“There was a young Hebrew in the prison, a slave of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams and he interpreted them.”
“Why did you repay good with evil? This is the cup from which my lord drinks, and which he uses for divination.”
—Genesis, 44, 5
If A Man Sees Himself In A Dream
Killing an ox: Good. It means the removal of the dreamer’s enemies.
Writing on a palette: Good. It means the establishment of the dreamer’s office.
Uncovering his backside: Bad. It means the dreamer will become an orphan.
—Excerpts from Egyptian Dream Book, found on recto, or back side, of a papyrus from the 19th dynasty.
In the last month of his life, when his runaway liver has all but eaten his body, Lord Joseph orders his slave to set his flimsy frame upright, like the sacred pillar of the God Osiris in the annual festival of rebirth. Joseph has other things on his mind, however, than his journey to the next world. He has his servant dress him as a Phoenician trader, and then two bearers carry him alone to the dream house behind the temple of Thoth, God of magic, science, writing, celestial navigation, swindlers, gamblers, and dreams. Joseph braces himself against the red column on the outside of the building, then enters with as firm a step as he can. The two interpreters who come to him strike him as hacks, their beards unkempt, their hair dirty, their makeup cracked and sloppy, and their long coats—
It hardly matters that the coats are torn in places, bare in others. Just the sight of those swirls of color floods Joseph’s heart with memory. He sees his childhood dream as if he has just woken up from it. The court magicians in their magnificent coats lined up before Pharaoh. The Burning Beard and his brother shouting their demands. The sticks that changed into snakes. And he remembers the coat his mother made for him, the start of all his troubles. And the way he screamed when Judah and Gad tore it off him and drenched it in the blood of some poor ibex they’d caught in one of their traps.
Startled, Joseph realizes the interpreters are speaking to him. “Sir,” they say, “how may we serve you?”
“As you see,” Joseph says, “I am an old man, on the edge of death. Lately my dreams have troubled me. And where better to seek answers than in Luxor, so renowned for dreamers?” The two smile. Joseph says, “Of course, I would have preferred the interpretations of your famous Joseph—” He watches them wince. “—but I am only a merchant, and I am sure Lord Joseph speaks only to princes.”
The younger of the two, a man about thirty with slicked down hair says, “Well, he’s sick, you know. And there are those who say the Pharaoh’s publicity people exaggerate his powers.” He adds, with a wave of his hand, “One lucky guess, years ago . . .”
“Tell me,” Joseph says, his voice lower, “is he really a Hebrew? I’ve heard that, but I find it hard to believe.”
In a voice even lower, the young one says “Not only a Hebrew, but a slave. It’s true. They plucked him out of prison.”
Joseph feigns shock and a slight disgust. “Egypt is certainly more sophisticated than Phoenicia,” he says. “In Tyre, our slaves sweat for us, not the other way around.”
The other stares at the stone cut floor. “Yes,” he says. “Well, the Viceroy is old, and things change.”
Quickly, the older one says, “Why don’t you tell us your dreams?”
“Lately, they’ve been very—I guess vivid is the best word. Just last night I dreamed I was sailing all alone down a river.”
“Ah, good,” the older one says. “A sign of wealth to come.”
“It had better come soon, or I won’t have much use for it. But to continue—I climbed the mast—”
“Wonderful. Your God will bear you aloft with renewed health and good fortune.”
Joseph notices their eyes on the purse he carries on his belt. He goes on, “When I came down, I became very hungry and ate the first thing I saw, which only afterwards I realized was the offal of animals. I haven’t dared to tell anyone of this. Surely this is some omen of destruction.”
“Oh, no,” the younger one jumps in. “In fact, it ensures prosperity.”
“Really?” Joseph says. “Then what a lucky dream. Every turn a good omen.” He smiles, remembering the fun he had making up the silly dream out of their lists. But the smile fades. He says, “Maybe you can do another one. Actually, this dream has come to me several times in my life.” They nod. Joseph knows that the dream books place great emphasis on recurrence. After all, he thinks, if a dream is important enough to come back, maybe the interpreters can charge double.
He closes his eyes for a moment, sighs. When he looks at them again he sees them through a yellow haze of sickness. He begins, “I dream of a man. Very large and frightening. Strangely, his beard appears all on fire.”
