We lived in a land of dreams, I often told Donkor, my husband. Papyrus grew like dense forests next to our river, the Nile, a home to fish and fowl. The land we farmed was rich and fertile, always willing to give us the wheat and millet, oranges and pomegranates we ate in abundance. We were raising our three children near the plain where a great pyramid was being constructed. Though we did not hear the crack of whips, we were not unaware of the slaves’ suffering.
Donkor’s job was to keep the slaves working. He hated the role he played in their lives. There was little he could do, he told us, except to inflict as little pain as possible. We tried to teach our children to care for life, a lesson we often impressed upon our eldest son, Babak. We had named him “little father,” in the hope that he would pass our words on to his own children someday.
Babak sighed as he turned in his sleep. I awoke to see Donkor open the door shortly after sunrise. Even as my eyes opened to a new day, I sensed something amiss. The light, which usually shined directly into our window at daybreak, was muted, barely different than it had been during the night. My husband must have sensed the change also because I saw him pause. At that moment, the light was extinguished, as if all the oil lamps in all the rooms of the world had been put out.
He said, “It is night.” I heard a tremor in his voice.
We had witnessed a blood-poisoned Nile and then seen swarms of lice, pests and insects descend upon us, killing our livestock and ravaging our fields. After masses of frogs had risen out of the Nile, we were forced to retreat to our houses. When we emerged the following day, the bodies of dead frogs had lain like a putrid carpet around our feet. Now, this darkness.
My husband left. He had to work. The children slept on. I stared at our ceiling straw What good was it to rise if the sun had not? Donkor returned, breathing heavily, as if he had been running. “I have gone the length of the village, all the way to the Nile,” he said. “There is no work to be done without light. No one knows why the darkness is so black and so thick.”
“How can darkness be thick?” I asked.
“Come and see for yourself.”
As I emerged from the dwelling into the daynight, I felt as if covered by a shroud. The house next to ours was barely visible, although it was only a few steps away. “Donkor,” I called. My voice was muffled. I stuck my hand out in front of me, thinking I would grasp something solid in the air. But when I closed my fist, my palm was empty.
Babak and his younger brother and sister continued to sleep. “I’m not going to wake them,” I said to Donkor. “Why frighten them?”
We both went back to bed. In other times, we would have taken the rare holiday to enjoy each other’s bodies. Instead, we lay as if dead until we fell asleep.
The sun was our God. Its rise and descent had marked our days. Without light, we were adrift. Time passed slowly as we huddled in our house, afraid of the darkness outside, of who or what we would encounter on the road. Our children rarely left our sides. Only our animals carried on with the rhythm of their lives. In the end, it was our cow, lowing insistently, that gave order to our days. By letting us know she needed to be milked, we also knew when a day began and when it ended.
We counted the passing of three days that way when, at last, we were awakened by the sun. I followed Donkor into the road where our neighbors had gathered. We did not rejoice that we were able to begin a new day. Instead, we looked into each other’s faces and saw fear. We stood together only a moment before returning to our houses.
We Egyptians lost more than days of work while we sat in darkness. We lost faith in our gods and, although none of us dared to speak of it, in our Pharaoh. The strange happenings that had begun when the Nile turned to blood had finally come to this. Each time we were plagued with a disaster—for surely, it would take us more than a season to plant and sow the millet, barley, figs and pomegranates that had been destroyed—we expected the Pharaoh to create an assembly or send a spokesperson to explain. But no one had come and we were forced to depend on rumors.
One rumor was repeated more often than others: Moses, an aged Israelite who had been raised in the Pharaoh’s home, had petitioned Pharaoh, demanding, “Allow the Israelite slaves to leave your kingdom.” When Pharaoh refused, Moses’s god had caused the unnatural events we had witnessed.
What’s more, the hardships we Egyptians felt did not befall the Israelites. The water in their jugs continued to be pure while ours had been polluted with blood. During the long daynight, the sun had risen and fallen on their houses as always.
The darkness had lifted, but we did not carry on as if nothing were amiss. Each of us, every Egyptian neighbor and villager in all our land, feared yet another catastrophe, one that would make even the worst we had already seen seem small by comparison.
