Hatrack River
 
Hatrack.com   The Internet  
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
Print this page E-mail this page RSS FeedsRSS Feeds
What's New?

This partial manuscript copy is provided as a courtesy. Anyone who wishes a copy may access it from http://www.hatrack.com; therefore we ask that no copies, physical or electronic, be given or lent. Any offering of this portion of the manuscript for sale is expressly prohibited.

Stone Tables
Based on the Musical Play
Music by Robert Stoddard
Script and Lyrics by Orson Scott Card


Foreign Covers

BUY IT AT
amazon.com
booksense.com
See all titles available at Audible.com

Chapter One
Promises

Jochabed felt the first pain late in the afternoon. She didn't tell anyone then, because it was not a good time to try to sneak the midwife in. Besides, Miriam and Aaron had come slowly, from the first pain to the last. She had plenty of time before this new baby became urgent.

Plenty of time before she had to face the prospect of the Egyptians coming to throw the baby into the Nile.

If it was a boy. She reminded herself of that hope. It might be a girl and if it was, they wouldn't touch her.

But Amram said it would be a boy, and surely he knew. Surely God spoke to him.

Though as long as God was taking so much interest in Jochabed's new baby, it would be convenient if he'd arrange a way for the baby to survive. Jochabed didn't know if there was some protocol for such a prayer; if there was, she surely violated it, because fifty times a day, a hundred times a day since she realized she was pregnant, she had prayed the most outrageous prayers. She couldn't even say them aloud, the way Amram always did, because she was afraid God would strike her dead. Yet she couldn't stop praying. She prayed again right now, as she thought about prayer, about God.

Do something! she demanded. Amram always names thee as the cause for everything. In the great wisdom of the Lord, the floodwater is low this year. In the great wisdom of the Lord, the floodwater is high this year. Well, O Lord, this is a bad year for boy babies among the Israelites. Or hast thou not heard, in thy lofty place, wherever it is that thou dwellest? The Egyptians have come to hate us even though we were not part of the conquering Hyksos; they have taken away our place of honor and made us slaves, building their levees and their city walls out of mud bricks. They have forbidden us to sacrifice to thee and they fall upon us and beat us whenever they find one or two of us alone. And now Pharaoh has promised them that he will eradicate us all within a generation. If the Egyptians hear of a boychild born to an Israelite they can seize it and drown it in the river as a sacrifice; and any Israelite who resists is guilty of blasphemy against whatever bestial god it is they serve. Didst thou not know, O Lord, that they were doing this? Didst thou not cause them to hate us, for some great wise purpose of thine own? But tell me now, if thou wantedst us to perish here on the banks of the Nile, why not strike us all dead at once? Drown us in a flood? Cause the earth to swallow us up? Cause the crocodiles to rise up out of the river and devour us all at once? Or ... perhaps, being merciful, merely let us fall asleep and never awaken? Why must we watch them tear our babies from us and throw them into the river to drown? What is thy great, wise plan?

By this point in her prayers she was always filled with such resentment, such rage, that she marveled God did not kill her on the spot. And her heart turned, and softened, and she wept (so many tears, all these months of her pregnancy), she wept and in her heart she prayed again and said, O Lord, forgive me, forgive me, don't punish this baby for the sinful proud wicked heart of the mother. Let me save this child alive. Let his birth not be in vain. Let him live to be a man. I dedicate him to thee, I give him to thee, I willingly say: Let him be raised in another woman's house, suck from another woman's breast, call another woman Mother, only let him live, show me a way to keep the boy alive. Keep him out of the river, O God!

And then, in tears again, in tears always, she ended her prayer and went on about her work until the next time that rage swelled up in her heart and she began again her prayer of sarcasm, then repentance, then pleading.

A pain swept over her, an insistent one. The sun was still up, but she had no choice. This baby was not going to be as slow as Aaron or Miriam were.

Three-year-old Aaron was playing with the distaff, making a tangle of the thread.

"Miriam!" called Jochabed, her voice made sharp by pain.

Miriam came indoors at once. "The water hasn't boiled yet, mother."

"I don't care about the supper," said Jochabed.

"Aaron," said Miriam, "leave the thread alone, you're undoing Mother's work!"

"I don't care about the thread," said Jochabed.

Miriam's eyes grew wide. In all her seven years of life, she had never known her mother to speak slightingly of any labor.

"Go tell ... go to the house of Puah ..."

"The Egyptians watch her house." Was even a child aware of the terrible things that had befallen the people of Israel? Oh, Miriam, that you should live in such a time!

"No. I know that. I meant, go to the house of ... go find your father and whisper to him that the time of a woman has come upon me. Speak to no one else." Jochabed had meant to wait until Amram came home in the evening; she had made no plan for how to notify him before the afternoon was out. If their Egyptian neighbors got word that a midwife had been called for, they would set up a vigil outside the house and there would be no hope then.

Not that there was hope even now. Should she wish for a mute child, so he would not cry? As well she might wish to keep him muffled up in cloth, hide him in a basket until he reached manhood. Oh, why not simply carry him to the river herself, and spare them all the agony of dread!

"Go," said Jochabed. And then: "Wait."

Miriam stopped in the doorway, confused, afraid that she had done something wrong.

