Wally, struggling with what kind of role he should play, increasingly settled on the next to youngest son of Jacob, the boy called Joseph who figured as the apple of Jacob’s eye. He saw good reason to do so. So much depended on Joseph II’s continued existence. Aside from the connection with the Messiahship, if he should expire prematurely, and granting the resumption of linear development at some point in time, the results would be:
In their new camp Joseph's brothers had taken council together. Jacob's grown sons were not fools or beardless youths with soft skin. Favoritism by Jacob meant only one thing: bestowal of the Birthright, or the double inheritance, Patriarchal blessing, and ruling powers that went to the first-born.
But even Judah was silenced when he was reminded that the princely robe had gone not to him, nor to any of the four hand-maid's sons, but to young, seventeen-year-old Joseph. United in their rage, the ten sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah knew what they must do to put disjointed things back in their proper places.
Arising by night as planned, they seized some hapless flocks of sheep and goats and set off north to Shechem. A desolate ruin, it was a perfect place to lure Joseph into their nets. Thwarted by an Ishmaelite bone-dealer and caravaneer come to renew his supply at Shechem, they were obliged to go further on to another necropolis, Dothan.
Dumah the Ishmaelite bone-dealer was still recovering from an unlucky meeting with Hebrews even though he continued working as before, reducing bones and skulls for cosmetic skin whiteners.
Hearing sweet music, Dumah paused in his work. With an extremely fat, hand he shaded two bulging, bloodshot eyes as he peered into the distance where vultures flew in hungry circles. Not especially careful about modesty in such lonely places as Dothan, he had his robe rest and was attired only in a loin cloth. Thus he stood as he observed the tell-tale cloud of dust approaching Shechem, and so he remained when the Favorite caught sight of him.
Finding nothing to fear in a mere youth accompanied by an old man, Dumah made no move toward the long, curved dagger laid aside while he washed. "Hibishu's holy paps!" he swore. "What is this that heaven has sent my way?" he marveled as he took in the wayfarer's dazzling robes. Forgetting common courtesies, unmindful of his own undress, he rushed toward the Favorite. "Whom are you seeking in this forsaken place, my pretty prince?" the bone-dealer inquired as the peacock-plumed Favorite drew up on his fine, white mule beside the well. So intently was Dumah ogling and snuffing at the Favorite's perfumed robe and saddle-blanket that he took little notice of other wonders. Never had he seen a robe so blue--blue as zarah flowers, whose valuable fibers clothed the high and mighty of Mizraim--or so red--as Damascene rubies in the nose-rings of women--or so richly embroidered along the edges with silver pomegranates--a royal signature seen only on the robes of the kings of Mitanni, Uratu, Assyria, Babelen, and Hatti.
Now Hebrews and Ishmaelites were sworn enemies ever since a rejected first-born Ishmael persecuted his favored young brother, Isaac, and Isaac's mother Sarah cast Ishmael and Hagar his mother into the southern Wilderness of the Pelican. Nothing of Sarah's legal but heartless act nor of Ishmael's resentful treatment of Sarah's son over the lost Birthright was ever forgotten; the rancor between the two kindred peoples, both of the household of Abraham, was a wall none could pass over. Yet there was no avoiding each other in such a small country as Ken'an, and there were inevitable dealings, chiefly business, where money alone prevented bloodshed and mayhem.
"Have you seen my brethren pass by this place?" he inquired, holding out a large silver piece.
Dumah shook his head indignantly, for he hated the thought of Hebrew pelf after all their man-handling.
Putting the silver away in a jeweled purse, the Favorite tried again. He began describing his brothers. "Reuben the first-born has a bush of hair tied on the back of his head and rides a mule like mine. He carries a silver staff cunningly worked like a double-headed serpent and leads on before his brethren. Then comes Simeon who has a scar across both lips and no nose to speak of. At his heel lopes faithful Levi, missing upper teeth when he opens his mouth wide to laugh. Then limping, stalwart, long-of-face Issachar--his toe spirited away by a spear! Zebulun never will say but is more fortunate with half an ear. And mighty Judah has the leg and arm to match Mamre's oaks and stands taller than..."
Dumah had heard enough. His body began a violent twitch and shudder, convulsing fold on fold of flesh, and he staggered dramatically backwards a few paces as he stared aghast at the Favorite. "How can you, a noble prince, be kin to those blood-thirsty villains?"
Dumah paused again to turn and show his visitor his bruised backside. "For did they not tie me round with my own rope and smite me wickedly on my most tender parts?" The bone-dealer lightly touched his wounds and grimaced. "I had done them no evil. I even let them have my Ken'anites as slaves, if they would let me alone. Instead they drove off my men-servants into the wilderness, leaving me helpless. If I had not escaped by slipping off from their camp when they were busy shouting and brawling amongst themselves, no doubt the murderers would have left me food for eagles."
Deeply pained by the story, the Favorite followed Dumah's gaze and saw long-necked vultures crowding the upper walls of Shechem. His hands clenched the silver-trimmed saddle-blanket as he thought of the Ishmaelite's ordeal and the disgrace it had added to his father's name. With tears welling in his eyes, he then turned back to find the Ishmaelite was no longer indulging righteous indignation but observing him with sly amusement. Glancing about, the Favorite also saw many stray skulls, piles of whitish powder, heaps of sacks, and a pair of Ken'anite gods--ugly snake-tailed and goat-legged beings made of clay and painted red as Eder's Tower--standing by the well.
The bone-dealer's response was mock-amazement. "By Chillelu's cloven hoof!" he ejaculated, making a sour face. He bowed low to the Favorite, his naked backside, wide as an ox's, again showing to good advantage. "What is your name, O prince?" he said, running oily, fat fingers along the saddle-blanket as he gazed upwards with feigned humility. "Only royalty wears such wonderful things as you do!"
The Favorite looked down at the obscenely obese dwarf and was mortified to see how his bone-whitened hands fondled his things, as if he were appraising the value of every item, from the embroidery of his saddle-blanket to his gold-hemmed sleeves. Leaning his black, hairy paunch against his mule, the dwarf continued to gaze up at the Favorite with mingled impudence, envy, and puzzlement. Then he chuckled low in his throat and was no longer puzzled. "How , O prince, can you enjoy such fine things and not be first-born?"
The Favorite's face grew instantly pale, but he kept silence.
The Favorite would have turned away at that moment, but a fat hand had seized his mule's reins while its owner doubled over, snorting with laughter. Gasping for breath, he finally straightened up. “They call you 'that dreamer'!" Dumah hooted. "Tell me your fine dreams and oracles, O prince, and I will give you my own true interpretation!" Dumah again doubled over with laughter. When he had recovered and stood up again, the Favorite was ready to answer for himself.
"Yes, I am a dreamer of dreams, but not the breezy-headed fool you think!"
The bone-dealer turned suddenly grim. "Only a fool would dream mighty things for himself and then tell his elder brothers and the family's first-born how one day he would rule over them all!"
The dreamer had nothing at this point to deny. He was one against many, one who lived and breathed the Covenant, and the fact was so palpable it stopped the scoffer in his tracks. He simply gazed at Dumah, and the simple truth, as it must, defeated its cunning antagonist. It was Almighty God who had promised Ken’an to the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Ken’an’s people would be judged and dispossessed by God because of their shameless religion, but only if His people remained faithful and did not intermarry with the Ken’anites; if they did that they destroyed the Covenant and brought the judgment meant for the Ken’anites down upon themselves. Ken’an was to be God’s supernatural gift to His people; intermarriage would only corrupt God’s people and also cause divine judgment to befall them too.
"Tell me, which way did my brethren go?"
Disarmed and stripped of his evil spite, Dumah did not look up. Wondering if the Hebrew had cast a spell upon him, his mouth worked over the reply as if he had chewed bitter, raw mandrake, yet he answered with civility. "Dothan, a city of two wells, one good, the other blocked with bones. You will find it a couple days by donkey, north of her on a red hill in the Barren Lands."
The Favorite gave the caravaneer a final bow, then turned away with solemn if somewhat youthful dignity, the man-servant following in his train.
As if reluctant to see him go, the Ishmaelite waddled after them a few paces. "Watch out for the two-step vipers!" he shouted.
Then the bone-dealer returned to the business at hand--the sifting of bone-powders into bags of various gradings. The day was only half-gone, yet somehow it had darkened, thickly laden with a new and evil omen. A gusting wind swirled around him, chilling his perspiring bulk and throwing thick bone-dust in his face.
He stood idly for a moment, staring stupidly at the scurrying influx of dry and dusty sand-devils, panicky, itinerant plants that, before the onset of unusual drought, rolled up in balls and ran before the wind, seeking wetter, safer ground in which to root. Something other than imminent dearth was still bothering the Ishmaelite, even though the Hebrew princeling with his piercing, violet-tinted eyes had disappeared from view. Perhaps it had to do with his rejection by his own people, who loathed him for his gross deformity, driving him out--despite his first-born rights, so that he turned in desperation to a lucrative trade that made him all the more outcast--a witless, wind-tossed sand-devil that would never find a secure source of nourishment and rest. Suddenly feeling very thirsty, he lurched toward Jacob's well and drank deeply, but it was somehow unsatisfying stuff and he turned away with an oath, abusing the names of his goat-gods.
He flew close to the surface of one tumbling body the size of lost Jupiter and found cities shattered and pouring out smoke and flame. One starship had not made it off safely. It tumbled, its innards fully exposed, and Wally caught a glimpse of the crew--all dressed, incredibly, like Ancient Egyptians!
Flying to another galactic supercluster, he found the same devastation. First, the tsunamis roaring outwards from the multiple, galaxy-wide supernovas, then the flood of wreckage from stars and planets ripped apart in the same instant.
His first question had to be: why was OP trashing the Universe? Presumably, it was sawing off its own limb, which would seem to be a stupid thing to do. Yet the fact was that OP was terminating the Universe.
Now the cardinal principle of game theory had always been that you put yourself in the other player’s shoes to anticipate his reactions and, better yet, visualize his playing hand. Could this principle shed any light on OP’s motivation? It seemed to Wally that now, rather than back in Dr. Pikkard’s time, he had the advantage. Perhaps, he could discover something that could not be known previously, since there was so little data on Op available in the Game’s initial stages.
Encouraged by the possibility, Wally made a valiant effort to cogitate like OP, based on all its prior behavior over the last 3,987 years of the Wargame. As warm-up, he reflected how OP performed peculiarly like a Black Hole in some significant respects. Drawn inward, pressed into the lowest denominator of its selfhood like the singularity within the Black Hole shell, OP was the quintessence of subjectivity, like a snake chasing its own extremity as if it were a deadly rival. It was Subjectivity loosed upon the unsuspecting Objective Universe, knowing no objective restraints and subjecting everything to its own internal psychosis. The antithesis of OP was to give, and give: the principle of life. OP, on the other hand, if it gave, gave only so that it could later take back with compound interest. It must have its “pound of flesh.”
OP, then, was the principle of death and negation. How then did it get its seemingly invincible power? Like a Black Hole it had grown inwardly to the point where it could suck in an entire Universe, galaxy by galaxy Wally reflected that nearly four millennia had passed and the Wargame’s end was in sight--the destruction of the Universe!
Initially, the game was played by OP, a grisly match of solitaire, with the bystanders forming the pool of victims. That changed, of course, with Dr. Pikkard’s advent into the Game with his brilliant CASUS BELLI and computerized strategy. Yet afterwards OP continued on as before and proceeded to the point of total eradication of the Universe.
How frustrating to view! Yet Wally doggedly continued with his analysis on how OP “thought,” if that word could be used of so intense and inward a subjectivity. He arrived at a set of operating principles that seemingly guided and energized OP’s past behavior:
1. Everything but Myself, all Not-Me (N-M), must be destroyed; I alone am entitled to exist;
2. I must never give N-M the advantage of knowing I exist or what I intend to do;
3. If N-M should happen to discover My existence, I will:
a. divert N-M’s desires and thought-patterns into self-destructive channels;
b. use N-M for My purposes but let N-M think it is serving its own;
c. destroy N-M when it is no longer useful;
4. Since there is nothing new that I do not already know, repeat, step by step, everything I have done before to achieve My goal of exterminating N-M.
Wally understood, then, that OP had remained consistent and faithful to its program. Where, if that was so, was its weakness, if any? Number 4! At that point, OP reversed linearity--a necessary element of any living organism or evolving entity from microbe to Galactic Supercluster. Op was the antithesis of Linearity! Endlessly repeating, OP necessarily drove human development and culture backwards. But why weren’t stars de-evolved as well?
But they were! OP was endlessly and methodically re-creating the first moments of the Universe’s creation in supernova after supernova. It wasn’t striving to create anything, merely to return everything to its original state--surely evidence of a sick and tormented genius that refused to accept change and development! Dr. Pikkard, after all, had identified this particular aspect of OP. How then was Number 4 “weak”? Well, Dr. Pikkard had said:
“Now as to the key that I have discovered. OP cannot learn from the past and must repeat. Endowed with tremendous powers, it always assumes it will win, though it is capable of entertaining a doubt in order to eliminate any possibility of not winning. Able to operate in the ‘forbidden category,’ its actions, nevertheless, are delimited by its assumption of invincibility. Knowing this, we can play the Game with reasonable expectation of winning...”
“But the sub-file programmer just earmarked my own short-comings too!” thought Wally. “I am no good in qualitative categories like ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion.’ It simply isn’t in my programming to be that way!”
It seemed to Wally he was severely handicapped, something Dr. Pikkard had foreseen and tried to account for. Yet so far as Wally knew, the sub-file programmer had left him nothing practical to use against OP when it carried the Game into the “forbidden category.” He knew he had only got through the Roman era by the skin of his teeth. “Something Else” had intervened at key points and kept him in the Game; it had nothing to do with his own feeble efforts, he knew. That sudden end of the Roman Empire, for example, was totally unexpected! He had fully expected to see the second Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth, suffer a most terrible death.
Would that “Something Else” intervene in the future? Wally wondered. But why wasn’t it doing anything about the current destruction? Could he stop what was going on in the inner Universe from spreading to zones further out?
Flying out to see, he was utterly discouraged. In each galaxy he found the red star had done its homework well. In the case of civilized worlds and star systems, OP had already wormed its way in and produced utter havoc. Civilizations, some spanning a billion years of development, burned and exploded, one after the other as Wally helplessly watched. A910, A910, A1146, A1514, Indus, Ton, Hercules, and other galactic clusters and superclusters were finished. The zone of destruction spread outwards rapidly to a range of 5 billion light years--clearly a sign that OP was up to his old tricks, which could be described as a python’s strategy of ‘encircle and squeeze.’
Two billion light-years distant lay the galactic cluster of 3C 295 and Earth. Could he stop what was happening in time? Wally wondered. He returned to Earth, deeply troubled, aware that OP was dealing the cards. It was well he did, for he had a role to play that not even he could foresee.
Following a few yards behind Joseph, very much discouraged, he kept Jacob’s favorite son company, chiefly because he hadn’t any idea what else he could do.
Knowing for certain that he had been chosen first among his holy Hebrew people and nation, even first as God's representative among the heathen kings of the land, the Favorite thought of his future responsibilities as he rode the fine, white mule. After all, Abba Jacob was old and feeble, and he spoke almost every day of his extreme weariness of life and desire to be gathered to the peace of his fathers, with Abraham in the cave of Machpelah at Hebron.
Weeds grew thickly on the road itself, and the heavily-forested country took on a more disorderly and lawless appearance as he pressed on with his man-servant toward Dothan. It made little impression on the Favorite, however, as his mind filled with daydream after daydream of a golden Patriarchal dominion, rejoicing assemblies of the people, and abundant flocks spread out on every hill and mountain in the land.
How beautiful Ken'an, promised to the Hebrew line by Almighty God, would be under his sovereign rule as Patriarch! Of course, the idolatrous peoples of the land would be driven out or made subject. Because of their wickedness, God had declared their lands and possessions holy Israel's. Reflecting that he had turned seventeen, the Favorite judged that it was but a short time before he came into full inheritance of all that the Lord God and his father had promised.
The Favorite's heart thrilled as he gazed about the passing country and considered that all of it would soon pass into his hands, to rule over, to sow with bread-corn, to graze his flocks upon. Enchanted by the thought, he did not take notice of the signs that a maurading band of uncivilized tribesmen had recently passed that same way.
Here and there on the hillsides ran bands of feral goats that knew no master, and wandering, miserable sheep without shepherd and sheepfold, preyed upon by every wolf, leopard, and lion.
He was given a rude awakening, however, farther on. In a strangely quiet village, where no sound of women grinding bread-corn on stone querns could be heard, he found a well blocked up with stones and rotting donkey carcasses. Fire-blacked houses gaped open at the doors. The only thing surviving the unknown attackers was a large Ken'anite inn. Its newly-painted walls and roof were intact, unlike every other building in the village. But the inn's doors were bolted shut.
Wondering what had happened, the Favorite took leave of the ruined village.
He paused to look curiously at an unattended orchard of valuable figs, which ordinarily would be watched day and night during harvest-time, but it was now blanketed thickly with bats, a squeaking multitude of them, busily stripping away the precious fruits with their fangs.
The country beyond held even stranger sights. A Ken'anite farmer at an isolated farmstead that showed only smoke-stained walls. The farmer himself was standing in his walled vineyard with his women and little ones. While the children wept and clung to the mother, the father cursed and kicked at the dusty turf in his helpless fury. All his fruit-bearing vines had been stripped to the ground by either a plague of passing locusts or runaway sheep and goats.
At that point, no one, not even the following butterfly, could have seen the very deep hole that opened up beneath the ground ahead. With only a thin crust covering it, the hidden crevasse waited for the unsuspecting traveller. Joseph was a few feet from stepping into his doom when a strange thing happened. The ground, which had been sucked out, was suddenly restored. Instead of plunging into a cavern, Joseph’s mule tripped over a stretch of road that, a moment before, would have given way to a hole over a hundred feet deep.
Joseph continued on, and the same thing was repeated. A unseen chasm yawned beneath the path, then when the Hebrew youth was about to topple the earth flew back into position just in time to save his life.
Yet a third time it happened, with the same results. Further on, in a valley that boasted one of the last walled cities in the region, a rich landowner and his large crew of hired laborers were dancing amidst just garnered mounds of grain on a big threshing floor. Women accompanied the merry-makers with timbrels and Mizraimite hand-clappers. They called out to the Favorite, seeing his beautiful robes and white mule, but he remembered his father's wise words and continued.
Beyond the well-fortified city the Favorite came upon huge, somber hillsides. A pile of rocks hung above the trail, an avalanche waiting to happen. Not seeing any danger, Joseph did not hesitate a moment and converged on the very spot where the rocks, if they fell, would cover him in an instant.
Oddly enough, his mule darted off the path and took him up the adjacent hillside before descending again to the path. It happened so quickly Joseph did not have time to react. Once back on the path, Joseph decided to do nothing and they continued on.
They came to ancient ruins and an entire plain covered with bones and smashed chariot wheels. Everything had the appearance of having happened many years before his time. He knew his great-grandfather Abraham might have known of the destroyers of such great and royal cities. A great warrior, he had attacked at night and overrun the baggage camp of four invading kings to rescue Lot his nephew; but Abba Abraham, as the elders reckoned the time, had been laid to rest in the cave of Machpelah ninety-two years.
The travellers stopped to rest on the chariot-strewn plain. The Favorite was still thinking on Abraham, how he had taken his son Isaac and was about to sacrifice him--some said by God's command--on an altar on Mount Moriah near Jebus when the Almighty suddenly provided a ram. The Favorite wondered how no elder among the people could explain it. The event was so fearsome and unusual, however, that people still talked about it, as if it had happened the other day. His peace-loving Grandfather Isaac, residing now without Rebecca at Beersheba, himself related the story as if he were still the youth he had been on Mount Moriah, though over 150 years had passed since Abraham's strange deed and God's wonderful provision. And he still grieved for his mother Sarah, who never recovered from the shock of the near-sacrifice, afterwards dying prematurely at 127 years of age.
The Favorite, while he was meditating on divine mystery, sat on a piece of Shinar carpet, sheltered from the blowing dust and occasional sand-devil by the car of an over-turned chariot. His man-servant served bread and cheese from the panniers carried by his donkey. There was even some figs and honey-cake.
Nevertheless, the old battlefield (if that was what it was) felt oppressive in spirit and unpleasant to youth far from home. It reminded him of a vast grave, so that he did not spend much time later getting through it. Again, he could not know that from miles away a river was headed his way. Fed by a sudden melting of ice and snow in the mountains, it was thundering down a ravine that he had to cross to get to Shechem.
As they travelled, the Favorite noticed that the weather was treacherously changeable, as if it were affected by the same forces that had effectively desolated the once rich and productive land. Strong and opposing winds struck at the Favorite, wrenching and pulling his clothes. Several times his man- servant had to go and retrieve the Favorite's royal turban, plucked from his head by rough and violent gusts.
After several such upsets, his peacock crest was ruined, the plumes broken off and snatched away by the winds.
In a wooded defile dividing two steep cliffs, the Favorite stopped his mule to examine signs of more violence. Everywhere on the narrow path lay human and animal remains, all mostly picked clean by vultures. Broken shafts of spent darts littered the blood-stained ground. There was even a rare Keftiuan conch shell, carved in intricate designs and figures of women and bulls, broken in half on a rock.
Realizing he was looking at an ambushed caravan, he felt chilled at heart. The urgent words of his father pressed all the more on his mind, and looking about most carefully they hurried to get free of the evil place. It was well for him that he left quickly. An avalanche had fallen ahead of the oncoming flood, delaying it just enough for Joseph to escape drowning. As he reached the other side and was climbing upwards, he heard a roar and turned and saw a huge wave of mud, water, and uprooted trees sweep through the defile. His hair stood on end as he gazed at it and realised how close death had come.
The Favorite reached Dothan at high noon, two days out from Shechem. Aptly described by the bone-dealer, its towering mound was of red earth and rock, while beneath stretched a level, dull-brown plain shimmering with middday heat. Water-bearing clouds cut off by the mountains, evergreen oaks followed the channels of a few, trickling brooks and springs. It was a poor very place to find forage for Jacob's flocks, he saw at once.
Questions crowded one another in his mind as he moved in closer to the city. Despite the famous song that told of love and betrayal in Dothan, there was no sign of life there now. Nothing moved on the weed-choked road up to the city perched high on the red hill. He could see at a glance that the area had not yet received any early rain, so that its grass was as scanty and no better than at Hebron.
