“Aboard the Nursery Barge” by Sarah Chow

Before the meeting, Aunt Leah stopped by and pinched Gilhah’s cheeks. She said, “Treasure every minute! They grow up so fast.”

Little Gilhah wriggled off my lap and dashed for the lights.

I caught her before she made it far but still found myself face to face with one of Grandpa Lamech’s most disapproving stares.

On my way back with Gilhah, my husband Orihah said, “You’ll miss these days.”


In the meeting, it was decided that it would be most comfortable for everyone if we were organized not by families, but by age group. There was a barge for the high priests, for the matriarchs, for the strong men, for the nursing mothers, for the growing virgins, for the stripling youths, for the older children, and for the youngest children. Ninhur and I were assigned to supervise the youngest children.


Aunt Leah said, “What a privilege to be with those sweet young spirits!”

I said, “I’m happy to share that privilege. You could come along as a chaperone.”

Aunt Leah said, “I couldn’     t decline my duty to serve among the matriarchs.”


Orihah said, “You’re perfect for this opportunity.”

I said, “Anyone could do it. You could do it.”

Orihah said, “No, you have a gift with children. No one could be better.”


Grandpa Lamech said, “I have prepared a schedule of worship and prayer for the high priests’ barge. I am confident you will do the same. ‘A child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.’”

I went to find Ninhur.


Ninhur was cuddling her chubby Noah. Her kisses had smudged the soot that coated his face and legs.

I said, “What’s our plan? I can barely keep these guys entertained with an entire beach to themselves, and I’m supposed to keep them locked up in a barge the size of a dish for who knows how long?”

Ninhur said, “We’ll have so much fun! Children are easier to tend when they’re together.”

I said, “Does Noah need a bath?”

Ninhur said, “Oh, do you think so? I hadn’t noticed.”


While I kept a tight grip on Gilhah’s arm, the prophet placed two lights in our barge, one on each end. He blessed the vessel with a promise that we would have light continually, that no monster of the sea could break us, that no whale could mar us.

I said, “Sea monsters are the least of my worries.”

But I said it under my breath.


As we were loading, the goats refused to go in the barge with the sheep, so Uncle Pagag asked me to take them.

I said, “Sure, I’ve already got a dozen kids in here. What’s a few goats?”

I hadn’t thought about seasick goats. Or goats playing king of the rock on the bedding. Or goats bleating right when I finally settled everyone into a synchronized nap. Or goats flying past when they lost their footing in the big storms, their hoofs casting forked shadows on the ceiling floor in the light of the stones.


We played hunt and find. We counted the clouds. I scrubbed and straightened and disciplined. Ninhur kissed and hugged and sang. We fed the goats and petted the goats and chased the goats. I prepared meals and cleaned up meals and prepared meals and cleaned up meals and prepared meals and cleaned up meals. We huddled together when the waves made the whole vessel shudder, end to end.


All the children were drawn to the lights. Gilhah was the worst, but I caught every single one of them grabbing the stones, poking the stones, licking the stones, hiding the stones. I tried every technique I could think of—from anger to bribes—to keep them from touching the sacred stones, but after a few weeks I mostly pretended to not notice. I only punished the licking.


At every opportunity, I opened the hatch for ventilation. We needed it. But I looked at the sea as little as possible. The firmament above and the firmament below were as dark as wine and stretched as deep and wide as eternity. Fortunately, with so many little things to care for, I was safe from drowning in the fear of it.


On the evening of the attack, our hatch was open and I was just climbing out to toss another basket of waste overboard. The air was overcast but warm, and the other barges were near ours, all their hatches open and many of our cousins up on the hulls, fishing or sewing.

All at once, the sea bubbled up around us and an enormous green shape rose out of the sea and dipped back below. It looked like a portion of a snake, but a snake as big around as the vessel we rode in. The bubbles disappeared, and I was still staring at the spot where it had disappeared, holding my breath, when another great loop of the sea serpent appeared back behind us, rising above the waves and dipping back below.

The strong men and stripling youths were swarming the tops of their barges, looking for the monster of the deep. Another loop of sea serpent rose and fell in the midst of us. When it passed near the young men’s barge, Orihah struck it with a spear and the monster flinched, but the spear didn’t pierce its scaly sides.

While Orihah called the stripling youths to bring up more weapons, another loop of serpent appeared near the young mothers’ barge. I thought we were surrounded by monsters, but the pieces moved together: it was one enormous sea serpent. The young men and grown men were pelting it with stones and spears, but the serpent was impossibly huge. What could their arms do against something so vast?

I heard prayers from the matriarchs and high priests and felt little Gilhah climbing up the ladder beside me. I pulled her close. And felt one of the sacred stones in her hand. “Put that down!” I said. “I shouldn’t have let you touch it. That’s probably why God sent the monster.”

But before I could wrest the stone away, the sea serpent’s head rose directly beside our barge, a hideous gaping jaw of jagged teeth, flaring fins like ears, and inky black eyes for staring into the ocean depths.

I didn’t pray. I probably screamed. I saw spears flying around the monster, but it seemed not to notice.

It stretched its jaws wide and leaned over our vessel.

Gilhah’s hand shot up. As she lifted the stone, it burned with a blinding light, far brighter than it had ever appeared in our barge. The sea serpent reared back with a terrible rasping scream, thrashing its head. Gilhah held out the stone and the serpent dove back into the water.

We waited many long minutes, but it did not reappear.


When we were confident the monster was truly gone, Uncle Pagag led a cheer for Little Gilhah.

Aunt Leah said, “The Lord works his greatest miracles through the purest hearts.”

Grandpa Lamech said “‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies.’”

Orihah said, “Do you want me to take a turn with the children?”

I said, “It doesn’t look safe to move between barges. I’ll stay with the little ones.”

For all the rest of the journey, we saw no more monsters of the deep. And from then on, I let the children handle the stones as much as they liked.

Still no licking, though.