But perhaps it wasn’t all their doing. Certainly, his nerves were set on edge and his mood had soured like milk, though no single event or mishap could be identified as the primary cause. On their side, the women behaved little better and, perhaps, worse. It seemed the old enmity between high and mighty Mizraim and the hardscrabble race of sand-ramblers had broken out afresh. Whatever the true cause, Meshullam was feeling certain pangs the closer he approached home. Though wifeless, it reminded him of all he had invested in his wives, and the precious little to show for it. But the money was not the root of his uneasiness. As a young man he had done as his brethren had done and taken Hittite, Amorite, Horite, and Jebusite women, attracted by their beauty, charm, and refined ways. Now old and sonless, he could not deny the blight that had settled on his life. Was it God’s judgment on him? Certainly, there had been no blessing! And though he had been a lifelong trader in the famous Balm of Gilead, he had yet to feel other than a monetary effect.
Passing Jabesh in Gilead, they were hurrying south on the King's Highway, with everything proceeding in good time and order.
Not willing to give up what had promised to be good day for his caravan, he refused to pay any attention on the road, and when halted for the night would have set his tent further apart from the camp if that would have helped. But, no, she would not be put off. He should have known a chieftain's wife was used to ordering other people around. His own wives, serving notice their lord was the head of a world-travelling caravan, had paraded solemnly like stiff-necked empresses and queens of Mizraim on the goat-paths of Succoth.
He listened politely enough as the white-haired one demanded he not stop in Succoth as planned but continue on to Hebron. Impossible! he shot back at her, again “politely.”
Her eyes had flashed green fire at him in return, and she had said nothing. Instead, she had signalled to her maid to get something from their tent. He wasn't sure what it would be, perhaps poison or a woman's little dagger, but when he saw the gleam of electrum he knew he might have to reconsider.
But he held out for two ingots before he nodded, took the double ransom of a king, and went to his own tent to mull over the momentous change in events. Why Hebron of all places? he wondered. Shaded by the oaks of Mamre, it was a well-know camp of the Hebrew brethren called by the name of their scion, a certain Jacob. But they were dwelling on soil not their own. Really all the land these Hebrews had to their name was a cave nearby called Macpelah in which they had buried holy Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac’s father. And would they allow anyone but Isaac’s issue to come near Abraham’s bones? Every son of Ishmael knew it would not be wise to try, since the Hebrews stubbornly maintained that Ishmael was not the first-born and had been rightfully cast out by his father into the desert.
Nearby lay heathen Kiriath, a most ancient, Horite-Hittite city that boasted a living giant--Arba (whose infamous name the city added to its own to head off would-be attackers). It had been hoped by the rest of Ken’an that Arba would keep the Hebrews in check, but he seldom was conscious enough to care what any of them was doing. Men of the city were obliged, in his stead, to wear arms continually, to keep the Hebrews in a state of as much alarm as possible--until a real solution could be organized.
Strangely, the Hebrews had picked this dangerous place to pitch their tents and not some safer wilderness to the south, such as Zin or the Vale of Arrabah. Not all of the clan lived in Hebron, but since the death of Abraham and his burial, most had settled with the grandson and were a sorry lot, he had heard. Fightings and division and bloody massacres of peaceful neighbors were all put against their record by those who knew of them. Even Arba, he had heard, was growing more restless and less lethargic, saying every other week or so he would arise and go to the Hebrew camp and put it to the sword (and his was an immense weapon of solid bronze no mere man could wield).
Yet Meshullam knew better than to believe everything envious men might think to say, and he knew his own clan had its share of such things as internal fightings and divisions, of which he was ashamed before the heathen. It soon occurred to him that Hebron might have some connection with Joseph. After all, he was a Hebrew, probably one of Jacob's numerous sons or relatives. Abdullah had told him more details of Joseph's story and he had divined the rest. Joseph's brothers, a greedy and murderous-looking bunch of villains he found fighting among themselves at Dothan, had sold their own brother to him, seeking to get rid of him conveniently and profitably, so that they might also seize Joseph's share of inheritance. It was a common occurrence among desert tribes, Meshullam knew.
But why, if Jacob was their scion, had Joseph's brothers gone so far from Jacob's camp at Hebron to commit their treachery? Was Jacob, the fabulously rich nomad-prince, so feared by his own progeny? And what could the Mizraimite woman want with Joseph's father? Would she even want to go near Hebron if she had somehow been Joseph's undoing in Mizraim, something he suspected while the girl related Joseph's story?
And why had she brought so much treasure with her to Kena'n? Was she thinking of staying on? buying her comely maid the position of Chief Wife in Jacob's household? Meshullam glanced repeatedly out the tent door toward the women's tent, remembering the way they spoke of Joseph's God when they bid one another good-night. It had touched him greatly at the time, but now that he could not get rid of them at Succoth he felt great annoyance.
Where was Abdullah? Perhaps the boy could listen outside their tent and discover more of their reasons for going to Hebron. But Abdullah proved utterly taken up with his pet bird. Meshullam loathed the sight of it, ever since it nearly cost all of them their lives in Hazir. It was rough and dangerous country where they were headed, Meshullam knew.
He would have preferred to cross over to the trade route along the coast, the Way of the Sea, rather than navigate robber-infested, untamed hill country through the area of Shechem. All the Kena'nite population that survived the massacre were liable to turn on strangers, particularly anyone who resembled a Hebrew. The shocking circumcision and massacre of the Shechemites was still a common topic on people's lips, and Jacob's sons were the culprits, as everyone knew in all the Kena'nite cities round about.
The next morning, the caravan started off early, and for the rest of the trip to Hebron took a circuitous route that avoided cities and fortresses, finally coming up upon the hills of Hebron from the western slopes. It had been several weeks, wasted in the effort to avoid trouble, since they left Gilead and crossed the Jordan River. Taking little used and abandoned routes only Meshullam knew about, they had not encountered a single problem with the Kena'nites, and passed through mainly small villages that looked at them with curiosity but little alarm.
As they climbed the western hills toward the oak-forested uplands of Mamre, Meshullam looked forward to the end of the whole, tiresome affair. Let the women go to Jacob's camp! he vowed. Nothing would induce him to take them away again when they saw their mistake! Not all the wealth of Jacob!
It was the heat of the day, when the donkeys plodded most slowly as they climbed upwards through the dry, arrid country where the uncircumcised were few and poverty-stricken. They had seen no one for hours ever since passing through a small hamlet where a group of men, standing in front of one house, were talking so intently they scarcely noticed the Ishmaelite caravan with the camels passing on the road.
As they passed on, Meshullam had kept an eye out for the men of the village, and they had done something strange as he watched them. All of a sudden, they left the house and began to run and fan out through the countryside, armed with clubs. None of them took the slightest interest in his own caravan. He was still thinking about the strange behavior of the village when later they saw something lying, thrown down like a lion’s gory leavings alongside the road. In passing it revealed only a dead man's cadaver but one of the women cried out for them to halt.
Meshullam tried to contravene the order, but the woman kept lifting up her annoyingly authoritative voice, and most reluctantly the old trader raised his hand. The animals halted, the camels ready, he knew, to let fly their noxious, green spittle at the first fool who stepped near. Yet this time, most incredibly, they stood quiet and unprotesting.
"There's a man in some kind of trouble lying back there!" Zenobia called to Meshullam. "He is hurt and you must do something for him, or I’ll not let you go on until you do!"
Meshullam nearly yanked out his beard with vexation. He was nervous and had good reason. He suspected the hills were probably honey-combed with the dens of robbers and cut-throats, who had fled native cities and villages to hide out from the scenes of their crimes, so he knew what to expect when he went back down the road to where the fellow was lying, no doubt the result of a feud among fellow thieves and vagabonds.
It was as the woman had said. The man was hurt and could scarcely groan for help. He was circumcised Hebrew too (for Meshullam knew few of Ishmael's and Esau's sons bothered with circumcision anymore). Meshullam quickly threw his own robe over the man's body and called for his brothers to help carry him up to the camels.
As another robe was brought to Meshullam to clothe the stricken man, his brothers lifted the stricken man and carried him to their temporary camp. Meshullam looked anxiously about at the craggy hillsides, deeply cleft with limestone caverns and holes where any amount of armed thieves could hide and watch for unwary passers-by. He called for water and more clothing for the man.
The Mizraimite women dismounted, and they too came with things they thought might be of use. A soft pillow of the lady's to rest his poor head. Some gilded slippers for his bleeding feet, though these proved too small. As the knowing Meshullam ministered and applied balm and other healing ointments to the man's wounds, the others looked on and offered suggestions. But Meshullam finished without their help, and committed the man to the healing hand of the Most High, after he had done all an old man could.
Rising up, Meshullam looked anxiously about the area again, rubbing his scant beard. "Quickly, we must to be moving on," he said to the others.
"You evil beast, you can't just leave a defenseless man lying here like that!" objected the white-haired one, a retort Meshullam fully expected.
Meshullam thought quickly and decided he had no choice but to have the man put aboard a camel or a donkey, however it could be done and taken with them to Hebron. From there the wretched fellow might be able to go to his own city, wherever it was. They were short a camel, however.
"Madam, either you or your maid must ride one of the donkeys, if this man is to go with us. Being such a big fellow, he has much better chance on a camel, which has the height to keep him from dragging the ground with his legs and the longer baggage straps to--”
The two women stared at him with horror. Then Meshullam remembered that no Mizraimite, living or dead, ever rode such a base animal as an ass or donkey; it was considered too defiling to the Mizraimites, the same as if they had taken food or drink at the same table as Semite sand-ramblers or eaten privately of certain forbidden fish. But as Meshullam shrugged and made as if to leave without the man, the white-haired one spoke to him in a choked but audible voice.
"All right then, I will do it, if the poor man's life is to be saved."
She was good at her word, and was about to climb aboard the animal when her maid threw herself on instead. It was a remarkable scene to the old trader; he even noticed Zenobia's tears began to rain down as she remounted her camel. As for the maid, she rode the animal with a grim but determined expression, and Meshullam could not not bear to look again.
The caravan continued its long, laborious climb to the heights of the Hebron hills. The forests thickened. Oak and some pine trees made a path of the road, and it was eerily silent despite the clopping of the camel's feet and the donkeys' pattering hoof-beats. Robbers were even more a possibility, Meshullam knew, and his brothers were ready with their long, curving blades to do as much damage as they could to any attackers. They had not yet stopped for the day, finding no suitable clearing large enough to give them any feeling of reasonable safety when Meshullam spotted some items lying on the road ahead. He gave them a close look, leaning downwards, as he passed--as he didn’t dare halt the caravan a second time or let anyone dismount for them.
Strange, it was. A man's signet, neck cord, and staff lay together, as though set there recently or forgotten by some passer-by who might have stopped for a rest. Yet he knew how valuable such insignia were, since he would not have thought of being so careless of his own. They were indeed the articles of his rank and authority in his clan and family; without them he might as well run about naked as an unweaned, shameless child. Later, after stopping in a good, open spot for the night, Meshullam sent Abdullah back under cover of darkness to secure the items on the road, with a warning to look sharp and move as quickly as possible. Abdullah beat his donkey with his heels and was soon out of sight down the forest track of a road. Before the tents were all up and set in order for the night, and the animals tethered in a patch of grass, and other such preparations concluded, Abdullah was back waving the staff triumphantly. He wanted to keep the handsome staff for himself, but Meshullam recognized its value more than a mere boy and made him hand everything over to his safe-keeping.
Setting camp took longer than usual, since the beaten and robbed wayfarer (or so he seemed to the women) needed much care. It was difficult to determine just where he would sleep. No one wanted to share his tent with the man except the sympathetic women, and Meshullam finally assented because he knew the women would probably stay up all night just to watch the man for signs of life. So if he should awaken and attack someone, the women would be the first to scream.
In the morning, it was as Meshullam had foreseen. The women came out from their tent long-eyed and pale, while conveying the good news that the stranger had spoken a few words of some kind of blessing, naming his God in Habiru. Assah conferred the words to Meshullam, hoping the old trader might know.
"'El Shaddai'"? he repeated. "That is 'Almighty God'. He is the God of the Hebrew people, I have heard."
“The unfortunate man is Hebrew then?” Assah remarked.
Shaking her head a little in wonderment, the young woman went to tell her mistress. But before she could reach the tent, her mistress came out, beckoning urgently to Meshullam before he could protest to the maid that he hadn’t said anything of the kind.
Assah stood respectfully aside as Zenobia greeted Meshullam in hushed tones.
"Would you please honor us a moment with your presence?" she began, after a slightly courteous salutation.
Meshullam obliged her with only a little grace, as it was getting late and the moon was high in the heavens. He himself felt very tired, though only his camel could complain of being foot-sore. He stepped inside their tent, expecting to find the man awake and talking Hebrew with the fool temple-bird, but instead the man was sleeping comfortably as the Potiphar’s wife checked on him.
"Well, what is it, my lady?" the caravaneer began testily.
"Meshullam," the white-haired one addressed him for the first time, "this man is a Hebrew, I suspect. He seems to have the same manners of a former servant of mine, one called Joseph. I find even his face and features are close in kind or appearance to Joseph's. It is most remarkable. What do you say?"
Meshullam glanced at Assah, who seemed ill at ease. But again he was able to muster the politeness of his kind in a most difficult situation. "Yes, my lady, you are most sharp in eye. Yet all Hebrew shepherds may look much the same, don't you think?"