In the shadow of the hill he found a band of roistering hirelings, local Ken'anites, avidly playing knucklebones while hungry flocks searched the bare ground in the heat of the day. He could not mistake his father's sheep and goats. None of the peoples of the land had such flocks. Jacob, while serving his Uncle Laban in Hauran, after being tricked by Ladan into marrying Leah and working an additional seven years for his beloved Rachel, had asked for only sports as wages, and Laban had laughed long at Jacob's expense and granted his request. Soon Laban's flocks were producing few of the regular kind, but Jacob's ring-straked, spotted, and piebald sheep and goats quickly bred into enormous flocks that made him the wealthiest man among the Hebrew tribes.
Passing by the hirelings, the Favorite turned up the road leading to the city. His mule, strong as he was, was exhausted by the steepness of the climb. When they finally reached level ground, they stopped to rest, just below the massive city walls nearest the burned gates. Seeking nearby shade under an oak, the Favorite was surprised to find a flock of fatted lambs penned in a tiny sheepfold.
The Favorite stared at the lambs. He turned to his companion, the old man-servant, who shook his head, confirming his own suspicion. But where were his brethren? the Favorite wondered, peering through the open gates. Where they somewhere within, sleeping off the noontide heat?
Suddenly, a man darted out of the rubble of a nearby guard-house just inside the first gate. "Stop! Thief!" Simeon hissed, a viper-venomed dart targeted on the Favorite's breast. "A just God had forsaken you and delivered you up to us at last!"
Simeon gave his bewildered brother no time to think. He wrenched away the Favorite's turban, then his gold chain and signet, flinging them to the dirty ground.
From old habit, the Favorite's man-servant rushed to retrieve the princely blue turban, lest it be smudged with red dust. Simeon let his dart fly, and the old man took two steps and collapsed with a shrill shriek.
Simeon turned back leisurely to the Favorite who stared at him with amazement and horror. "Well did your father call you a man of violence!" the Favorite gasped.
When in times to come the Favorite could not sleep and his former life returned to torment him, he re-lived each thing that happened outside Dothan's gate, until the final event, the closing of the mouth of the Pit over his head, at which point he always leaped to his feet and shuddered in horror. His brethren, however, fully intended to kill him at the gate and be done with it. Shouting and cursing, Levi and the others, all except Reuben, ran to join Simeon in the crime. One pushed the old man over the cliff. Others pulled the Favorite from his mount to the ground, falling upon him there with fists and clubs. Someone was smashing his skull when Simeon called them off. Into a mess of ripe sheep dung Simeon thrust the Favorite's face. After tiring of this game, Simeon ordered him stripped of the Birthright robe.
The handmaids' sons seized upon the Favorite's two sleeves. Rousing himself, the Favorite cried out with a loud voice. "Brethren, why do you take something which is mine?" he pleaded. "Was it not given to me by our beloved father? You must not shame me, the son of Jacob and my mother Rachel!"
Simeon spat out a curse, striking the Favorite in the face with all his might. "Never name that harlot in my camp again!" Simeon shouted. "We all know how vile she acted with a Philistine trader in Hauran, begetting you and Benjamin like a bitch’s whelps in the gutter! I saw everything. So you have no right to lord it over us, the rightful sons and heirs of Jacob. No bastard of Rachel's will ever bear the Birthright among us!"
In this manner the robe was taken away. Making no further resistance, Joseph lay face down on ground that was now spattered with his own blood. Victorious, his brethren were again about to dispose of him but they were distracted by long-standing rivalries. Several fights broke out over the spoils. The dominant sons of Leah a Chief Wife were pitted against the lower-born hand-maids' sons. Robe, turban, belt, signet and chain, lyre, rings, and other valuables exchanged hands, violently, a number of times.
As five sons of Leah battled four half-brothers, with another rivalry between Judah and the Simeon complicating the fray, there was little progress either way until Simeon got in the way of Judah's fist and his nose suffered a further eclipse. While everyone was diverted by his screaming, Joseph began to revive and watch for an opportunity to escape.
His chance soon came when the sly Simeon ceased his theatrics, seized the robe, and made for the gate with Levi fending off Gad and Asher. As the rest rushed in a howling pack after Simeon, Joseph arose and began running for his life, down the steep descent to the plain. He had almost reached open country, where his remaining youthful vigor might have prevailed over his older brothers had not Judah been among their number. He had just returned from a conjugal visit to Chezib, an Adullamite village near the coast. Unequalled for swiftness and stamina, the fourth-born, never forgetting the Birthright should have gone to him, ran Joseph down. He chased him into a potsherd dump at the base of Dothan's hill.
Now this was the notorious Vale of Hibishu, a deep ditch always in shade, devoted to the service of a foul goat-goddess. Even since the destruction of Dothan, it remained a favorite site for child burnings and the assignations of local robbers plotting robberies and murders. Several hyenas hanging about in the brush and stinkweed at the entrance ran off as the two chief rivals for the Birthright entered and raced round several times before the prey was firmly in hand.
Joseph struggled and gasped for breath once his waist was locked in Judah's powerful arms. With an oath, Judah flung Joseph to the ground before his brothers, who came running with clubs in their hands.
"Let us slay him here!" cried Gad. Without any more encouragement, they fell upon him as Judah looked on with grim satisfaction. But it was not to be. From behind a tall mound of rubbish at the far end of the vale Reuben stepped forth, and the brothers, seeing him, dropped their clubs. Only Simeon had the presence of mind to let Joseph go with a curse.
He stood back, glaring at the first-born, still holding his club as Reuben solemnly approached.
"So you have been skulking down here all day, no doubt mooning about your lady love!" Simeon sneered--normally a dangerous abuse of a first-born. Reuben, ignoring him, faced his brothers with his right of the first-born to be heard and obeyed. “Let us not take a brother's life," he declared to them. He bent over to touch the head of his staff to Joseph's bleeding forehead. "Shed no more of his blood," he said with authority sufficient to preserve Joseph's life temporarily, "but cast him instead in Dothan's Pit."
Now Reuben had always disliked the thought of murdering Joseph with violence. Though no friend of Joseph's, he intended to set him free from the Pit at the first opportunity. A man of little imagination, he had been quick to think of it when he heard it was Joseph his brothers had captured, but what might happen after that he had no idea. Nor had he previously given Joseph's coming to Dothan any serious thought. Since coming to Dothan, and all that particular day, he had enjoyed Hibishu's cooling shade while mooning over his lost Bilhah's charms.
"Cast him then in the well, that he not rise again," growled Simeon, and it was done. The brothers, cursing the first-born under their breath, dragged Joseph back up the road into Dothan. There he was thrown in the dry well. The once-splendid Favorite lay in the dark depths, uttering groans from time to time, his whole frame wrenched joint from joint. Wounded and gashed from head to foot, covered with filth and gore, he sprawled helplessly on a pile of Dothanite bones, of men and beasts.
As soon as the provisions were taken out of the baskets, there was fighting anew over shares of the fine bread, cheese, and honey-cake. Reuben grimaced at the sight of their bad manners, took his princely share, and went off to enjoy it in a more solitary place, the ruined citadel of the kings of Dothan. Also, there he knew he would be free to think of Bilhah and how she must be pining away in her tent for want of him.
Simeon was as unsympathetic as a man with both wife and lover could be, and he spat contemptuously as he watched Reuben again make his escape. Seizing a double share of provisions at the expense of his four half-brothers, he went to lie down in the shade of the black, goat-hair tent that sheltered them and their goods.
He belched luxuriantly. "As good a bread as my wife prepares for me at home, and not a bit stale from the long journey!" he marveled. "Well, that brat of Rachel's was good for something in this forsaken place!"
A faint cry issued from the choked mouth of the Pit. Enjoying their fine lunch, the brothers paid no attention. There was even imported Babelite beer to wash down the Mizraimite honey-cake.
The meal was leisurely and enjoyed by all despite the audible groans of the brother expiring in the Pit. Simeon kept the peace by portioning out honey-comb for them to chew on after they had finished eating.
Judah glanced uneasily at the Pit each time there was a sound. He refused Simeon's honey-comb, throwing his share to Gad and Asher, who leaped on the sweet like half-starved curs.
Often he looked about as if he expected someone to burst in upon their tranquility. Startling his brothers, he suddenly leaped to his feet and prowled back and forth outside the tent.
He thrust his head back inside.
"Caravaneers," he said quietly.
"How can you tell that?" said Simeon. He shot out of the tent, cursing. "Impossible!"
Judah did not wait for him. He ran toward the city wall, springing up the bone-littered stone steps that led to the ramparts.
Simeon turned in protest to his frightened brethren. "Only manslayers and robbers would risk snakebite coming up to these old ruins!"
Uncomforted by his remarks, a hubbub of excited fears broke out in the tent. No one could think what to do.
Simeon alone had an idea. He sent two half-brothers down to the plain, hoping they might see exactly what they were up against. Then he joined Judah on the wall.
A while later the two exhausted runners returned, their faces pouring sweat down their robes. "Sons of Ishmael!" gasped Dan. "We are finished! They're as many as we are!"
At this bad news, Simeon let out a special oath he had heard in Ken'anite circles, in his lover's home at Kiriath-Arba.
The bravest of the handmaids' sons, Dan got his courage back with his breath and spoke again. "I only wish I had taken my bow, for we could have caught them easily enough in an ambush, just as we did those saucy-tongued Ken'anite traders on the road from Shechem."
But the brothers looked from one to the other with dismay and hopelessness in their faces. They knew what their chances were of surviving a face-to-face confrontation in the open with their bitter enemies.
Asher staggered forward. "Oh!" he said, halting abruptly. He had a sheepish expression as he looked about. From beneath his robe a yellowish puddle spread across the red earth.
Simeon darted over and gave him a shove and kick that sent him flying. But Asher would not be put off so easily. He came cringing back, wringing his hands and wailing loudly. "Now they'll kill us in this defiled place, and we'll all be cast down with Rachel's brat in the Pit of Dothan!"
This was too much for Simeon, boiling his normally sluggish blood. He swung his club at the weeping Asher and just missed smashing his half-brother's forehead as Asher collapsed on the ground. He seized Asher's hair instead, and Asher had a lot of uncut hair, twisting it into an oily rope.
"Shut up, you fool! As for those stinking, thieving traders, Dothan is completely off their donkey track. So it's not likely they'll be coming all the way up here when they're headed to a city and a market-place."
His brothers received this more hopefully, and Simeon released Asher and wiped his hand on his robe with disgust.
Only Asher found no likelihood in Simeon's explanation. He fled back into the tent and rummaged for his mislaid weapons. The heaps of stolen saddle-blankets, bales of fine linen, and other caravan stuff they had taken made it difficult for him to find his own things. As he tore through the masses of goods, he continued to wail confusedly out of control. "Yes, indeed, why should they be coming up here where they are most unwanted! Ken'an is our very own land of milk and honey. God promised it to us Hebrews. So our holy fathers have said! Perhaps the traders have lost their way, being new to this region. This could bring trouble on our heads if they know what we did to one of their kind in Shechem. Woe, woe, woe! Perhaps we ought to have left that pretty, little village alone! And why did we have to punish those young shepherd-boys when they cursed us for taking some of their sheep? Now where is Prince Reuben when we desperately need him? He must go and speak to them and get them to leave honest men alone. After all, it's his fault that we've come to this place. Heaven knows he ruined himself by going into poor Dan and Napthali's mother on father's bed! Yet Elder Brother is first-born, and I hate Rachel's brat. Let Simeon be our Prince if he must. He can speak to the traders. He is so cunning and will surely prevail over them. He always knows what to say and do. But perhaps our father will send someone to inquire of that dreamer if we do not do something quick! Simeon, we are lost, you must save us!"
Asher, clutching bow, quiver, and darts, rushed from the tent to find Simeon, but Simeon would have nothing to do with him. Left to his terrors, the half-brother spun about frantically, then seeing no help among his brothers ran to the wall to see what Judah was still observing. He gave a little moan of anguish, again wetting himself, as he saw the dust cloud coiling upwards toward Dothan. Running back down to the camp, he threw his arms about wildly to get attention, crying out, "Holy brethren, listen to me! Perhaps we ought to pull Joseph out now, tell him we are sorry and let everything be as before?"
Tears gushing from his eyes, Asher stood looking from face to face, begging them to set Joseph free at once.
Judah had followed Asher down from the wall. He seized him from behind, clapping a hand over Asher's mouth as he held him fast by his filthy hair.
Asher groaned and struggled for a bit, then subsided. "Misbegotten son of Zilpah, if you're so worried about our father finding us out, or the Ishmaelites making war on us, why not do business with them instead? Why not sell them the sneaking, little baggage? They'd much rather do business than have to fight us for our possessions!"
Simeon stared at Judah with astonishment. "But you were all for killing the brat, or at least letting him die down there in the Pit!" Simeon protested. "Why have you changed your mind?"
Judah let the whimpering Asher drop, who fell to the ground and lay at Judah's feet, bathing them with his tears and wiping at them with his greasy robe.
Judah gave an oath and with considerable distaste stepped away, confronting only Simeon. "These Ishmaelites are probably just thieving traders and occasional slavers," Judah explained. "Armed raiders would ride horses and carry swords. We have nothing to fear. If we treat them civilly, they will buy this tale-bearer and sell him somewhere afar, and we'll never hear of him again."
Levi was first to see that Judah's plan would work. They were saved! Joy lighting his face, he began dancing. He leaped with a dancer's agility, spinning as he flew into the air. His brothers stared at him, wondering what fit had overtaken his senses.
"Li li li!" the dancer cried, still leaping and spinning about his brethren. "Simeon and Judah, chief sons of Leah, your names be praised forever! Yes, let us sell him and make him profit us all the more! Li li li--"
The brothers now realized that Judah's plan, which Levi was celebrating, had the best chance of saving the day, if not their lives. Hope sprang up anew in their eyes and faces. Captivated by Levi's dancing, his robe flying up his hairy thighs as they joyfully cheered him on, they were soon disappointed when Simeon caught the dancer and put an end to the frolic as quickly as it had begun. "Brethren! Have you lost your wits senses? We have important business on our hands. Later, we can dance and eat and drink all we want."
His words had an immediate effect. Sobered, the brethren gave him their attention as he continued. "Now hear me, noble sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! Surely you know it was my chosen way to slit that dreamer's silly throat as he deserved back in Hebron, and even at Eder; but two of the brethren present in this camp prevented it, saying we might lure him to a safer place, some wilderness or dead city where no one would ever come, not even to spit." Simeon paused to spit, then swung his arms toward the tall ruins of the once proud and royal citadel nearest the camp. "So here we are in this stinking Dothan, with that dreamer still alive in the Pit and our enemies fast approaching!"
He paused again to glare toward the ruined tower where Reuben was even then dreaming of Bilhah's willing breasts, then turned on Judah with renewed venom. "Since it was the fourthborn who prevented what was best in the first case, and then the firstborn who proposed that we cast him in the Pit, it is for me, the third-born, to claim both their shares of the coming sale and that dreamer's double inheritance!"
Now this had been Simeon's plan from the beginning. It only needed time to be worked out to this fine degree. Knowing quite well he had been passed over by the Patriarch because of Shechem, he felt certain to get what he wanted, regardless, or he would not have dared to throw this final provocation in his rival's face as he seized his main chance.
As planned, Levi stood ready at Judah's back to run him through with his knife. All Simeon need do was give a certain sign. The camp fell deathly silent as the implications of Simeon's proposal sank in. Zebulun and Issachar, never stout supporters of Simeon's blood-lettings, yet reluctantly joining because of the spoils, began to slide a safe distance away from the third and fourthborn.
As usual, the handmaids' son stood apart from Simeon and Judah's squabbles, watching in fear for their own safety. Unsuited for fighting in the open, they could provide no help to either rival for the Birthright, but just the same they would be quick to fall upon the defeated, if he could be easily overcome due to exhaustion or wounds.
The silence deepened in the camp as Judah still made no move in response to Simeon. At least it seemed so, yet eyes widened in surprise when they saw he was armed, when a moment before he had not been. A truly frightening man, he had a gift for swiftness, cunning, and stealth that belonged more to an lion than a man. His dangerous gifts served him well even now.
Simeon's face drained of color when he saw Judah had his shearing knife drawn and was able to keep an eye on both brothers. A covert sign to Levi, in that circumstance, was pointless, having lost initial advantage. Now they must both fight Judah openly--an unthinkable prospect that made them both hang back in alarm.
When Judah spoke to Simeon, it was in the same quiet way he always spoke to those he judged grossly inferior, and he judged rightly, for none were superior to him in mind and strength combined. "You foreskin of a Ken'anite! No donkey dropping such as you is going to strip my rightful share! If we had done as you foolishly desired, we would all have been found out long ago! Surely, if we had done as you directed, our sire would have discovered our folly by catching us with the brat's blood on our hands!"
"Liar!" sputtered the flustered Simeon, who had begun perspiring in streams down the front of his robe. “He’ll never know a thing, unless you tell him! And if you do that I’ll tell him all about that Ken’anite sow you have grunting for love of you down in that pigsty, Chezib! Ha! Who are you to call me dirty names? You yourself have taken a wife among the uncircumcisied and have sired uncircumcised sons on her! At least my brats are circumcised!”
Judah, his face coloring, moved closer in to his opponents. “Who told you that? I’ll pluck out the tongue that’s spreading the poison! And what about you and that woman in Kiriath-arba? Even if you think it’s the only way to possess this land, you could at least wallow with the pigs out of sight of our father!”
Unabashed at Simeon’s charges, Judah moved even closer.
Finally, Simeon threw down his own knife and Levi instantly followed suit. Smiling broadly and extending his palms, he offered peace and goodwill to the enraged fourthborn. "Shalom! My dear brother, have it your way then! I may have acted a little greedy. We will all do as you say in this matter. Only suffer me to handle certain little details. Reuben's inheritance, as it stands, would not buy an ostrich or pelican untimely cast from its shell. He will always be dependent on us, after our father has gone to Machpelah. So if we must keep the puling wretch alive, let him take his miserable share of the sale! That jackass will surely get nothing else after romping with our father's ewe! Abba never forgets such things, as we know. Someday he will speak his mind and Reuben will hear unpleasant things. But we do not have all day to spend in silly women's talk!"
Levi cupped his hand over Simeon's ear as he whispered something. Simeon gave him an appreciative glance before addressing the others. "As your dear brother suggests, there's still time, brethren, to go and lie privily by the gate with our bows. Go then, Dan, Levi, and whoever else wants to shed their worthless blood! That way we will take more than the sale price from them."
Judah smiled with pity for such wonderful stupidity and shook his head. "No, do not even think of such folly. You know nothing at all about them, Elder Brother, if you think it that easy. Simple violence will never work with these Ishmaelites, as it did with those Ken'anite shepherds and the traders. If we should slay all but one son of Ishmael, and that one escape to spread word of it to his brethren, they will never rest, the whole swarming viperish brood of them, until they find and drag each and every one of us down to Sheol! No, we will only win out if we match cunning with greater cunning!"
As ever when Judah spoke from his instinctive knowledge of men's hearts, the whole camp sensed instinctively that his words were well-taken, spurned at the peril of their lives. So now they grunted in agreement, and Simeon, who really valued only violence and treachery, again had to give way. He left the tent with a sour face and went to check on the Ishmaelite caravan's progress.
A short time later he strode back to camp, his haughtiness and self-confidence restored as if Judah had never put his wisdom to naught. "Men of Israel!" Simeon addressed them, puffing out his tall, thin chest. "We must now sanctify ourselves, put away any alien gods among us, and prepare for meeting the uncircumcised sons of that worthless cast-a-way, Ishmael."
Having triumphed by his superior reasoning powers, Judah sat down, while the others rushed about witlessly as Simeon fired orders at them in rapid succession, compounding their own confusion as they hastened to retrieve weapons and take their various stations. "Stir the pot well, Simeon!" he laughed. "Only it might be wise to serve that dreamer up to the Ishmaelites while he still has breath in in his carcass! And don't forget to set a close guard on our flocks, lest the Foreskinned run off with the double portion instead of the rightful heirs!" With that last word of advice, Judah lay his head against a bale of stolen linen and waited for the Ishmaelites.
Simeon paused in his frantic activities once to look at him, gave a snort of disgust, and turned back to ordering his excited brethren about.
Always quick to spoil best laid plans, Asher began to shriek and shed tears. "I still want to know one thing, Simeon! Just what do those sand-devils want by coming up here? Alas, will they not wreak God's vengeance upon us for we we have done to our brother? Surely, we have heaped sorrow and sack- cloth forever upon our poor father's gray head. He will sink down to Sheol years before his time! How I hate the son of Rachel! Why should such as he be the Favorite? Why was he chosen to lord it over us, his elders, or wear royal colors like a great prince while we all go about in black or tan like stinking goats? His mother--that uppity ewe with the strange color to her eyes--was no better than ours! Are we not sprung from the same fountain? Let that dreamer's horrid dreams perish forever! But if our sire should find out that we have sold--" Asher would have wailed on, but Simeon seized him by the hair.
"Shut up, crybaby!" He would have punished him severely but Asher spun out of his grip.
His dirty fingers--Asher never washed and was in terror of water ever since he threw himself in Jacob's well at Shechem--tore at his hair, wrenching out clots of hair and scalp in anguish. He was having another fit, all could see. They all were familiar with how he abused himself when he was in that state. He became a witless beast, or something that had been human but was no longer, with eyes bulging with terror as his body twisted and thrashed out of control on sharp rocks or burning embers of open fires. "Do you not see them, brethren?" Asher cried out. "Do you not see them looking at us?"
Now Asher imagined that he again saw the people they had slain in the sack of Shechem. Young and old had screamed for mercy, the men and boys lying newly circumcised and helpless in their beds, as they set upon them all with sheep shearing knives, axes, clubs, and even scythes. Jamming his fist into his own mouth and chewing hard on it, Asher was going through his usual antics when Levi, who knew Asher's madness well, boxed Asher's head mercilessly to drive out the afflicting, mad spirit.
As this was happening, the last thing on their minds was the soul they had consigned to the Pit.
They all reacted as if they had been thrust through with curving Ishmaelite daggers. Even the self-assured Judah was taken aback. Only Simeon broke loose from the chains of the spell the cry had cast on them. He staggered in a blind fury over to the Pit's mouth, heaving aside the timbers. Thrusting his head in, he shouted down to the occupant. "Shut your filthy lips, tale-bearer! Better keep quiet, or feel the kiss of my shearing knife!"
He returned to camp, and the wretched Asher made the mistake of crossing his path just then. Throwing his half-brother to the ground, Simeon began throttling him in earnest. "As for you, worm of Jacob--"
Simeon had no human pity, pressing his knee against Asher's throat until his face purpled and spittle and blood ran from his mouth. Meanwhile, Asher's brother and half-brothers looked on anxiously. Though united in the misery of being hand-maids' sons, thus despised by the sons of Leah, they feared Simeon's wrath though together they, not Simeon, were the stronger. One turned to him with placating hands outstretched.
"Leave him alone, dear brother," Gad ventured. "The mad one means nothing by his wild words. I know his heart, and he hates that dreamer as much as you do. Let him alone and he will be return to his right mind again and be quiet."
