Friday, January 3, 2014

The Camel-Driver's Story; or, Parshat/Torah Portion Bo from Another Point of View


            Ishbaal had tied hobbles around the two left legs of the camels, and he and Raam, that quiet young fellow we picked up in—Dotan? Beer-sheva?—had collected enough of their dung to build a smelly, but respectable fire—enough to keep the jackals at bay, and to roast what we had left of the fat sheep we slaughtered yesterday. We were traders, bringing olive oil from the village of—well, Stranger, what do you care? The wilderness is big enough to swallow up small merchants like me.
            After we ate, I passed around a small goatskin I carry: it is honey-wine I bartered off a Sicilian sailor back in Tyre, months ago, and I hide it under my saddlebag; it is a treasure, and unheard-of in these parts. But there were none left of our party since the Bedouin attack, save me and the two I already mentioned. We had our short swords, bucklers, bows and arrows, and I had a long dagger, a sicarius, I believe it is called, in my left boot; we felt secure enough against further bandit attacks.
            But, then, all of a sudden, HE appeared: smeared with mud and blood, gasping, he fell down, about three cubits’ length from our fire, like a jackal himself, almost: from that distance, I could tell—I am not so old yet, and the desert sharpens your eyes, if the sun does not blind them—that he was Egyptian—but what would an Egyptian be doing out in these parts?
            Never mind: we wilderness-travelers must all hang together, or hang separately, my father used to tell me, and so we carried him to our fire, slapped his cheeks, worked his arms and legs back-and-forth, and put olive oil on his forehead—don’t ask me why: I only know that my mother, Ishtar rest her spirit, used to do it—and he soon opened his eyes.
            “Stop all that!” he cried, “you’re hurting me.”
            “So you live, thanks to us, and to Baal,” I said, “here, have a sip of this”—offering him the honey wine—“This will restore your life-force,” which I believe the Egyptians call their air-soul, the one that breathes. Never can tell the difference between one fellow’s life-beliefs and another, out here in Baal’s country, but you know what? It really doesn’t matter to me; we all have to get along, all of us riding on the Back of the Turtle which carries us beneath the stars in the firmament.
As for beliefs, I’m a Baalist—I’m an outdoorsman, and do love a thunderous, bossy god—but Shinaar—the girl I have my eye on to take as a wife, and a fine, black-eyed, strapping wench she is, too—she follows Ashtoret. Something to do with bonfires and the harvest gods. Don’t know how we’ll raise the kids, though—well, we’ll travel that caravan when the gods decide….
            Anyway, this Egyptian—Seema, his name was—had a tale to tell: the all-mighty, all-powerful Pharaoh Ramesses—which one? First? Second? I get them all muddled up; they are a powerful lot, here in this part of the world, always going off to fight the Hittite folks, or the Assyrians up north—too cold, for me; I never get there—Brrr!
            Something about a lot of—what did he call them? Plagues?
“Don’t tell me about locusts, or flies, or even brackish water,” I told this Egyptian, this Seema, “I was in Thebes for the hurricane of ‘002, and that was a gully-washer. For months after, we had to boil our water, just to rid us of the pissy stench. And drink? Well, I had wine, mostly. Made it hard to think. But Thebans don’t do much thinking at the best of times, and I managed to fool ‘em, trading off some spavined female camels for a couple of good, hard-working onagers, and a Spartan eunuch thrown in, as a bonus. Good dealings, there, in Thebes, I recall….
            “You don’t understand,” said Seema, “there was another god involved. A big, big One.”
            “There are all sorts of gods,” Ishbaal put in, “and most of them are testy, or even angry, most of the time. I mind my business, try not to rile them up. Honest dealings among folks like us, and a sacrifice—a dove here, a young lamb there, given to the cult-prostitutes—that keeps ‘em quiet. Otherwise, out here in the desert? We’re beyond all that foolishness, and that’s the way I like it. Let the townsfolk deal with their gods.”
            While we were arguing about gods, the Egyptian fellow was draining the rest of my honey-wine—not polite or neighborly of him, but we had just rescued him from the icy grip of Osiris, his people’s god of the Dead, so I let it go.
            “Let me explain,” he said, leaning back, taking a deep breath, and closing his eyes. “This god—this Big One—he made the waters, the Great Swamp of Reeds, swallow up the Pharaoh’s Chariots.”
            “What’s such a big fuss about that?” I said, snatching my goatskin from his now-feeble grip, and sniffing it, just in case some few drops should remain. “My grampa, Baal rest his spirit, was a charioteer in—who was that fellow before Ramesses II?—Seti’s army. He would have been the first to tell his Sergeant-Major of the Horse, ‘Ohoo, Sergeant, rainy day today: “Grey sky at morning, Charioteer take warning.”’ But you can’t tell these Pharaohs anything. Gods, they all think they are. So much so, they don’t make water like us normal folks.”