If he thought that would dampen her train of thought, he was mistaken. Assah had heard his previous remark and now eyed him with dispproval. She turned and whispered something quickly to her mistress, and Potiphar’s wife’s eyes lit up. The woman turned to him and something gleamed in her eyes that alarmed him. "I'm sure you are mistaken about that! This man is a Hebrew from Hebron! If you had seen my servant Joseph and could set him against this man here, you would agree with me--that is, us. My maid Assah also confirms my own observation, independently of what I first thought. And she just informed me what you yourself said a bit ago outside my tent! You are a fool now to deny your own words! And, surely, the understanding of a noblewoman is many times greater than a mere caravaneer’s!"
The woman gave him a triumphant look, and Meshullam had to respect her wit; nevertheless, what did it prove? And what did it matter if her servant and this man turned out to be close relatives after all? Hebrews were known to have promiscuous, big families and were over-running the country, far as the Kena'nites, Amorites, and even some Ishmaelites were concerned. The white-haired one continued to stare at him, as if she were divining his thoughts and was not at all satisfied with his response.
Dratted Mizraimites! he thought. They gave him the strangest feeling, as if they knew far too much about life than it was good for them to know. Had they taken their silver, divining cups along on the journey? No wonder everything felt so out of joint from the very first moment of leaving Hazir! He shrugged. It was best to say nothing more and let the matter rest where it was. He wanted badly to bow and get to his own tent, but the white-haired woman seemed in no way ready to drop the question.
Yet the two women gave each other a meaningful look at this point, and it was the white-haired one who wished him good-speed to his sheepskins.
Bowing gratefully, Meshullam took himself away as quickly as old bones could manage. It was all he could do to exit gracefully, when the muffled accents of a human-like voice from Abdullah's little tent followed him, crying, "The divine oracle of Abdullah Prince of Succoth and Gilead, concerning the Jackass and the Ewe--" Determining to do something about it, Meshullam thus had cause to reflect that the bird had already spent too much time in Abdullah's company.
He lay in his tent a moment later, his eyes pricked to the sight of the thinly-sliced moon peeking in a cracked seam of his tent and listening to the two women converse heatedly, but in cloth-muffled tones, for some time. Meantime the mad bird raved on and on about the moral failings of the jackass and poor ewe, drowned at frequent intervals by the runt’s obscene laughter. At last the tale concluded with a surprise injury to the jackass and Abdullah’s tent quietened enough for the women to exchange their usual blessings.
Soon all around rose the voluble, rhythmmic snores of his brethren and the coughs and throat-gurglings of camels. Wolves howled in the surrounding forest, and now and then sounded a sentence or two of speech that was nearly human--that feathered imposter of Larishaphim again, Meshullam guessed at once. This time again, it was Meshullam who could not catch a wink, as his mind ranged over the day's events, ceaselessly, until the dawn. He rose with weak knees, but in the bustle of getting the tents down and packed he found his old vigor returning despite the night’s ordeal. The stranger was given some food and drink, and he was able to do a little more talking, which was duly reported to Meshullam for interpretation.
Meshullam listened but he gave little indication that he had heard Assah's latest report.
"He says he is a son of his nation's father, Prince Jacob, the Keeper of the Covenant Promises of God. He is also the son of his mother Leah, as his father has had four wives. His father is, in his words, a Prince of God, and he asks to be taken to his father, who will reward us for our trouble, though he says he broke the Covenant and is not worthy of his father's love."
Meshullam would have liked it if the man had not have revealed so much. But such a tale would have come out eventually anyway. There was no getting rid of the man now, since his home was Hebron, their own destination. As for his claim to be Jacob's son--which was what Joseph had claimed in Abdullah’s hearing--well, that remained to be seen and proven. How many drifters and vagabonds wouldn’t like to be Jacob’s son and heir of the old man’s heaps of gold and silver? At any rate, the Hebrews at the Hebron camp would soon decide the truth of his claim.
Again, Assah hurried off to her mistress, and there was dead silence in their tent until the bird suddenly shrieked as if it were being murdered. Then it frantically exclaimed from Abdullah's tent, "Brother, do not tell of these bloody crimes to anyone! Shut your filthy lips! Stir up no vengeance in return, I say! Mighty, all-knowing Larishaphim can see the depths of the blackest hearts of men! Would you pour more innocent blood over his hands? No, fall down before thy holy god Larishaphim and keep silence!"
Meshullam knew the bird was only repeating bits of gossip and various religious phrases from over-heard conversations of priests and so he ignored it and went to remind the women they would be expected to mount their camels (that is, one camel and one donkey) in short order. Despite his announcement, the women were tardy in coming out. Their faces, he noted, were very pale, but he put that down to their own loss of sleep. As for the stranger, since he was still too weak to move himself, Meshullam's brothers put him back on a camel.
Meshullam was thankful for the strange quiet that prevailed among the usually cheerful, gossiping womenfolk in his train; but when it continued for over an hour he began to grow concerned and glanced in their direction. Again, no change in their countenances, still as grim and pale as ever. What had happened to make them look so? he could not help but wonder. If the bird, why not throw him out on the desert to fend for himself? And if the Hebrew, why should the simple boast of a shepherd from Hebron, be he the very brother of Joseph in Mizraim, affect them so greatly?
The answer suddenly struck Meshullam like a thunder-bolt. How could he have been so stupid and cloud-brained? he thought. He had lost so much sleep in the night and been so distracted by the presence of the foreign femals on his caravan, he realized he was not thinking clearly. His eyes widened and his beard twitched as his teeth worked back and forth as he thought fast to grasp all the implications. He realized he wasn’t being prudent, he was just stupid!
“So this man is Joseph's brother!” he marveled. “One who sold him down to Mizraim. How strange, I did not recognize him! Yet he looks so very different, cut up and bruised, from the knives no doubt of that arrogant and saucy crew I found in Dothan.” No wonder, he thought, the women looked as they did. He himself had probably turned as pale as the moon when he realized the truth. The discovery made him glance toward the stranger strapped to the camel's back. He hardly knew what to think or feel.
The Hebrew was obviously in poor shape. Who had treated him so bestially as to leave him for dead on the public road? Was it the doing of his own cut-throat brethren? After what they had done to Joseph, Meshullam knew they were capable of anything.
The camels found their stride as they struck off across the Hebron hills, now that the long climb was ended. The unladen donkeys kept up and they made very good time. Toward dusk it was time to halt and strike camp, however, though Hebron itself lay a short, half-day's journey away (no one ventured anywhere at night in Kena'n). The stranger, but really no stranger now, was taken down and laid to bed in the women's tent, but they seemed oddly reluctant to go in and care for him as usual.
Meshullam did not have to mull it over, for he knew the same horror in his own heart at the thought of what this man and his brothers had done. Yet he was in need of their care, and Meshullam went into the tent to see how he was before coming back out to give Abdullah instructions about the stranger's needs. The white-haired one stepped over to him. Her head was bowed.
"I just can't go in there," she said. "Not yet."
Meshullam bowed, but he could not allow the same feeling of loathing dictate to him what he could do. "He needs looking after. I will have him brought to my tent for the night."
"No, it will disturb him too much to be moved again now," said the contrary woman, with a look of helplessness in her fine eyes. "Let him remain with us. I will look after him."
“Well, make up your fool female minds!” Meshullam was thinking.
She walked determinedly to the tent door, paused, then entered; her maid followed more sheepishly.
Abdullah happened to pass by at that moment with his bird. "Come to my couch, beloved!" the mixed-up bird called out, giggling like a maiden in her lover's arms, then switching to a donkey bray.
In the morning, both long-suffering Mizraimites were waiting for him to arise.
"We are leaving you here," the white-haired one announced.
Meshullam looked at them open-mouthed and began vigorously working his beard with leather-stained fingers.
"Take the stranger on to Hebron in our stead," the older woman continued. "Knowing who he is, it is impossible for us to continue. We owe that much to Joseph."
Meshullam could not understand what had changed their plans so completely. He himself had a strong dislike for what the man had done--breaking the Covenant had a nasty sound even to him--but he could still do what duty demanded and take him as far as it was necessary to see that he was returned home. The law of the Desert was sufficient to see his "guest" through to the man's clan. Yet the Mizraimites could separate themselves from his welfare in every respect, ever since they found him to be Joseph's brother. His indignant look forced an explanation from the older woman. She glanced at her maid and turned to Meshullam.
"If we should go to Hebron now, don't you see what they will all be asking us? They will want to know all about Joseph and his condition. I will have to tell them he was MY slave, that he was charged with a terrible crime, and was imprisoned because of ME. I will have to tell his own father--if he lives--these terrible things. And, by all means, I cannot tell these things to the very men who are responsible for Joseph being sold to us in Mizraim! I came to tell his father only that Joseph lives, but they will want to know the whole truth, I should have known better than to think I could tell them only what I wanted them to know. The Most High has severely chastened me for that, in a dream in the night, as well as warned me not to go to Joseph's father. It was silly and foolish of me to think I could change things. Perhaps his father will never find out, but that is a matter only for the Most High. I am going home where I belong."
In the deathly quiet of the camp that followed, the bird, which had somehow gotten wind of Hagar and her significance as mother of Ishmael, began to womank out some obscenity that even Abdullah could not stomach. "Hush, you dirty creature!" they heard him say, as he threw a thick cloak over the cage to drown its protests.
Meshullam had heard enough to understood perfectly as Zenobia unburdened her whole load of guilt before him. He felt very sorry for her, as much as a son of the Desert can feel for such a high-born and wealthy woman of mighty Mizraim. He did not think to speak anything contrary to their decision. Now it seemed the only thing to be done and at last he would be rid of her. He took his leave as gracefully as possible, while the bird, despite the muffling blanket, chose that sensitive moment to shriek something profane from a soldier's vocabulary, along with a few ear-splitting bars of a tune popular in Mizraimite taverns. "It’s no wonder the temple-swine of Hazir were so upset and got rid of him!" Meshullam muttered to himself, though not knowing the actual account of the bird's miraculous escape.
Soon the arrangements were concluded for their leave-taking from the caravan. The women took two of his prize camels and three donkeys to carry their things with them back to Mizraim, as they indicated they were turning homeward immediately. Abdullah, without Meshullam's knowledge, agreed to accompany them and show them the way. As for the feathered nuisance in the willow cage, Abdullah decided to pack it along to Mizraim.
Since he had paid plenty for the abomination and hated to see it and his pack animals lost, Meshullam started to give an order, countermanding Abdullah, but held his tongue. He saw Abdullah staring at him with great sobriety, and knew for the first time that Abdullah had chosen to do this as his own man, responsible himself for his decision. Meshullam sighed the sigh of the eldest brother who knew better; knowing it was a dangerous under-taking for a boy and two mere women to be journeying to Mizraim without an armed guard. There seemed nothing for it but to let them go, so Meshullam parted the caravan, letting the Mizraimites have the camels and donkeys, and the two caravans, one very small, diverged on the road and headed slowly in different directions.
As Abdullah’s rump of a caravan disappeared over a low ridge toward the southwest, Meshullam glanced toward them. He vowed to see his pack animals again, as soon as his own, new caravan was outfitted in Succoth. Besides, there was the runt. He would be sorely missed. Abdullah was, with all his impulsive traits and gift for brave undertakings, his favorite brother. And all this revelation about Joseph and his brother had revived his own memories of the striking, handsome-faced youth he had once left to the mercies of Mizraim in the flesh-pot of Nathasta--but ever since had rued the day.
Moving off, Meshullam was within sight of Hebron and the nearby city of Kiriath-Arba when he realized he had forgotten something. The women had taken his camels and donkeys without paying him. Naturally, the animals would never make it back alive under Abdullah’s care! At that moment, he did not know whether to laugh or weep. He felt old, perhaps too old to drive a caravan any longer. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to step down for the second eldest.
He glanced toward the second-born, Hadad, his cloud-brained brother who never said anything but was none the wiser for it. Hadad's donkey was infinitely brighter in wit and even handsomer. Why, the fool, big-mouthed bird had a better grasp on what life was about! Could he step down for such a bird? Never! Not while he could still put one foot in front of the other!
Meshullam was still chuckling to himself at Hadad's expense when a host of shirted but bare-rumped children from the Hebrew camp sighted them. They came on the run, voices calling gaily to each other as they sped over the grass amidst the grazing sheep. The children of Israel all stopped short, however, when they recognized the caravan was not Hebrew but Ishmaelite. A few of them flung stones and curses but Meshullam continued on, without smiling, and met the even grimer visages of the first of the Hebrew menfolk. Cutting off his retreat, they surrounded his train with themselves and a multitude of relatives and servants before they could reach the camp itself.
It was quiet as a chamber of the Dead, except for the bleating of sheep out in the fields and on the hillsides of cleared forest-land. But someone must have called their nation's scion, for an old man with sackcloth and ashes on his head came out of his ordinary-looking tent. He limped leaning on the arm of a beautifully-robed, handsome-faced youth.
Patriarch Jacob--for who else could it be?--left the youth and hobbled alone partway down the road toward the stalled and beseiged caravan. At the sight of him something rose up in Meshullam that nearly made him choke. After all, this was the infamous Supplanter, the one who like his father Isaac stole the birthright from the firstborn. Both Ishmael and Esau had suffered grievously at the thieving hands of Isaac and Jacob.
“Abba, please be careful!” cried the youth behind him. “They’re sons of Ishmael!”
