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That day, and all the days that followed, Horeb remained silent.
The dream lingered for a long time in Zipporah’s body, like the poison left by an illness.
For several moons, she dreaded the night. She lay on her bed without moving, without closing her eyes, without even daring to touch her lips with her tongue for fear of finding the taste of the stranger’s mouth on them.
She thought for a moment of confiding in her father Jethro. Who better to counsel her than the sage of the kings of Midian? Who loved her more than he did? Who better understood her torments?
But she said nothing. She did not want to seem too weak, too childish, too much like other women, who were always ready to believe their hearts rather than their eyes. He was so proud of her, and she wanted to show him that she was strong and sensible and held firm to all the things he had taught her.
With time, the images of the dream faded. The Egyptian’s face became blurred. A season went by without her thinking of it once. Then, one morning, Jethro announced to his daughters that young Reba, the son of the king of Sheba, one of the five kings of Midian, would be their guest the next day.
“He has come to ask counsel of me. He will be here before the end of the day. We shall welcome him as he deserves.”
The news provoked a great deal of mirth among the women of the house. All of them—Jethro’s daughters, the handmaids—knew what was going on. For more than a year, barely a moon had passed without Reba coming to seek Jethro’s counsel.
While everyone bustled to prepare the next day’s banquet, some preparing the food, others the reception tent and the carpets and cushions that had to be laid out in the courtyard, it was Sefoba, the eldest of Jethro’s daughters still living in their father’s house, who, with her usual directness, said out loud what everyone was thinking:
“Reba has had more counsel by now than anyone needs in a lifetime—unless, behind that handsome little face of his, he’s the stupidest man Horeb has ever created. What he really wants to know is if he still appeals to our dear Orma. He’s hoping Father will think his patience a sign of wisdom and agree to make him his son-in-law!”
Orma shrugged. “We all know why he’s coming,” she admitted. “But what’s the point of these visits? They bore me. They’re always the same. Reba sits down with our father, spends half the night chatting and drinking wine, and then goes home again, without ever making his mind up to say the necessary words.”
“Yes, I wonder why,” Sefoba said, pretending to be thinking deeply. “Perhaps he doesn’t find you beautiful enough?”
Orma glared at her sister, unsure whether she was joking. Sefoba laughed, pleased with her teasing. Zipporah sensed that they might be building up to one of their customary quarrels. She stroked the back of Orma’s neck to calm her, and received a slap on the hand by way of thanks.
Although they had the same mother, Sefoba and Orma could not have been more dissimilar. Sefoba was short and round, sensual and tender, with nothing dazzling about her. Her smile revealed her lack of guile, the honesty of her thoughts and feelings. She was completely trustworthy and, more than once, Zipporah had confided to her what she did not dare tell anyone else. Orma, on the other hand, was like one of those stars that keep their brilliance even when the sky is already flooded with sunlight. There was no woman more beautiful in Jethro’s house, perhaps in the whole of Midian. And certainly no woman prouder of this gift of Horeb.
Suitors had written long poems about the splendor of her eyes, the grace of her mouth, the elegance of her neck. In their songs, the shepherds, although they did not dare mention her by name, vaunted her breasts and her hips, comparing them to fabulous fruits, strange animals, and magic spells cast by goddesses. Orma savored this fame, never tired of it. But she seemed perfectly content to inflame others, without herself being inflamed. No man had yet been able to arouse in her an interest greater than the interest she had in herself. She was the despair of Jethro, who saw her fussing over her robes, her cosmetics, and her jewels as if they were the most precious things in the world. He had had no success in making her a wife and mother. Although she was the youngest daughter of his blood and he loved her dearly, there were times when even he, who rarely lost his composure, could not restrain his harsh judgment of her.
“Orma is like the desert wind,” he would rage, in Zipporah’s presence. “She blows first one way then the other. She’s like a bladder that fills with air and then bursts. Her mind is an empty chest. Even the dust of memory won’t settle in it! She’s a jewel, of course, and she grows more beautiful every day, but I sometimes wonder if Horeb is angry with me and is using her to test me.”
“You’re too hard on her,” Zipporah would gently protest. “Orma knows very well what she wants and has a strong will, but she’s young.”
“She’s three years older than you,” Jethro would reply. “It’s high time she thought less about making hay and more about making babies!”
In fact, there had been no lack of suitors. But Jethro, having promised Orma that he would never choose a husband for her without her consent, was still waiting, just like the suitors. Now new songs were being sung across the land of Midian, saying that the beautiful Orma, daughter of Jethro the sage, had been born to break the hardest of hearts and that Horeb would soon transform her, as virgin as the day she was born, into a superb rock on his mountain, caressed only by the wind. But now Reba had decided to take up the challenge, and was endlessly coming to pay his respects to Jethro with the impatience of a warlord before a battle. Nobody doubted that his persistence deserved its reward.
“This time, little sister,” Sefoba resumed, “you really must make up your mind.”
“Why should I?”
“Because Reba deserves it!”
“No more than anyone else.”
