Hello, it is May, and the prompt is Re-genre a short story/anecdote.
Context: Yesterday I was hoovering and doing all sorts of inappropriate things with marshmallows (seriously, though, you ever microwave a marshmallow? It’s divine) and talking to a buddy in the UK until about half-past two in the morning, so yah, not really much time to write. Today I am not killing people, which I am quite disappointed about, so I have time to finish writing this… random thing I started working on as a direct result of the KJV version of this being read in church a couple weeks ago.
You’re looking for Genesis 42-44, by the way, with a little help from the Babylonian Talmudic ‘legends’ about the fine details of the backstory. Okay, here goes nothing. I’m calling it ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’.
You had to be desperate to go crawling to the Egyptians for help. In Gaza, they would sell you bad grain for high prices; the Egyptians, with their dark painted eyes and monstrous gods, would give you a fair price in silver, but might just steal your soul to close the deal and lock it into the neat lines of glyphs that filled their marble halls. And they’d sell to you, but they wouldn’t eat with you even on your coin, and they wouldn’t talk to you unless they had to. Faa, Egyptians.
Then the famine hit Gaza as well and they wouldn’t sell grain at any price. No reason to think things were any better in Egypt, but the travellers, the Ishmaelites who ranged even farther afield than we did, and always seemed to show up just when the guilt was getting to Judah, told us that the Nile hadn’t flooded in two years, and the crops weren’t growing even in the delta. Yet somehow those witches in Memphis still had grain to spare, and were still selling.
“We have to go to Egypt,” we told our father. “There’s no grain for sale anywhere closer.”
Silver wasn’t a problem: we had done well for ourselves. The lambs Reuben bought with his share of the Ishmaelites’ price for the dreamer had been the best breeding stock this side of the Tigris. The children of Israel were wealthy men, by the standards of these parts. No, the problem was who to send. Naphtali was all for the whole pack of us going. Dinah, who’d sworn off men and turned into quite the warrior for a girl, snatched up Simeon’s old sword, the one he’d slain the Hivite prince with and then given to her, and declared she was coming to Egypt with us as well. But family stories live a long time, and we reminded her of the time our great-grandfather Abraham brought his sister to Egypt, and the trouble that caused. I eventually appeased Dinah by telling her someone had to stay home to look after Tamar and the wives and children.
Our father was dead set against Benjamin coming. Only son of his mother as if there weren’t only two of them to start with, as if the lie that Joseph was eaten by wild animals wasn’t heavy on our hearts, as if Joseph’s ghost weren’t whispering its nightmares in all our ears. You didn’t have to speak of this devil for it to appear – thinking was enough. We all dealt with the lie in our own way: stopped mentioning it altogether to Simeon, who swore blind there had never been more than eleven of us. Reuben took the success of the lambs bought with blood-money as a sign Joseph had forgiven him. Judah had used his share to pay Tamar’s bride-price for Er. We didn’t usually talk about how that turned out.
We set off for Egypt along the route the Ishmaelites took, crossing the Sinai above the Sea of Reeds. Benjamin stayed home with our father and the women: he was a man grown, but never allowed to go far from home. Didn’t even come out to us with the flocks unless we were close to the tents, let alone Memphis!
The city wasn’t like any we’d seen: heaving with people, and painted statues (Asher ran smack into a statue of a man with a jackal’s head, and was so confused he apologized to it), and rows of gleaming marble houses, high-walled and green-gardened, and temples thick with the smell of blood and incense. After asking a dozen or so people who just stared at our clothes and fair skin, we found the place where the governor was selling grain. In a hall of polished white stone, with a complex pattern of glyphs on the walls, hundreds of the Egyptians were gathered, watching us with their dark painted eyes. The hall was full of light – not the clean light of the open sky, but what filtered in through the columns, and lamplight, splashed about by the pale walls and the pale linen clothes, and the sheen of sweat on Egyptian shoulders and faces.
