lastborn slugA few days later, on the march

We waited four days to get out of town, sat and waited until our part of the line started moving. El be praised, Snofru’s division received orders to patrol the line of walkers and keep the peace, so Snofru was able to go back and forth and see what was really happening and get fairly reliable reports handed down from patrols farther along the route.

We’re near the end of the line. According to what Snofru heard, head-counts taken at different points came up with a total of about six hundred thousand men of military age leaving the country. Once you add in women, children, old people, slaves, and so on, we figure that it amounts to about three million people all told. The line is a hundred parasangs long, and it takes a regular person an hour to walk one parasang. So there you have it, a hundred hours from the beginning of the line to the end. Apparently Moses and the rest of the guys at the front have been wandering all over the delta, trying to get enough distance between them and Pi-Ramesse so that all of us could leave. Good planning there; I guess Moses forgot to get Ehye to give him a map.

We’ve been walking since we left. It took us all day to get to Sukkos, the second major town in Goshen, which seems to consist of three palm trees and a couple of huts; if somebody hadn’t given it a name, no one would consider it a place.  The Goshenites were complaining about having to go back to where they came from. “What’d we drag ourselves to Pi-Ramesse for, if all we’re doing is coming back here?”

Put down those chests full of jewels that you’re lugging and ask me again, mummy breath.”

Yeah, or get one of your new slaves to look.” You could tell from people’s voices who was from the city and who was not, and we were all getting along worse and worse with every step that we took. Snofru fit right in with the Mitsri soldiers who were supposed to be there; since his division had been ordered to stay in Pi-Ramesse, he had to throw a cloak over his insignia so the soldiers wouldn’t know that he was there against orders. It’s a good thing that they were there to keep us in line, because every one of those shepherds had his own idea of the best way to go and all of them claimed to know more about it than Moses. It made no difference that the minute we got outside of Pi-Ramesse we could see a huge cloud way, way off in the distance; the Lord sent it to show Moses the way. At night, it turns into a pillar of fire. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we can always see one or the other, and still­­––if the Mitsrim hadn’t been glowering down on us from their horses, we’d have scattered all over the delta and probably been robbed and murdered by the local non-Israelites.

Meryt and I were looking the soldiers right in the eye. I wanted to talk to Snofru, but Meryt was busy flirting with the ones who were really on duty. I swear, she even dropped a handkerchief­­––it was picked up, of course, by a Goshenite who must have been at least sixty. He used it to blow his nose.

I sort of oversimplified when I said that we were walking. Most people were walking, but we––me and Meryt, Khushim and Oholibah, a couple Meryt’s siblings, and Neshi and muti––were riding high up in the air in sedan chairs carried by Khushim’s slaves. There was quite a view if you peeked out. The line of people was so long and so wide that you couldn’t see the end; it was as if a whole country decided to go for a walk and take everything smaller than a building with it. Apart from all the flocks and herds, there were donkeys pulling wagons overloaded with stuff. And I mean stuff––it looked as if people just grabbed whatever came to hand and tossed it into the wagons with no thought of whether they’d need it or not. I saw statues and armchairs, even the rudder of a skiff––real useful in the desert that we were heading for.

We had everything but food. People really brought dough with them, the way that Joshua and the other messengers told them to, and when we finally got to Sukkos all of us––old and young, rich and poor, city people and Goshenites––made ourselves matzohs and had a great big cook-out. Lambs were roasted, goats were milked; those who had jars of wine broke them out and people were even willing to overlook the fact that the beer––probably the last we’re going to taste for a couple of weeks––was warm. Tired as everybody was, there was dancing around the fires. Musicians played; jugglers, acrobats, and clowns wandered through the camp doing tricks. There was one guy, I don’t know how he did it, but I swear he could turn his face inside out; the whole front of his head went smooth, like his features had all been flipped to the other side. There were people walking on their hands, singing through their rears, tumbling on the ground and practically flying through the air.