He can see them race through their catalogues in their minds. Finally the old one says, “Umm, good. It means you will achieve authority in your home.”
Joseph says, “But the man is not me.”
The young one says, “That doesn’t matter.”
“I see. Then I’ll continue. This man, who dresses as a shepherd but was once a prince, appears before Pharaoh. He demands that Pharaoh surrender to him a vast horde of Pharaoh’s subjects.” He pauses, but now there is no answer. They look confused. Joseph continues “When the mob follows the man, he promises them paradise, but instead leads them into the desert.”
“A bad sign?” the old one says tentatively.
Joseph says, “They clamor for food, of course, but instead he leaves them to climb a mountain. And there, in the clouds, he writes a book. He writes it on stone and sheepskin. The history of the world, he calls it. The history and all its laws.”
Now there is silence. “Can you help me?” Joseph says. “Should I fear or hope?” The two just stand there. Finally, so tired he can hardly move, Joseph drops the purse on a painted stone table and leaves the temple.
• • •
Ten-year-old Joseph wants to open a school for diviners. “Prophecy, dreams interpreted, plan for the future,” his announcements will say. And under a portrait of him, “Lord Joseph, Reader and Advisor.” Reuben, his oldest brother, shakes his head in disgust. Small flecks of mud fly out of his beard and into Poppa Jacob’s lentils. Reuben says “What does that mean, reader and advisor? Since when do you know how to read?”
Joseph blushes. “I’m going to learn,” he says. Over Reuben’s laugh he adds quickly, “Anyway, when I see the future, that’s a kind of reading. The dreams and the pictures I see in the wine. That’s just like reading.”
Reuben snorts his disgust. To their father, he says, “If you’d make him do some decent work, he wouldn’t act this way.”
Rachel is about to say something, but Joseph looks at her with his please-mother-I-can-handle-this-myself look. He says, “Divining is work. Didn’t that Phoenician woman give me a basket of pomegranates for finding her cat?”
Under his breath, Reuben mutters, “Rotten pomegranates. And why would anyone want a cat, for Yah’s sake?”
But Joseph ignores him. He can see he’s got the old man’s attention. “And we can sell things,” he adds. “Open a shop.”
“A shop?” Jacob says. His nostrils flare slightly in alarm.
“Sure,” Joseph says, not noticing his mother’s signal to stop. “When people study with me, they’ll need equipment. Colored coats, cups to pour the wine, even books. I can write instruction books. ‘The Interpretation of Dreams.’ That’s when I learn to read, of course.”
Jacob spits on the rug, an act that makes Rachel turn her face. “We are not merchants,” he says. “Damnit, maybe your brothers are right.” He ignores his wife’s stagy whisper, “Half brothers,” and goes on, “Maybe you need to get your fingers in some sheep, slap some mud on that pretty face of yours.”
Before Joseph can make it worse, Rachel covers his mouth and pulls him outside.
Over the laughter of the brothers, Judah yells, “Goodbye, Lord Joseph. See you in the sheep dung!”
Rachel makes sure Joseph wraps his coat around him against the desert’s bite. Even under the thin light of the stars, the waves of color flicker as if alive. What wonderful dreams this boy has, she thinks. She remembers the morning he demanded the coat. Needed it for his work, he said. Leah’s brats tried to stop it being made, of course, but Rachel won. Just like always. She says, “Those loudmouths. How dare they laugh at you? You are a lord. A true prince compared to them.”
But Joseph pays her no attention. Instead, he stares at the planets, Venus and Jupiter, as bright as fire, hanging from the skin of a half-dead Moon. Images fall from them, as if from holes in the storage house of night.
He sees a lion, a great beast, except it changes, becomes a cub, its fur a wave of light. Seraphs come down, those fake men with the leathery wings that Joseph’s father saw in his dream climbing up and down that ladder to heaven and never thought to shout at them, “Why don’t you just fly?” The seraphs place a crown like a baby sun on the lion’s head. And then they just fly away, as if they have done their job. No, Joseph wants to scream at them, don’t leave me. For already he can see them. The wild dogs. They climb up from holes in the Earth, they cover the lion, tear holes in his skin, spit into his eyes.