Donkor, I could see, had been as unnerved by the long daynight as I. One evening, he raised his hand to strike me. He had never struck me, and, before this time, I never thought he would. I told Babak that I would fetch our water and asked my husband to come with me. Though I was alarmed by his threat of violence, I allowed my steps to fall into his pace as if we were the young people we had been when we first married. We reached the Nile as the sun fell below the horizon. Hidden by the reeds, I whispered to my husband, “The Israelite’s god will protect us when….” I could not give voice to what I feared would take place next.
Donkor looked around. Seeing no one, he said, “Why do you believe?”
“When the Israelite barber Reuben begged us to protect his first-born son from Pharaoh’s soldiers, we risked our safety. We helped him. We even lied to our neighbors, saying the boy was the newborn child of your uncle whose wife had died in childbirth.”
“Yes,’’ he said. “No one questioned us tho’ the infant looked nothing like either of us.” My husband looked more hopeful. He had always liked the boy. “And when the child was three years old, we returned him to the Israelites. Their god will know what we did. We will be safe.”
Having told the story to each other, my step felt lighter on our way home.
Dusk was coming on the next day when Masika, our neighbor, knocked at our door. She was a small-boned woman who carried herself with dignity. Her appearance was always in good order, her graying hair in place under a head covering, her dress always clean.
That evening, I hardly recognized her. Her hair was unkempt, and I detected the unfamiliar smell of sweat.
“Masika, what happened?” I asked.
“Your husband. Is he here?”
“No, he looked downcast when he came home. He was better off being with his fellows. I sent him off. What happened?” I asked again.
“My brother who works at the palace—he heard the Pharaoh’s advisers say the Israelites are smearing their animals’ blood on their doorway posts and lintels. My brother went to see for himself. It is true.” Deep furrows in her brow and around her eyes marked her usually placid face. Her hands, always engaged in a chore, twisted on each other in agitation.
“It is blood. Why does it matter where they put it?”
“Don’t you see,” she cried out. “The blood is a sign.” She raised her hands toward her face, fingers outstretched, before letting them fall uselessly to her side.
I had never before heard Masika raise her voice. “Be calm. We don’t know what this means,” I said. I tried to place my hand on her shoulder but she shook it off.
“I know.” She spoke with authority, this woman whose voice I had rarely heard until this day. She would not meet my eyes. I stared stupidly at her, even as I felt my heart pound in my chest. I, too, had imagined the worst that could befall us. My husband struck down, the Nile overflowing and drowning us all. I had dreamed it but was not ready for Masika’s panic. She saw something that I did not.
“Now,” she said, “the god of the Israelites will use all his power against the Pharaoh until the Israelites are set free.
Night had drawn around us, moonless and still. It was not the thick darkness the Israelites’ god had brought, but every night brings its terrors, I had learned long ago.
“What is left for their god to do?” I implored.
I heard my children inside the house, the high-pitched voice of my youngest and the lower voice of Babak, who would soon be a man. “Oh no,” I said before she had a chance to answer. I knew what the Israelite god was about to do. “Oh no,” I said again. I shut the door. I wanted to bar the entrance to the pain that would follow when I lost everything.
I gathered my children into my arms and rocked them as I had when they were small. Only the younger two allowed me to hold them. My beloved Babak squirmed away and stood looking at me as if I were as strange as the happenings that he, too, had witnessed.
I fed them their evening meal, not waiting for my husband to return. I moved as if I were sleepwalking. I knew the Israelites’ god because I knew our own. Gods must be obeyed.
My children went to bed. I lay in the dark, waiting for my husband, for what would come next. My children were breathing rhythmically in sleep. In the distance, I heard a loud swish-swish-swish as if a hundred storks were beating their wings in unison. The sound of the wings became louder. Anguished cries tore the night. I leaped up. I cracked open the door and peered into the night sky. Scores of small, winged creatures hovered above the village, then swooped as one. I wanted to cover my ears but I would not give in even as I heard the screams grow louder. In minutes, the world was engulfed in a cacophony of sound. A whir of wings became a shriek as the creatures dove from sky to earth and back again. Silence followed for a moment, broken in the next by our villagers’ anguished cries. Over one house, the next, and the next. All too quickly, screams arose from every house in the village. I could not escape. My children could not escape. In the screams, I heard a kind of suffering I had begged my gods never to inflict on me. And then I heard the frantic beating of wings hover over my house.