Open 2021 Open Stories - Felicity Goldstein


From the Water
By AJ Lyndon


It was not enough that they had enslaved us.

It was not enough that we toiled for them night and day.

It was not enough that our men came home exhausted, shaking, sweating, and their bodies torn, if they came home at all.

It was not enough to keep us at death’s threshold. Now they thought to stamp our people out. But those like my mother resisted and I, who had seen more than nine summers, did my part.

“Mimi, Sara’s time has come. Mind your brother for me. When he is asleep, come to her house and find me. It may be that I will need you.”

“If the baby is a boy, Ima.”


“First pray for a blessing on the mother that she and the baby may live.”

Our masters in the city of Waset had the finest physicians, but we had our own midwives, women like my mother Yocheved, skilled in the ways of women, strong and brave enough to bring new life into the world or to let it go when it could not be saved, even by Elohim, God of our fathers.

I sat staring into the candle flame. The pointed flame stretched, in my imagination, towards the heavens and a better future. I shook myself awake. The baby might be coming. I wrapped a flat bread, a handful of dates and a hunk of the pungent cheese made from ewe’s milk in palm leaves. When helping a labouring woman, my mother rarely remembered that she, too, needed food.

My brother would come to no harm. Elohim would care for him. I pushed aside the goatskin curtain covering the doorway of our mud brick house and went out into the dusk. The warmth of day lingered. Distant chanting came from one of the temples. Our masters had many gods. Ra, the sun god, brought light, or so they believed. It was Elohim, not Ra, who had separated night from day, but we must not say so. Our masters paid no heed to our one God.

“The Hebrews’ god is a weakling god who dwells in the desert. If he were a strong god, we would not have the Hebrews beneath our heels.” One day Elohim would show His power.

By the time I reached Sara’s house, my mother was too busy to eat. She muttered a distracted “Leave it there, Mimi.” Sara was on hands and knees, panting. I retreated to a corner, fascinated by the miracle of life.

At last I heard the shrill, angry cry of the newborn. An older woman, Sara’s mother, clucked over the naked scrap of humanity, while my mother wiped the baby clean.

“Ima?” I asked. She turned a weary face towards me. “Go home, Mimi and mind your brother. I will return before morning.”

“The baby?”

“A girl, thanks be to the God of our fathers.” She finished wrapping the infant and placed her in Sara’s arms. I peeped at the closed eyes, at the tiny fist waving in the air, until Ima shooed me away.

“No need to conceal this birth,” she said in relief. Girl-children were not a threat to our masters. She swayed as she stood. “Ima, are you ill?”

“No, Mimi, just tired. All is well.”

But six months later it was my mother who crouched, groaning, while Chana the other midwife chanted, cajoled, prayed, her hands busy wiping, stroking, kneading, pulling, pushing. Soothing and bullying she urged my mother through her pains. Familiar though the sounds were from other women, hearing my mother grunting like an animal frightened me. I huddled in a corner, hugging my knees for comfort.

“Now,” Chana urged. My mother panted, then screamed. Chana cried out in exultation as the slippery head emerged between my mother’s blood-streaked thighs. But when the baby’s body followed, Chana was silent. For an eternity of a moment, I thought the baby was dead, or my mother.

Chana murmured something and my mother wailed. I let out a breath. She lived. Moments later a thread of sound, rising and growing, cut the air.

“Here, child, make haste.” Chana thrust the infant at me. I gripped the tiny body as she cut the cord. Between the baby’s legs his tiny member was red, swollen and very male.

“Oh,” I said.

“Oh indeed, Mimi. Now take the child and run.”

“No. Let me see him.” Chana sighed and passed him to my mother.

“I will not let them murder my son.” Her voice cracked.

“You know we will do what we can, Yocheved. Mimi must take the baby to the caves and remain with him until the guards have been here. We will say the baby died, as we have done before. Take him, Mimi.”

I removed the baby from my weeping mother’s arms. Dawn was coming up and the ceremonies for the sun god would soon begin. I ran, my bare feet slapping the hard ground, past my people’s shacks, past yawning women carrying water jars. Here and there a man emerged from his family’s house tying on his sandals, hurrying towards one of the quarries or building sites before the overseers with their whips rousted them. My own father I had not seen in many weeks. He was working on a site beyond the Nile, carving pictures into tombs for the royal family. I prayed that when he returned his back would be healed from the scars of the last beating.

I followed the path of the dried-out wadi. My arms ached by the time I pushed aside the bush covering the entrance to the cave. The shawl snagged on a branch. The jolt woke my brother. He whimpered. I stuck my little finger in his mouth, and he began sucking. I had a clay feeding bottle in my pack, but it was useless until Chana sent Rachel with a goat. As dawn became day, I saw Rachel’s dumpy figure approaching the cave. A nanny goat ambled beside her, her kid trotting at her heels.

