Thursday, May 28, 2015

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Twelve

CHAPTER TWELVE
The Launch of the Voyage
A mere dot skimmed over the water toward Abi. Smooth and steady, it came closer until she could see an impressive boat. The Cyrenaicans changed to an alert mode with arrows positioned in bows. Confident she could help protect Simon’s men and the cargo, she raised her bow.
As the boat drew closer, the Nubians waved their shoulder wraps at the boat, now appearing as large as one of Simon’s. Before any of Simon’s men identified it, she recognized the ram’s head emblem on the front—it was one of the Candace’s fleet with archers returning from a campaign.
She lowered her weapon and ran in front of the arrows positioned tense in drawn bows.
“Our people,” she told the guards in a few Greek words she knew. “Lower your bows.”
Simon’s guards had no choice. They removed their arrows. She didn’t comprehend their words, but she detected they grumbled at her for risking her life. If one of them had taken it, he’d risk losing his own at the hands of Simon.
“Lisimba. Malaika!”
Not waiting for Simon’s reaction, she sprinted toward the boat. The Nubian men, running in a wave in front of Simon’s men, welcomed the Candace’s warriors.
She ignored the two Cyrenaicans, now standing on either side of her, as though they expected her to escape and return home with her people. 
“Yahweh Yireh!” Abi shouted. “The Lord provides.”                         
“Abi, my beloved sister,” Malaika cried.  
As soon as the boat landed, Lisimba and Malaika ran toward Abi. She greeted her sisters in a hysteria of tears and laughter. “Thank you, Adonai.”
The three of them talked at once. They stood back and looked at her as she gazed at them. Kohl and malachite streaked their eyelids. Gold collars accentuating their long necks gave Malaika and Lisimba an appearance of elegance. Authority.
“I prayed I’d see you, but I gave up hope.” Abi’s head fell on the shoulder of one and then the other.
As words spilled from Abi’s lips, they interrupted the conversation and gave orders.
“Congratulations on an excellent match. Simon is respected throughout the Roman world.”
Abi possessed power she hadn’t comprehended. She would make a difference. Never had she spoken with a commanding voice to the older ones, but she needed to. “Sisters, I stayed home as long as I could. I protected Hadassah and Zebediah from our father’s madness. No matter how you feel about him, you must look after these little ones.”
“We give you our word. As the Lord lives, we’ll do what we can. Go with God, little sister.”
Simon walked over to the spot where Abi talked to her sisters. Silently he nodded, and they returned the gesture.
“Be kind to our sister,” Malaika said.
As soon as Simon’s men unloaded a beast, the Nubians reloaded it with cargo. Lisimba and Malaika took charge. Abi wanted to stay and talk with her sisters, but they were busy.
Dahnay stood tapping his foot. “Board Simon’s lead boat.”
Waving her farewell, Abi climbed into the leading boat. Simon’s hand on her shoulder guided her toward the right side. He stationed her not far from the bow, and Dahnay occupied a position in front of her. Simon moved to the front where he would observe and command from the bow.
The men near the front kept weapons close by. It was probably all right to put her weapons away, but she couldn’t entrust her life and her husband’s future to the hands of his men.
Sooner than she’d anticipated, the captains of the four boats launched the river voyage.
Wherever Dahnay was, the problem of flies seemed worse. He taught her a few basic Cyrenaican expressions. She practiced the language lessons, but his body odor made it difficult for her to concentrate on what he said.
Simon’s men talked in happy tones. The mighty current rushing the boats forward relieved the rowing teams of most of their work. In both the bright sun and the blackness of the night, the men took turns bedding down on the rough benches. She observed them when no one looked her way. Never had she seen men who were not in her family sleeping, nor had she heard such snoring.
As they progressed, she watched for potential trouble. The warrior within her forbade her to while away the trip in mindless relaxation. Not long after they embarked on their drift to the sea, they passed rocks on the east side. Here the water was rougher.
“Don’t go near the rocks,” she mumbled under her breath. Simon would know what could be on the other side. He and his men were adept at navigating their boats.
If she’d cautioned him, he’d say, “Leave me alone so I can do my job.”
“We know about the danger behind the natural wall of boulders,” one of his men would say. “We know what lies ahead. We’ll move over when it’s time.”
“We aren’t stupid. We can see the reptile population is denser than usual this year,” Dahnay would say.
Whatever most of the men said would be unintelligible to her.
Crocodiles, devious creatures, no matter the season, played tricks on their prey. These predators attacked every available food source. They were too hungry to restrict their quest for food to nocturnal forays.
“But the crocs are quicker than ever,” Abi wanted to say.
Trusting Simon to direct the boat toward the other side of the river, she maintained tense silence.
“You are a marvelous man, and I have placed my life in your hands.” If she said those words, he would think she was sarcastic.
No sooner than she relaxed, Simon allowed the front boat to be steered into the perilous waters near an obstruction that jutted into the temperamental Nile. Danger loitered behind every rock. He led his boats into a potential ambush—or did she worry for nothing?
Ten or twelve crocodiles lurked behind the rocks. As the boats approached, the monsters pretended they slept in the sun.
Nobody took immediate action, no one realized the urgency.
Simon didn’t direct the steersman to move away.
Abi knew crocodiles. She had seen them waylay their prey before. As she expected, they burst into their attack mode, their powerful tails splashing water until it foamed. With rapid shots from her bow and her excellent arrowheads, sharp enough to penetrate the scaly hides, she killed enough of the monsters to ward off an attack.
