Who Passed Whom


Who Passed Whom

By Benjamin Guggenheim


Motive. Well, we had no shortage of that. Two hundred and ten years of all the worst crimes you could possibly imagine. To us, to our fathers, and their fathers before them. Stripped of our freedom, our god, and our children. It was only a matter of time.
Means. This was a little more complicated. We couldn’t just stroll up and kill anybody, at least most of us couldn’t. Most of us were in construction, or materials for construction. They kept us away from their houses, and coming anywhere near their families would have raised a whole host of red flags. At least, for most of us. See, some of us were domestics - chambermaids, housemaids, cooks, cleaners, butlers, and the like. And this group could get as close as they liked without anyone saying anything. Even once the whole thing had started, it never even occurred to them that those they had relied on all their lives would suddenly be dangerous. So it was this group that was chosen. I was one of them.
Alibi. This was the hardest, but we still figured it out. If anyone asked, we’d been in our houses the whole night, doing the ritual and eating the meat, just like anyone else. And we could prove it, too. A small splotch of blood on the doorpost part of the ritual, we told them. A splotch that would have been disturbed if the door had been opened after we had put it up early in the night. They’d see that the blood was just the same as when they’d left it, and we’d get off scot free. Don’t ask me how we pulled it off. I was just a grunt, remember. One of hundreds, maybe more. This was another one of the tricks. But more on that later.
Anyway, we had it all planned out, so I wasn’t nervous. I walked through the same hallway I’d walked through for as long as I could remember, though it was probably one of us who built it, to begin with. I’d stopped to admire the same murals I’d seen every single day, though I stayed an extra minute, knowing this day would be the last. And I went through the same door I’d entered every morning, and saw the same face I’d known almost all my life.
Usually, I’d be here in the mornings, so I’d wake up Khnum and bring him breakfast. I’d set about tidying the room as he’d drag himself out of bed to prepare for his tutor to arrive. And as we went about our routines, he told me about his dreams. 
At first, I half-listened as a professional obligation, or maybe just to humor him. I can’t tell you quite when, but at some point, I started to really listen, and I’m so glad I did. This kid, he’s no ordinary kid, see. These dreams, they were… I don’t know, compelling. They took the standard forms for a kid his age, of course. The gods with animal heads, the snake and the sun, the endless battles. Sometimes I even caught a few elements he must have picked up from our stories, though I don’t know if he was aware of it. But these dreams, and the conflicts they contained, were nothing ordinary. They were a window into everything Khnum was thinking, everything he was happy about, and everything he was struggling with. The things his family, friends, and entire society wanted him to think, up against the things he himself wanted to believe. He didn’t want to be a monster like they were, but he didn’t want to be all alone, either.
It was clear from the way he acted, too. He never reprimanded me, at least not the way his parents did. He sometimes urged them not to beat me so hard. And he brought me food when he could tell I hadn’t eaten enough. He wasn’t a saint by any means, he was part of the system, and without a second thought he used goods that we must have died for. Still, Khnum didn’t want to be like them, and I could tell from his dreams. The lonely heroes and the cruelty of structure. Sometimes I wondered if he had been making them up to comfort me, or maybe even to manipulate me. I don’t think so, though. He was too young, too half-asleep, and too genuine.
In the weeks leading up to that night, the dreams had been getting bad. I guess that’s not really surprising. With everything that had been happening to Khnum and his friends, the line between what he saw when he was asleep and when he was awake had been getting thin. He’d been waking up covered in sweat, and sometimes I saw him tossing when I came in. His eyes were red and he didn’t want to leave the house. None of them did, at that point. I’d been trying to comfort him, or at least calm him down. They were all terrified of each new day, and his dreams were hardly helping.
Khnum didn’t have any dreams that night, though. Or at least, none that I could tell. He slept soundly, his face calm, his body pulsating slowly with his breath. It would be a long time until morning, however, and I wasn’t there to wake him. But when I saw his face, I hesitated, and at that moment, he woke up. Instantly, I knew everything would be so much harder.
His eyes opened slowly, and he began to stretch. “Nun? Is that you?” he mumbled. Then he saw the knife in my hand, and he bolted upright. He didn’t try to run, though. Clever kid. Instead, he drew the covers up to his nose and stared wide-eyed at the blade. “Nun? What are you doing?”
“Go back to sleep, Khnum,” I commanded him, and I instantly regretted saying his name. “It’s just another bad dream, I promise.”
He shook his head adamantly. “No. What have you got there? Why have you brought that here?”
“C’mon, kid. You’re too smart for that question. You know exactly why I’m here.”
“But… but… why?”
“I think you know that one, too.”
“Please,” he begged, knowing he was running out of options. “Just put down the dagger. We’ll talk.”
“I can’t do that,” I said, though my arm went limp.
“I’ve always tried to be good to you, I’ve always been kind, haven’t I?” he asked, shaking now.
“More than the rest, maybe. That doesn’t change things.” I felt a lump growing in my throat.
“We… we… wanted to end things, remember? We begged Pharoah. You heard about it.”
“Too little, too late. I’m sorry. Even if I wanted to stop, I couldn’t, not now. It’s too late. It has to look like a miracle. You can’t be able to tell anybody.”
“I won’t, honest!” He was starting to tear up. “I’ll… I’ll run away, and never come back again.”
I took a deep breath. “There’s nothing you can do. Talking won’t make this easier for either of us.” I stepped forward, and he curled up tighter, but he didn’t say anything. I raised my knife.
And that’s when it happened. I don’t know how. See, we’d had this whiz, the one who organized the whole thing to begin with. He’d grown up as one of them, so we didn’t accept him at first. But it’s a good thing we did in the end, because he sure was smart. He’d learned like them, even more than them. He was part of the royal family, so their priests had taught him all the tricks they knew. But he understood the tricks better, made them do more. He really was a genius. And every time he did something, the same priests who had taught him tried to do it back. But they were worse, less subtle, and eventually they stopped trying altogether. I didn’t get any of it.
Still, I knew this was beyond even what our whiz could do. This was something else. This thing entered the room, and though I couldn’t quite see it, I knew it was there. It came to me, but it smelled the blood from the ritual, and it backed off. Then it went to Khnum.
As long as I live, as many tricks or wonders as I see, I’ll never forget what he looked like as he died. The way his body twisted, the way his breath was dragged from him. The terror in his eyes and then the acceptance. I closed his eyes then, my knife unsullied.
I took my time in the room, then I stepped outside and breathed in the night air. I could hear it happening all around me, and though I knew I was safe, a shiver went down my spine. I passed one of my colleagues, and I saw her knife was clean, too, and my feelings were mirrored in her eyes.
“You saw it, too?” I asked, barely a whisper.
She nodded grimly, and I realized she was right. This was not something to speak about, not something to explain. We’d seen something, that’s all. So don’t ask me any more about it, okay? I’ve told you all I can about that night.

Except that sometimes, in the middle of the night, I feel that way again. I don’t see it or hear it, but I remember. And so I go out, and I gaze at the pillar of fire another trick, or maybe a real miracle. I don’t think I care to know the difference anymore. Regardless, I stare up and I wonder what I would have done if it hadn’t happened. I can’t know for sure, but I probably would have gone through with it. So I look up at the sky, and I thank my lord I never had to make the choice.       


Copyright © Benjamin Guggenheim 2024 

Benjamin Guggenheim is a student at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa. Growing up near Washington, DC, he found himself the heretic among Orthodox Jews and the zealot among the Modernist Jews, a dichotomy he explores in much of his writing. He has been published in The Lehrhaus, and is currently working on a collection of fiction to be called Lament for Crowns and Crowds.

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