By Michelle McGill-Vargas
She gasped when his fingers traced the outline of her spine down to the small of her back. His hands, rough from years of combat in Pharaoh’s army, scratched against the thin layer of hand-woven flax draping her body. He’d commented once, in the privacy of this domicile, how her ebony skin made the linen kalasaris gleam with even more purity. But that had been one of those rare times, when they weren’t wishing to hasten the other’s arrival to Osiris’ domain.
He whispered her name—Lesedi—right before the warm moisture of his lips met her neck. And just as unexpected as the water escaping her eyes when his hand had tightened around her windpipe, an involuntary moan broke from her. She wanted to resist enjoying the coolness of the mud-brick wall against her back, Amenemhat’s soft breathing in her ear, his sepia face haloed by the firelight. Overwhelmed, Lesedi uncovered his shoulder and kissed it, the saltiness of his day on her tongue. A concoction of ground cinnamon and dried raisins burning in the wall niche that housed a wooden god bit at her nostrils.Then she remembered the wrath to come.
Hands to his chest, Lesedi tried pushing him away, but he held firm.
“What?” Amenemhat whispered against her neck. “Is it Abel you desire?”
She turned her head and glanced down at the bloody hyssop branch at her feet. Amenemhat’s choking her a few moments before had been the culmination of yet another argument, this time over her painting the lintel and doorposts of the front entrance. “It is the freedom you refuse to give that I desire.”
He stood erect. One hand against the wall; the other still around her waist. “Have you been in a cave the last two months? I am not the one keeping you here.”
“You brought me here.”
“You killed two of my soldiers. That is what brought you here. I saved your life. Or would you rather I’d left you with them?”
“You could have let me go.”
Amenemhat smiled and raised an eyebrow. “You could have left. After everything that has happened to this land, I doubt my commander will miss one Nubian captive now.”
Lesedi lifted her chin and stared into his eyes. “Then give me my freedom.”
“You do not want to be here?” Amenemhat pulled her closer. His large hand swept over her halo of tiny black curls, a remnant of the beaded locks shorn away the moment she landed on Egyptian soil. “You do not want to be…” he held her face, “…here?” He covered her mouth with his.
If only this had been the Amenemhat she’d known earlier. The gentle one. The one who, for the first time, perceived the pain he was inflicting on her and had ceased. Instead, he’d demeaned her with physical labor, as if that would drain the royal Nubian blood from her veins. As if she’d ever conform to Egyptian ways. Her hatred of him had only been a ruse. She welcomed the effort it took, for it blocked out possibilities she didn’t want to consider. With all Abel had taught her, Lesedi believed her freedom would finally come at midnight. But as she succumbed to Amenemhat’s touch, strangely, she felt free now.
Lesedi’s fingers skated around the waistband of his kilt. His hand crept under her thigh, raising it to his hip. He pressed his body against hers as if the wall could absorb them, memorializing this initial encounter into a permanent relief of art. Her hands slid up to his neck, guiding the robe about him down past his shoulders. The soft tickle of fabric moving away to expose her deepened the kiss.
Loud banging on the front door and the growing murmurs of a crowd disrupted their passion. The odor of burning wood seeping through wall cracks overtook the room’s incense. Amenemhat swore as he tapped his forehead twice against the wall behind her.
“Go upstairs. Wait until I come for you.”
“Amen, wait. I can help—”
“They are here for you because of the blood on the door!” He held Lesedi by the shoulders and shook her. “For once, do as I say!”
Trembling, from either his kiss or that familiar anger now coating his words, Lesedi exited the main room to the stairs near the back of the house. She ascended slowly, listening for the slightest hint of trouble. But there was only the screech of the front door closing and Amenemhat’s voice booming over the demand for her blood.