After an initial delay, the men rowed in panicky motion escaping the danger.
As soon as the boats passed the boulders, Abi called to Dahnay, “Remind Simon to stay away from rocks. That way he can avoid the most dangerous crocodiles.”
How had they ridden from the mouth of the Nile to the waterfalls without learning about the attackers?
Dahnay gave her a condescending nod and then spoke with Simon.
A Sailboat on the Nile, Public Domain, Project Gutenberg
The boats bumped the rocks of the rapids in the roughened water intermittently. A few times she feared the boats would dump them out. They passed hippopotamuses, ferocious beasts that made the risk spine-chilling.
After what seemed forever, the river spread into a calmer, wider waterway. On the sandy shoreline a herd of wildebeest lowered their heads for a drink.
“What a lovely picture that makes,” Dahnay brought his hands together.
Out of nowhere a crocodile charged not at the herd, but at the lead boat. Just above the water, menacing green-black eyes glared at Abi.
“Quick—shoot that big croc,” Dahnay shouted at Abi.
Ignoring Dahnay, she reached for her bow, always nearby, and one of the steel-pointed arrows. She pulled back the string and aimed with precision at . . . a wildebeest.
“You really can’t aim very well. Or are you disturbed? The trip is getting to you. I knew it would.” Trembling, Dahnay moved as far from the edge of the boat as the space allowed. He brought his shaking hands to his face as he curled into his body.
She ignored him. The crocodile rolled over like a cylinder. His dirty purple belly showed as he rolled until his back was on top again. His great tail splashed the water into froth. In an instant he swam through the blood-stained waters and clinched the wounded animal in his jaws. From somewhere nearby, another black-spotted bronze beast joined him. Rolling and ripping, they tore the bleeding wildebeest flesh into chunks.
Meanwhile Simon and the rowers worked in a frenzy to move away from the shore. The other boats followed his lead.
“He was too close. He may have gone under the boat and made us capsize.” She suppressed the smirk that tried to pop out on her face.
The river smoothed out, and Dahnay made an announcement. “We have passed the worst of the rapids.”
“Dahnay, do you think we could take a nature break before dark?”
“Typical woman.” Dahnay laughed.
The wildlife along the river helped her focus on something besides the despicable Dahnay. The shores were pink with flamingos. Occasionally a baboon made an appearance. In Simon’s boat full of strangers, she floated farther and farther away from the coziness of her home. Most of what she had known in Meroe had been good. If only she could spread wings, she’d fly back south.
After the break one afternoon, Simon went to the back of the boat to nap awhile.
“Two of your sisters are counted among the Candace’s archers.” Dahnay’s eyes twinkled as if he’d introduced some embarrassing secret into the conversation.
“That’s correct.”
“But you and another sister were eliminated? And . . .”
“And she didn’t choose us.” She smiled and said no more.
He could think whatever he wished. He was a man of many words, a man who liked to be knowledgeable about other people’s affairs. She’d listen to him much but tell him little.
Dahnay told Abi about the Berber people, who lived in the deserts to the west of the Nile.
“The Berbers are vicious fighters who don’t welcome outsiders. They roam through the countryside in bands. On our way to Meroe we didn’t see any Berbers, but we may encounter them on the way home.”
“I’ve seen Berbers before. They trade with my father.” She remembered her first impression of Simon, whose appearance showed he had Berber blood flowing through his conduits.
“Why is Simon not a friend with his kinsmen?”
“Simple girl,” Dahnay said. “The Berbers who married into Simon’s family in former generations embraced our culture.”
“Oh, they were assimilated into the families of the Jews.” She was glad she understood, even though Dahnay was impressed with nothing she said.
After a late afternoon comfort break, the night settled over the black water. Berbers, crocodiles, leopards—what else? Busy looking at all the wild open eyes reflected in the moonlight, Abi dared not close hers. She would sleep during the daylight. As the night grew calm, she lost her fight with drowsiness.
A new day broke. From her quiver, Abi removed the arrows with strings tied to them. She shot enough fish to share with the men stationed near her. Other archers also fished with arrows. When the four boats stopped on a sandy bank, the cooks fried barley bread and fish for breakfast. Simon looked pleased as he ate, but it was clear his mind was on the logistics of the trip.
It wasn’t necessary for him to appreciate or notice her, but it would have been enjoyable if he had. Perhaps in future years she’d bear him sons. Nothing else she could do would ever matter to him.
“Simon, did you enjoy the fish?”
 “The fish were tasty.” Simon moved away.
Abi’s placement on the boat prohibited her getting to know her future husband. The next time he talked to her, she asked, “Could I change places with Dahnay some of the time?”
“Oh, no. That would be unthinkable. Dahnay is second in command. He must be in his spot. Besides, if I moved you to Dahnay’s spot, you would be in danger.”
The Nile grew wider as it sucked the boats farther north. Abi stared into the distance at a landscape more open than she had ever witnessed. They traveled hours without passing trees. Along the sides of the river she studied the sand dunes and far-away hills of the Sahara.
Oh, to escape into those hills! She wouldn’t run away because she was a girl. Life was what it was. Still she could let her mind take her wherever she desired.
Gazing as far as her eyes allowed, she scrutinized every detail of the landscape. An inviting grove of trees beside the water awaited them downstream. From the west, an unnatural object in the distance approached the river. As it moved closer, it appeared to be a funnel of sand. Simon needed to know about it, but she dared not take her eyes off the oncoming object for a moment.