I am fifteen years old when my brothers take me into the land of Egypt. My father believes I will die there; he weeps and tears his clothes and tells my brothers, "Surely you will bring my grey head down to the grave in sorrow." My brothers answer him, "Unless you permit this thing, surely we will all die, you and your sons and our children." My brothers cannot return to the land of Egypt for grain unless I am with them, and unless there is grain we will all starve--me and my father and my brothers and my mother Rachel, who is beautiful even though she is growing very old.
The land of Egypt is full of cities and buildings, not like the huge wide plains where my brothers and I tend my father's flocks of sheep and goats and cattle. In Canaan I guard the sheep and lambs; usually they are fat and sleek, but now they are thin and ugly like the homeless dogs in Egypt that snap at our donkeys, their lips drawn back so I can see their teeth. The same famine that is upon us in Canaan is in the land of Egypt.
My brothers bring me to the lord of the Egyptians, the lord who distributes the grain. He is a tall and very handsome man, and my brothers bow to him with their foreheads touching the floor, so I bow also. Judah has his hand on my shoulder to hold me down, as if he thinks I am a locust or a toad and will go springing up unwisely. Reuben, who is the eldest of my brothers, tells the lord, "Here we are. We have brought our brother, Benjamin, whom our father loves." Me, he means--me.
The lord does not answer Reuben; he leaves and his steward returns to us, saying, "Do not be afraid. My lord asks that you dine with him at his house. I will bring you there."
For a moment I think Reuben will answer him. Reuben is headstrong and opinionated and most likely to cuff me, and I have never seen him without an answer to anyone. He has complained about this journey, about the stubbornness of my father to make us wait so long and the contrariness of the lord to make them bring me with them, and I think that he will complain to the steward too, but he keeps his mouth closed and nods quietly.
I have not been frightened before now, not truly, but I am now that Reuben has been silenced. If this man is so strange that Reuben, of all my brothers, is afraid, then I think there is reason to be afraid. For the first time I wish I were at home with my beautiful mother, who is always waiting for me when I bring in the sheep.
When we arrive at the entrance to the lord's house Judah and Levi go to the steward and say, "Please, we have brought silver for the grain, and silver because of the money that was given back to us when we came before, and we didn't know that the money was given back to us before." My gut quivers within my body; Levi is the fiercest of my brothers, who does not say 'please' to any man.
But the steward tells my brothers, "Do not be afraid. The God of your fathers has rewarded you. I received your money the first time you came."
Then he brings Simeon out to us.
Simeon is the twin of Levi, my fiercest brother, and they are most often my father's hunters. They disappear into the plains and return with lions and wind-footed deer. When Simeon comes out to us, Levi drops to his knees and holds out his arms, saying, "Truly the God of our father Israel is merciful to me, for he has given my brother back to me; truly I am fortunate among men, for my brother who was lost is found again." O God! Proud, fierce-hearted Levi is weeping, and Simeon is weeping too, their arms around each other.
Did my father weep so for me? I do not know, and I hide behind Naphtali, my hand clenched in his robes. He is young like me, and has the sweetest tongue. Naphtali puts his hand on top of my head.
"Don't be afraid. Surely the God of our father Israel will be as merciful with Judah as he has been with Levi, and you will return safely with us."
Meanwhile the steward leads us inside the lord's house, and brings us water to wash our feet, and grain for our donkeys. Judah and Reuben prepare the gifts our father sent with us, and Simeon and Levi mind the donkeys, slipping off together. Naphtali assures me they should be left alone; "They have been long apart," he tells me, "and they must grow back together where their roots were split."
Then the lord comes in, brusque and handsome in his white Egyptian clothes. Instead of long robes, like my brothers and I, he wears a short skirt and much gold, in his ears and on his arms and legs and around his neck; he carries a golden staff set with blue stones. My brothers bow to him, and once again Judah pushes down my head, as if I were not old enough to know that we must respect the lord.
"How is your father you told me about? Is he still living?" His voice is cool and compelling, like the voice of the rabbi, and I wonder how people pray in Egypt. I know he is not a Hebrew, but do the Egyptians have men like rabbis who lead them and teach them about God our God?
"Your servant our father is alive and well," Reuben says, speaking for all my brothers.
The lord looks over us, all bowing before him, and his eyes halt on me, studying me. My bowels and my heart both jump.
"Is this your youngest brother, of whom you told me?" He comes to me and goes down on one knee, saying, "God be gracious to you, my son." Then his eyes cloud and he springs to his feet, rushing from the room.
