The sun burns my face. The sand burns my feet. It is hot. My mouth is too dry to even spit. How long has it been since we last saw water? Three days. We would have filled more skins if we had known.
I stop and turn around. Hundreds of people scuff through the sand. Children whimper, babies cry, and old women doze in the back of carts. Even the young men stagger in the hot sun. Rita, my donkey, nuzzles my goatskin bottle, hoping for some water, but I have none for her.
Shading my eyes with my hand, I gaze ahead. The sand shimmers in the heat and sets my pulse racing, but I know better than to get excited over a mirage. I’ve heard of men going mad, running into the desert after imagined water—never to be seen again.
Vultures circle overhead, waiting for a lamb or a wizened old cow to collapse. “Leave us alone!” I shout at the black scavengers. “We’re not dead—not yet.”
Aram’s father died this morning. We had to bury him in the sand. It is not the way it should be. We could not anoint him with oils and spices and mourn him properly. We cannot stop. We must keep going. I wonder how many more will be left in the sand for the vultures and wild animals before this great multitude reaches the destination.
An ox ahead of me lifts its head and bellows. Rita picks up her pace and passes me. I tug on the rope to hold her back. A shout drifts on the breeze, and the message passes down the line. “Water! Water!” Everyone presses forward.
I see it! It’s not a mirage. Water sparkles in the bright light, and trees flutter against the blue sky. All the animals are bleating and lowing. People are shouting, “Hurry! Hurry!” Rita yanks on my arm, and I follow. My feet sink into the soft sand. I stumble and fall on my face. Spitting the grit from my mouth, I scramble to keep up with that silly donkey.
A large pool stretches before me, but something is wrong. White crystals line the shore. An acrid stench fills the air. The cattle are bellowing and shaking their heads. Simeon and Jed are already there, staring at the pool.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.
Simeon shoves some sheep away and uses a switch on a bull. “It’s bitter! It will make us all sick. We can’t let the animals drink it. It’s bitter.”
Bitter? I dip my hand into the water and lick my fingers. BLECH! I spit it on the ground. It is salty!
The word bounces back through the crowds. “Bitter…bitter…bitter…” Shouts of joy become silent. Then a low moan grows and grows with anger, directed at their leader. “Moses! Why have you led us and our children into the wilderness to die? It would have been better to be slaves in Egypt where we had all the water we wanted.”
I can’t believe it. Didn’t they remember what it was like? Didn’t they remember how Jehovah defeated the whole army of Pharaoh at the Red Sea?
Yes, I’m thirsty, too, but I don’t want to go back to Egypt.
Moses closes his eyes and lifts his hands to heaven. The cloud of God settles above us, protecting us from the hot sun. Moses takes an ax from a nearby cart and swings at one of the trees. WHACK! WHACK!
The grumbling turns to whispers. “What is he doing? Is he making an altar?” Popping and splintering, the tree splashes into the water. Moses motions to the people. “Drink! The Lord has made it pure.”
No one moves.
“Drink!” He bends over and scoops a handful of water. He sips it. It drips down his beard and his arm, and he smiles. “It is sweet! The Lord God has hearkened to your cries and blessed us with His loving kindness.” Moses splashes it at Jed. “Let the animals drink. Let everyone come to the waters!”
I pull Rita into the pool. The cool water swirls around our legs. I cup my hands together and lift the water to my parched lips. I laugh. I drink again and again. I pour it over my head. “Come!” I say to Simeon. “Come drink!”
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