Meshullam viewed the figure with astonishment and dismay as Jacob halted, raised his hands toward them and wept as if he had lost a son. Immediately, children swarmed to the old man’s side defensively. A random stone winged past Meshullam’s ear and struck a donkey’s hindquarters, igniting a series of tremendous brays. hen, surprising everyone, Jacob pulled off his own outer robe and struggled toward the camel holding the wounded man. Without a word, some Hebrews leaped to defend their patriarch from the least sign of any enemy danger, though stones were flying thick and fast at this point from the bare-rumped gallery.
A groan came from Meshullam’s wounded man, so Jacob saw he was still alive. Despite infirmity and age, he pressed forward toward his son. Without a word, some of the men leaped to take their brother down and gather him to Jacob's own tent. All seemed to know what to do without being ordered about. Women began to wail in the camp as the news spread; the tribal, high-pitched ululation sounded like half-joy, half-sorrow, so that Meshullam could not make out whether they rejoiced or grieved over the arrival of a long-lost relative.
Other signs, however, proved more favorable. The men came forward to the caravan with more respect, and offered to help Meshullam disembark from his camel, which had knelt down in the meantime. Jacob was led (and partly walked on his own) to his guest, and soon at the camp the finest Tyrian carpets were laid out, carpet upon carpet to luxurious thickness, and food and drink arrived in great abundance for Meshullam and all his brothers. Gifts began to arrive, presented by the youngest son--spices, ointments, balms, silver nose-rings for their womenfolk, there seemed no end of it, all in painted pottery or bronze and silver vases as costly as what they contained.
“It has been another year without over-much rain,” the old man observed to his impressed guest. “But the name of El Elyon be praised! He’ll force out these peoples of the land yet according to His Covenant promise! They must have rain for their vineyards and crops, whereas we can make out with the sweet dew of heaven and the fine wells my fathers dug!” It was time to be seated.
Meshullam bowed low from his waist and was shown to his place beside Jacob, on his right hand.
"Tell me, my son," said Jacob. "How is it my beloved fourthborn received mercy and kindness at your hands? For I don’t believe as some have already told me that you inflicted those grievous wounds on him. For why then would you have bound them up?"
Meshullam smiled modestly, very grateful for the benefit of a doubt. "It was the will of the Most High! I would have passed this poor fellow lying by on the road, but I could see he was wounded and in need of help, so I halted the caravan immediately to go to him."
Jacob nodded slowly, his eyes fading as tears welled up once again. "I have lost a son before this," he said. "I thought this one too was lost. But he who was lost is now found! Therefore my rejoicing is great, the name of the Most High be praised!"
Meshullam's own eyes began to fog up unaccountably. "So it is indeed true," he thought to himself, "that this wretch is the Supplanter’s own son and not some far-fetched relative of his fallen on bad times." He had to look away for a moment while he mastered himself. In doing so, he noticed the scanty, yellowing grasses in the pastures of the Hebrews. It was as he had said, a poor year. Normally, the green grass, watered by plentiful springs, would have lasted through the grazing season. Was it a warning of another drought and famine? Meshullam had experienced several such in his lifetime, and each time the famine had been so severe many people and livestock had perished in all the lands of Kena'n and Gilead, though Mizraim always seemed to escape such sufferings because of their great river.
Jacob peered over at Meshullam. "My son, are you thinking of home? Please stay on with us for a time. My father has gone back down to Beer-sheba, so there is plenty of everything. Enjoy the bounteous gifts of the All-Provider with us!" The old man's eyes winked at him with aged merriment, revived at the wonderful restoration of a lost son, which for the moment had eclipsed previous losses.
Meshullam was very inclined to remain, but he thought of Joseph--a chilling thought which immediately darkened the brightness shining down on the entire scene. Slowly, Meshullam shook his head and then bowed low. He explained his intent to return to Mizraim with a new caravan, and that it was meet that he return to his natal Succoth soon. Jacob's merry eyes changed expression at the mention of the Gileadite city. How quickly the Supplanter’s every expression (if not his old limbs!) could change to something very different, Meshullam noted. But he already knew what was going through the old man's mind. Everyone in Succoth knew about the hero called Jacob, who had wrestled with God’s Angel and prevailed, touched only in the hollow of his thigh so that he limped away from the divine wrestling match. That had all happened at Peniel. Later, when he had "wrestled" with his brother Esau and prevailed, he built a house in Succoth. The house was still standing, Meshullam knew, though it had passed into the hands of a certain Ishmaelite trader who, unlike Jacob, was seldom at home to enjoy domestic peace and tranquillity.
With much misgiving, Meshullam indicated he must soon take leave of the storied “Supplanter of Esau” and “Troubler of Ken’an.” Despite the man’s ill fame, he had to wonder how much was self-inflicted and then doubled by his wayward sons. He wanted to remain, but his brothers were impatient to go, having endured a long, out-of-the-way extension of their usual journey home. All except Meshullam had wives and children awaiting them, and they were very uncomfortable, feeling the unfriendly eyes of Joseph's brothers boring into them like dagger points.
After the Hebrew courtesy of being shown Jacob's tent and how the returned son was being cared for by women of the clan, Meshullam was led back outdoors to the big carpet and the place where the old man sat to receive guests when the weather was not too hot. Considered the greatest delicacy, roasted lamb was dressed in fresh grape leaves and served to the guests. Stolen from Kiriath's vineyards? Meshullam wondered, for he saw no vines growing among the camp of the Hebrews and it was hard to believe they shed their leaves willingly. If that wasn’t more than enough, sweet-meats and honey beer finished the meal. Judah--the name of the fourthborn--was given a lion's share of the feast, as though he were now the favorite son, and after him the women and children finished the plenty that remained.
As Meshullam rode slowly from the Hebrew camp, he saw Jacob wave away a grumbling eldest son who gestured angrily first in one direction and then in another. Still leaning on his youngest son's shoulder and arm, holding to him as if he were afraid to let him go, Jacob in turn watched his guest sink from sight. Strangely, nearly all of Joseph's other brothers had already left, returning to their flocks scattered across the wide hills of Hebron, though their brother found on the road was lying in his father's tent with Jacob's gold ring on his finger.
Since Meshullam's caravan made so late a start, they had scarcely put the city of Kiriath-arba behind them when the light began to fade and the time came to stop and make camp. It was soon done, and the protesting camels (who had been inflicted with two separate treks in one day and hated the disruption of their usual routines) quieted down after the usual orgy of grumbling.
Meshullam, in his solitary tent, sat up for some time, with his lamp burning, as he pondered recent events and checked over some clay tablet accounts. It was late for even the old trader, to whom sleep came often tardily, when strange sounds and cries reached his ears. His brothers fighting? he wondered, raising his head off his chest where it had dropped as he momentarily dozed. He heard a man cry out, mortally wounded, it seemed by the sound, and death rattles. Then Meshullam knew that death had found them and was in the camp, and as an old man it was his to merely await the inevitable.
Suddenly, the tent door was thrust open. Attackers slipped like swift and deadly shadows into view. Joseph's elder brothers!
Meshullam was not much surprised, though he had not suspected they would attack his camp so near their own. Unacquainted with their names, Meshullam could not say anything except ask for mercy, if that was what they had come to grant an old man full of gray in his hair and beard. "My sons," he said to the men who stood gazing down on him with drawn and bloody knives. "Would you bring my gray hair down to Sheol with blood and violence when I worship the same God of your holy fathers?"
One or two looked startled, and seemed uncertain by their expressions. Another, who appeared to lead, thrust the others aside and stepped forward with a shearing knife. "Simeon," a brother behind him pleaded. "The rest are dead. Why kill this useless old one? Perhaps he does worship the same God as we do. I heard him speak to father in his tent and he did not once mention buying the dreamer from us at Dothan. Not one word of it passed his lips, I swear!"
Simeon snarled as he glanced at Levi. "Shut your filthy lips! He’s a rascal alright! He came not knowing we would be present to recognize him! If he didn’t say anything then, that doesn’t mean he won’t return as soon as possible when we are gone. Otherwise, why did he camp so close to our holy tents? Well, no thieving Ishmaelite is going to live and tell our father everything--that we sold that crazy dreamer down to Mizraim!"
“How do you know he will tell?” the brother persisted. “Perhaps, he is too much afraid of us.”
“Simpleton!” Simeon cried. “Why do you think he came here with Judah? He fully intended to tell our father the whole story. Otherwise, he would have left Judah where he found him. Do you think Ishmaelites would help one of us if they found you or me lying in blood on the road? No, he thought he might get a ransom for Joseph, plus something for Judah. It’s only money they care about! I know these miserable traders! They expect to get twice the twenty pieces they paid for the dreamer after telling our father everything!”
Hearing this, Levi fell silent and his eyes darkened as he gazed at the old trader. “I suppose you are right, my brother. And if he tells our father those things, we will lose our own inheritance. And we’ll be disgraced and cursed, maybe even cast out into the wilderness by our father!”
Simeon waved his knife before Meshullam's face as the old man turned his eyes upwards. “I’m glad you’re finally seeing the light! Well, now it’s time to make sure this old thief will not have another opportunity to get rich at our expense!”
"My God, forgive them!" Meshullam cried, but he was also ashamed, feeling the sting of Simeon’s reproach. Meshullam's eyes had closed when a swift shadow slipped into the tent, surprising everyone, grasping Simeon around the neck with one arm and the other encircling his whole body as he went to plunge his knife into Meshullam's breast. Feeling nothing, the old man opened his eyes, surprised in turn to find Simeon choking and gasping for breath like a weak puppy in Judah's iron grip.
He pressed his fingers on it to staunch the blood, then raised his fingers with blood on them and held them out to them, waving the blood in their faces. "Would you slay me too?" said Judah first to Simeon. He turned to the other brothers. "And how about you? There is much Ismaelite blood on your knives. Will you mingle the blood of the holy nation of Jacob with the tainted blood the sons of Ishmael? Will you mix the unclean with the clean? Will you tie the Covenant God made with our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the Uncovenanted and the Uncircumcised by murdering me, your brother?"
Now the sons of Jacob all shared a deep horror of the land’s foreskinned and uncovenanted people, and the thought of mixing holy covenanted blood with the unholy blood was unthinkable. They might slay a brother, but to mix his blood with an unholy Ismaelite’s? The taunt brought all the knives dropping to the ground. The murderers stood gazing at their hands, covered with Ishmaelite blood and gore. Even Simeon seemed to lose all spirit and appeared most appalled by his deeds, even more than Levi who had not wanted to kill the old man but was afraid to intervene against his more headstrong brother.
Judah then pressed home his advantage. “You, my brothers, already have done this, and I joined in the crime. Remember how we slew all those, men and boys, who were covenanted and lay in bed, sore from the knife? Our own father rebuked us for our foul deed, and surely God of the Covenant will punish us for it.”
Gad grasped his own face in his bloody fingers and groaned. "My God," he cried. "Judah is right! I see them again! Hamor and young Prince Shechem!" He turned and rushed out into the night.
One by one, the brothers all cried the same and rushed out, fleeing into the forests as if pursued by packs of Ken’anite devils.
Judah was left alone at last with Meshullam, and the two men fell in each other's arms, mingling the tears of a son of Jacob with a son of Ishmael. It was a few moments before Meshullam stirred and found strength to ask Judah for help in seeing to the bodies of his brothers. Perhaps one or two were in need of ointments, or something to bind their wounds, he thought, for he still hoped against hope.
Judah prevented him, for he had a measure of Jacob's wisdom. He shook his head sorrowfully. "No, my father, your balm is of no avail; it is best you stay here until the morning light, and then we will go together."
Meshullam accepted the counsel of Judah, and they waited. It was not long, for the attack had come in the darkest hour just before dawn. Supported by Judah's arm, Meshullam went out to each tent and accounted for each of his brothers, all slain where they lay on blood-soaked sheepskins. Weeping long over Hadad, strangely, Meshullam shed no tears for the others, but with an ashen, grim face began to look about the area. "Abdullah!" he called pathetically. "Abdullah!" Then he remembered the boy's true whereabouts. "My loved ones must be buried here, lest wild animals tear them," he said finally.
And so Judah and the old trader worked long into the evening, piling stones over the shallow graves after they had prayed and Meshullam had laid with each loved one his personal things. It was a hard and long labor, and often the two had to rest by the stream where they had washed the brothers and their sheepskins clean of blood--of which there was a great amount. Judah, his arm hurt in his struggle with Simeon, washed out his wound, and his blood mingled in the fast-flowing waters with Ishmaelite blood, and together swept downstream toward Chezib where women were, even at that moment, doing their wash at the brook.
As the little stream turned crimson the women marveled and rose up in fear and wonder, running to tell their menfolk. "The holy spring of Chillelu and Hibishu turned to blood before our eyes!" they cried to the whole village, and everyone ran to see the strange thing.
Hireh also came running and stared at the red stain still visible in the current. A sense of foreboding seized every heart at the sight, and the women gazed in utmost horror at their blood- stained laundry. "Perhaps the God of Judah is punishing us for what we have done!" Hireh muttered as he walked away to inform Tamar of the stream turned to blood. “I had a bad feeling at the time, and now this is a sure sign--a sure sign, indeed!”
The young bucks who had thought to take Judah's life by their beatings looked at one another helplessly. "The God of Jacob will avenge his lost son!" shrieked the old woman who had called most vehemently for Judah’s death. "Yes, we are all finished!" the women wailed, for they had every reason to believe Judah had perished in the woods beside the road, devoured by some beast since they had searched for days and not found him. “Judah is avenged on us!”
And their words proved to be true. For even as they cried over their fouled laundry and would not be comforted, a detachment of Philistines was swiftly making its way toward the village, having raided every homestead and hamlet on the way and killing most everyone they found, man or woman or child, dumping the bodies into wells and village streams.
