It had been a long time coming.
Day after day, it had been the same. ‘Like wafers with honey, like coriander seed!’ they said. But all she noticed was her building resentment towards that sticky white stuff she had to pick off bristles and scrape off rocks. A single portion each day; a double portion for Shabbat. She had tried to hoard it once; maybe she could store it, or use it, or sell it for a small profit to a fellow Israelite unable or too workshy to their own. When she lifted the lid of her clay pot the next day, she found the delicate manna writhing with maggots. She dropped the lid, shattering into hard lines on her swept tent floor and she was disgusted. What a cruel joke this is. This God of theirs swore to take care of them; all they got were stifling allotments and rigid rules. Frankly, she was sick of it.
The routine was killing her. Break up the tent, pack of household belongings, march, encamp, pitch tent. Rinse and repeat. The desert heat was relentless. Had they not bathed in the cool, wide waters of the Nile? Here, they scratched the earth desperately for a trickle of a stream at a desolate wadi.
She witnessed the infighting, couldn’t help but eavesdrop on conversations. There they were, this mass of Israelites, a single body of humanity, contorted by the conditions they found themselves in, battling their capricious God. Plagues ripped through them; she had seen young mothers nurse their skinny infants, their lips cracked for the little water they denied themselves for the sake of their children. She had seen strong, bold men racked with fever. Yes, they weren’t hungry, exactly. But what were they, she wondered. Suspended in eternity, knowing neither up nor down, north nor south. Listless and endless, they were.
She had seen the half-Israelite boil over. Some fool taunted him, one born of merely an Israelite mother. ‘What are you doing here among us, you riffraff.’ There was no containing of his rage and he cursed the Invisible One. His punishment was swift and she recoiled. When had the dream started turning into a nightmare.
There were the bold ones, of course. Joshua and Caleb gloated about how they would conquer the land. Dapper and invincible, with their leather sandals and their bronze-plated armor, short, heavy iron swords cradled in their hands. No ‘anak’, no giant, could rout them they boasted. The land, breasted and curvaceous, green and luscious, would be theirs to submit. Oh, the milk and honey! She heard fearful men rally half-heartedly, but she turned away in repulsion. Was this why they had left their houses of bondage? Had they exchanged the master’s whip for the yoke of Heaven? Truly, one tyrant for the next…
She dusted crumbs of sticky manna off her faded linen smock, patched and repatched many times, its hem frayed and its seam threadbare. She brooded, as she glanced over to the brightly colored tent in the middle of the camp, its gold, silver and bronze implements glittering in the sunlight. The scarlet, purple and blue glared defiantly in the hot sun, a plume of smoke snaking up to the Hungry One, set in a punishingly bright sky. Always the offerings, the sacrifices, the supplications and confessions. The swift cut of the knife, the blood dashed upon the horned altar. Fat and blood, meat and smoke, oil and wine, cakes and flatbreads for the gratification of the Universe. Meanwhile, all they had was that overly sweet white stuff, sticking to the roof of their mouth, with barely a drop of water to wash it down.
Truly, one tyrant for the next.
‘What makes them so special, aye?’ She muttered to no-one in particular. ‘Aaron in his glory, Moses in his power, Miriam and her water and relentless song. The robes, the spectacles. Are they Pharaoh? By what right do they have so much and so little? By what right…’
Her voice fell silent as she heard footsteps next to hers. She glanced up and saw him, tall and imposing in his scarlet tunic, hemmed with a fringe tied with blue, his dark woolen cloak draped loosely across his shoulders, even on a sweltering day like this. He rested his hand on the hilt of his short sword, with arresting, casual authority. ‘Abiram!’ she exclaimed. ‘Sir, I had not heard you coming.’
He waved away her implicit apology as she arose and smoothened her long tunic. ‘No need, sister.’ His voice sounded soothing, enticing, like she was someone special, someone worth noting. ‘I couldn’t help but overhear. I understand. You are tired.’
‘Yes. I’m sick of the heat and the manna and the prayers and the waiting and the…’ she sighed. ‘The endless shlepping.’ She folded her calloused hands together, in unintended reverence for the high-born man in front of her.
He leaned in, resting his hand now on her thin shoulder. ‘Achoti, my sister, I understand.’ He gestured towards the Tabernacle. ‘I agree with you. Are they Pharaoh? Indeed.’
She felt a flash of shame but couldn’t quite draw it out of her heart or into her inner eye. It stung but then dissipated. ‘Pharaoh indeed’ she muttered, without passion.
He pulled her closer, this handsome, groomed man. She caught a glance of the haughtiness in his eye, for just a trifling, but then he clouded his demeaner with pious intent. ‘We escaped Pharaoh’, hissed he, drawing closer to her. She smelled the myrrh on his skin, saw the oil glisten on his smooth brow. ‘We shall not serve another one. We are holy, you and I. That is what the Most High told us. Carry it in your heart. We are holy. We are holy.’
He retreated into the shadows of the tents. ‘Repeat it to others’, Abiram said. ‘It shall be our rallying cry. And the spoils shall be ours. The spoils shall be mine.’
‘We are all holy, and this is all ours,’ she found herself whispering into the still, stagnant air. She did not quite know what it meant. She did not know where these words would guide her. She did not know if the cloaked chieftain was to be trusted. She did not know much of milk and honey. What she knew was the taste of sickly manna, the irritation of it sticking to the roof of her mouth. She knew the Master’s whip and she knew the wealth of nations among the poverty of her garb and the constriction of her life. She prayed to the God of promises but felt her prayers fall flat. What she knew laid in her own calloused hands, among the shards of her life. She knew that her rage had been a long time coming.
‘I am holy and I shall take what is mine!’
She did not know what was yet to come and what was never to be.