"No, I just -- no, don't fetch your father, no. Go instead to the boatmakers. Tell them I need pitch. A jar of hot pitch." The idea was only half-formed but already Jochabed knew what she was going to do. A basket. Take him to the river herself. God chose to send her a boy at a time like this -- well, let God find a way to save him! Jochabed knew the moment the idea came to her that it was from God. Like Noah, her baby would ride atop the flood in a boat smeared with pitch to make it watertight. Pharaoh's edict said that Israelite boy babies must be given to the river. But he never said they could not be in a boat!

A basket. One of the baskets here in the house would have to do. A new one, with a tight weave. Large enough to hold a baby.

Another pain seized her and she stopped, gasped for breath. Give me time, child! Don't be in such a hurry to get to the river that you insist on arriving there before I have your ark ready for you!

I meant it, Lord! Save this baby, and he belongs to thee. Only let me see that he's alive. Not that I insist on it -- I beg it of thee as a favor, that's all. Be merciful and let me see that he's alive, let me know that he has found favor in thy sight, and then I will be content, I will bless thy name forever. Or if thou wilt not save him, then let me die in bearing him, so I never have to know of his death, or spend my life imagining those terrible moments as he drowns or is taken by a crocodile.

Jochabed slid down the rough mudbrick wall to the cold earthen floor of her house. Hurry, Miriam. My baby needs the Lord, but I need the midwife.

*

Hatshepsut was getting ready to go down to the river when Jannes came to her. "Your father wants you," he said. And since her father was Pharaoh, there was no question but that she would go to him at once.

Hatshepsut knew something that no one else knew, however, for her father had shown it to no one else: She knew that besides being Pharaoh, he was also Tuthmose, a mere man, beset with a man's doubts and fears, a man's griefs and regrets. These days Father seemed to sink more deeply inside himself with every passing day. Hatshepsut suspected that he was preparing to die. Not that he was ill, not that he was old, but that he saw that his life had been for nothing. For Hatshepsut's two full brothers, either of whom would have been her husband and Tuthmose's successor to the double crown of Egypt, had died in their youth, and from the way the concubine Mutnefert pushed her own son forward, it was hard to doubt the gossip that Mutnefert had a hand in the convenient death of each heir. And it wasn't as if Mutnefert was subtle: Father had tried to raise two more half-brothers ahead of Mutnefert's loathsome boy, and each of them had met with an unfortunate accident.

The fact that their "accidents" had come when Mutnefert was nowhere near did not absolve her; it merely implied that she had more and more allies within the palace, who expected that when Tuthmose died it would be very, very good for their careers to be friends of Mutnefert. How many times had Hatshepsut whispered to her father that for the sake of his other children, he really ought to put Mutnefert to death? Until finally Tuthmose spoke harshly to her, despite her status as his most beloved child: "The house of Pharaoh is the house of a god," he said. "Do I publicly declare that I have unknowingly brought a snake into my house? Then I must not be a god, and the house comes down."

This had come as a shock to Hatshepsut, for she was logician enough to understand that her father was confessing a terrible secret: that he was not a god, for he had brought a snake into the house. And worse: that it was so important to maintain the illusion of the godhood of Pharaoh that he would sacrifice all his sons and let the twisted spawn of a monster take the crown in order to preserve it.

Since that day -- and she was only twelve when it happened, not yet come into her beauty but already possessed of her wisdom and the confidence of her father -- she had come to understand better that it is by illusions that men rule. The illusion of Pharaoh as all-seeing and all-powerful was necessary to allow him to govern, especially because he saw only what his aides showed him, and his power reached only as far as people were willing to obey him. The illusion of god-Pharaoh led the common people to obey him even when snakes in his own house bit his heel.

Only the gossip about Mutnefert had spread far and wide -- and, more to the point, high and low. The people sensed the weakness in the king's house. They demanded a hero. They remembered the achievements of Amose and Amenhotep, Tuthmose's grandfather and father, who had driven out the Hyksos overlords and suppressed their rebellions and restored the ancient glory and sovereignty of Egypt. Tuthmose was weak? Then look to the past: What did Amenhotep do that made him strong? He struck with his armies across the borders to break the will of the enemies of Egypt. He brought back triumph and tribute from foreign lands.

And he executed his enemies within Egypt.

Did the people want to maintain Egypt's greatness? They could not send out armies or bring back tribute. But they certainly could execute the enemies of Egypt. And now that the Hyksos were gone for good, who was left to kill, but the Israelites, those hapless desert people who first came to Egypt during a famine centuries before, and who were raised up to power and privilege by the Hyksos Pharaohs, who used their loyalty, their learning, their hard work, to help them maintain their grip on Egypt? When the Hyksos fell, the Israelites were friendless.

The vengeance of the Egyptian people was not harsh at first. Israelites had been their overlords, so now they became slaves. Teachers and magistrates now made mud bricks and built levees and walls, monuments and roads. The pleasure of this did not last, however, especially since the Israelites continued to be more learned than the common Egyptians, as if they thought they were all priests, and kept on with their loathsome customs of keeping herds of animals and killing them in bloody, smoky, stinking sacrifices to their invisible private god. More to the point, the Israelites also had far more children than most Egyptian families, so that not only their herds of animals but also their herds of children increased.


Not long ago the common people began to form mobs and storm the homes of Israelite women giving birth. These incidents, if allowed to flourish, would lead to anarchy. Jannes and his son Jambres advised Tuthmose that the only way to harness the rage of the people was to make his own laws to satisfy them.