Upstream, Judah and Meshullam finished their preparations of the dead and their burials. Meshullam sat weeping and praying for long hours, for only then would he shed tears. He finally rose stiffly. "Abel-Ishmael is the name of this place," he said. "For on this ground the blood of Ishmael was spilled, in the sight of the Most High God. Yet may this crime too be forgiven!"
Judah was much taken by the Ishmaelite’s words, his face contored with an expression of agonized shame and grief too great to bear. He recalled how, back in Jacob’s tent, he had turned to his father and said, “Father, my heart condemns me for what I did to you! I am not worthy of your love! I broke the Covenant and took a wife from among the heathen! I even begot sons on her, and two of them sinned against God and he slew them!” Then his father had replied, “You must look to God. He will purge our hearts of this sin and forgive us our wrong-doing.” Saying that, the old man grew remarkably angry and began denouncing the first-born, second-born, and third-born for their bloody deeds! Yet the fourth-born, who had done far worse in his own eyes--too ashamed to tell Jacob about either Joseph or Tamar--could not forget his father’s response when he returned with nothing!
Meanwhile, the Philistines halted after laying Chezib waste. Warned by one of their spies, they turned back toward the coast with their booty, leading doleful processions of the comelier boys and females, their upper lips pierced Assyrian-style with fish hook and line. Strangers to the country, they feared the giant sloth and glutton, Arba of Kiriath, and turned round at Chezib. Since they did not know Jacob's God well enough to stay clear, without Arba they would have fallen upon the camp at Hebron just as they had done at Chezib and other unsuspecting, unwalled villages.
The next morning Meshullam turned toward Gilead, with his brother's donkeys and sheepskins and other belongings tied together in a train. Though offered, the old trader turned down several Hebrew youths who would have gone along and helped with the animals as Judah was not recovered enough to do it.
Judah watched as the old man departed, and for some time afterwards stood alone in Abel-Ishmael, weeping for the sin of his brothers, as well as his own (for he remembered both Joseph and his daughter-in-law). He was about to turn homeward too when Simeon and Levi came out from the surrounding trees. Both looked like wild men, bandits or even demon-possessed wretches who inhabited such lonely places, their dirty hair sticking straight out in tangled knots. Judah waited. He carried no arms for his own protection, and cared nothing for his life.
Simeon came up to him and as usual spoke first. "We watched you bury the old thief’s companions. I expect now you are thinking of telling our father everything concerning the dreamer, so that we must slay you now or flee into the wilderness."
Judah slowly shook his head. Even as he had lain in Jacob's tent, playing as weak and ill as possible so that he might take the first opportunity to slip away and warn the Ishmaelite of his brother's intentions, he had realized his brothers would never let him live for very long either, especially since Jacob's gold ring graced his finger, signifying the passing of the birthright. The fourth-born raised his chin. He gazed with a piercing look of contempt into his older brother's bloodshot eyes. "So you were too much of a craven coward to kill me in father’s tent! Now you plan to do in secret what you were too much a sneaking little fox to do in the open!"
Simeon would have lunged upon Judah then, but Levi grasped his brother and together they struggled as Judah began to laugh.
They stopped struggling to watch, open-mouthed, Judah laughing. When Judah had come to an end of his laughing, he looked with sorrowing eyes upon his two older brothers. "My own sin in this matter of the dreamer has driven me almost mad. That’s partly the reason I left home and went to live with the people of the land. A lot of good it did me to run away! I lost everything--my sheep, land, house, wife and two sons! Have I not been punished enough? Perhaps not. But I cannot bear any more! No, I will not tell our father anything. By all the gods we have foresworn and will no longer serve, I will not mention Joseph to our father! I cannot swear by the Name of the Most High, the Name I have so dishonored."
Simeon did not give ground and his eyes gleamed with suspicion. "What reason do you have, my brother, for NOT telling him? I do not believe you."
Judah looked Simeon in the eye. "I have sworn this because I will not bring more fighting and blood and evil down on our father's head. Any more would surely take away his breath of life by drowning him in his own grief!" What son of Jacob could argue with that?
Simeon fell silent and stared at Judah, who turned away and limped slowly toward the camp at Hebron. Then Simeon exchanged glances with his brother, but Levi backed away, turned and ran to catch up with Judah.
From time to time he heard the bird in his tent, being an insomniac, cry out in his startling, human voice. "Abel-Ishmael! Meadow of Ishmael, ye shall be called!" Then a little later: "Blood! Will ye spill the blood of your brothers? Will ye indeed bring my gray head down to Sheol with tears?" Then, more alarming, there was a shriek of a dying man, and a death rattle--all perfectly done, as if the mad bird had practiced every incomprehensible detail.
In the morning they began to travel, and were fortunate to fall in with the company of a large caravan from the myrrh and frankincense region of the deep Desert of the Sebaean South, making their circuitous, oasis-to-oasis journey to Mizraim. Abdullah was over-joyed when he discovered who the strangers were; and he and the traders talked long about Meshullam, whom everyone on the long-established, long-haul routes from Kena'n and the southern deserts seemed to know and respect. The Sebaean caravan was well supplied with armed guards, for the wares they carried were costly and worth untold fortunes, if they could get them to market safely.
Abdullah's "caravan" was a welcome addition, they were informed, as long as they kept up and did not drag behind, thereby attracting the attention of bands of bandits that infested the the Zin Wilderness and the Arabah adjacent to it. Since the Sebaeans had never seen anyone successfully ride a camel, they were continually coming to Abdullah with questions on how to train, saddle, work, feed, and breed them as opposed to donkeys. It was the practical aspects of breeding, of course, that took up most of the conversation. “They must be helped!” Abdullah affirmed. “Otherwise they are incapable of the act. If my females were in heat I could show you how I assist the bull.”
“But how did they manage before man was created?” someone asked who was knowing about the sequence of creation taking place on each of the first six days.
“They didn’t! God created them with us at the same time. Later, He created the donkeys, who don’t need any help.”
The women, on their part, cared more about who the Sebaeans were than the camels.
“Tell us, are they honorable men, or must we be afraid for our virtue and lives?”
“Oh, no, you are safe with these men!” Abdullah assured Zenobia. “Besides, they would think twice before risking my mighty sword!”
He pulled out his dagger and whipped it about, slicing part of a tent away and nearly taking off a donkey’s ear while Potiphar’s wife gazed at him, shaking her head.
Never had they traveled such long distances so quickly as they hastened in the van of the Sebaean traders. Zenobia and Assah were used to the leisurely pace Meshullam had set, so the swift race of man and beast across the wide desert was very difficult for them. It was all they could do to keep going and not fall far behind. The infernal dust kicked up by the multitude of donkeys was unendurable. Veiled with many thicknesses of cloth, riding aloft on high-humped camels, Zenobia and Assah still suffered greatly, and at night when the caravan rested they spent much time trying to restore their hair and skin to that of civilized women. The men, they noticed, left their dirt on and seemed no worse for it. The only washing they seemed to do was to wash their throats with tea and honey beer, cup after cup.
Abdullah, for his part, was in his glory; he had become a trader in his own right, though his caravan contained unusual items such as camels and was admittedly small and given at the moment only to transporting high-born women to homes in Mizraim. At rest stops or oases of palms and spring-fed pools, he was never with the women he was supposed to be guarding. Instead he sat among the Sebaeans with Larishaphim perched on his shoulder. His bird faithfully recored much lewd talk and jests as the Sebaeans played knuckebones and exchanged considerable fortunes. The Ishmaelite took his food with them as well, having learned from early on that Mizraimites would not partake with Semites as long as it could be helped.
Zenobia looked out her tent door at such stops, gazing ever south and westward toward Mizraim. Her expression seemed to grow more sober as the caravan neared the Bitter Lakes and the border. Assah, knowing what her mistress must be thinking, kept silence on the subject; for she felt helpless to heal the hurt a spurned woman must feel, who later, when the truth about Joseph was made known by her own husband, must accept the public guilt that would befall a noblewoman caught in the act with her own slave. As for Joseph, it was his great misfortune to be involved in the downfall of her mistress. So thought the ever-loyal Assah, who somehow grew all the more committed to her mistress as she approached the scene of her past shame.
Potiphar's wife, however, was preoccupied by something different. She knew she faced the loss of her reputation in her return, but that did not bother her as much as the damage it would do to her husband. Certain he had obeyed her wish to free Joseph from prison and the charge of assault, Zenobia had long resigned herself to the dagger-thrusts of her peers in Mizraimite society once they were informed of the nature of her crime. She knew they all did much the same thing in their palaces and garden pavilions, but her case was different. She was not the victim she first claimed but the miscreant. How her former friends (and her enemies) would rejoice at her ruin! All would say she only deserved what was coming to a barren woman, since she had inflicted her shriveled womanhood on a poor, helpless slave boy. And Zenobia could not help but agree with them.
Zenobia was certain her husband's career would be hurt; but Joseph's life mattered too. She could not begin to make it up to either Joseph or her husband, she knew. In her own country, it would be best to go into strict seclusion on her return and die as quickly as possible. Perhaps, then, Potiphar could be free to reclaim his old standing in court. She blamed herself for his decline, knowing she had not been a wife to him and served only her own desires from the first days of their marriage.
"Assah," she called as they lay camped on the salty shore of a Bitter Lake. "Do you think it would be better if we turned back to Hazor and never were seen in Mizraim again? I have been thinking about my own husband. He will suffer my dishonor if I return."
Assah did not reply for a time as they lay in their darkened tent. She knew her mistress, that she was yet in the process of recovering health of mind and body. "But my lady, I feel he misses you in his heart."
Zenobia could not think of a response. She had heard her maid say something she could not have hoped to hear. Was her maid right about her husband? she wondered. How could Assah know? But, then, servants needed to discern their masters' feelings and emotions. They would not prove good servants otherwise.
"I feel he misses you in his heart, my precious honey-cake!" echoed the bird in Abdullah’s adjoining tent, finishing with a superb imitation of a donkey's bray that even Zenobia was forced into a laugh at the absurd fowl. With a budding of hope in her own heart, Zenobia looked toward her homecoming as the caravan entered the Per-aa's domain.
She was surprised at the evident disarray of the royal power that met her eyes everywhere. The Hall of Registry at the border had been raided recently. It gaped roofless with fire-blackened walls. Inside, the new officials (none that Abdullah recognized) seemed uncertain of their own regulations and how to proceed as they tried to establish order. Reek of smoke and burnt flesh was heavy in the air, along with the rotted odor of lotuses. Outside, the court was littered with tamar trees and stumps, the trees hacked off with iron swords near the ground. Zenobia looked at the shriveling tamars that were once noble, fruitful trees, and was strangely affected. Her old life rose up before her life, as she had once been. She saw with full force what was going to happen to her when she returned; until now she had accepted the infamy her act against Joseph had provoked, but in the ruined court of the Customs House she saw completely how her own ruined life appeared.
Horror filled her eyes. She staggered over to a burnt and blackened palm and leaned on it. Assah, not knowing what to do, went to her and tenderly pressed her cheek against her mistress's hands, but Zenobia did not seem to even know it. Finally, Zenobia stirred, Abdullah was calling in urgent tones. Biting her perfect lip until it bled, Potiphar's wife turned toward the sound of his voice with a troubled Assah on her arm. The oasis seemed deserted except for the few caravans they passed, all heading outwards from Mizraim at great haste.
"Ibbathans are coming!" a Hittite mercenary of Khian's shouted at them from a lathered horse as he sped by. Nevertheless, the Sebaeans’ caravan continued, for Sebaeans did not understand his Hittite tongue, though Abdullah and the Mizraimites would have understood him speaking Hyksos.
Assah and Zenobia, even the high-spirited Scribe Bird, began to pray and call on the name of the Most High as they followed the Sebaeans deeper into Khian's collapsing rump-kingdom. More shambles of warfare met their eyes when they approached the Delta. Irrigation ditches had been disrupted, and groves of trees and fields lay wilting and turning to desert in the hot sun. Dessicated crops went unharvested and unmourned. People seemed conspicuously absent, and the few they saw crept out of ruined houses and hovels to peer at them with forelorn expressions, faces gaunt with hunger and hopelessness. Much worse, half-consumed bodies lay in the crocodile-infested canals.
But the Ibbathans had not yet penetrated the defenses of the capital, they found, crossing the devastated environs and entering the last sepets governed by Khian's administration. The whole city was strangely quiet and the market-places empty when the caravan halted. Leaving the disgruntled and dismayed Sebaeans, Abdullah and the women went on their own way toward Potiphar's house on the Western edge of the city, where the sinuous arm of the Ioteru called the “The Lady’s Thread” adjoined Potiphar's estate and canal (which someday again would bear the name, Joseph’s Canal).
Although the country outside Avaris was again strangely deserted, the house set on a low, tamar-shaded mound amidst high, white walls seemed serene and without change as the little caravan entered the courtyard and stopped before the pillared portico. Everything looked much the same as they last remembered it, only a chariot stood uselessly with a broken wheel, covered thickly with dust and tiny, orange lizards basking in the sun, and Potiphar’s Tree of Heaven had grown spectacularly, enough to overspread much of the house.
A servant, the steward Ramoseh, was the first to step forth warily from the house. He saw the strange camels and the Ishmaelite sand-rambler in the lead.
"Morning of fragrance!" the bird cried out in greeting, forgetting to follow up with his usual donkey bray and naughty remarks.