Simeon cursed and reluctantly removed his knee from Asher's throat. Asher turned over on his face groaning and gasping like one expiring. When he revived a bit, he crawled out from the camp and lay inert, face-down in the dirt. Simeon looked about, his face still flushed with his effort to subdue Asher. A stiff vapor must have wafted over him, for he clapped a hand over the remnant of his nose and looked for the source. But it was his hands, soiled with Asher's filth and terror, that were the culprits. Seizing a water-skin, he washed vigorously, with many a curse at Asher's expense, before turning back to business. He glanced pitward. Then, appreciately, at Judah. "Soon Asher and that dreamer will smell alike if we do not sell him quickly. You have heard him cry out. He cannot last much longer down there without a drop of water."
He eyed his brothers carefully for a moment, sensing that much depended upon what he said next. The lids of his hooded eyes closed and then opened narrowly as he smiled with split lips. "Judah is right. Whether he dies from thirst or pit vipers, he'll soon be stinking, worthless carrion. Now let us act valiantly like Hebrews! This is our land! God is with us! Did we not rise up and destroy that vile prince, Shechem, for defiling our virgin sister Dinah? They paid the full price for having polluted our sister! Well, then, who will dare work ruin on us here after that brave and glorious deed? So take courage, men, the traders will not dare pluck a hair from our holy heads. We must take this chance to sell him quickly, not as one of us, heaven forbid, but a heathen Philistine. Ishmaelites may curse our name with every breath they take, but I know they will relish the idea of buying a foreign fish-eater from the coastland. Able-bodied, tall, young, handsome of face, that dreamer is worth at least a donkey's price--twenty pieces of sweet silver. Holy brethren, that is two full pieces for each of us!"
All nodding sagely in agreement, all conveniently forgetting that Joseph's young brother Benjamin was also entitled to a share, the company of Hebrews noisely threw arms of restored fellowship around each other, forgot their recent brawling like tried and true diplomats, and got on with the business at hand--the Ishmaelites! Again the brethren were dwelling together in precious unity--just in time.
Their enemies were now hard at the gates of Dothan.
But "--twenty pieces of sweet silver"! "--two full pieces for each of us"! Truly, it was a wonderful speech for Simeon, summoning all the viciously cold blood in his serpentine veins and some of the superlative cunning he so admired in Judah, his chief rival for the spoils of Jacob's crumbling Patriarchy. By his own words, he blindly sealed for himself and the Hebrew nation to an unknown destiny.
Overcome by the thought he was blood brother to such great men, Levi was beside himself and wanted badly to dance again. Victory, close at hand, pulsed in his blood and could not be denied. But the time of dancing was yet to come, a time so close upon them it could almost be felt like solid silver coinage, or warm, passionate, human flesh
And so the brothers of Joseph wove their web for the prey.
Should he intervene? he wondered. Joseph, he knew, was a linchpin of some kind. If he stumbled and was ruined by the things presently happening to him, the whole course of human development might jump the track. All those blessings Father Jacob would grant his son, “blessings of the deep, blessings of the breasts and the womb,” and “blessings of heaven” would go begging for a taker. But how could he help Joseph? When?
And how was he to stop what was happening to the Universe if he got too much entangled in Joseph’s affairs?
“It’s most exasperating!” thought Wally. “If I save Joseph, I may lose the Universe. But if I lose Joseph, I may lose Earth and the Wargame!”
Meanwhile, the starfleet of refugees neared Earth without Wally’s knowing.
Tactfully, no one else mentioned him either.
Asher, however, was less tongue-tied about the Patriarch.
"Wait, what about our beloved sire?" he shrieked, fighting free of his brothers.
He rushed back into the inner council of Leah's sons. "What will we tell him when he sends for his Favorite and finds he has disappeared off the earth? My brothers, we will never be able to explain this to our father!"
Simeon shrugged and gave a sign to Levi, who seized the mad creature and flung him headlong outside the tent on the ground, where he lay blubbering.
The second-born paused, looking over his audience. His thoughts turned comfortably away momentarily to the outskirts of Kiriath-arba, to the smelly compound of a Ken'anite tannery and the tanner's comely daughter, Shaul. How her lips burned for his! He could hardly wait until the business of the sale was over, so that he might turn his father's flocks homeward.
He turned to face the incoming enemy, while his brethren seized their weapons and grouped closely behind. And there was the sound of many hoof-beats as the caravan of Ishmaelites finally arrived at the Hebrew camp.
Simeon went out to meet them with the usual courtesies of the region. Bowing low, he nevertheless was rude enough to force them to make the first move.
"Morning of fragrance," said the traders despite the late hour.
"Morning of light," grumbled their equally disaffected Abrahamic brethren.
The schemer had put on a bland expression and he stepped closer to greet the unwanted visitors. He bowed lower still, this tall, sinuous form dipping with grace, but his smile was spoiled somewhat by a mutilated lip and nose.
"Welcome, friends, to our fair city! Today we have a most delectable item for sale, a soft-faced, strong-limbed Philistine lad who is only seventeen years of age."
He gestured grandly toward the Pit. "Fetch him up from there my friends, pay us good money, and you will see what a fine price he will command in the fleshpots of Tyre, or Hazir, or wherever it is you trade."
After this speech, the suspicious traders exchanged doubtful expressions and still seemed highly reluctant. One of them spoke for the rest who all stood at the ready with hands gripping cloaked daggers.
"Why is he set down there instead of with you on higher ground? And how do we know this Philistine of yours still lives? Perhaps he has been bitten by a viper. We will not buy dead mutton from a man at any price."
Simeon smiled again and threw up his hands artfully.
"He is there merely for safe-keeping, since he is so valuable to us we feared he might run away. In the morning you can all examine his limbs more completely, but I have arranged for one of your number to go down now to see him, since you insist."
The House of Ishmael huddled thickly together for long moments. Now and then one dropped out and squatted. Finally they turned to face Simeon. The youngest and smallest of the caravaneers stepped forward, swaggering like a man in an over-sized, tattered robe, his celestial nose flaring uncommonly wide.
"The people know me as Abdullah the son of Heshbon the son of Abba Ishmael the first-born of Abraham!" the brash hothead announced challengingly to the line of Isaac and Jacob.
Now Ishmael's younger brother Isaac was not the first-born, yet he was Abraham's favorite, replacing Ishmael, who was cast out into the desert wilderness with Hagar his Mizraimite handmaid-mother. Taking a Mizraimite wife or two, young Ishmael had fathered an enterprising, highly itinerant race that had no reason whatever to like Hebrews after the line of Isaac.
Issachar had fetched a four-spouted lamp extracted from a Ken'anite inn.
Full of bad blood and party spirit as anyone could be, Simeon, barely controlling an impulse to smash it over Abdullah's head, set the lamp in a basket and tied it round Abdullah with a vengeance. A knotted rope was then played out into the Pit's dark depths.
Swallowing hard, the little Ishmaelite peered into the deep, dark Pit. He backed off immediately, returning to his brethren in protest. There was again some discussion amongst them, and finally Abdullah was pushed Pitward with not a few oaths, while their chieftain stood gazing at him most somberly.
Dragging his feet and scoring the ground with his clawlike toenails, he arrived back at the Pit, where Simeon stood smirking. With a terrible, woeful look backwards at the world of the living, he began his descent.
"Beware of vipers, my child," Simeon called out in caution.
The plucky Ishmaelite disappeared from view, and the two companies waited uneasily.
Suddenly, startling everyone on the surface, a bright flare burst from the mouth of the grave, closely followed by a piercing shriek.
The Ishmaelite scrambled madly from the Pit. Shaking all over, he dropped to his knees, then staggered and half-crawled back to his people. There was much confusion and excited talk before they all began to laugh scornfully and push their brother away, wagging their heads and pointed beards.
Abdullah, his face working with rage, wrenched away the empty basket tied to his neck and turned round to give full vent to Simeon.
"No Philistine would bear the mark of the Covenant on his pizzle!" he cried in full voice.
He rubbed his still shining face and eyes furiously with a dirty sleeve but the radiance would not go away. "Besides, he looks like he already croaked!"
Simeon scowled and leaned menacingly over the Ishmaelite.
"That's a lie, you little frog!" he snapped. "With my own eyes I have seen how strong and healthy this foreigner was but a short time ago, when we fed him a fine lunch from our own provisions!"
Abdullah was all the more provoked in turn. His brothers had refused to listen to his story, about what he had seen in the Pit, and now the haughty cock of a Hebrew was laughing with them.
His blood boiling, he brandished dark fists and began swinging an even dirtier foot from under his robe toward Simeon.
"I say he's a whelp of the same skulking vixen that mothered you!" Abdullah spat between his missing front teeth.
Ignoring a boy's challenge to fight man to man, Simeon raised up his staff impressively in the Patriarchal manner to gain full attention from his peers.
"But, friends of Abraham, mark these poor hands! A few days only have passed since they were heaped with fine, sweet silver of noble Tyre, which they paid out for this comely, young dove of Ascalon. Perhaps the traders who sold him to me covenanted him expressively for a quick sale to us. How should I know how it happened? As for his condition--"
Abdullah was not to be put off with fine words. His foot shot perilously close to Simeon's vitals, and seeing bloodshed in the offing the Ishmaelite leader stepped forward, drawing Abdullah aside. After a few words, the little brother turned away, grumbling and kicking at the ground.
The chief Ishmaelite found a silver piece in his long, gray robe and flung it into Simeon's quick grasp.
"I will give you more such pieces for your 'Philistine,' provided he is still alive and can travel with us to some foreign market."
Simeon gnashed ravenously at the silver with his few, good teeth, then nodded grudging approval. He advanced to the old man until they were pressed, proper tribal-fashion, belly to belly, for the conducting of business.
The others crowded silently around their leaders as witnesses.
"One of your kind has now seen what we have to offer, and how winsome and handsome he is in face and limb, you old goat!" Simeon began with energy. He stuck his face close to the Ishmaelite, glaring eye to eye with him. "Now! Let heaven be witness of this matter. We will take thirty pieces of fine Tyrian silver for the slave in the Pit."
An adept in these affairs, the caravaneer has his response ready. His wrinkled, swarthy face shriveled up and he rolled his eyes in horror.
"You meant to turn my wives and unweaned babes all out into the street, to beg their bread! No, before Providence enthroned, I will not do this great evil to my people. You will take ten and five pieces for this mongrel dog of a Philistine!"
"No, thirty pieces will I take!" Simeon roared. "I have four, stout, big-bellied children to fill, and my wife's womb is carrying the fifth, so pay up, you thrice-fathered rascal!"
The experienced old man was nonplussed. He smiled delicately, tapping his own loins. "By whose fountain are these splendid fruits of your wife's womb being spawned, O son of Jacob? You abide in a solitary place at this sink of Dothan, and thy loving wife is no doubt sporting like a young she-goat in another man's tent, eh?"
Simeon's disfigured, war-scarred face paled. Recovering, he shrugged and bowed. "You speak bravely for a whoreson fathered on a Ken'anite's piebald sow," he acknowledged with a grudging admiration. "But do not try to get round me, Old One. I will take nothing less than twenty and five pieces!"
But all present were well aware that the light was fast fading and things needed winding up. The Ishmaelite, after several more choice bits of vituperation were exchanged, did succeed in reducing the original demand by ten pieces of silver.
Immediately, two sets of scales, one Hebrew, the other Ishmaelite, were dragged out and set before the peoples on a carpet nearest the mouth of the Pit. After the silver in question was dribbled from a dirty, brown bag of goatskin, it was counted, scoured with spit and plenty sand, followed by a pain-staking re-count, and a final spit-and-sand polish with rags of clean linen.
The weighing ceremony commenced, piece by piece. Once or twice a piece, differing a trifle in content from the Hebrews' scale weight, was angrily rejected by the Hebrews, and another reluctantly substituted after much mutual cursing and brandishing of daggers and knives.
When the weighing was concluded satisfactorily to both sides, the money was Simeon's to claim, and he scooped it up into his purse with a cry of triumph.
The sale concluded, the Hebrews formally gathered their robes and stood impatiently awaiting the Ishmaelites' iminent departure.
"Draw up our Philistine at once!" Abdullah commanded authoritatively. "The night is fast upon us, and we must be away from this filthy place ere I swallow down my spittle."
Simeon smiled nastily, the scar showing to fine effect, and crossed his arms.
"First we must have fifty pieces of Tyrian silver for the rope's leasing! After all, it is valuable rope made of Mizraimite zarah, and it might break and be ruined in drawing him out."
All the Ishmaelites stared at Simeon, their faces paling and then purpling like Jericho pomegranates in a row. After clapping his hands, Abdullah began to hop up and down, his dirty feet swinging Simeonward with each lunge forward. He paused and shouted.
"We must be on our way, I tell you! And we have no time to take our packs apart for rope!"
He added other things as well, insulting Simeon's mother, father, flocks, and Hebrew reproductive prospects in general.
Even Simeon seemed taken aback momentarily by the little Ishmaelites's vehemence and precocious command of language. But the effect was spoiled. Abdullah's manly voice broke completely, losing the bass and becoming a shrill, piercing twitter. Simeon and all his brothers began laughing uproariously and pointing at the shame-stricken twit.
Suddenly, the Hebrews turned on their heels at a sign by Simeon. They went to their camp, while Simeon posted two brothers as guards on the only well with water in Dothan. The Ishmaelites too turned away from the place of contention, retiring a short distance from the Pit.
In camp brother after brother immediately began plying Simeon with frantic fears and anxieties.
Waving them away, he laughed. "You have no reason to fear their darts and daggers. Are we not more than equal to them in number since we know one is a mere, soft-stoned lad with a voice like a blushing girl's? Surely, we Hebrews, holy sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will yet prevail over these rascally, uncircumcised traders and sheep stealers! So let us now treat this matter with the dignity befitting our holy nation. Until they have paid for the rope's leasing, as they must if they want their slave, we must keep a good watch on them. So do not fear and be of good courage, my brethren!"
To show his own confidence, Simeon purposely sat down as the brothers mulled over his words.
Levi leaned over his brother's shoulder, whispering in private. "My brother, you knew all along they would refuse to unpack! They fear exposing their fine trade goods to the elements in such a place, and so they must have our rope if they are to secure their slave! How very clever of you! Surely, they can do nothing but pay us for the rope's leasing. Ha ha! We have taken them in our net. They will never get away from here with their remaining silver!"
Simeon smiled back at his brother. "Yet we must wait and be prepared for whatever they decide to do," he cautioned. "Though we have them in a tight place, Ishmaelites are known for their cunning and craft."
Levi's face grew thoughtful, and he sat down beside Simeon, looking out now and then at the Ishmaelite camp. Nevertheless, he could not help chuckling.
"And I thought Ishmaelites were such sly devils they could never be worsted in bargaining!"
He laughed all the more at the thought, falling on his back and gasping for breath. Just as quickly as hilarity had seized upon him, Levi turned thoughtful and speculative.
"Maybe they came to retrieve stolen goods, or the royal treasure of bygone Dothanite kings buried somewhere in the Pit?"
He caught Simeon's eye, and Simeon shrugged. "What else would bring them to such a place as Dothan, which is off their donkey-track? At any rate, unless they are fools enough to fight us, and such cowards will not dare, they cannot remain up here forever with us watching and keeping the only water from them. As I live, I say they will pay us very soon now for the rope's leasing if they wish to walk from here living men!"
After Levi's crowing ceased, some time passed as the two camps observed each other's smallest movements.
"Yes, they will have to pay up rather than fight," echoed one or two other brothers, having overheard Levi and Simeon. "Surely, they will go mad and fall helplessly into our net like quail!"
Encouraging his brothers, Levi turned to them. "We have them, my brothers! We have taken them in our net!"
Simeon faced them all, raising his hand for silence. "What you say is perfectly true of them. They are clever and subtle men, perhaps, but they are right now biting their tails off, not knowing what to do, or knowing but not daring. Rather than risk their goods to capture, they will not fight unless we smite them first. And so they will wait until they go mad and give us what we demand."
"What a clever man you are!" cried Levi again, stroking his elder brother's shoulder.
Simeon smiled. He confided more privately to Levi. "Reuben knows nothing about the world's ways. He’s never had the guts to take one step on his own outside the camp! Judah may be strong and cunning in his way, but he considers only himself. But I know how to lead our holy nation against our ancient foes. Someday soon our father will acknowledge his debt to me in the matter of Shechem and the restoration of our dear sister's maiden honor."
There was another groan from the pit, but it was very faint, and the brothers were not overly disturbed.
Hearing it, Simeon turned to encouraging his brothers all the more. "We shall yet overcome them. But we must be ready. I expect them to do something any moment now, rather than stay up here and spend the night with us. Ishmaelites are all bloody men, as we know, and treacherous as vipers. So watch!"
Dan was one of the brothers listening to his elder half-brother's words while observing every move in the opposing camp. "Do not worry, Elder Brother, we shall watch them closely so that they do not hie away with our silver!"
With little to do but watch, Zebulun felt moved to speak his mind at last. "Ah, those are strange beasts of burden."
He was peering with a befuddled look at the single-humped dromedaries that lay amongst the much smaller Ishmaelite donkeys.
His remark sparked immediate controversy. No one could decide the issue, as to why Ishmaelites might employ wild animals, especially such intractable beasts as camels from the deserts, when they had good, obedient donkeys to carry their goods.
The hand-maids' sons were the first to tire of watching, and so they slipped off to play a favorite game. With lively fingers they fell naturally to dicing with Dothanite knucke-bones for the Favorite's linen breeches.
The owner of the breeches meanwhile lay dazed with intense pain and burning thirst. He finally grew conscious of the sound of donkeys braying at him from overhead. The noise echoed in the big, white-washed chamber, until it was an agony to his wounded soul. He called on the God of Jacob to deliver him.
After braying at Joseph, Gad and Dan laughed amongst themselves. "Let's see if he is set free to be lord over us, since the fool still trusts in God to deliver him!"
Joseph's half-brothers turned away too soon, or they would have heard his final cry: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
There came a moment when the Favorite was not aware of anything earthly. He was lying fully unconscious when a rope snaked down into the Pit. He felt nothing as the tip brushed his face.
On the surface, Simeon was furious when he saw what Judah had done. He rushed to pull the rope up, but it was too late. Judah held it fast against his brother.
"That dreamer will be too weak by now to help himself," Judah explained. "And if you take the measure of every man here, son of Ishmael and son of Jacob, you will see with your own eyes that only I have the strength to bring him up, so that we can all be rid of him."
Simeon shook his head, but he said nothing and ceased protesting. Having stripped, Judah went down without an accompanying light. It was a swift, easy, downward spiral on a swinging rope. With groping hand he touched what he thought human flesh. Pulling the limp body of the Favorite up to him, he sensed something and paused. The well was far more alive than it should have been. His body hairs prickled from head to feet, and his tongue began to dry up. Judah gazed about and began to see what the darkness concealed. Where there should have been no light at all glowed slowly-moving masses.
Frozen stiff by the sight of slitted, reptilian eyes, Judah clung to the rope, still hanging on to Joseph.
"Pray, you fool!" he gasped in Joseph's ear.
The Favorite only groaned. Never had the mighty fourth-born felt so helpless. Ice bathed Judah's forehead and ran down his cheeks, dripping to his shoulders. He knew they would both die instantly and rot in the Pit forever if they slipped and fell back amongst the moving masses.
Freeing his paralyzed fingers with great difficulty, Judah began to pull upwards on the rope, but with panic in his heart he saw that his great strength had utterly fled. He could not raise Joseph the span of his hand. For a moment he considered dropping Joseph to the vipers and saving himself.
But Joseph moaned again.
"Save us, O God!"
Suddenly, the desperate Judah was relieved of any need to make an unwise decision. The rope to which they clung for life was yanked upwards. Judah knew at once his brethren were at the rope, hauling them out.
Slowly, they were both drawn up into the dying light of day. A chill burst of wind struck their naked bodies as they fell down outside the mouth of the snakepit.
Tears of relief spurting from his eyes, Judah crawled on his hands and knees a short distance away and then tried to stand on trembling legs. The Favorite lay where he fell. Blood oozed from deep cuts in his arms and legs, slashed by broken potsherds and bones in the Pit. Shaking uncontrollably, he could not stand when his brothers seized his arms and tried to made him stand before his captors. He collapsed back on the ground as they cursed and kicked at him. He raised his head, but he could not see his tormentors. The sockets of his eyes were swollen shut.
Simeon stood staring at his half-brother sprawled on the ground. He was shocked to see how Joseph's handsome face was marred beyond recognition. But he remembered the business at hand and dragged the Favorite toward the advancing traders. The charnel smell of the Pit had sickened him, perhaps, and he wanted only to end the affair.
"Forget the fifty pieces you owe us!" he shouted at the Ishmaelites, who stared hard at Joseph. "Why do you look at him like that? What do you expect for a mere twenty pieces of silver? Take him away at once, you miscarried spawn of the Jackass and Ewe!"
But the Ishmaelites would not be intimidated by Simeon's abuse. They returned his shouts with interest, demanding all their money back.
Simeon turned to Judah for support, but his mighty brother was no help at all. Judah's face, turning white as ash, was a dismaying sight to the others as he seized his belly and bent over to retch.
Mad Asher proved a better ally in Simeon's cause. He ran to the tent, returning with a wineskin of sour, vinegarish wine stolen from a Ken'anite inn.
"We must revive him, Elder Brother, with this fine wine," he said as he quickly applied the refreshment to Joseph's lips. Joseph sucked feverishly at the brew, then choked and pushed it away.
Into this critical juncture of Joseph's fortunes rushed the dilatory Reuben. He appeared just as the Ishmaelites lifted their heels to the catcalling Hebrews. Staring round at them all, Reuben furiously worked his beard with one hand as he tried to make sense of what was happening.
Levi turned to Simeon, who was gnashing his teeth at the sight of Reuben.
"The brat is dying," murmured Levi in Simeon's ear. "Perhaps we should give them their money back and let this worthless dreamer go for nothing and save ourselves a bloody fight!"
Simeon gave Levi a disgusted look and spat in Reuben's direction, as if waiting for the first-born to commit yet a new folly.
Reuben was still twisting the same beard that his father's handmaid-wife had so lovingly entwined with violets in Eder's flowery meadow. He began to weep openly before them.
"I hate that dreamer and his dreams more than you all!" he cried. "I know what name you have given me too, but know that my father has been cruel beyond nature to me, his first-born! A father may forgive, but a Patriarch? Never! I know the blackness in the deep of that old heart. He would sooner kill the fatted calf and put a gold ring on the finger of one who has squandered all his substance on Ken'anite women than forgive me and sweet Bilhah!"
Hearing this terrible confession, the brothers averted their faces and turned away. But Reuben, like the shameless Asher before him, could not stop now.