* * * * *
Amenemhat pulled his robe closed to conceal Lesedi’s effect on his body and reduce the urge to reach for the weapon at his side. A slight chill in the air, or maybe it was the anxiety over what had transpired over the last two months, raised a field of tiny bumps on his skin. They were all here: men and women, priests who should be tending to King Djedefre’s burial chamber, not here, demanding retribution for things beyond all their control. He knew this would happen when he returned that evening to find Lesedi painting the door. He’d wanted to remove the blood, convince her to reapply it later. But, as usual, she refused and another fight ensued.
“Leave this place!” Amenemhat ordered the torch-bearing crowd.
“What is this?” a priest asked, pointing at the door’s crimson markings. “We saw that Cushite girl you brought here slaughter a lamb with your Hebrew manservant and then slather the doorframe with its blood. She summons another calamity upon us. Give her over to us now so we can end this!”
“Not another Nubian woman from this house will be sacrificed over ridiculous supposition!”
“Supposition?” came another priest. “How else do you explain these plagues that have coincided with her arrival?”
Amenemhat folded his arms across his chest. “I hear the Hebrew God is angry. But this house has suffered no less. Blood has flowed from our clay vessels. Flies have bitten us. Boils have erupted on our skin—”
“But only your animals were spared from the hail!”
He’d almost forgotten about that one. So much had happened since he had Lesedi arrived that it was hard to keep track of curses that intensified with each passing day. But saving the livestock had been his doing, not Lesedi’s.
“Give her to us!” the crowd demanded, their raised torches a canopy of orange. A golden spray of cinders crackled and floated away into the night like fugitive fireflies. The mob pressed closer to the door, vowing to take Lesedi by force, but cowered once Amenemhat unsheathed his blade and lurched forward.
Be still, something within him commanded.
He tossed the weapon at the priests’ feet and instead, shrugged off his robe as if displeased with it. With the fabric in his hand, he wiped the door clean to the villagers’ satisfaction, keeping his back to them as they dispersed. After tonight, they’d all be a distant memory to him. His only regret was waiting until now to show Lesedi who he really was. But because his stubbornness rivaled hers, she gravitated to Abel, a simple household slave, and hung on prophetic words that now sealed their fate.
Amenemhat lumbered back inside, the stained robe now in a pile at the door. Can’t go back now. If only she had waited. Darkness would have concealed the marked portal and their lives could have started anew, maybe together, far away from Egypt.
* * * * *
Lesedi met Amenemhat on the stairs.
He beckoned her with an outstretched hand. “Stay with me tonight.” His eyes focused on the floor as he escorted her into the darkness of his bedchamber.
“Amen,” she said with a tug to his arm. “What have you done? Tell me what happened.”
Moonlight, the sole source of illumination in the room, streamed through windows cut high into the mud-brick walls. Amenemhat sank down onto the bed, holding his head like a child denied. Beneath him, the taut layer of reeds bound to a wooden frame held up by four elaborately carved posts sighed in response. Lesedi stood before him hoping that angry-Amenemhat had not returned from confronting the villagers. She hesitated, then sat beside him and stroked his shoulder.
Still hunched over, he lowered his folded hands. “They will not bother you again.”
“What did you do?”
“It has been resolved,” he said to the floor. “They, nor I, shall impede your departure tomorrow.”
“My departure?” She guided his face to her smile. “Then you do believe! Leave with me. With us.”
Amenemhat’s eyes traced her features as if memorizing their details. Then he shook his head. “I cannot.”
His words cut a frown across her face. “Even after everything that has happened, you hate me still?”
“It was never hate.”
Seldom-seen dimples appeared on his beautiful face, smooth and unblemished like a sunlit drop of honey. His thumb caressed her cheek. Amenemhat’s lips anointed Lesedi’s forehead, eyes, nose, and then lingered at her receptive mouth. Arrested desire emerged, intensifying with each pass of hand and tongue. But before they ventured to a place from which they could not return, he released her and collected himself.
“I do not want you to return to your people ashamed of anything you have done here.” He pointed near the entrance. “My weapons are there. You will need them more than I.” Before words could accompany her questioning look, Amenemhat continued: “Sleep, Princess. You have a great journey ahead of you.”