Joseph slams his own eyes with the heels of his hands. The trick works, for suddenly he becomes aware of his mother beside him, her worry a bright mark on her face as she wipes a drop of spit from his open mouth. Vaguely, he pushes her hand away. Now the tail comes, he thinks. The bit of clean information after the torrent of pictures. Just as his brothers begin to leave their father’s grand tent, it hits Joseph, so hard he staggers backward. They want to kill him. If they could, they would tie him to a rock and slit him open, the way his great-grandfather Abraham tried to kill Grandpa Isaac, and even struggled against the—seraph?—that held his hand and shouted in his ear to stop, stop, it was over, Yah had changed His mind. And yet, in all the terror, Joseph can’t help but smirk, for he realizes something further. Reuben, Reuben, will stop them.
“What are you laughing at?” Reuben says as he marches past, and it’s all Joseph can do not to really laugh, for it almost doesn’t matter, scary as it is. He knows something about them that they don’t even know themselves. And doesn’t that make him their lord?
• • •
Mostly Joseph divines from dreams, but sometimes the cup shows him what he needs to know. His mother gave him the cup when he was five. She’d ordered it made two years before, when their travels took them past the old woman who kept the kiln outside Luz. Rachel had had her own dream of how it should look, with rainbow swirls in the glaze, and four knobs of different colors. It took a long time but she made Jacob wait, despite the older boys’ complaints, until the potter finished it. And then Rachel put it aside until the ceremony by the fire, when Joseph’s first haircut would turn him from a wild animal (one who secretly still sucked at his mother) into a human. Rachel couldn’t attend—yet another boys’ only event—but they came and told her what happened—how he whooped it up, jumping and waving his arms like a cross between a monkey and a bat, how his hair made the fire flare so that Jacob had to yank the child back to keep him from getting scorched. And then how Joseph quieted when his father gave him the cup, how he purred over it like a girl, how his father poured the wine. But instead of drinking Joseph just stared at it, stared and made a noise like a nightmare, and might have flung it away if Jacob hadn’t grabbed hold of him (a salvation Jacob later regretted) and forced him to drink the wine so they could end the ceremony.
It took Rachel a long time to get Joseph to tell her what he’d seen. Darkness, he said finally. Darkness over all the world, thicker than smoke. And a hand in the dark sky, a finger outstretched, reaching, reaching, stroking invisible foreheads. He heard cries, he said, shrieks and wails in the blackness. Then light came—and everywhere, in every home, from palace to shack, women held their dead children against their bodies. “I’m not going to die, am I?” Joseph asked her.
“No, no, darling, it’s not for you, it’s for someone else. The bad people. Don’t worry, sweetie, it’s not for you.” Joseph cried and cried while his mother held him and kissed the torn remnants of his hair.
• • •
As much as they make fun of him, as much as they complain to Jacob about his airs and his lack of work, the brothers will sometimes sneak into his tent, after they think everyone has fallen asleep. “Can you find my staff?” they’ll say, or “Who’s this Ugarit girl Pop’s got lined up for me? Is she good-looking? Can she keep her mouth shut?” The wives come even more often, scurrying along the path as if anyone who saw them would mistake them for rabbits. “Tell me it’s going to be a boy,” they say, “Please, he’ll kill me if it’s another girl,” as if the diviner can control something like that, as if events are at the mercy of the diviner, and not the other way around.
At first, Joseph soaks in their secret devotions. When Zebulon ridicules him, Joseph looks him in the eye, as if to say, “Put on a good show, big brother, because you know and I know what you think about after dark, under your sheepskin.” Or maybe he’ll just finger the colored stone Zeb gave him as a bribe not to say anything. But after a while he wishes they’d leave him alone. He even pretends to sleep, but they just grab him by the shoulder. Worst of all are the ones who offer themselves to him, not just the wives, but sometimes the brothers, too, pretending it’s something Joseph is longing for. Do they do it just to reward him, or because they really desire him, or because they think of it as some kind of magic that will change a bad prediction? Joseph tries to find the answer in his cup, or a dream, but the wine and the night remain as blank as his brothers’ faces. He can see the fate of entire tribes but not the motives of his own brothers. Maybe there are no motives. Maybe people do things for no reason at all.
