The Day at Hand
All that remained of yesterday was the time she spent with her friends. She let it go.
The north-bound trail carried her away from Melech, her brother, sisters, and the goats. As the sun lowered in the western sky, shadows lengthened. The animals laden with burdens shortened their steps. They climbed an upward-bound section of the road. When the camels, donkeys, and horses struggled under their loads, Abi wished she could protest on their behalf.
As the last slice of the sun slipped below the horizon, they arrived at a clearing. Simon led the men to an open spot. “We’ll pitch camp here. I don’t see any paths or tracks.”
A man accustomed to traveling, Simon didn’t stop in a road established by herds of elephants and wild buffalo centuries ago—roads that would be followed throughout the ages.
Dahnay raised his chin at Abi. “Notice that Simon didn’t choose a campsite under trees, where big cats lurk.”
She’d try, but she didn’t know how she could endure such a know-all, always pointing out the obvious to her as though she was a stupid girl.
He raised a hand toward the bare sky. “Forest fires could result from cooking flames. Are you listening?”
“If you’d pay attention—”
He was not her schoolmaster.
Chattering in strange tongues, some of the men brought deadwood for the fire.
“Notice. They inspect each branch for snakes and scorpions.”
As the cooks prepared the meal of figs, bread, and dried meat, she comforted her mind with memories of growing up in Meroe. Her brother Zebediah learned in school about holy men going into the tabernacle, where they spoke to the Lord.
On the Sabbath, the women went to the back corner of the tabernacle.
“Don’t try to say prayers,” the Nubian rabbi said. “You are unworthy.”
She believed him. Melech served as her intercessor, even though his castration made him also unworthy before the Lord.
She remembered what Melech told her. “Perhaps Daniel of old times was a eunuch. The Lord heard his prayers.”
“Leave praying to the men,” the rabbi taught. “If you are a woman, don’t even think you could have words the Almighty would care to hear.”
She needed Melech, her prayer warrior, to help her reach her God, the source of hope and comfort. When she and the archers had danced before the Lord and prayed, she had sensed a divine presence. If the rabbi had known, he would have insisted the feeling had no basis in reality.
At last, the meal was ready. She toyed with her food while the men ate as though they were starving.
When they finished, they sat around the campfire and laughed at stories told in a strange tongue. Loneliness overwhelmed her. Stationing herself in the dark out of view, she braided her hair to occupy her time.
She would have welcomed a leopard so she could have some excitement to interrupt her isolation. With one of her new arrows and the fine bow the Candace gave her, she could defend the others. Then they’d respect her.
As her despair grew, she decided she’d pray even though she had no right.
In the Talmud, women of old had prayed to the Lord. If Hannah said words that Adonai heard and Miriam pleased the Lord with her song, why wouldn’t he want to hear from Abi, an humble maiden from Meroe?
In the midst of the men’s constant chatter, no one turned when she spoke. She could pray aloud. “O Lord, I praise you. I am desperate for a good life. Please attend to your humble handmaiden.”
The prayer calmed her for a time, but Papa Negasi appeared inside her head. A quick spindly man, he relied on unpredictable attacks to overpower his women. He often aimed at the backs of his victims’ heads so he wouldn’t leave visible marks. Simon, with his thick strong frame, would deliver hard solid blows. Abi wouldn’t be able to predict where he’d bruise or cut. She vowed she wouldn’t provoke him.
The day closed with the stars coming out.
Simon pointed to a spot on the ground. “Lie here between Dahnay and me for your protection.”
She nodded with gratitude.
Simon’s eyes glistened as he took her hand. “You can trust Dahnay with your jewelry.”
Dahnay took the gold and ivory from her trembling hands. He wrapped the jewels in cloth and placed it in his bag next to his pallet.
They provided her space so she wouldn’t be forced to lie close to them. She found it strange that she traveled in a company of men with no other woman present; however, she felt secure with Simon. If he’d planned to find a wife on this trip, he would have brought traveling companions from his country. Maybe he really did see her and fall in love. He could have arranged with her father for a lady companion, but the boats were crowded.
Lord, if I could have seen Lisimba and Malaika one more time—I should have asked you earlier.
While Simon’s men laughed at what must have been jokes, then settled to quieter stories told by the older ones, she curled her body inside her blanket on the bed of earth. No matter how hard she tried, she could not comprehend their words.
She made a pillow of her folded riding blanket. Resting her head, still sore from Papa’s blow, was more important than escaping the smell of the camel assigned to her. She kept her weapons and accessories—the bow and arrows, her leather arm cover, the sling, a few pebbles, her knife—inside the blanket that covered her. The incomprehensible noise of the low-pitched voices speaking in a foreign dialect with an unknown rhythm lulled her to sleep.
She awakened to silence within the camp. Two Cyrenaicans guarded the camp. Perhaps they needed her help.
She sat up and stayed awake so she could listen to the nearby cries of the wilderness. Musky odors not attributable to the camels and horses announced threats lurking behind the shadows, but no beasts broke into their circle.
Hours passed. The two men stood when two others came to replace them. Soon after the guards changed, she went back to bed and slept until pre-dawn.
The following day the landscape changed to a date palm forest. After another routine evening, she bedded down underneath the stars and slept at furtive intervals. She prayed, not knowing whether Adonai heard her. He was capable of hearing everything, but she didn’t know whether he would consider her worthy of his attention. It wouldn’t hurt to try.
