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"You two! Come away from there!"
Mandisa snapped her fingers at the two giggling slave girls who lingered in the doorway of the north loggia. With fewer manners than ignorant children, they had partially hidden themselves behind a pair of painted columns to gape at the dusty travelers milling about in the vestibule. At Mandisa's rebuke, the two young ones bowed their heads in shame.
Mandisa stepped forward to herd the girls away from the open doorway. "Ani will be far less gentle than I if he finds you away from the kitchen."
"But, my lady," the first girl said, a glint of wonder in her eyes, "they are so strange a group! So much hair covers their faces!"
"We were wondering—" the second slave lifted her fingers to her lips to suppress another giggle "—if they are as hairy all over. Look! Hair sprouts even from the throats of their garments!"
Despite her best intentions, Mandisa cast a quick glance through the doorway. She was accustomed to seeing foreign dignitaries in the vizier's vestibule, for since the advent of the famine representatives from all the world's kingdoms had come to buy Egypt's grain. But the men who now stood in the house wore neither the richly patterned garments of the Assyrians nor the carefully pointed beards of the Mitannis. They were clothed in the common woven garments and animal skins of herdsmen. Compared to the shaven Egyptians, they were as hairy as apes, with hair to their shoulders and long, full beards.
What madness had possessed Tarik when he allowed this rabble through the gates of the vizier's villa?
She dismissed the question; the steward undoubtedly had his reasons. "Not everyone lives as the Egyptians do," she said, turning back to the ill-mannered slaves. She placed a firm hand on each girl's shoulder. "Now away with you, get back to your work in the kitchen. If the vizier has agreed to meet these men, he may want to feed them, and you may be sure that hairy men are hungry men. So hurry back to your grinding, lest Ani or Tarik find you out here."
The two girls scurried away at the mention of the steward and the captain of the vizier's guard. Mandisa smiled, grateful that her words carried weight with someone in the house. Lately her son Adom had balked both at her requests and her suggestions, reminding her again how stubborn twelve-year-olds could be .
She folded her hands, ready to seek her mistress, but paused outside the vestibule, curiosity overcoming her finely tuned instincts. The men beyond were like thousands of others who had come to Egypt in this second year of famine, so why had this particular group of Canaanites been invited to meet Egypt's royal vizier?
The strangers did not appear wealthy or highborn. Theirs were the faces of sunburned herders; they gripped their staves with broad and callused hands. Generous strands of gray ran through several of their heavy beards; only one or two possessed unlined faces. They stirred, their hands and eyes shifting as if at any moment they might have to reach for a knife or spear to defend themselves. With one look, anyone could see these unruly shepherds had run as wild as the wind since infancy.
Mandisa bit her lip. She had seen men like these before. Her father and brothers were herdsmen. Like dogs, they marked their boundaries and charged any lion, bear or stranger who dared violate their territory. They, too, had habitually worn an uneasy look.
Memories came crowding back like unwelcome guests and Mandisa closed her eyes, refusing to entertain them. Whoever these men were, they had nothing to do with her past or present. They would probably not be allowed to waste more than five minutes of the vizier's valuable time.
A snatch of their conversation caught her ear and Mandisa tensed, recognizing the Canaanite tongue. The sound stirred up other memories of a time before Idogbe the Egyptian carried her away from her clan. She reached for one of the pillars, steadying herself against the tide of strong emotions she could not stanch, then realized that the men in the room beyond had grown silent.
"This Egyptian prince has pretty slaves, I will not deny that." A sharp voice cut the silence as she opened her eyes. The man who had spoken stood apart from the others, his hands on his hips, a confident smile upon his face. An air of command exuded from him, and at the sound of his voice the entire group turned toward Mandisa.
She ducked behind the column, her cheeks burning. She had not meant to be seen! They must think her as ill-mannered as the two slave girls. And she was not a slave, but a free woman and the personal maid to Lady Asenath.
"Ah, you startled her," another man said, a thread of reproach in his voice. "You should not be so brash, Shim'on. She will tell her master that we are brutes and then we shall never obtain what we have come for."
"We will, Levi, never fear," the commanding man answered. "We will get our grain and leave Egypt as soon as we can. But what is the harm in admiring a pretty face while we are here?"
Mandisa flew out of the hallway and flattened herself against the wall separating the vestibule from the north loggia. How foolish she had been, allowing these rough men to gawk at her. If they had not been ignorant foreigners, they would have known by her dress that she was no slave.
She shuddered in humiliation. The powerful one who spoke had appraised her like a stockyard animal, then allowed his gaze to cling to her face as she burned in embarrassment.