At once my brothers are in an uproar, standing and saying, "Why has he left? What has offended him?" and Simeon and Levi return from the stable, saying, "What has happened? Has the lord refused us?" There is so much commotion that no one sees me go after the lord, and he himself does not see me follow him down the hall. He ducks into a room, and I stop at the door, watching him from around the frame.
He is a stern and imposing man, and has frightened my brothers, but I am not so frightened of him any more; I stand in his door and watch him weeping on his bed, his brown shoulders shaking like the sides of a frightened lamb. It may be that he is the most powerful man in the land of Egypt, but when he weeps he sounds like my mother. The sigh of his tears in his throat are exactly like hers.
Then he rises, and I can see that he will turn towards the door, so I run back to the room where my brothers are. Reuben cuffs me for having gone missing, but there is more anger in it than usual, and his brown face is pale. In a moment the lord reappears and instructs his steward to serve us.
We cannot sit with the Egyptians, but he sits with us anyway. He seats my brothers in the order of their age, from eldest to youngest, which frightens Judah; Judah's face is also pale, and he speaks briefly, his voice as brittle as ashes. When we are served, I have more to eat and more to drink than any other man.
My brothers want to remark on it, but they don't. They are quiet and reserved, but the steward keeps bringing wine, and soon they are all laughing and talking like they do at home when we bring the flocks in. Although I have the biggest portion of wine, I do not drink, because I want to know why the lord is treating me the way he is. I have heard from other Canaanites that Egyptians are freer with their affections, and that some Egyptians keep boys to make love to. If this is what he desires, for my brothers to bring me here so he can keep me, he is mistaken (I think this to myself with very foolish pride), for I shall return to my father in Canaan.
He watches me all through dinner, his smooth face intent and his dark eyes curious. I try not to imagine what would happen if he made me his slave, what it would feel like to have his smooth official's hands trace over my body, to be laid back upon the linen sheets of his bed. I give thanks to God when dinner is finally over and we are sent to our rooms. My brothers are drunk, but at least it is safe to sleep with Naphtali, who puts his arm around my waist and holds me to him like a child or a wife, snoring very softly in my ear. Still, I am frightened, and it is a long time before I fall asleep.
I give another prayer to God when we are allowed to leave the next morning. The lord gives us back our donkeys, laden with grain, and my brothers, complaining about their heads, lead us out of the city. We travel I think three hours--I cannot tell, the time passes like moments--before we hear the sound of a horse's feet, and the lord's steward overtakes us. He jumps down from his horse, reining her in hard. My brothers begin to whisper among themselves. Even before he speaks, Dan takes hold of Judah's sleeve and whispers, "Brother, he is going to accuse us of some thing. Has he not already accused us of being spies and demanded our brother Benjamin as proof that we are not? Be alert, Judah."
I feel the blood in my heart run thinner as the steward approaches us.
"Why have you repaid good with evil?" he cries to my brothers. "Isn't this the cup my master drinks from, and also the one he uses for divination? Why have you done this wicked thing?"
My brothers Simeon and Levi growl like lions, like lions with their fur rising from anger, but Judah silences them with his hand. "How can you say such things?" he asks the steward. "Far be it from your servants ever to do such a thing. We even brought back from the land of Canaan the silver we found in our sacks. So why should we take silver or gold from your master's house? If it is found among our possessions, let the one who has it die, and the rest of us will become your master's slaves."
"Very well, let it be so. But whoever is found to have the cup, let him become my master's servant; the rest of you will be free from blame."
We each search through our donkey's sacks and bundles, heavier with grain but lighter of the presents we brought for the lord. My brothers, one after another, find their sacks empty, but when I open mine I see a glint of silver. At first I think of pushing it further down into the grain and hoping no one has seen, or perhaps taking it out and hiding it in my robes. But the steward sees the shining of the sun on the lord's cup and cries out.
My brothers tear their clothes and beards, and Simeon and Levi whisper loudly to Judah of slaying the steward; Naphtali tries to talk reasonably to him, and Dan says that it is not my fault, I am a child. As for me, what can I think? My bowels and my heart are as unsteady as water from a spring. The lord is determined to have me for his slave, and he has secured me through treachery. Who else would have done such a thing? And for what purpose?
O God my God, I pray. O God of my father Israel. Deliver me from this man who wishes for my body and would take me away from my flocks in Canaan. O God, deliver me.
But my brothers load their sacks back onto their donkeys, and follow the steward back to the city in Egypt. When we arrive at the lord's house, they fall to the floor before him, begging for mercy, but I cannot do so. I feel as though I am the only real man in the world, as though everyone else were made of stone tablets without thoughts or hearts written onto their stone bodies. The lord barters with my brothers for me, but all I can think of are my sweet flocks in Canaan. I shall never tend my sheep again.