The first attempt was an order given to the Israelite midwives that they must suffocate male children as soon as they emerged from the womb, before they could ever draw breath. Thus they would never have been alive and it would not be murder. The idea was that the Egyptian people would be satisfied if they could foresee the eradication of the Israelites as a people, for within a generation the Israelites would be a nation of women, forced to turn to the Egyptians for their husbands, and within two generations Israel would cease to exist. And yet it would have been achieved without battles or bloodshed -- and without public disorder.

In vain did Hatshepsut counsel with her father that to give in to the mob would weaken the crown still further. The people are not fools, she said. They'll know that you are obeying them, not ruling them.

But Jannes and Jambres were men, were priests, and Jannes had been Tuthmose's dear friend in their youth. The foolish law was announced.

Hatshepsut almost laughed aloud when Puah and Shiphrah, the leading midwives among the Israelites, were hauled into court to explain why Israelite boy children continued to be born despite the law.

"Israelite women give birth so quickly," Puah explained. "By the time we get to their houses, the babies are already breathing and they have been given names. We can't very well suffocate them then!"

What did Father and Jannes think, that the Israelites were so stupid they would willingly cooperate in their own eradication?

Still Father wouldn't heed Hatshepsut's advice. Instead he followed Jannes's advice and passed a new law, that newborn Israelite boychildren would be given to the river. Let the mobs watch and tell the temple guards of the birth of an Israelite baby; if the child was given to the river, it would still not be murder but rather an act of piety. Everyone would be content, and the Israelite threat would be eliminated in a generation.

Hatshepsut wept then, pleading with her father -- in private, of course -- to rescind the order. "No one is deceived!" she cried. "Mobs have committed murder in your kingdom, and your answer has been to commit their murders for them! What kind of king are you! Egypt is ashamed!"

She thought her father would kill her in his rage, when she said these things. For days he did not speak to her. And now he had sent for her -- had sent Jannes to fetch her. She was sick at heart. Would she be disowned? Set aside and banned from the palace? Oh, please don't do it, Father! I am your last true friend. Send me away, and you are left alone with only Mutnefert!

But she would not beg or plead with him. For the sake of his own kingdom she would beg, but not for the sake of her place within it.

It was a bad sign that he waited for her in open court, with many priests and officers as witnesses. She approached him, knelt before him, waited for her doom to be pronounced. He told her to stand.

"For the last time my daughter stands before me," he said.

The last time. She could not stop the tears that leapt to her eyes.

"Follow me," he said to her.

He led the way into the private room where he dressed for ceremonies and met less formally with aides. He closed the door. Then, to her surprise, he began to weep; he threw his arms around her and clung to her. "Oh, Hatshepsut, I have been a fool, and you were the wise one."

This was not at all how she thought the scene would go. "Father," she said, "you are never a fool."

"I have been manipulated. Jannes plots with Mutnefert -- I learned of it only today. He tells me to send you away. To raise Mutnefert to the status of my wife, to make her runty little loin-goiter into my heir. Tuthmose the Second! And yet I fear that this insult is also the truth: That I have been as weak in my own way as Mutnefert's spawn would be in his. What am I now? A killer of babies, a monster, all because Mutnefert has control of ... everything!"

"She controls nothing," said Hatshepsut.

"What do I know except what my officers tell me? Now I learn that they tell me only what she wants me to know. What power do I have except the obedience of my officers? Yet I discover that they are more loyal to her than to me."

"Father, think. Jannes is your friend. Isn't it just as possible that he, too, has been fooled? That his advice was wrong but sincere?"

Tuthmose heard this in silence. Because the idea comforted him? Or because he hated hearing from her, once again, that he was wrong?

"What are you planning now?" asked Hatshepsut. "Why is this the last time I will ever stand before you? How will expelling me help you with --"

"Expelling you?" Tuthmose laughed. "Don't be absurd. You were always the best of my children. Your beauty makes all men in awe of you, yes, but I know that you have always had the keenest mind in the palace. How many times have you contradicted my advisers! And yet never once have they been right, and you wrong! I have spent these last days thinking over and over again, if only Hatshepsut were my son! And then it finally dawned on me. I'm a god, aren't I? And can't a god change a girl into a boy? We Pharaohs wear these artificial beards -- what's to stop me from putting such a beard on you? If I declare you to be my son, who will dare to contradict me?"

The audacity of it, the impossibility of it, left Hatshepsut speechless. And yet she also knew that it was a brilliant stroke. Mutnefert had left her alive all these years because it wasn't worth killing a girl -- and because she clearly intended Tuthmose to give Hatshepsut to Mutnefert's miserable calf as his wife. But now the girl would become, not her daughter-in-law, but her Pharaoh and god. And, when Tuthmose died, her husband! The prospect of Mutnefert's reaction was so delicious that Hatshepsut laughed aloud.

"You laugh -- for joy?" asked Father. "Let it be for joy, because you see the wisdom of this plan, you see that Amon has placed this idea in my head."

"Father, how can it work? Who would follow me? While you live, yes, but after you die, who would obey me?"

"You underestimate the power of the name of Pharaoh."

"You underestimate the power of resentment. You would merely create a thousand new allies for Mutnefert."

"You're smarter than she is," said Father.

"But not more ruthless," said Hatshepsut.

"Not?" he asked. "I think you are as ruthless as my father. I think you would survive, you would overmaster her, you would rule."

"Or Egypt would collapse in anarchy, in civil war as captains and aristocrats rose up in revolt against a woman Pharaoh. Do you really want me to die, torn apart by a mob or tortured by the priests for the blasphemy of wearing the beard and the crown?"