By all that was holy, she hoped these herders were guilty of robbery or treason. She'd love to see them squirm before her master. Especially the bold one who had propelled her into such an undignified and hasty retreat.
Wrapping the rags of her fragile dignity about her, Mandisa peeled herself from the wall and went in search of her mistress.
Shim'on growled under his breath when another pair of stone-faced Egyptian guards entered the great hall into which he and his brothers had been escorted. Did they think the sons of Yisrael planned to steal the vizier's treasures in broad daylight? They had come to buy grain, nothing more, and yet they had been yanked from the line outside the royal granary as if they were ten of the kingdom's worst criminals. But criminals, he reflected, would not have been ushered into a villa fit for a king.
A king, it seemed, was determined to have an audience with them. The ruling Pharaoh, twelve-year-old Amenhotep III, had not yet attained maturity, and everyone who entered the Black Land known to Canaanites as Mizraim learned that the acting regent was one called Zaphenath-paneah, a man so wise and gifted that the common people believed him to be a gift from the gods. Apparently this Zaphenath-paneah had either an extreme liking or distrust for men from Hebron, for as soon as the brothers told the royal scribe their father's name and their place of origin they were accosted by guards and herded to the vizier's palace.
"Why do they stare at us?" Shim'on muttered, fastening his gaze to the cool faces of the smooth-skinned guards. "Do they think we are beasts?"
"Who can tell what they are thinking?" Levi answered, his fists flexing behind his back. "They don't speak our language, and they hide their feelings behind those painted eyes." He whirled to face Re'uven, the eldest. "I tell you, Re'uven, we should not have gone to the granary together. We attracted too much attention, arriving in a large group."
"Be silent, Shim'on and Levi, and wait," Re'uven said, planted like an oak on the tile floor.
"How can you be so accommodating?" Shim'on lifted a fist. "We have done these people no harm. We have never even entered this cursed country before, and yet we were plucked from the mob and dragged away to face their almighty vizier. Why?"
"Perhaps God is testing us," Yehuda said, turning to face the others. He had been walking around the room, studying a detailed mural on the wall. The painting made no sense to Shim'on, for it depicted seven fat, healthy cows on the banks of the Nile. Shim'on hadn't seen a fat cow in two years.
Yehuda stopped before Re'uven and offered a smile. "You forget, brother. Though we have never made the journey to Mizraim, our great-grandfather Avraham once brought extreme sorrow upon Pharaoh's head. I have often heard Father tell the story."
"But this vizier would know nothing of our forefathers!" Levi protested, joining the circle. "And we cannot be held accountable for some sin Avraham committed years ago."
"Yet God knows all." Yehuda nodded toward Levi. "As He knows the hearts of all men. If the people are right and the spirit of God lies upon this vizier, perhaps he knows more than we think. Perhaps he even knows what happened at Dotan."
A palpable chill moved through the group. Shim'on felt it, and resisted. "We did nothing wrong at Dotan," he said, his mood veering from irritation to anger.
"Have you forgotten that we sold our brother to a caravan bound for the Black Land?" Yehuda went on, his voice hardening. "To Egypt, my brothers. Our brother, if God wills that he still lives, is a slave in this land. Perhaps in this very house."
"Our brother" Levi spat the word, "is certainly dead. Yosef was too proud to survive as a slave. Can one who imagines that the moon and stars must bow to him survive long under the whip? You cannot seriously believe that a man as great as this vizier—" he waved at the ornate columns covered with ornamental inscriptions "—would endure the insolence of our favored brother."
"Levi is right," Shim'on snapped. His voice, like his nerves, was in tatters. The unendurable frustration of waiting had destroyed what little satisfaction he felt when they finally reached their destination. "Yosef is gone. Instead of worrying about the past, we should discuss how we shall answer this vizier." Sarcasm laced his voice as he turned to Yehuda. "And I would not worry, brother, about the power of the vizier's god. The spirit of God Almighty is far from this heathen land. Did you see their temples, their stone idols?"
"The Almighty does not dwell in houses made with human hands—" Yehuda looked at Shim'on with a wry but indulgent glint in his eyes "—but in the hearts of men. How do you know that this vizier does not hear God's voice?"
"Because El Shaddai chose us!" Levi thumped his chest. "We are the people of the Almighty. We, the sons of Yisrael, are the chosen ones. Shim'on is right, we have nothing to fear from this Egyptian. He has no supernatural power."