"So who but me has more to lose if the Favorite's presumptuous dreams prove true messages from Almighty God? Beat him all you like for his impudence and false fancies, but surely we cannot deal so cruelly and heartlessly with our own flesh and blood, selling him a slave to these miserable, thieving traders!"
The horror of such a transaction transfigured Reuben's sensitive face. He appeared inspired as a prophet, but his inspiration rained a flood of tears that washed away the possible effect of his sentiments.
"And what about little Benjamin, the darling of poor, dying Rachel? How can we deprive him of his elder brother? Even now he is probably sitting in Father's tent, leaning on his bosom and weeping for his brother's swift return!"
Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites ignored the wailings of Reuben and set to work removing themselves and their property from Dothan. A heavy iron ring fashioned into a collar was clamped round Joseph's neck and locked with two bronze pins. To the collar was tethered a rope for the youngest of the Ismaelite band to hold. To his ankles were fixed cruel fetters, also iron, which were connected by a chain.
Though almost unable to walk, he was led directly away in the shame of near nakedness (for all he was allowed was a slave's loin cloth tied between his thighs). For a princely Hebrew, being so exposed as the shameless abjects or slaves in villages exposed themselves was the very worst part of his calamity, and Joseph's head hung low as he stumbled after the quickly moving Ishmaelites.
Reuben, seeing his confessions had been spurned, ran after the departing Ishmaelites. "Return to our camp, dear friends, and abide with us comfortably and safely for the night!"
The Ishmaelites paid no attention, continuing on their way.
Reuben continued to implore them. "Like you we are honest men. Like you we are sons of Abraham. Beloved, why risk attacks of wild beasts and robbers in open country without faithful allies to help you? You have nothing to fear from us. Only return and I pledge my word as firstborn of Jacob to pay you double what my brothers may have taken for this poor youth!"
No fools, the House of Ishmael passed quickly down the trail to the plain of Dothan, the Jackass of Eder falling farther back in their dusty wake.
"I'll pay you double the amount!" he cried, sinking down on his knees with a despairing groan. "Double!"
A blue butterfly flitted past, but the firstborn’s eyes were shut and streaming tears so he could not have noticed.
Back in camp Simeon and Levi thought it high time to celebrate. Locked arm in arm, they began to spin about the camp compound. Twenty silver pieces clinked merrily in Simeon's purse, adding their sweet music to the festivity until Naphtali joined in with a Ken'anite goatherd's double flute.
Judah, having lost his lunch after bringing Joseph up from the Pit, had grown disgusted and wanted no part of the rest of the affair. He began to load a donkey with provisions.
The brothers and half-brothers gave were of an different mind.
"Gone! The brat of Rachel is vanquished forever!" chorused Simeon and Levi as they leaped and gyrated with true desert flair. "Aha! We have our heart's desire! We have swallowed him up at last!"
Simeon broke away from Levi, seized the magnificent robe signifying Jacob's promise of the Birthright and the headship of the Patriarchy and brandished it over his head like a banner won in battle.
Fascinated, the brothers gaped at the spectacle, but their expressions turned to a kind of terror as Simeon did the unthinkable and spat upon it.
Before anyone could think to cry out or stop him, Simeon also took his knife and tore taping rents in the rich fabric.
That produced even more shock. But Simeon was in full charge of things and knew it.
"Blood!" he howled to Levi. "Quick, bring fresh blood for the anointing!"
Levi hurried away and came back dragging a bleating lamb, one of the fatted delicacies at the gate. Its throat, expertly slit by Levi, gushed on the ground at Simeon's feet. The secondborn quickly sponged the Favorite's robe in the glowing pool.
"Now you may all know my reason for this!" he cried out to all those who who were staring at him speechlessly. "Let the stupid Old One think he was torn by a lion, then devoured even to his pretty fingers and toes."
He wriggled his dirty fingers and toes as he said this.
At his joke the brothers laughed.
Reuben, coming upon them at this moment, saw the bloodied robe, gagged, and hurried off into the gathering darkness.
The brothers, too, had had enough of the sight. Less Reuben and Judah (the firstborn went off someplace by himself and Judah left Dothan altogether) the brothers continued to make as merry as they could.
Clever Naphtali, for one, was not for turning in just yet. He began to strum on Joseph's gold lyre and recite snatches of favorite epics. The brothers sat round Naphtali and enjoyed his renditions, particularly the famous Dothanite tale of love and betrayal called "The Song of the Lost Muleteer."
How time sped by as silver-tongued Naphtali crooned portions about the too-trusting Dothanite muleteer and his Philistine bride who slew him on his wedding couch! After taking all his money, goods, and donkeys, she flayed the skin from his body to hang for a keepsake on the wall so that she and her lovers might make jokes at its expense.
Accompanied by gratified sighs all around, Naphtali drew out the last passage to its mournful close.
"How cruel and heartless these sons of Ishmael are!" observed Simeon. "Imagine squeezing his poor neck in an iron yoke and setting his feet in fetters as if he were a donkey and not a man!"
Everyone agreed with the second-born on that point.
"Surely, it must bring much pain to the poor lad's neck and limbs!" added Asher.
"I sneaked close enough to hear the dogs say they were taking him down to Mizraim to sell as a temple slave," commented Naphtali indignantly.
No one said anything to this. A chilling wind seem to sweep round inside the tent, and a wolf's howl broke nearby from the ruins. The brothers silently and individually digested the evil report, not able to look at each other.
Simeon, his mouth filled with an obnoxious taste, turned and spat into a corner.
Now to molest, even slay a brother they envied and loathed, was one thing, but for the heathen to presume to use a holy Hebrew in the service of foreign gods was a sheer abomination. Lurid tales of Mizraim and its temples were common currency in the tents of Jacob, ever since Great-Grandfather Abraham had gone down and come back from there, nearly losing his beautiful wife Sarah to the king’s harem.
"Serves him right for dreaming he was better than us his elders!" crowed Gad carelessly.
The blow of Simeon's hand against Gad's ear resounded in the tent.
"Shut your greasy lips, son of a donkey-bitch!" Simeon snarled, rising up over the stunned handmaid's son.
His ear roaring, Gad kept silence before Simeon--something like a snake before its trainer.
"Go, take your brothers, and check on the flocks!" Simeon ordered. “I can’t have fresh air if you’re around when I sleep!”
Something flared redly in Gad's dark eyes, but he turned toward his kind.
Motioning to the other handmaids' sons, the insulted half-brother slunk out into the night, descending the hill to the hirelings' tent.
It was an easy matter for the armed Hebrews to thrust out a pack of half-asleep hirelings into the cold. The brothers bedded down and nursed their various grievances against Simeon for a while.
Despite the consolation of all they had gained by disposing of Joseph, they still felt uneasy over the events of the day.
Of course, they were greatly relieved that Joseph as the apple of Jacob's eye would never take charge when the old man died. Never would they have to bow down to him and suffer a prim, sanctimonious rule that excluded profitable raids, robberies, sackings of unsuspecting cities and villages, and, of course, Ken'anite women.
Best of all, his enormous inheritance, the double share of everything Jacob possessed, was in some part theirs. With the Favorite's riches in hand, they thought how they could well afford to slay and eat tender, fatted lamb, just as Simeon had been doing, even going beyond him in the taking of precious veal from the wombs of pregnant ewes--a favorite repast, so they had heard, of only the greatest Ken'anite kings.
"My, 'tis a nasty thing we did to Rachel's firstborn," conceded Gad lazily. "But if we keep to our wonderful story, we shall be rich and happy men."
"Poor dreamer," sniffed a lacrymose Asher. "I would not want to be him! He's lost everything now and will never become first in place of Prince Reuben! Even his mighty dreams could not save him!"
Later, they all fell asleep. They slept so soundly no one noticed the slight shaking of the earth, which was more severe to the southeast of them, nearest the Tower of Eder. There some red-painted brick was shaken loose and a hapless Ken'anite goatherd, come to the Tower for its proverbial blessing, was struck in the head and made a half-wit the rest of his days.
Worse, the sleepers missed Judah’s leave-taking. With the hirelings’ willing help, he cut out the lion’s share from the flocks and left his brothers and his father’s tents for good.
“All this, an entire continent spread with ancient civilizations restored to life, so that one man might be terminated before his time!”
Only OP would have gone to such trouble! But when would the Red Star strike next? And where? Wally kept a sharp eye out for anything that might alert him to a fatal accident before it happen.
Slowly dissipating, the cloud took off the edge of the intense, blazing heat in the inferno that was Shur, a region in the South of Ken'an called after the immense, red-granite fortresses that walled Mizraim off from the outer world.
Somewhere in the vast wilderness that stretched down to Mizraim's fortified border the dethroned, unbirthrighted prince was forced to walk tethered to the last donkey in the Ishmaelite caravan. During the daytime he walked as best he could, considering his many wounds. Dogging his dusty heels were sand-devils, which accompanied his slow progress across the burning sands before shooting off erratically at the first contrary breeze.
At night he lay fettered like a donkey so that he might not run away. Each time as his feet were roughly clapped in wooden fetters, he tried not to cry out from the pain in his swollen feet and ankles.
For a long time he lay awake tortured by the thought they were taking him to Mizraim. And he suspected the worst--that he would be sold a temple slave.
One such night, in a desert encampment lying on the northern slope of the Descent of the Fire Scorpions, Joseph thought more in detail about his coming degradation. The more his great-grandfather Abraham's words came to mind, as they had been re-told by Isaac and then by his father Jacob, the more agony he felt. Despite his prayers, the God of Jacob had forsaken him in Dothan!
Thinking these dark thoughts, he lay still awake on his bed of sand as the first light first began to shoot its rays through the canopy of cloud.
"Morning of fragrance, Philistine dog!" an early-rising Ishmaelite, the runt called Abdullah, greeted him.
Dully, Joseph looked out through a thick curtain of thick pain and anguish and saw a ragged ghost flit about, splashing in pools of donkey and camel urine, as it went its usual rounds of preparing the morning meal.
Soon, with a fire going, the camp began to revive as the dark and groaning shapes of tents and animals responded to the stir Abdullah was causing.
After checking on the new slave, the Runt had run off to milk the prize milch-goat belonging to the handmaid Bilhah that Simeon had seized in Hebron for his own use.
His big-lipped mouth shining moonlike with the fragrant, white milk, Abdullah ran carrying a steaming dish of it to his brothers in their tent.
Still unable to move because of his tight bonds, Joseph lay beside the tent of his master, Meshullam the Ishmaelite chieftain. He thought about what the Ishmaelite had called him.
"So they believe my brother's lie!" he cried to himself. "Because my eyes are the same as my mother's, they think I must be of foreign blood. How the sons of Ishmael must hate me, to steal me so far away from my own people and country!"
As pitiless as trained Mizraimite or Hyksos archers, morning light shot shaft after shaft between the gaps of the mountain-toothed ridges on the horizon. Driving away the chill of night, and the night-roving serpents with it, the light penetrated to Joseph, warming his pool of dark misery. Soon he was squinting into the face of the light, his eyes turned toward Hebron and his father's sheepfolds.
As Joseph was gazing homeward, an old Ishmaelite's keen eyes peered through a crack in the tent and silently studied him.
Sitting back down inside, Meshullam was free to linger at his morning meditations while Abdullah and his brothers labored to make a caravan out of a cranky mess of tents and half-asleep animals.
He knew that people were often cast out for lesser offenses. Perhaps he had violated his father's wife--a ribald tale of which was circulating among his people since they got wind of Jacob's first-born and his affair with Bilhah.
Or possibly he had stolen something valuable. Yet thieves were usually put to death, he reasoned, looking out again at the slave.
He sat back down, shaking his head slowly. The youth did not look like the sort that skulked in shadows, waiting for an opportunity to dart into another man's tent when he was away. Despite the signs of man-handling, the slave had too fine an appearance.
Meshullam pondered this question and others until he grew aware of the thuds of Abdullah's staff, a tell-tale prodding of reluctant donkey flesh, mingled with obscene oaths about backsides, that told the old man that the caravan would be moving soon.
He got up for the last time to look at the slave. Though still swollen in face, the Hebrew was proving a comely sight, particularly because his eyes were colored so unusually. He had seen the color, though it was rare even in gemstones. Royal coronets, signets of wealthy men, Mizraimite necklaces boasted such stones dug from deep caves in the Eastern High Desert of Mizraim. It glowed with the same heavenly color that one sometimes saw light the sky after a particularly fierce storm.
And Father Adam and Mother Eve, in the old stories everyone heard recited from childhood to old age, were said to have had eyes of that hue. Meshullam had heard an elder claim to have seen Melchizedek, last priest-king of Salem, or Jebus, gazing at him with white-lashed eyes of purest violet, or amethyst. But among men the color had declined with the race of men, until only the angels, it was said, had such eyes. And even angels had not been seen for a great while, since the time of Abraham. As for Jacob's angelic encounters, they were everywhere discounted as Hebrew pretension.
Truly it was an evil time! the old Ishmaelite sighed, as he gazed upon the wretchedly squirming youth. To have the eyes of an angel was one thing, but how would they help a mere slave consigned to temple service in Mizraim?
He thought of his own condition, brought painfully to mind by the sight of Joseph. To have such a one as this as son would be the greatest blessing heaven could give. He was married to barren women. Well-meaning friends had long advised him to re-commit the follies of his hot-blooded youth. Saddle up some pretty wench, they said, and get a male heir on her!
Meshullam shook his head slowly, his eyes full of grief for himself and also for the miserable Joseph. How unwelcome was such advice now to his old ears! After all, if the mother sold herself for a mere silver piece, as any common laborer in a barley field, of what value was the fruit of the transaction? Half a silver piece? Even less?
He looked at Joseph and saw that despite his brutal treatment, this youth held something of a prince in appearance, who might have risen a star among his people except for some unknown misfortune or evil-doing of his own.
Disregarding the sounds of a camp in uproar, Meshullam stroked a long, thin beard darkly stained with the dregs of honey-beer. But he was suddenly done with observing the boy's misery. Before Joseph knew what was happening, Meshullam had stepped up to him and released his fetters, leaving only the iron collar. Seizing some balm from his own country of Gilead, he dabbed the healing ointment liberally on the astonished slave's worst bruises and cuts, annointing him from head to foot.
Joseph shuddered, as the healing effect sank instantly into his throbing, fiery wounds.
After attending to Joseph, Meshullam disappeared back into his tent as quickly as he had appeared.
Just at that moment Meshullam's youngest brother, Abdullah, swung round the corner of the tent. He jumped back at once at the sight of the freed slave.
The startled Abdullah dropped the pie of fresh camel dung he had intended for Joseph's face. Someone had spoiled his fun! Now weighing his chances with a tall, bigger-muscled Hebrew, the Ishmaelite squinted his dark, wary eyes, ran a hand over his broad, sloping forehead to clear his vision of hair, and backed away. Disappearing, he soon returned with a handful of goat cheese and some half-dried garlic. A water-skin was in the other dirty hand.
"Shalom!" Abdullah greeted him, slurring the word badly with his gutteral, Ishmaelite accent. His merry eyes took in every move as he watched the slave devour the smelly cheese and take a long suck at the last foul offerings of the water-skin, a liquid he knew a frog would have spurned.
"Bread from heaven, is it not?" Abdullah prompted the new slave.
Joseph had finished the bread and cheese when he suddenly clamped a hand over his mouth. A moment later he was bent over, retching.
Laughing, Abdullah seized the rope fixed to Joseph's iron collar and hauled him all the way to the dusty rear of the caravan. In fits and starts, it slowly crawled away from the camp toward the twin crags of the Descent of Fire Scorpions. No one gave the watering-spot a backward glance, for all were anxious to be away. Called "Wellspring of Love's Delight" by a passing wag, it consisted of only a bitter spring trickling malodorously from a squat, misshapen hillock of black rock.
As they gained on the twin crags, Abdullah looked over his shoulder at the wearily plodding Joseph.
He laughed again. "Do you not wish you had a bow and a quiverful of flaming darts, so you could do to your brothers what they did to you?
Along with his teasing, he tugged at the rope without mercy, jerking Joseph's head forward like a brute animal's.
By this time the heat was great in the wilderness, and Joseph's tongue was gummed to the roof of his mouth. He had to loosen it with his finger before he could answer his young master.
"How did you know I have suffered all this at the hands of my brethren?" he gasped.
The Ishmaelite was taken aback. He had not known it. He had only been joking and said the first thing that came into his head. He fell back so that he was even with the Hebrew, so that he could talk.
"No doubt it was my elder brother who released you this morning!" he began, eyeing Joseph closely. "You could have escaped from us, Hebrew, but you kept your place. You are a strange one!"
Abdullah thrust his face close to Joseph's. "What do they call you, donkey of a Hebrew? For you are covenanted like us and cannot be a heathen fish-eater from the coastland"
It was Joseph's turn to be surprised. But he saw immediately that his brother's lie had been quickly found out, as it must among Ishmaelites who were proverbial liars themselves. Nevertheless, he hesitated to answer the Ishmaelite. There was a deep and ancient gulf between the sons of Ishmael, who claimed but seldom practiced circumcision, and the sons of Isaac and Jacob, who would die rather than go without it.
"I am no son of Japtheth, as you have said," conceded Joseph carefully.
He looked at Abdullah more closely in turn and seemed encouraged by his apparent friendliness. "I am called Joseph, son of Rachel by my father Prince Jacob of Hebron."
This was not welcome news. Abdullah the scrawny last-born looked as if cold water had slapped his dirty face. For a moment a sullen cloud of emotion glazed his eyes and features. He turned away, spitting. He spoke again, with anger and resentment.
"I thought so," he muttered. "Only a first-born would act so nicely as a prince! You must be a first-born."
Joseph slowly shook his head, and as he shook it the iron collar made it a very heavy shake. "But my mother was my father's second Chief Wife; my elder half-brother, Reuben, is first-born among us. My younger brother is last-born."
“So that makes you only next to last-born?”
The last-born suddenly brightened from greasy head to blackened toe. He looked Joseph up and down and laughed, holding his belly, for Joseph was wearing what they had put on him at Dothan, a patched and dirty saddle-blanket taken from a donkey.
Raising the low bridge of his wide-splayed nose to the heavens, Abdullah looked down it at Joseph.
"If you are truly last as you say, then do not raise your arse too high, donkey, before such as I!" he brayed. "For I am first-born, called Abdullah, Prince of the great Empire of Gilead. And all the men of this caravan you see with your eyes are my servants."
Taken with his own glory, Abdullah suddenly halted and let Joseph's rope go limp. His big, loose elbows jutted out east and west as he stood with arms akimbo. He gave a little hop Josephward, puffing out a narrow chesk.
"All you know, Hebrew, is your family's smelly, little tents no doubt! You should cast your eyes on my big palace of gold and silver in Gilead. No man in the world has a bigger harem, filled with the most beautiful women in the world. I have wives and sons, donkeys and rimmon trees beyond counting!"
Now Abdullah hated spices, balm, and various ointments that were the Ishmaelites' stock in trade. Rimmon trees alone were his delight, as they produced the fruit of paradise and of love, the pomegranate, or the grained Apple of Adam.
Joseph's eyes widened hearing such boasts. He had never seen such a palace, though he had heard of those in Mizraim from Abraham's glowing accounts. Abdullah added more fuel to his account at once, seeing that he had impressed the Hebrew.
He patted his meager loins. "I also have the biggest fountain in all the land, North or South or East and West!" he crowed, though his momentarily manly voice cracked and sent splinters flying in all directions.
Coloring, Abdullah looked about, but no one was laughing, and he continued with renewed confidence. He spun about, his robe flying up thin, hairless legs, turning to slap Joseph's bruised shoulder with Eastern cordiality. He drew close on Joseph's ear, growing hoarse and choked in voice as he began bawling out the latest, choice episode of the Tale of the Willing Jackass and the Reluctant Ewe--the Ishmaelite version that caused him to explode in helpless laughter before he had finished.
Joseph, astonished at the quick, changing moods of the Ishmaelite, felt Abdullah's garlic-scented spittle spray his cheek, and he made no response.
Just as quickly, Abdullah's giddy mood dampened when he sensed Joseph's silent reproof. It was fortunate for the slave that he also noticed that his antics had dropped them dangerously far in the caravan's wake. With a cry he pulled on Joseph and theu had to run like desert hares to catch up.
As midday aproached the mountain-born haze providentially over-shadowed the sky as the heat grew more intense. Without additional cloud, temperatures would have proved impossible for man and beast to bear. As it was they were able to continue past the crags nature had placed at the gates of Mizraim's eastern approaches. Descending the boulder-strewn Way of of Fire Scorpions, they did not dare to make camp. Everyone knew it would prove their painful deaths, as scorpions swarmed out upon them from every crevice and deep-shadowed rock.
At last they had put the Descent behind them and could take rest from the heat. As they moved exhausted toward the next encampment and the usual spring of dirty water, only Abdullah found strength to spend in conversation. Having forgotten Joseph's reproof, he was quick to take up the thread of his own glorious life as a caravaneer, spinning out tale after tale to the astonished Joseph.
His eyes, already large and widely-spaced, glistened froglike in his head as he recollected a hundred or so women he claimed to have known at various wayside taverns and beer gardens in Mizraim.
"Wait, my friend, until you taste as I have tasted of Mizraim's sweet honey-cakes!"
Abdullah did not seem to mind Joseph's silence, and he continued. "My friend, even silver is worthless trash to these Mizraimites! These eyes have watched their housekeepers sweep fortunes out of the tall doors of their great, white houses, filling the gutters to the level of your arse! Anyone can then wade in and pick up all he wants, then go home and build a palace fit for a Per-aa, the name by which they call their kings."
Abdullah went on, but Joseph's face showed more and more doubt. "Houses of Eternity" that reached to the lamps of heaven? Bread-corn so abundant it was carted to the slime pits, to mix with river mud and straw for bricks? Joseph finally turned to Abdullah, when he could hear no more.
"I have never seen such wonders as you describe," he confessed helplessly. "How can Mizraim, the land of Per-aa, be so rich and mighty as throw away silver and bread-corn as though it were sheep dung?"
The mouth of the House of Ishmael gaped at Joseph in response. He finally reacted by yanking on Joseph's collar with a vengence. All conversation stopped at that point.
As Abdullah continued to yank Joseph mercilessly forward, Joseph's eyes began rolling backwards in their sockets. He was staggering and tumbling face-forward when suddenly Meshullam made a sign and the caravan fell instantly, messily, apart. It was noontide, time to rest and take nourishment of some sort.
While Joseph lay where he had collapsed, Abdullah prowled restlessly about camp, and his humor--severely strained by Joseph's artless remark--did not improve a jot. Ignoring the fallen slave, he went for the donkeys, and many of them experienced his agile foot smacking unexpectedly against their hindquarters.
