening. As far as I’m concerned, this is all his fault.”
Snofru was getting ready to start arguing about Moses and Aaron. The only way to stop him was for me to burst into tears. “Can’t we just try to love each other?” I wailed. Don’t laugh; it worked. Snofru was on my left, Neshi on my right; each tried to hug me at exactly the same time and they ended up banging their heads together so hard that both of them yelped.
Khushim turned around. Meryt and I were laughing. He started laughing, Snofru managed to come up with a weak smile and Neshi, poor Neshi burst into tears.