“This is for you, Mimi.” I accepted the basket of food with thanks, tearing at the flat bread hungrily.“The goat will remain with you, the kid too. I will come again tomorrow and bring meat.”

I parted from her with reluctance. The night would be dark. I dared not light a fire for warmth or to keep away wild animals, lest the glow be seen. As the sun set it grew chill, and I felt very alone. I usually spent my days and nights surrounded by all the noise of the slave quarters, shouting, quarrelling, donkeys braying, Ima singing. The silence of the desert was absolute and terrifying. Waking in the night, I imagined I heard the slithering of a snake or a lion padding towards the cave on velvet paws. I wriggled closer to the comforting warmth and familiar odour of the goat and her kid.

For two days and nights we remained in the cave. I kept my knife close at hand, but nothing disturbed the peace save the bleating of the kid, the crying of the baby and the pounding of my heart. Early one morning I heard the high-pitched cries of a distant camel train. On the third morning, I woke to find light streaming in. The bush had been pushed away. My mother stood there smiling at me. She was clutching her belly and I knew that the heavy flow after the birth had not yet ceased. Her eyes swivelled to the swaddled bundle.

“Is he well?”

“I have been feeding him with the goat’s milk, Ima.”

The baby chose that moment to wake and cry.

“He is hungry.” I reached for the clay bottle, but Mother stayed me with a hand on my arm.

“I will feed him.” She pulled down the neck of her tunic. Her breasts were swollen with milk. She lifted the baby to her breast, adjusting the position of his head with practised hand. Accustomed to the clay feeding bottle, he fussed but as the milk began to flow, he latched on. My mother gave a sigh of relief. I could not help feeling jealous at the expression in her eyes. Such adoration was not mine to remember. I felt a nudge against my back. The nanny goat, her feelings hurt at this switch in loyalties, reminding me that she was there. I giggled.

With her free hand, my mother twitched the cover off her basket. We sat in companiable silence munching on bread and dates and drinking from a jug of beer. When we had finished eating, I leant my head against her shoulder.

“Can you be brave, Mimi?” she murmured. I stiffened. What more was she about to ask of me? The light was dim, but my mother’s dark eyes glowed with love. At least, that is how I remember it.

“Take the goat back to Rachel, Mimi and go home. Sara is caring for Aaron, but I told her you would fetch him today. I must tend the baby now. Go home, care for Aaron. Sara will help, and I hope Abba may visit before the next new moon. Rachel will bring me what is needful. When it is time, I will send for you.”

“But Ima,” I was frightened, “How many new moons will you spend here? What if the Egyptians see your fire and find the cave?”

Ima hugged me. “Be strong, Mimi. Elohim will protect us.”

“When it is time for what?” I wondered as I trudged the distance back to the slave quarters, tugging at the rope attached to the unwilling goat. She stopped at every weed, or so it seemed. The fresh parting from my mother was all the harder after those precious few hours. The goat and kid were poor compensation.
A week later, my abba returned. He had only one night at home, but I brought water for his feet and fed him from our precious jar of salted fish from the Nile. There were fresh red wheals on his neck.

“They are not so bad, Mimi,” he said, tousling my hair.“The new overseer is not as harsh as Seti was. He likes the sound when he cracks the whip, but most of the time that is all he does.”

“I will fetch the salve, Abba.” It was what my mother would have done.

“You are a good girl, Mimi. I will rest for an hour and then you will tell me more of your new brother.” Pulling off his sandals, he collapsed on the pile of goatskin rugs he shared with us on his rare visits. By the time I had found the small jar of herbal ointment and removed the stopper, he was asleep. Aaron arrived a few minutes later from playing with his friends. I pointed to Abba and shushed him.

I was disappointed but not surprised when Abba’s exhausted sleep lasted until dawn and it was time for him to leave. I watched from the doorway until his tall, stooping figure was a distant speck.

Two weeks later, the guards came tramping through the narrow, dusty streets of the walled village where the Hebrew slaves lived. Somehow, I knew they were coming to our house. “Aaron, go.” I pushed him out the door. The decree of the Pharaoh had been made two years after Aaron’s birth, but I was afraid of what he might say. I returned to my task of kneading dough.

“Girl, where is your mother?” The curtain had been pushed aside. The officer scowled at me. Two soldiers stood outside, spears glinting in the sunlight.

“I do not know, Sir,” I stuttered. “She attends women in travail.”

He turned to his men. “Search these quarters.”

I stood clutching my kneading bowl while they turned over our possessions, spilling barley on the ground and breaking a water jar. They shook their heads.

“No baby here, Sir, and nothing for an infant that we can see.”

