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The Chosen

It was always dark and nightjars were flying when Bithillah went to the brewery before dawn, and would be dark when she returned home. Mists always clouded her lonely path through a maze of broad canals and narrow byways, obscuring the lines between earth and water. She had spent all of childhood playing by the canal while her mother worked mashing malt at the brewery.

"Bit's" feet knew every muddy step of the route by heart and could hurry along without worrying about drowning or falling to crocodiles.

Given a Nubian charioteer's ring and pledge of marriage, her simple heart sang within her, and would have flown like a bird if it had wings. Thanking every goddess and their consorts that she could name--especially the lizard-goddess of hearth and home who was most concerned with womanhood and fertility--she could not help singing in a childish way bits and pieces of remembered hymns she had heard people sing in various Festival processions.

One song was not at particularly religious, and no priest would ever sing it, though the crocodile was held sacred in honor of Lamishput, the crocodile-god; but she had sung it too many times as a child to forget it now:

Crocodile! Crocodile!

Come and play with me a while!

Come and dine on goose and quail;

On thy back I'll set my sail.

We'll sail forth

Both south and north,

O Crocodile! Crocodile!

Of the hundreds of breweries that slaked the thirst the nation, working hard and ceaselessly to supply temple priests, port sailors, the army, and hordes of palace servants, Bit's produced a crude but palatable barley beer. Located behind the Grand Taty's palace, though separated by water from the high-walled compound, the brewery was an ancient institution, its foundations eaten by damp and mold to the point of collapse.

The malt shop occupying one large room of the brewery was even more dangerous, and seemed about to slip into the wide, ship-filled canal.

But no one gave its derelict appearance any thought. Pay was always regular. After her mother's sudden disappearance, Bit had grown into mature womanhood working there, and they never failed to pay her weekly amounts of oil, bread, and barley beer.

Like other brewery malt shops worked exclusively by women brigades, this one too had a certain reputation, and always at closing there would be riff raff and sailors and lonely old widowers waiting by the gate, hoping to find female company for a night or two.

Bit, too, had given herself to them at times, and she suffered the solitary births of several children. But she could not afford to care for them, nor hire a woman when she was away at work. They always slipped into the canal, or suffered some other mishap early in age.

None of the malt mashers were ever married; their casual lovers came and went; the men's faces, though not their needs, changed, but after a while there was a deadly sameness in their faces too; finally Bit grew weary of the faces at the gate and ignored the importunings and insults and went home alone. Her fellow employees could not understand her refusal to do as they did.

Bit saw her fellow workers, one by one, grow bloated in body and sodden with the daily beer allotment, and gradually fail at work, until this one or that was missing at rollcall; sometimes it became known what happened; a slip into the canal, either by mistake or on purpose.

Detesting Nubians, sand-ramblers, and shepherds as much as any self-respecting Mizraimite woman, she would have gone by a certain caller at the gate one evening if she had not glimpsed the expression in his eyes. Impressed that something was different in the man, she gave the black-skinned Nubian a sign, and together they walked to her home.

Now he had given her a ring, and she was entitled to call herself the wife of a palace charioteer.

Crocodile! Crocodile!

Come and play...

The morning was beginning to dawn when she stepped through the brewery gate and entered the first large room. It was dark inside, but everyone knew their place and work, and they had no need of light. Only the overseer lit a small lamp at his work station, as he checked his register whenever a worker came in. He could tell each by her very footfalls.

The baskets of broken bread were full, set by the walls at the end of the last shift. Bit began to load her mash pot, an enormous stone jar in which she pounded the bread and some water together with a big, wooden club. Poured into a huge jar after being mixed with more water, the solution would ferment into beer in a few days. Then men would strain the results into other jars for distribution to the brewery’s clients and customers.

Before the shift began, early comers could greet one another and exchange gossip about their various nightcallers, but today Bithillah had a different story to tell, and felt strangely reserved about it.

"I see you got a new man!" a rough, coarse voice croaked nearby, startling her out of her musing thoughts. "What's he give you now, Bit?"

Bit felt disgust rising in her, and could not find an answer. She ignored her friend, but there was still a little time before the overseer thumped his staff and everyone had to work.

"Haw! you've done take on airs, old Bit!" the disgruntled woman said. "No proper, working lady I ever know took one so dark as that!"

Knowing the carping speaker as one who had never shown any niceties when grabbing men, Bit would have liked to sling some wet mash in the woman's face right then to teach her a lesson, but the loud thump-thump of the overseer's staff sounded, and the woman set to work in earnest.

The noise the women made was deafening, and there was no talk until break-time, when the sun was high and blistering the outside walls.

Gratefully, each woman then received a quantity of beer and bread sop, slopped in each woman's bowl by the overseer. While they ate and rested they again had occasion to talk and exchange news. Every woman looked forward to these times, for the next one would not come for long hours.

Perhaps alerted by Bit's friend, everyone gathered to ask questions of Bit's black-skinned "saddle", calling him what they called all their itinerant bedmates.

"He drives chariots for the palace," she said reluctantly, when she could not ignore them.

This was not the news they were after; and they were all shocked by the man's exalted position, while still expecting nothing more to come of it than a trinket or two.

Annoyed beyond endurance by further questions, Bit finally silenced them by showing them the ring.

"It’s not what you think, he pledged to marry me proper," she added.

A thunderbolt might have struck the brewery. No one spoke a word more. A malt masher marrying a royal charioteer? Did she take them all for absolute fools?

It was just as well that the overseer chose that moment to call, and so the thoroughly amazed women filed back into their workplace, and nothing more was said until the evening shift was over.

By that time, along with the bone-deep weariness of their work, the truth of what Bit said had begun to sink in.

