And while it is still dark, God is at work.
Jochebed’s entire life has been a faith journey as she seeks her mother’s God. The daughter of a Hebrew slave and master basket weaver, Jochebed knows the stories of her ancestors but wonders if the Lord cares how they suffer under the hand of Pharaoh Ramses. . .and if the promised deliverance will ever really come.
Ramses, warned of Egypt’s destruction, vows to do whatever is necessary to protect his two great loves, Egypt and Nefertari, unaware that satisfying one will sacrifice the other.
Shiphrah, the half-Egyptian midwife tasked to kill Hebrew male infants, yearns for a place to belong and remembers childhood stories of a merciful God.
Doubts are a constant companion to Jochebed, but her foundation of faith leads her to defy the most powerful man in the world in a deadly race to save her son and, ultimately, God’s chosen people. Two women, each following the dangerous path God has set before them—this is their story.
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By Texie Susan Gregory
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Texie Susan Gregory
All rights reserved.
Eight years earlier
A single drop of water trembled on the cup's jagged edge before slipping over the brink and splashing onto the dirt floor. Jochebed watched the droplet gather itself into a bead before surrendering, absorbed into the dust, irrevocably changed.
Yesterday she had been counted a child. Today defined her as a woman. Yesterday life was predictable. Today was veiled in mystery. Yesterday she understood. Today she did not fathom.
She had known it would happen, the change branding her as a woman and forever locking away her childhood. But on seeing the trace of red, all she had been taught about her future disappeared in a flash of panic.
"Betrothed? Me? Do I know him, Mama?"
"Amram. He is your father's kinsman."
Jochebed leaned against the wall. Oh, to push herself back into yesterday. As her legs turned to water, she slid to the floor and pulled both knobby knees against the tender swells of her breasts. Wrapped in the comforting circle of her arms, the dull ache in her belly eased and the room slowed its spinning.
"But I don't know him."
"His name is Amram, Amram ben Kohath. He is of the tribe of Levi, like us. Remember when we talked of this before, that someone would be chosen for you?"
"But I don't know him."
"I do, Jochebed."
"But I don't." Jochebed reached for another handful of coriander seeds to ease the cramps clenching her belly. "Is he old? Is he ugly? Does he waddle like Old Sarah?"
"He is older than you, but our kinsmen Gershon and Merari have proposed you two will marry." Elisheba's forehead knotted. "I know this is hard, but he is a good man and" — her voice wavered — "your father would be pleased."
At that, Jochebed knew surrender was inevitable, and her shoulders drooped. Everything hinged on what her vaguely remembered papa might have thought in spite of what he had done to their family.
"How old is older? Does he even know who I am? Did he choose me?"
Elisheba picked up her weaving.
"Your uncles Gershon and Merari chose you, Jochebed, and Amram agreed."
"Who did he choose? Pretty little Lili?"
Elisheba averted her eyes.
* * *
Jochebed crouched in the warm shadows of the house. The heat baked into its mud walls soaked into her lower back while she waited for Mama to return from the elders' meeting. Mama had gone to proclaim her daughter was a woman and marriageable. Jochebed cringed. Did the entire village need to know her most private misery?
If these wrenching spasms were going to come every month for the rest of her life, she'd drown herself in the Nile. She wanted no part of being a woman. She wanted no part of a marriage either.
Mama insisted the kinsmen had honored her with a husband like Amram. What an honor, chaining her to an old man! Why couldn't they have honored Lili? That would make everyone happy.
A heavy lump swelled from her throat, threatening to spill out tears, but Jochebed pressed both hands against her eyelids, refusing to let them fall. Angry at her helplessness, she swallowed and swallowed until dry pain was all that remained.
A soft footstep warned her that Mama was home and had seen her hiding in the darkness.
Kneeling beside her, Mama brushed aside the dark curtain of hair hiding Jochebed's face.
"We will rub thyme oil on your belly to ease the pain. The first two days are often the worst, dear one."
Jochebed whimpered. Another whole day of pain?
"Bedde, since your father is dead and I refused to remarry, you knew our kinsmen would choose your husband. I understand this marriage troubles you deeply. Is it about him wanting Lili or that you don't know Amram?"
It was more, so much more than that. Jochebed turned her head away, closing her eyes against the hot shame she dared not voice and the awful loneliness of being different.
Even if Amram was not a stranger, she did not know how to be a wife. Growing up with just Mother, she knew how to be a daughter, even knew how to be a mother, but a wife? She could cook and mend, but what did you do if your husband was sad? Did you pat his back while he cried? Did men cry?
If Papa were alive, she'd know.
She'd know what it was like to look up and see someone standing there, sure and strong, ready to rescue her or smile his approval. She'd know what men laughed about and what they thought was pretty and if they liked to look at the stars and make wishes. She'd know what it felt like to fall asleep on a man's wide shoulder and be carried home.
But no. All she'd known was being shaken awake to stumble along in the dark with a woman's thin hand to hold her steady.