O God, God of my father Israel. I will never see my mother again, or have any memento of her, unless this lord weeps; the sound of his weeping is the only thing I will ever have to remind me of my mother. O God, I will make him weep.
I suppose I cannot take much longer than the flight of a spear to think these things, but I feel as though I have been standing in this lord's hall for years, and I feel as though I am steady and still as a deer standing without movement, trying to fool a hunter. But when the lord raises his eyes from Reuben to look at me, I bolt like one of my own sheep, fleeing through the corridors.
Our houses in Canaan are all tents. We move around, carrying our homes with our tabernacle, following our herds and flocks. The Egyptians' homes are solid, made of sand and stone, with many halls and many rooms with strange paintings on the walls and statues of strange gods whose names I do not know. I cannot think enough to look at any of them clearly; I see wings and horns and crowns, idols with the heads of animals and the hands of men. I cannot even hear the sound of anyone pursuing me, only the pounding of my sandals on the stone floor of the corridors. I cannot think; that is why I fall down the stairs, although for a moment I think my robes will hold me up and I will fly like a woven-winged bird. Instead I fall hard against the wall at the bottom of the stairs, and feel a crack through my whole body that I think begins in my shoulder, and there I lie weeping like the child I am.
The lord does not take very long to find me. He kneels down beside me, cradling my head in his lap. "O God, Benjamin," he says, stroking my hair. "God of my father Israel." His steward arrives a moment later, breathless, and he shouts, "Find my physician, find the Pharaoh's physician! My brother is hurt and I am wounded by it, I am wounded in my innermost heart."
I cannot think, I do not understand what he is saying. He lifts me, letting me lean my head against his shoulder, and kisses my cheeks, and I can feel from this that he is weeping again. "O God," he says. "I have found my brother again and now he lies bleeding. O God my God forgive me, for I put him in danger for my pride's sake and I have hurt him." He brushes blood from my lips with his hand and says, "O God, Benjamin."
Then the physician comes, and what happens then I do not know, and for a long time I do not know anything at all. When I wake again, the lord is by my bedside, his elbows propped on his knees and his hands folded, watching me.
"Where are Reuben and Judah?" I ask him. "Where are Simeon and Levi?"
"Your brothers have lived in my house. I have given my house to your brothers until you became well again."
"How was I hurt?"
"Your shoulder was broken, but my physician set it. As for the rest, it will leave no mark." His hand falls to my unhurt shoulder. "Your father will not know that harm has come to you on that account."
"Why have you done this?" I ask. My shoulder aches, and my head aches too, for I remember what he said when I had fallen, and he held me at the bottom of the stairs. I cannot imagine why this Egyptian, who is as brown as any Egyptian man, calls my father Israel his father also.
"You are like my brother who was lost to me." His eyes are already clouded again, and I think he is going to weep--I have never met a grown man who wept so much. At least this time I hope he will not run out of the room again. I am too tired to think about following him. "When he was a boy, he went to meet his brothers while they tended their flocks and herds, but he was set upon and killed, and I do not know where his body lies, though I think it is in Egypt. You have eyes like my brother's, and your face is like his."
"Will you let me go? My father swears to my brothers that if I die it will bring his grey head down to the grave in sorrow."
"I cannot let you go," the lord says. "My steward found my silver in your sack."
"I was not the one who put it there!"
I try to sit up, but his hand pushes me down, and he says, "Softly, my brother, softly."
"I was not the one! I swear on the God of my father Israel, you put that cup in my sack to keep me here with you. I know that Egyptians are deceitful and lustful like lions, but I will not be your slave to satisfy you!"
I close my mouth tightly, because instead of weeping, he is suddenly laughing.
"Lustful? Do you think I wish to keep you here to make you one of my wives?"
"I know that is how it is done in Egypt," I say, and my voice is sullen like a child's.
"No. You are my brother who was lost."
"I am my brothers' brother! You are a stranger to us."
His face becomes solemn again, and he stands. When he is outside of the room, I can hear the sound of my mother's weeping behind the door, except that it is not my mother, it is him, and he will not let me go.
The next time he comes he tells me, "Your brothers have left. They did not take their grain, only their donkeys, and they gave me no word that they were leaving. Do you think they have run away?"
My head is sick and I feel hot all the time, but I say, "They will return. My brothers will return for me."
"Truly I tell you I think they have left you here." He dips a linen cloth in a bowl of cool water and bathes my face and my chest with it. It feels so good, like food after a day of work, like night coming on after the long days in summer. It feels so good that tears fall from me, and I grit my teeth so he won't know.