• • •
And Joseph himself? Why does he do it? Just to know things other people don’t? To make himself better than his brothers? Because he can? Because he can’t stop himself? As a child, he loves the excitement, that lick of fire that sometimes becomes a whip. Later, especially the last days in Egypt, he wishes it would end. His body can’t take the shock, his mind can’t take the knowledge. He prays, he sacrifices goats stolen from the palace herd and smuggled into the desert. No use. The visions keep coming, wanted or not.
Only near the very end of his life does he get an answer. The half-burnt goat sends up a shimmer of light that Joseph stares at, hypnotized, so that he doesn’t hear the desert roar, or see the swirl of sand that marks a storm until it literally slaps him in the face. He cowers down and covers himself as best he can, and wonders if he will die here so that no one will ever find his body. Maybe his family will think Yah just sucked him up into heaven, too impatient to wait for Joseph to die. In the midst of it all, he hears it. The Voice. An actual voice! High pitched, somewhere between a man and a woman, it shouts at him out of the whirlwind. “Do you think I do this for you? I opened secrets for you because I needed you. I will close them when I close them!”
• • •
The fact is, Joseph is no fool. By his final years, he’s known for a long time that Yah has used him. He doesn’t like that this bothers him, but it does. A messenger, he tells himself. A filler. A bridge between his father and the other one, the Burning Beard. He knows exactly what people will think over the millennia. Jacob will get ranked as the last patriarch (the only real patriarch, Joseph thinks, the only one to pump out enough boys to found a nation), the other one the Great Leader. And Joseph? A clever bureaucrat. A nice guy who lured his family to Egypt and left them there to get into trouble.
He considers writing his own story. “The Life of Joseph ben Jacob, Lord Viceroy of Egypt.” But what good would it do? A fire would incinerate the papyrus, or a desert lion would claw it to shreds, or maybe a freak flood would wash away the hieroglyphs. By whatever means, Yah would make sure no one would ever see it. The Beard is the writer, after all. God’s scribe.
• • •
Some things Joseph knows from the ripples and colors of the wine. Others require a dream. He first sees the man he calls “the Beard” in a dream. Joseph is eight, a spindly brat with a squeaky voice. He’s had a bad evening, swatted by Simeon for a trick he’d played on Levi. In despair that no one loves him, he drinks down a whole cup of wine from the flask his mother has given him. The cup falls with a thud on the dirt floor of his tent as he instantly falls down asleep.
At first, he sees only the flame. It fills his dream like floodwaters hitting a dry riverbed. Finally, Joseph and the fire separate so that he can see it as a blaze on a man’s face. No, not the face, the beard. The man has thick eyebrows and thin hair, and sad eyes, and a beard bushier than Reuben’s, except the beard is on fire! The flames roar all about the face and neck, yet somehow never seem to hurt him. They don’t even seem to consume anything, his beard always stays the same. Later in life, in countless dreams, Joseph will study this man and the inferno on his face. He will wonder if maybe the fire is an illusion—the man’s a master magician, after all—or a trick of the desert light (except it looks the same inside Pharaoh’s palace). And he will wonder why no one ever seems to notice it, not the Pharaoh, not the Beard’s self-serving brother, not the whiny mob that follows him through the desert. In that first time, however, the fiery beard scares him so much he can only hide in the corner of his dream, hardly even aware that the man stands on a dark mountain scorched by lightning, and talks to the clouds.
• • •
Joseph doesn’t like this man. He doesn’t like his haughty pretension of modesty, the I’m-just-a-poor-shepherd routine. He detests the man’s willingness to slaughter hordes of his own people just for the sake of discipline. He dislikes his speeches that go on for hours and hours, in that thick slurry voice, always with the same message, obey, obey, obey. Joseph distrusts the man’s total lack of humor, his equal lack of respect for women. Can’t he see that his sister controls the waters, so that without her to make the rocks sweat they would all die of thirst? As far as Joseph can tell, the mob would have done a lot better if they had followed the sister and not the Beard. Joseph thinks of her as his proper heir as leader of the Hebrews. But then, he has to admit, he always did like women better.
