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Plague of the First Born

A short story for Passover by Etgar Keret

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Etgar Keret. (Yanai Yechiel)

Ever since he was a child, Etgar Keret has always found it hard not to sympathize with the Egyptians in the telling of the Passover story. This came up in a recent conversation with Jonathan Goldstein for Vox Tablet’s Passover special, “We’ll Be Here All Night.”

“Sometimes when you read a story you hate the bad guy more and more,” Keret explained. “But here, you know, from very early on, [the Egyptians] just suffer and suffer and suffer and suffer. And then, they drown.” Keret first explored these sympathies in this short story from his collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

In late June, after the Plague of Frogs, people began leaving the Valley in droves. Those who could afford it left a caretaker in charge of their property, packed up their families, and set out on the long journey to Nubia, where they intended to wait until the wrath of the god of the Hebrews had been spent and the plagues had run their course. One morning, Father took Abdu and me to the King’s Highway, and together we watched in silence as the convoy wended its way in the distance. Father was about to head home when Abdu mustered the courage to ask the question that I had not dared utter: “Why are we not leaving with them, Father? We are among the richest families in the Valley. Why could you not hire someone to watch over our fields so that we might also go away?” Smiling softly, Father looked at Abdu, and said: “Why must we flee, Abdu? Have you too come to fear the god of the Hebrews?” “I fear no man and no god,” Abdu retorted. “Whosoever challenges me I will smite with my sword! But these plagues which have been inflicted upon us come from the heavens. There are no enemies in sight for me to defy. Why then do we not join all those who are leaving for Nubia? If there are no enemies pitting their strength against ours, then our presence here avails our Pharaoh nothing.” “There is truth in what you say, my son,” Father replied, his smile waning. “Indeed, the god of the Hebrews is both clever and cruel. Though He cannot be seen, He has dealt us a mighty blow. Yet you must understand, I am bound to this land by a vow which forbids me to send our family to Nubia.” “A vow?” Abdu was taken aback. “What vow?” “A vow I made many years ago, even before you were born,” Father said, his gentle smile reappearing. He gathered up his tunic and sat down on the ground, crossing his legs. “Come sit beside me,” he said, patting the earth, “and I will tell you about it.”

I sat down to the left of Father, and Abdu to his right. He lifted a clump of earth, crumbled it in his hands, and let the story unfold. “You know that my roots are not in this fertile soil,” he began. “After your mother and I were wed, I was forced, alas, to leave her in her uncle’s care, and to set out with my elder brother to faraway lands, where the black oil flows from the earth. For four years we lived as nomads and endured the heartache of separation, and in those years I amassed considerable wealth. Then I returned to Egypt, to my home. I gathered up your beloved mother, who had waited for so long, and bought a plot of land here in the Valley. On the very day when I completed the building of our home, I made two vows. First, never would I leave the valley. Second, I would do everything in my power so that my family does not become separated again, even for a short while.” Father tasted the sand that was clinging to his palm, sat up straight, and looked into Abdu’s eyes. “Even as a very young man, I knew that my family is like a plant. Uproot it, and it will wilt. Pluck away at it, and it will die. But leave it to thrive in the soil, untouched, and it will weather both gods and winds. It is born with the soil, and it will live so long as the soil shall live.”

That talk with Father, far from discouraging us, made us realize how strong we were. Now we also knew the secret of that strength and guarded it zealously. With each new plague, we grew stronger still, drawing closer and closer together. When the Plague of Lice descended, we learned to delouse one another and nursed the wounds of our kinfolk. On the morning after the Plague of Hail, we actually managed a smile, as we watched Abdu’s stupefied expression: he had just awoken out of his very deep slumber—so deep that even the hailstones rained upon us by the god of the Hebrews had not caused him to stir. Thus did the nine plagues descend on us, one by one, yet leave us unscathed. And then, towards the end of August, came the Plague of the Firstborn.

It was the shrieking of our neighbors that jolted me in the middle of the night. I ran outside and found everyone there already, except Abdu. Samira, our neighbor from just across the way, managed to blurt it out between sobs. We rushed toward Abdu’s room. Father got there first, then mother and me. Abdu was sprawled out on his cot, his eyes shut tight. “My son,” father whispered in a stifled voice, his face ashen. “My firstborn.” And for the first time in my life, I saw tears in his eyes. Mine began to well with tears too, more in agony over Father’s grief than even over my brother. Seeing my sorrow through his own tears, Father wiped his eyes with the border of his tunic and drew closer to Mother and me. His powerful arms embraced us, and our faces came together. Our tears mingled, and we wept as one. “The god of the Hebrews is cruel,” Father resumed his whispering, as if afraid to intrude on Abdu’s repose, “but he shall not defeat us.”

“Could it be that he is not dead?” Mother mumbled. “That he is only sleeping?” “Please, Fatma,” Father whispered and planted a gossamer kiss on her brow. “Do not leave us now for a world of delusions. Much has been said about the god of the Hebrews, but never has he been known to favor one over another…”. “He is not dead,” Mother cried, “He cannot be dead! He is sleeping, just sleeping.” She broke the stronghold of our embrace and lunged towards Abdu’s cot. “Wake up, my son!” she cried, tugging at his gown. “Wake up!” Abdu opened his eyes, alarmed, and leapt out of bed. “What happened?” he asked, in a daze. “It’s a miracle, my son,” Mother said, hugging him and gazing at Father. “A great miracle has happened.”

Abdu was still dazzled when Mother let go of him and approached Father, who was standing in a corner, his eyes to the ground. “Did you see what just happened?” she whispered. “A great miracle! The god of the Hebrews has taken pity on us, and on our son.” Father peered straight ahead. His pain gave way to ill-concealed rage. “The god of the Hebrews harbors neither pity nor compassion towards us,” he fumed. “Only truth. Only truth.” His bloodshot eyes were like two hailstones, and his gaze filled me with greater fear than all ten plagues. “Why are you angry?” Mother asked. “Why do you not rejoice? Our Abdu is alive….” “Because he is not your firstborn,” Father cut her short. He raised his hand, as if about to strike her, but it froze in midair. Mother fell at his feet and let loose a sob as of one who has suffered an invisible blow. Thus did the four of us stand—motionless, steady and transfixed, like a cedar about to be felled. “Cruel indeed is the god of the Hebrews,” Father said. Then he turned on his heel and left the room.

Translated by Miriam Shlesinger

© Etgar Keret, reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House.

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