Tent walls don’t keep out sounds like mud walls do. When they first fled Egypt, Hannah liked to listen to the camp from within the tent - the songs of the women in the mornings as they picked up the manna that Adonai had dropped from the sky, the prayers of praise before they ate the quail He provided at night.
But now the prayers had turned to laments. Hannah’s Abba squatted in the tent entrance and joined his voice to the others, complaining that Adonai had brought them to the desert to die.
Old Tamar in the next tent had begun it. “I’m so tired of this sticky manna. We don’t even have garlic or onions to flavor it. Just manna, manna, manna. I would give anything for a big juicy melon.”
Others responded. “And what about that horrible quail? Remember the all the fish and the sweet cucumbers?”
“Stop, you’re making my mouth water. Oh, why did we leave Egypt?”
Hannah was tired of manna too, but she was just a child and didn’t dare say it. Abba said Adonai had rescued them from slavery and had promised them a new land. She remembered their little house with its cool mud walls where she drank milk from a clay cup before she slept. What was so bad about slavery?
At first, Hannah’s Ima pinched her lips together and stared at the tent walls, but she was slower to gather the manna each morning. After supper, Abba sat in the tent door and muttered his prayers, while others raised their voices in complaint. Later, when his friends came to sit with him, he listened and Hannah thought he looked angry. At night, through the wall that divided the tent into two rooms, Hannah heard him argue with Ima. When Abba stopped praying, and Ima added her voice to those that came through the tent walls, Hannah was afraid.
But the screams were the worst sound of all. They started in the morning when the women went out to gather the manna. Ima ran into the tent sobbing, her basket as empty as Hannah’s belly.
“Snakes, snakes, I’m bit, I’m bit.”
“What are you talking about woman?” Abba demanded.
“Snakes.” She dropped to the floor and pulled off her shoe. A red mark swelled on her ankle and she leaned over it, whimpering.
Abba looked from her to the tent entrance, then ran outside. Hannah started to follow, but when she saw something slither quickly past the opening, she stopped and hid her eyes with her hands. She heard Abba call out a question, but then Ima begged her to bring some water. Her hands shook when she took the cup from Hannah.
“They’re everywhere and they’re poisonous,” Abba said when he returned. He tied the entrance flaps together before he helped Ima limp over to the mats where they slept.
“Where did they come from?”
“Moses says Adonai sent them. He’s angry because we have spoken against Him.”
“What can we do?” Ima whispered.
“Nothing. We must beg for the mercy of Adonai.”
That night, Hannah huddled on her mat, listening to Ima’s groans, which blended with sounds from the other tents. She pictured masses of snakes slithering over each other, looking for a way through the woven wall that was all that protected her from them. In the morning, Abba left again, telling Hannah to care for her mother. Ima’s face was flushed and her ankle swollen; she cried out when she turned on the mat. While Hannah watched her, she listened to the sounds of many people calling out and weeping. When Abba finally returned he went straight to Ima and picked her up.
“Quickly, Hannah. You must come too.”
She trembled as she followed him out of the tent, her eyes on the ground. There were piles of snakes everywhere, just as she had imagined, but they weren’t moving. Biting her lip to keep from screaming, she stepped around them.
“No, you have to look up. See it? See the bronze snake? All you have to do is look. Please look.”
Hannah looked up, even though Abba wasn’t talking to her. A tall pole stood in the center of the camp, a snake wrapped around the top of it. She shuddered, then relaxed at the sound of Abba’s words.
“Look, Miriam, look. Moses has lifted it up to show us Adonai’s grace. All you have to do is look and believe. Look and you’ll be saved.”
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