There was a sudden buzz and a huge commotion; a large number of people descended on our part of the camp. Everyone in front of us had picked up the name, and now it reached our ears, too: “Moses. It’s Moses. And Aaron’s with him.” The two of them had been going through the whole crowd on horseback, stopping every once in a while to make a little speech and let everybody know that things were under control and that Moses and Aaron were looking out for all of us. It wasn’t a long speech, but it was probably the smartest thing they did. Most of us, including me, had never laid eyes on Moses; this was a chance for him to prove that he existed and show how much he cared for all of the Children of Israel. Not that he was going to convince me––I mean, I believed that he existed, but nothing will ever convince me that he’s interested in anybody but himself. What I couldn’t understand, once I finally saw him, was why nobody ever told me how ugly he is. I mean, I don’t know how anybody could listen to a guy who looks like this––he looks like one of the clowns, not the self-appointed leader of about three million people.

I was expecting an imposing, majestic-looking man with a long, flowing beard and a commanding gaze in his eye, but Moses is shorter than I am and I’m not tall, not even for my age. He comes up to just under the top of Aaron’s chest, and Aaron is about average height for a man. He’s got bright red hair the same color as Sesi’s, ears that stick out like a pair of doors, a gap in his front teeth, freckles across his nose and one eye a little lower than the other. There are wispy patches of beard on different parts of his face––the left cheek, the neck, the mustache part under his nose––but not connected enough to make a single unit, one continuous thing that you’d call a beard. He whispers to Aaron and Aaron repeats what he’s said. I was close enough that I could tell that he was whispering in Mitsri rather than Ivri and also that he has a terrible stutter. Like I said, he should have been one of the tumblers.

He didn’t have a lot to say, just that we were going to Canaan and that we weren’t going to take the Way of Horus, which is the most direct route, because there are Mitsri forts all along it and he didn’t want Pharaoh changing his mind and setting the soldiers on us. That made sense, I guess. He got a huge round of cheers from the crowd. Oh, I almost forgot: Aaron looks like those old men you see in public parks in the middle of the day, the kind who are always asking for handouts.

Moses was just about to deliver a closing prayer to Ehye before moving on. His aides were already bringing their horses around when we heard trumpets bleating behind us. Instead of a bright, self-confident blare, they were emitting muddy, quivering blasts that sounded more like farts than fanfares. The ground started to vibrate; we heard horses and chariot wheels. One bleat followed another. Neshi snapped to attention, then looked sheepishly around and went back to his usual droop. The Mitsri sentries stationed along the perimeter of the camp rushed over to our side of the boundary and took up positions among us. They closed in on foot and on horseback, swords drawn, the edges resting against their shoulders and the points aimed at the sky. The chariot drivers brought their vehicles to an abrupt halt, some of them in the midst of the crowd, the rest in a tight circle that allowed no one in or out. Every archer in every chariot had his bow loaded and drawn; their arrows were ready to fly at the slightest provocation and all of them were pointed at us.

My mother and Neshi exchanged glances and shrugged. Moses looked completely bewildered. He didn’t say anything, not even to Aaron; he just looked at Neshi and shrugged, as if he were saying, “I know I should be angry, but what’s the point? It wouldn’t do any good.”

I pushed my way over to Neshi under the unblinking eyes of the Mitsri soldiers and asked him what was going on.

“That trumpet call means ‘make way for Pharaoh.’ Sesi must be on his way.”

“Pharaoh is coming here?” I was so shocked that I forgot to whisper. Everyone around turned and looked at me.

Pharaoh? You said Pharaoh is coming?” Their voices were getting louder and louder. “Pharaoh is on his way.

Pharaoh is coming.

O my God, we’ll all be killed.

Pharaoh is coming.”

Moses called for silence. He was just about to speak when another round of trumpeting cut him short, leaving his mouth wide open. He started to cough violently, then turned aside and spat three or four times; some sort of bug had flown in and we all watched it fly right back out. After another set of bleats, the ring of chariots opened slightly and a herald jumped forth. “The justice of Re is powerful, Chosen of Re, Ramesses, Born of Re,” etcetera, etcetera, announcing and announcing until the circle opened again and Pharaoh arrived in the royal chariot.