"You haven't had time to think about it," said Father. "Go, think, consider. Down to the river and while you're gone I will pray to the gods to show you that this idea is truly of divine origin. You are Pharaoh's daughter when you go to the river, but when you come back, you must be Pharaoh's son!"

"I will think and I will also pray," said Hatshepsut. "But Father, I hope the gods will show us both a better road through this swamp of treachery and decay."

With that she kissed him and embraced him and then left through the other door. She gathered her womenservants and went down the steps to the river. Let the water of the Nile wash away her confusion. She was being offered the crown of Egypt, not through her influence on a brother-husband, but in her own right, under her own name. She was also, in all likelihood, being offered a terrible death -- unless she was strong and clever enough to make it work. She would have to kill so many rebels that the river would run with blood. O gods, she cried, caring not which god heard her, for any that might answer her would be her true god forever. O gods, open the door to life and close the door of death!

*

Jochabed smeared the inside of the basket with pitch, thick and hot and gloppy; she made sure there was no break in it, no place where water could get through and drown the child. Then she covered the pitch with a blanket so it wouldn't get on the baby. She was still tamping it down when Amram came home. He brought a half-dozen elders with him. Jochabed glanced up for only a moment, but she saw at once that one -- and only one -- of the men was beardless and wore a hood over his hair.

"Greetings, Puah," said Jochabed. "I hope no one thought that disguise fooled anyone."

"No one took note of us," said Puah, pulling off the hood.

Amram spoke calmly. "We have nothing to fear. I hear the voice of the Lord in my heart, telling me that this boychild will do mighty works in the name of God."

"I believe you, husband," said Jochabed. "And this basket is what the Lord will use to save the baby."

Another pain swept over her. They were coming every few minutes now; she knew that she should already be squatting over the birthing straw.

"What is this basket?" asked Amram.

Miriam answered, because Jochabed could not speak. "Mother smeared it with pitch. It will float."

"Go," Jochabed said, wincing. "Miriam, go now. Down by the river. Hide in the reeds there, so no one knows you're waiting."

"What is this insane plan you've come up with?" demanded Amram.

"This insane plan was given to me by God," said Jochabed. "The command of Pharaoh is to give newborn Israelite boys to the Nile. Well, that's what we'll do -- ourselves! In a basket that will float!"

"The Nile flows to the sea!" cried Amram. "Is that where our baby should go?"

"What have you done to provide for him!" demanded Jochabed. "You say that God has made you promises -- but what have you done to keep them?"

"God does not need the help of man!"

"Whether he needs it or not, he's obviously not going to get it," said Jochabed sharply.

One of the old men piped up. "Is this how your wife talks to you, Amram?"

"Only when she's giving birth," Amram replied. "Women can't be blamed for how they talk then."

"My son is not going to be handed over to the Egyptians," said Jochabed. Already another pain was beginning. Had the pain before even ended?

"Come," said Puah. "You have no time for this."

Jochabed shook off the midwife's arm. "It was the midwives who saved our babies a month ago! And I'm the one today who'll save this son of ours."

"Careful how you take credit to yourself!" cried Amram.

"I take nothing for myself." Jochabed was stung by his accusation. She had only said "I'm the one" because Amram had been talking as if she were nothing. God does not need the help of man! Women can't be blamed for how they talk during childbirth! And yet that was no excuse for her trying to make him feel like nothing in return. Still, he should remember what was at stake here. She was a woman, yes, but in this case she was not just some bystander to serve the food and leave the room while the men conversed. "I'm giving my baby to the Lord," she said softly.

And he understood, because he was the kind of man who listens even through his anger. "If the baby lives," he said, "it is because the Lord has chosen to let him live. What do we care who hears the word of the Lord?"

"I believe the Lord has chosen to let him live by being floated on the Nile in this basket," said Jochabed. "And Miriam will follow along in the reeds, keeping out of sight, to watch where the basket fetches up."

"What's to stop the Egyptian mob from rushing out and filling the basket with stones?" demanded another old man.

"Why not go out and suggest it to them?" said Jochabed snidely. "As long as you're thinking up clever ways to kill Israelite babies."

The old man recoiled as if slapped. "A man could bleed to death from this woman's words!"

"Go, Miriam!" demanded Jochabed.

Amram's hand shot out and caught the girl by her shoulder. Miriam looked up into his face. "Don't you want the baby to live, Papa?" she asked.

Amram hesitated only a moment longer. "Who am I to stand in the way of the Lord?" he said.

Miriam was out the door in a moment. Little Aaron immediately began to cry. Amram picked him up and held him; the boy fell still as he began to tangle his fingers in his father's beard.

Now, at last, Jochabed let Puah draw her away into the back room of the house. She could feel the baby pushing down between her legs even before she got into place. "He's already here," she said.

"I'm not surprised," said Puah caustically. "Keep talking that way to your husband, and this will be your last baby."

"The mother of this baby needs no others," said Jochabed. And then marveled at the words God had put into her mouth.