When the startled Ramoseh sufficiently recovered from shock, he rushed forth and threw himself down at Zenobia's feet. Assah herself cried, as she looked again at her old home, relieved from a great dread that she would find everything burnt and in ruin and the servants slain or dragged away.
"Lord Potiphar is fine, though he's been sleeping many days," Ramoseh informed his mistress the moment he looked up into her questioning eyes. “He should walk more on the land. It would do my master good.”
She glanced sadly away, as she thought of what her return would entail in idle gossip and more brutal slander, things she knew would wound a proud man and commander.
"And Joseph is doing well as usual at the prison!" Ramoseh added.
Zenobia’s face grew pinched and white. But she determined to go through with her reason for returning. She went to her rooms, repaired her face and eyes after the ravages of her bitter tears, and called on her husband.
Back to its old tricks, the donkey brays and verbal antics of Abdullah's agile-tongued Scribe-Bird entertained the servants in nearby rooms while the lord and mistress of the house stood looking at one another for some time, without having to say a word. Though a ruined lady and the defunct commander of a beseiged city, each saw something new and strangely appealing.
He lay aside his writing materials and attempted to rise. It was not easy. His body was known to be weak, but his legs were weaker still, and had to support a large, lower torso. Succeeding at last, he extended the heavy base of his royal scepter.
Aware of the honor she was being paid, Asenath gritted her teeth and knelt kissing his extended scepter instead of prostrating herself face-down with her arm crossed against her breast. But she already knew no one wanted her in Ibbatha, and Cousin Narmer could not disguise the fact with formalities.
Like a Per-aa of old, Narmer motioned for her to take a step closer, still a step below the dais on which he sat in his throne-like chair. Surprising them, the ponderous, bronze doors of the Ibbathan palace burst open, and a host of highly-disturbed courtiers and nobles poured noisily in. Narmer himself must have showed annoyance, for only a few, the bravest and most powerful, dared approach and, worse, interrupt a royal's private audience. He waved for his Chief Cupbearer to approach the throne; and the man glanced at Asenath with obvious distaste.
"Our royal cousin has been so good as to pay us a visit," Prince Narmer said in a light, informal manner to the Cupbearer. "Would you please allow us privacy?"
It was a command to an abject underling, only with superior tone and accents best used on a malt masher, and the Cupbearer's cheeks flamed, for he was really a most powerful warlord of Ibbatha, employing Narmer as his "king" in name only. Nevertheless, he went along with the necessary charade. He bowed the prescribed distance to the floor before his titular lord and with a slight inclination of his head toward Lady Asenath went out of the hall, taking his lickspittles along.
"They should know better than to disturb us," the prince explained with a rising, petulant tone of voice. "After we are finished with court business, we have this time to ourselves, to study or write something or read. The fools!"
Since the prince seemed preoccupied, Asenath wondered with a heavy sinking of heart if he were ever going to ask her reason for coming unannounced. It had cost her a great deal of trouble to escape Nathasta and come to Ibbatha. Knowing her herbs, she had finally succeeded in drugging Nabsha and slipped out wearing the maid’s clothes. But the act sickened her, even though Nabsha was the most cruel and mean-spirited woman she had ever encountered. She had to wonder how long the maid would go before anyone found her. What if she did not awaken? Yet, putting aside misgivings, she had many things to discuss with Narmer. Most urgent things, since her father's death and her discovery of the forbidden vases. Yet had the machinations of that evil beast, the chief priest, turned the head of Prince Narmer? She suspected the Ibbathans, wooing the favor of Nathasta, would do anything Duamutef the high priest requested.
A faint smile flitted across Prince Narmer's thick, over-sized lips. "Lately we've been studying papyri of your priest Imhotep," he confided, dropping his voice a little for more confidentiality. His top half toppled forward from his lower body. "This architect of your temple staff was truly beloved of the gods!"
Asenath knew all about Mizraim's “god-brained man.” He was no late discovery to a daughter of Lord Petepheres, the royal-blooded architect who had refused the double throne Prince Narmer was straining to possess. Imhotep was the most brilliant son of Nath and the Temple of Nathasta, born of the “Dawn Age” that built the stone "Seas" of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, the palaces and chrysali of the Dead that stood on the Western side of the River. No one after Imhotep had built so grandly and cleverly in such weighty, ever-enduring stone or drilled so many exquisite stone vases; how could a daughter of his own temple not know one of Nathasta's chief glories? Nodding to Prince Narmer, she waited for some more hint of his mood or flight of thought. It was best to treat the royal cousin with care, she knew, though she herself had the prior claim to the golden chair on which he sat.
Prince Narmer looked at her expectantly for a spoken response. "Come, dear Cousin," he warmly addressed her. "Please sit with us. You have come a long way and must be tired." He had only to rap his solid bronze scepter on the floor, and a servant appeared. The man went away and returned with a dainty, gilded chair inlaid with ivory. Asenath seated herself and waited for the prince to speak.
He seemed to grow excited again as he looked upon beauty at close hand. "It is as we have heard," he said, and his small eyes gleamed. "You are fit to be a queen, to sit at our right hand, just as you are doing now!" In an instant, however, his large mouth trembled, and bad teeth, with gaps, closed down on his lower lip. He glanced almost guiltily at her.
"But the tail-less one, the Usurper, is still in that abomination he calls Avaris. That’s the only thing that’s wrong in the world, and I must put it right!"
Asenath gazed at the wretched, bag-bodied pretender to Khian's throne, wondering if her fellow Mizraimites were making a mistake. Prince Narmer was not man enough, she observed, to lead an army, so how could he lead an empire? Her father, in his days of health, had been strong and manly in every respect, lifting Imhotep's vases about their apartments with ease; and before he fell ill always carried himself with the bearing of a true leader while playing the minor role of a temple-architect.
Realizing Narmer as per-aa was indeed a mistake, she lost all reticence and spoke out boldly. "Why do you all try and mislead me so, my lord? I have come to seek your help for two reasons. A vile priestling would put me in the usurper's own palace as his slave and plaything, and, secondly, very soon the world will be swept away into darkness by an evil power! Yet it seems his ravens have already whispered evil against me in your ears. Otherwise, you would not be treating me like a child when you know I am something more than your peer." Asenath gazed directly at Prince Narmer, holding his weaker gaze in return, but like water he could not be held for long.
Looking away, the prince sighed and almost gulped with a big sob. "You should not be sorry about coming here to see us!" he exclaimed. "It is good to look upon you, and besides we really have no one to talk to--they're all bloody-minded generals and soldiers, and I am so sick of heart for my own house and gardens in Ga'arta!"
Petepheres's daughter knew the prince's words were accurate. Hundred-gated Ibbatha was the seat of power in the Upper Kingdom, but Ga'arta, called the Mother of Cities, was far more ancient and royal, a city of tradition and rank and honor above all the cities of upper Mizraim. Ga'arta's palaces were crumbly and flimsy affairs, but somehow lovelier in decay; Ibbatha's granite immensities were raw and rough to such a refined princeling as Narmer. How he must hate the rumble of Ibbathas' new, Hyksos-style chariots! Asenath thought. On her arrival at Ibbatha, she had seen hundreds, both filling the streets and on maneuvers outside the city walls.
Sensitive to catch and prey upon possibly amusing thoughts, Narmer smiled at her sympathetically. "We know how you must feel about the Usurper's ways. His barbarian customs, the lack of etiquette, his profanation of our gods with his own heathen cuisine--I hear the monster devours raw fish and roe in great quantities..." The voice trailed off into silence. Propping himself on the chair's arms, he straightened a bit in posture, though his semi-detached lower body continued to sag. "But in short time," he added, "the greasy, unwashed Semite will be expelled from our country forever! Think of it! Our holy soil cleansed of the foreign contagion, and once again glorious and--!”
They continued to talk, or, rather, the prince went on to complain about various administrative troubles regarding the installation of his new aviary in the Ibbathan palace, and the hour lengthened in the deepening gloom. Finally, the prince himself seemed to grow tired, and even his more vigorous lower torso was visibly bagging lower in his chair. "We trust you will stay with us for a time and rest," he said. "We have many birds in the aviary and also some new beasts that will amuse you in the palace collection. You must see the creature covered with fierce spines. It’s my favorite!"
Asenath could have shed tears at that point, she was so upset at his shallow words and false dealings. It seemed at that moment she were couched in clinging, heavy liquid, mired to her neck in a deep, sucking pool from which she could not arise.
"Cousin," she implored, her voice rising as she leaned as close as she dared. "I dare not return now to Nathasta. I have given you my reasons for coming here. Why should we not talk about it? I know what the chief priest is planning to do with me. Please, help me, Your Majesty."
The prince, weary and needing to lie down in his perfumed bed, gave her a sharp look. "You are reminding us of our duty to Lord Petepheres. After all he was of my own royal blood, and we owe the respect of the living to the glorious Dead. By all means, stay on with us for a day or two; you have my divine permission." The exhausted prince rapped his clumsy, over-sized scepter, and a Grand Taty, Chief Cupbearer, Chief Baker, and other high nobles and officials presented themselves, to escort the son of the ancient Per-aas to bed for a nap.
Asenath felt as if all life had drained out as she watched him turn to go. She had pleaded for her life, at the feet of her own closest relative. She had also tried to speak for the forbidden vases. Yet he refused to rescue her from either the tyrannous beast in Nath's temple or the ravin of Khian's lust. As for the destruction of the world by Wormstar, he hadn’t the slightest conception of any threat except the Hyksos one. "If you leave me like this," she said without looking up, "I will tell your royal Secret, O Son of Nebel! Whatever happens to me, something far worse will happen to you before long. I came to warn you of impending doom for the world, inflicted on us by the star of bitterness, but you won’t even open to the possibility!"
All the iron-plated courtiers fell back in alarm and consternation. Narmer’s scepter fell and clattered across the floor. The UNSPEAKABLE had been uttered in his presence. Without his Secret, the divine per-aa would be less than a per-aa, less than a god, less than the one complete man in the entire land of the red and the black, in whose immortality all Mizraimites entrusted the destiny of their souls. It was as if a crazed bird had flown in from the aviary, crying blasphemous things no human ear should hear.
But Prince Narmer was the first to respond, finding the strength to confront her desperate threat to his legitimacy. "How have you come to know our S-S-S-Secret?" he challenged in trembling, high-pitched tones that hissed down the long, heavily-pillared hall. "How dare you speak of such a thing!"
Asnenath was little frightened, not of Narmer and his men but of the consequences of her own acts, since she knew she held the destiny of Mizraim. Much as she wanted to warn her country concerning the revelations of the forbidden vases, she knew very well what awaited her in Avaris and Nathasta and that fate seemed equally evil. She bowed her head and waited; and it was as she had hoped. Suddenly, they were again alone. And the prince was waiting, his breath coming and going in shallow pants. He stooped for his scepter but could not reach it.
Asenath tried once again to reach the human part of the prince. "My lord, you ought to know what I possess. I have possess both throne-right and the Secret. My father, O king, told it to me before he lay his soul down. No one else heard it. He spoke of you, for he knew the nobles of Ibbatha would afterwards come to you, my lord, as next in line. And he gave the key to your Secret, for he said it would be the source of your helping me, if I should ever need help in this world. My father, I always knew, was a wise man. But he was more than wise. For he said I would be happier if I never married and let the throne-right be my winding sheet."
"He said that? Oh, I hate him! the ugly bird! traitor!" the prince sputtered and spat, losing his royal majesty.
Incensed, Asenath sprang up and looked as if she might snatch the scepter and brain the claimant-per-aa.
Narmer gestured to her most rudely, pointing at her with a spiky finger. "Oh, I have no need of you to help me be Per-aa! But I would die if you told anyone. From this time to everlasting you must not tell any secret he may have told you, for my sake and the people's!"
Asenath could hardly bring herself to speak to him. It seemed to her that she was addressing the most base and loathsome creature and not a man at all. "The Per-aa's Secret is mine to keep or divulge; and you must not send me back to the chief priest without a writ of immunity! I will not go to Avaris and Khian's palace. I will not!"
Prince Narmer suddenly had a happy thought. His expression lightened. He slipped his signet from his finger. "Well, don’t go! Take this, and say whatever you want to the chief priest. He will not dare to offend you in any way after he sees it."
In shame and numb shock, Asenath took the huge and cumbersome signet--the ring of the sacred scarab and the prince's royal name--a small fish, “nar,” set above a chisel, “mer”--newly incised in the red and black and red-swirled stone; for the very colors proclaimed the bearer the lord of the land of red and black. Yet she knew what signet it truly was: the last true Per’aa’s. According to her father, someone had spirited the ring out of Abad before the Hyksos could grab it. Only one other ring was so important: Imhotep’s. And that had disappeared. Some said it was in Khian’s possession, though he never was seen wearing it, preferring a signet stamped with the image of his own dog-headed Hyksos god.
Holding tears back, Asenath bowed low and would have retired, with the grace of a royal princess, from the prince; but he seemed reluctant to let her depart. "Please stay a little longer," he begged her like one child to another. "I have done you a true favor and proven my eternal affection for you. Now I have some clever things of my own to show you."
Reluctantly, Asenath waited, and the prince stumbled and lurched from the gold chair on the dais over to the side of the vast hall, excitedly pulling some papyri from the archives kept in cylinders inlaid in the gaudy, brick wall. Asenath could see at a glance they were rather crude attempts at her own field of magic--Architecture. So the prince was an admirer, in his own feeble way, of the great Imhotep!