They had reached the Shur proper, the line of forts called by the word for wall that also gave the whole wilderness its ancient name. The caravan had drawn up for relief in the shade of the compound wall of one of the fortresses, a towered colossus, lying sadly in ruins for many centuries since the time of the Dawn Kings, the first per-aas of the civilized world.
Joseph was still lying on the ground when he too felt the shock of a foot against his hindquarters. Abdullah spun away with a laugh, and time passed.
Hearing stealthy footfalls, Joseph was ready for him the second time, however. He caught Abdullah up just as he was making a flying attack, flipping him head over heels to the ground.
The Runt of Gilead was suddenly up and hopping from one foot to the other, dagger drawn.
Weaving unsteadily, Joseph confronted the Ishmaelite. Then he collapsed face-down on the ground. He gasped out some words to his assailant.
"Slay me if you will!"
Abdullah leaped upon him, but for some reason he held back his dagger. He gazed down at his fallen Hebrew. A look of understanding seemed to pass into his eyes, crowding out the anger. He touched Joseph's collar, and it was his turn to gasp when he saw the bleeding, raw flesh beneath. He ran off, returning a few moments later with balm mixed with myrrh.
"It is plain you know nothing of the world if you question my unsurpassed wisdom," Abdullah grumbled peevishly, dumping ointment worth many donkeys and slaves on Joseph's open sores.
Joseph shuddered as the healing sensation instantly penetrated and calmed his screaming flesh.
Abdullah, after this act of mercy, grew excited again. He gave Joseph a resentful look.
"I can tell by your ways, O Hebrew, that you people think you alone have the ear of holy God," he huffed. Do you not think so?"
He stood up and straighened his frame so that he was as tall a runt could be.
"Well, slave, if you are so much better than the sons of Father Ishmael, why does the God of Jacob not answer your prayers and set you free of our fine collar?"
Now the Ishmaelite spoke the plain fact--it was a fine collar. Most iron came from the aircraft carrier, Ticonderoga, and countless other ships scattered across the continent, but Joseph’s iron had come from a unique source. Fallen from heaven, it was thought to be the blood of a star cooled into a solid lump.
Abdullah threw the empty alabaster pot container for the balm and myrrh on the nearest rock, and the green shards exploded over the ground and over Joseph. He faced Joseph again, eyes gleaming.
"And I do not lie about any of the wonders I have seen, you scum of a she-donkey! You will soon see them with your own eyes, when we sell you to the temple dealers!"
Joseph closed his eyes with horror. It was all he could do not to cry out.
Later, Abdullah returned to him with a water-skin, for even a donkey, and an uppity one at that, must have water to live.
He snatched it away, however, the moment Joseph tried to take a sip. While the Hebrew helplessly looked on, the Ishmaelite took it up in his hand and guzzled the contents, letting water slop over his chin and run down the front of his robe. Throwing down the empty water-skin, he left Joseph groaning to himself and sought amusement further on with the donkeys.
He had a game he played of hopping from back to back, using them as a bridge. By this means he reached his brethren, where they lay grouped together, all snoring more or less in unison. Disgusted, Abdullah wasted no time on them. He sped off into the ruined fortress, climbing the tumbled stone and broken statuary partially blocking the gate.
Some time passed in this way, with the caravan sleeping off the worst heat of the day and Abdullah somewhere at play. As for the slave, he lay with his eyes closed in thirst and misery, and it was in this state he awoke, raised to consciousness by a unusual whirl of frantic movement a few feet away. What he saw when he opened his eyes was a damsel, for she was twirling about before his startled gaze in a dancing girl's brief robe. A wig of zarah rope covered the creature's head, of which braids were cunningly attached to scarlet pom pons. All dignity and grace was soon put aside as she began leaping and cavorting about him, swinging water-skin breasts shamelessly in accordance with Ishmaelite tastes.
Recognizing the water-skins, Joseph divined the dancer's sex and identiy at once, but Abdullah had only begun to entertain himself.
"Come, beloved, drink deep of my burning love for you!" the maiden called to Joseph in uncertain tones. In the damsel's hands were pomegranates.
"Take hold of the tree of love, nourish yourself on my fruits!" the beauty went on invitingly. "Lay bare all my secrets...Mount the tree, beloved!..."
Abdullah's caper was suddenly cut short when he heard a cry and turned to see his brothers running his way, shouting with delight. Dropping fruits, locks of zarah, and pom pons, Joseph’s temptress fled off into the wilderness, the brothers in hot pursuit.
Later, the brothers returned, cursing with disgust, for the damsel had eluded them in the thickets of thornbush that choked much of the region.
Creeping into Joseph's sight then followed Abdullah. He limped slowly along, his posteriors a mass of wounds. Having dived for cover under the thornbushes, he was greatly in need of the famous balm of his homeland. Going straight to the donkeys, he relieved them of a king's ransom of the ointment, pouring it into a large, bronze basin for convenience. Lifting his flimsy, maidenly robe, he lowered his lacerated buttocks. Sighing and crying out in mingled pain and pleasure, Abdullah spent some time in this way, moving his backside around vigorously in the basin.
At Meshullam's approach, finally, Abdullah whisked the basin from view, pouring the ointment back into its alabaster containers for later sale to fine ladies and temple priests.
Meshullam had come to bring Joseph food and drink.
"Never mind Abdullah," he said. "The lad has a good, warm heart that would never offend man nor beast, but it turns to ice when strangers, whom he seeks to befriend, do not honor his words as a man."
Meshullam paused to look inquiringly at Joseph for understanding, and Joseph nodded slowly.
The old man handed over a water-skin filled with honey-beer.
Joseph, after a sip, began pouring the liquid down his throat so that Meshullam was obliged to pull it gently away.
"You take it more slowly," he explained. "The wilderness is full of bones of men who drank too lustily and then went forth to face the full heat of day."
The eyes of the wise son of Ishmael grew soberer. "Poor Abdullah, I know what he has been telling you. It is true what he has said. He knows what he has seen. And when you too come down to Mizraim, to face its wonders, you will grow weak in your knees! May the Most High have mercy on you in this terrible Land of the Red and Black!"
Without waiting for Joseph's response, the Ishmaelite darted away.
Joseph, feeling much better from both Abdullah's and Meshullam's ministrations, lay back on the sand. But his eyes were filled with tears. The terrible thought came back with full force upon him. They were dragging him to Mizraim to sell as a temple slave!
Serving heathen gods was bad enough, but there was worse in store. He knew exactly what temple service meant. Young men and boys were gelded. They were dressed like women, forced to wear women's jewelry and flowers, trained in the arts of dancing!
From this horror his mind turned homeward, back to his father's black, goat-hair tents at Hebron. His mind filled with the sheepcotes and the altars of uncut stones at which they called on God. Never again, if his destiny as a temple slave came to pass, would he walk a man among his own people. As a temple slave he would never again be able to call himself a man, a Hebrew of the Most High God. It would be better for him if he had died in the Pit of Dothan.
Joseph wept. When his eyes cleared of moisture, he saw again the wall of the fortress that loomed from end to end of his eye-span. Called Shur, it had stood for untold years. Giants, said Abdullah, had built it and then gone away to live in the deeps of the earth. They were the same that had built the many ruined cities in the far north of the country. “Romans” had been their name, it was said.
In his distress, at his wit's end, a greater name than Shur or Rome slowly formed on Joseph’s lips. The despair that had filled his heart since his fall into the Pit of Dothan now welled up afresh, choking off his cry for help to the God of Jacob, El Elyon, or the Most High God.
He dropped his gaze to stare at the sand, which stretched beneath him to the horizon as if a baker had rolled his bread-pin across it. There was no place to run, he saw at once. The thornbushes were inpenetrable. There was no water. He must continue on with the Ishmaelites, if he wished to live.
Had he brought this great misfortune on himself? he wondered. Yet his brothers, all of them from Reuben to the most worthless hand-maid's son, were evil-doers, since they had sought to slay him and, worse, had sold him to slavers to be made a temple slave and eunuch. And had they not also taken Ken'anite women as lovers? He knew they had done other evils as well, from the sacking of Shechem to the stealing of their father's sheep.
Yes, he reflected, they had gone him great evil. How then could he forgive them? Surely, his father would never, never forgive them.
While Joseph was engrossed with such thoughts, Abdullah tired of the fortress and all enormous rooms.
"God must be with you," he said to the wide-eyed Hebrew.
Joseph was speechless. Abdullah explained. "But I have seen with my own eyes how God loves you, donkey! He will not let evil touch you!"
"How do you know that?" Joseph blurted out. "I beheld nothing in the Pit but darkness. My own brethren have sold me to you, to be taken down to Mizraim a slave!"
Abdullah seized Joseph's hand and pressed his dark, flat face close to Joseph's. "Are you such a fool?" he cried. "You have just told me the evil men who sold you were your own brethren. Think then how you would have fared in such wicked hands if you were not sold down to Mizraim! Was that not the only way your God could save your life from their knives and darts?"
The mouth of the House of Ishmael had never spoken more truly and wisely. It even amazed him. The Ishmaelite stood back from Joseph, his hands on Joseph's shoulders as he spoke man to man.
"Are you truly so blind as you make yourself out to be by your words? I dared not climb all the way down to you in the pit for those bright white wings that over-shadowed you where you lay!"
At the memory Abdullah spun away, rubbing his face as once he had tried to erase the terrible, clinging brightness that had escaped the wings and struck him. His voice became most bitter.
"No one would believe me, when I told it to them. Now you join with their opinion!"
Abdullah, without even another glance at Joseph, stomped off. Left to himself, Joseph fell on his face in the sand, groaning.
Then, feeling movement all over his back, he stirred, turning over and expected to find the dread scorpions had over-whelmed him. Instead, he and the ground all about were covered with a mantle of bright-winged creatures, hued with many gemstone colors. The cry of alarm turned to one of rejoicing.
The caravan had since begun to move away from the fortress by this time. Running after it, Joseph caught up to Abdullah. Bright wings still clung to Joseph's hair and shoulders as he threw himself down before the astonished Ishmaelite. Joseph held up the rope of his collar. It too was thickly bejeweled with the beautiful, newly-winged creatures.
"Master," said Joseph.
Clothed in his coat of brightest colors (given to him by his doting father, Jacob), Jacob's favorite son soon rushed to Jacob's first-born, Reuben. In Reuben's large tent he found his older brothers gathered in a heated argument with Reuben over something Joseph's presence suddenly dampened.
"You'll not get a single goat's behind from your portion if we don't do it soon!" Simeon had said to Reuben as Joseph entered.
With annoyance and even bitterness his brothers turned away from Reuben and faced Joseph as he eagerly related his first dream. In a field of ripe, golden grain he and his brothers were gathering sheaves when all their sheaves bowed down his own! He was surprised when instead of joy their eyes shot flames of anger.
"Are you, our younger brother, indeed to reign over us in place of the first-born and eldest?" they shouted. Even the mild-tempered Reuben cast him a disappointed and angry look.
Amazed at his brothers' strange reaction, Joseph sped between the thickly-clustered tents and several dozen playing children to find his parents. He searched his father's tent and after found his father and mother sitting in Rachel's beautiful tent.
Interrupting an embrace, he breathlessly related the second dream in which the a great, glowing, golden bowl and the moon bowed down to him. Was it not a wonderful dream from God? he asked them, raising up his hands in adoration toward heaven.
At his naming of their sovereign, holy God, both his parents quickly stood, though with difficulty, as his mother was heavy with child as his father was with age.
Leaning against Jacob's shoulder, she listened to her son.
Joseph would never forget how lovely his soon-to-die mother looked at that moment, her hair unbound to the ground and silver moons and stars gleaming on her forehead.
But something had gone wrong. Joseph noticed both his mother and father were staring at him with unblinking eyes, their loving countenances darkening with shock.
Then Father Jacob spoke in strangely cool tones.
"What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?"
Joseph suddenly felt very awkward and out of place in his parents' presence--and never before had such a thing happened to the favorite son of Jacob and Rachel.
The Ishmaelite camp was quiet in the night hours as Abdullah keep more or less faithful watch on the slave boy and the sleeping camp. Toward morning, however, when it was most difficult to keep watch, Abdullah's head dropped with a bang on his drawn-up knees and was fast asleep.
About the same time, his ghostly counterpart rose up before Joseph where he lay troubled in his sleep.
Abdullah's specter banged his own forehead repeatedly with one hand while the other yanked violently at his already tight girdle.
"How could you speak so against your own brothers?" the specter cried to Joseph. "How could you tell them such a dream to their faces? Do you think so highly of yourself that you could imagine your elder brothers would roll in donkey dung at your feet? How could you think it was their fault when they threw you in the pit for your evil-speaking and impertinent ways? And if it was only your foolish heart speaking to them, may God have mercy on you in Mizraim! They know how to deal with princely souls in mere slaves!"
Abdullah suddenly seized Joseph's many-colored robe by the long sleeves and ripped and tore it off his back before Joseph could stop him.
The runt jumped back from Joseph and laughed.
"I wouldn't want to be you! Without clothes, see if you can warm your arse at night! Then, perhaps, you are mad to think you can deal so loftily with grown-ups, my friend? In your place, I know I would have not dared to humble my brothers, at least not openly."
All this the form of Abdullah said, as Joseph squimed on his bed of sand.
"Joseph, Joseph," intruded a whisper of a voice.
He felt a nudge in his naked rib, where his scanty garment could not reach.
Joseph's eyes sprang open, and in the moonlight he gazed without seeing anything at first, until he realized where he was. Then he saw a face peering out from the dark-shadowed tent-skin.
"I see the last-born is napping at his post again! Come!" Meshullam whispered urgently. "Quickly!"
Inside the tented glow of a four-spouted lamp, Meshullam bent close to speak with him, and even then he whispered so softly it was hard for Joseph to catch a meaning garbled with so many unfamiliar accents. The old trader's eyes spoke more clearly, revealing an unmistakable gravity: it was fear and awe, the same that a sheep's eyes expressed when his shepherd called.
Joseph recognized the expression and was afraid. He had once seen his father's eyes shine so, when the Glory had appeared to him at Beth-El and the still, small voice of the Almighty had spoken.
"He talked to me!" Meshullam hissed. "First He sent a man with a face like mown grass, a prophet, to speak for Him. Alas, now He speaks directly to me! Not only was I to buy you, but I'm to take you to Mizraim and sell you. And I must remove your filthy rags and dress you as the prince you are, for the highest price in the market of the Temple of the Moon."
Meshullam sank down on his sheepskin bed. He took his old head in his hands and his hands were shaking.
"I'm only a trader!" he moaned. "Why is God having me do these strange things?"
Finally, he wiped his eyes, made a little gasp for breath, and looked up at Jacob's offspring with a look of surprise as if he were seeing him fully-clothed and restored to rank for the first time.
A stranger look came over his lean, weathered and wrinkle-seamed face. He rose and bowed slowly and deeply, full seven times. Then he took a regal garment from a chest of valuables he always kept by his side.
"We will arrive at the border tomorrow," he explained.
He held out a robe of rich purple and a golden girdle fit for an Ishmaelite chieftain or prince. "You must be wearing this when we register you at Customs."
Joseph took the royal garment. He looked at Meshullam with horror. "But I can't wear it! I was sold a slave."
"Yes, of course!" the Ishmaelite sighed, helping Joseph into the royal robe.
He paused to examine Joseph's new appearance. His eyes filled with a father's pride and tenderness that quickly turned to sorrow.
"If the Most High had not spoken as He did," he said, sitting back down on his sheepskin, "I would have taken you as my son and not sold you as a slave in Per-aa's two kingdoms. My wives are barren! They have their old ages to think about!"
Meshullam shot him a glance of mingled longing and something sadder: that worldly wisdom that permeated the old trader from head to heel.
"Yet God is wiser than I. Atleast I will have shalom in my own tents amongst my wives and brothers if I do not take a stranger as my son. As the Almighty has ordained, it seems I will remain without a son to bear my name--for I must sell you now."
Joseph looked down. He knew exactly what the old man was describing.
"Shalom"? His own father's days had been made evil and burdensome with constant strife and fightings for advantage. Jacob's four wives had given him many sons but also much grief, with their constant bickering, slapping of faces and hair-pulling as they each sought the favored place in Jacob's bed.
"You may go," Meshullam whispered hoarsely, his voice trembling. "I will not awaken Abdullah. A young boy requires rest, and I know in my heart the others are wrong about you. You will not run away at the first chance. And take this with you."
He snatched a fleece from his own bed and thrust it into Joseph's hand.
"I fear you, Joseph! Indeed, the finger of God is upon you!"
Joseph left Meshullam's tent and lay without any sleep the rest of the night on his soft bed, listening to Night Watchman Abdullah's deeply contented snorts and sputters.
Now they were camped at the Brook of Mizraim, a dry course of river that might fill with water only once or twice in a donkey's lifetime.
It was possible to dig and find water, however, in the channel, collected by some underground, natural cistern. Free to move about the camp since Meshullam had given Joseph his trust, he went over to the pit passers-by had dug, and washed his burning face with cold water.
He went back to his bed and lay thinking about Meshullam's words. Stars hung low and dropped sparks like torches, lighting every shrub and rock from the Ishmaelite camp to the distant horizon.
Interrupting his thoughts, a tiny movement and scraping, rasping sound in the sand nearby caught his attention. Coming closer and closer, the slight disturbance became a little, black creature of the night. Slowly, laboriously, a beetle was pushing a rolled ball of donkey dung much larger than itself.
Fascinated to see something he had only heard described by passing traders, Joseph watched every move and occasional scrambling fall of the dung-beetle. Finally, it propelled its great burden up and over the last sandy ridge of the ground until it disappeared around a corner of Meshullam's tent.
"Even a dung-beetle is free to go where it wants!” he thought. “What will become of me?"
For he thought how even a mere beetle knew its place and could find it without man's help, but a slave? A slave had to wait to be told everything--or risk a beating for presumption.
It had been difficult to live a stranger among the cursed seed of Kena'n. But now he was a common slave on his way to slow and painful death by hard labor or something vastly more degrading.
Joseph gazed at the moon and star-clothed heavens, whose light was too bright to be compared with the dimmer lamps of his people. Going for a drink, he saw a little creature leap away from the water hole, a furry jumper with a long hairless tail, which paused and looked with strange wonder at the royal-robed figure as if it were bewitched.
Hiking up his robe under the golden girdle, Joseph rubbed more water on his arms and legs, his attention turning from the jumper to watch a desert fox creep from shadow to shadow in nearby rocks. Small as a cat, with a tail half her size, the vixen lifted her head warily, her tall ears pitched to catch the slightest movement at the water-hole, before darting forward to seize the jumper.
Joseph stood absolutely still, and the creature must have thought he was a stone pillar, like so many that cropped out of the floor of the Shur; but Joseph's hungry stomach made a sound and she saw him. For a moment she gazed at him and then tripped casually away with her prey.
Joseph shook his head. Had he become so strange to man and beast, that they all saw God's mark on him and let him be as Kane? How he hated to think he might become such a fratracide, his heart filled with murder all his days despite all the fine domed cities he built in cities known only to Old Time tellers?
He thought of his ten grown brothers who had done him such great harm as to sell him a slave after seizing his robe, signet and chain. Weren’t they all Kanes?
It was time, he knew, to get back to camp and help pack up things before the day grew hot. He paused for a moment as he pulled the stiff gold of the girdle tight, thinking of Abdullah's snores and how easy it would be to slip silently away from his captors and return to the green mountains of Hebron.
But if he returned, would not his brothers slay him for sure? Abdullah was right! He would place himself in great jeopardy and never live to see his father’s face! His brothers would make sure of that!
He glanced back toward the camp with a sigh, then went to see if Abdullah had awakened so that they might talk and be as friends again.
Joseph was standing by Meshullam's door in his gorgeous finery when Abdullah, still rubbing sleepy eyes, came around the corner of the tent. Shrieking with rage he ran to awaken his brothers, and they came at once, beards and robes flying and daggers unsheathed.
Hearing footfalls and shouts, Meshullam stepped quickly outside his tent, raising a hand before which they all but one fell silent.
"The cocky, thieving donkey!" Abdullah cried in shrill, righteous tones. "For betraying our eternal trust in him, first let the villain be stripped and beaten, my brothers!"
"No, Abdullah," Meshullam patiently demurred. He put his arm over Joseph's shoulder. "Rather than take anything away, as his name, 'adding,' foretells, will he not give us much increase in return? Brethren, I have discerned from certain signs a true, princely breeding and that as son of some great chieftain he will command a high price when we come to the capital."
Meshullam firmly waved aside remaining protests. "A prince must be dressed as a prince, if we are to prove his high birth. As for the robe, I can replace it with a suitable likeness at any market-place in Mizraim--and the old fool, er, His Majesty will never know. Merchants in Avaris have many such to sell, outfitted with all the gold charms a king could ever want on his royal belly."
Joseph stood wearing the garment of the king of Hazir.
Abdullah, for all his wrath was also first to forget; he was first again to rush over to Joseph, his dark eyes blazing with fierce affection. Soon the two boys had made up their differences, and the caravan started off across the last stretch of the Wilderness of Shur, toward the wall of new border forts and the royal customs house that lay just beyond the Bitter Lakes.
Abdullah turned to Joseph with a sheepish expression and his bulbous eyes downcast. "I'm not really a prince with a palace. And you?"
"I don’t live in a palace but my father is a prince of the Most High," Joseph solemnly averred. "And I am my father's chosen favorite. If not for my brothers selling me to you, I would stand first among my brethren and someday lead my holy nation, the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
Abdullah, having had his fill of Hebrews at Dothan, was not impressed. He scratched under his ribs as he eyed Joseph. His eyes were full of amusement, but he sobered almost too suddenly and took on a very humble, donkey-like expression.
"Well, then, Your Eminence, you must ride a donkey from here, not tread the dirty ground like common men!" Abdullah respectfully submitted in hushed tones, touching his forehead to the ground in obeisance. "Otherwise, you'll spoil the robe's embroidered hem in the dust. Or would you rather ride a wild mount, a she-camel, something no man among your people has done?"
Joseph glanced at the camels, and without waiting Abdullah was dragging at the nearest female's reins. Soon he was skipping wildly to keep his feet from being stomped by the protesting animal.
All Abdullah's brothers looked as a cloud of dust and sand erupted around the enraged beast. Discharging streams of green cud, the roaring beast got free of her restraints and began to chase Abdullah, who ran for cover among the donkeys.
The camel would not be put off and charged pell mell into the donkeys, and with a shriek Abdullah was off running for the nearest big rock, trying to keep sensitive hindparts away from his pursuer's big, chomping teeth.
Meanwhile the Ishmaelites were roaring with laughter, especially when the camel ran first one way and then another at a certain rock, trying to force her quarry out into the open.