"His natural power concerns me most." Re'uven nodded for emphasis. "He commands Pharaoh's army. At this moment a host of guards wait outside to answer his bidding. He has the power to put all of us in prison, and without the grain he controls, our little ones will starve. Think, brothers, before you speak rashly in his presence."
Dan stepped forward and held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Let us answer whatever questions he might ask. If we please him, we will soon be on our way from these loathsome, painted people."
"We will answer all his questions truthfully." Yehuda folded his arms as his gaze crossed Shim'on's. "Look at the wealth of this place, of this man. See the guards at the doors, and remember the strong company of men who brought us here. Strength and power are on the side of this vizier, and we will not risk his anger."
"I've looked around," Shim'on snapped. "I've seen, I've heard, and it should all be cursed. The people here clothe themselves like their forefather Ham, who spied upon his father's nakedness without remorse. They wear garments as thin as a spider's web, covering their bodies without hiding them. Their women are clothed indecently, yet they walk with their heads held high as if they are proud of their shame. One merchant offered to sell me a kilt and bragged that it was as light as woven air."
"Their habits are not our concern," Levi inserted. "Let us satisfy this man and be gone."
Shim'on opened his mouth to argue, but stopped when a trumpet blast ripped through the hall like the alarm of war. A dozen hulking lance bearers, each clothed in a snowy-white linen kilt and a leopard-skin belt, marched in double columns toward the front of the room. Only when they had parted and stepped aside could Shim'on see the trim, imposing figure who marched in the midst of them: the Egyptian, the vizier of the Two Kingdoms, the Father to Pharaoh and acting ruler of the Black Land. The one called Zaphenath-paneah.
A whirlwind of emotions ripped through Yosef's soul as he stared into the faces of the Canaanites. His network of spies had been alerted to watch for men from Hebron, and this time they had actually snagged his brothers. Ani reported there were ten—who was missing? Binyamin, without a doubt. The others had either thrust him out, killed him or left him at home with Yaakov. Why? Did they still hate the sons of Rahel, the true and beloved wife? Or had their hate been reserved for him alone?
Ceaseless questions hammered at him, but he could not speak. He stared at his brothers, his eyes narrowing. Joy, be still! Dread, contain yourself! Laughter, tears, be gone! This is not the time to voice emotion; it is a time to be wary and carefully take the measure of men capable and guilty of murder, malice and monumental jealousy.
Twenty-two years had passed since he had last seen these who were his own flesh and blood—more than half his lifetime—yet the memory of their treachery rose before him as fresh as the morning breeze off the Nile. He would never forget a single detail of that day and night at Dotan: the pit, the pain of his broken arm, his brothers' taunting jests and their expressions, which ranged from indifference to smirks of delight. His gaze darted to Levi's hand, which had clutched his many-colored robe, then shifted to Shim'on's fist, which had gripped a hungry dagger. As the images focused in his memory, the old anguish of knowing that his father mourned seared Yosef's heart again.
Though his mind burned with memories, he fixed his face into stern lines, determined that they should not see beyond the painted shadows of his eyes or the thick texture of his wig. Thinking of the multicolored garment they had torn from his back, he fingered the pleated linen of his spotless vizier's robe. A flicker of irrational fear licked at his heart, then resolve overrode all emotions.
What could they do to him now, these sons of Yisrael? They had stared at him for a full five minutes, and not one had recognized him as their long-lost half brother. Apprehension glimmered on their faces; drops of sweat glistened above Re'uven's lined lip. Yehuda kept his eyes to the ground as if shame held him on a leash; Yissakhar, Zevulun and Dan leaned heavily upon their staves, their eyes hooded. Shim'on and Levi stood with defiant fists clenched; Gad, Asher and Naftali cowered like children about to be punished.
Almighty God, how am I supposed to address them?
A dim ripple ran across his mind; a long-forgotten dream materialized and focused. He and his brothers had been binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and their sheaves had animated themselves and bowed down to his.
Yosef uttered an abrupt order to the captain of his guard: "Tell them to bow."
Tarik heard the undercurrent of emotion in his master's voice and barked out the command: "Bow before the royal majesty of Zaphenath-paneah, Father to the divine Pharaoh, Sustainer of Breath, the Bread of Life!"
He was not certain how much the Canaanites understood, but they could not mistake the tone of his voice. They fell to their knees on the tiled floor, one or two moving more slowly than the others. Tarik thought he spied an expression of resentment upon the face of the largest, most muscular man, but it vanished when one of the guards lifted his lance and stepped forward.
Posted August 15, 2005
The book gives the life of the characters depth. It makes the story of Joseph come alive. It captures the readers attention and moves you back in time with the characters and their lives.
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