The Royal Secret (creative Midrash)

Thermutis, daughter of the Pharaoh

Whispers had followed Thermutis through the royal palace long before she was aware that she could shield herself with them, or even wield them as a sword.

Whispers had followed Thermutis through the royal palace long before she was aware that she could shield herself with them, or even wield them as a sword. Even before her moon-blood, not once but twice she had snatched the dulled murmur of plotting between servants and guards; and twice, after executing the traitors, her father had publicly proclaimed that she was surely a girl suitable only for a god. Those were the whispers of caution, the whispers of danger, the whispers that flirted with death.

If she had not been the Pharaoh’s daughter, nobody would have said that she was beautiful. Her nose was a bit too long, her skin was a bit too dark, and once she filled out, her curves were too pronounced for her ever to assume the sleek cat-like grace that came with being divine. Yet, she was the pharaoh’s daughter and so nobody would ever actually say anything of the sort… at least not where it could be heard; yet she heard, through the stones and corridors she heard, those whispers, cruel in their nakedness, veiled with smiles, and teeth.

Not that she did not have suitors; she did, of all kinds…. But she loathed the insincerity of her brothers and half-brothers, step-brothers and ambitious cousins as much as their crass innuendos, like crocodiles below the surface, panting like a dog in heat. The other princesses, her sisters and half-sisters, seemed to enjoy the attention, masterfully controlling it like a Hittite charioteer. But Thermutis wanted nothing to do with it. She had no desire for harness or reigns. And so she retreated deeply into the cool chambers of her maidservants. The walls of silk and music, seductively sweet, deflecting those new whispers of secrets behind closed doors.

When Thermutis did emerge, it was rare and usually only at the beckoning of her father; after all, even as a favored daughter, even she could not ignore the summons of the living god, the son of Ra. When he did call her, it was often to the shaded garden on the west side of the palace grounds. There, amid the sound of hummingbirds and the meandering stream that the engineers had averted from the Nile, they would sit together. Her father was a stern man, busy with running an empire, building the new capital at Thebes, and surrounded by enemies; yet as the sun set he would relax and they would simply talk as father and daughter.

“Thermutis,” he would say to her, “you cool my heart. You are my favorite daughter and surely I owe you my life. Who would you like to marry? I will get for you any man that you desire from my kingdom, of high birth or even low. You must know that any of your brothers, or half-brothers, step-brothers or cousins would marry you in a blink of an eye. Which one do you fancy? It would please me very much to give such a wonderful gift to you.”

“Oh father,” Thermutis would reply with lowered eyes, “you are the best father any daughter could ask for. You have always been so good to me. But I do not like any of the men that I have seen in the entire kingdom.”

“Well then,” the Pharaoh magnanimously decreed, “surely I can extend my reach to any man in any kingdom anywhere. What foreign prince would not seek to have his name set in stone, and to join the ranks of the immortal? What King would not give his right hand to cement an alliance with Egypt, a road that would lead to riches and protect against all enemies?

“Oh father,” Thermutis would demur, “Everyone knows that you are the living god, son of Ra the great Sun-god. Can you blame me for not wanting to settle for a man, but rather, will marry only an immortal?”

“Yes daughter,” Pharaoh replied, suddenly uncomfortable, “it is true that we have divine blood pumping through our veins, and we are not anchored to this world as simple mortals, but you see,…well, its complicated…but the bottom line is, you have to marry.”

“But why?” asked Thermutis, slowly lifting up her eyes, and meeting those of the Living Law, whose decrees created reality with a power over life and death, the ability to sack nations and move mountains.

“Because,” answered her father with sad eyes, “you must have a child…ideally a boy. If you don’t, the rumors that follow you like vultures will never cease. A child, one that you can call ‘son’ will automatically turn the harsh, desert wind into a cool summer breeze. It matters not who the father is, but the child is essential. For even I, surrounded by my magicians and scribes, sycophants and bodyguards, hear what they say about you. I have ignored it because I love you, but an insult to you is an insult to me. If we do not drive these vultures off, heads will roll. So…, my favorite child, my ‘unique’ one, at this time next year if one of the gods have not chosen to take you as a mate, I will choose you a husband. So please, for the sake of your happiness, and the lives of many, pay attention to your suitors.