It seemed everyone else had a papa or a grandpa or at least an older brother to kill scorpions and chase away house snakes. Other girls had someone to hug them when they were scared.
Other families' broken tools and doors were soon repaired by their men, but she and Mama propped the door closed at night with a water jar and hoped bats would not swoop down through the holes in the roof.
She'd seen papas pick up their little girls or catch their hands and twirl them around, holding them up high away from the swirling dust of feet. As they grew older, she heard them tell their daughters they were pretty and someone would be a lucky man someday.
What a lovely dream, to have a man think he was lucky to have her. If only.
Too many times Jochebed had shivered in the chill of Different, longing for someone to notice she stood alone, yearning to be in the circle of Same. Becoming an unwanted wife would seal her fate, casting her as a burden — an insignificant, undesirable person.
She had her mother, but what did Mama know about men? Papa had chosen to die instead of stay with them. Maybe Mama did something wrong. Maybe her mama hadn't tried hard enough to be a good wife — whatever that meant — and if Mama hadn't been worth staying alive for, then how could she possibly be worthy?
Jochebed knew she wasn't as good as Mama no matter how hard she worked at being just like her. She opened her eyes and looked down at her hands, surprised they were not bloody from crawling the unscalable wall of Perfect.
How could she tell Mama of Deborah whispering no man would ever willingly choose her because of what Papa did? How could she explain she'd built a safe place inside herself — a deep hole — so no one could see she was scared and sad, so no one would know she was ... less.
Jochebed shook her head. Anything she said would shame her mother, who already suffered too much. She could not add even a scrap of sadness to Mama's shadowed eyes. She would bear this alone.
She would be strong like Mama.
* * *
She had endured being a woman for ten days. Some of the older women winked at her and congratulated her, but Deborah accused her of trying to gain attention by pretending to hurt. It was a nuisance, she scolded, nothing more.
If there was punishment after life, Jochebed hoped that for all eternity, Deborah would have cramps.
She looked up to see a man holding a large fish wrapped in palm leaves.
"I am Amram ben Kohath, of the tribe of Levi. Like you, I claim Abraham as my ..."
His lips continued to move, but she could not hear him over the sudden thudding in her chest and ears. This beautiful man with shoulders as wide as the gates of Pharaoh's city and not a trace of gray in his hair was Amram? Her Amram?
"... are kinsmen."
Lowering her eyes, she watched the cloth she had been scrubbing float out of reach. Oh dear. Had she washed her face this morning?
"Yes? Oh, uh, yes, I'm J–Jochebed, daughter of, uh ..."
Amram nodded, the sliver of a smile crinkling through the shadows in his eyes. "I know who you are."
Jochebed blushed. Had she combed her hair today?
"I will come tonight to talk with you and your mother. Would you ask her to prepare this fish for us?"
"Us, yes. I'll fish ask to talk p–prepare her tonight." Jochebed turned and started up the path.
Stepping closer, Amram offered her the fish, and she caught a whiff of clean sweat. Her hands trembled as she accepted the fish, and his long fingers touched hers. Feathers. His calloused hands felt like feathers. What would it be like to be held by a man — this man?
Jochebed clutched the fish to her chest and spun, stumbling over the basket of dripping cloths. Righting herself, she shook her head. She should not think about his hands and shoulders or wonder how his eyes could be so soft while his arms were chiseled rocks. He would never truly be her Amram. He did not want to hold a thin, serious girl-woman. He desired Lili, her beautiful, bubbly cousin and dearest friend.
Born within moments of each other, she and Lili were more sisters than cousins, their lives woven tightly with the certainty of slavery and the uncertainty of survival. But Lili had a papa and three brothers. She understood men.
Lili would be perfect for Amram. But Jochebed?
How would he ever come to love her?
* * *
Thunder grumbled in the distance. Jochebed scanned the wide expanse for a trace of promised rain, but the sky — innocent and blue — belied its rare pledge. And then, with a shift in the wind, a wispy cloud appeared, dusting the line between earth and sky. Jochebed inhaled, seeking the scent of rain's exotic musk. Nothing. How odd, to hear a ripple of thunder during this season.
Pushing the thick waves of her hair to one side, she almost chuckled. Almost. Here she was, trying to comprehend the workings of the heavens when she could not understand her own mind. She sobered.
There was only one thing she knew — she dared not go through with this betrothal. She would dig in her heels and refuse to marry. Marriage was a foreign land with strange customs, strange people — men — and duty or not, she did not want to go there in spite of the tingling in her toes when she thought of Amram's deep-set eyes.
Jostled from her thoughts by a ewe's nervous stomping, Jochebed listened to Lili's voice soothe the bleating sheep. If the way she coddled sheep was any indication, Lili would someday be a tenderhearted mother.
Lili liked scratching the sheep's chins, running her hands over their thick wool, and searching their pointy hooves for rocks or thorns. The sheep responded to her crooning calls, stretching their necks and crowding around her. Lili talked with the flock and the dog as if she expected them to answer her.
