Lunar eclipses were a celebrated thing in Egypt. It meant that the sun god Ra was prevailing in its ongoing struggle with the lesser deity of the moon. Solar eclipses, on the other hand, were considered a bad omen. They demonstrated that Ra had weakened and almost succumbed to the assaults of his enemy. The former indicated good fortune for the empire, the latter was a harbinger of evil things in the world. While an exact system of calculating the occurrences of these cosmological phenomena had yet to be perfected, the royal astronomers, the most elite scholars in their field, knew that Ra only lost on an infrequent basis.
Thus, the unexpected appearance of a solar eclipse at this particular point in time, so soon after another that happened a few years beforehand, was a terrifying thing to behold. Even more so, given the fact that the eclipse did not clear up within a few minutes as eclipses had always done in the past.
At midday, the time period normally associated with the hottest, most scorching temperatures of the spring season, the sun started to grow dim. A wave of cool air blew throughout Egypt, and the collective shiver of the populace was palpable around the entire empire. Confused at the unexpected drop in temperature, everyone ran outdoors to discover the source of the disturbance. To their shock, what normally would have been a bright noontime, with the sun hovering at its apex, was a quickly becoming more akin to dusk when the sun set at the end of each day. The sun wasn’t descending to its usual resting place, but it was very visibly losing strength at an alarmingly rapid rate.
Soon the sun had vanished from the sky, and the stars became visible as though it were the middle of the night. Though the unforeseen astronomic occurrence was bewildering, the shock began to wear off, and the people figured the sun would shine again in a short while.
Then the stars began to die.
One by one, the bright specks glittering throughout the night-like sky flickered and vanished. The people gasped with every luminary that winked out of existence. It seemed as though a cloud of black miasma was swallowing the heavens. Lastly, the moon itself wavered and was consumed by the spreading darkness.
Panic quickly set in, and the people stumbled over one another in their haste to return to their homes to fetch any candles or torches they had available. Of course, the upper class were least affected by this turn of events, since their wealth allowed them to purchase large amounts of high quality sources of artificial light. Pharaoh Ramses II quickly stepped in, decreeing an official government imposed rationing of candles. The Royal stock of candles was distributed among the poorer Egyptians, and large amounts were confiscated from aristocratic families and reallocated to needier residents of the empire.
Of course, as the unnatural blackout continued, candle supplies dwindled and began to run out. As the week went on, all the remaining artificial light dried up like ephemeral puddles of water following a transient desert rain storm. The Egyptian people began to descend into the pit of despair. Without any means of identifying one another or their very surroundings, paranoia quickly set in. Men and women across the empire locked themselves in their homes, afraid of who – or what – might trespass their private dwellings under cover of the inky darkness.
Increasingly, an attitude of self-preservation infected their minds. Trust broke down entirely, and soon everyone retreated to whatever personal quarters they had, avoiding all possible contact with any other human being. How could you believe that the disembodied voice in the room down the hall was really your father, wife, or child? Perhaps there were murderers, vandals, and criminals sulking about seeking mischief, or maybe the Hebrew leader Moses had summoned some other monstrosity to kill Egyptians when no one could come to their defense?
Eventually, the nightmares generated by the waking minds of the Egyptian people were so terrifying that they could not think of even lifting a finger, lest whatever was out there detected the motion and attacked. Breathing became difficult, and the people literally froze in place, wherever they were, unable to move whatsoever.
Just when things seemed to be at their worst, the sounds of doors opening and rapid footsteps echoed throughout houses everywhere. Many elderly Egyptians suffered heart attacks from fright and died standing or sitting wherever they had hidden. The younger, heartier members of the populace were treated to spectral visitors, noises and voices that flitted about their homes, opening drawers and cabinets. Out of the gloom questions were asked regarding their gold and silver, where it was stored, how it could be accessed, and what it was worth. The interlopers remained but a few minutes, then vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared.
Thankfully, the soul-consuming shadows began to recede. Perhaps Ra had finally reasserted his light-giving powers? Regardless of the reason, the Egyptians breathed a sigh of relief as their sight and movement were slowly restored. Surprisingly, beyond the disturbing visitations, no actual harm befell the survivors during their days spent as statues. When full mobility returned, concerned homeowners ran to their safes and jewelry boxes to check on their valuables. To their amazement, nothing had been taken; everything was in exactly the same place as they had left it.
However, the Egyptian people’s patience with Ramses and his administration’s negotiations with Moses was wearing thin. Having endured nine supernatural, punishing wonders thus far, they had no desire to suffer through another. The Pharaoh’s public statements began to transform from convincing arguments that drew on national pride in the face of adversity to mindless assertions of dominance based on principle alone. The people were not willing to face further bodily harm and possible death because of Ramses “The Great’s” ballooning ego. Sentiments of forming a popular uprising against the government began to percolate throughout Egypt.
“Hello Egyptian Empire, and welcome to Plague Watch 2448!” Tut-hak-bur announced.
