Joseph’s face paled as if he had been slapped. He knew he was early as usual, but he said nothing and followed the hunched-over, retreating form to the back garden. There he had Joseph move a recently unloaded stack of sycamore to a place a few feet away. As soon as that was done, Nu had him move it all again, back to the original spot. Again and again, Nu had him move the wood, screaming at him to work faster. It grew light as Joseph worked like a madman to shift the woodpile back and forth at Nu’s bidding.
Nu suddenly called a halt, then with Joseph following he shuffled past the workers' huts, past the bakeries with the housekeeper-pastry cook smirking at him from the dooryard, past the fish pools, until he reached the poultry pens, high-walled affairs that had not been cleaned in years, since the last truly Mizraimite per-aa.
With the anarchy from a foreign invasion prevailing in the two kingdoms, filling the River and canals with suicides, the poultry of Mizraim suffered in turn. National decline was sadly evidenced in the poultry pens by great, stinking mounds of droppings from a multitude of geese, pigeons, doves, and many worthless, line-crossed fowl. Slops from the kitchens, mixed with spoiled zarah seed and meal, were customarily thrown into the pens. A quagmire prevailed throughout the yards, drawing and feeding a plague of flies and gnats that made life misery for man and beast alike.
"I've been coddling you long enough, you whoreson of a foreign donkey!" Nu spat at him. "Take that rake and basket over there, clean these pens, every one, and report back to me. I will need to inspect your work before you are allowed to retire."
Joseph looked at the pens, back to Nu, and could not believe his ears and his eyes. Moving the woodpile back and forth for no reason had been bad enough. Now this! Had his master gone mad?
"What are you waiting for, you dung-scented sand rambler!" the old man screeched at him suddenly, with such vehemence spittle flew along with his words.
Joseph slowly wiped his face and went over to the cart that would remove the dung he was ordered to collect, picked out his implements and let himself into the first pen. Waves of stench took his breath away; he staggered forward a few feet, and then the largest geese saw him and ran honking toward the intruder to drive him back out.
Joseph felt battering blows on his legs and thighs and even as high as his face from the wings of the big birds. He fell backwards, fending off the maddened fowl as best he could with the basket and potsherd. One black-spotted, hybrid goose, the leading female with bulbous, green and black wattles and comb, reached around him with her long neck and gave him a cruel, wrenching bite on his backside.
She kept her hold of him, and to get free of her bill and tiny, sharp teeth Joseph had to give her a thrust with his heel. But his loin cloth was ripped away, and off it flew off as a prize of war in the beak of the female goose.
With a cry of anguish and rage Joseph made to dash after her when he heard uproarious laughter coming over the wall. He looked up and saw the faces of field-workers, almost the entire force, crowding the edge of the wall, looking down and relishing every moment of the barnyard drama. Not every day did they get to see a pampered darling of the household humiliated and covered with the same dirt they were forced to handle!
Stopping himself from chasing a silly, barren thing he knew was forever mating by the runnels and producing foul-tasting, sterile eggs, Joseph stood for a moment, gathering his will and strength, as he faced away from the jeering spectators. Tears streamed from his eyes, partly from the fumes of the dung and squalor and also from his sheer misery, as he knelt down to do his work.
Joseph did not respond to the calls of the field workers, who all assumed Nu's favorite had been caught pilfering or had done something particularly nasty to be given such a punishing, defiling job. They tried to get him to look up, so that they might call him the names he evidently deserved, but the miscreant stubbornly continued to work with his head turned away. Finally, the last head had dropped from view, and the sufferer was left alone.
Now that he was alone he found the freedom to pray. In his distress he began praying to his father’s God in a personal way, as if He were his own, before he realized it.
"Deliver me from this place!" he cried to God.
Moments, then minutes passed, and yet no heavenly ladder, as at Beth-El, appeared to him as it had to his father Jacob. And then he realized he was not going to be set free. Though God had indeed delivered him from the pit of Dothan and had spoken to him on the slave block at Nathasta, He was not going to release him from the poultry pens of Potiphar.