Most of all, Joseph detests the Beard’s penchant for self-punishment. The way he lies down in the dirt, cutting his face on the pebbles, the way he’ll swear off sex but won’t give his wife permission to take anyone else. And what about his hunger strikes that go on for days and days, as if Yah can’t stand the smell of food on a man’s breath? It might not bother Joseph so much if the man wasn’t such a role model for his people. Joseph’s people. Doesn’t the man know that Joseph saved his family—the mob’s ancestors, after all—and all of Egypt from starvation just a few generations before? It was Joseph who explained Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows and the seven lean ones, Joseph who took over Egypt’s food storage systems during the seven good years, building up the stocks for the seven years of famine. It was Joseph who took in his family and fed them so the tribes could survive. Doesn’t the Beard know all this? He claims to know everything, doesn’t he? The man who talks to Yah. How dare he denounce food? How dare he?
• • •
Some dreams come so quickly they seem to pounce on him the moment he closes his eyes. Others lie in wait all night until they seize him just before he plans to wake up. The dream of the coat comes that way. Joseph has fidgeted in his sleep for hours, flinging out his arm as if trying to push something away. And then at dawn, just as Reuben and Judah and Issachar and Zebulon are gulping down stony bread on their way to the sheep, their little brother dreams once more of the Burning Beard. He sees the Beard stride into the biggest room Joseph has ever seen. Stone columns thicker than Jacob’s ancient ram hold up a roof higher than the Moon. The Beard comes with his brother, who has slicked down his hair and oiled his beard, and wears a silver plate around his neck, obviously more aware than the Beard of how you dress when you appear before a king. Or maybe the Beard has deliberately crafted his appearance, his torn muddy robe, his matted hair, as either contempt for the Pharaoh or a declaration of his own humility. “Look at me, I’m just a country bumpkin, a simple shepherd on an errand for God.” Later, in other dreams, Joseph will learn just how staged this act is from the man who grew up as Pharaoh’s adopted son. Now, however, the dreaming boy knows only the gleam of the throne room and the scowl of the invader.
The brothers speak together. Though Joseph cannot follow any of it (he will not learn Egyptian for another twenty years) he understands that the Beard has something wrong with his speech so that silver-plate needs to interpret for him. Whatever they say, it certainly bothers the king, who shouts at them and holds up some gold bauble like a protection against the evil eye. The Beard says something to his brother, who strangely throws his shepherd’s staff on the floor. Have they surrendered? But no, it’s a trick, and a pretty good one, because the stick surrenders its rigidity and becomes a snake!
Asleep, Joseph still shivers under his sheepskin. The king, however, shouts something at one of his toadies who then rushes away, to return a moment later with a whole squad of magicians in the most amazing coats Joseph has ever seen. For Joseph, the rest of the dream slides by in a blur—the king’s magicians turn their sticks into snakes, too, only to have silver-plate’s snake gobble them up like a basket of honeycakes—because he cannot take his dream eyes off those coats. Panels of linen overlaid with braids of wool, every piece a different color, and hung with charms and talismans of stone and metal. I want that, the dream Joseph thinks to himself, and “I’ve got to have that,” he says out loud the moment he wakes up.
He begins his campaign that very day, whining and posturing and even refusing to eat (later, he will blame the Beard for this fasting, as if his dreams infected him) until he wins over first his mother and then at last his father. With Jacob on his side, Joseph can ignore the complaints of his brothers, who claim it makes Joseph look like “a Hittite whore.”
Joseph doesn’t try for the talismans. Jacob probably could afford it, but Joseph knows his limits. Besides, it’s the coat he cares about, all the colors, even more swirls than his cup of dreams. The day he gets it he struts all about the camp, the sides of it held open like the fan of a peacock—or maybe like a foolish baboon who does not know enough to protect his chest from his enemies.
That same night, Joseph dreams of the coat soaked in blood.
• • •
Joseph’s dream power comes from his mother. “All power comes from mothers,” Rachel tells him, and thereby sets aside the story Jacob likes, that Yah taught dream interpretation to Adam, who taught it to Seth, who taught it to Noah, whose animals dreamed every night on the boat, only to lose the knack when they walked down the ramp back onto the sodden earth. “Listen to me,” Rachel whispers, “you think great men like Adam spent their time with dreams? It was Eve. And she didn’t learn it from God, she learned it from the serpent. She bit into the apple and snipped off the head of a worm. And that’s when people started to dream.”