He comes every day to me, more than once a day sometimes, to care for me. Sometimes I know, and sometimes he has to tell me because I don't remember. The physician says I have an ague that crept into my body through my shoulder; he puts idols in my room as well as giving me foul medicine, and they watch me when I try to sleep. Once I forget myself and sob on the Egyptian lord, begging him to take them away.
He tells the physician that because I am Hebrew Egyptian gods will not protect me, and the next hour they disappear. After that it is just the medicines, and the lord by my bedside, combing back my sweaty hair with his fingers and washing my body with clean water. Thus it is day after day until I am well again.
I can tell when that day comes because I wake up and can think again, and because I am so hungry I feel I could eat all the grain in Egypt. The lord laughs and has food brought for me, roasted meat and a little wine, which he is afraid will upset my guts, but does not. He watches me while I eat.
"Truly I tell you I am glad to see you well. I was frightened."
"God watches me."
"I think He does," he says softly.
Now that I am well I am allowed to walk all over his house, in all of the rooms. He has a pretty young wife whose name is Asenath, and two sons who are babies, Manasseh and Ephraim. They are barely nine and seven, and Manasseh has nothing to talk about except his new hunting dog. He is so full of pride I cannot stand him.
I follow the lord. During the day he does work for the Egyptian king, called Pharaoh, taking charge of hearing many of his petitions, and measuring out the grain that is to be distributed. Many of Egypt's animals have died, and he meets with tradesmen to buy new cattle and sheep and to arrange for their keeping. When he is not working, we speak often; he asks all about how I grew up, and my father Israel, and my mother. I ask him whether Egyptians have men like rabbis, and he says yes.
One night he teaches me astrology. He tells me that his great honours from the Pharaoh are due to his wisdom in reading the stars and the dreams of other men. He shows me how to use an astrolabe and tells me what the stars mean.
"They do not write in Hebrew, nor in Egyptian," he tells me. "It is a new language, and I will teach it to you."
At first I think he is a fool; I think that it is only the kind of thing magicians have to show, tricks and lies. But when he asks me questions, I find the answers in the sky. The stars are clustered like little sheep; they scatter like sheep frightened by a lion. Just as I can tell what the sheep need, I can understand what the stars signify.
"Will you look for something for me?" he asks one night, while we stand outside the house, looking up at the sky.
"What should I seek?"
"My brother who is lost--will you look for him?"
My heart aches. We stand outside his fine stone house, in the prosperity of his house, where he keeps two sons and a wife, but he is looking at me and his dark clouded eyes are solemn. I wonder what it is like to hold so to the past.
"Why can you not seek him yourself?"
The lord clasps his hands behind his back and lifts his head to gaze at the stars. "I cannot read dreams or stars any longer. God gave me that power, but he has taken it away."
"Why did you teach me? How did you know I would understand?"
"Because God watches you. Benjamin, look for my brother."
So I do. I look for hours, but all that I am told is that his brother is in Egypt--that his brother is in the city in Egypt, and that is all. When I apologise to him, he rests his hand on my shoulder.
"God has given you a gift."
"But I can't find him for you."
"You are a true diviner."
"I found nothing."
"I say unto you, you are a diviner and you read the language of the stars. Some day I will have no secrets from you, but this is not that day. Keep studying."
I do. The lord goes about his work for Pharaoh, and I watch the sky. Asenath treats me as though I am the lord's brother, and even Manassah seems more tolerable.
Then one day my brothers come back again, and they bring my father with them.
Asenath wakes me early in the morning, before the sun comes up. Her cool brown hands shake my shoulders.
"Benjamin. Wake up."
"What is it?" I ask, sitting up in my bed and wiping my eyes.
"Your brothers have brought your father to plead with Zaphenath-Paneah," she says (this is the titled name of the lord, given to him by the Pharaoh. Asenath knows his real name, but she will not tell me; she says it is not hers to tell me, and I will not know until the lord chooses). My bowels and my heart start to tremble as they have not since my brothers left me in Egypt.
"Wait, wait, I must bring you to him," Asenath says, but I have already sprung to my feet, and I run down the corridor towards the great hall where the lord receives petitioners. This is the hall where my brothers and I were led when I first came to Egypt.
The lord is already there, and all of my brothers are bowing on the floor, and O God, my God, my father Israel is on his knees. He is so old and gaunt I cannot understand at first how he can be my father; I know him, but he looks like a man who has withstood the worst of all things. The lord does not stop me from falling to the floor beside him and taking him into my arms. O God of my father! he is so thin.
