EXODUS • by Megan Arkenberg

From her balcony by the Nile, Hatshepsut looked out over the land of Egypt and wept. There was nothing else to do.

Her once-delicate hands, now marred by burns and plague scars, clenched tightly around the balcony railing. From the mud-brick houses and straw huts clustered at the foot of her half-completed tomb, she could hear slaves singing in a mixture of Hebrew and Egyptian as they gathered their meager belongings. They can sing, the pharaoh thought bitterly. Their children are alive.

She went back into her bedchamber, where the gauze curtains stirred listlessly as she passed. No other breeze came to ease the humidity, just as no rain had come to clean the bloody rivers and no sun shone to dispel the darkness. Without her maid-servants, the chamber seemed oppressively empty.

Hatshepsut removed her flax sandals and sank into a chair near the courtyard door; from there, she could see the Nile lotus-garden where she had pulled the tiny Hebrew baby up from the river all those years ago. It was thick and overgrown now, covered with weeds and thick with ash and silt. She had meant to have it cleaned for the celebration marking the start of her daughter’s sixteenth summer.

It’s just as well, she thought, looking out her window at the tomb where Neferure would soon be laid to rest, that there are no slaves left to do it.

“Moses,” she said aloud, and buried her face in her hands. He had been as precious to her as Neferure, once, when she was twelve and foolish and didn’t know what it was to be a mother.   A new flood of hot tears ran down from her eyes. If she had not been so eager to draw Moses out of the water, would Neferure still be alive?

“Pharaoh.”

Hatshepsut jumped at the voice, struggling to hide her tears before she recognized the young man addressing her. It was Senemut, Neferure’s teacher, the khol and malachite around his eyes smudged down to his high cheekbones. He knows my sorrow, the pharaoh thought, and met his gaze without shame.

“The man is waiting for you in the antechamber,” Senemut said, bowing low. “The Hebrew.”

Hatshepsut straightened in her chair. “Send him to me.”

By the time Moses came in, she had managed to compose herself fit for a royal audience. “I have already sent word that your people are to be freed,” she said. “What more can you ask of me?”

He shook his head, a strange, almost gentle look in his brown eyes. “Nothing more. I only wanted… Mother…”

She flinched at the word, raising a hand as if to ward off a blow. The silence hung heavy in the room for a moment, as heavy as the moisture beading on the curtains. At last, she seemed to regain her breath. “What god do you serve, Moses, that he exacts such a terrible price for disobedience?”

“The Lord’s choices are more than any of us can predict,” he said. “Why were you so stubborn?”

“I don’t know!” The words came out more fiercely than she intended. “I don’t know. If I had only known…”

“‘A great cry will be heard in Egypt,’ you said.”

“Yes. I just didn’t know it would be my own.” She turned away from him, covering her face with one hand and choking back a sob.

“I will pray for you,” Moses said softly. “You, and all who have lost a child.”

“I don’t want your prayers,” she said. “I want you to go. Go! Now, before I change my mind and extract vengeance on your people. There is nothing more your god can do to punish me.”

“Mother… Hatshepsut…”

She said nothing. After a few moments, she heart the soft sound of his footsteps fading away.

The singing in the streets was getting louder, but underneath it, Hatshepsut could hear another sound growing. Deep and shrill at once, like music from a pair of harpists, it made her bones feel like ice. The mothers and fathers of Egypt had woken.

“Take your people, Moses,” she said, her eyes burning. “And let my people go.”


Megan Arkenberg is a writer and poet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in many webzines and anthologies, including The Lorelei Signal, Rose & Thorn, A Fly in Amber, and numerous haiku and tanka publications. Her story “Panthanatos” was included in Hadley Rille Books’ Ruins Metropolis anthology earlier this year. She also edits a small fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance.


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 average 4 stars • 3 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Very cool. There were many ways this could have been done less well, and I think it avoided them deftly. The end, rather than seeming corny, came off powerfully. Kudos 🙂

  • Gerard Demayne

    Well written but it didn’t work for me. I find it difficult to feel sympathy for slave keepers.

  • Nice, but Hatshepsut was not Pharoah during the time of Moses. (If I remember correctly it was a Ramses)

  • It was well written, but the story didnt work for me much…and im not one for the bible much either.

  • Bob

    A nicely-written reimagining of the story. Recasting Pharoah as a woman was an inspired touch – it forced me to re-examine the relationship between Moses and Pharoah, to go beyond the iconic figures and into the characters behind them.

  • bobw

    very well done. reminds me a bit of Buechner’s “Son of Laughter”

  • Thank you everyone for the comments.

    John, the idea of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh during Exodus came from a rather old copy of Reader’s Digest’s “Secrets of the Ancient World.” A few sites around the web also mention the idea: http://www.bibarch.com/Chronology/Exodus/Hathseptsut.htm
    http://www.truthnet.org/biblicalarcheology/5/Exodusarcheology.htm

    Personally, I didn’t feel a need to root either character historically; this flash is meant to be closer to myth than any attempt to defend a historical theory. It’s a “what-if” that had been going around in my head for a while when I finally sat down and wrote it out.

    ~Megan

  • anon

    Uh, Pharaoh was male at the time of Exodus. That’s a pretty glaring historical inaccuracy, considering the source text is quite clear on this point.

    Also, I agree with Mr. Demayne that I don’t find much sympathy for slavers.

  • Interesting… made me think.

  • Great story, Megan. I loved the idea of Pharoah actually being Moses’s adoptive mother. Judging from some of the comments above, I see some people don’t know much about the alternate history sub-genre that’s been the rage in spec-fic over the past decade.

  • Hey Megan,
    The story did work for me. The mixture of hist-fic and spec-fic was a nice spin. The interpersonal relations between Moses and the gentry-class of Egypt must have been much as you protray. You also had the slaves singing while the slavers wept–a missed point from some of the commenters above–who seemed to feel you wanted to garner sympathy for slavers. It was more a story about the destruction of a Mother/Son relationship brought about by the events of the time.

    –dj

  • dj, I’m with you. This worked for me. I read it as it is–a flash FICTION–and wasn’t concerned about the historical inaccuracies.

    As far as writing particulars, I thought you did a great job with the setting. The details made this fascinating. Also, I liked the emotion of the piece. All in all, I thought you fit a tremendous amount of story into 1000 words and, as someone else already pointed out, without taking an unfortunate turn into cliche or corniness.

    Nice job, Megan. It’s nice to see a fellow Milwaukeean on the site.

  • For what it’s worth, the position of the Hebrews in Egypt seems to have been nomads starting to settle and/or trying to stay pastoral while surrounded by agriculturists, then – as part of that – finding themselves subject to forced labour like the other peasants (it was a pre-cash economy, with no taxes as we know them but tribute in kind and forced labour instead – see also how building Solomon’s Temple was organised). Still an injustice, but only poorly translated as slavery (they clearly had all sorts of property of their own, but true Egyptian slaves are shown in art as even without clothing). There’s a later parallel in the story of how and why the Banu Hillel were driven out of Egypt in early Moslem times, this time heading westward and disrupting North Africa.

  • I only just now had the opportunity to read this alternate biblical/historical spin and work of fiction. I took it as exactly that…and enjoyed reading it. Well done.

  • Terri

    even historical fiction is fiction and should be read as such. I wasn’t troubled by Hatshepsut being referred to as Pharaoh, it was just a little distracting because it went against the biblical account–nothing wrong with that, it just made me halt my reading and disrupted flow a bit.

    I like the perspective of the piece and the end line was an ironic twist.

    All in all, well done.