Frankly, he’s beginning to frighten us. We had to make a decision among ourselves. He’s changed, and we don’t like it. Hadn’t we just escaped from a land where one man decided the condition and fate of all our lives?
One day, for no reason that he revealed to us, he decided the men should no longer wear jewelry, not even rings or necklaces. Next day, he announced the women should refrain from wearing rings, bracelets, earrings, nose-rings, everything. There were rumors — he was going to take all the money and jewelry himself, to safeguard it. My wife and I weren’t the only ones who sewed our few valuables into the linings of our clothes. We’re still loyal to him, but we have an obligation to protect our families, don’t we?
Early one morning, a great cry circulated in the camp — he’d called a meeting. We hurried to his tent without even finishing our breakfasts. We thought someone had died, our pack animals had contracted some contagious disease, or the native population had become offended by our passage through their homeland and were about to declare war on us. Trembling and cold, we huddled around his tent in the faint pre-dawn light, afraid to breathe.
His announcement was worse than we’d anticipated. It wasn’t war or disease or death. He’d decided to ration the food. During the night, some of his family had gone through the camp, appropriating the food and taking it to his tent to ensure we had sufficient supplies to reach our destination. My wife gripped my arm so tightly it hurt. Food was all around us, every morning, on every bush and tree, manna from the Lord Himself, Blessèd Be His Name. In every waterhole, enough water for us and all our animals. Rationing? Had he gone mad spending so much time up in the mountains?
My brother eased his way through the crowd to stand beside me.
“Benjamin,” he said in a whisper, “what should we do?”
Better not to talk there. Who were completely loyal to him? Who were frightened, like us? That night, seven of us went out to gather surplus food, as a security measure, only to discover that every branch, every vine, every twig had been picked clean. That was when we began to use signals and signs, to sound out others, to meet secretly at the furthest edges of the camp. We were more than frightened of him. We were certain we would all die in the desert.
Then he went back into the mountains. His wife said he’d had a vision and had retreated to contemplate how best to lead us, and though it sounded like the very type of thing he’d do, we insisted that his wife show us the stores of food, money, and jewels.
After we saw the supplies, we relaxed a little. Since he hadn’t taken them with him, perhaps he was merely meditating, seeking guidance, praying to The Holy One Above. It was good those weeks he was in the mountains — better than when he was here with us. For one thing, everyone was less circumspect. People laughed more, argued less, became friendlier and more affectionate.
My Rebecca convinced his wife to release some of the women’s jewelry, to wear to David’s and Mary’s wedding banquet, and they forgot to return it to her safekeeping after the party, so the women were happier — they looked prettier, too, and they harped at their men less. Samuel’s sister was her cousin, so she persuaded his wife to distribute some of the wine to celebrate the birth of Samuel’s first grandson, as was only right and proper.
Everyone in the camp was more jovial, relaxed, and extremely grateful to her for being so gracious and understanding. We extended her much genuine affection. His own brother Aaron convinced her that the morale of the camp would improve if we had a celebration. By then, she didn’t need much persuasion. She was happier with her own husband in the mountains, too.
Everyone was excited about the celebration. We dressed in our finest clothes, drank, danced, ate, and drank more. Because it had been so long since any of us had had wine, most of us got drunk. In fact, I was so unused to the wine that I fell asleep quite early, while everyone else was still dancing.
Waking the next morning, I found the camp in chaos. He’d returned in the midst of the revelry. While in the mountains, he’d written something on two stone tablets, something he claimed came from the Lord our God Himself, and he’d come down in the night to share it with us. When he saw what was happening in the camp, he raised the tablets and, with a mighty roar, smashed them against the mountainsides.
He tore through the camp like an Egyptian, his fists flailing, feet kicking, screams cowering the bravest. He toppled the golden calf into the great fire, ignoring the shrieks of those who tried to save the melting gold by dragging it out, slashing at them with his staff. I found my wife huddled in the corner of some rocks, against our collapsed tent, weeping into the sleeves of her silk dress.
By the time my brother came to me, there were at least forty men with us, including his own brother Aaron. My brother Eli looked at Aaron, who nodded, and I knew it was time.
Now we wait.
It must be when he’s alone.
It must be in the dark.
We would never have chosen violence. He’s forced it on us.
He’s the only one who must be taken care of. We won’t even warn his wife beforehand. Afterward, we’ll take his body into the mountains. He can be with his God. Aaron will assume power quickly and efficiently. No questions will be asked aloud. We’ll continue our journey to our homeland, the land The Holy One Above promised us as our birthright.
So, it’s decided. We shake hands. Before we disperse, my brother steps up to Aaron.
“What about the tablets, the ones he brought down from the mountains?”
“What about them?”
“Should we try to piece them together and read them?”
Aaron frowns as he rubs his chin with his hands.
“What if they really came from… the Lord?” says my brother Eli.
Aaron straightens up, and for the first time, I realize how much taller he is than his brother.
“We’ll crush the broken tablets without reading them,” says Aaron, and though we glance at each other, we say nothing. “We’ll leave them with Moses’ body.”
From that moment on, all of us understand everything that must be done.
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Naked, with Glasses
© 1993, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
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