Havok Publishing

Paint the Nile Red

By Lincoln Reed

Raiders shoved Dr. Byron Stoneburner into the wooden crate. Hands bound, mouth gagged, the professor squirmed while the sliding lid clicked into place—trapping him within a world of darkness as thudding hammers nailed his coffin shut.

“What do we do with grave robbers?” a muffled voice crooned from outside the box.

“Give them what they want,” said a second man.

Stoneburner struggled with his bonds. Even if he could call for help, no allies would come. His boat had been commandeered by ruthless marauders.

“What about that thing he’s got?” asked another thief. “The staff? It worth something?”

“You see any gold on it? Nothing doing. He wants it so bad, he can have it. The old man’ll need a walking stick in the afterlife, don’t yah think?”

Grunts of agreement accompanied a sudden hoist of the box, a swing, and a toss…

The crate crashed into the Nile River, submerged for a moment, settled, and floated with the current as laughs and taunts of the raiders decayed into the night.

Stoneburner jostled his aching bones, gagged at the clammy scent of the coffin’s interior, and tugged against his bonds. His chest tightened with worry. How much air until…?

A damp sensation collected toward the bottom of the crate.

Water?

Drown. I’ll drown!

Think, man! Think!

After considering his dwindling options, Stoneburner’s fingers strained to grasp the silver matchbox in his rear pocket. With his hands tied behind his back and circulation waning, his thumb flicked open the case’s slender cover. An index and middle finger pinched a single matchstick.

Stoneburner struck match after match until one lit long enough to fray the cords binding his wrists. A searing sting accompanied the scent of burning flesh.

He groaned. Come on. Tear!

Wrists pulled harder. Muscles tensed. Sweat dripped.

Come on!

The final thread succumbed and Stoneburner’s hands jerked free. He reached toward the water collecting at his feet, dug into his left boot, and snatched a hidden knife. With his right hand, he grabbed the antiquated staff resting next to his left shoulder and wondered if obtaining the artifact was worth the sacrifice.

During the final stretch of his 1909 sabbatical, Stoneburner had relished the opportunity to spend time away from the classroom searching for the location of Moses’s Staff—the mystical cane able to transform into a snake and turn the Nile into blood. The quest had started after he’d discovered a Masonic scroll telling how Moses’s staff was taken from beneath Solomon’s Temple during its destruction in AD 70. According to the scroll, temple priests had secretly transported the staff and other treasures to Egypt.

A passionate searcher for truth and lost artifacts, Stoneburner had charged into the adventure and, after months of digging in Egypt, uncovered a cache of Hebrew relics including an unmarked staff whose age—he estimated—placed it in the late Patriarchal Era around 1500 BC. How could such an item have survived unless it possessed supernatural qualities?

Now, with water flooding his makeshift coffin, Stoneburner wondered whether the artifact might work a more ancient miracle. Might it part the Nile like the Red Sea and allow him a safe trek to shore? If only.

A shiver jolted him. But now…

He tore away the gag around his mouth. Shoulders hugging the walls, he reached into the silver matchbox, ignited another match, and surveyed the crate’s interior. The flame’s humble light flickered, revealing the mounting level of sloshing water. Within minutes, the deluge would rise above his nose.

If I make it out of here, I’m never again complaining about drowning in grading papers.

Stoneburner cut against the coffin with renewed energy, using his knife as a pick, leveraging his weight with the staff.

Water climbed.

Iron nails popped free.

The lid cracked.

As water rushed in and the coffin started to sink, Stoneburner took a deep breath and squeezed through the opening like a cat wedging through a tight doorway. He kicked with his legs until his head broke through the surface, gasping as glimmering moonlight danced upon black water.

The staff buoyed beneath his armpits like a life preserver.

Upriver, a dark mass eased against the current.

He squinted. A log?

The form zigzagged closer.

Blimey. Stoneburner’s heart jumped into his throat. Crocodile.

The predator closed the distance.

He took stock of his weapons. A knife. An ancient staff.

His grip tightened on the blade as the beast made its attack.

Primeval jaws opened and snapped. Razor choppers crunched the staff in two without so much as a crack of thunder or flash of light. Time slowed as a sobering realization took hold—sacred history destroyed in seconds like a dry toothpick.

He buried his blade in the crocodile’s eye.

The predator’s jaws widened.

Leaning forward, Stoneburner thrust what remained of the staff deep into the crocodile’s throat. The predator rolled away and cut through the water in a limp retreat long enough for the shaken professor to swim toward shore. When he gripped dry soil, he dragged himself onto the land and collapsed onto his back, heart thumping against his rib cage.

The morning sun broke above the horizon and burned across the distant sand. Its streaks of orange and pink draped the Nile and mingled with the ruddy waters of cannibalistic crocodiles splashing around the professor’s victim. It appeared that Moses’s staff could indeed turn the Nile to blood.


Months later, back at the university, Stoneburner finished telling the story to his department chair. The elderly gentleman lowered his glasses and met Stoneburner’s eyes with a look of skepticism and wonderment. “No one will believe you, Byron. Not the journals, nor the papers. Certainly not the museum.”

“Maybe not. But even if this wasn’t the staff of Moses, it did perform a miracle that night.” Stoneburner studied the bit of wood in his palm, the remaining piece he had managed to carry with him while fleeing the crocodile attack. “The fact that I’m sitting here is proof enough.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lincoln Reed is a writer, filmmaker, and professor. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Miami University (OH). More than 50 of his short stories are featured in online publications and print anthologies. The short film adaptation of his Havok story Tritanopia is currently in its film festival run.


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