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The Epic Story of His Rebellion in the Court of Egypt
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
With his tenth year, on the day of his birth, his royal uncle agreed to receive him, look at him, lay a hand upon his head, and perhaps even say a word or two to him.
He was afraid. When his mother told him what was in store for him, he stared at her fixedly, his dark eyes wide and open, and she realized that he was very much afraid; but she was in no mood to offer sympathy. She was too much concerned for herself, and for months now this concern had deepened. The truth of it was that she had difficulty in remembering the old days when her health was good. If it wasn't a headache, it was a pain in the stomach; if it was neither, it was a general feeling of fatigue, an ache in her joints, a drawing sensation in her groin. "You're getting no younger," her physician had remarked, and she replied peevishly that thirty-nine was not old, not in a man and not in a woman, and that she paid him not for philosophical observation but for the practice of medicine. But her petty lie, born out of annoyance and anxiety-she was forty-two, a year younger than her royal brother-brought just a shade of a smile to the doctor's lips.
Afterward, she had looked in the mirror and wept for herself. Others had specified this or that tragedy in her life; but the truth of it was that she was a vain and selfish woman, and the only tragedy she had ever felt truly was the loss of her beauty; not even her illness, not even the pain and fatigue, but the loss of the beauty that had been held more dazzling than even the beauty of Nefertiti of the cursed name and memory. Because of this, there had been a period of months now during which her pity for herself had become an obsession. Who would ever know the agony of the long, dark nights when time stretched out for ever, and when alternately she wept and prayed? And what of the hours she spent with unguents, salves, creams, medications and magic preparations, and with obscene spells directed at the whore goddesses of Kadash and Arzawa and other distant and savage places? Who was to be pitied more than herself? When her doctor bad come, earlier this very day, she said to him, more pleadingly than bitterly,
"Look at me! Look at my, skin, my arms! And my face! Black pouches under my eyes—lines, wrinkles, bags! Please ... Please," she begged him. "Help me!"
The doctor, who was a fat little man with spindly legs, with Seti for his name—a king's name for a pompous little man—a commonplace man out of village mud and only the good fortune that his mother in her young and attractive years had been seduced by a priest and thereby gained her son a sponsor toward a well-paid profession—this doctor reflected that after all they were out of the same cloth, priest and peasant, royal princess and village harlot, all of them fashioned out of the same corrupt and decaying flesh—the princess who would have spices, sarcophagus and life everlasting, and his own mother who went to her simple extinction and burial in a wooden box and without wrappings or embalming—the one as weak and plaintive and helpless as the other.
These were his thoughts—thoughts which in the olden times a man like himself would never have dared think, for in those days a princess was a goddess and even thoughts are not safe from goddesses; but the olden times were gone forever and few enough people, much less a physician, considered Enckhas-Amon a goddess. He gave her a purge to loosen her bowels and he told her to eat grapes, which are good for fatigue. About her skin, his science provided no competent knowledge, but knowing that she was buying creams and salves from various priestly fakers who peddled their wares at a good price to the royal family, he promised a miraculous salve of his own on his next visit.
She was lying on her couch eating grapes when Moses was summoned to her, and even through her veil of self-concern she could not help noticing how long-legged and straight the boy was growing. With his black hair cut straight across his brow and long and square at the back, he stood like a rod, the way a prince was taught to stand; and with his flat shoulders and brown skin he looked very much an Egyptian. Even his high-bridged nose was typical of the people of Upper Egypt, although less common here on the Delta, and it was only his height and the weight and bulk of his bones that separated him from his many brothers. But his health and youth and vitality accented her own sense of malaise, and she demanded querulously,
"Why did it take you so long? You're not a good boy! You're not an obedient boy! Another boy would have run to his mother lying sick and weak the way I am I But not you. You dillydally everywhere—any excuse not to come to your mother."
"I am sorry," he gasped. He had actually run all the way, through the gardens, through the endless, high-pillared halls of the palace, and now he was panting for breath. "I came as soon as I could, my mother. Please don't be angry with me, my mother. Please love me, my mother. I came as soon as I heard you had summoned me."
"Silly boy." He knew how to flatter her and he somehow sensed how much she needed flattery. "I wasn't angry, only a little provoked. Illness makes one short-tempered and nasty, I suppose. But that can't mean anything to you. All you know is play and laughter and sunshine, so why should you have sympathy for a sick and ugly old lady?"
