The Red Tent
Part Three, Chapter 1
Dinah arrives in Shechem and falls at the feet of Nehesi, Re-nefer’s guard. She learns that he saved Re-nefer from death and is the only man in the house who survived. Re-nefer blames herself for the massacre, since it was she who originally schemed to bring Shalem and Dinah together. Re-nefer hopes that Dinah might be carrying Shalem’s child, the only link she now has to her dead husband and son. Nehesi, Dinah, and Re-nefer sneak away to a port, where a boat takes them away from Shechem. At the new moon, Dinah realizes she is pregnant. Re-nefer tells her that they will go to her homeland, Egypt, to live with her brother Nakht-re. Re-nefer will refer to Dinah as her daughter and help her bear her son. She insists that they never speak of Shechem or their dead loved ones again.
Dinah begins to feel her baby stirring within her and secretly names him Bar-Shalem, son of Shalem. When it comes time for her to deliver the child, she wishes fervently that her mothers were with her. The pain is overwhelming. Re-nefer supports Dinah’s weight on her knees and helps her breathe. A midwife named Meryt appears to assist with the birth. Dinah pushes until she feels she will faint. At last Dinah asks for a mirror: seeing the tautness of her skin, she tells Meryt to use a knife to create a bigger doorway for her son. Meryt cuts her and reaches in to feel the baby’s shoulder and pulls the baby out. The umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck. Meryt cuts the cord quickly and blows life into him until the baby starts to cry. Dinah holds her baby for the first time and cannot stop staring at his beauty before she falls into a deep sleep.
When Dinah wakes up her baby is gone. She calls out for him, and Meryt calmly tells her that the baby is with his mother. Re-nefer arrives and explains that the son Dinah bore is now hers and will be raised as a prince of Egypt. Dinah will serve as his nurse, and he will know that she gave birth to him. Re-nefer names the boy Re-mose, child of Re. Re-nefer tells Dinah that if she does not cooperate, she will be thrown out on the street and will never see her son again.
At first, Re-mose stays with Dinah day and night while she nurses him. After the first few months, they spend most of their time in the garden, out of the way of the people in the house. Dinah tends the vegetables and herbs in the garden and comes to think of it as her second home. Re-mose grows strong and healthy and grows very close to Re-nefer and Nakht-re, referring to them as Ma and Ba (Mom and Dad). At nine years old, he is old enough to start school and learn the trade of a scribe, his uncle’s position. He goes to the academy in Memphis, which Nakht-re attended. Once he departs, Dinah weeps, for she is alone in Egypt once more.
While Dinah’s flight to Egypt and confinement are difficult for her, she finds Re-nefer’s ban on acknowledging the past to be unbearable. Dinah says, “We never again spoke of our shared history, and I was bound to the emptiness of the story she told.” Unable to properly mourn her husband and family, she cannot come to terms with the heinous crimes of her brothers and becomes trapped in a living purgatory. Dinah cannot move forward with her life if she cannot accept her past. For months, she eagerly looks forward to the birth of her son, Bar-Shalem, but she cannot even consider her son to be her own once he is born. Re-nefer names him and takes him as her son, robbing Dinah of the one link she has to her past. Reduced to the role of nursemaid, Dinah takes solace in caring for her son but knows that he does not truly belong to her. The fact that she can never tell him about his father creates an even larger hole in her heart. Time passes slowly for Dinah as she lives out the days between her past and her future.
Though Dinah is forbidden to speak or even think of the past, she encounters reminders of her history everywhere. While her pregnancy gives her hope and a reason to live, it also binds her to her past. In her heart, she names her son Bar-Shalem and sees her dead husband every time she looks into her child’s eyes. Dinah’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Re-nefer, presents a sharp contrast to the warm and tender relationships she shared with her own mothers. While Re-nefer saves her in Shechem and takes her away, in exchange Dinah must negate her past and blot out her entire identity. Re-nefer has no desire for a daughter but only craves a replacement for her son, so she uses Dinah. As a daughter who has always been adored, Dinah finds Re-nefer to be a poor substitute for Leah and her other mothers. She finds her living situation jarring, for she cannot adjust to the grand house with staircases and servants, since she misses the noisy, sprawling family camp. Dinah cannot get her footing in her new environment, nor can she accept that her life has changed forever.
While giving birth, Dinah discovers new reserves of strength within herself. Dinah’s first thought when her water breaks is to call out for her mothers. She feels their absence profoundly and misses the comfort of the red tent. Though she has Re-nefer, the other women of the house, and the midwife Meryt supporting her, she feels utterly alone without her true mothers. All of her life, she has dreamed of becoming a mother with her family at her side, and finally she sees clearly how much she has lost. During her labor, Dinah discovers strength in herself that she did not know she possessed. After hours and hours of pushing with no progress, she remembers the teachings of Inna and Rachel, and she takes over. She instructs Meryt to turn the baby, and after she checks her own skin in a mirror, she asks to be cut. Despite Re-nefer’s offer for the surgeon, Dinah insists that Meryt handle the situation. Dinah’s cool head and natural abilities as a midwife enable her to bring her son into the world safely and avoid the ever-present death in the labor room.
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