By Arthur Li
Yesterday, at Bitter Lake, Shiphrah had seemed sad, perched on the edge of our rock, looking at the lake. She was so silent. She sat next to me, holding my hand.
I recognized her sadness, the expression she had after the swarms of locusts had erased our wheat fields, and a plague had killed most of our livestock. The plagues had not come to Shiphrah’s family, or to any of her people. And yet she still mourned my family’s losses.
She also had worn that same look of sadness two month ago, when the seas and rivers turned red as the color of spilled blood. She loved the landscape of Egypt as much as I did, and she was heartbroken about the land’s devastation. Still, after Bitter Lake had turned from sapphire blue to bright crimson, we continued to return to it. As long as Shiphrah was next to me on our rock, I didn’t care about the color of the lake.
In the last month, there had been no new plagues. We replanted our crops, and found other sources of food. The people of Egypt had realized that even though we had lost so much, we had survived. We still had our families. Why was Shiphrah looking so somber now?
“I’ve loved these moments with you,” she said. “In fact, I’ve loved them more than anything else in the world.”
Her hair, brown like ripened dates, fell over her eyes and her back. Her knees were bent, and raised to her chest. Her plain linen garment, the color of dry earth, was bunched up around her ankles. Her legs were thin and wiry, like the rest of her small and lean 10 year old body.
“I have something that I cherish,” she said. “But it’s about to end.”
I was puzzled. I looked at her. The corners of her soft brown eyes were wet.
“This sadness I feel, with you sitting next to me,” she says. “Is the sadness worse now, or will it be greater after you’re gone?”
“Gone?” I said. “I’ve survived a lot, all these plagues.”
Sometimes, while praying to her god, Shiphrah had premonitions. She accepted these as signs, as truths. Perhaps she might have become convinced that we had been found out.
“No one in either of our families knows about us,” I said. “We have Bitter Lake to ourselves. For the past year, the sand around the lake has had nobody’s footprints but our own.”
Many days ago, when the lake was still blue, Shiphrah and I splashed around in the water. We had left our garments on the rock. We jumped into the lake, to test our buoyancy amidst the salty water. Because of extreme saltiness, the water would not allow a body to sink in it.
I pushed Shiphrah down beneath the water, and when I let go, she floated back up and emerged, wet, grinning and laughing.
When she pushed me down, I swam away a short distance, and I flapped my arms to keep myself under, holding my breath. When I finally surfaced, Shiphrah looked at me with desperate concern, her eyes trembling, brow bunched together, mouth agape.
“Aamon!” she yelled. “Thank the Lord you are not dead!”
She was frightened, but relieved.
I swam back to her, and faced her, our heads bobbing above the water. “I’m sorry for tricking you.”
“I forgive you,” she said. “But promise me you’ll never leave me like that again!”
She flipped over onto her back, and floated on the surface. Pearls of water glistened on her belly like dewdrops. Her belly was flat and smooth, golden brown under the sun. With one finger, I lightly stroked the smooth skin around her navel, and she giggled as I touched her.
I retrieved a small round pebble from the bottom of the lake, and placed it in the middle of her belly. I laid my head on top of her, pressing the side of my face into her soft and supple chest. I listened to the steady drumming sound underneath, thumping against my ear, as the pebble on her navel shuddered with each beat of her heart. She stared up at the sky, worshipping my god, the god of the sun.
Now that Bitter Lake had turned red, we no longer swam in it. But I was happy now just holding her hand at the edge of the lake.
“Why do you say that we’re going to be parted?” I asked.
She paused a moment.
“Don’t tell anyone what I say,” she said, “or else I could be stoned to death if anyone finds out I’ve told you.” She took a deep breath. “Last night, the Counsel of Elders met at my father’s house. I overheard the Elders talk.” She stopped again, trying to decide whether to continue. “The plagues, the locusts and frogs, the red water…they said my God might be the one causing them.”
I looked at her, not believing her. “Really?” I said. “But you told me your god is good. He protects you.”
She nodded. “I’m not sure of it,” she said. “But I’m scared. My father said last night that God can be vengeful and jealous. He said that God once caused water to cover the earth, and everything died, even innocent and good things.” She looked up at the sky. “But that is not my God.”