Sitting in an ivory-inlaid chair raised on a platform, the governor listened to each person for a few moments, and turned to speak to the slaves weighing out the grain. The man had something eerie about him; it could have been his oddly calculating expression, or the tall silver cup on the stand beside him, filled with syrupy black wine. From time to time the man picked it up and swirled the wine about, head tilted as if he were listening to someone only he could hear. Or perhaps it was the paintings on the wall behind him, weirder and more realistic than most Egyptian paintings. A row of skeletal cattle, eyes blazing crimson from sunken sockets, was shown leaping on and devouring some decent-looking cows.
As we stood there staring about us like so many country clowns who’d never seen a city before, the man turned slightly, and looked straight at us. His eyes narrowed – it was hard to tell, under the paint, and the elaborate wig like they all wore, but the eyes seemed to be a little paler, the features a little sharper, than the other Egyptians. He was looking at us in the oddest way; especially at Simeon, standing a little away from us. Suddenly, at some signal I must have missed, the crowd shifted, parting before us and forcing us forward to stand before the man.
“Where are you from?” he asked, through his interpreter.
Reuben glanced back at the rest of us, like he thought someone else would jump in, but Simeon just shrugged. “We are from Canaan, my lord,” said Reuben. “If it please you, we have come to buy food.”
For a long minute, there was no reaction, then, agonizingly slow, the man picked up the silver cup again, stirred the wine with a fingertip, and took a sip. He stood, the wine still red on his lips, and took a step toward the edge of the platform, before shouting, astonishingly loud in that echoing hall, in the harsh language of the Egyptians. The blank-faced interpreter beside him translated, “You are spies. You have come to find out our weaknesses.” The voice was flat and cold, with none of the man’s fury. In a lot of ways that made it worse. Granted, we don’t all look much alike – Asher and Gad are much darker than Bilhah’s sons, for instance – but straight from ‘foreigners’ to ‘spies’ seemed a little of a jump.
Reuben just stood there looking dumbfounded, so, “We are all brothers, sir,” I said quickly, ears still ringing from the shouting. “Our father sent us to buy food.” I don’t know why I didn’t stop there; something in those dark-lined pale eyes made me keep talking. “There were twelve of us, you know. The youngest is home with our father. Another… uh… another died. He’s no longer with us.”
“You are spies,” the man insisted, through the interpreter. “Here is how you can prove what you say. Send someone – him perhaps –” that was pointed at me, and I wasn’t keen on the idea “– to fetch your youngest brother. The rest of you will stay here. And if your brothers do not come back, you are spies.”
Before I knew what was going on, we were hustled away by more of the faceless Egyptian slaves who appeared silently from nowhere, and shut up in a stone room. Judah slammed his fist against the locked door. “This is what we get for selling Joseph. We should never have come here; we knew this would end badly.”
“I told you.” Reuben spoke up. “I told you all those years ago to leave him alone. But you wouldn’t listen!” Of course we didn’t listen, it was Reuben, he was worse than Joseph back then. Three days of this. Three days of waiting in that dark room, hungry, tired, bickering and worrying about what was going to happen to us. It was almost a relief to be brought back to the blindingly white hall with the mysterious writing on the walls.
“I am merciful and I have changed my mind,” the man told us through the flat voice of the interpreter. “Nine of you will purchase grain and return to your father, then bring your youngest brother here. He will stay here as hostage.” I was a little relieved when he turned out to be Simeon. Simeon turned white, and Levi grabbed his arm to keep him upright. Simeon, of course, was the one who had suggested burying Joseph under a pile of rocks, instead of selling him. There was no way the man could have known – unless there was. We all knew the Egyptians worshiped demons, and we all knew they could divine things they could never have known by any human means.
