Max Harris

Blood, Frogs, and Gnats, Etc.

“You did what?”

Her husband said, “I already told you.”

“Of all the stupid . . .”

“It made sense at the time.”

She was nursing their only child, a boy. “It would,” she said. “You’re men.”

“The Jewish guy did it first.” He set his elbows on the table. He’d wanted her approval.

“And you followed his example?”

“It seemed pretty impressive.”

“It never occurred to you to correct the mess he’d made?”

“We had to show him we weren’t a bunch of losers.”

She pressed her point. “He polluted the rivers, the canals, the pools, the ponds . . .”

“Even the water in the drinking vessels,” he said.

“All of them?”

“Most of them.”

“And you spoiled whatever was left?” She knew the answer.

“It’s not easy turning water into blood,” he said. “Not on that scale. We had to beat him at his own game.”

“Why?”

“Our professional reputation was at stake,” he said.

“Hold the baby. I want to show you something.”

She left the room, returning a minute later with a clay pitcher. She set it on the table. She said, “Look inside the pitcher.”

He did.

“Taste it.”

He held the baby with one hand. With the other, he dipped his little finger in the liquid. Gingerly, he licked the tip of his finger. “It’s water,” he said.

“Yes.”

“So, we missed some.”

“It was blood an hour ago.”

“But . . .”

“You’re not the only magician in this house,” she said.

“You . . .”

“. . . turned it back into water.”

He was wary. “You’d better not let Pharoah see you do that.”

*

A week later, she said, “Frogs. Right?”

“How did you know?”

“The house was full of them.”

At first, the baby had been fascinated by the frogs. They’d bounced without being thrown. Then there’d been too many of them. The child had cried himself to sleep.

“Noisy critters, aren’t they?” her husband said.

“Frogs? Or babies?”

“Frogs. They burp. Like they have endless indigestion.”

“So do babies.”

“They get underfoot, too.”

She repeated, “So do babies.”

He looked around. “Where are the frogs now?”

“I got rid of them.”

“How?”

“Caught them and cooked them,” she said.

“Frogs?”

“Frogs’ legs. They taste like chicken. Some people think they’re a delicacy.”

He was shocked. “You cooked thousands of frogs?”

“Just enough for supper. And a few for later,” she said. “I vanished the rest.”

“How?”

“I sent them back to the rivers and the ponds.”

“Oh.”

“But you men didn’t want to lose out to the Jewish guy. Right?”

“There were two of them this time,” he said. “Brothers. A double act.”

“And how many of you?”

“The usual crowd.”

“Safety in numbers?”

He began, “What they could do . . .”

“You could do better,: she interrupted.” ”More frogs.”

“Yes.”

“I bet the palace is a mess.”

“It’s full of dying frogs,” he said. “Rank. Even Pharoah was stepping on frogs.”

“He probably doesn’t want a recipe for frogs’ legs, then, does he?”

“I don’t suppose he ever wants to see a frog again,” he said.

“They’re best sautéed.” She held out the pan. “You want to try one?”

*

The boy’s mother said, “Gnats. Right?”

Her husband scratched. “How did you know?”

“The house was infested with them.”

He looked. “You weren’t bitten?”

“No.”

“Our boy?”

“No sign of a bite anywhere,” she said.

“How come?” he asked.

“I got rid of the gnats,” she said

“How?” he asked.

“Fly swat.”

“Seriously.”

“Cures my mother taught me,” she said. “How about you? More gnats?”

He was pleased with himself. “No. We’re learning. After the first Jewish guy whacked the ground with his stick and the dust turned into millions of gnats, we knew not to make any more.”

“Knew not to or didn’t know how to?”

“I just muttered some gobbledygook and stomped on the ground a bit,” he said. “I think most of the others were doing the same.”

“God be praised, she said.”

“Which god?” he asked.

“Now that’s the question, isn’t it?” she said “Were either of the Jewish guys bitten?”

“Now you mention it, I don’t think they were,” he said.

“There you go, then.”

“We told Pharoah the gnats were made by the finger of God,” he said.

She asked, “Which god?”

“Some of our guys might have said ‘gods’.”

“What this country needs are female leaders, priests, and court magicians.”

“Don’t hold your breath, love,” he said. Even slavery’ll be abolished before men let that happen.”

*

Swarms of flies followed the gnats. Dead livestock followed the flies: horses, donkeys, camels, and goats swelled up, coughed, wheezed, sprayed chronic diarrhea, keeled over, and died. To be more precise, the Egyptians’ animals died. Those belonging to the low-caste children of Israel, whose slave labor upheld the national economy, skipped happily around their pastures.

Boils followed the carcasses. Even the royal magicians had boils. On their eyes, under their armpits, in their groins, and on their buttocks. The children of Israel didn’t have boils. Nor did the magician’s wife. She bathed her husband’s boils with herbs and hot compresses. He didn’t know whether to be humiliated or aroused.

Hailstones the size of sphinxes’ eyeballs fell from skies riven by forked lightning and shaken by the bellow of thunder. When the storm finally stopped, hordes of locusts blew in, devoured the remaining crops, and were swept away on a strong east wind. Three days of tangible darkness settled over the land. Egyptians, if they dared to move at all, stumbled around with arms outstretched. The children of Israel enjoyed the sunlight in their rural ghetto.

The magician came home to find his wife packing. “You’re leaving?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I’m terrified,” she said.

“Of me?”

“Not you.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“Of what’s going to happen next,” she said.

He resisted. “You’re taking the news and the weather too seriously,” he said.

“No. I’m leaving with the Hebrews. And I’m taking our son.”

The next morning, he watched them leave. He felt foolish. They grew smaller.

He swallowed pride. It tasted worse than frogs’ legs. He set off after them.


Max Harris was born in England, received his PhD from the University of Virginia, and now lives in Wisconsin. His work has been published in Dove Tales, The Missouri Review, The Madison Review, Litro Magazine (UK), and other journals on both sides of the Atlantic. He has won the Wisconsin Academy Review/Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops Short Story Contest and the rather more scholarly Otto Gründler Book Prize.

 

 


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