Feeling an ugly mood about her, Bit was pouring out the final contents into the vat that collected all their work when some bread malt slopped against the back of her head and shoulders. Since she worked bare-breasted like the other women, she was covered in the stinking malt, and would have to go rinse off in the canal--a risky thing to do at night.

With anger, she scooped out the remnant in the bottom of her jar and would have heaved it in return, but a thought struck her. She knew exactly how everyone felt, seeing one of their number about to step free out of their misery into a fine, new life of a respectable, married woman.

Replacing her jar in the proper place, she seized her upper garment and turned to go; but she had taken only a few steps from the building when more malt slopped against her in back. Furious but determined not to retaliate, she reached the gate, noticing the interested eyes of the "saddles" that turned toward her.

Passing through, she was so intent on getting away that she did not notice how many women had followed her. Several ran ahead and cut off her escape, and she stood facing them on the narrow footpath of the canal.

Moonlight glinted in their angry eyes, yet Bit saw no reason to fear for her own safety, for like most of them she was a large, strong-bodied woman.

"You're just envious of my good!" she declared boldly to them. "If it had happened to any of you, I know I would burn with anger too!"

"Shut your filthy, lying lips, you trash heap!" one woman hissed at her. "Give us that saddle's pretty ring! We want to look at it!”

Someone struck Bit a blow across the face. She held out her arms, to fend off her attackers, but she was not prepared for the smashing of a heavy, earthenware jar against the side of her head.

She went down immediately, rolling partway toward the verge of the dark water, and the women ran off after searching for the ring in vain.

If anyone passed by, no attention was paid, for low women of her sort commonly lay at night in such places, sleeping off lovers and drunken stupors. She might be robbed, if she carried anything of value, but no major harm would come to her. The only real danger was the crocodiles. Any coming upon her so senseless might attack. Except for the writhing of her toes she lay very still.

After some hours of night, her impatient feet took charge and she rose up. Guided by her intelligent feet, Bit walked toward the brewery and got as far as the gate. A Tyrian sailor from the port had found a willing malt masher, and they were still there, leaning against the broken, unlocked gate. The half-nude woman laughed as Bit came up to them, then shrieked as the moonlight revealed the other woman's smashed and bloody head.

Bit began to sing.

Crocodile! Crocodile!

Come and play with me a while!

But her pronunciation was so poor and disjointed, the two lovers had no idea what the crazy woman was about. Still shrieking, the woman ran off, and the sailor, after a terrified look at Bit's deadly wound, escaped in a different, shipward direction.

Bit turned away from the brewery, taking unsteady steps toward her home. Moonlight provided brilliant illumination as always, but the woman's eyes were closed. Even the nightjars, making their odd noises and flying close to her bleeding head, did not alarm her.

Moving along the footpath, she saw nothing, but her feet knew the way perfectly. She came at last to her own door, but there her feet shuffled aimlessly as if confused. Her arms lifted several times to try the door, but fell back to her sides. Then she slowly sank down in the dooryard and sat in a gradually spreading pool of blood, still singing.

We'll go forth

both south and north,

O Croco--croco--croco--

Suddenly, she actually seemed to be walking on the seashore, a place she had never been or would think to go, though it lay only a few miles away to the north. Through the shell-littered, white sand she saw her familiar, dark footpath, leading straight into the water, through towering, piled up waves, toward her unlighted, distant hut.

As she walked toward home, little waves swept across the footpath, washing her blood-spattered feet, but she kept on, feeling no fear.

Gleaming light playing on the water, the white froth swirling across her path occasionally, the thunder of mountainous breakers overhead, were all very new to her, and she finally halted, and looked away from her narrow, muddy footpath.

The light from the waters was blinding and flew and engulfed her in a sparkling garment of many-colored light. She sank to her knees in delight and would have touched the water but she sat down instead.

Bithillah the Malt Masher

She was still there singing an odd and witless tune when Jizra came walking to the hut. He halted, startled by the sight of her strange behavior; then hurried over.

Come and dine

on poose and pail...

He saw her blood-caked, leaking head. A few moments later he was running back toward the palace. The quietly sleeping canal district was jolted into consciousness when a furiously-driven chariot charged up to Bit's hovel.

Jizra and two other palace servants carried the stricken woman and lay her in the chariot. Then they returned on foot, while he drove back to the palace.

The palace was still full of physicians, attending the wife of the Grand Taty; and the Grand Taty himself came out to see the woman.

"What is her name?" he asked Jizra, as they brought her into the ante-room of his wife's apartments.

"Bithillah!" Jizra wept.

"She is your wife?"

Jizra's head dropped, and he vigorously shook his head.

"She's only a malt masher I met once."

Joseph gazed at him a moment, then turned to observe the physicians as they attended to the critically injured woman.

An hour later they all turned to the Grand Taty with solemn expressions.

"She is gone," one of them said. "We can do nothing. Not even the greatest magic would help this one."

Jizra had been crouching in agony nearby; at the words of the doctors he seemed to be cast into greater suffering.

"I lied!"

He threw himself at Joseph's feet.

"I gave her my ring and pledge. Please save her. Only you and your God can help her!"

Joseph's eyes filled. He put his hand on the head of the stricken charioteer.

The physicians stood back as the Grand Taty went over to the bedside. Ashen-colored, the woman lay wrapped in Asenath's best bedcoverings, fine-woven blankets of linen and wool, decorated with flowers of every known kind on earth.

Expecting the Grand Taty to call for his divining cup, the doctors were astonished when the lord of Mizraim simply knelt down at Bithillah's feet and began to pray.

Now when Bithillah recovered fully, to be married before the Grand Taty to his chief charioteer, the news spread from servant to servant in all the Land of the Red and Black; not even his interpretation of the Per-aa's dreams gained him so much fame and affection.

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