He stared at me hard. In my fear my bladder felt as if it would burst. I pressed my thighs together under my linen tunic. Suddenly he pounced.

“What are these for, girl?” He was brandishing a handful of clean clouts.

“For cleaning babies, Sir and their mothers. As I told you, my mother tends to women as they birth their children. There is much blood when babies are born.”
“And when babies die,” he snarled. “There is much blood when babies die. We spit them on our swords and spears or beat their brains out. Their skulls are soft, the Hebrew spawn. Remember that, girl.”

He stormed out. My bladder gave way. Later, Sara found me sitting in my soaked tunic, clutching the bowl, the dough dried into a stiff and crusted mass.
“Come, Mimi. Bring Aaron. I will feed you tonight,” she said.

The soldiers did not return.

Three moons had passed when Rachel visited me as it was getting dark and the gate to the village had closed. In all that time I had not seen Ima.
“Mimi, your mother wants you to visit her in two days and bring…,” She named a strange list of items.

I was filled with excitement at the thought of seeing my mother and scarcely felt the weight of the bundle on my back. It included materials used by fishermen to make their boats waterproof. I was 50 paces or more from the cave when Ima emerged from the cave, her arms held wide. I ran into them and she clasped me while we both shed tears.

“Are you well, Mimi?” she said at last, pushing me away so she could see me. “Today is my last day in the cave.”

It was early the next morning and the air was cool when I crouched in the reeds at the edge of the river. Ima had bidden me stay home with Aaron for there were harsh penalties for those who hid Hebrew baby boys. “Too dangerous, Mimi,” she had said. “If I do not return, you must be both mother and sister to Aaron.”
But I had to know my brother’s fate. Someone must be there when he went into the river in his tiny basket-boat. And so, I disobeyed.

Ima walked towards the Nile, the basket tucked under her arm. My brother did not like being shut in the dark. He whimpered. Following in the shadows, I watched Ima open the basket and soothe him. She walked swiftly, transferring the basket to her head as she drew near the wide expanse of water. Anyone seeing her might think she carried clothes to wash in the river.

Once or twice, she looked around, but I do not believe she either saw or thought of me. All her soul was bound up in that bundle which had so recently been a part of her own body. When she reached the riverbank, she hesitated, moving into the reeds and then out again, rejecting one spot after another.

I heard a shout. “Slave, what are you doing?” I peered between the reeds. Two of the palace eunuchs were coming our way and they had spotted my mother. She straightened up and ran. One of the eunuchs lumbered in pursuit.

There were places Ima could have hidden herself, trees, bushes, but she did not. She was drawing the pursuit away from the precious basket, for her arms were empty. The other eunuch had continued walking towards the river. Like his fellow, he was tall and broad-chested, bangles encircling his upper arms, a bronze khopesh in his belt.

I shuddered. It was said the palace eunuchs, lacking the power to lie with women, carried only hatred in their hearts, for men most of all. Crouching low, I pushed my way through the reeds until I heard a whimper. Laying half in and half out of the river, the basket had tipped upside down. Grasping the sides with both hands I wrenched, but it was stuck. I heard women’s voices. They were probably coming to wash themselves or their clothes. Sobbing, I tugged once more with all my strength. The glutinous mud released the basket with a great sucking noise, and I staggered backwards.

There was a little spit a short distance away at the edge of the mighty river. Slaves were forbidden to go there, but I sometimes watched Egyptian children splashing in the shallows. It might be a better place to leave my brother, where children might find him, take him home with them. I scuttled along, until I reached a place next to the spit where the reeds thinned out. The voices were drawing closer; and there was no time for words, not even a prayer. I rammed the basket right way up in a clump of reeds and fled.

The princess’s white tunic shimmered in the rays of the rising sun. She danced towards the water, laughing. Her body was lithe and smooth with flawless skin which had never known the calluses and scars of toil, the pinch of hunger, the lash of the whip. Clouds of spray flew into the air as she splashed. A lusty wail cleaved the peace. Waist-deep in the Nile, the princess turned her head.

“A Hebrew boy-child, Madam,” the handmaid grumbled. “What affrontery, leaving it here at your bathing place.” She beckoned a eunuch guard. “Dispose of it.” He grinned, pulling the sickle-shaped khopesh from his belt with a flourish.

“No! He shall live,” the princess ordered. “I will not have this place I love defiled with blood. Bring the baby to me.”

She scooped the infant from his basket and extended a finger. He grasped it and gurgled. The princess smiled.

“I shall name you, Moses, for I drew you out from the water.”


A.J. Lyndon was born in Wales and now lives in Melbourne, Australia. After a life-long interest in historical fiction, she wrote The Welsh Linnet, a saga set during the English Civil war in the 1640s. Her second novel, The Tawny Sash, is in production.


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