"Benjamin?" he whispers in my ear. His arms encircle me like another robe.
I remember how Levi fell to the ground and opened his arms to Simeon. I remember how they wept, and how Levi cried out, "Truly the God of our father Israel is merciful to me!" God has not been merciful to my father.
"Forgive me," I say to him, holding him as close as I dare. I am afraid I will crush him like a dry husk of grain. What if he crumbles in my arms and there is nothing left of him but a few scattered pieces of grass? "Forgive me. I have been here all along. I am not lost."
"You are not lost." He repeats it like a child, but I am the one who only turned sixteen a week ago. He touches my face with one hand, feels the curve of my nose and the sockets of my eyes, and runs his thumb across my lips. "Benjamin, my son. Truly my God is merciful to me." Then his voice cracks, like a badly-fired pot on a stone floor. "O Benjamin, your mother Rachel weeps every day while she goes about her work. When she sleeps in the night she weeps."
It feels like the worst thing in the world to turn away from him to the lord, but I do, I take a great breath and turn away. The lord is watching us, but I know from the way his calves are taut that he wants to run into the corridor, he wants to weep openly as we are.
"No!" I cry, as he starts to turn. "Zaphenath-Paneah! Lord of Egypt! You have as much power as the Pharaoh; surely you are as powerful as the king. Send me home with my brothers. You have been kind to me; truly I do not understand who you are or what you ever wanted with me, but you have been kind, and for my sake--" I catch my breath, as he stands staring at me. "For the sake of your brother who was lost, let me not be lost to mine. Give my brothers their grain without tricks or hostages, and send me home with my father, send me back to my mother and my sheep. For the sake of your brother."
Then the lord begins to weep in front of us all. He is as free in his tears as any child, and it shocks me to be reminded of how he sounds like my mother Rachel. His tears come forth with the voice of my mother.
My father's arm tightens around me. "Joseph?"
"O God, God of my father Israel," the lord says, wiping his eyes with one brown arm. "I am Joseph."
"My son Joseph?"
He kneels with us, bowing his head to the ground, until it touches the stone floor. My father puts his hand on the lord's head. "My son Joseph who was lost to me?"
"I am not lost, father."
Behind us I hear Judah saying, "O God, is it Joseph?" and Levi, "is it Joseph?" and then Asher and Naphtali ask, "is it Joseph? God of our father, it is Joseph who was sold into Egypt." Even shy Issacar is saying, "He weeps like Joseph. It is Joseph."
The lord takes my father's hand and kisses it, and then my father begins to weep anew, and we are all weeping now, not just my father and Joseph but me too, and my brothers too, even Reuben. I think Reuben is perhaps the worst.
"I came to Egypt to find one son, and I found both who were lost," my father says. "I came seeking one lamb, and found two. O my children, all my children. Let me gather you to me; I was a shepherd with a dwindling flock, but now all my sheep are with me."
My father gathers us both into his arms, holding us close to his breast. Joseph's black hair is pressed against my cheek, and I can smell the kohl from his eyes and the oils on his skin, and I think--although perhaps it is only my imagination--that I can smell Canaan on him also. It has been so long since I was in Canaan. When I left I was a child, and now I think I may be a man, though I do not know what it means to say so. I only know that my heart is weary but my shoulders feel very light, and my brother's body is near mine, and I wish for my home.
I was fifteen years old when my brothers brought me into the land of Egypt, and I am nearly seventeen when my family settles there. It is not a great time to have passed. I do not think I will ever see Canaan again, although I am not bound to live here. Egypt does not have the same wide plains as Canaan, and I have no sheep to tend, no flocks to herd through the brief grass. Sometimes it makes me laugh; for Joseph was the brother thought to have been lost, and he was found, and truly I was thought to be lost, and I was found. Even when I feel lost in the midst of Egypt, my brothers and their families surround me.
Even I have a quiet wife, a sister of Asenath who is older than me. The Pharaoh makes me an astronomer, and Joseph gives me the silver cup that was the cause of my father coming to Egypt--with this and my astrolabe I divine what is in the stars.
I see that one day we will no longer be welcome in Egypt, and the time will come when we must flee back to Canaan. I see that it will change us for-ever, with rules and rituals, and for a few days I wondered whether I should tell Joseph or my father Israel, and lead us out of Egypt before that day comes.
But I do not, for that is not what the stars say, and it is not what God says. Besides, there is no need for astronomers in Canaan. Joseph was right: God is watching me. When I stand outside the house with my hands clasped behind my back, alone as a shepherd in the midst of the plains, kept company only by my wandering herds of stars, I know that I also am watching God.
Thereupon I am never lost.