Audio: Read by the author.
I was Pharaoh’s fastest. When Moses led
the senseless run toward the waters, I pulled
the reins to slow my horses. But then the sea
diverged itself into two walls and stood
as if held by glass. I whipped my pair to speed.
They trusted me. The earth their hooves unearthed
flew past my ears. The water-walls were miracle
enough. But the path was dry. On either side,
fish swam through the walls as if escaping some
unholy birth canal. Some carried over
into the other water, others hit
my horses’ flanks and left a fleeting stamp
of magic water. One landed by my foot.
I let it ride co-captain of my chariot.
Some fell into the sand and flopped for their lives.
Behind, I heard my countrymen yelling
and whipping, their horses clapping on the bone-
hard bottom of the sea, and when I saw
the far edges of the waters and Moses’s hand
upraised, I saw the future: Moses’s waves
would drown us with our horses in unsettled graves.
I called and waved to them “Retreat!” but they
kept charging. My only hope was reaching shore
before the waters drowned me, closing behind
the dirty foot-soles of the runners. Life
was on that shore. I couldn’t save my men.
I could only save myself. My horses flagged,
unused to such long fervor. The last man cleared
the water. I heard him shout, “We’re free! We’re free!”
As Moses’s hand began its fall, I reached
out my hand as if to hold his up by faith
or magic. To no avail. The waters fell
back into one and took my horses and
my chariot. I flew forward toward
the water and shouted, before it swelled my mouth,
“I believe!” The waters swallowed me. I flailed,
and I kept shouting even though the water
was choking me, and I could feel the tears
bursting from my eyes, even in that sea,
and as I realized that I was dying
and somehow at peace with that, the muddy bottom
brushed my toes, my arms were righting me,
and I found footing. I stood and infant-walked
until my head arose above the water.
I coughed out cups of it, bitter with salt
and sand. I wracked my body onto shore
and fell. My breath returned to me. I swept
the blur away from my eyes. I saw their free
heads bob on the horizon. I tried to call,
but my voice still drowned along the wind. Behind,
some spokes and spears were floating. We, the we
that I had known, were gone, and now I have
become a man without a people.
Charlie Green is the author of the poetry collection Feral Ornamentals (Finishing Line). He teaches writing at Cornell University.