Between Egypt and Canaan
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters.” Genesis 1:1
The Beginning of the End
Judah’s flag faded into the whirls of sand along with the familiar faces of those from Ana’el’s tribe. For the first time in her fifteen years of age, Ana’el was not sure that she would actually make it to Canaan. Crouched on the cracked ground, the scorching sand burnt her face but she hardly noticed it. With scarcely any food left in her stomach, her abdomen still shook violently from the explosion of bitter juices that insisted on breaking through.
She sucked in a quick intake of air but closed her mouth without delay. She was used to sand scratching the insides of her eyeballs and ears, penetrating her long sleeve-robe and irritating her skin. But she could not bear the crushing sound of sand as it rubbed against her teeth. Lord, will it ever end?
Earlier, she had prayed for a set of different winds, the kind that delivered a gentle breeze. Now, she wished she had never asked the Lord for anything at all. Instead of divinely cooling the simmering desert, HE was punishing them yet again. She knew God’s wrath well, they had all witnessed it firsthand, but this time, she had the feeling that if the gusty winds persisted on whipping on her face, she would surely die in this forbidding desert.
Unrolling her curled body from the scorching ground, she rose to her knees and exhaled slowly. Beyond the veil of loose sand, she could hardly make out the shapes of the hunched people or the mooing herd. Yet, she could clearly see the spiraling sand-tower that was forming a large cloud low to the ground. One thing was certain; no one paid any notice to the girl who might as well be dead.
Just before she broke off running from her tribe’s formation, she heard her mother’s voice rise above the thunderous cries of the wind. She did not look back. Instead, she ran as if Pharaoh’s chariots were after her and landed on the banks of a new dune formation. And just when she thought she had nothing left in her hollowed stomach, another wave of bitter liquids exploded from her dry jaws. The tears she tried so hard to suppress slid down her cheeks, leaving two streaks of grey muddy lines.
Oh, Lord. They were being punished for failing Him once more, but this time, an overwhelming urge to surrender to nature swiped through her frail body. That aimless wandering in the desert. They should not have grumbled to Moses. She knew that. But racked by hunger and thirst, how could she not join the angry mob, even if her defiance was only at heart. The roaming toward another water source had stretched into its fourth day. If not for Miriam’s water rock, which had miraculously kept following Moses’s sister, they would have all perished, every man, woman and child.
There was a time when she had kept count of the many who found their death in the wilderness. She had watched the desiccated bodies for hours, as they lay motionless at the foot of the dune banks. It was why children were highly prized, particularly since they seemed more attractive to the Angel of Death whom scoured the desert, preying on the weak. Surviving children were indeed a blessing. Unfortunately she was not a child anymore.
A bolt of lightning ripped the sky despite the sizzling heat and Ana’el lifted her face to meet heaven. How she longed for the feel of rain droplets on her filthy face, the smell of wet sand as water mixed in with the dry land, or the touch of mud as it curled on her bare toes.
She opened her eyes, wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her robe and sighed. The summer months lasted forever, with the desert showing its ugliest face in the barren slopes. Born into the wilderness, she knew all of its facades, but there was nothing worse than wandering through the desert’s plains in the peak of summer.
Little by little she straightened her back and knew that she will not die today after all. Nearly disappointed, Ana’el strained to see through the thick layers of brown carpet, which had blocked her view from the rest of the earth. But she did not have to see beyond the sand storm. For months now and into the horizon, endless ripples of barren dunes consumed the Lord’s earthly world.
When she was a young child, she had admired the everlasting golden hills that illuminated the mountains orange at sunset. But this morning, when the blue-sky painted dirty brown, she felt the ground circle around her before her stomach failed as well. Yet, only from the base of the freshly forming dune she took notice of how new layers of sand piled into grand heights like the tower of Babel itself.
“What are you doing? Get up!” Ithamar’s alarmed voice rose over the shrieking wind.
She did not see him coming until he fell on his knees by her side, awakening her from the despair that had taken over her common sense. His new raucous voice warmed her heart, though sometimes she missed the boy who had chased after her, squeaking like a wooden whistle. Ithamar was not much older than she was, but he no longer resembled the boy she had known her entire life. Still, if she were not in so much pain, she would have trembled to the sound of his new voice.
“You can’t stay here! You must keep moving.” The veins in Ithamar’s throat pumped hard from the effort it took to beat the thunderous sound of the wind. But her body betrayed her, its weak stomach and wobbly feet refusing to go on.
“Get up! We have to find your mother. I can’t even see Judah’s flag in the horizon.”
Spitting sand onto the ground, she leaned toward him. The authoritative demand along with the continuous tugging on her arm gave her a new strength. She stood unsteadily and covered her eyes with the palm of her hand. Did the Lord finally give up on the lot of them? Or was it an individual punishment for what she allowed so willingly to happen?
The sand kept beating on her face and she could not see into Ithamar’s eyes. Heaviness nestled in her throat, a kind she had never felt before. For days now, she had been dying to tell him. If she could only share her burden before the Lord strike them both, but she could not find the courage. Not yet. Being forbidden to be with him did not help either.
All too willingly, she took from Ithamar’s stretched hand the leather canteen and put it to her broken lips. Her eyes spoke the words that refused to come out. Only a few drops of water landed on her tongue, scarcely wetting her parched throat, but she swallowed it with lust and licked the brim of the old leather cap. It was not enough to saturate her bottomless thirst, but her tongue did not taste as bitter from the flavor of her stomach juices.
Before she could regain her poise, Ithamar pulled her by the arm, pushing her forward indelicately and into the trudging crowd. Once moving again, Ana’el crossed arms around her long-sleeve robe in an attempt to protect her skin from the swelling wind. She did not realize she had trailed that far from her tribe. A shiver crawled along her spine.
Ithamar’s tight grip on her arm was certainly not adequate for a maiden, and still, he kept pulling her behind him as if he had owned her. She wished he did. Rudely, he shoved his body through the swarm of people and as they made way she lost track of the different tribes they had passed. All heads were buried low, tucked inside tunics or covered with craggy hands. An aged donkey, laden with wrapped garments and water sacks at its sides, made room for them after Ithamar kicked its behind.
She could have easily perished and no one but her mother and Ithamar would have cared for her absence. She fought the urge to submit her body to nature and picked up her pace instead. She did not wish to be lost within the camp of Israel either, though she would not be the first if she did. Getting lost was all too common, which was why every child knew which tribe they had belonged to. Still, the multitudes made it simple to get lost and the sight of misplaced sobbing children was too habitual. Given that too many people held similar names, sometimes it took weeks before relatives found their lost ones. She could not let her mother worry for that long. She had to find her. Perhaps this time she could gather the courage to tell her.