*

Miriam didn't like the river. Other children played there all the time, of course, no matter how the adults forbade it. And she knew that as long as you stayed close to the village and watched all the time, the crocodiles didn't pose much danger. They only got hungry now and then, and they preferred the much larger, less troublesome prey they could get when the flocks and herds came down to the river to drink. It was the river itself that Miriam didn't like, the way it moved invisibly among the reeds, tugging at her dress, first this way, then that, trying to pull her out, pull her down, drag her away. She didn't like the way the bottom disappeared sometimes, though the reeds were all the same level at the top. The river was pure treachery, so smooth on top, the water so cool on a hot day, and yet there was death in it, murder in its heart. Like the Egyptians. Such a darling child, they would say, and pat her head. And Miriam would answer in her heart: You made my father a slave. You want us all dead. You are the river, you and all of Egypt. You are the river and as long as we stay beside you we are in danger of drowning.

She said this once to her mother, but somehow the words of her mouth were never as sharp as the words of her heart. Or perhaps it was simply that Mother refused to understand her, or could not believe that Miriam, as young as she was, could see such dark truth. So Mother patted her head and said, "Don't fret about what you can't change," though Miriam had not been fretting and didn't expect to change anything. Didn't Mother understand? The Israelite people had to leave this land. The famine in Canaan was over. It had been over for generations. Miriam had listened to all the stories her father told, the tales of Joseph and Jacob, the promises made to Abraham and Isaac. She knew the truth: The Israelites had stayed in Egypt out of greed, because Joseph's accomplishments had lifted them to a lofty place. For generations they had played at magistrate and overlord, and they disdained the simple life of their ancestors. Father had said as much, hadn't he? And yet somehow he had never reached the obvious conclusion: That Egypt was not the land of Israel's inheritance. All these terrible things that were happening to Israel, they were God's way of waking up his people and telling them they must go home! If the Egyptians had not revolted, driven out the Pharaohs who knew Joseph, made slaves of the Israelites, and now started killing their children, would Israel ever have longed to leave?

I am only a child and I see this, thought Miriam. Why can't the adults see it, too?

But they didn't, or didn't speak about it in front of her, anyway. And when Miriam let them see how she hated the river, they all assumed she was afraid of crocodiles and teased her about it, when the truth was that it was Egypt she hated. Egypt that had made Israel forget God.

Well, I remember God, I remember the land of our inheritance, I have learned the lessons God is trying to teach us, and I will teach them to Aaron -- and to the new baby, too, if I have a chance. I will tell all my friends to hate Egypt, I will tell them to long for the land of our inheritance in Canaan.

In the meantime, though, she waded out among the reeds. Up to her ankles, the water still warm here in the shallows. Up to her knees, with the mud sucking at her feet, trying to lock her in place. Up to her hips, as fish and eels slithered among the reeds and brushed against her. Up to her waist, and now the currents began to reach for her, pull her this way and that, and all she had to hold onto was a handful of reeds. Here she waited, turning slowly in the water, watching for Mother to come with the basket, watching for crocodiles to come up behind her unaware. Watching the birds that came out of the sky, landed on the water, stood on tall legs, dipped sharply to catch fish and eels, rocked their heads back to swallow the wriggling captive, then took off again, flying home to their nest. We should have come to Egypt like a waterbird, to stand in the water, eat, and go away full, instead of letting the river have us.

There was a tumult from the village. As anyone could have predicted, the Egyptian villagers were shouting, "To the river! To the river!" And there in the midst of them were Mother and Father. Mother could scarcely walk from the pain of childbearing, yet she held the basket in her own hands. "I give the baby to the river myself!" she cried.

Some of the Egyptians shouted No, No! -- not out of mercy, but because they wanted to drown the child with their own hands. But Father spoke now, his voice booming out over the water. "The law from Pharaoh is that Israelite boychildren must be given to the Nile. We obey Pharaoh! But if any one of you lays a hand on this basket, you are trying to take what belongs to the river, and the law will have you then!"

"It's a trick!" shouted someone. But no one else took up the cry. Father and Mother waded out a little way; Mother set the basket on the water. Father pushed it, farther, farther, until it was beyond the reeds, out into the slow by inexorable current. The afternoon sun beat down on the basket. It rocked from the movement of the baby inside, but only for a moment. The Egyptians shouted in anger, knowing that somehow they were being cheated. But Miriam cared nothing for them. She kept her eyes on the basket. It was moving slowly, but she could only move slowly herself. She pulled herself along among the reeds.

On the shore, the Egyptian mob walked along parallel to the ark. Miriam stayed low, so they wouldn't see her and suspect a trick -- for of course they would assume that Miriam was there to bring the ark back to shore. The mob grew smaller and smaller as people lost interest and returned, grumbling, to their homes. But still a handful, a few, and then a pair of hate-driven Egyptians walked on, watching, watching. What kind of people are you, Miriam wanted to scream at them, to seek to kill babies because you hate the parents? But she said nothing. She had more important work to do than screaming at Egyptians.

The bottom disappeared from under her feet; she held to the reeds, floating, and even though her head went under the water twice she struggled through to where the bottom was there under her feet again. On and on, following the ark among the bulrushes. It drew even with her, passed her, went on ahead of her. O Lord, whispered Miriam in her heart, if I'm to do anything for this baby, let it happen soon, because I'm getting very cold, and the ark is farther ahead of me, and soon I'll lose sight of it, and it'll be night, and I'm moving too quickly to watch for crocodiles, and I'll die here in the river. Not that it matters in thy great universe of creation whether one little girl lives or dies, but if you let me live I promise you I'll do all in my power to bring your people home to the land thou gavest them. I also promise not to pinch Aaron and make him cry when I'm angry at Mother. That's mean of me and I'll never do it again so if thou wert thinking of punishing me for it by having a crocodile catch me and pinch me to death between its great jaws here in the water, please don't.

