Have mercy! Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!" Women gave birth and whispered cries like this in caves and out-of-the-way places that humans didn’t usually use for birthplaces. Moses hadn’t come yet, and these were the years when Israel first made tears. Pharaoh had entered the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. A ruler great in his newness and new in his greatness had arisen in Egypt and he had said, “This is law. Hebrew boys shall not be born. All offenders against this law shall suffer death by drowning.”
So women in the pains of labor hid in caves and rocks. They must cry, but they could not cry out loud. They pressed their teeth together. A night might force upon them a thousand years of feelings. Men learned to beat upon their breasts with clenched fists and breathe out their agony without sound. A great force of suffering accumulated between the basement of heaven and the roof of hell. The shadow of Pharaoh squatted in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyptian law.
The province of Goshen was living under the New Egypt and the New Egyptian and they were made to know it in many ways. The sign of the new order towered over places of preference. It shadowed over work, and fear was given body and wings.
The Hebrews had already been driven out of their well-built homes and shoved further back in Goshen. Then came more decrees:
- Israel, you are slaves from now on. Pharaoh assumes no responsibility for the fact that some of you got old before he came to power. Old as well as young must work in his brickyards and road camps.
No sleeping after dawn. Fifty lashes for being late to work.
NaN. Fifty lashes for working slow.
NaN. One hundred lashes for being absent.
NaN. One hundred lashes for sassing the bossman.
NaN. Death for hitting a foreman.
- Babies take notice: Positively no more boy babies allowed among Hebrews. Infants defying this law shall be drowned in the Nile.
Hebrews were disarmed and prevented from becoming citizens of Egypt, they found out that they were aliens, and from one new decree to the next they sank lower and lower. So they had no comfort left but to beat their breasts to crush the agony inside. Israel had learned to weep.
The sun was setting. Under the brilliant, cloudless Egyptian sun thousands of Hebrew workers were struggling with building stones. Some of their backs were bloody from the lash; many of them were stoopy from age and all of them were sweaty and bent and tired from work. The Egyptian foreman gazed at the drooping sun in awe and breathed with reverence: “Ah, Horus, golden god! Lord of both horizons. The weaver of the beginning of things!”
Amram, struggling with the help of another man to move a heavy stone into place in the foundation, heard him and looked up.
“Horus may be all those good things to the Egyptians, brother, but that sun-god is just something to fry our backs.”
“I heard him what he said,” the other worker whispered back. “If Horus is the weaver of the beginning of things, he’s done put some mighty strange threads in his loom.”
“And still and all I used to admire him too, before this new government come in, didn’t you?”
“Uhuh. I used to admire everything in Egypt. But the palms and the plains ain’t scenery to me no more. They just look like suffering to me now.”
“They look that way to me too, now,” Amram whispered back, “and the worst part about it is, my wife is going to have another baby.”
“I heard about it, Amram. What you going to do? Take her off in the wilderness like I did mine?”
“Don’t know exactly, Caleb. One man was telling me he hid his wife out in a boat until it was all over. Turned out to be a girl so it was all right.”
“How soon you expecting?”
“Of course you can’t never be sure exactly, but we figure in two or three days more. I’m planning on hunting up some good cave or some place like that the secret police don’t know about yet. Thought I’d take tonight to locate a place. Will you go along with me?”
“Sure I will. You got the midwife engaged?”
“Yes, that’s all fixed up. Going to send my boy Aaron and my girl Miriam along to help around generally. They can do little things around and watch out for spies. Old Puah, the midwife, knows her business all right and she’s just as loyal as she can be, but she’s getting kind of old, you know. "
“That’s right. It’s good you got a sizeable boy and girl to run errands and to stand watch. It’s liable to happen while we are at work, you know.”
“Oh, yes, and that’s how come I want to find a place and get it sort of fixed up with a quilt or two for my wife to rest on and some water and things like that so when the time comes I won’t need to worry. It’s a sin and a shame our wives can’t even have a baby in peace.”
“And that’s just the reason I want to go with that delegation to see old Pharaoh tonight. You know a bunch of us are going tonight to see him to protest these new decrees, don’t you?”
“Sure, but I don’t believe it’ll do a bit of good. Still and all I want to go just to see what he’s going to say this time.
The above is excerpted from “Moses, Man of the Mountain” by Zora Neale Hurston. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022