• • •
Joseph’s worst moment comes in prison. He sits on his tailbone with his legs drawn up and his arms around his knees, trying to let as little of his body as possible touch the mud and slime of the floor. He’s tried so hard, it’s so unfair. No matter what terrible tricks Yah played on him—his brothers’ hatred, his coat taken from him and streaked with blood—he’s done his best, he’s accepted it, really he has. And now this! And all because he tried to do something right. When your master’s wife wants to screw you, you’re supposed to say no, right? Isn’t that what Yah teaches (not that it’s ever stopped Jacob, but that’s not the point)? And instead of a reward, he has to sit in garbage and eat worse.
Something touches Joseph’s sleeve. He screams and jerks back, certain it’s a rat. But when he opens his eyes he sees two men not much older than himself. They wear linen and their hair is curled, signs they’ve fallen from a high place. “Please,” one says, “You’re the Hebrew who interprets dreams, aren’t you? Will you help us? Please?”
“No,” Joseph says. “Go away, leave me alone.” And yet, he feels a certain tug of pleasure that his reputation as Potiphar’s dream speaker has followed him into hell. He tries to ignore them, but they just stand there, looking so desperate, that finally he says “Oh, all right. Tell me your dreams.”
The one who goes first announces that he was Pharaoh’s chief wine steward before the court gossips slid him into jail. He tells Joseph, “In my dream I saw—I was in a garden. It was nighttime, I think. I looked up high and saw three branches. They began to bud. Blossoms shot forth. There were three ripe grapes. Suddenly, Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand. Or maybe it was there before, I’m not sure. I squeezed the grapes in my hand. I poured the juice into the cup. I gave it to Pharaoh. He was just there and I gave it to him and he drank it.”
Joseph rolls his eyes. This is not exactly a great mystery, he thinks. He says, “All right, here’s the meaning. In three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head. He will examine your case and restore you to your office. You’ll be safe from this filth and back in the palace. Congratulations.”
The man claps his hands. “Blessed Mother Isis!” he cries. “Thank you!” He bends down to kiss Joseph’s knees, but Joseph pulls his legs even closer to his chest.
“Just promise me something,” Joseph says. “When you’re back pouring wine for Pharaoh, remember me? Tell him I don’t deserve this.”
“Oh yes,” the man says, and claps his hands again.
“Now me,” the other one says. He kneels down before Joseph and says, “In my dream I’m walking in the street behind the palace. There are three baskets on top of my head. Two of them are filled with white bread, but the one on top holds all the lovely things I bake for Pharaoh. Cakes shaped like Horus, a spelt bun like the belly of Hathor. Just as I’m thinking about how much the king will like them, birds come and pluck them away.” He laughs, as if he’s told a joke. “Right out of the basket. Now,” he says, “Tell me the meaning.”
Joseph stares at him. He stares and stares at the man’s eager face. Why has Yah done this to me? he thinks, but even that last shred of self-pity drains out of him, washed away in horror at such pathetic innocence.
“Go on, go on,” the man insists.
Can he fake it? Joseph wonders. He tries to think of some story but his mind jams. He can’t escape. Yah has set the truth on him like a pack of dogs. In a cracked whisper he says, “In three days, Pharaoh shall lift your head from your shoulders. He will hang you from a tree and the birds will eat your body.”
The baker doesn’t scream, only makes a noise deep in his chest. “Oh Gods,” he says, “help me. Help me, please.”
Joseph is stunned. No anger, no hate. No demands to change it or make it go away or even to think again. Just that trust. Without thought, Joseph wraps his arms around the man like a mother. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m so sorry.”
Joseph will stay two years in the prison before Pharaoh will dream a dream not found anywhere in the catalogues, and his wine steward, hearing of lean cows and fat cows, will remember the man he had promised not to forget. In all those months, Joseph will think of that empty promise only three or four times. But he will see the face of the baker every morning, before he opens his eyes.