Thermutis was crushed, and her countenance fell like a dark shadow. The music of her chamber, formally lovely and cool, was now stifled with sobs and bitter tears. Her handmaids, desperately loyal to their princess, tried to cheer her up with tales of marriage and honor…but Thermutis only grew more taciturn as she considered the curse that all women were forced to bear, even one such as she who was suited only for a god.

The days grew long and the summer grew unbearably hot. From the palace-eunuchs Thermutis heard whispers of unrest from Goshen, the area where the Hebrew slave-people dwelled in their mud huts amid strange chanting. At night, straining to catch a breeze from her balcony, Thermutis and her maidservants would listen to the distant drums, sometimes yearning to escape, sometimes violent as marching, echoing over the desert sands from their slave quarters.

“A possible 5th column,” the shifty guard told her.
“A people with ancient ties to powerful magic,” screeched Balaam, her father’s volatile sorcerer.
“They will side with our enemies and rise up against us,” conferred the fearful merchants.
“It is because of them,” said the nameless street, choking on its own dust, “that there is sickness and bad luck, backbiting and unrest. It is because of those Hebrew slaves that prices rise and I don’t have a job, that the Nile floods and the sand-storms rage. Because of them I can not sleep at night, and the wolves howl, and my leg aches. About the slave-people of Goshen, who are strangers amongst our people, something about those Hebrews needs to be done!”

“And so it shall,” said Thermutis’ loving father, eager to weather the ferocious summer heat, his backed up sewers, and the abundant poverty and evil that flourished in his own land. We shall sacrifice the land of Goshen to all of our gods, starting with every male child, until our gods are drunk with Hebrew blood, for only then, when the Nile runs red, might their appetite be sated.” …So bellowed the word from the Living Law.

As the hot nights continued, Thermutis and her handmaidens would stretch out on her balcony with their whole bodies, drooped like flaccid sails, hoping for a breeze. But through the dark night the echoes of the Hebrew drums, now beaten with a desperate anger, carried high pitched shrieks of wailing.

The summer dragged on, and even the oldest of the wizened women could not remember a more uncomfortable, stickier season. Everyone’s clothing would be drenched with sweat and humidity seconds after dressing, the air was flat and still, and the flies were merciless. Anxious to find relief, Thermutis went with her favorite handmaidens to a secluded spot along the banks of the Nile. Eagerly, the young women shucked their clothing, and dove into the cool, muddy waters.

Just then, from the middle of the river they heard the wails of an infant, carried across the flowing water by the mid-day breeze. Straining her eyes, Thermutis saw a basket of reeds, like a cradle, drifting lazily, as if being nudged by the river god, Nuit. “Ah,” thought Thermutis, with a certain bitterness in her heart, “if only I could receive a child as pleasantly, and as effortlessly, as this. If only it were as easy as diving into the cool water and plucking the baby out of that basket. …No boring suitors, no fake ceremonious pomp, no false oaths, and no sweaty man on top of me demanding that I submit to him as chattel. If only…”

And then, for a few seconds, time stood still. The basket, now so close that she could smell the bitumen and waterproofing pitch, seemed to freeze atop a Nile wave. The river-water glistening under the love of the afternoon sun. The rich, musk smell of the muddy reeds settled like a cloud. “If only…what if she took the Hebrew baby and somehow hid it for a few months. She would say that she was visited at night by the god, Nuit, who told her that since she had divine blood, she alone was suited for him. Her father would never deny that it was possible…and he did say that what was important was the child, not the child’s father. She could pretend to be sick in the morning like pregnant women do, and stuff her shirt with cloth. It could be a difficult pregnancy, so that she could ask her father to demand that no one, NO ONE, enter her chambers except her handmaidens. She would have to get a wet-nurse, one who would never betray her secret… She and the baby would stay in the chambers for several months, and then emerge! People might talk, and some might not believe her, but none would publicly dare contradict the validity of Pharaoh’s grandson. What if…” And Thermutis, after ordering a handmaiden to fetch the baby from the basket, drew her arms around her confidants, and she began to whisper.

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