We bought grain – enough for a few months – handed over the silver to pay for it, and packed up to leave. We didn’t see Simeon again: he was locked away in an Egyptian prison somewhere. On the way home, out of Egypt, we stopped the night, to rest the animals. Opening my sack for a handful of grain, my fingers hit something hard and cold amid the sliding corn, and I picked it out. A chip of silver. Then another. Twenty-nine chips, the full price I’d paid.
“Guys.” The others’ voices stilled suddenly, leaving only the crackle of our campfire in the desert to be heard. “We did pay for the grain, didn’t we? My money’s back in my sack.”
“We did,” Levi said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
We reached home with the grain, and explained everything to our father. That Simeon was still in Egypt. That we had to bring Benjamin back with us. While we older ones were explaining, Issachar and Asher went outside to unload the grain. They came back shaking and silent, hands full and overflowing with chips of silver.
“All the money’s back in the sacks.”
Father blew his top. “You have grain you didn’t pay for, you can’t go back there… I’ve lost two sons now! One to wild animals, one to the Egyptians, and I don’t know which is worse! And now you want to take Benjamin to get Simeon back?”
For a while, we left it. Whatever Father wanted. And then the grain ran out again, and we had to go back to Egypt. Somehow. Father let us take Benjamin only after we promised we’d die ourselves before we let him stay. We took the silver that had been given back to us, and more silver for more grain. You don’t take any chances when you’re going into Egypt.
We’d barely passed the edges of Memphis when a slave came up to us, and told us his master, the governor, wanted us to come to his house. We knew this couldn’t be good, and Judah whispered to me that the man had found out about the silver and more than likely would sell us off to cover the debt. Oh, yes, we were scared. When we reached the house, Reuben started explaining at an astounding rate that we found the silver in our bags, we were really sorry, but we were certain we’d paid, and we’d brought it back – the exact weight – just in case we hadn’t. The man looked blankly at us, told us he had the money and it must be a miracle. I think it was about then that I knew something was wrong. Egyptians don’t have miracles. They have ‘gifts from the gods’, usually with more than a few strings attached.
But then Simeon was there, and okay, and we made small talk with the man for a while. About our father, and was he well, usual stuff. He talked to Benjamin for a while, and then slipped out for a moment, leaving that cursed silver cup in a niche in the wall. The thing glimmered coldly in the lamplight – the man’s steward told us it was for divination, for reading things no man could read. That partly explained the incessant swirling of the wine during our last audience with him. We ate and drank, and the man was civil to us. Eventually it was time to leave again; we bought grain, loaded our donkeys, and left Egypt.
This time we agreed to use Benjamin’s sack to take food from along the journey. The first night in the desert, I went to help him fetch some grain. Benjamin scooped up a handful and poured it into a pan, then I grabbed into the sack… and froze. Cold metal, again. “Hush,” I told Benjamin. “Come on, just pick the silver out, find out how much there is.” We sifted through, and found the same twenty-nine silver chips as were in my bag on the last trip. Then Benjamin paused, elbow deep in grain, and stared at me.
“There’s more.” He slowly drew up one more piece of silver, glinting in the firelight, grain spilling off it. The silver cup that the governor used for divination. Dregs of wine in the bottom of the cup were mixed with grain dust, black and syrupy.
“It’s for divination, it’s not alive, right?” Benjamin whispered. He’s dumb sometimes, even for a kid. “It can’t jump in my bag?”
“I… honestly don’t know, kid,” I told him. We laid them out on the sand, thirty pieces of silver. Our death warrant as soon as the Egyptians caught up to us.
“Dan,” Benjamin said, “what are we going to do?”
Okay, folks, and the prompt for next month, which I will post at some point next month, hopefully the 13th but at this stage I really don’t know, is to do with the Space Australians trope (the linked sort, not the official TV Tropes version) – fairly simple: What’s your Space Australians theory? I’m being kinda selfish, I’m afraid, but I need to be writing, so I’mma do writing prompts for a while. We’ll get back into the self-reflection stuff later maybe.
Thanks for reading.