“That’s right, Tut,” his co-anchor, Qeela replied. “We’re counting down the minutes until the supposed tenth and final plague that Moses, the Hebrew slaves’ self-appointed leader, has proclaimed will befall Egypt.”
“Deeeeeeeath of the first boooooorn,” Tut-hak-bur waggled his fingers, his voice warbling in a mocking, spooky tone.
Qeela smacked him on the shoulder, “Cut that out,” she whispered tersely.
Rubbing his arm, Tut-hak-bur’s face was a mask of offense. “That hurt, you know.”
“Eet ees eemposseeble!” An off-screen male voice declared.
Qeela arranged her cue cards and refocused on the camera. “We sit here with the esteemed, world-renowned expert and professor of comparative beliefs and religious science, not to mention chief science advisor to Pharaoh Ramses II, Dr. Muthra Banjiz. The camera’s view shifted to the right, where a special desk had been added for the live news segment.
A short statured man with a dour face that was partially obscured by a large, thick monocle, sat ramrod straight at his desk. He seemed to stare off into space at some point above and behind the camera, giving him a haughty air of authority and aloofness.
“Eet ees scienteefeecally eemposseeble for thee entire first born population to die out in a seengle moment. All thee other so-called “plagues” this charlatan Moses has preedeected have perfectly seemple scienteefeec explanations,” he pronounced in his high-pitched, carefully articulated, academic drone.
Dr. Banjiz reached down and lifted a papyrus chart attached to a flat piece of wood and propped it up on the desktop next to him. He pulled a pointer from his breast pocket and gestured at the upper left corner of the diagram.
“Heere wee have thee eeneeshul alleged plague, thee purported “blood” that contaminated thee Nile Reever,” he indicated a long squiggle that shifted from blue to red as it progressed. “What actually occurred was a natural happening, which has taken place many, many times, as reecorded in scienteefic heestoree,” he jutted his chin outward in contempt.
“And what would be that explanation, doctor?”
Dr. Banjiz turned his nose upward and adjusted his monocle. “Eet ees extremely compleecated and far beyond the understanding of thee average viewer, but I will say een summation that eet has to do weeth the lifecycle of thee noble barking weasel!” He pointed at a caricature of a small brown rodent standing next to the pictured blood.
Tut-hak-bur and Qeela exchanged confused glances.
“At any rate, based on my scienteefeec background and eenormous level of eentelleegence, I am one hundred percent certain that no such ‘final’ plague will befall thee Egyptian populace. Eet defies the very essence of science as we know eet.”
Somewhat unconvinced, Qeela smiled at the camera, “And there you have it folks, straight from the expert!”
Tut-hak-bur coughed into a fist nervously then turned to his co-anchor. “Well, Qeela, we’re now in the final moments before the stroke of midnight…” He fell quiet. “By the way,” he said, his tone perking up, “did I mention I’ve been thinking about converting to the Hebrew faith?”
Qeela eyes widened and her jaw dropped, “What are you talking about, Tut?”
“Well,” Tut-hak-bur twiddled his fingers. “I heard rumors that there was going to be a group consisting of a mixed multitude of Egyptians from various castes planning on joining up with the Hebrews when they make their supposed big ‘exodus.’ It kind of sounds like fun, if you ask me.”
“That ees the seelee-est theeng I have ever heard!” Dr. Banjiz quipped from off camera.
“What are you afraid of, Tut, are you a first born or something?” Qeela asked.
“Well,” Tut-hak-bur began, then paused to take a sip of coffee from his mug. An abrupt “urk” sound emanated from his mouth and the mug dropped from his grasp and shattered on the news desk.
“Tut! I just got this back from the washing lady!” Qeela exclaimed in disgust, dabbing at her wardrobe with a tissue.
Tut-hak-bur began coughing violently and fell off his chair onto the floor where he writhed spasmodically while grabbing at his throat. Qeela signaled the station manager who ran out onto the set to see if Tut-hak-bur was alright. After a moment, he had the fallen anchor sitting up and helped Tut-hak-bur back to his place at the desk.
“S-sorry!” He choked. “Went down the wrong pipe.”
Numa woke up startled, and reached over to feel the empty side of the bed next to her. Riqtun, her husband, wasn’t there. She sighed and shook her head scornfully. He was probably in the kitchen eating a midnight snack, just like the doctor told him not to. After his most recent health report, Numa repeatedly begged her husband to cut out the late-night treats. Even if he didn’t care about his expanding girth, he should at least show some concern for her sake so that he wouldn’t have a heart attack and leave her a widow.
Determined to nip this bad habit in the bud, Numa got out of bed and wrapped a robe around her shoulders, tying the fabric belt in a bow. She removed the small lantern from the alcove outside their bedroom and crept down the hallway toward the kitchen. She hoped she’d catch him in the act and get a chance to rub his nose in it a bit.
