The Banks of the Nile
Abi willed not to hear Papa bemoaning his plight. Sloshing through the mire, she locked steps with Melech as he led the goats along the path toward the west bank of the Nile.
Melech poked the wayward ones toward their destination. His dismal aura outweighed the freshness of the morning. Without hesitation, the goats pushed each other near the river’s edge.
Abi leapt to the top of a boulder above the riverbank. From her perch, she studied her surroundings. “What has you upset, Melech?”
“I overheard.” He scratched his smooth face.
“From the looks of you it must have been bad.” Abi leaned toward him, the basket remaining upright.
“It’s terrible. I fear for your future.”
“I heard Negasi talking to Elan about a betrothal.”
“You’re next in line.” Melech touched his fingers one at a time.
“Old man Elan has three wives.” Abi tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
“And fourteen daughters. He needs a son who will carry on his name and inherit his wealth.”
The Nubian goats ran all different directions.
“They know you’re upset, so they’re acting unruly.”
“He beats his women.” Melech swished his staff into a puddle. “For every reason and sometimes for no reason.”
“Just like Papa.” She shrugged. “I could handle that. I’ve had experience, but I don’t intend to live that way.”
“You need better.” He bit his lips.
“Men beat their women.” How would Melech behave if he had not lost his manliness? Would he still be kind?
“I would have never beat my wife.” Melech knew what she was thinking before she could tell him.
“Elan says he’ll kill his wives if they don’t give him a son. Elan doesn’t deserve an heir.”
What purpose did a man like Elan serve in Adonai’s world? Also, how did the just God let a butcher of humanity take away Melech’s ability to father a son? Was not Melech better than a thousand others? He was more her father than Negasi was. “I’m younger than many of his daughters. I cannot marry into that madhouse. I’ll run away.”
“And place yourself in danger of being molested? Or if you survived for a time, a big cat would devour you for his evening meal.”
“No matter what, I’ll not wed that stinky man.” Sadness flickered through her. “Think what we can do.”
Melech poked his staff into the mud. “All that’s left for us is to pray.”
“You rely on prayer, and I’ll rely on you.” Time after time, Melech’s prayers had worked. This time, how would the Lord intervene in her circumstances? “A eunuch and a girl. Will Adonai hear us?”
“Be at rest, my dear child. The Lord has been good.” Melech’s voice soothed her. “Good to us.”
“I’ll try.” Abi forced her mouth into a fresh smile so tight the tension clinched her dimples, but she raised her eyebrows in a frown.
“I can’t help myself. This marriage Papa is arranging for me—a bed of scorpions.”
“Don’t be afraid.” He pointed toward the sky. “Trust Adonai. When conditions slip into the impossible, sing, my child. Adonai put sweet music in your heart. Don’t hear the ugly.”
A tiny goat wandered off, and Melech poked it with his long staff.
“I looked for Lisimba and Malaika up at the Candace’s palace yesterday, but I didn’t see them anywhere,” he said.
“I don’t know where they’ve gone this time.”
Maah. Baah. The curious faces nudged against Melech. Brown spotted, white striped, black and white, a brown stripe down a back—each little creature had unique markings. They butted heads and chased each other in circles.
Mothers, heavy with milk, fed their young. Satiated little ones hopped up on the rock next to Abi. They came to her, and she rubbed their fur. The anguish burning within cooled as she sat in the middle of the playful goats. “I love you, precious smelly creatures.”
Melech keen eyes pierced Abi’s mind. “You could have followed the way of Lisimba and Malaika.”
She sparred with a kid. “I could have had big adventures, could have stood in a place of honor in the army of the Candace.”
“And gone away on ships and elephants so you could help defend the majestic land of Nobatia.”
The Nile, thick with Nobatian soil, flowed by with unbridled power. “You would have shriveled up in sadness if I’d left.”
“I would have survived. The truth is that you didn’t want to leave.”
“I should have gone. Now look at the danger I face.”
“You don’t know what lies ahead,” he said, yet sometimes he had visions.
“What do you see in my future?”
“Meroe, like the sun, will soon rise away from you. I dreamed it.”
“Never could I imagine an existence without my little sister and brother. Who’ll care for them?”