            “Let me speak, you know-it-all!” protested Seema, “The riverbed was dry when the escaped slaves came upon it. The king’s scouts had seen it; they swore it was dry. It only flooded when the slaves’ leader, that Moses, raised his rod. That was the oddness of the whole thing, I tell you. How could a slave-leader make that happen?”
            “What were you, a freeborn Egyptian citizen, doing amid a slave rabble?” asked Ishbaal.
            “I was in prison when all the plagues erupted,” said Seema, “put there by Potiphar’s orders, for claiming to be a dream-interpreter. But Pharaoh went—(here, he dropped his voice to a whisper)—crazy, do you hear? When Moses, the slaves’ leader, made all the Egyptian firstborn die, all at midnight. We don’t know how it happened—disease? Plague? Some of the people panicked and felt that, if they killed their firstborn themselves, the Israelite god might change his mind. In the end, it didn’t matter….”
            “Why didn’t it matter?” I asked. Seema’s voice had gotten lower; his face had the look of a man who has seen Death, and wishes to see no more.
            “Because Ramesses went mad,” Seema said, turning his face to the sky, “when his boy, the little prince, died. He stalked around the palace, bearing his son, I heard, crying, beating his head with his fists, laying the little corpse before the statue of Ra, begging Ra to bring him back to life when the day would break. When it didn’t, he ordered his officers to let the Israelite slaves go; and not only them, but all of us Egyptians, in the prisons, the madhouses, the prisoners of war—the whole mixed rabble of us. We all ran, to the north; it was all madness.
            “I only remember standing there, on the banks of the Great Swamp, very early in the morning; mothers were holding babies; old people were praying, in that language of theirs; they  were calling on their god, calling him “Adonoi! Adonoi!” It all went silent went Moses stood, his brother Aaron next to him. I heard the thunder of hoofbeats in the distance; I turned, and saw Pharaoh’s chariot leading his cavalry; the lance-points twinkled in the early morning sun; I saw the Pharaoh’s Household Cavalry, all agleam in purple and gold.
            “The people began to wail, but Moses shouted, ‘Stand still: the Lord your God will fight for you, and you will be silent!’”
            Seema stopped speaking. Ishbaal and I looked at one another.
            “Well? What happened next?” I said.
            “Speak, man!” said Ishbaal.
            Seema smiled—a lopsided, embarrassed sort of smile.
            “It all gets hazy for me, there—you see, once the swamp-water-levels descended—nothing unusual there; swamp waters rise and fall, but the strange thing here is, Moses knew exactly when it was going to happen—what sort of prophet can do that? And there is no kind of trickery that can determine that! Magic will not answer. This is, indeed, a powerful god. When I crossed the swamp, the Sea of Reeds as we call it—driven through, actually, by that crowd, that mob of panic-stricken people, all of them fearing an arrow or lance in the back—I made it to the other side, dry-shod. But then, some lout of a wagoneer clouted me in the head with his wagon’s crosspiece; I must have fallen or been dragged to the side of the road, for when I awoke, the people were gone, and the moon had risen. Thank Osiris I was not eaten by jackals!”
            Raam, the young man, spoke, for the first time.
            “Where are the Israelites now?”
            Seema turned to him. “And who are you?”
            “That’s not important.”
            “Well, I heard two Israelites—Datan and Aviram, their names were—bellyaching about Moses leading them via Sukkot, whereas, had they been leading, they would have followed the Way of the Sea, straight up, into Canaan. So Sukkot is the way to go.”
            Raam arose, and turned to Ishbaal and me.
            “I hate to say goodby, Gentlemen, but I have done the best I could as a camel-driver, and ask for my wages, here and now. It seems that I must meet up with a certain group of people—my family, and some others. So I’ll be leaving.”
            There is nothing wrong with that, mind you; one of the things I like about desert-life is the casual nature of it: people come, people go, and one does not have to worry about social niceties. It keeps manners to a minimum.
            I took out the small bag of gold coins which I keep hidden in my belt, as did Ishbaal his. We are old friends, but don’t entirely trust one another, as it should be. Each of us counted our two gold denarii from our stash, bit them to prove them genuine, and handed them to Raam.
            “Baal guard you, Young Raam,” I said, and shook his hand, grasping it from wrist to elbow, as the Romans do.
            “And you, Lord Bahari,” he smiled, and, for the first time, I saw, beneath all the soot and grime, what a young, good-looking youth he was. Strong teeth; fine young fellow, indeed. Not much of a talker, though.
            “Where are you off to?” asked Ishbaal.
            “To join the Israelites—they are not a slave rabble, as Friend Seema describes them, but a free people, and they are my family,” said Raam, “I go now to reclaim my inheritance, my parents, and my people.”
            “What inheritance is that?” I asked.

            “None but a name,” said Raam, “and my name is Gershom ben Moshe oo’Tsiporah.”