Finally, the brothers decided to help out their little brother and went after the camel with strong ropes hastily gathered from packs and tents.
Joseph stood back watching as they surrounded the animal and soon had her trussed so completely she could only spit at her enemies.
Even Meshullam had tears in his eyes when Abdullah finally crept out of his cleft in the rock.
Still brushing off sand and foul-smelling camel spittle, Abdullah walked proudly enough alongside Joseph on his donkey, relating how Meshullam had captured wild camels on the high desert and little by little broken them into the routine of the caravan. It was a long-drawn story, and Joseph listened, as the Son of Ishmael did all the talking as he waded uncomplainingly through the hot sand.
"As for the king of Hazir," Abdullah explained, "His Royal Majesty intrusted the robe specially to us, on our last visit, to take to Mizraim, that it might be fitted with powerful, magic charms in the City of the Moon." He glanced at Joseph to see if he were laughing. Joseph, having decided to learn all he could from the precocious talk of his worldly-wise friend, was actually hanging on his words, though he had heard nothing before so strange and bizarre.
"Well, anyway, the king heard about Mizraim's mighty wizards who sit like kings on their big, fat arses all day, some on golden thrones like the Per-aa waving wands of gilded tamar branches encrusted with jewels. Someone, you see, must have told the king of the wonders Mizraimites can do with divining cups and a drop or two of ink, and I myself have seen a big-bellied fellow named Zam Zam cast enchantments and turn hooded cobras into beautiful harem girls! So naturally he wanted them to put a most powerful spell on his own robe that would bring him good fortune when he goes to war on the--"
Abdullah wisely broke off, closed one eye and squinted the other at Joseph. Then he continued.
"IF he goes to war against the tribe of Jacob, that is! He heard you have an invisible god who can do great, magical things, so he wants all the wizardry of Mizraim to give him power over Jacob. He pays a large yearly tribute to the Per-aa, you know, and all his people groan under the burden and would like to ease themselves with war booty--since everyone has heard of Jacob's huge chests of of fine gold and embroidered cloth of Babelen and Tyre."
Joseph nudged Abdullah's arm. "Do you believe in the power of charms and divining cups too, like the king?"
"Oh, the old donkey’s arse takes his courage from cups," he laughed. "He'll try anything he thinks can help gain the upper hand. He doesn't know the Most High God. You have to excuse his ignorance. Now we'll have to find him another robe, or else stay away from Hazir in the future. I never liked going there. I saw the Hazirites take a golden fire-pan and shovel infant first-borns into Larishaphim's burning belly."
Joseph was not surprised. Heathen neighbors at Kiriath-arba also burned first-borns to gain the favor of carved wood and stone gods. Yet Abdullah gave him much more to consider before they reached the border, as he continued to regale Joseph with the sights of fabulous cities strung along Mizraim's great river like jewels on a neck string.
First, Avaris the capital and nearby Nathasta, City of the Moon, then up the river to visit the royal cities of Machitha and Ibbatha and Ga'arta, until they reached Tammu at the first cataract. Abdullah firmly believed there was no grander sight in the world to watch when all boat traffic disembarked and walked in one big caravan round the great rocks and waterfalls to be met by a multitude of black people clothed only on their upper parts in leopard skins and ostrich plumes.
While Abdullah rolled his eyes and bragged of women he had enjoyed in each city, Joseph was thinking about his unknown destiny.
"Abdullah will be able to come and go as a free man there, respected because he and his people are half-Mizraimite," Joseph was thinking while Abdullah talked. "But as a slave I will have to stay and work the rest of my life for some cruel master." The feeling of being cut off from Abdullah and all other free-living things grew more intense as they neared the border, then was momentarily forgotten amidst the amazing sights.
Mizraim's welcome came first in the screeching cries of vultures and falcons flying like a myriad of whirling clouds across the sky. Date-bearing tamar trees waved branches along the well-travelled lane, which broadened and began filling with traffic. Caravans spilling out of the deserts and southlands crammed the main road to the capital.
The sight of other people besides the Ishmaelites of Meshullam's clan was also exciting. The pace of the camels and donkeys quickened as they scented an oasis and fragrant pools of water. It was amazing to Joseph how the Ishmaelite caravan from Gilead shrank to almost nothing among much larger, statelier caravans. He also noticed how other caravaneers laughed and spat at the sight of Meshullam's wild camels, while Abdullah responded in kind by lifting his robe and showing his backside.
Abdullah strutted, puffed out his chest, and pointed out each new arrival and what they were carrying. Joseph could see the elephant tusks on stout-bodied onagers--ivory for chairs and beds of nobility and of course the per-aa's family.
Donkeys plodded patiently carrying willow cages of peacocks, ibises, and leopards and lions.
Abdullah ran over to one cage, and could not resist a yank of a snow leopard's long, trailing tail. Fleeing the irate owner, Abdullah dodged behind donkeys carrying crates of tiny antelope whose skins would soon glove the fingers of priests officiating on cold, windy dawns in stone temples.
Baby giraffes the per-aa's young sons could ride for sport would not submit to Abdullah's rough mounting, so he dragged Joseph to other attractions further down the line of caravans to see his first apes, fierce tiercels for hunting, and jars of colored, fan-tailed fishes, of which Abdullah plucked wriggling specimens to slip in a passing donkey's ear and the mouths of a tiger and tigress.
A black and white colobus caught Abdullah's roving eye, and the fantastic creature stretched intelligent hands and fingers out of his cage to tug at Abdullah's hand. From somewhere the Ishmaelite brought out a pomegranate, and the animal eagerly tore off the skin and began to devour the sweet, purple fruit.
Joseph's eyes filled with laughter as he watched the grinning, man-like creature daintly peel and eat yet another pomegranate Abdullah snatched from a moving donkey's basket.
Continuing on, the tamar branches overhead were thickly clustered with noisy, varicolored birds that pelted them with half-eaten dates. It was a border outpost like many others, with much traffic coming and going in a great hurry. For the first time he saw the per-aa's militia--armor-clad Hyksos soldiery escorting a four-horsed state chariot carrying an ambassador or decree to some far-off fortress or tributary in Kena'n.
Seeing the military, Abdullah spat nutshells and leaned over to Joseph, speaking low and guardedly for the first time to his companion.
"Be careful what you say! They're world rulers. And to them we’re ripe dung. Their cow-sucking per-aa may be a foreign chieftain related to our race, but even he is careful to dress and act Mizraimite. Beware of these Mizraimites! They'll lift their fine, linen skirts and break wind in an our face every chance they get--though they let us ransack the world to supply them with nice things."
"How did it happen that a foreigner like us became their ruler?"
"How would I know?" Abdullah whispered tensely. "Maybe his chariots were faster and better in war, or Mizraim's Two Kingdoms were divided again and fighting each other. Maybe he has a magic ring like some people say. I just know the people of the present ruler marched in without an army waiting to stop them at the border, and to this day he remembers his fathers' country in only one thing. He refuses to wear a sacred bull-tail like any true per-aa would do."
No one dared speak as they drew up to the Customs posthouse just beyond the hawk-winged gate. Guarded by Nubian tribesmen, civil police called Medjayim, it was a large, square building with a walled courtyard and manned guard towers at the four corners, the entire compound lushly gardened with tamar trees, sycomores, and feathery-branched tamarisks. Pools of water enclosed by fine cut stone and filled with blue and white lotuses and colorful fish. Garden plots stretched for some distance from the pools and springs of the oasis, fed by perfectly aligned and graded channels of water, and everywhere men and youth cultivated garden plots with hoes or gathered tree fruit.
It all seemed pleasant enough, and after the burning desert the rich and intricate system of cultivation was a wonderful pleasure to the eye, but all the Ishmaelites, Joseph noted, had turned glumly silent and were no longer speaking even to each other.
Nevertheless, it was a delight at first to sit in the compound, in the shade of the dense grove of trees waiting for their turn at Customs, except that the waiting stretched for one hour after another. They saw other caravans come, then go, while they continued to wait. No official came out from the Customs house to call Meshullam and his brothers, and the bored-looking Medjayim paid them no attention.
Meshullam sat withdrawn into his own thoughts on a soft sheepskin under a palm, chewing endlessly on pistaschio nuts. His brothers rested nearby under trees. Meanwhile, Joseph could not understand why they waited so long while everyone else slipped through Customs in a very short time.
“Aren’t the Ishmaelites recognized here as brethren, though only half?” he wondered.
"They always do this to us," Abdullah whispered to him as if reading Joseph’s mind. "They dislike having to deal with unwashed shepherds and sand ramblers, as they call us here, so they let us arrive first and depart last. It's just the way they look upon us, especially since Elder Brother uses animals they consider unclean and barbaric."
The last-born worked on a "windfall" pomegranate, gnawing and sucking each big, fleshy seed with long-drawn gusto. He threw each rind into a nearby canal as he consumed one pomegranate after another from a supply kept in a bag under his robe.
Suddenly, Abdullah stopped eating and grimaced with purple-stained lips.
"How can I enjoy these Love Fruits that give strength to my loins with you, Donkey-Face, looking at me that impertinent way?"
Joseph looked away, but Abdullah persisted, a taunting edge to his voice.
"You do not like it because I stole it. Is that not it, holy Hebrew? Well, it is my right to take what the cow suckers are so stupid to lose. They steal from us every chance they get! They're filthy spawn of frog-gods anyhow and deserve death."
His voice had risen enough to draw a distant guard's attention, and just as suddenly as Abdullah began he fell silent, looking around anxiously for a moment before glancing irritably at Joseph. "You stinking vomit of a vulture!" he hissed at Joseph as soon as the guard had gone off on patrol. "How dare you lift your eyes like that to your master and a free man?" Joseph looked down, reminding himself he was only a slave. His heart pounded, evenso, to hear such ugly words; it recalled the scene in Reuben's tent when he had related his dream to his brothers. They had been his brethren, however, and this was a runt of an Ishmaelite. In spite of his best intentions, his fists clenched. He felt like flying at Abdullah and throttling him like a mad dog that was worrying and running to death his father's sheep.
Suddenly, tears of remorse spurted from Joseph's eyes and his fists sprang open.
"What was I thinking--Abdullah, a ‘dog’?"
He sank slowly down to the ground.
Abdullah paid Joseph's signs of remorse no attention as he finished his pomegranate, rising up to cast the rind at anything convenient. Even then his throw was expert. A donkey caught it neatly on the head.
"I am sorry, Joseph," he said. "I do not know why I said those things. I am so tired of waiting because of these cow-suckers!"
Joseph, amazed at Abdullah's abrupt changes, now experienced a surge of old, Abrahamic kinship.
Yet he recollected at the same time these closely-related brethren would soon sell him in a slave market, and then he would have to learn to live with hostile foreigners who loathed anyone of his race. "They would rather die than eat with us dirty aliens," Abdullah offered, as if he had divined Joseph's thoughts. "They would be defiled, they think, if they did that--and their gods would be angry with them, perhaps forever, and command the crocodile-god Lamishput to gnaw their souls after death."
Joseph could hold back his confused thoughts no longer.
“Surely they should respect you! Aren’t you related to them by the blood of Hagar?”
It was as if Joseph had announced he was going to be per-aa and all the Ishmaelites were to attend a great feast in their honor!
Abdullah turned and stared at his companion as if a donkey had spoken. For some reason, he did not ignite but regarded the speaker like the most profound idiot on Earth as he opened his mouth in amazement, full of half-chewed seeds and pulp.
“I mean, by Ishmael’s mother YOU are beloved kin to them,” Joseph went cheerfully on, this time putting the match to the tinder by repeating his incredible stupidity.
Donkey or not, no son of the House of Ishmael could take such a statement calmly.
Abdullah looked as if he had swallowed a deadly snake whole.
“What?” he cried, spraying seeds and pulp all over his front. “The mother of our holy people was Mizraimite, did you say? Did you say that? Did you?”
Joseph, instantly, knew he had better turn the subject.
"What other gods do they have?"
The last-born, who would have sprang to his feet with dagger in hand in another moment, suddenly heaved a great sigh and calmed down.
At Joseph's equally astounding simplicity, he rolled his eyes and let his belch out loudly.
"From cows to frogs, I could not name them all. And their temples! Whole cities are built just for one god, and all up and down that mighty River Ioteru of theirs stand giant idols on the riverbank, complete with palaces and gardens containing every kind of fruit tree, vine, and flower, not to mention harems of pom pon girls just for the gods' pleasure, nobody else."
Joseph looked up and saw the latest caravan passing out the gate of the compound.
"Do you mean everything is for their idols? Do the people share in anything?"
Abdullah laughed. "Common people like us cannot go into temples, they are too holy and only for the per-aa and the priests, but they have smaller shrines everywhere, and all kinds of processions, snake charmers, and festivals with lots of pom pon girls instead. And like I said they never get to enter the gardens and palaces of the gods. They have their own. Aha, wait till you see the dancing girls! How they prance and sing and play their little harps as the men throw silver pieces at their dainty, perfumed feet! You will soon enjoy your heart's desire, my friend!"
Joseph turned to Abdullah with a sudden smile.
"Would you like to test how fleet of foot you are, Son of Ishmael? Or are you afraid of rubbing women’s perfume from your dainty feet?"
Instantly, Abdullah's eyes and lean, dark face flamed with Ishmaelite pride. He leaped up, scattering seeds from his juice-stained robe. Together, they slipped out of the compound, scaling the low wall, and agreed to run the circuit of the walls until they reached the main gate, the same where the falcon-god greeted all comers with outstretched wings and gaping beak.
Without waiting for Joseph, Abdullah gave a whoop straight from the desert and sprinted off. Scrambling to gird up his robe, Joseph finally set off after the fast-disappearing runt.
Joseph got his breath and kept lengthening his stride. He began to gain on Abdullah. Finally, after turning two corners of the compound, Joseph swept ahead and Abdullah fell far behind in the rear. At the gate Joseph waited anxiously, as time passed and Abdullah did not appear. Finally, Abdullah came dragging his feet up to the gate, his girdle loose and his robe's tattered hem caught on some of Mizraim's giant cockleburs. "How about a climb up that silly thing over there?" Abdullah proposed archly, jerking a purpled thumb toward a nearby version of Mizraim's Houses of Eternity. Left unfinished by the desert potentate who began the costly project and was unable to finish, the structure was left in arrears by his successor; the white stone that was supposed to glaze the sides was missing, and the shabby result was stepped slopes tufted with grass that drew sometimes an entire flock of wild goats.
This time Joseph fared poorly, and the quick, agile-bodied Ishmaelite scampered to the top of the small tomb like a monkey after a thrown piece of fruit. He gave his second wild whoop of the day and grinned with triumph.
Just as they were turning to go, Joseph noticed some inscriptions on a block of stone tumbled from the dead chieftain's funerary statue. The head had fallen off and lay close by, its stone lips frozen in the smile of a Per-aa or Mizraimite god.
Abdullah pointed out the two scripts, one Mizraimite and the other related closely to their own language. Together they attempted to read the meaning, and Joseph, better at deciphering the script, translated:
"I, Seti-Abdullam, most devout Suckler of the divine Cow-Goddess and First Under-Taty of Per-aa Seti's draught animals, horses and she-asses, built this Grand Eternal House for my ka's everlasting rapture. Look upon it, Mighty Ones, and despair!"
Abdullah's attention, however, was drawn away by another, greater spectacle. He tugged Joseph's royal sleeve, and Joseph turned to see a new caravan drawing up at the oasis.
Knowing even at a distance what it was, Abdullah gave a whoop and ran off to see the aviary birds, brought from Nathasta and the deepest southlands.
Hundreds of chattering, screeching, cooing, and more pleasantly singing birds were reposing in willow cages strapped to the backs of donkeys.
Abdullah excitedly drew his friend over to some particular birds.
"These Scribe Birds can talk to you, man to man!" he explained as he violently rattled the cages to annoy the birds into speech. "I've been waiting to show you this very thing!"
A man ran back from tending to his donkeys, yelling at them, but Abdullah held his ground.
"Off with you cursed sand-ramblers!" the Kena'nite shouted, wielding a hefty staff of solid oak.
Smiling instead of cursing in return, Abdullah was all very respectful in manner as he bowed low, nearly scraping the ground with his head.
"Morning of fragrance!" he greeted the trader in princely style, bowing again to the ground.
Taken aback by the youth's good breeding, the trader eyed the two boys a moment. "Morning of light," he responded with still some hesitation.
Suddenly, a bird called out to them in clear, perfectly accented Akkadian, or trader's tongue, from a tent that had been set up for a special bird's showing, perhaps.
Abdullah went in the tent, which was kept dark to keep the bird more settled. Despite the lack of light, the bird's colors shone as if in daylight.
"Morning of fragrance, lover-boy! Why don't you come up and see me some time?" crooned the bird sitting on a wooden stand.
"I have been training him since I found him in Nathasta at the temple mart. He already speaks excellent Mizraimite, though often it is of a nasty, low sort, but since he is so bright I intend to teach him nicer things for temple service in my own country. That's why I give him this special tent of his own."
Entranced with the creature, all three joined in admiring and conversing with the bird, which seemed not at all nervous with the attention he was receiving and rose to the occasion.
Fluttering his brilliant blue wings, the Scribe Bird arched his neck,, and then began emitting a stream of gutter talk straight from a Mizraimite tavern at midnight.
"Beloved, you have the nipples of a magnificent sow, and I can out-perform a donkey! Let us pluck the divine fruits of love--"
Abashed, the trader threw a rug over the bird's cage and apologized to the boys. "He is foul of mouth and likes to think himself a rutting donkey, I fear, for who knows what sort of low-bred owner he may have had before me. I am, however, training him in godliness, teaching him about holy things, and to speak things only refined people of quality, such as high-born or priestly persons, might want to hear. You should hear him recite the entire psalm of praise to Larishaphim and--"
"Would you sell him to us, Your Eminence?" inquired Abdullah, who was utterly charmed by the bird's bad manners.
The trader shook his head. "You would never be able to afford his likes. He's worth a king's ransom. I expect to command a very high price in Tyre or Hazir, and so I plan to take him there, as I know certain temples of the moon-god Larishaphim known for oracles are particularly anxious to obtain these pretty talkers."
Finished, the man gave them a knowing wink. Abdullah and Joseph, after low bows, took leave of the friendly trader, who stood looking at them as they walked away, still wondering how mere youth (and sand ramblers at that!) had come by such fine and princely manners.
Joseph and Abdullah had just returned to camp when the red-and-white ostrich-plumed civil guard beckoned to Meshullam from the pillared door of the Hall of Foreign Registry.
Quickly, the Ishmaelites obeyed the summons, and they assembled in a sober-faced group at the entrance, waiting again for the formal invitation. The wait was not long this time. They filed in, bowing low and repeatedly before a row of impressive officials. None of the Ishmaelites dared lift their eyes as they bowed, for the Mizraimites were all seated like ruling kings and princes on gilded chairs at a long, polished table. Almost as impressive, behind them stood naked ranks of bluish-black Nubians in leopard skins and red and white ostrich plumes whose only task was to circulate the air with peacock-feather fans.
It was shockingly cool and formal inside the big, pillared chamber, and the talk and business of the officials flew back and forth in a crisp, no-nonsense way. Appointed by the latest Grand Taty, the Mizraimites were all medium-sized, slim-built men of no particular age, and everything about them seemed scrupulously clean. Black wigged, all body hair was perfectly shaved, so their skins shone smooth and beautiful through the thin, transparent linen garments they all wore.
To a pastoral lad, knowing only black goathair dwellings and the smelly confusion of sheepfolds full of sheep and goats, the scene was coldly empty and the casual nudity disturbing despite the sumptuous wall-paints, exquisitely-arranged flowers in tall vases, and glitter of bronze and glass.
Joseph wondered what it might be that bothered him most as he faced this race of milk-loving, "cow suckers" for the first time.
Fortunately, Meshullam their leader knew how to deal with such ancient and cunning people; the Mizraimites, in turn, seemed to recognize the old man, and despite Meshullam's bizarre use of camels, showed him a degree of friendly deference and motioned for him to begin his formal petition for entry.
"I have here His Highness the Prince of Hazir," Meshullam began in suitably humble tones, bowing very low to the chief officer, then drawing Joseph forward by his long sleeve.
The trader paused as the officer looked over his bouquet of flowers at Joseph, subjecting him to a practiced eye. "He is, you might say, available for a certain price," Meshullam continued. "You see, Your Excellency, as a captive of some trifling tribal skirmish he fled to us for protection from his enemies; so as a young man of goodly appearance and strength, Hazir's sad loss may prove great gain perhaps to some temple or noble household in the sacred Per-aa's everlasting domain."
“The name of the country is ‘Hazor,’ not ‘Hazir,’ corrected the official.
“Yes, of course!” Meshullam replied, bowing low. “It was a mere slip of the tongue. Only among my ignorant people we know the city and its king as ‘Hazir,’ being easier for our gross, untutored barbarian tongues to pronounce.”
Both Joseph and Abdullah were covered with dust and poured perspiration after their running contest, and the Mizraimites had begun touching fragrant flowers to their nostrils.
The chief officer's aristocratic, melancholy face, with a dark-blue shadow defining his prim chin and mouth, shuddered at such perspirings.
"The tall one needs a good scrub with perfumed water, of course, but he is a pretty boy in his form and face," observed the officer. "I might want him for my own house to wait upon me at my bath. As for his attendant, he has the visage to cause a she-ass to miscarry and can assist my milkman in the cow barn, who is only slightly better looking. How much are you asking for the pair?"
Meshullam's face betrayed no sign of his true feeling as he bowed even lower than before while an outraged Abdullah looked on. He named an impossible sum that might have built a House of Eternity in his own memory, and the official shrugged and gave his scribe the sign to write up the entry note at once.
The scribe, seated on the floor behind him, began scribbling on a document the age and other particulars of Joseph's entry into Mizraim, disregarding Meshullam's little discussion with the chief officer when he marked the newcomer's status as "Male Slave with exceptionally handsome face and eyes (no name or father's name), Sand Rambler, putative son of foreign chieftain (see Hazor File for any missing son of a chief in the Aliens’ Chieflist)."
Customs duties were assessed in detail and glumly paid by Meshullum, and their papyrus of entry was stamped and sealed with the Custom House stamp, an official seal showing Lamishput devouring the bodies of Per-aa's enemies. Only then were they ordered, politely but firmly, to get on their way.
They started to move off and the chief official stopped them. "What is that lad's collar made of?" he inquired of Meshullam.
Bowing hastily, the old man smiled to cover his surprise and nervousness. "Only something new from afar called 'Flesh of Stars,' Your Excellency-just a trifle I picked up in trade somewhere in the north in Hatti."
The Mizraimite's painted and manicured fingers toyed with the petals of his lotus as he eyed the strange and rare metal around Joseph's neck. Then he rose and leaned over the table to touch the collar.