Like the interlocking strands of flax upon the loom, the two lay. Within moments, the rise and fall of his chest slowed to a steady rhythm. She joined him with the lullaby of his heart in her ear. Hours passed. Suddenly, Amenemhat sat up, knocking her away from him. His hands reached into the darkness, grasping at some phantom image only he could see. Then he settled back down on the cushioned headrest. His eyes remained wide and unblinking, searching whatever his mind perceived. Despite the moon’s dim rays, his pupils were reduced to pinpricks.
“Are you He?” Amenemhat asked the vision. Dimples reappeared. A hint of moisture formed at the edge of his eye. Then his body writhed as if to satisfy an itch on his back. He grimaced, panted three times, then fell silent.
“Amenemhat,” Lesedi whispered through the lump in her throat. She sat back for a moment, waiting for the convulsions to resume. As he lay perfectly still, she leaned over and peered into his open eyes. She shook him, called his name, slapped his cheek. Sniffing back heated anger rising to her face, her head descended upon his chest, listening for the lullaby. There was nothing.
Lesedi covered her mouth. Wailing came, though not from her.
* * * * *
Abel hurried down the dirt road, hands over his ears to drown out the crescendo of screams as he approached King Djedefre’s burial complex. He expected a sense of satisfaction once he left home. His entire life had been spent in captivity; the last two months in anticipation of this very moment. But he could not rejoice in this final blow to his captors. Not all Egyptians had been evil and cruel. Not all had rejected the warnings. As he entered the walled complex, screams laced with the names of the dead intensified. He expected to see one Egyptian, the one he loved like a brother, alive and well and ready to accompany him and Lesedi to freedom. That is, if the two hadn’t managed to kill each other in the interim.
He stopped at his destination, bewildered. He burst into the home, calling for its occupants, but instead found a blood-smeared robe on the floor next to the door.
What have they done to each other now?
Abel looked up to see Lesedi marching toward him. Amenemhat’s precious composite bow and leather pouch of quivers were in her hands. He approached her, but instead, a slap to his face greeted him.
“I believed in everything you said, everything I witnessed!” she raged. “You told me the blood would save Amenemhat and it did not!”
Abel caught her arm posed for another slap. “Because there’s no blood on the door!”
“Impossible! You were there. I did as you said.”
“There’s nothing there. Just a few streaks as if—” He held up the bloody garment.
“What happened here last night?”
Lesedi snatched the ruined fabric from Abel and caressed it between her fingers.
“This is…The villagers came…He went out to calm them…” She inhaled the scent on the garment. “Amenemhat. You did not have to do this.”
Abel touched her elbow and whispered, “It has begun. We must hurry!”
* * * * *
Lesedi trailed the long line of slaves escaping on dry land through parted waters. Fire by night, then a daily fog separated them from their Egyptian pursuers. She’d been here before, racing through a Nubian savanna and praying to her gods that she wouldn’t be captured. They hadn’t answered her. But this God, this strange invisible force that Abel embraced and Amenemhat seemed to grudgingly acknowledge was different. He was…here.
She stopped just short of the shoreline. Towering walls of foaming water flanked the carpet of moist earth that stretched as far as the eye could see. Lesedi extricated her hand from Abel’s. He opened his mouth to protest, but she stopped him with a raised palm. She strained to shout over the thundering water. “How are my people to understand what has happened if I am not there to explain it?”
Abel, the Hebrews, and the mixed multitude that went with them, were clear across the sea now, freed by waters rejoined. The once-stained robe, made clean from those miraculous walls of water, billowed about Lesedi’s shoulders. Amenemhat was on her mind. Egypt to her back. Visions of a new Nubia blazed before her eyes.
Michelle McGill-Vargas is a writer of historical, flash and short fiction residing in Gary, Indiana. She’s published in the The Lutheran Witness and Splickety Magazine. She is also a contributing author at shortfictionbreak.com Until she makes it big, she pays the bills as a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing. http://www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com