Miriam Peckel


Miriam Stern, Pekelakh, 2020

Fiction: Dayan

There was a time when I would have taken the trouble to sweep away the sand. Especially on a day like this. The wind swept over the desert last night, and sand has found its way into every crack in the wall, settling on the hearth, the tables, forming a path under the door. 

The door opens, and Malka is standing before me, hands on hips, determined. 

She reaches up to loosen her headscarf. “Have you gathered your things?” She looks around, anxious at first, then relieved when she sees a round bundle by the door, wrapped in my blanket and bound with rope. 

“I did my best to keep the sand out,” I remark with a shrug. “But given where you’re going, I don’t expect that will last long.” 

It takes her a moment to comprehend my words. “Where we’re going, you mean.” Even as she corrects me, she understands. 

I shift my weight to a standing position, grabbing the edge of the rough wooden table with one hand, my cane steading me with the other. “I can’t make this trip. I’d only slow you down.” I smile. No guilt – she should feel no guilt about this. “You and the babies – I want you to live.” 

My hip throbs in this position, but I ignore the pain. 

“The sack and the blanket are for you. Your cup, some clothes. It gets cold in the desert at night. A few toys for Saban and Minya.” 

Malka picks up the sack and turns to face me. “Mama,” she says helplessly. 

I put my hands up to her face and wipe away her tears. “Now, now,” I say. “I have lived a good life. But you. You and your children. You will live such a better life. Go.” 

She throws her arms around me, and the howl of the wind disappears, and it is hours, or maybe a second, or thousands of years. And then she is gone. 

The exodus happens after nightfall. I hear the muffled voices of my people pass by my doorway. God has quieted the wind, the moon is shining a path to the desert. 

Before dawn, I fetch the stone mortar and pestle and set to grinding the barley, then the lentils, into the finest flour. Olive oil, and leavening – and don’t forget the water soaked in apricot seeds. Just as Miriam showed me. I take the jar of clear liquid from its hiding place in the wall behind the hearth. So innocent. Then I form the dough, knead until round and smooth, and my  arms are tired. Then later when the sun is above the horizon, and the dough has risen and fallen and risen again, I light a fire in the tannur and press four rounds of dough onto the inside walls. 

By midday, Pharaoh’s soldiers come shouting and furious into our village. I am sitting quietly by my four perfect loaves of bread, still warm from the oven, when two men throw open my door. Grains of sand scrape underfoot. I recognize one of them, a son of the village carpenter. 

“Najar,” I say, drawing his attention. He pauses for just a moment, searching his memory. 

“Dayan.” In deference to my age, he half bows. “Where is everyone?” 

“Do you not know?” I make sure my confusion matches his. “I woke up to this.” By this, of course, I mean the silence, and the empty huts, and the cold hearths.

 The other soldier, who I do not know, kicks my chair leg, nearly throwing me onto the ground. He laughs churlishly when he plucks the four loaves from the table. “Should have hidden the bread, old woman.”

Najar glances back apologetically before he steps outside, into the blazing sun. 

Don’t eat the bread. I wonder if somehow God will hear my thoughts and deliver the warning to Najar. But I say nothing aloud. 

After hours, or maybe a second, or thousands of years, I stand up and shut the door.

 How long before poison reaches the heart? I think about Najar and handing him sweets on the banks of the Nile when he was a boy. And I remember my mother’s words – “Killing is bad, always and ever.” 

I reach for the broom standing in the corner and begin sweeping away the sand