*

Hatshepsut walked down the stairs toward the water. Her maidservants fluttered around her like moths, each with some task of great importance, such as draping Hatshepsut's gown properly on the stairs, or arranging a stray wisp of her hair. Annoyances, really, but she couldn't tell them off for doing their work too well, could she? If they took pride in it, then one must endure the annoyance of work too thoroughly done.

She held up a foot; at once her sandal was drawn off and carried away. The other foot; and she was ready for the water. O gods, she prayed again. O gods, show me the way to preserve my father's kingdom and keep it out of the hands of evil.

Was it the cry of some waterbird that caused her to look up? She did not know what she was looking for, only that she looked, and saw, out on the water, something bobbing along, like a tiny boat, with a flash of red cloth catching the evening sun. Was this something the gods were showing her? She had to know.

She turned to the nearest of her servants. "Tawaret," she said, "do you see what's out there on the water? There, near the bulrushes."

Tawaret looked but saw nothing. "Forgive me for being stupid."

"You simply haven't seen it, that's all," said Hatshepsut. "Go fetch it."

The girl looked horrified. "Out in the water? So far?"

"It's only there, by the edge of the bulrushes."

"But the water is deep there and I can't swim."

Hatshepsut was annoyed. "Don't you know that the river will bear you up, when you go on my errand? Remember who I am, girl."

Thus encouraged, Tawaret splashed her way down the steps into deeper and deeper water. But when it was up to her waist, it got no deeper. "Oh!" cried Tawaret. "There's a smooth road under the water!"

Hatshepsut couldn't remember how far out the huge paving stones had been laid. She did know they were at a downward slope, so that no matter how high or low the water was, a boat could be drawn up to the steps. So the girl was not likely to fall off and drown. That would indeed be an annoyance if she did -- Tawaret had a gentle touch with a comb, even when Hatshepsut's hair was most tangled.

The girl went toward the floating thing, as the river carried the floating thing to her. "It's a basket!" cried Tawaret.

"Bring it here!"

Tawaret drew it along behind her as she came closer and closer. A basket, yes. But there was something in it, something moving. A baby. A squalling baby. And the blanket that lined the basket was of Israelite weave.

At once it became clear to Hatshepsut what the gods were saying to her. She had asked for the river to show her what to do; instead, the river had boldly taken action and given her precisely what she most needed. Father's plan was good, but it did not begin to do what the river had set in motion.

"Look what the river has brought me!" Hatshepsut cried. "A son!"

Moses. The word rang out over the water.

"In fact that is his name," Hatshepsut said. "My father is Tuthmose, which means the son of Thoth. But this child is my son. I lift him up out of the water and place him in the royal lineage of Pharaoh!" The baby wriggled in her arms; it was all she could do not to drop it. She had never held a baby before. She had no idea they were so awkward and uncooperative.

The women listened, awestruck and -- the smarter ones at least -- aghast. "O Lady Hatshepsut," the oldest one finally said, "can't you see that this baby is an Israelite?"

"Of course!" cried Hatshepsut. "On this day you can see the law of Pharaoh is fulfilled! No more will Israelite boys be cast into the river, for the gods have chosen the best of them and brought him here to me!" There, thought Hatshepsut. I've ended that bloody blot on my Father's record.

"But he's hungry," said Tawaret. "That's why he's crying so loudly."

"He's crying loudly because it is so painful to be born, and this is the moment of his birth," said Hatshepsut coldly. "He was born when I drew him out of the Nile the way a mother draws her baby out of the waters of her own body."

No one dared mention to her that women generally pushed their babies out. Hatshepsut knew, of course, how it was really done. But she was the one composing this song to be sung through the ages. She would decide how it went.

The oldest servant insisted on substance as well as style, however. "No matter why the baby cries now, neither you nor any of us has milk to give it, and I doubt it has the teeth for bread."

"Then we'll find a nurse," said Hatshepsut.

At that moment, a voice cried out from the bulrushes -- the voice of a child. "O great lady!" cried the child. "I know a woman who would be the perfect nurse for the baby!"

Everyone turned to look at the reeds where the voice was coming from. A wet and shivering girl in peasant garb emerged and slowly made her way through the water toward the stone steps. "Look what else the river has produced for us," said the old servant.

"Quiet," said Hatshepsut. "This woman you know -- could she begin service immediately as the baby's nurse?"

"Oh, yes," said the girl.

"Then bring her to me -- not by the river, by the road." She turned to Tawaret. "You go with her, and take soldiers, so no one will dare to interfere with your errand. Tell no one where you are going -- let this girl run ahead and lead you."

"Yes, Lady Hatshepsut," said Tawaret. "But the girl is wet -- may we dry her first?"

"No!" cried the girl. "I mean, thank you, it's very kind of you, but the wind will dry me off as I run, and Mother -- the woman I know -- the nurse -- she wouldn't want any delay."

"Then go," said Hatshepsut.

The Israelite girl took Tawaret's hand, and together they walked up the stairs to the palace. Hatshepsut handed the baby to the old servant.

"What do you want to bet that the nurse she's fetching just happened to give birth to a boy today?" said the old servant.

"If the gods have arranged things so kindly, so be it, and we are grateful," said Hatshepsut. "But if anyone ever says that I am not the true mother of this child, which was given to me by the river, that will be the last thing they ever say. You might mention this to anyone you know who might be disposed to idle gossip."