"'Flesh of Stars'? Ha! Let the wretched foreigners who like to make new things wear it for clothes! We prefer our fine, light linen, and as for the army good bronze will serve this country today as well as it has for thousands of years. ever since the Dawn!" he declared, then waved the Ishmaelites away.
Quickly bowing their way out to the door, the Ishmaelites left the premises and heaving sighs of relief scurried about to get their caravan back on the road. The moon's face had topped the towered sea wall at the end of the high road to Avaris, but they could travel in the dark now, for the way was so well by moonlight and the torches of passers-by daylight was unnecessary.
"Abdullah!" Joseph called out while still in earshot of the Customs House. "Tell me, what was that wretched thing painted on the wall behind the Mizraimites--the bird with the head of a man shown sucking the teats of that piebald cow?"
Abdullah's shock was apparent somehow even in the deepening gloom of dusk.
"It's the falcon-god Nebel, the royal god of Mizraim representing the per'aa himself. So never talk about him that way again! They'll kill you and hang you in a tree, and us too, if they should hear your blasphemy. Be careful, Joseph! They worship many things--bulls, lions, baboons, dogs, vultures, hawks, cobras, rams, cows, cats, lice on a hog's snout, and even frogs and salamanders in a pool or canal! They're ALL gods, with temples that reach to the stars, and Nebel the falcon is chief god of the stinking lot."
Joseph felt very sick in his stomach, now that he had seen the Mizraimites and Abdullah's words were at last sinking in. Yet his mind could not accept the reality and continued to question his eyes. He wondered appalled how such a mighty people, renowned in all the arts of modern times, could worship even things that crawled in the filthy slime of rivers and tore their food with beaks and claws.
Yet as the caravan hurried through the throbing, Mizraimite nightfall along the caravan-packed road, presently Joseph's eyes caught sight of something monstrous and real as no picture or carving of man could make it. "Where is the God of Jacob now?" he gasped with dismay as the darkness around him gave way to a thousand torches surrounding an approaching deity. "O God of my father!" he cried as the immense, beaked image threatened to engulf the Ishmaelite caravan. "I am driven far from Thy sight!"
Fortunately, the terrifying phantasm proved to be only an idol, a statue hewn from stone and being transported upright to a temple in Ken'an on a dozen ox-carts lashed together.
"No need to be so afraid, my friend!" laughed Abdullah with a jaded sophisticate's condescension for a countried cousin. "I have traveled from snout to arse and fang to tail of this land and seen many bigger than that!" he added reassuringly as the monstrous shape passed and was swallowed up by the night.
officiating as high priest
The immigrant followed the caravan on the first morning in Mizraim into the the spreading suburbs of the unwalled Mizraimite-Hyskos capital.
Avaris was a city of notable stone faces, red and black. Into the distance stretched and converged lines of shining blackness, of thousands of human-headed frogs of polished black granite flanking the main thoroughfares into the royal city. All the stone faces smiled, in contrast to the Mizraimites who looked at the Asiatic caravan with distaste and stepped aside so they could pass in the street.
Turning its smile upon passing multitudes, the frog-god cast welcome shade across the exposed pavements of red granite. A city built for comfort had taken every human need into account, and also provided vine-covered taverns which beckoned weary caravaneers to take their ease amidst tamar tree gardens.
Joseph expected to see temples described by his great-grandfather, Abraham.
As religious as any city in Mizraim, tall, dim-halled temples poured dark clouds into the streets, enveloping the Ishmaelites in jasmine and lotus and rose-a perpetual delight that was only sometimes spoiled when the ripe scent of frogroe, rotting in a nearby canal, wafted over them.
Truly, it was a land of wonders as Abdullah had testified.
Joseph threw his head back to see his first ben-ben, a solid stone tower sheeted with bronze Abdullah pointed out as they approached city's the eastern gate.
"Why do they call it 'son' or 'bough'?" inquired Joseph.
Abdullah shook his head. "'Ben' is not our word; it means "Adam's finger" and has been their word since Adam founded Nathasta and Ga'arta and Tammu, as the cow-suckers say here."
"But how can it be a gate?" Joseph was thinking of Ken'an's small, tight-walled cities. "It has no proper doors, bolts and bars."
"They have no need of such in this powerful a country, where the people come and go at all hours and the cities never sleep!"
The Ishmaelites passed through the open gate with its shining tower, stopping finally to rest and barter in a large, covered market.
Abdullah dragged his friend to see the shops of the foreign quarter. The best were run by Keftiuan merchants and carried imports from Keftiu's northern isles in the Green Sea. They proudly displayed a horned bull-man and a hero fighting in a cavern painted on black glazed vases. Others carried other equally lifelike figures of a bare-chested goddess wrapped with pit vipers-Abdullah's favorite, which sold brisky to men who pushed each other and thrust out their silver and gold to the shopkeepers as the two boys looked on.
Without exciting any business of their own amidst Keftiu's more sophisticated wares, the Ishmaelites soon moved on to outlying districts and a large city further up the Ioteru, passing through another doorless gate on the capital's western rim.
Nathasta, the ancient, templed City of the Moon, proved more receptive to Gilead's well-known myrrh and balm. Again they were met on the outskirts of the city by long, black lines of the popular frog-god. The city was devoted, however, to a moon-god, Nath, whose priests flocked to the markets to buy incense and perfumes, as well as Gilead's healing balms for aging muscles.
The priests also bought young male slaves (pliable and easier to train) to serve in the temple as menials, or hierodules. Of these the best looking were inducted for training as the god’s votaries. "I think Elder Brother will try to sell you here," said Abdullah. He eyed Joseph with misgiving. "I wonder--” The runt broke off and shook his head. Standing in the shadow of a massive, grinning frog , Joseph felt his heart shrink and clench as if a hand of ice had squeezed it. It was the same cold terror he felt when his brothers stripped him of his robe at Dothan and he lay helpless and hurting in the dark pit.
Meshullam halted the caravan in the market closest to the moon-god's temple, and they had no sooner stopped than the fat, well-dressed eunuchs of the temple's purchasing bureau swarmed around the roaring camels and nervous, stamping donkeys.
"The authorities ought to remove these sand ramblers and their unclean animals. Imagine, wild camels in a civilized and holy place such as this!" cried one priest to another.
Both shook their heads, while others eagerly pressed round to inquire of Meshullam's wares.
As the priests bargained with Meshullam, Joseph and Abdullah were free to look about. Tall, upright, winged snakes flanked the four-gated square, which was fronted by many buildings that, in turn, were dwarfed by the Temple of the Moon-God. The temple was beyond anything in size and splendor Joseph had yet seen. Abdullah laughed. "They say Adam built it, harnessing the great beasts creeping about on the earth in those days to lift the stones into place." As often happened, a procession of Nath-worshippers was passing through to the nearby canal to conduct a special ceremony for divine favor. Joseph and Abdullah watched naked men, gauzed in sheer linen, led by an exalted but obese figure in a shining, lunar tiara. Playing silver harps, male votaries dressed as women with each a lotus flower, an intricate wig, and a linen gown moved slowly after the men, turning in wheels and interweaving figures on the red granite pavements as they proceeded.
Trilling Nath's sweet praises, the young male priests of Nath's sacred enclosure were chosen for perfect profiles, fairer tint, and grace of carriage.
"That’s what you’ll be doing after you’ve been gelded!” said Abdullah, winking his eye at the wincing Joseph. “But wait, my friend! I will show you even prettier sights than these, such as those, for instance, over there."
Joseph was startled, for he saw for the first time obese hooded cobras thickly coiled on the steps of a nearby moon-god altar.
Abdullah laughed when Joseph's face paled at the sight.
"Never mind them!" he said. "They are too fat and stuffed with honey-cake to do us any harm, and it is a delight to watch the snake charmers of this city!"
In times past the per-aa customarily appeared, stepping off his royal barge to the trumpeting of horns to greet the god of Nathasta and cast silvered sheaves of wheat and a giant moonstone onto the waters. With certain reverses in Hyksos control of the south, no one expected a repetition today, yet all was done with utmost dignity and serene style: for hundreds of years it had thus been done. Immemorially, it was known as Nath's kiss. Nathastites all claimed Tyre's rival Feast of Larishaphim a much later innovation. The foreign chieftain who ruled from Avaris was their patron; his largess arrived promptly and in full every month in state chariots. Forty thousand priests and hierodules could not complain of his neglect.
Great rejoicing occurred when the god expressed pleasure to the crowds of festival-goers. This was what everyone was anticipating. It meant another good year, blessed by the bounty of the coming harvest. The air was filled with the music of a thousand harps and uncountable tinkling bells. Flutes and handbells and pom pon girls in market-place taverns joined, and business in the market-place halted.
Disappointed by what had promised to be a good day, Meshullam spat discreetly on lotus-strewn pavement and turned to leave. He almost gave the order to pack up when he saw a platform across the square on which a few, naked, ebony-black figures of Nubian youth were standing in front of a crowd of temple priests.
Joseph's mouth went dry and his heart pounded as they had when Simeon stood before him with a drawn bow. Meshullam led him over to the platform after the Nubians were led off by a buyer to the temple's brick pits. Once again Joseph's mouth went dry and his heart pounded uncontrollably. This day he would be sold a slave to the highest bidder. Climbing up on the platform at Meshullam's behest, Joseph looked down at the faces of plump-jowled, suave, strangely-delicate men. A temple priest stepped up and seized his robe. Shutting his eyes, Joseph did not resist as the kingly robe was stripped from him. A murmur of approval passed through the crowd the moment they saw him. A scribe in charge of the sale yelled out to the people, and others began to respond, excitedly pointing to Joseph. The Mizraimite continued to call, but Meshullam discreetly shook his head each time a higher figure was called and a prospective buyer responded.
The crowd finally fell silent, staring disgustedly at the bearded, old sand-rambler, who continued to shake his head at every offer.
Finally, he darted up and took Joseph off the stage and was ostentatiously conducting him like a royal person to a golden chariot when a sword-bearing Mizraimite dressed in Hyksos armor stepped in Meshullam's path.
"His Excellency, Lord Potiphar," one of the priests whispered to a companion.
"Commander of the bodyguard of the 'Per-aa' and a traitor to his own country,” ventured another.
"How disgraceful," a braver soul remarked, "that our 'divine' ruler doesn’t mind these filthy, greasy sand-ramblers and thieving drifters cluttering his capital! Why, I hear he even permits them to approach the throne!" Ignoring the silly titters of envious priests who were not worth a sword thrust, Potiphar bought Joseph on the spot. Jizra, his towering, one-eyed Nubian aide, tendered the money to Meshullum in the rarest metal of all, cast from fallen stars. Worth five times its weight in gold, iron born in heaven was paid out to a prostrate, frog-eyed Meshullam.
"Never have I seen so comely a sand-rambler," observed a priest ruefully, since he had offered a bag of pure gold of Ophir and been refused. “His eye color is most rare!”
Nevertheless, when Potiphar glanced his way he inclined his head with a courtier's practiced smile, revealing badly eroded teeth.
Potiphar glanced meaningfully at his aide, patted his worn sword hilt, and strode to his iron-plated Hyksos chariot, Joseph and Potiphar's aide following in a second chariot, with an elite chariot corps of Hyksos archers.
Meshullum struggled through the milling crowd to get close to Joseph.
"It's the best that could be hoped!" he cried to Joseph, handing him the king's robe already wet from tears dripping from the old man's beard. "I have perhaps disobeyed the Almighty, but at least you will not end up a giggling eunuch with a perfumed wig!"
Throwing up his hands in an Eastern gesture of helpless mortality, Meshullam mumbled what might have been a father's patriarchal blessing--but the words were lost in the hubbub. Joseph grabbed at the chariot to keep from falling as the car lurched forward toward a serpent-guarded gate. The horses' hooves thundered and struck sparks on the pavements as they carried him away from the Ishmaelites forever. He looked desperately for a last look at Abdullah and the word, 'shalom,' died on his lips as the Ishmaelites were swallowed up in the crowd. As for Potiphar, he was pleased by his purchase, though it had cost a good portion of a month's payroll for all his men. In fact, he was returning from a trip to the Upper Kingdom to deposit the money in the royal treasury when he happened to see a tall, handsome youth displaying perfect attributes for service in his own house.
A judge of men, he knew instantly the boy was worth every bit of the Ibbathan 'per'aa's' tardy tribute money.
"Let them pay double the tax when the Per-aa receives my report that they stubbornly refused."
Potiphar laughed at the thought, then suddenly fell silent, ran his tongue over his lips, and laughed again.
All he had to do was tear up his official papyrus of the latest payment, and Per-aa Khian, after all the Upper Kingdom's plottings and sedition in the past, would never believe their copy!
His wife too would be very pleased. He knew her sweetest kiss would be his when she saw how cunningly he spent Ibbathan money, even as she--of Lower Kingdom extraction--rejoiced whenever he had occasion to spill Ibbatha's more refined, blue blood. Glancing back at the second chariot carrying his prize of the day, Potiphar looked up above the palms and swirling dust. He caught only a glimpse of the of the Temple of Nath piercing the heavens, only to see the silver-tipped colossus plummet earthward into the dust in his wake.
It reminded him of high and mighty Ibbatha's templed skyline.
"Skin for skin," he muttered grimly, repeating an old, old oath nobody but a veteran warrior locked in a war to the finish could understand.
Drawn close alongside Potiphar's chariot when the road widened into the country, Joseph saw his new master take a papyrus scroll from a red-and-black lacquered case and shred it into the winds of heaven.
No one noticed the blue butterfly following the chariot. After all, there were many such butterflies in the Land of the Red and Black.
At the same time as Potiphar sealed the destiny of Mizraim in a single act of petty self-interest, high up in a temple apartment adjacent to the main sanctuary and overlooking the city and the roads radiating from the metropolis, an old priest turned with weary resignation from the window. He had been watching the Hyksos Peraa's "bodyguard" depart the city, until it was but a smoking dart streaking toward the horizon.
Petepheres, a royal-blooded, professional priest and architect by trade, found politics and court intrigues of little interest; yet he knew the Temple was profoundly involved in the fortunes of each dynasty in Avaris, Machitha, Ibbatha, or wherever else the current incarnation of Nebel the falcon-god chose to nest his court and harem. Since Ibbatha's war machine was still gathering strength, the Hyksos Per'aa's favor meant bread (not to mention sugarcane for the sweet-loving eunuch-priesthood). And unscrupulous, ruthless, men-of-fortune like Potiphar, he knew, were bound to upset any peace between the two halves of Mizraim. For such peace held little remuneration. Civil war and all its upheaval and bloodletting offered much greater possibility of booty. Fearing the great slaughter on both sides, Mizraimite and Hyksos had called an uneasy truce. Would Potiphar prove the one to spoil it? Perhaps Khian was not content anymore with extorting tribute. Maybe he wanted relatively free Ibbatha and all the Upper Kingdom to serve him as his abject slaves did in the Lower.
Petepheres nearly fell as he left his high and spacious work-room, hobbling into a long, wide corridor leading to his dead wife's lavish quarters, where he was stopped by a worried housekeeper with a dinner tray.
Refusing her again, he waited until the disappointed servant had gone, and gasped as the muscle spasms ran their usual course.
He was dying. He had known it for some time. His sister-wife had died of his sickness soon after his daughter was born. After watching his wife drown in magic potions and perish miserably despite the best doctors and socerers, he determined to forego all treatment, secular or priestly. Exactly as he knew he would find her, his daughter was looking up, gazing abstractly into the gods' magic sphere (where all things of the mind and soul revolved in perfect form and precision) and biting the apex of her pen when he looked in her room.
After all, had he not been the same in his youth?
A lovely girl, he mused. Her mother had been most beautiful too. He knew that his line of the family was tinctured with some foreign blood from the eastern desert people, for her hair curled naturally, and it was difficult to contain in austerely straight, thick-braided ropes that custom and traditional fashion dictated.
"You study too much, daughter," Petepheres gently remonstrated.
"Oh!" the girl exclaimed, startled up from her chair.
"I just saw Potiphar go," he said. "As Enath?" (her full title-name, meaning Royal Sister of Nath, her own first-born sister, Bint Enath, being still-born).
Asenath frowned as she left a jumbled heap of her father's architectural and philosophical papyri on the table and went over to the old man, taking his thin, paper-light arm and enfolding herself.
"Who is he, my lord? His name is very much like yours too!” "Yes, it is. I think he has changed it to fit in more with this foreigner on the throne. Anyway, I should not have mentioned him to a young girl. It's not a suitable subject." Asenath spun out of his embrace, her eyes laughing with the light laughter of her beautiful mother. "But you know I can master any magical art of your sex, and do it better! So then what is 'suitable', father?"
Petepheres would have laughed at her repartee, but he was too ill and also heart-broken. He foresaw this child of his old age would bring grief upon herself with her exceptional wits. Perhaps he had been unwise to introduce her to the secret books of most ancient learning that he had gleaned from the Temple archives (as well as other temples, closing or neglected). She had come a long way from the simple “An angle is a figure formed by two straight lines diverging from the same point” to parallelopipeds, polyedrons, pseudo-spheres and the elements of quark-theory and mechanics, not to mention “radio astronomy”--which, of course, had no direct application to their world that he could determine. He appreciated that she was only trying to be the brilliant son he never had, but she had no idea what it was like in the world, in Potiphar and Khian's world, with Upper and Lower Kingdoms getting ready to lunge like tigers at each other's throat. Tears instead of laughter rose in his eyes.
Immediately, as Asenath saw them, she blamed herself and returned to his pathetic, weak embrace. Petepheres did not try to explain. He simply took her childish comfort and let the rest go. He felt the spasms beginning again. "What will become of you, my daughter?" he wondered outloud in misgiving, as his hand unconsciously stroked down the illegal curls of her unruly hair. "--when I am gone?" Asenath made a little cry of shock and protest. "The gods, and certainly Lord Nath whose name I bear, will take care of me! And we can always pay for plenty of divination. So do not talk this way of leaving! You have many good years left!"
Petepheres tenderly unwrapped his daughter's arms from his shrunken waist and turned to go. He raised a parental finger.
"Now leave your studies and go find your friends and play!"
Perhaps he was too severe with her, he thought afterwards. But he had seen his dead wife again in his daughter's eyes. And the sound of her laughter always made death seem more difficult than he knew it would be.
Asenath had watched her father's face blanch white as a tomb wall before he hobbled away. She had to force back the tears so she could return to her studies. She found it was impossible to think about the problems of scale and quantity when such things as death, sickness and suffering weighed so heavily in the gardenia-perfumed air of the apartment. She had never seen her father looking so pale and troubled, even forgetting to wear his official pectoral, the wide golden collar worn by every per-aa and certain high courtiers and nobility on the neck and shoulder. His death-journey was even now beginning, she feared. Would his tomb and falconship be ready in time? She knew the gangs were working day and night on the chrysalis (delayed time after time by the Per-aa's diversion of the best red granite to his own building projects). What good would a funerary chapel by the riverside do, with its connecting causeway to the chrysalis and falconship, if the project was half-completed when her father had need of it? All their money spent would be for nothing, her father might lose his body to vultures and shrikes in the open air, and the disembodied ka of a royal-blooded prince and priest of Mizraim would wander disconsolately forever in the Western Desert.
To Asenath the horror of this distinct possibility was too much to bear. Her eyes widened. She felt pressed with the weight of a House of Eternity. The pressure of so much death in the room even made her gasp for breath in the heavy, cloying, sweet-scented air.
She still commanded all the strength of youth in her legs, and she fled from the room, running out of the apartment with unladylike haste as servants looked on with shock.
Brushing aside the old doorkeeper, Asenath ran down toward the temple, passing through the public square and taking in great draughts of fresh air until she began feeling better. Going in to the court of the sanctuary where only royal-blooded priests or the chief priest could go, she paced for a long while beneath a blue roof as high as the winged serpents at the gate. Emblazoned with the moon and stars of heaven, the vastness of the echoing Hall of Semphah, between divine services, was a place to be alone and free of busybody servants. Lately, it was the only place she found she could really meditate and explore the mystery of life and death. An original and sober-thinking soul, she had no one to confide in, and girls her age invariably misunderstood her probing questions about the eternal meaning of things.
"You're tainted with foreign, Hyksos blood to be thinking such thoughts!" they teased her. "None of us would think to ask such questions or puzzle about every little thing as you do!"
Then when she kept on plying them with theological problems when she was not shut up with her arcane studies, what few friends she could find in priest-dominated society dropped away.
She thought she did not care. Yet she was beginning to hurt from an architect's solitary life. She would have liked to talk to Nath--but a supreme moon-god did not listen or respond to personal, human communications. That left her father. He spent his days in his work-room and made it known, gently but firmly, he was not to be disturbed. Who then could share the hurts and dilemmas, as well as her secret joys and confusions of the heart? She knew there was no one in heaven and earth. Jerking her head upwards, Asenath glanced up transfixed by something in the sky mapped ceiling. It was not the stars or the star clock silently tolling the hours of the each day (for those few priests trained to read the hours' complicated names), but rather an intuition from her heart, striking her so forcefully her limbs became like rattling sticks. Slowly choosing the words, she phrased it to herself: "Because nothing other than God exists by virtue of itself each creature belong to the Supreme One Creator God. From birth we are destined to be His--His alone. And He alone is life and being and worthy of worship."
How she had come to know that she did not know. She only knew the moment she said it that she had somehow birthed a terrible thing in her culture of over a hundred officially-sanctioned divinities. Her mouth went dry and her heart began pounding at the thought. Yet the Intuition had come with so much certainty and conviction she knew it would never leave her--a true oracle no one in Mizraim except perhaps her father would understand.
If a falcon and crocodile were divine, so was every frog in the river canals; all living things could be worshipped to some advantage in suitably grand temples. That was Mizraim's thinking. Yet her father and now she herself suspected otherwise. Had he not once shown her an an ancient writing from the Temple archives, a message of Dawn Age people on a fragile substance quite like papyrus, that spoke of a time when mankind flocked to “circuses.”
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It seemed innocent enough to her, yet she recalled how he had been careful not to mention it in the hearing of house servants. Evenso, the playbill had mysteriously disappeared from the temple archives when she later asked him to show it to her again. After that, when she kept mentioning what a loss it was, he admitted there were other such things hidden away. Old metal vases, for example, which had never been opened. A curse of some king was inscribed on them, so they were put away and never disturbed.
“Wasn’t that silly?” she thought. “They might hold something valuable for the enlightenment of people, but the priests couldn’t be bothered and stuck them off where they could do nobody any good!”
Even her father, when she pressed him on it, refused to say any more. Well, she’d not give up, she decided, until he took her to see the “forbidden things”!
A temple guard from the high priest's entourage stepped into the public forecourt of the sacred hall and paused to look disapprovingly at her as she ceased philosophizing for the moment and impulsively whirled across the wide pavements between the pillars.