He saw he was badly mistaken. Abba Jacob’s God was not his own after all! He had been tricked!
Fighting nausea and despair, Joseph went over to a corner of the yard, wondering what he would do. He began to retch, and since he had not eaten, only dry, convulsive heaves came of his stomach upset. The day was already hot, making the pens stink all the more, and drawing more and more biting, blood-hungry flies.
The geese, rallying for another defense of their domain, chose that moment of weakness to fly at him a second time. Loudly honking, furiously beating their wings and pecking at his legs, they sought to drive him out, but Joseph knew very well he had to remain until the overseer gave him release. He had no choice but to obey his instructions, even if he collapsed in performing his duty.
Joseph, in the thick of a second onslaught by the geese, found another unbidden prayer on his lips. Despite his great disappointment, he found himself crying out. "O God, be my Strength, that I may do this work to the honor of Thy Name; and if you do not see fit to deliver me, I ask that the heathen see by my work that You only are God, King of heaven and earth." Desperate, so desperate he had blurted out his whole heart on the matter, covered with filth and dung-flies, Joseph reeled back to work, letting the geese peck all they liked, and bit by bit prevailed over the disorder and squalor of the pen.
Pen by pen, Joseph overcame, until the day's heat, having baked him in a furnace, was declining and the night wind was lifting the graceful branches of the tamar trees.
Nu suddenly appeared, a sly expression in his narrow, fiery red eyes. "You think you do well, do you? But you are not half-done!" He jabbed his staff toward a big rush broom. "I want the pens swept. If I see one single dropping or even a feather you'll not retire tonight! Besides, all that dung in the cart must be taken and spread on the zarah fields before they can be sown! And don't you dare dump any out on the way to make your load easier!"
Nu went away, and when Joseph saw no donkeys would be allotted he realized it was up to him to drag the loaded cart. If only he had known, he would not have filled it so full!
The weight was tremendous, impossible for a man to pull, he saw at once. But could the load be pushed? Assembling stray lengths of rope and some items of leather harness, he tied himself to the two-wheeled cart between the poles that ordinarily attached to the draught donkey's harness. Facing the heap of dung, he gasped as he lifted and pushed, and the cart moved forward a little. Putting all his strength into it, he trundled the cart slowly out of the compound and onto the lane that ran alongside the canal. Once a royal road leading to a port site, a thousand frog-gods had been set in place before the project was abandoned by an economizing Khian.
Sweat pouring down into his eyes, Joseph groaned with the heartbreaking effort it cost him to keep the cart moving. When he could go now further, he stopped and shaded his eyes as he looked out over the land where he was going. The canal ran to the horizon where four gold-tipped Houses of Eternity pierced the heavens. In their shimmering, white reflections the last floodwaters of the year now crept over the fields where the last frog-god, half-sunk in mud and bulrushes, marked the boundary of Potiphar's estate and the beginning of the delta marshland. All this extremely rich, low-lying land was given to wheat production, and it would soon be overwhelmed by the rising waters which fertilized them with river silt. But here and there rose stretches of higher, less fertile ground allotted to zarah and barley. If the crops were to survive and flourish, such fields, hardly ever covered by the nourishing floodwaters, had to be laboriously watered and fertilized by hand.
The creaking and groaning of the cart's greaseless axles was ear-splitting, but Joseph scarcely noticed as he endured the agony of pushing the dung-cart. Solitary tamar trees towering overhead afforded him no shade. Hours had passed, and he was still a long way from the zarah and barley fields; and he was growing desperate, for exhaustion was forcing him to stop more frequently. Dusk was brief, and the respite of cooling temperatures gave him relief, but the impossible, man-killing task remained.
Finally, his strength was utterly spent, and he collapsed. "I have utterly failed my God!" he thought as the cart fell backwards. “And He has failed me!”