Her plea was so pathetic and transparent that even the little boy saw through it, and told her that, far from being ugly and old, she was young and beautiful. And to him, in a measure, she was, for he was no exacting judge of beauty; and as she lay there, her limbs brown and full under a throw of transparent gauze, her round breasts hardly hidden by a netlike jewelled brassière, with her earrings and necklaces and bracelets of gold all sparkling and shimmering in the sunlight that blazed down through the open roof of her chamber, she seemed as beautiful as any woman he had ever seen. So he would remember her. His praise and adulation were the praise and adulation of a child, but at this bleak moment she gloried in it, and at the same moment, suddenly and for the first time in his life, he saw her sexually as a woman, consciously as a naked woman and an object of excitement and desire. The thought sobered him, and when she asked him to come to her and kiss her, he held back as if afraid.
Enekhas-Amon recognized his moment of manhood without particular awareness of her recognition; but it was in her voice as she said archly, "Silly boy, come to your mother and kiss her." She embraced him as he kissed her. "Your mother has wonderful news for you. Can you guess? Surely you can?"
But he couldn't guess, and what would there be that a prince would want? Being a prince was not to want. Others wanted but not the princesses and the princes. He was already old enough to sense how much some men wanted—the greed and avarice of so many of the swarm of priests and clerks and stewards and physicians who were a living part of the vast palace; but with a prince it was different—or so it still seemed to him.
He was and yet he was not the prince. For although it was never said, certainly never proclaimed, he could not help but know that more than any of the others, he was the prince, the legendary and godlike result of a union between a royal brother and sister—between the God-King Ramses and his own mother. But this was something he knew only as a part of doubt, knowledge that was no more confirmed than the gossip which hinted that he was no son of Ramses at all. The palace housed at least a hundred more of his brothers and sisters—or cousins—of all ages, and it seemed that every week or so another squalling infant joined their ranks. Yet in spite of their numbers, each of them was princely and royal.
Like the others, what could he possibly want, unless it was that blasphemous notion that occasionally wrenched his heart—the notion that he would want not to be a prince? How often would he and his royal brothers hang over the wall of the great terrace swept by the Nile itself and there watch the ships poling up from the wide sea and the great rafts of tied bulrushes drifting down from Upper Egypt, down from the distant mystery of cataracts and mountain, the carefree—as it seemed—families that lived upon the rafts, and the naked brown children as wild and free as the birds in the sky! Little enough awe of royalty these children had, for when a raft drifted near to the terrace wall, they would shout a familiar greeting to the royal progeny, a shrill, unmannerly greeting not unmixed with contempt, and they would shout about the wonders they had seen—the painted black men of the South, the lions and the leopards and the giant elephants next to which a man was no larger than an ant, and the monkeys and the bright waterfowl and the endless herds of antelope—and much more that was a mixture of truth and fancies and lies concocted out of envy and frustration. But this Moses and the others did not know.
"No, my mother, tell me your news."
She sucked the juice from a grape and then delicately removed the skin and seeds from her lips and dropped them into a dish on the little table beside her couch.
"Tomorrow, my son, the God-Emperor will receive us and he will look upon you with his own eyes and talk to you, and—who knows?—perhaps give you his blessing." It was then that his fear aroused her impatience rather than her sympathy. Afraid of Ramses!I Her own father, Seti-Mer-ne-Pteh, was a man to fear. Even so recently as her own youth the times had been different and the customs had been different, and while there had been many children, there was no such teeming throng as now peopled the palace. Her father was a cold and bitter man who regarded himself as the angry arm of the god whose name he bore. He had little use for Egyptian women except to plant his royal seed in, and little time to spare from his frenetic conquering and building. Not love but fear was responsible for the thousands of Egyptian children who were eagerly given his name by their parents. Not so was his son, Ramses, her brother; here was a bull, a cock of the walk who could not see a woman without desiring her. He boasted that he could populate a land with his own seed and, often enough, when Enekhas-Amon saw the children pouring like a noisy river through the palace corridors, she believed his boast.
These were the companions of Moses, and little enough his mother knew of their endless discussion of a hundred forbidden matters—including the question of Ramses divinity, which they tended to equate with immortality. In this they both believed and disbelieved, feared it and mocked it, prayed to it and blasphemed against it—and clung to it, because each of them—the short and the tall, the fat and the skinny, the runny-nosed brats and the strutting bullies—each of them believed that he or she carried a part of the divinity. Except Moses; he walked among them as an interloper; he blasphemed less than they did, and accepted the divinity of the great emperor more out of fear than faith. His mother had never sensed how deep and unshakeable this fear was; nor would she have been able to comprehend it if he had explained. She had behind her two thousand years of divinity, and with it the practical knowledge that it brought neither surcease from illness nor any particular happiness. The sickness that was robbing her of health and beauty was in no contradiction to the fact that she was in some measure immortal; but in the thoughts of her son Moses life and death, divinity and immortality, were tangled with all the uncertain threads of his short life.