I put my hand on her knee. She looked down, and she entwined her fingers with mine.
“Sometimes I wonder how well God has protected us,” she said. “My people have been slaves for so many years. My father is in shackles under the hot sun everyday, laying bricks for Pharaoh.” She looked out at the vast expanse of sand beyond the lake, as the sun floated downward across the dunes. “The Elders say that they have had enough. They plan to leave Egypt. As the sun rises tomorrow, they will leave for freedom in the desert, to search for a land promised to them by God.”
“I am happy for them, as they deserve to be free,” I said.
Shiphrah put her hands on my shoulders. “There is something you don’t understand yet.” She looked deeply into my eyes. “I am going with them.” A tear fell from her face and darkened a spot on our rock. “Every one of my people, man and woman, young and old, is going with them. My mother didn’t even have time to leaven the bread to take with us. We leave tomorrow.”
She laid her head on my shoulder, and began to sob. But I didn’t believe her, not one word of it. Either she had only dreamt it, or the Elders were full of delusions. How could all of her people, hundreds of thousands of them, escape from Pharaoh and his army?
“And there’s something else,” she said, picking up a linen sack she had brought with her. “The Elders talked of another plague. But it might be different from the previous ones.” She handed the sack to me. “I heard whispering. I think your life is going to be in danger.”
The sack felt weighted on the bottom, and something knobby but compliant struck against my knees as I took the sack from her. I unloosened the drawstrings, and a putrid odor escaped, that of rotting flesh. I immediately turned my head to the side, and cinched the sac together again.
“This smells awful,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s a lamb,” she said. “I killed it last night.”
“You…killed a lamb? You know how to do that? Are you allowed?”
“I saw my uncle kill one. I know where the knives are kept. I ran around the field to catch the lamb, a small and tender one year old. I pushed him into the ground, and sat astride his body to keep him down. I felt him struggle beneath me. I whispered to him to soothe him. I grabbed his fur, held his head up, and dragged the knife across his neck. I cried. I felt the warm blood pour onto my hands. He writhed a few more times before going limp.” Her lips quivered as she finished her story. “I did it for you.”
As she gazed at me, with delicate eyes, wide with concern for me, I saw that she cared about me, and this was as real as anything I’d ever seen. I wiped a tear from her cheek.
“You are so brave,” I said. “But why would you do this?”
“I heard them say the lamb’s blood will protect its owner,” she said. “I know your family’s lambs died during the plague on the livestock, so I am giving you one of ours. Now, you must do what I tell you.” She picked up the sac with the lamb and pretended to swing it. “Take the lamb and strike it upon the two side posts and upper door post of your house. Everyone in my tribe has already done so. Then you and your family must roast the lamb with bitter herbs, and eat it. When God sees the lamb’s blood on your door post, he will pass over your house.”
“I don’t believe in such dark magic,” I protested. “You know I don’t believe in your god.”
“I don’t know if these things are real, either,” she said. “But just in case. If my God is capable of anger and destruction, as my father says he is, then you could be in danger. You must listen to me.”
But I could not think of any god, nor of plagues or lamb’s blood. I worshipped no gods, not even the gods of Egypt. Shiphrah’s body was the only temple I knew. I lay my head in her lap. I stretched my arms under her robe, across her warm thighs, and around her waist. I clasped my hands behind the small of her back, and prayed to her. Don’t leave me. I need you. Stay with me here, in Egypt. She put her hands on my head, and ran her fingers through my hair.
I watched the sun fall behind the sand dunes, as the orange glow seemed to set Bitter Lake on fire, brimstone igniting upon the blood.
When I got back to the house that evening, the sack containing the lamb had become infested with flies. The meat was fetid, and not fit for my family to eat. I cocked my arm back and hurled the rotten sack onto the refuse heap. I did not paint the front of the house with the lamb’s blood. After all, how sad would my mother be if, already ailing and covered in boils, she were to see streaks of blood on our doorposts?
Arthur Li is a physician in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has previously published research studies in scientific journals and co-authored medical textbooks, but he finds that writing fiction is way more fun.