How long he lay in a helpless condition, exposed to crocodiles lurking in the canal, he was not aware; strength returned to his limbs, and he opened his eyes and saw first the bright moon illuminating the canal and lane and then, with surprise, a completely empty dung-cart. With a cry, Joseph stood and staggered down to the zarah fields; even in the moonlight he could see the ground had been strewn with the dung as far as it would go. He looked wildly around in disbelief, but there was no one on the road.
“An angel did all this?” he marvelled.
It was early in the morning when the sweeping of the pens and the spreading of remaining dung was completed. Joseph stood waiting for Nu to appear, which he did promptly before the first light. Despite the unexplained, mysterious help he had received in the night with his over-loaded cart, Joseph was hardly able to stand, which Nu noted with a chuckle. "Another day and chance to work!" he laughed. "You will next clean the horse and donkey stalls!"
So it went that new day as well. As Joseph struggled with the loaded cart, passing field workers who had to water ground for the newly-sown and fertilized zarah-seed paused to laugh and jeer at Joseph. One slave carrying bread and water offered him refreshment, but the other workers threw dirt clods at him and ran him off.
Joseph was so reduced by the second evening that he no longer cared about his body filth, or what anybody said about him. Nu’s eyes gleamed when Joseph failed to respond to the worst oaths he could throw at the boy. He interrupted his stream of invective as a houseboy, Ramoseh, came from the house with Lord Potiphar's big chamberpot. Ramoseh's eyes were red and his legs somewhat unsteady as he passed Nu. A few steps further took the tottering, half-asleep servant straight into a wall. There was a crash and a yell of dismay, all of which, of course, did not surprise the old man.
His job required that he always keep a step ahead of Potiphar's army of servants, particularly when one servant was secretly abetting another. After severely reprimanding the badly-soiled servant and giving him a lash of his whip, Nu went over to Joseph in the stables. He cupped his nose and stood back an arm’s length as he held out a new loincloth.
"It is time for you to bathe, clothe yourself, and take some food and rest," he said curtly.
Joseph left the donkey stalls, which were cleansed spotless, and staggered away to a corner outside the building and sank down to rest, before crawling to a pool to with a cake of zarah-seed soap.
Surprising Joseph just as he finished his bath and wrapped himself in his loin-cloth, a lovely maid-servant with a lotus on her forehead came from the house with a tray of fine things fit for Potiphar and his wife. Too famished to ask questions, Joseph ate.
The girl brought desserts and wine in a gold and ceramic service.
Joseph refused the desserts and wine, and though he questioned what was being done to him he was charmed by the girl's encouraging words and smiles. She also sat down beside him, and he was startled when she ran a hand over his arm, admiring his strength. Rising up, Joseph stepped slowly back from the ravishing, fawn-eyed girl, who tried to catch him by his loin cloth.
Surprising them both, Nu came out of nowhere it seemed, and the girl flew away at a clap from his hands. "The plague of flies has departed from the estate in the night, thanks to your ministrations," Nu reported to him. "I wish to reward you with this trifle."
Joseph stared at the gold bracelet, which he knew could only grace the arm of a noblewoman, and that: Lady Zenobia.
"Take it," Nu said. "Do not be a fool. If you refuse, you will suffer the consequences! I will say you stole it from the house. Then what will you have gained by being an over-scrupulous prig?"
Joseph still recoiled in horror, and the old man relented, returning to the house and leaving Joseph in peace for a time.
Then one day Nu came with an unusual order. "Go to town in the chariot. It is under my authority, so go! Take gold and buy this list of things in the foreigners' market."
Joseph found himself suddenly the cynosure of all the servants, paraded by chariot from the yard into the street and thence to the market in the capital. The entire day passed in this glorious way, as Joseph found Keftiuan and Tyrian shop-keepers and merchants bowing to him and offering their prettiest daughters as concubines, while ordering their slaves to load the chariot. Returning home, Joseph was met by house servants, who called forth greetings and bowed obsequiously low before him. Blushing furiously, Joseph stepped down from the chariot. “But I am only a slave and least of all here," he said to them. "Please don’t do that."