• • •
People at court sometimes joke about the Viceroy’s clay cup. Childish, they call it. Primitive. Hebrew. Visitors from Kush or Mesopotamia look shocked when they see him raise it in honor of Pharaoh’s health. Their advance men, whose job it is to know all the gossip, whisper to them that Lord Joseph uses this cup to divine the future. Perhaps he sees visions in the wine, they say. Or perhaps—these are the views of the more scientifically minded—some impurity in the clay flakes off into the liquid and induces heightened states of awareness. The visitors shake their heads. That’s all well and good, they say. He saved Egypt from famine, after all. But why does he drink from it in public?
During long dinners the Viceroy, like other men, will sometimes pause to swirl his barley wine, or else just stare blankly into his cup. At such times, all conversation, all breathing, stops, until Lord Joseph once more lifts up his eyes and makes some bland comment.
• • •
The princes, the courtiers, and the slaves all agree. The God Thoth visits Joseph at night, when together they discuss the secrets of the universe. A bright light leaks under the door of the Viceroy’s bedchamber, and sometimes an alert slave will hear the flutter of Thoth’s wings. And sometimes, they say, Thoth himself becomes the student, silent with wonder as Joseph teaches him secrets beyond the knowledge of Gods.
• • •
The boy Joseph curls himself up in the pit where his brothers have thrown him. Frozen in the desert night without his coat, he clutches the one treasure they didn’t take from him, the cup his mother gave him, which he keeps always in a pouch on a cord around his waist. What will it be? A lion, a scorpion, a snake? Instead, before Judah and Simeon come back to sell him as a slave, a deep sleep takes him. He does not know it, but Yah has covered him with a foul smell that will drive away the beasts, for now is the time to dream. Joseph sees himself standing before a dark sky, with his arms out and his face lifted. A crown appears on his head. The crown becomes light, pure light that spreads through his body—his forehead, his mouth, his shoulders, all the way to his fingertips, light that streams out of him, through his heart and his lungs, even his entrails, if he shits, he shits light, his penis ejaculates light, the muscles and bones of his legs pure light, his toes on fire with light. Joseph tries to cry out, but light rivers from his mouth.
And then it shatters. Broken light, broken Joseph splashes through the world, becomes darkness, becomes dust, becomes bodies and rock, light encased in darkness and bodies. And letters. Letters that fall from the sky, like drops of black flame.
Joseph wakes to the hands of the slave traders dragging him up from the dirt.
• • •
Does the Beard dream? Does the fire on his face allow him even to sleep? Or does he spend so much time chatting with Yah, punishing slackers, and writing, writing, writing, that he looks at dreams, and even the future, as a hobby for children and weak minds? After all, what does the Beard care about the future? He has his book. For him, time ends with the final letter.
• • •
When his brothers bully him, when they throw mud on his coat or trip him so he falls on pebbles sharp enough to splash his coat with blood, Joseph just wants to get back at them. In Jacob’s tent one night he decides to make up a prophecy. “Listen, everybody,” he announces, “I had a dream. Last night. A really good one.” They roll their eyes or make faces but no one stops him. They don’t want to believe in him, but they do. “Here it is,” he says gleefully. “All of us were out in the fields binding sheaves. We stepped back from them, but my sheaf stood upright and all yours bowed down to it.” He smiles. “What do you think?”
Silence. No one wants to look at anyone. At last, Reuben says, “Since when do you ever go out and bind sheaves?” Inside their laughter, Joseph hears the whisper of fear.
That night, a dream comes to him. The Sun, the Moon, and eleven stars all bow down to him. He wakes up more scared than elated. He should keep it to himself, he knows. He’s already got them mad, who knows what they’ll do if he pushes this one at them. He pours some water into his cup from the gourd his mother’s handmaids fill for him. Before he can drink, however, he sees in the bubbles everything that will follow—how the dream will provoke his brothers, how he will become a slave in Egypt, how he will rise to viceroy so that his family and in fact all Egypt will bow to him. It will not last, he sees. Their descendants will all become slaves, only to get free once more and stumble through the desert for forty years, forty years, before they can get back to their homeland. The vision doesn’t last. Startled, he spills the water, and the details spill from his brain. And yet he knows now that everything leads to something else, that all his actions serve some secret purpose known only to Yah. Is it all just tricks, then? Do Yah’s schemes ever come to an end?