“Hadassah and Zebediah won’t always be children.”
“Did you dream I’d marry Elan?” She balled her hands into fists. “I won’t.”
“I didn’t say you’d marry him,” Melech said.
“I don’t know what else I’ll do, but I’ll trust Adonai, my Creator God, for a means of escape.”
“Sometimes you can’t run from the circumstances in your life. You aren’t always in control of your future. Sometimes you have to make the best of situations. ”
She looked away and dropped her chin. She couldn’t—she wasn’t strong enough.
“What matters is the way you react,” he said.
“You’ve lived a passive life. I can’t exist like you. I’m not strong enough to submit to Papa.” Abi set her face in a hard expression. “I’ll escape. Go and take you and the young ones with me.”
“Keep calm, child.”
Silent moments passed while Melech folded his hands prayerfully.
“If an opportunity presents itself, leave. Don’t worry about us.”
“No matter where life takes me, I’ll always long to have you with me.” She placed her basket beside her and pulled out a handful of succulent dates. They smelled rich, but her appetite departed from her. “Want some dates?”
He came over to the rock where she sat, and she filled his hand.
“Bread?” Abi held up the crusty day-old loaf.
He took a chunk and held his hands full of food toward heaven. “Bless this abundant sustenance, my Lord.”
She pinched a crust, placed it back in the basket, sipped water from the goatskin.
“If Negasi will wait, the Lord Almighty will send you a suitable husband in his own time, but your papa is in a hurry.”
“I want nothing but to stay here.” She leaned back against the rock. The sweet and the savage of the treetops brought comfort from the dread of her father’s heavy hand. How could colors anywhere else on earth compare to the lush leaves flickering in the light breeze? Intertwined vines drooped with new grapes. When she was a tiny child, her mother told her heaven held more beauty than earth. Could it be possible?
Melech nibbled the breakfast she’d provided.
Hungry cats, savage river creatures, and lurking reptiles evoked little fear. Reasonable caution came from her two sources—co-existence with the natural world and years of military training. The most ominous beast of all was her father, a man who would marry her off to the devil if he could gain a shekel.
The little goats—she wanted to stay with them forever. Their comical expressions, floppy ears, feigned independence, and their infinite variety of markings promised amusement.
“The goats have drunk their fill.” Melech, as always, kept his eyes on each kid. Even though the goats’ nimble legs kept them from slipping down the steep bank, herding them away from the water’s edge required caution.
Abi removed her long filmy scarf woven of indigo silk and returned the basket to its place on her head.
“You’re wearing that today?”
“Why not? I take good care of my things.” She let it drift over her fingers. “Papa has plenty of these.”
“If Negasi catches you—”
“Lisimba gave it to me.” Abi held the end of it up, the sun’s rays shining through it. “It came from the Han Empire in the great Far East.”
“You have your father’s stubborn nature.”
She pushed her bottom lip out. “I have a plan to escape.”
“I’ll tell no one, not even you.”
“All right, then.” She couldn’t keep anything from Melech. “I’ll sneak over to the Candace’s mansion and hide.”
“The river is like you—always unpredictable, always changing.” Something about the eunuch Melech mystified her. “The time will come when you will settle into a calm existence.”
Enough. Time to work out her plan. “I know a place I can stay where nobody will find me.”
“In a storage room?”
“How did you guess?”
“I see inside you.”
She lowered her smiling face. At night she’d come out and find food in the royal kitchen . . . hide drinking water . . . live forever stowed away in the store rooms.
“Last winter Meroe had almost no rain. The river became a tiny stream slicing deep into the rocky earth. Remember how we used the rainwater saved in cisterns for our needs and for the livestock.”
“Then came the rain.”
“Water flooding from upstream raised its level to the edges of the banks. The overflow almost spilled over the banks, but it fizzled at the last minute. The green earth became pleasant once more.”
“And I’m like that?”
“Because you are a young woman. For the moment, the river is in a state of balance with the land. One day you will find your balance.”
“Did you hear about Abi, daughter of Negasi?”
“A crocodile swallowed her.” The gossip would spread throughout Meroe.
“She had a habit of sitting too close to the water’s edge.”
(NOTE: Nubian doe 07-11-12 © JimnEmily/IStock)