Abashed, the old servant fell silent and carried the baby up the stairs.

"Don't drop him," said Hatshepsut. "He'll be Pharaoh someday, so it would be just as well if we didn't break open his head on the first day of his life."

*

Jochabed sat in the midst of the women, refusing to grieve. "My son is not dead," she said. "I have not lost him -- God has him." But the other women chided her. "You should keen for him, silly woman. It's unnatural to be so calm."

And in the front room, surrounded by elders, Amram bore their criticism calmly. "The people are furious that you tricked them," said one. "You shamed yourself by letting your wife rule you in this," said another. "You're guilty of the baby's murder now, since you put him on the water yourselves," said a third. To all of them, Amram said nothing; and when he did speak, it was not to them, but to God. "O Great Lord of Israel, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, O Lord who preserved Joseph and raised him out of the pit and out of prison, from the hands of his brothers, from the hands of a lying woman, and from the hands of the executioners of Pharaoh, O Lord be with my son!"

This is what they were doing when the noise began in the village, first among the Egyptians, then in the streets of the Israelite quarter.

The elders leapt to their feet. "The mob is coming to kill us all! Quick, hide!"

The women clutched at Jochabed. "Oh, see what God will do now, to make you grieve!"

All were at the door in a moment. And instead of a mob, they saw a procession of Egyptian soldiers, with a finely dressed woman at their head. Behind them, Egyptian peasants came like an invading army. It took a moment to realize that running before this troop was a small Israelite girl.

"Miriam!" cried Jochabed. "Miriam, what happened!"

"Mother!" shouted Miriam. In moments she fell into her mother's arms, trembling with cold, stammering with excitement. "Mother, a great lady lifted him up out of the water and named him Moses!"

"Named him?" asked Jochabed. "Then she will save him alive?"

By now the fine lady had arrived.

"Is this the one?" asked Jochabed.

"Oh, no," said Miriam. "This is the one who got all wet bringing the basket to shore."

The fine lady spoke. "Woman, the house of Pharaoh has need of a wet-nurse. This girl says that your breasts have milk and yet you have no child to suckle. Is this true?"

Oh, yes, it was true.

"Then come with me."

"It's a trick," murmured one of the elders. "You can't trust an Egyptian," whispered another. "They'll never let your wife come back," said an old woman to Amram.

"I am this woman's husband," said Amram. "I wish you would tell me, great lady, what child it is that she would suckle. Is it yours?"

The lady laughed. "I am no great lady. I am only a slave, as you are. It is my mistress who gave birth to a child today. The river brought the baby to her, the way a rush of water brings other women's babies."

"And who is your mistress?" asked Amram.

"Who else can send soldiers for a wet-nurse?" asked the slave-lady. "Who else can bring her into Pharaoh's house? I serve Hatshepsut, the daughter of Pharaoh. The baby is her son. She calls him Moses. Someday he will be Pharaoh."

The crowd fell silent at the astonishing news.

"I will go with you," said Jochabed. "I will be proud to give milk to the son of Pharaoh's daughter." She embraced Amram, then walked stiffly toward the soldiers.

"What's wrong with you?" asked the slave-lady.

"Forgive me," said Jochabed. "It happens that I gave birth to a child today."

"But you said you had no one to suckle."

"He was given to the river, and the river carried him where it wished."

"How kind the gods are!" cried the slave-lady. "Can we be less kind ourselves? Soldiers, carry this woman gently to the palace. Let her feet not touch the ground from here to there." And though she was a slave, they obeyed her, because of the authority of her mistress.

Miriam watched as they carried her mother away. Aaron began to cry. "Don't worry," Miriam said to him. "She'll come home every day, or take you with her. Nothing bad will happen to you, because your little brother will be Pharaoh one day."

Thus she was the first to put into words what no Israelite had dared to hope. But now that it was said, Amram could say it too, and loudly. "It will be better than the days of Joseph!" he said. "For Joseph was only next to Pharaoh. Moses will be Pharaoh! This is why God brought us to Egypt! Because this kingdom will be ours! For one of the sons of Israel is now adopted into Pharaoh's house!"

But Miriam understood that Father was making a mistake, though she said nothing to him about it. It was Aaron who would grow up hearing the truth from her. "Canaan is the land of our inheritance, not Egypt," she said. "Your brother was lifted up by God, but not to be Pharaoh. Israel does not belong in Egypt. Israel belongs to another land." God had made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He would not break them now.

*

The ceremony was not long; it did not have to be. It was enough to have Mutnefert watching from the edge of the room as Tuthmose brought his daughter Hatshepsut beside him, and beside her an Israelite nurse held Hatshepsut's newborn son in her arms. Word had already spread about Hatshepsut's bold move, and already Mutnefert's allies were plotting how to persuade Tuthmose to nullify this mad action. Give the throne to an Israelite? Unthinkable.

They had no idea what this ceremony was really for. So they remained stunned and silent as Tuthmose began the marriage of his daughter, Hatshepsut, to himself. "She is my wife now," he said, "and I adopt her child as my own. In fact, I am already father of this child, for it was I, Pharaoh, god of Egypt, who caused this baby to be placed on the Nile, and I, Pharaoh, god of Egypt, who caused my daughter-wife to recognize the child as my gift to her, as all sons are gifts of the husband to the wife, and of the wife to the husband."