For a minute I thought I was crazy. Even though muti and Neshi were around Ramesses all the time, I myself had only seen him from afar on festival days when you couldn’t really make much out. He was too far away, too covered in crowns and cloaks and jeweled adornments; you could see the splendor but not the man. Like everybody else in Mitsrayim, I’d heard that the paintings and statues didn’t look much like him, but nobody really expected them to. Majesty was more important than accuracy, and my mother was my witness: she said that Pedotser submitted ten different versions of what the sculpted Ramesses was going to look like before the real Ramesses found one that he liked. “They’ve got a lot in common,” she said. “Both of them are males.” She hadn’t been exaggerating. The Ramesses who stood before us in his chariot looked less like his statues than anyone I’ve ever seen.

He looked so little like himself that the crowd, most of whom had never even seen him from a distance, let out a gasp and held their breath. My mother and Neshi must have been used to the way he looks, but the rest of us were in a state of shock. Complete lack of resemblance to his pictures and statues would have been strange enough; some of us might have had some trouble getting used to it, but it’s unlikely that the sheep-handlers, who hadn’t even seen statues of Ramesses until a few days ago, would have noticed the difference: they probably thought that the statues were images of someone else.

The presence of a ruler, any king of anywhere, is probably enough to cause any normal group of subjects to cower and grovel and try to behave politely; in a place like Mitsrayim, respect for the monarch is practically second-nature, even among people like us, who don’t believe that the king is divine: we might never have thought that Pharaoh was a god, but we all considered him the most important person on earth.

All of a sudden, though, none of that made any difference. People looked at Pharaoh, then turned their heads in the opposite direction, took another look at Pharaoh as if they were continuing to say no, and burst into laughter. Not subdued, embarrassed laughter, either; there were no giggles or hands held over the mouth. These were wide-open, jaw-stretching, belly-shaking laughs, the kind that cause people to fall out of chairs or slide down walls until their behinds hit the ground. No one in Mitsrayim had laughed like this for a very long time. People were slapping each other’s backs and pounding the ground with their fists, whooping and panting and choking; you could even see where some of the women had wet themselves. This laughing must have gone on for five full minutes. Even my mother and Neshi joined in. Aside from the soldiers, who were not allowed to laugh on duty, everybody was laughing except Moses and Pharaoh. Moses looked slightly perturbed at not being the center of attention and Pharaoh looked furious––uncomfortable and downright angry. His lips were drawn tight, with the right-hand corner pulled up in an expression of discomfort that pushed his right cheekbone up toward the eye and caused it to close half-way. Something must have been very wrong for Pharaoh to demean himself by coming here, but whatever it was, I doubt that it had anything to do with the fact that he looks exactly like a taller version of Moses. Younger and clean-shaven, but otherwise his twin: the same red hair and flapping ears, the same freckled nose and uneven eyes. And when he finally opened his mouth to speak, there was the same gap in his front teeth. “Uncle,” he said, and the crowd started to laugh again. Pharaoh’s voice is high-pitched and squeaky; he sounds like a little boy who is acting like a grown-up lady.

“Well, well.” Now that the laughter had finally died down, Moses felt himself back in command. “What did I tell you, nephew, the last time that I saw you?” He was speaking Mitsri, and in public, yet. Now that he’d won, he could afford to. “I said that the next time I never saw you again, it would not be at your palace, yes? It looks like I was right. Now, tell your nursemaids to stop pointing their weapons at my people. You’re in no more danger here than Aaron and I were when we were in your palace. Tell them, nephew, or I’ll have you removed.” Pharaoh gave the order; swords were sheathed and arrows removed from bowstrings. We all knew that no one had ever spoken to him like this before. “Now, what is it that you want? Or is this a social call?”Not even Aaron laughed at Moses’ joke. “I come in quest of the dentist Amennakhte, a Mitsri, uncle, who is married to one of your women.”