Nu stepped out of the portico, nodded once again with approval, and dismissed the servants.
One day Joseph came to receive the usual, degrading orders from his old master, and found the overseer lying naked off to one side of his thin mat. Alarmed, Joseph called to him. Then when the old man did not move, Joseph dared to turn him over and found no life. Nu's body lay cold and stiff. Having outlived his family, without any close relations, the old man had died solitary as he had lived.
Joseph had no cause to weep when no one else in the household felt it necessary, yet he wept. He did not notice the papyrus in the old man's hand, an item the housekeeper spotted immediately and snatched from sight.
When convenient, Potiphar was informed of Nu’s passing. Liable to putrify and stink in the heat, the corpse was quickly dispatched to the crocodiles in the canal.
As an outsider to the Mizraimite household, Joseph had nothing to say about the manner of burial.
Life went on as usual, for Joseph knew his duties and could supervise the workers without Nu's oversight.
Potiphar, watching the keen-witted young man go about the estate and master demanding projects such as the autumn planting of zarah and later the complex procedure of converting half the crop to fine linen (while half was left to ripen fully for the fine oil and the edible meal, as Nu had instructed), decided to let him continue in charge.
Joseph was not yet twenty years old; yet he had demonstrated he was as capable as men twice his age (or even thrice, as in Nu's case).
He treated everyone the same, whether a privileged house servant or the lowliest malt masher brewing beer from crumbled barley bread.
One day, in an off-hand way, Potiphar tossed a little papyrus to Joseph he himself had no interest in reading. "Something poor old Nu wrote his last day with us, addressed to you, I see. The chief housekeeper says he forgot to give it to you, but I suspect he found it served no purpose to keep something he cannot read. I’m surprised he didn’t use it to light a fire in his ovens."
Later, trembling in his room, Joseph read out the will of the old man.
"Nu, Steward to Lord Potiphar, Commander of the Royal Guard, has written this to his servant, the youth called Joseph. My son, do not think ill of me now. Your God spoke to me in the night. He said He is Almighty and Supreme, the Most High God, and He is giving you royal robes and a kingdom. He told me to train you to be the best overseer I could make of an untried youth. And believing His words I have trained you in obedience, though I will not live to see what will come of my labors. I tested you in everything. Low estate, or high, will not affect the quality of your work. Neither will strong drink, precious gold, honey-cake words, scorpion words, and a young woman's charms. If I seemed cruel and schooled you unfairly, remember that I have obeyed your mighty God. Joseph, my son, remember me when you come to your throne and your wheat, barley and zarah abound. I fear they will soon give my ka and body to the crocodiles when I am dead. I have no god of my own to help me, and the gods of this country are cruel to us. Please ask yours to save my ka when I am dead--"
House servants and all other slaves, at first pleased by the disappearance of the irascible Nu, were unsure of the young sand-rambler in authority and obeyed only because they feared Potiphar. When Joseph failed to discipline in Nu's customary way, arbitrarily and severely when they least expected it, some thought to test their strength or wiles (whatever they had at hand) against the upstart Hebrew.
Joseph was giving instruction and assignments early one morning by the large pool at the entrance court, standing near its edge. It was time to gather the sacred blue and white lotus to press into harem perfume, and take fish and papyrus as well. After that, if there was time, the first bundles of zarah would be soaked in the garden pools to loosen the valuable fibers from the stems. The work would be all the more pleasurable in the cooling waters.
Joseph did not think anything odd as the group of scarred veterans of the Ibbathan quarries edged closer while he detailed simple instructions; before he had finished they moved closer still. When the men moved once again toward him, without thinking Joseph stepped backwards a bit to give them room and suddenly found himself toppling into the water.