“Oh, come on!” Sefoba said, warming to the argument. “What other man would you prefer? Everything about him is pleasing.”
“To an ordinary woman!”
“To you, Princess. Do you want a man worthy of your beauty? Ask any of the women here, young or old. Reba is the handsomest of men—tall and slim, skin the color of fresh dates, firm buttocks! Who wouldn’t want to give him a cuddle?”
“That’s true,” Orma chuckled.
“Do you want a rich man, a man of power?” Sefoba went on. “He’ll soon be succeeding his father as king, and then he’ll own the most fertile pastureland and caravans so richly laden they stretch from sunrise to sunset. You’ll have gold and fabrics from the East, and as many handmaids as there are days in the year!”
“What do you take me for? To become a man’s wife just because his caravans are so impressive—how boring!”
“They say Reba can sit on a camel’s hump for a week without getting tired. Do you know what that means?”
“I’m not a camel, I don’t need to be straddled every night—unlike you, squealing loud enough to stop other people sleeping!”
Sefoba’s purple cheeks turned crimson. “How do you know that?” she cried, which merely increased the general laughter. “Well, all right, it’s true,” she admitted. “When my husband isn’t running after his flocks, he comes to me every night and eats me up! My heart isn’t dry like Orma’s, I enjoy giving it nourishment. And doing it every night,” she concluded, now joining in the laughter, “isn’t as easy as lighting a fire to bake cakes!”
“The fact is, the seasons are passing,” Zipporah said softly, when calm had returned. “You’ve already rejected every other suitor, my dear Orma. If you send Reba away, who else will dare to want you?”
Orma looked at her with a touch of surprise, a stubborn grimace creasing her pretty nose. “If Reba is only coming here to talk to Father, without declaring himself, then I shall stay in my room tomorrow. He won’t even see me.”
“You know perfectly well why Reba doesn’t ask Father for your hand! He’s afraid you’ll refuse. He has his pride, too. Your very silence has become an affront. This may be the last time—”
“Tell them I’m ill,” Orma interrupted. “Just look sad and worried, and they’ll believe you . . .”
“I shan’t say anything!” Zipporah protested. “I certainly shan’t tell a lie.”
“It won’t be a lie! I will be ill. You’ll see.”
“Nonsense!” Sefoba exclaimed. “We know exactly what we’ll see! You’ll paint your face until you glow and, as usual, you’ll be more beautiful than a goddess. Reba will only have eyes for you. He won’t even touch the excellent food we serve him. That’s really the saddest thing about being your sister. The proudest, handsomest men come here, and always end up looking stupid!”
The handmaids, who had been all ears, burst out laughing, and Orma laughed with them.
Zipporah got to her feet. “Let’s take the sheep to the well,” she said, decisively. “It’s our day and we’re already late. Forget about husbands for the moment—real or imagined.”
The well of Irmna was a good hour’s walk from Jethro’s domain. In the distance rose the great mountain of the god Horeb, its covering of petrified lava sparkling in the evening sun. Below it, between the folds of red rock, plains of short grass, sometimes green in winter, stretched as far as the sea. Such was the land of Midian, vast, harsh, and tender, a land of burning sand and volcanic dust where scattered oases shimmered like oil in the desert heat. The wells of abundant, miraculous water found at the oases were both sources of life and gathering places.
Every seven days, those who had pitched their tents less than two or three hours away by road, or who, like Jethro, owned gardens, flocks, and brick houses, were entitled to fill their goatskins at the well of Irmna. They were also allowed to let their flocks drink there, whatever the size of the flock, provided they finished in the time it took the shadow of the sun to move six cubits.
It was late summer, and the men had already left Jethro’s domain with the livestock to sell it in the markets of the land of Moab, along with the iron weapons produced by the armorers. They would not return until the dead of winter. In the meantime, it was the women’s job to lead the remaining animals to the well. This was where Zipporah and her sisters, with the casualness of habit, were taking their sheep. As they tramped along in their clogs, the dust rose off the road like flour.
The tall shaft of the shadoof was already in sight when Jethro’s daughters noticed a herd of long-horned cows pressing around the adjoining drinking troughs.
Sefoba frowned. “Look, they’re drinking our water! Whose animals are those?”
Four men appeared, pushing the cows aside with their staffs. They all had thick beards, and were dressed in old, patched tunics white with dust. They positioned themselves at the top of the track, and planted their staffs in the ground.
Orma and Sefoba came to a standstill, while their sheep went on by themselves. Zipporah, who had been walking behind, now joined them and shaded her eyes from the sun to get a better look at the men.
“They’re Houssenek’s sons,” she said. “I recognize the eldest, the one with the leather necklace.”
“Well, this isn’t their day,” Orma said, setting off again. “They’ll just have to go.”
“They don’t look as if they want to,” Sefoba observed.
“Whether they want to or not, this isn’t their day, and they’re going to leave!” Orma said, angry now.
The sheep had sensed water. It was too late to stop them. They began trotting toward the troughs, jostling one another and bleating.
