I wait, dwarfed by marble pillars, while the servant girl announces me. She is a bold thing, gazing at me from the corners of her painted eyes as if I were the odd one in my modest robe and headshawl. Her silken sheath is so thin a man would have to be blind not to sin when looking upon her, and yet she keeps herself cubits away, as if afraid to be tainted by a Hebrew slave.
My son in Pharaoh’s household. Strange, the ways of the Most High. When I gave my boy to the Nile, I expected never to see him again. Now I see him content and shielded from the sun-baked life of the brick pits and fields. Were it not for my two children who still suffer under the taskmaster’s lash, I would have no cause for complaint.
She comes back and nods, staying well away as I enter the royal nursery. I give her no more than passing attention. My eyes are on Moses where he whimpers in his cradle. My fingers are already at the neck of my robe when a delicate cough informs me we are not alone.
Bithya, daughter of Pharaoh and self-proclaimed mother of my son, reclines nearby, languid in the heat. She usually withdraws for my feeding time, providing me with precious moments of solitude with Moses. I bow slightly in her direction, eyes still on the cradle.
“He seems out of sorts today, Jochabed,” Bithya says with a casual sort of concern.
“Perhaps it is the heat, Princess,” I say with the same indifference, forcing myself to move slowly toward him. I must not seem too eager. If Bithya ever knew…
I scoop him into my arms, unclasping my robe to feed. He is heavier than ever Aaron or Miriam was at that age. A part of me is frightened. Soon he will not need me. Already he has taken goat milk along with my feeding.
“He is always calmer when he’s held.” Bithya comments. “Sometimes I think I indulge him overmuch in that. He must learn that a prince stands alone.”
“He has not seen his first Inundation,” I say before I think. “Surely the time to learn princely ways has not yet come.”
I do not say what I really think - that among the Hebrews a child is a blessing to be held and loved because he must learn to stand alone. I focus instead on cradling his head, shaved bare but for the tiny forelock braided and banded with gold. My fingers linger on the metal. Smooth and cold, like the people who surround him here.
Bithya steps closer, and I can hear the jingle of the gold collar at her throat. The scent of calendula drifts past the dusty smell that shrouds me.
“You are bold for a slave,” she says in a bored tone.
My eyes stay on the babe at my breast, feasting on the softness of his ear against my finger, the chubby dimples at his elbow.
“I care for the child. He…” I hesitate, almost wishing the secret out. “He has touched my heart.”
Bithya’s hand supplants mine on Moses’ forehead, caressing his temples and eyebrows as he nurses vigorously. “Yes, he has a way with that, does he not?”
For a moment, there is kinship between us.
Her soft, delicate finger catches on the rough weave of my robe. We both startle at the contact, sending Moses into a howl as his meal is interrupted. Shushing sounds come from both our mouths, but the scream intensifies. Bithya takes him from my arms.
I watch, forced to be still, as she bounces him on her hip and sings of her many gods, tickling the backs of his arms and his belly to make him laugh. My arms ache for his weight.
“There now, my little one. Mother is here,” she croons.
My fingers curl into the fabric of my robe, holding it in place until I may finish my duty here. True, the cloth is rough, chafing to the skin. I cannot offer my son fine-spun linen or golden bands for his arms. I could not even offer him life with our family. I resign myself anew.
Bithya hands him back. He looks up into my face, cooing contentedly, and reaches to pat my cheek. I lean into the touch, cherishing it.
“He will be great, my son,” Bithya says.
I bring him to my breast once more. “Yes, Princess.”
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