‘So I can’t kill another sheep, and they ain’t giving no milk now,’ concluded Uri, sullenly.
Moses chewed on his finger-nail. ‘You certainly can’t keep on killing sheep, no. Surplus males, yes. Ewes, no. Have you another male you could kill?’
‘No, I’m down to the ten ewes and the one tup.’
Moses brightened slightly. ‘Well, immediate problem solved, think. Jerry was here an hour ago with the same problem – neither of you has more than a handful of ewes. Why not kill one tup, share it and then use the other to breed both flocks of ewes?’
‘Because I would not trust that lying, misbegotten son of a recalcitrant hippopotamus if he was the only person left on earth,’ said Uri, showing the first splash of life he had offered in the conversation.
‘This is the borrowed cloak thing again, is it?’ asked Moses, punctiliously patient, wiping all colour from his voice. Uri nodded, and then began to wail: ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt? We had food there! We ate meat, there was always fish, always water, we were so safe there …’
‘You were slaves!’ Moses could feel his grip on his patience failing by the moment. ‘You just did what you were told. And now you can choose what to do, it seems to me that all you want is to cheat each other, or do each other down, and moan and do no work. Nobody, nobody will do anything, unless they are directly ordered to do it. Everybody, everybody is looking for a way to make things easier for themselves, and, as far as I can see, preferably by making it harder for their neighbours. For their ownpeople, Uri.’
Uri met anger with anger: ‘We should have died in Egypt – a quick death, a clean death. Instead we have come here, and we are dying by inches. We will die of hunger, suffering. You have led us to our deaths.’
‘You are only a month of so out of Egypt – it will take you longer than that to die,’ flashed back Moses. ‘Do you really think Yahweh will let you die of hunger?’ But he looked at the angry Uri and read his answer there.
‘And they really are hungry,’ he told Aaron as they walked in the first light of a new day, ‘and I see now that being slaves has totally destroyed their ability to think and act for themselves and the women have nearly forgotten how to weave and none of the men has a herd or flock of a decent size and they don’t know how to breed up sheep. I caught several slaughtering the biggest sheep because there was more eating on them.’ He stopped, seeing the puzzlement on Aaron’s face. ‘You eat the smallest, because you need the biggest to breed more big sheep. Oh brother, you too!’ There was silence. ‘I’m not up to this,’ said Moses, ‘and none of them are up to it either. Just not ready for a new life. If only we had more time. If there was only something to eat we could take just a little longer to get to the Promised Land.’
They were walking round the camp to warm themselves after the bitter cold of night, because Moses would not sleep in a tent until he had managed to see all his people provided with one. There was a wind blowing. Moses was deep in gloom. It was Aaron who picked up a few little threads from the ground. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, curious, ‘you know the desert, bro.’
Moses looked at it, rubbed it in his fingers, looked around, began to pick up a thread here, one there, gathered a handful, and sat down and laughed until the tears came. ‘Sorry, sorry’ he said, ‘it is just the relief, no no, I’ve not gone mad. This, my brother, is time. Yahweh has given us a gift to buy us time. I should never, ever have doubted. This is something which blows across the desert sometimes, and when it comes, it comes in abundance. You get sick of eating it. I am not sure what it is, exactly, my father-in-law simply called it food, you know, the Egyptian word is manu, I call it manna. You can live on it for weeks. This is time for the flocks to breed – time to shear them, to re-learn how to weave – for neighbours to learn to live together. And the beauty of it is, it is in such tiny fragments and you need to gather quite a lot of it to live on it, a couple of pints each at least. So everybody will need to work, to decide for themselves to pick it up. Come on, we need to wake them all up, call them together, explain. Yahweh has sent us the bread of heaven, and he has sent it by the bushel load, and then scattered it to make our lives difficult. There really is no God like him!’