But the conceptions were hopelessly awkward and puerile, the frivolous imaginations of one who had never had to step into the real world. He had a design of a grand ceremonial pylon gate for the palace that would hold enormous amounts of rose petals so that all who entered or left the court would be showered with fragrance and beauty. Another idea of his was a chrysalis in the shape of the sacred river cow, the brick painted to make it as lifelike as possible. He wanted to elevate the god to greater reverence and prestige in the land, and so he would build a series of river cow chrysali, chapels, and causeways, all serving deceased river cows. She could not help but contrast Narmer’s fancies with Imhotep’s practical and beautiful creations. Not having iron, he had begun a revolution in stone; everything was made everlasting that he touched, immortalized by stone.
Imhotep died from a rupture of blood in his head and lesser men prevailed in his stead. His great ideas of eternality had slowly decayed; the evidence of that decline was everywhere in Mizraim, she realized. Even this would-be Per-aa before her, waiting for her reply, was evidence of decline for he preferred cheap, painted brick to stone. The everlasting quality and spirit of Mizraim had crumbled beyond repair. As for iron--that was for making war, not for peaceful purposes that would transform the world.
"Y-Y-Y-You would be my glorious queen if you wished!" the prince exclaimed, still holding out his drawings for her admiration. "Think of the glory we might have together, building magnificent chrysali, temples and chapels for river cows, baboons, and frogs as the per-aas our forefathers used to build!"
Asenath's eyes stared fixedly at Narmer for a moment; she saw in the prince something that had troubling her for a long time; hitherto nameless and unconscious, she saw the thing take clear shape and form: it was the future, a future without Mizraim at the center. A world that had changed and left Mizraim behind, with all its stone glories faded and crumbling, with gigantic statues lying half-finished in the quarries, the fine, diamond-toothed bronze tools disappearing in drifts of sand. When she could speak again, she found it hard to lift the iron-weighted, crushing words from the miry depths of the pit she saw stretching around her and all Mizraim.
"My lord, you would do better, perhaps, to design better chariots rather than more temples and chrysali which will only burden the people with taxes. Your chariots, I notice, are still the same as the Usurper's. Perhaps he will change and improve his, and then you will not be able to seize Avaris after all."
Prince Narmer seemed not to have heard. With his hands he was lifting his large, poorly-supported head with the huge contraption of the royal crown (though it was not the authentic double-crown, which Khian wore in Avaris). "Sweet Ase-pher, for that is your proper name, a divine king and god does not need your paltry Nathasta to win. But you could be my consort and queen if you wish. All I need to do is give my divine word in your behalf and old Duamutef will hand you over like a plucked fowl."
Asenath paled; for it was true he held the power to make her queen. But queen of what? wife of what? Her throne-right would be cast to the wind with such a floating feather or wisp of a king. And, if the forbidden vases had spoken truly, there would be no world, no Mizraim, to rule in a very short time anyway!
Narmer nodded appreciately at the supreme beauty his eyes beheld, still cupping his head with his hands. "I have no inkling for women, of course, but you could take lovers--"
Asenath, her blood sickening in her veins, turned away. Controlling herself, she turned, bowed, and backed away in horror as from a writhing, serpentine creature.
"You can be my queen!" the half-man, tailed-horror, repeated. "You must not confer legitimacy on that greasy sand-rambler in Avaris!"
The princess could take no more.
His shrill voice was still echoing in her ear as she fled out the high-pillared gates of the palace. Behind her, the prince retired to bed, but not before he fed his favorite in the palace zoo--a new acquisition from the northern forests, an amusing little creature all covered with long spines. He was so taken by it he had, in fact, started drawing up plans for a temple in its honor that would raise it to the position of a new divinity in Mizraim.
It was a lonely walk to the river, despite the thronged streets of the capital. Boats and barges crowded the wharves, and people were everywhere, buying, selling, loitering, running about. Asenath glanced northward. Kush? Though virtually unknown to her, not able to take her wealth from Nathasta, she thought she would probably end her days as someone’s slave or paramour in the half-civilized north-country. Would could she do for a living? Lone women did not earn their own way in Mizraim. Would it be any different in Kush? She had to be married to someone to exist. In Kush she would no doubt be treated worse than in her own country, since her superiority as a Mizraimite would be held against her in her adversity. And all the time she would bear the torment of knowing things which she alone knew because they could not be communicated.
Nathasta seemed just as hopeless. But at least she knew the particular evils that faced her. As she made her lonely way back to Nathasta by boat with a company of frolicking people going to the moon-god's yearly festival, she was surprised at their number, since Ibbatha had a moon-god just as popular as Nathasta’s. "When we reach yon holy city," men said to her in low, confidential tones, "then let us find some nice, cool place apart where we can--"
So that is why they were so attracted to Nathasta! Like buzzing flies to a rotten sweet! she thought. She kept her identity shrouded by an outer robe and ignored the repeated offers of male pilgrims to give her love, money, a fine house, a multitude of servants, and a great many other tokens of their esteem. There was plenty of time to reflect on her mistake, if error it was, in going to Ibbatha. Yet there she had learned something she needed to know, and had been afraid of finding out: the world had changed, and Mizraim had not. Instead of stone and bronze, the nations beyond Mizraim had turned to iron. No wonder there was a foreigner ruling in Avaris! The world, by slow degrees, had refused to follow Mizraim's lead in bronze and stone, and found more wealth and power in a god of heavier and stronger metal.
She thought how the Ibbathans were about to push Khian out and put in a throw-back to the former age when Mizraim was still great. How misguided they were! she reflected grimly. If only the chief priest had listened to her father, and given attention to her various projects employing vast amounts of iron. Mizraim would lead the world again--with iron boats the size of the chrysali, giant bridges across the Ioteru, buildings that scratched the sky with their iron needles, just like those the boy Thompkins had described in his letter! She gazed at the monuments passing her on the sides of the river; they proclaimed Mizraim's past greatness, but that greatness, she knew, was in swift and sure decline, a repetitious circle of empty ceremonies that would never arrive at life. The Ibbathans might succeed in pushing the Hyksos dynasty out of Mizraim. But however mighty their Per-aas might be in the future they were merely repeating a past and refusing to change.
"How can you refuse the god's desire for us his merry children in a time of festival?" an insulted man whispered to her. "You act as if you are right in refusing us!"
Asenath paid him no attention. Let them think she was irreligious! Everything around her told her Mizraim had lost control of her own destiny; and the outside world would eventually surpass and overwhelm her with a crushing embrace of iron, even as male passengers were seeking to overcome her and every other lone woman in the boat. Asenath looked about her with her new perspective, the whole land with all its opulent cities and memorials to the past (particularly the Dead), appeared as a a huge necropolis, a farflung City of the dead. It only seemed to be a living thing. They were all living a kind of life-in-death, thinking themselves secure behind walls that looked impressively thick but were actually thin and brittle, easily breached when their enemies swarmed back over the land, coming in the same way the Hyksos had taken.
At last the walls of the Temple loomed over the River, and the boat maneuvered to the long, marble-laid wharf. Standing in the shadow of the Temple, she shuddered with a sudden chill, seeing herself trapped in a nightmare world for the first time. And when she tried to move, her thrashing did no good; she was encased in a kind of transparent but overwhelming glue.
"Ho! We are still young and full of sap!" an old man croaked in her ear as the jostling crowd disembarked. "I suppose you think you will find someone better than me to sport with in the holy city!!"
Leaving the boat with the other passengers, she breathed the familiar, cloying-sweet incense of Nathasta and turned toward the Temple at the heart of the city. Crowds of pilgrims, hurrying to the Temple, nearly ran over her as she walked with leaden feet. Herds of flower-draped cows and enormous bulls were being led away toward the altars of Nath for sacrifice. The air was laden of the clamor of men and beasts. It was Nathasta in solemn (as well as riotous) festival. The only thing that quickened her step was the look she expected to see on the face of the high priest when she presented Prince Narmer's signet, the supreme proof of her immunity.
Asenath saw another old pilgrim edge toward her and she moved away from him, but he dogged her steps.
“Your Royal Highness!”
The voice stopped her in her tracks. It was Ipu’s!
“Please keep walking!” he whispered. “And do not say anything.”
Moving closer, he sliped a small papryus scroll into her hand.
“God has saved me! I’m leaving the city. There’s no time now to tell you how I was delivered or how I escaped. I’m going to Ibbatha, to the Temple. They’ll take me in. Please take my letter for the boy Jonathan Thompkins. Otherwise, it will may die with me.”
The whispers ceased and the old man moved off, while Asenath’s face burned with excitement behind her veil.
She had heard the forbidden vases and been taken into their confidence. It was a trust she could not deny. And now she had Ipu’s secret letter to somone named most strangely. ‘Jonathan’? Was that Hebiru or Hebrew? It had that flavor to the sound of it.
Asenath clutched Prince Narmer's signet with growing appreciation as she neared the City of the Sun. Why then were her tears flowing behind her veil? Asenath wondered at her own weakness and despised herself as a woman, when all about her it was men who ruled things, standing and defying time in everlasting stone, even as they did in mere flesh. Having taught herself to think heavy, solid thoughts like a man, she still wept the thin, feather-light tears of a woman! She felt so frustrated, not being able to communicate the message of the vases to someone who might help her do something about it.
"You are making a big mistake, young woman!" the nasty old pilgrim hissed at her in parting at the Temple gates, which he could not enter. "Think of the failing of harvests if you should go on separating yourself so from your brethren!"
Asenath had had more than she could bear. She turned on him. “Accosting a temple woman who is the daughter of the chief architect is a capital crime! I can have you thrown to the crocodiles if you don’t leave me alone at once!”
Turning white, the old man shot off immediately and disappeared in the crowds.
As for Nabsha, the princess had forgotten all about her--which was normally hard for her to do, since Nabsha had been a tormenting presence, day after day--giving her the distinct impression that this spy was actually a snake in human form. She did not know if she hated her more than she despised and pitied her. Nabsha was simply unbearable!
Pursing his thick, buttery lips, for he pronounced with difficulty, Lord Duamutef read out a portion, for he was determined to make sure she never ran off again.
"--with regret Our Majesty finds cause to complain of a certain relative, Lady Asenath, who in a recent visit to Our throne brought Us a strange tale We cannot believe and then went away with Our Royal Signet without Our leave; please return it, Lord Duamutef, Our beloved friend and priest of the great god Nath--to Whom all glory and praise and thanksgiving be continually offered in his courts! We only request of Lord Duamutef that he refrain from imposing the usual heavy penalties, as a favor to the royal blood of the god Nebel, Narmer-ankh-Nebel, divine Lord of the Land of Red and--"
Asenath saw all the light take wing and fly from her world as she listened, and so was dead to this final humiliation of being called a common thief; left wishing for death of the body but denied, now she was Duamutef's slave, and he would make use of his total powers over her.
He reached for the signet, and she gladly gave the ring of Narmer’s treachery over to the chief priest, who smiled and put it away for safe-keeping, having decided to make the Ibbathans pay a heavy indemnity for its return. "To your quarters," he said premptorily to Asenath. "I personally put your projects to the flames on Nath's altar, and they are now ashes flying on the winds of heaven. You will await my summons, and in the meantime make better use of the remaining time by a thorough study of court and harem etiquette. Oh, by the way, there is one more item."
Asenath paused, waiting.
“Your maid, she was found dead in your apartments. Do you know anything about it?”
He gazed impassively at the princess as she turned a face of terrible whiteness toward him. “I had to drug her so I could escape from you. But I did not intend to kill her.”
The chief priest shrugged. “She is dead. I can get another. You may go.”
As Asenath went away, dragging her horror and sickness of heart over Nabsha’s death, Duamutef turned back to his own thoughts, of how he would himself lead the wedding procession of Per-aa Narmer in the palace of Machitha, just as soon as the Usurper was driven out of his den in the delta, an event everyone knew was most imminent.
This iron-willed daughter of Petenath, he mused, whom he had kept for a better occasion than had yet presented itself, would make a fine appearance, as a gift of his own temple and chief priestly office to the Per-aa; after that her unbending and refractory nature--not to mention her knowlege of deadly soporifics--was the fellow's own problem. For a woman, he observed, who thought like a man was indeed a serious problem. And in the meantime, he would make the Ibbathans pay dearly for the signet's redemption. Calling his scribes, the high priest dictated several letters to the Ibbathan Per-aa and his chief officers, informing them of his Temple's needs for the new year. The last harvest, despite the omens, had not been as good as previous years' gatherings. The Inundation in the nineteenth year of Khian, despite favorable omens was sagging lower on the stepped stele at the Delta than it was reported at Tamu. Was the water of the Ioteru draining out in a crack in the channel along the way? he wondered. Could engineers stop it up with blocks of stone?
As for the question of the Temple's switching allegiance to Ibbatha and promulgating a treaty of alliance, he thought it politic to wait a bit more before aligning Nath to his ancient rival, the rival moon-god Pher of Ibbatha. Since he knew gods of Mizraim had teeth sharp as the crocodile’s, they sometimes turned cannibal or were eaten by another; therefore, it was a matter for great circumspection; the Temple of Nath and all its glory was for Duamutef no small consideration. Since his own immortality was in question (for the recent explosion of Khian's tomb destroyed the chief priest's own tomb with falling rubble), he saw more cause to hold things as they were for the time being.
Yet the old ways were proving harder and harder for even a high priest to maintain. Pher seemed to be increasing in strength, Nath barely holding his own. That wasn’t something that could go on indefinitely. Nath might weaken to the point where it could not elude Pher’s jaws. That was unthinkable! Yet he had to think it and try to avert the calamity! Though he wasn’t an old man, deep lines of stress were already creasing his forehead and feathering the corners of his eyes.