He came up laughing so uproariously the pranksters were completely won over. They willingly gave him full service, though most had known only the whips of slave-masters and the new overseer was half their age.
Potiphar was even more confirmed in Joseph's appointment when he heard how promptly his steward had handled a thief caught in the act. By law and custom a thief had the offending part--his hand--cut off and the miscreant cast out in the street to slowly starve to death, if he did not die first from shock and loss of blood. Nobody thought this unusual or cruel. It was what any thief deserved and effectively prevented him from repeating his crime. Yet if the thief were liked well enough, usually the punishment was much lighter. A beating or two and the fellow was allowed to return to his former work. Repeated offenses, however, were treated much more severely with torture and the loss of one or even two hands.
As it was related to Potiphar, Joseph's first master, the housekeeper-pastry cook, came to him one day dragging a house-slave, one who had been in the house for years and knew that he would be punished for pilferage if caught. "My lord, this rascal Ramoseh stole my mistress's sweetmeats, the special ones I made with pistaschio nuts and wild-flower honey imported from the Retenu!"
The housekeeper was aghast and dropped his bread roller on the floor. "But, surely, that is too severe in this case. He is young and useful. Perhaps with a good thrashing he will amend his ways and--”
The steward’s face set with a grim expression that made him look very much like his father when things were not going his way. “I am in charge here, not you! The law of a thief’s nature is this: he will steal again. No, I will not give him the opportunity! There must be no forgiveness! Take him away!”
The weeping sweet-tooth was dragged off to the back part of the estate, so his disturbing screams of pain while his hand was being removed could not be heard at the house.
Hearing of the incident too late to intervene, Potiphar was more surprised than angry. He had not seen much fighting potential in Joseph before, but now his steward had shown he could butcher with the best of his troops.
Later, the housekeeper would not greet Joseph for some days unless Joseph spoke first, foolhardedly risking the steward’s disapproval.
The incident was not closed at that point. Joseph was walking in the garden, examining the work of the date-gatherers, while making notes of amounts produced by various trees. Before he could draw back, one-handed Ramoseh set down a chamberpot and flung himself at Joseph's feet, seizing his ankle. "Why did you take my hand?” he cried. "Did you forget I saved your soul when I helped you dung the fields?”
Joseph’s face turned ashen. He pulled Ramoseh to his feet. “What did you say? I did not know or forget, for I knew nothing of it!”
“You should have taken my life instead!” Ramoseh said. “For a few sweets you have made me useless in the prime of my youth!” The houseboy tore off the linen wrapping and thrust the stump in the steward’s face. Not yet fully healed, the bone and flesh looked freshly severed.
Joseph turned away, groaned, then sank to the ground. He bent over and retched. “Forgive me!” he cried weakly up to Ramoseh.
Later, it was remarked among the servants that the steward promised Ramoseh’s a special position. He would be Joseph’s ward for life, and Joseph would forever treat him as his own brother, so that he would not be cast out from the household or made to do things too difficult for a cripple.
It seemed a true report, as Ramoseh never left Joseph’s side from that time on. And someone said he had heard the thief say to Joseph at the time of their compact, "By all the gods in heaven and earth, I promise I'll never take anything again, my lord!"
Yet Joseph had replied, "Is it wise to vow? How can we know how we will act under different circumstances. It is enough to do wrong than to have to repent doubly for thinking it would never happen to us."
The man looked at Joseph with wide-eyed wonder, then nodded.
All the servants soon heard the latest details of the event and respect for Joseph was not only restored but it grew, while Potiphar decided his steward was not a soldier after all but still a good overseer.
Potiphar soon was so confident that he left the estate entirely to Joseph--even the accounts of the monies and household treasure. "The God of these Hebrews is surely prospering this fine, young man!" he told his wife. So he turned all his house over to Joseph, and from then on concerned himself only with his own food and drink.