Zipporah caught hold of Sefoba’s arm. “Less than a moon ago, our father passed an unfavorable judgment on Houssenek. He and his sons aren’t too keen on the law.”
Sefoba, eyebrows raised, asked her to explain what she meant. But they were both interrupted by Orma’s shouts: “What are you doing? Have you gone mad?”
Houssenek’s sons had started running toward the sheep, yelling raucously. In a panic, the animals began to disperse. Within a few seconds, they had scattered in all directions. Zipporah and Sefoba tried in vain to stop them. Some ran down the slope, risking breaking their necks on the rocks. Houssenek’s sons laughed and swung their staffs.
Sefoba stopped running. Out of breath, her eyes black with rage, she pointed at the scattered flock. “If a single sheep is hurt, you’ll regret this! We are Jethro’s daughters, and this is his flock.”
The four men stopped laughing.
“We know perfectly well who you are,” muttered the one Zipporah had pointed out as the eldest.
“Then you also know it isn’t your turn to be at the well,” Orma retorted. “Get out of here and leave us in peace. What’s more, you stink like old oxen! It’s quite disgusting!”
She underlined her disgust with a grimace, adjusted her tunic, which had slipped from her shoulder, and walked toward Zipporah. Heedless of her insults, the men watched her, fascinated.
“It’s our day today,” one of them said. “And tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, too, if we feel like it.”
“You animal!” Orma snapped. “You know very well that isn’t true.”
Zipporah placed a hand on her arm to silence her.
The one who had spoken before started laughing again. “It’s our day whenever we like. We’ve decided this well belongs to us.”
Sefoba let out a cry of rage.
Zipporah stepped forward. “I know you, son of Houssenek. My father passed judgment on you and your brothers for stealing a she-camel. If stopping us from reaching the well is some kind of revenge, it’s stupid. Your punishment will be really harsh this time.”
“We didn’t steal any she-camel,” one of the brothers exclaimed. “She was ours!”
“Who are you, black woman, to tell me what I can and can’t do?” the eldest jeered.
“I am Jethro’s daughter and I know you’re lying.”
“Zipporah!” Sefoba said in a low voice.
It was too late. Brandishing their staffs in the air, the men stepped forward, coming between Zipporah and her sisters.
The eldest of Houssenek’s sons pushed her away with a blow on the chest, and laughed. “Your father is only your father because he kissed the arse of a black ox.”
Zipporah slapped his cheek with such force that the man staggered. His brothers stopped laughing. Zipporah tried to take advantage of their surprise and started running. But one of the men was too quick for her. He threw his staff, aiming it between her legs. She fell headlong.
Before she could even try to get up, a heavy body, stinking of sweat and grunting with hatred, fell on top of her. She cried out, in fear as much as in pain. Rough fingers clutched at her chest, tearing the fabric of her tunic. A knee was planted between her thighs. Her head throbbing, she could hear Sefoba and Orma screaming in the distance. Nausea rose in her throat. Her arms felt weak. The man seemed to have a thousand hands, as he scratched her thighs and mouth and stomach and crushed her wrists and her breasts.
Then Zipporah, eyes closed, heard a wet sound, like a watermelon bursting. The man groaned and rolled over onto his side. All that remained of him on her was his smell.
She did not dare move. All she could hear was heavy breathing and the sounds of struggle and stamping feet.
Sefoba cried out. Zipporah finally opened her eyes. Sefoba was dragging Orma toward the well. Close to her, the eldest of Houssenek’s sons seemed to be asleep, his cheek squashed up against a stone, his mouth red with blood and his arm strangely twisted.
Zipporah leaped to her feet, ready to run away. Only then did she see him.
He was standing facing the three men who were still on their feet, holding his staff at shoulder height. It was no ordinary shepherd’s staff, but a real weapon, with a heavy bronze tip. He was dressed in a pleated loincloth, and his feet were as bare as his chest. His skin was very white, his hair long and curly.
Suddenly, he swung his staff, describing a perfect curve. With a dull thud, it struck the legs of Houssenek’s youngest son, who toppled over with a cry of pain. The two others leaped back, but not quickly enough to escape the weapon, which came down on their necks, forcing them to their knees.
The stranger pointed at the eldest, who still lay motionless. “Take him away,” he said.
His voice was sharp, and his accent made the words sound strange. He’s from Egypt! Zipporah thought.
As Houssenek’s sons were lifting their wounded brother, the stranger nudged them with the tip of his staff. “Now get out of here or I’ll kill you,” he said, in the same tone of voice, stumbling over the words.
Zipporah heard her sisters’ cries of joy. She heard them coming closer, calling her name. But she was incapable of turning her head to them and replying. The stranger was looking at her. He was looking at her with eyes that seemed familiar. There was something about his expression, something about his mouth—a self-confidence perhaps. She saw his arms reaching out to her to take her waist and lift her, and she recognized them even though they were not covered with gold.
For the first time in many moons, her dream, the dream that had so troubled her, came alive again in her.
From the Hardcover edition.