As she approached the doorway, she caught a glimpse of the wide-opened pantry and a devious smile formed on her lips. Numa waited for a moment to compose the wording of her reprimand and stepped into the kitchen. Her eyes darted back and forth for evidence of her husband’s proscribed snack. Several half-eaten pieces of bread, along with some dried meat strips and a half-full mug of date beer sat on the table. Curiously, Riqtun was nowhere to be found.
“Riq?” She asked, straining to hear any sounds that might indicate his presence. “Riq, are you in here? Were you disobeying the doctor’s orders again?” Numa’s voice echoed in the darkness. As she peered around the room, she felt something compel her to lower her gaze to the floor. At the edge of the unoccupied chair, she noticed a bare foot that led to a leg concealed behind the rest of the chair and the table.
“Riq!?” She cried out, dropping the lantern onto the table and rushing over to her husband’s prone form.
“Riq, Riq! Are you okay?! What happened!?” His eyes were open, but vacantly stared upward.
She patted him on the right cheek and was horrified to discover how cold and clammy his skin felt. Numa jabbed her index and middle finger under his jaw, but felt no pulse nor did she detect his chest rising or falling.
Gripped by a mixture of dread and a mounting sense of grief, Numa stood up, grabbed the lantern and ran outside. She raced to her older brother’s home two houses over to get help.
As soon as she opened the door, Numa felt as though she had stepped in a mad house. Her sister-in-law Taki was bawling uncontrollably, while their younger daughter Reja sat on the floor, cradling the unmoving form of her older brother. Numa’s brother Proq was collapsed across a couch, limbs splayed out in odd directions.
Numa spun on her heel and raced back out into the street, sprinting the other way down the block and turned the corner to reach her eldest son’s home. As she approached, she noticed a single, sputtering lantern hanging by the doorway, its oil running low. She hurriedly ducked inside and forced herself to confront the scene that she knew, deep down, awaited her.
In the bedroom, her daughter-in-law Bimat kneeled at the edge of the bed, arms spread across her husband’s unmoving torso. Stricken with anguish, Numa knelt next to Bimat and placed her shaking arm on the younger woman’s shoulder. They cried together for a few moments before their sobs gave way to muffled sniffles as each covered her own mouth with a hand in an attempt to stifle the tears. A mournful silence enveloped them both.
Then Numa heard it: The wailing. She left her daughter-in-law and ventured outside, where she discovered that cries are coming from every house on the block and even those beyond her sight. A cold wind cut through her night robe and a piece of papyrus slapped against her calf. She bent over to pick it up. It was a gossip newspaper, with hieroglyphs depicting rumors that Moses claimed his Hebrew deity was going to wipe out the first-born Egyptian population at the stroke of midnight.
Numa crumpled the papyrus in her hand, releasing it to the grip of the biting breeze. She stared up at the cloudless sky, a full moon shining like a ghostly demon, and her own weeping joined the chorus of moans, cries, and screams filling the nighttime air.
Suddenly, both anchors held their hands to their earpieces.
Tut-hak-bur cleared his throat, “It seems we have a breaking story at the Royal Palace where Pharaoh Ramses the Great will address the Empire.”
“Our roving reporter, Geg-kon-fil, is on the scene ready to fill us in on all the details. Fil, are you there?”
“Indeed I am, Tut and Qeela, and I have to say, the Pharaoh doesn’t look like he’s feeling too well.” The camera shifted to show a podium affixed with the royal emblem on the front.
Ramses, dressed in crocodile skin pajamas, looked frantic. Sweat glistened on his forehead and his breathing was visibly erratic. After a moment’s hesitation, he wiped the perspiration with the back of his hand and stared straight into the cameras.
“Moses, you win.”
“What did he say? Did he just say what I think he said?!” Qeela asked, shocked. Tut-hak-bur shushed her.
Pharaoh took another labored breath. “Do you hear me, Moses? You win. Your G-d has defeated me.” He again dabbed at his face, this time with a kerchief provided by an attendant.
“Take your people. All of them,” he spoke haltingly. “Just go,” he waved his hand weakly in a dismissive gesture. Ramses swallowed hard and scanned the gathered reporters and their crew.
Then Pharaoh’s eyes rolled upward, flashing their whiteness, and he collapsed. The camera view became shaky as people rushed in toward the fallen monarch
“It appears that Pharoah has fainted!” Geg-kol-fil shouted above the clamor, as guards ushered in medical team led by the royal physician. “The palace media supervisor is ordering all cameras and microphones to be shut off, I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep-” the reporter’s voice gave way to static and the footage went dark.
Back in the studio, Tut-hak-bur and Qeela seemed at a loss for words. The director waved at them from behind the camera and cleared his throat noisily. Both of them looked up and regained their focus.
“We’ll keep you updated on the Pharaoh’s condition,” Qeela began.
“Along with the unfolding events surrounding the Hebrews’ impending departure,” Tut-hak-bur interjected.
“…As soon as we receive more information,” Qeela concluded.
Silence filled the studio, and no one seemed to know what to do next.
“Well… goodnight,” Tut-hak-bur forced his brightest smile. Qeela somberly nodded.
The broadcast faded to black.