"Gray Ear, no! You did your job and brought them here, so stop nipping at Curly. Jochebed, call that dog away! Little Bit, did you miss me? Come here to Mommy, and let me see your eyes. They're all better now, aren't they?"
"Gray Ear, here." Jochebed snapped her fingers, and the dog wagged its way to her side. Reaching down, she ruffled its long fur.
Jochebed let Lili's voice slip in with the mosquitoes' drone, both so familiar she could nod without listening, swat without remembering that she'd moved her hand. Their combined rhythm allowed her an escape to her own reverie. Sultry breezes knotted her hair into tangled webs as she glared at the smoldering sun. She could list her reasons to avoid betrothal from now until forever. She already knew Amram did not want to marry her, so why should he? Stupid kinsmen. Mentally, she jerked the rope tethering her to the future. There must be a way to escape, to loosen the tightening knot.
Feeling her chin beginning to quiver and scalding tears swelling against her eyelids, Jochebed squinted into the sun, furious at herself for crying. Maybe the others would think its brightness reddened her eyes. More likely they would think she did not have the good sense to avoid looking at the blinding desert light. They were right. She did not have good sense, especially not in the chaos of becoming a woman and sorting out her thoughts of him.
Amram. There was something about him. ... Was it the blackness of his eyes or the terseness of his hands as he gestured ... large hands. With his gentle words and his muscled, stonecutter arms, he was frightening. Images of him quickened her heart, warning her to run — but from him or to him?
As she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, her thoughts darted and swirled — flurries of gnats uncertain of safe landing. Jochebed waved the air to scatter her pesky thoughts. There! She would forget the possibility of a betrothal with Amram existed. Somehow she would let their kinsmen know he was free to choose Lili. What a fool she'd been to dream about Amram wanting her.
Jochebed straightened her shoulders and flicked away a loose strand of hair. Someday, she vowed, he would wish he had wanted her! He would meet her strolling along the river and their eyes would meet. He would have heard of her wisdom and discernment. She would have matured into a great beauty. He would think, but never say, that if he only had another chance, he would make her his and his alone. She would look down her thin nose, ignore his wistful eyes, tilt her head, and glide forward.
The swarm of stinging thoughts returned, bearing rumors.
Was it true Death stalked those he loved? Old Sarah said that when his father was sent to the mines and his mother died, he had left this village and moved to the village of his wife's family. Now they were dead, his wife and son drowned two floods ago. Did the old gossiper speak truth when she said Amram wanted to return to his wife's village, or would he decide to live here? Would the shadows of his dead wife and son fill their house?
So many questions, and yet none of them was the one beating against her heart. What chance was there Amram would ever willingly seek her as his wife and call himself a lucky man?
Her lips thinned. He would choose Lili.
Lili, with her new curves and a string of admirers.
Lili, who had long lashes and little white teeth.
Lili, with her bubbly laugh and easy smile.
Sometimes she hated Lili.
She started and covered her mouth, whirling to face Lili. Had she spoken aloud?
"Did you hear what Deborah said? Tell her, Deborah."
"She should have listened the first time."
Jochebed looked away. If Deborah ever said anything of value, she might listen.
Lifting the clay jar, she skirted Lili and Deborah, turned her back, and began to work the rich milk from the nearest ewe. Guessing it would annoy Deborah, she began to hum, although the skin between her shoulders twitched as she sensed the girl's hatred.
As children, Deborah had shoved her into the mud, trampling on her fingers and laughing at Jochebed's clumsiness in struggling to stand. The physical mistreatment, rare now, had been replaced with whispered taunts of her papa's death and his betrayal of the Hebrew people.
Why had Papa left? Something must be wrong with her and Mama. They had not been enough for him to stay with them. Humiliation stung the deep, raw places where sadness still clawed through her insides.
Deborah's slurs shoved her into a place of aloneness. Jochebed had learned to retreat in the face of ridicule because there was no one to back her up. No one like the other girls had — a father or brother or uncle who cared.
Deborah's angry scorn puzzled her. Only Jochebed and her mama had been shamed by Papa's death, not Deborah's family, but Deborah slung rage at her as easily as rocks, insults the size of boulders, killing words.
"Amram told the elders he will soon announce his betrothal." Lili repeated Deborah's words, giggling and flaunting her perfect teeth. "Have you noticed how wide his shoulders are? He doesn't hunch over, and he holds his head up, too."
Lili's love interests changed direction like a little green frog escaping a snake.
This morning Lili had confided, "Joshua said my eyes are the prettiest he's ever seen, but Caleb is so sweet. I wish he were taller and didn't waddle like a duck. He'd be perfect. I just can't decide."
But last week it was, "Have you heard Adam sing? Joseph can't sing, but he always makes me laugh and my brother Samuel said he likes me. Samuel is so old, he would know, don't you think? Do you think Joseph's lips look like a bird's beak?"
Excerpted from Slender Reeds by Texie Susan Gregory. Copyright © 2016 Texie Susan Gregory. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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