As the chief priest machinated on into the evening, composing letters and adroitly playing one Per-aa against another, the chief pawn of his priestly politics sat caged in her rooms, her eyes fixed on one of the man-sized vases Imhotep had carved in stone. She had left Duamutef only to be led away outside his council-room doors by temple-appointed guards and maids. In place of one cruel maid was a whole platoon of devils! She was their prisoner, and now wished to run to the canal.
Better the sacred crocodiles, she thought, than the arms of Khian. If only she could be a little girl again and hide in the great, gray, stone vase! But there was utterly no chance of escape from her rooms now. When they left her alone, there was always two of them stationed at the door, and temple guards went to stand at the exits of Petepheres’s apartments.
She had been sitting on her couch, sunk in despair, when a tiny, still voice began speaking in her mind. The words the voice spoke were clear and unmistakable. Contrasting with her stone-weighted thoughts and fears, they held her attention as her heart began to pound with excitement and wonder.
"Do not fear, my daughter," the voice said reassuringly. "I, the Most High God, the only true and living God, am with you in prison. I have already once spoken to you, and you have listened to my wisdom. Your eyes I have opened, but you do not know me. Seek My courts, and I will reveal Myself to you. But fear not, wherever you go I will go with you, to protect and guide you. Have I not sent a blue fly and also a robe of many colors before you that will lead you and your world from death back to life? Seek Me, and I will give a husband to you, to love and honor you, and he shall be king and no king, a father and no father."
Springing to her feet, Asenath looked wildly about the room, trying to gather her flying thoughts together. No, she decided, it was not the moon-god. Though a royal princess, Nath would never condescend to speak to her, at least not directly. This god was new to her. Her own father had not known such a god, who spoke personally to the heart. Yet this invisible god had called himself the Most High. Was there really such a One? In a land where almost everything that crawled, flew, or walked the earth was a god, an invisible deity that claimed to be “the only true and living God,” was an absolute singularity.
The girlish thoughts she had once entertained about such a One flew back to her, spreading glorious, colored wings in her mind; she could see, as an adult, that they were not so childish and insubstantial as she had thought. That One had spoken, to her own heart and mind, word by word. "What is this invisible god doing in Mizraim?" she wondered. Mizraim had no need of a "Most High," when she preferred many gods instead of one. And who was the king that was no king, the one she would be given to marry? One that would be a father and yet not a father?
She remembered, with a jolt that set her back down on her couch, that a Grand Taty was such a man. Only a Grand Taty was called a “father to Per-aa,” though not his father. And these supreme officials were customarily granted full powers in Mizraim; second only in office to the Per-aa himself, he ruled the whole commonwealth for Per-aa, who was then free to attend to ceremonial temple duties, festival appearances, and the royal harem. In former times they were great and wise men, honored and loved by all the people. But those of late had not been pure of hands, and Khian's, in particular, were most greedy fellows, enriching themselves and exploiting the people until Khian tired of the cries of victims and slew his Grand Taties, one by one.
Thinking of the ephemeral and evil line of high officials under Khian, Asenath was not sure she wanted to marry; yet the voice had reassured her heart to an extent. And was not any man, even a Grand Taty, preferable to the embraces of a Hyksos jackass?
The Sohar, in that respect, was well-equipped. Unless you were administration, you were administered. If administered, you were either military or imprisoned.
If imprisoned, you had very little chance you would leave the Sohar alive. The Sohar’s whole purpose was to keep the population subdued, and if anyone resisted he ended up in the Sohar where the problem was eliminated one way or another.
Lord Potiphar was only the latest of a long series of commanders of the palace guard, which stood first in authority over the Sohar. But he was no different in having no interest in running so unmanageable and unsightly an operation. His position was, as far as he could make it, remumerative and titular. As for the actual mechanics, he left that entire to his warden. The warden, in turn, delegated as much as he might safely get rid of to underlings. Who wanted to run the Sohar? Nobody.
There was no glory in it. The ugly, depressing, grinding, and murderous animal that was the Sohar was the most hated emblem in all Mizraim--and Mizraim’s Hyksos masters were no more fond of it. Having been in Mizraim long enough, they perferred a less military life style. The reek of the stables, the noise of thundering chariots, the stomping of marching feet, the dust and smell and blood of the rest of it, was something most Hyksos lords and ladies had grown to do without.
Who could blame them? Yet it was still necessary as long as the Hyksos wanted to remain in Mizraim. Without it and a string of similar forts stretching from the Delta up into their former homeland, the Mizraimites might have pushed them out long before Khian’s reign. And of all parts that were most mean, cruel, and disagreeable, the Sohar’s dungeon, called an obscene name, was the worst. Thousands of men were crammed into it in unspeakable conditions. The Hyksos had come in as lions, and the dungeon was built more to chew men up than keep them. Massive, like all Hyksos construction, but misaligned and slipshod, it, nevertheless, was a masterpiece of brutality. It worked, willy-nilly, but it worked. Put a man into that dungeon and he was as good as dead. Only it would not be an easy dying. The Hyksos did not believe in easy dyings for their enemies.
That fact made it all the more amazing when Joseph was handed responsibility for the dungeon and he proceeded to transform it into something human beings could inhabit. It was an entirely new thing he introduced. The Sohar, thought not designed was fully intended to reduce humanity to the most wretched state, worse than any animal’s in the wild; it did so for several centuries. Then Joseph came along and turned it a a totally different direction! He did it by bringing the dungeon into contact with the rest of the establishment. Before long he had the entombed, imprisoned men organized and producing for the workshop, the armory, cleaning the stables, outfitting chariots, even cooking and doing prison scribal duties such as book-keeping and record-keeping. It not only changed their outlooks, but they became very important in the upkeep and maintenance of the Sohar, to the degree it had never been so well-run and efficient in all its long, dark history.
Potiphar, of course, was pleased when he saw the transformation; executions were still carried out by his occasional order, but there seemed to be less and less need. The men were more valuable alive than dead, it was soon made clear. The worst criminals, though they knew the Sohar was the end of their expections and prospects, no longer fought and killed each other, schemed to get out, and otherwise made mischief. Instead they worked to make the Sohar a powerful fortress instead of the ramshackle mish-mash it had been.
So, knowing a good thing, Potiphar took the credit and kept his distance. Let Joseph run the monster! he reasoned like a cavalier. It’s his calling in life! If I can’t release him, at least he is making the best of things where he is! But Joseph, despite his success in prison administration, never could see it as that. Every time a man came to prison for the first time and Joseph admitted him into its workings, he was reminded that he was not free. He was not only a slave but a wrongfully condemned man in prison--a double indemnity! And whatever the others had done to earn their fate, he had done nothing. And he knew that the one over him--Potiphar--knew that as well as he.
Even when Tep-dut-we came under his charge, Joseph felt the same. It was no day like any other when the disgraced steward was dragged by two Hyksos troops to the Sohar and brought to Joseph, but the Hebrew could not help feeling it was, since the sight of Tep-dut-we immediately stirred so many powerful associations. “What is the charge against you?” he said to the man.
The ousted former steward had collapsed on the floor, for one foot had been maimed and he was a mass of bruises and cuts. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was filthy, stinking as if he had crawled out of a midden! Tep-dut-we groaned for some time. The Hyksos began to kick him.
“That is all right. I will see to him.”
Glad to be relieved of the duty, the two guards quickly headed to the barracks. In the next days Joseph seldom saw Tep-dut-we. He was shown where to bathe, given a loin cloth, and fed, then put to work when he was able to start on something. Joseph, inspecting the various work brigades and keeping record of their work progress, found Tep-dut-we one day off where he wasn’t supposed to be. He had been assigned to the stables, but instead he was hanging around the kitchens.
Joseph led him back to the stables and asked him his duties. Tep-dut-we smiled and shook his head. “My poor, old head got so many kicks back at Lord Potiphar’s, I just can’t remember for the life of me! Perhaps if you would kindly show me again--”
This wasn’t the first such malingerer Joseph had encountered in the Sohar. The place was quite full of them. Fortunately, he had a way of handling them that usually worked. If a malingerer kept on he was offered another job.
Catching Tep-dut-we hanging around the kitchens once again, stuffing something into his mouth, Joseph had him follow him down to the drains. “This job has to be done. You will do it. You need not clean up after horses. You can clean up after men from now on. Is that what you want? You will work here until I come and see how you are doing. If you are not working, I will find something else. It will not be as nice as this place. It’s a well in back. Over the years it got choked up with stones, rubbish, snakes, and scorpions. It needs to be cleaned out. You are just the man to do it if you don’t work out here.”
Joseph soon had Tep-dut-we’s cooperation, and he never had to be assigned to the well-cleansing. His attitude seemed to change also, and Joseph gave him better work as a reward. That was Joseph’s simple system. It worked. On his part, Tep-dut-we tried to eke his way into Joseph’s good graces. He volunteered to do things that would ease Joseph’s administrative burden here and there. Joseph saw no reason not to trust him as a prison scribe, so he appointed him to this highly responsible position. After all, Tep-dut-we’s crimes were no worse--indeed, they were slight in comparison--than those of the other inmates.
Joseph checked Tep-dut-we’s records and nothing seemed awry. He was happy that the man was showing so much progress. It had been only a matter of months since his incarceration, yet Tep-dut-we had risen to a spot just below his own! In his work Joseph made daily inspections and Tep-dut-we followed along, putting everything Joseph dictated into the prison books. The men grew accustomed to see the young, handsome Joseph make his rounds, closely attended by the gimpy, fattish scribe.
When the scribe was noticed for himself, there was nothing remarkable about him but his industry and total attention to his duty. Even when Joseph was relaxing for a moment, the scribe seemed to be studying something. The other prisoners left Tep-dut-we alone, even though a few suspected him of being a pilferer of trifles from other prisoners, since he was under the wings of the respected Joseph. And Tep-dut-we was kept so busy he had no time to mix with the others, even if he had wanted to mix, which was not evident in his manner. Neither liked or disliked, Tep-dut-we was judged to be a kind of cipher, like one of those he was constantly entering on his papyrus, and so nothing out of the ordinary was ever observed or expected.
Tep-dut-we went along as usual when Joseph called at the apartments of the Masgeh and Opeh, high ceremonial officials of the Court, only the Grand Taty was more exalted. In was in the morning, and he saw that they were looking very sad. “What is wrong?” he asked, his concern showing as he bowed.
They said they had both dreamed dreams, but there was no interpreter available.
“Doesn’t God give interpretation?” Joseph said. “Tell me your dreams.”
The Masgeh, the higher ranking official, was first. “In my dream I stood and there was a vine. On the vine were three branches, and they were budded. Then blossoms opened up and they became ripe grapes. I had the Per-aa’s cup as usual in my hand, and I took and pressed the grapes into the cup and then gave it to Per-aa.”
Joseph did not take very long to bring forth the interpretation. Surprising the officials by not asking for a silver divining cup and other stock of the diviner’s trade, he simply shut his eyes for a few moments, bowed, and began speaking softly, though not looking at them. “This is the interpretation,” Joseph said. “The three branches are three days. Within three days the Per-aa will call and restore you to your former position, and you will handle his cup as you did in the past. But remember me when you return to the palace and have mercy! Release me from here! For I was stolen from my homeland and I have done nothing to deserve imprisonment.”
The Masgeh and Opeh were so astounded by the interpretation, it was all the Masgeh to do to keep from embracing Joseph in his joy. “Wonderful! That’s wonderful to my ears, and I don’t doubt a word of it! I’ve heard diviners before but never anything like this. How they stumble about and hedge for time, but you came right out with it just like that! Of course, I won’t forget you! I shall reward you richly, and give you your freedom too! Wait and see! I would as soon forget you as my own face!”
The Opeh’s dream? Encouraged by the interpretation of the Masgeh’s dream, the Chief Baker’s face brightened. “Tell me a good thing too, diviner! I also appeared in my dream, and it happened that I had three white baskets on my head. The upper basket held meat pastries for Per-aa, but birds swooped down and ate them. Now what wonderful thing do the gods have in store for me too?”
Joseph bowed, his shadow bowed, and the smiling Opeh waited for similar assurances as his colleague had received. With a grave expression, Joseph began.
“This is the interpretation. The three baskets are three days. Within three days Per-aa will lift your head off you and hang your body on a tree, and the birds will come and eat all the flesh from your corpse.”
Slowly, the Opeh’s face fell. He could have been angry, but he seemed confused. His companion looked away, shaking his head. The condemned man staggered away to the window, sank down and sat looking out at the courtyard.
Joseph went over to him, but the Opeh waved him away. “I don’t need more words. It is the truth! I know it!”
But the Masgeh turned to Joseph as he was going. “I’ll never forget your favor to me! Never! I will get you out of here the moment I am back in the palace!” the grateful man declared. “You don’t know how much better you’ve made me feel! I am a new man! It’s wonderful! And I owe it to you--and Destiny, of course! The gods surely smiled on you, Joseph, to give you that interpretation. I haven’t the slightest doubt somehow that--”
“The gods gave me no wisdom. It is the Most High God, the God of my fathers, who has helped me. Why should I steal wisdom to myself when it is freely given?”
“Yes, yes, just as you say!”
Within three days of Joseph’s giving the dream’s interpretation, the delighted Masgeh received a formal summons to the royal palace. He was fully forgiven, fully reinstated in his former office and all its privileges. His sorrowing companion was left behind, but another order came, and the doomed Opeh was taken out on the same day the Masgeh was delivered, to the Sohar courtyard and beheaded. Then the body was stretched on a tree for the vultures to finish off.
