The sun burned high in the dry blue sky, cloudless except for the cloud’s omnipresent tower. The great cloud led them by day and burned over their camp at night. As she looked up at the cloud, Ripzah felt the sun scorch her bare head and neck. The heat and the fine dust stirred up by the desert wind stung at her eyes as she wiped the salty sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. The sun also seared the sky in the land that they called Misery. Her hands and back had ached as she fashioned bricks from dawn till dusk for the Masters to use in their building. But there had at least been water at least in the land of Misery. They hadn’t had water here in the barren land for many days, she thought as she watched the Old Man standing atop a knoll of rocks, negotiating with the Being who had brought them here. The Being had no name that common folk could easily mutter.

The Old Man was the only one among the tribes who spoke to the Being. He had led them out of Misery and through the high walled waters of the sea and into this wasteland. Ripzah watched as the Old Man’s brother helped him climb higher onto the rocks, steadying him as he leaned heavily on his staff.

What would happen to them if the Old Man died or abandoned them? He had great magic. People said he could turn his staff into a writhing snake then command it to return to a staff again. Ripzah wondered what magic the Old Man would conjure now, or what command he heard from the Being who towered above them in the cloud of smoke or fire. The sun beat heavily on her head and she smacked her parched, cracking lips, swallowing to ease the burning in her empty throat. “He’s got to do something, he does,” Ripzah muttered to Miriam, her five-year-old daughter. “I can’t go on like this, and neither can you, poor thing.” She looked down at Miriam with pity, and thought that it would have been better if they had stayed behind in the land of Misery. At least the child would have water and green onions to eat. It pained Ripzah to think that her daughter had never tasted an onion, and perhaps never would. Ripzah wondered if any of them would leave this desert alive.

“Mama?” Miriam drew near and touched her mother’s hand.

“It’ll be all right, Miriam,” Her mother said but her voice was empty and held out no hope. “Poor little thing,” Ripzah thought to herself. “She’s known no happiness in this hateful world.” Ripzah sighed. Miriam had been born just after they’d left the land of Misery and had crossed through the walls of water at the sea. Miriam did not remember anything of the life they had led in the days before their wandering. Ripzah adjusted Miriam’s ragged dress as it slipped off her shoulder. The dress was fashioned from a shawl that was one of the few possessions Ripzah had taken away as they left Misery hurriedly, fleeing the wrath of the King. The cloth was travel stained, but it was holding together. Ripzah was amazed that their clothes and sandals hadn’t fallen into total disrepair even after all these months in the desert. “Good thing,” she thought grimly. “There’s no way to replace them.” She knew she ought to be grateful, but found it impossible as the tribes trudged over the hot desert sands, following the pillar of cloud as it led them deeper into the wilderness.

“Mama, look!” Miriam pointed and Ripzah looked up at the rocks. The Old Man had raised his staff high against the clear blue sky.

Then he brought it down mightily. Ripzah thought she heard a sharp, resounding echo as it struck the rock. She held her breath but nothing happened. A dark murmur rippled through the crowd of wanderers. It gathered momentum like a whirlwind whipping the hot sands. Ripzah moaned her disappointment, joining her voice to the murmur of dissent. She saw the Old Man raise his staff impatiently and strike at the rocks again.

“Mama!” Miriam cried with joy as the rock broke open and a cascade of water leapt down the low cliff, glistening with glittering beads that radiated the reflected light of the sun. Ripzah rushed forward, pushing her way through the crowd. She cupped her hands as the water tumbled over her, brushing back her oily, tangled hair and cleansing the grime from her neck and shoulders. Then she filled the gourd that hung from her rope belt and brought it back to Miriam. .

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it Mama? As wonderful as the mannah we eat in the morning,” The child said happily.

“If you call that wonderful,” Ripzah murmured. The water was too cold and the day too hot and mannah was tasteless. She marveled that the child could take delight in such insignificance.

“When we reach the land of milk and honey,” Miriam said, “we’ll drink water every day and grass will grow on all the hillsides.”

“What do you know about grass?” Ripzah asked. “You’ve never seen grass, you poor thing.”

“Everyone says there will be grass, and I believe them,” Miriam told her mother. Ripzah laughed though she envied her daughter’s faith.

“Yes, I’m sure there’ll be grass if the Old Man says so.” She nodded but her heart held no hope that she would ever live to see such splendors. Meanwhile Miriam ran to the stream, refilled the gourd, and brought it back to her mother.

“There’s water today,” Ripzah grumbled as she drank. “But we’ll be thirsting again tomorrow.”

“Then He will give us water again tomorrow, won’t he, Mama?” The little girl asked with eyes full of trust.

“Yes, I suppose he will,” Ripzah tipped back her head and emptied the gourd. She did not want Miriam to see the doubt in her eyes. She found the desert a hostile place, unfit for human habitation. Gnats stung her neck and the hot sand bit through the soles of her sandals. She had expected life to be easy, once they’d left the land of Misery, and she was disappointed that it wasn’t.

“What’s wrong, Mama, aren’t you happy we have water?” Miriam asked anxiously.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Ripzah tried to smile but her lips ached. Why had she listened to the Old Man, she asked herself. They had all listened to his grandiloquent promises and imagined this desolation would be better than the land of toil they had left. But there had been bread in Misery.

Ripzah watched Miriam lifted her hands and say a child-like prayer of thanksgiving.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“We’re supposed to give thanks,” Miriam said. She had heard that from the ancients who surrounded the Old Man. “We need to do that every day, even when we have no water.”

“You give thanks for the both of us,” Ripzah muttered. She was only grateful that Miriam had never seen grass or eaten an onion or knew that cloth could be clean. She secretly prayed that when they reached the Land of Milk and Honey, Miriam would not be severely disappointed. Ripzah imagined that it must be a fine land where a great river flowed through the fields so no one ever had to work, except to harvest the grain that grew without cultivation along the riverbanks.

“I hope we won’t have to work hard,” Ripzah murmured then noticed Miriam watching her. “I mean when we reach the Land,” she told her daughter. “It won’t be fair if we have to work hard, not after all we’ve been through.”

“I won’t mind,” Miriam said. “I can work for both of us.”

Ripzah laughed at the little girl’s sincerity. “You may have too,” She said and laughed again. “I may be old and crippled, by the time we get there… if we get there.”

“We will, Mama,” Miriam insisted. But Ripzah sighed as she looked away into the endless sky burnished with sunlight. If only theirs was a simple God, she thought to herself, who demanded simple things. If only he’d left them in the land of Misery and hadn’t demanded that they dream the unimaginable. But it was too late for that now, she told herself. An entire army lay dead and tangled in the reeds of the divided sea. The King would not want them back, not even if they could return the dead to life. Some days Ripzah cursed the Being who took the form of a towering cloud and a pillar of fire. Why hadn’t they been left on the banks of the Great River where there had been food enough and work enough? Ripzah worried about herself and her daughter. She watched Miriam skipping across the rocks and singing as she danced through the spray of the cold, clear, stream. Ripzah wished she had a child’s faith and trust. For a single moment that wish eased the anguish that burdened her heart. The sand no longer stung her feet and the sun no longer lashed out unmercifully.

Then Ripzah shook the wish away, preferring to lament again that she had come into the desert, following the Old Man raving of God and idle promises, when she would give all the Land of Milk and Honey for a final taste of green onions.

Published in Stories