Recognizing his distinctive uniform, Asenath felt a chill of heavy iron in her limbs as the excitement of her insight instantly dissolved. She stopped dancing and stood still.
"How dare you look at a royal princess like that!" she said to the priest in passing, as he stood blocking her path and sneering at her. "And YOU have no right to be here!”
Knowing he was trespassing and would not dare answer, she stepped around him and hurried back to her apartment and a suddenly desirable dinner.
Entering her home, she was skipping along in such a hurry her sandal caught a tile in the corridor leading to her rooms. It was one of hundreds of precious, imported amber pieces skillfully laid by her father years before when he refurbished his bachelor quarters for his bride.
The tile was so loose she could pick it up. Curious, Asenath paused to examine it minutely, as she did with everything about her.
Admiring the beauty imprisoned forever by tree resin, it made her sad to think how the fly's blue wings were poised for a flight it would never make.
Tears for her father and herself ran from her eyes and she did not notice the sudden glowing of the butterfly in her hand. Asenath lay the tile carefully back into place, and when she had got her breath back she walked slowly away as a woman.
Again the Hebrew slave found himself passing through the strangely open Gate of the Moon, not on an Ishmaelite donkey but in a commander's iron chariot!
Without slowing down, Potiphar's force swept through. His chariots followed closely as their chief dashed at break-neck speed through frightened and startled crowds of citizenry toward the palace of the Hyksos Per-aa.
Though shaken by the ruthless thunder of the chariot drive, Joseph was not utterly forsaken, thrown into Mizraim's smiling, cold-hearted society without a single friend; the Nubian sergeant, Jizra, had begun talking to him in familiar terms long before the chariot reached Commander Potiphar's headquarters.
At first Joseph thought to keep his personal grief to himself, but that proved impossible, for the charioteer knew enough Hyksos (a language more related to Hebrew than Mizraimite) to press Joseph for the story of his coming down to Mizraim a slave.
Joseph told the charioteer his entire journey, from the pit in Kena'n to the slave-market of Nathasta, and Jizra said nothing for a time as he gnashed his big, white teeth in fury.
His skin darkening still further against the big, red and white plumes of his headdress, Jizra then related his own bitter life. He could not forget the surprise raid of Ibbathans on his native village in far, southern country called Nubia, and how he eventually came to be Lord Potiphar's chief charioteer--an important position that entitled him to body-servants of his own and any slave woman of his liking.
Joseph knew how Jizra felt when describing his humiliating sale on the slave-block of Ibbatha. How the tall Nubian hated that cruel and lofty city!
"Someday," Jizra vowed, "I will tear its palaces and temples down with my bare hands, stone by stone. If not for Lord Potiphar who made a surprise raid on the Ibbathan quarries to capture slaves, I would still be groaning beneath Ibbathan whips.”
He turned and spat in the direction of the hated city.
“Is that not proof there are no gods worthy being worshipped?” he cried even more angrily to Joseph, swearing and denouncing the chief Mizraimite gods and goddesses.
Shouting oaths, Jizra steered the chariot through the crowded marketplaces of villages at terrific speed while people called out strange things.
"Ooma ooma--" cried the villagers, shaking their fists at Potiphar's forces, and Joseph turned to Jizra, but he shook his fist in return as he drove furiously on toward the capital.
Joseph had found, in the angry and resentful Jizra, his first friend in Mizraim. Yet he could not tell him everything. It was something he felt unable to share with a military man of bitter heart and no particular religion. And it happened when he was standing back on the temple's slave platform in Nathasta.
He would never forget the startling words that ran indelibly across the scroll of his mind.
Potiphar drove directly to the royal palace. He knew the lamps would be lighted and Khian still up expecting news of Ibbatha, that key, stiff-necked city of the Upper Kingdom.
Indeed, he was right. He found the king waiting for him and stripped to a simple loin-cloth without the sacred cobra-hooded headdress that signified his royal power. How Khian loathed it! Nevertheless, a per-aa could put it off only on going to sleep. Yet with the Mizraimite court dismissed Khian preferred to fling imperial traditions in a corner and go about shameless as a farmer, his long, northern locks hanging down his thick neck. The whole palace rocked with the daily scandal of it, but what could anyone do?
He was nervously shuffling back and forth in the Court of the Pool of Snofru adjoining the royal suite and harem. It was a favorite meeting place of Khian, for it was most private and free of simpering and spying servants and slaves. No one could sneak up on him when he was in conference.
The despair of his advisers, the middle-aged Hyksos general-turned-king cared little for the niceties of royalty and statecraft--and that was proving disastrous, as the control of province after province slipped from the empire's grasp.
Khian understood all-out war and bloody conquest. Potiphar knew he was cunning enough in his own way to win battles, but he could not keep an empire that way, not for long. His initial advantage in superior iron weaponry was fast disappearing. Remaining supplies of the vital metal were being siphoned off by traders who would rather deal with Ibbatha than Avaris.
And mere force of arms was not enough to save his throne. Even a per-aa needed the consent of the governed during times of relative peace, as no Mizraimite in the two kingdoms had ever forgotten Khian's foreign extraction.
All this Potiphar knew full well, yet he was a dead man, Potiphar realized, if Khian suspected how fatally he viewed Khian's prospects. There was, he knew from the beginning, no changing Khian--he was too much a veteran and was used to shouting orders and watching people stumble about in terrified obedience.
Yet Potiphar had this advantage in dealing with the king. Khian did not understand Mizraimites at all. Potiphar knew his own people and how they would react. Khian never could tell what response there would be to his policies. He was utterly helpless, a man in the midst of a stormy sea he could not swim; and so Potiphar, the only Mizraimite Khian felt he could trust, was allowed to keep his head and do pretty much as he pleased.
"Potiphar!" the Per-aa greeted him familiarly. He paused to accept his commander's bow. "I have a new girl, imported from Mitanni! Quick, what is your report!"
The two men conversed heatedly for a few minutes, then Khian turned on the gilded heel of his harem slipper and disappeared into the concubines' quarters, leaving Potiphar to stroll casually to his waiting chariot.
The Per-aa's militia was deployed at the Sohar, an sprawling, towered fortress outside the palace gate--typically Hyksos in style and so large that city walls were thought unnecessary for the surrounding city.
Potiphar sent his bodyguard to their quarters, gave last orders and then turned homeward with anticipation of his wife Zenobia's joyful response to what he had to tell her. He leaned against the chariot, weary but pleased as his charioteer drove to the estate on the capital's marshy edge.
He was still rather pleased with how he had put Ibbatha in a bad light with the Per-aa and gained a promising, young slave from the deal when the chariot abruptly pulled up before the lamplit mansion.
Potiphar jumped down and house slaves rushed to usher him into the bath. His wife, though she already lay abed, got up at once to prepare her face and touch up her coiffure.
"It means all-out war," Potiphar confided later to his wife, after he had dined and was reclining on a couch in his private quarters. His wife, predictably, seemed pleased at the news. He could see it in her lovely, green eyes.
Potiphar reached for another refill of his silver wine-cup as his wife poured. "But it was coming anyway, don't you think, Zenobia?"
His wife laughed at that.
"I agree Ibbatha needs taking down a notch or two. But when does my Lord Potiphar, Captain of the Royal Guard, ever consult me beyond humdrum household matters? His devoted slave cannot help but wonder why he should make an exception tonight?"
"You sly one!" the captain replied.
His wife, being high-born if not a royal princess , was always playing the commoner with him.
Zenobia lowered her eyes and examined her perfect nails.
"Is your little friend a secret, my lord? You have not even mentioned the pretty-faced youth I saw come in with you."
Taking her meaning, Potiphar laughed uproariously.
"No, I intend him for routine service in the household. This lad, my dear, is a mere slave--but so fine-appearing I confess I paid a king's ransom today in Ibbathan tribute money for him! Now I have already informed the king they have refused payment and there will be war. Only do not tell anyone, or we will be moving soon to Ibbatha and offering that silly, make-believe per-aa of theirs a butcher's services for hire!"
Now Lord Potiphar had never fogotten how he had risen phenomenally from Chief Butcher in the palace kitchens.
With such good news, Zenobia's husband naturally expected a warm embrace at the conclusion of his latest campaign.
His beautiful wife begged off, however, as she said her temples had been throbbing unbearably with anxious worry for his safety all the time he had been gone.
He had seen ingots of some dark-grained metal paid out to Meshullam, and they looked much the same material as his collar. In any case, it was not gold or silver, so the old Ishmaelite must not have asked much for him. At least his brothers had held out for twenty silver pieces, the price of a good donkey!
Yet a thought came that dampened his spirits. His escape from slavery depended on his father. But who would tell him? His brothers?
They had already proven themselves untruthful. He could not forget the time treacherous, double-dealing Gad, Asher, Dan and Naphtali were involved in a scheme to rob Jacob and increase their private holdings.
It had been an easy thing for such liars to claim Jacob's finest lambs as offspring of their own half-starved, mistreated ewes. When his trusting father did not question their claims, his half-brothers had gleefully herded the contested sheep into their own meager sheepfolds at Jacob's expense. Father Jacob did not seem to realize his mistake until later he heard the true facts from Judah.
Even then Abba Jacob had said nothing after Judah's testimony was verified in the steward's careful accounts, and everyone returned to his usual duties.
Joseph remembered the incident, so that from that time he kept a sharper eye on his brothers for his father's sake, especially whenever they took the family's flocks far from the camp at Hebron in order to better spirit away any lambs born out of season.
No! he concluded. His brothers by the handmaids would never tell their father the truth of his whereabouts. That left his brothers born of Leah.
Joseph squirmed on his rough bedding, unable to forget how Leah's sons clubbed him without mercy, and how they would have killed him except Reuben the first-born persuaded them to throw him alive down in a pit.
He cringed at the memory of his long descent onto the sharp potsherds and rocks at the bottom, the prey of snakes and scorpions as he lay dazed and bleeding after the fall.
"Dreamer!" Gad had screamed down at him. "See if your golden visions can draw you up from there, and then I and my brothers will certainly bow down and worship you!"
How he had wept from the shock and pain of the beating and the fall on the rocks--yet when he pleaded for mercy he heard Leah's sons, from Simeon to Zebulun, call each other to take bread and eat! They stuffed their mouths and bellies and rested above him while he bled, naked and wounded, in the well!
And Gad must have heard him call on his father’s God for deliverance.
"So you trust in Father’s God to rescue you from our hands!" the half-brother railed at him. "Well, let Him deliver you now, if He loves you as much as you like to think!"
At least the well had been dry as a bone, Joseph reflected after a time of listening to noisy, swarming insects and nightjars outside the window. He knew he might have drowned in the pit if it had not been so unseasonably arrid.
Might another drought and famine be beginning? He had heard of a terrible dearth in Abba Abraham's time, forcing him to go down to Mizraim for food. And Abba Isaac had experienced a similar hardship, only he had stayed in the land and prospered by God's hand in the midst of a Hebrew's worst foes, the Philistine newcomers.
Joseph's thoughts slipped closer to the edge of sleep as he grew more accustomed to the housekeeper's rhythmmic snorts and wheezes.
"When will the God of my father deliver me from land of my affliction? he wondered for the last time that night, as darkness drew the branch of a tamar tree across his heavy eyelids.
"Joseph! Joseph!" a voice cried in the night, afar off in the heart of Kena'n, the land the Mizraimites called the Retenu.
The aged patriarch had dreamed of his lost son and was awakened by his own cry. He was still wearing the sackcloth of mourning. The scion of God's people was lying on his bed of speckled, banded goatskins laid on the floor, half-seated against a pile of much softer, black sheepskins, so that he might be comfortably lifted to draw breath. His eyes ran with unsought tears as he thought of a tattered and bloody garment he kept in a chest of silver and gold pieces.
Blaming himself ever since for sending a mere boy alone on such a dangerous errand far into hostile territory, Jacob reserved his tears for his own pillow. Nobody knew how much he still wept days after the discovery of the blood-soaked garment--left, they said, in some lion's thicket.
His heart was broken that day his sons by Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah rushed into his tent with the news. He still had Benjamin, son of his right hand, though beloved Rachel had perished giving birth. Yes, he still had Benjamin. His soul and broken heart clove to the boy, even as his old hands often clutched Benjamin's all his waking hours. Jacob swept the tears from his eyes with his hand, only they continued to come.
No, he thought as he gazed into the darkness and heard the bleating of some restless sheep, even Benjamin can not take Joseph's place. No one could. The boy was different in every way from all his sons--so finely formed, so bright in mind, so full of grace in deed and word, there was none like him. None!
Jacob paused to think more about it. Yes, he was handsome, uncommonly so; but other sons of his had been handsome of face and tall and strong of limb at the same young age. Joseph his "increaser" was different in a more special way than physical beauty. It was, he realized, the boy's visionary soul. He could see strange and wonderful things, and perhaps that explained the shining light of his eyes and his countenance. His eyes were set on things others could not see; and together with a pure and brave heart there was much for his other sons to envy. Truly, he shone a star among his fellow men.
Jacob was aware his sons had envied Joseph, especially since he began wearing the many-colored robe of the heir of the birthright, though he was far from first-born among all his brethren. He had detected a spirit of envy when they returned to camp without Joseph. Even then--when Joseph was dead, devoured by some savage animal! Did they dislike their poor brother so much? Why was there so much bad blood and ovetousness amongst his families? he wondered over and over. Why were they like that?
Instinctively, he clung all the more to Benjamin, keeping him in his tent as much as possible and away from his half-brothers.
The old man paused to grieve at the thought of his contentious, feuding families. His uncle Laban had tricked him into marrying Leah instead of his first choice, beloved Rachel, who hated being second to Leah. Then the two contending sisters had insisted he raise up sons to their credit taking their handmaids as wives. To make peace, he did not deny them. Yet nothing but trouble came of it. Even his first-born had done him a great evil, the greatest of all, back in the tents at Eder’s tower.
He sighed finally, shook his head slowly, and tried to settle back for sleep. Much later when he slept he clutched tightly to his breast the bloody tatters of the richly colored robe, and in his hands the limp garment became the body of his slain son.
It was only the least whisper, but somehow Joseph's ear caught the sound and awakened from his heavy and fitful sleep.
Joseph lurched upright, listening intently toward the barred but unshuttered window. He could hear only the shrill keening of insects in the night wind and the fluttering of fruit bats in the garden. After a time, again the voice called.
Silent as a shadow, Joseph edged to the window which was cut rather high in the wall and allowed in only a few bars of moonlight. He saw it was impossible to reach. The room held no furniture, and seemed to be more a storage room than a place for people to sleep.
He waited until the voice called again, and then with pounding heart, he held his breath and crept past the contented, grunting housekeeper. Seeking a door to the outside, Joseph moved down a passageway and let himself out of the house. The house was dark at his back and silent. He himself was bathed in moonlight, and his Mizraimite loin-cloth shone brilliantly against his skin.
He did not have to wait long, for he heard a movement and sound of something coming around the corner of the house wall. The stealthy form crept closer and Joseph knew then who it was.
"Abdullah!" he cried in a whisper.
The two boys lunged toward each other, catching each other by the arms.
"What are you doing? They'll kill you for trespassing!"
The Ishmaelite's dark eyes gleamed with moonlight and a kind of desert madness. Was he laughing or crying? Joseph could not tell.
"My brother! My soul! My eternal friend! My beloved donkey!" Abdullah cried close to Joseph's ear. "We had to find you. Let the cow suckers chop my hands off and hang me in a tree! I found you!"
"Yes, but they'll surely kill you if you are found here!"
Abdullah wrested himself free of Joseph's grasp, thrust his hand into his robe and pulled out a heavy leather pouch. The cord broke as he pulled it from his neck.
"Here!" he cried. "The money's all yours! Meshullam said to return it to you!"
Joseph was too surprised but to do anything but obey, taking the pouchAbdullah held out to him.
"What do you mean? Is it my sale money?"
"Yes, yes, but we must go now if we value our lives." Abdullah began to pull Joseph's arm, but Joseph held back, shaking his head.
"No, I cannot go with you! And why are you doing this fool thing, risking death to return a paltry sum. You paid my slave price, the twenty pieces, when my brothers sold me to you; surely this money is yours to redeem."
Abdullah's moist eyes glittered. "Hebrew, you do not know what money is! This is no small sum. We called you a prince when we sold you. And the Mizraimite paid ransom for a king!"
Joseph was silent.
"It is the flesh of fallen stars, pretty face, worth a fortune!" Abdullah hissed. "Are you a dreamer? Do you not know wizards use it for magic and it is valued five times that of gold? Even the Per-aa must bankrupt his treasury to get enough of it from foreign countries to make chariots and swords. His bodyguard alone carries the state treasury in their gear!"
Joseph caught Abdullah's robe and thrust back the money. "You are all mistaken. My brothers meant all this to happen to my hurt, but God--even as you encouraged me to believe!--has intended it for some good. That's why I must stay. A day is coming we will see God's finger!"
"You are a fool to believe your father’s God will help you out of this dung heap without us!" Abdullah said. “Stay here, and you’ll always be the prince of nothing!” Tears suddenly covered the Ishmaelite's face, a sudden squall of rain in the desert. Just as quickly, he had swept them away with the wind of his sleeve, turned and slipped away around the corner of the house.
Joseph stood in the almost blinding light of the moon, stunned for a few moments. "Shalom," he said softly, clenching the bag of iron ingots, which a few moments later he dropped for disposal in a deep pool near the house.
But the thief in the night could not hear Joseph's farewell. He was, monkey-like, already over the garden wall and scampering off toward the distant camp of his anxiously-waiting elder brothers.
Then in the morning it was discovered that Potiphar's prized pomegranate tree had been stripped both of leaves and fruit. Also, special water jars intended only for the master and mistress, standing outdoors to cool in the night air and imbibe the scent of water lilies placed in them, had been polluted with handfuls of donkey dung--the thief’s own mocking signature.
Nevertheless, his primary duties remained the same. Each morning they rose early while it was yet dark, long before anyone else awoke, and Joseph carried wood to an outlying building so cooks could prepare food for the master and mistress before attending to the hunger of household servants-and Potiphar had a small army of slaves captured in the Ibbathan quarries. Since Potiphar's appointment by the Per-aa removing him from the palace kitchens to the palace guard, his fortune, and with it the size of his estate, had increased greatly.
After moving from modest lodgings in the city to a plantation on the outskirts, Potiphar put away his concubine and won the hand of a well-born woman at court. She was a woman of beauty and nobility, but too foreign and original in her ways--having sojourned in Hazor of Kena'n--to attract Mizraimite noblemen of her own class. With her dowry and his salary (supplemented by military raids), Potiphar increased the size and splendor of the original mansion. A house portico with two rows of columns was added to the front, and in the forecourt a large pool was dug and lined with polished white marble. Seven trees of the rare Medemia argun were planted on the pool edge and flower beds full of cornflowers, poppy, and chrysanthemums provided the bright colors Potiphar's wife craved.
At the rear of the estate, beyond the stables and cattle barns, a quay was laid in the delta mud and a canal dug connecting with an arm of the Ioteru. Now the produce of the estate could flow out quickly to markets, and adjoining properties were added to original holdings. A practical man, Potiphar intended to realize a substantial profit from his land in every way possible, for his wife was proving expensive as she determined to provide a brilliant showing at court that might compensate for her husband's more lowly antecedents.
Papyrus was planted along the edges of the pools and harvested, for parts of it were nourishing fodder to both servants and animals and it made excellent, money-producing paper for export. There were vegetable beds containing leeks, garlic and beans, all irrigated, and orchards of date-bearing tamars and figs and grape vines (the last an innovation, like iron plate body armor, chariots, bronze weapons, and composite bows, all introduced by the Hyksos).
Outlying fields of fiber and oil-producing zarah required constant weeding and watering and other maintenance, employing much slave labor. Slaves were not paid anything but room and board, so they were highly profitable if they could be made to work hard and long for their keep. An efficient and honest overseer, therefore, was worth any sum of the slaves he supervised.
Joseph quickly mastered the elaborate accents and archaic nuances of the Mizraimite language. He learned his house duties so well the household steward assigned him additional tasks outside the kitchen (where, as a defiling sand-rambler, he was not allowed to prepare any food). Entailing some elementary bookkeeping ability and writing (taught by the estate overseer), he kept the rolls of the slaves working in various estate workshops and linen-weaving rooms. Later, he was handed a book for counting production and the sale of estate produce. Youthful and vigorous, he was also good at weeding and cultivating work in the garden, and he relished being in the open air, though the heat was stifling during the day and the labor taxing.
He helped dig another pool and stock it with fish, later returning to harvest the fish. Two kinds of lotus sacred to Mizraim were planted in all the waters of the estate, and they too were harvested periodically. Most vegetables were too perishable or common to be marketed, so beans, garlic, cucumbers, and leeks were produced for the household and not sold. Apple-gourd vines managed to supply the household with an abundant, sweet, refreshing fruit year round, as long as they were kept watered, so wherever there was an available spot an apple-gourd was planted. Its vines even climbed into Potiphar's prize Tree of Heaven, which produced a flower and fruit only once in the tree's lifetime.
Bee hives were kept in the back of the garden for their honey and a valuable wax used for sealing the cracks in pottery; doves and pigeons, geese, ducks, abounded. It was a kind of promised land to a young man such as Joseph, and he soon grew to love most kinds of work he was given, learning to care for every creature and flower and healing herb as well as he cared for the people of the house, slave or free.
Every task he touched seemed to go well. Though it soon became known that the youth worshipped an invisible god, the fact that this strange god was blessing Joseph was undeniable. This was noted by the estate's overseer--an elderly Nubian-Mizraimite everyone addressed as Nu since his coming to Potiphar's house.
Nu the steward (everyone knew the story) liked to rest his tired and arthritic feet by planting them each evening at dusk in a poultice of cool mud--thus earning him the name of the mythical land where all life, according to popular belief, began in Ioteru's primeval ooze. Nu was a strict disciplinarian when the other slaves proved "slow bellies", or lax in performance, caning them when they complained of the work or pilfered juicy figs to eat. After years of this, he was getting too decrepit to keep a sharp eye or even put much force into his occasional crack-downs. Suspecting he was being played a fool behind his back, old Nu looked for an assistant who had a good eye and strength to supplement his own; and he lighted on the foreign newcomer who, in Nu’s eyes, had the added advantage of not yet being softened by superior Mizraimite ways.
Disregarding the head housekeeper’s muttered protest, Nu took Joseph under his direct charge. Since Joseph had taken on all his responsibilities with alarcity, Nu was now able to take his ease, which he had earned, and let Joseph handle the work-force both in the house and outside in the fields and garden. Nu was pleased (and, privately, thought it remarkable) how quickly the young man gained facility in letters and the accounting of sums and signs the old man had, in his youth, spent years trying to master at the smelly feet of an old, retired temple-scribe.