Days passed. Joseph waited, heart in hand. No word came of the Masgeh came from the palace.
Nothing! Just silence.
Then a written, anonymous note came, and a palace scribe read it out before escaping the prison, his skirts lifted high to his knees as if he feared contagion. Joseph was simply being informed that something would be coming to him for his good deed. What was the favor and its form? Nothing more was said. And nothing more came from the palace.
His heart failing within him, Joseph continued with his usual inspections. The Sohar functioned as smoothly as before, but Tep-dut-we must have noticed something. He kept glancing at Joseph.
“Master,” he offered one day out of the blue. “I notice your heart is heavy. How I understand! You thought for sure the door was opening for you. But that great man you help has forgotten you. He has completely forgotten you! How cruel and thoughtless of him!”
Joseph made no reply and kept working. But the scribe was ready, at another moment, to offer further condolences on following days. “Hmmm, master, still no word from the palace? He should have send word by this time! After the great favor and good you did him, it doesn’t seem possible! Doesn’t he know how much you’ve suffered in this place, put here through no fault of yours?” Tep-dut-we’s remarks, though unsolicited, continued until Joseph was forced to respond.
Even then he did not reprimand the forward scribe. “Do not fret for me. Fretting tends to become evil. I’ll be here exactly as long as God ordains it,” he explained to the man.
“Yes, yes, of course, as you say!” Tep-dut-we said, bowing. “Please overlook my hasty words. I meant nothing. I was only feeling bad that he treated you so and--”
It must not have been a good moment for Joseph. He showed that his feelings had been powerfully stirred, as he shut his eyes when the scribe continued speaking and his hands clenched. Tep-dut-we had a small smile on his face when Joseph turned aside abruptly and left him. An hour later Joseph came back and resumed his duties. Tep-dut-we said nothing and shadowed him as usual, taking notes.
But another day it happened again. Tep-dut-we found occasion to comment on the Masgeh’s dilatory ways and criminal mistreatment of Joseph. That was going to far. Criticism of a high official was courting sure death, yet Joseph let it pass, and Tep-dut-we grew even bolder. On the next occasions he began praising Joseph for his long forebearance in the face of the Masgeh’s heinous neglect. He went on at length, until Joseph’s tears made him stop out of embarrassment. Joseph wept in full sight of the men, and was not ashamed to show his broken heart. Tep-dut-we, however, beamed.
From then on Joseph appeared as if he had to force himself to perform his duties, where before he had seemed to enjoy them. Tep-dut-we, on the other hand, was a model of industry and solicitation for Joseph’s welfare. When Joseph was distracted and confused, Tep-dut-we stepped in and put the thing right immediately. Before long, Tep-dut-we proved himself indispensable to Joseph, who seemed to fade and decline with each passing day. There came a time when Joseph sat down and Tep-dut-we continued the inspections.
Everyone noticed the state into which Joseph had sunk, and his behavior became a byword among those who might think to benefit. One came to him, a former quarry-master at Ibbatha that Jizra had apprehended, and offered his services. “I’m in here for killing too many men to get the job done,” he acknowledged to Joseph, whose eyes were half-shut though he wasn’t asleep. “That wasn’t my offense. It was just the thing they laid against me, because a younger man who hated me wanted me punished for whipping him now and then to improve his disposition. But for you, I’d be executed like they were planning on doing. As it is, I’ve had time to think about the evil I done, and I know how you feel, being in this place even longer than you. That’s why I can help you. Do you want help?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, just that there’s me and another fellow and someone else, together we can find a way out of here past the guards, only we need one more person.”
Joseph’s eyes shot open, full of pain and bewilderment. “What are you intending to do?”
“Well, they trust you here. The warden has a high opinion of you. You can get us past the guards, but we will do the fighting if the alarm is given. All you have to do is--”
Joseph was beside himself. His eyes rolled in his head. “No! That’s not the way.”
The former quarry-man shrugged and left him alone. But later, on cue from Tep-dut-we, he was back. As figured, Joseph’s resistance was a bit less. The next day it was even less. Finally, with Tep-dut-we’s encouragement, Joseph joined the group of men who had never given up hope of gaining their freedom. As if he were walking in his sleep, going through the motions of conscious life, Joseph complied with their demands. Like the desperate king turned scribe in heaven, he did as he was told.
And he and the group were caught before they even got to the wall surrounding the courtyard. Someone had informed the warden. The warden, grief in his face, had Joseph and the others--not including Tep-dut-we--put in the lowest dungeon. That was the place where the worst were bound, day and night, while they awaited execution. Since Joseph by his policies had emptied it, he was now there alone. Tep-dut-we was given Joseph’s position, exactly as he had dreamed it would happen when heaven finally acknowledged what a valuable man he was.
He seemed to delight in humiliating Joseph too. Not only did he make Joseph perform the most degrading tasks, but he made him look ridiculous whenever possible. Joseph was not furnished even a rag to cover himself. He had to perform all his work in that condition, and Tep-dut-we often came by when Joseph was cleaning up some filth and heaped more abuse on him, accusing him of every foul and black crime known to man. Taking a whip, he lashed Joseph’s bare body until he could not stand up and had to be dragged to his sleeping place for the night.
Two full Inundations passed and Joseph was still in prison, without a call from the palace, utterly forgotten, and lying bound at night in the lowest pit of the Sohar. Early, the hour before dawn, Tep-dut-we made a surprise visit, to roust him out to do some foul job he had devised--which was not a hard thing to do since the Sohar had quickly filled with filth and chaos, to the state it was before Joseph. He came upon Joseph praying chained against the wall, his body slumped as far as it could go as he sought relief on the floor.
He thought Joseph had heard him coming, but he heard Joseph speaking as if to someone though on his orders no one was chained near enough to hear him. “Though you have broken me utterly in the place of dragons,” the condemned man quoted from his old Hebrew oral tradition, “and covered me with the shadow of death, if I have forgotten your name, or stretched out my hands to a strange god, shall you not search and find it out? Yea, for your sake I am treated as a sheep for slaughter, day after day!”
That was quite a mouthful for anyone--particularly in such a place! The task-master was taken aback for a moment. Then he sidled close to the gasping, tormented body on the wall. “Fine words of poetry will get you nowhere! Your insignificant Hebrew God has deserted you! Don’t be a fool! Curse God and die!”
Joseph took a little while to get the words out, but finally they came--another quotation, from the “Woes of Jobab.” “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him. And I will maintain my own ways before him, for a hypocrite will not come near unto him.”
Stung by what he thought Joseph had called him, Tep-dut-we struck Joseph. “Were you trusting him when you and the others tried to escape? Who’s the hypocrite?”
Joseph did not defend himself as Tep-dut-we expected. “God will be my vindication! ”he cried, so loudly the pit echoed and Tep-dut-we was practically knocked off his feet. Tep-dut-we laughed, but his laugh was hollow. “Well, we’ll see about that, sand-rambler! You won’t leave this prison alive if I have anything to say about it!”
“Why do you hate me so and seek my utter ruin? Is it because my people are foreign shepherds and nomads?”
Startled, Tep-dut-we had difficulty finding his words for a moment. “What-what--ah--why? You were everything I was not and never will be! I determined to wipe you off the face of the earth if it were ever in my power. And now it is! You haven’t seen anything yet from my hand! What you’ve experienced so far is just a foretaste!”
Joseph was silent in the darkness--silently weeping.
Tep-dut-we was not ready to unlock him just yet, for he wanted some victory over the man first. “I heard you had certain dreams about yourself, that your invisible god was going to lift you up someday to greatness and power. Where are those golden dreams now? Well, what do you say to that? I said I’m going to make you suffer more than any man has suffered before I cast your miserable corpse on a tree for the vultures! Say! I don’t have all day! What do you say to that?”
“I have nothing to say. God is my Vindicator. You are fighting God, not me.”
Tep-dut-we gave a roar and flung himself at Joseph, using the big metal keys in his keeping to jab and strike and kill Joseph if he could. Finally, exhausted, he unlocked the prisoner, and Joseph fell out of the chains to the floor. Tep-dut-we lifted his heel, intending to smash Joseph’s groping hands against the filty stone pavement. Just then voices and torchlight at the top of the stairs caught his attention. He turned. Palace guards! He was thunderstruck. He had never seen palace guards, in full livery, in such a place as the lowest pit before. And the warden was with them, shaking his head at Tep-dut-we, so he knew immediately that no good could come of it. He forgot Joseph and hurried up the stairs to present himself and bow.
Tep-dut-we need not have bowed so many times and abjectly. For his pains he was struck and hurled down by a palace guard.
“What have you done to Joseph, the one we are seeking?” demanded the warden. “He is wanted at the palace immediately!”
Shielding his head from blows, Tep-dut-we was pushed and pummeled down the stairs, and he led them to the corpse-like shape sprawled on the floor at the far end of hell. When the guards held their torches over the form, it groaned and the warden bent down and examined the young man’s face.
“By the gods, is it you? the warden cried. “I knew he was treating you badly, but you should not have tried to escape. I--”
“Never mind that!” barked a palace guard. “We must get him cleaned up and dressed in a fine linen robe! There’s no time to waste!”
Quickly, the men picked up Joseph and carried him all the way out to the warden’s rooms. Valets, maids, a barber, and a haberdasher--all highly skilled in the arts of their trades--stood waiting.
The warden poured some strong wine down Joseph’s throat, and he revived somewhat. Water was poured into a copper tub and Joseph was put in and bathed. He was like a baby in their practiced hands. Once he was shaved of his beard, the barber went to work on trimming his hair so that he could be fitted with a court wig. The clothier brought in several sizes of court apparel, and Joseph, supported by the guards, was dressed and gold sandals were put on his feet. Though it was all done in frantic haste, the transformation was amazing even to them. Joseph, who a few minutes before had lain in squalor, weltering in his own blood, looked more than presentable. With his eyes outlined in kohl and some body cream covering the worst of his bruises and cuts, he appeared an equal to any aristocrat or prince of the court. But could he walk on his own? Fortunately, there was little walking to be done. He was taken by chariot to the palace. Palace guards escorted him in and all the way to the throne.
Within the hour he was back, stripped of his fine clothes and sandals, and thrown back into the dungeon.
A little later the Masgeh arrived, stiff and white-faced, under guard. He was escorted to his former chambers and there he collapsed, his nerves shattered.
Tep-dut-we, also in disgrace, was thrown together with Joseph. The warden had never liked him and his inept administration of the Sohar furnished ample cause to get rid of him.
“So you failed to interpret the Per-aa’s dream?” Tep-dut-we lashed out at Joseph. “See, I told you, your wretched, little desert god had deserted you! But you wouldn’t believe it! Well, what do you say now?”
Joseph lay in the darkness and was silent. Where the wall gave way to a window, there was a blank. Barred, it had been bricked in long ago when another level was added to the dungeon.
The gloom and disgrace that lay over the two men was utter, but after a while something began to pierce the darkness.
Bright wings, a blazing white, formed above Joseph.
It was Tep-dut-we who glanced up and saw the stupifying sight. For him it reacted like salt being poured on a snail. The light around the wings quickly grew unbearable in the room and Tep-dut-we shielded his face and began calling for help as he writhed and rolled into the darkest corner he could find and huddled there, gibbering and squeeking with terror.
Joseph did a strange thing. His body glowing, he rose and and began to walk and climb the stairs, though a moment before he could not have done it with his feeble strength. He went to the door and knocked on it--three stout knocks.
A guard tried to open it but fell back from the blazing light. He called for reinforcements. Six jailors tried to get into the dungeon and were forced back out. But the door swung open and Joseph stepped out, leaving the Shekinah glory behind. Unbearably bright himself, he walked down the hall, with the befuddled, astonished turnkeys following.
Joseph arrived at the warden’s, and the head jailor was speechless. He could scarcely keep his eyes on Joseph, he was still so bright.
“God had mercy on me. He’s given the interpretation. I must go back to the king.”
The warden finally found his tongue.
“But you failed! They say you just stood there and had not a word to say. If I bring you back and you fail again, it will be my head the next time, not just yours!”
“God has given me the interpretation,” Joseph repeated calmly. “I will take the responsibility before Per-aa, so you need not fear for your life because of me.”
The warden rolled up his eyes. He paced around the room.
Finally, he came and made a determined effort to peer into Joseph’s face but the violet eyes were far too brilliant as yet. “Do you really have it? You know the Per-aa will have you struck dead on the spot if you fail a second time! Even if you do stand surety for us, he won’t remember that when his rage is aroused, and he will slay us all too!”
“Yes, I have it from God. The Per-aa will not touch a hair of your head.”
“This god of yours, why didn’t he give it to you before? Why did he humiliate you before the per-aa? You’re under sentence of death because of it. And the Masgeh, who spoke for you, he is in great trouble now because of you!”
Joseph’s firm, authoritative manner seemed to falter. He shook his head. “I can do nothing on my own. Please, give me leave, and I will go and comfort the Masgeh now before we go before the Per-aa. Maybe he will want to go with us. His destiny, for good or ill, is bound with mine.”
The warden heaved a great sigh, took another turn around the room, then called to a guard to notify the palace. Meanwhile, Tep-dut-we slowly recovered from his fright and the shining light. After the wings had vanished, and the light faded slowly away to nothing, it seemed as if it had never shone in the dungeon. Despite all that had happened, he could see no change in either his or Joseph’s prospects. Instead he waited for the certain news of Joseph’s final disgrace and death by decapitation.