The darkness was heavy, pressing against Madu’s chest. Even the air was thick and sour as it passed through his lungs. It was as though the elements themselves could feel death coming, dreading it, fearing it.
The streets were quiet as people huddled in their homes. Only Madu’s fool brother was gone that night. Nafre was ever consorting with them. They who had brought this upon the Egyptians in the first place.
That’s what Madu’s father said, anyway, as he ranted in the halls, cursing the Hebrews, cursing their God, even cursing his own firstborn son. But Madu wondered. Wasn’t it them who had enslaved the Hebrews? Treated them like dirt? They had been warned. Each time Moses had told them of the coming plague, he had given Pharaoh a chance to free them. Each time, Pharaoh had scoffed.
So they paid. Paid with the searing boils, with the dying beasts, with the smothering insects. And this time their God would take something more. This time it would be the ultimate payment.
Father said it would not happen. That morning he had stood tall and scornful. “Up till now it has been tricks. But death this Moses cannot master.”
But Madu believed. He had felt the power of their God. Tonight he knew, as sure as he breathed in the bitter air, that in only hours his brother would be dead.
The brother who ran with the Hebrews. The brother who had believed long ago. It was him who would pay for their Pharaoh’s disbelief.
As the last vestige of light had sunk over the horizon, even his father had lost his confidence. He paced now, his footsteps echoing along the entry hall. His mother wailed in the corner, praying to the gods, pleading for her son. But Madu knew. He knew she prayed to the wrong god.
As the hours crept on, the house quieted. Then Madu heard something at the front door. It was a thud. One single noise.
A noise like the knock of death.
He crept to the door, everything in him resisting, panic nipping at the edge of his consciousness. Yet somehow he had to. He had to walk down that long hall. Had to reach out a hand to take the handle. Had to open the door, crack by crack.
It was Paki who lay there, the monkey’s tiny body black against the night. From all around the city a wail rose, keening, undulating, following death’s path in an unceasing chase.
For the first time in all the plagues Madu cried. He wept for his beloved pet, who would no longer clamber up his legs, begging to be held. He wept for the scars that covered his arms, reminding him of the long and painful boils. He wept for his brother, who surely lay out in the darkness, as dead as Paki. Most of all, he wept for his country, who had sacrificed those they loved in order to keep their slaves, keep their pyramids, keep their pride.
Madu closed the door. He did not touch Paki. Death had come close enough that night. He made his way to his sleeping mat, the feeble light from his candle no match against the darkness that pressed upon them.
Sleep must have come at some point, for suddenly the room was bright with sunlight and Nafre was walking in the door.
The older boy’s eyes shone as they’d never done before. “I was with the Hebrews last night. The blood of the lamb covered us, saved us.” He did not wait for us to understand. “I’m going with them.”
He was so matter-of-fact, so alive that all we could do was stare.
“Where? Why you?” They seemed to be the only words Mother could find.
“I believe.” Nafre’s eyes moved to look into his father’s with strength. “I believe in their God. I will learn His ways, and follow His laws. We go to worship Him freely as He commands.”
Madu stood on the hill and watched them go. Those people who belonged to God. Those people who now included his own flesh and blood. They were a mere speck on the valley floor when Pharaoh changed his mind once again and sent out his chariots.
He knew, as he watched the army’s dust rise to obscure the sun, that it was not his brother who was the fool.
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