Thus all the maneuvering based on Hatshepsut's lack of a husband were swept away. Pharaoh himself claimed fatherhood and took Hatshepsut into his protection as his wife. And, as his wife, she and all her offspring permanently outranked Mutnefert and her precious pathetic son.

But even this was not enough for Tuthmose. For now he took a ceremonial false beard from his steward and placed it on Hatshepsut's chin. "I also declare my daughter to be my son! Hatshepsut is a woman when she is my wife and mother of the baby Moses. But she is a man when she appears in this court and rules Egypt as Pharaoh." With that he took the double crown of Egypt from his own head and placed it on hers. "See this miracle that I, Pharaoh, god of Egypt, have performed for you today! I have made a man out of a woman! A son out of a daughter! And I have made her Pharaoh on the same day that I also made her my wife. Let anyone who speaks against this miracle be blotted out, him and all his children! Egypt, behold your Pharaoh!"

Whereupon Hatshepsut reached out and took the baby from Jochabed's arms. "Egypt, behold the son of Pharaoh!"

The court bowed down, every one of them, even Mutnefert; and Hatshepsut saw with pleasure that the old snake was smiling, pretending to be joyful. She had made her decision -- she would do nothing openly against Hatshepsut now.

But she would plot, Hatshepsut knew it. Yet Mutnefert would never dream of the final move in Hatshepsut's game. For when her father died and Mutnefert began to plot again -- for there was no chance that she would not -- Hatshepsut would simply marry Mutnefert's miserable boy (pretentiously named Tuthmose after his father, though he resembled him in nothing but looks). She would make him co-Pharaoh -- Tuthmose II -- but the name was all he would get, for she would force him to adopt Moses as his heir and then lock him away in hedonistic confinement with a well-stocked household of concubines, trotting him out for ceremonies but otherwise cutting him and his mother away from all real power. Thus the integrity of Pharaoh's house would be preserved, but Mutnefert would never again have power in the kingdom.

And word had reached the palace that already the loyalty of the Israelites had been cemented. Instead of being on the verge of revolt, this skilled and educated people would be her loyal allies. It would be years before they noticed that despite the fact that Moses was an Israelite, and heir to the throne, they were still slaves. And even then, they would be patient in bondage, believing that someday Moses would be Pharaoh and once again prefer them above the people of Egypt.

It was Hatshepsut's job to make sure he grew up knowing how to govern -- including the skill of playing one group off against another. Moses would know that the Israelites were no more his people than the Egyptians were. Pharaoh is a god, not one of the people at all; the people are his to command, and never to command him. That's the wisdom her son would grow to understand. And if he did not understand it, then he did not deserve to rule.

Hatshepsut did understand, and did deserve to rule. And if it took being turned into a man by her father, well, so be it. Her own miracle would be to turn this Israelite baby into a god. What miracles would the baby perform, when he became a man? The gods would have to show him when he came into his power. Hatshepsut could not keep any promises beyond her own lifetime, and so she would make none.

*

After all the pain, after all the dread, after all the rage that had torn at her heart, it came to this: jostling along in a sedan chair, up the broad stairs into the royal residence, to find herself installed on cushions, where they brought her baby to her, washed and wrapped in linen, hungry for her, as she was hungry for him. As she unwrapped him and held his naked body to her breast, feeling his warmth against her, the milk flowing out of her, their hearts beating, his fast, hers slow, she kept thinking, over and over, He lives, he lives.

O God, she prayed, thou hast heard the words of thy daughter Jochabed. Thou hast seen the child that was in my womb and thou hadst mercy on him. I will bless thy name all the days of my life. My voice will be heard in all Israel, declaring that the love of God is not gone from his people. For the child of my body has been chosen, the babe at my breast has been named, and the Lord watches over him.

Sated for the moment, the baby dozed. His lips came away from her nipple, the whitish fluid still clinging to his lips. "Don't sleep yet, you lazy boy," she whispered. "You have to drink from both or mama will be uncomfortable."

Then she realized what she had said. Mama. She could not let him call her mama. Another woman would hear that name from his lips, when he first learned to talk.

For a moment it stabbed at her, a pang of regret that could so easily become resentment, anger, jealousy.

No! Though she made no sound, she shouted it in her heart. I will not be angry. I will not be ungrateful to the Lord. I asked for the life of my child, and it was given. In his mercy, God has even let me be the one whose breast he will suckle from. I will be grateful every day of my life. I will hold no anger in my heart. O Lord, help me keep all darkness from my child's life. Never let him learn of it from me.

The baby woke again, his brief nap over. She brought him to her other breast and he attached himself to it, greedy with the innocent need of infancy. What man are you, hidden in this tiny body? What have we made here, God and Amram and I? What is the path of your life? Whatever it is, God has chosen it. Walk boldly on it, my little son, when you let go of my hand and take your own steps into the world, walk boldly, for God will never let go of your hand, he will hold it always, if you only trust him.

That is what I will teach you, if I can. That is the knowledge that will flow into you with my milk. In the darkest hour, in the night of fear, the hand of God is there for you, his path is open before you, life or death, whatever gift he gives to you, step out with courage, hold to him with faith, for he will lead you to joy, and no one else knows the way.

To joy he will lead you, like my joy in this hour. Of all women, who is more blessed than Jochabed?

Copyright © 1997 Orson Scott Card


E-mail this page
Copyright © 2021 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.