He can stop it, he knows. All he has to do is never tell anyone the dream. Doesn’t Grandpa Isaac claim God gives all of us free will? (He remembers his father’s whisper, “All except my brother Esau. He’s too stupid.”) If Joseph just keeps silent, the whole routine can never get started.
That afternoon, Zebulon kicks him and he blurts out, “You think you’re so strong? I dreamed that the Sun and Moon and eleven stars all bowed down to me. That’s right, eleven. What do you think of that?”
• • •
Joseph is old now, facing the blank door of death. He has blessed his children and his grandchildren and their children. Soon, he knows, the embalmers will suck out his brains, squirt the “blood of Thoth” into his body, wrap him in bandages, and encase him in stone. He wonders—if his descendants really do leave Egypt, will they find him and drag him along with them?
At the foot of his bed lies a wool and linen coat painted in swirls of color. Joseph has no idea how it got there. By the size of it, it looks made for a boy, or maybe a shrunken old man. Next to the bed, on a little stand, sits his cup, as bright as the coat. He has told his slave to fill it with wine, though Joseph knows he lacks the strength to lift it, let alone pour it down his throat.
When he dies, will he see Rachel and Jacob? Or has he waited so long they’ve grown impatient and wandered off somewhere where he will never find them? He is alone now. The doctors and the magicians, his family, his servants, he’s ordered them all away, and to his surprise they have listened. He wants more than anything to stay awake, so he can feel his soul, his ka, as the Egyptians call it, rattle around inside his body until it finds the way out. He tells himself that he’s read all the papyruses, the “books of the dead,” and wants to find out for himself. But he knows the real reason to stay awake. He doesn’t want any more dreams. As always, however, Yah makes His own plans.
In his dream, Joseph sees the Burning Beard one more time. With his face even more of a blaze than usual, he and his brother accost Pharaoh in the early morning, when Pharaoh goes down to wash in the Nile. Joseph watches them argue, but all he can hear is a roar. Now the brother raises his staff, he strikes the water—and the Nile turns to blood! Joseph shouts but does not wake up. All over Egypt, he sees, water has turned to blood, not just the river but the streams and the reservoirs and even the wells. For days it goes on, with the old, the young, and the weak dying of thirst. Finally the water returns.
Only—frogs return with it. The entire Nile swarms with them. Soon they cover people’s tables, their food, their bodies. And still more horrors follow. The brother strikes the dust and lice spring forth. Wild beasts roar in from the desert.
Joseph twists in agony, but Yah will not release him. He sees both brothers take fistfuls of furnace ash and throw them into the sky. A wind blows the ash over all the people of Egypt, and where it touches the skin, boils erupt. Now the Beard lifts his arms to the sky and hail kills every creature unfortunate enough to be standing outside. As if he has not done enough, he spreads his hands at night and calls up an east wind to bring swarms of locusts. They eat whatever crops the hail has left standing. No, Joseph cries. I saved these people from famine. Don’t do this. He can only watch as the Beard lifts his hand and pulls down three days of darkness.
And then—and then—when the darkness lifts, the first born of every woman and animal, from Pharaoh’s wives and handmaids to the simplest farm slave who could never affect political decisions in any way, even the cows and the sheep and the chickens, the first born of every one of them falls down dead.
Just at the moment of waking up, Joseph sees that the finger of death has spared certain houses, those marked with a smear of lamb’s blood. The Hebrews. Yah and the Beard have saved the Hebrews. Joseph’s people. But aren’t the Egyptians Joseph’s people as well? And didn’t he bring the Hebrews to Egypt? If all this carnage comes because the Hebrews have lived in Egypt, is it all Joseph’s fault?
He wakes up choking. For the first time in days, his eyes find the strength to weep. He wishes he could get up and kneel by the bed, but since he cannot, he prays on his back. “Please,” he whispers. “I have never asked You for anything. Not really. Now I am begging You. Make me wrong. Make this one dream false. Make all my powers a lie. Take my gift and wipe it from the world. Do anything, anything, but please, please, make me wrong.”
But he knows it will not happen. He is Joseph ben Jacob, Lord Viceroy of dreams. And he has never made a wrong prediction in his life.