Throughout the days and for long periods of the night, she maintained an attitude of guarding their safety from the wildness of the untamed African countryside—Taferka, as she’d heard the Berber traders call the vast, lush earth land of her home.
Another day and evening passed. It was time to sleep. She observed that the men on first watch became drowsy near the end of their time; therefore, she guarded from her bed during the middle of the night.
Not far from her, Simon rested on his pallet. Because it was not a time to think about his manliness, she kept her thoughts pure.
After three more days, the road led them through a thick grove, verdant with a rich green that words couldn’t describe. The deafening sound of rushing water announced they were approaching the cataract. Leopards could take advantage of the noisy distraction and surprise the riders. Abi held her bow with a ready arrow in her hand, and she wore her leather guard on her arm.
Memories reminded her she would pass through her life without seeing Melech’s blessed face ever again or communicating with his mind.
The narrow road took them down, down, down to the side of the waterfalls. The broad sparkling fall danced down a sharp natural wall. As she passed it, she sensed a charge of power.
Papa said a river god empowered the water, but she knew the Creator Adonai gave the river its force.
“Devils ride down the waterfalls at dusk into hell,” Papa said. She wished she could respect him, trust him, but alas, a demon dwelled inside his spirit.
In the far distance, the high hills glorified the landscape. She needed her family. Her little sister and brother would share the wonder. Simon, who ignored her as she’d expected, did nothing to erase the loneliness.
Melech was probably milking the goats that very moment. The caravan moved deeper through the curves of the earth. A gnawing hunger for conversation persisted. Talking was impossible from the top of one camel to another. Simon, busy leading the caravan, had no time. Besides, he had not indicated he wanted to say anything to her. She had no words to speak to him. Dahnay, always busy with details, stayed near her.
Monkeys eating seeds in fern pines on the sides of the road irritated her because they made the men chuckle. She was not in the mood for comedy.
A monkey threw a stick that hit her shoulder. When Simon’s men laughed, she scowled. As the day passed, no one dared look her way.
Papa. She supposed she missed him. Although he threatened her comfort, he possessed a way of creating adventure. Papa merely wanted a good life for her. Papa beat her because she needed correction.
She searched her mind for something happy. Zebediah used to sing a Psalm King David sang.
He learned it at Torah school. If she sang it, maybe Adonai would hear her.
“Many say there is no help in Adonai.” She followed that line by humming a plaintive melody. “But you, Adonai, are my Shield. You are my Glory. You are the Lifter of my head. I cry out to you, Adonai. You hear me from your holy hill.”
Abi hummed a lively melody so she wouldn’t feel sad. “I lay down and slept, Adonai. I dreamed of glory. You kept me safe and awakened me.”
She sang more of the happy song prayer. “You struck my foes on the face. Lord, you broke their teeth. All is safe no matter where I go. La-la-la. Salvation belongs to you. You are my blessing. You are the Lifter of my head.”
Adonai, I believe you hear me. I think you like it.
They wound down the road, little more than a path that sank between banks of wet foliage, glistening like emeralds, in the sun. Despite her efforts to catch some happiness and hold onto it, gloom overwhelmed her. No matter how beautiful the earth was, it was impersonal. Her spirit cried.
If I’d seen Lisimba and Malaika one more time, I could have said goodbye. I would have known some peace. You could have implemented that little miracle for me, but you didn’t want to. Why should you? I am unworthy.
The monkeys intensified their commotion. They must have thought she was pouting as she ignored them swinging in the vines that linked giant trees near the road.
Anger, anger at Adonai, ruled. He plucked her out of the risks of facing hell on earth in Meroe, but he left her no tools of comfort for her frightened heart. Her stomach hurt. Her neck grew tired from riding the camel, and her lower body ached from the lengthy ride.
You called me out of my land the same way you called out Abram and Sarai. You took care of them. They were special, but I’m not.
The camels slowed as the trail grew steeper and curved around boulders. Wedged rocks in the sand made the path treacherous. The trees came to an end, the road flattened, and a band of sparkling sand extended both directions. A slice of high green grass ornamented the approaching edge of blue water. After the ribbon of green, more white dirt speckled with black rocks lying in piles lined the river, and finally the water flowed in astonishing power. No high banks contained the Nile as at home.
The angry bitterness that had boiled within her gave way to a sense of wonder. The forest on the other side of the Nile stood in front of a smooth horizon of low blue mountains, topped by a sky of lighter shades. She didn’t know blue could be so many colors.
The boats were bigger than she’d expected. Men who moved about with confidence guarded them.
Simon called a greeting.
“Simon,” the men yelled.
|Preparing Boats to Sail, Public Domain, Project Gutenberg|
A cluster of Nubians stationed a short distance from the big boats didn’t acknowledge the arrival of Simon. Some men paddled slender reed boats in the water. Others moved about on the banks. The two distinct groups at the water—Simon’s men and the Candace’s men –appeared aware of one another’s presence, even though they ignored each other. Her countrymen would take the camels back to Nobatia.
It felt good to dismount. If the men hadn’t been around, she would have rubbed her bottom.
As the travelers readied the boats, she helped stand guard. If other merchants with hostile intentions approached, she would see them before they could come near. Also, animals of prey required vigilance in the African wild country. While she stood at her self-appointed post, she caught Simon glancing her way and grinning as he shook his head.