When he said, "No, no, please, my mother, no. I don't want to. Please ..." she could not know how vivid in his memory was the recollection of something that had happened only a few weeks before. It was in one of their playtimes, between teachers or priests or military instructors, and they wound through the palace with increasing relaxation and louder and louder bravado. In the mighty pillared corridor that connected the two enormous wings of the great structure, two of the princes challenged each other to climb the side hangings. These linen draperies, painted and decorated with bright colours, hung from rings slid on to poles laid from pillar to pillar, on top of each. The stone columns were forty feet high, and to Moses and the other children they were even higher than their massive reality. Moses was not the only one among them whose bravado gave way to fear as the children scrambled aloft. But they climbed like monkeys, with the agility of monkeys, each one clutching one end of the huge drapery, hand over hand, and each fighting to be the first. And he who was first, a skinny lad of eleven years, a Ramses of the true blood and divinity, had just reached the top, barely visible in the high, deep-shadowed ceilings, when the drapery at his end tore loose from the bronze ring, breaking his hold and casting him down to the floor. Over and over he turned in what seemed to Moses an endless length of time before he struck, screaming with fear; and then he struck on his head in a ghastly, bloody mess that made the children take up his screams as they looked at the horrible little heap that remained of divine immortality.
This is what Moses thought of as he pleaded with his mother, bringing back her petulance and annoyance.
"Well, I don't know what to say! I don't know what has come over you."
"Please, my mother."
"Foolish boy!" she snapped at him. "Hurt me! Cut my heart out! That will satisfy you, won't it?"
"No ... no, my mother."
His dark eyes filled with tears, and she was somewhat mollified by that. It wasn't many boys who, in these loose times, cared that much about their mothers. "And if I died and went to lie at the feet of Seti, would you weep for me? Don't you understand? If the God Ramses commands me, and I say to him, 'Oh, no, my brother, oh, not at all. You wish to see my son, Moses, but he doesn't wish to see you? What then? Am I not dead? And whose hand struck me down?"
"Not mine, my mother. Please don't say that." Now he wept in earnest, the tears rolling down his flat cheeks, and he looked so beautiful and tall and compassionate that, in spite of herself, her heart went out to him and she opened her arms and cradled his head against her bosom, tenderly wiping away his tears.
"Come now," she whispered, "no more of that. You will come with me tomorrow, and receive the god's blessing. No one in the palace is as handsome as you are and I can hardly wait. Tomorrow morning I will send Rea, my own hairdresser, to dress your hair and powder your curls with gold dust. On both arms you will wear the sacred bracelets of Amon, my own from my mother—and now I give them to you, my only child. They will always be yours; they are not to go in my tomb. You will wear only a loincloth, for I want him to see your whole body in its nakedness, to see how fine and perfect you are; but on your feet, your silver sandals. I am having them polished for you. You will also wear my golden neckpiece, for we are now of a size. Then you will be a prince such as this palace has not seen before, and the god will recognize that. Let him be a god, he's still my brother and he won't forget that so soon—not while I live. There, my son. Will you be afraid on such a glorious moment? What on earth is there to be afraid of?"
He drew away from her and stood up and said slowly but desperately and seriously, "He will cast me back into the water."
He saw the doubt, the fear, the anguish that had suddenly seized her face, but his own fear forced him to repeat what he had said. "He will cast me back into the water."
"Who told you that?" she whispered hoarsely.
He shook his head.
"Moses, tell me!" she almost shrieked. "I command you to."
Again he shook his head. "I pledged my word, my justice."
"And my own justice?"
"My justice," he repeated miserably.
"A priest? Some dirty priest of common, jealous blood. I know. They're everywhere now—listening, plotting, conniving. Well, I still know the difference between a priest and a princess of Egypt! I'll cut his throat with my own hands!"
"Not a priest," he begged her, terrified now at this unprecedented outburst.
"Then one of those miserable whores' brats that my royal bull of a brother sires every night!"
"I can't tell you."
She suddenly reached out and grasped his arm so tightly that he cried aloud with the pain, and she said, with the coldest anger he had ever heard in her voice,
Excerpted from Moses by Howard Fast. Copyright © 2000 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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